I have always found Juvenal and his Satire to be an accurate depiction of a civilization at the edge of collapse. Perhaps I am being a bit of a fatalist, but I cannot help comparing our times to the old, old times.
…iam pridem, ex quo suffragia nulli vendimus, effudit curas; nam qui dabat olim imperium, fasces, legiones, omnia, nunc se continet atque duas tantum res anxius optat, panem et circenses.
…in the beginning, in which we never sold suffrage, we poured out pains; although, that those who used to give at that time right to rule, power over the people, legions, all things, now he limits himself, and so much, for two things he anxiously prefers – bread and the circus.
…al principio, en el cual el voto nunca había sido vendido, nos preocupabamos; pero el que en aquel momento daba gobierno, poder sobre el pueblo, legiones, todo, ahora se limita tanto por dos cosas a las que opta, pan y circo.
Juvenal, writing during the end of the 1st century and the early 2nd, had no more quintessential words than these. I love, first and foremost, how much it takes to say the same thing in English that the Spanish and Latin can so succinctly and accurately say. That is a whole different kind of post, though; I shall remained focused today.
Writing in a Empire that had not long ago been a Republic, Juvenal satirizes the current state of the Roman citizen. It was true. Free grain and gladiatorial games had become everything that senators, princeps, and emperors, needed to control the people. Long gone were the days of the Gracchi, who sought fair grain prices. Long gone the days of Flaccus, Marius, Caesar, and the true Tribunes of the Plebs. It was that period, in particular, that Juvenal recalled, his iam pridem. Two hundred years earlier the tribunes elected by the populous were sacrosanct. The people took pains to make it so in the fifth century BCE. They had been protected, against the elitist wishes of the Patricians, by their voters. The people had given control of the senate to their representatives. Something the Patricians would have to put up with for four hundred years. It makes me wish it had all turned out for the best; that Romans had found a way to allow their upcoming Plebeians to rise beyond the glass ceiling that Rome avoided but still existed. This power of the vote, which was never sold, was the key to Roman success.
Effudit curas was Juvenal’s call to arms. In the past the citizens of Rome pured out cares, and by doing so they also poured out cures. The words are cognates for a reason. To care for something is to cure it, to bring it up from its fallen state and allow it to be better, physically and spiritually. No longer did the citizens take care of Rome, it was allowed to run rampant, unchecked, over the very people who, through their involvement, had made themselves a cure to the ills of the elite. Nam, he writes, introducing a cold and harsh reality, qui dabat; who used to give… the verb, in the Imperfect, indicates something that used to happen but, also, something that is still in the process of not happening. Rather than using a Perfect here, Juvenal is reminding his audience that this problem is just as much an ill of the current people as it was a problem of those living in the near past. ‘Those who’ can only refer to them, the people.
That the people had lost their way by virtue of being driven into the ground is obvious. They used to know what it was to give power. Imperium was key to the ancient kings, the later Consuls, and even the latter Emperors. It was the right to rule, literally expressed; the very right (ius) without which no Roman could lead other Romans. The senate granted only the rights to religious rule; without the people, there were no legitimate rulers; thus , fasces, legiones, they were omnia (all) dependent upon it.
Time, so well expressed in this quote by Juvenal, takes us from the beginning, passing through a very shady middle, and arriving at a painful end. “Now” he says, as if he stood in a theater and pointed down at the ground, using some kind of Ablative of Time in Which. He doesn’t need it. The Adverb takes care of itself. The audience is forced to see itself now, in the now. That qui comes back to haunt us, it points its ancient finger at us, shaking it in our collective faces. The Reflexive Pronoun tugs at our Roman robes, begging us to listen, for we content ourselves with just two things. Continet is a very interesting verb, it literally means ‘to limit’ as in by virtue of boundaries. When we are content, we have quite literally set a limit for ourselves in order to reach some esoteric happiness. We have betrayed, in a way, our goals and find ourselves content with whatever has been achieved. Our self-limiting is evidence of our laziness, lack of self-confidence, of trust in our capabilities and potential. We are self-contained, self-retarded. The people has limited itself, Juvenal says, to those to things with they so much and so anxiously now crave.
Panem et circenses.
In the beginning, with the murders of the Gracchi and the great supporters of the people in the 1st century were committed by the patricians, Rome had shed tears, but also revolted. In the middle, when Caesar was murdered by the elite of Rome the people cried, but the revolt was easily quenched. Then, at this juncture in time, as their supporters had been turned into advocates for the elite, the people sought neither tear nor revolution, the free bread they were being given and the entertainment for which the rich paid were enough. The people had been silenced, gradually, over two hundred years.
There is no greater exempla gratia from Rome than this, no better metaphor, no higher form of understanding passed down from father to son: If we do not come together, as a people, we will be destroyed by those who, elected by us, have taken power and advantage from our very hands.