Weekend Reading: Polybius on His Relationship with Scipio Aemilianus, Plus Cato on Roman Luxury...

Scipio Aemilianus young Google Search

Polybius XXXI.23 ff.: "Now that the progress of my narrative and the date call our special attention to this family...

...I wish in order to satisfy the reader's curiosity to execute a promise I made in the previous book and left unfulfilled, and this was that I would tell how and why the fame of Scipio in Rome advanced so far and became so brilliant more quickly than it should, and to tell also how his friendship and intimacy with the author grew so great that this report about them not only spread to Italy and Greece, but that even further afield their liking and intercourse were a matter of common knowledge.

Now I have already explained that their acquaintance took its origin in the loan of some books and conversation about them. But as their intimacy grew, and when the Achaeans in detention were sent off to provincial towns, Fabius and Scipio, the sons of Lucius Aemilius, urgently begged the praetor to allow Polybius to remain in Rome. This was done, and their intercourse now becoming much closer, the following incident took place.

On one occasion when they were all coming out together from the house of Fabius, the latter happened to take a turning leading to the forum, while Polybius and Scipio turned off in the opposite direction. As they advanced Scipio, addressing Polybius in a quiet and gentle voice, and blushing slightly said:

Why, Polybius, since there are two of us, do you constantly converse with my brother and address to him all your questions and explanations, but ignore me? Evidently you also have the same opinions of me that I hear the rest of my countrymen have. For, as I am told, I am believed by everybody to be a quiet and indolent man, with none of the energetic character of a Roman, because I don't choose to speak in the law courts. And they say that the family I spring from does not require such a protector as I am, but just the opposite; and this is what I feel most.

Polybius was surprised at the way in which the young man opened the conversation; for he was then not more than eighteen years old. "For goodness' sake, Scipio," he said:

Don't talk in that way, or get any such notion into your head. 3 I don't, I assure you, do this because I have a low opinion of you or ignore you, but because your brother is your senior. I both begin conversation with him and finish with him, and as for any explanations and advice, I address myself especially to him in the belief that your opinions are the same as his. However, now I admire you when you say that you are pained to think that you are of a milder character than becomes members of his family; for that shows that you have a high spirit. I myself would be delighted to do all in my power to help you to speak and act in a way worthy of your ancestors. For as those studies which I see now occupy and interest you, you will be in no want of those ready to help both of you; so great is the crowd of such men that I see flocking here from Greece at present. But as regards what you say now troubles you I don't think you could find anyone more efficient than myself to forward your effort and help you.

Before Polybius ceased speaking, Scipio, grasping his their hand in both his own and pressing it warmly, said:

Would I could see the day on which you, regarding nothing else as of higher importance, would devote your attention to me and join your life with mine; for then I shall at once feel myself to be worthy of my house and my forefathers.

Polybius was on the one hand very happy to see the enthusiasm and affection of the young man, yet was embarrassed when he reflected on the high position of the family and the wealth of its members. However, after this mutual explanation the young man never left his side, and preferred his society to anything else. From that time onwards continuing in the actual conduct of life to give proof to each other of their worth, they came to regard each other with an affection like that of father and son or near relations.

The first direction taken by Scipio's ambition to lead a virtuous life, was to attain a reputation for temperance and excel in this respect all the other young men of the same age. This is a high prize indeed and difficult to gain, but it was at this time easy to pursue at Rome owing to the vicious tendencies of most of the youths. For some of them had abandoned themselves to amours with boys and others to the society of courtesans, and many to musical entertainments and banquets, and the extravagance they involve, having in the course of the war with Perseus been speedily infected by the Greek laxity in these respects.

So great in fact was the incontinence that had broken out among the young men in such matters, that many paid a talent for a male favourite and many three hundred drachmas for a jar of caviar. This aroused the indignation of Cato, who said once in a public speech that it was the surest sign of deterioration in the republic when pretty boys fetch more than fields, and jars of caviar more than ploughmen. It was just at the period we are treating of that this present tendency to extravagance declared itself, first of all because they thought that now after the fall of the Macedonian kingdom their universal dominion was undisputed, and next because after the riches of Macedonia had been transported to Rome there was a great display of wealth both in public and in private.

Scipio, however, setting himself to pursue the opposite course of conduct, combating all his appetites and moulding his life to be in every way coherent and uniform, in about the first five years established his universal reputation for strictness and temperance.

In the next place he sedulously studied to distinguish himself from others in magnanimity and cleanhandedness in money matters. In this respect the part of his life he spent with his real father was an excellent grounding for him, and he had good natural impulses towards the right; but chance too helped him much in carrying out this resolve.

The first occasion was the death of the mother of his adoptive father. She was the sister of his own father, Lucius Aemilius, and wife of his grandfather by adoption, the great Scipio. He inherited from her a large fortune and in his treatment of it was to give the first proof of his high principle.

This lady whose name was Aemilia, used to display great magnificence whenever she left her house to take part in the ceremonies that women attend, having participated in the fortune of Scipio when he was at the height of his prosperity. For apart from the richness of her own dress and of the decorations of her carriage, all the baskets, cups, and other utensils for the sacrifice were either of gold or silver, and were borne in her train on all such solemn occasions, while the number of maids and men-servants in attendance was correspondingly large. Immediately after Aemilia's funeral all these splendid appointments were given by Scipio to his mother, who had been for many years separated from her husband, and whose means were not sufficient to maintain a state suitable to her rank. Formerly she had kept to her house on the occasion of such functions, and now when a solemn public sacrifice happened to take place, and she drove out in all Aemilia's state and splendour, and when in addition the carriage and pair and the muleteers were seen to be the same, all the women who witnessed it were lost in admiration of Scipio's goodness and generosity and, lifting up their hands, prayed that every blessing might be his.

Such conduct would naturally be admired anywhere, but in Rome it was a marvel; for absolutely no one there ever gives away anything to anyone if he can help it. This then was the first origin of his reputation for nobility of character, and it advanced rapidly, for women are fond of talking and once they have started a thing never have too much of it.

In the next place he had to pay the daughters of the great Scipio, the sisters of his adoptive father, the half of their portion. Their father had agreed to give each of his daughters fifty talents, and their mother had paid the half of this to their husbands at once on their marriage, but left the other half owing on her death. Thus Scipio had to pay this debt to his father's sisters. According to Roman law the part of the dowry still due had to be paid to the ladies in three years, the personal property being first handed over within ten months according to Roman usage. But Scipio at once ordered his banker to pay each of them in ten months the whole twenty-five talents.

When the ten months had elapsed, and Tiberius Gracchus and Scipio Nasica, who were the husbands of the ladies, applied to the banker and asked him if he had received any orders from Scipio about the money, and when the banker asked them to receive the sum and made out for each of them a transfer of twenty-five talents, they said he was mistaken; for according to law they should not at once receive the whole sum, but only a third of it. But when he told them that these were Scipio's orders, they could not believe it, but went on to call on the young man, under the impression that he was in error. And this was quite natural on their part; for not only would no one in Rome pay fifty talents three years before it was due, but no one would pay one talent before the appointed day; so universal and so extreme is their exactitude about money as well as their desire to profit by every moment of time.

However, when they called on Scipio and asked him what orders he had given the banker, and he told them he had ordered him to pay the whole sum to his sisters, they said he was mistaken, since he had the legal right to use the sum for a considerable time yet. Scipio answered that he was quite aware of that, but that while as regards strangers he insisted on the letter of the law, he behaved as far as he could in an informal and liberal way to his relatives and friends. He therefore begged them to accept the whole sum from the banker. Tiberius and Nasica on hearing this went away without replying, astounded at Scipio's magnanimity and abashed at their own meanness, although they were second to none in Rome.

Two years later, when his own father Aemilius died, and left him and his brother Fabius heirs to his estate, he again acted in a noble manner deserving of mention. Aemilius was childless, as he had given some of his sons to be adopted by other families and those whom he had kept to succeed him were dead, and he therefore left his property to Scipio and Fabius. Scipio, knowing that his brother was by no means well off, gave up the whole inheritance, which was estimated at more than sixty talents, to him in order that Fabius might thus possess a fortune equal to his own. This became widely known, and he now gave an even more conspicuous proof of his generosity. His brother wished to give a gladiatorial show on the occasion of his father's funeral, but was unable to meet the expense, which was very considerable, and Scipio contributed the half of it out of his own fortune. The total expense of such a show amounts to not less than thirty talents if it is done on a generous scale.

While the report of this was still fresh, his mother died, and Scipio, far from taking back any of the gifts I mentioned above, gave the whole of it and the residue of his mother's property to his sisters, who had no legal claim to it. So that again when his sisters had thus come into the processional furniture and all the establishment of Aemilia, the fame of Scipio for magnanimity and family affection was again revived.

Having thus from his earliest years laid the foundations of it, Publius Scipio advanced in his pursuit of this reputation for temperance and nobility of character. By the expenditure of perhaps sixty talents — for that was what he had bestowed from his own property — his reputation for the second of these virtues was firmly established, and he did not attain his purpose so much by the largeness of the sums he gave as by the seasonableness of the gift and the gracious manner in which he conferred it. His reputation for temperance cost him nothing, but by abstaining from many and varied pleasures he gained in addition that bodily health and vigour which he enjoyed for the whole of his life, and which by the many pleasures of which it was the cause amply rewarded him for his former abstention from common pleasures.

It remained for him to gain a reputation for courage, nearly the most essential virtue in all states and especially so in Rome; and for this the training required of him was correspondingly severe. Chance, however, assisted him also in this determination. For the members of the royal house of Macedon had always been devoted to hunting, and the Macedonians had reserved the most suitable areas for breeding game. These districts during the war had been as carefully preserved as formerly, but had never been hunted for four years owing to the exigencies of the times, so that there was an abundance of big game of every kind.

When the war had been brought to a conclusion, Aemilius, thinking that hunting was the best training and amusement for the young men, placed the royal huntsmen at Scipio's disposal, and gave him complete control over the preserves. Scipio, availing himself of this and regarding himself as being nearly in the position of king, spent the whole time that the army remained in Macedonia after the battle of Pydna in this pursuit, and, as he became a very enthusiastic sportsman, being of the right age and physique for such an exercise, like a well-bred dog, this taste of his for hunting became permanent. So that when he arrived in Rome and when he found in Polybius one equally devoted to the chase, all the time that other young men gave up to law affairs and greetings, spending the whole day in the forum and thus trying to court the favour of the populace, 9 Scipio was occupied by the chase, and by his brilliant and memorable exploits, acquired a higher reputation than anyone. For the others could not win praise except by injuring some of their fellow-citizens, this being the usual consequence of prosecutions in the law courts; but Scipio, without ever vexing a soul, gained this universal reputation for courage, matching his deeds against their words. So that in a short space of time he had outstripped his contemporaries more than is recorded of any other Roman, although the path he pursued to gain glory was quite the opposite of that followed by all others in accordance with Roman usage and custom.

I have spoken at such length of the development of Scipio's character from his earliest years partly because I thought the story would be agreeable to those advanced in years and salutary for the young, but chiefly in order to secure credence for all I shall have to tell of him in the Books which follow, so that readers may neither hesitate to accept as true anything in his subsequent life that seems astonishing nor depriving the man himself of the credit of his meritorious achievements put them down to chance from ignorance of the true cause of each. There were some few exceptions which we may assign to good luck and chance.

After this long digression I will now resume my regular narrative...