44 BC | Rome

Bread Is Better Than Circus

Give lavishly and generously.

There are, in general, two classes of those who give largely: the one class is the lavish, the other the generous.

The lavish are those who squander their money on public banquets, doles of meat among the people, gladiatorial shows, magnificent games, and wild-beast fights—vanities of which but a brief recollection will remain, or none at all. The generous, on the other hand, are those who employ their own means to ransom captives from brigands, or who assume their friends’ debts or help in providing dowries for their daughters, or assist them in acquiring property or increasing what they have. And so I wonder what Theophrastus could have been thinking about when he wrote his book On Wealth. It contains much that is fine; but his position is absurd, when he praises at great length the magnificent appointments of the popular games, and it is in the means for indulging in such expenditures that he finds the highest privilege of wealth. But to me the privilege it gives for the exercise of generosity, of which I have given a few illustrations, seems far higher and far more certain.

How much more true and pertinent are Aristotle’s words, as he rebukes us for not being amazed at this extravagant waste of money, all to win the favor of the populace. “If people in time of siege,” he says, “are required to pay a mina for a pint of water, this seems to us at first beyond belief, and all are amazed; but when they think about it, they make allowances for it on the plea of necessity. But in the matter of this enormous waste and unlimited expenditure we are not very greatly astonished, and that, too, though by it no extreme need is relieved, no dignity is enhanced, and the very gratification of the populace is but for a brief, passing moment; such pleasure as it is, too, is confined to the most frivolous, and even in these the very memory of their enjoyment dies as soon as the moment of gratification is past.” His conclusion, too, is excellent: “This sort of amusement pleases children, silly women, slaves, and the servile free; but a serious-minded man who weighs such matters with sound judgment cannot possibly approve of them.”

And yet I realize that in our country, even in the good old times, it had become a settled custom to expect magnificent entertainments from the very best men in their year of aedileship. So both Publius Crassus, who was not merely surnamed “The Rich” but was rich in fact, gave splendid games in his aedileship; and a little later Lucius Crassus (with Quintus Mucius, the most unpretentious man in the world, as his colleague) gave most magnificent entertainments in his aedileship. Then came Gaius Claudius, the son of Appius, and, after him, many others—the Luculli, Hortensius, and Silanus. Publius Lentulus, however, in the year of my consulship, eclipsed all that had gone before him, and Scaurus emulated him. And my friend Pompey’s exhibitions in his second consulship were the most magnificent of all. And so you see what I think about all this sort of thing.

Still we should avoid any suspicion of penuriousness. Mamercus was a very wealthy man, and his refusal of the aedileship was the cause of his defeat for the consulship. If, therefore, such entertainment is demanded by the people, men of right judgment must at least consent to furnish it, even if they do not like the idea. But in so doing they should keep within their means, as I myself did. They should likewise afford such entertainment, if gifts of money to the people are to be the means of securing on some occasion some more important or more useful object. Thus Orestes recently won great honor by his public dinners given in the streets, on the pretext of their being a tithe offering. Neither did anybody find fault with Marcus Seius for supplying grain to the people at one penny a peck when the market price was prohibitive; for he thus succeeded in disarming the bitter and deep-seated prejudice of the people against him at an outlay neither very great nor discreditable to him in view of the fact that he was aedile at the time. But the highest honor recently fell to my friend Milo, who bought a band of gladiators for the sake of the country, whose preservation then depended upon my recall from exile, and with them put down the desperate schemes, the reign of terror, of Publius Clodius.

The justification for gifts of money, therefore, is either necessity or expediency. And in making them even in such cases, the rule of the golden mean is best. To be sure, Lucius Philippus, the son of Quintus, a man of great ability and unusual renown, used to make it his boast that without giving any entertainments he had risen to all the positions looked upon as the highest within the gift of the state. Cotta could say the same, and Curio. I, too, may make this boast my own—to a certain extent; for in comparison with the eminence of the offices to which I was unanimously elected at the earliest legal age—and this was not the good fortune of any one of those just mentioned—the outlay in my aedileship was very inconsiderable.

Again, the expenditure of money is better justified when it is made for walls, docks, harbors, aqueducts, and all those works that are of service to the community. There is, to be sure, more of present satisfaction in what is handed out, like cash down; nevertheless public improvements win us greater gratitude with posterity.


Marcus Tullius Cicero

From On Duties. A respected lawyer, orator, and supporter of the Roman Republic, Cicero took no part in Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC but did remark that Octavian, Caesar’s adopted son and heir, “should be given praise, distinctions—and then be disposed of.” A few months later he wrote On Duties as a letter to his son, who was studying in Athens. The following year the triumvirate of Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus ordered his execution. His severed head and hands were displayed in the Roman Forum.