William Spalding.

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

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are described by a priest of Marseilles in the middle of
the fifth century, as actually taking place in Gaul be-
fore his own eyes.t Salvianus says that the free husband-
men who cultivated small farms belonging to themselves,
were crushed to the dust by taxes, at once oppressive
and dishonestly levied ; that numbers of them abandoned

* Cod. Theodos. lib. xiii. tit. 10, De Censu. Cod. Justinian, lib.
xi. tit. 47, 1. 2 (an edict addressed to the governor of ^Emilia).

't* Salvianus De Gubernatione Dei, lib. v, Bibliotheca Patrum,
Lugd. torn. viii. particularly p. 359-361. The whole book is full
of curious statistical notices. The leading passage is quoted in Du-
cange's Glossary (ad vocera " Colonus") ; and the facts are stated
and animadverted on by Savigny, who, however, does not consider
the theory as of general application.


their possessions, and took from the rich landholders
either these or other lands, to be cultivated by them as
coloni,on conditions \vhich saved them from the severities
of the tax-gatherer, but left them scarcely a vestige of
either property or personal freedom.

In the hands of this class, agriculture fell yet lower
than it had sunk even with the slaves. The wines of
Italy were already worthless ; the olives now decayed
likewise ; and the whole peninsula yielded little beyond
a few cattle, some mineral produce, and the last timber of
its magnificent old forests. It was a starving country :
the people thronged into the large towns, especially
Rome, to cry for bread ; and the emperors, who seldom
resided in that city, or even within the Alps, had to ship
corn oftener than ever, as the only means of saving the
ancient metropolis from becoming equally desolate with
the waste which already stretched for miles around its
walls. We possess the correspondence of Symmachus,
who was prefect of the city under the first two Valenti-
nians, Theodosius, and Honorius. Writing to his friends,
he describes his Italian estates as going to utter wreck,
the government as neglecting all measures of prudence
and justice, the populace as hungry and clamorous, the
crops as failing all over the peninsula, and the munici-
palities as in vain imploring aid from the court. To the
emperors he addresses officially, year after year, and
strengthens by deputations, the most vehement entreaties
for speedy help. In one letter he represents the whole
population of Rome as fed by the charity of a few rich
men, who, however, had nothmg to give except spoilt
corn, which was every where generating disease ; the
provinces, he says, fail in delivering the rations assigned
to the city from the government taxes ; the emperors
promise while the people are famishing ; and the position
of Italy is described as one in which good fortune alone
can bring relief, and where human wisdom is powerless.
But in the midst of this universal misery, and v/hile the
prefect reproaches his friends with hunting and spendmg
their days in mirth, he himself writes eagerly for wild
beasts to appear at his games ; and, in the same breath in


which he prays Thcodosius not to forget to save the Ro-
mans from starving, he conjures him not to insist on
shutting up the Cii'cus and the Theatre.* In Campania
itself, the orchard of the south, Honorius was compelled
in the year 395 to expunge from the tax-roll, as become
utterl}'- waste, more than three hundred thousand acres
of land. Rutilius, writing a quarter of a century later,
describes Tuscany as degenerating into a wide forest
without dwellings, its fields as uncultivated, its Aure-
lian highway as flooded and impassable, and the bridges
as every where broken down and left unrepaired.

The last age of the empii-e in Italy presented, in all
its relations, a scene that tempted men to despair ; and
from every record w^hicli it has left, from the works of
historians, lawgivers, statesmen, philosophers, and divines,
might be collected a volume of gloomy forebodings.
Two men of eloquence and learning, who in the latter
half of the fourth century stood opposed to each other
in the face of Europe, the champion of the old faith and
the priest of the new, concurred in the despondency with
wliich they contemplated the aspect of the \vorld.t
The one was Symmachus, the heathen senator and pre-
fect of Rome. Over the reflections that saddened
him, he throws his favourite veil of classical allusion.
''' You complain," says he, in a letter to a friend, " that
I send you no narrative of public events. What if
I answer, that it is better to let them pass unnoticed 1
The ancient oracles have grown dumb ; in the grotto
of Cumae are read no mystic characters; no voice
issues from the tree of Dodona ; no chanted verse
is heard amidst the vapours of the Delphic cell. And
we, mortal and impotent, who owe our very existence
to tlie act of a rebellious demigod, may most wisely
leam from the silence of heaven, and ponder in quiet

* Symmachi Epistolarum ad Diversos, lib. ii. ep. 7, 52 ; lib. iv.
ep. 18, 68; lib. vi. ep. 14 ; lib. x. ep. 21, 26, 34, 38, 43, 55, 57.

t Symmachi lib. iv, epist. 33. Sancti Ambrosii Epistolarum
classis i. ep. 39. (Edit. Parisiis, 1690.)


over that sad history of our race, for which the book
of prophecy has no longer a leaf!" The Christian
bishop, Saint Ambrose of Milan, expresses the same
feelings in a different tone. He describes a journey in
which are passed successively Bologna, Modena, Reggio,
and Piacenza. Those ancient cities lie half-ruined and
half-unpeopled ; among the valleys of the Apennines
stretch wide uncultivated wastes, where of old the land
bloomed like a garden ; and on the surrounding heights
the site of once flourishing villages is marked by moul-
dering and roofless walls. The pious churchman speaks
of the grief which we feel for departed friends, as soften-
ed by our trust that they have passed to a purer life ;
but for his country he has jio such hope of renewed
existence : her prosperity is sunk for ever.

Both the Pagan and the Christian misinterpreted the
sig-ns of the times. Italy was doomed to endure a penance
of centuries ; but her destiny among the nations was not
to be fulfilled, till she should again have guided Europe
to political wisdom and intellectual activity.


Printed by Oliver & Boyd,
Tweeddale Court, High Street, Edinburgh.

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