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In the Realm of the Censors

From the Coliseum to Capitol Hill

Peter Walsh

"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 Rome’s 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 citizen’s political privileges, his level of taxation, and his military service.

Anyone who didn’t 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, Cato’s 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, Cato’s 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 today’s 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 Cato’s 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 land.

Still, Cato’s 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 Cato’s 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 Cato’s death, his famous great-grandson, Cato the Younger, another conservative Republican, died fighting Julius Caesar’s rise to power. In the civil war that followed, the old values of the Republic seemed to sink forever.

But Cato’s 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 image.

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. Cato’s 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 Cato’s 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 one’s own behavior.

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 Rome’s 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 Rome’s poets and historians never seemed to tire of complaining of her decadence. In the Silver Age, two hundred fifty years after Cato’s 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 Rome’s 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 didn’t 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 to inspire.

In retrospect, it is easy to see the irony in Cato’s 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.

Originally published in the February 1991 issue of Boston Review

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