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

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clothed in a soldier's cloak. Daughter of an imperator, sister of
another, and consort of a third, she is best known as the mother of
Nero, and the patroness of every thing that was shameful in the follies
of the times. That an emperor should wed and be ruled by two such
infamous women, indicates either weakness or depravity, and both
qualities are equally fatal to the welfare of the state over which he
was called to rule.

[Sidenote: Nero.]

The supreme power then fell into the hands of Nero. He gave the promise
of virtue and ability, and Seneca condescended to the most flattering
panegyrics; but the prospects of ruling beneficently were soon clouded
by the most disgraceful enormities. He destroyed all who were offensive
to those who ruled him, even Seneca who had been his tutor. Lost to all
dignity and decency, he indulged in the most licentious riots,
disguising himself like a slave, and committing midnight assaults. He
killed his mother and his aunt, and divorced his wife. He sung songs on
the public stage, and was more ambitious of being a good flute-player
than a public benefactor. It is even said that he fiddled when Rome was
devastated by a fearful conflagration. He built a palace, which covered
entirely Mount Esquiline, the vestibule of which contained a colossal
statue of himself, one hundred and twenty feet high. His gardens were
the scenes of barbarities, and his banqueting halls of orgies which were
a reproach to humanity. He wasted the empire by enormous contributions,
and even plundered the temples of his own capital. His wife, Poppaea,
died of a kick which she received from this monster, because she had
petulantly reproved him. Longinus, an eminent lawyer, Lucan the poet,
and Petronius the satirist, alike, were victims of his hatred. This last
of the Caesars, allied by blood to the imperial house of Julius, killed
himself in his thirty-first year, to prevent assassination, to the
universal joy of the Roman world, without having done a great deed, or
evinced a single virtue. Flute-playing and chariot races were his main
diversions, and every public interest was sacrificed to his pleasures,
or his vengeance - a man delighting in evil for its own sake.

[Sidenote: Galba.]

Nero was succeeded by Galba, who also was governed by favorites. He was
a great glutton, exceedingly parsimonious, and very unpopular. In the
early stages of his life, he appeared equal to the trust and dignity
reposed in him; but when he gained the sovereignty, he proved deficient
in those qualities requisite to wield it. Tacitus sums up his character
in a sentence. "He appeared superior to his rank before he was emperor,
and would have always been considered worthy of the supreme power, if he
had not obtained it." He was assassinated after a brief reign.

[Sidenote: Otho.]

His successor, Otho, finding himself unequal to the position to which he
was elevated, ended his life by suicide. Vitellius, who wore the purple
next to him, is celebrated for cruelty and gluttony, and was removed by
assassination. Titus and Vespasian were honorable exceptions to the
tyrants and sensualists that had reigned since Augustus, but Domitian
surpassed all his predecessors in unrelenting cruelty. He banished all
philosophers from Rome and Italy, and violently persecuted the
Christians, and was dissolute and lewd in his private habits. He also
met a violent death from the assassin's dagger, the only way that
infamous monsters could be hurled from power. Yet such was the fulsome
flattery to which he and all the emperors were accustomed, that Martial
addressed this monster, preeminent of all in wickedness and cruelty, -

"To conquer ardent, and to triumph shy,
Fair Victory named him from the polar sky.
Fanes to the gods, to men he manners gave;
Rest to the sword, and respite to the brave;
So high could ne'er Herculean power aspire:
The god should bend his looks to the Tarpeian fire."
[Footnote: Book ix. 101. ]

[Sidenote: The latter emperors.]

Of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the Antonines, I will not speak, since
they were great exceptions to those who generally ruled at Rome. Their
virtues and their talents are justly eulogized by all historians. Great
in war, and greater in peace, they were ornaments of humanity. Under
their sway, the empire was prosperous and happy. Their greatness almost
atoned for the weakness and wickedness of their predecessors. If such
men as they could have ruled at Rome, the imperial regime would have
been the greatest blessing. But with them expired the prosperity of the
empire, and they were succeeded by despots, whose vices equaled those of
Nero and Vitellius. Commodus, Caracalla, Elagabalus, Maximin, Philip,
Gallienus, are enrolled on the catalogue of those who have obtained an
infamous immortality. At last no virtue or talent on the part of the
few emperors who really labored for the good of the state, could arrest
the increasing corruption. The empire was doomed when Constantine
removed the seat of government to Constantinople. Forty-four sovereigns
reigned at Rome from Julius to Constantine, in a period of little more
than three hundred and fifty years, of whom twenty were removed by
assassination. What a commentary on imperial despotism! In spite of the
virtues of such men as Trajan and the Antonines, the history of the
emperors is a loathsome chapter of human depravity, and of its awful
retribution. Never were greater powers exercised by single men, and
never were they more signally abused. From the time of Augustus those
virtues which give glory to society steadily declined. The reigns of the
emperors were fatal to all moral elevation, and even to genius, as in
the latter days of Louis XIV. The great lights which illuminated the
Augustan age, disappeared, without any to take their place. Under the
emperors there are fewer great names than for one hundred years before
the death of Cicero. Eloquence, poetry, and philosophy were alike
eclipsed. Noble aspirations were repressed by the all-powerful and
irresistible despotism.

The tyranny of these emperors was rendered endurable by the general
familiarity with cruelty. In every Roman palace, the slave was chained
to the doorway; thongs hung upon the stairs, and the marks of violence
on the faces of the domestics impressed the great that they were despots
themselves. They were accustomed to the sight of blood in the sports of
the amphitheatre. They ruled as tyrants in the provinces they governed.

But it must be allowed that the system of education was left untrammeled
by the government, provided politics were not introduced; and it
produced men of letters, if not practical statesmen. It sharpened the
intellect and enlivened thought. The text-books of the schools were the
most famous compositions of republican Greece, and the favorite subjects
of declamation were the glories of the free men of antiquity. Nor was
there any restriction placed upon writing or publication analogous to
our modern censorship of the press, and many of the emperors, like
Claudius and Hadrian, were patrons of literature. Even the stoical
philosophers who tried to persuade the emperor that he was a slave, were
endured, since they did not attempt to deprive him of sovereignty.

Nor could the imperial tyranny be resisted by minds enervated by
indulgence and estranged from all pure aspirations, by the pleasures of
sense. They crouched like dogs under the uplifted arm of masters. They
did not even seek to fly from the tyranny which ground them down.

[Sidenote: Character of the emperors.]

It cannot be denied that, on the whole, this long succession of emperors
was more intellectual and able than oriental dynasties, and even many
occidental ones in the Middle Ages, when the principle of legitimacy was
undisputed. The Roman emperors, as men of talents, favorably compare
with the successors of Mohammed, and the Carlovingian and Merovingian
kings. But if these talents were employed in systematically crushing out
all human rights, the despotism they established became the more
deplorable.

Nor can it be questioned that many virtuous princes reigned at Rome, who
would have ornamented any age or country. Titus, Hadrian, Marcus
Aurelius, Antoninus Pius, Alexander Severus, Tacitus, Probus, Carus,
Constantine, Theodosius, were all men of remarkable virtues as well as
talents. They did what they could to promote public prosperity. Marcus
Aurelius was one of the purest and noblest characters of antiquity.
Theodosius for genius and virtue ranks with the most illustrious
sovereigns that ever wore a crown - with Charlemagne, with Alfred, with
William III., with Gustavus Adolphus.

Of these Roman emperors some stand out as world heroes - greatest among
men - remarkable for executive ability. Julius is the most renowned name
of antiquity. He ranks only with Napoleon Bonaparte in modern times. His
genius was transcendent; and, like Napoleon, he had great traits which
endear him to the world - generosity, magnanimity, and exceeding culture;
orator, historian, and lawyer, as well as statesman and general. But he
overturned the liberties of his country to gratify a mad ambition, and
waded through a sea of blood to the mastership of the world. Augustus
was a profound statesman, and a successful general; but he was stained
with the arts of dissimulation and an intense ambition, and sacrificed
public liberties and rights to cement his power. Even Diocletian, tyrant
and persecutor as he was, was distinguished for masterly abilities, and
was the greatest statesman whom the empire saw, with the exception of
Augustus. Such a despot as Tiberius ruled with justice and ability.
Constantine ranks with the greatest monarchs of antiquity. The vices and
ambition of these men did not dim the lustre of their genius and
abilities.

[Sidenote: The Imperial despotism.]

Their cause was wrong. It matters not whether the emperors were good or
bad, if the regime, to which they consecrated their energies, was
exerted to crush the liberties of mankind. The imperial despotism,
whether brilliant or disgraceful, was a mournful retrograde in the
polity of Rome. It implied the extinction of patriotism, and the general
degradation of the people, or else the fabric of despotism could not
have been erected. It would have been impossible in the days of Cato,
Scipio, or Metellus. It was simply a choice of evils. When nations
emerge from utter barbarism into absolute monarchies, like the ancient
Persians or the modern Russians, we forget the evils of a central power
in the blessings which extend indirectly to the degraded people. But
when a nation loses its liberties, and submits without a struggle to
tyrants, it is a sad spectacle to humanity. The despotism of Louis XIV.
was not disgraceful to the French people, for they never had enjoyed
constitutional liberty. The despotism of Louis Napoleon is mournful,
because the nation had waded through a bloody revolution to achieve the
recognition of great rights and interests, and dreamed that they were
guaranteed. It is a retrograde and not a progress; a reaction of
liberty, which seats Napoleon on the throne of Louis Philippe; even as
the reign of Charles II. is the saddest chapter in English history. If
liberty be a blessing, if it be possible for nations to secure it
permanently, then the regime of the Roman emperors is detestable and
mournful, whatever necessities may have called it into being, since it
annulled all those glorious privileges in which ancient patriots
gloried, and prevented that scope for energies which made Rome mistress
of the world. It was impossible for the empire to grow stronger and
grander. It must needs become weaker and more corrupt, since despotism
did not kindle the ambition of the people, but suppressed their noblest
sentiments, and confined their energies to inglorious pursuits. Men
might acquire more gigantic fortunes under the emperors than in the
times of the republic, and art might be more extensively cultivated, and
luxury and refinement and material pleasures might increase; but public
virtue fled, and those sentiments on which national glory rests vanished
before the absorbing egotism which pervaded all orders and classes. The
imperial despotism may have been needed, and the empire might have
fallen, even if it had not existed; still it was a sad and mournful
necessity, and gives a humiliating view of human greatness. No lover of
liberty can contemplate it without disgust and abhorrence. No
philosopher can view it without drawing melancholy lessons of human
degeneracy - an impressive moral for all ages and nations.

If we turn to the class which, before the dictatorship of Julius, had
the ascendency in the state, and, for several centuries, the supreme
power, we shall find but little that is flattering to a nation or to
humanity.

[Sidenote: The Roman aristocracy.]

The Roman aristocracy was the most powerful, most wealthy, and most
august that this world has probably seen. It was under patrician
leadership that the great conquests were made, and the greatness of the
state reached. The glory of Rome was centred in those proud families
which had conquered and robbed all the nations known to the Greeks. The
immortal names of ancient Rome are identified with the aristocracy. It
was not under kings, but under nobles, that military ambition became the
vice of the most exalted characters. In the days of the republic, they
exhibited a stern virtue, an inflexible policy, an indomitable will, and
most ardent patriotism. The generals who led the armies to victory, the
statesmen who deliberated in the Senate, the consuls, the praetors, the
governors, originally belonged to this noble class. It monopolized all
the great offices of the state, and it maintained its powers and
privileges, in spite of conspiracies and rebellions. It may have yielded
somewhat to popular encroachments, but when the people began to acquire
the ascendency, the seeds of public corruption were sown. The real
dignity and glory of Rome coexisted with patrician power.

[Sidenote: Great families.]

And powerful families existed in Rome until the fall of the empire. Some
were descendants of ancient patrician houses, and numbered the
illustrious generals of the republic among their ancestors. Others owed
their rank and consequence to the accumulation of gigantic fortunes.
Others, again, rose into importance from the patronage of emperors. All
the great conquerors and generals of the republic were founders of
celebrated families, which never lost consideration. Until the
subversion of the constitution, they took great interest in politics,
and were characterized for manly patriotism. Many of them were famous
for culture of mind as well as public spirit. They frowned on the
growing immoralities, and maintained the dignity of their elevated rank.
The Senate was the most august assembly ever known on earth, controlling
kings and potentates, and making laws for the most distant nations, and
exercising a power which was irresistible.

[Sidenote: Degeneracy of the nobles.]

Under the emperors this noble class had degenerated in morals as well as
influence. They still retained their enormous fortunes, originally
acquired as governors of provinces, and continually increased by
fortunate marriages and speculations. Indeed, nothing was more marked
and melancholy at Rome than the disproportionate fortunes, the general
consequences of a low or a corrupt civilization. In the better days of
the republic, property was more equally divided. The citizens were not
ambitious for more land than they could conveniently cultivate. But the
lands, obtained by conquest, gradually fell into the possession of
powerful families. The classes of society widened as great fortunes were
accumulated. Pride of wealth kept pace with pride of ancestry. And when
Plebeian families had obtained great estates, they were amalgamated with
the old aristocracy. The Equestrian order, founded substantially on
wealth, grew daily in importance. Knights ultimately rivaled senatorial
families. Even freedmen, in an age of commercial speculation, became
powerful for their riches. Ultimately the rich formed a body by
themselves. Under the emperors, the pursuit of money became a passion;
and the rich assumed all the importance and consideration which had once
been bestowed upon those who had rendered great public services. The
laws of property were rigorous among the Romans, and wealth, when once
obtained, was easily secured and transmitted.

[Sidenote: Gigantic fortunes.]

Such gigantic fortunes were ultimately made, since the Romans were
masters of the world, that Rome became a city of palaces, and the spoils
and riches of all nations flowed to the capital. Rome was a city of
princes, and wealth gave the highest distinction. The fortunes were
almost incredible. It has been estimated that the income of some of the
richest of the senatorial families equaled a sum of five million dollars
a year in our money. It took eighty thousand dollars a year to support
the ordinary senatorial dignity. Some senators owned whole provinces.
Trimalchio - a rich freedman whom Petronius ridiculed - could afford to
lose thirty millions of sesterces in a single voyage without sensibly
diminishing his fortune. Pallas, a freedman of the Emperor Claudius,
possessed a fortune of three hundred millions of sesterces. Seneca, the
philosopher, amassed an enormous fortune.

[Sidenote: Character of the nobles.]

[Sidenote: Excessive luxury.]

[Sidenote: Luxury of the aristocracy.]

[Sidenote: Luxury of the nobles.]

The Romans were a sensual, ostentatious, and luxurious people, and they
accordingly wasted their fortunes by an extravagance in their living
which has had no parallel. The pleasures of the table and the cares of
the kitchen were the most serious avocation of the aristocracy in the
days of the greatest corruption. They had around them a regular court of
parasites and flatterers, and they employed even persons of high rank as
their chamberlains and stewards. Carving was taught in celebrated
schools, and the masters of this sublime art were held in higher
estimation than philosophers or poets. Says Juvenal: -

"To such perfection now is carving brought,
That different gestures, by our curious men
Are used for different dishes, hare or hen."

Their entertainments were accompanied with every thing which could
flatter vanity or excite the passions. Musicians, male and female
dancers, players of farce and pantomime, jesters, buffoons, and
gladiators, exhibited while the guests reclined at table. The tables
were made of Thuja-root, with claws of ivory or Delian bronze, and cost
immense sums. Even Cicero, in an economical age, paid six hundred and
fifty pounds for his banqueting table. These tables were waited upon by
an army of slaves, clad in costly dresses. In the intervals of courses
they played with dice, or listened to music, or were amused with dances.
They wore a great profusion of jewels - such as necklaces and rings and
bracelets. They reclined at table after the fashion of the Orientals.
They ate, as delicacies, water-rats and white worms. Gluttony was
carried to such a point that the sea and earth scarcely sufficed to set
off their tables. The women passed whole nights at the table, and were
proud of their power to carry off an excess of wine. As Cleopatra says
of her riotings with Antony, -

"O times! -
I laughed him out of patience; and that night
I laughed him into patience: and next morn,
Ere the ninth hour, I drank him to his bed."

The wines were often kept for two ages, and some qualities were so
highly prized as to sell for about twenty dollars an ounce. Large hogs
were roasted whole at a banquet. The ancient epicures expatiate on
ram's-head pies, stuffed fowls, boiled calf, and pastry stuffed with
raisins and nuts. Dishes were made of gold and silver, set with precious
stones. Cicero and Pompey one day surprised Lucullus at one of his
ordinary banquets, when he expected no guests, and even that cost fifty
thousand drachmas - about four thousand dollars. His beds were of purple,
and his vessels glittered with jewels. The halls of Heliogabalus were
hung with cloth of gold, enriched with jewels. His beds were of massive
silver, his table and plate of pure gold, and his mattresses, covered
with carpets of cloth of gold, were stuffed with down found only under
the wings of partridges. Crassus paid one hundred thousand sesterces for
a golden cup. Banqueting rooms were strewed with lilies and roses.
Apicius, in the time of Trajan, spent one hundred millions of sesterces
in debauchery and gluttony. Having only ten millions left, he ended his
life with poison, thinking he might die of hunger. The suppers of
Heliogabalus never cost less than one hundred thousand sesterces. And
things were valued for their cost and rarity, rather than their real
value. Enormous prices were paid for carp, the favorite dish of the
Romans. Drusillus, a freedman of Claudius, caused a dish to be made of
five hundred pounds weight of silver. Vitellius had one made of such
prodigious size that they were obliged to build a furnace on purpose for
it; and at a feast in honor of this dish which he gave, it was filled
with the livers of the scarrus (fish), the brains of peacocks, the
tongues of a bird of red plumage, called Phaesuicopterus, and the roes of
lampreys caught in the Carpathian Sea. Falernian wine was never drunk
until ten years old, and it was generally cooled with ices. The passion
for play was universal. Nero ventured four hundred thousand sesterces on
a single throw of the dice. Cleopatra, when she feasted Antony, gave
each time to that general the gold vessels, enriched with jewels, the
tapestry and purple carpets, embroidered with gold, which had been used
in the repasts. Horace speaks of a debauchee who drank at a meal a
goblet of vinegar, in which he dissolved a pearl worth a million of
sesterces, which hung at the ear of his mistress. Precious stones were
so common that a woman of the utmost simplicity dared not go without her
diamonds. Even men wore jewels, especially elaborate rings, and upon all
the fingers at last. The taste of the Roman aristocracy, with their
immense fortunes, inclined them to pomp, to extravagance, to
ostentatious modes of living, to luxurious banquets, to
conventionalities and ceremonies, to an unbounded epicureanism. They
lived for the present hour, and for sensual pleasures. There was no
elevation of life. It was the body and not the soul, the present and not
the future, which alone concerned them. They were grossly material in
all their desires and habits. They squandered money on their banquets,
their stables, and their dress. And it was to their crimes, says
Juvenal, that they were indebted for their gardens, their palaces, their
tables, and their fine old plate. The day was portioned out in the
public places, in the bath, the banquet. Martial indignantly rebukes
these extravagances, as unable to purchase happiness, in his Epigram to
Quintus: "Because you purchase slaves at two hundred thousand sesterces;
because you drink wines stored during the reign of Numa; because your
furniture costs you a million; because a pound weight of wrought silver
costs you five thousand; because a golden chariot becomes yours at the
price of a whole farm; because your mule costs you more than the value
of a house - do not imagine that such expenses are the proof of a great
mind." [Footnote: Book iii. p. 62.]

Unbounded pride, insolence, inhumanity, selfishness, and scorn marked
this noble class. Of course there were exceptions, but the historians
and satirists give the saddest pictures of their cold-hearted depravity.
The sole result of friendship with a great man was a meal, at which
flattery and sycophancy were expected; but the best wine was drunk by
the host, instead of by the guest. Provinces were ransacked for fish and
fowl and game for the tables of the great, and sensualism was thought to
be no reproach. They violated the laws of chastity and decorum. They
scourged to death their slaves. They degraded their wives and sisters.
They patronized the most demoralizing sports. They enriched themselves
by usury, and enjoyed monopolies. They practiced no generosity, except
at their banquets, when ostentation balanced their avarice. They
measured every thing by the money-standard. They had no taste for
literature, but they rewarded sculptors and painters, if they
prostituted art to their vanity or passions. They had no reverence for
religion, and ridiculed the gods. Their distinguishing vices were



Online LibraryJohn LordThe Old Roman World, : the Grandeur and Failure of Its Civilization → online text (page 33 of 50)