Gaius Acilius on Praise and Reproof

I teach in a university classics department. A few years ago, a senior colleague of mine received a “Teacher of the Year” award.  I congratulated him, then asked some questions.  After I asked him who gave the award, how they chose the recipient, and what benefits came with it, I asked him how he would react if the same people had used the same criteria to decide that he was a bad teacher, to publicize this decision, and to fine him.  Would he accept this judgment?  He did not think he would.  So, how could he justify accepting their judgment when it benefited him, if would not accept that same judgment were it to his disadvantage?  He agreed that this was a good question.  Of course, he went on to accept the award just the same.

A similar question may have preyed on the mind of my namesake, Gaius AciliusAcilius was a prominent Roman of the second century BC.  He is remembered for two things.  In 155 BC, three Greek philosophers came to Rome as ambassadors of Athens.  Acilius acted as their interpreter when they spoke to the Senate.  The story of the embassy of Carneades, Diogenes the Stoic, and Critolaus appears in several ancient texts, among them Plutarch’s Life of Cato the Elder (chapters 22 and 23,) Aulus Gellius’ Attic Nights (book 6, chapter 14,) and several works by Cicero (Academica book 2, chapter 98; Tusculan Disputations book 4, chapter 3; and in several passages of books 2 and 3 of the Republic, where Cicero considers at length the arguments about the nature of justice that Carneades presented in 155.)

Acilius’ second claim to fame is that he was among the first to write a history of Rome.  Following the fashion of the time, he wrote this history in Greek.  In the second century, Latin was spoken only in Italy and was rarely used for writing, while Greek was a language that educated people in all parts of the Mediterranean world could read.  Ancients texts that cite his history include several more by Cicero, notably de Officiis (book 3, chapter 32,) Dionysius of Halicarnassus (book 3, chapter 48,) and several by Livy, most notably book 35, paragraph 14.

None of Acilius’ writings has survived.  Even the ancient authors who quote his works usually mention that they have the quotes at second hand, having read them in the somewhat later histories of Claudius Quadrigarius.  The fact that Acilius was chosen to interpret for Carneades, Diogenes, and Critolaus has suggested to some that he may have had an interest in philosophy.  If he did have such an interest, the fragments of his work that have come down to us do not make it obvious.  There are two bits that may hint at such an interest, however.

In de Officiis 3.32, Cicero tells the story of Regulus, the Roman general who was taken prisoner by Hannibal.  Hannibal sent Regulus to Rome to report his demand that the Romans pay ransom for Regulus and his men.  Regulus swore an oath that he would return.  In Rome, Regulus urged the Senate not to pay ransom.  He then honored his oath to Hannibal and returned to the Carthaginian camp, knowing that he would be tortured to death there.  Cicero says that if we regard Regulus’ action as praiseworthy, we must regard as equally blameworthy the action of others who did not honor the same oath.  He quotes Acilius to the effect that some Roman officers did in fact swear to return to Hannibal’s camp and then refuse to do so.  Acilius reports that the Romans bound these officers and forced them to return.  Aulus Gellius tells the same story (6.18,) not mentioning Acilius’ name but placing it a few pages after the story of the embassy of 155 BC.

Perhaps Acilius was haunted by the same idea that Cicero was to bring up several times in de Officiis, that praise and reproof are inseparable.  We cannot praise those who keep oaths without reproving those who break the same oaths.  If praise and reproof are the two modes in which we apply a scale of values to the behavior we observe, then this idea is inescapable.

The other bit is probably the most famous of all the Acilian fragments.  Livy 35.14 describes events in the eastern Mediterranean in the 180s BC.

Owing to illness Sulpicius stopped at Pergamum, whilst Villius went on to Ephesus, as he heard that the king had commenced hostilities in Pisidia. He made a short stay there, and as Hannibal happened to be there at the time he made a point of paying frequent visits to him in order to ascertain his future plans and if possible remove any apprehension from his mind as to danger threatening him from Rome. Nothing else was discussed in these interviews, but they had one result, which though really undesigned might have been deliberately aimed at, for they lowered Hannibal’s authority with the king and cast suspicion upon all that he said or did. Claudius, following Acilius who wrote in Greek, says that Publius Scipio Africanus was one of the commissioners, and that he had conversations with Hannibal. One of these he reports. Africanus asked Hannibal whom he considered to be the greatest commander, and the reply was, “Alexander of Macedon, for with a small force he routed innumerable armies and traversed the most distant shores of the world which no man ever hoped to visit.” Africanus then asked him whom he would put second, and Hannibal replied, “Pyrrhus; he was the first who taught how to lay out a camp, and moreover no one ever showed more cleverness in the choice of positions and the disposition of troops. He possessed, too, the art of winning popularity to such an extent that the nations of Italy preferred the rule of a foreign king to that of the Roman people who had so long held the foremost place in that country.” On Scipio’s again asking him whom he regarded as the third, Hannibal, without any hesitation, replied, “Myself.” Scipio smiled and asked, “What would you say if you had vanquished me?” “In that case,” replied Hannibal, “I should say that I surpassed Alexander and Pyrrhus, and all other commanders in the world.” Scipio was delighted with the turn which the speaker had with true Carthaginian adroitness given to his answer, and the unexpected flattery it conveyed, because Hannibal had set him apart from the ordinary run of military captains as an incomparable commander.

Although this story was repeated by such later writers as Appian, it does not seem at all likely that Scipio ever called on Hannibal in Ephesus, or that the two of them would have had a conversation such as this if they had in fact met.  What interests me about it is the point Livy explicitly makes at the end, that Hannibal flattered Scipio not by placing him high in a scale of values, but by denying that any scale of values would be adequate to encompass his virtue.  Of course, it is possible that this idea may not have originated with Acilius.  Claudius may have altered the story he found in Acilius, or that Acilius may have been repeating elements inserted by some still earlier figure in the tradition.

In the shadow of the idea that praise and reproof are inseparable, Hannibal’s flattery of Scipio takes on a greater significance.  Placing Scipio above the scale of values by which one might judge other generals, Hannibal forswears the right to judge him for good or ill.

I would turn once more to the embassy of 155 BC.  While Carneades is one of the best-known philosophers of the Hellenistic period, the other two are relatively obscure.  Critolaus, in particular, is known for chiefly for his role in this embassy.  Indeed, the only philosophical idea for which he is remembered at all is one that is preserved for us by Cicero, whose attention would likely have been drawn to Critolaus first by his connection to Rome.  That idea is known as “the scale of Critolaus.”  Critolaus divides the good things in life into three categories, the goods of the soul, the goods of the body, and external goods.  It is likely that he regarded these three varieties of goodness as incommensurable.  No amount of external good could substitute for the good of the body, nor could any amount of bodily good substitute for the good of the soul.  As Scipio is to other generals, so a virtuous soul is to other desirable things.  Of course, it cannot be proven that Acilius and Critolaus ever discussed these ideas, but the similarity is interesting to speculate about.


1 Comment

  1. acilius

     /  January 20, 2011

    It’s amazing the sorts of mistakes you can make when you write quickly. Regulus was a figure of the First Punic War, not the Second, so of course it wasn’t Hannibal who held him prisoner. I apologize!

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