John Lord.

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

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Marcus and Decimus Brutus employed gladiators in celebrating the
obsequies of their fathers, nearly three centuries before Christ. "The
wealth and ingenuity of the aristocracy were taxed to the utmost, to
content the populace and provide food for the indiscriminate slaughter
of the circus, where brute fought with brute, and man again with man, or
where the skill and weapons of the latter were matched against the
strength and ferocity of the first." Pompey let loose six hundred lions
in the arena in one day. Augustus delighted the people with four hundred
and twenty panthers. The games of Trajan lasted one hundred and twenty
days, when ten thousand gladiators fought, and ten thousand beasts were
slain. Titus slaughtered five thousand animals at a time. Twenty
elephants contended, according, to Pliny, against a band of six hundred
captives. Probus reserved six hundred gladiators for one of his
festivals, and massacred, on another, two hundred lions, twenty
leopards, and three hundred bears. Gordian let loose three hundred
African hyenas and ten Indian tigers in the arena. Every corner of the
earth was ransacked for these wild animals, which were so highly valued
that, in the time of Theodosius, it was forbidden by law to destroy a
Getulian lion. No one can contemplate the statue of the Dying Gladiator
which now ornaments the capitol at Rome, without emotions of pity and
admiration. If a marble statue can thus move us, what was it to see the
Christian gladiators contending with the fierce lions of Africa. The
"Christians to the lions," was the watchword of the brutal populace.
What a sight was the old amphitheatre of Titus, five hundred and sixty
feet long, and four hundred and seventy feet wide, built on eighty
arches, and rising one hundred and forty feet into the air, with its
four successive orders of architecture, and inclosing its eighty
thousand seated spectators, arranged according to rank, from the emperor
to the lowest of the populace, all seated on marble benches, covered
with cushions, and protected from the sun and rain by ample canopies!
What an excitement when men strove not with wild beasts alone, but with
one another, and when all that human skill and strength, increased by
elaborate treatment, and taxed to the uttermost, were put forth in the
needless homicide, and until the thirsty soil was wet and matted with
human gore! Familiarity with such sights must have hardened the heart
and rendered the mind insensible to refined pleasures. What theatres are
to the French, what bull-fights are to the Spaniards, what horse-races
are to the English, these gladiatorial shows were to the ancient Romans.
The ruins of hundreds of amphitheatres attest the universality of the
custom, not in Rome alone, but in the provinces.

[Sidenote: The circus.]

The sports of the circus took place from the earliest periods. The
Circus Maximus was capable of containing two hundred and sixty thousand,
as estimated by Pliny. It was appropriated for horse and chariot races.
The enthusiasm of the Romans for races exceeded all bounds. Lists of the
horses, with their names and colors, and those of drivers, were handed
about, and heavy bets made on each faction. The games commenced with a
grand procession, in which all persons of distinction, and those who
were to exhibit, took part. The statues of the gods formed a conspicuous
feature in the show, and were carried on the shoulders as saints are
carried in modern processions. The chariots were often drawn by eight
horses, and four generally started in the race.

The theatre was also a great place of resort. Scaurus built one capable
of seating eighty thousand spectators. That of Pompey, near the Circus
Maximus, could contain forty thousand. But the theatre had not the same
attraction to the Romans that it had to the Greeks. They preferred
scenes of pomp and splendor.

[Sidenote: The circus and theatre.]

[Sidenote: Baths.]

No people probably abandoned themselves to pleasures more universally
than the Romans, after war ceased to be the master passion. All classes
alike pursued them with restless eagerness. Amusements were the fashion
and the business of life. At the theatre, at the great gladiatorial
shows, at the chariot races, senators and emperors and generals were
always present in conspicuous and reserved seats of honor; behind them
were the ordinary citizens, and in the rear of these, the people fed at
the public expense. The Circus Maximus, the Theatre of Pompey, the
Amphitheatre of Titus, would collectively accommodate over four hundred
thousand spectators. We may presume that over five hundred thousand
people were in the habit of constant attendance on these demoralizing
sports. And the fashion spread throughout all the great cities of the
empire, so that there was scarcely a city of twenty thousand people
which had not its theatres, or amphitheatres, or circus. The enthusiasm
of the Romans for the circus exceeded all bounds. And when we remember
the heavy bets on favorite horses, and the universal passion for
gambling in every shape, we can form some idea of the effect of these
amusements on the common mind, destroying the taste for home pleasures,
and for all that was intellectual and simple. What are we to think of a
state of society, where all classes had leisure for these sports. Habits
of industry were destroyed, and all respect for employments which
required labor. The rich were supported by the contributions from the
provinces, since they were the great proprietors of conquered lands. The
poor had no solicitude for a living, for they were supported at the
public expense. They, therefore, gave themselves up to pleasure. Even
the baths, designed for sanatory purposes, became places of resort and
idleness, and ultimately of improper intercourse. When the thermae came
fully into public use, not only did men bathe together in numbers, but
even men and women promiscuously in the same baths. In the time of
Julius Caesar, we find no less a personage than the mother of Augustus
making use of the public establishments; and in process of time the
emperors themselves bathed in public with the meanest of their subjects.
The baths in the time of Alexander Severus were not only kept open from
sunrise to sunset, but even the whole night. The luxurious classes
almost lived in the baths. Commodus took his meals in the bath. Gordian
bathed seven times in the day, and Gallienus as often. They bathed
before they took their meals, and after meals to provoke a new appetite.
They did not content themselves with a single bath, but went through a
course of baths in succession, in which the agency of air as well as
water was applied. And the bathers were attended by an army of slaves
given over to every sort of roguery and theft. "_O furum optume
balmariorum_," exclaims Catullus, in disgust and indignation. Nor was
water alone used. The common people made use of scented oils to anoint
their persons, and perfumed the water itself with the most precious
perfumes. Bodily health and cleanliness were only secondary
considerations; voluptuous pleasure was the main object. The ruins of
the baths of Titus, Caracalla, and Diocletian, in Rome, show that they
were decorated with prodigal magnificence, and with every thing that
could excite the passions - pictures, statues, ornaments, and mirrors.
Says Seneca, Epistle lxxxvi., "_Nisi parietes magnis et preciosis
orbibus refulserunt_." The baths were scenes of orgies consecrated to
Bacchus, and the frescoes on the excavated baths of Pompeii still raise
a blush on the face of every spectator who visits them. I speak not of
the elaborate ornaments, the Numidian marbles, the precious stones, the
exquisite sculptures, which formed part of the decorations of the Roman
baths, but the demoralizing pleasures with which they were connected,
and which they tended to promote. The baths became, according to the
ancient writers, ultimately places of excessive and degrading

"_Balnea, vina, Venas corrumpunt corpora nostra_."

[Sidenote: Dress and ornament.]

The Romans, originally, were not only frugal, but they dressed with
great simplicity. In process of time, they became extravagantly fond of
elaborately ornamented attire, particularly the women. They wore a great
variety of rings and necklaces; they dyed their hair, and resorted to
expensive cosmetics; they wore silks of various colors, magnificently
embroidered. Pearls and rubies, for which large estates had been
exchanged, were suspended from their ears. Their hair glistened with a
network of golden thread. Their stolae were ornamented with purple bands,
and fastened with diamond clasps, while their pallae trailed along the
ground. Jewels were embroidered upon their sandals, and golden bands,
pins, combs, and pomades raised the hair in a storied edifice upon the
forehead. They reclined on luxurious couches, and rode in silver
chariots. Their time was spent in paying and receiving visits, at the
bath, the spectacle, and the banquet. Tables, supported on ivory
columns, displayed their costly plate; silver mirrors were hung against
the walls, and curious chests contained their jewels and money. Bronze
lamps lighted their chambers, and glass vases, imitating precious
stones, stood upon their cupboards. Silken curtains were suspended over
the doors and from the ceilings, and lecticae, like palanquins, were
borne through the streets by slaves, on which reclined the effeminated
wives and daughters of the rich. Their gardens were rendered attractive
by green-houses, flower-beds, and every sort of fruit and vine.

But it was at their banquets the Romans displayed the greatest luxury
and extravagance. No people ever thought more of the pleasures of the
table. And the prodigality was seen not only in the indulgence of the
palate by the choicest dainties, but in articles which commanded, from
their rarity, the highest prices. They not only sought to eat daintily,
but to increase their capacity by unnatural means. The maxim, "_Il
faut manger pour vivre, et non pas vivre pour manger_," was reversed.
At the fourth hour they breakfasted on bread, grapes, olives, and cheese
and eggs; at the sixth they lunched, still more heartily; and at the
ninth hour they dined; and this meal, the _coena_, was the
principal one, which consisted of three parts: the first - the
_gustus_ - was made up of dishes to provoke an appetite, shell-fish
and piquant sauces; the second - the _fercula_ - composed of
different courses; and the third - the dessert, a _mensae
secundae_ - composed of fruits and pastry. Fish were the chief object
of the Roman epicures, of which the _mullus_, the _rhombus_,
and the _asellus_ were the most valued. It is recorded that a
mullus (sea barbel), weighing but eight pounds, sold for eight thousand
sesterces. Oysters, from the Lucrine Lake, were in great demand. Snails
were fed in ponds for the purpose, while the villas of the rich had
their piscinae filled with fresh or salt-water fish. Peacocks and
pheasants were the most highly esteemed among poultry, although the
absurdity prevailed of eating singing-birds. Of quadrupeds, the greatest
favorite was the wild boar, the chief dish of a grand _coena_, and
came whole upon the table, and the practiced gourmand pretended to
distinguish by the taste from what part of Italy it came. Dishes, the
very names of which excite disgust, were used at fashionable banquets,
and held in high esteem. Martial devotes two entire books of his
"Epigrams" to the various dishes and ornaments of a Roman banquet. He
refers to almost every fruit and vegetable and meat that we now use - to
cabbages, leeks, turnips, asparagus, beans, beets, peas, lettuces,
radishes, mushrooms, truffles, pulse, lentils, among vegetables; to
pheasants, ducks, doves, geese, capons, pigeons, partridges, peacocks,
Numidian fowls, cranes, woodcocks, swans, among birds; to mullets,
lampreys, turbots, oysters, prawns, chars, murices, gudgeons, pikes,
sturgeons, among fish; to raisins, figs, quinces, citrons, dates, plums,
olives, apricots, among fruit; to sauces and condiments; to wild game,
and to twenty different kinds of wine; on all of which he expatiates
like an epicure. He speaks of the presents made to guests at feasts, the
tablets of ivory and parchment, the dice-boxes, style-cases, toothpicks,
golden hair-pins, combs, pomatum, parasols, oil-flasks, tooth-powder,
balms and perfumes, slippers, dinner-couches, citron-tables, antique
vases, gold-chased cups, snow-strainers, jeweled and crystal vases,
rings, spoons, scarlet cloaks, table-covers, Cilician socks, pillows,
girdles, aprons, mattresses, lyres, bath-bells, statues, masks, books,
musical instruments, and other articles of taste, luxury, or necessity.
The pleasures of the table, however, are ever uppermost in his eye, and
the luxuries of those whom he could not rival, but which he reprobates: -

"Nor mullet delights thee, nice Betic, nor thrush;
The hare with the scut, nor the boar with the tusk;
No sweet cakes or tablets, thy taste so absurd,
Nor Libya need send thee, nor Phasis, a bird.
But capers and onions, besoaking in brine,
And brawn of a gammon scarce doubtful are thine.
Of garbage, or flitch of hoar tunny, thou'rt vain;
The rosin's thy joy, the Falernian thy bane."
[Footnote: Martial, b. iii. p. 77.]

[Sidenote: A poet's dinner.]

He thus describes a modest dinner, to which he, a poet, invites his
friend Turanius: "If you are suffering from dread of a melancholy dinner
at home, or would take a preparatory whet, come and feast with me. You
will find no want of Cappadocian lettuces and strong leeks. The tunny
will lurk under slices of egg; a cauliflower hot enough to burn your
fingers, and which has just left the garden, will be served fresh on a
black platter; white sausages will float on snow-white porridge, and the
pale bean will accompany the red-streaked bacon. In the second course,
raisins will be set before you, and pears which pass for Syrian, and
roasted chestnuts. The wine you will prove in drinking it. After all
this, excellent olives will come to your relief, with the hot vetch and
the tepid lupine. The dinner is small, who can deny it? but you will not
have to invent falsehoods, or hear them invented; you will recline at
ease, and with your own natural look; the host will not read aloud a
bulky volume of his own compositions, nor will licentious girls, from
shameless Cadiz, be there to gratify you with wanton attitudes; but the
small reed pipe will be heard, and the nice Claudia, whose society you
value even more than mine." [Footnote: _Ibid_. b. v. p. 78.]

How different this poet's dinner, a table spread without luxury, and
enlivened by wit and friendship, from that which Petronius describes of
a rich freedman, which was more after the fashion of the vulgar and
luxurious gourmands of his day.

[Sidenote: Expensive furniture.]

Next to the pleasures of the table, the passion for expensive furniture
seemed to be the prevailing folly. We read of couches gemmed with
tortoise-shell, and tables of citron-wood from Africa. Silver and gold
vases, Tables, also, of Mauritanian marble, supported on pedestals of
Lybian ivory; cups of crystal; all sorts of silver plate, the
masterpieces of Myro, and the handiwork of Praxiteles, and the
engravings of Phidias. Gold services adorned the sideboard. Couches were
covered with purple silks. Chairs were elaborately carved; costly
mirrors hung against the walls, and bronze lamps were suspended from the
painted ceilings. But it was not always the most beautiful articles
which were most prized, but those which were procured with the greatest
difficulty, or brought from the remotest provinces. That which cost most
received uniformly the greatest admiration.

[Sidenote: Money making.]

If it were possible to allude to an evil more revolting than the sports
of the amphitheatre, or the extravagant luxuries of the table, I would
say that the universal abandonment to money-making, for the enjoyment of
the factitious pleasures it purchased, was even still more melancholy,
since it struck deeper into the foundations which supported society. The
leading spring of life was money. Boys were bred from early youth to all
the mysteries of unscrupulous gains. Usury was practiced to such an
incredible extent that the interest on loans, in some instances equaled,
in a few months, the whole capital. This was the more aristocratic mode
of making money, which not even senators disdained. The pages of the
poets show how profoundly money was prized, and how miserable were
people without it. Rich old bachelors, without heirs, were held in the
supremest honor. Money was the first object in all matrimonial
alliances, and provided that women were only wealthy, neither bridegroom
nor parent was fastidious as to age, or deformity, or meanness of
family, or vulgarity of person. The needy descendants of the old
Patricians yoked themselves with fortunate Plebeians, and the blooming
maidens of a comfortable obscurity sold themselves, without shame or
reluctance, to the bloated sensualists who could give them what they
supremely valued, chariots and diamonds. It was useless to appeal to
elevated sentiments when happiness consisted in an outside, factitious
life. The giddy women, in love with ornaments and dress, and the godless
men, seeking what they should eat, could only be satisfied with what
purchased their pleasures. The haughtiest aristocracy ever known on
earth, tracing their lineage to the times of Cato, and boasting of their
descent from the Scipios and the Pompeys, accustomed themselves at last
to regard money as the only test of their own social position. There was
no high social position disconnected with fortune. Even poets and
philosophers were neglected, and gladiators and buffoons preferred
before them. The great Augustine found himself utterly neglected at
Rome, because he was dependent on his pupils, and his pupils were mean
enough to run away without paying. Literature languished and died, since
it brought neither honor nor emolument. No dignitary was respected for
his office, only for his gains; nor was any office prized which did not
bring rich emoluments. And corruption was so universal, that an official
in an important post was sure of making a fortune in a short time. With
such an idolatry of money, all trades and professions fell into
disrepute which were not favorable to its accumulation, while those who
administered to the pleasures of a rich man were held in honor. Cooks,
buffoons, and dancers, received the consideration which artists and
philosophers enjoyed at Athens in the days of Pericles. But artists and
scholars were very few indeed in the more degenerate days of the empire.
Nor would they have had influence. The wit of a Petronius, the ridicule
of a Martial, the bitter sarcasm of a Juvenal, were lost on a people
abandoned to frivolous gossip and demoralizing excesses. The haughty
scorn with which a sensual beauty, living on the smiles and purse of a
fortunate glutton, would pass, in her gilded chariot, some of the
impoverished descendants of the great Camillus, might have provoked a
smile, had any one been found, even a neglected poet, to have given them
countenance and sympathy. But, alas! every body worshiped the shrine of
Mammon. Every body was valued for what he _had_, rather than for
what he _was_; and life was prized, not for those pleasures which
are cheap and free as heaven, not for quiet tastes and rich affections
and generous sympathies and intellectual genius, - the glorious
certitudes of love, esteem, and friendship, which, "be they what they
may, are yet the fountain-life of all our day," - but for the
gratification of depraved and expensive tastes; those short-lived
enjoyments which ended with the decay of appetite, and the _ennui_
of realized expectation, - all of the earth, earthy; making a wreck of
the divine image which was made for God and heaven, and preparing the
way for a most fearful retribution, and producing, on contemplative
minds, a sadness allied with despair, driving them to caves and
solitudes, and making death the relief from sorrow. Cynicism, scorn,
unbelief, and disgusting coarseness and vulgarity, made grand sentiments
an idle dream. The fourteenth satire of Juvenal is directed mainly to
the universal passion for gain, and the demoralizing vices it brings in
its train, which made Rome a Pandemonium and a Vanity Fair.
"Flatterers," says he, "consider misers as men of happy minds, since
they admire wealth supremely, and think no instance can be found of a
poor man that is also happy; and therefore they exhort their sons to
apply themselves to the arts of money making. Come, boys; sack the
Numidian hovels and the forts of Brigantes, that your sixtieth year may
bestow on you the eagle which will make you rich. Or, if you shrink from
the long-protracted labors of the camp, then bring something that you
may profitably dispose of, and never let disgust of trade enter your
head, nor think that any difference can be drawn between perfumes and
leather. The smell of gain is good from any thing whatever. No one
asks you _how_ you get money, but _have_ it you must." The poet
Persius paints this passion for gold, displayed in the customs of the
day, in a strain at once lofty and mournful, bitter and satirical:
[Footnote: _Satire_ ii.] -

"O that I could my rich old uncle see
In funeral pomp! O that some deity
To pots of buried gold would guide my share!
O that my ward, whom I succeed as heir,
Were once at rest! Poor child! he lies in pain,
And death to him must be accounted gain.
By will thrice has Nerius swelled his store,
And now he is a widower once more.
O groveling souls, and void of things divine!
Why bring our passions to the immortal's shrine?"

The old Greek philosophers gloried in their poverty; but poverty was the
greatest reproach to a Roman. "In exact proportion to the sum of money a
man keeps in his chest," says Juvenal, [Footnote: _Satire_ iii.]
"is the credit given to his oath. And the first question ever asked of a
man is in reference to his income, rather than his character. How many
slaves does he keep? How many acres does he own? What dishes are his
table spread with? - these are the universal inquiries. Poverty, bitter
though it be, has no sharper sting than this, - that it makes them
ridiculous. Who was ever allowed at Rome to become a son-in-law if his
estate was inferior, and not a match for the portion of the young lady?
What poor man's name appears in any will? When is one summoned to a
consultation even by an aedile?"

"Long, long ago, in one despairing band,
The poor, self-exiled, should have left the land."

And with this reproach of poverty there was no means to escape from it.
Nor was there alleviation. A man was regarded as a fool who gave any
thing except to the rich. Charity and benevolence were unknown virtues.
The sick and the miserable were left to die unlamented and unknown.
Prosperity and success, no matter by what means they were purchased,
secured reverence and influence.

Indeed, the Romans were a worldly, selfish, Epicurean people, for whom
we can feel but little admiration in any age of the republic. They never
were finely moulded. They had no sentiment, unless in the earlier ages,
it took the form of glory and patriotism. In their prosperity, they were
proud and scornful. In adversity, they buried themselves in low
excesses. They were not easily moved by softening influences. They had
no lofty idealism, like the Greeks; nor were they even social, as they
were. They were disgustingly _practical. Oui bono?_ - "who shall
show us any good?" - this was their by-word, this the sole principle of
their existence. They were jealous of their dignity, and carried away by
pomps and show. They were fond of etiquette and ceremony, and were
conventional in all their habits. They had very little true intellectual
independence, and were slaves of fashion as they were of ceremony and
dress. They were inordinately greedy of social position and of social
distinctions. They loved titles and surnames and inequalities of rank.
They plumed themselves on taking a common-sense view of life, disdaining
all lofty standards. They were dazzled by an outside life, and cared but
little for the great certitudes on which real dignity and happiness
rest. They had no conception of philanthropy. They lived for themselves.
Nor had they veneration for ideal worth or beauty or abstract truth.
They were reserved and reticent and haughty in social life. They were
superstitious, and believed in dreams and omens and talismans. They were

Online LibraryJohn LordThe Old Roman World, : the Grandeur and Failure of Its Civilization → online text (page 35 of 50)