Witness to a stoning

Lupus is the Latin for “wolf”, but the man named Lupus is an excellent example of a scapegoat.

Still reading? C. Cornelius Lentulus Lupus, plain Lupus for short, was the unfortunate target of the most celebrated poem written by C. Lucilius, the pioneer of Rome’s greatest gift to the literary world, verse satire. Lucilius’ first satire described how the gods gathered to debate the deplorable state of Rome and pondered an appropriate punishment for the city. Their decision was to take revenge on a representative figure, and Lupus, a former consul and censor who between holding those offices had been convicted of extortion, fitted the bill.

Lupus was a perfect embodiment of Rome’s wider corruption, according to Lucilius’ account of things, and the satire recounted his alleged depravity in some detail. Lupus had died shortly before Lucilius composed his poem, and Lucilius is able to explain his death as the gods’ ultimate decree, a death sentence for the criminal Lupus. Lucilius’ poem only survives as fragments, but Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis, his vicious satire on the dead emperor Claudius which recounts Claudius’ banishment from heaven to the underworld, is modelled on Lucilius’ attack on Lupus and probably gives a good impression of its style and impact.

It was a brutal attack, we can be confident of that. When Horace, Lucilius’ successor in verse satire, recalls the treatment meted out to Lupus, his choice of words is significant: “Lupus overwhelmed by defamatory verses”, in Latin famosisque Lupo cooperto uersibus (Horace, Satires 2.1.68). The verb cooperio is practically the technical term for stoning, vividly transforming Lucilius’ satirical verses into stones cast at the malefactor until he dies. Stoning is classically the act of a collective, the people as a whole taking revenge on a single perceived wrongdoer, and that works well for Lupus, an individual at whom Lucilius encourages Rome to direct its anger in order to save itself.

It’s only a step beyond stoning to see Lupus as a victim of scapegoating. This is the psychosocial process by which a group (generally experiencing a crisis of some kind) identifies an individual or another group as the cause of its own misfortunes, and thus feels justified in exacting revenge on them. It seems that the death of Lupus in Lucilius, with which his satirical attack culminates, satisfied the anger of the gods at Rome, and that his expulsion from the collective was a means to resolve Rome’s crisis. This is a pattern of behaviour familiar enough to the Romans, a people with a strong collective ethos who also suffered plenty of crises. Turnus in Virgil’s Aeneid, the individual whose death will end the conflict between the future components of the Roman people, figuratively ending a civil war, looks a lot like another scapegoat. One difference between Virgil and Lucilius is perhaps that Virgil was more aware of the sacrificial logic of his story.

But scapegoating is also a common feature of our everyday social life. Anyone who has experienced an intensely communal environment — a school is a good example, or an archaeological dig — will recognise the tendency for feelings of dissatisfaction and stress to find a target in an individual who in some way stands out from the group. Many of us will have been that victimised person at some time or another. Many more of us will have done the scapegoating, whether we’re aware of it or not. A vivid memory of my own from school is of being in a group of boys in the playground making merciless fun of another boy. I realised afterwards that I had no idea why I had been doing it (the boy being bullied was my friend, for God’s sake) and it set me thinking hard about what had come over me. I learned something important about my capacities, about the power of the need to belong and what it can encourage you to do, and that is no doubt why I still remember so clearly an event from 35 years ago, and still feel terrible about it.

A long and self-indulgent preamble, but some of you may understand why this of all topics is occupying me at the moment. I witnessed on Twitter a few days ago a textbook case of scapegoating, a marginalised group of people projecting resentment they very justifiably feel onto an individual irrationally identified as powerful and malign. The response to an innocent tweet had all the hallmarks of a scapegoating — the mobbing, the wildly disproportionate outrage, the unconvincing attempts to explain the behaviour in rational terms.

Let me say this again. I recognise scapegoating not because I can see the Romans doing it in their literature. I recognise it because I’ve done it myself. It is, in a terrifying way, the most human thing to do, answering a deep herd-instinct for self-preservation. But it is the very ugliest of things, too, this irrational aggression directed against an innocent.

So, a thought.

If you and a lot of other people are very, very angry with an individual.

If you can’t quite call to mind what exactly it is, the heinous thing that this person did to you.

If what’s bothering you, when you reflect on it, is really something else entirely.

If, as you are pillorying your target, you look around and the people joining in the attack are quite similar to you.

If it’s kind of intoxicating, too, this righteous pursuit of the one we all identify as the malefactor.

There’s a word for it, and you should stop.

About Llewelyn Morgan

I'm a Classicist, lucky enough to work at Brasenose College, Oxford. I specialise in Roman literature, but I've got a persistent side-interest in Afghanistan, particularly the scholars and spies and scholar-spies who visited the country in the nineteenth century.

6 responses to “Witness to a stoning”

  1. Allan Hands says :

    Horace always manages to make himself the scapegoat, even while stoning others, and I think that offers a good insight into the whole phenomenon: it’s a trade. Even if A doesn’t bully B, B feels the pressure of A’s expectations, so then B bullies C, and so round and round it goes. The trouble with social media, as we all know, is that it takes the safety catch off the handgrenade. Will that make us wiser in the end? Will all these virtual explosions replace actual explosions? Does it hurt any less? I like to think Romans reading Horace were less inclined to look for real scapegoats, but maybe he merely legitimised the process, or cultivated it in new directions. I bet there was a time when Romans didn’t sneer at the uncouth and the vulgar. I suspect most of today’s scapegoating is of that superior kind, and emanates especially from the ‘progressive left’.

  2. Mary says :

    Excellent and timely piece and much reminiscent of an incident in my own youth (too ashamed to share) but when I saw the look on a young man’s face (after I had just called him a horrid name) as he said “Not you too” I vowed never to do such a thing again. I hope (with the exception of Donald Trump) I never will!

  3. James Kierstead says :

    Thanks Llewelyn. There have been a couple of episodes in the field recently that I reckon largely fit this description.

  4. Martin says :

    Is scapegoating another aspect of the herd or pack instinct and hence its tendency to become an automatic process when a community wishes to release a stress? Is this why so many people may enthusiastically join in stoning an adulterous couple they know nothing about, the invokation of Islam then being an excuse for behaviour they don’t fully understand themselves?

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