Gateway to the Classics: Pictures from Roman Life and Story by Alfred J. Church
Pictures from Roman Life and Story by  Alfred J. Church

A Soldier and Scholar

"I DO not know," says Pliny, writing to his intimate friend, Calvisius, "that I have ever spent a more delightful time than I lately enjoyed when I was on a visit to Spurinna."

The date of the letter is uncertain, but it can hardly be later than the first year of the second century of our era. Before I go on to Pliny's charming description of his host, I may say what is known of him.

He came into notice in that dreadful year during which, amidst convulsions that shook the whole of the Western world, the Imperial throne was thrice handed to a new occupant. Whether he was in command of a legion, a rank about equivalent to that of a general of division, or an officer of the Praetorians, the "Guards" of the Roman army, we cannot say. We find him in independent command of a force which numbered something over four thousand men, three thousand of them being Praetorians.

Some ten months before Servius Galba, Proconsul of Southern Spain, helped by the anxiety and hatred that the cruelties and follies of Nero had excited, had seized the Imperial power. After an uneasy tenure of seven months, he had fallen before what may be called a reaction in favour of the old régime. Salvius Otho, a discarded courtier of Nero, was raised by the Praetorians to the throne. But, as Tacitus puts it, that secret of Empire, that Emperors could be made elsewhere than at Rome, had been divulged. The seven legions that guarded the frontier of the Rhine felt that they had a better title to do what had been done by a single legion in Spain. They saluted their general, Vitellius, by the Imperial title, and marched upon Italy. Cæcina, with Vitellius's, first corps d'armée  had crossed the Alps. The broad and rapid stream of the Po was the second barrier of the capital, and Spurinna was one of the generals sent to guard it. Here again the defenders were too late, or the line was too extended for their forces. A contingent from the Island of the Batavians crossed the river, apparently by swimming, an art in which they were remarkably skilful. Spurinna threw himself into Placentia (Piacenza), a colony originally planted to keep the Gauls in check, and a strongly fortified place. His troops were dissatisfied with his caution, and came dangerously near to a mutiny. They insisted upon marching out against the enemy, and threatened their general's life when he refused to give the order to march. He appeared to yield, accompanied the insubordinate troops, and waited till better counsels should prevail. Happily he had not to wait long. The labour of constructing a temporary camp, new as it was to the Praetorians, brought the men to their senses, and they were glad enough to get back within the shelter of the walls.

Spurinna occupied the breathing space that was given him in strengthening the fortifications. He needed all the aid that they could afford him, for in a few days Cæcina, with more than thirty thousand men, was before the walls. The defence was brilliantly successful. The first attack, made, it would seem, almost immediately after the arrival of the army, and without any preparation, was easily repulsed.

Cæcina's troops fancied that they could take the place at a rush, and found themselves terribly mistaken. The assault was renewed the next day, this time with the help of such siege works as could be got ready in the night. The fortifications, too, had been reconnoitred, and the weak places discovered. While the skirmishers strove to clear the walls by showers of arrows and stones, the heavy armed soldiers, sheltered by mantlets and penthouses, came up close and endeavoured to undermine them. Others did their best to break down the fortress. Spurinna had a large circuit of fortifications to defend with an insufficient force, but he was equal to the occasion. His skilful dispositions, the contagion of his example, and the enthusiasm of confidence which he inspired, saved Placentia. The issue of the war was not affected, but the town escaped the fate which a few months afterwards, when Vitellius in turn had to defend his throne against Vespasian, overtook its neighbour Cremona.

Spurinna must then have been about forty-six. For more than twenty years he disappears from history, but we know that he must have been consul at some time during that period, though his name does not appear in the Fasti. In A.D. 100 he was sent to restore the dethroned king of a German tribe, the Bructeri. The history of the affair is obscure; but we know that the Bructeri were almost destroyed by two neighbouring tribes, greatly to the delight of the Romans. "Heaven keep alive among them," says Tacitus, "not so much the love of us as the hatred of each other!"

The shattered remnant seems to have appealed to the protection of Rome. Hence this interference with their domestic affairs, an interference "to which they submitted without a contest." Pliny makes the most of Spurinna's achievement. "He had only to show his strength: the mere terror of his arms vanquished them; and this is the finest kind of victory." Possibly Trajan, who was now Emperor, would not have appointed the old man—he was now seventy-six—to command the expedition, if it had been likely to be anything more than what Professor Mayor calls it, "a military promenade."

It was treated, however, as a serious victory. Under the Empire no one but the Emperor himself was allowed the honour of a formal triumph. All the generals were his lieutenants. But "triumphal distinctions" were granted to successful commanders. These, a statue among them, were voted by the Senate to Spurinna on his return, on the motion of Trajan himself. The honour of a second Consulship was added, with the Emperor for his colleague. At the end of his time of office—probably lasting but a few weeks, for again it is not recorded in the Fasti—the old man returned to the retirement of his country house. It was there that Pliny paid him the visit of which he has preserved so delightful a record.


The old man returned to the retirement of his country house.

"I never saw an old man," he goes on, "whom I should be better pleased to be like, if only I am permitted to reach old age. Nothing can be more methodical than this mode of life. I must confess that I delight in an orderly arrangement of a man's life, especially in the old, just as I delight in the orderly movements of the heavenly bodies. In the young a little confusion, a little disorder, is not unbecoming; with the old, everything should be peace and order; the time of business is over for them, and they have nothing to do with ambition."

After this prelude comes the description of the old soldier's daily routine. He began his day betimes probably at six o'clock, and gave up the first hours to study, "keeping to his sofa," says his guest. At eight o'clock he called for his shoes, and took his first walk, keeping, we may guess, within the grounds of his villa, for if he had not a friend with whom he could converse, a slave or freedman would read a book.

"So," says his guest, "he exercises at once his body and his mind." The walk was always the same length, neither more nor less than three miles. The walk ended, he sat down awhile, amusing himself with more reading or more talk, the latter by preference, if a friend was at hand. The next thing in the programme was a carriage drive. Sometimes his wife was his companion, sometimes a guest. It was a special privilege to be invited to share the drive, for the old man was then most communicative.

"What great deeds, what mighty men you hear about," says Pliny.

And indeed it was a chequered past of which the veteran had to tell! Of the "twelve Caesars," he had seen nine, might even have caught a glimpse of a tenth, for he must have been twelve years old when Tiberius died. He had survived the first emperor of another series, and was high in favour with the second. The carriage drive was always of the same length—seven miles. The seven completed, he alighted from his carriage, and walked another mile.

Returning home, he either rested or wrote. For Spurinna was a poet, composing both in Latin and Greek. "His odes are most scholarly," his guest tells us. Unhappily, they are lost.

An ingenious German in the seventeenth century (Caspar Barth) published some seventy lines which he professed to have found in an old manuscript in the library at Marburg. Critics are commonly agreed that they are spurious, bad enough, thinks Orelli, to be the work of Barth himself; so we must be content with Pliny's praise of them: "They are marvellously sweet, and tender, and easy, and the charm is enhanced by the blameless character of the writer."

After the labours of composition came the relaxation of the bath. Here it is curious to observe that the exact regularity of life is put out by the want of clocks. "The time of the bath is the ninth hour in winter, the eighth in summer." The Roman hour was a variable measure of time, a normal hour only at the equinoxes, and varying from seventy-five minutes at mid-summer to forty-five at mid-winter. (The day, whatever its length, was divided into twelve hours).

To calculate the matter nicely, Spurinna had his bath at the summer solstice at 1:15 p.m., at the winter at 1:29. He did his best, it will be seen, to be punctual, but circumstances were too strong for him. The first bath was an air-bath, taken in the sunshine, as the great physician Celsus had recommended, but only if the day was calm. The air-bath was succeeded by a game which, for want of a better term, we may call tennis. Almost all that we know of it is that it was played in a closed court. Pliny had such a court in his own villa. "He plays at ball for a long time, and with much energy: by the help of this kind of exercise he fights against old age." After the game followed the regular bath, and after this some light and entertaining reading. Then, we may guess about six or seven o'clock, came dinner. This was a very late hour for a Roman, and it is curious that here, for the first time, we have any mention of a meal. "Dinner," says Pliny, "is as elegant as it is frugal. It is served on plate, old but plain. A service of Corinthian bronze is sometimes used. Spurinna has a taste for these things, but nothing like a passion."

Dinner was frequently enlivened by recitations, and what with this kind of entertainment, and the host's pleasant talk, was commonly prolonged till somewhat late into the night. "But no guest ever finds it tedious." "By this way of living Spurinna has preserved his senses entire, and his body in such vigour and activity that, though he has reached his seventy-eighth year, he shows no sign of old age except wisdom."

Like most of the Roman nobles of the time, Spurinna was childless. We hear of a son, whom he lost during his absence in Germany, and to whom a triumphal statue was erected, an unusual honour for a young man, and granted, it would seem, partly out of compliment to the father. But probably this was a step-son, whom he had adopted. The young man is spoken of as Cottius, and Spurinna's wife was a Cottia.

So far as it goes, the portrait that Pliny has drawn for us is one that we can admire. If it were a picture of a Christian old age, we should want something more—piety, benevolence, philanthropy. But Roman religion was ceremonial, which had little earnestness in it except so far as it promised to be the means of averting some threatened evil. The care for others as an habitual temper of the mind was being slowly taught to the world by a religion of which Spurinna, it is probable, had never heard. Yet we may look with true pleasure on this old man, cultured, brave, loyal, temperate, enjoying the repose well earned by a life of duty, and may believe that he too was not wholly outside the grace of the Heavenly Father whom he did not know.

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