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The fate of empires; being an inquiry into the stability of civilisation online

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Antoninus. Unfortunately we do not often bear
in mind the fact that these empires were not
only contemporaries, but that the Chinese civilisa-
tion arose at a time long anterior to that of Rome,
and was coeval with the Pharaohs.

The one race has disappeared: the other
remains ; and not only remains, but in the
minds of those who know it, constitutes the
most tremendous factor in the world of to-day.
Why has the one disappeared ? And, still more,
why is the other, the most ancient, still the
youngest of the nations ?

To find the answers to these questions will
be the main object of our historical investiga-
tions, although we must not lose sight of other
examples that are not less instructive. Why
has the Athenian vanished? Why is the Jew
indestructible ?



At the time of the assassination of Julius Caesar
the Roman Republic had attained the ** dissolute
greatness" that marked its later years, but it
was unequal to the administration of the whole
Western world, and already the omens portended
its fall. After the death of Csesar the State was
convulsed for thirteen years by a succession of
civil wars, and at the end of that period, Augustus,
the first and greatest of the emperors, was supreme
and his authority unquestioned. '' He knitted
together the Roman world,^ east and west, into
one great organisation, of which the emperor stood
as the supreme head. He set his legions upon
the distant frontiers, and their swords formed a
wall of steel within which commerce and peace
might flourish. The security was not perpetual,
yet it lasted for four centuries, and saved ancient
civilisation from destruction. . . . The seeds of
degeneration and decay had been planted in the
days of the Republic, and would have come to
maturity far sooner if there had been no Augustus
and no empire. Augustus started the Roman
world on a new career."

1 Augustus Gcesar and the Organisation of the Empire of Rome, pp.

364 et seq. By John B. Firth, B.A. G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1903.



The history of the temporary renascence that
was achieved by Augustus, and of the fate that
overtook it, is most instructive for our present
purpose, for it shows us the deliberate and con-
scious effort of a man of genius, ruling the world,
not only to arrest the decadence, but to establish
a permanent civilisation. The magnitude of the
effort has been the marvel of all succeeding ages,
but none the less, it was presently followed by the
tragedy of utter decay.

The commanding philosophy of the age that
of the Stoic was essentially determinist and cir-
cumscribed by pure Reason. Augustus sought
to pass beyond it, and in his reforms the rehabili-
tation of religious belief occupied the first place.
" Throughout his reign he was always ready to
head a subscription list for the repair of an ancient
fane. ' Templorum positor, templorum sancte re-
postor.' Thus Ovid addresses him in the Fasti
as the founder of new shrines, and the restorer of
the old, not in Rome alone, but throughout Italy
and the provinces. ... In 12 B.C. ... he himself
assumed the Pontificate, and became the active
head both of Church and State. In all matters
connected with religion there was no one more
conservative or more national than he. While
tolerating the alien cults and new-fangled super-
stitions that had invaded Rome, he reserved his
most liberal patronage for what was venerable
and of native growth. . . . He increased the
number of the Sacred Colleges, added to their
dignities, swelled their endowments, and bestowed
marks of special favour upon the Vestal Virgins.


Ancient priestly foundations and ceremonies which
had fallen upon evil days, such as the Augury
of the Public Welfare, the Priesthood of Jupiter,
the Festival of the Lupercalia, and the Secular
and Compitalician Games, he refounded and re-
organised. He restored the worship of the Lares,
the minor deities of the street and the home, by
raising three hundred little shrines at the cross-
ways and street corners of the city, and by ordering
that twice a year, in spring and in summer, their
modest altars should be adorned with flowers.
Due honour to the gods, both great and small,
such was the cardinal principle of Augustus in
dealing with religion.

"And he had his reward, for the religion of
Rome struck new roots deep into the life of the
Roman people. It is one of the strangest facts in
history that just at the period when there was born
in Palestine the Founder of Christianity, which
was destined to destroy paganism, there should have
taken place so marked a revival of the old religion.
Its genuineness is beyond argument. We have
only to take note of the number of ruined temples,
of the decay of the sacerdotal colleges, of the
contemptuous and sceptical attitude of Cicero to-
wards the State religion, to see how low it had fallen
in the last days of the Republic. . . . But in the
early days of the empire a profound change takes
place. The gods enjoy a new lease of life. Men
not only worship, they almost believe." ^ " In the
Julian Forum stood the stately temple to Venus
Genetrix . . . completed by Augustus after Cassar's

^ Firth, ojp. dt., pp. 206 et seq.



death. In the new Forum there arose the magni-
ficent temple to Mars the Avenger, vowed by
Augustus himself during the battle of Philippi,
and regarded by him with peculiar veneration. . . .
He erected the temple to Thundering Jupiter
on the Capitol . . . and the great temple of
Apollo on the Palatine." ^ " Augustus encouraged
others to follow his example. . . . Marcus Philippus
his kinsman raised a temple to Hercules, Lucius
Cornuficius to Diana, and Munatius Plancus to
Saturn. . . . Agrippa raised the glorious Pantheon ;
and near at hand was the temple of Poseidon,
founded to commemorate his many naval vic-
tories." ^ " Augustus eventually recognised that
the identification of himself with Rome and the
empire for purposes of public worship, the close
union, that is to say, of Church and State, was
a source of incalculable strength to the Principate.
He would have failed in statesmanship, therefore,
had he not encouraged this idea and given it
definite shape." ^

We cannot suppose that this last consideration
was lost upon the astute and inscrutable Augustus,
and we know that it sank deeply into the minds
of his successors. The question therefore arises :
" Are we here in the presence of religious systems
that essentially subserved the State, or of systems
that were essentially cosmocentric ? " The answer
to this question is vital to our argument, for, as
we have pointed out (page 75), in speaking of the
justification of self-sacrifice in a rational being, ** a

^ Firth, op. cit, p. 202. ^ jj^-^^^ pp^ 02 et seq.

= Ibid., p. 213.


rule of conduct that takes temporal things as an
end will not suffice ; a religion ad hoc will not
serve." If these religions are cosmocentric in
purpose, and yet the civilisation that rested upon
them fails for lack of racial self-sacrifice, then our
arguments are disproved. And if, on the other
hand, these religions are geocentric in purpose,
then it will be seen that racial failure is what
we have to expect. The evidence, however, that
they are geocentric, and what we have called ad
hoc, is conclusive. Dr. W. R. Inge's fascinating
work ^ deals chiefly with the first century a.d., and
his opening sentence tells us that "the national
religion of the Roman people was a part of the
polity of the Republic," and (page 7) that " Piety
towards the gods and obedience to the magis-
trates were duties of the same kind." Gibbon
is not less outspoken. " The office of Supreme
Pontiff was constantly exercised by the emperors
themselves. They knew and valued the advan-
tages of religion as it is connected with civil
government. . . . They managed the arts of
divination as a convenient instrument of policy ;
and they respected, as the firmest bond of society,
the useful persuasion that, either in this or a future
hfe, the crime of perjury is most assuredly punished
by the avenging gods."^ Even Mithraism, un-
questionably the noblest of the imperial religions,
and the one possessed of the highest ethical value,
was entangled in political meshes no less than any

^ Society in Rome under the Ccesars. London, John Murray, 1888.
^ Decline and Fall, chap. ii.


" Mithra," says Sir Samuel Dill,^ " was ready
to shelter the idols under his purer faith. The
images of Jupiter and Venus, of Mars and Hecate,
of the local deities of Dacia and Upper Germany,
find a place in his chapels beside the antique
symbols of the Persian faith."

It became especially the religion of the army.
The highest of the State-recognised religions was
to be found where there was the most need for
self-sacrifice, and whither the legions spread,
thither they carried the cult of Mithra.

Indeed the Roman civilisation carried the
policy of encouraging religion as an instrument
of State to extraordinary lengths. Any religion
would serve, and was admitted, on the one con-
dition that its gods were interested in the main-
tenance of the existing civilisation, and subserved
the purposes of the Roman State. Any religion
that inspired a sense of obedience to the State,
and that regarded temporality as an end, was
welcome. The number of such religions in the
Roman civilisation was enormous. Isis and Serapis
and Osiris, Cybele and ^Esculapius, foregathered
with the gods of Rome; and the Lybian, the
Olympian, and the Capitoline Jupiter were treated
with equal reverence. The religious situation may
be most fitly summed up in Gibbon's famous
apophthegm : ^ " The various modes of worship
which prevailed in the Roman world were all
considered by the people as equally true ; by the
philosopher as equally false ; and by the magis-

^ RoTtian Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelitis, p. 625.
^ Decline and Fall, chap. ii.


trate as equally useful/' With but two exceptions,
all the religions of the world of Rome had this
in common, that they were geocentric, and the
outward sign of this character was that every one
of them acknowledged the deified emperor as a
god and received in return the blessing and en-
couragement of the State. The geocentric char-
acter of the recognised religions becomes even
more obvious when we study the policy that was
pursued towards the religions whose end was not
to be found within the borders of the existing

Two stood aside, and not for them was the
lauded " toleration " of the Roman Empire. One
was the Jew, treasuring the words of Isaiah in his
heart, and looking for One who, born of his blood,
should make pallid the glories of Rome, and estab-
lish a kingdom of this world that should bring the
millennium with it. His faith bound him in scorn
of the idolaters without the pale, and held him to
the service of the God of his fathers. The other
was the Christian, esteeming the empires of this
world as nothing, finding the value of life in a new
birth unto righteousness, and welcoming death as
the entrance into the kingdom of his Redeemer
a faith that, binding him in love to his neighbour,
yet held him in a service that knew no earthly tie.

To the monotheistic Jew the worship of the
emperor was blasphemy. Refusing to join in it,
he had no part in the Roman Empire, and the
refusal was odious to the Roman world. *'The
polite Augustus," says Gibbon,^ " condescended to

^ Decline and Fall, chap. xv.


give orders that sacrifices should be offered for
his prosperity in the Temple of Jerusalem ; while
the meanest of the posterity of Abraham who
should have paid the same homage to the Jupiter
of the Capitol, would have been an object of
abhorrence to himself and to his brethren." Cali-
gula, who ascended the throne of the world in the
year a.d. 37, and reigned for four years, brought
the matter to a head by attempting to place his
own statue in the Temple of Jerusalem. The
attempt gave rise, throughout all Jewry, to such
bitter and unanimous hostility that, upon the
death of Caligula, it was abandoned.

Thirty-four years later, during the reign of
Vespasian, came the destruction of Jerusalem by
Titus, an event, says Dr. Inge,^ " that was perhaps
the most murderous of Roman victories." To
quote an old author, Echard : ^

" Titus commanded both the Temple and City
to be entirely raz'd, by a Plow being brought over
it. . . . To this fatal end came the famous city
of Jerusalem, . . . Never any Siege in the World
was more memorable, the Captives amounting to
97,000, and those who perished in the Siege to
1,000,000, according to Josephus,''

Even that was not the end of the Jewish hope,
but their final dispersion was not long deferred.
Their very existence was an offence to the geo-
centric spirit of Rome, and the last tragic stand
against what was implied by the Roman imperium
followed in a.d. 134. The last of their national

^ Ojp. cit., p. 51.

2 Roman History, vol. ii. p. 201. 1713./J


heroes appeared in the person of the gallant
Barchochebas. He was girded with a sword by
the aged Akiba, the last of the prophets, and the
chief and leader of the extremest anti-Christian
Jews at the end of the first century.

Hadrian entrusted the work of destruction to
Julius Severus, governor of Britain. "And tho'
he gained the victory at last," writes E chard, " he
would not have chosen many Triumphs at the
Purchase of so much Blood. . . . The War was
concluded in two years time with . . . the Death
of 580,000 Men in Battels and Skirmishes, besides
infinite numbers consum'd by Famines and Diseases,
and their whole Land laid waste, which almost
prov'd the Extirpation of the Jewish Nation.
Adria?i after this strange desolation banish'd all
Jews out of Judaea, and by pubhck Decree pro-
hibited any of them to come in View of that
Country, or so much as to look towards their
Soil or City."

Barchochebas was slain, Akiba was put to a
cruel death, and a shrine of Jupiter was erected
among the ruins of the Temple.

The fate of the Christian was no better than
that of the Jew. But it is strange to find how
completely the view that religion was a geocentric
affair had become ingrained in the conceptions of
the age. Thus, while the Jews were accused of
*' tumult," the Christians were charged with
"atheism." Even Gibbon writes:^ "The most
pious of men were exposed to the unjust but
dangerous imputation of impiety. Malice and

^ Decline and Fallj chap. xvi.


prejudice concurred in representing the Christians
as a society of atheists." To the Christians, that
is to say, this world was an instrument and not
an end ; their purpose was cosmocentric and their
lives given to the service of the Most High. To
them this world and its religions were incarnate
in the deified emperor, and in him they saw no
less than Anti-Christ. Thus the charge hurled
against them was that of "atheism." The Jewish
hope was, indeed, intolerable to the empire, but
it is only when we find the purely cosmocentric
charged with ''atheism" that we become wit-
nesses of the real and essential struggle the true
antithesis of principle. It was seen that the
geocentric life and the cosmocentric life were
mutually exclusive, and the vital nature of the
tremendous issue was recognised on both sides.

It would be superfluous to recount the history
of the persecutions. Not once nor twice, but
again and again, the whole might of the Roman
Empire was put forth in efforts to exterminate
Christianity. The edicts went forth at intervals
from the time of Nero to that of Diocletian, and
throughout the world horror followed upon horror.
To the Christians the magnitude of what was at
stake dwarfed all other considerations, and the
individual life became of no account. Death was
a little thing compared with the surrender that
was confessed by burning a pinch of incense
before the statue of the emperor. Tiberianus,
the governor of Palestine, wrote to Trajan, says
Echard :

" That he was wearied out in executing the


Laws against the Galilaeans, who crowded to
Execution in such Multitudes, that he was at a
loss how to proceed."

Their indifference to life seems to have caused
the greatest astonishment. Gibbon/ quoting Ter-
tullian ad Scapuli, c. 5, writes thus : " ' Unhappy
men ! ' exclaimed the proconsul Antoninus to the
Christians of Asia, * unhappy men ! if you are
thus weary of your lives, is it so difficult for you
to find ropes and precipices ? '"

The only reference to the Christians that is
made by Marcus Aurelius is not less strange. We
quote from Long's translation of his Thoughts, xi. 3 :

" What a soul that is which is ready, if at any
moment it must be separated from the body, and
ready either to be extinguished or dispersed, or
continue to exist; but so this readiness comes
from a man's own judgment, not from mere
obstinacy as with the Christians, but considerately
and with dignity, and in a way to persuade
another, without tragic show."

Impressive indeed is the mental posture of
Marcus Aurelius. An able man a man worthy
of the wide survey provided by his imperial emi-
nence he perceives only geocentric reasons for
action, and yet is oppressed by a perception of
the need of unworldly motive. Thus, while
sitting upon the throne of the world, the note
of his meditations is that of despair. " All things
are the same familiar in experience, and ephemeral
in time, and worthless in the matter." ^

^ Decline and Fall, chap. xvi.
2 Qp. city ix. 14.


The lapse of years has given us an even w^ider
survey than that of Marcus Aurelius. We see that
the Western world was woven into one proud
empire, and possessed a civilisation that knew
no rival. We see also the triumph of Reason.
The civilisation is purely geocentric, the empire
is an end in itself, and the cosmocentric element
in religion is regarded as treason, and treason as

Here, then, we have the opportunity of testing
the worth of the views advanced in our earlier
chapters. If those views are sound, what have
we to expect ? What else than the exaltation
of Society, followed by the decay of the Race,
and the dissolution of the civilisation that it had



The conditions of life under the Emperors of
Rome is a theme that has occupied the pens of
some of the most able men that have arisen in
modern times, and the judgment that they have
formed is strangely confused. It is a mixture of
admiration and disgust : and it may be counted as
a merit to the present outlook upon life that the
sentiment of the majority of these judges is essen-
tially one of disgust.

The confusion, however, is to a very large
extent removed when we distinguish between
Society and the Race. The racial conditions
excite our horror. The social conditions that is,
the unqualified and unanimous determination to
make the most of this life created a society of
unparalleled magnificence. Nothing was wanting :
civilisation was consolidated under one administra-
tion, and the earth was swept to supply slaves and
to furnish marbles and wealth. The ruthless social
splendour, and the unrestrained gratification of the
senses that resulted, produces a sense of stupe-
faction in the modern mind. To us, many of the
actor;^ seem unbalanced. When, in the pages of
Tacitus and Suetonius, we read the record of the
emperors and of the sinister women who stand



behind them, we are oppressed by the feeling that
we have entered a pathological museum. Regard-
ing them from the standpoint of to-day, we seem
to be contemplating a pre-arranged series, and feel
that, although the objects differ from one another,
yet a certain sameness pervades the whole. The
catalogue introduces us to a number of different
morbid specimens illustrating, nearly always, the
same disease. To the ordinary reader of the
ancient historians it appears that a majority of the
characters portrayed were, more or less, persons of
unsound mind, and that they ought to have been
placed under restraint. In modern times it has
been seriously maintained that the curse of insanity
ran in the Claudian blood. But what, then, of
the emperors, not less unbridled, who were not
of the Claudian line ? Frequently the emperors
were not kin to one another, and yet the same-
ness persists. On the other hand, where the
putative relationship is most close, there is, some-
times, the greatest contrast in character, as when a
Julia is born to Augustus, a Nero to Germanicus,
or the refinement of Marcus Aurelius is succeeded
by the beastiality of Commodus. To regard a
majority of a long series of emperors, and a
majority of those who surrounded them, as insane,
is to reach a conclusion that, on the face of it,
is improbable; and in their contemporaries we
find no trace of the sense of having been in the
presence of the pathological. There is not even
any evidence that they were unpopular with the
commonalty of their day. The question of the
restoration of the Republic does not seem to have


been popularly mooted. Sir Samuel Dill ^ says :
" Suet. Claud, x. ; Calig. Ix. ; D. Cass. 60, i. On
the assassination of Caligula, the Senate debated
the question of abolishing the memory of the
Cassars, and restoring the Republic ; but the mob
outside the Temple of the Capitoline Jupiter
demanded 'one ruler' of the world." And,^
speaking of such a monster as Nero, " It is very
striking, that, in the records of his reign, the most
damning accusation against him is that he dis-
graced the purple by exhibitions on the stage."
At the worst, the emperors were not destroyed
by any revolt of their subjects excited by general
hostility, although they frequently suffered private
assassination as the result of a palace intrigue. It
is not until the time of Heliogabalus, some two
hundred years after the birth of Christianity, that
we find the self-indulgence of the emperors
exciting really widespread disgust. Gradually we
reach the conclusion that, abnormal as they and
their associates appear to us, they were normal to
the age in which they lived. We are contem-
plating a temper of mind almost inconceivable to
ourselves ; to exercise restraint was to waste the
fleeting days ; gratification of the senses was the
aim of life.

If we leave the emperors and their satellites,
and successively pass in review the lower grades
of the social scale, we meet persistently with the
same spirit. Everywhere we encounter the work

^ Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius (Macmillan, 1904), in
a footnote on page 38.
2 Op. cit., p. 19.


of pure Reason ; we find that interest is dominant,
and that carpe diem, is the rule of hfe. Many of the
most splendid and enduring monuments of Roman
art and architecture are theatres, baths, and other
municipal structures erected for the delectation of
the populace, and the area that was subject to
Rome is still covered by ruins that attest the
spirit, not of work, but of play. The municipality
supplants the family, and the local amphitheatre
is the structure that survives. " Men looked for
their happiness to their city rather than to the
family or to the State . . . and the buildings and
banquets and bright festivals on which so much
was lavished, were enjoyed by all citizens alike,
the lowest and the highest, although high and low
had sometimes by prescriptive usage an unequal
share in the largesses. The free enjoyment of
sumptuous baths, of good water from the Atlas,
the Apennines, or the Alban Hills ; the right to
sit at ease with one's fellows when the Pseudohis
or the Adelphi was put on the boards ; the pleasure
of strolling in the shady colonnades of the forum
or the market, surrounded by brilliant marbles and
frescoes, with fountains shedding their coolness
around ; the good fellowship which, for the time,
levelled all ranks, in many a simple communal
feast, with a coin or two distributed at the end to
recall or heighten the pleasure ; all these things
tended to make the city a true home, to some
extent almost a great family circle. . . . The love
of amusement grew upon the Roman character as
civilisation developed in organisation and splendour,
and unfortunately the favourite amusements were


often obscene and cruel. The calendar of the time

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