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Sallust – An Ancient Expenses’ Scandal

Updated: Jan 20, 2022

Work of the Week II - Sallust's Bellum Jugurthinum.

Whilst it is true that Roman statesman were certainly not expected to account for every little piece of their expenditure, as we would hope our own are, and they certainly got away with extortionate loans to Roman provincials, there existed at least a procedure against bribery, de ambitu as it was known. Nor was it completely unsuccessful. Despite being defended by Cicero, who had been his consular colleague in 63 BC, Antonius Hybrida found himself convicted for bribery in 59 BC. The prosecutor was Cicero’s own mentee M. Caelius Rufus. There were other convictions, too. But plenty slipped through the net, used bribery (how ironic), or even resorted to violence either to escape conviction or to forestall a prosecution.

Those running for office were permitted to hold public banquets, put on games, make ‘gifts’ (very loosely defined), but the ever-escalating extravagance these brought about sumptuary laws which sought to curb expenditure on these means of persuasion. Were these enforced? Not likely.

There was another scene for corruption in the republic, and that was the empire. The fleecing of provincials with exaggerated tax bills is well known. But there was another source. Kings and other rulers from subject peoples or ‘friends’ of Rome, who gave vas sums to individuals to ensure Roman support of their crowns. Ptolemy Auletes was just one example. What would the equivalent be today? Party donors and contracts?

Well, enough scene-setting. Sallust’s was a fantastic if highly jaded writer about the ills of the late Republic, the latter part of which he lived through. Corruption, greed, both of individuals, senate, and people, were a major cause in the republic’s decline and internal unrest. My own favourite work of his, the Bellum Iugurthinum about how senatorial corruption reared its ugly head in the wake of the battle of the Numidian princes following the death of Micipsa. Jugurtha was an adopted son of Micipsa, who also had sons HIempsal and Adherbal. They were meant to rule jointly, but Jugurtha engineered Hiempsal’s death and Adherbal appealed to Rome. His appeal was countered in the senate by the ambassadors of Jugurtha. Sallust grants Adherbal a powerful speech (14) of appeal, in which he acknowledges his father, Micipsa’s great respect for Roman authority, and how he, Adherbal, was enjoined to rule continuing to respect that authority. However, Jugurtha has sought to grasp power for himself, killed his brother, and expelled him, Adherbal.

The reply of Jugurtha’s ambassadors is depicted as short and not exactly sweet (15). Adherbal really was behind the war, Hiempsal had been put to death for his cruelty, and Jugurtha urged the senate to recall the service he had given Rome during the Numantine War. Sallust comments cynically as follows:

The supporters of the ambassadors and in addition a large part of the senate, since their

favour had already been corrupted, treated the words of Adherbal with contempt, but

heaped complements and praise on the virtue of Jugurtha…but the few, however, who

considered what was good and fair to be more important than riches, counselled that

Adherbal should be given assistance and the death of Hiempsal severely punished.

Scaurus, then ‘leader of the senate’ (princeps senatus) gave his support to those who favoured Adherbal. But Sallust immediately undercuts this by saying that he was not one of the true and fair senators. Rather, seeing the blatant nature of Jugurtha’s bribery and smelling a brewing public scandal that would not do the corrupt folks any faovurs, he kept quiet on this occasion. He was masterly at concealing his vices.

The corrupt group won through.

Sallust gives a grim view of republican politics. A large group of the leading statesmen can be bought for the right price, some very obviously, others are more subtle about it.

Following the embassies, Numidia is divided between Jugurtha and his brother. But Jugurtha was not content with half. His seizure of Cirta, the execution of Adherbal, and death of many Romans and Italians began to cause a stir back in Rome. The supporters of Jugurtha try to disrupt political procedure. This filibustering and distraction was beginning to work until Memmius, tribune elect, said that a corrupt group were seeking to have Jugurtha pardoned. The senate, their cages rattled, appoint Numdia as a province to the consul Bestia, raise an army for him, and offer pay for whatever is necessary. A bit of smoke and mirrors? Certainly, Jugurtha was suddenly shocked, since he thought

‘That for him everything at Rome was for sale.’

Is that too extreme to apply to modern politics? As we increasingly see donors, big cheques, and contracts all exchanging hands,, we may wonder..

Ancient historians believed history should be didactic, that it should caution future generations against repeating the same mistakes. Oh dear…will we ever learn.?

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