Printer Friendly

Adam Smith, the wicked knight, and the use of anecdotes.

Since Herodotus, historians have found anecdotes indispensable and notoriously unreliable.(1) Although the historicity of an anecdote may be elusive, its use by posterity can be illuminating. Whether or not Canute commanded the incoming tide to halt cannot be proven, because the episode was not reported until a century later by a moralistic chronicler, Henry of Huntingdon. According to Henry, the king staged the scene to demonstrate to sycophantic courtiers his impotence before the forces of nature and their creator.(2) However, later generations forgot his pious motive, and Canute survives in the popular imagination as an examplar of executive folly, like Xerxes who had the Hellspont scourged.(3) Whatever the facts, posterity has its own uses for anecdotes.

Sensational stories about the Caesars are always popular, and modern scholars cherish evidence on the treatment of slaves in antiquity. Both tastes are satisfied by an anecdote involving Augustus and the notorious Vedius Pollio. The son of a freedman, wealthy, cruel, and ostentatious, Vedius was a financial agent of the Augustan regime, a member of the equestrian order, and an amicus of the emperor.(4) Whether amicus implies that Vedius was a Privy Councillor, a political ally, or a close friend,(5) his outrageous lifestyle was 'an embarrassment to the ruler',(6) who dealt the wicked knight a memorable rebuke. Tacitus took a dim view of Vedius,(7) and Seneca was surely one of his sources. Before A.D. 52 in de Ira,(8) Seneca commended the tactics that Augustus used when he was dining with Vedius Pollio:

When one of the slaves had broken a crystal cup, Vedius ordered him ... to be thrown to the huge lampreys, which he kept in a fish pond.... The lad slipped from his captors and fled to Caesar's feet, begging only that he might die some other way - anything but being eaten. Caesar, shocked by such an innovation in cruelty, ordered that the boy be pardoned ('ilium quidem mitti'), ... that all the crystal cups be broken before his eyes, and that the fish pond be filled up.(9)

In A.D. 56, in de Clementia, Seneca compares the lamprey pond to a snake pit and says that Vedius was universally detested for his cruelty to slaves.(10) Although cruelty was commonplace in Roman life, the lampreys were a particularly sadistic touch, for the eel-like fish clamps its mouth on the victim and bores a dentated tongue into the flesh to ingest blood.(11) Understandably Vedius was famed as a monster as well as a model of conspicuous consumption. Born a decade after Vedius' death in 15 B.C., Seneca later became an intimate of the imperial family and was able to verify details of the episode of Augustus and the crystal cups. For Seneca, the Vedius affair illustrated two moral axioms:

Even slaves have the right of refuge at the statue of a god; and, although the law allows anything in dealing with a slave, yet, in dealing with a human being, there is an extreme which the right common to all living creatures refuses to allow.(12)

Juggling moral paradoxes was, of course, Seneca's forte. The intervention of Augustus was fortuitous, for he alone had the authority to prevent an outrage that the law allowed.

The wicked knight reappears in the Natural History of Pliny the Elder, who completed his encyclopaedia late in the reign of Vespasian and dedicated it to the heir apparent, Titus, in A.D. 77. In Book 9, in the midst of discussing lampreys, Pliny digresses:

Vedius Pollio, a Roman knight and a friend of the divine Augustus, found that lampreys offered him a chance to display his cruelty. He tossed slaves sentenced to death into lamprey ponds, ... because with any other animal, he was unable to enjoy the spectacle of a man being torn completely to pieces at one moment.(13)

Although Vedius had long been a stock villain, Seneca is a likely source for this passage, for Pliny cites him among the authorities for Book 9. In any case, Pliny was surely familiar with de Ira and de Clementia, but he adds the information that Vedius was of the equestrian order. Moreover, Pliny emphasizes that Vedius was an amicus of Augustus, and he does not mention the emperor rescuing the slave or breaking the crystal cups, much less ordering that the infamous lamprey pond be filled in. Pliny did not admire Augustus, 'this god - whether deified more by his own action or by his merits I know not',(14) and he used a reference to Vedius for a gratuitous jibe at the princeps.

The most extensive extant account of the reign of Augustus is by Cassius Dio, early in the third century. Although he considers Seneca a deeply flawed human being, Dio cited two of his prose works and based a fictional conversation between Augustus and Livia on de Clementia to a degree approaching plagiarism.(15) It is reasonable to assume that Dio knew de Ira as well. In discussing the events of 15 B.C., he retells the anecdote about Augustus:

This same year Vedius Pollio died, a man who in general had done nothing deserving of remembrance, as he was sprung from freedmen, belonged to the knights, and had performed no brilliant deeds; but he had become very famous for his wealth and for his cruelty, so that he has even gained a place in history.... He kept in reservoirs huge lampreys that had been trained to eat men, and he was accustomed to throw to them such of his slaves as he desired to put to death. Once, when he was entertaining Augustus, his cup-bearer broke a crystal goblet, and without regard for his guest, Pollio ordered the fellow to be thrown to the lampreys. Hereupon the slave fell to his knees before Augustus and supplicated him, and Augustus tried at first to persuade Pollio not to commit so monstrous a deed. Then, when Pollio paid no heed to him, the emperor said, 'Bring me all the rest of the drinking vessels which are of ... value', ... and he ordered them to be broken. When Pollio saw this, he was vexed, of course; but, since he was no longer angry over the one goblet, considering the great number ... that were ruined, and, on the other hand, could not punish his servant for what Augustus had done, he held his peace, though much against his will.(16)

Expanding Seneca's anecdote, Dio fleshed out the dialogue between Augustus and his host and added Vedius' social rank and lowly origin,(17) but he omits the filling in of the lamprey pond. For the time being, the hapless slave was saved, but the wrath of the vindictive Vedius would surely be increased by the destruction of his crystalware collection. However, Dio was not interested in the fate of a slave but in the role of a ruler. The anecdote now showed the emperor using persuasion and a dramatic gesture to shame a recalcitrant subject. In the original version, Augustus had intervened forcefully in the manner of a benevolent despot; in Dio's revision, he does not play the monarch, even in a good cause. In the Severan era, the softened parable was not without significance, either as a rebuke of Caracalla or a parable for Severus Alexander. Dio appreciated the value of anecdotes and defended reporting Domitian's hobby of impaling flies on a stylus: 'Unworthy as this incident is of the dignity of history, yet, because it shows his character so well, ... I have felt obliged to record it.'(18) At times, Dio reworked anecdotes in an extremely cavalier manner,(19) but he modified the Vedius episode more in tone than in substance. Seneca had portrayed an autocrat abruptly halting an injustice, but in Dio's version, the princeps governs by example and admonition, a Taoist in a toga.

Seneca, Pliny, and Cassius Dio saw Vedius Pollio as a moral specimen of ostentatious evil. Seneca and Dio publicized his rebuke at the hands of Augustus, but Pliny linked the princeps and the monster in amicitia and ignored the breaking of the crystal cups and the destruction of the lamprey pond. Modern historians have different uses for Vedius Pollio. To Ronald Syme he was a member of the Augustan Machine, whose official importance was overlooked by moralistic writers. Other historians focus on the treatment of slaves in the Roman world. Joseph Vogt decided that tossing slaves to lampreys 'blatantly contradicted everything that we understand by the term humane'.(20) Keith Bradley cites Vedius as a famed sadist, points out the fortuitous nature of Augustus' intervention, and wonders if 'the episode ... influenced the creation of the office of praefectus urbi'.(21) Following Dio and not Seneca, Zwy Yavetz applauds the breaking of the crystal cups: 'Only then did Pollio pardon his slave, for he could not punish him for what the emperor had done. Augustus was Pollio's princeps, not his master. He could suggest and advise, not command.'(22) Keith Hopkins sees the story as 'celebrating the evil corruption of non-hereditary riches and the benefits of a benevolent monarch reasserting antique values', but he erroneously labels Vedius as 'himself an ex-slave'.(23) Thomas Wiedemann translates Seneca's phrase 'ilium quidem mitti' as 'ordered the slave to be set free',(24) a choice of words that is aptly ambiguous in English. While the verb 'mitto' can mean to 'set free' a prisoner,(25) manumission is also a possible and plausible interpretation of Seneca's term. Anticipating the vengeance that would befall the boy once the exalted guest had departed, Augustus freed the slave, an action that was within his power as the holder of maius imperium. After breaking all the crystalware and ordering an end to the lamprey shows, the emperor would have been lacking in foresight to leave the slave, who was the cause of it all, to the tender mercies of Vedius. Despite his cautious policy on manumissions, Augustus was faced with an extraordinary situation and took decisive action.

Two centuries ago, Adam Smith addressed the Vedius episode with brio. The Professor of Moral Philosophy deplored slavery as both immoral and uneconomical. He also believed that colonial slaves fared better under authoritarian French rule, where a benevolent governor might intervene on their behalf, than in British colonies where governors were subject to assemblies dominated by slaveowners.(26) In 1776 in The Wealth of Nations, Smith extrapolated on his theory:

That the condition of a slave is better under arbitrary than under a free government is, I believe, supported by the history of all ages and nations. In the Roman history, the first time we read of the magistrate interposing to protect the slave from the violence of his master is under the emperors. When Vedius Pollio, in the presence of Augustus, ordered one of his slaves, who had committed a slight fault, to be cut into pieces and thrown into his fish pond in order to feed his fishes, the emperor commanded him, with indignation, to emancipate, not only that slave, but all the others that belonged to him. Under the republick, no magistrate could have had authority enough to protect the slave, much less to punish the master.(27)

In his zeal to make a point, Smith considerably expanded Seneca's anecdote and liberated all of Vedius' slaves. In a lecture in 1766, he had first broached the theory: 'In a despotic government, slaves may be better treated than in a free government, where every law is made by their masters, who will never pass anything prejudicial to themselves. ... Augustus was so shocked ... that he immediately manumitted all Pollio's slaves, tho' Pollio no doubt relished not the behaviour of his guest.'(28) In a lecture in 1763, Smith had focused on Roman cruelty to slaves and used Vedius Pollio as an exemplar:

Augustus ... ordered him to manumit not only that slave but all the others he had about his house, which would be ... a very considerable free. A man who could entertain Augustus at that time would have had at least 800 or 1000 slaves, and if we estimate these at the ordinary price of a slave in the American colonies or on the coast of Africa, that is, about 50 or 40 [pounds] each, this would amount to a fine of [pounds] 40,000 or 50,000.(29)

With pedantic precision, the good professor calculated the economic impact of an event that had taken place only in his imagination. The mass emancipation of the slaves of the wicked knight testified to Smith's good heart and selective memory, traits shared by his friend Gibbon and more recent historians.

Not only did Adam Smith employ anecdotes to effect, he was himself the subject of a memorable anecdote. His earliest biographer, Dugald Stewart, who was a close friend of Smith and his mother, reports the event:

An accident which happened to him when he was about three years old, is of too interesting a nature to be omitted in the account of so valuable a life. He had been carried by his mother to Strathenry on a visit to his uncle Mr. Douglas, and was one day amusing himself alone at the door of the house, when he was stolen by a party of that set of vagrants who are known in Scotland by the name of tinkers. Luckily he was soon missed by his uncle who, hearing that some vagrants had passed, pursued them, with what assistance he could find, till he overtook them in Leslie wood, and was the happy instrument of preserving to the world a genius, which was destined ... to enlighten and reform the commercial policy of Europe.(30)

The vagrants who stole the child were Gypsies, who in Scotland were called tinkers or tinklers and did not enjoy a good reputation. So close did young Adam Smith come to living the Romany life.

Had this episode taken place in antiquity, so romantic an anecdote would be dismissed by many modern historians as an obvious fiction.(31) However, the abduction of Adam Smith is a historical fact, and a distinguished political economist has contemplated its impact: 'There can be little doubt that the shock and, more especially, the constraint would remain deeply impressed on his sub-conscious mind, and this would engender an attitude which would be antipathetic to any enforced compliance and receptive to everything that was in the direction of freedom.'(32) For students of the origins of the doctrine of Free Trade, the anecdote may have heuristic value. A representative Greek or Roman might see the anecdote in a different light. Had the toddler not been rescued, Adam Smith would have grown up to be a Gypsy, no doubt clever and imaginative, but unschooled and not the author of The Wealth of Nations. In such a scenario, an ancient mind would detect the invisible hand of Tyche.


1. Richard Saller, G&R 27 (1980), 69-83, provides an effective caveat lector.

2. Henry of Huntingdon, Chron. 6.17 (1035).

3. Herodotus 7.35.

4. Ronald Syme, Roman Papers (Oxford, 1979), II. pp. 518-29.

5. Sen. Ben. 6.34.2, describes degrees of amici. See Fergus Millar, The Emperor in the Roman World (London, 1977), pp. 111-16.

6. Syme, op. cit., p. 527.

7. Tac. Ann. 1.10; 12.60.

8. Miriam T. Griffin, Seneca, a Philosopher in Politics (Oxford, 1976), pp. 396, 398.

9. Sen. Ira 3.40.2-3, trans. John W. Basore.

10. Sen. Clem. 1.18.2.

11. M. W. Hardisty and I. C. Potter, The Biology of Lampreys (New York, 1971), I. pp. 147-61.

12. Sen. Clem. 1.18.2, trans Basore; cf. Ep. 47.

13. Pliny, N.H. 9.77.

14. Ibid., 7.147-50; quotation from 150.

15. Dio 55.14-22.1; 60.35.3-4; 61.10.2. See Millar, A Study of Cassius Dio (Oxford, 1964), pp. 78-9; and J. W. Rich's commentary on Dio 53-55.4, Cassius Dio, the Augustan Settlement (Warminster, 1990), p. 8.

16. Dio 54.23.1-5, trans. Ernest Cary. The rest of the passage describes Pollio's bequests to Augustus, who later razed the villa with the infamous fish pond. The Porticus Liviae was built on the site (Ovid, Fasti 6.639-44).

17. On whether Dio knew or ignored Vedius' service to the state, see Syme, op. cit., p. 527, and Bernd Manuwald, Cassius Dio uud Augustus (Weisbaden, 1979), p. 129 n. 127.

18. Dio 66.9.4. Cf. Suet. Dom. 3 and Plut. Alex. 1.2. 19. Saller, op. cit., pp. 75, 78-9.

20. Ancient Slavery and the Ideal of Man (Cambridge, 1975), p. 104.

21. Slaves and Masters in the Roman Empire (New York, 1987), pp. 121, 126.

22. In Between Republic and Empire, Interpretations of Augustus and His Principate, edited by Kurt A. Raaflaub and Mark Toher (Berkeley, 1990), p. 38.

23. P&P 138 (1993), 8. G. H. Stevenson, CAH X. p. 189, also mislabels Vedius as a freedman.

24. Greek and Roman Slavery (Baltimore, 1981), p. 176.

25. Nep. Eum. 11.3 and Caesar apud Cic. Att. 9.7C, refer to prisoners of war.

26. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Oxford, 1976), II. p. 587.

27. Ibid., pp. 587-8.

28. Adam Smith, Lectures on Jurisprudence (Oxford, 1978), p. 452.

29. Ibid., pp. 177-8.

30. Account of the Life and Writings of Adam Smith, LL.D., edited by I. S. Ross, in Adam Smith, Essays on Philosophical Subjects (Oxford, 1980), pp. 269-70.

31. J. A. Fairweather, Anc. Soc. 5 (1974), 231-75, warns against credulity, but William M. Calder III, CW 73 (1980), 305-6, demonstrates that an apparent topos may be based on fact.

32. William Robert Scott, Adam Smith as Student and Professor (Glasgow, 1937), p. 25. On the Gypsies, see pp. 23-5. Scott points out that the child was not recovered immediately; his uncle had to raise an informal posse and locate the Gypsy hand.
COPYRIGHT 1995 Cambridge University Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Africa, Thomas W.
Publication:Greece & Rome
Date:Apr 1, 1995
Previous Article:A Latin master from Roman Spain.
Next Article:Greek and Latin Literature of the Roman Empire: From Augustus to Justinian.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters