Have I ever told you the one about politicians and fiscal responsibility? The joke that is so old it was first recorded in a Pompeian wall inscription?
It goes like this (CIL IV 3702 cf. p. 1383 = ILS 6405):
Bruttium Balbum ||
hic aerarium conservabit. ||
Bruttius Balbus for duumvir. His actions will be fiscally responsible. Genialis supports this.
The distribution of wealth, across the globe as well as nationally in most western states, could hardly be more imbalanced or more unjust.
With Greece’s struggle still very much on our minds (and ultimately unresolved), one tends to forget that the vast majority of people on this globe are rather worse of still than most nations in Europe – and that the vast majority of money in this world is, in fact, concentrated in the hands of a ridiculously small group of people.
Focusing on internal politics in particular, U. S. President Barack Obama has now called to ‘spread the wealth’.
Naturally, Obama attracted the predictable Pavlovian nut job response that this initiative is nothing but a government measure to take away the people’s money and to redistribute it according to (socialist) government priorities.
As if there were no actual social issue at all and politicians had higher responsibility for the welfare of corporations and a few rich people than for the considerably less well-off masses!
Obama’s initiative and subsequent debate reminded me of another text that has been discovered in Pompeii – a text that seems to call for a redistribution of commonly owned money and that, on occasion, has been deemed ‘proto-social democrat’ or even ‘proto-communist’.
… because, you know, history is always better understood if you try to elucidate it by sticking a really unfitting and oversimplifying, yet potentially polarising and divisive label on it …
# 1 – CIL IV 1597 (cf. p. 209. 463) = CLE 38
Communem nummum diuidendum
censio est, nam noster nummus
magna(m) habet pecuniam.
To divide up the community’s treasury,
that’s the official verdict, for our treasury
holds a pretty bundle.
Discovered at building III 8.4, by the entrance of this private dwelling; the inscription is now lost.
Kristina Milnor, in her recent book on Graffiti and the Literary Landscape in Roman Pompeii (Oxford 2014 : 119–20) claims that:
‘Again, the joke seems to relate to public affairs, and to be making some kind of joke about the use of nummus as the communal treasury and to identify a small, practically worthless coin. But we simply do not know enough about local government and fiscal affairs in Pompeii to be able to explain the meaning of the verses any further.’
Others are not quite so pessimistic.
Stanisław Mrozek, for example, in his work on faenus and issues related to financial interest in Augustan Rome (Faenus: Studien zu Zinsproblemen zur Zeit des Prinzipats [Historia Einzelschriften, 139], Stuttgart 2001 : 43 with nt. 121) suggests a very straightforward solution: the city treasury of Pompeii did not have to be particularly rich in terms of actual cash – it could be the (potentially rather) deceptive richness of credit money (Kreditgeld).
So – a proto-communist inscription? Something for Rome’s poor to look forward to?
Before one can delve into this matter a bit further, it is worth considering the text and its context a bit, however.
The text in question is, in fact, a cluster of texts: whether it is the same text, repeated multiple times, variants of the same text, or just similar-looking texts, one cannot be altogether sure: things are not always easy, when it comes to Pompeian epigraphy.
At any rate, there appear to have been more instances than just CIL IV 1597.
Here is the full evidence, in addition to exhibit # 1, above, following the chronology of CIL IV:
# 2 – CIL IV 1251 (cf. p. 206)
Cummu[une]m nummum diu[ide]n[dum]
[- – -]ius
Venit summa[- – -]
[C- – -] C+[- – -]nsiantum Iovia[- – -]
[- – -]+++++++ QVE++++LIVMAN[- – -]I[- – -]VIT +
Discovered by the left post of entrance of VI 5.19 (a private dwelling) at Vicolo della Fullonica; now lost.
# 3 – CIL IV 1766
Communem num[- – -].
Discovered by the outside wall of the temple of Apollo (VII 7.31–6, between its entrance and the forum); now lost.
# 4 – CIL IV 4272
comunem numum diuiden[- – -]
Discovered at V 4.1 (a bakery); now lost.
# 5 – CIL IV 5046 (= 3328)
Discovered on a column in the portico of IX 2.26 (a richly decorated private dwelling); now lost.
# 6 – CIL IV 8030
Discovered inside the fullery of Stephanus (I 6.7); now lost.
# 7 – CIL IV 9192
Discovered in the Villa dei Misteri, in the ambulatio anterior of the peristyle; now lost.
These instances spread out across the city of Pompeii as follows:
The spread of the text’s various instances, which may seem somewhat unspecific at first, is, in fact, quite interesting.
The most telling one, perhaps, is item # 3, displayed in public by the forum, inscribed on the wall of the Temple of Apollo – it is hard to think of a more prominent place in downtown Pompeii.
Items # 1, # 4, # 5, and # 6 surround the same major area of Pompeii, an area that is described by the Via di Nola (# 1. 4), Via Stabia (# 5), and Via del Abbondanza (# 6). Where as # 1 and # 4 appear to have been discovered on outside walls, # 5 was discovered inside a building (if in an area of semi-public character), whereas # 6 comes from the premises of a fullery.
Two instances come from slightly less central areas, one from the Villa dei Misteri (again from an area of semi-public character – # 7), one from the outside wall of a private building at the Vicolo della Fullonica (# 2).
All in all, an overwhelmingly visible recurring text, with what appears to be a political message, even if we cannot be sure as to which group made that claim: it could be a corporation (e. g. that of the fullers) just as much as a wider segment of Pompeii’s population – we cannot know.
But there are certain things that we can deduce from the text – issues that never really get spelled out:
The communem nummum diuidendum text is written in verse. It may be misleading, perhaps, to call it a poem – but that being said, not everything written in rhythmical structures needs to be called a poem: it could be a song or a chant.
Its metrical form – the iambic senarius – is not a particularly common rhythm, as far as the Pompeian verse inscriptions go: more commonly, one finds the hexameter, the elegiac distich, and the trochaic septenarius.
But what the iambic senarius does (very much in the same way as the trochaic septenarius) is to provide its composer with an opportunity to provide a convenient, catchy rhythm that is close enough to the natural rhythm of free speech – it is the well-known rhythm of spoken (as opposed to sung) dramatic passages on the Roman stage.
So what did the author(s) wish to stage with their catchy slogan?
(ii) Censio est
Most translators and commentators take the expression censio est (translated as ‘that’s the official verdict’, above) as a somewhat awkward way of saying censeo, ‘I believe’. The Oxford Latin Dictionary (in the first edition) even has a rubric for this particular use of the noun censio – with a single attestation (the present one!).
But censio is an official, technical term. It is the verdict of the Roman censor, either regarding the status and wealth of a family (as established during the census), and, in a wider sense, it may also denote the censor‘s (moral/political) judgement over a person.
In that regard, it seems safe to assume that this official use of the term is precisely what the writer(s) of the statement had in mind: it’s not a personal opinion, it is something that they wished to present as the finding of an official body – using that term figuratively, not in a wholly new (and unparalleled) way.
(iii) The Actio Communi Dividundo
Somewhat surprisingly, not much discussion has ensued about the key phrase communem nummum diuidendum (‘to divide up the community’s treasury’): it is just too convenient to challenge it, apparently.
Yet, was it possible for a Roman to read these words and not to think of the legal procedure that was the so-called actio communi dividundo?
The actio communi dividundo was procedure of civil and private law, designed to dissolve and divide co-owned, common property upon request of one of its members, a procedure that had been formalised through the lex Licinia.
If that is the case, however, and if this procedure is what the Pompeian inscription alludes to (whether jokingly and with reference to the city’s treasury or rather less wide-ranging and with a view on a smaller professional/non-professional body), there is an important lesson to be learnt:
Not everything that at first glance looks like a (proto-)socialist or (proto-)communist call for action is, in fact, of such a nature.
What has been (mis-)construed as such at Pompeii, is in fact anything but a selfless, social-minded act – it is an act that has been invoked on the basis of a procedure that allows individuals to withdraw and unsubscribe from a common, overarching investment.
In the case of the Pompeian slogan, whoever was behind it, appears to have campaigned for privatisation and small government (whether provincial or corporate) – with a claim that is so versatile that it can be used for just about any purpose.
In other words, in some cases, the call for a ‘distribution of wealth’ may in fact be a call for the cancellation of a socio-economic contract: at Pompeii, it most certainly was not a call to make everyone happy and to tackle social equality, but it was a slogan that was asking for a payout of one individual’s share from the shared kitty.
But is it wise to cancel such a contract in the name of small government and the pursuit of individualism?
Incidentally, the Pompeians had their own views on how the wealthy should best behave in relation to the common, less fortunate people – and that view, too, finds its expression in a short inscribed poem (CIL IV 1939 = CLE 231):
[[Pum[pei]s]] fueere quondam ‘Vibei’ opulentissumi;
non ideo tenuerunt in manu sceptrum pro mutunio
itidem quod tu factitas cottidie in manu penem tene(n)s.
Once upon a time, there were those Vibii in Pompeii, super-rich;
but in spite of that they chose not to hold a sceptre in their hand instead of their prick,
very much like what you do, every day, with your penis in your hand.
In other words, being a ‘rich wanker’ (pardon my French!) is not necessarily a bad thing – but you have to do it right and get your priorities straight.