John Lord.

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

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individuals cannot be questioned. Did they infuse life into the decaying
mass? Did they prolong political existence? Did they produce valor and
moral force among the masses? Did they raise a bulwark capable of
resisting human degeneracy or barbaric violence? Did they lead to self-
restraint? Did they create a lofty public sentiment which scorned
baseness and lies? Did they so raise the moral tone of society that
people were induced to make sacrifices and noble efforts to preserve
blessings which had already been secured.

[Sidenote: Civilisation can only rise to a certain height by unabled

I have to show that the grandest empire of antiquity perished from the
same causes which destroyed Babylon and Carthage; that all the
magnificent trophies of the intellect were in vain; that the sources of
moral renovation were poisoned; that nothing worked out, practically and
generally, the good which was intended, and which enthusiasts had hoped;
that the very means of culture were perverted, and that the savor unto
life became a savor unto death. In short, it will appear from the
example of Rome, that man cannot save himself; that he cannot originate
any means of conservation which will not be foiled and rendered nugatory
by the force of human corruption; that man, left to himself, will defeat
his own purposes, and that all his enterprises and projects will end in
shame and humiliation, so far as they are intended to preserve society.
The history of all the pagan races and countries show that only a
limited height can ever be reached, and that society is destined to
perpetual falls as well as triumphs, and would move on in circles
forever, where no higher aid comes than from man himself. And this great
truth is so forcibly borne out by facts, that those profound and learned
historians who are skeptical of the power of Christianity, have
generally embraced the theory that nations _must_ rise and fall to
the end of time; and society will show, like the changes of nature, only
phases which have appeared before. Their gloomy theories remind us of
the perpetual swinging of a pendulum, or the endless labors of Ixion -
circles and cycles of motion, but no general and universal progress to a
perfect state of happiness and prosperity. And if we were not supported
by the hopes which Christianity furnishes, if we adopted the pagan
principles of Gibbon or Buckle, history would only confirm the darkest
theories. But the history of Greece and Rome and Egypt are only chapters
in the great work which Providence unfolds. They are only acts in the
great drama of universal life. The history of those old pagan empires is
full of instruction. In one sense, it seems mournful, but it only shows
that society must be a failure under the influences which man's genius
originates. This world is not destined to be a failure, although the
empires of antiquity were. I fall in with the most cheerless philosophy
of the infidel historians, if there is no other hope for man, as
illustrated by the rise and fall of empires, than what the pagan
intellect devised. But this induction is not sufficiently broad. They
have too few facts upon which to build a theory. Yet the theory they
advance is supported by all the facts brought out by the history of
pagan countries. And this is my reason for bringing out so much that is
truly glorious, in an important sense, in Roman history, to show that
these glories did not, and could not, save. And the moral lesson I would
draw is, that _any_ civilization, based on what man creates or
originates, even in his most lofty efforts, will fail as signally as the
Grecian and the Roman, so far as the conservation of society is
concerned, in the hour of peril, when corruption and degeneracy have
also accomplished their work. Paganism cannot give other than temporary
triumphs. Its victories are not progressive. They do not tend to
indefinite and ever-expanding progress. They simply show an intellectual
brilliancy, which is soon dimmed by the vapors which arise out of the
fermentations of corrupt society.

[Sidenote: The virtues of the primitive races.]

[Sidenote: Decline of civilization in the ancient races.]

The question here may arise why the Greeks and Romans themselves arose
from a state of barbarism to the degree of culture which has given them
immortality? Why did they not remain barbarians, like the natives of
Central Africa? But they belonged to a peculiar race - that great
Caucasian race which, in all of its ramifications, showed superior
excellences, and which, in the earliest times, seems to have cherished
ideas and virtues which probably were learned from a primitive
revelation. The Romans, in the early ages of the republic, were superior
to their descendants in the time of the emperors in all those qualities
which give true dignity to character. I doubt if there was ever any
great improvement among the Romans in a moral point of view. They
acquired arts as they declined in virtue. If strictly scrutinized I
believe it would appear that the Roman character was nobler six hundred
years before Christ than in the second century of our era. It was the
magnificent material on which civilizing influences had to work that
accounts for Roman greatness, in the same sense that there was a dignity
in the patriarchal period of Jewish history not to be found under the
reigns of the kings. The same may be said of the Greeks. The Homeric
poems show a natural beauty and simplicity more attractive than the
rationalistic character of the Athenians in the time of Socrates. There
was a progress in arts which was not to be seen in common life. And this
is true also of the Persians. They were really a greater people under
Cyrus than when they reigned in Babylon. There are no records of the
Indo-Germanic races which do not indicate a certain greatness of
character in the earliest periods. The Germanic tribes were barbarians,
but in piety, in friendship, in hospitality, in sagacity, in severe
morality, in the high estimation in which women were held, in the very
magnificence of superstitions, we see the traits of a noble national
character. It would be difficult to show absolute degradation at any
time among these people. How they came to have these grand traits in
their primeval forests it is difficult to show. Certainly they were
never such a people as the Africans or the Malay races, or even the
Slavonic tribes. These natural elements of character extorted the
admiration of Tacitus, even as the Orientals won the respect of
Herodotus. It is more easy to conceive why such a people as the Greeks
and Romans were, in their primitive simplicity, when they were brave,
trusting, affectionate, enterprising, should make progress in arts and
sciences, than why they should have degenerated after a high
civilization had been reached. They made the arts and sciences. The arts
and sciences did not make them. They were great before civilization, as
technically understood, was born. Why they were so superior to other
races we cannot tell. They were either made so, or else they must have
received a revelation from above, or learned some of the great truths
which by God were taught to the patriarchs. Possibly the wisdom they
very early evinced had come down from father to son from the remotest
antiquity. The divine savor may have leavened the whole race before
history was written. With their uncorrupted and primitive habits, they
had a moral force which enabled them to make great improvements. Without
this force they never would have reached so high a culture. And when the
moral force was spent, the civilization they created also passed away
from them to other uncorrupted races. The Greeks learned from Egyptians,
as Romans learned from Greeks. Civilization only reached a limited state
among the Egyptians. It never advanced for three thousand years. Greek
culture retrograded after the age of Pericles. There were but few works
of genius produced at Rome after the Antonines. The age of Augustus saw
a higher triumph of art than the age of Cato, yet the moral greatness of
the Romans was more marked in the time of Cato than in that of Augustus.
If moral elevation kept pace with art, why the memorable decline in
morals when the genius of the Romans soared to its utmost height? The
virtues of society were a soil on which art prospered, and art continued
to be developed long after real vigor had fled, but only reached a
certain limit, and declined when life was gone. In other words, the
force of character, which the early Romans evinced, gave an immense
impulse to civilization, whose fruits appeared after the glory of
character was gone; but, having no soil, the tree of knowledge at last
withered away. If the old civilization had a life of itself, it would
have saved the race. But as it was purely man's creation, his work, it
had no inherent vitality or power to save him. The people were great
before the fruits of their culture appeared. They were great in
consequence of living virtues, not legacies of genius. They ran the
usual course of the ancient nations. The sterling virtues of primitive
times produced prosperity and material greatness. Material greatness
gave patronage to art and science. Art and science did not corrupt the
people until they had also become corrupted. But prosperity produced
idleness, pride, and sensuality, by which science, art, and literature
became tainted. The corruption spread. Society was undermined, and the
arts fell with the people, except such as ministered to a corrupt taste,
like demoralizing pictures and inflammatory music. Why did not the arts
maintain the severity of the Grecian models? Why did philosophy
degenerate to Epicureanism? Why did poetry condescend to such trivial
subjects as hunting and fishing? Why did, the light of truth become dim?
Why were the great principles of beauty lost sight of? Why the
discrepancy between the laws and the execution of them? Why was every
triumph of genius perverted? It was because men, in their wickedness,
were indifferent to truth and virtue. Good men had made good laws; bad
men perverted them. A corrupted civilization hastened, rather than
retarded the downward course, and civilization must needs become corrupt
when men became so. We cannot see any progress in peoples without moral
forces, and these do not originate in man. They may be retained a long
time among a people; they are not natural to them. They are _given_
to them; they are given originally by God. They are the fruit of his
revelations. Neither in the wilderness nor in the crowded city are they
naturally produced. A perfect state of nature, without light from
Heaven, is extreme rudeness, poverty, ignorance, and superstition, where
brutal passions are dominant and triumphant. The vices of savages are as
fatal as the vices of cities. They equally destroy society. Place man
anywhere on the earth, or under any circumstances, without religious
life, and moral degradation follows. Whence comes religious life? Where
did Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, those eastern herdsmen and shepherds,
get their moral wisdom? Surely it was inherited from earlier patriarchs,
taught them by their fathers, or given directly from God himself.

[Sidenote: Virtues of primitive life.]

The most that can be said of a primitive state of society is that it is
favorable for the _retention_ of religious and moral truth, more so
than populous cities, since it has fewer temptations to excite the
passions. But a savage in any country will remain a savage, unless he is
elevated and taught through influences independent of himself.
Hottentots make no progress. Greeks made progress, since they had moral
wisdom communicated to them by their ancestors: the divine light
struggled with human propensities. When outward circumstances were
favorable the virtues were retained; they were not born, and these were
the stimulus to all improvement; and when they were lost, all
improvement that is real vanished away. Civilization is the fruit of
man's genius, when man is virtuous. But it does not renovate races. It
is only religion coming from God which can do this.

It would be an interesting inquiry how far the religion of the old
Greeks and Romans was pure - how far it was uncontaminated by
superstitions. I think it would be found on inquiry, if we had the means
of definite knowledge, that all that was elevating to the character had
descended from a remote antiquity, and that the superstitions with which
it was blended were more recent inventions. The ancestors of the Greeks
were probably more truly religious than the Greeks themselves. And as
new revelations were not made by God, the primitive revelations were
obscured by increasing darkness, until superstition formed the
predominant element.

[Sidenote: Christianity the only conservative power.]

Hence the revelations of God can only be preserved in a written form,
without change or comment. Christianity is perpetuated by the Bible. So
long as the Bible exists Christianity will have converts, and will be
able to struggle successfully with human degeneracy. The revelations
originally made to the eastern nations became traditions. The standard
was not preserved in a written form to which the people had access.

[Sidenote: Primitive life favors virtue.]

[Sidenote: Evils of prosperity.]

[Sidenote: The superiority of the early to the later Greeks in Virtue.]

Moreover, the Greeks and Romans, when they were most virtuous, when they
were in a state to produce a civilization, had great obstacles to
surmount and difficulties to contend with. These ever develop genius and
keep down destructive passions. Strength ever comes through weakness and
dependence. This is the stern condition of our moral nature. It is a
primeval and unalterable law that man must earn his living by the sweat
of his brow, even as woman can only be happy and virtuous when her will
is subject to that of her husband. A condition where labor is not
necessary engenders idleness, sensuality, indifference to suffering,
self-indulgence, and a conventional hardness that freezes the soul.
Never, in this world, have more exalted virtues been brought to light
than among the Puritans in their cold and dreary settlements in New
England, even those which it is the fashion to attribute to congenial
climates and sunny skies. The Puritan character was as full of passion
as it was of sacrifice. We read of the existence and culture of
friendship, love, and social happiness when the country was most
sterile, and the difficulty of earning a living greatest. There was an
outward starch and acerbity produced by toil and danger. But when people
felt they could unbend, they were not icebergs but volcanoes, because
the fires which burned unseen were those of the soul. The mirth of wine
is maudlin and short-lived. It prompts to no labor, and kindles no
sacrifices. It is satanic; it blazes and dies, a horrid mockery,
exultant and evanescent. But the joy of homes, the beaming face of
forgiveness, the charity which covers a multitude of faults, the
assistance rendered in hours of darkness and difficulty, enthusiasm for
truth, the aspiration for a higher life, the glorious interchange of
thoughts and sentiments, these are well-springs of life, of peace, and
of power. Nothing is to be relied upon which does not stimulate the
higher faculties of the mind and soul. Ease of living blunts the moral
sensibilities, and even the beauty of nature is not appreciated, when
"all save the spirit of man is divine." But when men are earnest and
true, uncorrupted by the vices of self-interest, and unseduced by the
pleasures of factitious life, then even nature, in all her wildness, is
a teacher and an inspiration. The grand landscape, the rugged rocks, the
mystic forests, and the lofty mountains, barren though they be, bring
out higher sentiments than the smiling vineyard, or the rich orange-
grove, or the fertile corn-field, where slaves do the labor, and lazy
proprietors recline on luxurious couches to take their mid-day sleep, or
toy with frivolous voluptuousness. Neither a great nor a rich country is
anything, if only pride and folly are fostered; while isolation,
poverty, and physical discomfort, if accompanied by piety and
resignation, are frequently the highest boons which Providence bestows
to keep men in mind of Him. Prosperity may have been the blessing of the
old Testament, but adversity is the blessing of the New - the mysterious
benediction of Christ and Apostles and martyrs. A rich country does not
make great men, except in craft or politics or business calculations;
nor is there a more subtle falsehood than that which builds a nation's
hope on the extent of its prairies, or the deep soil of its valleys, or
the rich mines of its mountains, or the great streams which bear its
wealth to the ocean. Mr. Buckle, fallaciously and sophistically,
instances - Egypt as peculiarly fortunate and happy, because it possessed
the Nile; but all that was glorious in Egypt passed away before
authentic history was written, while Greece, with her barren mountains,
laid the foundation of all that was valuable in the ancient
civilization. What survives of Carthage or Antioch or Tyre that society
now cherishes? Yet much may be traced to Greece when the people were
poor, and struggling with the waves and the forests. It is not nature
that ennobles man; it is man that consecrates nature. The development of
mind is greater than the development of material resources. True
greatness is not in an easy life, but in the struggle against nature and
the victory over adverse influences. Even in our own country, it will be
seen that schools and colleges and religious institutions have more
frequently flourished when the people were poor and industrious than
when they were rich and prodigal. Why has New England produced so many
educators? Why is it that so few eminent men of genius and learning have
arisen out of the turmoil and vanity of prosperous cities? Why is it
that money cannot create a college, and is useless unless there is a
vitality among its professors and students? The condition of national
greatness is the same as that seen in the rise and fortunes of
individuals. Industry, honesty, and patience, are greater than banks and
storehouses. Character, even in a wicked and busy city, is of more value
than money.

These truths are most emphatically illustrated by the civilization of
the Romans. We are attracted by the glitter and the glare of arts and
sciences. Let us see what they did for Rome, when Rome became
degenerate. Let us review the chapters that have been written in this
book. We point with pride to the trophies of genius and strength. We do
not disparage them. They were human creations. Let us see how far they
had a force to save.

The first great development of genius among the Romans was military
strength. We are dazzled by the glory of warlike deeds. We see a grand
army, the power of the legions, the science of war. Why did not military
organizations save the empire in the hour of trial?

[Sidenote: The Roman armies in the republic.]

[Sidenote: Decline of military virtues.]

[Sidenote: Degeneracy of the legions.]

The legions who went forth to battle in the days of Aurelian and
Severus, were not such as marched under Marius and Caesar. The soldiers
of the republic went forth to battle expecting death, and ready to die.
The sacrifice of life in battle was the great idea of a Roman hero, as
it was of a Germanic barbarian. Without this idea deeply impressed upon
a soldier's mind, there can be no true military enthusiasm. It has
characterized all conquering races. Mere mechanism cannot do the work of
life. Under the empire, the army was mere machinery. It had lost its
ancient spirit; it was not inspired by patriotic glory; it maintained
the defensive. The citizens were unwilling to enlist, and the ranks were
gradually filled with the very barbarians against whom the Romans had
formerly contended. The army was virtually composed of mercenaries from
all nations, adventurers who had nothing to lose, who had but little to
gain. They were turbulent and rebellious. Revolts among the soldiers
were common. They brought new vices to the camps, and learned in
addition all the vices of the Romans. They were greedy, unreliable, and
cherished concealed enmities. They had no common interest or bond of
union. They were always ready for revolt, and gave away the highest
prizes to fortunate generals. They sold the imperial dignity, and became
the masters rather than the servants of the emperors. Diocletian was
obliged to disband the Praetorian band. The infantry, which had
penetrated the Macedonian phalanx, threw away their defensive armor, and
were changed to troops of timid horsemen, whose chief weapon was the
bow. And they wasted their strength in civil contests more than against
barbaric foes. They no longer swam rivers, or climbed mountains, or
marched with a burden of eighty pounds. They scorned their ancient fare
and their ancient pay. They sought pleasure and dissipation. The expense
of maintaining the army kept pace with its inefficiency. Soldiers were a
nuisance wherever they were located, and fanned disturbances and mobs.
Their license and robbery made them as much to be dreaded by friends as
by enemies. They assassinated the emperors when they failed to comply
with their exorbitant demands. They often sympathized with the very
enemies whom they ought to have fought. Enfeebled, treacherous, without
public spirit, caring nothing for the empire, degenerate, they were thus
unable to resist the shock of their savage enemies. Finally, they could
not even maintain order in the provinces. "There was not," says Gibbon,
"a single province in the empire in which a uniform government was
maintained, or in which man could look for protection from his fellow
man." What could be hoped of an empire when people were unwilling to
enlist, and when troops had lost the prestige of victory? The details of
the military history of the latter Romans are most sickening - revolts,
rival generals, an enfeebled central power, turbulence, anarchy. Even
military obedience was weakened. What would Caesar have thought of the
soldiers of Valentinian siding with the clergy of Milan, when Ambrose
was threatened with imperial vengeance? What would Tiberius have thought
of the seditions of Constantinople, when the most trusted soldiers
demanded the head of a minister they detested? Where was the power of
mechanism, without genius to direct it? What could besieged cities do,
when treachery opened the gates? The empire fell because no one would
belong to it. How impotent the army, without spirit or courage, when the
hardy races of the North, adventurous and daring, were pouring down upon
the provinces - men who feared not death; men who gloried in their very
losses! The legions became utterly unequal to their task; they were
recalled from the distant provinces in the greater danger of the
capitals; and the boundaries of the empire were left without protectors.
The empire was created by strength, enthusiasm, and courage; when these
failed, it melted away. And even if the old discipline were maintained,
how inadequate the army against the overwhelming tide of barbarians,
fully armed, and bent on conquest. In all the victories of Valerian,
Constantine, and Theodosius, we see only the flickering lights of
departing glory. Military genius, united with patriotism, might have
delayed the fall, but where was the glory of the legions in those last
days? Military science belonged to the republic, not the empire. One
reason why the army did not save the empire was, because there was no
army capable of meeting the exigencies of the fourth and fifth
centuries. It was corrupted, perverted, conquered.

[Sidenote: The hopeless imbecility of the army under emperors.]

[Sidenote: Despair of the military emperors.]

Nor could _any_ army, however strong, do more than prop up existing
institutions. These themselves were rotten. Despotism cannot save a
state. The reign of Louis XIV. was one of the most brilliant in modern
annals. But no reign ever more signally undermined the state. It is the
patriotism of soldiers that saves, not their physical force. Their force
can be turned against the interests of a state as well as employed in
its favor. Despotism sows the seeds of future ruin. No state was ever
supported by military strength, except for a time, and then only when
the soldiery were animated by noble sentiments. The imperial forces of
Rome, while they preserved the throne of absolutisms, destroyed the

Online LibraryJohn LordThe Old Roman World, : the Grandeur and Failure of Its Civilization → online text (page 41 of 50)