"Imagine if Jesse Helms had been a Roman Senator," says
a recent full-page ad for the People for the American Way Action Fund.
Western culture, the ad suggests might not have flourished if the censorious
Helms had his way during the old Roman republic.
People for the American Way perhaps makes too great an assumption.
After all, the Roman republic invented both the word and the office
of censor - and the word censorious, it has been said, was given to
the English language by a Roman senator, Marcus Porcius Cato the Elder,
who died in 149 B.C. There had been many censors in Rome - the office
was more than 250 years old when Cato was elected to it - but Cato pursued
his duties with such vigor and controversy that he made himself the
most celebrated censor in history.
The Roman historian Livy defines "censor" as "that
important magistracy which from a trivial origin subsequently grew to
exercise jurisdiction over the whole range of our social proprieties,
to determine membership of the classes of Senators or Knights according
to property and desert and to have complete control over the regular
state revenue and the location of public and private buildings."
Republican Rome was never a democracy in the modern sense: Roman
citizenship was an important privilege, not a birthright. In conducting
the census of the Roman population, the censors (they were elected in
pairs) not only counted Romes citizens but, in an elaborate public
ceremony, ranked them into distinct classes. They started at the bottom
with non-voting "taxpayers" and worked up to the privileged
orders of equites, or knights, who were given horses at state
expense and served in the cavalry, and finally the senators, who played
a major role in the government. The censors ranking, based on
wealth, heritage, administrative competence, marital status, and physical
and moral fitness, determined the citizens political privileges,
his level of taxation, and his military service.
Anyone who didnt meet the standards of the censors could
be demoted in rank. If the offender was a senator, this meant explosion
from the Senate. And those who had incurred the censors particular
ire for some moral charge or misbehavior sank to the rank of aerarii,
the lowest citizens--deprived of voting rights and taxed at a higher
rate. (Such power was not without its problems, Livy relates, for example,
the famous "battle of the censors," in which one censor, in
a fit of pique, demoted the entire Roman population to aerarii.)
By the time Cato ran for censor, his stern reputation was already
well established: he had served as consul and in many other offices,
and had been a fixture of the Senate for a generation. Red-haired with
flashing gray eyes, Cato was the embodiment of Roman republican values:
maintaining an austere lifestyle, distrusting "foreign" notions
(particularly Greek ones--Cato warned his son that "Rome would
lose her empire she had become infected with Greek letters"), and
upholding the moral code of the simple farmer, namely, to the forthright,
frugal, and unpretentious.
Cato, himself of humble origins, battled with the Roman aristocracy
for most of his career, often in defense of these values, which were
beginning even in his day to seem old-fashioned. Livy remarks that "one
would be hard put to say whether the nobility was more concerned to
crush [Cato] or he to vex the nobility." Deliberately abrasive,
Catos manner was laced with an affected crudeness and an acidic
sense of humor that seemed calculated to irritate the patrician dignity
of his opponents.
Cato ran for censor with his old patrician friend and patron Flaccus
on a platform claiming the city needed "a great purification"
and accusing his opponents of being "afraid of a free and fearless
censorship." With Flaccus, Cato said, he could "Chastise the
modern vices and restore the old morality." Not surprisingly, Catos
campaign was bitterly opposed by much of the Senate, which put up, according
to Plutarch, seven candidates against him. But there must have been
popular support for his position in Rome because, in due course, Cato
and Flaccus won the election.
As censor, Cato lived up to the fears of the elite. He ignited
furious debates in the Senate when he expelled a number of prominent
senators and demoted a number of knights. One senator, a former consul,
was expelled for having a man killed for the entertainment of his male
(female, in another version of the story) lover. Another was cast out
for having embraced his wife in daylight in front of his daughter. (Cato,
an unrepentant sexist by todays standards, said he never embraced
his wife unless it thundered loudly, and added that he was a happy man
when it thundered.)
The knights were traditionally examined in the public forum, where
they were required to lead their horses, symbol of their rank, past
the censors. Expelling one overweight knight, Cato is said to have remarked,
"Where can such a body be of service to the state, when everything
between its gullet and its groins is devoted to belly?" When another
knight was asked the censors ritual question, "Have you,
to the best of your knowledge and belief, a wife?" he answered
"I indeed have a wife, but not, by Hercules! such a one as I could
desire!" For his impudence, the knight was reduced to an aerarius.
Cato also demoted the brother of Scipio Africanus, the former senator
and general who had triumphed over Hannibal and whose political career
Cato had previously destroyed.
Even more controversial was Catos indirect attack on extravagant
Roman lifestyles. He assessed luxury goods and young slaves at ten times
their value, then tripled the tax rate for them. This, says Plutarch,
incurred the wrath of "both those who endured the taxes for the
sake of their luxury and those no less who put away their luxury because
of the taxes. For most men think themselves robbed of their wealth if
they are prevented from displaying it." Cato cut the pipes by which
the public water supply was siphoned off to certain private houses and
gardens, demolished all private buildings that encroached on public
land, reduced the cost of public works, and raised the rent on public
Still, Catos censorship was evidently very popular with the
general population. The people of Rome erected a statue to his honor
in the temple of Health, adding the inscription "When the Roman
state was tottering to its fall, he was made censor, and by helpful
guidance, wise restraints, and sound teachings, restored it again."
The inscription turned out to be wishful thinking. In fact, there
is no evidence Catos censorship had any long-term effect on Roman
society. All the tendencies Cato deplored increased after his death.
He failed to curb the Romans love of luxury, did not prevent the
rise an elite class addicted to private vices and the pursuit of power,
could not shut off the flood of Eastern ideas or arrest the slide of
the Republic into tyranny and civil war. A little less than a century
after Catos death, his famous great-grandson, Cato the Younger,
another conservative Republican, died fighting Julius Caesars
rise to power. In the civil war that followed, the old values of the
Republic seemed to sink forever.
But Catos reputation lived on and even grew in glory. His
name turns up again and again in Latin literature as a code word for
the stern old republican virtues. Cicero, writing in the twilight of
the Republic, sang his praises, and even the emperors, despite their
notoriously un-Cato-like behavior, from time to time looked back on
the office of censor with nostalgia and even revived it in their own
While Helms is no Cato, there are certain parallels in their approach
to public vice. Like Cato, Helms has attacked what he sees as a decline
in morals by attacking individuals, although Cato, to his credit, went
after big fish rather than artists and other marginal figures. Like
Cato, Helms appears to sincerely believe in a free and good society
but confuses the parts for the whole, the private practices of individual
citizens with the moral tone of society at large.
Cato, at least, tried to set an example for others by his own life,
but the approach of both Cato and Helms is basically negative, cutting
down those who fail to meet their standards rather than trying to raise
them up to them.
Despite his moral conservatism, Cato, like many conservatives today,
was very much a man of his times. Catos values were agrarian,
yet he made a comfortable fortune in the rapidly developing international
economy as a capitalist and money-lender. At a time when Greek art and
ideas were flooding into Rome from newly conquered territories, Cato
was vociferously anti-Greek, yet not above spicing his speeches with
phrases cribbed from Greek orators. He refused to acknowledge the achievements
of other Romans in his books, yet sang his own praises loudly.
Plutarch notes Catos egalitarian pose, yet was deeply shocked
by the cruel and exploitative way he treated his own servants and slaves.
Fond of condemning the private morality of others, Cato was not above
taking up with a concubine when it suited his own convenience. He was,
perhaps, not quite a hypocrite. He was just a little more indulgent
of his own accommodations to modern life than he was of others.
Why is it that censorship has such an enduring attraction? Human
nature so often seems out of human control that it is tempting to externalize
it, to attempt to change, by force, the failings one sees in ones
When the paranoid and vice-ridden emperor Domitian made himself
"censor for life" in the second century, he began a reign
of terror worse than anything that preceded him. He expelled or murdered
virtually everyone who offended him, particularly writers and those
involved in the notoriously disruptive Roman theater. Philosophers were
thrown out of town twice, a chief vestal was buried alive for breaking
her vow of chastity (her lovers were clubbed to death), an offending
author was executed and his copyist-slaves crucified. For his pains,
Domitian was murdered in a conspiracy headed by his wife, and the Senate
promptly decreed that "all inscriptions referring to him must be
effaced, and all records of his reign obliterated."
After Domitian, there were monstrous emperors, like Commodus and
Elgabalus, "efficient" ones like Trajan, "artistic"
ones like Hadrian, and "saintly" ones like Marcus Aurelius.
In between there were so many palace intrigues, conspiracies, poisonings,
assassinations, pretenders, military uprisings, barbarian invasions,
civil wars, and economic crises--and so many examples of unparalleled
greed, lust, and general foolishness on the part of Romes rulers--that
it is remarkable that there was a Roman empire at all.
The effect of censorship on individual Romans ranged from terror
to horrible death, but there is little evidence that censors had any
long-term effects on the course of Roman society. Vice and avarice continued
to flourish and, despite them, Roman life lurched on its boisterous
and usually prosperous way for centuries.
Still, like a disapproving father, Cato haunted the collective
consciousness of the empire. As if following his frowning example, imperial
Romes poets and historians never seemed to tire of complaining
of her decadence. In the Silver Age, two hundred fifty years after Catos
death, Seneca and Tacitus, survivors of Domitian, bewailed the decline
of the old Roman values, and the great satirical poet Juvenal ranted
against virtually the same things as the red-haired gadfly: the pretensions
of the aristocrats, the extravagance and ostentation of the rich, and
the evil influence of Greek intellectuals, and the emancipation of women.
Are we succumbing to the same pervasive whining? The pointing fingers
protrude from every side these days, not just the conservative wing.
To use analogies from another era, the role of Jeremiah is far easier
and more satisfying than the one of Moses, faced with the practical
problems of saving his society from the evils within and without it.
The role of Moses is, in fact, pretty thankless. But it is an essential
one for any society that is intent not just on surviving, but wants
to become new and vital.
Rome, after the second century, seemed to lose this sense of imagination
and creative energy, this fixation on the land in the distance. Even
at the height of Romes imperial power and wealth, the Romans had
a nagging feeling of loss and decline, a nostalgia for the glorious
days of the Republic.
The Romans--rich, intelligent, and enterprising as they were--were
ever more content to repeat the formulas of the past. Latin literature
and art as a creative enterprise died out. Great scientific revelations
lay in front of their noses but had to wait for the Renaissance to be
uncovered. The inventions that created the industrial revolution didnt
occur to them. Social ideas like equality remained the province of fringe
groups. The old offices of the Republic survived, and the upper classes
(even Seneca and Tacitus) seemed proud to hold them, even though by
the end they were no more than empty shells and even the emperor was
a prisoner of his own palace. These were not the Romans Cato wanted
In retrospect, it is easy to see the irony in Catos position.
The threat he saw to the Republic--the social, political, and economic
upheavals caused by its imperial expansion--was real. His drive to reform
was sincere but he failed to attack the real source of the danger. Because
he feared change itself, he chose to defend in an illusory past. Following
his example, the Romans too often took suppression for reform, condemnation
for change, and valued order more than progress.
Two thousand years after Cato, censorship is once again in the
news. Debates rage over whether the greatest threat lies with the censored
or the censors. But the recent history of places like South Africa,
Latin America, and Eastern Europe should tell another story: that freedom
of expression is almost impossible to suppress as long as someone has
something important to say and is willing to pay the price for saying
it. And the course of our own popular culture, which seems to have less
and less of consequence to say, suggests that the Bill of Rights is
no defense against the power of the box office, best seller lists, and
ratings games: the power, that is to say, of the successful formula.
So what is the greatest censor? Complacency? Fear of change or
of unpleasant truths? A greater love of the glorious past than the uncertain
future? These plagues of the human soul are with us and remain immune
to the actions of all censors, old and new.