Formerly we suffered from crimes, now we suffer from laws

Via Thing Finder. The original is Tacitus, on Imperial Rome: utque antehac flagitiis ita tunc legibus laborabatur. And possibly you, like me, were not well enough brought up to translate that directly. You could try Google, which offers the cryptic and that the laws of distress from the past atrocities of that at that time, which doesn't help. This is close to, but not quite, corruptissima re publica plurimae leges which can itself be read in multiple ways: it's definitely asserting a relationship between corruption and the number of laws, but which way round causation is intended is unclear.

Coming back to my headline quote, my Penguin translation produces the far less memorable The danger now was not so much misbehaviour as the law, and is largely talking about informers, and use of the law for personal gain in disputes. If you read the text in context that fits rather well as a replacement for the text in bold:
It was next proposed to relax the Papia Poppaea law, which Augustus in his old age had passed subsequently to the Julian statutes, for yet further enforcing the penalties on celibacy and for enriching the exchequer. And yet, marriages and the rearing of children did not become more frequent, so powerful were the attractions of a childless state. Meanwhile there was an increase in the number of persons imperilled, for every household was undermined by the insinuations of informers; and now the country suffered from its laws, as it had hitherto suffered from its vices.
And the point of all this? Well, it is interesting. Or so I find. That there were laws against celibacy which could lose you your property reminds us how weird the olde folke were. Which ought to also remind us that reading their words under layers of translation and attempting to understand them is likely to be difficult. By which I mean there's no harm in using a snappy slogan, but attempting, implicitly, to use the authority of Tacitus on your side is dubious. And if there's a motto from Tacitus, it is that individual corruption and loss of morality in public life is fatal; hmmm, what does that bring to mind?



Hank Roberts said...


David B. Benson said...

I read it as indicating that Rome was already running short of soldiers. That problem would only grow worse, facilitating the end of the western portion of their empire.

William M. Connolley said...

Hank: I was looking for an image to decorate this post, but I don't think that's it :-)

David: you mean the childlessness? I think the context makes that unlikely. Shortage of soldiers doesn't get much mention that I recall. Poor quality leadership, unreliability of military and political commanders gets more mention.

Anonymous said...

I thought the reason for the Roman regulations against celibacy were the same as the reasons for the recent Italian campaign for more babies by offering bonuses to new mothers.

A shortage of taxable future citizens.

PaulS said...

Could have some relevance for the next century. Population projections based on current demographic trends suggest the working-age population of China will rapidly decline from 2030 and be about 30-50% of current levels by 2100. Similar story in Japan.

Most of Europe is expected to have working-age populations smaller than they were immediately after WW2. Only the UK, France and Scandinavian countries are bucking that trend.

William M. Connolley said...

If there's a moral in Tacitus about that, it is that changing the law won't work. You need to address the underlying reasons why people don't want children. Or, alternatively, don't, and accept population decline and being swamped by "the masses" whoever they might be.

David B. Benson said...

Rome had to accept whole units from the "Germans" who became less and less subservient to Rome.

wereatheist said...

But this took quite some time after Tacitus' era (who liked the Germans, as counter-example to what was wrong with Rome).
Rome even had a Syrian Arab emperor.

wereatheist said...

My eevil sekrit plan is to import lotsa very religious African fertile women into Europe. The sort of people who are very much against abortion. Combine that with the propensity of males to put their unprotected dick into the birth channel of females, and ejaculate, you see where this will proceed to, n'est-ce pas'?

Hank Roberts said...

> looking for an image

Did you page down?