Anno Urbis - The Roman Empire Online


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After thus considering, however incompletely, the manner in which the people of the Roman world contrived to move about within the empire itself, we may proceed to glance at the constituent parts of the world in which they thus travelled to and fro.

And first we must draw a distinction of the highest importance between the western and eastern halves. Naturally enough, Italy itself was before all others the land of the Romans. It was the favoured land, enjoyed the fullest privileges, and was the most completely romanized in population, manners, and sentiment. Besides its larger and smaller romanized towns--of which there were about 1200--it was dotted from end to end with the country-seats and pleasure resorts of Romans. North and west of Italy were various peoples, differing widely in character, habits, and religion, as well as in physique. East of it were various other peoples differing also from each other in such respects, but for the most part marked by a common civilisation in which the West had but an almost inconsiderable share. Before the Roman conquest the nations and tribes of the West had been in general rude, unlettered, and unorganised. Except here and there in Spain, where the Phoenicians or Carthaginians had been at work, and in the Greek colonies sprung from Marseilles, they had hardly possessed such a thing as a town. They scarcely knew what was meant by civic life, with its material luxuries and graces, its art and literature. They were commonly small peoples without unity, brave fighters, but, in all those matters commonly classed as civilisation, distinctly behind the times. The superiority of the Roman in these parts was not merely one of organised strength, military skill, and political method, it was a superiority also of intellectual life and culture. In Spain, Gaul, Britain, Switzerland, the Tyrol and southern Austria, and also in North-West Africa, the Roman proceeded to organise after his own heart, to settle his colonies, to impose his language, and to inculcate his ideals. He was dealing with inferiors; this he fully recognised, and so for the most part did they.

Meanwhile to the eastward also Rome spread her conquests. Here, however, she was dealing with peoples who had already passed under influences in many respects superior to those brought by the conqueror, influences which were in a sense only beginning to educate the conqueror himself. Let us here, for the sake of clearness, make a brief digression into previous history.

Throughout the eastern half of the Mediterranean countries, conquering Rome had been face to face with an older, a more polished, a more keenly intellectual, and more artistic culture than her own. This was the civilisation of Greece. We need not dwell upon the character of Hellenic culture. Anyone who has made acquaintance with the richness of Greek literature, the clear sureness of Greek art, the keen insight of Greek science and philosophy, and the bold experiments of Greek society--especially as represented by Athens--will understand at once what is meant. When the Romans, more than two hundred years before our date, conquered Greece, in so far as they were a people of letters or of effort in abstract thought, in so far as they possessed the arts of sculpture, architecture, painting, and music, they were almost wholly indebted to Greece. Their own strength lay in solidity and gravity of character, in a strong sense of national and personal discipline, in the gift of law-making and law-obeying. In culture they stood to the Greeks of that time very much as the Germans of two centuries ago stood to the French. After their conquest by the Romans the Greeks perforce submitted to the rule of might, but the typical Greek never looked upon the Roman as socially or intellectually his equal. He became himself the philosophic, artistic, and social teacher of his conqueror. His own language was richer in literature, and it was better adapted to every form of conversation. The Latin of the Romans therefore made no progress in Greece or the Greek world. It might be made the language of the Roman courts and of official documents; but beyond this the ordinary Greek disdained to study it. On the other hand the ordinary well-educated Roman could generally speak Greek. Magistrates and officials were almost invariably thus accomplished, and in Athens or Ephesus they talked Greek as we should naturally talk French in Paris--only better, inasmuch as they learned the language in a more rational and practical way. Nero himself could act, or thought he could act, a Greek play and sing a Greek ode among the Greeks. Most probably the Roman noble had been brought up by a Greek nurse, just as so many English families formerly employed a nurse imported from France. Nor did the Greeks merely ignore the Latin language. They refused to be romanized in any other respect. Even the Roman amusements tended to disgust them, and it is to the credit of his superior refinement that the average Greek was repelled by those brutal exhibitions of gladiatorial bloodshed and slaughter over which the coarser Roman gloated.

When, next, we pass from Greece proper--that is to say, from the Grecian peninsula and the islands and Asiatic shores of the Aegean Sea--into Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt, we still find the Roman conqueror annexing peoples more versed in the higher arts of life than himself. For ages there had existed in these regions various forms of advanced civilisation. The Assyrian, Babylonian, Phoenician, Hebrew, and Egyptian cultures were old before Rome was born. Later the Persian subjugated all these peoples. And then, four hundred years before the time with which we are dealing, had come the Macedonian Greek Alexander the Great, and had conquered every one of those provinces which were subsequently to form the eastern part of the Roman Empire as represented on our map. The language and culture of Alexander were Greek, and he carried these and settled them with the most determined policy in every available quarter. After his death his empire broke up into kingdoms, but those kings who succeeded him--every Antiochus of Syria and every Ptolemy of Egypt--were Greek. Their court was Greek, and Hellenism was everywhere the fashion in life, thought, letters, and art. All round the coasts, in all the great cities, on all the main routes, up all the great river valleys of these eastern kingdoms, this graecizing proceeded. Alexander had founded the city of Alexandria, and soon that great and opulent city became more the home of Greek science and literature than Athens itself. His successors founded other great cities, such as Antioch, and there also the civilisation was Greek.

Egyptians, Jews, and Syrians who were possessed of any kind of public, social, or even mercantile ambition therefore naturally spoke Greek, either only, or more often in conjunction with their native tongue. This is the reason why the Septuagint appeared in Greek; why Greek as well as Hebrew and Latin was written over the Cross; why our New Testament was written in Greek; and why Paul could travel about the eastern half of the Roman world and talk fluently wherever he went. He could address a Roman governor directly at Paphos because that governor had learned Greek at Rome, either in school or under his nurse or tutor. He could stand before the Areopagus at Athens and address that distinguished body in its own tongue because it was also one of his own tongues.

Not that one could expect the Greek culture, or even the language, to remain pure when thus spread abroad. There were blendings of Oriental elements, Egyptian, Jewish, or Syrian; but these elements were themselves derived from advanced and time-honoured civilisations.

It follows, therefore, that all through the Eastern half of its domain Rome could not contrive to romanize. She did not attempt to suppress Greek ideas; she preferred to utilise them. So long as the Roman rule was obeyed in its essentials, Rome was satisfied.

In the main, then, we have, outside Italy, two very distinct halves of the Roman world: the Eastern, with its large cities, its active civic life, its high culture, its contributions to science, art, and luxury--and, it must be added, its general dissoluteness--with here and there its pronounced leanings to Oriental fanaticism; and the Western, with very few large towns, with a life more determined by clans and tribes or country districts, with comparatively little social culture, contributing almost nothing to art or science, stronger in its contribution of natural products and virile men than in those of the more refined or artificial luxury. Over this half the Roman tongue, Roman dress, and Roman manners spread rapidly. In it Roman settlers made themselves more at home. The aim of the better classes of the natives was to render themselves as Roman as possible. It is in the western part of the empire that you will find the names which mark systematic Roman settlement and which often denote the work of an emperor. Towns such as Saragossa (Caesarea Augusta), Aosta, Augsburg, Autun (Augustodunum), and Augst are foundations of Augustus. Hence the fact that Spain and Prance speak a Latin tongue at this day, while no Latin was ever even temporarily the recognised language between the southern Adriatic and the Euphrates.

This prime division made, let us now pass quickly round the empire, making such brief observations as may appear most helpful as we go.

In the year 64 the south of Spain, the province of Baetica--of which we may speak more familiarly as Andalusia--was prosperous and peaceful, almost completely romanized and latinized. Many of its inhabitants were true Latins, most had made themselves indistinguishable from Latins. Along the river Guadalquivir there were flourishing towns, chief among them being those now known as Seville and Cordova. The whole region was one of rich pasture and tillage, and from it the merchant ships from Cadiz brought to Rome cargoes of the finest wool and of excellent olives and other fruits. The east of Spain, with Tarragona for its capital, stood next in order for its settled life and steady produce, including wine, salt fish and sauces, while in the interior the finest steel--corresponding to the Bilbao blades of more modern history--was tempered in the cold streams of the hills above the sources of the Tagus. From Portugal came cochineal and olives. In several parts of the peninsula--in Portugal, in the Asturias, and near Cartagena--were mines of gold and silver, which had been worked by the old Phoenicians and which the Romans had reopened. The chief trouble of Spain, it may be interesting to learn, was the rabbits, and against these there were no guns and no poison, but only dogs, traps, and ferrets. In Gaul there is one province long-established and fully romanized, with its capital at Narbonne, and with flourishing Roman towns, which are now familiar under such names as Aries and Nîmes. This is a region over the coast of which the culture of Greece had managed to stray, centuries before, through the accident of a Greek colony having been founded at Marseilles. In this province a Roman might live and feel that he was still as good as in Italy. But beyond lay what was known as "Long-haired" Gaul, sometimes "Trousered" Gaul, so called from the distinguishing externals of its inhabitants, who wore breeches, let their hair grow long, and on their faces grew only a moustache--three things which no Roman did, and from which, even in these districts, the nobles, who were the first to romanize, were beginning to desist.

The peoples of these Gaulish provinces preferred, like all early Celtic communities, to give their adherence only to clans or tribes, and to unite no further than impulse or expediency dictated, forming no towns larger than a village, living for the most part in poor huts scattered through forests, hills, marshes, and pasture land, and content to sleep on straw, if only they could wear a fine plaid and boast of a gold ornament. The names of many such tribes still remain in the names of the towns which grew up from the chief village of each canton. Such were the Ambiani, who have given us Amiens, and the Remi, who have given us Rheims. Paris and Trèves denote the administrative villages of the Parisii and Treveri. Nevertheless the country had its corn-lands and was rich in minerals and cattle, from which the hides came regularly down the Rhone to be carried to the Mediterranean markets. "Long-haired" Gaul was at this date rude and superstitious, with that weird druidical religion which the Emperor Claudius had done his best to suppress. Its chief vice was that of drunkenness. As with the French, who have largely descended from them, the proverbial passions of the Gauls were for war and for the art of speaking; but at our date the former passion was decaying and the latter gaining ground. The Gaulish provinces united at a point on the Rhone, near which necessarily arose the largest city of that part of the world, namely, Lugdunum, or Lyons, which speedily became not only a seat of administration but a noted school of eloquence.

Of Britain there is as yet little to say. For the last twenty years the Romans had done their best to conquer the Celtic tribes, who suffered, as Celtic tribes were always apt to suffer, from their own disunion. They had now reached the Trent--or rather a line from Chester to Lincoln--had just punished Boudicca (or Boadicea) for her vigorous effort at retaliation and her slaughter of 70,000 Romans or adherents of Rome, and were following the true Roman practice of securing what they had won by building military roads and establishing strong posts of control, as at Colchester, Chester, and Caerleon-on-Usk. Some amount of iron-working was being done in Britain, but its chief exports were, as they had long been, tin, salt, and hides. The British themselves had no towns. The places so called were nothing more than collections of huts, surrounded by rampart and ditch, in some easily defensible spot amid wood or marsh.

Along the Rhine it is enough to note that the Germans were being kept in hand. South of the Danube the region now known as Styria and Carinthia was rich in iron, and both here and all along the mountainous tract of the Tyrol and neighbourhood Rome was steadily pushing her language and habits by means of settlement, trading, and military occupation. It may be remarked by the way that at this date there were in use practically all the Alpine passes now familiar to us--the Mont Genèvre, the Little and Great St. Bernard, the Simplon, the St. Gothard, and the Brenner.

The Upper Balkans were necessarily under military occupation, but Macedonia was a flourishing graecized province with Thessalonica--the modern Salonika--for its capital. Greece proper, known officially as Achaia, had declined in every respect since the classical age of Athens. The monuments of that city were, indeed, as sumptuous as ever; a number had been added in Roman times, though generally in inferior taste. Athens was still a sort of university, but its professors were for the most part sophists or rhetoricians, beating over again the old straws of philosophies which had once possessed a living meaning and exercised a living force. Athens herself had never properly recovered from the migration of learning to Alexandria. Delphi, the great oracular seat of the Greek world, had also declined in importance, although it could still boast of an imposing array of buildings and memorials. The centre of commerce and of official life, a Roman colony in the midst of Greece, a cosmopolitan and a dissolute place, was Corinth on the Isthmus. Here Nero had intended to cut a canal through from sea to sea--he had turned the first sod with his own hand--but his personal extravagance caused an insufficiency of funds, and the project met with the fate of the first enterprise at Panama. It was, therefore, still necessary for a traveller proceeding to the East to cross the Isthmus and reship at Cenchreae. The rest of Greece was almost all poor and sparsely populated, and many ancient sites and monuments were already suffering from neglect and dropping into ruin.

[Illustration: Fig. 6--THE ACROPOLIS AT ATHENS (From D'Ooge.)]

Across the Aegean, Asia Minor was in a condition of unprecedented prosperity. It contained no less than five hundred towns of considerable repute, chief among them being Smyrna and Ephesus, with their handsome public buildings, open squares, theatres, gardens, and promenades. Smyrna in particular boasted of its wide marble-paved streets crossing each other at right angles, and provided with arcades running along their sides. Its one defect was the want of proper sewers. Among the sights of the world was the huge temple at Ephesus, dedicated to Artemis, the "Great Diana" of the Acts of the Apostles. This temple, the largest in the ancient world, was 425 feet long, 220 wide, and its columns were 60 feet in height and numbered 127.

South-east of the Aegean was situated the opulent Rhodes, the handsomest and strongest port in the Mediterranean, provided with fine harbour buildings, a seat of learning, and so full of art that it contained no less than 3000 statues. In the somewhat desolate interior of Asia Minor were spacious runs for sheep and horses, but wheat also was grown, and the country could at least produce tall and sturdy slaves. In northern Galatia the common people had not yet forgotten the Celtic tongue which they had brought from Gaul over three centuries ago. In the south-east, opposite Cyprus, lay Tarsus, the birthplace of Paul, a city which combined the art of manufacturing goats' hair into tent-cloth with the pursuit of what may be called a university instruction in philosophy, science, and letters. In both these local avocations the apostle employed his youth to good purpose. Across the water Cyprus produced the copper which still bears its name.

[Illustration: FIG. 7.--PLAN OF ANTIOCH.]

Of Syria, rich in corn and fruits, the chief city--the third in the empire--was Antioch, a town splendidly laid out upon the Orontes in a strikingly modern fashion. A broad street with colonnades extended in a straight line through and beyond the city for four miles, and was crossed by others at right angles. This street is said to have been lighted at nights, while the Roman streets remained dark and dangerous. In the neighbourhood of the city was the celebrated park called Daphne, where the voluptuous and almost incredible dissipation of the ancient world perhaps reached its acme. Like Alexandria, Antioch was furiously addicted to horseracing.

Further down the coast Sidon produced its famous glass, and Tyre its famous purple dye. Inland from these lay the handsome city of Damascus, famed for its gardens and for its work in fine linen. Still farther south was Hierosolyma, or Jerusalem, of which it is perhaps not necessary here to give details. Its population was reckoned at a quarter of a million.

On the coast of Egypt, after you had caught sight, some thirty miles away, of the first glint from the huge marble lighthouse standing 400 feet high upon the island of Pharos, you arrived at Alexandria, the second city of the Roman world and the great emporium for the trade of Egypt, of all Eastern Africa as far as Zanzibar, and of India. From it came the papyrus paper, delicate glass-work, muslin, embroidered cloths, and such additions to luxury as roses out of season. Alexandria, built like Antioch on a rectangular plan, with its chief streets 100 feet in width, contained a Jewish quarter, controlled by a Jewish headman and a Sanhedrin; an Egyptian quarter; and a Greek quarter, in which were the splendid buildings of the Library with its 600,000 volumes, and the University, devoted to all branches of learning and science--including medicine--and provided with botanical and zoological gardens. Here also were the temple of Caesar and the fine harbour buildings. Its population, exceedingly money-loving and pleasure-loving, and comprising representatives of every Oriental people, may have numbered three-quarters of a million. The circuit of the city was about thirteen miles, and its chief street some four miles in length.

[Illustration: FIG. 8.--EMBLEM OF ANTIOCH.]

Behind it lay Egypt, with its irrigation and traffic canals kept in good order; with its monuments in far better preservation than now--the pyramids, for example, being still coated with their smooth marble sides, and not to be mounted by the present steps, from which the marble has been torn; with its rich corn-lands, its convict mines and quarries, the Siberia of antiquity; with its string of towns along the Nile and its seven or, eight millions of inhabitants--mostly speaking Coptic--and full of strange superstitions and peculiar worship of animals.

Coming westward we reach the prosperous Cyrene, and then, by the rather out-of-the-world Bight of Tripoli, Africa proper, where once ruled mighty Carthage, the colony of Tyre, and where the Phoenician or Punic language still survived among the population of mixed Phoenicians and Berbers. Here, too, are wide and luxuriant stretches of corn-land, upon which Rome depends only next, if next, to those of Alexandria. Further west are the Berber tribes of Mauretania, governed by Rome but hardly yet fully assimilated into the Roman system.

[Illustration: FIG. 9.--EMBLEM OF ALEXANDRIA.]

In the Mediterranean Sea lie Crete, a place which had now become of little importance; Sicily, as much Greek as Roman, fertile in crops and possessed of many a splendid Greek temple and theatre; Sardinia, an unhealthy island infested by banditti, and employed as a sort of convict station, producing some amount of grain and minerals; and Corsica, which bore much the same character for savagery as it did in times comparatively recent, and which had little reputation for any product but its second-rate honey and its wax. The Balearic Islands were chiefly noted for their excellence in the art of slinging for painters' earth, and for breeding snails for the Roman table.

[Illustration: FIG. 10.--EMBLEM OF ROME. From the Column of Antoninus at Rome.]

It remains to say that the feeling of local pride was very strong in the rival towns of the empire. Each gloried in its distinguishing commerce and natural advantages, and the chosen emblems of the greater cities set forth their boasts with much artistic ingenuity. Thus Antioch is symbolised by a female figure seated on a rock, crowned with a turreted diadem, and holding in her hand a bunch of ears of corn, while her foot is planted on the shoulder of a half-buried figure representing the river Orontes. Alexandria, with her Horn of Plenty, her Egyptian fruits, and the representations of her elephants, asps, and panthers, as well as of her special deities, appears in relief upon a silver vessel found at Boscoreale near Pompeii and here reproduced.

Such in brief was the Roman Empire. How all this empire was governed, what was meant by emperor, governor, taxation, and justice, is matter for other chapters.

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