Pagan Society : Glory and Shame – Beacon Lights of History, Volume III : Ancient Achievements by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume III : Ancient Achievements by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume III : Ancient Achievements

Governments and Laws : Greek and Roman Jurisprudence
The Fine Arts : Architecture, Sculpture, Painting
Ancient Scientific Knowledge : Astronomy, Geography
Material Life of the Ancients : Mechanical and Useful Arts
The Military Art : Weapons, Engines, Discipline
Cicero : Roman Literature
Cleopatra : The Woman of Paganism
Pagan Society : Glory and Shame

Beacon Lights of History, Volume III : Ancient Achievements
John Lord

Topics Covered
Glories of the ancient civilization
A splendid external deception
Moral evils
Imperial despotism
Prostration of liberties
Some good emperors
Disproportionate fortunes
Luxurious living
General extravagance
Pride and insolence of the aristocracy
Gibbon’s description of the nobles
The plebeian class
Hopelessness and disgrace of poverty
Popular superstitions
The slaves
The curse of slavery
Degradation of the female sex
Bitter satires of Juvenal
Games and festivals
Gladiatorial shows
General abandonment to pleasure
The baths
General craze for money-making
Universal corruption
Saint Paul’s estimate of Roman vices
Decline and ruin a logical necessity
The Sibylline prophecy

Pagan Society : Glory and Shame

50 B.C.

We have now surveyed what was most glorious in the States of antiquity. We have seen a civilization which in many respects rivals all that modern nations have to show. In art, in literature, in philosophy, in laws, in the mechanism of government, in the cultivated face of Nature, in military strength, in aesthetic culture, the Greeks and Romans were our equals. And this high civilization was reached by the native and unaided strength of man; by the power of will, by courage, by perseverance, by genius, by fortunate circumstances. We are filled with admiration by all these trophies of genius, and cannot but feel that only superior races could have accomplished such mighty triumphs.

Yet all this splendid exterior was deceptive; for the deeper we penetrate the social condition of the people, the more we feel disgust and pity supplanting all feelings of admiration and wonder. The Roman empire especially, which had gathered into its strong embrace the whole world, and was the natural inheritor of all the achievements of all the nations, in its shame and degradation suggests melancholy feelings in reference to the destiny of man, so far as his happiness and welfare depend upon his own unaided efforts.

It is a sad picture of oppression, injustice, crime, and wretchedness which I have now to present. Glory is succeeded by shame, strength by weakness, and virtue by vice. The condition of the mass is deplorable, and even the great and fortunate shine in a false and fictitious light. We see laws, theoretically good, practically perverted, and selfishness and egotism the mainsprings of life; we see energies misdirected, and art corrupted. All noble aspirations have fled, and the good and the wise retire from active life in despair and misanthropy. Poets flatter the tyrants who trample on human rights, while sensuality and luxurious pleasure absorb the depraved thoughts of a perverse generation.

Nero From the statue in the National Museum, Naples

The first thing which arrests our attention as we survey the civilized countries of the old world, is the imperial despotism of Rome. The empire indeed enjoyed quietude, and society was no longer rent by factions and parties. Demagogues no longer disturbed the public peace, nor were the provinces ransacked and devastated to provide for the means of carrying on war. So long as men did not oppose the government they were safe from molestation, and were left to pursue their business and pleasure in their own way. Imperial cruelty was not often visited on the humble classes. It was the policy of the emperors to amuse and flatter the people, while depriving them of political rights. Hence social life was free. All were at liberty to seek their pleasures and gains; all were proud of their metropolis, with its gilded glories and its fascinating pleasures. Outrages, extortions, and disturbances were punished. Order reigned, and all classes felt secure; they could sleep without fear of robbery or assassination. In short, all the arguments which can be adduced in favor of despotism in contrast with civil war and violence, show that it was beneficial in its immediate effects.

Nevertheless, it was a most lamentable change from that condition of things which existed before the civil wars. Roman liberties were prostrated forever; noble sentiments and aspirations were rebuked. Under the Emperors we read of no more great orators like Cicero, battling for human rights and defending the public weal. Eloquence was suppressed. Nor was there liberty of speech even in the Senate. It was treason to find fault with any public acts. From the Pillars of Hercules to the Caspian Sea one stern will ruled all classes and orders. No one could fly from the agents and ministers of the Emperor; he controlled the army, the Senate, the judiciary, the internal administration of the empire, and the religious worship of the people; all offices, honors, and emoluments emanated from him. All influences conspired to elevate the man whom no one could hope successfully to rival. Revolt was madness, and treason absurdity. Nor did the Emperors attempt to check the gigantic social evils of the empire. They did not seek to prevent irreligion, luxury, slavery, and usury, the encroachments of the rich upon the poor, the tyranny of foolish fashions, demoralizing sports and pleasures, money-making, and all the follies which lax principles of morality allowed; they fed the rabble with corn, oil, and wine, and thus encouraged idleness and dissipation. The world never saw a more rapid retrogression in human rights, or a greater prostration of liberties. Taxes were imposed according to the pleasure or necessities of the government. Provincial governors became still more rapacious and cruel; judges hesitated to decide against the government. Patriotism, in its most enlarged sense, became an impossibility; all lofty spirits were crushed. Corruption in all forms of administration fearfully increased, for there was no safeguard against it.

Theoretically, absolutism may be the best government, if rulers are wise and just; but practically, as men are, despotisms are generally cruel and revengeful. Despotism implies slavery, and slavery is the worst condition of mankind.

It cannot be questioned that many virtuous princes reigned at Rome, who would have ornamented any age or country. Titus, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Antoninus Pius, Alexander Severus, Tacitus, Probus, Carus, Constantine, Theodosius, were all men of remarkable virtues as well as talents. They did what they could to promote public prosperity. Marcus Aurelius was one of the purest and noblest characters of antiquity. Theodosius for genius and virtue ranks with the most illustrious sovereigns that ever wore a crown,–with Charlemagne, with Alfred, with William III., with Gustavus Adolphus.

But it matters not whether the Emperors were good or bad, if the r├ęgime to which they consecrated their energies was exerted to crush the liberties of mankind. The imperial despotism, whether brilliant or disgraceful, was a mournful retrograde step in civilization; it implied the extinction of patriotism and the general degradation of the people, and would have been impossible in the days of Cato, Scipio, or Metellus.

If we turn from the Emperors to the class which before the dictatorship of Julius Caesar had the ascendency in the State, and for several centuries the supreme power, we shall find but little that is flattering to a nation or to humanity. Under the Emperors the aristocracy had degenerated in morals as well as influence. They still retained their enormous fortunes, originally acquired as governors of provinces, and continually increased by fortunate marriages and speculations. Indeed, nothing was more marked and melancholy at Rome than the vast disproportion in fortunes. In the better days of the republic, property was more equally divided; the citizens were not ambitious for more land than they could conveniently cultivate. But the lands, obtained by conquest, gradually fell into the possession of powerful families. The classes of society widened as great fortunes were accumulated; pride of wealth kept pace with pride of ancestry; and when plebeian families had obtained great estates, they were amalgamated with the old aristocracy. The equestrian order, founded substantially on wealth, grew daily in importance. Knights ultimately rivalled senatorial families. Even freedmen in an age of commercial speculation became powerful for their riches. The pursuit of money became a passion, and the rich assumed all the importance and consideration which had once been bestowed upon those who had rendered great public services.

As the wealth of the world flowed naturally to the capital, Rome became a city of princes, whose fortunes were almost incredible. It took eighty thousand dollars a year to support the ordinary senatorial dignity. Some senators owned whole provinces. Trimalchio, a rich freedman whom Petronius ridiculed, could afford to lose thirty millions of sesterces in a single voyage without sensibly diminishing his fortune. Pallas, a freedman of the Emperor Claudius, possessed a fortune of three hundred millions of sesterces. Seneca, the philosopher, amassed an enormous fortune.

As the Romans were a sensual, ostentatious, and luxurious people, they accordingly wasted their fortunes by an extravagance in their living which has had no parallel. The pleasures of the table and the cares of the kitchen were the most serious avocation of the aristocracy in the days of the greatest corruption. They had around them regular courts of parasites and flatterers, and they employed even persons of high rank as their chamberlains and stewards. Carving was taught in celebrated schools, and the masters of this sublime art were held in higher estimation than philosophers or poets. Says Juvenal,–

“To such perfection now is carving brought,
That different gestures by our curious men
Are used for different dishes, hare or hen.”

A Roman Bacchanal After the painting by W. Kotarbinski

Their entertainments were accompanied with everything which could flatter vanity or excite the passions; musicians, male and female dancers, players of farce and pantomime, jesters, buffoons, and gladiators exhibited, while the guests reclined at table after the fashion of the Orientals. The tables were made of Thuja-root, with claws of ivory or Delian bronze. Even Cicero, in an economical age, paid six hundred and fifty pounds for his banqueting-table. Gluttony was carried to such a point that the sea and earth scarcely sufficed to set off their tables; they ate as delicacies water-rats and white worms. Fish were the chief object of the Roman epicures, of which the mullus, therhombus, and the asellus were the most valued; it is recorded that a mullus (sea barbel), weighing but eight pounds, sold for eight thousand sesterces. Oysters from the Lucrine Lake were in great demand; snails were fattened in ponds for cooking, while the villas of the rich had their piscinae filled with fresh or salt-water fish. Peacocks and pheasants were the most highly esteemed among poultry, although the absurdity prevailed of eating singing-birds. Of quadrupeds, the greatest favorite was the wild boar,–the chief dish of a grand coena,–coming whole upon the table; and the practised gourmand pretended to distinguish by the taste from what part of Italy it came. Dishes, the very names of which excite disgust, were used at fashionable banquets, and held in high esteem. Martial devotes two entire books of his “Epigrams” to the various dishes and ornaments of a Roman banquet.

The extravagance of that period almost surpasses belief. Cicero and Pompey one day surprised Lucullus at one of his ordinary banquets, when he expected no guests, and even that cost fifty thousand drachmas,–about four thousand dollars; his table-couches were of purple, and his vessels glittered with jewels. The halls of Heliogabalus were hung with cloth of gold, enriched with jewels; his table and plate were of pure gold; his couches were of massive silver, and his mattresses, covered with carpets of cloth of gold, were stuffed with down found only under the wings of partridges. His suppers never cost less than one hundred thousand sesterces. Crassus paid one hundred thousand sesterces for a golden cup. Banqueting-rooms were strewed with lilies and roses. Apicius, in the time of Trajan, spent one hundred millions of sesterces in debauchery and gluttony; having only ten millions left, he ended his life with poison, thinking he might die of hunger. Things were valued for their cost and rarity rather than their real value. Enormous prices were paid for carp, the favorite dish of the Romans as of the Chinese. Drusillus, a freedman of Claudius, caused a dish to be made of five hundred pounds weight of silver. Vitellius had one made of such prodigious size that he was obliged to build a furnace on purpose for it; and at a feast which he gave in honor of this dish, it was filled with the livers of the scarrus (fish), the brains of peacocks, the tongues of parrots, and the roes of lampreys caught in the Carpathian Sea.

The nobles squandered money equally on their banquets, their stables, and their dress; and it was to their crimes, says Juvenal, that they were indebted for their gardens, their palaces, their tables, and their fine old plate.

Unbounded pride, insolence, inhumanity, selfishness, and scorn marked this noble class. Of course there were exceptions, but the historians and satirists give the saddest pictures of their cold-hearted depravity. The sole result of friendship with a great man was a meal, at which flattery and sycophancy were expected; but the best wine was drunk by the host, instead of by the guest. Provinces were ransacked for fish and fowl and game for the tables of the great, and sensualism was thought to be no reproach. They violated the laws of chastity and decorum; they scourged to death their slaves; they degraded their wives and sisters; they patronized the most demoralizing sports; they enriched themselves by usury and monopolies; they practised no generosity, except at their banquets, when ostentation balanced their avarice; they measured everything by the money-standard; they had no taste for literature, but they rewarded sculptors and painters who prostituted art to their vanity or passions; they had no reverence for religion, and ridiculed the gods. Their distinguishing vices were meanness and servility, the pursuit of money by every artifice, the absence of honor, and unblushing sensuality.

Gibbon has eloquently abridged the remarks of Ammianus Marcellinus respecting these people:–

“They contend with each other in the empty vanity of titles and surnames. They affect to multiply their likenesses in statues of bronze or marble; nor are they satisfied unless these statues are covered with plates of gold. They boast of the rent-rolls of their estates; they measure their rank and consequence by the loftiness of their chariots and the weighty magnificence of their dress; their long robes of silk and purple float in the wind, and as they are agitated by art or accident they discover the under garments, the rich tunics embroidered with the figures of various animals. Followed by a train of fifty servants, and tearing up the pavement, they move along the streets as if they travelled with post-horses; and the example of the senators is boldly imitated by the matrons and ladies, whose covered carriages are continually driving round the immense space of the city and suburbs. Whenever they condescend to enter the public baths, they assume, on their entrance, a tone of loud and insolent command, and maintain a haughty demeanor, which perhaps might have been excused in the great Marcellus after the conquest of Syracuse. Sometimes these heroes undertake more arduous achievements: they visit their estates in Italy, and procure themselves, by servile hands, the amusements of the chase. And if at any time, especially on a hot day, they have the courage to sail in their gilded galleys from the Lucrine Lake to their elegant villas on the sea-coast of Puteoli and Cargeta, they compare these expeditions to the marches of Caesar and Alexander; yet should a fly presume to settle on the silken folds of their gilded umbrellas, should a sunbeam penetrate through some unguarded chink, they deplore their intolerable hardships, and lament, in affected language, that they were not born in the regions of eternal darkness. In the exercise of domestic jurisdiction they express an exquisite sensibility for any personal injury, and a contemptuous indifference for the rest of mankind. When they have called for warm water, should a slave be tardy in his obedience, he is chastised with a hundred lashes; should he commit a wilful murder, his master will mildly observe that he is a worthless fellow, and shall be punished if he repeat the offence. If a foreigner of no contemptible rank be introduced to these senators, he is welcomed with such warm professions that he retires charmed with their affability; but when he repeats his visit, he is surprised and mortified to find that his name, his person, and his country are forgotten. The modest, the sober, and the learned are rarely invited to their sumptuous banquets, only the most worthless of mankind,–parasites who applaud every look and gesture, who gaze with rapture on marble columns and variegated pavements, and strenuously praise the pomp and elegance which he is taught to consider as a part of his personal merit. At the Roman table the birds, the squirrels, the fish, which appear of uncommon size, are contemplated with curious attention, and notaries are summoned to attest, by authentic record, their real weight. Another method of introduction into the houses of the great is skill in games, which is a sure road to wealth and reputation. A master of this sublime art, if placed at a supper below a magistrate, displays in his countenance a surprise and indignation which Cato might be supposed to feel when refused the praetorship. The acquisition of knowledge seldom engages the attention of the nobles, who abhor the fatigue and disdain the advantages of study; and the only books they peruse are the ‘Satires of Juvenal,’ or the fabulous histories of Marius Maximus. The libraries they have inherited from their fathers are secluded, like dreary sepulchres, from the light of day; but the costly instruments of the theatre–flutes and hydraulic organs–are constructed for their use. In their palaces sound is preferred to sense, and the care of the body to that of the mind. The suspicion of a malady is of sufficient weight to excuse the visits of the most intimate friends. The prospect of gain will urge a rich and gouty senator as far as Spoleta; every sentiment of arrogance and dignity is suppressed in the hope of an inheritance or legacy, and a wealthy, childless citizen is the most powerful of the Romans. The distress which follows and chastises extravagant luxury often reduces the great to use the most humiliating expedients. When they wish to borrow, they employ the base and supplicating style of the slaves in the comedy; but when they are called upon to pay, they assume the royal and tragic declamations of the grandsons of Hercules. If the demand is repeated, they readily procure some trusty sycophant to maintain a charge of poison or magic against the insolent creditor, who is seldom released from prison until he has signed a discharge of the whole debt. And these vices are mixed with a puerile superstition which disgraces their understanding. They listen with confidence to the productions of haruspices, who pretend to read in the entrails of victims the signs of future greatness and prosperity; and this superstition is observed among those very sceptics who impiously deny or doubt the existence of a celestial power.”

Such, in the latter days of the empire, was the leading class at Rome, and probably also in the cities which aped the fashions of the capital. Frivolity and luxury loosened all the ties of society. They were bound up in themselves, and had no care for the people except as they might extract more money from them.

As for the miserable class whom the patricians oppressed, their condition became worse every day from the accession of the Emperors. The plebeians had ever disdained those arts which now occupied the middle classes; these were intrusted to slaves. Originally, they employed themselves upon the lands which had been obtained by conquest; but these lands were gradually absorbed or usurped by the large proprietors. The small farmers, oppressed with debt and usury, parted with their lands to their wealthy creditors. Even in the time of Cicero, it was computed that there were only about two thousand citizens possessed of independent property. These two thousand persons owned the world; the rest were dependent and powerless, and would have perished but for largesses. Monthly distributions of corn were converted into daily allowance for bread. The people were amused with games and festivals, fed like slaves, and of course lost at last even the semblance of manliness and independence. They loitered in the public streets, and dissipated in gaming their miserable pittance; they spent the hours of the night in the lowest resorts of crime and misery; they expired in wretched apartments without attracting the attention of government; pestilence, famine, and squalid misery thinned their ranks, and they would have been annihilated but for constant accession to their numbers from the provinces.

In the busy streets of Rome might be seen adventurers from all parts of the world, disgraced by all the various vices of their respective countries. They had no education, and but small religious advantages; they were held in terror by both priests and nobles,–the priest terrifying them with Egyptian sorceries, the nobles crushing them by iron weight; like lazzaroni, they lived in the streets, or were crowded into filthy tenements; a gladiatorial show delighted them, but the circus was their peculiar joy,–here they sought to drown the consciousness of their squalid degradation; they were sold into slavery for trifling debts; they had no homes. The poor man had no ambition or hope; his wife was a slave; his children were precocious demons, whose prattle was the cry for bread, whose laughter was the howl of pandemonium, whose sports were the tricks of premature iniquity, whose beauty was the squalor of disease and filth; he fled from a wife in whom he had no trust, from children in whom he had no hope, from brothers for whom he felt no sympathy, from parents for whom he felt no reverence; the circus was his home, the fights of wild beasts were his consolation; the future was a blank, death was the release from suffering. There were no hospitals for the sick and the old, except one on an island in the Tiber; the old and helpless were left to die, unpitied and unconsoled. Suicide was so common that it attracted no attention.

Superstition culminated at Rome, for there were seen the priests and devotees of all the countries that it governed,–“the dark-skinned daughters of Isis, with drum and timbrel and wanton mien; devotees of the Persian Mithras; emasculated Asiatics; priests of Cybele, with their wild dances and discordant cries; worshippers of the great goddess Diana; barbarian captives with the rites of Teuton priests; Syrians, Jews, Chaldaean astrologers, and Thessalian sorcerers…. The crowds which flocked to Rome from the eastern shores of the Mediterranean brought with them practices extremely demoralizing. The awful rites of initiation, the tricks of magicians, the pretended virtues of amulets and charms, the riddles of emblematical idolatry with which the superstition of the East abounded, amused the languid voluptuaries who had neither the energy for a moral belief nor the boldness requisite for logical scepticism.”

We cannot pass by, in this enumeration of the different classes of Roman society, the number and condition of slaves. A large part of the population belonged to this servile class. Originally brought in by foreign conquest, it was increased by those who could not pay their debts. The single campaign of Regulus introduced as many captives as made up a fifth part of the whole population. Four hundred were maintained in a single palace, at a comparatively early period; a freedman in the time of Augustus left behind him forty-one hundred and sixteen; Horace regarded two hundred as the suitable establishment for a gentleman; some senators owned twenty thousand. Gibbon estimates the number of slaves at about sixty millions,–one-half of the whole population. One hundred thousand captives were taken in the Jewish war, who were sold as slaves, and sold as cheap as horses. William Blair supposes that there were three slaves to one freeman, from the conquest of Greece to the reign of Alexander Severus. Slaves often cost two hundred thousand sesterces, yet everybody was eager to possess a slave. At one time the slave’s life was at the absolute control of his master; he could be treated at all times with brutal severity. Fettered and branded, he toiled to cultivate the lands of an imperious master, and at night was shut up in a subterranean cell. The laws hardly recognized his claim to be considered a moral agent,–he was secundum hominum genus; he could acquire no rights, social or political,–he was incapable of inheriting property, or making a will, or contracting a legal marriage; his value was estimated like that of a brute; he was a thing and not a person, “a piece of furniture possessed of life;” he was his master’s property, to be scourged, or tortured, or crucified. If a wealthy proprietor died under circumstances which excited suspicion of foul play, his whole household was put to torture. It is recorded that on the murder of a man of consular dignity by a slave, every slave in his possession was condemned to death. Slaves swelled the useless rabbles of the cities, and devoured the revenues of the State. All manual labor was done by slaves, in towns as well as the country; they were used in the navy to propel the galleys. Even the mechanical arts were cultivated by the slaves. Nay more, slaves were schoolmasters, secretaries, actors, musicians, and physicians, for in intelligence they were often on an equality with their masters. Slaves were procured from Greece and Asia Minor and Syria, as well as from Gaul and the African deserts; they were white as well as black. All captives in war were made slaves, also unfortunate debtors; sometimes they could regain their freedom, but generally their condition became more and more deplorable. What a state of society when a refined and cultivated Greek could be made to obey the most offensive orders of a capricious and sensual Roman, without remuneration, without thanks, without favor, without redress! What was to be expected of a class who had no object to live for? They became the most degraded of mortals, ready for pillage, and justly to be feared in the hour of danger.

Slavery undoubtedly proved the most destructive canker of the Roman State. It was this social evil, more than political misrule, which undermined the empire. Slavery proved at Rome a monstrous curse, destroying all manliness of character, creating contempt of honest labor, making men timorous yet cruel, idle, frivolous, weak, dependent, powerless. The empire might have lasted centuries longer but for this incubus, the standing disgrace of the Pagan world. Paganism never recognized what is most noble and glorious in man; never recognized his equality, his common brotherhood, his natural rights. It had no compunction, no remorse in depriving human beings of their highest privileges; its whole tendency was to degrade the soul, and to cause forgetfulness of immortality. Slavery thrives best when the generous instincts are suppressed, when egotism, sensuality, and pride are the dominant springs of human action.

The same influences which tended to rob man of the rights which God has given him, and produce cruelty and heartlessness in the general intercourse of life, also tended to degrade the female sex. In the earlier age of the republic, when the people were poor, and life was simple and primitive, and heroism and patriotism were characteristic, woman was comparatively virtuous and respected; she asserted her natural equality, and led a life of domestic tranquillity, employed upon the training of her children, and inspiring her husband to noble deeds. But under the Emperors these virtues had fled. Woman was miserably educated, being taught by a slave, or some Greek chambermaid, accustomed to ribald conversation, and fed with idle tales and silly superstitions; she was regarded as more vicious in natural inclination than man, and was chiefly valued for household labors; she was reduced to dependence; she saw but little of her brothers or relatives; she was confined to her home as if it were a prison; she was guarded by eunuchs and female slaves; she was given in marriage without her consent; she could be easily divorced; she was valued only as a domestic servant, or as an animal to prevent the extinction of families; she was regarded as the inferior of her husband, to whom she was a victim, a toy, or a slave. Love after marriage was not frequent, since woman did not shine in the virtues by which love is kept alive. She became timorous or frivolous, without dignity or public esteem; her happiness was in extravagant attire, in elaborate hair-dressings, in rings and bracelets, in a retinue of servants, in gilded apartments, in luxurious couches, in voluptuous dances, in exciting banquets, in demoralizing spectacles, in frivolous gossip, in inglorious idleness. If virtuous, it was not so much from principle as from fear. Hence she resorted to all sorts of arts to deceive her husband; her genius was sharpened by perpetual devices, and cunning was her great resource. She cultivated no lofty friendships; she engaged in no philanthropic mission; she cherished no ennobling sentiments; she kindled no chivalrous admiration. Her amusements were frivolous, her taste vitiated, her education neglected, her rights violated, her sympathy despised, her aspirations scorned. And here I do not allude to great and infamous examples that history has handed down in the sober pages of Suetonius and Tacitus, or that unblushing depravity which stands out in the bitter satires of those times; I speak not of the adultery, the poisoning, the infanticide, the debauchery, the cruelty of which history accuses the Messalinas and Agrippinas of imperial Rome; I allude not to the orgies of the Palatine Hill, or the abominations which are inferred from the paintings of Pompeii,–I mean the general frivolity and extravagance and demoralization of the women of the Roman empire. Marriage was considered inexpedient unless large dowries were brought to the husband. Numerous were the efforts of Emperors to promote honorable marriages, but the relation was shunned. Courtesans usurped the privileges of wives, and with unblushing effrontery. A man was derided who contemplated matrimony, for there was but little confidence in female virtue or capacity, and woman lost all her fascination when age had destroyed her beauty; even her very virtues were distasteful to her self-indulgent husband. When, as sometimes happened, the wife gained the ascendency by her charms, she was tyrannical; her relatives incited her to despoil her husband; she lived amid incessant broils; she had no care for the future, and exceeded man in prodigality. “The government of her house is no more merciful,” says Juvenal, “than the court of a Sicilian tyrant.” In order to render herself attractive, she exhausted all the arts of cosmetics and elaborate hair-dressing; she delighted in magical incantations and love-potions. In the bitter satire of Juvenal we get an impression most melancholy and loathsome:–

“‘T were long to tell what philters they provide,
What drugs to set a son-in-law aside,–
Women, in judgment weak, in feeling strong,
By every gust of passion borne along.
To a fond spouse a wife no mercy shows;
Though warmed with equal fires, she mocks his woes,
And triumphs in his spoils; her wayward will
Defeats his bliss and turns his good to ill.
Women support the bar; they love the law,
And raise litigious questions for a straw.
Nay, more, they fence! who has not marked their oil,
Their purple rigs, for this preposterous toil!
A woman stops at nothing; when she wears
Rich emeralds round her neck, and in her ears
Pearls of enormous size,–these justify
Her faults, and make all lawful in her eye.
More shame to Rome! in every street are found
The essenced Lypanti, with roses crowned;
The gay Miletan and the Tarentine,
Lewd, petulant, and reeling ripe with wine!”

In the sixth satire of Juvenal is found the most severe delineation of woman that ever mortal penned. Doubtless he is libellous and extravagant, for only infamous women can stoop to such arts and degradations as would seem to have been common in his time. But with all his probable exaggeration, we are forced to feel that but few women, even in the highest class, except those converted to Christianity, showed the virtues of a Lucretia, a Volumnia, a Cornelia, or an Octavia. The lofty virtues of a Perpetua, a Felicitas, an Agnes, a Paula, a Blessilla, a Fabiola, would have adorned any civilization; but the great mass were, what they were in Greece even in the days of Pericles, what they have ever been under the influence of Paganism, what they ever will be without Christianity to guide them,–victims or slaves of man, revenging themselves by squandering his wealth, stealing his secrets, betraying his interests, and deserting his home.

Another essential but demoralizing feature of Roman society was to be found in the games and festivals and gladiatorial shows, which accustomed the people to unnatural excitement and familiarity with cruelty and suffering. They made all ordinary pleasures insipid; they ended in making homicide an institution. The butcheries of the amphitheatre exerted a fascination which diverted the mind from literature, art, and the enjoyments of domestic life. Very early they were the favorite sport of the Romans. Marcus and Decimus Brutus employed gladiators in celebrating the obsequies of their fathers, nearly three centuries before Christ. “The wealth and ingenuity of the aristocracy were taxed to the utmost to content the populace and provide food for the indiscriminate slaughter of the circus, where brute fought with brute, and man again with man, or where the skill and weapons of the latter were matched against the strength and ferocity of the first.” Pompey let loose six hundred lions in the arena in one day; Augustus delighted the people with four hundred and twenty panthers. The games of Trajan lasted one hundred and twenty days, when ten thousand gladiators fought, and ten thousand beasts were slain. Titus slaughtered five thousand animals at a time; twenty elephants contended, according to Pliny, against a band of six hundred captives. Probus reserved six hundred gladiators for one of his festivals, and slaughtered on another two hundred lions, twenty leopards, and three hundred bears; Gordian let loose three hundred African hyenas and ten Indian tigers in the arena. Every corner of the earth was ransacked for these wild animals, which were so highly valued that in the time of Theodosius it was forbidden by law to destroy a Getulian lion. No one can contemplate the statue of the Dying Gladiator which now ornaments the capitol at Rome, without emotions of pity and admiration. If a marble statue can thus move us, what was it to see the Christian gladiators contending with the fierce lions of Africa! “The Christians to the lions!” was the cry of the brutal populace. What a sight was the old amphitheatre of Titus, five hundred and sixty feet long and four hundred and seventy feet wide, built on eighty arches and rising one hundred and forty feet into the air, with its four successive orders of architecture, and enclosing its eighty thousand seated spectators, arranged according to rank, from the Emperor to the lowest of the populace, all seated on marble benches covered with cushions, and protected from the sun and rain by ample canopies! What an excitement, when men strove not with wild beasts alone, but with one another; and when all that human skill and strength, increased by elaborate treatment, and taxed to the uttermost, were put forth in needless slaughter, until the thirsty soil was wet and saturated with human gore! Familiarity with such sights must have hardened the heart and rendered the mind insensible to refined pleasures. What theatres are to the French, what bull-fights are to the Spaniards, what horse-races are to the English, these gladiatorial shows were to the ancient Romans. The ruins of hundreds of amphitheatres attest the universality of the custom, not in Rome alone, but in the provinces.

House of a Poet in the Last Days of Pompeii From the painting by J. Coomans

Probably no people abandoned themselves to pleasures more universally than the Romans, after war had ceased to be their master passion. All classes alike pursued them with restless eagerness. Amusements were the fashion and the business of life. At the theatre, at the great gladiatorial shows, at the chariot races, emperors and senators and generals were always present in conspicuous and reserved seats of honor; behind them were the patricians, and then the ordinary citizens, and in the rear of these the people fed at the public expense. The Circus Maximus, the Theatre of Pompey, the Amphitheatre of Titus, would collectively accommodate over four hundred thousand spectators. We may presume that over five hundred thousand persons were in the habit of constant attendance on these demoralizing sports; and the fashion spread throughout all the great cities of the empire, so that there was scarcely a city of twenty thousand inhabitants which had not its theatres, amphitheatres, or circus. And when we remember the heavy bets on favorite horses, and the universal passion for gambling in every shape, we can form some idea of the effect of these amusements on the common mind,–destroying the taste for home pleasures, and for all that was intellectual and simple.

What are we to think of a state of society where all classes had continual leisure for these sports! Habits of industry were destroyed, and all respect for employments that required labor. The rich were supported by contributions from the provinces, since they were the great proprietors of conquered lands; the poor had no solicitude for a living, since they were supported at the public expense. All therefore gave themselves up to pleasure. Even the baths, designed for sanatory purposes, became places of resort and idleness, and ultimately of intrigue and vice. In the time of Julius Caesar we find no less a personage than the mother of Augustus making use of the public establishments; and in process of time the Emperors themselves bathed in public with the meanest of their subjects. The baths in the time of Alexander Severus were not only kept open from sunrise to sunset, but even during the whole night. The luxurious classes almost lived in the baths. Commodus took his meals in the bath. Gordian bathed seven times in the day, and Gallienus as often. They bathed before they took their meals, and after meals to provoke a new appetite; they did not content themselves with a single bath, but went through a course of baths in succession, in which the agency of air as well as of water was applied; and the bathers were attended by an army of slaves given over to every sort of roguery and theft. Nor were water and air baths alone used; the people made use of scented oils to anoint their persons, and perfumed the water itself with the most precious essences. Bodily health and cleanliness were only secondary considerations; voluptuous pleasure was the main object. The ruins of the baths of Titus, Caracalla, and Diocletian in Rome show that they were decorated with prodigal magnificence, and with everything that could excite the passions,–pictures, statues, ornaments, and mirrors. The baths were scenes of orgies consecrated to Bacchus, and the frescos on the excavated baths of Pompeii still raise a blush on the face of every spectator who visits them. I speak not of the elaborate ornaments, the Numidian marbles, the precious stones, the exquisite sculptures that formed part of the decorations of the Roman baths, but of the demoralizing pleasures with which they were connected, and which they tended to promote. The baths ultimately became, according to the ancient writers, places of excessive and degrading debauchery.

“Balnea, vina, Venus corrumpunt corpora nostra.”

If it were possible to allude to an evil more revolting than the sports of the amphitheatre and circus, or the extravagant luxuries of the table, I would say that the universal abandonment to money-making, for the enjoyment of the factitious pleasures it purchased, was even still more melancholy, since it struck deeper into the foundations which supported society. The leading spring of life was money. Boys were bred from early youth to all the mysteries of unscrupulous gains. Usury was practised to such an incredible extent that the interest on loans in some instances equalled, in a few months, the whole capital; this was the more aristocratic mode of making money, which not even senators disdained. The pages of the poets show how profoundly money was prized, and how miserable were people without it. Rich old bachelors, without heirs, were held in the supremest honor. Money was the first object in all matrimonial alliances; and provided that women were only wealthy, neither bridegroom nor parent was fastidious as to age, or deformity, or meanness of family, or vulgarity of person. The needy descendants of the old patricians yoked themselves with fortunate plebeians, and the blooming maidens of a comfortable obscurity sold themselves, without shame or reluctance, to the bloated sensualists who could give them what they supremely valued,–chariots and diamonds. The giddy women in love with ornaments and dress, and the godless men seeking what they should eat, could only be satisfied with what purchased their pleasures. The haughtiest aristocracy ever known on earth, tracing their lineage to the times of Cato and boasting of their descent from the Scipios and the Pompeys, accustomed themselves at last to regard money as the only test of their own social position. The great Augustine found himself utterly neglected at Rome because of his poverty,–being dependent on his pupils, and they being mean enough to run away without paying him. Literature languished and died, since it brought neither honor nor emolument. No dignitary was respected for his office, only for his gains; nor was any office prized which did not bring rich emoluments. Corruption was so universal that an official in an important post was sure of making a fortune in a short time. With such an idolatry of money, all trades and professions which were not favorable to its accumulation fell into disrepute, while those who administered to the pleasures of a rich man were held in honor. Cooks, buffoons, and dancers received the consideration which artists and philosophers enjoyed at Athens in the days of Pericles. But artists and scholars were very few indeed in the more degenerate days of the empire; nor would they have had influence. The wit of a Petronius, the ridicule of a Martial, the bitter sarcasm of a Juvenal were lost on a people abandoned to frivolous gossip and demoralizing excesses. The haughty scorn with which a sensual beauty, living on the smiles and purse of a fortunate glutton, would pass in her gilded chariot some of the impoverished descendants of the great Camillus might have provoked a smile, had any one been found, even a neglected poet, to give them countenance and sympathy. But, alas! everybody worshipped at the shrine of Mammon; everybody was valued for what he had, rather than for what he was; and life was prized, not for those pleasures which are cheap and free as heaven, not for quiet tastes and rich affections and generous sympathies,–the glorious certitudes of love, esteem, and friendship, which, “be they what they may, are yet the fountain-life of all our day,”–but for the gratification of depraved and expensive tastes, of those short-lived enjoyments which ended with the decay of appetite and the ennui of realized expectation,–all of the earth, earthy; making a wreck of the divine image which was made for God and heaven, preparing the way for a most fearful retribution, and producing on contemplative minds a sadness allied with despair, driving them to caves and solitudes, and making death the relief from sorrow.

The fourteenth satire of Juvenal is directed mainly to the universal passion for gain and the demoralizing vices it brings in its train, which made Rome a Vanity Fair and even a Pandemonium.

The old Greek philosophers gloried in their poverty; but poverty was the greatest reproach to a Roman. “In exact proportion to the sum of money a man keeps in his chest,” says Juvenal, “is the credit given to his oath. And the first question ever asked of a man is in reference to his income, rather than his character. How many slaves does he keep; how many acres does he own; what dishes are his table spread with?–these are the universal inquiries. Poverty, bitter though it be, has no sharper sting than this,–that it makes men ridiculous. Who was ever allowed at Borne to become a son-in-law, if his estate was inferior? What poor man’s name appears in any will?”

And with this reproach of poverty there were no means to escape from it. Nor was there alleviation. A man was regarded as a fool who gave anything except to the rich. Charity and benevolence were unknown virtues. The sick and the miserable were left to die unlamented and unknown. Prosperity and success, no matter by what means they were purchased, secured reverence and influence.

Such was imperial Rome, in all the internal relations of life, and amid all the trophies and praises which resulted from universal conquest,–a sad, gloomy, dismal picture, which fills us with disgust as well as melancholy. If any one deems it an exaggeration, he has only to read Saint Paul’s first chapter in his epistle to the Romans. I cannot understand the enthusiasm of Gibbon for such a people, or for such an empire,–a grinding and resistless imperial despotism, a sensual and proud aristocracy, a debased and ignorant populace, enormously disproportionate conditions of fortune, slavery flourishing to a state unprecedented in the world’s history, women the victims and the toys of men, lax sentiments of public and private morality, a whole people given over to demoralizing sports and spectacles, pleasure the master passion of the people, money the mainspring of society, a universal indulgence in all the vices which lead to violence and prepare the way for the total eclipse of the glory of man. Of what value was the cultivation of Nature, or a splendid material civilization, or great armies, or an unrivalled jurisprudence, or the triumph of energy and skill, when the moral health was completely undermined? A world therefore as fair and glorious as our own must needs crumble away. There were no powerful conservative forces; the poison had descended to the extremities of the social system. A corrupt body must die when vitality has fled. The soul was gone; principle, patriotism, virtue, had all passed away. The barbarians were advancing to conquer and desolate; there was no power to resist them but enervated and timid legions, with the accumulated vices of all the nations of the earth, which they had been learning for four hundred years. Society must needs resolve itself into its original elements when men would not make sacrifices, and so few belonged to their country. The machine was sure to break up at the first great shock. No State could stand with such an accumulation of wrongs, with such complicated and fatal diseases eating out the vitals of the empire. No form of civilization, however brilliant and lauded, could arrest decay and ruin when public and private virtue had fled. The house was built upon the sand.

The army might rally under able generals, in view of the approaching catastrophe; philosophy might console the days of a few indignant citizens; good Emperors might attempt to raise barriers against corruption,–still, nothing, according to natural laws, could save the empire. Even Christianity could not arrest the ruin. It had converted thousands, and had sowed the seeds of future and better civilizations. It was sent, however, not to save a decayed and demoralized empire, but the world itself. Not until the Germanic barbarians, with their nobler elements of character, had taken possession of the seats of the old civilization, were the real triumphs of Christianity seen. Had the Roman empire continued longer, Christianity might have become still more corrupted; in the prevailing degeneracy it certainly could not save what was not worth preserving. The strong grasp which Rome had laid upon the splendors of all the ancient Pagan Civilizations was to be relaxed. Antiquity had lived out its life. The empire of the Caesars was doomed. Retributive justice must march on in its majestic course. The empire had accomplished its mission; the time came for it to die. The Sibylline oracle must needs be fulfilled: “O haughty Rome, the divine chastisement shall come upon thee; fire shall consume thee; thy wealth shall perish; foxes and wolves shall dwell among thy ruins: and then what land that thou hast enslaved shall be thy ally, and which of thy gods shall save thee? For there shall be confusion over the face of the whole earth, and the fall of cities shall come.”


Mr. Merivale has written fully on the condition of the empire. Gibbon has occasional paragraphs which show the condition of Roman society. Lyman’s Life of the Emperors should be read, and also DeQuincey’s Lives of the Caesars. See also Niebuhr, Arnold, Mommsen, and Curtius, though these writers have chiefly confined themselves to republican Rome. But if one would get the truest and most vivid description, he must read the Roman poets, especially Juvenal and Martial. The work of Petronius is too indecent to be read. Ammianus Marcellinus gives us some striking pictures of the later Romans. Suetonius, in his lives of the Caesars, furnishes many facts. Becker’s Gallus is a fine description of Roman habits and customs. Lucian does not describe Roman manners, but he aims his sarcasm at the hollowness of Roman life, as do the great satirists generally. These can all be had in translations.

Beacon Lights of History, Volume III : Ancient Achievements