On the Shortness of Life XIII

It would take long to describe the various individuals who have wasted their lives over playing at draughts, playing at ball, or toasting their bodies in the sun: men are not at leisure if their pleasures partake of the character of business, for no one will doubt that those persons are laborious triflers who devote themselves to the study of futile literary questions, of whom there is already a great number in Rome also.

It used to be a peculiarly Greek disease of the mind to investigate how many rowers Ulysses had, whether the Iliad or the Odyssey was written first, and furthermore, whether they were written by the same author, with other matters of the same stamp, which neither please your inner consciousness if you keep them to yourself, nor make you seem more learned, but only more troublesome, if you publish them abroad.

See, already this vain longing to learn what is useless has taken hold of the Romans: the other day I heard somebody telling who was the first Roman general who did this or that: Duillius was the first who won a sea-fight, Curius Dentatus was the first who drove elephants in his triumph: moreover, these stories, though they add nothing to real glory, do nevertheless deal with the great deeds of our countrymen: such knowledge is not profitable, yet it claims our attention as a fascinating kind of folly.

I will even pardon those who want to know who first persuaded the Romans to go on board ship.

It was Claudius, who for this reason was surnamed Caudex, because any piece of carpentry formed of many planks was called caudex by the ancient Romans, for which reason public records are called codices, and by old custom the ships which ply on the Tiber with provisions are called codicariae.

Let us also allow that it is to the point to tell how Valerius Corvinus was the first to conquer Messana, and first of the family of the Valerii transferred the name of the captured city to his own, and was called Messana, and how the people gradually corrupted the pronunciation and called him Messalla: or would you let anyone find interest in Lucius Sulla having been the first to let lions loose in the circus, they having been previously exhibited in chains, and hurlers of darts having been sent by King Bocchus to kill them?

This may be permitted to their curiosity: but can it serve any useful purpose to know that Pompeius was the first to exhibit eighteen elephants in the circus, who were matched in a mimic battle with some convicts?

The leading man in the State, and one who, according to tradition, was noted among the ancient leaders of the State for his transcendent goodness of heart, thought it a notable kind of show to kill men in a manner hitherto unheard of.

Do they fight to the death? that is not cruel enough: are they torn to pieces? that is not cruel enough: let them be crushed flat by animals of enormous bulk.

It would be much better that such a thing should be forgotten, for fear that hereafter some potentate might hear of it and envy its refined barbarity.

O, how doth excessive prosperity blind our intellects! at the moment at which he was casting so many troops of wretches to be trampled on by outlandish beasts, when he was proclaiming war between such different creatures, when he was shedding so much blood before the eyes of the Roman people, whose blood he himself was soon to shed even more freely, he thought himself the master of the whole world; yet he afterwards, deceived by the treachery of the Alexandrians, had to offer himself to the dagger of the vilest of slaves, and then at last discovered what an empty boast was his surname of “The Great.”

But to return to the point from which I have digressed, I will prove that even on this very subject some people expend useless pains.

The same author tells us that Metellus, when he triumphed after having conquered the Carthaginians in Sicily, was the only Roman who ever had a hundred and twenty captured elephants led before his car: and that Sulla was the last Roman who extended the pomoerium [79] which it was not the custom of the ancients to extend on account of the conquest of provincial, but only of Italian territory.

Is it more useful to know this, than to know that the Mount Aventine, according to him, is outside of the pomoerium, for one of two reasons, either because it was thither that the plebeians seceded, or because when Remus took his auspices on that place the birds which he saw were not propitious: and other stories without number of the like sort, which are either actual falsehoods or much the same as falsehoods? for even if you allow that these authors speak in all good faith, if they pledge themselves for the truth of what they write, still, whose mistakes will be made fewer by such stories? whose passions will be restrained? whom will they make more brave, more just, or more gentlemanly?

My friend Fabianus used to say that he was not sure that it was not better not to apply oneself to any studies at all than to become interested in these.