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Chapter XXVI

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
A History of Rome
by
Tenney Frank

published by
Henry Holt and Company
New York 1923

The text is in the public domain.

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Chapter XXVIII

 p501  Chapter XXVII

Art and Government in the Second Century

Literature. In the period of the "good emperors" there was considerable literary activity but little poetry was produced worthy of attention. There is no dominant school, the mingled peoples that came from every corner of the empire are lost, as it were, in a confusion of tongues. Imperial Rome might have been a "melting pot" of the races, but the crude ores that went into it were largely low grade, and the fire beneath the pot too feeble to extract any precious metal. The gold was lost in the slag. Among the better classes, too, the dominant spirit was that of a pessimistic Stoicism which preached the doctrines of a practical education. Creative imagination, rarely found, had no market value.

One man of genius, Cornelius Tacitus, a senator and consul, devoted a large part of his life to history. In his first work, the Dialogus, written apparently in the reign of Domitian, he shows that he at least knew some of the causes of the intellectual decline. He knew that the fall of the Republic was a blow to independent mental activity, and also that the general demand for practical results in education was destructive of all artistic creation. His life of Agricola, his father-in‑law, whose conquests in Britain have been mentioned, gives us a valuable review of the early history of that colony as well as a summary of Rome's provincial policies. His Germania was a hastily produced "war‑pamphlet" issued when Trajan was completing the work of fortifying the Rhine frontier. It is an ethnological book of inestimable value for the history of primitive social  p502 customs among European barbarians, though it must be admitted that the author pictured his barbarians in bright hues in order to use them as a contrast to decadent Rome. His Historiae gave the story of the Rome of his own day. Only a third of this work has survived. The loss of the part treating of the Flavian emperors has left us to the mercy of Suetonius, a far inferior writer. The last great work of Tacitus was the Annales, a full history of the Empire from the death of Augustus to that of Nero. More than half of this is also lost.

Like Livy, Tacitus desired to make his history a work of literary value, and like him again he tried to visualize the story, to compensate, as it were, for the lack of illustrations by effective pen sketching. He had, if possible, a deeper love of the Republic than Livy. As a senator in the days of Domitian when that republican body was being crushed by a tyrant, he wrote with intense hatred of tyranny. Indeed Tacitus himself had come very close to death at that time. This circumstance makes him a less well-balanced narrator of the past than Livy, and his burning hatred of every emperor who struck at the old constitutional forms renders his powerless to apply that calm impartiality which he honestly professes to strive for. The reader must, therefore, be on his guard, especially in the story of Tiberius who seemed to Tacitus the first of a line of tyrants and therefore the most guilty of all; and care needs to be exercised all the more since few historians have had a literary gift comparable to that of Tacitus. The range of his style from studied simplicity to sublime magnificence, the masterful terseness and incisiveness of his narration, the power to bring out his characters with a few well-chosen strokes, his indelible pictures of political crises, — these are things that compel the reader to see the empire of the first century through the eyes of Tacitus. And it must be admitted that in the main effect his version is as true as history can be. He was careless  p503 in recording military movements — in fact he had no patience with tactics — his estimate of minor personalities seems to betray hasty research, and his ethnology is not always first-rate or sound, but he knew Rome, he comprehended human nature, and he had the ability to picture what his mental eye saw. A dozen tomes accurately listing all the facts with strict fidelity to chronology would be no adequate substitute for Tacitus.

Pliny, the younger, C. Plinius Caecilius Secundus, a consul and friend of Tacitus, also deserves our gratitude for his volume of genial, commonplace and somewhat pedantic letters. These letters have not quite the value as historical documents that we accord those of Cicero, for Pliny wrote them with a view to publication, and as he was very sensitive to praise he made sure that they contained nothing that might not be considered comme il faut in the best circles. Mutatis mutandis they might have been written a hundred years ago by some sentimental country gentleman of England who prided himself on the esteem of his tenantry, his verses in imitation of Pope, his game‑bag, and his seat of honor at the Duke's table. Yet, pretentious as he is, Pliny has given us a picture of an extensive society whose existence one would not suspect from the pages of Juvenal and Tacitus, a picture of a correct, but forceless and unoccupied Roman aristocracy whiling away its time hotels harmlessly at literary recitals, charity, and dinners with the right people. The most important part of his volume is the tenth book containing his letters of inquiry to Trajan from the province of Bithynia and Trajan's masterly answers.

Juvenal (D. Junius Juvenalis), the satirist, was not a member of Pliny's correct circle, though of about the same age as Pliny. He seems to have been an unsuccessful lawyer who turned to soldiering for an occupation, and as tribune of a barbarian cohort saw service in Britain as well as in Egypt. Born at the small town of Aquinum, and  p504 seeing much of a simple world in his provincial service, he could comprehend Rome in a way that the aristocratic Pliny could not, and what he saw aroused his indignation. His scorn for the pretentious futility of the court circles and the unconscionable wantonness and unoccupied and bored society women is as bitter as for the motley rabble on the streets that could not even understand Latin, and the business men who drew their income from illicit gain. There are sixteen of these gruesome satires. The best known are doubtless the third, paraphrased in Dr. Jackson's "London," and the tenth, adequately reproduced in his "Vanity of Human Wishes." A an antidote to Juvenal one must read Pliny; for a true picture of the capital a composite of the two would probably suffice.

C. Suetonius Tranquillus (about 75‑160) was a polymath whose works hardly belong to literature. His "Lives of the Caesars" down to Domitian, the only work of his that has survived, has much that is of interest to historians. Suetonius seems to be more impartial than Tacitus, partly because he has no fixed point of view and gathers his material from all sources. In fact he lacks either the ability or the desire to compose consistent characterizations, yielding rather to the easier task of heaping facts and anecdotes; and his work is vitiated by that deep interest in mysteries and superstitions which had now begun to spread over the Roman world from the East. The great value of his work lies chiefly in the fact that as Hadrian's secretary he used the imperial archives, at times preserving materials accessible to no other historian.

M. Cornelius Fronto (about 75‑160) has left us some of the letters he wrote to his former pupil, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. They interest us chiefly by showing how the Latin language of the day was losing its native vigor and returning imitatively to a pretended likeness to that of Cato. This "elocutio novella," as it was called, reminds us not a little of a certain immigrant English that appears in cheap metropolitan  p505 magazines at times. The basis was an artificial Latin acquired in school reading, Catonian, Ciceronian, and Vergilian. Into this went a condiment of recent colloquial expressions, while the imagery was apt to be floridly Oriental. It is precisely what one would expect of an African like Fronto whose native language was probably Carthaginian, and who had been brought up in the provincial schools where the republican authors were still in vogue. That such a style could impose itself on Rome as a commendable kind of Latin proves how many there were who had not acquired the real native savor of the language from Roman parents.

Apuleius is a more interesting African who, though like Fronto he put away his native tongue for the best "new Latin" available, refused to shape his imagination into an orthodox Roman mold. Besides several books of indifferent lectures, orations, and dialogues, — for he was also a lawyer and teacher — he left a very delightful story-book called the Metamorphoses, recounting the adventures of a man who had by magic been turned into an ass. Several of the stories that occur in the course of the narrative have been retold by Boccaccio and others, and the best one, that of "Cupid and Psyche," has entered the stock of tales known to everyone. Apuleius' style is a conglomeration of Latin acquired in the correct school books and that which he found on the streets, the whole colored by native idioms not forgotten, and by an un‑Roman exuberance of phrase. He sometimes rises to imaginative heights, at times he shocks us by crudities of taste and expression, but he is at least always entertaining.

This is not the place to speak fully of the many Greeks who were now writing, though it must be said that by this time practically all of them came into direct contact with things Roman, and many of them owed their inspiration to Roman themes or Roman patronage. Plutarch, for instance, though he lived most of his life in Greece, received  p506 the honors of a consul from Trajan. And his enjoyable "Parallel Lives" deal as fully with Roman statesmen as with Greek. He could read Latin and frequently used Roman sources. It has long been recognized, however, that he concerned himself little as to whether his portraits were very accurate, provided only they served the purpose of "boys' books" in being readable and in providing a "moral." Even Lucian, the one literary genius of the second century, ended his days at a Roman civil service desk. This Asiatic of Samosata, whose witty dialogues are to Juvenal's satires what a Damascus sword is to a bludgeon, proves by his trim Attic speech that the Greek world, like the Latin, had lost itself, and had to go back to a preceding age to find its language.

The strangest phenomenon in all the literature of this day however is the book of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, the scion of wealthy business men who wrote his philosophic meditations in a facile scholastic Greek. It was the book of the slave Epictetus, who had to flee from Rome in Domitian's reign, that inspired him; and the crushed spirit of the meek and pessimistic drudge seems nowhere so out of place as in the palace of the Roman emperor. It would seem that when the Romans had subdued the world — debellare superbos, Vergil called it — and destroyed the spirit of independence and taught the subdued the beatitudes of humility, the world of subject-races with the code of subjects had taken its revenge, flooded even the metropolis, and now at last forced upon the rulers themselves the acceptance of its gospel.

Art. In the art of this period there is perhaps more originality than in the literature since the imperial conquerors provided many great deeds to be illustrated in new ways and gave extensive commissions to sculptors and architects. We have mentioned the great column of Trajan on which the sculptors had the wholly new experiment to work out of telling the story of a picturesque war in the  p507 form of a winding scroll. It was a very bold conception, and had to be executed in such a way that it could hardly fail to jar upon the taste of Romans fond of realism. Space and time must both be put into subjection, and picture must merge into picture progressively to suit the extended frame and hide the suppression of space. The artists were, to be sure, still unable to solve the problems of perspective, but many difficulties were successfully overcome. The eye is constantly guided from incident to incident by the unifying figure of the recurring emperor, variety is attained by the employment of every kind of incident, and a sense of actuality by attention to the minutiae of Dacian and Roman landscape, portraiture, and costume. The "continuous" style invented for the decoration of Trajan's buildings left its influence for many hundreds of years.

On Trajan's arch at Beneventum, to which we have also referred, the more conventional style suited to separate panels occurs again. But here too there is an admirable facility shown in seizing what is most typical and characteristic in the emperor's career, and in embodying the spirit of his reign in simply composed and impressive scenes.

In the days of Hadrian, the great traveller, there were fewer attempts to try new problems. Hadrian was a man of catholic tastes and few prejudices. His sprawling villa below Tivoli, with its suggestions borrowed from every corner of the Greek East, shows how he preferred to gather artistic reminders of things his memory liked to dwell on. And it is likely that in his travels he also sought out artists wherever he found pleasing work done, brought them to Rome and gave them commissions. His period therefore, though it has left much good work, is not dominated by any artistic accomplishment of outstanding originality.

The most striking work of art in the days of Marcus Aurelius is a column illustrating the Marcomannic war, a shaft which like Trajan's is a hundred feet high, and still standing in the Piazza Colonna at Rome. It is of course  p508 done in the same continuous style, and the actual workmanship is hardly inferior. The interest is not so well sustained, however, since only pictures could be taken out of the emperor's eight years of campaigning, and these seem to be employed without regard to their chronological position, perhaps in order to obtain greater effects of contrast. One feels also that a pictured roll, pertinent enough when set up by Trajan between his two libraries, need not have been repeated in the Campus Martius, where after all it must have been rather bewildering. The individual scenes are, however, appealing. Marcus Aurelius doubtless had a share in choosing many of them and in suggesting various details, for there is here less of the joy in battle than in Trajan's column and not a few suggestions of the unsmiling Stoic fate which so pathetically peers out of every page of the Meditations.

Religion. Had Scipio returned to Rome in the days of Marcus Aurelius he would not have felt at home. Nor would the magnificence of the city have compensated for the strange-looking people on the streets, the jargon of tongues they spoke, the lion-hunts, and gladiatorial shows in the Colosseum, and, we may add, the servile Senate. But what would have astonished him most would doubtless have been the weird and noisy processions of the worshipers of Isis, the blood offerings of devotees of Magna Mater seeking life eternal, the mystical congregations of Mithraic initiates performing incomprehensible antics in underground churches. He may have seen such things in Asia in his war with Antiochus but he could hardly have supposed that Rome would ever be overwhelmed by this strange baggage.

Why it is that Europe has never created a great religion while Asia has provided the religions of Zoroaster and Buddha; of the Jews and Christians, of Mithras, Mohammed and all the rest, has long been discussed. When the Roman proconsuls went out to their eastern provinces  p509 they were struck particularly by the fact that the provincials were intensely in earnest about the mysteries of religion. Whatever might be the name of the strange deities, the devotees generally believed in a life after death and made it a very important part of their daily routine to secure admission to that on the best terms possible. They seemed ever to feel a consciousness of sin or at least of physical impurity before a deity, and an eagerness to cleanse away the stain so as to be fitted for communion with the deity. They interested themselves in rites of purification, in fasting, in bodily torment, in initiations and sacraments which they had learned to consider efficacious. They looked in general upon this world as unhappy, the woes of which could be compensated for by joys in a life beyond. They rejected the validity of reason with reference to religious questions and insisted that the intellect must subject itself to an act of faith, a complete unquestioning surrender to revealed authority. The old Romans of Cicero's day could not comprehend such things; occasionally they played curiously with the rites of the Eleusinian mysteries because these were old and "Greek," but that was all. Their attitude was in general that which we may call European. They found this life satisfactory and reasonable and evinced no particular longing for another; men did best to follow Nature, indeed man's natural inclinations were not full of sin and taint, they needed only the reasonable control of the intellect. And as for accepting faith as a guide, nothing seemed more stupid to the Romans, since man had the guidance of reason as his proudest faculty.

This difference of attitude was perhaps the result of a real physical and mental difference between the Romans and most of the Asiatics. It has been suggested that the semi-arid and unreliable country of western Asia made for the survival of a nervous and apprehensive temperament, and that the continued failure of democracy to establish itself and the inevitability of autocratic governments in  p510 that region are but other phases of the same condition. Be that as it may, Arabs and Syrians, Cappadocians, Jews, and Armenians seem to have differed but little in their religious attitude. Even the Etruscans who had come to Italy from Asia had carried with them the same religious "fussiness," as the Romans called it, and had imposed it to some extent on the Roman ritual when they ruled Rome. But Republican Rome had done much to confine the ritual to a cold and formal cult, the interest in which dwindled more and more among the people as the Etruscan element in Italy diminished. In the Empire, however, when, as Juvenal puts it, the waters of the Orontes (in Syria) flowed into the Tiber, they carried a burden of Oriental folk into the West, and these people brought with them their own rites.

Mithraic worshipers had first come to Rome as prisoners of war captured by Lucullus and Pompey in the wars with Mithradates and the Cilician pirates. These slaves of course had little influence and were too poor to build chapels for themselves. Their coming affected Roman cults but little at first. It must be remembered, however, that even if they forgot their rites temporarily, their children, who rose to better conditions, provided a receptive soil for the seeds of the mystical cults that were later imported. Then Augustus, Tiberius, Corbulo, Vespasian, and Trajan brought new hordes of captives and when the descendants of these rose in the social scale they carried their religions to respectability with themselves. Their churches sprang up everywhere, supported frequently by wealthy Oriental traders who established branch offices at Rome and at the Italian seaport towns. Finally soldiers who were being constantly recruited in the East, beginning with the levies of Pompey, Brutus Cassius, brought with them their own cults. These soldiers not only served in all the Western provinces, especially during the fifty years after Vespasian's army reforms, but they  p511 were ultimately discharged as Roman citizens and settled in various parts of the empire as well as at Rome. Excavations have revealed more than sixty centers of Mithraic worship at Rome alone and seven in the small seaport town of Ostia, and there is hardly a large city anywhere in the empire or any important military camp in Britain, Gaul, Spain or on the Danube line where dedicatory inscriptions to Mithras are not found.

This religion was of the usual Oriental type through somewhat cleaner of dross than most of them. It had grown out of Zoroastrianism by the aid of Chaldean mysticism and astrology. Mithras was the light‑god who helped men in their struggle to escape the fiend of darkness, Ahriman, and to reach Ahura Mazda, the power of light. The worshipers were members of congregations who aided each other in times of difficulty, and they worshiped regularly in their underground chapels with prayer and an elaborate ritual. These congregations possessed all the fascination of secret societies, conferring seven degrees of initiation which involved fasting, ablutions, and the memorizing of secret chants and watchwords which were designed to aid the souls of the initiates after death past the evil demons to the highest stars of heaven. The aid of Mithras was thought to be personal and ever present, the rites provided relief from bodily taint, the promise of eternal happiness was certain, and here and there at least the devotees also prayed for moral purification.

It is not surprising that the Orientals who had known this faith clung to it persistently. It is certain also that it obtained many new converts in the West, though it is not so certain that men of real Occidental stock accepted it to any extent. When later we find senators bringing offerings to Mithras we may generally conclude that they had descended from Oriental ancestors who had long before gained citizenship and risen to wealth and dignity through a successful business career; and the emperors who paid  p512 respect to Mithras did so usually because they considered it wise for political reasons to show a formal sympathy with cults that were accepted by a large part of the people and of the army. It has often been said that Mithraism was once a strong rival of Christianity and might conceivably have become the religion of Europe. This is not quite correct. Its vast extension westward is in general an evidence simply of the wide extension of Orientals in the West. When Oriental cohorts ceased to serve on the western frontier the cult died out in the western camps. It survived longest at Rome because Rome was so thoroughly flooded with men of Oriental blood.

Mithraism was perhaps the most successful of the mystery religions but there were many others carried through Roman territory in the same way. The ancient religion of Isis, which was inspired by the belief that Isis had restored Osiris to life and therefore could give immortality to all devotees, throve wherever Alexandrian slaves and merchants went. The processions of Isis in which the story of the resurrection of Osiris was portrayed were so impressive, the use of hypnotism and of all the arts of spiritualistic mediums so cunning that not a few Orientals were caught. This religion like that of Mithras offered an escape from the sense of guilt, communion with deity, sympathetic fellowship, and immortality, and it spread beyond the colonies of Egyptians particularly among the poor and ignorant.

The worship of Magna Mater also took on new life during the Empire. The cult that had first been brought to Rome in the second Punic War for patriotic reasons had as we have remarked been locked in on the Palatine as soon as the Senate discovered what an amazing thing they had imported. But in the Empire when Rome had thousands of citizens from the Anatolian plateau, the home of the religion, Magna Mater had to be let out; and now the devotees that had recently come from the East added  p513 to the Palatine cult many crude practices that had never been seen at Rome before. The most remarkable of these was the taurobolium (the slaying of the bull) and the cleansing of sin in its blood. The ablution was actually performed. The bull was killed above a cavern where the convert stood so that its blood gushed down over the penitent sinner. At some places this ablution was supposed to afford purification for twenty years, at others the convert was said to be renatus in aeternum — reborn for everlasting life.

Other deities of the same kind brought in by slaves, recruits, and sailors from their native countries, were the Dea Syria (Atargatis) of Northern Syria, Ma‑Bellona of Cappadocia, the Baal of Heliopolis (Baalbek), identified by his worshipers with Jupiter, and therefore called Jupiter Optimus Maximus Heliopolitanus, the Baal of Beyrut, and a score of others. Finally it must not be forgotten that Jewish synagogues were numerous. Pompey had taken many captives in his campaign in 64 B.C. and others had been brought from time to time from other captured cities of the East where Jewish settlements were found. There were 4000 freedmen of this race sent from Rome to Sardinia to do guard duty by Claudius. Moreover the capture of Jerusalem brought a hundred thousand Jews to Rome to be sold and many others came to the metropolis of their own free will to trade after their government was destroyed, for it must be observed that Rome, though she destroyed the Jewish state, never attempted to destroy the religion.

Such then were the religions which were most popular at Rome in the days of Marcus Aurelius. That their influx is concomitant with a thorough-going change in the spirit of Rome is not surprising. The peoples bringing these cults were absolutely incapable by temperament of understanding the calm and rational attitude of Caesar and Cicero towards the problems of life, government, and philosophy.  p514 To them democratic independence was incomprehensible, and a state cult in which the individual had no personal contact with the deity seemed ludicrous. A patriotism which assumed that the civil institutions of the state were worth fighting for made no appeal to them. Glory and honor attained in the service of the state were to them quite futile. They had rather been brought up to humble obedience, to self-suppression, to a life of hardship from which a personal god gave his devotees some relief during their lifetime and more after death. Their code was to endure what had to be, to help each other as much as possible, to serve God in every way that the rules required. Rome became more and more saturated with such opinions and no class could quite escape them. The generous giving of gifts, the increasing manumission of slaves and the grant of legal privileges to them, the decreased stress upon military glory, the remission of taxes to provincials, and the relaxation of discipline in the army, are in part a recognition of the spirit of a non‑Roman population. And to the same source we must credit the emergence of the medieval mysticism and superstition, the relaxing of rigid thought, the ready yielding to faith and intuitions, the suppression of reason, and the helpless acceptance of destiny that began to make itself felt in the writings of this period. Even the Occidentals — though there are not many left at Rome — breathe in the miasma. Thought is out of fashion, and so is vigorous endeavor and investigation; impressive ceremony, oracular rant, and emotionalism hold sway. The medieval attitude towards life and the darkening of the intellectual light are not far off.

Christianity also was now making rapid progress all through the West. In a sense this was an Oriental religion also, but any attempt to classify it with them would only obscure its essential points. This is not the place to describe or estimate its value, but it is necessary to consider from the point of view of a rationalistic Roman what it had  p515 to appeal to him, and what induced him to accept a religion so utterly at variance with his mode of thought. It did not reach Romans in the form in which Jesus presented it. Probably Romans in their pride of position in the days of Tiberius would not have felt the need of a doctrine that taught the fatherhood of a loving God, personal communion with Him, the rightness of forgiving one's enemies, meekness, and non‑resistance. They were hardly ready for that. The doctrine was first brought, however, not to Romans but to Jewish slaves and freedmen of the West, and it laid stress upon doctrines that interested Jews rather than Romans. For Paul preached that Jesus was their Messiah, that he had died to atone for their sins, that he had risen from the grave to rule forever. These doctrines were presented with scriptural evidence drawn from their prophets, and the written testimony of personal followers of Jesus; and since there were Jewish groups everywhere that accepted the proofs offered, a nucleus of worshipers soon formed in all the large cities of the Empire. Then since both the Jewish and the Christian religions demanded proselyting and the acceptance of the one religion as the only condition of salvation — no other Oriental religion did that — a strong compulsion was supplied that spread the doctrines among other slaves and freedmen.

From the point of view of other Oriental religions this new faith as preached by Paul had all that any of them offered, and much besides. It offered a personal communion with the deity, a cleansing from all sin, an assurance of immortality. It recognized sacrifice, which in this case had been performed for all, it offered devotees communion in worship with their fellows, and the ritual was clean and simple, for a symbolic baptism in water and participation in the eucharist sufficed. Thus a poor Syrian or Armenian slave may have reasoned to himself as he worked by the side of some zealous Christian enthusiast who pleaded and argued with him. Doubtless he was also told that Mithras  p516 was a mythical being of whom there was no record, whereas the Messiah had been foretold in old prophecies that were accessible and the records of his miraculous life could be bought for a few sesterces. But what may have appealed most was the remarkable effect of the religion on those who adopted it, the kindness and generosity, the truthfulness and purity of life, that contrasted so favorably with the behavior of devotees of other cults. Here was a religion that appealed to the deep-lying springs of altruism. It was hard to resist for those Orientals who had no reason to question the respectability of the source and who were already accustomed to the phrases and the mystical ideas of the East, and at this time these were more than a majority at Rome.

But among the native Romans who still associated Christianity with a despised province and with un‑Roman forms of thought, it made but little progress in the first century. It entered senatorial households gradually, partly by way of Christian nurses who had the children of such families in their care all day long, partly through the rise of lowly families into high position, partly through the fact that Oriental teachers who adopted it began to sever it from Judaism entirely and to put it into terms of transcendental Greek philosophy which seemed quite respectable in senatorial circles. Thus it came about that such men as Domitian's cousin, Clemens, and the senator Acilius had, as it seems, accepted Christianity before the end of the first century.

We have remarked above that persecution of Christians by Nero was an accident due to Nero's whimsical tyranny, but that it bore evil consequences in producing the decree that Christians were dangerous to the state. The principle accordingly seems to have been adopted by Domitian that the confession of being a Christian was enough to cause the imposition of the death penalty, and at that time also the emperor's statue was used as a convenient  p517 method of proving the charge. Perhaps Domitian, who insisted so fanatically upon respect for his godhead, based his decree of persecution partly on the Christians' refusal to worship him. If so, he seems to be the only emperor before Commodus who persecuted for purely religious reasons. Later emperors seem to have applied police force to suppress a sect which the records proved to be inimical to the state. Any general effort to suppress Christianity we do not find thereafter till the time of Marcus Aurelius, though provincial governors were at liberty to act on the Roman court decrees of Nero's duty if they wished. In one of his most interesting letters to Trajan, Pliny asks how he should treat this sect which had very many adherents in Bithynia. His letter shows that persecutions had been instituted, especially by merchants who dealt in sacrificial victims and had lost money by the spread of Christianity. Trajan answers that the old decree must be observed if genuine proof is brought, but that the governor should not seek them out nor pay any attention to anonymous charges and that he should accept a reliable denial. When we recall that a false charge made a prosecutor liable to conviction for calumnia we realize that this rescript must practically have stopped persecution, for it was soon made generally known by Pliny's publication of it. Persecution of a more extensive kind was, however, encouraged by Marcus Aurelius who himself went so far in exemplifying the Christian virtues. What induced this action we do not know. Perhaps in his extensive recruiting he found the pacific sect recalcitrant, and he was thus convinced that the name actually covered treasonable conspiracy. At any rate he was ready to do what he considered his duty to the state, be it ever so distasteful. By his day, however, the church was well organized and it had many able defenders, especially among Greeks and Orientals, who took the occasion provided by the emperor to call attention to the high worth of the Christian doctrines.  p518 Hence the church gained tenfold by the losses caused by the persecution.

The condition of the empire. The period of the "good emperors" and especially of the Antonines was, except for the plague, one of apparent prosperity, good government and general satisfaction. Aristides speaking for the Greeks says, though with some exaggeration, that within the empire strife had disappeared and cities now vied with one another only in their splendor and their pleasures, that they were all crowded with porticoes, gymnasia, temples, and schools; that travellers might go from one end of the empire to the other in safety even through deserts and mountains. "The whole world is a paradise." Even the Christian apologists, who criticized the popular antagonism toward their sect, were free to praise the benefactions of the emperors in maintaining universal peace and safety. Bryce​1 has pointed out that in many parts of Europe the Roman roads built at this time continued even in the eighteenth century to be the chief avenues of travel, and that Southern Europe seems to have enjoyed better order under Hadrian and the Antonines than was enjoyed again until nearly our own time. Cities were in a flourishing condition in all parts of the empire. We are told that the province of Asia had 500 prosperous cities which more than rivalled the splendor of Ionia before the Persian conquest. Egypt is credited with forty large cities. Even the agri decumates beyond the Rhine would seem from excavations to have had some 160 thriving communities. More than 120 towns were organized in Dacia beyond the Danube. In Africa, where Marius on his nine days' march from Lares to Capsa had found nothing but sands and serpents, and where to‑day the road leads through parched deserts, large cities had sprung up everywhere: Thysdrus must have had 40,000 inhabitants, Thelepte 50,000, Sufetula 25,000 and Cillium 12,000. Such were the miracles of  p519 peace, good government and careful methods of agriculture. Roman citizenship was now enjoyed by almost all the people of Spain, a large portion of Gaul, many cities of the Danube provinces, in Greece and in the East.

The taxes were reasonable. While the state drew revenue from state-owned mines and rented crown-lands, from Egyptian factories and a monopoly on salt, from moderate port dues, usually of from two to five per cent ad valorem, a four per cent on the sale of slaves, five per cent on the price of manumitted slaves and a general sales tax of one per cent, the ordinary provincial had to pay only the equivalent of about ten per cent on the value of his annual produce. What farmer in America to‑day would not quickly compound his federal, state, and county taxes for a tithe of his crop? Recent emperors had been very careful in appointing honest procurators, and treated no criminal more severely than the man who attempted to rob provincials. In return for peace and absolute security the price was small. The Roman empire seems to have justified itself completely in the eyes of friends and enemies alike. It is not surprising that peoples beyond the Caspian Sea sent envoys to Rome begging the emperor to take them under his beneficent protection.​a

A closer examination of municipal life in Italy and abroad gives the same general impression, but it will also reveal some of the symptoms of lurking disease. Rome had of course always made much of local autonomy; that in fact had been one of the chief factors in her early success. Even the changes in the city government of the metropolis had little effect on the form of other cities. Though the assemblies at Rome had long ago been suppressed they were still functioning in the other cities. In many Greek cities popular assemblies were actually still passing the city ordinances. In Italy the semi-aristocratic form of municipal government survived as it had even in the late Republic  p520 when Rome for a time became a pure democracy. The usual form in Italy provided that the populace elect the annual board of four magistrates (quattuorviri), including two executives with judicial power (duumviri jure dicundo) and two administrative magistrates (duumviri aedilicia potestate) who looked after streets, police, etc. The curia, consisting usually of a hundred members (decuriones) was the city council which passed local ordinances. This body was made up of all men who had held the aforesaid annual magistracies, and if the number did not suffice, the higher magistrates of every quinquennium (called quinquennales during that year) filled up the body from among the most respectable citizens. The city governments required no taxation, for two reasons. In the first place every city seems at its foundation to have set aside a portion of its lands as city property, the rental of which was intended to bear the running expenses. Secondly, the running expenses were light. It was still possible in the municipalities to depend upon the deeply ingrained republican feeling that a gentleman's business was public service, and that the greatest rewards of life came from public esteem. Hence there was no thought of paying salaries to the quattuorviri or to the decuriones. In fact numerous candidates for these honorable offices not only offered themselves, but the wealthy invited popularity, and consequent reëlection, by liberal gifts of public buildings. At Pompeii, for instance, we find that the two theaters, a bath, and several of the temples, had been given to the city by such men. In return for gifts, the decuriones would of course inscribe a laudatory tablet or erect a statue to the benefactor. In this way most cities of Italy had their magistrates without salaries, even when Hadrian was paying large salaries for all his civil service officials at Rome; and they also received gratuitously their theaters, temples, baths, and frequently even public schools and charitable  p521 foundations, at times with endowment to pay for their upkeep.

The system worked with laudable success, though we may suspect that one reason why Trajan and later emperors appointed juridici to intervene in the local governments of Italian cities was that unfit men were sometimes elected because of their benefactions. Yet who shall say that the populace would have elected better men had the modern salary-system existed and ward-bosses in search of salaries contended for the offices? A more serious criticism of the system we shall meet presently. We shall find that these wealthy men, usually large plantation owners, suffered financial losses when the civil wars came on, when for various reasons the productivity of their lands gave out. Then there were fewer good candidates ready to serve for honor and to face the expectation of giving gifts to the city. We shall also see that such men preferred to enter the civil service at Rome where salaries were paid. Then the municipalities suffered for want of good magistrates, and the government had to compel men to carry the burden of office. There were already signs in some cities that such a condition was near at hand. Within a century the situation became distressing.

Economics. The general economic situation of the empire was not nearly as healthy as it may have seemed to the casual observer. The cities everywhere were accumulating many beautiful show places given by the wealthier citizens, but there is reason to think that the quarters where the poor lived were deteriorating markedly. Wealth was too unevenly distributed; and the portion reduced to poverty was inordinately large. Sicily as we have seen had worn herself out in cereal culture before the day of Augustus and had not yet recovered. Africa, which under the scientific methods of the Roman immigrants sprang into prominence as the granary of Rome, had too thin a soil to endure intensive culture very long. When the top soil gave out  p522 there was only sand beneath, and Africa had already begun to raise signals of distress. Egypt was now coming into her turn as a cornº-province, and Egypt could stand the strain fairly well since the Nile waters fertilized the soil every year, but Egypt had a large population of Hamitic state-serfs. The province was a great economic resource, but that was all. Her people could never become the dependable citizens that Rome needed. The Eastern provinces were on the whole economically self-sufficing and a little more than that. In fact Romans still owned large tracts of land there — not very fertile — from which they drew some annual income. Asiatics and Syrians made considerable wealth from commerce — they were still the most successful traders on the Mediterranean. They also directed some of the caravan trade with India, Arabia, and the Chinese. This produced much wealth. And some of them had factories, especially in various grades of fine cloth, in glassware and jewelry, in ointments and in furniture. We hear of some very wealthy nabobs in the East who gave luxurious buildings to their native towns. But apart from this, the thrifty people of the parched country kept up home industries in a wholesome fashion. The women were apt at embroidery, at tapestry-weaving, and at rug‑making and the proceeds supplied the pantry, for these goods brought high prices in the western cities. The East, therefore, though the lands were poor and were largely held by absentee landlords, was prospering, perhaps more than ever before. And yet the East proved to be an expensive part of the empire. The populace could never be relied upon for support in any crisis. It never supplied its fair quota of troops for the frontier, since it lacked fighting quality. Even its own borders had usually to be defended by Gauls, Germans, and Dacians in times of invasion. Its trade and manufactured articles drew heavily on the currency of Rome, and competed at such a low cost as to discourage western industry and trade; and finally its people were temperamentally  p523 and religiously so different from the Romans that when brought to the West they weakened rather than strengthened Rome.

In the eastern provinces of Europe there was much mountainous country where the barbaric shepherd folk lived their old lives (as they do in Albania and Dalmatia to‑day) without much regard for who was overlord. In the Danube valley and in Dacia, to be sure, cities were springing up and accepting the civilization of Italy. But the folk movements were soon to come on when these were to have little time for anything but defending themselves. Meanwhile these cities lived of course upon the agriculture of the region.

In Gaul the southern part was thoroughly Romanized. The land was still productive and home industries, especially in pottery, were competing more than successfully with those of Italy. In central Gaul — Lugdunensis — citizenship had been conferred upon several towns, but the Celts generally preferred to dwell on their farms, and their local governments were still usually tribal rather than municipal. Under such conditions thorough-going Romanization was slow. Gaul was, however, a bulwark of strength in every way to Rome. Her cohorts were among the most dependable in Rome's armies, her citizens law‑abiding though still clannish, and the resources of her rich lands generous enough to supply Rome with a large tribute and still keep her own people in prosperity. But for Gallic men and resources the story of Rome after 200 A.D. would have been much abbreviated.

We come then to Italy where we found in Augustus' day a wide distribution of small lots of land to soldiers, a temporary improvement of cereal culture at the time when little foreign grain was imported, and a rather vigorous industry at least in the region of Campania and in the north. During the Empire Italy generally shows regression along all economic lines. As the East secured peace, and the  p524 Spaniards and Gauls were Romanized these provinces developed industries of their own and rather competed with than aided those of Italy. And as Africa and Egypt developed more and more into grain-raising countries the exhausted Italian lands found it more difficult to market grain profitably. There was a tendency, therefore, to fall back again upon grazing and vine culture more than in the days of Augustus. Internal changes are also noticeable. As there had been no new distribution of allotments for two hundred years, there was nothing to prevent the operation of the economic tendency — always so noticeable at Rome — of the small farmer giving up the struggle before the great landlords. To be sure many small farmers still persisted, but the drift was decidedly back to the latifundia, and those generous and much lauded municipal officials whose names are so much in evidence on the bases of statues at this time were mostly rich landlords. We must also keep in mind the fact that cruel emperors like Nero had proscribed many senators and rich knights and had turned their lands into imperial estates. There were vast estates of this kind all over Italy.

Another change now noticeable is that large estates are more and more leased to renters (coloni) rather than worked by slaves. Not that the slaves were necessarily dismissed. They were often turned directly into renters of small plots, often set free for the purpose, though not necessarily so. At any rate the landlord would rid himself of the cares of personal supervision by cutting up his estate into small lots, distributing some of them to his slaves and freedmen and some to citizen tenants, receiving from them a fixed annual rental in kind. What hurried on the tenantry system was doubtless the constant rise in the price of slaves, due to a growing scarcity after peace was generally established through the world. This system did not improve the economic conditions of Italy. The old Romans had been skilful farmers and had taken great pains  p525 to keep their farms in condition by rotating crops, by using manure, leguminous plants and clover, and by occasional grazing. Tenants are notoriously careless about the condition of the land. They neither have the money to put into the land nor the concern for its future worth. When we find that at the end of the second century there were many abandoned farms in Italy we may be sure that this was due not only to the awful plague that raged during the last ten years of Aurelius' reign but also to the bad farming methods practised under the widespread tenantry system, both on the imperial estates and on private farms. Italy, then, was not by any means in a healthy economic condition, despite the apparent accumulation of handsome buildings in most of her cities. We shall see that in the next century her tenants gradually fell into serfdom.

In concluding this brief survey, we may ask whether the Roman empire had actually justified its imposition of a world-wide rule. The pampered rabble of Rome, if asked the question, would readily have answered in the affirmative; probably Spain, Gaul, and the Orient would have agreed. If we had only the results apparent in the days of Marcus Aurelius, we might be skeptical. At any rate the Empire had committed a sin which it is difficult to forgive in that it had leveled the whole world to a futile uniformity. There was general peace and in many places prosperity. Most men could live in a higher degree of physical comfort than ever before. Slavery was fast going out, the poor were cared for, commerce brought the necessities of life quickly where crops failed, cities and tribes in the empire did not attack each other, crime was repressed. But these good things were too largely imposed from without, and the spiritual force of the people seems somehow to have died. Let but the restraining power be loosened for a season, and we shall see what the civilization was worth.

Moreover all this material prosperity was accomplishing  p526 nothing of value. There were enough families of wealth living easy care-free lives. But, as in so many of our western republics, they were living with a misplaced pride on the reckless exploitation of the natural resources which their children would need, but would find wasted when the critical moment came. It pleased their vanity when they could walk through the towns and see handsome buildings inscribed in large letters with their names, but those very buildings were soon to crash in a ruin which the builders did nothing to stem. The prosperous men were wasters of nature's resources; they created nothing. Not one penetrating discovery in any science, not one principle of art, not one lasting book, not one constructive idea in government came for the benefit of later generations from all those successful men of the magnificent second century.

It was a great misfortune also that the union of all nations in one had destroyed wholesome international competition. How stimulating in ideas to the Greeks and Romans had been the rivalry of their city-states! What theories of state Plato had built on the juxtaposition of Athenian democracy and Spartan aristocracy! How it stimulated art when great sculptors and architects were bid for by vying cities! How eager the Romans were in the days of Scipio not to be put to shame by Hellenic cities! One feels the stimulus of a challenging Greece everywhere in Vergil and Cicero and Lucretius. Scipio Nasica had been shrewd enough to see that even the government needed the spur of rivalry and regretted nothing so much as the fall of Carthage and Corinth. "Now you will have none to fear and," he added scornfully, "none before whom you need stand in shame." It is a question whether world peace had not been bought at too high a price.

Rome had also leveled down the spiritual force in the all‑inclusive empire. It is possible that her greatest mistake was an erroneous liberalism based partly on self-interest, partly on sentimentality. The easy gift of citizenship  p527 to hordes of slaves who could never comprehend the Roman institutions that had made the state great, and who were temperamentally unfit for the succession of duties into which they came, and the constant inclusion of foreign territory within the empire, were not always marks of true liberalism. Too often this seeming humanitarianism was spurred on by the desire to have more land to exploit or to cheapen labor, regardless of the consequences to the state. But it was also in some measure an expression of an oldtime republican liberalism, and the attraction of the most useless element to Rome by the lavish gifts of grain and games was due in some measure to disheveled sentimentality. Rome, if any nation, needed to discover some formula whereby a state would not through mistaken humanitarianism betray the strong-fibered stock to the exploitation of the morally, mentally, and physically unfit. We have seen above, that, according to the best evidence available, Rome and Italy were in Hadrian's day peopled by men and women that had but a trace of Roman blood. Perhaps that alone is enough to account for the complete change in the spirit of Rome. The Empire then seemed a success to most observers, but the Empire had let the fiber of the great tree decay at the core, and the storm was near at hand which only a sound tree could withstand.


The Author's Note:

1 "The Roman and the British Empires," 1914, p20 ff.


Thayer's Note:

a A bit of a stretch, but envoys from some remote country in the general area — Bactria or possibly the Kushan Empire — did come to Rome, if maybe not seeking Roman "protection", although the idea of an alliance at least is plausible, since it would have conformed to a widely held political theory in the Indian subcontinent at the time. To quote John Keay, A History of India (HarperCollins 2000), p171:

The raja-mandala, in which the maharajadhiraja took the place of Mount Meru at the centre or axis, demonstrated the basic principle of [this political theory]. Thus the immediate neighbours of the axial 'king of kings', those therefore within the first circle, are to be regarded as his natural enemies; those beyond them in the next circle are his potential allies; those in the third circle are his enemies' potential allies, those in the fourth his allies' natural allies, and so on. According to Kautilya [Indian political theorist, maybe 2c B.C.], this was the basis of all external relations and of any world order.

— so that according to this scheme, Kushan's natural enemy would be Parthia in the first circle, and her natural allies would include the Romans in the second circle; an embassy would be in order, if nothing else to sound them out.

Prof. Frank really could have cited his sources: but thanks to Jake Nabel (Parthian Sources Online), we can probably track down what he had in mind: Dio 68.15, and even better, Historia Augusta, Hadr. 21.14.


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