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CHRISTIANITY AND THE EMPIRE UNDER FLAVIUS.
Far from diminishing the importance of the Jews at Rome, the war of Judea had in a sense contributed to increase it. Rome was by far the greatest Jewish city in the world: she had inherited all the importance of Jerusalem. The war of Judea had cast into Italy thousands of Jewish slaves. From 65 to 72 all prisoners made during the war had been sold wholesale. The places of prostitution were filled with Jews and Jewesses of the most distinguished families. Legend has pleased itself by building a most romantic structure on this foundation.
Except for the heavy poll tax which oppressed the Jews, and which was for Christians more than an exaction, the reign of Vespasian was not remarkable for any special severities towards the two branches of the House of Israel. We have seen that the new dynasty, far from drawing down upon itself the contempt of Judaism in the beginning, had been compelled by the fact of the war of Judea, inseparable from its approach, to contract obligations towards a great number of Jews. It must be remembered that Vespasian and Titus, before attaining to power, had remained about four years in Syria, and had there formed many connections. Tiberius Alexander was the man to whom the Flavii owed the most. He continued to occupy one of the chief positions in the state; his statue was one of those which adorned the Forum. Nec meiere fas est! said the old Romans in their wrath, irritated by that intrusion of the Orientals. Herod Agrippa II., whilst continuing to reign and to coin money at Tiberias and Paneas, lived at Rome surrounded by his co-religionists, keeping up a great state, astonishing the Romans by the pomp and ostentation with which he celebrated 67the Jewish feasts. He displayed in his relations a certain largeness, since he had for his secretary the radical Justus of Tiberias, who had no scruple in eating the bread of a man whom he had certainly more than once accused of treason. Agrippa was decorated with the ornaments of the priesthood, and received from the Emperor an augmentation of fiefs on the side of Hermon.
His sisters Drusilla and Berenice also lived at Rome. Berenice, notwithstanding her already ripe age, exercised over the heart of Titus such an empire, that she had the design of marrying him, and Titus it was said had promised her, and was only deterred by political considerations. Berenice inhabited the palace, and, pious as she was, lived openly with the destroyer of her country. The jealousy of Titus was active, and it appears to have contributed, not less than policy, to the murder of Caecina. The Jewish favourite enjoyed to the full her royal rights. Legal cases were taken under her jurisdiction, and Quintilian relates that he pleaded before her in a case in which she was both judge and party. Her luxury astonished the Romans; she ruled the fashions; a ring which she had worn on her finger sold for an insane price; but the serious world despised her, and openly described her relations with her brother Agrippa as incestuous. Other Herodians still lived in Italy, perhaps at Naples, in particular that Agrippa, son of Agrippa and Felix, who perished in the eruption of Vesuvius. In a word, all these dynasties of Syria and Armenia which had embraced Judaism, remained with the new Imperial family in daily relations of intimacy.
Around this aristocratic world the subtle and prudent Josephus hovered, like a complaisant servant. Since his entry into the household of Vespasian and of Titus, he had taken the name of Flavius, and in the usual manner of a common-place soul, he reconciled 68contradictory characters—he was obsequious to the executioners of his country, he was a boaster concerning his national memories. His domestic life, until then by no means correct, now began to become orderly. After his defection, he had been weak enough to accept from Vespasian a young prisoner from Cesarea, who left him as soon as she could. At Alexandria he took another wife, by whom he had three children. Two of them died young, and he repudiated his wife, he says, on the ground of incompatability of temper, about the year 74. He then married a Jewess of Crete, in whom he found all perfections, and who bore him two children. His Judaism had always been lax, and became more and more so; it was very easy to believe that even at the period of the greatest Galilean fanaticism he was a liberal, preventing the forcible circumcision of people, and protesting that everyone ought to worship God in his own way. This idea that everyone should choose his own form of worship gained the day, and lent powerful help to the propagation of a religion founded on a rational idea of the divinity.
Josephus had undoubtedly a superficial Greek education, of which, like a clever man, he knew how to make the most. He read the Greek historians; that reading provoked him to emulation; he saw the possibility of writing in the same way the history of the last misfortunes of his country. Too little of an artist to understand the temerity of his undertaking, he plunged into it, as happens sometimes with Jews who begin in literature in a foreign tongue, like one who fears nothing. He was not yet accustomed to write in Greek, and it was in Syro-Chaldaic that he made the first version of his work; later he put forward the Greek version which has come down to our own times. Notwithstanding his protestations, Josephus is not a truthful man. He has the Jewish defect—the defect most opposed to a healthy manner 69of writing history—an extreme personality. A thousand preoccupations govern him; first the necessity for pleasing his new masters, Titus and Herod Agrippa; then the desire of proving his own importance, and of showing to those of his compatriots who looked askance at him, that he had acted only from the purest inspirations of patriotism; then an honest sentiment in many respects which induces him to present the character of his nation in the light which would compromise them least in the eyes of the Romans. The rebellion, he pretends, was the work of a handful of madmen; Judaism is a pure doctrine elevated in philosophy, inoffensive in policy; the Jews moderate, and, far from making common cause with sectaries, have usually been their first victims. How could they be the enemies of the Romans? they who had asked from the Romans aid and protection against the revolutionaries? These systematic views contradict on every page the pretended impartiality of the historian.
The work was submitted (at least Josephus wishes us to believe so) to the criticism of Agrippa and of Titus, who appear to have approved it. Titus would have gone further; he would have signed with his own hand the copy which was intended to serve as a type, to show that it was according to this volume that he desired that the history of the siege of Jerusalem should be told. The exaggeration here is palpable. What is clearly evident is the existence around Titus of a Jewish coterie which flattered him, which desired to persuade him that, far from having been the cruel destroyer of Judaism, he had wished to save the Temple; that Judaism had killed itself, and that, in any case, a superior decree of the Divine will, of which Titus had been but the instrument, hovered over all. Titus was evidently pleased to hear this theory maintained. He willingly forgot his cruelties, and the decree that he had to all appearance pronounced 70against the Temple, when the vanquished themselves came to offer such apologies. Titus had a great fund of humanity; he affected an extreme moderation; he was without doubt very well pleased that this version should be circulated throughout the Jewish world; but he was also well pleased when in the Roman world the story was told in quite a different way, and represented him upon the walls of Jerusalem as the haughty conqueror breathing only fire and death.
The sentiment of sympathy for the Jews, which is thus implied on the part of Titus, might be expected to extend itself to the Christians. Judaism, as Josephus understood it, approached Christianity on many sides, especially the Christianity of St Paul. Like Josephus, the majority of the Christians had condemned the insurrection, and cursed the zealots. They loudly professed submission to the Romans. Like Josephus they held the ritual part of the Law as secondary, and understood the sonship of Abraham in a moral sense. Josephus himself appears to have been favourable to the Christians, and to have spoken of the chiefs of the sect with sympathy. Berenice, on her side, and her brother Agrippa, had had for St Paul a sentiment of benevolent curiosity. The private friends of Titus were rather favourable than unfavourable to the disciples of Jesus, by which circumstance may be explained the fact, which appears incontestable, that there were Christians in the very household of Flavius. Let it be remembered that this family did not belong to the great Roman aristocracy; that it formed part of what may be called the provincial middle class; that it had not, consequently, against the Jews and Orientals in general, the prejudices of the Roman nobility, prejudices which we shall soon see regain all their power under Nerva, and bring about a century of almost continuous persecution of the Christians. That dynasty fully admitted popular 71charlatanism. Vespasian had no scruple about his miracles of Alexandria, and when he remembered that juggleries had had much to do with his fortune, he no doubt felt merely an increase of that sceptical gaiety which was habitual to him.
The conversions which brought the faith in Jesus so near to the throne, were probably not effected until the reign of Domitian. The Church of Rome was reformed but slowly. The inclination which Christians had felt about the year 68 to flee from a town upon which they expected every moment the wrath of God to descend, had grown weak. The generation mown down by the massacres of 64 was replaced by the continual immigration which Rome received from other parts of the Empire. The survivors of the massacres of Nero breathed at last, they considered themselves as in a little provisional Paradise, and compared themselves with the Israelites after they had passed the Red Sea. The persecution of 64 presented itself to them as a sea of blood, where all had only not been drowned. God had inverted the parts, and as to Pharaoh, he had given to their executioners blood to drink: it was the blood of the civil wars, which from 68 to 70 had poured out in torrents.
The exact list of the ancient presbyteri or episcopi of the Roman Church is unknown. Peter, if he went to Rome, as we believe, occupied there an exceptional place, and would certainly have had no successor properly so-called. It was not until a hundred years afterwards, when the episcopate was regularly constituted, that any attempt was made to present a consecutive list of the successors of Peter as bishops of Rome. There are no accurate memorials until after the time of Xystus, who died about 125. The interval between Xystus and St Peter is filled with the names of Roman presbyters who had left some reputation. After Peter we come upon a certain Linus, of whom nothing certain is known; then Anenclet, whose name 72was disfigured afterwards, and of whom two person ages were compounded, Clet and Anaclet.
One phenomenon which is manifested more and more is that the Church of Rome became the heiress of that of Jerusalem, and was in some sort substituted for it. There was the same spirit, the same traditional and hierarchical authority, the same taste for command. Judeo-Christianity reigned at Rome as at Jerusalem. Alexandria was not yet a great Christian centre. Ephesus, even Antioch, could not struggle against the preponderance which the capital of the Empire, by the very nature of things, tended more and more to arrogate to itself.
Vespasian arrived at an advanced old age, esteemed by the serious part of the Empire, repairing, in the bosom of a profound peace, with the aid of an active and intelligent son, the evils which Nero and the civil war had created. The high aristocracy, without having much sympathy for a family of parvenus—men of capacity but without distinction, and of manners sufficiently common—sustained and seconded it. They were at last delivered from the detestable school of Nero,—a school of wicked, immoral, and frivolous men, wretched soldiers and administrators. The honest party which, after the cruel trial of the reign of Domitian was to arrive definitely at power with Nerva, breathed at last, and already was almost triumphant. Only the madmen and the debauchees of Rome who had loved Nero laughed at the parsimony of the old General, without dreaming that that economy was perfectly simple and altogether praiseworthy. The treasury of the Emperor was not clearly distinguished from his private fortune; but the treasury of Nero had been sadly dilapidated. The situation of a family without fortune, like that of Flavius, borne to power under such circumstances, became very embarrassing. Galba, who was of the great nobility, but of serious habits, was lost because 73one day at the theatre he offered to a player on the flute who had been much applauded, five denarii, which he drew from his purse. The crowd received it with a song:
“Onesimus comes from the village,”
the burden of which the spectators repeated in chorus. There was no way of pleasing these impertinents save by magnificence and cavalier manners. Vespasian would have found it much more easy to obtain pardon for crimes than for his rather vulgar good sense, and that species of awkwardness which the poor officer usually retains who has risen from the ranks by his merits. The human race is so little disposed to encourage goodness and devotion in its sovereigns, that it is sometimes surprising that the offices of king and of emperor still find conscientious men to discharge them.
A more importunate opposition than that of the idlers of the amphitheatre and the worshippers of the memory of Nero, was that of the philosophers, or, to be more correct, of the republican party. This party, which had reigned for thirty-six hours after the death of Caligula, gained, on the death of Nero, and during the civil war which followed that event, an unexpected importance. Men highly considered, like Helvidius Priscus, with his wife Fannia (daughter of Thrasea), were seen to refuse the most simple fictions of imperial etiquette, to affect with regard to Vespasian an air at once cavilling and full of effrontery. We must do Vespasian the justice to remember that it was with great regret that he treated the grossest provocations with rigour, provocations which were the simple result of the goodness and simplicity of this excellent sovereign. The philosophers imagined, with the best faith in the world, that they defended the dignity of man with their little literary allusions; they did not see that in reality they defended only the privileges of an 74aristocracy, and that they were preparing for the ferocious reign of Domitian. They hoped for the impossible,—a municipal republic governing the world,—public spirit in an immense Empire composed of the most diverse and unequal races. Their madness was almost as great as that of the lunatics whom we have seen in our own days dreaming that the Commune of Paris could be the monarchy of France. Thus the good spirits of the time, Tacitus, the two Plinies, Quintilian, saw clearly the vanity of this political school. Whilst full of respect for Helvidius Priscus, the Rusticus, the Senecion, they abandoned the republican chimera. Seeking no more than to ameliorate the princely power, they drew from it the finest fruits for about a century.
Alas! that power had the cardinal defect of floating between the elective dictatorship and the hereditary monarchy. Every monarchy aspires to be hereditary, not merely because of what the democracies call the egotism of the family, but because monarchy is advantageous for the people only when it is hereditary. Heredity, on the other hand, is impossible without the Germanic principle of fidelity. All the Roman Emperors aimed at heredity; but heredity could never extend beyond the second generation, and it scarcely ever produced any but fatal consequences. The world only breathes when through particular circumstances adoption (the system best adapted to Cæsarism) prevails; there was in it only a happy chance; Marcus Aurelius had a son, and lost everything.
Vespasian was exclusively preoccupied with this cardinal question. Titus, his eldest son, at the age of thirty-nine, had no male issue, nor had Domitian at twenty-seven a son. The ambition of Domitian ought to have been satisfied with such hopes. Titus openly announced him as his successor, and contented himself with desiring that he should marry his daughter Julia Sabina. But in spite of so many favourable conditions, 75Nature gave herself up in that family to an atrocious complication. Domitian was a scoundrel before whom Caligula and Nero might pass for harmless jesters. He did not hide his intention of dispossessing his father and his brother. Vespasian and Mucianus had a thousand difficulties in preventing him from spoiling all.
As happens with good-hearted men, Vespasian improved every day as he grew older. Even his pleasantry, which was often, from want of education, of a coarse description, became just and fine. He was told that a comet had shown itself in the sky. “It is the King of the Parthians whom that concerns,” said he, “he wears long hair.” Then his health growing worse,—“I think I am about to become a god,” said he, smiling. He occupied himself with business to the last, and feeling himself dying, “an Emperor should die standing,” said he. He expired, in fact, in the arms of those who supported him, a grand example of manly attitude and firm bearing in the midst of troubled times, which seemed almost desperate. The Jews alone preserved his memory as that of a monster who had made the entire earth groan under the weight of his tyranny. There was without doubt some Rabbinical legend concerning his death; he died in his bed they admitted, but he could not escape the torments which he merited.
Titus succeeded him without difficulty. His virtue was not a profound virtue like that of Antoninus or of Marcus Aurelius. He forced himself to be virtuous, and sometimes nature got the upper hand. Nevertheless, a good reign was hoped for. As rarely happens, Titus improved after his accession to power. He had great powers of self-control, and he began by making the most difficult of all sacrifices to public opinion. Berenice was less than ever disposed to renounce her hope of being married. She behaved in all respects as if she were. Her quality of Jewess, of foreigner, of 76“Queen”—a title which, like that of King, sounded ill in the ears of a true Roman, and recalled the East—created an insurmountable obstacle to that fortune. Nothing else was spoken of in Rome, and more than one impertinence was daringly uttered aloud. One day in the full theatre a cynic named Diogenes, who had introduced himself into Rome, notwithstanding the decrees of expulsion issued against the philosophers, rose, and in the presence of all the people poured forth a torrent of insults. He was beaten. Heras, another cynic, who thought to enjoy the same liberty at the same price, had his head cut off. Titus yielded, not without pain, to the murmurs of the people. The separation was all the more cruel, since Berenice resisted. It was necessary to send her away. The relations of the Emperor with Josephus, and probably with Herod Agrippa, remained what they had been before the rupture. Berenice herself returned to Rome, but Titus had no further communication with her.
Honest folks felt their hopes revive. With the spectacles, and a little charlatanism, it was easy to content the people, and they remained quiet. Latin literature, which, since the death of Augustus, had undergone so great an eclipse, was in the way of recovery. Vespasian seriously encouraged science, literature, and the arts. He established the first professors paid by the state, and was thus the creator of the teaching body, at the head of which illustrious fraternity shines the name of Quintilian. The sickly poetry of the epopoeias and the artificial tragedies continued piteously. Bohemians of talent, like Martial and Statius, both excellent in little verses, did not come out from a low and barren literature. But Juvenal attained, in the truly Latin species of satire, an uncontested mastery for force and originality. A haughty Roman spirit, narrow, if you will, closed, exclusive, but full of tradition, patriotic, opposed to 77foreign corruptions, breathes through his verses. The courageous Sulpicia dared to defend the philosophers against Domitian. Great prose writers, above all, sprang up, rejected all that was excessive in the declamation of the time of Nero, preserving that part of it which did not shock the taste, animated the whole with an exalted moral sentiment, prepared, in a word, that noble generation which discovered and surrounded Nerva, which brought about the philosophical reigns of Trajan, of Antoninus, and of Marcus Aurelius. Pliny the younger, who so greatly resembles the cultivated wits of our eighteenth century; Quintilian, the illustrious pedagogue, who traced the code of public instruction, the master of our great masters in the art of education; Tacitus, the incomparable historian; others, like the author of the Dialogue of the Orators, who equalled them, but whose names are ignored or whose writings are lost, increased the labours which had already begun to bear fruit. A gravity full of elevation, respect for the moral laws and for the laws of humanity, replaced the gross debauchery of Petronius and the excessive philosophy of Seneca. The language is less pure than that of the writers of the time of Cæsar and of Augustus, but it has character, audacity, something which ought to cause it to be appreciated and imitated in modern times, which have conceived the middle tone of their prose in a more declamatory key than that of the Greeks.
Under this wise and moderate rule Christians lived in peace. The memory which Titus left in the Church was not that of a persecutor. One event of his reign made a lively impression. This was the eruption of Vesuvius. The year 79 witnessed this, perhaps the most striking phenomenon in the volcanic history of the earth. The entire world was moved. Since humanity had a conscience, nothing so remarkable had ever been seen. An old crater, extinct from time 78immemorial, broke into activity with an unequalled violence, just as if in our days the volcanoes of Auvergne should recommence their most furious manifestations. We have seen since the year 68 the preoccupation of the volcanic phenomena fill the Christian imagination and leave its traces in the Apocalypse. The event of the year 79 was equally celebrated by the Judeo-Christian seers, and provoked a species of recrudescence of the Apocalyptic spirit. The Judaising sects especially considered the catastrophe of the Italian towns thus swallowed up as the punishment for the destruction of Jerusalem. The blows which continued to rain upon the world were, to a certain point, the justification for such imaginings. The terror produced by these phenomena was extraordinary. Half of the pages of Dion Cassius which remain to us are consecrated to prophecies. The year 80 witnessed the greatest fire Rome had ever seen, save that of the year 64. It lasted for three days and three nights: the whole district of the Capitol and the Pantheon was destroyed. A frightful pestilence ravaged the world about the same time; it was believed to be the most terrible epidemic ever known. The tremblings of the earth spread terror everywhere; famine oppressed the nations.
Would Titus keep to the end his promise of goodness? That was the question. Many pretended that the part of “delight of the human race” is difficult to maintain, and that the new Cæsar would follow in the footsteps of Tiberius, of Caligula, and of the Neros, who after having begun well finished most badly. Souls absolutely given over to the stoic philosophy, like those of Antoninus and Marcus Aurelius, were required by those who would not succumb to the temptations of a boundless power. The character of Titus was of a rare quality; his attempt to reign by goodness, his noble illusions as to the humanity of his times, were something liberal and touching; his 79morality was not, however, of a perfect solidity; it was forced. He repressed his vanity and forced himself to propose purely objective aims in life. But a philosophical and virtuous temperament is of more value than a ready-made morality. The temperament does not change; morality of that kind may do so. It might be that the goodness of Titus was only the effect of an arrested development; it was asked if in the course of years he was not likely to become such another as Domitian.
These, however, were only retrospective apprehensions. Death came to withdraw Titus from a trial which might have been fatal had it been too prolonged. His health failed visibly. At every instant he wept as if, after having attained the highest rank in the world, he saw the frivolity of all things in spite of appearances. Once especially, at the end of the ceremony of the inauguration of the Coliseum, he burst into tears before the people. In his last journey to Rhætum he was overwhelmed with sadness. At one moment he was seen to draw back the curtains of his litter, to look at the sky, and to swear that he had not deserved death. Perhaps it was the wasting, the enervation produced by the part which he chose to play, the life of debauchery which he had lived at various times before attaining to the Empire, that was the cause of this. Perhaps also it was the protest which a noble soul had in such a time the right to raise against destiny. His nature was sentimental and amiable. The frightful wickedness of his brother killed him. He saw clearly that if he did not take the initiative, Domitian would. To have dreamed of the empire of the world, to make himself adored by it, to see his dream accomplished, and then to see its vanity, and to recognise that in politics good nature is a mistake; to see evil rise before him in the form of a monster, saying, “Kill me or I will kill you!” What a trial for a good heart! Titus had not the 80hardness of a Tiberius, or the resignation of a Marcus Aurelius. Let it be remembered also that his hygenic régime was the worst conceivable. At all times, and especially in his house near Rhætum, where the waters were very cold, Titus took baths sufficient to kill the most robust of men. All this assuredly renders it unnecessary to suppose that his premature death was the effect of poison. Domitian was not a fratricide in the material sense; he became one through his hatred, his jealousy, his undisguised desires. His attitude after the death of his father was a perpetual conspiracy. Titus had scarcely given up the ghost when Domitian obliged all those about him to abandon him as dead, and, mounting his horse, hurried to the camp of the Prætorian Guard.
The world mourned but Israel triumphed. That unexplained death from exhaustion and philosophical melancholy, was it not a manifest judgment from heaven upon the destroyer of the Temple—the guiltiest man the world had yet seen? The rabbinical legend on this subject took as usual a puerile turn which, however, was not wholly without justice. “Titus the wicked,” said the Agadists, “died through the bite of a fly which introduced itself into his brain and killed him amidst atrocious tortures.” Always the dupes of popular reports, the Jews and the Christians of the time generally believed in the fratricide. According to them, the cruel Domitian, the murderer of Clemens, the persecutor of the saints, was more than the assassin of his brother, and that foundation, like the parricide of Nero, became one of the bases of a new apocalyptic symbolism, as we shall see somewhat later on.81
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