The Roman elite were constantly living beyond their means. Leaders like Cicero lived lavishly—he owned something like nine different villas at the same time. Other Romans believed the path to political power lay in essentially bribing the public with extravagant games and public spectacles. Julius Caesar was constantly spending money he didn’t have to impress people he didn’t respect. Even the Roman empire itself was constantly overspending, leaving it to more austere emperors like Marcus Aurelius to pay down the country’s debts by selling off palace furnishings.
Seneca, for his part, wrote eloquently about the meaningless of wealth and the importance of the simple life. And yet, money is partly what attracted him to Nero’s service. In 13 years working for a man who was clearly deranged and evil, Seneca became one of Rome’s richest men. This afforded him an incredible lifestyle. He threw enormous parties. He accumulated huge land holdings and impressive estates. But his taste for the finer things meant swallowing a bitter moral pill...and eventually, this association cost him his reputation and his life.
If only Seneca and these other spendthrift Romans could have listened to the simple advice in Cato the Elder’s On Agriculture, one of the oldest works in the entire Latin language. There, Cato—the great grandfather of the Stoic Cato the Younger—talks about the importance of managing your money and your tastes.
“A farm is like a man,” he wrote, “however great the income, if there is extravagance but little is left.” His advice to the aspiring farmer is to build a house within their means—to put your money into your farm, into something that generates returns, not something that impresses your neighbors or assuages your ego. It was better, he said, to cultivate the selling habit, not the buying habit. Selling meant you were making, buying meant you were consuming. How does a business succeed? By things going out the door, not in the door.
It’s easy to acquire. It’s hard to say no. It’s tough to develop limits and to figure out what enough is. But like Cato said and Seneca’s fate painfully illustrates, if you can’t do that, eventually there will be nothing left and nowhere to go.