Bribe: A reward given to pervert the judgment
or corrupt the conduct.
—Dr Johnson’s Dictionary.

It runs as a thread through the transactions of history: illegal, immoral, but always there in its varying forms. In the Classical eras of Greece and Rome, this was something that you could assume about your political rival: something you could always fall back on if you wanted to prosecute him; and the few who were not guilty of it, like Aristides or Cato, were acclaimed as unusual.

Which makes strange the lack of words for it in both Greek and Latin, something queried by a student. Why, she asked, did Greeks use δῶρον for both a gift and a bribe? Was there no separate word for a bribe because bribery was a normal procedure? And what was the Latin word, if any?

It has always been an area with shades of grey. Periodically it is revealed in the press that companies, and even benevolent organisations, that operate abroad have slush funds, working as they do in countries where bribery is normal and is so ingrained in the culture as to become necessary in order to get anything done.

In times of war people have sometimes not hesitated. Malcolm Muggeridge, describing his time on secret service in Lourenço Marques in 1942, relates* how he was introduced to a senior police inspector, who he hoped would give information about the movements of enemy agents:

Diffidently—it was my first bribe; later, I became brazen enough—I produced from the drawer of my desk an envelope in which I had put some hundred escudo notes, and mentioned that, no doubt, certain expenses would arise in connection with the assignment the inspector had so graciously undertaken which I hoped he would allow me to defray…

I found that bribing, which inevitably played a large part in my Lourenço Marques activities, had as many subtleties and diversities as seduction… I became quite an adept as time went on, knowing just when to show the colour of my (or rather HMG’s) money, and how much was needed to provide the necessary incentive in this or that case. In intelligence operations, money is an essential ingredient; even where other motives arise—as patriotism or ideological affiliations—money, however little, or its equivalent, must be dropped in, like a touch of bitter in a mint julep, to validate the deal.

Roman laws about this were much concerned with electoral bribery—people using it because they were desperate to hold public office. But the awful truth was that some people were desperate to hold public office because once they held it, they could recoup their fortunes by taking bribes; and the law against taking bribes once you were in public office seems to have been vague, unspecific and, in the case of provincial governors and their staff, not very well enforced.

As for ancient Athens, it may well be that the laws were even vaguer. Accusations of bribe taking come up again and again, and an enlightening article about this is On Bribing Athenian Ambassadors by S.Perlman:

But while acknowledging the ambivalent attitude towards bribery, Professor Perlman seems to conclude that there were more accusations than offences. He concedes that bribery was prevalent in Athenian culture.

Also of interest is the material on the internet about our own Bribery Act 2010, which some people apparently regard as the most stringent in the world.


*Malcolm Muggeridge, The Infernal Grove, Fontana Books, 1975, pp. 168-9.