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

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Bibles in our hands, - what could a corrupted Christianity do with it
when material pleasures were more prized than they are with us, and when
philanthropic institutions were unborn? If the whole power of the
Gallican Church was exerted to prop up the feudal privileges of the
French noblesse, and there was needed a dreadful and bloody revolution
to destroy them, much more was a revolution needed at Rome to destroy
the inherited powers of a still prouder and more powerful aristocracy.
If the rights of women are so slowly recognized among the descendants of
chivalrous nations, with all the moral forces of the Gospel, how
hopeless the elevation of women among peoples where woman for thousands
of years was regarded as a victim, a toy, or a slave? When we remember
the inherited opinions of Orientals, Greeks, and Romans as to the
condition and duties and relations of the female sex, it seems as if no
ordinary instruction could have broken the fetters of woman for an
indefinite period. The institutions of the pagan world were too firmly
rooted to afford hope to Christian teachers, if ever so enlightened. The
great cardinal principle of the common brotherhood of man could only be
applied under more favorable circumstances. The unity of the empire
_did_ facilitate the outward triumphs and spread of Christianity,
and perhaps that was the great mission which the Roman empire was
designed by God to promote. But the social and political institutions of
the Romans were exceedingly adverse to a healthy development of
Christian virtue. The teachers of the new religion originally aimed
entirely at the salvation of the soul. It was to save men from the wrath
to come, and publish tidings of great joy to the miserable populace of
the ancient world, that apostles labored. They did not attack political
or great organized systems of corruption openly and directly. It was
enough to promise Heaven, not to change the structure of society. For
four centuries neither the condition of woman nor of the slave was
radically improved. Christianity could not, without miraculous power,
bear its best fruit on a Roman soil. It could not do its best work on
degenerate and worn-out races. How many centuries would it take for
Christianity, even if embraced by all the people of Japan or China, to
make as noble Christians as in Scotland or New England? There must be a
material to work upon. There was not this material in the Roman empire.
A dreadful revolution was necessary, in which new and uncorrupted races
should obtain ascendency, and on whom Christianity could work with
renewed power. In such a catastrophe, the good must suffer with the
evil, the just with the unjust. A Gothic soldier would not spare a
cloister any sooner than a palace, or a palace sooner than a hut, a
philosopher more readily than a peasant. Christians as well as pagans
must drink the bitter cup, for natural law has no tears to shed and no
indulgence to give. The iniquities of the fathers were visited upon the
children, even to the third and fourth generation. And what if there was
suffering on the earth? Tribulation is generally a blessing in disguise.
Men are not born for undisturbed happiness on earth, but for a
preparation for heaven. Whatever calls the thoughts from a lower to a
higher good is the greatest boon which Providence gives. The monstrous
calamities of the fourth and fifth centuries had a marked influence in
opening the portals of the church, even for the barbarians themselves -
for they were not converted until they became conquerors. A new life, in
spite of calamities, was infused into the empire, tottering and falling.
It was among the new races that the new creation began, and it is among
their descendants that the loftiest triumphs of civilization have been
achieved. So it was ultimately a good thing for the world that the
empire and all its bad institutions were swept away. Creation followed
destruction, and the death-song was succeeded by a melodious birth-song.
All suffering and sorrow were over-ruled. Future ages were the better
for such sad calamities. Temples were destroyed, but the sublime ideas
of beauty and grace by which they were erected still survive. Armies
were annihilated, but military science was not lost. Libraries were
burned, but models of ancient style survived to incite to new creation.
Anarchy prevailed, but new states arose on the ruins of the old
provinces. Men passed away, but not the fruits of the earth, nor the
relics of genius. The new races gave a new impulse, when fairly
established, to agriculture, to commerce, and to art. The fall of the
empire was the destruction of fortunes and of farms, the change of
masters, the dissolution of the central power of emperors, the breaking
up of proconsular authority, the dissipation of conventionalities and
fashions; but these were not the ruin of human hopes or the bondage of
human energies. Genius, poetry, faith, sentiment, and piety, remained.
Nor was the earth depopulated; it was decimated. All the substantial
elements of greatness were moulded into new forms. A fresh and beautiful
life arose among the simple and earnest people who had descended from
the Oder and the Vistula. Entirely new institutions were formed. The old
fabric was shattered to pieces, but of the ruins a new edifice was
constructed more calculated to shelter the distressed and miserable. The
barbarians seized the old traditions of the church and invested them
with poetical beauty. The Teutonic civilization, more Christian than the
Roman, surpassed it in all popular forms, and became more adapted to the
wants of man. Probably nothing really great in civilization has ever
perished, or ever will perish. I don't believe in "lost arts." They are
only buried for a time, like the glorious sculptures of Praxiteles or
Lysippus, amid the debris of useless fabrics, to be dug up when wanted
and valued, as models of new creations. I doubt if any thing really
valuable in even the Egyptian, or Assyrian, or Indian civilization has
hopelessly passed away, which can be made of real service to mankind. It
is, indeed, a puzzle how the capstones of the Pyramids were elevated -
such huge blocks raised five hundred feet into the air; but I believe
the mechanical forces are really known, or will be known, at the proper
time, and will be again employed, if the labor is worth the cost. We
could build a tower of Babel in New York, or a temple of Carnac, or a
Colosseum, and would build it, if such a structure were needed or we
could afford the waste of time, material, and labor. There is nothing in
all antiquity so grand as a modern railroad, or the _Great Eastern_
steamship, or the Erie Canal. Nebuchadnezzar's palace would not compare
with St. Peter's Church or Versailles, nor his hanging gardens with the
Croton reservoirs. Gibraltar or Ehrenbreitstein is more impregnable than
the walls of Babylon, which Cyrus despaired to scale or batter down.
Every succeeding generation inherits the riches and learning of the
past, even if Rome and Carthage are sacked, and the library of
Alexandria is burned. The barbarians destroyed the monuments of former
greatness - temples, palaces, statues, pictures, libraries, schools,
languages, and laws. These _they_ did not restore, but they were
restored by their descendants, as there was need, and new creations
added. The Parthenon reappears in the Madeleine; the Golden House of
Nero in the Tuileries and the Louvre; Jupiter of Phidias in the Moses of
Michael Angelo; the Helen of Zeuxis in the Venus of Titian; the library
of Alexandria in the Bibliotheque Imperiale; the Academy of Plato in the
University of Oxford; the orations of Cicero in the eloquence of Burke;
the Institutes of Justinian in the Code Napoleon. In addition, we have
cathedrals whose architectural effect Vitruvius could not have
conceived; pictures that Polygnotus could not have painted; books which
Aristotle could not have imagined; universities before which Zeno would
have stood awestruck; courts of law that would have called out the
admiration of Paul and Papinian; houses which Scaurus would have envied;
carriages that Nero would have given the lives of ten thousand
Christians to possess; carpets that Babylon could not have woven; dyes
surpassing the Tyrian purple; silks, velvets, glass mirrors, sideboards,
fabrics of linen and cotton and wool, ships, railroads, watches,
telescopes, compasses, charts, printing-presses, gunpowder, fire-arms,
photographs, engravings, bank-notes, telegraphic wires, chemical
compounds, domestic utensils, mills, steam-engines, balloons, and a
thousand other wonders of a civilization which no ancient race attained.
_We_ have lost nothing of the old trophies of genius, and have
gained new ones for future civilization. The Romans, if left in
possession of the provinces they had conquered for two thousand years
longer, would never, probably, have made our modern discoveries and
inventions. They would have been more like the modern inhabitants of
China. A new race was required to try new experiments and achieve new
triumphs. The Greeks and Romans did their share, fulfilled a great
mission for humanity, but they could not monopolize forever the human
race itself.

[Sidenote: Every age has a peculiar mission.]

Every great nation and age has its work to do in the field of
undeveloped energies; but the field is inexhaustible in resources, for
the intellect of man is boundless in its reserved powers. No limit can
be assigned to the future triumphs of genius and strength. We are as
ignorant of some future wonders as the last century was of steam and
telegraphic wires. Nor can we tell what will next arise. The wonders of
the Greeks and Romans would have astonished Egyptians and Assyrians. The
Oriental civilization gave place to the Hellenic and the Roman; and the
Hellenic and Roman gave place to the Teutonic. So the races and the ages
move on. They have their missions, become corrupt, and pass away. But
the breaking up of their institutions, even by violence, when no longer
a blessing to the world, and the surrender of their lands and riches to
another race, not worn out, but new, fresh, enthusiastic, and strong,
have resulted in permanent good to mankind, even if we feel that the
human mind never soared to loftier flights, or put forth greater and
more astonishing individual energies than in that old and ruined world.

[Sidenote: How far Christianity conserved.]

How far Christianity conserved the treasures of the past we cannot tell.
No one can doubt the influence of Christianity in reviving letters, in
giving a stimulus to thought, in creating a noble ambition for the good
of society, and producing that moral tone which fits the soul to
appreciate what is truly great. It was the church which preserved the
manuscripts of classical ages; which perpetuated the Latin language in
chants and litanies and theological essays; which gave a new impulse to
agriculture and many useful arts; which preserved the traditions of the
Roman empire; which made use of the old canons of law; which gave a new
glory to architecture in the Gothic vaults of mediaeval cathedrals; which
encouraged the rising universities; which gave wisdom to rulers and laws
to social life. The monasteries and convents, in their best ages, were
receptacles of arts, beehives of industry, schools of learning, asylums
for the miserable, retreats for sages, hospitals for the poor, and
bulwarks of civilization which rude warriors dared not assail. What did
not the Christian clergy guard and perpetuate?

[Sidenote: The real triumphs of Christianity.]

That the Teutonic nations would have arisen to as lofty a platform as
the ancient Greeks or Romans, without Christianity, is probable enough.
There is no limit to the intellect of a noble race until corrupted.
Without Christianity, society might still have possessed our modern
discoveries, since the Gothic races have shown a distinguishing genius
in mechanical inventions. I apprehend that Christianity has not much to
do with many of the wonders of our present day; and I find some classes
of men who have made great attainments in certain channels in antagonism
to Christianity. I question whether a spiritual religion has given an
impulse to steam navigation, or rifled cannons, or electrical machines,
or astronomical calculations, or geological deductions. It has not
created scientific schools, or painters' studios, or Lowell mills, or
Birmingham wares, or London docks. Material glories we share with the
ancients; we have simply improved upon them. In some things they are our
superiors. We do not see the superiority of modern over ancient
civilization in material wonders, so much as in immaterial ideas. What
is really greatest and noblest in our civilization comes from Christian
truths. Certainly, what is most characteristic is the fruit of spiritual
ideas, such as paganism never taught, - never could have conceived; such,
for instance, as pertains to social changes, to popular education, to
philanthropic enterprise, to enlightened legislation, to the elevation
of the poor and miserable, to the breaking off the fetters of the slave,
and to the true appreciation of the mission of woman. Nor was the Roman
empire swept away until the seeds of all these great modern
improvements, which raise society, were planted by the sainted fathers
and doctors of the church. They worked for us, for all future ages, for
all possible civilizations, as well as for their own times. They are,
therefore, immortal benefactors of the human race, since they were the
first to declare great renovating ideas. The early church is the real
architect of European civilization. She laid the foundation of the noble
edifice under which the nations still shelter themselves against the
storms of life. Christianity not only rescued a part of the population
of the Roman empire from degradation and ruin; it not only had glorious
witnesses or its transcendent power and beauty in every land, thus
triumphing over human infirmity and misery as no other religion ever
did; but it has also proved itself to be a progressively conquering
power by the great and beneficent ideas which were planted in the minds
of barbarians, as well as oriental Christians, and which from time to
time are bearing fruit in every land, so as to make it evident to any
but a perverted intellect, that Christianity is the source of what we
most prize in civilization itself, and that without it the nations can
only reach a certain level, and will then, from the law of depravity,
decline and fall like Greece, Asia Minor, and Rome. If we had no
Christianity, we should be compelled, so far as history teaches us
lessons, to adopt the theory of Buckle and his school, of the necessary
progress and decline of nations - the moving round, like systems of
philosophy, in perpetual circles. But, with the indestructible ideas
which the fathers planted, there must be a perpetual renovation and an
unending progress, until the world becomes an Eden.

* * * * *

REFERENCES. - The reader is directed only to the ordinary histories of
the church. The great facts are stated by all the historians, and few
new ones have been brought to light. Historians differ merely in the
mode of presenting their subject. The ecclesiastical histories are
generally deficient in art, and hence are uninteresting. The ablest and
the most learned of modern historians is doubtless Neander. He is also
the fullest and most satisfactory; but even he is unattractive. Mosheim
is dry and dull, but learned in facts. Dr. Schaff has most ably
presented primitive Christianity, and his recent work is both popular
and valuable. Milman is the best English writer on the church, and he is
the most readable of modern historians. Tillemont and Dupin are very
full and very learned. But a truly immortal history of the church,
exhaustive yet artistic, brilliant as well as learned, is yet to be
written. The ancient historians, like Eusebius and Socrates and Zosimus,
are very meagre. The genius and spirit of the early church can only be
drawn from the lives and writings of the fathers.



It is my object in this chapter to show the great Christian ideas which
the fathers promulgated, and which have proved of so great influence on
the Middle Ages and our own civilization. These were declared before the
Roman empire fell; and if they did not arrest ruin, still alleviated the
miseries of society, and laid the foundation of all that is most
ennobling among modern nations. The early church should be the most
glorious chapter in the history of humanity. While the work of
destruction was going on in every part of the world, both by vice and
violence, there was still the new work of creation proceeding with it, a
precious savor of life to future ages. If there is any thing sublime, it
is the power of renovating ideas amid universal degeneracy. They are
seeds of truth, which grow and ripen into grand institutions. These did
not become of sufficient importance to arrest the attention of
historians until they were cultivated by the Germanic nations in the
Middle Ages.

It could be shown that almost everything which gives glory to Christian
civilization had its origin in the early church. Few are aware what
giants and heroes were those fathers and saints whom this age has been
taught to despise. We are really reaping the results of those conflicts -
conflicts with bigoted Jewish sects; conflicts with the high priests of
paganism, with Greek philosophers, with Gnostic Manichaean illuminati;
with the symbolists, soothsayers, astrologers, magicians, which mystic
superstition conjured up among degenerate people. And not merely their
conflicts with the prince of the power of the air alone, but with
themselves, with their own fiery passions, and with tangible outward
foes. They were illustrious champions and martyrs in the midst of a
great Vanity Fair, in a Nebuchadnezzar fire of persecutions, an all-
pervading atmosphere of lies, impurities, and abominations which cried
to heaven for vengeance. They solved for us and for all future
generations the thousand of new questions which audacious paganism
proposed in its last struggles; they exposed the bubbles which charmed
that giddy generation of egotists; they eliminated the falsehoods which
vain-glorious philosophers had inwrought with revelation; and they
attested, with dying agonies, to the truth of those mysteries which gave
them consolation and hope amid the terrors of a dissolving world. They
absorbed even into the sphere of Christianity all that was really
valuable in the system they exploded, whether of philosophy or social
life, and transmitted the same to future ages. And they set examples, of
which the world will never lose sight, of patience, fortitude, courage,
generosity, which will animate all martyrs to the end of time. And if,
in view of their great perplexities, of circumstances which they could
not control, utter degeneracy and approaching barbarism, they lent their
aid to some institutions which we cannot endorse, certainly when
corrupted, like Manichaeism and ecclesiastical domination, let us
remember that these were adapted to their times, or were called out by
pressing exigencies. And further, let us bear in mind that, in giving
their endorsement, they could not predict the abuse of principles
abstractly good and wise, like poverty, and obedience, and chastity, and
devout meditation, and solitary communion with God. In all their conduct
and opinions, we see, nevertheless, a large-hearted humanity, a
toleration and charity for human infirmities, and a beautiful spirit of
brotherly love. If they advocated definite creeds with great vehemence
and earnestness, they yet soared beyond them, and gloried in the general
name they bore, until the fundamental doctrines of their religion were

For two centuries, however, they have no history out of the records of
martyrdom. We know their sufferings better than any peculiar ideas which
they advocated. We have testimony to their blameless lives, to their
irreproachable morals, to their good citizenship, and to their Christian
graces, rather than to any doctrines which stand out as especial marks
for discussion or conflict, like those which agitated the councils of
Nice or Ephesus. But if we were asked what was the first principle which
was brought out by the history of the early church, we should say it was
that of martyrdom. Certainly the first recorded act in the history of
Christianity was that memorable scene on Calvary, when the founder of
our religion announced the fulfillment of the covenant made with Adam in
the Garden of Eden. And as the deliverance of mankind was effected by
that great sacrifice for sin, so the earliest development of Christian
life was the spirit of martyrdom. The moral grandeur with which the
martyrs met reproach, isolation, persecution, suffering, and death, not
merely robbed the grave of its victory, but implanted a principle of
inestimable power among all future heroes. Martyrdom kindled an heroic
spirit, not for the conquest of nations, but for the conquest of the
soul, and the resignation of all that earth can give in attestation of
grand and saving truths. We have a few examples of martyrs in pagan
antiquity, like Socrates and Seneca, who met death with fortitude, - but
not with faith, not with indestructible joy that this mortal was about
to put on immortality. The Christian martyrdoms were a new development
of humanity. They taught the necessity of present sacrifice for future
glory, and more, for the great interests of truth and virtue, with which
good men had been identified. They brought life and immortality to the
view of the people, who had not dared to speculate on their future
condition. Their martyrs inspired a spirit into society that nothing
could withstand; a practical belief that the life was more than meat;
that the future was greater than the present: and this surely is one of
the grand fundamental principles of Christianity. They incited to a
spirit of fortitude and courage under all the evils of life, and gave
dignity to men who would otherwise have been insignificant. The example
of men who rejoiced to part with their lives for the sake of their
religion, became to the world the most impressive voice which it yet
heard of the insignificance of this life when compared with the life to
come. "What will it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his
own soul?" became thus one of the most stupendous inquiries which could
be impressed on future generations, and affected all the relations of
society. Martyrdom was one solution of this mighty question which
introduced a new power upon the earth, for we cannot conceive of
Christianity as an all-conquering influence, except as it unfolds a new
and superior existence, in contrast with which the present is worthless.
The principle of martyrdom, setting at defiance the present, led to
unbounded charity and the renunciation of worldly possessions. What are
they really worth? Every martyr had the comparative worthlessness of
wealth and honor and comfort profoundly impressed upon his mind, in view
of the greatness of the Infinite and the importance of the future.

The early martyrdoms thus brought out with immeasurable force the
principle of faith, without which life can have no object, - faith in
future destinies, faith in the promises of God, faith in the power of
the Cross to subdue finally all forms of evil. The sacrifice of Christ
introduced into the world sentiments of unbounded love and gratitude,
that He, the most perfect type of humanity, and the Son of God himself,
should come into this world to bear its sins upon the cross, and thus
give a heaven which could not be bought by expiatory gifts. It was love
which prompted the crucifixion of Jesus; and love produced love, and
stimulated thousands to bear with patience the evils under which they
would have sunk. The martyrdoms of the early Christians did not indeed
kindle sentiments of gratitude; but they inspired courage, and led to
immeasurable forms of heroism. The timid and the shrinking woman, the
down-trodden slave, and the despised pauper, all at once became serene,
lofty, unconquerable, since they knew that though their earthly
tabernacle would be destroyed, they had a dwelling in the heavens free
from all future toil and sorrow and reproach. Martyrdoms made this world
nothing and heaven everything. They proved a powerful faith in the
ultimate prevalence of truth, and created an invincible moral heroism,

Online LibraryJohn LordThe Old Roman World, : the Grandeur and Failure of Its Civilization → online text (page 47 of 50)