The Moral Corruption Of The Elites

The military historian Polyaenus, in his Stratagems of War (II.17), relates the following anecdote.  There was once a man named Dinias, the son of Telesippus, who lived in the city of Cranon, which is located in the region of Thessaly in Greece.  He was originally from the town of Pheraea.  He was a poor man, we are told, and earned his living by hunting and fishing in the countryside near the city.

But he was an ambitious, calculating man, and gained power in the city by clever ruses and devices over an extended period of time.  The guards and watchmen who were responsible for Cranon’s safety were paid a certain fixed salary every year.  Dinias believed this was an important office, and volunteered for it; for three years he performed the duties of guardianship so well that Cranonians could walk around very safely at night.  They heaped praise on him for his aptitude.  As he worked his way into the hearts of the people, he asked permission to hire more guards; few noticed, however, that he made these armed men loyal to himself personally, rather than to the city they were supposed to be serving. Laws and precedents put in place to limit such practices were overlooked. “Things are different this time,” the city’s leaders assured themselves.     

Now there was also an office available in Cranon that was something like our modern tax collector.  This was the office to collect one-tenth of the corn harvested by each citizen engaged in the agricultural trade.  Dinias, who enjoyed the confidence of the people, proposed his brother for this employment.  It turned out to be a very lucrative position.  With the money so earned, Dinias’s brother was able to employ other associates to assist him in his work.  In this way he extended his web of influence over the city’s commerce and finance. 

There was in Cranon a regular festival called the Taenia, in which the citizens would hold elaborate banquets.  It was common for the people to eat and drink to excess during this festival.  Dinias formed a plan to seize power in the city during one of these festivals.  And he possessed all the necessary resources to do this.  The city’s armed guards were under his supervision; the city’s finance and commerce was under the indirect control of his brother.  So at an appointed time during Taenia, while the Cranonians were distracted by amusements and besotted by food and drink, Dinias and his men attacked and destroyed all of the drunken revelers.  The city was now theirs.  He and his men slew over a thousand men, and assumed absolute control of Cranon.

This story, of course, illustrates the importance of having a ruling elite that is constantly vigilant and attentive to its obligations.  With authority and power come the sacred responsibilities of stewardship. The Cranonian leadership, however, proved itself to be lazy, indolent, and corrupt; they repeatedly slept when they should have been alert to what was happening around them.  They allowed themselves to be fed by delusions and wishful thinking.  What they saw happening before their eyes, they waved away with contemptuous indifference.  As a consequence, they lost both their city and their lives.  Their lack of moral fiber, their addiction to physical pleasures and luxuries, led them to utter ruin. 

A tale with a similar theme is also told by Polyaenus (IV.3) of the great king Alexander of Macedon.  After Alexander had conquered Persia, he occupied the palace of the former Persian monarch.  There was a brass column in the palace, upon which was inscribed the Persian king’s bill of fare for his, and his court’s, regular meals.  The list of foods identified on the column was extraordinarily extensive.  I will not weary the reader by identifying every food, but the list included:  four hundred artabae (bushels) of wheat flour, two hundred artabae of barley flour, ten artabae of cresses, four hundred sheep, four hundred geese, three hundred turtles, thirty deer, a talent’s worth of garlic, half a talent’s worth of onions, twenty artabae of various spices, large quantities of pickled capers, parsley seed, dried anise, cream, oil of cinnamon, almonds, palm wine, honey, saffron, rice, vinegar, and many other luxurious items. 

Alexander was astounded at this profligacy.  Instead of being impressed with such affluence, he was contemptuous of it.  He considered it inappropriate for a competent king to concern himself with such delights; so he ordered the brass pillar to be destroyed in full view of his men.  Polynaeus says,

[He observed] to his friends, that it was no advantage to a king to live in so luxurious a manner, for cowardice and dastardy were the certain consequences of luxury and dissipation.  Accordingly, added he, you have experienced that those who have been used to such revels, never knew how to face danger in the field. 

Cowardice and dastardy are the certain consequences of luxury and dissipation: indeed few truths have proven so timeless.  The fact that Alexander himself eventually succumbed, as some historians believe, to overindulgence only emphasizes the veracity of his admonition.  And yet, as we observe the contemporary scenes of social and political life, it is difficult to conclude that this advice has been entirely forgotten—if it was ever understood in the first place.  Even to mention it triggers raised eyebrows and furtive glances among those who would prefer to close their eyes and ears to unpleasant realities.

On January 17, 2022, the BBC published an article on its website informing readers that the wealth of the world’s ten richest men doubled as a result of the restrictive Covid-19 policies pursued by various governments since 2020.  This astounding fact cannot fail to produce an avalanche of harmful social, political, and moral consequences in the coming years. Let us, then, embrace the ethic of our friend Petrarch, who asked for little and sought even less, as when he wrote to his confidant Giovanni Boccaccio in 1362:

I am one man with resources abundant enough to suffice for two people who share one hearth and home. [Sum vero cui uni tantum suppetit quantum abunde sufficiat duobus unum cor habentibus atque unam domum].

We will close with one final anecdote from Polyaenus (II.22).  This tale illustrates, in stark contrast with our previous examples, true moral resolution and firmness of conviction.  The Thebans and Mantinensians were engaged in battle, and both sides claimed victory.  The Mantinensians sent envoys to the Thebans, asking if they could be permitted to carry off their dead from the field of battle.  The Thebans were commanded by Cineas the Athenian; his brother Demetrius had died in the fight, and his body was among the fallen.  Cineas refused the enemy’s request.  He said that he would sooner leave his brother where he had died than to concede defeat to the Mantinensians.  “My brother,” he told his men, “sacrificed his life to prevent these people from building trophies on our, and our country’s, disgrace.”  He then sent the envoys away. 



Read more about the consequences of moral corruption in these new, entirely original translations of Sallust and Cicero: