Roman Virtues

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

In the summer of 1992 or 1993, while cycling in western Europe, I had the opportunity to read what Caesar wrote almost two millennia ago about the same place. I learned how closely some characteristics of the ancient world resembled those of the modern world.

This summer, when I toured Italy, the writings of another Roman, Plin)!, showed me how intimately I could identify with the ancients themselves, and with some of their ideas about government.

Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus was a 1st- and 2nd- century Roman better known to us as Pliny the Younger. He’s the fellow who wrote a couple of famous letters describing the explosion of Vesuvius. Apparently intending to reveal himself to posterity, Pliny made a careful selection of his letters and published most of them before he died. He achieved his goal. Although he died nearly 2,000 years ago, if you read his slim volume of correspondence, you will end up knowing him much better than you know most of your own acquaintances.

I’m no classicist, but during that trip I took in the early 1990s I learned to love reading the ancients and seeing their works in stone. I cycled with friends through Spain and France. We rode for more than two weeks with heavy saddlebags, going by easy stages similar in length to those of a Ro- man army on the march. More than once we rode over Roman roads and Roman bridges.

Descending from the Pyrenees into France, we stumbled across a Roman aqueduct and contemplated the genius of Roman engineering. There were no crowds of tourists. There were no signs, just a little dot on our Michelin map indicating some kind of archaeological site. Another dot represented the village where we spent the night. In the morning, we went

looking for the site, expecting to find a· small heap of stones. Instead we found a structure spanning a stream at a height of 75 feet, supported by eight-round, unadorned arches of various heights but equal width.

It was a small aqueduct, as these things go, but it obviously would have required tremendous labor to build, the landscape being broken and steep. Momentarily I wondered why the Romans would go to such trouble to move water around when there was a stream, flowing in high summer, right beneath the structure. A bit of exploration made the answer obvious, even to modern city dwellers who thought of water mostly as something that comes out of a tap.

The stream itself, lying below the banks where plants could grow, was useless; water does not flow uphill, and without irrigation, the banks of the canyon were a desert. Therefore, the Romans captured water from a small tributary, well upstream from the aqueduct. They channeled it in an imperceptibly sloping canal parallel to the canyon. The canyon slopes more steeply than the canal, so that, by the time the canal reaches the site of the aqueduct, it sits eight stories above the canyon floor.

At that point, the Romans had half of what they wanted: a source of water, flowing well above the land that they wanted to irrigate, on the near side of the canyon. The other half of what they wanted was the same thing on the far side. That’s why they built the aqueduct.

I know all this with certainty, because the aqueduct is still working, still carrying water from far upstream to the apricot orchards that grow today on the terraced banks of the canyon. Exploring that scene made me want to know the Romans better. I admired their planning and investment and the beauty

You may think that a little African village in the bush has no government. In fact, it is all government, all the time.


and durability of their works. That’s when I borrowed Caesar and read his book, “The Conquest of Gaul,” which describes his successful military campaign in what is now mostly France.

A few years before, I had lived in Africa. There, particularly in the villages near the Sahel, I saw what really ancient, traditional societies are like. They are terribly foreign to me and mostly disagreeable. They are, to use a highly colored word, “uncivilized,” at least by my cultural standards.

You may think that a little African village in the bush has no government. In fact, it is all government, all the time. It is a collective that dominates the lives of its members and permits no competing institutions. In a sub-Saharan community, the individual appears to count for nothing. The family, the village, and the tribe are all. There is no privacy and little room for private life. Also, there are no aqueducts, and no roads or bridges built to last forever. There is no plumbing, and there are no Plinies.

I believe that the primitive motivations of family and tribe are the roots of tyranny.

This is a truth to which Rousseau was blind. His free and noble savage never existed. Man always had family and tribe to restrain him. Rousseau thought that man’s natural nobility was assaulted and debased by competition and strife among men in society. Competition and strife had to be severely restrained by law, enforced by government. By submitting completely to the authority of a democratic collective, the individual could gain protection from his fellow man. Rousseau believed that his ideal government was legitimate and beneficent, because it would emerge from collective consent (as opposed to divine rights, royal rights, or rights established by tradition). The government would do good. It would do the will of the people. It would constrain and educate the individual.

To me, this”social contract” is just a philosophized and aggrandized version of my African village. In it, the individual has no natural rights and “good government” replaces property rights and competition. Rousseau’s vision of government as the expression of a collective will is the perfect playground for the tyrannical urges of familial and tribal man. Power-hungry men want to be chiefs of tribes and fathers of nations. (In Africa, where the tribal affiliation of the current tyrant can determine one’s lot in society, the power-hungry men are sometimes both chiefs of tribes and fathers of nations.) Instead of the noble savage tamed in Rousseau’s controlled societ)’, one sees the emergence of the ignoble savagery of familial and tribal man reproducing his primitive oppression on a bigger scale.

How fitting, I saw, that Rousseau’s ideas should have become part of the architecture of socialist thought.

But Rome transcended the family and the tribe. Rome did not respect all rights, but it protected many rights, including rights of property, at least in Pliny’S time. Rome two thousand years ago was more like America today than is today’s West Africa.

From· a cold, objective point of view that struck me as modern Caesar contrasted Roman civilization with that of the Celts. Caesar wrote about people, landscapes, politics, and strategies in terms I understood. He seemed a lot less foreign to me than the people I had known in Africa.

Roman civilization was organized on a grand scale. Ro- man institutions – cities, armies, political classes – were so big that they necessarily dissolved the tribal bonds that inhibited the Celts, and they left a lot of room for individuals to express themselves. The Roman Empire made the world a smaller place. At the full moon of empire, you could put your feet on a Roman road in southern Italy and walk to the western extremes of Europe; essentially, you could walk to the end of the earth, just as you can travel to the end of the earth from any point in America today.

So there I was in the early 1990s, part of an unmotorized army of three, crossing the old Roman Empire on Roman roads and Roman bridges, and reading a Roman general’s account of his conquest of those very lands. Reading Caesar under those circumstances was like traveling through time to observe its great events from a distance that was close, but safe.

Then, this year, Pliny brought me closer still to the Roman world. He took me right into a Roman citizen’s courthouse, parlor, bathroom, and bedroom. He took me into his private thoughts. In his letters, Pliny paints himself bit by bit, until you see the whole of him. He reminds you of people you know. You can easily imagine what it would be like to converse with him for hours on many topics.

He was an upper-class Roman, but he was from the provinces, not the city, and he improved his social standing dramatically, just as a self-made man might do in our own society. A complex society had a place for his particular talents. He worked hard and traded favors. He developed deep exper-

The primitive motivations of family and tribe are the roots of tyranny. This is a truth to which Rousseau was blind. His free and noble savage never existed.


tise in the fields of law and public administration. He was the cream that rose to the top of a society that had room for individual merit.

I know that Rome was no libertarian paradise. It was in many ways a police state; it was sometimes ruled by tyrants. It wallowed in racism, class distinctions, and slavery. But there’s no denying that it made room for many good men like Pliny to improve themselves relentlessl}’, to thrive, and to exercise freedom.

In my African village, Pliny would surely have been frustrated for life. His talent and competence would have received little reward. His love of letters could never have emerged. I wonder how many Plinies, and how many other great individuals, are suffering and going to waste in Africa and North Korea and Iran and Cuba today.

I was wondering that when I came to Pliny’S letter on public versus private ownership (Book 7, Letter 18).

Caninius Rufus asked his friend Pliny for advice on how to give his native town the legacy of an annual feast. In his answer, Pliny tells Rufus that he could endow the town with the necessary capital but notes that “there is a danger of its be- ing dissipated.” Then he says that Rufus could give land to the town so that the income might pay for the annual feast, “but it would be neglected as public property always is.”

Finally Pliny comes up with a complicated scheme just to keep the necessary assets in private hands for as long as possible. The scheme is to convey the property to the city, which will then convey it back to the donor charged or burdened with an annual rent sufficient to pay for the annual feast. In other words, after the reconveyance, the town will have a claim on the first fruits of the property equal to a fixed annual rent, and dedicated to the charitable purpose specified by the donor.

Pliny concludes that only by his scheme, keeping the assets that benefit the town away from ownership by the town, can Rufus be certain that the town will actually profit: “The principal is secured for the town, the interest is certain, and the property will always find a tenant to cultivate it because its value greatly exceeds the rent charged.”

The recommendation is complicated, ingenious, and thoroughly motivated by Pliny’s well-grounded suspicion of government. And the notion that government will waste or misuse property seems to be uncontroversial; Pliny treats government waste as a given. Though he is a very thorough advocate (and a famous, experienced lawyer and orator), he provides no support for the assumption that government is a poor manager. He knows that nobody will dispute the assumption.

Of course, Pliny is advising Rufus to adopt an endowment structure that would reduce the value of his property, because the property would be burdened with a sub-market-value lease in perpetuity. He recognizes the drawback. “I am well aware,” he says, “that I appear to have paid out more than the sum I have given, seeing that the fixed rent charge has reduced the market value of a fine property.” But he finds it necessary, and he sympathizes with Rufus’ aspiration to benefit the public: “One ought to make personal and temporary interests give place to public and permanent advantages, and consider the security of a benefaction more than one’s own gains.” The only way to do that is to keep the government from owning the property in question. Government would manage the endowment so poorly that Rufus would be better off underselling a leasehold interest than giving any principal or property directly to the local authorities.

Yet there is another important thought in this letter. It suggests a great virtue of Roman government. For all its failures, that government protected real property rights so well that Pliny and Rufus could have confidence in the maintenance of elaborate title and leasehold rights far beyond the grave. It would be folly to let the government manage your bequest, but the government did, at least, keep and enforce a good land registry.

All the collectivists and statists – the socialists, the communists, the fascists, the populists, the Democrats, and the Republicans – will tell you that good government means doing right. I think that good government means doing less.

Good government is the smallest government you can get away with. This is the essential insight that Rousseau never had. It was perceived by some of our founding fathers. But they were a bit less original than I thought. Thanks to Pliny, I now know that bad governments have been demonstrating this truth for at least two thousand years, and that Pliny knew it too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *