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Book IV
Chapter II

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
John Buchan

published by
Hodder and Stoughton
London 1937

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Book IV
Chapter IV

Book IV: Pater Patriae

 p252  Chapter III

Anima Romae

Non tu corpus eras sine pectore.



"Notre ignorance de l'histoire," Flaubert has written, "nous fait calomnier notre temps." Of no period is this more true than of the early principate. "It is a grave error to think of the ordinary man in the Roman Empire as a depraved and cruel fiend, dividing his hours between the brothel and intoxication, torturing a slave from time to time when he felt bored, and indifferent to the sufferings and poverty of others."1 The common conception is based on the later gossip-writers and satirists, whose lurid pictures have too often been taken for fact. They were either men of humble origin who found pleasure in exaggerating the vices of a class to which they did not belong, or artists who darkened the colours to get a dramatic contrast, or lovers of the past who mourned imagined degeneracy. Satirists and sentimentalists are always doubtful guides. The picture of Britain after the Great War, drawn by writers with damaged nerves, presented a deranged, anaemic and neurotic youth, when all the time our young men were facing a difficult world with exemplary fortitude. In the Rome of Augustus there was luxury, no doubt, but it was only for the few, and it never reached the extremes of many later ages; there were instances of vulgar ostentation, but they were not admired; there were many who led vicious lives, but their vices were not applauded. Popular opinion was strong on the side of what was orderly and simple. There were degenerates among the aristocracy, but most of its members lived dully and reputably. Among the middle  p253 classes in town and country the average household was as wholesome as in any age. A happy family life, such as we find in the story of the younger Pliny, was nearer being the rule than the exception. Roman life was a frugal thing, sparing in food, temperate in drink, modest in clothing, cleanly in habit, and spent largely in exercise and in the open air.

The Roman Poor We know something of the Roman nobility and bourgeoisie, but we know very little of the common people. Lord Acton has told us that the historian must learn to take his meals in the kitchen, but it is hard to penetrate to the humbler Roman kitchen. Yet of the kitchen Heraclitus said, "Here also there are gods," and it is necessary to be just to a society which history has somewhat misrepresented. The calumnies come from the Romans themselves. Their men of letters were apt to despise a class from which most of them had emerged. Tacitus, for example, was not free from snobbishness, though he was no aristocrat by birth. He thought it a blemish in the younger Drusus that he had an equestrian strain in him; one of his chief grievances against Sejanus is that he was an obscure provincial; he does not mind the sufferings of gladiators since they are of low birth.2 Even high-minded men like Lucretius and Cicero3 show scarcely a trace of sympathy with the poor as human beings, and to most Romans they were like the grains of gunpowder, to which Coleridge uncharitably compared the French nation — dangerous in the mass, but "each by itself smutty and contemptible."

Their lives were hard and comfortless, though Augustus gave them humaner bankruptcy laws and some protection from a violent end, and the state kept them from starvation. Their livelihood as porters, messengers, craftsmen, and small tradesmen was subject to the competition of slaves and well-patronized freedmen. They had little in the way of homes, lodging in garrets at the top of tenement blocks in insanitary areas, and forced to spend much of their time in the streets. No statesman was interested in what they might think or feel, since  p254 politically they were negligible. Their rations were cornº from the public purse, and occasionally oil, supplemented by a little cheese, cheap vegetables and a thin vin ordinaire. Meat they never saw. They had the use of the public baths, and free entry to the public games to fill their too ample leisure. Having no household gods in life, they had not the decency of a tomb in death, for, unless they belonged to a funeral club, their bodies went to the common burying place. The idea of a pampered proletariat must be revised. The corn dole was a necessary form of outdoor relief, which could be amended but not terminated, though it had the disastrous effect of attracting rural paupers to the city,4 and it was never more than a bare subsistence. The games and shows were not a piece of public benevolence, but an attempt, almost obligatory, to give an under-employed populace something to think about.

Of this great class, as I have said, we know little directly from the aristocratic literature of Rome, so we must judge it from epigraphy, from indirect evidence, and from proven facts. One of these facts is that Augustus respected it, and endeavoured, by restricting the supply of slaves, limiting manumission, and reconstructing the guilds, to protect its rights, and by gifts of money to the reputable to build up a solvent working class. He recognized the danger to the state of a plebs whose only interests lay in "panem et Circenses," and he believed that the ancient quality was not dead in it. The kitchen might be squalid, but it still held the gods. The poor of Rome were more than the rabble which we might deduce from Latin literature. They were coarse-grained like most Romans, naturally insensitive to suffering, and further hardened by the brutal sports of the amphitheatre.5 But they were capable of pity. The cruelty to  p255 elephants at Pompey's games sickened them, and they were shocked by the chains of Arsinoe, Cleopatra's stepsister, in Julius's triumph in 46 B.C.6 There must have been elements of good taste in a class which provided the audiences for, and established the fame of, playwrights like Plautus and Terence and actors like Roscius, which could appreciate the greatness of the Aeneid, and which could write epitaphs which have often a salt wit and a moving tenderness. Above all, courage and devotion had not died in it, for from it came the first Christian converts.

Roman Education The intellectual circle, to which Augustus looked to provide the spiritual foundation of his polity, drew from both the upper and the middle classes. Decades of unsettlement had given it a conservative bias, a longing for the old good times, and, as a corollary, a keen antiquarian zest. As the vision of the empire opened, a livelier interest awoke in foreign lands and foreign ways. The class was receptive to new modes of thought, new cults, and the glamour of new horizons; but the literary influence of Alexandria declined as Rome began to cherish her own native forms of art, and experiment with new ones, not as an imitator, but as a creator. The best men were highly cultivated and widely read, but it does not appear that there was any large educated class in the strict sense. There was no national system of education.7 The sons of the well-to‑do went to private schools generally managed by learned freedmen, where they read the old Latin texts till these were superseded by Virgil; but the real education was in the home, where they were trained in manly sports and good manners.8 Later they studied rhetoric and law under some famous practitioner. Julius seems to have toyed with the notion of establishing an educational system when he invited foreign teachers to Rome and promised them citizenship. Augustus contented himself with founding two great public libraries,  p256 providing a private school for members of the imperial family, and exempting teachers from the law expelling foreigners from the city during a time of famine.9 As for university education, that was first introduced by Vespasian, and under Hadrian was established on a permanent basis with state endowments.

Roman Science The Roman was no theologian, nor, in a constructive sense, a philosopher. Nor was he a scientist. He was a great inventor and builder, but in the speculative and theoretic side of science he had little interest. Men like the elder Cato, Varro, and the elder Pliny liked to record the curiosities of nature, but they had not the systematizing impulse, the restless passion for order, of the Greeks. Pure science seemed to the Roman a waste of time, though he welcomed applied science. So he was a good field naturalist but no biologist; a good engineer but an indifferent astronomer. He was a mighty traveller, but his serious geographical work was done for him by foreigners. He was a soldier and a career, but he made no contribution of value to military science. In everything he undertook he demanded a utilitarian purpose and a practical result. We find among the Greeks germinal concepts which are a vital part of modern thought. Pythagoras first taught that physical science was based on measurement and that therefore number was the key to the structure of the universe; Hippocrates laid down the cardinal principles of medicine; Archimedes founded hydrostatics; Anaxagoras and Aristarchus of Samos anticipated the modern doctrine of the nature of the sun and the rotation of the globe; Hipparchus, in 125 B.C., calculated the lunar month, and was no more than a second wrong from the modern point of view; Eratosthenes measured the earth's circumference; in Aristotle, and in Empedocles before him, there is implicit the theory of evolution, and in Democritus the atomic theory. The Greeks had the disinterested curiosity of the scientist; "a new diagram," said the Pythagoreans, "means a step in advance, but we do not draw it to  p257 make a threepenny‑bit":10 while the Roman asked for an immediate cash return. Only Lucretius, a lonely figure among his people, is a link between the free speculation of Greece and our own day.

It was human conduct and human government that interested the Roman, and therefore the one science in which he excelled was jurisprudence. The practice of law involves a study of the art of persuasion, the impact of the spoken word on the minds of others. Hence rhetoric was for Rome both an art and a science, the principal art and science. It had obvious utilitarian value, and its materials were not only exact logical concepts, but the sonorous words and the noble rhythms which were the glory of their tongue. The staple work of the schools was declamation. A new book was recited to an audience — that was, indeed, the only way of publishing it.11 We cannot get the full enjoyment of Latin poetry unless we realize that it was composed for the ear rather than for the eye, and was read aloud slowly and carefully, each syllable being given full value — a method necessary with a close-textured language, which admits both quantity and stress. Rhetoric was in the very fibre of the Roman's mind. He had to speak his thoughts aloud. St. Augustine was amazed when he saw St. Ambrose reading to himself silently without moving his lips.12

Roman Philosophy With such a background philosophy meant to the Romans not the metaphysics of being and knowledge, but a reasoned rule of life, and a gnomic wisdom which appealed both to the intelligence and to the emotions. A confused world sought a principle of order, and distracted minds cast about for helpful maxims of conduct. The eye of the rhetorician turned inward, since he could no longer hope for a public career like Cicero's. The Romans had little originality of thought, but they could appreciate the work of the Greek ethical teachers and reproduce  p258 it with a Latin accent. So it befell that those who were not content with the simple civic religion of observance, supplemented it by studies which offered a key to the meaning of things and which answered conundrums beyond the scope of the conventional creeds — which above all promised liberation from those caprices of fortune of which they had had recent and bitter experience. Philosophy for them was an agōgē, a scheme of living. Its great inducement was that it gave a sense of freedom, of existence simplified and self-sufficient and beyond the reach of fate. Since the drama of life had to be played, it was well to have a set of rules. Philosophy was a hospital for sick and puzzled souls;13 it provided a foothold for man above the torrent of circumstance, an armour for the spirit which the shafts of fate could not pierce, and which even death could not shatter.14 It was a supplement to religion, or even a substitute, for it enabled its votary "to beseech no man for his helping and to vex no god with prayer." But in general it was tolerant of the popular divinities, who were treated as aspects of the divine unity.15

The fashionable philosophic creeds were all imported. Stoicism was the most potent, for it best suited the Roman character. It may be defined as puritanism stripped of its element of rapture. It offered freedom through the acceptance of the great order of nature — which was no other than the universal Reason — and the direction of life accordingly. It might equally well produce saints like Marcus Aurelius and pious time-servers like Seneca. The Epicurean differed from the Stoic only in his metaphysic, for while the latter believed in a World-Soul immanent in man, the former held that there was no traffic between the human and the divine. In practice the Stoic autarkeia, or self-sufficiency, differed little from the ataraxia, or tranquillity, of the Epicurean. The Cynic preached abstinence from all common ambitions,  p259 rank, possessions, power, the things which clog man's feet — an attempt, in Dean Inge's word with, "to balance our accounts not by increasing our numerator but by diminishing our denominator." All these creeds sought to make man invulnerable, to deliver him from the bondage of fear, whether of life or death or of the hereafter. They increased his consciousness of his dignity as a human being, and not only pointed the way to, but gave him a motive for, the good life. They taught him to live, in the phrase of Marcus Aurelius, as on a mountain top. Moreover, they brought into ethics a soldierly spirit. Virtue was now conceived as very differ from the bland, effortless morality of the Aristotelian Good Man. Life was a campaign from which there was no release, a perpetual war of soul against flesh, of the members against the spirit;16 it was a pilgrim's progress, like Bunyan's, from the City of Destruction to the City of God.17

Philosophy was therefore a bracing regime for the comparatively small class which was worthy of it. But it was no evangel for the average man. Its theism was too abstract and detached, and behind it, even in the best, was an abiding pessimism, so that Marcus Aurelius could write of human life, "What is the end of it all? Smoke and ashes and a legend — or scarcely a legend."18 The decadence of the Republic and the years of war had produced a kind of listlessness, not unlike the mediaeval accidie, which was perhaps aggravated by the increase of malaria through a long-continued neglect of public hygiene. There seemed to be a decline of intellectual and spiritual energy, as if old age had come upon Rome. The readiness with which the principate was accepted made its first stage easy, but the second stage was the more difficult because of this very docility, for the impulse to revolt is a proof of life in the body politic. There was little hope for Rome if its spirit became that of the common epitaph for slaves: "I was not. I was. I shall not be. I do not care." To revive the soul of the Roman  p260 people, and to put one into the empire at large, were the most delicate tasks which Augustus had to face.


Augustus's Belief What were his own beliefs? It is hard to say. He held, beyond doubt, to some form of God, some divine power which governed the world. Like Julius, he had his private superstitions,19 which were not permitted, however, to govern his conduct, and he had faith in his star, which was no more than a romantic expression of self-confidence. He was a fatalist, like most great men of action. He had imbibed from Posidonius in early life a mild Stoicism, and had written an "Exhortation to Philosophy," based apparently on Cicero's Hortensius. Cicero's work is lost, but we know the profound influence which it had on St. Augustine,20 and if we possessed it we might learn more of Augustus's creed. We may believe that it had no speculative subtlety and was held with little devotional fervour. He faced life calmly, like one at home in the universe, not concerned about absolute truth, and willing to accept the conventional religion as something to go on with; above all things a pragmatist and a realist. He might have taken Bishop Butler's words for his own: "Things and actions are what they are, and the consequences of them will be what they will be; why then should we wish to be deceived?" But in one thing he firmly believed, the need for religion and the right kind of religion in the state.21 He looked round the Roman world and discerned beneath its scepticism and indifference a great longing. He saw all the materials for a religious revival.22

His problem was threefold so far as concerned the soul of the people. In the first place he must give each class and section its proper niche in the state. He had created  p261 a huge and intricate polity, and it must have the articulate life of an organism and not the mere functional differentiation of a machine. Quality must not be lost in quantity, or kind in scale. It would be fatally easy for the empire to become a soulless mechanism, in which case its doom would be as certain as that of the old slave monarchies of the East. The sharp idiom of the Republic must somehow be preserved, or rather, since it had been blurred in the past century, it must be restored. Edge and accent and colour must be regained. The individual must not be stifled by the state, or the locality by the empire. His aim was to rekindle a sane vitality in the whole body politic. In the second place the ancient religion of Rome must again be given due honour, since it was the basis of civic decorum, and the chief link with the past. The empire must be felt not as an artificial novelty, but as the natural extension of the republican tradition, with all the sanctions of the old faith. Finally, since Roman religion was in its essence a local thing, some new faith must be found which would be common to the whole empire. That empire, as it stood, was full of disharmonies, a mosaic of creeds and beliefs, many of them fantastic and alien to the Roman austerities. There was already a basis for imperial patriotism in the widespread gratitude to the man who had given it peace and was now giving it prosperity: but there was a danger that this patriotism might grow faint from its very extension in space, so it must be vivified by some kind of mystical attachment to Rome, which could only be attained through a personal devotion. In his spiritual reconstruction Augustus, like the Scriptural householder, had to bring forth from his store things old and things new.

A bureaucracy is usually the death of idiom, and a bureaucracy in large part the empire must be. Augustus realized this peril, and his eager desire to preserve individuality is seen in every aspect of his work. We see it in his determination to give each class its function, even at the cost of much trouble to himself; his powers shared with the Senate and the republican magistracies; his opening of careers to talent and his encouragement of  p262 youth; his use of the equestrian order; his reconstruction of the popular guilds, and his attempt to give the urban plebs some form of local government. We see it in his zealous care for local rites and customs in Italy. We see it in his preservation throughout the provinces of traditional worships, in his refusal to interfere with any form of government which did not endanger the empire, in his encouragement of municipal life and provincial councils. But the main proof is his attitude towards the Roman citizenship. Julius would have made that universal and set Italy on the same plane as the provinces, for he conceived of the empire as a unitary state, and dreamed of one imperial culture which would include the best that Rome and Greece and the East could furnish. To Augustus such an ideal had no charms, for he believed that it would end in a uniform drabness. He desired the Italian culture to be inviolate and predominant, not that it might override but that it might inspire the others. The citizenship of Rome should be a privilege which could be attained by service and merit, an aristocracy on the broadest basis, a new feature in the life of the world.


The Religion of Numa So much was clear; the two other tasks were more intricate, since they dealt with less ponderable things. The West had vanquished the East, the Roman gods had defeated the dark gods of Egypt, the native deities were still potent things in the nation's life. Such was the feeling of most men, however sceptically inclined. The Roman religion was concerned less with belief than with ritual. Three major Italian divinities, Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, had emerged from the mass of local cults; then, as the stately household of the Olympians moved west from the Greek world, the Roman trinity was identified with the Greek trinity of Zeus, Hera and Athene, and the hospitable Roman mind soon added to its pantheon the other Hellenic gods and goddesses. But in Rome religion had always a special relation to the state. Worship  p263 was a public duty, a civic function, carried out by an official lay priesthood. To obey the state was to obey the gods, and to worship the gods was a public obligation. It was a case less of an established church than of the identification in the last resort of the civic and the ecclesiastical. With the major deities there was little private worship: officials performed the rites for the whole people, relieving the individual of this duty, so that under a good government he could sleep peacefully, knowing that Heaven had been propitiated. No Roman concerned himself with the origin of his pantheon. The Olympians were there, odd in their behaviour, if the poets spoke truth, and with their numbers increased by generous adoptions; they must be mollified if the people were to prosper, but they had less personal meaning for the ordinary Roman than the most distant star in the sky. Augustus put a new life and dignity into this impersonal worship. He restored old temples and he built new ones; he held the great priestly offices, and saw that their duties were scrupulously performed; he advanced the honour of certain deities, like Apollo and Venus Genetrix; he revived ancient rites and festivals and games. With the help of the poets he made the Olympians bulk large in the popular imagination, potencies which, for all their remoteness and splendour, were part of the Roman state and guarantors of its peace. Their cult was a kind of national anthem.

Private worship and a more intimate devotion were reserved for the lesser deities, the friendly little godlings who presided over the routine of daily life. Here among the plain people of Rome and Italy we find religion in a truer form, a sense of the mystery of life and the immensities which overshadow man, a desire to walk humbly and to propitiate the unseen, not only by ceremonial, but by a grave and reverent spirit. This is the "religion of Numa," which was found in many urban households, and above all among the country dwellers. There was a numen in every wood and water, every meadow and fold of hill. Each incident of life had its protecting deity and its simple festival. The Saturnalia came at the time of sowing, and the Consualia at the time  p264 of harvest. Janus presided over the cottage door, and Vesta over the hearth, the Penates over the store-room, and the kindly Lar over the whole economy. Some of the deities had a wider range, and Hercules and Silvanus won a prestige beyond Italy. It might seem superstitious to the philosopher, but it was more potent than his rationalism, for it was intertwined with the facts of life. It was the most enduring thing in Rome, and when the proud hierarchy of Olympus faded away those household and rustic cults retained their worshippers. The last enemy which Christianity had to face was not the Graeco-Roman gods and goddesses, but the brownies of the "pagani," the country folk. It was with these and not with the Olympians that St. Augustine strove, and even in defeat they left their mark upon Christian practice.

Augustus laboured to preserve and dignify these homely cults. For example, he gave the Roman poor a worship of their own in the Lares compitales, the spirits who presided over crossroads, and he joined his own Genius to the ritual. The step was part of his scheme of urban local government, but his policy is shown by the religious significance with which he endowed it. He awoke in Rome a lively interest in this legacy from the past, and turned even the lightest of poets into pious antiquarians. Propertius, the Rossetti of Latin literature, in the third book of his elegies abandoned his Cynthia for the chronicling of "holy rites and holy days," and Ovid in his Fasti used his deft imagination to tell of old religious usages instead of the art of love.

Horace and Virgil It was in the writers, especially the great poets, that in this task Augustus found his chief helpers. While he was still a child a poet had died who had left no mark on his generation. Lucretius had drawn his singing robes about him, and kept himself haughtily aloof from the troubled lives of men. His remedy for human ills was an arid philosophical creed, which he held with the passion of a religious devotee. His faith was "quietism in this life and annihilation afterwards"; the world was old and its wheels were fast running down; there was no help to be looked for from the gods, who lived far away in the

p265 lucid interspace of world and world,

Where never creeps a cloud nor moves a wind,

Nor ever falls the least white star of snow,

Nor ever lowest roll of thunder moans,

Nor sound of human sorrow mounts to mar

Their sacred everlasting calm.23

The proud self-sufficiency of Lucretius was no cure for a distressed world, and the writers whom Augustus gathered around him had a very different evangel. Livy, for instance, thrilled to the ancient glories of Rome, and drew his inspiration from her record. His life was practically co‑extensive with that of the Princeps, and his work was a valuable auxiliary to the Augustan plan. Interfusing rhetoric with history, he made the average Roman realize the grandeur of the past and the magnitude of his heritage.

But with the new poets there was a livelier hope and a broader sweep of imagination, for they were concerned not only with things past but with things to come. Horace provided the man of the world with what has been called a secular psalter, a code of reasoned discipline and rational enjoyment, based upon instincts deep in the Roman nature, and expounded in golden verse. He gave poetry to those not ordinarily sensitive to poetry, and a philosophy of conduct to those who fought shy of philosophies. His verse enshrines the inspired common sense of the Augustan age. He met one part of Rome's need — for balance and poise, self-criticism and laughter. Moreover, his love of his country and its ways provided a fresh hope of their continuance; Rome's past was a warrant for Rome's eternity —

dum Capitolium

scandet cum tacita virgine pontifex.

In Virgil we find that divine afflatus which transcends the most balanced wisdom and the deftest technical skill. He spoke not only to the plain citizen but to every range of temperament and mind. It is difficult for those to whom, like myself, Virgil is a constant joy, to judge how  p266 precisely he impressed his contemporaries. We feel his underlying sadness and unsatisfied longings, but Rome may have felt more strongly than we do his hopefulness and pride. They may have greeted him in words like Victor Hugo's —

"Quel dieu, quel moissonneur de l'éternel été !"

He gave them not the intimate and the homely, but the high translunary things, but his sublimity was a Roman sublimity, and the path he pointed out wound its way upward from a familiar world. He offered his people a new reading of the past, a new vision of the state, and a new way of life. Virgil was Dante's guide to the Inferno and the Purgatorio, but not to Paradise; but to the dreams of his age it was to Paradise that he led with the firmest step, that returning Golden Age when Rome should accomplish her destiny and "nations should come to her light and kings to the brightness of her rising," and she should be a city like Plato's dream-kingdom, whose "walls could be suffered to sleep in the earth" since there would be no more strife among men.

The Exotic Cults We know that Virgil was popular among the masses, but his beatific vision was not for everyone. The state religion and the religion of Numa, lit by the genius of the poets, made their appeal to those who still held by the Roman tradition. But there were many to whom that tradition meant nothing, since they were strangers from overseas, and there were many even of Roman stock who asked for something more intimate and emotional. Ever since the close of the Punic War foreigners had been thronging to Rome, bringing with them their foreign cults, and she had permitted these worships unless they were clearly against public morals. Such cults offered something new in the way of secret rites and private sodalities, ceremonies of purification, and a hope of immortality, and therefore appealed to the cravings of the self-conscious soul in man. Even orthodox Romans were ready to suffer these novelties,  p267 for Rome was wonderfully tolerant;24 she was always willing to admit with Symmachus that there was no one road to the great secret; and, while faithful to her orthodoxy, to accept new cults as a kind of re‑insurance; indeed, by a mysterious process of syncretion and conflation she might even link them to her own creed. Such things to her were supplements, not substitutes. Further, the decline in prestige of the famous oracles had created a demand for what might be called the magical side of religion. So Greeks and Easterns brought to the capital their own special worships, which were not only tolerated but largely patronized by the Romans themselves.25 At the beginning of the principate the streets were often noisy with exotic rituals, and at any corner one might be jostled by foreign priests, "sly slow things with circumspective eyes."

The underworld of Rome, and much of the upper world, had become a museum of strange faiths. Some, like the cult of the Great Mother, had been there for generations; Cybele, indeed, being traditionally linked with the origin of Rome, was highly respectable, and Augustus gave her a temple on the Palatine;26 her worship had not yet developed the awful ceremony of the "taurobolium," or blood-bath, by which a man might be "renatus in aeternum." Dionysus was a more doubtful character; he had been once expelled and was always on sufferance. The Orphic and Pythagorean cults were half philosophies and appealed only to the few. Both offered a clearly defined way of salvation, but the former seems to have fallen into the hands of quacks, and the latter was too difficult for the plain man to understand. More important was the ritual of Isis, which came from the East through the avenues of trade, and which made converts in all classes. It had every appeal of a mystical  p268 religion, for it was capable of a profound as well as of a superficial interpretation, and it adapted its rites to changing circumstances. Popular distrust of Egypt put it in the shade at the beginning of the principate, but its vogue soon revived. Its splendid ritual appealed to the eye, but at heart it was more ascetic than orgiastic. Moreover, Isis could be identified with a host of other goddesses, with Ceres and Venus and Diana, with Minerva and Proserpine, even with Juno, so her devotees became honorary members of all religions.27 The cult of Mithras had been brought from the East by Sulla's soldiers — a pure and beautiful faith, born in the Persian uplands, which was soon to become a potent religious force in the pagan world. It was especially a soldier's creed, viewing life as an unending battle between light and darkness, and recognizing no class-distinctions among its votaries. There were the Jews, too, who held severely to their observances and managed to win privileges for them, and whose rigid monotheism was not unattractive to certain circles in Rome. They had no outdoor processions, though they had odd rituals on their Sabbath;28 but most of the other cults had their public festivals, when the staid Roman citizen was repelled by the wild dances and the frenzied paeans, and shocked to see in the press of dark foreign faces some of his own friends and kin.

The Appeal of the Mysteries What was the appeal of this welter of mystery cults? To the poor and the unlearned there was the excitement of corybantic processions, various types of "salvation army" with torches and cymbals bringing colour to drab lives. There were also countless tales of miracles performed by this or that foreign deity, and gossiped about in taverns — sailors drawing fresh water in mid‑ocean, the blind made to see and the lame to walk. We know from the satiric comments of Lucian and from the ingenuousness of Pliny the deep credulity of the average Roman. Among the educated there was the desire for a new thing which might give them what they missed  p269 in the state cults, a personal religion, a closer link with the unseen.

Quis caelum poterit nisi caeli munere nosse

et reperire deum nisi qui pars ipse deorum est?29

The mysteries could tell them something of what lay behind the veil of sense, those hidden things about which the Olympians were silent. They might give some hint of the land beyond the grave, and insure the safety of the soul hereafter. The old snug world of their forefathers had gone, when a man could live simply in a little enclave protected by his familiar gods. Wars and revolutions had thrown down geographical barriers, and with this expansion of horizons a great uncertainty had come into human life. A man was now terribly at the mercy of fate, and clutched at any possible safeguard. The soul, that spark of the divine in mortal clay, had come to mean more to its possessor as his earthly fortune became precarious; disasters were construed as a proof of guilt, and this guilt might be removed by rites of purification. Release from the burden of sin, security against death and judgment, knowledge of hidden things which were vital to their peace — such were the motives which led men to these new ways of salvation. Most of the worshippers were no doubt foreigners who clung to their ancestral cults, but there was a spirit abroad to which thinking Romans could not be insensitive. It was a phenomenon which seems to appear in cycles, a failure of nerve and a consequent revolt against mere intellect. What men craved was not a doctrine but a revelation.

Many of the cults had elements of beauty and wisdom comparable to the regimen of those who sought a bodily cure in a temple of Aesculapius.30 The story of Lucius in Apuleius31 is a story of a true initiation, followed by a constant advance in the spiritual life. By the help of Isis he was brought "to the harbour of calm and the altar of  p270 mercy," and the goddess gave him not only ease of mind, but considerable success in his profession as a lawyer. But there was no chance of any of these cults developing into a universal gospel. For one thing their appeal, when they transcended common magic, was limited to men of a certain education; for another, initiation was a costly business. The mysteries were not democratic. The bath of bull's blood in the worship of the Great Mother was expensive, as were the Orphic and the Dionysiac rites, and even membership of a Neo‑Pythagorean brotherhood. But their real weakness lay in the fact that they were supplements, something tacked on to life, and involved no new vision of the universe, no radical transformation of the soul. Their strength lay in their social character, for they were brotherhoods, secret brotherhoods, and they ministered to those who, with the breakdown of familiar things, were feeling a little lost in the world.

This loneliness and disquiet were a praeparatio evangelica opening a path for a new revelation. It is easy to see how potent would be the appeal, a century later, of the Christian faith. Christianity brought a saviour and a promise of immortality. It carried on the Platonic teaching that this earthly life was sacramental, a shadow of eternity. It had its rites, but also its philosophy. It gave freedom from sin, knowledge of the truth, an armour against fate, a discipline of life. Moreover, it used the language of every race and class and clime. "Except with regard to its fundamental tenets, it adapted itself to the needs and customs of the various nations. In the famine-stricken regions of Anatolia its preachers promised a heaven with ever-bearing fruit trees; for the overworked serfs in Egypt it provided refuges in monasteries; to the Berber mountaineers of Africa it gave a holy cause for crusading, especially against rich and oppressive land-owners; to educated Romans, like Minucius Felix and Lactantius, it permitted the reading of Cicero and Virgil, nor did it attempt to deprive the real Greeks of Homer and Plato."32  p271 Above all, it welcomed to its fold the poorest and humblest. When Celsus disputed with Origen, one of his charges against Christianity was the baseness of its converts. "Let us hear whom these people invite: Whosoever, they say, is a sinner, whosoever is unwise, whosoever is foolish — in a word, whosoever is a wretch — he will be received into the Kingdom of God."33 What had the state religion to say to those who were not citizens, or the religion of Numa to those who had no household gods, or Mithras to the sick in body and mind, or the costly mysteries of Isis and Cybele to the penniless, or any of those creeds to the weary and heavy-laden?


Emperor-Worship Augustus had no concern with exotic things except to keep them in order. His business was not a praeparatio evangelica but an instauratio ecclesiae. But he saw the necessity of supplementing the Roman faiths, and perhaps replacing the exotic faiths, by a new cult which should have a universal appeal, and should have for its basis his own Genius and the majesty of Rome. He realized that the Greek city-states had failed because they had no centre of conscious unity, no continuing link between past and future, and that if the empire was to endure some mystic and indivisible chain must be forged. Rome furnished such a bond, but she was too abstract a goddess to appeal to distant and ill‑informed lands, so to her must be added a personal object of devotion. This could only be the Princeps, and the new imperial church must be consecrated in the name of "Roma et Augustus." Such a policy was no piece of self-glorification. Augustus was as free as any man who ever lived from whimsies about his own divinity. He could laugh at such pomposities as readily as Vespasian, who, on his death‑bed, exclaimed, "Alas! I fear I am becoming a god!"34 His purpose was to find a universal object of devotion, which could be given a priesthood to serve as  p272 a kind of provincial "honours list" and could provide a minor form of representative government. In this, as in all things, he was what Napoleon claimed to be, "tout à fait un être politique."

The antecedents of emperor-worship lay far back in history. In the East kings had always been divine, and the Greeks, with their extreme anthropomorphism, had blurred the distinction between mortal and immortal. A hero like Herakles, and a man like Alexander, could have a divine as well as a human father, and a saviour of society was as a matter of course accorded the honours of a deity.35 In republican Rome there was no such tradition, but there, too, the distinction was blurred, as we understand it. "Deus," covering a multitude of small divinities, had a meaning very different from our monotheistic "God." The ancient state was also a church, and a saviour of the state naturally attracted a religious veneration.36 As the empire extended Roman generals had divine honours from many foreign states. In the second century B.C. Flamininus received them from the people of Chalcis as the liberator of Greece, Rhodes and Smyrna set up altars to Rome, and Cicero in his Cilician proconsulate was threatened with the same dignity. Before the close of the Republic Rome was moving nearer to the hero-cult and the anthropomorphism of Greece. With Julius a bold step was taken, either by his own wish or by the intrigues of Mark Antony. His statue was carried in the procession of the gods and placed in a temple, he was hailed as Deus Invictus, a new guild of priests was established in his honour, and at his death — first of Romans — he was formally deified.

Augustus therefore had a distinguished precedent behind him, and he was quick to make use of it. From the start of his career he claimed the title of "Divi Julii Filius." There he was on safe ground, for the deification of Julius was in line with the old Roman worship of the  p273 "Di manes" and the custom of consecrating altars to the dead, and the founders of nations were always believed to have ascended to heaven.37 But divus was different from deus. It was one thing for a great man to become a god after death, and quite another for him to be like the Ptolemies, a god in his lifetime. Augustus kept aloof from any such folly. He repudiated a personal divinity, and in this matter Tiberius scrupulously followed him. The most he claimed was a share in the divinity of the state. He declined an altar in the Senate-house, and he had certain silver images of himself broken up. He forbade any formal worship in Rome or Italy. The poets might identify him with Apollo or Mercury, Propertius might hail him as "deus," and Horace see him drink nectar among the immortals, but that was only poetic licence. The most that he permitted was the cult of his "Genius,"38 "Lar" or "Numen," the guardian angel which dwelt in every man and which the simplest householder shared with the Princeps. What Rome could venerate was his mission, the work which the gods had permitted him to do for the state. It was fitting that this work should be commemorated at the little street-corner shrines.

Roma et Augustus Overseas it was different. Even in Italy in his lifetime, especially among the Greek peoples of the south, a real emperor-worship had begun.39 In the provinces, so long as his name was joined to that of Rome, there was no restriction on the cult. It had begun in 29 B.C. when temples were dedicated by the Romans in Asia to Rome and Julius, and by the Greeks to Rome and Augustus. Presently in certain places, like Cyprus and Pontus, Rome was omitted. In Egypt the Princeps succeeded naturally to the divinity of the Ptolemies. The custom spread throughout Greece and Asia, Syria and Palestine and Africa, and Augustus became the successor of the local  p274 god‑kings. He was hailed as "saviour" and "bringer of good tidings," and even as "God the Son of God." In the West, too, the fashion grew, though there a certain amount of government initiative was required. There were temples and altars built throughout Spain and Gaul and the German border, and even in Moesia and Pannonia, and the great altar dedicated by Drusus at Lyons was a seal upon Gallic loyalty. Colleges of lay priests, the Augustales, came into being to supervise the cult, and so a certain modicum of representation and local responsibility was introduced into the imperial fabric.40

This cult, devised with a cool judgment of facts, was one of the most successful parts of the Augustan structure. He kept it strictly within bounds in Italy, confining it to forms which had ancient sanction and general approval, but abroad he let it take the colouring of each race. The imperial church, which had a uniform inspiration, had an infinity of local idioms. It was a close link with Rome, for, as I have said, it was like an honours list on which the provincials based their social rank, and the priestly colleges were to last for centuries. "Titles such as Asiarch, Syriarch, Phoeniciarch, derived from the high-priesthood of Caesar's cult, were respected by Constantine's legislation and survived like ghosts of the pagan past to haunt for a time the life of the new oecumenical church."41 It met the demands of a world which was looking for a Messiah by pointing out that one had come, who had proved his title by bringing gifts of peace and fortune to men. To the august legend of Rome it added the interest of a personality, and thereby provided for the world a common religious impulse. A universal religion was made a basis for a universal allegiance. Each citizen of the empire felt that the fate which directed his life was now a beneficent thing which  p275 he could gratefully admire. Let it be said, too, that the standard of godship was raised when a genuine human benefactor joined that dubious pantheon.

The civic religion thus instituted was not state-idolatry as we understand the phrase to‑day. Augustus would not have subscribed to the Hegelian view that "the state was its own end and object" and that its interest overrode those of the individual. On the contrary, he held that its justification was the individual's comfort and happiness, for he set little value on philosophic abstractions. He desired not a single iron, overriding loyalty, but a multitude of intimate devotions. His aim was to create a communal patriotism which would appeal to the imagination of all classes in the empire, and not less to their common sense. How did the citizens of Roman blood regard it? As a summing up of the old loyalties and traditions of Rome, coloured by a personal devotion to the man who had rescued them from chaos. And the provincials of other races? As a confirmation also of their ancestral faiths, which remained sacrosanct under a new protector. They admitted a fresh divinity into their pantheon without rejecting any of the old. "Roma et Augustus" was not a juggernaut to obliterate the ancient landmarks, but a bulwark set up to defend them.


The Soul of Rome In Rome Augustus re‑created a soul which was fast dying, and left an ideal to which the best men were to cling for many generations. But that soul could not keep the high levels to which he and his poets had led it. Accidie returned and material prosperity weakened its power. There was soon a satiety with high endeavour, and the taut bow relaxed. Even in the lifetime of the Princeps Ovid succeeded Virgil, and Ovid was not a cause but a symptom of a moral decline; the poet only described what he saw. But one part of the work of Augustus did not fail. He had made Rome a symbol of human aspiration, and her eternity an article of faith  p276 for every civilized man. The time was to come when her voice, once so impudent, became

"confusae sonus urbis et inlaetabile murmur."

But in the dark days, when the barbarian beat at her gates, the Augustan tradition endured, and remote provincials mourned her sorrows as the end of their world. With Rome fell a church as well as a state, a church still under the vast shadow of its founder.

Come, behold thy Rome, who now doth mourn

Lonely and widow'd; day and night she cries

"My Caesar, wherefore leav'st thou me forlorn?"42

The Author's Notes:

1 A. D. Nock, Conversion, 218.

2 "vili sanguine," Ann.I.76.

3 e.g. Cic. de Off. I.42.150.º

4 Sallust, Cat. 37; App. II.120.

5 The Romans were curiously apathetic about blood, as is shown not only by their sports, but by religious usages like the "taurobolium" and the "criobolium." This trait was shared by the early Christian church. The metaphors of Cowper's hymn, "There is a fountain filled with blood," which sound crude to us, would have seemed natural and proper to a Roman.

6 Cic. ad Fam. VII.1; Dio XLIII.19. See also Tac. Ann. XIV.42 sqq.

7 The only general educational system was found in the provinces, owing to the desire of provincials to acquire the Latin language.

8 See Warde Fowler, Soc. Life at Rome, ch. VI.

9 Suet. Div. Aug. 42. See on this subject C. Barbacallo, Lo stato e l'istruzione publica nell' impero Romano (1911).

10 σχᾶμα καὶ βᾶμα ἀλλ’ οὐ σχᾶμα καὶ τριώβολον.

11 For an account of the practice, see Persius I.15 sqq.

12 Confess. VI.3. I owe this reference to Mr. C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love (1936), 64‑5.

13 a phrase of Epictetus, III.23, 30; cf. Persius III.66 sqq.

14 Cf. Hor. Ep. I.16.73; Plato, Apology, 29.

15 "Deus pertinens per naturam cujusque rei, per terras Ceres, per maria Neptunus, alii per alia poterunt intelligi." Cic. De nat. Deorum, II, XXVIII.71. Observe the construction "Deus . . . poterunt."

16 Seneca's words are almost those of the New Testament: cf. Ep. LI.6, LXXVIII.16.

17 Ibid., CVII.2.

18 Med. XII.27.º

19 Suet. Div. Aug. 90‑92.

20 Confess. III.4. See p67 supra.

21 Cf. Ovid, "expedit esse deos et ut expedit esse putemus," Ars amat. I.635.

22 This point is well brought out in Rostovtzeff's Augustus ("Univ. of Wisconsin Studies," No. 15), 134 sqq.

23 Tennyson's paraphrase of de rerum natura III.18‑22.

24 Cf. the account in Livy (XXXIX.8 sqq.) of the moderation displayed in the suppression of the Bacchic rites in 186 B.C., when provision was made for conscientious worshippers.

25 Old‑fashioned people were a little troubled at the invasion. Propertius (IV.1.17) describes the earlier Rome as a place where "nulliº cura fuit externos quaerere divos."

26 There is a striking picture of her cult in Lucretius II.608 sqq.

27 See the story of Lucius as told by Apuleius in Book XI of his Metamorphoses.

28 Cf. Persius V.179 sqq.

29 Manilius II.115.

30 This regimen is described by Walter Pater in Marius the Epicurean, ch. 3.

31 Metamorphoses, Book XI. It is retold by Prof. Nock in his Conversion, ch. XI, a work which deals brilliantly with the whole question.

32 Tenney Frank, Aspects of Soc. Behaviour in Anc. Rome, 63.

33 Quoted by Nock, op. cit.

34 "Vae, inquit, puto deus fio," Suet. Div. Vesp. 23.

35 Examples — before Alexander — are Lysander after Aegospotami in 405 B.C., and Dion in Syracuse in 356 B.C.

36 Semi-divine honours were proposed for Scipio Africanus. Livy, XXXVIII.56.

37 Latinus became Jupiter Latiaris, and Romulus was worshipped as Quirinus.

38 "Genius" had a double significance — a god as a creative spirit, and the daemon of the individual (cf. Augustine, Civ. Dei VII.13), and the latter meaning was slightly influenced by the former.

39 At Cumae, Puteoli, Pompeii, Beneventum and elsewhere. See Rushforth, Lat. Hist. Inscriptions, 51‑61.

40 This subject has been exhaustively treated by Warde Fowler, Religious Experience of the Roman People (1911) and Roman Ideas of Deity (1914), and in the monographs of L. R. Taylor, The Divinity of the Roman Emperor (Amer. Philolog. Ass., 1931) and The Worship of Augustus (Amer. Philolog. Ass., 1920). See also P. Wendland, Die Hellenistisch-Römische Kultur (1907).

41 Greenidge, op. cit., 444.


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