John Lord.

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

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conquered brute force; but it did not. We cannot but infer a most
startling degeneracy. It is to be regretted that we have no more
satisfactory data as to the precise state of society. I am inclined to
the opinion that society was much more degraded than it is generally
supposed. When for two centuries the whole empire scarcely produced a
poet, or a philosopher, or an historian; when even the writings of
famous men in the time of Augustus were lost or unread; when, from
Trajan to Honorius, a period of three hundred and fifty years, scarcely
a work of original genius appeared, it must be that society was utterly
demoralized, and all life and vigor had fled.

[Sidenote: Conquerors of Rome.]

Then it was time for the empire to fall. And it is our work to sketch
the ruin - and such a ruin. The bloody conquerors were Goths and Vandals,
and other Teutonic tribes - Franks, Sueves, Alans, Heruli, Burgundians,
Lombards, Saxons. They came originally from Central Asia, in the region
of the Caspian Sea, and were kindred to the Medes and Persians. They
drove before them older inhabitants, probably Celtic nations, and
ultimately settled in the vast region between the Baltic and the Danube,
the Rhine and the Vistula, embracing those countries which are now
called Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Germany.

[Sidenote: The Germanic nations.]

All these tribes were probably similar in manners, habits, tastes, and
natural elements of character. Tacitus has furnished us with the most
authentic record of their customs and peculiarities. [Footnote: Tacitus,
_De Moribus Germanorum_.] Their eyes were stern and blue, their
hair red, their bodies large, their strength great. They were ruled by
kings, but not with unlimited power. The priests had also an
extraordinary influence, which they shared with the women, who were
present in battles, and who were characterized for great purity and
courage. Even the power to predict the future was ascribed to women. The
Germans were superstitious, and were given to divinations by omens and
lots, by the flight of birds and the neighing of horses. They transacted
no business, public or private, without being armed. They were warlike
in all their habits and tastes, and the field of battle was the field of
glory. Their chief deity was an heroic prince. Odin, the type-man of the
nation, was a wild captain, who taught that it was most honorable to die
in battle. They hated repose and inactivity, and, when not engaged in
war, they pursued with eagerness the pleasures of the chase; yet, during
the intervals of war and hunting, they divided their time between
sleeping and feasting. They loved the forests, and dangerous sports, and
adventurous enterprises. They abhorred cities, which they regarded as
prisons of despotism. A rude passion for personal independence was one
of their chief characteristics, as powerful as veneration for the women
and religious tendency of mind. They would brook no restraint on their
wills or their passions. Their wills were stern and their passions
impetuous. They only yielded to the voice of entreaty or of love. They
were ordinarily temperate, except on rare occasions, when they indulged
in drunken festivities. Chastity was a virtue which was rigorously
practiced. There were few cases of adultery among them, and the
unfaithful wife was severely punished. Men and women, without seductive
spectacles or convivial banquets, were fenced around with chastity, and
bound together by family ties. Polygamy was unknown, and the marriage
obligation was sacred. The wife brought no dowry to her husband, but
received one from him, not frivolous presents, but oxen, a caparisoned
steed, a shield, spear, and sword, to indicate that she is to be a
partner in toil and danger, to suffer and to dare in peace and war.
Hospitality was another virtue, extended equally to strangers and
acquaintances, but, at the festive board, quarrels often took place, and
enmities once formed were rarely forgiven. Vindictive resentments were
as marked as cordial and frank friendships. They drank beer or ale,
instead of wine, at their feasts, although their ordinary drink was
water. Their food was fruits, cheese, milk, and venison. They had an
inordinate passion for gambling, and would even stake their very freedom
on a throw. Slavery was common, but not so severe and ruthless as among
the Romans. They had but little commerce, and were unacquainted with the
arts of usury. Their agriculture was rude, and corn was the only product
they raised. They had the ordinary domestic animals, but their horses
were neither beautiful nor swift.

[Sidenote: The native elements of character of the barbarians.]

It is easy to see that, in their manners and traits, they had a great
resemblance to the Celts, before they were subdued and civilized, but
were not so passionate, nor impulsive, nor thoughtless, nor reckless as
they. Nor were they so much addicted to gluttony and drunkenness. They
were more persevering, more earnest, more truthful, and more chaste. Nor
were they so much enslaved by the priesthood. The Druidical rule was
confined to the Celts, yet, like the Celts, they worshiped God in the
consecrated grove. Their religion was pantheistic: they saw God in the
rocks, the rain, the thunder, the clouds, the rivers, the mountains, the
stars. He was supposed to preside everywhere, and to be a supreme
intelligence. Their view of God was quite similar to the early Ionic
philosophers of Greece: "_Regnator omnium deus, coetera subjecta atque
parentia_." They Were never idol-worshipers; they worshiped nature,
and called its wonders gods. But this worship of nature was modified by
the worship of a hero. In Odin they beheld strength, courage,
magnanimity, the attributes they adored. To be brave was an elemental
principle of religion, and they attributed to the Deity every thing
which could inspire horror as the terrible, - the angry god who marked
out those destined to be slain. Hence their groves, where he was
supposed to preside, were dark and mysterious. We adore the gloom of
woods, the silence which reigns around. "_Lucos atque in iis silentia,
ipsa adoremus_." While the priests of this awful being were not so
despotic as the Druids, they still exercised a great ascendency: they
conjured the storms of internal war; they pronounced the terrible
anathema; they imparted to military commanders a sacred authority; and
they carried at the head of their armies the consecrated banner of the
Deity. In short, they wielded those spiritual weapons which afterward
became thunderbolts in the hands of the clergy, and which prepared the
way for the autocratic reign of the popes, in whom the Germanic nations
ever recognized the vicegerent of their invisible Lord. They were most
preeminently a religious people, governed by religious ideas - by which I
mean they recognized a deity to whose will they were to be obedient, and
whose favor could only be purchased by deeds of valor or virtue. Their
morality sprung out of veneration for the Great Unseen, in whose hands
were their destinies.

This trait is the most remarkable and prominent among the Germans, next
to their fierce passion for war, their veneration for woman, and their
love of personal independence, to which last Guizot attaches great
importance. The feeling one's self a man in the most unrestricted sense,
was the highest pleasure of the German barbarian. There was a
personality of feeling and interest hostile to social forms and
municipal regulations. They cared for nothing beyond the gratification
of their inclinations. To be unrestrained, to be free in the wildest
sense, to do what they pleased under the impulse of the moment, this was
their leading characteristic. Who cannot see that such a trait was
hostile to civilization, and would prevent obedience to law - would make
the uncultivated warrior unsocial and solitary, and lead him, in after-
times, when he got possession of the lands of the conquered Romans, to
build his castle on inaccessible heights and rugged rocks? Hence
isolated retreats, wild adventures, country life, the pleasures of the
chase, characterized the new settlers. They avoided cities, and built

[Sidenote: National traits.]

[Sidenote: Character of the Germanic nations.]

This passion for liberty, accompanied with the spirit of daring,
adventure, and war, would have been fatal but for the rule of priests,
and the great influence of woman. In this latter element of character,
the barbarians from Scandinavia stand out in interesting contrast with
the civilized nations whom they subverted. They evidently had a greater
respect for woman than any of the nations of antiquity, not excepting
the Jews. In her they beheld something sacred and divine. In her voice
was inspiration, and in her presence there was safety. There was no true
enthusiasm for woman in Greece even when Socrates bowed before the
charms of Aspasia. There was none at Rome when Volumnia screened the
city from the vengeance of her angry son. But the Germans worshiped the
fair, and beheld in her the incarnation of all virtue and loveliness.
And thus, among such a race, arose the glorious old institution of
chivalry, which could not have existed among the Romans or the Greeks,
even after Christianity had softened the character and enlarged the
heart. In the baronial mansion of the Middle Ages this natural
veneration was ripened into devotion and gallantry. Among the knights,
zeal for God and the ladies was enjoined as a single duty; and "he who
was faithful to his mistress," says Hallam, "was sure of salvation, in
the theology of castles, if not of cloisters." This devotion was
expressed in the rude poetry of barbarous ages, in the sports of the
tournament and tilt, in the feasts of the castle, in the masculine
pleasures of the chase, in the control of the household, in the
education of children, in the laws which recognized equality, in the
free companionship with man, in the trust reposed in female honor and
virtue, in the delicacy of love, and in the refinements of friendship.
This trait alone shows the superior nature of the Germanic races,
especially when taught by Christianity, and makes us rejoice that the
magnificent conquests of the Romans were given to them for their proud

Such were the men who became the heirs of the Romans, - races never
subdued by arms or vices, among whom Christianity took a peculiar hold,
and gradually developed among them principles of progress such as were
never seen among the older nations. Can we wonder that such men should
prevail? - men who loved war as the Romans did under the republic; men
who gloried in their very losses, and felt that death in the field would
secure future salvation and everlasting honor; men full of hope, energy,
enthusiasm, and zeal; men who had, what the old races had not, - a soul,
life, uncorrupted forces.

Yet, when they invaded the Roman world, it must not be forgotten that
they were rude, ignorant, wild, fierce, and unscrupulous. They were held
in absolute detestation, as the North American Indians, whom they
resembled in many important respects, were held in this country two
hundred years ago. Their object was pillage. They roamed in search of
more fruitful lands and a more congenial sky. They were bent on
conquest, rapine, and violence. They were called the Northern Hordes -
barbarians - and even their vices were exaggerated. They were, indeed,
most formidable and terrific foes; and when conquered in battle would
rally their forces, and press forward with renewed numbers.

[Sidenote: The Goths.]

The first of these Teutonic barbarians who made successful inroads were
the Goths. I do not now allude to the Celtic nations who were completely
subdued and incorporated with the empire before the accession of the
emperors. Nor do I speak of the Teutons whom Marius defeated one hundred
years before the Christian era, nor yet of the Germanic tribes who made
unsuccessful inroads during the reigns of the earlier emperors. Augustus
must have had melancholy premonitions of danger when his general, Varus,
suffered a disgraceful defeat by the sword of Arminus in the dark
recesses of the Teuto-burger Wald, even as Charlemagne covered his face
with his iron hands when he saw the invasion of his territories by the
Norman pirates. For three centuries there was a constant struggle
between the Roman armies and the barbarians beyond the Rhine. In the
reign of Marcus Antoninus they formed a general union for the invasion
of the Roman world, but they were signally defeated, and the great
pillar of Marcus Aurelius describes his victories on the Danube, who
died combating the Vandals, A.D. 180. In the year 241 A.D., the great
Aurelian is seen fighting the Franks near Mayence, who, nevertheless,
pressed forward until they made their way into Spain.

[Sidenote: Invasion of the Goths.]

The most formidable of the enemies of Rome were the Goths. When first
spoken of in history they inhabited the shores of the Baltic. They were
called by Tacitus, Gothones. In the time of Caracalla they had migrated
to the coast of the Black Sea. Under the reign of Alexander Severus,
222-235, A.D., they threatened the peace of the province of Dacia. Under
Philip, A.D. 244-249, they succeeded in conquering that province, and
penetrated into Mosia. In the year 251, they encountered a Roman army
under Decius, which they annihilated, and the emperor himself was slain.
Then they continued their ravages along the coasts of the Euxine until
they made themselves masters of the Crimea. With a large fleet of flat-
boats they sailed to all the northern parts of the Euxine, took Pityus
and Trapezus, attacked the wealthy cities on the Thracian Bosphorus,
conquered Chalcedon, Nicomedia, and Nice, and retreated laden with
spoil. The next year, with five hundred boats - they cannot be called
ships, - they pursued their destructive navigation, destroyed Cyzicus,
crossed the Aegean Sea, and landed at Athens, which they plundered.
Thebes, Argos, Corinth, and Sparta were unable to defend their
dilapidated fortifications. They advanced to the coasts of Epirus and
devastated the whole Illyrian peninsula. In this destructive expedition
they destroyed the famous temple of Diana at Ephesus, with its one
hundred and twenty-seven marble columns sixty feet in height, and its
interior ornamented with the choicest sculptures of Praxiteles. But they
at length got wearied of danger and toil, and returned through Mosia to
their own settlements. Though this incursion was a raid rather than a
conquest, yet what are we to think of the military strength of the
empire and the condition of society, when, in less than three hundred
years after Augustus had shut the temple of Janus, fifteen thousand
undisciplined barbarians, without even a leader of historic fame, were
allowed to ravage the most populous and cultivated part of the empire,
even the classic cities which had resisted the Persian hosts, and retire
unmolested with their spoils? The Emperor Gallienus, one of the most
frivolous of all the Caesars, received the intelligence with epicurean
indifference, and abandoned himself to inglorious pleasures; and as Nero
is said to have fiddled while his capital was in ashes, so he, in this
great emergency, consumed his time in gardening and the arts of cookery,
and was commended by his idolatrous courtiers as a philosopher and a

In fact, this invasion of the Goths was not contemplated with that alarm
which it ought to have excited, but rather as an accidental evil, like a
pestilence or a plague. Moreover, it was lost sight of in the general
misery and misfortunes of the times. The Emperor Valerian had just been
defeated and taken prisoner by Sapor. Pretenders had started up in
nineteen different places for the imperial purple. Banditti had spread
devastation in Sicily. Alexandria was disturbed by tumults. Famine and
the plague raged for ten years in nearly all parts of the empire. Rome
lost by the pestilence five thousand daily, while half the inhabitants
of Alexandria were swept away. Soldiers, tyrants, barbarians, and the
visitation of God threatened the ruin of the Roman world.

But the ruin was staved off one hundred years by the labors and genius
of a series of great princes, who traced their origin to the martial
province of Illyricum. And all that was in the power of the emperors to
do was done to arrest destruction. No empire was ever ruled by a
succession of better and greater men than the calamities of the times
raised up on the death of Gallienus, A.D. 268. But what avail the energy
and talents of rulers when a nation is doomed to destruction? We have
the profoundest admiration for the imperial heroes who bore the burdens
of a throne in those days of tribulation. They succeeded in restoring
the ancient glories - but glories followed by a deeper shame. They
attempted impossibilities when their subjects were sunk in sloth and

[Sidenote: Success and the defeat of the Goths.]

Claudius, one of the generals of Gallienus, was invested with the purple
at the age of fifty-four. He restored military discipline, revived law,
repressed turbulence, and bent his thoughts to head off the barbaric
invasions. The various nations of Germany and Sarmatia, united under the
Gothic standard, and in six thousand vessels, prepared once more to
ravage the world. Sailing from the banks of the Dniester, they crossed
the Euxine, passed through the Bosphorus, anchored at the foot of Mount
Athos, and assaulted Thessalonica, the wealthy capital of the Macedonian
provinces. Claudius advanced to meet these three hundred and twenty
thousand barbarians. At Naissus, in Dalmatia, was fought one of the most
memorable and bloody battles of ancient times, but not one of the most
decisive. Fifty thousand Goths were slain in that dreadful fight. Three
Gothic women fell to the share of every imperial soldier. The
discomfited warriors fled in consternation, but their retreat was cut
off by the destruction of their fleet; and on the return of spring the
mighty host had dwindled to a desperate band in the inaccessible parts
of Mount Hemus.

[Sidenote: Victories of Claudius.]

Claudius survived his victory but two years, and was succeeded, A.D.
270, by a still greater man - his general Aurelian, whose father had been
a peasant of Sirmium. Every day of his short reign was filled with
wonders. He put an end to the Gothic war; he chastised the Germans who
invaded Italy; he recovered Gaul, Spain, and Britain, from the hands of
an usurper; he destroyed the proud monarchy which Zenobia had built up
in the deserts of the East; he defeated the Alemanni who, with eighty
thousand foot and forty thousand horse, had devastated the country from
the Danube to the Po; and, not least, he took Zenobia herself a prisoner
- one of the most celebrated women of antiquity, equaling Cleopatra in
beauty, Elizabeth in learning, and Artemisia in valor - a woman who
blended the popular manners of the Roman princes with the stately pomp
of oriental kings.

Zenobia, queen of Palmyra, the widow of Odenatus, ruled a large portion
of Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt, and with a numerous army she advanced
to meet the imperial legions. Conquered in two disastrous battles, she
retired to the beautiful city which Solomon had built, shaded with
palms, ornamented with palaces, and rich in oriental treasure. Then
again, attacked by her persevering enemy, she mounted the fleetest of
her dromedaries, but was overtaken on the banks of the Euphrates, and
brought a captive to the tent of the martial emperor, while Palmyra, her
capital, with all its riches, fell into the hands of the conqueror.

[Sidenote: Successes of Aurelian.]

Aurelian, with the haughty queen who had presumed to rise up in arms
against the empire, returned to successes of Rome, and then was
celebrated the most magnificent triumph which the world had seen since
the days of Pompey and of Caesar. And since the foundation of the city,
no conqueror more richly deserved a triumph than this virtuous and
rugged soldier of fortune. And as the august procession, with all the
pomp and circumstance of war, moved along the Via Sacra, up the
Capitoline Hill, and halted at the Temple of Jupiter, to receive the
benediction of the priests, and to deposit within its sacred walls the
treasures of the East, it would seem that Rome was destined to surmount
the ordinary fate of nations, and reign as mistress of the world _per
secula seculorum_.

But this grand pageant was only one of the last glories of the setting
sun of Roman greatness. Aurelian had no peace or repose. "The gods
decree," said the impatient emperor, "that my life should be a perpetual
warfare." He was obliged to take the field a few months after his
triumph, and was slain, not in battle, but by the hands of assassins -
the common fate of his predecessors and successors - "the regular portal"
through which the Caesars passed to their account with the eternal Judge.
He had boasted that public danger had passed - _"Ego efficiam ne sit
aliqua solicitudo Romana. Nos publicae necessitates teneant; vos occupent
voluptates."_ But scarcely had this warlike prince sung his requiem
to the agitations of Rome before new dangers arose, and his sceptre
descended to a man seventy-five years of age.

Tacitus, the new emperor, was however worthy of his throne. He was
selected as the most fitting man that could be found. Scarcely was he
inaugurated, before he was obliged to march against the Alans, who had
spread their destructive ravages over Pontus, Cappadocia, Cilicia, and
Galatia. He lost his life, though successful in battle, amid the
hardships of a winter campaign, and Probus, one of his generals, who had
once been an Illyrian peasant, was clothed with the imperial purple,
A.D. 278.

[Sidenote: The successes of Probus.]

This vigorous monarch was then forty-five years of age, in the prime of
his strength, popular with the army, and patriotic and enlarged in his
views. He reigned six years, and won a fame equal to that of the ancient
heroes. He restored peace and order in every province of the empire; he
broke the power of the Sarmatian tribes; he secured the alliance of the
Gothic nation; he drove the Isaurians to their strongholds among the
mountains; he chastised the rebellious cities of Egypt; he delivered
Gaul from the Germanic barbarians, who again inundated the empire on the
death of Aurelian; he drove back the Franks into their morasses at the
mouth of the Rhine; he vanquished the Burgundians, who had wandered in
quest of booty from the banks of the Oder; he defeated the Lygii, a
fierce tribe from the frontiers of Silesia, and took their chieftain
Semno alive; he passed the Rhine and pursued his victories to the Elbe,
exacting a tribute of corn, cattle, and horses, from the defeated
Germans; he even erected a bulwark against their future encroachments - a
stone wall of two hundred miles in length, across valleys and hills and
rivers, from the Danube to the Rhine - a feeble defense indeed, but such
as to excite the wonder of his age; he, moreover, dispersed the captive
barbarians throughout the provinces, who were afterward armed in defense
of the empire, and whose brethren were persuaded to make settlements
with them, so that, at length, "there was not left in all the
provinces," says Gibbon, "a hostile barbarian, a tyrant, or even a

After having destroyed four hundred thousand barbarians, the victor
returned to Rome, and, like Aurelian, celebrated his successes in one of
those gorgeous triumphs to which modern nations have no parallel. Then
he again, like the conqueror of Zenobia, mounted the Pisgah of hope, and
descried the Saturnian ages which, in his vision of Peace, he fancied
were to follow his victories. _"Respublica orbis terrarum, ubique
secura, non arma fabricabit. Boves habebuntur aratro; equus nasciter ad
pacem. Nulla erunt bella; nulla captivitas. Aeternes thesauros haberet
Romana respublica."_ But scarcely had the paeans escaped him, before,
in his turn, he was assassinated in a mutiny of his own troops - a man of
virtue and abilities, although his austere temper insensibly, under
military power, subsided into tyranny and cruelty.

Without the approbation of the Senate, the soldiers elected a new
emperor, and he too was a hero. Carus had scarcely assumed the purple,
A.D. 282, before he marched against the Persians, through Thrace and
Asia Minor, in the midst of winter, and the ambassadors of the Persian
king found the new emperor of the world seated on the grass, at a frugal
dinner of bacon and pease, in that severe simplicity which afterward

Online LibraryJohn LordThe Old Roman World, : the Grandeur and Failure of Its Civilization → online text (page 37 of 50)