The strange case of Roman avarice


Hello, and--
Agricola said:
Gignit et Oceanus margarita, sed subfusca ac liventia. Quidam artem abesse legentibus arbitrantur; nam in rubro mari viva ac spirantia saxis avelli, in Britannia, prout expulsa sint, colligi: ego facilius crediderim naturam margaritis deesse quam nobis avaritiam.
Is the contrast Tacitus makes clear to anyone? We elicit the pearls from alive mollusks whereas Britons have to be content with what they find as a sort of debris. Hence the hue. He would rather believe that the pearls in Britain are like that by nature than that the Romans lack avarice. :confused: What's it got to do with avarice?

I find it puzzling that the sentence is obviously misapprehended even in the Cambridge green and yellow edition of Agricola, p. 157:
The meaning is that 'it is more probable that the pearls are really of bad quality than that human avarice should fail to adopt the means of obtaining them at their best' (Sleeman).
No, this is certainly not what T. says. If he stated anything on avarice common to all people, nobis would have no sense. This reading would only give good sense if T. spoke about the avarice of the Britons, which he clearly does not.
  • saluete collectores!

    First, I agree with Custos that the syntax and sense are not immediately clear—and also that Sleeman's interpretation does not quite work. My understanding is, to paraphrase, 'I could sooner believe that [in the case of the British pearls] there is some natural fault, than that in our [Roman/Mediterranean] greed [we harvest them living and breathing]'.

    The commentary of Gudeman (1900) and of Woodman (2014) are at odds only insofar as whether we should supply deesse or abesse with avaritiam.
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    Which goes against your own translation in #3. He has trouble believing the absence of greed, not the presence of it.
    saluete iterum

    Not at all: let me try again. 'I could more readily believe that nature falls short [for the production of pearls in British waters] than that it falls short in our avarice [in more southerly, i.e. Red Sea areas]᾽.

    OK, I seem to have missed the point of your translation. The thing is we've come full circle. I should probably re-write my initial question too.

    So, their pearls are of poor quality. Some say it's because they lack skill in collecting them properly. I, on the contrary, would rather believe that their pearls are like that by nature than that we lack avarice.

    This chain of reasoning does not make sense to me. The Sleeman's interpretation is actually pretty good except it does not work because it is attrubuting avarice to Britons, which runs contrary to the text.
    Hello. You also find some context in Pierre Schneider 2016 (under Rome’s craving for pearls): "Romans had become the most passionate purchasers of Indian Ocean pearls... [from] the genus Pinctada and Pteria... Fresh-water pearls, formed by a river mussel –Margaritifera margaritifera– were also collected in Britain, but were less sought after by Roman customers, for they lacked the colour and brilliance of their Erythraean counterparts."

    Written c. AD 98, I also understand ‘us’ as the Romans after the conquest, still unable to get the same quality. Camillo Giussani has ‘avidity’: piuttosto per naturale difetto in esse di bellezza, che non di avidità in noi, ‘rather by a natural defect in them of beauty, than of [avidity] in us.’ Cf. Tac. Ann. 4, 72 Frisi... pacem exuere, nostra magis avaritia quam obsequii inpatientes: "more from our cupidity than from their own impatience of subjection" (Jackson in Loeb); the rapacity (Symonds); insofferenti della nostra avidità piú che del dominio (Giussani).

    In some it may be less ‘charged’ or negative: avidità di gloria1, avaritia gloriae, ‘eager thirst for glory’ in Loeb. In case Tacitus was more neutral regarding the ‘strong desire’ for the pearls, ‘easier for their nature, than for our craving to be lacking.’
    It suddenly dawned on me that in both instances the collectors are Romans. Legentibus does not imply Britannis. Sleeman is correct.
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