Written examinations (see last post) were introduced to England from China, where they had been a powerful force from the 10th century, but their origins were 1000 years before that.
Their purpose was to select people for the Chinese civil service. Competition was ferocious, and the successful candidates became members of the elite who governed the country.
The East India Company started copying the technique to select their employees, and from then on, examinations began to invade our lives.
But no examinations chose the men who became governors of Roman provinces: a senator was thought capable of that function. Alas, not always so. Verres, whom Cicero prosecuted—and made his name by doing so—was ‘not fit to govern and rule multitudes.’* He was a self-seeker, corrupt, a robber and a lecher, who oppressed the land of Sicily for two years.
Bad behaviour makes headlines, while good may pass unnoticed. When provincial governors are mentioned, Verres is near the surface. But Pliny the Younger gave advice 150 years later to a cliens who was setting off to govern Achaia:
‘Reflect that you have been sent into the province of Achaia, the real and genuine Greece, where it is believed that civilisation, letters and even agriculture had their origin; that you are sent to maintain the status of free cities— sent, that is, to be among human beings especially human, among free men especially free, who by their courage, their qualities, their friendship and indeed by loyalty and respect, have kept their hold on natural justice.
‘Revere their founding gods and the names of those gods; revere their ancient renown… Let there be honour from you for their antiquity, for their vast achievements, and for their history also.
‘Do not detract in any way from any person’s dignity, from their freedom or even from their pretensions. Have before your eyes that this is the land that sent us human rights, that gave laws to us… that it is to Athens you go, that it is Sparta you are ruling; and to take from them the remaining shadow and residual name of liberty is harsh, uncouth and barbaric.’ (Letters VIII.24)
*Henry VI Part II: V.1
Next post: Naming.