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Swellboy on… the Romans

What the Romans can teach us about the art of living well

Swellboy on… the Romans

Image: Brijesh Patel

May 26 2011
Nick Foulkes

It is often said that living well is the best revenge. I am not always sure that this is the case, but it does lead to some fairly amusing situations. The trouble with living well is that it requires imagination; it entails more than just buying a boat that is a few metres longer than the oligarch’s next door. And in such matters I find it useful to study the example of the Romans. Imperial Rome is of course littered with decadence; however, the later years of the Roman republic yield some telling examples.

For instance, I find it reassuring that even a man of the stature of Cicero – champion orator, lawyer, consul of Rome, the man who foiled the Catiline conspiracy and all that – was sufficiently insecure as to need to bolster his sense of self worth with a status-conferring citron wood table, costing a seven-figure sum. The thing was that Cicero was a man from a decent but unremarkable family in the sticks who made his way up through the ranks of office, eventually winding up with a swanky villa on the Palatine Hill, presumably as a fitting setting for that citron wood table.

However, to clamber up the particularly greasy pole of Roman life, Cicero had needed to stand on a few shoulders and tread on a few toes – among them the shoulders and toes of fellow lawyer Quintus Hortensius Hortalus, knocking him off the top spot as Rome’s number one orator and courtroom operator. I have to say that I rather like the sound of Hortensius. According to an anecdote related in Tom Holland’s Rubicon, on one occasion he was up against his rival Cicero in a court case whereupon, in the middle of proceedings, he called for an adjournment, for the perfectly sensible reason that he had to hurry back to his estate to supervise the watering of his plane trees with vintage wine.

Alas which particular vintage he judged best for his arboricultural needs is not recorded.

See also

Cicero, People