Operation Mos Maiorum, Or: Ve Hav Vays … (Of Our Ancestors, That Is)

On Monday, 13 October, an EU-wide joint police operation will commence. It will last for two weeks, and its purpose is to target undocumented immigrants to the EU, to investigate their routes into the EU, and to crack down on human trafficking. The operation will be lead by the Italian ministry of the interior (with Italy currently holding the EU presidency), in conjunction with Frontex, Europol, and police forces of the EU member states.

Operations like this have somewhat of a tradition.

The most recent one came under the operational code name of Perkunas (autumn 2013, under the Lithuanian presidency). Earlier instalments of the same exercise were named Hermes, Mitras, Demeter, Balder, and Aphrodite – names that sound like a somewhat unimaginative job-creation measure for Classicists (including Nordic Studies).

Was it this tradition that led the Italian authorities to name the new operation ‘Mos Maiorum’, ‘Ways of the Ancestors‘?

Whatever the case may be, the most recent code name, Mos Maiorum, reminded me of one of the earliest instances of the phrase mos maiorum in Latin literature, preserved in the Trinummus, a comedy written by the 3rd/2nd century B. C. Roman playwright Titus Maccius Plautus.

At the beginning of the second scene of the second act, Philto – a father figure who sees the world in a constant state of decline – laments (Plaut. Trin. 280–300):

Feceris par tuis ceteris factis,
patrem tuom si percoles per pietatem.
nolo ego cum improbis te viris, gnate mi,
neque in via, neque in foro necullum sermonem exsequi
novi ego hoc saeculum moribus quibus siet:
malus bonum malum esse volt, ut sit sui similis;
turbant, miscent mores mali: rapax avarus invidus
sacrum profanum, publicum privatum habent, hiulca gens.
haec ego doleo, haec sunt quae me excruciant, haec dies
noctesque tibi canto ut caveas.
quod manu non queunt tangere tantum fas habent quo manus abstineant,
cetera: rape trahe, fuge lete – lacrumas
haec muhi quom video eliciunt,
quia ego ad hoc genus hominum duravi.
quin pruus me ad plures penetravi?
nam hi mores maiorum laudant, eosdem lutitant quos conlaudant.
hisce ego de artibus gratiam facio, ne colas neve imbuas ingenium.
meo modo et moribus vivito antiquis,
quae ego tibi praecipio, ea facito.
nihil ego istos moror faeceos mores, turbidos, quibus boni dedecorant se.
haec tibi si mea imperia capesses, multa bona in pectore consident.

In the translation of H. T. Riley:

You will be doing what is consonant to the rest of your conduct if you reverence your father. By your duty to me, my son, I wish you, for my sake, not to hold any converse with profligate men, either in the street or in the Forum. I know this age – what its manners are. The bad man wishes the good man to be bad, that he may be like himself. The wicked, the rapacious, the covetous, and the envious, disorder and confound the morals of the age: a crew gaping for gain, they hold the sacred thing as profane – the public advantage as the private emolument. At these things do I grieve, these are the matters that torment me. These things am I constantly repeating both day and night, that you may use due precaution against them. They only deem it right to keep their hands off that which they cannot touch with their hands; as to the rest, seize it, carry it off, keep it, be off and go hide, that is the word with them. These things, when I behold them, draw tears from me, because I have survived to see such a race of men. Why have I not rather descended to the dead ere this? For these men praise the manners of our ancestors, and defile those same persons whom they commend. With regard, then, to these pursuits, I enjoin you not to taint your disposition with them. Live after my fashion, and according to the ancient manners; what I am prescribing to you, the same do you remember and practise. I have no patience with these fashionable manners, upsetting preconceived notions, with which good men are now disgracing themselves. If you follow these my injunctions to you, many a good maxim will take root in your breast.

I cannot help but feel that the concept of the mos maiorum has been appropriated for the police operation in the same way that Philto criticises here. Yet the term mos maiorum seems so comforting, suggesting reliability and trustworthiness – just as it seems to come across in Plautus’ Trinummus, when it is used for the second time in this play (a play that has been described as particularly challenging to Roman morality) – now by a slave, Stasimus, overheard by Charmides (Plaut. Trin. 1028–1033):

Stas. Vtinam veteres homin<um mor>es, veteres parsimoniae
potius <in> maiore honore hic essent quam mores mali.

Charm. Di immortales, basilica hic quidem facinora inceptat loqui.
vetera quaerit, vetera amare hunc more maiorum scias.

Stas. Nam nunc mores nihili faciunt quod licet, nisi quod lubet:
ambitio iam more sanctast, liberast a legibus.

STASIMUS
I wish that the old-fashioned ways of old-fashioned days, and the old-fashioned thriftiness, were in greater esteem here, rather than these bad ways.

CHARMIDES (behind).
Immortal Gods! this man really is beginning to talk of noble doings! He longs for the old-fashioned ways; know that he loves the old-fashioned ways, after the fashion of our forefathers.

STASIMUS
For, now-a-days, men’s manners reckon of no value what is proper, except what is agreable. Ambition now is sanctioned by usage, and is free from the laws.

What is left to say?

Well, Plautus uses the phrase mos maiorum one more time.

It features at the very end of his play Cistellaria, in an address of the audience delivered by the theatre troupe (Plaut. Cist. 782–787):

Ne exspectetis, spectatores, dum illi huc ad vos exeant:
nemo exibit, omnes intus conficient negotium.
ubi id erit factum, ornamenta ponent; postidea loci
qui deliquit vapulabit, qui non deliquit bibet.
nunc quod ad vos, spectatores, relicuom relinquitur,
more maiorum date plausum postrema in comoedia.

Don’t you wait, Spectators, till they come out to you; no one will come out; they’ll all finish the business indoors; when that shall be done, they’ll lay aside their dress; then, after that, he that has done amiss will get a beating; he that has not done amiss will get some drink. Now as to what’s left, Spectators, for you to do, after the manner of your ancestors, give your applause at the conclusion of the Play.

There has been hardly any coverage of Operation Mos Maiorum in British news media at all – other countries have been slightly more interested in this issue. Searches for media reports on the outcomes of earlier operations are rather … disappointing, too.

Previous operations do not seem to have achieved much at all in terms of cracking down on human trafficking and related crimes: they resulted in the arrests of illegal immigrants – and little else.

Like an invocation of the mos maiorum in ancient times, they seem to have been largely therapeutic and designed to inspire self-confidence as well as a sense of security.

So are we just to applaud this play then, in the (alleged and surprisingly flexible) manner of the ancestors, believing that all business will be finished indoors to our satisfaction, by people playing their roles (more or less) properly…?

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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One Response to Operation Mos Maiorum, Or: Ve Hav Vays … (Of Our Ancestors, That Is)

  1. Pingback: Europa, Europe, and the Compelling Imagery of the Latin Inscriptions | The Petrified Muse

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