The grandeur of dissipation

There's something vastly comforting yet equally disconcerting about history.

On one hand, it's crazily gratifying to observe how little humans have changed since we started writing things down but, then it's also kind of bewildering and deflating observing how little we've changed.

One of our most "positive" developments as a species - the enlargement of moral sympathy to include people not like us in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation and religion - might even be considered a negative by ancients, who'd probably view it as our society having gone soft.

However, the more history I absorb, the more fascinated I become by our similarities to people who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago.

Of course, we share the mainstay likenesses of love, greed, sexual desire, hunger for power, the drive for spirituality and the urge to keep pets, but the sentiment I always find amusing is older generations' irritation with them young-uns.   

I've written several posts about how ridiculous I find the almost apocalyptic criticisms of Gen Y - because it's always been the job description of younger cohorts to irritate their predecessors since ... before the birth of Christ.

Take the whole baggy pants trend that seems to drive so many people over 40 nuts nowadays.

Around 80 B.C., one of the things that bugged the oldies of Republican Rome about a young pup named Julius Caesar was his ... baggy clothes.

The Roman historian Cassius Dio (A.D. 150 – 235) wrote in his 80-volume history of Rome - much of which survives today -  Caesar was "suspect" because he wore his toga "loosely belted", a trend he probably picked up from the man who conquered Hannibal, Scipio Africanus, who apparently did the same with his toga about 100 years prior to Caesar.

Scipio and Caesar were both dismissed as "effeminate" because of this sartorial affectation, which seems to be the go-to insult for Generation Younger by Generation Older when the kids wear skinny jeans or grow their hair long or forget to wear socks with dress shoes.

The brilliant Roman general and dictator, Sulla, however, saw through Caesar's fashionableness, warning famously to ''beware the badly belted boy".

In his "impressive and vivid" history of the Roman Republic, Rubicon, Tom Holland describes how Caesar's dress was also aped by the generation that followed him - Rome's cool kids.

"The signs of effeminacy were also the signs of knowingness, of superiority, of savoir faire. Fashion served the function it has always done: of distinguishing those who followed it from the common herd," writes Holland.

"In a society as competitive as the Republic, this gave it an obvious and immediate appeal. Rome was filled with ambitious young men, all of them desperate for marks of public status. To be a member of the smart set was to sport precisely such marks.

"So it was that fashion victims would adopt secret signals, mysterious gestures such as the scratching of the head with a single finger. They grew goatees; their tunics flowed to the ankles and wrists; their togas had the texture and transparency of veils and they wore them, in a much-repeated phrase, 'loosely belted'."

This happened again in Rome some 500 years later, according to Dan Carlin in his Hardcore History podcast 'Thor's Angels', where he notes the Roman cool kids of 400 A.D. embraced the "barbarian" fashion of the Germanic tribes that had progressively surrounded the western empire.

The "edgy youth" wore furs and the tight pants typical of those tribes in order to scandalise their parents and the establishment, says Carlin.

In the last couple of weeks, there's been a bunch of articles and comment pieces taking aim at the relaxed mores of our Gen Y soldiers in Afghanistan, our Gen Y Test cricketers and Gen Y footballers and the issues all seem to boil down to the same thing.

"They don't act like us, they don't respect the things we do."

Historians Will and Ariel Durant, writing in their 1944 book Caesar and Christ, make this observation of the generation of Roman youngsters following Caesar: "And they were resentful of old morals, of the mos maiorum perpetually preached upon them by their exhausted elders; they announced the sanctity of instinct, the innocence of desire, and the grandeur of dissipation".

Sound familiar to 60s flower children, perhaps?

Of course, for proof of the enduring nature of the generation gap, you just have to look at the fact it was so prevalent it was codified into myth by the 5th century B.C. with the story of Oedipus.

In the rather dense 1976 book The Conflict of Generations in Ancient Greece and Rome, Meyer Reinhold notes that as far back as 2450 B.C., a vizier of the Fifth Dynasty of Egypt, Ptah-Hotep, proclaimed the necessity for noble youngsters to "harken" and "heed" ... "the thoughts of those who have gone before".

"Thus it is obvious that as early as twenty-fifth century B.C., the older generation in authoritarian Egypt had to 'work at it' to mold the younger generation in its own image," writes Reinhold.

The book goes on to describe in admirable academic detail 'The Conflicts Between Old and Young in Homer's Iliad', 'The Generation Gap in Aeschylus's Agamemnon' and 'Generational Struggle in Plato and Aristotle'.

The point, as ever, I'm trying to make is we should put whatever 'failings' we perceive of Generation Y into perspective.

Youngsters have been doing things differently than their parents for thousands of years and for us oldies to insist this lot will be the ruin of humanity, is plainly, historically inaccurate.

* Before anyone bothers posting the following "quote" by Socrates, I've always suspected it was a little too neat and it is.

"Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers."

The Yale University Book of Quotations confirms as much: "Attributed in N.Y Times 24, Jan. 1948, this spurious quotation ... became very popular in the 1960s. Researchers have never found anything like it in the words of Socrates or Plato".

You don't need to make up history.

You can follow Sam on Twitter here. His email address is here.