Wednesday, March 07, 2018

The Wise Words of Gaius Petronius Arbiter


It may be a peculiarly military thing, perhaps it strikes accord with armed forces personnel, but one particular quote is frequently found pinned to office walls:

“We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form into teams, we would be re-organised. I later was to learn in life that we tend to meet any new situation by re-organisation; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress, while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralisation.”

Despite shades of Brexit, these words of wisdom are usually ascribed to “Gaius Petronius Arbiter”, noted as a soldier, Centurion or sailor, and variously dated to 210 BC, AD 60 or AD 66. Typically the author is assumed to be the historical figure, Gaius Petronius Arbiter (alias Titus Petronius Niger; AD 27 - AD 66), a courtier and adviser on “elegance and taste” to the Emperor Nero. Scholars speculate that it was Petronius who wrote the “Satyricon”, a satirical novel dated to the Neronian period, and perhaps famous for the novo homo, or "new man”, Trimalchio and his infamous feast. Yet, despite his satirist credentials, there is no evidence for the Petronius origin. Indeed, scholars can find no hint of the quote in manuscripts or printed sources earlier than a magazine article that first appeared in 1957.

Today, it is strongly suspected that the author was a disgruntled British soldier (whether a commissioned officer or not is unknown) who pinned the quotation to a notice board in a British Army camp in occupied Germany some time after 1945. If nothing else, the style is highly suggestive of a British author, with a classical literary bent, but whoever it was certainly expressed an impeccable sentiment that seems equally at home when applied to military, government or academic administration. Perhaps this alone explains the quotation’s enduring appeal.

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