Posted by: Bystander PJ4 NOV 2009
You may have come across a quotation attributed to Petronius that usually reads: “We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganised. … I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganising; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralisation.”
These words may bring a wry smile to the face of any pharmacist whose working life has been disrupted by ministerial meddlings in health care or education. Indeed, I have seen the quote pinned up on notice-boards in NHS hospitals and in a school of pharmacy. And a search of PJ Online shows that it has been cited more than once in recent years in letters to The Journal.
So who was this cynical Petronius? The quote is usually attributed to Gaius Petronius Arbiter (c. AD22–67), alias Titus Petronius Niger, who was Nero’s adviser on elegance and good taste (and also the reputed author of the ‘Satyricon’, a sardonic portrait of Roman society that takes the form of a homoerotic reworking of Homer’s Odyssey).
On the other hand, many references to the quote give a date of 210BC, which may relate to an earlier Petronius, a naval commander.
But it matters not a jot which Petronius you plump for because there is not a scrap of evidence for any Petronian origin for the words. Scholars can find the quote in no manuscript or printed source earlier than a magazine article in 1957.
And there is some evidence that the words first saw the light of day in the late 1940s on a barrack room bulletin board in a British army base in occupied West Germany. One can certainly imagine a classically educated conscript contriving the alleged classical quote as a sly dig at inept military management.
Whoever the real author was, he has fooled many more than just his army superiors. The quote can now be found — always attributed to Petronius — in many supposedly scholarly books and articles and also, not surprisingly, all over the internet. But although the attribution may be false, the words clearly strike a chord.