John Lord.

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

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meanness and servility, the pursuit of money by every artifice, the
absence of honor, and unblushing sensuality.

[Sidenote: Gibbon's account of the nobles.]

[Sidenote: Sarcasms of Ammianus Marcellinus.]

Gibbon has eloquently abridged the remarks of Ammianus Marcellinus,
respecting these people: "They contend with each other in the empty
vanity of titles and surnames. They affect to multiply their likenesses
in statues of bronze or marble; nor are they satisfied unless these
statues are covered with plates of gold. They boast of the rent-rolls of
their estates. They measure their rank and consequence by the loftiness
of their chariots, and the weighty magnificence of their dress. Their
long robes of silk and purple float in the wind, and, as they are
agitated by art or accident, they discover the under garments, the rich
tunics embroidered with the figures of various animals. Followed by a
train of fifty servants, and tearing up the pavement, they move along
the streets as if they traveled with post-horses; and the example of the
senators is boldly imitated by the matrons and ladies, whose covered
carriages are continually driving round the immense space of the city
and suburbs. Whenever they condescend to enter the public baths, they
assume, on their entrance, a tone of loud and insolent command, and
maintain a haughty demeanor, which, perhaps, might have been excused in
the great Marcellus, after the conquest of Syracuse. Sometimes these
heroes undertake more arduous achievements: they visit their estates in
Italy, and procure themselves, by servile hands, the amusements of the
chase. And if, at any time, especially on a hot day, they have the
courage to sail in their gilded galleys from the Lucrine Lake to their
elegant villas on the sea-coast of Puteoli and Cargeta, they compare
these expeditions to the marches of Caesar and Alexander. Yet, should a
fly presume to settle on the silken folds of their gilded umbrellas,
should a sunbeam penetrate through some unguarded chink, they deplore
their intolerable hardships, and lament, in affected language, that they
were not born in the regions of eternal darkness. In the exercise of
domestic jurisdiction they express an exquisite sensibility for any
personal injury, and a contemptuous indifference for the rest of
mankind. When they have called for warm water, should a slave be tardy
in his obedience, he is chastised with an hundred lashes; should he
commit a willful murder, his master will mildly observe that he is a
worthless fellow, and should be punished if he repeat the offense. If a
foreigner of no contemptible rank be introduced to these senators, he is
welcomed with such warm professions that he retires charmed with their
affability; but when he repeats his visit, he is surprised and mortified
to find that his name, his person, and his country are forgotten. The
modest, the sober, and the learned are rarely invited to their sumptuous
banquets; but the most worthless of mankind - parasites who applaud every
look and gesture, who gaze with rapture on marble columns and variegated
pavements, and strenuously praise the pomp and elegance which he is
taught to consider as a part of his personal merit. At the Roman table,
the birds, the squirrels, the fish which appear of uncommon size, are
contemplated with curious attention, and notaries are summoned to
attest, by authentic record, their real weight. Another method of
introduction into the houses of the great is skill in games, which is a
sure road to wealth and reputation. A master of this sublime art, if
placed, at a supper, below a magistrate, displays in his countenance a
surprise and indignation which Cato might be supposed to feel when
refused the praetorship. The acquisition of knowledge seldom engages the
attention of the nobles, who abhor the fatigue and disdain the
advantages of study; and the only books they peruse are the 'Satires of
Juvenal,' or the fabulous histories of Marius Maximus. The libraries
they have inherited from their fathers are secluded, like dreary
sepulchres, from the light of day; but the costly instruments of the
theatre, flutes and hydraulic organs, are constructed for their use. In
their palaces sound is preferred to sense, and the care of the body to
that of the mind. The suspicion of a malady is of sufficient weight to
excuse the visits of the most intimate friends. The prospect of gain
will urge a rich and gouty senator as far as Spoleta; every sentiment of
arrogance and dignity is suppressed in the hope of an inheritance or
legacy, and a wealthy, childless citizen is the most powerful of the
Romans. The distress which follows and chastises extravagant luxury
often reduces the great to use the most humiliating expedients. When
they wish to borrow, they employ the base and supplicating style of the
slaves in the comedy; but when they are called upon to pay, they assume
the royal and tragic declamations of the grandsons of Hercules. If the
demand is repeated, they readily procure some trusty sycophant to
maintain a charge of poison or magic against the insolent creditor, who
is seldom released from prison until he has signed a discharge of the
whole debt. And these vices are mixed with a puerile superstition which
disgraces their understanding. They listen with confidence to the
productions of haru-spices, who pretend to read in the entrails of
victims the signs of future greatness and prosperity; and this
superstition is observed among those very skeptics who impiously deny or
doubt the existence of a celestial power." [Footnote: Found in the sixth
chapter of the fourteenth, and the fourth of the twenty-eighth, book of
Ammianus Marcellinus.]

Such, in the latter days of the empire, was the leading class at Rome,
and probably in the cities which aped the fashions of the capital. There
was a melancholy absence of elevation of sentiment, of patriotism, of
manly courage, and of dignity of character. Frivolity and luxury
loosened all the ties of society. The animating principle of their lives
was a heartless Epicureanism. They lived for the present hour, and for
their pleasures, indifferent to the great interests of the public, and
to the miseries of the poor. They were bound up in themselves. They were
grossly material in all their aims. They had lost all ideas of public
virtue. They degraded women; they oppressed the people; they laughed at
philanthropy; they could not be reached by elevated sentiments; they had
no concern for the future. Scornful, egotistical, haughty, self-
indulgent, affected, cynical, all their thoughts and conversation were
directed to frivolities. Nothing made any impression upon them but
passing vanities. They ignored both Heaven and Hell. They were like the
courtiers of Louis XV. in the most godless period of the monarchy. They
were worse, for they superadded pagan infidelities. There were memorable
exceptions, but not many, until Christianity had reached the throne.
"One after another, the nobles sunk into a lethargy almost without a
parallel. The proudest names of the old republic were finally associated
with the idlest amusements and the most preposterous novelties. A
Gabrius, a Callius, and a Crassus were immortalized by the elegance of
their dancing. A Lucullus, a Hortensius, a Philippus estimated one
another, not by their eloquence, their courage, or their virtue, but by
the perfection of their fish-ponds, and the singularity of the breeds
they nourished. They seemed to touch the sky with their finger if they
had stocked their preserves with bearded mullets, and taught them to
recognize their masters' voices, and come to be fed from their hands."
[Footnote: Merivale, chap. ii.]

[Sidenote: Condition of the people.]

As for the miserable class whom they oppressed, their condition became
worse every day from the accession of the emperors. The Plebeians had
ever disdained those arts which now occupy the middle classes. These
were intrusted to slaves. Originally, they employed themselves upon the
lands which had been obtained by conquest. But these lands were
gradually absorbed or usurped by the large proprietors. The small
farmers, oppressed with debt and usury, parted with their lands to their
wealthy creditors. In the time of Cicero, it was computed that there
were only about two thousand citizens possessed of independent property.
These two thousand people owned the world. The rest were dependent; and
they were powerless when deprived of political rights, for the great
candidate for public honors and offices liberally paid for votes. But
under the emperors the commons had subsided into a miserable populace,
fed from the public stores. They would have perished but for largesses.
Monthly distributions of corn were converted into daily allowance for
bread. They were amused with games and festivals. From the stately baths
they might be seen to issue without shoes and without a mantle. They
loitered in the public streets, and dissipated in gaming their miserable
pittance. They spent the hours of the night in the lowest resorts of
crime and misery. As many as four hundred thousand sometimes assembled
to witness the chariot races. The vast theatres were crowded to see male
and female dancers. The amphitheatres were still more largely attended
by the better populace. They expired in wretched apartments without
attracting the attention of government. Pestilence and famine and
squalid misery thinned their ranks, and they would have been annihilated
but for constant succession to their ranks from the provinces. In the
busy streets of Rome might be seen adventurers from all parts of the
world, disgraced by all the various vices of their respective countries.
They had no education, and but little of religious advantages. They were
held in terror by both priests and nobles. The priest terrified them
with Egyptian sorceries, the noble crushed them by iron weight. Like
Iazzaroni, they lived in the streets, or were crowded into filthy
apartments. Several families tenanted the same house. A gladiatorial
show delighted them, but the circus was their peculiar joy. Here they
sought to drown the consciousness of their squalid degradation. They
were sold into slavery for trifling debts. They had no home. The poor
man had no ambition or hope. His wife was a slave; his children were
precocious demons, whose prattle was the cry for bread, whose laughter
was the howl of pandemonium, whose sports were the tricks of premature
iniquity, whose beauty was the squalor of disease and filth. He fled
from a wife in whom he had no trust, from children in whom he had no
hope, from brothers for whom he felt no sympathy, from parents for whom
he felt no reverence. The circus was _his_ home, the wild beast
_his_ consolation. The future was a blank. Death was the release
from suffering. Historians and poets say but little of his degraded
existence; but from the few hints we have, we infer depravity and brutal
tastes. If degraded at all, they must have been very degraded, since the
Romans had but little sentiment, and no ideality. They were sunk in
vice, for they had no sense of responsibility. They never emerged from
their wretched condition. The philosophers, poets, scholars, and lawyers
of Rome, sprang uniformly from the aristocratic classes. In the
provinces, the poor sometimes rose, but very seldom. The whole aspect of
society was a fearful inequality - disproportionate fortunes, slavery,
and beggary. There was no middle class, of any influence or
consideration. It was for the interest of people without means to enroll
themselves in the service of the rich. Hence the immense numbers
employed in the palaces in menial work. They would have been enrolled in
the armies, but for their inefficiency. The army was recruited from the
provinces - the rural population - and even from the barbarians
themselves. There were no hospitals for the sick and the old, except one
on an island in the Tiber. The old and helpless were left to die,
unpitied and unconsoled. Suicide was so common that it attracted no
attention, but infanticide was not so marked, since there was so little
feeling of compassion for the future fate of the miserable children.
Superstition culminated at Rome, for there were seen the priests and
devotees of all the countries which it governed - "the dark-skinned
daughters of Isis, with drum and timbrel and wanton mien; devotees of
the Persian Mithras, imported by the Pompeians from Cilicia; emasculated
Asiatics, priests of Berecynthian Cybele, with their wild dances and
discordant cries; worshipers of the great goddess Diana; barbarian
captives with the rites of Teuton priests; Syrians, Jews, Chaldean
astrologers, and Thessalian sorcerers." Oh, what scenes of sin and
misery did that imperial capital witness in the third and fourth
centuries - sensualism and superstition, fears and tribulations,
pestilence and famine, even amid the pomps of senatorial families, and
the grandeur of palaces and temples. "The crowds which flocked to Rome
from the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, brought with them
practices extremely demoralizing. The awful rites of initiation, the
tricks of magicians, the pretended virtues of amulets and charms, the
riddles of emblematical idolatry, with which the superstition of the
East abounded, amused the languid voluptuaries who neither had the
energy for a moral belief, nor the boldness requisite for logical
skepticism." They were brutal, bloodthirsty, callous to the sight of
suffering, and familiar with cruelties and crimes. They were
superstitious, without religious faith, without hope, and without God in
the world.

[Sidenote: The slaves.]

[Sidenote: Slavery.]

We cannot pass by, in this enumeration of the different classes of Roman
society, the number and condition of slaves. A large part of the
population belonged to this servile class. Originally introduced by
foreign conquest, it was increased by those who could not pay their
debts. The single campaign of Regulus introduced as many as a fifth part
of the whole population. Four hundred were maintained in a single
palace, at a comparatively early period. A freedman in the time of
Augustus left behind him four thousand one hundred and sixteen. Horace
regarded two hundred as the suitable establishment for a gentleman. Some
senators owned twenty thousand. Gibbon estimates the number at about
sixty millions, one half of the whole population. One hundred thousand
captives were taken in the Jewish war, who were sold as slaves, and sold
as cheap as horses. [Footnote: Wm. Blair, _On Roman Slavery_,
Edinburgh, 1833; Robertson, _On the State of the World at the
Introduction of Christ_.] Blair supposes that there were three slaves
to one freeman, from the conquest of Greece to the reign of Alexander
Severus. Slaves often cost two hundred thousand sesterces. [Footnote:
Martial, xii. 62.] Every body was eager to possess a slave. At one time
his life was at the absolute control of his master. He could be treated
at all times with brutal severity. Fettered and branded he toiled to
cultivate the lands of an imperious master, and at night he was shut up
in subterranean cells. The laws did not recognize his claim to be
considered scarcely as a moral agent. He was _secundum hominum
genus_. He could acquire no rights, social or political. He was
incapable of inheriting property, or making a will, or contracting a
legal marriage. His value was estimated like that of a brute. He was a
thing and not a person - "a piece of furniture possessed of life." He was
his master's property, to be scourged, or tortured, or crucified. If a
wealthy proprietor died, under circumstances which excited suspicion of
foul play, his whole household was put to the torture. It is recorded,
that, on the murder of a man of consular dignity by a slave, every slave
in his possession was condemned to death. Slaves swelled the useless
rabbles of the cities, and devoured the revenues of the state. All
manual labor was done by slaves, in towns as well as the country. Even
the mechanical arts were cultivated by the slaves. And more, slaves were
schoolmasters, secretaries, actors, musicians, and physicians. In
intelligence, they were on an equality with their masters. They came
from Greece and Asia Minor and Syria, as well as from Gaul and the
African deserts. They were white as well as black. All captives in war
were made slaves, and unfortunate debtors. Sometimes they could regain
their freedom; but, generally, their condition became more and more
deplorable. What a state of society when a refined and cultivated Greek
could be made to obey the most offensive orders of a capricious and
sensual Roman, without remuneration, without thanks, without favor,
without redress. [Footnote: Says Juvenal, _Sat._ vi., "Crucify that
slave. What is the charge to call for such a punishment? What witness
can you present? Who gave the information? Listen! Idiot! So a slave is
a man then! Granted he has done nothing. I _will_ it. I insist upon
it. Let my will stand instead of reason." Read Martial, Juvenal, and
Plautus.] What was to be expected of a class who had no object to live
for. They became the most degraded of mortals, ready for pillage, and
justly to be feared in the hour of danger. Slavery undoubtedly proved
the most destructive canker of the Roman state. It destroyed its
vitality. It was this social evil, more than political misrule, which
undermined the empire. Slavery proved at Rome a monstrous curse,
destroying all manliness of character, creating contempt of honest
labor, making men timorous yet cruel, idle, frivolous, weak, dependent,
powerless. The empire might have lasted centuries longer but for this
incubus, the standing disgrace of the pagan world. Paganism never
recognized what is most noble and glorious in man; never recognized his
equality, his common brotherhood, his natural rights. There was no
compunction, no remorse in depriving human beings of their highest
privileges. Its whole tendency was to degrade the soul, and cause
forgetfulness of immortality. Slavery thrives best, when the generous
instincts are suppressed, and egotism and sensuality and pride are the
dominant springs of human action.

[Sidenote: Degradation of woman.]

The same influences which tended to rob man of the rights which God has
given him, and produce cruelty and heartlessness in the general
intercourse of life, also tended to degrade the female sex. In the
earlier age of the republic, when the people were poor, and life was
simple and primitive, and heroism and patriotism were characteristic,
woman was comparatively virtuous and respected. She asserted her natural
equality, and led a life of domestic tranquillity, employed upon the
training of her children, and inspiring her husband to noble deeds. But,
under the emperors, these virtues had fled. Woman was miserably
educated, being taught by a slave, or some Greek chambermaid, accustomed
to ribald conversation, and fed with idle tales and silly superstitions.
She was regarded as more vicious in natural inclination than man, and
was chiefly valued for household labors. She was reduced to dependence;
she saw but little of her brothers or relatives; she was confined to her
home as if it were a prison; she was guarded by eunuchs and female
slaves; she was given in marriage without her consent; she could be
easily divorced; she was valued only as a domestic servant, or as an
animal to prevent the extinction of families; she was regarded as the
inferior of her husband, to whom she was a victim, a toy, or a slave.
Love after marriage was not frequent, since she did not shine in the
virtues by which love is kept alive. She became timorous, or frivolous,
without dignity or public esteem. Her happiness was in extravagant
attire, in elaborate hair-dressings, in rings and bracelets, in a
retinue of servants, in gilded apartments, in luxurious couches, in
voluptuous dances, in exciting banquets, in demoralizing spectacles, in
frivolous gossip, in inglorious idleness. If virtuous, it was not so
much from principle as from fear. Hence she resorted to all sorts of
arts to deceive her husband. Her genius was sharpened by perpetual
devices, and cunning was her great resource. She cultivated no lofty
friendships; she engaged in no philanthropic mission; she cherished no
ennobling sentiments; she kindled no chivalrous admiration. Her
amusements were frivolous, her taste vitiated, her education neglected,
her rights violated, her sympathy despised, her aspirations scorned. And
here I do not allude to great and infamous examples which history has
handed down in the sober pages of Suetonius and Tacitus, or that
unblushing depravity which stands out in the bitter satires of the
times. I speak not of the adultery, the poisoning, the infanticide, the
debauchery, the cruelty of which history accuses the Messalinas and
Agrippinas of imperial Rome. I allude not to the orgies of the Palatine
Hill, or the abominations which are inferred from the paintings of
Pompeii. But there was a general frivolity and extravagance among women
which rendered marriage inexpedient, unless large dowries were brought
to the husband. Numerous were the efforts of emperors to promote
honorable marriages, but the relation was shunned. Courtesans usurped
the privilege of wives, and with unblushing effrontery. A man was
derided who contemplated matrimony, for there was but little confidence
in female virtue or capacity. And woman lost all her fascination when
age had destroyed her beauty. Even her very virtues were distasteful to
her self-indulgent husband. And whenever she gained the ascendency by
her charms, she was tyrannical. Her relations incited her to despoil her
husband. She lived amid incessant broils. She had no care for the
future, and exceeded men in prodigality. "The government of her house is
no more merciful," says Juvenal, "than the court of a Sicilian tyrant."
In order to render herself attractive, she exhausted all the arts of
cosmetics and elaborate hair-dressing. She delighted in magical
incantations and love-potions. In the bitter satire of Juvenal, we get
an impression most melancholy and loathsome: -

"'T were long to tell what philters they provide,
What drugs to set a son-in-law aside.
Women, in judgment weak, in feeling strong,
By every gust of passion borne along.
To a fond spouse a wife no mercy shows;
Though warmed with equal fires, she mocks his woes,
And triumphs in his spoils; her wayward will
Defeats his bliss and turns his good to ill.
Women support the _bar_; they love the law,
And raise litigious questions for a straw;
Nay, more, they fence! who has not marked their oil,
Their purple rigs, for this preposterous toil!
A woman stops at nothing, when she wears
Rich emeralds round her neck, and in her ears
Pearls of enormous size; these justify
Her faults, and make all lawful in her eye.
More shame to Rome! in every street are found
The essenced Lypanti, with roses crowned,
The gay Miletan, and the Tarentine,
Lewd, petulant, and reeling ripe with wine!"

[Sidenote: Condition of woman.]

In the sixth satire of Juvenal is found the most severe delineation of
woman that ever mortal penned. Doubtless he is libellous and
extravagant, for only infamous women can stoop to such arts and
degradations, which would seem to be common in his time. But, with all
his exaggeration, we are forced to feel that but few women, even in the
highest class, except those converted to Christianity, showed the
virtues of a Lucretia, a Volumnia, a Cornelia, or an Octavia. There was
but a universal corruption. The great virtues of a Perpetua, a
Felicitas, an Agnes, a Paula, a Blessilla, a Fabiola, would have adorned
any civilization. But the great mass were, what they were in Greece,
even in the days of Pericles, what they have ever been under the
influence of Paganism, what they ever will be without Christianity to
guide them, victims or slaves of man, revenging themselves by
squandering his wealth, stealing his secrets, betraying his interests,
and deserting his home.

[Sidenote: Games and festivals.]

Another essential but demoralizing feature of Roman society, were the
games and festivals and gladiatorial shows, which accustomed the people
to unnatural excitements, and familiarity with cruelty and suffering.
They made all ordinary pleasures insipid. They ended in making homicide
an institution. The butcheries of the amphitheatre exerted a fascination
which diverted the mind from literature, art, and the enjoyments of
domestic life. Very early it was the favorite sport of the Romans.

Online LibraryJohn LordThe Old Roman World, : the Grandeur and Failure of Its Civilization → online text (page 34 of 50)