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

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hospitable to their friends, but chiefly to display their wealth and
pomp. They were coarse and indecent in banquets. They loved money
supremely, but squandered it recklessly to gratify vanity. They had no
high conceptions of art. They were copyists of the Greeks, and never
produced any thing original but jurisprudence. They did not even add to
the arts and sciences, which they applied to practical purposes. Their
literature never produced a sentimentalist; their philosophy never
soared into idealism; their art never ventured upon new creations. Their
supreme ambition was to rule, and to rule despotically. They gloried in
slavery, and degraded women and trod upon the defenseless. They had no
pity, no gentleness, no delicacy of feeling. They could not comprehend a
disinterested action. They lived to eat and drink, and wear robes of
purple, and ride in chariots of silver, and receive greetings in the
market-place, and be attended by an army of sycophants, flatterers, and
slaves. What was elevated and what was pure were laughed at as unreal,
as dreamy, as transcendental. All science was directed to
_utilities_, and utilities were wines, rare fishes and birds,
carpets, silks, cooking, palaces, chariots, horses, pomps. Their supreme
idea was conquest, dominion over man, over beast, over seas, over
nature - all with a view of becoming rich, comfortable, honorable. This
was their Utopia. Epicurus was their god. Sensualism was the convertible
term for their utilities, and pervaded their literature, their social
life, and their public efforts; extinguishing poetry, friendship,
affections, genius, self-sacrifice, lofty sentiments - the real utilities
which make up our higher life, and fit man for an ever-expanding
felicity. Practically, they were atheists - unbelievers of what is fixed
and immutable in the soul, and glorious in the soul's aspirations. They
had will and passion, sagacity and the power to rule, by which they
became aggrandized; but they were wanting in those elements and virtues
which endear their memory to mankind. They were both tyrants and
sensualists; fitted to make conquests, unfitted to enjoy them. In an
important sense, they were great civilizers, but their civilization
pertained to material life. They worshiped the god of the sense, rather
than the god of the reason; and, compared with the Greeks, bequeathed
but little to our times which we value, except laws and maxims of
government, and ideas of centralized power.

Such was imperial Rome, in all the internal relations of life, and amid
all the trophies and praises which resulted from universal conquest. I
cannot understand the enthusiasm of Gibbon for such a people, or for
such an empire, - a grinding and resistless imperial despotism, a
sensual and proud aristocracy, a debased and ignorant populace,
disproportionate fortunes, slavery flourishing to a state unprecedented
in the world's history, women the victims and the toys of men, lax
sentiments of public morality, a whole people given over to demoralizing
sports and spectacles, pleasure the master passion of the people, money
the mainspring of society, all the vices which lead to violence and
prepare the way for the total eclipse of the glory of man. What was a
cultivated face of nature, or palaces, or pomps, or a splendid material
civilization, or great armies, or a numerous population, or the triumph
of energy and skill, when the moral health was completely undermined?
The external grandeur was nothing amid so much vice and wickedness and
wretchedness. A world, therefore, as fair and glorious as our own, must
needs crumble away. There were no proper conservative forces. The poison
had descended to the extremities of the social system. A corrupt body
must die when vitality had fled. The soul was gone. Principle,
patriotism, virtue, had all passed away. The barbarians were advancing
to conquer and desolate. There was no power to resist them, but
enervated and timid legions, with the accumulated vices of all the
nations of the earth, which they had been learning for four hundred
years. Society must needs resolve itself into its original elements when
men would not make sacrifices, and so few belonged to their country. The
machine was sure to break up at the first great shock. No state could
stand with such an accumulation of wrongs, with such complicated and
fatal diseases eating out the vitals of the empire. The house was built
upon the sands. The army may have rallied under able generals, in view
of the approaching catastrophe; philosophy may have gilded the days of a
few indignant citizens; good emperors may have attempted to raise
barriers against corruption; and even Christianity may have converted by
thousands: still nothing, according to natural laws, could save the
empire. It was doomed. Retributive justice must march on in its majestic
course. The empire had accomplished its mission. The time came for it to
die. The Sibylline oracle must needs be fulfilled: "O haughty Rome, the
divine chastisement shall come upon thee; the fire shall consume thee;
thy wealth shall perish; foxes and wolves shall dwell among thy ruins:
and then what land that thou hast enslaved shall be thy ally, and which
of thy gods shall save thee? for there shall be confusion over the face
of the whole earth, and the fall of cities shall come." [Footnote: If
any one thinks this general description of Roman life and manners
exaggerated, he can turn from such poets as Juvenal and Martial, and
read what St. Pani says in the first chapter of the _Epistle to the

* * * * *

REFERENCES. - Mr. Merivale has written most fully of modern writers on
the condition of the empire. Gibbon has occasional paragraphs which show
the condition of Roman society. Lyman's Life of the Emperors should be
read, and also DeQuincy's Lives of the Caesars. See, also, Niebuhr,
Arnold, and Mommsen, though these writers have chiefly confined
themselves to republican Rome. But, if one would get the truest and most
vivid description, he must read the Roman poets, especially Juvenal and
Martial. The work of Petronius is too indecent to be read. Ammianus
Marcellinus gives us some striking pictures of the latter Romans.
Suetonius, in his Lives of the Caesars, furnishes many facts. Becker's
Gallus is a fine description of Roman habits and customs. Smith's
Dictionary of Antiquities should be consulted, as it is a great
thesaurus of important facts. Lucian does not describe Roman manners,
but he aims his sarcasms on the hollowness of Roman life, as do the
great satirists generally. Tillemont is the basis of Gibbon's history,
so far as pertains to the emperors.



We have contemplated the grandeur and the glory of the Roman empire; and
we have also seen, in connection with the magnificent triumphs of art,
science, literature, and philosophy, a melancholy degradation of
society, so fatal and universal, that all strength was undermined, and
nothing was left but worn-out mechanisms and lifeless forms to resist
the pressure of external enemies. So vast, so strong, so proud was this
empire, that no one dreamed it could ever be subverted. With all the
miseries of the people, with that hateful demoralization which pervaded
all classes and orders and interests, there was still a splendid
external, which called forth general panegyrics, and the idea of public
danger was derided or discredited. If Rome, in the infancy of the
republic, had resisted the invading Gauls, what was there to fear from
the half-naked barbarians who lived beyond the boundaries of the empire?
The long-continued peace and prosperity had engendered not merely the
vices of self-interest, those destructive cankers which ever insure a
ruin, but a general feeling of security and self-exaggeration. The
eternal city was still prosperous and proud, the centre of all that was
grand in the civilization of the ancient world. Provincial cities vied
with the capital in luxuries, in pomps, in sports, and in commercial
wealth. The cultivated face of nature betokened universal prosperity.
Nothing was wanting but energy, genius, and virtue among the people.

[Sidenote: Prosperity deceptive.]

But all this prosperity was deceptive. All was rotten and hollow at
heart; and, had there not been universal delusion, it would have been
apparent that the machine would break up at the first great shock. There
was no spring in the splendid mechanism. It was broken, and society had
really been retrograding from the time of Trajan - from the moment that
it had completed its task of conquest. There was a strange torpor
everywhere, so soon as external antagonism had ceased, and if the
barbarians had not come the empire would have been disintegrated, and
would scarcely have lasted two centuries longer.

[Sidenote: The empire had fulfilled its mission.]

Moreover, the empire had fulfilled its mission. It had conquered the
world that a great centralization of power might be created, under which
peace and plenty might reign, and a new religion might spread.

Still, whatever the plans of Providence may have been in allowing that
imperial despotism to grow and spread from the banks of the Tiber to the
uttermost parts of the civilized world, we cannot but feel that a great
retribution was deserved for the crimes which Rome had committed upon
mankind. He that takes the sword shall perish with the sword. Rome had
drank of the blood of millions, and was foul with all the abominations
of the countries she had subdued, and her turn must come, and a new race
must try new experiments for humanity.

[Sidenote: War the instrument of punishment.]

The great instrument of God in punishing wicked nations and effecting
important changes, is war. There are other forms or divine displeasure.
Plague, pestilence, and famine are often sent upon degraded peoples. But
these are either the necessary attendants on war itself, or they are
limited and transient. They do not produce the great revolutions in
which new ideas are born and new forms of social life arise.

But war seems to be the ultimate scourge of God, when he dooms nations
to destruction, or to great changes. It combines within itself all kinds
of evil and calamity - poverty, sickness, captivity, disgrace, and
death. A conquered nation is most forlorn and dismal. The song of the
conquered is - "By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept."

The passions which produce war are born in hell. They are pride,
ambition, cruelty, avarice, and lust. These are the natural causes which
array nation against nation, or people against people. But these are
second causes. The primary cause is God, who useth the passions and
interests of men, as his instruments of punishment.

[Sidenote: Illustrated by the history of nations.]

How impressive the history of the different civilized nations, which
formed so large a part of the universal monarchy of the Romans. Assyria,
Egypt, Persia, Asia Minor, Palestine, Greece, had successively been
great empires and states - independent and conquering. They arose from
the prevalence of martial virtues, of courage, temperance, fortitude,
allied with ambition and poverty. Then monarchs craved greater power and
possessions. Their passions were inexcusable; but they possessed men who
were powerful and not enslaved to enervating vices. They made war on
nations sunk in effeminacy and vile idolatries - men worse than they. The
conquered nations needed chastisement and reconstruction; and,
generally, by their blindness and arrogance, provoked the issue. Wealth
and power had inflated them with false security, with egotistic aims; or
else had enervated them and undermined their strength. They became
subject to a stronger power. Their pride was buried in the dust. They
became enslaved, miserable, ruined. They were punished in as signal,
though not miraculous manner, as the Antediluvians, or the cities of
Sodom and Gomorrah. The same hand, _however_, is seen in vengeance
and in mercy. They regained in adversity the strength they had lost in
prosperity, and civilization lost nothing by their sufferings.

[Sidenote: Wars over-ruled.]

The conquering powers, in their turn, became powerful, wealthy, and
corrupt. Effeminacy and weakness succeeded; war came upon them, and they
became the prey of the stronger. Their conquerors, again, were enslaved
by their vices, and their empire passed away in the same gloom and

We see, however, in each successive conquest, the destruction, not of
civilization, but of men. Countries are overrun, thrones are subverted,
the rich are made slaves, the proud utter cries of despair; but the land
survives, and arts and science take a new direction, and the new masters
are more interested in great improvements than the old tyrants. The
condition of Babylonia was probably better for the Persian conquest,
while the whole oriental world gained by the wars of Alexander. Grecian
culture succeeded Persian misrule. The Romans came and took away from
Grecian dynasties, in Asia and Egypt, when they became enfeebled by
prosperity and self-indulgence, the powers they had usurped, without
destroying Grecian civilization. That remained, and will remain, in some
form, forever, as an heirloom of priceless value to all future nations.
The Greeks, when they conquered the Persians, had also spared the most
precious monuments of their former industry and genius. The Romans,
also, when they conquered Greece itself, guarded and prized her peculiar
contributions to mankind. And they gave to all these conquered
territories, something of their own. They gave laws, and a good
government. The Grecian and Asiatic cities were humiliated by what they
regarded as barbaric inroads; for the culture of Athens, Corinth,
Antioch, and Ephesus, was higher than that of Rome, at that time; but
who can doubt a beneficent change in the administration of public
affairs? Society was doubtless improved everywhere by the Roman
conquests. It is not probable that Athens, after she became tributary to
Rome, was equal to the Athens of Pericles and Plato; but it is probable
that society in Athens was better than what it was for a century before
her fall. But what if particular cities suffered? These did not
constitute the whole country. Can it be doubted that Syria, as a
province, enjoyed more rational liberty and more scope for energy, under
the Roman rule, than under that of the degenerate scions of the old
Grecian kings? We see a retribution in the conquest, and also a blessing
in disguise.

[Sidenote: The Celtic nations.]

But still more forcibly are these truths illustrated in the conquest of
the Celtic nations of Europe. They were barbarians; they had neither
science, nor literature, nor art; they were given over to perpetual
quarrels, and to rude pleasures. Ignorance, superstition, and
unrestrained passions were the main features of society. Other rude
warriors wandered from place to place, with no other end than pillage.
They had fine elements of character, but they needed civilization. They
were conquered. The Romans taught them laws, and language, and
literature, and arts. Cities arose among them, and these conquered
barbarians became the friends of order and peace, and formed the most
prosperous part of the whole empire. It was from these Celtic nations
that the Roman armies were recruited. The great men of Rome, in the
second and third centuries, came from these Celtic provinces. They
infused a new blood into the decaying body. Who can doubt the benefit to
mankind by the conquests of Britain, of Gaul, and of Spain? The Romans
proved the greatest civilizers of the ancient world, with all their
arrogance and want of appreciation of those things which gave a glory to
the Greeks. They introduced among the barbaric nations their own arts,
language, literature, and laws; and the civilization which they taught
never passed away. It was obscured, indeed, during the revolutions which
succeeded the fall of the empire, but it was gradually revived, and
beamed with added lustre when its merits were at last perceived.

Thus wars are not an unmixed calamity, since the evils are overruled in
the ultimate good of nations. But they are a great calamity for the
time, and they are sent when nations most need chastisement.

[Sidenote: Conquest of the Celts.]

The Romans triumphed, by their great and unexampled energy and patience
and heroism, over all the world, and erected their universal empire upon
the ruins of all the states of antiquity. They were suffered to increase
and prosper, that great ends might be accomplished, either by the
punishment of the old nations, or the creation of a new civilization.

But they, in their turn, became corrupted by prosperity, and enervated
by peace. They had been guilty of the most heartless and cruel
atrocities for eight hundred years. Their empire was built upon the
miseries of mankind. They also must needs suffer retribution.

It was long delayed. It did not come till every conservative influence
had failed. The condition of society was becoming worse and worse, until
it reached a depravity and an apathy fatal to all genius, and more
disgraceful than among those people whom they stigmatized as barbarians.
Then must come revolution, or races would run out and civilization be

[Sidenote: Barbaric conquests.]

God sent war - universal, cruel, destructive war, at the hands of unknown
warriors; and they effected a total eclipse of the glory of man. The
empire was resolved into its original elements. Its lands were overrun
and pillaged; its cities were burned and robbed; and unmitigated
violence overspread the earth, so that the cry of despair ascended to
heaven, from the Pillars of Hercules to the Caspian Sea. Indeed, the end
of the world was so generally believed to be at hand, on this universal
upturning of society, that some of the best men fled to caves and
deserts; and there were more monks that sought personal salvation by
their austerities, than soldiers who braved their lives in battle.

It is this great revolution which I seek to present, this great
catastrophe to which the Romans were subjected, after having conquered
one hundred and twenty millions of people. It was probably the most
mournful, in all its aspects, ever seen on the face of this earth since
the universal deluge. Never, surely, were such calamities produced by
the hand of man. The Greeks and Romans, when they had conquered a
rebellious or enervated nation, introduced their civilization, and
promoted peace and general security. They brought laws, science,
literature, and arts, in the train of their armies; they did not sweep
away ancient institutions; they left the people as they found them, only
with greater facilities of getting rich; they preserved the pictures,
the statues, and the temples; they honored the literature and revered
the sages who taught it; they may have brought captives to their
capitals as slaves, but they did not root out every trace of
cultivation, or regarded it with haughty scorn. But, when their turn of
punishment came, the whole world was filled with mourning and
desolation, and all the relations of society were reversed.

[Sidenote: Infatuation of the Romans.]

It was a sad hour in the old capital of the world, when its blinded
inhabitants were aroused from the stupendous delusion that they were
invincible; when the crushing fact stared every one in the face, that
the legions had been conquered, that province after province had been
overrun, that proud and populous cities had fallen, that the barbarians
were advancing, treading beneath their feet all that had been deemed
valuable, or rare, or sacred, that they were advancing to the very gates
of Rome, - that her doom was sealed, that there was no shelter to which
they could fly, that there was no way by which ruin could be averted,
that they were doomed to hopeless poverty or servitude, that their wives
and daughters would be subject to indignities which were worse than
death, and that all the evils their ancestors had inflicted in their
triumphant march, would be visited upon them with tenfold severity. The
Romans, even then, when they cast their eyes upon external nature, saw
rich corn-fields, smiling vineyards, luxurious gardens, yea, villas and
temples and palaces without end; and how could these be destroyed which
had lasted for centuries? How could the eternal city, which had not seen
a foreign enemy near its gates since the invasion of the Gauls, which
had escaped all dangers, so rich and gay, how could she now yield to
naked barbarians from unknown forests? They still beheld the splendid
mechanism of government, the glitter and the pomp of armies, triumphal
processions, new monuments of victory, the proud eagles, and all the
emblems of unlimited dominion. What had _they_ to fear? "_Nihil
est, Quirites, quod timere possitis_."

[Sidenote: Fatal security of the Romans.]

Nor to the eye of contemporaries was the great change, which had
gradually taken place since the reign of Trajan, apparent. Cowardice and
weakness were veiled from the view of men. In proportion to the
imbecility of the troops, were the richness of their uniform, and the
insolence of their manners. It was the day of boasts and pomps. All
forms and emblems had their ancient force. All men partook of the vices
and follies which were praised. In their levity and delusion, they did
not see the real emptiness and hollowness of their institutions. A
blinded generation never can see the signs of the times. Only a few
contemplative men hid themselves in retired places, but were denounced
as croakers or evil minded. Every body was interested in keeping up the
delusion. Panics seldom last long. The world is too fond of its ease to
believe the truths which break up repose and gains. All felt safe,
because they had always been protected. Ruin might come ultimately, but
not in their day. "_Apres moi le deluge_" No one would make
sacrifices, since no one feared immediate danger. Moreover, public
spirit and patriotism had fled. If their cities were in danger, they
said, better perish here with our wives and children than die on the
frontiers after having suffered every privation and exposure. There must
have been a universal indifference, or the barbarians could not have
triumphed. The Romans had every inducement which any people ever had to
a brave and desperate resistance. Not merely their own lives, but the
security of their families was at stake. Their institutions, their
interests, their rights, their homes, their altars, all were in
jeopardy. And they were attacked by most merciless enemies, without pity
or respect, and yet they would not fight, as nations should fight, and
do sometimes fight, when their country is invaded. Why did they offer no
more stubborn resistance? Why did the full-armed and well-trained
legions yield to barbaric foes, without discipline and without the most
effective weapons? Alas, dispirited and enervated people will never
fight. They prefer slavery to death. Thus Persia succumbed before
Alexander, and Asia Minor before the Saracen generals. Martial courage
goes hand in hand with virtue. Without elevation of sentiment there will
be no self-sacrifice. There is no hope when nations are abandoned to
sensuality or egotism.

[Sidenote: Weakness of the empire.]

We must believe in a most extraordinary degeneracy of society, or Rome
would not have fallen. With any common degree of courage, the empire
should have resisted the Goths and Vandals. They were not more numerous
than those hordes which Marius and Caesar annihilated even in their own
marshes and forests. It was not like the Macedonians, with their
impenetrable phalanx, and their perfected armor, contending with semi-
barbarians. It was not like the Spaniards, marching over Peru and
Mexico. It was not like the English, with all the improved weapons of
our modern times, firing upon a people armed with darts and arrows. But
it was barbarians, without defensive armor, without discipline, without
prestige, attacking legions which had been a thousand years learning the
art of war. _Proh Pudor!_ The soldiers of the empire must have lost
their ancient spirit. They must have represented a most worthless
people. We lose our pity in the strength of our indignation and disgust.
A civilized nation that will yield to barbarians must deserve their
fate. Noble as were the elements of character among the Germanic tribes,
they were yet barbarians in arts, in manners, in knowledge, in
mechanisms. They had nothing but brute force. Science should have

Online LibraryJohn LordThe Old Roman World, : the Grandeur and Failure of Its Civilization → online text (page 36 of 50)