Social Life During the Roman Republic


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These sketches of social life at the close of the Republican period have been written without any intention of proving a point, or any pre-conceived idea of the extent of demoralisation, social, moral, or political, which the Roman people had then reached. But a perusal of Mr. Balfour's suggestive lecture on "Decadence" has put me upon making a very succinct diagnosis of the condition of the patient whose life and habits I have been describing. The Romans, and the Italians, with whom they were now socially and politically amalgamated, were not in the last two centuries B.C. an old or worn-out people. It is at any rate certain that for a century after the war with Hannibal Rome and her allies, under the guidance of the Roman senate, achieved an amount of work in the way of war and organisation such as has hardly been performed by any people before or since; and even in the period dealt with in this book, in spite of much cause for misgiving at home, the work done by Roman and Italian armies both in East and West shows beyond doubt that under healthy discipline the native vigour of the population could assert itself. We must not forget, however severely we may condemn the way in which the work was done, that it is to these armies, in all human probability, that we owe not only the preservation of Graeco-Italian culture and civilisation, but the opportunity for further progress. The establishment of definite frontiers by Pompeius and Caesar, and afterwards by Augustus and Tiberius, brought peace to the region of the Mediterranean, and with it made possible the development of Roman law and the growth of a new and life-giving religion.

But peoples, like individuals, if offered opportunities of doing themselves physical or moral damage, are only too ready to accept them. Time after time in these chapters we have had to look back to the age following the war with Hannibal in order to see what those opportunities were; and in each case we have found the acceptance rapid and eager. We have seen wealth coming in suddenly, and misused; slave-labour available in an abnormal degree, and utilised with results in the main unfortunate; the population of the city increasing far too quickly, yet the difficulties arising from this increase either ignored or misapprehended. We have noticed the decay of wholesome family life, of the useful influence of the Roman matron, of the old forms of the State religion; the misconception of the true end of education, the result partly of Greek culture, partly of political life; and to these may perhaps be added an increasing liability to diseases, and especially to malaria, arising from economic blunders in Italy and insanitary conditions of life in the city. All these opportunities of damage to the fibre of the people had been freely accepted, and with the result that in the age of Cicero we cannot mistake the signs and symptoms of degeneracy.

But it would be a mistake to jump to the conclusion that this degeneracy had as yet gone too far to be arrested. It was assuredly not that degeneracy of senility which Mr. Balfour is inclined to postulate as an explanation of decadence. So far as I can judge, the Romans were at that stage when, in spite of unhealthy conditions of life and obstinate persistence in dangerous habits, it was not too late to reform and recover. To me the main interest of the history of the early Empire lies in seeking the answer to the question how far that recovery was made. If these chapters should have helped any student to prepare the ground for the solution of this problem their object will have been fully achieved.

[Illustration: Stanfords Geog. Estab. London]

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Social Life in Roman Empire