John Lord.

The Old Roman World, : the Grandeur and Failure of Its Civilization online

. (page 16 of 50)
Online LibraryJohn LordThe Old Roman World, : the Grandeur and Failure of Its Civilization → online text (page 16 of 50)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

citizenship was gradually extended throughout the Empire. Paul lived in
a remote city of Asia Minor, but, by virtue of his citizenship, could
appeal to a higher court than that of the governor. The Romans
succeeded, by their wisdom, in extending their institutions over the
countries they had conquered; and every part of the Empire was well
governed even when military despotism had overturned the ancient
constitution. There were, of course, cases of extortion and injustice,
and most governors made large fortunes; yet the provinces were better
administered, and the rule was more in accordance with justice than
under the native princes. Throughout the vast limits of the Empire, life
and property were safe, and the roads were free of robbers; nor were
there riots in the cities, except on very rare occasions, in which they
were put down with merciless severity. Yet a few hundred men were enough
to preserve order in the largest cities, and a few thousand in the most
extensive provinces. Even under the most tyrannical emperors, justice
and order were enforced. The government was never better administered
than by Tiberius, and further, was never better administered than when
he was abandoned to pleasure in his guarded villa at Capri. There was
the passion to govern the world, but in accordance with laws. The rule
of the Romans was not that of brute force, even when the army was at the
control of the Emperors. The citizens, to the last, enjoyed great social
and political rights. They had great immunities, in reference to
marriage, and the making of wills, and the possession of property. Their
persons were secured from the disgrace of corporal punishment; they
could appeal from the decision of magistrates; they were eligible to
public offices; they were exempted from many oppressive taxes which
still grind down the people in the most civilized states of Europe. The
government of Octavius was the mildest despotism ever known to the
ancient world. That Ulysses of state craft exercised the most extensive
powers under the ancient forms, and all the early emperors disguised
rather than paraded their powers. Contented with real power, the Roman
was careless of its display. He had the tact to rule without seeming to
rule; but rule he must, though not until he had first learned to obey -
obedience to laws and domination were inseparably connected. This made
the Roman yoke endurable, because it was not offensive or unjust. The
Romans were masters of the world by conquest, yet ruled the world they
had subdued by arms in accordance with laws based on the principles of
equity. This sense of justice, in the enjoyment of unbounded domination,
undoubtedly gave permanence to their government. The centurion was ever
present to enforce a decree, but the decree was in accordance with
justice. This was the idea, the recognized principle of government,
although often abused. Paul appealed to Caesar. He might have been
released by the governor, had he not appealed. Here was justice to Paul
in allowing the appeal; and still greater justice in keeping him in
bonds until acquitted by Caesar himself. [Sidenote: Degeneracy under

[Sidenote: Skill of the Romans for government.]

[Sidenote: On what the prosperity was based.]

[Sidenote: Government the great art and science of the Romans.]

[Sidenote: Prosperity of the government.]

It must, however, be confessed that, after the Caesars were fairly
established on their throne, a great indifference to public affairs
ensued. Every office was then, directly or indirectly, in the hands of
the emperor. Cicero expressed the popular sentiment of his day when he
said, "that was the most perfect government which was a combination of
popular and aristocratic authority;" - but in the eighth century of the
city, the system of checks and balances would have fallen to pieces in
the hands of a degenerate people. A constitutional monarchy even was no
longer possible. The vices of the oligarchy, and the fierce reactions of
the democracy, had destroyed all the dreams of the earlier patriots. The
mass of the people had long been passive under the sway of factions and
political intriguers, and they resigned themselves to the despotism of
the emperor without a struggle. But even in this degradation the power
of government remained among the leading classes. The governors of
provinces, taken generally from the Senate and the nobles, were skillful
in their administration of public affairs. They were enlightened in all
political duties. The traditional ideas of government survived for
several generations, even as the mechanism of the army made it powerful
after all real spirit had fled. The Roman still regarded himself as the
favorite of the gods, destined to achieve a vast mission, even the
reduction of the world to political unity. Augustus made every effort,
while he reigned, in the ruin of political institutions, to revive the
forms and traditions of other days. The patricians were favored and
honored, and the Senate still was made to appear august, with a
prostrate world at its feet, to which it was bound to dictate laws and
institutions. Political unity was the grand idea of the Romans, and this
idea has survived to our own times. It was one of the great elements of
Roman civilization. Universal empire was based, in the better days of
the Republic, on public morality, in the iron discipline of families, in
a marvelously well-trained soldiery, in a military system which made the
civil society an army almost ready for the field, in a recognition of
public rights and duties, in a wise system of colonization, in
conciliatory conduct to the conquered races, and in a central power as
the dispenser of all honor and emoluments. The civil wars broke up, in a
measure, this wise and considerate policy; still citizenship extended to
all parts of the empire, even when it was manifest it must soon fall
into the hands of barbarians. And as for the administration of justice,
it was probably better conducted under the emperors than under the
supreme rule of the Senate. Even bad emperors knew how to govern. To the
Roman mind every thing was subordinate to the art of government. And
every characteristic fitted the Romans to govern - energy of will,
practical good sense, the conception of justice, an unyielding pride,
fortitude, courage, and lust of power. And the spirit of domination was
carried out into every thing. It was made a science, an art. Whatever
would contribute to the ascendency of the state was remorselessly
adopted; whatever would interfere with it was abandoned or swept away.
Fierce and tolerant by turns, and as circumstances prompted - such was
the Roman. With submission life was easy, and the government was mild.
And the supreme government rarely entrusted power except to faithful,
capable, and patriotic rulers. The wisest and best were selected for
important offices. The governors of provinces were men of great
experience; they were generals and senators who had passed their term of
active service. They easily made great mistakes. They carried out the
policy of the State. They were acquainted with laws, and the customs of
the people whom they ruled. They were versed in the literature of their
day. They were men of dignity and fortune. They were moderate,
conciliatory, and firm. They were models for rulers for all subsequent
ages. There were, of course, exceptions, but the small number of riots
and rebellions shows the contentment of the people, for they were not
ground down by oppressive laws and exactions, until their spirit was
broken. How munificent were the emperors to such cities as Athens and
Alexandria! Athens was the seat of learning and culture, to the very end
of the empire. Arts and literature and science were fostered in all the
cities. They were adopted as parts of the empire, not treated like
conquered territories. After the destruction of Carthage, the Romans had
no jealousy of cities that once were equals. Their arts were made to
subserve Roman greatness, indeed, but they were left free to develop
their resources. The development of resources was a vital principle of
the Roman government. Spain, Syria, and Egypt, were never more
prosperous than under the imperial rule. All the provinces were more
thriving under the emperors than they had been under their ancient
kings, until the era of barbaric invasions. If war had been the mission
of the republic, peace was the pride of the empire. There were no wars
of importance for three hundred years, except those of necessity. The
end of the emperors was to govern, to preserve peace, and secure
obedience to the laws.

[Sidenote: The aristocracy the real rulers of the state.]

[Sidenote: Defects of Democratic ascendency.]

[Sidenote: The people unfit to govern when unenlightened.]

[Sidenote: Popular element in the Roman state.]

[Sidenote: Rich Plebeians had a great influence in the government.]

But we must bear in mind that, whatever were the popular rights enjoyed
in the republican era, and however vast were the powers wielded by the
emperors after liberty had fled, yet the constitution of Roman society
was essentially aristocratic. All the great conquests were made under
the rule of patricians, and all the leading men under the emperors were
nobles. The government was virtually, from first to last, in the hands
of the aristocracy. Still there was an important popular element,
especially in the latter days of the republic, to which revolutionary
leaders appealed, like the Gracchi, Marius, Catiline, and Caesar. One of
the most humiliating lessons which we learn of antiquity, we are forced
to own, was the signal incapacity of the people to govern themselves,
when they had obtained a greater share of power than the old
constitution had allowed. The republic did not long survive when
successful generals and eloquent demagogues were sustained by the
people. Had Rome been a democracy, as some suppose, the empire never
could have been established. We comfort ourselves, however, by the
reflection, that when the people surrendered themselves to factions and
demagogues and tyrants, they were both ignorant and depraved. Self-
government has never yet succeeded, because there have never been virtue
and intelligence among the masses. So long as we can boast of virtue and
intelligence among the people, we need not despair with the government
in their hands. An enlightened self-interest will suggest the wisest
policy. We only despair of the government of the people when they are
ignorant, brutal, and wicked. As there was no period in the ancient
world when they were not unenlightened, we are reconciled to the fact
that a wise and vigorous administration of public affairs was always
conducted by kings or nobles who had intelligence and patriotism, if
they were proud and imperious. Whatever faith we may justly cherish in
reference to popular sovereignty, grounded on the principles of natural
justice, and the hopes which are held out as the fruit of Christian
ideas, still, as a fact, there is but little in the history of the Roman
commonwealth which reflects much glory on the people, except when
controlled and marshalled by the aristocracy. Just so far as the popular
element prevailed, the state was hurried on to ruin. The aristocratical
element had the ascendency when Rome was most prosperous and most
respected. Yet, while the Roman constitution was essentially
aristocratic for five hundred years, it had a strong popular element
mingled with it. The patricians had the chief power, but they were not
lords and masters in so absolute a sense as to trample on the people
with impunity, nor were they able to deprive them of their rights, or of
all share in the government. They were not feudal nobles, nor a Venetian
oligarchy. And yet it were a mistake to suppose that the distinction
between the classes implied that the aristocratic power was lodged with
the patricians alone. The patricians were not necessarily aristocrats,
nor the plebeians a rabble. The political distinctions passed away
without destroying social inequalities. There were great families among
the plebeians which really belonged to the aristocratic class, at least
in the time of Cicero. Aristocracy may have been based on birth, as in
England, but it was sustained by wealth, as in that country. A very rich
man gained, ultimately, admission to the noble class, as Rothschild has
in London. Without wealth to uphold distinctions, any aristocracy soon
becomes contemptible. That organization of society is most aristocratic
which confers great political and social privileges on a few men, and
retains these privileges from generation to generation, as in France
during the reign of Louis XV. The state of society at Rome under the
republic, favored the monopoly of offices among powerful families. It
was considered very remarkable for even Cicero to rise to the highest
honors of the state with his magnificent genius, character, attainments,
and services; but he shared the consulship with a man of very ordinary
capacity. The great offices were all in the hands of the aristocracy,
from the expulsion of the kings to the times of Julius Caesar. Even the
tribunes of the people ultimately were selected from powerful families.

[Sidenote: The Patricians.]

[Sidenote: The Roman _Gens_.]

The Roman people - _Romanus populus_ - under the kings, the original
citizens, were the warriors who built Rome, and conquered the
surrounding cities and districts. They were called _patres_, which
is synonymous with Patricians. [Footnote: Cicero, _De Repub._, ii.
12 Liv., i. 8.] They were united among themselves by kindred and by
political and religious ties. They supported themselves by agriculture
although engaged continually in war. They consisted originally of three
tribes, which gradually were united into the sovereign people. The first
tribe was a Latin colony, and settled on the Palatine Hill; the second
were Sabine settlers on the Quirinal; the third were Etruscans, who
occupied the Caelian. They were distinct, at first, and were not united
fully till the time of Tarquinius Priscus, himself an Etruscan.
[Footnote: Dionys., ii. 62.] As there were no other Roman citizens but
these patricians, they had no exclusive rights under the kings, and
hence there was then no aristocracy of birth. Each of these three tribes
of citizens consisted of ten curiae, and each curia of ten decuries, or
gentes. The three tribes, therefore, contained three hundred gentes. A
gens was a family, and the gentes were aggregates of kindred families.
[Footnote: Nieb., Lect. V.] The name of a gens was generally
characterized by the termination _eia_ or _ia_, as Julia, Cornelia,
and it is to be presumed that each gens had a common ancestor.
But with the growth of the city it came to pass that a gens often
included a great number of families; we read of three hundred Fabii
forming the gens Fabia in the year 275. These families composed,
ultimately, the aristocracy. They were the people who filled all
offices, and alone had the right of voting in the assemblies. As the
gentes were subdivisions of the three ancient tribes, the _populus_
alone had _gentes_, so that to be a patrician and to have a gens
were synonymous. With the growth of Rome new gentes or families were
added which did not claim descent from the ancient tribes. The powerful
gens of the Claudia came to Rome with Atta Claudius, their head, after
the expulsion of the kings. Tullus Hostilius incorporated the Julii,
Servilii and other gentes with the patricians. This ruling class, the
descendants of the conquerors, became a powerful aristocracy, and
ultimately learned to value pride of blood. There are very few names in
Roman history, until the time of Marius, which did not belong to this
noble class. What proud families were the Servilii, the Claudii, the
Julii, the Cornelii, the Fabii, the Valerii, the Sempronii, the Octavii,
the Sergii, and others. [Footnote: Liv., i. 33. Dionys., iii. 31.]

The _Equites_ were originally elected from the patricians, and were
cavalry soldiers, and did not form a distinct class till the time of the
Gracchi. They were composed of rich citizens, whose wealth enabled them
to become judices. They had the privilege of wearing a gold ring, and
had seats reserved for them, like the Senate, at the theatre and circus.
They increased in number with the increase of wealth, and formed an
honorable corps from which the highest officers of the army and the
civil magistrates were chosen. Admission to this body was an
introduction to public life, and was a test of social position. It was
composed of rich plebeians as well as patricians, and was based wholly
on wealth. Pliny says, "It became the third order in the state, and to
the title of _Senatus Populusque Romanus_, there began to be added,
_et Equestris ordo_."

[Sidenote: The Roman plebs.]

[Sidenote: The tribunes.]

[Sidenote: Gradual increase of their power.]

[Sidenote: Their usurpations.]

Beside this _Romanus populus_, which constituted the ruling class
under kings, was another body, made up of conquered people. In early
times their number was small, nor did they appear as a distinct class
until the reign of Tullus Hostilius. After the subjection of Alba, the
head of the Latin Confederacy, great numbers were transferred to Rome,
and received settlements on the Caelian Hill, and were kept under
submission to the patricians. As the Roman conquests extended, their
numbers increased, until they formed the larger part of the population.
They were called _plebs_, or commonalty, and had no political
privileges whatever. They had not even the right of suffrage; but they
were enrolled in the army, [Footnote: Liv., i. 33. Dionys., iii. 31. ]
and made to bear the expenses of the state. At first they were not
allowed to intermarry with the patricians. Their oppression provoked
resistance. The struggle which ensued is one of the most memorable in
Roman history. The haughty oligarchy were obliged gradually to concede
rights. These rights the _plebs_ retained. First they gained a law
which prevented patricians from taking usurious interest. They secured
the appointment of tribunes for their protection. Soon after they had
the right of summoning before their own _Comitia tributa_ any one
who violated their rights. In 449 they had influence sufficient to
establish the Connubium, by which they could intermarry with patricians.
In 421 the plebeians were admitted to the quaestorship. Then, after a
fierce contest, they were made decemvirs. Their next right was the
dignity of the consulship, and led to the dictatorship. In 351 they
secured the censorship, and in 336 the praetorship. Political
distinctions now vanished. The possession of a share of the great
offices created powerful families, and these were incorporated with the
aristocracy. The great privilege of securing tribunes was the first step
to political power, and the most important in the constitutional history
of the state. And it was the tribunes who gradually usurped the greatest
powers. They assumed the right, in 456, of convoking even the Senate.
They also had the right to be present in the deliberations of the
Senate; as their persons were inviolable, they interceded against any
action which a magistrate might undertake during his term of office, and
even a command issued by a praetor. They could compel the Senate to
submit a question to a fresh consultation, and ultimately compelled the
consuls to appoint a dictator. Their power grew to such a height that
they acquired the right of proposing to the _Comitia tributa_, or
the Senate, measures on nearly all the important affairs of the state,
and finally were elected from among the Senators themselves.

[Sidenote: Advancement of Plebeians.]

Through the institution of tribunes, and other circumstances, especially
the increase of wealth, the plebeians, originally so unimportant and
insignificant that they could not obtain admission into the Senate, nor
the high offices of state, nor the occupancy of the public lands,
ultimately obtained all the rights of the patricians, so that gradually
the political distinctions between patricians and plebeians vanished
altogether, 286 B.C., and the term _populus_ was applied to them as
well as to the patricians. [Footnote: Liv., iv. 44; v. 11,12. Cicero
_de Repub._, ii. 37.]

[Sidenote: Gradual increase of their power.]

These rights were only secured by bitter and fierce contests. The
plebeians, during their long struggle, did not seek power to gratify
their ambition, but to protect themselves from oppression. Nor was the
power which they obtained abused until near the close of the Republic.

But while they ultimately were blended, politically, with the
patricians, still the latter monopolized most of the great offices of
the state until the time of Cicero, and socially, always were
preeminent. Yet there were many noble plebeian families who were blended
with the aristocratic class. Aristocracy survived, after the political
distinctions between the two classes were abrogated. Rome was never a
democracy. Great families, whether patrician or plebeian, controlled the
State, either by their wealth or social connections. The Roman nobility
was really composed of all the families rendered illustrious by the
offices they had filled. And as the great officers were taken generally
from the Senate, that body was particularly august.

[Sidenote: The Senate.]

[Sidenote: The prerogative of Senators.]

Until the usurpation of Caesar, the Senate was the great controlling
power of the republic. It not only had peculiar privileges and powers,
but a monopoly of offices. It always remained powerful, in spite of the
victories of the plebeians. The laws proclaimed equality, but for fifty-
nine years after the plebeians had the right of appointment as military
tribunes, only eighteen were plebeians, [Footnote: _Hist. Julius
Caesar_, by Napoleon; chap. ii. 5.] while two hundred and forty-six
were patricians; and while the right of admission to the Senate was
acknowledged on principle, yet no one could enter it without having
obtained a decree of the censor, or exercised a curule magistracy, -
favors almost always reserved for the aristocracy. The Senate was a
judicial and legislative body, and numbered for several centuries but
three hundred men, selected from the patricians. At first they were
appointed by the kings, afterwards by the consuls, and subsequently by
the censors. But as all those who had been appointed by the
_populus_ to the great offices had admission into this body, the
people, that is, the patricians, virtually nominated the candidates for
the Senate. But all magistrates were not necessarily members of the
Senate, only those whom the censors selected from among them, and the
curule magistrates during their office. It was from these curule
magistrates that vacancies were filled up. The office of senator was for
life. When the plebeians obtained the great offices, the Senate of
course represented the whole people, as it formerly had represented the
_populus_. But it was never a democratic assembly, for all its
members belonged to the nobles. It required, under Augustus, 1,200,000
sesterces to support the senatorial dignity. Only a rich man could be,
therefore, a senator. Nor could he carry on any mercantile business. The
Senate was ever composed of men who had rendered great public services,
or who were distinguished for wealth and talents. It was probably the
most dignified and the proudest body of men ever assembled. The powers
of the Senate were enormous. It had the general superintendence of
matters of religion and foreign relations; it commanded the levies of
troops; it regulated duties and taxes; it gave audience to ambassadors;
it proposed, for a long time, the candidates for office to the
_Comitia_; it determined upon the way that war should be conducted;
it decreed to what provinces the consuls and praetors should be sent; it
appointed governors of provinces; it sent out embassies to foreign
states; it carried on the negotiations with foreign ambassadors; it
declared martial law in the appointment of dictators, and it decreed
triumphs to fortunate generals. In short it was the supreme power in the
state, and was the medium through which all the affairs of government
passed. It was neither an hereditary, nor a popular body, yet
represented the state - at first the patrician order, and finally the
whole people, retaining to the end its aristocratic character. The
senators wore on their tunics a broad purple stripe, - a badge of

Online LibraryJohn LordThe Old Roman World, : the Grandeur and Failure of Its Civilization → online text (page 16 of 50)