Sunday, November 7, 2010

23rd October 2010

Today’s top 15% of earners have been whingeing away at the belts they will have to tighten to deal with the financial crisis. Ancient historians like Livy would not have been impressed. In the Roman republic, crises were life-or-death ones, and it was those who concentrated on the battle and not its rewards (in the shape of often very lavish booty) who won his admiration.

Livy’s history is full of such, e.g. Cincinnatus who in 458 BC, ‘wiping the sweat and dirt from his face and hands’, answered Rome’s call from his little farm where he had been ploughing, defeated the enemy and returned at once to his three-acre site. Finding his plough and four oxen still waiting for him, he picked up where he had left off.

Perhaps most famous of all was the consul Manius Curius Dentatus (dentatus because, we are told, he was born with teeth). In 290 BC, when the Romans were expanding south and in conflict with the ferocious Samnite hill tribes, he was approached by some Samnites with a massive bribe of gold. They found him seated on a crude bench by his hearth in his farmhouse, roasting turnips, eating from a rough wooden dish. Slightly amazed, they invited him to take the bribe, but he laughed in their faces, calling them ‘ambassadors on a superfluous, not to say incompetent, mission’. He told them to take back their gift, ‘as noxious as it was costly’, and to bear in mind that he could ‘neither be beaten in battle nor corrupted by money’.

Further, when he had thrashed the Samnites and celebrated a triumph, the people wanted to give him a vast chunk of land as a reward. But he refused, and settled for the hand-out that the senate had decreed for the *plebs*, reckoning that ‘no one could be counted a suitable citizen of the republic who could not be satisfied with what everybody else was given’. It all bore out what he had said to the Samnites: that ‘there was no glory in possessing wealth, but only in controlling its possessors’.

Come on, you top 15%. Romans knew what they meant by cuts, and they were not financial ones either. Stop all this ‘moral despair’ tosh. Show what you are made of.

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