The Bad Acts Of Others Do Not Excuse Our Own

The adventures of the Armenian king Papa, who lived from A.D. 353 to about 375, are described by the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus (XXX.1).  Gibbon gives the king’s name as Para; other sources variously spell his name as Pap or Papa.  We nod at all these spelling variations, and suggest the reader choose the one he favors most.

The ancient Armenian kingdom invariably found itself sandwiched between great powers.  To the east was Persia, and to the west was Rome; and as always happens with small states, political survival became a matter of playing powerful rivals against each other.  Centuries of bitter experience had taught the Armenian kings never to place too much trust in the fickle assurances of Persians, Romans, or Greeks. 

Papa had aligned his country with Rome, believing that Roman protection was necessary to preserve his nation’s borders from Persian encroachments.  For a time Roman friendship seemed to be mutually beneficial.  Eventually, however, things turned sour.  It is not entirely clear why, because the historical sources give starkly differing accounts of Papa’s career.  The historian Ammianus, who was roughly a contemporary of Papa, speaks of him in favorable terms as a brave and dedicated king who never betrayed Roman friendship.  Armenian sources generally view him negatively, portraying him as an incompetent schemer who needlessly antagonized the Armenian clerical establishment.  Ammianus’s version of events is probably more reliable; he was a Roman himself and a contemporary of Papa, and had no reason to misrepresent events one way or another.  Gibbon reviews Papa’s brief career in Ch. 25 of his Decline and Fall and follows Ammianus’s interpretation. 

In any case, what is clear is that the Roman emperor Valens came to mistrust the young Armenian king.  Valens’s military commander, Terentius, informed his suspicious emperor that Papa was planning to turn Armenia into a Persian vassal state.  Valens decided to have Papa assassinated.  To this end, he invited the Armenian to a meeting in Tarsus in A.D. 373; but the wily Papa got wind of the plot and fled the meeting before anything happened.  A Roman military detachment sent in pursuit failed to capture him.  Valens, undeterred, then ordered Terentius’s successor Traianus to carry out the assassination. 

Traianus therefore invited Papa to a banquet where the two sides might settle their differences and forge better relations.  Incredibly, Papa accepted this invitation, still believing in the good faith of the Romans.  This turned out to be a fatal mistake.  Ammianus describes the event with barely concealed disgust and shame.  “He arrived fearing nothing adverse against himself, and sat down at the place of honor he was provided (qui nihil adversum metuens venit, concessoque honoratiore discubuit loco).”  Lavish foods were served, and musicians created a relaxing atmosphere.  With classic gangster trickery, Traianus then rose and excused himself, claiming an urgent need to urinate.  As soon as he left the room, a ferocious armed guard drew his weapon and fell upon Papa; the king tried to defend himself, but he had no way to escape, and was soon slain. “Such were the weak and wicked maxims of the Roman administration,” says Gibbon, “that, to attain a doubtful object of political interest, the laws of nations and the sacred rights of hospitality were inhumanly violated in the face of the world.” Valens himself, we may note in passing, perished in battle a few years later at Adrianople. 

Ammianus denounces the perfidious killing of Papa in the strongest terms.  What particularly angered the historian (who was himself a soldier) was Valens’s and Traianus’s willingness to violate the sanctity of the ancient rules of hospitality.  To lure in a victim under false pretenses, and to do violence to an invited guest:  these actions were to Ammianus deeply offensive to justice and honor. To him they bordered on the sacrilegious. Ammianus tells us that such behavior would have been totally unacceptable in the olden days of “traditional justice” (apud priscam illam iustitiam).  The fact that other people have committed such acts, Ammianus says, is no justification for us to engage in them.  The Greek orator Demosthenes, notes Ammianus (XXX.1.23), said something directly relevant:  even if someone else happened to get away with an illegal or immoral act in the past, this does not justify our own engaging in such an act. 

The admonition sounds simple, but it needs to be said, since so many of us use versions of this excuse to justify our own behavior.  But what exactly did Demosthenes say about this?  What reasoning did he apply? The Roman rhetorician Quintilian (V.14) summarizes Demosthenes’s logic as follows.  If someone commits an act contrary to law or ethics, and you do the same, it does not follow that you should escape punishment.  In fact, just the opposite is true.  You should be censured all the more.  You would not have tried to claim this defense if a past violator had been punished; so if you are punished now, no one else will try to claim such a defense in the future. 

The Roman writer Aulus Gellius (X.19) repeats this same moral lesson of Demosthenes, but frames it as a story about a philosopher named Taurus providing advice to one of his wayward students.  The point is the same:  we cannot use the actions of others as cover for our own deeds or misdeeds. 

This logic makes good sense, and has direct relevance today.  If, for example, a judge is revealed to have been engaged in conduct that raises the appearance of impropriety, he or she cannot claim that others were also engaged in such behavior.  A judicial, executive, or legislative figure is expected to have unimpeachable conduct; he or she is expected to refuse gifts and hospitalities which tend to cast aspersions on the impartiality of the institutions they represent.  And yet, these rules have become so eroded with abuse and callous disregard that some people barely see anything wrong when it happens.

Let no one use the misdeeds of others as a shield to escape admonition for his own conduct.  As Cicero says, that which is morally corrupt, will always be morally corrupt:  and no amount of dodging, hiding, pirouetting, or explaining can alter this fact. It is a principle that many seem have have forgotten.  




Read more on this topic and related topics in the new translation of Cicero’s On Moral Ends: