William Spalding.

Italy and the Italian islands, from the earliest ages to the present time (Volume 1) online

. (page 34 of 35)
Online LibraryWilliam SpaldingItaly and the Italian islands, from the earliest ages to the present time (Volume 1) → online text (page 34 of 35)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Romans had acquired rather a more accurate knowledge
of it before the days of Tacitus.

But, during the luxurious times of tlie imperial
government, far the most important commerce enjoyed
by Italy was that with the Asiatic nations. From the
countries of Asia Minor were received several valuable
articles both for use and ornament, including the marbles
of Phrygia, the iron of Pontus, and the fine wools of
Ionia. From the coasts of Syria, as the mart or the place
of production, came very large quantities of those spices
and aromatic preparations which the ancient habits of
the people rendered indispensable, v/ith the purple cloth
of Tyre, wines, precious stones, and the bitumen of
Palestine. The myrrh, the amomum, and the nard,
were brought from the odoriferous forests of Arabia,
which also produced precious stones, pearls, marble, gold,
and wine from its marvellous city Petra. India sup-
plied pepper, ginger, cinnamon, and other spices, to-
gether with those delicate cotton fabrics, for which that
country was then quite as famous as now, and which
included muslins, calicoes, shawls, and all the varieties
of goods which are at present sent to Britain. Through
Hindostan, too, the Romans received the spun silk and
silk stufis of the country called Serica, that is, the modem
Chma, with the regions on its western border ; and
thence also they had the malabathrum, wliich has been


suspected, though probably without sufficient reason, to
have been the leaves of the tea-plant.'"'

Africa was of course no farther accessible than along
its coasts. Alexandria, however, the port of Egypt, was
the main depot for all Asiatic merchandise ; and the
land of the Pharaohs itself yielded cotton, flax, glass,
marbles, precious stones, wines, perfumes, papyrus, some
medicinal herbs, and a few minerals. From the ports
on the northern shores of Africa came the productions
of Barbary, together with those articles of commerce
which were procured from the interior by barter with
the negro tribes, or by the robbery of their villages.
The list included gold and gold-dust, ivory, cotton, pre-
cious stones, marble, several sorts of ornamental wood
for furniture, and large droves of black slaves.


A. u. 933—1229, OR a. n. ISO— 47G.

During the three centuries that preceded the dissolu-
tion of the western empire, the political world was a
scene where gradual decay was interrupted only by de-
structive convulsions. The morality of the people was
as bad as their general weakness of character permitted
it to be ; and their old religion, which waned and
sank during those ages, was succeeded by a form of
Christianity already too corrupted to struggle success-
fully against the growmg vice and misery. The pagan
features of the times are those which it is here intended
to illustrate ; but, in speaking of Italy, we may safely
borrow much, for this purpose, from its history after the
reign of Constantine, because in that country the ancient
character and the ancient faith possessed a stronghold
which was the last the}' evacuated.

If we wish to study the religion of the learned pagans
in the Lower Empire, we should principally use as our

* De Pastoret, Memoire iii. Heeren, Asiatic INations, vol.
iii. chap. 2. Historical and Descriptive Account of China (Edin-
buij>ii Cabinet Library), vol. i chap. 4.


text-books the writings of the Latter Platonists of Alex-
andria, which lie beyond the scope of these pages. But
we may glean something as to the philosophical theo-
logy, and much as to the belief of the people, from
other sources less scholastic ; and four popular treatises,
all belongmg either to the earliest age of this period,
or to the last of that preceding, throw a strong light on
the new shape which had been assumed by the hea-
then superstitions.* We trace little or nothing of the
native mythology of Italy ; but the Greeks diffused
throughout that country new and often scandalous ver-
sions of their o-svn legends. As instances, may be quoted
the Aedon of Antoninus, which is an exaggeration of the
horrors of Progne's tragedy ; and his Cephalus and Pro-
cris, in which that touching story is disgustingly debased.
Original fictions also were invented with new names ;
and there appeared a class of ghost-stories altogether
unexampled. Their costume is decidedly oriental, their
tone of feeling is gloomy and overwrought, and their
apparitions have an unclassical materialism which is
sometimes absolutely harrowing. Such is Phlegon's
tale of the cannibal-ghost of Polycritus the -^tolarch,
which is a demon standing, as it were, half-way between
the Arabian goule and the Levantine vampire. An ex-
ample still more characteristic is a fragment of the same
writer, which relates the fatal adventure of the youth
Machates with the dead gh-l Philinnion ; a romance of
the Avildest outline, whose spectral voluptuousness Goethe
has closely imitated in his ballad of the Bride of Co-
rinth. Apollonius gives us oriental fables ; like that of
Hermotimus, whose soul wandered through space, leav-
ing its body senseless on the ground ; of Aristeas, whose
ghost traversed Sicily after his death at Proconnesus ;
and of Epimenides of Crete, who slept fifty-seven
years. While the science of reading dreams made every
thought of the mind symbolical, the actual phenomena

* The Book of Marvels, by Hadrian's favourite, Phlegon of
Tralles ; the Metamorphoses of Antoninus Liberalis ; the Invented
Histories of Apollonius Dyscolus, a fellow-student of Marcus Au-
relius ; and the Dream-Book of Arteraidorus.


of the material world were looked on as equally signi-
ficant, and those most eagerly reported were the alarm-
ing and the unnatural. Monstrous births were described
and exaggerated ; and there were nimours of earth-
quakes which laid bare the skeletons of buried Titans.
In those last ages of paganism, magic became more com-
mon than ever, and its rites were never more shocking.
The Syrian emperor Heliogabalus, who in his youth
was the priest of Gabal, or the sun, at Emesa, tore the
noblest Italian boys from their parents, slew them with
his own hand on the altar of his god, and attempted
with the aid of oriental diviners to read the will of
heaven by those hon-ible sacrifices.* Astrology con-
tinued to flourish, and alchemy, its new ally, was in
vain attacked by edicts of Diocletian.

Education became for a time, in form at least, more
complete for the few, but it died away almost entirely
for the many. The schools in the small towns decayed
or were shut up altogether ; and, about the reign of
Theodosius, we see the emperors even distrusting the
public seminaries, and withdrawing the liberty which
every man till then enjoyed of opening a place of in-
struction wherever he chose. But repeated laws, from
Hadrian downwards, directed the decurions of the towns
to examine and license a fixed number of teachers in law
and literature, promising to these professors exemptions
and salaries. The most famous academies of the West-
em Empire were those of Africa and Gaul ; and that of
Milan was esteemed the second in Italy. In the East,
Alexandria maintained its reputation ; and the law-
schools of Berytus and Constantmople rivalled, from the
fourth century, the fame of the Roman jurisconsults.
In Rome, however, in the year 425, Theodosius II. and
Valentinian founded a regular college, assigning to it
halls in the Capitol, and fixing its number of professors
as follows : ten teachers of the Latin grammar and lite-
rature, with three for Latin eloquence ; ten teachers of
the Greek grammar and literature, and five of Greek

• .Elius Lampridius in Heliogabalo, cap. 8.


eloquence ; two teachers of law, and one of philosophy.
This new establishment, and all others, were subject to
strict regulations, which had been fixed in the year 370
for the academies then existing, and continued long
with little or no alteration. As the edict which con-
tained these is our oldest attempt at framing university-
statutes, a few of the rules may be described. No student
was to be admitted to the schools either of Rome or
Constantinople, unless he exhibited certificates from the
government of his province, attesting his birth, domicile,
and character, and unless he also declared what studies
he meant to pursue. The city-magistrates were charged
to keep strict watch over the young men, their lodgings,
their industry, their associates, and their behaviour in
all companies ; and if any one conducted himself impro-
perly, they were entitled to whip him publicly, and
send him home. All students were to be forced to
leave the city on the completion of then- twentieth year.
The public teachers enjoyed extensive exemptions from
personal serv^ices and burdens ; similar privileges were
extended to the ph^'sicians ; and in every town a certain
number of these received a public allowance of provisions,
or equivalents for them, in consideration of their attend-
ance on the poor. In Rome there were two classes of
privileged medical men ; the physicians of the imperial
household, and the fourteen appointed to practise in the
fourteen regions of the city.*

Of the pubhc spectacles in ancient Rome, it only re-
mains to notice the ultimate fate. The Christian eccle-
siastics protested vehemently against all of them ; but the
abuse long resisted both the church and the emperors.
Constantine abolished the religious processions which
used to commence the games ; and after his accession
we hear of no more real fights in the naumachise ; but
he was unable to effect any thing more. His law pro-
hibiting: the combats of dadiators remained a dead letter

* Heiueccii Antiquit. Roman, ad Institut. Prooem. ; ad Instit.
lib. i. tit. 25. Conringius De Studiis Liberalibus Urbis Romae
et Constantinopoleo? Gothofredus ad Cod. Theodos. lib. xiii.
tit. 3. Cod. Justin, lib. x. tit. 62 ; lib. \i. tit. J8.


till the year 404, when, amidst the triumph of Honoriua
on the retreat of Alaric, Telemachus, an eastern monk,
rushing into the arena of the Colosseum, strove to part
the swordsmen. The populace, in fury, tore up the stone
seats and murdered the holy man ; but they speedily
grew ashamed of their cowardly deed, and submitted
quietly to a prohibition of the combats, which the em-
peror seized the opportunity of issuing. The races, the
mock sea-fights, and the theatrical exhibitions, survived
the fall of the Western Empire.

The character of the Italians in those gloomy times,
offers little over which there is any temptation to linger.
The foolish parade and sinful extravagance of the court,
or the pride and indolence of the nobles, are not more
disheartening than the moral and intellectual darkness
of the people at large. Society in Rome during the
fourth century of our era, when its population was still
substantially pagan, has been described by a contempo-
rary, cynically rude, but observant and strictly honest,
from whose sketches one or two groups may be copied .

The first scene which attracts our notice might have
been painted from life in the streets of the papal city in
the middle ages. In the year 855, Leontius, the prefect,
raised a sedition by imprisoning one of the favourite
charioteers for a misdemeanour ; and warm weather,
aided b}' the dearness and scarcity of wine, co-operated
with the original offence to rouse the populace again.
They assembled tumultuously in the hollow between
the Cselian and Palatine Mounts, where their position was
covered by the Nymphseum of Marcus Aurelius, and the
Septizonium or sepulchre of Septimius Severus. The
magistrate drove into the midst of the crowd, sitting in
his chariot, and surrounded by his guards : he addressed
them, and was interrupted by shouts of defiance. He
fixed his eye on a tall man who was particularly active,
and whom he recognised as being one who had been de-
nounced as dangerous. The fellow, being asked his name,
avowed it with insolent triumph ; on which Leontius
instantly ordered him to be seized, stripped, tied to


a pillar, and scourged in the midst of liis followers. The
mob, terrified by their governor's resolution, looked on
a while in silence, and then slowly dispersed.*

The same historian has painted roughly, and with
exaggeration and disfavour, a portrait of the populace of
Rome in his own times, and another of the nobility.t
Many features of his description are the common char-
acteristics of a state of society in which the people are
poor, numerous, indolent, and vicious, and the few nobles
rich, sensual, and haughty. But some particulars
have more individuality. The multitude were still pau-
pers, and from the time of Aurelian then- laziness was
more favoured than ever ; for thenceforth, instead of
monthly allowances of corn, they received every day
loaves of a specified weight, on presenting the govern-
ment tickets at the bakers' shops. Their time and
their pittance of money were divided between the wine-
shops, the dice-table, the bagnio, and the places where
the public shows were exhibited. In the theatres, when
they were tired of hissing the actors, they cursed tlie
foreigners whom they saw around them, and clamoured
for their expulsion ; although, as their historian sarcasti-
cally observes, they and their city could not, but for these
very foreigners, have continued to exist. Those degene-
rate Romans had personal pride, too, as well as national :
walking barefoot, and in rags, they aped their superiors
in assuming sonorous appellations, which their ignorance
conceived to be classical ; and the Cimessores, Statarii,
SemicupsB, Pordaci, and TruUae, held their heads higher
for reflecting that they represented the ancient plebeians.
The nobles set them the fashion of effeminacy, licen-
tiousness, gaming, and pride of idle words. They had
their gradations of honorary titles bestowed by the
court ; they had family names heaped one upon another,
and formed with a barbarism which the historian's
fictitious examples do but slightly caricature. J Their

* Ammiani Marcellini Historiarum lib. xv. cap. 7.
■f- Ibid. lib. xxviii. cap. 4. Gibbon, chapter xxxi.
J See the Indices to Gruter's Inscriptions. There are few pages
that will not furnish instances.


conduct towards the commonalty was worthy of a race
who, while they boasted that they were tlie only pri-
vileged class in the state, were not ashamed to be
slaves in their relation to the sovereign. When we read
of the wanton outrages which they perpetrated with
impunity on the burghers, and of that haughty con-
tempt which they would have had their inferiors to ac-
knowledge as condescending indulgence, we wonder that
human patience was not worn out, and that universal
revolution did not avenge insults which the law was
powerless to punish. But when we recollect how de-
graded were the oppressed class themselves, we feel that
the regeneration of society, if it was to take place, must
come to such a people from other hands than their own.
And the bloody consummation drew rapidly near.
Amidst those fallen patricians, and that insolent yet
spiritless populace, there were mixing, more and more
thickly, in every corner of the land, groups of the bar-
barian mercenaries who composed the armies of the state :
and scenes were not unfrequent, which, like menacing
visions, presignified to the Romans the approaching ruin
of their name. The great Theodosius himself had to
court the Gothic captains, whose tribes followed him ;
and those rude borderers from the Danube feasted daily
in the imperial halls among the refined Italian and Greek
nobility. Two of the chiefs, Fraust and Priulf, quarrelled
at the emperor's table, and in his presence ; and he was
compelled to break up the banquet. The Goths left the
palace in hot dispute, and Fraust, suddenly drawing his
sword at the gate, cleft his enemy's skull. The dead
man's retainers attacked the assassin, who was rescued,
after a bloody fight, by the palace-guards. Theodosius,
the very best and bravest of the later Roman princes,
dared not either to prevent this act of bloodshed, or to
avenge it.*

"We have still to glance at the statistics of Italy m tne
Lower Empire. The inquiry has been partially unti-

• Zosimi Historiarum lib. iv. cap. 56.


cipated in the sketch already given of the municipal
system in those times ; and our view of the position held
by the burghers of the Italian towns will be as exten-
sive as it is here possible to make it, if we learn a few
particulars regarding the condition of the artificers and
traders, and the decline both of manufactures and
foreign commerce. The disheartening picture will be
completed by a slight outline of the state of agriculture
and of the rural population.

The account already given of the foreign trade of
Italy, may be strictly applied to a considerable part of
the period now under review. But among the changes
which took place, the old Roman dislike to commerce
at this time both revived, and grew stronger in a new-
shape. It now assumed the form of that prejudice
which, in most modern nations, considers trade degrad-
ing to tlie aristocracy ; the legislature at last adopted the
ruinous oj^inion ; and an edict of Honorius prohibited
the nobles from engaging in commerce, alleging, how-
ever, for the reason, a wish to preserve it as a monopoly
to the plebeians."" Still the habits of the Italians con-
tinued, for a time, to create a demand for foreign luxu-
ries, which, notwithstanding much impoverishment and
the constant downfal of ancient families, cannot be said
to have diminished till the fifth century. The ports of
the Eastern Empire derived much of their prosperit}^
from their trade in precious commodities, with which
they supplied the provinces of the West ; and, till the
reign of Augustulus, the nobles wore dresses made of
Asiatic silks, and of cloths embroidered with silver and

The manufactures which ministered to these and
other requirements of luxury, gave employment to con-
siderable bodies of artisans in the larger towns ; and the
guilds, long regarded as dangerous by the emperors, some-
times suppressed and always discountenanced, at last ac-
quired a general recognition, which may be fixed as early
at least as the reign of Alexander Severus. Thenceforth

* Cod. Justin, lib. iv. tit. 63. leg. 3.


there were numerous authorized societies of this kind,
each of which had its office-bearers, its chapel or religious
ceremonies, its common fund, its by-laws, its processions,
and its standards.

The curious details of the laws describing the cor-
porations would not to any extent aid us in determining
the comparative prosperity of the several branches of
industry. Indeed, any conclusion to which they would
carry us is unfavourable to the state of the crafts enu-
merated : for with regard to the architects and other
persons practising the liberal arts, the decay of skill and
scarcity of students are expressly set forth as the causes
which make it necessary to confer privileges, in the hope
of producing a revival. Several of the finest branches
of manufacture were carried on in imperial establish-
ments, which enjoyed a monopoly of supplying the
army and all public servants. As to most of the other
practical pursuits, especially those which related to the
necessaries of life, the facts are yet more discouraging ;
for the laws in regard to them established some of the
very worst principles wliich we have seen adopted in
reference to the town-councils. The mariners, bakers,
and some others, were not only bound in their own per-
sons to follow^ their trade for life, within their own town
or its district, without being freed from this slavery by
any possible means ; but the obligation was transferred
and made binding on every one connected with them, no
matter how remotely. The son and grandson entered
by compulsion their father's craft ; marriage with the
daughter of an artisan bound the son-in-law to the same
calling ; the inheritance of private property had a similar
eflFect ; and even a purchase of lands for an adequate
price exposed the buyer to find himself forced into the
trade of the baker, shipowner, or cattle-dealer, who had
been the seller. It may interest us to learn, that there
are strong reasons for believing this wretched constitu-
tion of the guilds to have been introduced by the Romans
into our own country."'

• Gothofredus ad Cod. Theodos. lib.xiii. tit. 4, 5, 6; lib. xiv.
tit. 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8. PanciroUus De Corporibus Artificum, ap


When we survey the agricultural population of Italy
under the Christian empire, we see the number of
slaves rapidly diminishing. They make room for a new
class, standing midway between freedom and slaverj^ and
known by various descriptive names : — Coloni, Origi-
narii, Adscriptitii, Inquilini, Tributarii, Censiti. Their
status was the origin of the Italian serfs or villeins of
the dark and middle ages.* The prominent features of
their position were the following. They were nominally
freemen, and most of them Roman citizens ; but they
were subject to the same corporal punishments as slaves,
and, — which was the pivot upon which their lot turned,
— they were ii-removably attached to the soil of the estate
where they were born, and bound for life to cultivate a
prescribed portion of it, the fruits of which they them-
selves enjoyed, paying the proprietor a fixed rent in
money or kind, though yielding no personal services. As
they durst not leave the lands, so the proprietor could
not remove them ; but if he sold the ground, the coloni
were necessarily transferred to the purchaser along with
it. They could possess property of their ovm, which the
owner of the estate (their patronus) was not entitled to
touch ; but he was usually empowered to prevent their
alienating it, that his lands might have the advantage of
it as agricultural capital ; though some classes of coloni
could dispose of their goods at pleasure. They were, as
we have seen, subject to the poll-tax ; but the patron
was responsible for it to the treasury, and paid it in the
first instance. There is no trace of any process of manu-
mission for them, nor of any possible mode of dissolv-
ing the bonds by which they were rivetted to the soO,
except a prescriptive absence, of thirty years for men,
and twenty for women ; which absence, if spent in
freedom, made the parties free, and, if spent in service

GrfEvium, torn. iii. Heineccii Opusculorum Sylloge i. Exercitatio 9.
Palgrave's English Commonwealth, part i . chapter x.

* See, on this interesting but neglected subject, a most satisfac-
tory and minute dissertation by Savigny (Ueber den Rbmischen
Coionat), in the Transactions of the Academy of Sciences of Ber-
lin for 1822-3; and, also in that volume, the same writer's paper
on the Imperial Taxation.


on other lands, transferred them to the new manor. If a
colonus became a priest (for they were held capable of
receiving ordination), the patron was still entitled to
retain him on the estate, and exact the accustomed
rent and labour from him. These peasants, so strangely
situated, were protected by their annexation to the soil,
and by a rule which prohibited the imposition of new
burdens, or a rise of rents ; and it was also law, that if
a domain were divided among joint proprietors, there
should be no separation of married people, parents and
children, or even near kinsfolk.

Instances of a class thus constituted were to be found
in Italy as early at least as the time of Constantino ;* and
this date, with other facts, makes it impossible to account
for their rise in that country on the theory which has
been proposed as to the villeins of our own islands, —
that they were a native population enslaved by invaders.
The Italian coloni bore some likeness to the old Roman
clients, and a stronger one to the serfs of the ancient
Germans, as they are described by Tacitus ; but neither
can they be traced to either of these sources. There
is equal difficulty in supposing them to have originally
been, as one hypothesis bears, slaves emancipated under
conditions of villeinage. Another theory, the most
plausible of all, — though it likewise is subject to ob-
jections as a general rule, — is suggested by facts which

Online LibraryWilliam SpaldingItaly and the Italian islands, from the earliest ages to the present time (Volume 1) → online text (page 34 of 35)