The Old Roman World: The Failure and Grandeur of Its Civilization

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I propose to describe the Greatness and the Misery of the old Roman world; nor is there any thing in history more suggestive and instructive.

A little city, founded by robbers on the banks of the Tiber, rises gradually into importance, although the great cities of the East are scarcely conscious of its existence. Its early struggles simply arrest the attention, and excite the jealousy, of the neighboring nations. The citizens of this little state are warriors, and, either for defense or glory, they subdue one after another the cities of Latium and Etruria, then the whole of Italy, and finally the old monarchies and empires of the world. In two hundred and fifty years the citizens have become nobles, and a great aristocracy is founded, which lasts eight hundred years. Their aggressive policy and unbounded ambition involve the whole world in war, which does not cease until all the nations known to the Greeks acknowledge their sway. Everywhere Roman laws, language, and institutions spread. A vast empire arises, larger than the Assyrian and the Macedonian combined,--a universal empire,--a great wonder and mystery, having all the grandeur of a providential event. It becomes too great to be governed by an oligarchy of nobles. Civil wars create an imperator, who, uniting in himself all the great offices of state, and sustained by the conquering legions, rules from East to West and from North to South, with absolute and undivided sovereignty. The Caesars reach the summit of human greatness and power, and the city of Romulus becomes the haughty mistress of the world. The emperor is worshiped as a deity, and the proud metropolis calls herself eternal. An empire is established by force of arms and by a uniform policy, such as this world has not seen before or since.

Early Roman history is chiefly the detail of successful wars, aggressive and uncompromising, in which we see a fierce and selfish patriotism, an indomitable will, a hard unpitying temper, great practical sagacity, patience, and perseverance, superiority to adverse fortune, faith in national destinies, heroic sentiments, and grand ambition. We see a nation of citizen soldiers, an iron race of conquerors, bent on conquest, on glory, on self-exaltation, attaching but little value to the individual man, but exalting the integrity and unity of the state. We see no fitful policy, no abandonment to the enjoyment of the fruits of victory, no rest, no repose, no love of art or literature, but an unbounded passion for domination. The Romans toiled, and suffered, and died,--never wearied, never discouraged, never satisfied, until their mission was accomplished and the world lay bleeding and prostrate at their feet.

In the latter days of the Republic, the Roman citizen, originally contented with a few acres in the plains and valleys through which the Tiber flowed, becomes a great landed proprietor, owning extensive estates in the conquered territories, an aristocrat, a knight, a senator, a noble, while his dependents disdained to labor and were fed at the public expense. The state could afford to give them corn, oil, and wine, for it was the owner of Egypt, of Greece, of Asia Minor, of Syria, of Spain, of Gaul, of Africa,--a belt of territory around the Mediterranean Sea one thousand miles in breadth, embracing the whole temperate zone, from the Atlantic Ocean to the wilds of Scythia. The Romans revel in the spoils of the nations they have conquered, adorn their capital with the wonders of Grecian art, and abandon themselves to pleasure and money-making. The Roman grandees divide among themselves the lands and riches of the world, and this dwelling-place of princes looms up the proud centre of mundane glory and power.

In the great success of the Romans, we notice not only their own heroic qualities, but the hopeless degeneracy of the older nations and the reckless turbulence of the western barbarians, both of whom needed masters.

The conquered world must be governed. The Romans had a genius for administration as well as for war. While war was reduced to a science, government became an art. Seven hundred years of war and administration gave experience and skill, and the wisdom thus learned became a legacy to future civilizations.

It was well, both for enervated orientals and wild barbarians, to be ruled by such iron masters. The nations at last enjoyed peace and prosperity, and Christianity was born and spread. A new power silently arose, which was destined to change government, and science, and all the relations of social life, and lay a foundation for a new and more glorious structure of society than what Paganism could possibly create. We see the hand of Providence in all these mighty changes, and it is equally august in overruling the glories and the shame of a vast empire for the ultimate good of the human race.

If we more minutely examine the history of either Republican or Imperial Rome, we read lessons of great significance. In the Republic we see a constant war of classes and interests,--plebeians arrayed against patricians; the poor opposed to the rich; the struggle between capital and labor, between an aristocracy and democracy. Although the favored classes on the whole retained ascendancy, yet the people constantly gained privileges, and at last were enabled, by throwing their influence into the hands of demagogues, to overturn the constitution. Julius Caesar, the greatest name in ancient history, himself a patrician, by courting the people triumphed over the aristocratical oligarchy and introduced a new regime. His dictatorship was the consummation of the victories of the people over nobles as signally as the submission of all classes to fortunate and unscrupulous generals. We err, however, in supposing that the Republic was ever a democracy, as we understand the term, or as it was understood in Athens. Power was always in the hands of senators, nobles, and rich men, as it still is in England, and was in Venice. Popular liberty was a name, and democratic institutions were feeble and shackled. The citizen-noble was free, not the proletarian. The latter had the redress of laws, but only such as the former gave. How exclusive must have been an aristocracy when the Claudian family boasted that, for five hundred years, it had never received any one into it by adoption, and when the Emperor Nero was the first who received its privileges! It is with the senatorial families, who contrived to retain all the great offices of the state, that everything interesting in the history of Republican Rome is identified,--whether political quarrels, or private feuds, or legislation, or the control of armies, or the improvements of the city, or the government of provinces. It was they, as senators, governors, consuls, generals, quaestors, who gave the people baths, theatres, and temples. They headed factions as well as armies. They were the state.

The main object to which the reigning classes gave their attention was war,--the extension of the empire. "_Ubi castra, ibi respublica_." Republican Rome was a camp, controlled by aristocratic generals. Dominion and conquest were their great ideas, their aim, their ambition. To these were sacrificed pleasure, gain, ease, luxury, learning, and art. And when they had conquered they sought to rule, and they knew how to rule. Aside from conquest and government there is nothing peculiarly impressive in Roman history, except the struggles of political leaders and the war of classes.

But in these there is wonderful fascination. The mythic period under kings; the contests with Latins, Etruscans, Volscians, Samnites, and Gauls; the legends of Porsenna, of Cincinnatus, of Coriolanus, of Virginia; the heroism of Camillus, of Fabius, of Decius, of Scipio; the great struggle with Pyrrhus and Hannibal; the wars with Carthage, Macedonia, and Asia Minor; the rivalries between patrician and plebeian families; the rise of tribunes; the Maenian, Hortensian, and Agrarian laws; the noble efforts of the Gracchi; the censorship of Cato; the civil wars of Marius and Sulla, and their exploits, followed by the still greater conquests of Pompey and Julius; these, and other feats of heroism and strength, are full of interest which can never be exhausted. We ponder on them in youth; we return to them in old age.

And yet the real grandeur of Rome is associated with the emperors. With their accession there is a change in the policy of the state from war to peace. There is a greater desire to preserve than extend the limits of the empire. The passion for war is succeeded by a passion for government and laws. Labor and toil give place to leisure and enjoyment. Great works of art appear, and these become historical,--the Pantheon, the Forum Augusti, the Flavian Amphitheatre, the Column of Trajan, the Baths of Caracalla, the Aqua Claudia, the golden house of Nero, the Mausoleum of Hadrian, the Temple of Venus and Rome, the Arch of Septimus Severus. The city is changed from brick to marble, and palaces and theatres and temples become colossal. Painting and sculpture ornament every part of the city. There are more marble busts than living men. Life becomes more complicated and factitious. Enormous fortunes are accumulated. A liberal patronage is extended to artists. Literature declines, but great masterpieces of genius are still produced. Medicine, law, and science flourish. A beautiful suburban life is seen on all the hills, while gardens and villas are the object of perpetual panegyric. From all corners of the earth strangers flock to see the wonders of the mighty metropolis, more crowded than London, more magnificent than Paris, more luxurious than New York. Fetes, shows, processions, gladiatorial combats, chariot races, form the amusement of the vast populace. A majestic centralized power controls all kingdoms, and races, and peoples. The highest state of prosperity is reached that the ancient world knew, and all bow down to Caesar and behold in him the representative of divine providence, from whose will there is no appeal, and from whose arm it is impossible to fly.

But mene, mene, tekel, upharsin, is written on the walls of the banqueting chambers of the palace of the Caesars. The dream of omnipotence is disturbed by the invasion of, Germanic barbarians. They press toward the old seats of power and riches to improve their condition. They are warlike, fierce, implacable. They fear not death, and are urged onward by the lust of rapine and military zeal. The old legions, which penetrated the Macedonian phalanx and withstood the Gauls, cannot resist the shock of their undisciplined armies; for martial glory has fled, and the people prefer their pleasures to the empire. Great emperors are raised up, but they are unequal to the task of preserving the crumbling empire. The people, enervated and egotistical, are scattered like sheep or are made slaves. The proud capitals of the world fall before the ruthless invaders. Desolation is everywhere. The barbarians trample beneath their heavy feet the proud trophies of ancient art and power. The glimmering life-sparks of the old civilization disappear. The world is abandoned to fear, misery, and despair, and there is no help, for retributive justice marches on with impressive solemnity. Imperial despotism, disproportionate fortunes, unequal divisions of society, the degradation of woman, slavery, Epicurean pleasures, practical atheism, bring forth their wretched fruits. The vices and miseries of society cannot be arrested. Glory is succeeded by shame; all strength is in mechanism, and that wears out; vitality passes away; the empire is weak from internal decay, and falls easily into the hands of the new races. "Violence was only a secondary cause of the ruin; the vices of self-interest were the primary causes. A world, as fair and glorious as our own, crumbles away." Our admiration is changed to sadness and awe. The majesty of man is rebuked by the majesty of God.

Such a history is suggestive. Why was such an empire permitted to rise over the bleeding surface of the world, and what was its influence on the general destiny of the race? How far has its civilization perished, and how far has it entered into new combinations? Was its strength material, or moral, or intellectual? How far did literature, art, science, laws, philosophy, prove conservative forces? Why did Christianity fail to arrest so total an eclipse of the glory of man? Why did a magnificent civilization prove so feeble a barrier against corruption and decay? Why was the world to be involved in such universal gloom and wretchedness as followed the great catastrophe? Could nothing arrest the stupendous downfall?

And when we pass from the great facts of Roman history to the questions which it suggests to a contemplative mind in reference to the state of society among ourselves, on which history ought to shed light, what enigmas remain to be solved. Does moral worth necessarily keep pace with aesthetic culture, or intellectual triumphs, or material strength? Do the boasted triumphs of civilization create those holy certitudes on which happiness is based? Can vitality in states be preserved by mechanical inventions? Does society expand from inherent laws of development, or from influences altogether foreign to man? Is it the settled destiny of nations to rise to a certain height in wisdom and power, and then pass away in ignominy and gloom? Is there permanence in any human institutions? Will society move round in perpetual circles, incapable of progression and incapable of rest, or will it indefinitely improve? May there not be the highest triumphs of art, literature, and science, where the mainsprings of society are sensuality and egotism? Is the tendency of society to democratic, or aristocratic, or despotic governments? Does Christianity, in this dispensation, merely furnish witnesses of truth, or will it achieve successive conquests over human degeneracy till the race is emancipated and saved? Can it arrest the downward tendency of society, when it is undermined by vices which blunt the conscience of mankind, and which are sustained by all that is proud in rank, brilliant in fashion, and powerful in wealth?

These are inquiries on which Roman history sheds light. If history is a guide or oracle, they are full of impressive significance. Can we afford to reject all the examples of the past in our sanguine hopes for the future? Human nature is the same in any age, and human experiences point to some great elemental truths, which the Bible confirms. We may be unmoved by them, but they remain in solemn dignity for all generations; "and foremost of them," as Charles Kingsley has so well said, "stands a law which man has been trying in all ages, as now, to deny, or at least to ignore, and that is,--that as the fruit of righteousness is wealth and peace, strength and honor, the fruit of unrighteousness is poverty and anarchy, weakness and shame; for not upon mind, but upon morals, is human welfare founded. Science is indeed great; but she is not the greatest. She is an instrument, and not a power. But her lawful mistress, the only one under whom she can truly grow, and prosper, and prove her divine descent, is Virtue, the likeness of Almighty God,--an ancient doctrine, yet one ever young, and which no discoveries in science will ever abrogate."

Hence the great aim of history should be a dispassionate inquiry into the genius of past civilizations, especially in a moral point of view. Wherein were they weak or strong, vital or mechanical, permanent or transient? We wish to know that we may compare them with our own, and learn lessons of wisdom. The rise and fall of the Roman Empire is especially rich in the facts which bear on our own development. Nor can modern history be comprehended without a survey of the civilization which has entered into our own, and forms the basis of many of our own institutions. Rome perished, but not wholly her civilization. So far as it was founded on the immutable principles of justice, or beauty, or love, it will never die, but will remain a precious legacy to all generations. So far as it was founded on pride, injustice, and selfishness, it ignobly disappeared. Men die, and their trophies of pride are buried in the dust, but their truths live. All truth is indestructible, and survives both names and marbles.

Roman history, so grand and so mournful, on the whole suggests cheering views for humanity, since out of the ruins, amid the storms, aloft above the conflagration, there came certain indestructible forces, which, when united with Christianity, developed a new and more glorious condition of humanity. Creation succeeded destruction. All that was valuable in art, in science, in literature, in philosophy, in laws, has been preserved. The useless alone has perished with the worn-out races themselves. The light which scholars, and artists, and poets, and philosophers, and lawgivers kindled, illuminated the path of the future guides of mankind. And especially the great ideas which the persecuted Christians unfolded, projected themselves into the shadows of mediaeval Europe, and gave a new direction to human thought and life. New sentiments arose, more poetic and majestic than ever existed in the ancient world, giving radiance to homes, peace to families, elevation to woman, liberty to the slave, compassion for the miserable, self-respect, to the man of toil, exultation to the martyr, patience to the poor, and glorious hopes to all; so that in rudeness, in poverty, in discomfort, in slavery, in isolation, in obloquy, peace and happiness were born, and a new race, with noble elements of character, arose in the majesty of renovated strength to achieve still grander victories, and confer higher blessings on mankind.

Thus the Roman Empire, whose fall was so inglorious, and whose chastisement was so severe, was made by Providence to favor the ultimate progress of society, since its civilization entered into new combinations, and still remains one of the proudest monuments of human genius.

It is this civilization, in its varied aspects, both good and evil, lofty and degraded, which in the following chapters I seek to show. This is the real point of interest in Roman history. Let us see what the Romans really accomplished--the results of their great enterprises; the systems they matured with so much thought; the institutions they bequeathed to our times; yea, even those vices and follies which they originally despised, and which, if allowed to become dominant, must, according to all those laws of which we have cognizance, ultimately overwhelm any land in misery, shame, and ruin.

In presenting this civilization, I aim to generalize the most important facts, leaving the reader to examine at his leisure recondite authorities, in which, too often, the argument is obscured by minute details, and art is buried in learning.

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