LLR Books

MERIT BEFORE BIRTH


TRANSLATED FROM SALLUST

You have committed to my conduct, O Romans, the war against Jugurtha. The patricians take offence. They say, "Why, he has no family statues. He can point to no illustrious ancestors." What of that? Will dead ancestors or motionless statues fight battles? Can your general appeal to them in the hour of extremest danger? How wise it would be, surely, to intrust your army to some untried person without a single scar, but with any number of ancestral statues,--who knows not the simplest rudiments of military service, but is very perfect in pedigree! I have known such holiday heroes, raised, because of family, to positions for which they had no fitness. But, then, in the moment of action they were obliged, in their ignorance and trepidation, to intrust every movement, even the most simple, to some subaltern, some despised plebeian.
What they have seen in books, I have seen written on battlefields, with steel and blood. They sneer at my mean origin. Where,--and may the gods bear witness,--where, but in the spirit of man, is nobility lodged? Tell these despicable railers that their haughty lineage cannot make them noble, nor will my humble birth make me base. I profess no indifference to noble descent; but when a descendant is dwarfed in the comparison, it should be a shame, and not a matter to boast of! I can show the standards, the armor, and the spoils which I have in person wrested from the vanquished. I can show the scars of many wounds received in combating the enemies of Rome. These are my statues! These are my honors, to boast of; not inherited by accident, but earned by toil, by abstinence, by valor, amid clouds of dust and seas of blood. Their titles date from similar acts of their ancestors; but these detractors did not even dare to appear on the field as spectators. These are my credentials! These, O Romans, are my titles of nobility! Tell me, are they not as deserving of your confidence and reward as those of which any patrician of them all can boast?

Biographical and Historical: Sallust, the author of this selection, was a famous Roman historian of the first century B. C. Caius Marius was the son of a small farmer and worked his way up from this humble origin to the highest position, that of consul, in spite of the determined opposition of the senate, and the aristocracy. By the vote of the Roman people, he was given command of the army in the campaign against Jugurtha, a prince who had usurped the Numidian throne.