John Lord.

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

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strength to achieve still grander victories, and confer higher blessings
on mankind.

Thus the Roman Empire, whose fall was so inglorious, and whose
chastisement was so severe, was made by Providence to favor the ultimate
progress of society, since its civilization entered into new
combinations, and still remains one of the proudest monuments of human

It is this civilization, in its varied aspects, both good and evil,
lofty and degraded, which in the following chapters I seek to show. This
is the real point of interest in Roman history. Let us see what the
Romans really accomplished - the results of their great enterprises; the
systems they matured with so much thought; the institutions they
bequeathed to our times; yea, even those vices and follies which they
originally despised, and which, if allowed to become dominant,
_must_, according to all those laws of which we have cognizance,
ultimately overwhelm _any_ land in misery, shame, and ruin.

In presenting this civilization, I aim to generalize the most important
facts, leaving the reader to examine at his leisure recondite
authorities, in which, too often, the argument is obscured by minute
details, and art is buried in learning.



One of the features of Roman greatness, which preeminently arrests
attention, is military genius and strength. The Romans surpassed all the
nations of antiquity in the brilliancy and solidity of their conquests.
They conquered the world, and held it in subjection. For many centuries
they stamped their iron heel on the necks of prostrate and suppliant
kings, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Caspian Sea. Nothing could impede,
except for a time, their irresistible progress from conquering to
conquer. They were warriors from the earliest period of their history,
and all their energies were concentrated upon conquest. Their aggressive
policy never changed so long as there was a field for its development.
They commenced as a band of robbers; they ended by becoming masters of
all the countries and kingdoms which tempted their cupidity or aroused
their ambition. Their empire was universal, - the only universal empire
which ever existed on this earth, - and it was won with the sword. It
was not a rapid conquest, but it was systematic and irresistible,
evincing great genius, perseverance, and fortitude.

[Sidenote: The Romans fight from a fixed purpose.]

The successive and fortunate conquests of the Romans were the
admiration, the envy, and the fear of all nations - so marvelous and
successful that they have the majesty of a providential event. They
cannot be called a mystery, since we see the persistent adaptation of
means to an end. But no other nation ever evinced this uniform military
policy, except for a limited period, or under the stimulus of a
temporary enthusiasm, such as characterized the Saracens and the
Germanic barbarians. The Romans fought when there was no apparent need
of fighting, when their empire already embraced most of the countries
known to the ancients. The Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Persians, and
the Greeks made magnificent conquests, but their empire was partial and
limited, and soon passed away. The Greeks evinced great military genius,
and the enterprises of Alexander have been regarded as a wonder. But the
Greeks did not fight, as the Romans did, from a fixed purpose to bring
all nations under their sway, and they yielded, in turn, to the Romans.
The Romans were never subdued, but all nations were subdued by them -
even superior races. They erected a universal monarchy, which fell to
pieces by its own weight, when the vices of self-interest had
accomplished their work. They became the prey of barbarians in a very
different sense from that which reduced the ancient empires. They did
not yield to any powerful, warlike neighbor, as the Persians yielded to
the Greeks, but to successive waves of unknown warriors who came in
quest of settlement, and then only when all Roman vigor had fled, and
the whole policy of the empire was changed - when it was the aim of
emperors to conserve old conquests, not make new ones.

[Sidenote: War was a passion with the Romans.]

With the Romans, for a thousand years, war was a passion; and, while it
lasted, it consumed all other passions. It animated statesmen, rulers,
generals, and citizens alike, ever burning, never at rest, - a passion
unscrupulous, resistless, all-pervading, all-absorbing, all-conquering.
Success in war gave consideration, dignity, honor beyond all other
successes. It always has called out popular admiration, and its glory
has ever been highly prized, and it always will be so, but it has not
monopolized all offices and dignities as among the Romans. The Greeks
thought of art, of literature, and of philosophy as well as of war, and
gave their crowns of glory for civic and artistic excellence as well as
for military success. The Greeks fought to preserve or extend their
civilization; the Romans, in order to rule. They had very little respect
for any thing beyond military genius. The successful warrior alone was
the founder of a great family. The Roman aristocracy, so proud, so rich,
so powerful, was based on the glory of battle-fields. Every citizen was
trained to arms, and senators and statesmen commanded armies. The whole
fabric of the State was built up on war, and for many centuries it was
the leading occupation of the people. How insignificant was a poet, or a
painter, or a philosopher by the side of a warrior! Rome was a city of
generals, and they preoccupied the public mind.

[Sidenote: Value placed by the Romans on military art.]

To a Roman, military art was the highest of all. It was constantly being
improved, until it reached absolute perfection, with the old weapons and
implements of war. To its perfection the whole genius of the people was
consecrated; it was to them what the fine arts were to the Greeks, what
priestly domination was to the Middle Ages, and what material inventions
to abridge human labor are to us. The Romans despised literature, art,
philosophy, commerce, agriculture, and even luxury, when they were
making their grand conquests; they only respected their fortunate
generals. Hence there was no great encouragement to genius or ambition
in any other field; but in this field, the horizon perpetually expanded.
Every new conquest prepared the way for successive conquests; ambition
here was untrammeled, energy was unbounded, visions of glory were most
dazzling, warlike schemes were most fertile, until the whole world lay
bleeding and prostrate.

[Sidenote: Lawfulness of war.]

Military genius, however, does not present man in the highest state of
wisdom or beauty. It is very attractive, but "there is a greater than
the warrior's excellence," at least to a contemplative or religious eye.
When men save nations, in fearful crises, by their military genius, as
Napoleon did France when surrounded with hostile armies, or Gustavus
Adolphus did Germany when it was struggling for religious rights, then
they render the greatest possible services, and receive no unmerited
honors. The heart of the world cherishes the fame of Miltiades, of
Charlemagne, of Henry IV., of Washington; for they were identified with
great causes. War is one of the occasional necessities of our world. No
nation can live, or is worthy to live, without military virtues. They
rescue nations on the verge of ruin, and establish great rights, without
which life is nothing. War, however much to be lamented as an evil, is
the last appeal and resource of nations, and settles what cannot be
settled without it; and it will probably continue so long as there are
blindness, ambition, and avarice among men. Nor, under certain
circumstances, of which nations can only be the proper judges, is it
inconsistent with the law of love. Hence, as it is a great necessity, it
will ever be valued as a great science. Civilization accepts it and
claims it. It calls into exercise great qualities, and these intoxicate
the people, who bow down to them as godlike.

[Sidenote: Those who are most successful in war.]

Still, military genius, however lauded and honored, is too often allied
with ambition and selfishness to secure the highest favor of
philosophers or Christians. It does not reveal the soul in its loftiest
aspirations. Men of a coarser type are often most successful, - men
insensible to pity and to reproach, whose greatest merit is in will,
nerve, energy, and power of making rapid combinations. We revere the
intellect of the Greeks more than that of the Romans, though they were
inferior to the latter in military success. We have more respect for
those qualities which add to the domain of truth than those which secure
power. A wise man elevates the Bacons, the Newtons, and the Shakespeares
above all the Marlboroughs and Wellingtons. Plato is surrounded with a
brighter halo than Themistocles, and Cicero than Marius.

[Sidenote: The general evils of war.]

War as a trade is unscrupulous, hard, rapacious, destructive. It foments
all the evil passions; it is allied with all the vices; it is
antagonistic to human welfare. It glories merely in strength; it
worships only success. It raises wicked men to power; it prostrates and
hides the good. It extinguishes what is most lovely, and spurns what is
most exalted. It makes a pandemonium of earth, and drags to its
triumphal car the venerated relics of ages. It is an awful crime, making
slaves of the helpless, and spreading consternation, misery, and death
wherever it goes - marking its progress with a trail of blood, and
filling the earth with imprecations and curses. It is the greatest
scourge which God uses to chastise enervated nations, and cannot be
contemplated with; any satisfaction except as the wrath, which is made
to praise the Sovereign Ruler who employs what means He chooses to
punish or exalt.

[Sidenote: Spirit of the Romans in their wars.]

Now the Romans, in a general sense, pursued war as a trade, to gratify a
thirst for power, to raise themselves on the ruins of ancient
monarchies, to enrich themselves with the spoils of the world, and to
govern it for selfish purposes. There were many Roman wars which were
exceptions, when an exalted patriotism was the animating principle; but
aggressive war was the policy and shame of Rome. Her citizens did not
generally fight to preserve liberties or rights or national existence,
but for self-aggrandizement. Incessant campaigns for a thousand years
brought out military science, courage, energy, and a grasping and
selfish patriotism. They gave power, skill to rule, executive talents;
and these qualities, eminently adapted to worldly greatness, made the
Romans universal masters, even if they do not make them interesting.
They developed great strength, resource, will, and even made them wise
in administration, possibly great civilizers, since centralized power is
better than anarchies; yet these traits do not make us love them, or
revere them. Providence doubtless ordered the universal monarchy, which
only universal war could establish, for the good of the world at that
time, for the advancement of civilization itself. Universal dominion
must be succeeded by universal peace, and in such a peace the higher
qualities and virtues and talents can only be manifested, so that the
Roman rule was not a calamity, but a very desirable despotism. Yet
despotism it was, - cold, remorseless, self-seeking. War made the Romans
practical, calculating, overbearing, proud, scornful, imperious.

[Sidenote: Success of the Romans in war.]

But war made them a great people, and made them eminent in certain great
qualities. Their success in war is tantamount to saying that in one
great field of genius, which civilization honors, they not merely
distinguished themselves, and gained a proud fame which will never die
out of the memory of man, but that they have had no equals in any age.
War enabled them to build up a vast empire, which empire gave a great
impulse to ancient civilization.

[Sidenote: Providence seen in the ascendency of great nations.]

There is something very singular and mysterious in the results of wars
which are caused and carried on by unprincipled and unscrupulous men.
They are made to end in substantial benefits to the human race. The
wrath of man, in other words, is made to praise God, showing that He is
the Sovereign ruler on this earth, and uses what instruments He pleases
to carry out his great and benevolent designs. However atrocious the
causes of wars, and execrable the spirit in which they are carried out,
they are ever made to subserve the benefit of future ages, and the great
cause of civilization in its vast connections. Men may be guilty, and
may be punished for their wickedness, and execrated through all time by
enlightened nations; still they are but tools of the higher power. I do
not say that God is the author of wars any more than He is of sin; but
wars are yet sent as a punishment to those whom they directly and
immediately affect, while they unbind the cords of slavery, and relax
the hold of tyrants. They are like storms in the natural world: they
create a healthier moral life, after the disasters are past. Those
ambitious men, who seek to add province to province and kingdom to
kingdom, and for whom no maledictions are too severe, since they shed
innocent blood, rarely succeed unless they quarrel with doomed nations
incapable of renovation. Thus Babylon fell before Cyrus when her day had
come, and she could do no more for civilization. Thus Persia, in her
turn, yielded to the Grecian heroes when she became enervated with the
luxuries of the conquered kingdoms. Thus Greece again succumbed to Rome
when she had degenerated into a land where every vice was rampant. The
passions which inflamed Cyrus, and Alexander, and Pompey were alike
imperious, and their policy was alike unscrupulous. They simply were
bent on conquest, and on establishing powerful empires, which conquests
doubtless resulted in the improvement of the condition of mankind. There
is also something hard and forbidding in the policy of successful
statesmen. We are shocked at their injustice, cruelty, and
rapaciousness; but they are often used by Providence to raise nations to
preeminence, when their ascendency is, on the whole, a benefit to the
world. There is nothing amiable or benign in the characters of such men
as Oxenstiern, Richelieu, or Bismarck, but who can doubt the wisdom of
their administration? It is seldom that any nation is allowed to have a
great ascendency over other nations unless the general influence of the
dominant State is favorable to civilization; and when this influence is
perverted the ascendency passes away. This is remarkably seen in the
history of the Persian, the Greek, and the Roman Empires, and still more
forcibly in the empire of the popes in the Middle Ages, and of the vast
influence of France and England during the last hundred years. This is
both a mystery and a fact. It is mysterious that bad men should be
allowed to succeed so often, but it is one of the sternest facts of
life, only to be explained on the principle that they are instruments in
the hands of the Great Moral Governor whose designs we are not able to
fathom, yet the wisdom of which is subsequently, though imperfectly,
made known. It was wicked in the sons of Jacob to sell Joseph to the
Ishmaelites; their craft and lies were successful: they deceived their
father and accomplished their purposes; yet his bondage was the means of
their preservation from the evils of famine. The rise and fall of
empires are to be explained on the same principles as the rise and fall
of families. A coarse, unscrupulous but enterprising man gets rich, but
his wealth is made to subserve interests far greater than that of his
children. Hospitals, colleges, and libraries are endowed as monasteries
were in the Middle Ages. If vice, selfishness, and pride were not
overruled, what would become of our world? The whole history of
civilization is the good which is made to spring out of evil. Men are
nothing in comparison with Omnipotence. What are human plans? Yet
enterprise and virtue and talent are rewarded. In the affairs of life we
see that goodness does not lose its recompense, and that vice is
punished; but beyond, what more impressively do we behold than this,
that the instruments of punishment are often the wicked themselves.

[Sidenote: The results of the crusades.]

[Sidenote: Their immediate consequences are disastrous; their ultimate,

Among the worst wars in history - uncalled for, unscrupulous, fanatical -
were the Crusades. And when were wars more unfortunate, more
unsuccessful? Five millions of Crusaders perished miserably in those mad
expeditions stimulated by hatred of Mohammedanism. No trophies consoled
Europe for its enormous losses, extended over two hundred years. But
those wars developed the resources of Europe; they broke the power of
feudal barons; they promoted commerce and the arts of life; they led to
greater liberality of mind; they opened the horizon of knowledge; they
introduced learned men into rising universities; they centralized the
power of kings; they weakened the temporal jurisdiction of the popes;
they improved architecture, sculpture, and painting; they built free
cities; they gave a new stimulus to all the energies of the European
nations. Their benefits to civilization were not the legitimate result
of destructive passions. The natural penalty of folly and crime was paid
in hardship, sorrow, disease, captivity, disappointment, poverty, and
death. But out of the ashes a new creation arose, not what any of the
leaders of those movements ever contemplated - infinitely removed from
the thoughts of Bernard, Urban, Philip, and Richard, great men as they
were, far-sighted statesmen, who expected other results. The hand which
guided that warfare between Europe and Asia was the hand that led the
Israelites out of Egypt across the Red Sea. Moreover, _quem deus vult
perdere prius dementat_. What uprising more foolish, insane,
disastrous, than the great Southern rebellion! Its result was never
dreamed of for a moment by those Southern leaders. They hoped to see the
establishment of a great empire based on slavery; they saw the utter
destruction of slavery itself. The course by which they anticipated
dominion and riches ended in their temporal ruin. They were made the
destroyers of their own pet system, when it could not have been
destroyed in any other way. It was only by a great war that the fetters
of the slave could be removed, and God sent war so soon as it pleased
Him to bring the wicked bondage to an end. If any thing shows the hand
of God it is the wars of the nations. They are sent like the famine and
the pestilence. All human wisdom and power sink into insignificance when
they are put forth to stop these scourges of the Almighty. It is against
all reason that they ever come; yet they do come, and then crimes are
avenged; evil punishes evil, and succeeding generations are made to see
that the progress of the race is through sorrow and suffering. No great
empire is built up but with the will of God. No empire falls without
deserving the chastisement and the ruin. But God has promised to save
and to redeem, and the world moves on in accordance with natural laws,
and each successive century witnesses somehow or other a great advance
in the general condition of mankind. It is not the great rulers who plan
this improvement. It comes from Heaven. It comes in spite of human
degeneracy, which, if left to itself, would doubtless soon produce a
state of society like that which is attributed to the nations "before
the flood came and destroyed them all."

[Sidenote: Wars over-ruled for the good of nations.]

With this view of war - always aggressive with one party, always a
calamity to both; the greatest calamity known to the nations,
exhausting, bloody, cruel, sweeping every thing before it; a moral
conflagration, bringing every kind of suffering and sorrow in its train,
yet made to result as a retribution to worn-out and degenerate races,
and a means of vast development of resources among those peoples which
have life and energy, - we see the providence of God in the Roman
Conquests. The gradual growth of Rome as a warlike state is a most
impressive example of the agency of a great Moral Governor in breaking
up states that deserved to perish, and in building up a power such as
the world needed in order to facilitate both a magnificent civilization
and the peaceful spread of a new religion. The Greeks created art and
literature; the Romans, laws and government, by which society everywhere
was made more secure and tranquil, until the good which arose from the
evil was itself perverted.

[Sidenote: Growth of Rome under the kings.]

Under the kingly rule Rome becomes the most important and powerful of
the cities of Latium, and a foundation is laid of social, religious, and
political institutions which are destined to achieve a magnificent
triumph. The kings of Rome are all great men - wise and statesmanlike,
patrons of civilization among a rude and primitive people. No state for
more than two hundred years was ever ruled by more enlightened princes,
ambitious indeed, sometimes unscrupulous, but fortunate and successful.
The benefits derived from the conquests and ascendency of the city of
Romulus were seen in the union of several petty states, and the fusion
of their customs and manners. Before the foundation of the city, Italy
was of no account with the older empires. In less than two hundred and
fifty years a great Italian power grows up on the banks of the Tiber,
imbued to some extent with the civilization of Greece, which it receives
through Etruria and the Tarquins.

[Sidenote: Effect of the expulsion of the Tarquins.]

But the growth of Rome under the kings was too rapid for its moral
health. A series of disasters produced by the expulsion of the Tarquins,
during which the Roman state dwindles into a small territory on the left
bank of the Tiber, develops strength and martial virtue. It takes Rome
one hundred and fifty years to recover what it had lost. Moreover its
great prosperity has provoked envy, and all the small neighboring
nations are leagued against it. These must be subdued, or Italy will
remain divided and subdivided, with no central power.

The heroic period of Roman history begins really with the expulsion of
the kings; also the growth of aristocratical power. It is not under
kings nor democratic influences and institutions that Rome reaches
preeminence, but under an aristocracy. All that is most glorious in
Roman annals took place under the rule of the Patricians.

[Sidenote: Rome struggles for existence for 150 years.]

[Sidenote: Beautiful legends of the heroic period.]

[Sidenote: They indicate the existence of great virtues.]

[Sidenote: Petty wars with neighboring states develop patriotism.]

During the one hundred and fifty years - when the future mistress of the
world struggled for its existence with the cities and inhabitants of
Latium, Samnium, and Etruria, whose united territories scarcely extended
fifty miles from Rome, were developed the virtues of a martial
aristocracy. Our minds kindle with the contemplation of their courage,
fortitude, patience, hope, perseverance, energy, self-devotion,
patriotism, and religious faith. They deserved success. The long and
bitter struggle of one hundred and fifty years had more of the nature of
self-preservation than military ambition. The history of those petty
wars is interesting, because it is romantic. Beautiful legends of early
patriotism and heroism have been reproduced in all the histories from
Livy to our times, like those of the knights of King Arthur and the
paladins of Charlemagne in the popular literature of Europe. Poets have
made them the themes of their inspiration. Painters have chosen them as
favorite subjects of art. We love to ponder on the bitter exile of
Coriolanus, his treasonable revenge, and the noble patriotism of his
weeping and indignant mother, who saved her country but lost her son; on
Cincinnatus, taken from the plow and sent as general and dictator
against the Acquians; on the Fabian gens, defending Rome a whole year
from the attacks of the Veientines until they were all cut off, like the
Spartan band at Thermopylae; on Siccius Dentatus, the veteran captain of
one hundred and twenty battles, who was only slain by rolling a stone
from a high rock upon his head; on Cossos, slaying the king of Veii with

Online LibraryJohn LordThe Old Roman World, : the Grandeur and Failure of Its Civilization → online text (page 2 of 50)