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LIFE IN THE ROMAN WORLD OF NERO AND ST. PAUL

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THE IMPERIAL SYSTEM: EMPEROR, SENATE, KNIGHTS, AND PEOPLE

We have seen, and succinctly traversed, the extent of the Roman world. The next step is to consider, as tersely as possible, its system of government and administration about the year 64. This task is not only entirely necessary to our immediate purpose; it is also one of great interest and profit in itself. If we are either to see in their proper light the experiences of such a man as St. Paul, or to understand the long continuance of so wide an empire, we must observe carefully the principles and methods adopted by the Romans as rulers.

We speak fluently of the "Roman Emperor" and of the "reign of Nero." What was an emperor? What were his powers, and how did he exercise them?

In the first place, it must be noted that, strictly speaking, Rome acknowledged no such thing as an autocrat. It had no monarch; the title "king" was disowned by the Caesars and entirely denied by the people; the emperor was technically not a superior sovereign, but, on the contrary, something inferior to a sovereign. He was the first citizen, the "first man of the state." The state was nominally a commonwealth, and the emperor its most important officer.

He was, to begin with, the representative of Rome as civil and military governor of all provinces containing an army, or apparently calling for an army. "Emperor" means military commander, and he was the commander-in-chief of all the forces of the empire, military or naval, but in a sense far more liberal than would now be intended by such an expression. Of all the fighting forces he had absolute control, determining their numbers, their service, all appointments, their pay, and their discharge. He moved them where he chose, and, beyond this, he possessed the power of declaring war and concluding peace. Wherever there existed an armed force, whether in the far-off field or in garrison, its obedience was due to him. In sign of this every soldier, on the first of January and on the anniversary of the emperor's accession, took a solemn oath--and an oath in those days was felt as no mere matter of form, but as a solemn act of religion--that he would loyally obey the commander-in-chief. The emperor's effigy was conspicuous in the middle of every camp, and, in small, it figured on the standard of every regiment. The sacred obligation of the soldier to an Augustus or a Nero was kept perpetually in evidence, and he was never allowed to forget it. Wherever the emperor appeared or intervened in the provinces, all other powers became subordinate to his.

[Illustration: FIG. 11.--AUGUSTUS AS EMPEROR.]

Theoretically such a commander might always be deposed by the Roman people, acting through its Senate. In reality he was master of the situation. If he was ever deposed, or if a new commander was ever appointed, it was by the army. If he proved a tyrant, there was no other means of getting rid of him than by the army, unless it were by assassination. At such times the Senate might make a show of naming the successor, and the army might make a show of agreeing with the Senate, but such expressions, as Tacitus repeats, were "empty and meaningless words." The madman Caligula had been assassinated. When, four years after our date, Nero was compelled to flee from his palace and was persuaded into committing suicide, it was because the soldiers had declared against him and had elected another.

The vast powers of the emperor had come into the hands of one man simply because the republic had been found incompetent to handle its empire, whether from a military or a financial point of view. It managed neither so consistently nor so honestly as did the individual.

The emperor, then, by a constitutional fiction, was an officer of the commonwealth, commanding its forces, not only with the freedom of action which Rome had always allowed to its experts in dealing with the enemy, but with that freedom greatly enlarged, and with a tenure of the office perpetually renewed.

But to him that hath shall be given--especially if he is in a position to insist on the gift. The emperor's military authority, his position as governor of provinces, could not alone rightfully qualify him to control Rome itself, with its laws, its magistrates, its domestic and provincial policy. Theoretically the Roman emperor never did control these matters.

In practice he did with them very much as he chose. If he seriously wished a certain course to be followed, a certain law to be passed or abolished, even a certain man to be elected to an office, it was promptly done. But how could he thus perpetually interfere and yet appear to remain a constitutional officer? Not through the mere obsequiousness of every one concerned, including the Senate. That would be too transparent, clumsy, and invidious. It was necessary that he should possess some adequate appearance of real authority, and he was therefore ingeniously invested with that authority. It was thus. There were under the commonwealth certain annual officers of wide and rather indefinite powers called "tribunes of the commons." These persons could veto any measure which they declared to be in opposition to the interests of the people. They could also summon the Senate, and bring proposals before it. Meanwhile their persons were "sacrosanct," or inviolable, during their term of office. Here lay the opportunity. The emperor was invested by the Senate with these "powers of the tribune." He was not actually elected a tribune, for the office was only annual and could not be held along with any other, whereas the emperor must have the prerogatives always, and in conjunction with any other functions which he might choose to hold. He, therefore, only received the corresponding "powers" and privileges. This position enabled him to veto a measure whenever he chose, and with impunity. Naturally therefore it became the custom, as far as possible, to find out his wishes beforehand, and to move accordingly. He could also, in the same right, summon the Senate and bring measures, or get them brought, before it. To make certainty doubly certain, he was granted the right to what we should call "the first business on the notice-paper."

Observe further the shrewdness of the first emperor, Augustus, when he selected this particular position. The "tribunes of the commons" were constitutionally popular champions; they represented the interests of the common people. By assuming a position similar to theirs, the emperor--or commander-in-chief--made it appear to the common people that he was their chief and perpetual representative, and that their interests were bound up with his authority. He took them under his wing, and saw, among other things, that they did not starve or go stinted of amusements. He saw to it that they had corn for their bread, plenty of water, and games in the circus. His "bread and games" kept them quiet.

Supported by the army on one side, with his person secure, enjoying the right of initiative and the right of veto, this officer of the "commonwealth" became indeed the Colossus who bestrode the Roman world. He was invariably made also the Pontifex Maximus, or chief guardian of the religious interests of Rome. He might in addition receive other constitutional appointments--for example, that of supervisor or corrector of morals--whenever these might suit a special purpose. What more could a man desire, if he was satisfied to forego the name of autocrat so long as he possessed the substance? It was quite as much to the purpose to be called Princeps, or "head of the state," as to be called a king, like the Parthian or other Oriental monarchs. Among the Romans, therefore, "Princeps" was his regular title. The Graeco-Oriental half of the empire, which had long been accustomed to kings and to treating them almost as gods, frankly styled this head of the state "king" or "autocrat," but no true Roman would forget himself so far as to lapse into this vulgar truth.

One other title, however, the Romans did attach to their "Princeps." Something was still wanting to bring home, to both the Roman and the provincial, the peculiarly exalted position of so great a man; something which should be a recognition of that majesty which made him almost divine, at least with the divinity that doth hedge a king. The title selected for this purpose was Augustus, a word for which there is no nearer English equivalent than "His Highness," or perhaps "His Majesty," if we imagine that term applied to one who, by a legal fiction, is not a king. The insane Caligula called himself, or let himself be called, "Lord and Master," and later Domitian temporarily added to this title "God," but even Nero claimed neither of these modest epithets.

Here, then, is the position of Nero: Commander-in-chief of all the forces of Rome by land and sea, and master of its foreign policy; the titular protector of its commons and therefore inviolable of person and virtual controller of laws and resolutions; official head of the state religion; rejoicer in the style of "His Highness the Head of the State." To speak ill of him, or to do anything derogatory to his authority, was lèse majesté.

[Illustration: FIG. 12.--COIN OF NERO. British Museum.]

Reference has several times been made to the Senate. It is time now to speak briefly of that body. For the sake of clearness, however, we must include a survey of the recognised constituent elements or "orders" of Roman society.

The body politic consisted nominally of all who where known as "Roman citizens." These included men of every rank, from the artisan, the agricultural labourer, or even the idle loafer--of whom there was more than plenty--up through every grade of the middle classes to the richest and bluest-blooded aristocrat who considered himself in point of birth more than the equal of the emperor. Any such citizen was secured in person and property by the Roman laws. It was a punishable act for the local authorities at Philippi to take Paul, a "Roman citizen," and, before he was condemned, chastise him with rods.

According to the letter of the constitution, the power of electing all officers of state, and of passing laws, had belonged to this miscellaneous body, the "people," gathered in assembly. Meanwhile the power of determining foreign policy and controlling the finances had lain with a special body, consisting largely of the aristocracy and of ex-officers of state, known as the "Senate." We are not here concerned with the causes of the changes which buried this constitution out of sight, but only with the actual state of things in the year 64.

In point of fact there were, under the emperors, no longer any assemblies of the "people"; the people at large neither elected nor legislated. The chief articles of the constitution had fallen into complete abeyance during the troublous times which preceded the establishment of that poorly disguised monarchy which we know as the empire. All real power of electing and law-making came to be in the hands of the Senate, acting with the emperor. While the emperor dominated the Senate, he was nevertheless glad to fall back upon that body in justification of his own actions and as a means of keeping up the constitutional pretence. He permitted the Senate to pass resolutions, and to exercise authority, just so far as there was no conflict with his own pronounced wishes and interests. It was not his policy to interfere and irritate when there was no occasion. On the other hand, when he desired a piece of legislation or an important administrative novelty, he preferred that it should be backed up by the sanction, or promoted by the apparently spontaneous action, of the Senate. It then bore a better appearance, and was less open to cavil. The people are no longer consulted at all in such matters. They have no say in them, for they have neither plebiscite nor representative government.

It must not be supposed that there never was friction between emperor and Senate. The Senate was often--or rather generally--servile, because it was intimidated. But there were times when it was inclined to assert itself; some of its members occasionally allowed themselves a certain freedom of speech, toward which one emperor might be surprisingly lenient or good-naturedly contemptuous, and another outrageously vindictive. In the year 64 the Senate was outwardly docile enough, although at heart it was anything but loyal to his Highness Nero the Head of the State. It must always be remembered that among the Senate were included many of the highest-born, proudest, and strictest of the Roman nobles or men of eminence. To them the whole succession of emperors was still a series of upstarts--the family of the Caesars--usurping powers which properly belonged to the Senate. You could not expect these persons, aristocrats at heart, and many of them true patriots, bearing names distinguished throughout Roman history, to acquiesce in the spectacle of one who was no better than they, as he passed up to his huge palace on the Palatine Hill, escorted by his guards, or as he entered the Senate-House to give what were practically his orders, perhaps scarcely deigning to recognise men whose families had been illustrious while his was obscure. At times a member here or there was calculating his own chances of supplanting the man who galled him by condescension, or coldness, or even insult. These aristocrats felt as the French nobles might feel with Napoleon. And on his side the emperor, good or bad, never felt quite safe from a plot to overthrow him. On the whole these earlier emperors were much engaged in keeping the Senate in its place, and were inclined, with quite sufficient reason, to be jealous and suspicious of its more important members.

It was natural, therefore, that they should keep a very practical control over the composition of that body. The situation was much as if a modern nation were ruled by a virtual autocrat assisted by a House of Peers. The senators and their families formed a "senatorial order." So far as the Romans had such a thing as a peerage under the empire, it is to be found in the senatorial order. And as a title may now be either hereditary or conferred by the sovereign as the "fount of honour," so, under the Roman emperors, the right to belong to the senatorial order might come from birth or from the choice of the head of the state. Normally you belonged to the "order" if you were the son of a senator; you ranked in that class of society. To belong to the Senate itself and to take part in its debates you must then have held a certain public office and must possess not less than £8000. The £8000 is the minimum. Most senators were rich, and some were enormously wealthy. They are found with a capital of £3,000,000 or £4,000,000 and an income up to £150,000. As for the public office which you must first hold, you could not even be a candidate for it unless you were already of the "order." If, when you are a senator, there is anything serious against you, or if you become impoverished, your name may be expunged from the list. Otherwise you remain a senator all your life, and your son in turn is of the "order," and may pass into the Senate by the same process. If you were a popular or highly deserving person, and from any accident had lost your property, the emperor would frequently make up the deficiency, or your brother senators would subscribe the necessary amount.

But an emperor could meanwhile raise to the "order" anyone he chose. He could give him standing, and so make him eligible as a candidate for that public office which was preliminary to entering the actual Senate. Moreover, when it came to the elections to this office which served as the indispensable stepping-stone to the Senate-House, the vacancies were limited in number, and the emperor had the right of either nominating or recommending the candidates whom he preferred. Needless to say, those candidates were invariably elected. It was, of course, monstrous arrogance for Caligula to boast that he could make his horse a consul if he chose, but the taunt contained a measure of truth.

Let us then put the case thus. Imagine that a modern senate is recruited from persons whose names are in the Peerage and Baronetage, and that, before any scion of such a family can enter the Senate itself, he must go through some sort of under-secretaryship, to which he must first be elected.

But next imagine that the sovereign can raise to the rank of "peerage or baronetage" some favoured person whose family does not yet figure in Debrett. Such a man is then entitled to put his name on the list of candidates for the necessary under-secretaryship, and, when the sovereign reviews that list, he marks the candidate as nominated or recommended by himself. So he passes into the Senate.

Most emperors did this but sparingly. They made the Senate an aristocratic and wealthy body, keeping its numbers at somewhere near 600. We must not be perpetually assuming that the Caesars were either reckless or unscrupulous, because two or three were of that character. Many of them were remarkably capable and sagacious men. They recognised the need of ability and high character in their Senate. They had themselves enough of the old Roman exclusiveness to keep their honours from being made too cheap, and the probability is that under their rule the Senate was quite as honourable and quite as able a body as it was at any time under the republic.

The feeling of noblesse oblige was strongly implanted in this senatorial class. The wealth of most members also put them above the more sordid temptations. The senator was not permitted to undertake any mercantile or financial business. The ancient notion still survived, that the only really honourable occupations for money were war and agriculture. The senator might own land and dispose of its produce or receive its rents, but he could not, for instance, be a money-lender or tax-farmer. Sometimes, no doubt, a senator evaded these provisions by employing a "dummy," but we must not probe too deep under the surface. In compensation for this disability it was from the senatorial class that were drawn all the governors of the important provinces, except Egypt, and all the higher military officers. In these capacities they received salaries. The governor of Africa, for example, was paid £10,000 a year.

Such men were no mere inexperienced aristocrats or plutocrats. They had regularly passed through a military training in youth, and had then held a minor civil appointment, commonly involving some knowledge of public finance. Next they had passed into the Senate and taken part in its business; had then held other public offices which taught them practical administration and probably legal procedure; and had afterwards been put in command of a "legion," that is to say, a brigade or corps d'armée. After performing such functions with credit, a senator might be sent to govern Syria or Macedonia or Britain or some other province. He was then a man of varied experience and ripe judgment, trained in official discipline and etiquette, as well as in knowledge. This was the kind of man whom Paul met in Cyprus in the person of the governor Sergius Paulus, or at Corinth in the person of Gallio.

Certain smaller provinces might be administered by men of another order, who were neither filled with the senatorial traditions nor had passed through the senatorial career. These were but "factors" or "agents" of Caesar, and among them were the Pontius Pilate, Felix, and Festus, who were administrators of Judaea in New Testament times.

Next in rank to the senatorial order stood that of the "Knights." If the senators represent, in a certain sense, the peerage and baronetage, the next order represents--also in a certain sense.--the knightage. Generally speaking, it comprehended what we should call the upper middle classes, and particularly those concerned in the higher walks of finance; such persons as, with us, would be the directors or managers of great companies and banks. It also included persons whom the head of the state chose to honour with something less than senatorial standing. Many of these men were extremely wealthy, but the minimum property qualification stood at only £3200, and Roman citizens who possessed that amount were rather apt to pose as knights, and to be commonly spoken of as such by a kind of courtesy title, although their names could not be found upon the authorised rolls. Though several emperors did their best to stop this practice, the endeavour was for the most part fruitless. Once in England the "esquires" were a class with certain recognised claims, but nothing could stop the polite tendency to add "Esq." to the name of a person on a private letter. The case was somewhat similar at Rome, although the practice did not proceed quite so far.

Nevertheless there was a distinct and official roll of "Roman knights," whom the head of the state had honoured with a public present of "the gold ring," a ceremony corresponding to the royal sword-stroke of modern times. This body, mounted on horses nominally presented by the public, and riding in procession through the streets, was reviewed and revised every year. Their roll was called, and if a name was omitted from its proper place, it meant--without explanation necessary--that by the pleasure of the emperor the person in question had ceased to be a knight. Every member of the already-mentioned higher or senatorial order was by right a knight until he actually became a senator, from which time he ceased to enjoy the privileges of a knight because he was enjoying those of the higher order rank. For there were privileges as well as disabilities in each case. As a senator could govern large provinces and command armies, but could not engage in purely financial business; so the knight could--and almost alone did--conduct the large financial enterprises of the Roman world, but could not command armies nor hold any of the great public offices or higher provincial appointments, except the governorship of Egypt. Relatively to the senators the emperor was technically only "first among equals"; he was the first senator, as well as the first man of the state. At this date a senator would hold a truly public office, civil or military, with or under this "superior equal," but he would not act as his personal agent or assistant. The Roman aristocrat had not yet learned to serve in that capacity, still less on the "household" staff of the autocrat. There were as yet no highly placed Romans serving as Lord High Chamberlain, much less as Private Secretary. The "knights" stood in a different position. They were prepared to be the emperor's personal agents, just as they were prepared to be the agents of any one else, if sufficiently remunerated. They would take his personal orders, whether in managing his estates, collecting his provincial revenues, or relieving him of some routine portion of his own official labour.

It follows that it was often more lucrative to be a knight than a senator, and a number of senators were not unwilling to give up their rank, for the same reasons which induce a modern peer to serve on companies or a peeress to open a shop. On the other hand many a knight would have declined to become a senator, at least until he had sufficiently feathered his nest. The inducement to become or remain a senator was the social rank, the honour and dignity, with their outward insignia and the deference paid to them, the front seat, and the reception at court. In these the wives also shared, and at Rome the influence of the wife could not be disregarded.

If you met a senator, or a person of senatorial rank, in the street, you would know him for such by the broad band of purple which ran down the front, and probably also down the back, of his tunic, and by the silver or ivory crescent which he wore upon his black shoes. His wife, it is perhaps needless to say made even more show of what is called the "broad stripe." If you met a knight, you would perceive his standing by his two narrow stripes of purple appearing upon the same part of his dress. Each would wear a gold ring; but that in itself would prove nothing, since, despite all attempts at prohibiting the custom, every Roman who could afford a gold ring permitted himself that luxury.

If you entered one of the large semicircular theatres, which are to be described in due course, you would find that the men wearing the broad stripe seated themselves in the chairs which stood upon the level in front of the stage, while those wearing the narrow stripes would occupy the first fourteen tiers of seats rising just behind them. No one else might, occupy those places. If some one who had been improperly posing as a knight, or who had been degraded from his rank because he had wasted his credit and his money and no longer possessed either £3200 or a reputation, ventured to seat himself in the fourteen rows in the hope of being unnoticed, he would be speedily called upon by the usher to withdraw. Snobs occasionally made the attempt, and, at a somewhat later date, we have an amusing epigram of Martial concerning one who repeatedly but unsuccessfully dodged the usher and who was at last compelled to kneel in the gangway opposite the end of the fourteenth row, where it might look to those behind as if he were sitting among the knights, while technically he could claim that he was not sitting at all.

Elsewhere also, as for instance at the chariot-races in the Circus, and at the gladiatorial shows in the amphitheatre, there were special places set apart for the two orders.

Below the senators and the knights came the "people,"--the "commons," or "third estate"--with all its usual grades and its usual variety of occupation or no occupation, of manners and character or absence of both. With the life of these, as with the life of a noble, we shall deal at the proper time.

So much for the Roman citizen proper. Other elements of the population were the foreigners. At Rome these were exceedingly numerous, and the city may in this respect be called--as indeed it was called--a microcosm, a small copy or epitome of the Roman world. Gauls, Africans, Greeks, Jews, Syrians, and Egyptians were perhaps the most commonly to be seen, but particularly prominent were the Greeks and the Jews. The Greeks were recognised above all as the clever men, the artists, the social entertainers, and the literary guides. The Jews, who formed a sort of colony in what is now known as Trastevere--the low-lying quarter across the Tiber--were not yet the princes of high finance. As yet they were chiefly the hucksters and petty traders, notorious for their strange habits and for the fanaticism of their religion, which nevertheless exercised a strange potency and made many proselytes even in high places, especially among the women. Poppaea, the wife of Nero himself, is commonly considered to have been such a proselyte, although the strange notion that she herself was a Jewess is without any sort of foundation. It is a common error to suppose that the Jews came to Rome only after the destruction of Jerusalem. The dispersion had occurred long before Rome had anything to do with Judaea, and naturally the enterprising Jew was to be found in all profitable places, whether in Alexandria, Antioch, Smyrna, Corinth, Rome, or farther afield.

In the political sense all these foreigners belonged to their own provinces and communities. They might be citizens there, but they were not citizens at Rome. At Rome they had no public claims and no official career, unless--as not seldom happened--they received, for some service or some distinction, the gift of the Roman citizenship. Sometimes the citizenship was given wholesale to a town, or even to a province. How the Hebrew father or grandfather of St. Paul became a Roman citizen, we do not know. Their own abilities or the emperor's favour might carry such citizens, or their children, up all the steps which were open to the ordinary Roman.

After the foreigners come the slaves. At Rome itself they formed about one-third of the population. This is not the moment for any detailed account of their employment, their treatment, or their liberation.

Suffice it for the present that the slave possessed no rights at all. He was the chattel of his master, who possessed over him the full power of life and death, limited only by public opinion and prudential considerations. A Roman might have at his disposal one slave or ten thousand slaves. He could use them as he liked, kill them if he chose, and, subject to certain limitations, set them free if he willed, provided that he did not set too many free at once. The last restriction was especially necessary, inasmuch as a slave who was manumitted by his master with the proper ceremonies became ipso facto a Roman citizen, but was still bound by certain ties of loyalty to his former master. For a Roman to possess too large an attachment of "freedmen," as they were called, might prove dangerous. The "freedman," though a citizen, could not himself enter upon a public career; neither, in ordinary circumstances, could his children; but in the third generation the family stood on an entire equality with any other Roman family in that respect.

For the present it may be added that our conception of the meaning of the word "slave" must not be that attached to its modern use. Many such slaves were men of great special or general ability, or men of high culture, especially if Greeks, Syrians, Jews, or Egyptians. They were frequently superior to their masters, and subsequently, as free citizens, added much to either the refinement or the over-refinement of Roman life. Perhaps it is as well, in passing, to point out that the later Roman people was in no small degree descended from all this aggregation of foreigners and emancipated slaves, and that we must speak with the greatest reservation when we describe the modern Roman as a direct descendant of the ancient stock who fought with Hannibal and subjugated the world.




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