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self-reliance of the citizens, and supported wicked institutions. The
difference in the aims of government under the Caesars, and under the
consuls, was heaven-wide. The military genius which created an empire,
was misdirected when that empire sought to perpetuate wrong. How
different is the spirit which animated the armies of the United States,
when they sought to preserve the institutions of liberty and the
integrity of the state, from that spirit which animates the armies of
the Sultan of Turkey! The Roman empire under the later emperors was more
like the Ottoman empire, than the republic in the days of Cato. It was
sick, and must die. A great army devoted to the interests of despotism
generates more evils than it cures. It eats out the vitals of strength,
and poisons the sources of renovation. It suppresses every generous
insurrection of human intelligence. It merely arms tyrants with the
power to crush genius and patriotism. It prevents the healthful
development of energies in useful channels. The most that can be said in
favor of the armies of the empire is, that they preserved for a time the
decaying body. They could not restore vitality; they warded off the
blows of fate. They could only keep the empire from falling until the
forces of enemies were organized. No generalship could have saved Rome.
The great military emperors must have felt that they were powerless
against the combination of barbaric forces. The soul of Theodosius must
have sunk within him to see how fruitless were his victories, how barren
_any_ victories to such a diseased and crumbling empire. Diocletian
retired, in the plenitude of his power, to die of a broken heart. The
utmost the emperors could do, was to erect on the banks of the Bosphorus
a new capital, and virtually make a new combination of those provinces
most removed from danger. The old capital was abandoned to its fate.

[Sidenote: The Roman constitution.]

[Sidenote: Infamy of the imperial regime.]

[Sidenote: Abortive efforts of good emperors.]

The elaborate and complicated constitution of the Romans, on which so
much genius and experience were employed, was subverted when Caesar
passed the Rubicon. Only forms remained, a bitter mockery, and a thin
disguise. These were nothing. Neither consuls, nor praetors, nor
pontiffs, nor censors, nor tribunes existed, except in name. Every
office of the republic was absorbed in the imperial despotism. The
glorious constitution, which gave authority to Cato and dignity to
Cicero, was a dead-letter. Flatterers, and sycophants, and courtiers,
took the place of senators. The imperial despotism crushed out every
element of popular power, every protest of patriots, every gush of
enthusiasm. The constitution could not save when it was itself lost.
Never was there a more wanton and determined disregard of those great
rights for which the nations had bled, than under the emperors. Every
conservative influence that came from the people was hopelessly
suppressed. The reign of beneficent emperors, like the Antonines, and of
monsters like Nero and Caracalla, was alike fatal. The seal of political
ruin was set when Augustus was most potent and most feared. Government
simply meant an organized mechanism of oppression. There is nothing
conservative in government which does not have in view the interests of
the governed. When it is merely used to augment gigantic fortunes, or
create inequalities, or encourage frivolities, and allows great evils to
go unredressed, then its very mechanism becomes a refinement of despotic
cruelty. When sycophants, jesters, flatterers, and panderers to passions
become the recipients of court favor, and control the hand that feeds
them, then there is no responsible authority. The very worst government
is that of favorites, and that was the government of Rome, when only
courtiers could gain the ear of the sovereign, and when it was for their
interest to cover up crimes. What must, have been the government when
even Seneca accumulated one of the largest fortunes of antiquity as
minister? What must have been the court when such women as Messalina and
Agrippina controlled its councils? The ascendency of women and
sycophants is infinitely worse than the arbitrary rule of stern but
experienced generals. The whole empire was ransacked for the private
pleasure of the emperors, and those who surrounded them. "_L'etat,
c'est moi_," was the motto of every emperor from Augustus to
Theodosius. With such a spirit, so monopolizing and so proud, the rights
of subjects were lost in an all-controlling despotism, which crushed out
both grand sentiments and noble deeds. None could rise but those who
administered to the pleasures of the emperor. All were sure to fall who
opposed his will. From this there was no escape. Resistance was ruin.
There was a perfect system of espionage established in every part of the
empire, and it was impossible to fly from the agents of imperial
vengeance. And the despotism of the emperors was particularly hateful,
since it veiled its powers under the forms of the ancient republic,
until in the very wantonness of its vast prerogatives it threw away its
vain disguises, and openly and insultingly reveled on the forced
contributions of the world. There were good and wise emperors who sought
the welfare of the state, but these were exceptions to the general rule.
Octavius, that Ulysses of state craft, checked open immoralities by
legal enactments, discouraged celibacy, expelled unworthy members from
the Senate, appointed able ministers and governors, and sought to
prevent corruption, which was then so shameful. Vespasian introduced a
severe military discipline among the legions, permitted citizens to have
free access to his person, and promoted many great objects of public

[Sidenote: Hadrian.]

[Sidenote: Marcus Aurelius.]

Hadrian attempted to give dignity to the Senate, and visited in person
nearly all the provinces of his empire, impartially administered
justice, magnificently patronized art, and encouraged the loftiest form
of Greek philosophy. Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius set, in their
own lives, examples of the sternest virtue, although they were deceived
in the character of those to whom they delegated their powers, and were
even ruled by unworthy favorites. Marcus Aurelius was, after all, the
finest character of antiquity who was intrusted with absolute power.
Contrasted with Solomon, or Augustus, or even Theodosius, he was a model
prince, for he had every facility of indulging his passions, but his
passions he restrained, and lived a life of the severest temperance and
virtue to the end, sustained by the severest doctrines of the Stoical
school. All that his rigid severity and moral elevation could do to save
a decaying empire was done. He sought to base the stability of the
throne on a rigid morality, on self-denial and self-sacrifice. When only
twelve, he adopted the garb and the austerities of a philosopher,
believing in virtue for its own sake.

From his earliest youth he associated with his instructors in the
greatest freedom, and it was the happiness of his life to reward
philosophers and scholars. He promoted men of learning to the highest
dignities of the empire, and even showed the greatest reverence for the
cultivation of the mind. Philosophy was the great object of his zeal,
but he also gave his attention to all branches of science, to law, to
music, and to poetry. His disposition was kind and amiable, and he
succeeded in acquiring that self-command and composure which it was the
professed object of the Stoics to secure. He was firm without being
obstinate, gentle without being weak. He was modest, retiring, and
studious. He believed that it was necessary for good government that
rulers should be under the dominion of philosophy. He was so universally
beloved and esteemed, that everybody who could afford it had his statue
in his house. No man on a throne was ever held in such profound
veneration. If ever there was, in a heathen country, an example of
sublime virtue, it shone in the life of Marcus Aurelius; if ever there
was an expression of supernal beauty, it was in his features beaming
with love and gentleness and humility. He never neglected the duties of
his office. He was noble in all the relations of a family. He was the
model of an emperor. He only complained of want of time to prosecute his
literary labors. He was probably the most learned man in his dominions.
The Romans called him brother and father, and the Senate felt that its
ancient dignity was restored. He had great causes of unhappiness. The
barbarians invaded his territories; a long peace had destroyed martial
energies; the Roman world was sinking into languor and decay; his
adoptive brother Verus lived in luxury and dissoluteness; his wife
Faustina was a second Messalina, abandoned to promiscuous profligacy; a
pestilence ravaged Asia Minor, Greece, Italy, and Gaul, still this great
man preserved his serenity, his virtues, and his fame. He was unseduced
by any kind of mortal temptation, and left an unstained character, and
an unrivaled veneration for his memory. And when we consider that he was
the absolute master of one hundred and twenty millions, having at his
disposal the riches of the world, and all its pleasures, - above public
opinion, with no law to check him - a law only to himself, we find more
to admire than in Solomon before his fall. _His meditations_ have
lately been translated and published - a work full of moral wisdom,
rivaling Epictetus in morality, and the sages of the Middle Ages in
contemplative piety. Niebuhr says it is more delightful to speak of him
than of any man in history. The historical critic can see but one
defect - his persecution of the Christians. He was doubtless a bigoted
Stoic, as Paul was, at one time, a bigoted Pharisee; and the great
delusion of his life was to rear a basis of national prosperity on the
sublime morality of the philosophers whom he copied. He sought to save
the state by the Stoical philosophy. Never were nobler efforts put forth
on the part of a philosophic prince; but neither his patronage of
philosophers, nor his own bright example, nor the doctrines of the
Porch, conservative as they are, were of any avail. The Roman world
could not be saved by the philosophy of Aurelius any more easily than
the imperial despotism could be averted by the patriotism of Cicero. He
was succeeded, after a glorious reign of twenty years, by his son
Commodus, as incapable of managing an empire as Rehoboam was the kingdom
of his father Solomon. Thus are the schemes and enterprises of the best
men baffled by a mysterious power above us, who holds in his own hands
the destinies of nations - the Divine Providence who giveth and who
withholdeth strength.

Marcus Aurelius did all that human virtue could do to arrest the ruin
which he saw, with the saddest grief, was impending over the empire, in
spite of all the external prosperity which called forth such universal
panegyric. And the empire was also favored by a succession of military
emperors, who tried the force of arms, as Aurelius had philosophy.

Never did abler men reign on an absolute throne. All that genius and
experience and skill could do to arrest the waves of the barbarians was
done. A succession of most brilliant victories marked these later days
of Rome. Amid unparalleled disasters, there were also most memorable
triumphs. The glory of the Roman name was revived in Claudius, Aurelian,
Probus, Carus, Diocletian, Constantius, Galerius, Constantine, Julian,
all of whom rendered important services. These great emperors were
uniformly victors, yet were doomed to hurl back perpetually advancing
forces of Teutonic warriors, who were resolved on conquest. Diocletian
was a second Augustus, and Constantine another Julius. But their
conquests and reconstructions were all in vain. The barbarians advanced.
They were getting more and more powerful with defeat; the Romans weaker
and weaker after victory. In the middle of the fourth century the Goths
were firmly settled in Dacia, the Persians had recovered the provinces
between the Euphrates and the Tigris, Gaul was invaded by Germans, the
Saxons had ravaged Britain, the Scots and Picts had spread themselves
from the wall of Antoninus to the shores of Kent, Africa had revolted,
Sapor had broken his treaties, the Goths had crossed the Danube, the
Emperor Valens had been slain, with sixty thousand infantry and six
thousand cavalry. From the shores of the Bosphorus to the Julian Alps,
nothing was to be seen but rapes, murders, and conflagrations. Palaces
were destroyed, churches were turned into stables, the relics of martyrs
were desecrated, women were ravished, bishops were praying in despair,
cities had fallen, the country was laid waste; the desolation extended
to fishes and birds. Fruitful fields became pastures, or were overgrown
with forests. The day of ruin was at hand. There was needed a hero to
arise, a deliverer, a second Moses. And a great man appeared in the
person of Theodosius - the most able and valiant of all the emperors
after Julius Caesar.

[Sidenote: Theodosius.]

The career of Theodosius is exceedingly interesting, since it shows that
every thing which imperial genius could do to arrest ruin, was done by

Theodosius was thirty-three years of age when summoned from retirement
to govern the world. He had learned the art of war from his father in
Britain, and had, in his lifetime, defeated the Sarmatians. The Romans,
disheartened by the tremendous defeat they had sustained under the walls
of Adrianople, and the death of Valens the emperor, had no longer the
courage to brave the Goths in the open field, and Theodosius was too
prudent to lead them against a triumphant enemy. He retired to
Thessalonica to watch the barbarians. In four years he had revived the
courage of his troops, even as Alfred subsequently rekindled the martial
ardor of the Saxons after their defeat by the Danes. On the death of
Fritigern, the first great historic name among the Visigoths, his
soldiers were demoralized, and divided by jealousies, and were won over
by the arts and statesmanship of Theodosius, and a treaty was made with
them by which they obtained a settlement within the limits of the
empire, and became the allies of the emperor. The Ostrogoths were soon
after defeated in a decisive battle on the Danube, and all fears were
removed, at least for the present, of these hostile barbarians.

[Sidenote: Successors of Theodosius.]

[Sidenote: Diocletian.]

Theodosius was equally fortunate in his conflicts with Maximus, who had
usurped the provinces of Gaul, Spain, and Britain, and who meditated the
conquest of Italy. At Aquileia the usurper was seized, after a
succession of defeats, stripped of his imperial ornaments, and delivered
to the executioner, and Theodosius reigned without a rival in the
renovated empire, practicing the virtues of domestic life, rewarding
eminent merit, and protecting the interests of the church. He restored
the - authority of the laws, and corrected the abuses of the preceding
reigns. Whatever rival or enemy, in those distracted times, raised
himself up against the imperial authority, was easily subdued. Eugenius
met the fate of Maximus, and Arbogastes turned his sword against his own
breast. Theodosius reigned in peace and wisdom, the idol of the church,
and the object of fear to the barbaric world. He had his defects and
vices, and committed errors and crimes, but his reign was beneficent,
and the Christian world hoped that the evils which threatened the empire
were removed. Alas, the empire was doomed. The death of Theodosius was
the signal for renewed hostilities. His sons, the feeble Arcadius and
Honorius, were unequal to the task of governing the empire, and it fell
into the hands of the barbarians, who ruthlessly marched over the
crumblings ruins, regardless of the treasures of the classic soil and of
the guardians which Christianity presented in the presence of protesting
bishops. The empire could not be saved by able emperors, however great
their military genius. Absolutism, whether wielded by tyrants, or
philosophers, or generals, was alike a failure. What hope for the empire
when the Senate inculcated maxims of passive obedience to tyrants; when
such lawyers as Papinias and Paulus declared that emperors were freed
from all restraints? What could Alexander Severus do when the most
illustrious man in the empire - the learned and immortal Ulpian - was
murdered before his eyes by the guards, of which he was the prefect, and
when such was the license of the soldiers, that the emperor could
neither revenge his murdered friend, nor his insulted dignity; when his
own life was sacrificed to the discontents of an army which had become
the master of the emperors themselves? After the murder of this brave
and enlightened prince, no emperor was safe upon his throne, or could do
more than oppose a feeble barrier to the barbarians upon the frontiers.
External dangers may have raised up able commanders, like Decius,
Aurelian, and Probus; but they could not prevent the inroads of the
Goths, or heal the miseries of society. Of the nineteen tyrants who
arose during the reign of Gallienus, not one died a natural death. And
when, after a disgraceful period of calamities, Diocletian ascended the
throne, the ablest perhaps of all the emperors after Augustus, no
talents could sustain the weight of public administration, and even this
emperor attempted to extinguish the only influence that had power to
save. Absolutism had sowed seeds of ruin, which were destined to bear
most wretched fruit.

[Sidenote: Roman jurisprudence.]

Jurisprudence was the science of which the Romans have the most to
boast; and this was not perfected until the time of the emperors. It was
closely connected with the constitution, but was superior to it, since
it was based upon the principles of natural justice or equity. This has
lasted when all material greatness has vanished, and still forms the
basis of the laws of European nations. This was a great element of
civilization itself; it was part of the mechanism of social order; it
pervaded all parts of the empire; it made the reign of tyrants

There is no doubt that the excellence of the laws formed one of the most
powerful conservative influences of pagan antiquity. We glory in those
laws as one of the proudest achievements of the human mind. But laws are
rather an exponent of the state of society than a controlling force
which modifies it. If a murderer is to be hung, or a thief imprisoned,
the rigid law shows simply no mercy to murderers and thieves; it does
not create a sentiment which prevents, though it may punish, iniquity.
The wise division of property among heirs may operate against injurious
accumulations, but does not prevent disproportionate fortunes. The more
complicated the jurisprudence, the more need it seems that society has
of restraints and balances. The law cannot go higher than the fountain.
The more perfect the state of society, the less need there is of laws.
The cautious guards against fraud simply show that frauds are common and
easy. The minute regulations in reference to the protection of property
and contracts, show that the prevailing customs and habits of dealers
were corrupt, and needed the strong arm of a protecting government. As a
general thing, it will be found that the laws are best, and most rigidly
enforced, when iniquity prevails. A man is safe in Paris when he is not
in Boston, but we do not infer from this fact that society is higher,
but that there is a sterner necessity on the part of government to
restrain crime. The laws of the Romans give the impression of the
necessity of a constant watchfulness and supervision to prevent the
strong preying upon the weak. Other influences are more necessary than
laws to keep men virtuous and orderly. Laws are necessary, indeed; but
they are not the first conditions of social existence.

[Sidenote: Perversion of the laws.]

But what are we to think of laws when they are either evaded or
perverted, when there is not wisdom to feel their justice or virtue to
execute them? What are laws if judges are corrupt? The venality of the
judges of Rome was proverbial. Even in the comparatively virtuous age of
Cicero, a friend wrote to him not to recall a certain great functionary,
since he himself was implicated in his robberies, and the request was
granted. The empire was regarded as spoil, and the provinces were robbed
of their most valuable treasures. Witness the extortions of Verres in
Sicily, when a residence of two years was enough to make the fortune of
a provincial governor. Nor was Roman law ever independent of political
power. The praetors were politicians having ambitious aims beyond the
exercise of judicial authority. Influential men could ever buy verdicts,
and the government winked at the infamy. There _was_ justice in the
_abstract_, but not in the _reality_. And when jurisprudence
became complicated, judgments were made on technical points rather than
on principles of equity. It was as ruinous to go to law at Rome as in
London. Lawyers absorbed the money at issue by their tricks and delays.
They made the practice of their noble profession obscure and uncertain.
Clients danced attendance on eminent jurists, and received promises,
smiles, and oyster-shells. It was, too, often better to submit to an
injury than seek to redress it. Cases were decided _against_
justice, if some technical form or ancient usage favored the more
powerful party. Lawyers formed a large and powerful class, and they had
fortunes to make. Instead of protecting the innocent, they shielded the
guilty. Those who paid the highest fees were most certain of favorable
verdicts. The laws practically operated to make the rich richer and the
poor poorer. Between the venality of the court and the learned jugglery
of advocates, there was little hope for the obscure and indigent. Says
Merivale: "The occupation of the bench of justice was the great
instrument by which powerful men protected their monopolies; for, by
keeping this in their own hands, they could quash every attempt at
revealing, by legal practice, the enormities of their administration.
And the means of seduction allowed by law, such as the covert bribery of
shows and festivals, were used openly and boldly." What, then, could be
hoped from the laws when they were made the channel of extortion and
oppression? Law, the glory of Rome in the abstract, became the most
dismal mockery of the rights of man. Salt is good, but if the salt has
lost its savor it is good for nothing, not even for the dunghill. When
the laws practically add to the evils they were intended to cure, what
hope is there in their conservative influence? The practice of the law
ever remained an honorable profession, and the sons of the great were
trained to it; but we find such men as Cyprian, Chrysostom, and
Augustine, who originally embarked in it, turning from it with disgust,
as full of tricks and pedantries, in which success was only earned by a
prostitution of the moral powers. Laws perverted were worse than no laws
at all, since they could be turned by cunning, and sharp lawyers against
truth and innocence. It would be harsh and narrow to say that lawyers
were not necessary; but they did very little to avert evils. A wicked
generation pressed over the feeble barriers which the laws presented
against iniquity. They were only cobwebs to catch the insignificant.
Unless good laws are enforced by virtue and intelligence, they prove a
snare. It is the enforcement of laws, on the principles of justice, not
the creation of them, that saves a state.

[Sidenote: Art among the later Romans.]

If a complicated system of laws and government, on which the reason and
experience of ages were expended, did not prevent the empire from
falling into the hands of barbarians, much less was to be expected of
art, for which the Romans were also distinguished in common with the
Greeks. Much is said of the ennobling influence of those great creations
which gave so great lustre to ancient civilization. Founded on
imperishable ideas, we naturally attribute to them a great element of
national preservation, as they were of glory and pride.

[Sidenote: Its inherent beauty.]

It cannot be denied that art, when in harmony with the exalted ideals of
beauty and grace, which it seeks to perpetuate on canvas or in marble,
does much to improve the taste, to promote refinement and aesthetic
culture. And when art is pursued with a lofty end, seeking, like virtue,

Online LibraryJohn LordThe Old Roman World, : the Grandeur and Failure of Its Civilization → online text (page 42 of 50)