Archive Authors Civic Polity E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene

Prosperity and Brutality

Seneca the Younger,1 in De brevitate vitae (“On the Shortness of Life”), claims that, as the Romans became more prosperous, they refined their public displays of violence to greater and greater degrees of brutality. He speaks in particular here of the methods of Pompey the Great.

The Romans would of course continue on this path in subsequent decades. The Romans can perhaps provide a test case–or, as it were, a laboratory for observation. Their example indicates that it is worth pondering whether there is a connection–and, if so, of what sort it is–between wealth, power, idleness, boredom, and theatricalized violence and/or perversity in the “great state.”

[C]an 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.” (On the Shortness of Life 13, tr. Aubrey Stewart)

  1. It is well known that John Calvin’s first work was a commentary on Seneca’s De clementia (“On Mercy”).

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.