We find a stirring anecdote in the history of Valerius Maximus that does not appear in any other ancient source. There was once a centurion named Mevius who fought for Octavian (who would eventually become Caesar Augustus) during the civil war between him and Antony. Of Mevius we know very little; even his full name has eluded history.
While campaigning with Octavian’s forces in Alexandria, Egypt, Mevius was surrounded and taken prisoner. He was brought before Antony himself, who asked the centurion, “What do you think I should do with you?” Mevius’s reply was this:
Order me to be slain. Because I cannot be persuaded either by the favor of safety, or by the penalty of death, to stop being a soldier of Caesar, or to begin being one of yours. [III.8]
This was the resolution of Mevius. Antony was so impressed with the centurion’s courage and steadfastness in the face of death that he ordered Mevius’s life to be spared. And so it was, as Valerius so eloquently says, that “the more firmly he paid his life no heed, the more easily he obtained it (ceterum quo constantius vitam contempsit, eo facilius impetravit). Valerius relates a similar example of courage in captivity in the same section of his history. A man named Titius was taken prisoner during the civil war by a force of Scipio’s men. Scipio offered to spare Titius’s life if he promised to enroll in the ranks of Pompey’s army. Titius’s response to this offer was this:
I thank you, Scipio. But I have no need to continue in life with that offer. [III.8.7]
We are not told what happened to Titius, but I suspect that he was granted the same consideration offered to Mevius. Our historian Valerius offers one final example along these lines, which he considers one that nearly surpasses all others. The tale is also recounted in Livy (XXVI.15). During the Second Punic War, the Roman general Fulvius Flaccus captured the city of Capua, which had been induced by Hannibal to defect from Rome and take the Carthaginian side. This treachery had roused Fulvius to both anger and action. He intended to make an example of the Campanian senate, so that it would be clear to all how Rome dealt with betrayal.
Fulvius had the senators of Capua bound in chains, and divided them into two groups. One groups he imprisoned in Teanum, and the other in Cales. There he left them for the moment; he had more pressing issues to handle before deciding what do to with the prisoners. Rumors began to circulate that the Roman senate might order him to treat the Capuan senators with undue leniency. So Fulvius ordered the prisoners at Teanum to be executed. He then rode to Cales and was about to order the same fate for the other group of senatorial traitors.
The Calesian prisoners were just about to be executed when a messenger delivered him a letter from the Roman senate. Anticipating that this letter might contain an order directing him to spare the treacherous Capuan senators, he left it unopened and put it inside his tunic. He ordered the executions to proceed, breaking the seal on the letter only after they had been carried out. Valerius approves of this ruthless steadiness of purpose: “You will find him greater in punishing Capua than in taking her (maiorem punita Capua quam capta reperias).”
Modern analogues of these examples of resolution can certainly be found. We are not lacking in men of character and principle; we are, instead, deficient in the ability to recognize, celebrate, and reward such qualities. The growth of massive bureaucracies, interlinked technological systems, and media-peddled distractions seeks to bury virtue beneath a mountain of detritus. The more hands that are involved in a project, the more that project sinks beneath the weight of timidity and torpor. “Parkinson’s Law,” said former Secretary of State Dean Acheson in his brilliant memoir Present at the Creation, “applies to meetings as well as to organizations.”
But what is Parkinson’s Law? Cyril N. Parkinson, a British naval historian, published an essay in The Economist in 1955 that described the rate at which stultifying bureaucracies expand over time. Basing his ideas on his experiences with the British civil service, Parkinson attempted to put into mathematical form a phenomenon he had witnessed repeatedly: bureaucratic systems are akin to living organisms, expanding and contracting based on environmental conditions. Parkinson’s work led to uncomfortable conclusions. Officials seek to increase the number of their underlings, not for the good of the organization, but for their own power. Officials are more concerned with looking busy, than with accomplishing useful goals.
The inescapable conclusion of Parkinson’s Law is that what matters is the good of the organization or system, and not the good of the public it is supposed to serve. The sheer gravitational weight of monstrous bureaucratic and technological systems—and these two characteristics are always combined—deflects any recognition of superior virtue. The virtues that rewarded today are not audacity, resolution, honor, courage, and daring (which we may call the “heroic virtues”), but anonymous timidity, unquestioning obedience to organizational culture, careerist deviousness, and manipulation (which we may call the “bureaucratic virtues”).
This distinction between the heroic and the bureaucratic virtues is one of the major fault lines affecting all forms of organization today. Until now, one of these types of virtue has been emphasized to the total exclusion of the other. This condition can only persist in times of wealth, luxury, and peace. Nations which neglect the heroic virtues—or simply refuse to recognize their existence, which is the more common habit today—will find themselves naked and unarmed when the drums of war begin to beat on the horizon.
Read more on this subject, and on others like it, in the new translation of Cicero’s On Moral Ends: