Social Life During the Roman Republic




SOCIAL LIFE AT ROME IN THE AGE OF CICERO

Home | Prev | Next | Contents


RELIGION


It is easy to write the word "religion" at the head of this chapter, but by no means easy to find anything in this materialistic period which answers to our use of the word. In the whole mass, for example, of the Ciceronian correspondence, there is hardly anything to show that Cicero and his friends, and therefore, as we may presume, the average educated man of the day, were affected in their thinking or their conduct by any sense of dependence on, or responsibility to, a Supreme Being. If, however, it had been possible to substitute for the English word the Latin religio it would have made a far more appropriate title to this chapter, for religio meant primarily awe, nervousness, scruple--much the same in fact as that feeling which in these days we call superstition; and secondarily the means taken, under the authority of the State, to quiet such feelings by the performance of rites meant to propitiate the gods.[530] In both of these senses religio is to be found in the last age of the Republic; but, as we shall see, the tendency to superstitious nervousness was very imperfectly allayed and the worship that should have allayed it was in great measure neglected.

It may be, indeed, that in quiet country districts the joyous rural festivals went on--we have many allusions and a few descriptions of them in the literature of the Augustan period,--and also the worship of the household deities, in which there perhaps survived a feeling of pietas more nearly akin to what we call religious feeling than in any of the cults (sacra publica) undertaken by the State for the people. Even in the city the cult of the dead, or what may perhaps be better called the religious attention paid to their resting-places, and the religious ceremonies attending birth, puberty, and marriage, were kept up as matters of form and custom among the upper and wealthier classes. But the great mass of the population of Rome, we may be almost sure, knew nothing of these rites; the poor man, for example, could no more afford a tomb for himself than a house, and his body was thrown into some puticulus or common burying-place,[531] where it was impossible that any yearly ceremonies could be performed to his memory, even if any one cared to do so. And among the higher strata of society, outside of these sacra privata, carelessness and negligence of the old State cults were steadily on the increase. Neither Cicero nor any of his contemporaries but Varro has anything to tell us of their details, and the decay had gone so far that Varro himself knew little or nothing about many of the deities of the old religious calendar,[532] or of the ways in which they had at one time been worshipped. Vesta, with her simple cult and her virgin priestesses, was almost the only deity who was not either forgotten or metamorphosed in one way or another under the influence of Greek literature and mythology; Vesta was too well recognised as a symbol of the State's vitality to be subject to neglect like other and less significant cults. The old sacrificing priesthoods, such as the Fratres Arvales and the lesser Flamines, seem not to have been filled up by the pontifices whose duty it was to do so: and the Flamen Dialis, the priest of Jupiter himself, is not heard of from 89 to 11 B.C., when he appears again as a part of the Augustan religious restoration. The explanation is probably that these offices could not be held together with any secular one which might take the holder away from Rome; and as every man of good family had business in the provinces, no qualified person could be found willing to put himself under the restriction. The temples too seem to have been sadly neglected; Augustus tells us himself[533] that he had to restore no less than eighty-two; and from Cicero we actually hear of thefts of statues and other temple property[534]--sacrileges which may be attributed to the general demoralisation caused by the Social and Civil Wars. At the same time there seems to have been a strong tendency to go after strange gods, with whose worship Roman soldiers had made acquaintance in the course of their numerous eastern campaigns. It is a remarkable fact that no less than four times in a single decade the worship of Isis had to be suppressed,--in 58, 53, 50, and 48 B.C. In the year 50 we are told that the consul Aemilius Paullus, a conservative of the old type, actually threw off his toga praetexta and took an axe to begin destroying the temple, because no workmen could be found to venture on the work.[535] These are indeed strange times; the beautiful religion of Isis, which assuredly had some power to purify a man and strengthen his conscience,[536] was to be driven out of a city where the old local religion had never had any such power, and where the masses were now left without a particle of aid or comfort from any religious source. The story seems to ring true, and gives us a most valuable glimpse into the mental condition of the Roman workman of the time.

Of such foreign worships, and of the general neglect of the old cults, Cicero tells us nothing; we have to learn or to guess at these facts from evidence supplied by later writers. His interest in religious practice was confined to ceremonies which had some political importance. He was himself an augur, and was much pleased with his election to that ancient college; but, like most other augurs of the time, he knew nothing of augural "science," and only cared to speculate philosophically on the question whether it is possible to foretell the future. He looked upon the right of the magistrate to "observe the heaven" as a part of an excellent constitution,[537] and could not forgive Caesar for refusing in 59 B.C. to have his legislation paralysed by the fanatical declarations of his colleague that he was going to "look for lightning." He firmly believed in the value of the ius divinum of the State. In his treatise on the constitution (de Legibus) he devotes a whole book to this religious side of constitutional law, and gives a sketch of it in quasi-legal language from which it appears that he entirely accepted the duty of the State to keep the citizen in right relation to the gods, on whose good-will his welfare depended. He seems never to have noticed that the State was neglecting this duty, and that, as we saw just now, temples and cults were falling into decay, strange forms of religion pressing in. Such things did not interest him; in public life the State religion was to him a piece of the constitution, to be maintained where it was clearly essential; in his own study it was a matter of philosophical discussion. In his young days he was intimate with the famous Pontifex Maximus, Mucius Scaevola, who held that there were three religions,--that of the poets, that of the philosophers, and that of the statesman, of which the last must be accepted and acted on, whether it be true or not.[538] Cicero could hardly have complained if this saying had been attributed to himself.

This attitude of mind, the combination of perfect freedom of thought with full recognition of the legal obligations of the State and its citizens in matters of religion, is not difficult for any one to understand who is acquainted with the nature of the ius divinum and the priesthood administering it. That ius divinum was a part of the ius civile, the law of the Roman city-state; as the ius civile, exclusive of the ius divinum, regulated the relations of citizen to citizen, so did the ius divinum regulate the relations of the citizen to the deities of the community. The priesthoods administering this law consisted not of sacrificing priests, attached to the cult of a particular god and temple, but of lay officials in charge of that part of the law of the State; it was no concern of theirs (so indeed they might quite well argue) whether the gods really existed or not, provided the law were maintained. When in 61 B.C. Clodius was caught in disguise at the women's festival of the Bona Dea, the pontifices declared the act to be nefas,--crime against the ius divinum; but we may doubt whether any of those pontifices really believed in the existence of such a deity. The idea of the mos maiorum was still so strong in the mind of every true Roman, his conservative instincts were so powerful, that long after all real life had left the divine inhabitants of his city, so that they survived only as the dead stalks of plants that had once been green and flourishing, he was quite capable of being horrified at any open contempt of them. And he was right, as Augustus afterwards saw clearly; for the masses, who had no share in the education described in the sixth chapter, who knew nothing of Greek literature or philosophy, and were full of superstitious fancies, were already losing confidence in the authorities set over them, and in their power to secure the good-will of the gods and their favour in matters of material well-being. This is the only way in which we can satisfactorily account for the systematic efforts of Augustus to renovate the old religious rites and priesthoods, and we can fairly argue back from it to the tendencies of the generation immediately before him. He knew that the proletariate of Rome and Italy still believed, as their ancestors had always believed, that state and individual would alike suffer unless the gods were properly propitiated; and that in order to keep them quiet and comfortable the sense of duty to the gods must be kept alive even among those who had long ceased to believe in them. It was fortunate indeed for Augustus that he found in the great poet of Mantua one who was in some sense a prophet as well as a poet, who could urge the Roman by an imaginative example to return to a living pietas,--not merely to the old religious forms, but to the intelligent sense of duty to God and man which had built up his character and his empire. In Cicero's day there was also a great poet, he too in some sense a prophet; but Lucretius could only appeal to the Roman to shake off the slough of his old religion, and such an appeal was at the time both futile and dangerous. Looking at the matter historically, and not theologically, we ought to sympathise with the attitude of Cicero and Scaevola towards the religion of the State. It was based on a statesmanlike instinct; and had it been possible for that instinct to express itself practically in a positive policy like that of Augustus, instead of showing itself in philosophical treatises like the de Legibus, or on occasional moments of danger like that of the Bona Dea sacrilege, it is quite possible that much mischief might have been averted. But in that generation no one had the shrewdness or experience of Augustus, and no one but Julius had the necessary free hand; and we may be almost sure that Julius, Pontifex Maximus though he was, was entirely unfitted by nature and experience to undertake a work that called for such delicate handling, such insight into the working of the ignorant Italian mind.

This attitude of inconsistency and compromise must seem to a modern unsatisfactory and strained, and he turns with relief to the courageous outspokenness of the great poem of Lucretius on the Nature of Things, of which the main object was to persuade the Romans to renounce for good all the mass of superstition, in which he included the religion of the State, by which their minds were kept in a prison of darkness, terror, and ignorance. Lucretius took no part whatever in public life; he could afford to be in earnest; he felt no shadow of responsibility for the welfare of the State as such. The Epicurean tenets which he held so passionately had always ranked the individual before the community, and suggested a life of individual quietism; Lucretius in his study could contemplate the "rerum natura" without troubling himself about the "natura hominum" as it existed in the Italy of his day. "Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas,"--so wrote of him his great successor and admirer, yet added, with a tinge of pathos which touches us even now, "Fortunatus et ille deos qui novit agrestes." Even at the present day an uncompromising unbeliever may be touched by the simple worship, half pagan though it may seem to him, of a village in the Apennines; but in the eyes of Lucretius all worship seemed prompted by fear and based on ignorance of natural law. Virgil's tender and sympathetic soul went out to the peasant as he prayed to his gods for plenty or prosperity, as it went out to all living creatures in trouble or in joy.

But it is nevertheless true that Lucretius was a great religious poet. He was a prophet, in deadly earnest, calling men to renounce their errors both of thought and conduct. He saw around him a world full of wickedness and folly; a world of vanity, vexation, fear, ambition, cruelty, and lust. He saw men fearing death and fearing the gods; overvaluing life, yet weary of it; unable to use it well, because steeped in ignorance of the wonderful working of Nature.[539] He saw them, as we have already seen them, the helpless victims of ambition and avarice, ever, like Sisyphus, rolling the stone uphill and never reaching the summit.[540] Of cruelty and bloodshed in civil strife that age had seen enough, and on this too the poet dwells with bitter emphasis;[541] on the unwholesome luxury and restlessness of the upper classes,[542] and on their unrestrained indulgence of bodily appetites. In his magnificent scorn he probably exaggerated the evils of his day, yet we have seen enough in previous chapters to suggest that he was not a mere pessimist; there is no trace in his poem of cynicism, or of a soured temperament. We may be certain that he was absolutely convinced of the truth of all he wrote.

So far Lucretius may be called a religious poet, in that with profound conviction and passionate utterance he denounced the wickedness of his age, and, like the Hebrew prophets, called on mankind to put away their false gods and degrading superstitions, and learn the true secret of guidance in this life. It is only when we come to ask what that secret was, that we feel that this extraordinary man knew far too little of ordinary human nature to be either a religious reformer or an effective prophet: as Sellar has said of him,[543] he had no sympathy with human activity. His secret, the remedy for all the world's evil and misery, was only a philosophical creed, which he had learnt from Epicurus and Democritus. His profound belief in it is one of the most singular facts in literary history; no man ever put such poetic passion into a dogma, and no such imperious dogma was ever built upon a scientific theory of the universe. He seems to have combined two Italian types of character, which never have been united before or since,--that of the ecclesiastic, earnest and dogmatic, seeing human nature from a doctrinal platform, not working and thinking with it; and secondly the poetic type, of which Dante is the noblest example, perfectly clear and definite in inward and outward vision, and illuminating all that it touches with an indescribable glow of pure poetic imagination.

Lucretius' secret then is knowledge,[544]--not the dilettanteism of the day, but real scientific knowledge of a single philosophical attempt to explain the universe,--the atomic theory of the Epicurean school. Democritus and Epicurus are the only saviours,--of this Lucretius never had the shadow of a doubt. As the result of this knowledge, the whole supernatural and spiritual world of fancy vanishes, together with all futile hopes or fears of a future life. The gods, if they exist, will cease to be of any importance to mankind, as having no interest in him, and doing him neither good nor harm. Chimaeras, portents, ghosts, death, and all that frightens the ignorant and paralyses their energies, will vanish in the pure light of this knowledge; man will have nothing to be afraid of but himself. Nor indeed need he fear himself when he has mastered "the truth." By that time, as the scales of fear fall from his eyes, his moral balance will be recovered; the blind man will see. What will he see? What is the moral standard that will become clear to him, the sanction of right living that will grip his conscience?

It is simply the conviction that as this life is all we have in past, present, or future, it must be used well. After all then, Lucretius is reduced to ordinary moral suasion, and finds no new power or sanction that could keep erring human nature in the right path. And we must sadly allow that no real moral end is enunciated by him; his ideal seems to be quietism in this life, and annihilation afterwards.[545] It is a purely self-regarding rule of life. It is not even a social creed; neither family nor State seems to have any part in it, much less the unfortunate in this life, the poor, and the suffering. The poet never mentions slavery, or the crowded populations of great cities. It might almost be called a creed of fatalism, in which Natura plays much the same part as Fortuna did in the creed of many less noble spirits of that age.[546] Nature fights on; we cannot resist her, and cannot improve on her; it is better to acquiesce and obey than to try and rule her.

Thus Lucretius' remedy fails utterly; it is that of an aristocratic intellect, not of a saviour of mankind.[547] So far as we know, it was entirely fruitless; like the constitution of Sulla his contemporary, the doctrine of Lucretius roused no sense of loyalty in Roman or Italian, because it was constructed with imperfect knowledge of the Roman and Italian nature. But it was a noble effort of a noble mind; and, apart from its literary greatness, it has incidentally a lasting value for all students of religious history, as showing better than anything else that has survived from that age the need of a real consecration of morality by the life and example of a Divine man.

Thus while the Roman statesman found it necessary to maintain the ius divinum without troubling himself to attempt to put any new life into the details of the worship it prescribed, content to let much of it sink into oblivion as no longer essential to the good government of the State, the greatest poetical genius of the age was proclaiming in trumpet tones that if a man would make good use of his life he must abandon absolutely and without a scruple the old religious ideas of the Graeco-Roman world. But there was another school of thought which had long been occupied with these difficulties, and had reached conclusions far better suited than the dogmatism of Lucretius to the conservative character of the Roman mind, for it found a place for the deities of the State, and therefore for the ius divinum, in a philosophical system already widely accepted by educated men. This school may be described as Stoic, though its theology was often accepted by men who did not actually call themselves Stoics; for example, by Cicero himself, who, as an adherent of the New Academy, the school which repudiated dogmatism and occupied itself with dialectic and criticism, was perfectly entitled to adopt the tenets of other schools if he thought them the most convincing. Its most elaborate exponent in this period was Varro, and behind both Varro and Cicero there stands the great figure of the Rhodian Posidonius[548], of whose writings hardly anything has come down to us. It is worth while to trace briefly the history of this school at Rome, for it is in itself extremely interesting, as an attempt to reconcile the old theology--if the term may be used--with philosophical thought, and it probably had an appreciable influence on the later quasi-religious Stoicism of the Empire.

We must go back for a moment to the period succeeding the war with Hannibal. The awful experience of that war had done much to discredit the old Roman religious system, which had been found insufficient of itself to preserve the State. The people, excited and despairing, had been quieted by what may be called new religious prescriptions, innumerable examples of which are to be found in Livy's books. The Sibylline books were constantly consulted, and lectisternia, supplicationes, ludi, in which Greek deities were prominent, were ordered and carried out. Finally, in 204 B.C., there was brought to Rome the sacred stone of the Magna Mater Idaea, the great deity of Pessinus in Phrygia, and a festival was established in her honour, called by the Greek name Megalesia. All this means, as can be seen clearly from Livy's language,[549] that the governing classes were trying to quiet the minds of the people by convincing them that no effort was being spared to set right their relations with the unseen powers; they had invoked in vain their own local and native deities, and had been compelled to seek help elsewhere; they had found their own narrow system of religion quite inadequate to express their religious experience of the last twenty years. And indeed that old system of religion never really recovered from the discredit thus cast on it. The temper of the people is well shown by the rapidity with which the orgiastic worship of the Greek Dionysus spread over Italy a few years later; and the fact that it was allowed to remain, though under strict supervision, shows that the State religion no longer had the power to satisfy the cravings of the masses. And the educated class too was rapidly coming under the influence of Greek thought, which could hardly act otherwise than as a solvent of the old religious ideas. Ennius, the great literary figure of this period, was the first to strike a direct blow at the popular belief in the efficacy of prayer and sacrifice, by openly declaring that the gods did not interest themselves in mankind,[550]--the same Epicurean doctrine preached afterwards by Lucretius. It may indeed be doubted whether this doctrine became popular, or acceptable even to the cultured classes; but the fact remains that the same man who did more than any one before Virgil to glorify the Roman character and dominion, was the first to impugn the belief that Rome owed her greatness to her divine inhabitants.

But in the next generation there arrived in Rome a man whose teaching had so great an influence on the best type of educated Roman that, as we have already said, he may almost be regarded as a missionary.[551] We do not know for certain whether Panaetius wrote or taught about the nature or existence of the gods; but we do know that he discussed the question of divination[552] in a work [Greek: Peri pronoias], where he could hardly have avoided the subject. In any case the Stoic doctrines which he held, themselves ultimately derived from Plato and the Old Academy, were found capable in the hands of his great successor Posidonius of Rhodes of supplying a philosophical basis for the activity as well as the existence of the gods. These men, it must be repeated, were not merely professed philosophers, but men of the world, travellers, writing on a great variety of subjects; they were profoundly interested, like Polybius, in the Roman character and government; they became intimate with the finer Roman minds, from Scipio the younger to Cicero and Varro, and seem to have seen clearly that the old rigid Stoicism must be widened and humanised, and its ethical and theological aspects modified, if it were to gain a real hold on the practical Roman understanding. We have already seen[553] how their modified Stoic ethics acted for good on the best Romans of our period. In theology also they left a permanent mark on Roman thought; Posidonius wrote a work on the gods, which formed the basis of the speculative part of Varro's Antiquitates divinae, and almost certainly also of the second book of Cicero's de _Natura Deorum_[554]. Other philosophers of the period, even if not professed Stoics, may have discussed the same subjects in their lectures and writings, arriving at conclusions of the same kind.

It is chiefly from the fragments of Varro's work that we learn something of the Stoic attempt to harmonise the old religious beliefs with philosophic theories of the universe[555]. Varro, following his teacher, held the Stoic doctrine of the animus mundi the Divine principle permeating all material things which, in combination with them, constitutes the universe, and is Nature, Reason, God, Destiny, or whatever name the philosopher might choose to give it. The universe is divine, the various parts of it are, therefore, also divine, in virtue of this informing principle. Now in the sixteenth book of his great work Varro co-ordinated this Stoic theory with the Graeco-Roman religion of the State as it existed in his time. The chief gods represented the partes mundi in various ways; even the difference of sex among the deities was explained by regarding male gods as emanating from the heaven and female ones from the earth, according to a familiar ancient idea of the active and passive principle in generation. The Stoic doctrine of [Greek: daimones] was also utilised to find an explanation for semi-deities, lares, genii, etc., and thus another character of the old Italian religious mind was to be saved from contempt and oblivion. The old Italian tendency to see the supernatural manifesting itself in many different ways expressed by adjectival titles, e.g. Mars Silvanus, Jupiter Elicius, Juno Lucina, etc., also found an explanation in Varro's doctrine; for the divine element existing in sky, earth, sea, or other parts of the mundus, and manifesting itself in many different forms of activity, might be thus made obvious to the ordinary human intellect without the interposition of philosophical terms.

At the head of the whole system was Jupiter, the greatest of Roman gods, whose title of Optimus Maximus might well have suggested that no other deity could occupy this place. Without him it would have been practically impossible for Varro to carry out his difficult and perilous task. Every Roman recognised in Jupiter the god who condescended to dwell on the Capitol in a temple made with hands, and who, beyond all other gods, watched over the destinies of the Roman State; every Roman also knew that Jupiter was the great god of the heaven above him, for in many expressions of his ordinary speech he used the god's name as a synonym for the open sky.[556] The position now accorded to the heaven-god in the new Stoic system is so curious and interesting that we must dwell on it for a moment.

Varro held, or at any rate taught, that Jupiter was himself that soul of the world (animus mundi) which fills and moves the whole material universe.[557] He is the one universal causal agent,[558] from whom all the forces of nature are derived;[559] or he may be called, in language which would be intelligible to the ordinary Roman, the universal Genius.[560] Further, he is himself all the other gods and goddesses, who may be described as parts, or powers, or virtues, existing in him.[561] And Varro makes it plain that he wishes to identify this great god of gods with the Jupiter at Rome, whose temple was on the Capitol; St. Augustine quotes him as holding that the Romans had dedicated the Capitol to Jupiter, who by his spirit breathes life into everything in the universe:[562] or in less philosophical language, "The Romans wish to recognise Jupiter as king of gods and men, and this is shown by his sceptre and his seat on the Capitol." Thus the god who dwelt on the Capitol, and in the temple which was the centre-point of the Roman Empire, was also the life-giving ruler and centre of the whole universe. Nay, he goes one step further, and identifies him with the one God of the monotheistic peoples of the East, and in particular with the God of the Jews.[563]

Thus Varro had arrived, with the help of Posidonius and the Stoics, at a monotheistic view of the Deity, which is at the same time a kind of pantheism, and yet, strange to say, is able to accommodate itself to the polytheism of the Graeco-Roman world. But without Jupiter, god of the heaven both for Greeks and Romans, and now too in the eyes of both peoples the god who watched over the destiny of the Roman Empire, this wonderful feat could not have been performed. The identification of the heaven-god with the animus mundi of the Stoics was not indeed a new idea; it may be traced up Stoic channels even to Plato. What is really new and astonishing is that it should have been possible for a conservative Roman like Varro, in that age of carelessness and doubt, to bring the heaven-god, so to speak, down to the Roman Capitol, where his statue was to be seen sitting between Juno and Minerva, and yet to teach the doctrine that he was the same deity as the Jewish Jehovah, and that both were identical with the Stoic animus mundi.

But did Varro also conceive of this Jupiter as a deity "making for righteousness," or acting as a sanction for morality? It would not have been impossible or unnatural for a Roman so to think of him, for of all the Roman deities Jupiter is the one whose name from the most ancient times had been used in oaths and treaties, and whose numen was felt to be violated by any public or private breach of faith.[564] We cannot tell how far Varro himself followed out this line of thought, for the fragments of his great work are few and far between. But we know that the Roman Stoics saw in that same universal Power or Mind which Varro identified with Jupiter the source and strength of law, and therefore of morality; here it is usually called reason, ratio, the working of the eternal and immutable Mind of the universe. "True law is right reason," says Cicero in a noble passage;[565] and goes on to teach that this law transcends all human codes of law, embracing and sanctioning them all; and that the spirit inherent in it, which gives it its universal force, is God Himself. In another passage, written towards the end of his life, and certainly later than the publication of Varro's work, he goes further and identifies this God with Jupiter.[566] "This law," he says, "came into being simultaneously with the Divine Mind" (i.e. the Stoic Reason): "wherefore that true and paramount law, commanding and forbidding, is the right reason of almighty Jupiter" (summi Iovis). Once more, in the first book of his treatise on the gods, he quotes the Stoic Chrysippus as teaching that the eternal Power, which is as it were a guide in the duties of life, is Jupiter himself.[567] It is characteristic of the Roman that he should think, in speculations like these, rather of the law of his State than of the morality of the individual, as emanating from that Right Reason to which he might give the name of Jupiter: I have been unable to find a passage in which Cicero attributes to this deity the sanction for individual goodness, though there are many that assert the belief that justice and the whole system of social life depend on the gods and our belief in them.[568] But the Roman had never been conscious of individual duty, except in relation to his State, or to the family, which was a living cell in the organism of the State. In his eyes law was rather the source of morality than morality the cause and the reason of law; and as his religion was a part of the law of his State, and thus had but an indirect connection with morality, it would not naturally occur to him that even the great Jupiter himself, thus glorified as the Reason in the universe, could really help him in the conduct of his life qua individual. It is only as the source of legalised morality that we can think of Varro's Jupiter as "making for righteousness."

Less than twenty-five years after Cicero's death, in the imagination of the greatest of Roman poets, Jupiter was once more brought before the Roman world, and now in a form comprehensible by all educated men, whether or no they had dabbled in philosophy. What are we to say of the Jupiter of the Aeneid? We do not need to read far in the first book of the poem to find him spoken of in terms which remind us of Varro: "O qui res hominumque deumque Aeternis regis imperiis," are the opening words of the address of Venus; and when she has finished,

Olli subridens hominum sator atque deorum Vultu, quo caelum tempestatesque serenat, Oscula libavit natae, dehine talia fatur; "Parce metu, Cytherea, manent immota tuorum Fata tibi."

Jupiter is here, as in Varro's system, the prime cause and ruler of all things, and he also holds in his hand the destiny of Rome and the fortunes of the hero who was to lay the first foundation of Rome's dominion. It is in the knowledge of his will that Aeneas walks, with hesitating steps, in the earlier books, in the later ones with assured confidence, towards the goal that is set before him. But the lines just quoted serve well to show how different is the Jupiter of Virgil from the universal deity of the Roman Stoic. Beyond doubt Virgil had felt the power of the Stoic creed; but he was essaying an epic poem, and he could not possibly dispense with the divine machinery as it stood in his great Homeric model. His Jupiter is indeed, as has been lately said,[569] "a great and wise god, free from the tyrannical and sensuous characteristics of the Homeric Zeus," in other words, he is a Roman deity, and sometimes acts and speaks like a grave Roman consul of the olden time. But still he is an anthropomorphic deity, a purely human conception of a personal god-king; in these lines he smiles on his daughter Venus and kisses her. This is the reason why Virgil has throughout his poem placed the Fates, or Destiny, in close relation to him, without definitely explaining that relation. Fate, as it appears in the Aeneid, is the Stoic [Greek: eimarmenae] applied to the idea of Rome and her Empire; that Stoic conception could not take the form of Jupiter, as in Varro's hands, for the god had to be modelled on the Homeric pattern, not on the Stoic. It is perhaps not going too far to say that the god, as a theological conception, never recovered from this treatment; any chance he ever had of becoming the centre of a real religious system was destroyed by the Aeneid, the pietas of whose hero is indeed nominally due to him, but in reality to the decrees of Fate.[570]

While philosophers and poets were thus performing intellectual and imaginative feats with the gods of the State, the strong tendency to superstition, untutored fear of the supernatural, which had always been characteristic of the Italian peoples, so far from losing power, was actually gaining it, and that not only among the lower classes. As Lucretius mockingly said, even those who think and speak with contempt of the gods will in moments of trouble slay black sheep and sacrifice them to the Manes. This feeling of fear or nervousness, which lies at the root of the meaning of the word religio,[571] had been quieted in the old days by the prescriptions of the pontifices and their jus divinum, but it was always ready to break out again; as we have seen, in the long and awful struggle of the Hannibalic war, it was necessary to go far beyond the ordinary pharmacopoeia within reach of the priesthoods in order to convince the people that all possible means were being taken for their salvation. Again, in this last age of the Republic, there are obvious signs that both ignorant and educated were affected by the gloom and uncertainty of the times. Increasing uncertainty in the political world, increasing doubt in the world of thought, very naturally combined to produce an emotional tendency which took different forms in men of different temperament. We can trace this (1) in the importance attached to omens, portents, dreams;

  1. in a certain vague thought of a future life, which takes a positive shape in the deification of human beings; (3) at the close of the period, in something approaching to a sense of sin, of neglected duty, bringing down upon State and individual the anger of the gods.

  1. If we glance over the latter part of the book of prodigies, compiled by the otherwise unknown writer Julius Obsequens from the records of the pontifices quoted in Livy's history, we can get a fair idea of the kind of portent that was troubling the popular mind. They are much the same as they always had been in Roman history,--earthquakes, monstrous births, temples struck by lightning, statues overthrown, wolves entering the city, and so on; they are extremely abundant in the terrible years of the Social and Civil Wars, become less frequent after the death of Sulla, and break out again in full force with the murder of Caesar. They were reported to the pontifices from the places where they were supposed to have occurred, and if thought worthy of expiation were entered in the pontifical books. We may suppose that they were sent in chiefly by the uneducated. But among men of education we have many examples of this same nervousness, of which two or three must suffice. Sulla, as we know from his own Memoirs, which were used directly or indirectly by Plutarch, had a strong vein of superstition in his nature, and made no attempt to control it. In dedicating his Memoirs to Lucullus he advised him "to think no course so safe as that which is enjoined by the [Greek: daimon] (perhaps his genius) in the night";[572] and Plutarch tells us several tales of portents on which he acted, evidently drawn from this same autobiography. We are told of him that he always carried a small image of Apollo, which he kissed from time to time, and to which he prayed silently in moments of danger.[573] Again, Cicero tells us a curious story of himself, Varro, and Cato, which shows that those three men of philosophical learning were quite liable to be frightened by a prophecy which to us would not seem to have much claim to respect.[574] He tells how when the three were at Dyrrachium, after Caesar's defeat there and the departure of the armies into Thessaly, news was brought them by the commander of the Rhodian fleet that a certain rower had foretold that within thirty days Greece would be weltering in blood; how all three were terribly frightened, and how a few days later the news of the battle at Pharsalia reached them. Lastly, we all remember the vision which appeared to Brutus on the eve of the battle of Philippi, of a huge and fearsome figure standing by him in silence, which Shakespeare has made into the ghost of Caesar and used to unify his play. According to Plutarch, the Epicurean Cassius, as Lucretius would have done, attempted to convince his friend on rational grounds that the vision need not alarm him, but apparently in vain.[575]

  2. Lucretius had denied the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, as the cause of so much of the misery which he believed it to be his mission to avert. Caesar, in the speech put into his mouth by Sallust, in the debate on the execution of the conspirators on December 5, 63, seems to be of the same opinion, and as Cicero alludes to his words in the speech with which he followed Caesar, we may suppose that Sallust was reporting him rightly.[576] The poet and the statesman were not unlike in the way in which they looked at facts; both were of clear strong vision, without a trace of mysticism. But such men were the exception rather than the rule; Cicero probably represents better the average thinking man of his time. Cicero was indeed too full of life, too deeply interested in the living world around him, to think much of such questions as the immortality of the soul; and as a professed follower of the Academic school, he assuredly did not hold any dogmatic opinion on it. He was at no time really affected by Pythagoreanism, like his friend Nigidius Figulus, whose works, now lost, had a great vogue in the later years of Cicero's life, and much influence on the age that followed. In the first book of his Tusculan Disputations Cicero discusses the question from the Academic point of view, coming to no definite conclusion, except that whether we are immortal or not we must be grateful to death for releasing us from the bondage of the body. This book was written in the last year of his life; but ten years earlier, in the beautiful myth, imitated from the myths of Plato, which he appended to his treatise de Republica, he had emphatically asserted the doctrine. There the spirit of the elder Scipio appears to his great namesake, Cicero's ideal Roman, and assures him that the road to heaven (caelum) lies open to those who do their duty in this life, and especially their duty to the State. "Know thyself to be a god; as the god of gods rules the universe, so the god within us rules the body, and as that great god is eternal, so does an eternal soul govern this frail body."[577]

The Somnium Scipionis was an inspiration, written under the influence of Plato at one of those emotional moments of Cicero's life which make it possible to say of him that there was a religious element in his mind.[578] Some years later the poignancy of his grief at the death of his daughter Tullia had the effect of putting him again in a strong emotional mood. For many weeks he lived alone at Astura, on the edge of the Pomptine marshes, out of reach of all friends, forbidding even his young wife and her mother to come near him; brooding, as it would seem, on the survival of the godlike element in his daughter. These sad meditations took a practical form which at first astonishes us, but is not hard to understand when we have to come to know Cicero well, and to follow the tendencies of thought in these years. He might erect a tomb to her memory,--but that would not satisfy him; it would not express his feeling that the immortal godlike spark within her survived. He earnestly entreats Atticus to find and buy him a piece of ground where he can build a fanum, i.e. a shrine, to her spirit. "I wish to have a shrine built, and that wish cannot be rooted out of my heart. I am anxious to avoid any likeness to a tomb ... in order to attain as nearly as possible to an apotheosis."[579] A little further on he calls these foolish ideas; but this is doubtless only because he is writing to Atticus, a man of the world, not given to emotion or mysticism. Cicero is really speaking the language of the Italian mind, for the moment free from philosophical speculation; he believes that his beloved dead lived on, though he could not have proved it in argument. So firmly does he believe it that he wishes others to know that he believes it, and insists that the shrine shall be erected in a frequented place![580]

Though the great Dictator did not believe in another world, he consented at the end of his life to become Jupiter Julius, and after his death was duly canonised as Divus, and had a temple erected to him. But the many-sided question of the deification of the Caesars cannot be discussed here; it is only mentioned as showing in another way the trend of thought in this dark age of Roman history. Whatever some philosophers may have thought, there cannot be a doubt that the ordinary Roman believed in the godhead of Julius.[581]

  1. We saw in an earlier chapter with what gay and heedless frivolity young men like Caelius were amusing themselves even on the very eve of civil war. In strange contrast with this is the gloom that overspread all classes during the war itself, and more especially after the assassination of the Dictator. Caesar seemed irresistible and godlike, and men were probably beginning to hope for some new and more stable order of things, when he was suddenly struck down, and the world plunged again into confusion and doubt; and it was not till after the final victory of Octavian at Actium, and the destruction of the elements of disunion with the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra, that men really began to hope for better times. The literature of those melancholy years shows distinct signs of the general depression, which was perhaps something more than weariness and material discomfort; there was almost what we may call a dim sense of sin, or at least of moral evil, such a feeling, though far less real and intense, as that which their prophets aroused from time to time in the Jewish people, and one not unknown in the history of Hellas.

The most touching expression of this feeling is to be found in the preface which Livy prefixed to his history--a wonderful example of the truth that when a great prose writer is greatly moved, his language reflects his emotion in its beauty and earnestness. Every student knows the sentence in which he describes the gradual decay of all that was good in the Roman character: "donec ad haec tempora, quibus nec vitia nostra nec remedia pati possumus, perventum est"; but it is not every student who can recognise in it a real sigh of despair, an unmistakable token of the sadness of the age.[582] In the introductory chapters which serve the purpose of prefaces to the Jugurtha and Catiline of Sallust, we find something of the same sad tone, but it does not ring true like Livy's exordium; Sallust was a man of altogether coarser fibre, and seems to be rather assuming than expressing the genuine feeling of a saddened onlooker. In one of his earliest poems, written perhaps after the Perusian war of 41 B.C.[583] even the lively Horace was moved to voice the prevailing depression, fancifully urging that the Italian people should migrate, like the Phocaeans of old, to the far west, where, as Sertorius had been told in Spain, lay the islands of the blest, where the earth, as in the golden age, yields all her produce untilled:

Iuppiter ilia piae secrevit litora genti Ut inquinavit aere tempus aureum; Aere, dehinc ferro duravit saecula, quorum Piis secunda vate me datur fuga.

It may be, as has recently been suggested, that the famous fourth Eclogue of Virgil, "the Messianic Eclogue," was in some sense meant as an answer to this poem of Horace. "There is no need," he seems to say in that poem, written in the year 39, "to seek the better age in a fabled island of the west. It is here and now with us. The period upon which Italy is now entering more than fulfils in real life the dream of a Golden Age. A marvellous child is even now coming into the world who will see and inaugurate an era of peace and prosperity: darkness and despair will after a while pass entirely away, and a regenerate Italy,--regenerate in religion and morals as in fertility and wealth,--will lead the world in a new era of happiness and good government."[584]

But the Golden Age, so fondly hoped for, so vaguely and poetically conceived, was not to come in the sense in which Virgil, or any other serious thinker of the day, could dream of it. I may conclude this chapter with a few sentences which express this most truly and eloquently. "When there is a fervent aspiration after better things, springing from a strong feeling of human brotherhood, and a firm belief in the goodness and righteousness of God, such aspiration carries with it an invincible confidence that some how, some where, some when, it must receive its complete fulfilment, for it is prompted by the Spirit which fills and orders the Universe throughout its whole development. But if the human organ of inspiration goes on to fix the how, the where, and the when, and attributes to some nearer object the glory of the final blessedness, then it inevitably falls into such mistakes as Virgil's, and finds its golden age in the rule of the Caesars (which was indeed an essential feature of Christianity), or perhaps, as in later days, in the establishment of socialism or imperialism. Well for the seer if he remembers that the kingdom of God is within us, and that the true golden age must have its foundation in penitence for misdoing, and be built up in righteousness and loving kindness."[585]




Prev | Next | Contents








Social Life in Roman Empire
Advertisements: