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The Romans
(Part 1)

This webpage reproduces part of a chapter of
The Rulers of the South

Francis Marion Crawford

published by MacMillan & Co. Ltd.
New York and London

The text, and illustrations except as noted,
are in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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The Goths
and Byzantines

(Vol. I) The Romans
(Part 2 of 2)

p316 The civil wars of Rome proceeded naturally from the hatred of one class for another. Had the two been less evenly matched, the disturbance might have produced all the phenomena of the French Revolution, but Sulla and the aristocrats were as strong as Marius and the democracy, and stronger; and while it is always the instinct of the lower class to destroy the upper class altogether, the upper class, being unable to live without the help of the social inferiors whom it has such good reason to fear, necessarily aims at keeping them in a state not far removed from servitude. An upper class that has no means of controlling a lower class has no claim to be called an upper class at all, and is doomed either to destruction or to ridicule. In most modern countries the so‑called aristocracies have chosen to be ridiculous rather than to be destroyed. The final triumph of Sulla did not destroy the power of the lower class, it controlled it. The true leader of the people was to be Julius Caesar.

In Sicily the struggle had ended with Athenio's p317death, and the island took no active part in the civil wars, but was governed alternately by the contending parties. When Marius, being on his way to Africa, wished to obtain water at Drepanum, he met with an energetic refusal on the part of the governor; a little later, his party was in power and the governor was one of his most active supporters; a little later again Sulla was in power, and the Marian governor retired hastily at the approach of Cneiusº Pompeius with six legions and a hundred and twenty ships; and the mild behaviour of Pompeius on this occasion is historical. The only city that resisted him was Thermae on the north coast, and when he was about to reduce it to submission, the chief man of the city came to him, demanding that the whole blame of the resistance should be laid upon himself. Pompeius was touched and forgave him. Only on two or three occasions the youthful Roman general behaved with a coldness that approached cruelty, conversing calmly with political prisoners whom he had already condemned to death.

When Sulla undid what Caius Gracchus had done, and gave back to the Senate the jurisdiction which the reformer had succeeded in placing in the hands of the Roman knights, the governorship of Sicily was no longer given to a praetor, but to a propraetor, who resided in the island altogether and exercised his power more continually than the praetors had done; for while the latter had relied much upon the services p318of tax farmers, who had every interest in hoodwinking their superior in order to enrich themselves, and in accusing him unjustly when he seemed to them unreasonably honest, the propraetor was able to extort money without their services, or at all events while controlling them for his own ends. This is the change in the form of provincial government that led to the frightful abuse of power of which Verres was found guilty.

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Castle of Aci Castello,
near Catania

Those who know Sicily even superficially must easily realize that its conditions of prosperity could change with surprising quickness in the alternations of peace and war. It was an altogether agricultural country, but it was, and is still, the richest in the Mediterranean. I will compare it, in its different states, to a great factory or manufactory. Everything required for the production of valuable merchandise is present, waiting to be smelted, cast, turned, and finished. Furnaces glow, hammers ring, lathes move silently and quickly, a thousand artisans are at work, and wealth is created hourly and instantly by sure and p319industrious hands. Presently comes the check; there is war, and the enemy is at hand, or the men strike and go away in a body. The place is the same, and yet it is all at once a dreary wilderness, the fires are gone out, the wind howls through the vast deserted sheds, the machinery rusts in the silence, and it all looks as if only a miracle could bring back the extinguished life. Yet all things ready for the making of wealth, as they were before. The enemy retires, or the strike is over, and in a day the factory is once again in the roar and blast of production, alive and awake.

Thus also Sicily lay waste from time to time, and awoke again to instant riches at the golden touch of peace. There is not a valley in the whole island where men have not lain in ambush to kill other men, nor a field that has not been dyed crimson, nor a lovely defile of the mountains whose rivulet has not run red. Within the narrow seagirt space, six hundred miles round, Greeks and Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Romans, Byzantines, Goths, Saracens, Normans, Frenchmen, Catalans, freemen, and slaves fought almost unceasingly for more than two thousand years; and in every brief interval of rest the rich soil brought forth its fruit a hundred fold, the blood-stained meadows blossomed again, and the battlefield of many nations was again the garden of the world. Excepting Rome and the surrounding plains p320there is surely no like area in Europe where so many have died by violence; there is none where life is so ever ready to begin again.

It is, therefore, not strange that after the slave wars Sicily should have accumulated great wealth, especially as the island was, on the whole, well governed during that period, between the years 99 B.C. and 73 B.C. During the latter part of this time the office of quaestor, treasurer, in the western division, was held by Cicero, then a young man of thirty years, six years older than Julius Caesar. It was during his quaestorship that he acquired the profound knowledge of Sicily which he displayed in his speeches against Verres, one of the most atrocious robbers of any age. It was then that he wandered in the neighbourhood of Syracuse, accompanied by a flattering court of distinguished Syracusans, who were not anxious to show him the tomb of Archimedes overgrown with brambles, because the great engineer had been an enemy to the Romans, and were quite willing to let the mild-mannered, book-loving quaestor give himself all the credit of the discovery. Of Cicero's earlier and later life it is useless to speak here, but it is necessary to dwell a little upon the evil career of the great criminal from whose robberies the cities of Sicily never entirely recovered. Cicero's speeches, on which the evidence against him rests, undoubtedly contained exaggerations, and were necessarily prejudiced, p321but the consequences of Verres' government are undeniable. It must be remembered, too, that Verres was found guilty on the evidence of the thousands of witnesses who appeared against him, and that he escaped to Marseilles, where he spent the rest of his life, before the hearing was over. Only two of the seven speeches were delivered; the rest were compiled from the records of the case, but not spoken. The great Hortensius, engaged to defend the accused, abandoned the case, though he was reckoned the most eloquent lawyer of his day, with the possible exception of Cicero himself.

Verres was of noble birth, the son of a senator, who shared the plunder with him and defended him in the senate during his outrageous proceedings in the provinces. At the age of thirty, or little less, the young man was quaestor in Northern Italy, being then a partisan of Marius; but when he saw that Sulla was getting the better of the struggle, he promptly deserted to him, and was well received. He did not omit to steal all the public money then in his keeping, for which deed, in consideration of his accession to the party of Sulla, the latter never called him to account. Next, in the year 80 B.C., he was sent as legate to Asia Minor under Dolabella, a man of his own stamp, and it became his business to steal and extort money for his superior and himself.

p322 He possessed the most admirable taste in matters of art, and, like more than one famous thief, he had the spirit of a collector. Beside his love of statues and pictures, his gross vices sink into insignificance; his greed of money, and his cruelty in obtaining it, alone rival his passion for works of beauty. He shut up the chief official at Sicyon in a closet and smoked him with green wood till he was almost dead, merely to obtain gold. He stole pictures and statues in Achaia; he took a quantity of gold from the temple of Pallas in Athens; he carried off the best statues from the temple of Apollo in Delos; he plundered Tenedos, Chios, and Samos, and positively ravaged Pamphylia. His operations were conducted on a gigantic scale, and he carried off the treasures of the temples in carts and in broad daylight. When the treasurer of the province died, Dolabella made Verres pro-treasurer, and in this office he extended his oppression throughout Milyas, Pisidia, and parts of Phrygia. As guardian, he robbed the only son of his best friend when the latter was dead; he robbed his enemies, the public, and the treasury, and returned to Italy with such a sum of money as enabled him to obtain a praetorship in Rome. He now turned his talents towards obtaining bribes in the cases which came before him for decision, and in robbing the fund for public buildings. On the ingenious excuse that the columns of the temple of Castor and Pollux p323were not all exactly perpendicular, though the error could only be detected by means of a plumb-line, he succeeded in upsetting a contract for the construction, in favour of another contractor, in which transaction he pocketed large sums of money. But in comparison with what he did afterwards, his doings in Asia Minor and in Rome must be looked upon as mere exercises, in which he obtained the experience necessary for a career of destructive robbery that has never been equalled. So, in modern Naples, and perhaps elsewhere, thieves set their children to pick the pockets of a lay figure that rings bells at the least incautious touch.

In 73 B.C. Verres obtained the propraetorship of Sicily by lot. He held it three years, and left his mark of desolation upon its cities for centuries, if not forever. During the term of his office, the insurrection of the gladiators and slaves under Spartacus required all Rome's energy, and since Verres kept Sicily in subjection, and there were no signs of an outbreak under his governorship, he was allowed to do as he pleased until the measure of his iniquities was full, and he was finally called to account.

The story of his three years' government in Sicily, as told by Cicero in the Verrine orations, reads alternately like a fairy story and like a tale of almost prehistoric barbarism. It is a strange fact that when the staid Roman temper broke out and overstepped p324all bounds, Romans went to lengths of fantastic display on the one hand and of horrible cruelty on the other which surpassed what we know of Greeks or Phoenicians. Cicero draws a picture of Verres during his stay in Syracuse, and of his official journeys, in which we see the Roman propraetor carried by eight stalwart slaves in a litter, lying upon cushions stuffed with rose leaves, clad in transparent gauze and Maltese lace, with garlands of roses on his head and round his neck, and delicately sniffing at a little net filled also with roses, lest any other odour should offend his nostrils. He had an artistic soul, and delighted in details that pleased the sense. He loved beauty, and wherever he went the fairest of the Sicilian ladies were his guests, while he robbed their fathers, their husbands, and their brothers. This important business, which was, indeed, the main one of his life, was everywhere managed with precision and despatch. He was never at a loss for an excuse for extorting money from a rich man. One of his methods was to seize upon valuable favourite slaves of great landholders, accusing them of conspiring against him and condemning them to death at his pleasure, only that their masters might ransom them at ten times their value. Or, he would accuse of conspiracy a slave who had no existence, and then imprison the master for not producing the fictitious delinquent. The unfortunate owner had the choice of ransoming himself p325at a ruinous price or of languishing in prison for an unlimited length of time. He spent the winter and generally the summer in Syracuse, where there is no winter's day without sunshine and no summer's noon without the cool sea breeze. In the warm months he pitched his tents of fine linen at the entrance of the harbour, most probably under the shadow of the Plemmyrian promontory, where the breeze blows all day, and there he spent his time dressed in the effeminate tunic and purple cloak of the Greeks, in the company of his youthful son, who gave promise of imitating his father, surrounded by his cohort of flatterers, panders, and henchmen, curled and perfumed like himself. The Syracusan ladies came to his feasts, and sometimes complained bitterly when the daughter of a comic actor was treated with as much ceremony as themselves; but still they came, and lingered, and came again.

It was an organized robbery, and Verres needed a base of operations and a harbour of export, whence he could ship his booty to his Italian estates. These appear to have been conveniently situated for the purpose in the neighbourhood of Velia, once Elea, the home of philosophy, but now, if it has a name, called Ascea. There, a little to the south of Licosa point, the small stream of the Alento swells to a torrent in winter and shrinks to a rivulet under the summer sun, when the air is poisoned with the southern fever. The p326fishermen beach their boats upon the sandy shore where Verres landed the wealth of Sicily from the great freight ship he had caused the Sicilians to build for him, for this sole purpose. But the base of operations he chose in Sicily was Messina; and in order that the Mamertine inhabitants might be friendly to him, and might not hinder his proceedings, he spared their city when he plundered all the rest, and excused them from contributions of cornº and from supplying a man-of‑war for the Sicilian fleet, which they would otherwise have been bound to do. Moreover, they were not obliged to supply soldiers and sailors for the service. In other cities he made a regular charge for giving the supposed soldiers and seamen permanent leave, at a fixed price, by the year. It is needless to say that besides the price of the leave given, the ingenious governor pocketed the pay which would have been due if the men had served their time.

He neglected the fleet altogether, and the consequence was that Cilician pirates infested the waters about the island. Considering what has been done before and since in Sicily, it may well be supposed that Verres had a standing agreement with the pirates themselves. Once, however, in a fit of conscientiousness, he allowed two of his officers with ten men-of‑war to capture, near Megara, a pirate vessel so heavily laden that it was not able to get away. He appropriated the cargo, which consisted of the most valuable p327booty, to his own use, picked out the old and useless men among the crew and threw them into prison, gave the young and handsome ones to his friends as slaves, and sent six musicians, who were found among them, to Rome, as a present to his lawyer, Hortensius. As for the captain of the pirates, no one ever saw him, but some time afterwards, Verres caused a poor Roman citizen, who was perfectly innocent, to be executed for his crimes. When Syracuse rose in indignation and demanded the execution of the pirates, the governor took a number of other persons from prison and caused them to be put to death with their heads covered, lest they should be recognized.

He was now obliged by public opinion to take some action against the pirates, and he sent out a small squadron in pursuit of them. The vessels sailed out with flying colours, and with every appearance of being fit for the expedition; but in reality they were short handed, and were so completely unprovided with provisions that when they reached Pachynus, a few miles to the southward, the whole company went ashore to seek for food, and, finding nothing better, they dug up the scrub palms and ate the roots. At the first news that pirates were in the vicinity, the commander cut his cable rather than lose time in getting the anchor up, made sail, and, having the best vessel, was out of sight almost before the ships he commanded could get under way. The pirates overhauled them p328on the high sea, took the men prisoners, and burnt the vessels. The news was known in Syracuse late at night, when Verres had retired to rest after an orgy; but no one dared to wake the sleeping governor. He was roused by the voices of the multitude without, and, when he appeared at dawn in military dress, he barely escaped being torn to pieces. Four pirate vessels quietly sailed into the harbour of Syracuse, and, coming close to the shore, their crews pelted the infuriated crowd with the roots of the scrub palms found in the ill-fated Roman vessels. The pirates departed in peace, and before long the unfortunate captains of the Roman ships were ransomed. Verres, of course, arrested them and condemned them to death as an example, and they were handed over to the executioner, who exacted a large sum of money from their relatives in return for his promise that they should have an easy death. Being dead, their goods became the governor's property, and he exacted a second ransom for them by threatening to let them be devoured by dogs and wolves.

It is easy to imagine the sort of persons by whom Verres was surrounded, men ready for every deed, accessible to every bribe, and quick to invent means of extortion extort. Allowing for the changes of time and the differences in his situation, these fellows represented the life-guard of a tyrant, bound to him by every personal interest, and sharing, in a small degree, in p329the profits of every crime. Cicero has preserved their names with some of their characteristics. I shall spare the reader both, and go on to tell how in a short time Verres made himself master of the wealth of the island by their assistance. One of his favourite methods was to get possession by legal frauds of large sums of money and other treasures left by will both to individual heirs and to temples. On one occasion he presented a large inheritance to the people of Syracuse with a great show of munificence, but was careful to reserve the greater part of it for himself. It was an easy matter, also, to find persons who had been tried under the previous praetor, but had been found not guilty, and to extort ransoms from them, on promise of not trying them again.

One of the most atrocious acts of Verres was his robbery of Sthenius, the honourable citizen of Thermae who had won the sympathy of Cneiusº Pompeius by frankly assuming the blame of his fellow-citizens' conduct. He was a collector of works of art, and had spent much of his life in gathering beautiful pictures and statues, Corinthian and Delian bronzes, and the like. Verres, when he was his guest, saw all these things, judged them good enough for his own collection, and seized upon them at once. It was not until he attempted to carry off the statues that belonged to the city itself that Sthenius opposed him. Verres retorted by causing a false accusation to be brought p330against him, and in spite of the efforts made in Rome in Sthenius' favour, found him guilty and appropriated his whole fortune. In gratitude to Aphrodite, Verres presented her shrine at Eryx, now San Giuliano, with a beautiful figure of Eros selected from the spoil.

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Olive trees in the
Latomia dei Cappuccini, Syracuse

Before long another opportunity of wholesale robbery presented itself. The rebellion which had broken out in Spain under Sertorius, one of the former generals of Marius, was at an end, and Verres conceived the ingenious plan of seizing ships that arrived from the northern coast, on the ground that there were fugitive Sertorians on board of them. The crews were thrown into prison in the Latomie of Syracuse, and were generally executed in the place of pirates who were allowed to escape, while the cargoes of the vessels became the governor's property. From this time his cruelties increased with his greed. He caused a Roman citizen to be scourged and crucified, which was a crime against the liberty of the Roman people; he beheaded more than a hundred Roman citizens; he slew whom he pleased, and in every case he seized the victim's goods. Moreover, he caused enormous sums to be appropriated to erect statues to himself, not only in the Sicilian cities, but even in Rome.

The most wholesale of all his robberies was that of the corn which was supposed to be sent from the island to Rome. He sent one-third to the capital, p331and sold the other two-thirds for his own benefit. He ground the tax-gatherers, who were of course tax-farmers, and the latter beat and starved the landholders till they paid the uttermost measure they possessed. Whole cities were laid under contribution in this way, and the islands near Sicily did not escape. In three years, according to Cicero, he stole about thirty-six millions of sestertii, appropriated for buying corn over and above that yielded by the tribute, and the sum is equal to about two hundred and thirty thousand pounds sterling. It would not be despised even by a modern political swindler, and money was worth far more then than now. For Verres, however, it was only an item; the whole amount of his vast robberies cannot well be guessed, much less correctly calculated, either from Cicero's statements or from other sources. It may have amounted to a million of pounds sterling, or to much more, if the value of works of art be taken into consideration. Mark Antony is said to have squandered eight hundred millions of pounds sterling in his fifty-three years of life, but at one time he disposed of Italy and Asia Minor.

What is most astonishing is that, when Verres' third term of office was over, nothing was done, and his successor was appointed without comment. The Romans were not easily moved to compassion by the wrongs of those subject to them, Sicily was full of slaves, and Rome had p332only lately crushed out the great rebellion of Spartacus in the south of Italy. In Capua, the luxurious capital of pleasure-loving Campania, one Lentulus Batiatus had a company of Gallic and Thracian gladiators, among whom was Spartacus, himself a Thracian of great strength, courage, and military talent, and possessing a sort of dignified superiority hardly to have been expected in one who had been born a shepherd and had turned highwayman in his own country. A faithful woman loved him and shared his life, and perhaps his death; and she had the gift of divination, and prophesied that he should become very great and terrible and have a happy end; which things came true, for he was the terror of the Romans and he died in battle. The whole company of gladiators numbered two hundred, and they conspired to escape from their bondage, but only seventy-eight of them succeeded. These seized upon the iron spits and carving-knives and whittles which they found in a cook's shop, and marched out of Capua in broad daylight, for they were all trained fighters, and very strong men, and it was better not to hinder them. They met upon the road certain waggons, laden with gladiators' weapons, the same perhaps that were to have been used by themselves in the coming show. Having armed themselves, they marched southward and took possession of the crater of Vesuvius, then extinct and overgrown with grass and wild vines. The place was almost impregnable, and when three p333thousand Roman soldiers attacked it on the most accessible side, the gladiators climbed down on the other, came round the crater, and fell upon their assailants in the rear, putting them to shameful flight and getting possession of their weapons. Spartacus was the leader of the band. He proclaimed all slaves to be free, and in an incredibly short space of time he was ravaging all Southern Italy at the head of forty thousand desperate men. In the next year he had seventy thousand, then a hundred thousand, and he thought of attacking Rome itself. He defeated one p334consular army after another, made many captives, and forced the Romans to fight as gladiators for his amusement, as he had once fought for theirs. His plan was to lead his army out of Italy in the end, and either to plunder other countries or to return to his home. But his men loved the south, as almost all fighting men have loved it, and in the south he met his death at last. When it came to the end he was opposed to Crassus in a great battle, and before it began he slew his horse in the sight of his men, saying that if he won the day he should have horses enough, but that if he lost it he should need none. He lost the day, and died, and they traced his last charge by the heaps of the slain, but no one could find what was left of his body. Then the Romans impaled six thousand of his men upon stakes along the Appian way. And these things took place while Verres was governor of Sicily, besides much more that had the interest of life and death for the Roman people.

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Vesuvius, on the day before the eruption of May, 1900

When the time was past, however, the Sicilians determined to bring Verres to justice if it were possible, by demanding restitution of money extorted from them. Verres belonged to that aristocratic party, which had always employed for its defender the famous Hortensius, called the 'King of the Forum.' Cicero had made himself beloved by the Sicilians during his quaestorship in the west, and he advised them to bring a collective action. Excepting Messina, which Verres had p335highly favoured, and Syracuse, all the principal cities sent deputations to Rome to represent them.

It is not my intention to enter into all the elaborate proceedings which made up the trial of the great thief. His friends attempted everything legal and illegal in the hope of preventing the case from coming to a hearing. Cicero was without doubt the advocate chosen by the Sicilian people for the prosecution, but an accomplice of the accused made a formal attempt to be chosen in Cicero's place, and the first of the Verrine orations was delivered in order to dispose of this adversary. Cicero then asked for an interval of one hundred and ten days before the trial, to admit of his travelling through Sicily in order to collect evidence. This was no sooner granted than the friends of Verres trumped up a suit of a similar nature to recover a claim for alleged extortions in Achaia, for which an interval of only one hundred and eight days was asked, in order that this suit might be called before that of Verres, thus putting off the latter's case indefinitely. Cicero departed at once upon his journey, although the friends of Verres hindered him at every step, especially in Syracuse, where the new governor exercised a good deal of influence in favour of the accused man, the great lawyer had no difficulty in collecting such a mass of evidence as made the criminal's acquittal almost impossible. On the other hand the friends of Verres displayed the utmost activity; p336they made unsuccessful attempts to bribe Cicero himself, and, failing in this, they spread the report that he had received the bribes which he had refused. The judges were also above corruption. Verres, however, by a liberal expenditure of money, succeeded in bringing about the election of his lawyer, Hortensius, and of his friend, Quintus Metellus, to be consuls in the following year. The governor of Sicily was a brother of this Metellus, and another brother was designated as supreme judge of the court before which the case was to be tried. The court itself, however, as is well known, consisted practically of jurymen, which each side possessed the right of challenging. The plan of the defence was to protract the proceedings into the following year, and this was not by any means an impossibility, as the courts did not sit during the long periods set apart for public games at the close of the year, and it was expected that the prosecution would consume many weeks in hearing evidence. Witnesses had been collected from every part of the Roman dominions, from Asia Minor, from Sicily, from the islands of Lipari and Malta, and thousands of persons, not themselves interested in the trial, had travelled to Rome out of curiosity, to be present at the great judicial conflict before the games began. The suit at last opened in the temple of Castor and Pollux in the Forum. It is said that the roofs of the surrounding houses, the porticos and the steps of the p337temples, were thronged by the vast multitude of those who had been robbed by Verres, who mourned the parents and brethren he had murdered, and whose inheritance had been taken from them to swell his enormous hoard. There were men, women and children even from the shores of the Black Sea, from Mount Taurus and from Greece; there were noble Greeks and Phoenicians of ancient lineage, officials ruined and wrongfully disgraced, and priests from the temples whence the governor had collected his magnificent gallery of statues, pictures and precious vessels. Cicero was pressed for time; the games, which must cause a suspension of the proceedings, were at hand; his case was very strong, and he determined to let it rest upon the evidence alone. Instead of making a long address, he began by the examination of the witnesses, and from the first day the defence was ruined. Hortensius made a feeble attempt to change the course of the proceedings, and then almost immediately threw up the case and advised Verres to leave Rome. He did so without delay, and conveyed himself and the greater part of his ill-gotten wealth to Marseilles, where he was suffered to live unmolested for many years. Had he awaited the verdict, he would at most have been exiled, but he might have suffered the confiscation of his property. Cicero composed the remainder of the Verrine orations from the reports of the trial and from his own notes, and published them p338as an account of the greatest judicial triumph he had as yet achieved. Verres lived to hear of Cicero's execution under the proscription proclaimed by Mark Antony, and which was his own death warrant, for his name was on the list. It is recorded that he died with the courage and equanimity of a good and brave man, but he is by no means the only great criminal in history who has behaved with firmness and even dignity when confronted with the executioner.

Thus ended the famous trial, not indeed with any restitution of goods stolen and extorted from the oppressed Sicilians, nor with any adequate punishment of the chief offender, but at least in a public act which was on the side of justice, and for which Rome deserves some credit in the stormy days that preceded the final overthrow of the republic.

In the great struggle between Julius Caesar and the party of the Senate, Sicily played no great part. When Julius Caesar determined to occupy the island, Marcus Porcius Cato withdrew at once, advising the Sicilians to make no useless resistance. Later, Pompey the Great burned a number of Caesar's ships when they were fitting out in the harbour of Messina. In 47 B.C., when Caesar carried war into Africa, Sicily was once more a base of operations, and the conqueror gathered his fleet in Lilybaeum, as both the Scipios had done before him. It was his intention to extend the rights of citizenship to the inhabitants of the island, and he p339seems to have granted favours of this nature to several cities; but his murder checked the extension of civilization, and when Mark Antony passed a law making all Sicilians Roman citizens it was merely for the sake of obtaining a large sum of money, and was never carried out. In 43 B.C., during Octavian's wars, Sextus Pompeius, the great Pompey's son, succeeded in getting possession of the whole island almost without striking a blow, most probably by promising the Sicilians the long-coveted rights of citizenship.

In the division of the Roman possessions among the triumvirs, Augustus, still called Octavian, took Africa, Sardinia, and Sicily. Sicily was of the highest importance to him as being the granary from which Rome derived her corn, and being still in the possession of Sextus it was evidently necessary for Octavian to drive him out before taking any other steps to extend his power. But he did not succeed at once; his fleet came into conflict with that of Sextus in the Straits of Messina, where his officers and seamen were at a disadvantage owing to their ignorance of the currents, and withdrew from the fight as far as the place now called Bagnara. Sextus remained in possession.

After the battle of Philippi, Sicily was the only part of the great Roman territory which was not yet in the power of the triumvirate, and became a refuge for all those who were unwilling to submit to its dictation. The continuation of the civil war and the p340differences which arose between the triumvirs left Sextus for some time in undisputed possession of the island, and before long he found it advantageous to attempt an alliance with Mark Antony. The wise Octavian, however, used more diplomatic means for preventing such a friendship, and took to wife Scribonia, whose niece was the wife of Sextus. Antony, who at first had not accepted the latter's overtures, now appealed to him directly for help, in order to attack Southern Italy; but Octavian promptly reconciled himself with Antony, and the latter sent Sextus back to his island. He, however, fully understanding the strength of his position, continued to control the price of bread in Rome by hindering or facilitating the export of corn from Sicily at his pleasure. He at last succeeded in obtaining a sort of acknowledgment of his rights over Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, with the neighbouring islands, and Achaia, for a period as long as that during which Octavian and Antony were to hold the territories allotted to them; and in return for these dominions and other advantages he was to provide Rome with corn and he was to marry his daughter to Octavian's nephew. But the treaty was unsound and the peace it concluded was of short duration. It was signed at Baiae, close to Misenum, in 39 B.C., and the generals feasted each other with great rejoicing.

In the following year one of the generals of Sextus p341betrayed Sardinia and Corsica to Octavian, who had not meant to abide by the treaty if he could get any advantage by breaking it. Sextus sent a fleet up the coast to attack Octavian's ships, and defeated them off Cumae, just north of Misenum; in a duel which was fought between the two admirals, when their ships had grappled each other, Menecrates, who fought for Sextus, was wounded in the thigh with a barbed dart and sprang overboard rather than be taken; but his ships were victorious after his death. More than once after this Octavian made attempts to land in Sicily before he at last succeeded. He lost most of a new fleet in a gale of wind in the Straits of Messina, and set himself to make their preparations. He built and collected three fleets, one at Baiae in the basinlike lagoon now called the Mare Morto or "dead sea," one at Tarentum, one in an African harbour. The date of sailing was fixed, the same for all three, and two were commanded by the triumvirs Octavian and Lepidus in person. A furious southwester destroyed most of Octavian's ships in the bay of Velia just north of Cape Palinurus, if not on the awful rocks of the grim promontory; Antony's fleet ran back to shelter in Tarentum; that of Lepidus, being before the wind, made Lilybaeum, and he marched across Sicily to Messina, claiming Sicily for himself. When at last the others could put to sea again, Octavian landed in Sicily and brought the war to p342a decisive issue in a battle near Mylae, now Milazzo, in the month of August, 36 B.C. Sextus Pompeius fled to the East, and his domination was at an end. In the following year, when attempting to found an independent power in Asia, he fell into the hands of one of Antony's generals and was put to death. The battle of Naulochus, near Milazzo, was not the end of Octavian's wars; he had not yet cleared the world of his adversaries; Lepidus indeed surrendered when his soldiers deserted him, and he begged for his life upon his knees, but Actium had not yet been fought and Antony had not stabbed himself in Egypt.

From the date of Octavian's conquest the position of Sicily began to change, and it was long before it again assumed a similar importance in history. With the empire began a period of peace and of agricultural development which raised the island to the height of prosperity; it had been demonstrated that no one could hold Rome who did not hold the granary whence Rome obtained her daily bread, and the emperors held it fast for centuries and bestowed exceptional care upon its good management. It had suffered severely during the wars of Sextus Pompeius, and Augustus sent a colony of Romans to Syracuse. The city, once seventeen miles in circumference, comprising five cities in one, had shrunk till it consisted of Ortygia and a small part of Achradina, much as it is to‑day. Colonies were established in like manner in many other cities p343of the island and even in Panormus, and the Latin influence began to be felt throughout the country, though not in such a manner as at first threatened the generally Greek spirit and the almost universal use of the Greek language. Brigandage had become a permanent evil, and was never again stamped out. The world-famous temple of Aphrodite on the war-worn heights of Eryx lost its importance, and but a few priests and priestesses remained there. In the interior many of the smaller towns were become shepherds' hamlets. Holm criticises many of these statements, which are taken from Strabo, as being much exaggerated, and the judgment of the master historian of Sicily cannot be treated lightly. But we must not forget the simile of the factory, and for the time being, during the wars of Sextus, the fires were extinguished, and the country must have assumed that desolate air which is characteristic of any agricultural region when agriculture is temporarily checked. The flocks and herds live on, though they may not multiply, from year to year, and the shepherd and herdsman drive their charge to pasture in lonely valleys, preserving a sort of wealth that does not easily perish all at once. But where no corn is planted, no corn will grow, and where the stubble of last year stands in the unploughed field, there it will rot, while the plough rusts beside the desolate hut, and the starving people wander among the woods and mountains, living on roots and wild fruit, or snaring p344the small game when they have the skill. If the island had not suffered very much, Augustus would not have thought it necessary to recolonize so much of it. The Roman farmers were far less skilful than the Greeks and the colonists were probably not the best of agriculturists; it was not to teach the islanders that thousands of Italians were sent among them, but rather to replenish the exhausted population, and to revive the country, that its matchless soil might bear corn enough to feed Rome, instead of only grazing cattle which could be raised as well elsewhere. It is stated that the colonists were given land that belonged to the state, and that the original landholders were not deprived of any property. To make this possible, as it was, great tracts of ownerless country must have been lying fallow.

Yet the cities were not ruined, and the old vitality was not dead in them. With the increased safety of the open country, the life spread out again in all directions, less Greek than before, and more Roman, but classic still and full of a certain free beauty that could not be stamped out by anything short of universal destruction. The Greek blood was mixed and tainted, but it was Greek still. Even to‑day, there are towns, such as Piana dei Greci, near Palermo, where the language is spoken altogether, after nearly two thousand and five hundred years. It is easy to guess how thoroughly Hellenic Sicily must still have been in the p345days of Augustus, when Greek was the fashionable language of Roman society, and Greek art was the delight of every man who was rich enough to own a statue or a picture. It is hard to understand why Romans thought it such bitter hardship to be exiled to Sicily that they sometimes preferred death to such a fate. They must have loved their city with almost childish attachment of the true Parisian for Paris.

Until the completion of the Roman conquest Sicily had preserved a sort of independence of character, with peculiarities of manners and customs which were not only Greek, but individual and different from all that characterized the southern mainland. It was the intention of Augustus to make the south altogether homogeneous with the rest of Italy, and though this was never completely accomplished either by him or his successors, it was chiefly by his efforts that the great change was brought about. Before the Roman conquest, it would not have occurred to any one to think of Sicily otherwise than as an extension of Greece; since then, it has been impossible to consider it except as a part of Italy. It never was at any time the residence of a Roman emperor, but some of the more important emperors visited it from time to time. Augustus spent some months in the island in 22 and 21 B.C. at the time when he created the Roman colonies. Caligula is recorded [Suet. Calig. 51] to have fled from Messina p346by night, frightened by an eruption of Etna, and to have celebrated games in Syracuse. Hadrian was in Sicily 126 A.D. and it is an undoubted fact that he made the ascent of the volcano at this time. Septimius Severus, before becoming emperor, was proconsul in Sicily.

The Roman influence to which the island was now subjected was strong enough to check the development of Greek culture, though not to destroy the Greek character of the people; and though an occasional rhetorician such as Caecilius of Calacte or Sextus Clodius acquired some reputation, Sicily produced neither poets nor historians of importance, and the art of that period shows rapid degeneration.

Although it may be said on the whole that what remains of ancient monuments in the island is by nature Greek, yet with the exception of the great temples, and not even excepting all of these, there is not much that has not suffered from what the Romans doubtless called improvement. In Syracuse, for instance, it seems certain that the Greek theatre was 'improved' by the Romans, and that the original simplicity of the noble stage was marred by the introduction of more or less degenerate ornaments. The same and more may be said of the amphitheatre, which must have been repeatedly enlarged and adorned.

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The highest tier
of the theatre at Taormina

The theatre of Taormina is one of the most completely p347Roman buildings in Sicily, though it undoubtedly occupies the site of the Greek theatre which preceded it. If it is one of the most beautiful spots in the whole known world, this is not due to the skill of the Roman builders, but rather to the astounding contrasts of nature which fall within the view, the vast height of the snow-capped volcano, the smooth enamel of the southern sea, the bold but strangely graceful curves of the hills on the right, the sheer fall of the land on the left, the incredible wealth of colour in nature, and the depth of the airy perspective in which every separate distance has a separate value, from the furthest line of the horizon to the soft outlines of the Calabrian hills, from the misty crown of Etna to the near fortress of Mola high on the right; and then, nearer still, to the rich brown ruin of the Roman stage at the spectator's feet. Standing on the highest tier of the theatre, a single column rears its graceful shape against the distance, insignificant before the whole, as a moment in the midst of eternity, but lovely with all the beauty that a single moment may contain. No Greek would have reared a gallery of columns above the theatre, but one may well forgive the bad taste of the Roman architect for the sake of the something romantic which never could have been Greek, and which clings to the ruins of his work. The traveller pauses and asks himself, perhaps in vain, why it is that a stronger human interest p348lies in the ruins of Roman buildings than in any of the exquisite monuments preserved to us from Grecian times; why the Coliseum, which is really hideous, has a far stronger hold upon our feelings than the Parthenon, which expresses the highest conception p349of genius; why the single column in the theatre of Taormina touches the heart, whereas the superb theatre of Syracuse, faultless at almost every point, only imposes upon the judgment and pleases the taste; or why the fane of Hera at Girgenti, noble and perfect under a perfect sky, has not the power of stirring deep memories with a thrill of imaginative life which is felt in every shadowy corner and gloomy recess of the catacombs below San Giovanni in Syracuse. The more often such a question presents itself, the harder it is to answer. Romance and beauty are neither the same, nor do they proceed from the same source; the one is often most abundantly present where the other is most completely lacking; beauty of form, of thought, and of execution was almost a prerogative of the early Greeks. This is so certain that the mere word Greek is often used in English and in other languages as synonymous with beautiful. We say 'Greek features,' and we mean the most perfect features found in humanity; we say Greek art, and we mean the highest things that art has ever thought or done; Greek philosophy is the source of all our philosophic thought, the Greek epic poem is almost unrivalled and wholly unsurpassed, the Greek play is the inimitable model after which the playwrights of the world have shaped their tragedies and their comedies ever since. Yet, to most men, the Greeks themselves, as we seem to know them, with their p350refinements, their sensitive taste, their talent for treachery, and their genius for art, are no more sympathetic than the Japanese, who possess many of the same characteristics, much of the same sensibility, and an artistic culture which in its way is quite as unrivalled as anything of which Greece could boast. The parallel might be carried far, and the recent general interest which the world has taken in Japan has collected abundant materials for an extensive comparison, of which the Japanese themselves may be justly proud. But so far as human nature is concerned, so far as their thoughts appeal to our thoughts, their motives to our motives, their ideal of honour to ours, they might as well be inhabitants of another planet; and they doubtless smile at the unceasing efforts of modern Europeans to understand them, precisely as the subtle Greek was secretly amused by the Roman's clumsy attempts to imitate him.

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The theatre of Taormina

No one has ever successfully defined romance. It may, perhaps, be that indefinable something in thought, word, and deed, and in the monuments that recall both deeds and thoughts, which makes us feel akin with the hero, the poet and the saint; that something which produces in the reader of history or fiction the intoxicating illusion that identifies him with the chief actor in the story, which makes the traveller pause upon the spot where some great fight was fought ages ago by men of his race, and wish with a longing p351which he can neither understand nor control, that he too might have lived then to strike a blow in their good cause, to shed his blood with theirs, to fall where they so memorably fell. It is that something which seizes upon a whole audience that witnesses in a play the conflict of its own passions — that something which no audience, however cultivated, however trained in classic thought, ever quite feels for a Greek play like 'Oedipus Tyrannus,' though it be played in a modern language, by the greatest actors of modern times, though its theatrical form is so perfect that every modern writer would imitate it if he could, and though its story is full of the most breathless and unflagging interest.

We do not readily realize how much Christianity has had to do with our conception of manly honour. It has influenced also our feeling for the romantic much more than we may be inclined to admit. Aesthetically speaking, as well as socially, Christianity is the link that connects us with the ancients, and the connexion has been through Rome and Italy, not through Greeks or Asiatics. With Eastern Christians, the contrary has taken place, and one need only look at the difference between us and them, with regard to social honour, to understand that our standard is Roman, and theirs Greek, that we feel sympathy for Regulus, while they find their ideal in Pericles, if not in Alcibiades; and that this difference is fundamental, lasting, p352almost unvarying. For us, the high-water mark of romance is in the middle ages, somewhere between the first and last Crusades, but somehow we feel that the romantic began in that sort of prevision of Christian honour and self-sacrifice, sometimes found among Romans, but never, I think, among Greeks, — the idea of honour that made Virginius stab his daughter in the Forum, that prompted Curtius to spring armed into the gulf, and sent Regulus back to certain death for the sake of the plighted word. This connexion of the thought of honour with Rome is one of those matters, more of sentiment than of history, or of instinctive feeling than of demonstrable fact, concerning which it is not good to argue too much, lest one be led away into finding specious reasons, where the true reason eludes the thinker. The undeniable and evident corollary, however, is that Christianity is, in some way or other, the bridge over which we lead our thoughts back to the ancient world.

This link or bridge connects the reign of Augustus and the Augustan age with the times of Constantine, and includes a period which is fraught with legends of good men and bad, during which the south has no political history worth recording, but during which its whole nature and appearance were inwardly and outwardly changed by the preaching Christianity, by the examples of the many martyrs, and by the steady growth of a new morality which, from small p353beginnings and in opposition to what seemed overwhelming odds, gradually encroached upon the ancient system, threw it into confusion, and finally drove it out altogether. That period is a sort of long miracle play, in which devoted men appear as the chief characters; apostles, missionary bishops, and saintly presbyters on the one side, and, on the other, emperors, praetors, proconsuls, and luxurious Romans, the enslaved multitude of the nameless poor ranged with the first, against the dimly splendid power of Rome. In such a conflict history becomes personal narrative, and the individual leader stands out from the confusion of the struggle, the centre of action, of interest, and of glory, the natural type and predestined type of the Christian man, the champion and protagonist of Christian freedom against heathen slavery. So, too, in Homeric times, the leaders stood out before the hosts on each side and challenged one another, and the story of war was the record of their deeds; while the ranks of Greeks and Trojans, unnoticed and unsung, fought obscure battles for life and death, and made the history which their chiefs adorned.

First came the rumour of Christianity from Palestine, travelling westward, as all new things travel, away from unchanging Asia, towards all change and progress and advancing thought. For the most it came by slaves, who told each other tales of wonder, p354tugging in chains at the galley oar, in the foul air between decks, or working in irons in the southern fields; tales that sounded like fairy stories of a time that never was and never could be, in which all men were to be set free, but not by force, nor in violent insurrection, nor by blood-shedding; and with the stories came the greater truth, for which the poor longed vaguely without understanding it, the truth of immortality and of a larger freedom among the dead, but altogether beyond death. A few of these rumours reached educated men also. A French writer of great talent has told an imaginary anecdote of Pontius Pilate, coming back to Italy when deposed from his procuratorship, full of care and trouble and tormented by political questions that were to him of vital importance. Near Baiae, I think, he met an old friend, a reader and philosopher, and after some conversation this man asked him about Jesus, and about his condemnation to death. But Pilate's look was vague, he could not remember. 'Jesus?' he asked. 'I do not recollect the name.'

The story is the fiction of a gifted writer, designed to show how small an impression the greatest event in the world's history made upon the mind of a prosaic Roman official, preoccupied for his own reputation which was at stake; but there is a typical truth in it which makes it seem possible at first sight.

The story of the introduction of Christianity into p355Sicily and the south is an inextricable confusion of truth and legend. Some say that the Apostle Peter, having founded the commonwealth of Antioch, sent out two bishops as missionaries to Sicily; and that one, who was called Pancras, came to Taormina and landed upon the beach where the first Greek colonists had drawn up their ships eight hundred years earlier. Whether this be so or not, there is little evidence and no proof; but it has been believed by many and the statue of the holy man stands upon the beach to this day. To shelter it from wind and weather, it has been moved a little inward and placed by the wall of the small church. The inscription says that it was set up in 1691 in honour of the first bishop of all Sicily, ordained by Saint Peter in the fortieth year of our Lord. The second bishop who was sent out was Martian, also saint and martyr, and he came to Syracuse and overthrew temples and built a church and wrought many wonders. In the first place he gathered together his converts in a great subterranean chamber which is beneath the church of San Giovanni near the walls of Achradina, not far from the baths of Venus, where the marvellous statue of the goddess which is in the museum of Syracuse was found among the fragments of forty-two marble columns, a hundred years ago; near the place, too, was the synagogue of the Jews; and it is said that Saint Martian chose this spot as a convenient one from which to preach p356the gospel to Jews and Gentiles alike. It is indeed a place of many holy memories, for Saint Paul came hither after his shipwreck in Malta and dwelt here three days, and hither it was said that Saint Peter himself came, on his way to Rome.

Here, too, is the burial-place of the very early Christians, and it is not now thought that it had been previously used by the Greeks. There is no city of the dead in all the world more solemn, more silent, or more suggestive of that peace which especially distinguishes Christian burial-places from all others. The Parsees' Tower of Silence, built up to represent the loneliness of the hill summit whereon the elements of man should be dissolved into the elements of the universe, is horrible with death within, and is made hideous without by flocks of vultures and loathsome birds of prey. The tombs of the Romans and the Greeks were places of gay resort upon the public way, the urns within them held a handful of ashes and a few pinches of dry dust, flowers were trained round the walls, and in the miniature gardens were set up three couches and a table for the feasts anniversary of death. Below, the road, the crowd, the chariot of the rich, the cry of the fruit-seller, the tramp of the soldier, the laughter of boys and girls. There was no peace there; there was only the evident and determined will to hide from the living the conditions of death. What Swinburne has called 'the p357lordly repose of the dead,' the peace of the body on earth, the departure of the soul to a place of refreshment, light, and peace in heaven, is a solely Christian concept. Nowhere perhaps can one so well understand what it means, as in the catacombs of Rome or Sicily, and those of Syracuse are nobler, more permanent, and, strange to say, of far greater extent.

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Catacombs at Syracuse

Corridor and chamber follow each other indefinitely, each vaulted hall surrounded by deep niches, within which graves deeper still have been hollowed in the living rock. It is not the crumbling tufa of the Roman Campagna, it is the same splendid rock in which the Greeks carved the tiers of their great theatre, and in which the Romans hewed the rough tombs that border the highway above it. Here, below the surface of the earth, it is a strange sensation to be in what one may well call a city, carved in one piece out of one stone. Here and there, at first, a bright light falls through apertures in the larger chambers, each separated from the next by a dark passage lined with graves. There are graves in the rocky floor, and to the right and left, and one above another in tiers to the spring of the solid vault; and one may go on and on, without end, mile after mile, through the unexplored silence, and many believe that the passages reach even to Catania, more than thirty miles away.

Here Saint Martian lived and preached, and by p358the sea-shore, not far away, it is said that he was put to death, not by heathens, but by the Jews; and that in the first place they laid him bound in a boat and set fire to it, and pushed it from the shore, but that, when they had seen that the fire had no power over him, they brought him to the beach again and strangled him.

In Taormina, Saint Pancras, says the tale, destroyed a temple by the sign of the cross, and silenced an oracle by fastening a letter upon the neck of the god's statue; and he made many converts, including the prefect of the city, and lived many years from the year 40 A.D., in which he was ordained by Saint Peter, until the year about 100, when he was martyred in the reign of Trajan.

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Harbour of Malta

Next after the first two missionary bishops and Saint Luke the evangelist, comes the story of Saint Paul, authentic beyond all doubt and now known to be accurate beyond all dispute. The greatest authority on navigation who has lived in this century, the late Professor Breusing, devoted much space in his work on the navigation of the ancients to a careful study of Saint Paul's voyage as described by the Apostle. The fact that Breusing was an eminent philologist as well as a mathematician and a navigator, gives great weight to his opinions and conclusions. He has demonstrated to the complete satisfaction of all mariners that Saint Paul's story is as accurate an account of p359what happened to the ship on which he sailed, as could be put together from the log and dead reckoning of a modern sailing vessel on a stormy voyage. This being the case, we are obliged to admit that p360the Apostle's extraordinary technical correctness must have extended to other matters spoken of in his account, and the most sceptical unbeliever cannot have the smallest ground for doubting that Saint Paul must have spent three days in Syracuse as he himself states. With Breusing's book in hand I have visited the little bay at the western end of Malta, 'where two seas met,' that is to say, close to the channel between Malta and Gozo, where the ship was run aground 'and the fore part stuck fast and remained unmovable, but the hinder part was broken with the violence of the waves. And the soldiers' counsel was to kill the prisoners lest any of them should swim out and escape, but the centurion, willing to save Paul, kept them from their purpose; and commanded that they which could swim should cast themselves first into the sea, and get to land: and the rest, some on boards, and some on broken pieces of the ship. And so it came to pass, that they escaped all safe to land.' Thence it was that, after spending three months in Malta, Saint Paul came to Syracuse in the Castor and Pollux, a ship of Alexandria that had wintered on the island.

The little Maltese cove is unchanged, and on the islet before it stands a colossal statue of the Apostle. The prudent English administration has fastened to the pedestal a notice warning visitors not to molest the rabbits. All round about, the wild 'ecballion' blooms under the summer sun, its healing root sucking the p361scant nourishment it needs from the stony soil, and the ceaseless breeze fans the short wild grass that here and there can find a hold. A few fishermen land on the rock below. It is a very lonely, quiet place, bathed in the most intense light, and as one pauses in the shadow of the great statue it is hard to fancy it as it must have been on that wild night so long ago, when the surf pounded upon the beach in the cove and the spray flew in sheets over the islet, and the Apostle, whose grotesque image is a landmark now, was in danger of being slain by the Roman soldiers lest he should swim ashore and escape; it is hard to think that it can ever have been so cold that the shipwrecked saint and the prisoners were very grateful to the fisher folk for building them a fire, before which they dried their garments and warmed themselves. But the blazing island can look black enough in winter, and most seamen would rather face the ocean in any mood than the Malta Channel in a southwest gale. Half the charm of the south is in its quick changes from wealth to poverty, from blooming garden to sun-bleached desolation, from languorous calm to sudden and destroying fury.

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Shore, looking down from the theatre at Taormina

We must take for granted, from the results, much that concerns the spreading of Christianity in the early centuries, and which can never be known in detail. It seems certain that the new faith found very favourable ground in Sicily, and if, as some suppose, p362the ultimate conversion of the island proceeded rather from Rome than directly from the East, it is nevertheless certain that Sicily was one of the first places where the influence was felt. The reason for the rapid growth of the religion in the island is not far to seek. The objection of Rome to Christianity was political, not ethic. Rome was ruled by a despotism, and Christianity was distinctly socialistic. In Rome, religion and state were very closely allied; the Romans were extremely tolerant of all forms of polytheism and theism in which they could detect a resemblance to their own religious practices and beliefs, in which a visible sacrifice was offered before the visible image of a god, and which, though not agreeing closely with their own, did not offend them. Even the Jews offered sacrifices and had a ceremonial upon which the Roman could put an interpretation, though it was a false one; and the Jews never made the smallest attempt to convert heathens to Judaism. But the Christians met in secret places, they slew no victims on their altars, they regarded all heathen sacrifices with abhorrence, they worshipped a man who had died the death of a criminal, under accusation of stirring up revolt and of blaspheming the deities of existing religions, and they whispered that all men were born free and should be equal hereafter, a tenet which seemed monstrous alike to the despot and his subjects. Looking at the matter with such p363fictitious indifference as a believer can assume for the sake of argument, it is certainly not strange that the Christians should have been persecuted by the government of the Emperors. For that government had the most to fear from a general socialistic movement of the slaves and the poor. The Romans believed, or chose to believe, that the Christians had no religion at all, but had formed a vast conspiracy for the purpose of overthrowing the government; and it is natural that this impression should have been created by men who met secretly, who used expressions that had no meaning to Roman ears, who had passwords and signs by which they recognized each other even at a distance. It cannot be supposed that an ordinary Roman of the early times could understand what a man meant by touching his forehead, his breast, his left shoulder and his right, in a word, by crossing himself. The gesture was a secret means of recognition; it did not suggest the cross to those who saw it, and if any heathens knew what it meant, it cannot have suggested anything but an adherence to the revolutionary principles they attributed to Christ, and a readiness to die the same death rather than submit to existing law and authority. Christianity, therefore, suffered much more as a secret society, suspected of being an extensive conspiracy against imperial and despotic government, than on account of the beliefs which it really inculcated; and the persecutions by p364which it was sought to repress it from time to time, as it grew more powerful, proceeded from a political conviction that it had a tendency to undermine authority, and not in the least from any prejudice on the part of the Romans against a religion different from their own. Violent and cruel means were usually taken for putting down any insurrection or mutiny. When the soldiers of Mummius ran away in the battle with the gladiators under Spartacus, the general who next commanded them paraded them all on a meadow and ordered every tenth man to be beheaded on the spot. At the termination of the same war, when Pompey boasted that he finally crushed out the great rebellion, he impaled six thousand prisoners on stakes planted along the Appian way at regular intervals. After the second slave war in Sicily many of the survivors were condemned to fight with wild beasts in the circus, though they had surrendered on condition that their lives should be spared. They slew each other, and their leader took his own life, rather than submit to what seemed an ignominious death. It would be easy to multiply instances of cruelties as great as any inflicted upon the Christians, all of which appeared necessary to the Roman government on purely political grounds. The fact that the performance of a sacrifice was the usual test in the case of the Christians, and that they were in actual fact put to death for refusing to take part in such a religious ceremony, does not p365affect the argument in the least. The martyrs indeed refused to sacrifice on purely religious grounds, but the Romans condemned them to death with a purely political purpose. The fact of the refusal had no religious significance in the eyes of the judges; it was merely an irrefragable proof that the accused really and truly belonged to a great organization, of which all the members were supposed to be by the most solemn oaths to die rather than to submit to authority in that shape. An almost exactly parallel case has happened in Russia, in our times, when a Christian sect bound itself not long ago to refuse any military service whatsoever, because all war, for which all military service is intended, is contrary to the spirit of Christianity. The Russian government naturally refused to regard the matter in the same light, and severe penalties were inflicted upon men who were convinced that they were suffering something like martyrdom for a religious cause, by a government which was equally persuaded that they wished to defy its authority. The logic of these facts, while it demonstrates that a very unfair amount of odium has fallen upon the imperial government of Rome for its action with regard to Christianity, does not in the least detract from the glory of those who suffered. Moreover, as has doubtless occurred in almost every country where it has been thought necessary to enforce unusual and rigorous measures, it often happened that the officials p366who were designated to execute them made use of their power to satisfy their lust, their greed, or their desire for vengeance, and that those whom they condemned became the victims not only of their own devotion to their faith, as well as of political necessity, but also of the passions that individually animated their unscrupulous judges. It may well be doubted whether the most enlightened government would tolerate the existence of a secret organization of such dimensions and importance as were attained by Christianity in the early centuries of the Empire, if that organization manifested its beliefs by refusing to conform with some generally accepted regulation or practice.

Justice therefore requires that, without at all deprecating the merit of those early Christians who suffered themselves to be torn to pieces and tortured in a thousand ways for the true faith, we should also admit that the government which inflicted such sufferings was acting, to the best of its knowledge, for the preservation of law and order.

But, as in all cases where an elaborate system for the maintenance of power throughout an immense territory comes into conflict with a movement directed and sustained by the mainsprings of human nature, the latter was destined to get the mastery in the end, and in the course of a few centuries the whole Roman Empire was practically Christianized. The most remarkable fact in connexion with this universal p367change of belief is that, although a great number of Christians were at one time or another put to death, there was at no period of the development any open struggle which could be called a religious war, such as devastated Europe in the sixteenth century, when kingdoms and principalities that believed more or less the same things fought each other to the death because they chose to believe the same things in different ways. After Constantine had accepted Christianity without imposing it by force, Julian the Apostate rejected it without proscribing it or persecuting it. Neither Mary of England nor Elizabeth acted with such moderation under similar circumstances. Constantine was too wise and good a Christian, sentimental though he was and always remained, to shed innocent blood in the hope of spreading the gospel of peace; Julian understood the nature of Christianity too well to suspect it of being a conspiracy against the Empire. The unbeliever did not exhibit the senseless rage of the Puritan and Huguenot iconoclasts; the believer was far above the bigotry of a Catherine de' Medici or a Philip the Second.

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Amantea, western Calabria

It is not necessary to depreciate the qualities, such as they were, which made Rome's domination a means of civilizing the known world, in order to exalt the merits of the Christian martyrs, whose constancy to an absolutely pure faith and whose sufferings in its cause justly earned them the title of the Holy for all p368time; any more than it would be just to disparage the saintliness of many who, in later ages, would have borne as much for the same cause, if it had been condemned to the same persecution. Christianity was most persecuted in those centres of the vast Empire where it was believed to be a source of greatest danger to the government; and while many suffered, many also took refuge in the quiet of the provinces, so that it is not unreasonable to believe that a great number of Christians escaped to Sicily after the great persecution of Nero; and if they were not the founders of the Church in the island, they were probably the p369first active propagators of the faith who laboured there. We hear of a number of atrocious martyrdoms in Sicily, it is true. The heartrending stories of Saint Agatha and Saint Lucy are too horrible to be told; but the atrocities therein recorded are referable directly to the evil passions of corrupt officials, and do not seem to have formed parts of extensive persecutions. The laws against Christians often remained inactive for long periods at a time, and were then suddenly unearthed from obscurity and put into force by governors and prefects as a means of extorting money, or of gratifying worse desires, precisely as happened many centuries later in Christian Europe with regard to the laws against the Jews. The first Sicilian martyrdom of which there is a certain record known to me took place in 164, under Marcus Aurelius, who was certainly not a persecutor. The martyrs were Victor and Corona.a The next fell under Decius, about 250, when Saint Agatha and three others were put to death. In Diocletian's reign, and therefore at least as late as 284, seventy-five Christians were martyred in Sicily; in 307 took place the horrible tragedy of Saint Lucy in Syracuse, and Saint Nympha was executed in 310, after which no further martyrdoms are recorded. Compared with the wholesale butcheries of Christians in Rome such a list is insignificant, including as it does eighty victims in the space of one hundred and forty-six years.

p370 It is not hard to understand that during the long peace enjoyed by Sicily, which extended practically from the beginning of our era to the year 440, the island should have been completely and homogeneously Christianized. About the year 280 Syracuse was plundered by a body of roving Franks who had stolen a few Roman men of war, but it was not till a hundred and sixty years later that Sicily was laid waste by the Vandals under Genseric. The West Goths had already taken possession of Italy. Alaric had thrice successfully besieged Rome, and at last had sacked the city; and then, by southern Cosenza, he had suddenly died, and his men had buried him in the bed of the river and had turned the stream again over his resting-place. He was a Christian, but an Arian. Had he lived, he would have conquered Sicily and his rule might have been good, for in peace he was just and merciful. But Sicily fell to Genseric, another Arian who came over from Africa, breathing religious hatred against Christians of all other denominations. The heresy of Arius called into question the equality of God the Son with God the Father; the orthodox bishops had condemned it, and the followers of its originator longed for revenge. The result was a persecution of the orthodox Christians such as perhaps did not take place in Sicily under the Empire. Theodosius, indeed, made an effort to rescue the island, but the Huns were upon him, and he turned away to defend dominions nearer p371home. The Arian Vandals retired, leaving destruction behind them, and when, on their way to plunder Rome itself, they attempted to land in Sicily a second time, they were repulsed. But not for long. In 456 they fought a great battle against the Romans near Girgenti and were beaten; yet the peace that had followed did not save Sicily from further devastations. A few years later Genseric overcame and destroyed the Byzantine fleet, and it was not until the Vandals had laid waste all the coasts of Italy and Sicily during seven years more, and had possessed themselves of a large part of the island, that peace ensued at last. It was not even a peace between the invaders and the Empire, for the Empire was dying in the feeble hands of the last Emperor of the West, whose and, Romulus Augustulus, seemed to recall Rome's regal and imperial beginnings, and to denote her fall in the puerile diminutive terminations. The peace was concluded between Vandals and Goths, between Genseric and Odoacer, who agreed to pay the Vandals a yearly sum, as it were, for the use of Sicily as a granary.

With this peace of 475 the story of the Romans reaches its natural conclusion, since there was to be no Rome again in the old sense for many years, not even when Charles the Great had gathered together the fragments of broken tradition, the remnants of forgotten glory, and the shreds of dismembered empire, to weld and solidify the whole into something p372that was to last a thousand years, which was to call itself the Holy Roman Empire, but which was never again to rule the world from the Palace of the Caesars. The next Rome was to be the Rome of the popes. About five hundred years elapsed between the flight of Sextus Pompeius and the peaceable accession of Odoacer the East Goth. During that time Sicily had for the most part remained in her old tributary position as the granary in chief to the capital; and the far descendants of the slaves who had ploughed and sown the land for Rome, in the days of Augustus, were Christian bondsmen tilling the same soil for a Gothic king. The moral change p373had been profound and enduring, the material difference in the conditions of the population in the one period and in the other was insignificant. Christianity was a moral force, but not then a practical civilizer. Its spreading had been accompanied by a retrogression which it had not caused, but which it was powerless to hinder, and with the stern Roman rule, which had so often tried in vain to stamp the new faith out of existence, there had disappeared also the Roman organization and discipline, and orderly distribution of wealth, which, by their civilizing influence, should go far to redeem the empire from the contempt of modern times, if not from the execration of ecclesiastical writers.

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Rocca Imperiale, eastern Calabria

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In the temple of Neptune,

Until the Vandal invasion the island was not less fertile than before, and the depredations of Genseric's horde can only have produced one of those temporary interruptions in the agricultural activity of the country which I have more than once compared to a suspension of work in a great factory. But the cities had suffered much and continually, ever since Verres had carried off their treasures and stolen their wealth, and with the gradual diminution of superfluous ready money, the power of beautifying the cities had diminished and disappeared; a further reduction of resources had made it impossible to restore monuments and public buildings which had been injured by time; and at last the total absence of means had p374resulted in that state of things which any one may see at the present day in the Ottoman Empire. As in Constantinople in our own times, so it was in Syracuse, in Palermo, in Girgenti, and in Messina, in the days of the Gothic kingdom. For lack of ready money, the Turk looks on indifferently, while some of the most beautiful buildings now existing fall to pieces from sheer neglect, while a fleet of modern war-ships rusts and rots at anchor in the Golden Horn, while an empire which should be fertile lies fallow for lack of capital. If Cicero found the tomb of Archimedes hidden in a wilderness of brambles, it needs no lively fancy to imagine what Syracuse had become in the days of Odoacer the Goth. It was the duty of Sicily to raise corn, and it was her only business to see that it was safely shipped to Italian ports. She had become accustomed to a condition of servitude in which her labour was as poorly paid as was consistent with the existence of her population; she sent out merchandise by the thousand shiploads, but had neither the power to exact payment for it nor to refuse what was demanded of her. The cities became mere places for embarking cargo, safe harbours lined with docks and quays, the almost imperishable work of Roman engineers, surrounded by granaries that were sometimes beautiful disused temples, by the offices of the corn-factors, and by the miserable habitations of the dock slaves, longshoremen, and sailors, who did p375the work of the port. From time to time, perhaps a strolling company of Greek players gathered a little audience in the theatre where Dionysius, Hiero, and the beautiful Philistis had listened to the deathless verses of Sophocles and Euripides; and the poor actors gave garbled versions of great plays that were ill tolerated by the heathen-hating bishops, but which perhaps touched the long-lost chords of memory in those who heard. For the most part the theatre was deserted, and the grass grew in the wide market-place round the ruins of Timoleon's tomb. Christianity, bred in the subterranean galleries and chambers of Achradina, had risen to the surface like a young plant in spring, and stretching out its tendrils, was appropriating to itself all that it found in its way; it was turning temples into churches, and race-tracks into cemeteries, and theatres into places of public prayer; but as yet it had not come to its flowering nor acquired an outward aesthetic beauty of its own. Where cities were going to decay, faith alone was not able to rebuild them, and the Church was content to lead a peaceable and austere existence among ruins.

The business of Sicily was not commerce in the true sense, and brought with it none of the rewards of commercial enterprise. It was the business of supply carried on under compulsion and without profit. Yet it did not at any time wholly cease; the value of p376the island to him who could hold it was, potentially, as great as ever; Sicily never became a desolate and fever-stricken waste like the Roman Campagna, the Pontine marshes, or the plain where Sybaris once bridged the river. The Greeks had made it, the Romans had used it, barbarians and pirates of many lands had plundered it, but its vitality was indestructible, and the springs of its ever renewed prosperity could not be dried up. It was yet to be, what it had been for more than a thousand years, the garden of the Mediterranean, the chief jewel in Italy's crown, and the coveted possession and treasure of each race that strove for it and held it for a while against the world.

Thayer's Note:

a The date and place of these martyrs are very uncertain. For details, and an interesting oil painting, see the church of S. Maria Assunta in Otricoli (Umbria).

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Page updated: 30 Oct 08