Cato's Letter No. 41

The Emperor Galba's Speech to Piso, with an Introduction

Thomas Gordon (Saturday, August 19, 1721)

SIR, I send you a translation of the speech of the emperor Galba to Piso, when he adopted him his partner and successor in the Empire; a speech full of great sense, great honesty, and noble sentiments. Indeed Galba seems to have come to the government with worthy intentions to mend it. To restore the ancient liberty, was impossible. Things had run long in another channel; people were accustomed to the largesses and false bounty of their princes, to the awful and sounding names of the Caesars, and to the luxury, pomp, and tinsel of a court. The soldiers would have an emperor; nor could the Senate withstand the soldiers: The venerable orders of the commonwealth had been long abolished, her ancient virtues extinct; Nihil usquam prisci & integri moris; and the commonwealth itself was forgot: Quotus quisque reliquus qui rem publicam vidisset! says Tacitus, speaking of the end of the reign of Augustus. In short, the emperor was all in all: Illuc cuncta vergere. The state was overturned, mangled, and changed: The old laws of equality were utterly lost in the imperial power, and that was supported by the sword. There was no safety but in servitude; Jussa principis aspectare. All the other magistrates were but shadows with fine old names.

The chief aim therefore of Galba, since he could not restore, was to reform. A worthy attempt, but he failed in it: So irresistible was the tide of corruption! Two things principally obstructed his design, and shortened his life and reign; the avarice of the soldiery, and the vile conduct of his servants.

As to the soldiers, he had honestly, but unfortunately said, that he would choose them, but not buy them; a saying which they never forgave him. Besides, as he practised himself the rigid old Roman discipline, he would oblige his army to practise it; a thing new to them, and intolerable. They had been long used to luxury and sloth, and were grown as fond of the vileness and vices of their princes, as the old republican armies had been of the temperance, modesty, and other virtues of their commanders: They therefore could not bear the severity and frugality of Galba; nor would Galba depart from his temper and his purposes. Money would have made them his friends; but he would part with none. The reflection of the historian upon this conduct of his is fine, but melancholy; Nocuit antiquus rigor, & nimia severitas, cui jam pares non sumus: "He was ruined by reviving unseasonably the severe virtue of our ancestors: Alas! we are no longer equal to it." To conclude this head; the soldiers butchered an emperor that would not bribe them.

As to the part of Galba's servants in the tragedy of their master, it was no small one: They made him odious by their own crimes; and in his name committed cruelties and rapine, which blackened his character; and when they had brought him under a general dislike, none of his own good qualities could recover him his good name: Inviso semel principe, seu bene seu male facta premunt. Their avarice was imputed to him, and called his: Jam offerebant venalia cuncta praepotentes liberti. They were resolved to make the most of his short reign; and by doing so made it shorter: Servorum manus subitis avidae, & tanquam apud senem festinantes. He paid dear for their wickedness: Odio flagitiorum oneratum destruebant. His character, in relation to his friends and servants, was, that he was indulgent to them, if they were good; and blind to their faults, if they were bad. Ubi in bonos incidisset, sine reprehensione patiens: Si mali forent, usque ad culpam ignarus.

The rest of his character, taken from Tacitus, from whom I have taken the whole, is, that being seventy years old, he had lived in prosperity during five reigns, more happy in them than in his own: That he was of a family ancient, great, and noble, and master of great wealth: That he had a moderate capacity, and more innocence than abilities: That he neither courted fame, nor despised it: That he coveted no man's money, was sparing of his own, and solicitous to save publick money: That a nobleman of his great birth and quality, having lived so securely in such dangerous times, was a thing so surprizing and rare, that his good fortune passed for wisdom, and his real indolence for real art: That in the vigour of his years he acquired great renown in the German wars: That being proconsul in Africa, he governed that province, and afterwards Spain, with great equity: That he seemed greater than a subject, while he was but a subject; and that, in the opinion of all men, he was equal to the empire, if he had never been emperor.

So much for the character of Galba; which I thought necessary to introduce his speech to Piso, who was every way worthy of the adoption and of a better fortune; which, however, was of a- piece: He was long an exile under Nero, who had murdered his brother Crassus; as had Claudius his brother Magnus: He himself was but four days Caesar, and then butchered; as was his eldest brother presently after him. He was of a noble race, both by father and mother, and had an amiable and popular character for the severity of his manners, and his many virtues; and during the few days of his highest power and adversity he behaved himself with great modesty and firmness, and seemed to make good every hope concerning him. But virtue and goodness were then pernicious, and we see what he got by having them. The whole story, and particularly his fate in it, affects me.

I am, &c.


"Were I, as a private man, to adopt you for my son, by virtue of the law Curiata, in preference of the pontiffs, according to the ordinary usage; glorious even then would be the adoption to us both; as with the blood of the great Pompey and of Marcus Crassus my family would be enriched; and the nobility of your house derive fresh splendor from the signal lustre and renown of the Sulpitian and Lutacian race. I am now a publick person, by the united consent of gods and men called to the empire; and of this same sovereignty, for which our ancestors contended with arms, I, who by war have obtained it, do offer you the possession, while you are neither seeking nor pursuing it: A gift to which I am urged only by the love of my country and your own excellent qualifications. In this I follow the example of the deified Augustus, who assumed successively, for his partners in power, first his sister's son, Marcellus; next his son-in-law, Agrippa; afterwards his grandsons; lastly, his wife's son Tiberius. But Augustus, who would entail the empire upon his own house, in his own house sought a successor: I choose out of the commonwealth an heir to the commonwealth. Not that I am reduced to this choice by any want of relations to my blood, or of fellow-commanders in war. But neither did I, no more than you, arrive at supreme power by any efforts of ambition; and my thus overlooking your relations, as well as my own, is a proof and monument with what sincerity of intention I prefer you to all men. You have a brother, in nobility your equal, in age your superior; a man worthy of this fortune; did I not in you find one still more worthy. Such is your age, as to be past the giddiness and impetuosity of youth; such has been your course of life, that nothing in your conduct, thus far, is subject to blame. But hitherto you have only had an adverse fortune to contend with. More dangerous and keen are the stimulations of prosperity, to try the temper of the soul, and call forth its weaknesses. For, the strokes of calamity we struggle under and bear: By a flow of felicity we are utterly subdued and corrupted.

"You doubtless will still retain, with your usual firmness, the same honour, faith in friendship, candour and freedom of spirit; endowments which, above all others, adorn the mind of man. But the false complaisance of others will slacken your fortitude. Flattery will force its way to your heart; deceitful soothings, the most pestilent poison to every honest affection, will enchant you; and to his own sordid gain will every particular be wresting your honour and good inclinations. You and I upon this occasion converse together with hearts perfectly open and sincere: Others will choose to make their addresses to our fortune rather than to us. Indeed, to deal faithfully with princes, to reason them into their duty, is a mighty task, and with infinite difficulty performed. But easy is the art of cajoling any prince whatsoever, and in doing it the heart has no share. Could this immense empire subsist, and be swayed without a single ruler, I should glory in resigning, glory in being the first emperor who resigned the power of the Republick into her own hands. But such, long since has been the fatal situation of the state, that all the good which my old age enables me to do to the Roman people, is to leave them a good successor; nor can you, with all your youth, do more for them than afford them in yourself a benevolent prince. Under Tiberius and Caligula and Claudius, we were all of us no more, the Roman world was no more, than as the inheritance of one family. That the empire has in me begun to be elective, is a sign of our ancient liberty revived, and some equivalent for it; the only liberty we are capable of enjoying. Now the Julian and Claudian families being extinct, the best men are likely, in this way of adoption, to become the highest. To be sprung from a sovereign race, is the effect of chance, and further than this requires no deliberation or regard. But in the work of adoption the judgment is exercised, free from bias and restraint; and whenever you want to choose, you are by the general consent directed to the person worthy to be chosen.

"Have always before your eyes the example of Nero, who, secure as he was, and swelling with the pride of his race, a long genealogy of the Caesars his ancestors, was not in reality dethroned by Julius Vindex, the governor of a province unprovided with forces, nor by me, assisted by one legion: No, it was his own brutal tyranny, his own beastly debaucheries, that flung down the tyrant from riding on the necks of mankind. Nor was there till then any instance of an emperor by publick sentence condemned and deposed. We who succeed him by a different title, by war and by publick approbation and choice, shall thence reap publick glory, >however the malignity of particulars may pursue us. Nor must you be alarmed, if while the world itself continues in this general uproar, there are two legions which yet remain unreclaimed to obedience. It was my own lot to be called to an unsettled state; and as to my old age, the only objection to my government, it is no longer one, since, when it is known that I have adopted you, I shall seem young in my successor. The loss of Nero will ever be regretted by all the most profligate and bad. To us it belongs, to you and to me, so to govern, that he may not also be regretted by the good.

"To say more in this way of instruction, the present con- juncture suffers not; nor is it necessary; since if I have in you made a worthy choice, I have answered every purpose. One certain rule you have to observe, exceeding wholesome, as well as exceeding short; so to comport yourself towards your subjects, as, were you a subject, you would wish your prince to comport towards you. By this rule you will best distinguish the boundaries of justice and iniquity; best comprehend the art of reigning: for, you must remember that it is not with us as with other nations, such as are barbarous and tyrannized, where a particular lordly house is established, and where all besides are slaves without reserve. But you are about to govern the Romans; a people of too little virtue to support complete liberty, of too much spirit to bear absolute bondage."


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