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Hadrian returned to Rome, which he did not leave again, in 135. Roman civilisation had just exterminated one of its most dangerous enemies, Judaism. On all sides there was peace, the respect of peoples, the barbarians apparently submissive, and the mildest maxims of government introduced and carried out.
Trajan had been perfectly right in believing that men can be governed whilst they are treated with civility. The idea that the State was not only tutelary but also benevolent was taking deep root. Hadrian’s private conduct gave rise to grave reproach; his character got worse as his health became worse, but the people did not notice it. Unexampled splendour and well-being which enveloped everything like a brilliant halo, hid the defective sides of the social organisation. To speak the truth, these defective sides were capable of being corrected. The door was open to any progress. Stoic philosophy was penetrating the legislature, and introducing into it the idea of the rights of man, of civil equality, and 157of the uniformity of provincial administration. The privileges of the Roman aristocracy were daily disappearing, and the chiefs of society believed in and were working for progress. They were philosophers who, without looking for Utopia, yet desired the greatest possible application of reason to human affairs. That was worth a great deal more than the fanatical and inapplicable Thora, which at best was only good for a very small nation. Men had reason to be satisfied with life, and behind that fine generation of statesmen one could perceive another wiser, more serious, more upright still.
Hadrian was amusing himself, and he had the right to do so. His curious and active mind dreamt of all sorts of chimeras at one and the same time, but his judgment was not sure enough to preserve him from faults of taste. At the foot of the hills of Tibur he had a villa built which was, as it were, the album of his journeys and the pandemonium of celebrity. It might have been called the noisy and somewhat bold fair of a dying world. Everything was there: false Egyptian, false Greek, the Lyceum, the Academy the Prytaneum, the Canous, the Alpheus, the vale of Tempe, the Elysian Fields, Tartarus; temples, libraries, theatres, a hippodrome, a naumachia, baths. It was a strange place, and yet attractive I For it was the last place in which men amused themselves, where men of intellect went to sleep to the empty noise of “greedy Acheron.” At Rome the chief care of the fantastic emperor was that senseless tomb, that vast mausoleum, where Babylon was outdone, and which, stripped of its ornaments, has been the citadel of Papal Rome. His buildings covered the world; the atheneums that he founded, the encouragement that he gave to letters and fine arts, and the immunities that he granted to professors, rejoiced the hearts of all men of learning. Unhappily superstition, eccentricity, and cruelty more and more 158gained the upper hand over him as his physical forces left him. He had built himself an elysium, in order not to believe in it, and a hell, to laugh at it; a hall of philosophers, to make fun of them; a canopus, to point out the impostures of priests, and to recall to his mind the foolish festivals of Egypt, that had made him laugh so much. Now, everything seemed to him hollow and empty: nothing more supported him.
Perhaps some martyrdoms which took place during his reign, and for which there seems to have been no motive, are to be attributed to the caprices and disorders of his last months. Telesphorus was then the head of the Church at Rome; he died confessing Christ, and passed to the number of the glories of the faith.
The death of this amateur Cæsar was sad and without dignity, for no really lofty moral sentiment animated him. Nevertheless, in him the world lost a powerful support. The Jews alone triumphed over the agonies of his last moments. It was customary amongst them not to mention him except saying after his name, “May God smash his leg.” He was sincerely attached to civilisation, and understood well what it would come to in time. With him ancient literature and art came to an end. He was the last emperor who believed in glory, just as Ælius Verus was the last man who knew how to enjoy delicate pleasures. Human affairs are so frivolous that brilliancy and splendour must take their share in them. A world will not hold together without that; Louis XIV. knew it, and men lived and live still in his sun of gilded copper. In his own fashion, Hadrian marked a summit, after which a rapid descent commenced. Certainly Antoninus and Marcus Aurelius were vastly his superiors in virtue, but under them the world was getting sad and losing its gaiety, was beginning to wear the monk’s cowl and become Christian; superstition was on the increase. 159Hadrian’s art, although it also had its gnawing worm, still holds to principles: it is a clever and wise art; afterwards the decadence set in with irresistible force. Ancient society perceives that all is in vain; now, the day when one makes that discovery, one is near death. The two accomplished sages who are going to reign are two ascetics, after their own fashion. Lucius Verus and Faustina will be the unclassed survivors of the ancient elegance. It really was from that time that the world bade farewell to joy, treated the muses as seductresses, will no longer listen to anything but what keeps up its melancholy, and becomes changed into a vast hospital.
Antoninus was a St Louis as far as heart and rectitude went, with much more judgment, and a wider range of intellect. He was the most perfect sovereign that ever reigned. He was even superior to Marcus Aurelius, as the reproaches of weakness which may be addressed to the latter cannot be applied to him. To enumerate his virtues would be to enumerate all the qualities of which a perfect man can command. In him all the world saluted an incarnation of the mythical Numa Pompilius. He was the most constitutional of sovereigns, and, of the same time, simple, economical, quite taken up with good deeds and public works, far from any excess, free from rhetoric and any affectation of mind. By his means philosophy really became a power; everywhere philosophers were richly pensioned; already he was surrounded by ascetics, and the general direction of the education of Marcus Aurelius was his work.
Thus the world’s ideal seemed to have been attained, wisdom reigned, and for twenty-three years the world was governed by a father. Affectation, false taste in literature, fell to the ground; people became simple; public instruction became an object of lively solicitude. The condition of the whole world was ameliorated; 160excellent laws, especially in favour of slaves, were carried; the relief of those who suffered became the object of universal care. The preachers of moral philosophy even surpassed the successes of Dion Chrysostom; the seeking for frivolous applause was the rock which they had to avoid. A provincial aristocracy of upright people who wished to do right, had succeeded the cruel aristocracy of Rome. The force and the loftiness of the ancient world were being lost, and men were becoming good, gentle, patient, humane. As always happens, socialistic ideas profited by that largeness of views and made their appearance, but general good sense and the force of established order prevented them from becoming a public evil.
The similarity between these aspirations and those of Christianity was striking, but a profound difference separated the two schools, and was bound to make them hostile to each other. By its hope in the approaching end of the world, by its badly-concealed wishes for the ruin of ancient society, Christianity in the midst of the beneficent empire of the Antonines became a subverter that it was necessary to combat. Always pessimistic, inexhaustible in mournful prophecies, the Christian, far from being of service to national progress, showed that he disdained it. Nearly all the Catholic doctors looked upon war between the empire and the Church as necessary, as the last act in the strife between God and Satan; they boldly affirmed that persecution would last till the end of time. The idea of a Christian empire, though it sometimes presented itself to their mind, seemed to them a contradiction and an impossibility.
Whilst the world again began to live, the Jews and Christians wished more obstinately than ever that it should be approaching its last hour. We have seen the false Baruch exhaust himself in vague announcements. The Judeo-Christian Sibyl never ceased thundering the whole time. The ever-increasing 161splendour of Rome was a terrible insult to divine truth, to the prophets, to the saints, and so they boldly denied the happiness of the century. All the natural scourges, which continued to be tolerably numerous, were represented as signs of implacable anger. The past and present earthquakes in Asia were made the most of as signs of fearful terrors. According to the fanatics, the only cause of these calamities was the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. Rome, the harlot, had given herself up to a thousand lovers, who have intoxicated her; in her turn she shall be a slave. Italy, covered with blood from civil wars, had become the haunt of wild beasts. The new prophets, to express the ruin of Rome, employed nearly the same images which had served the Seer of 69 to depict his sombre rage.
It was difficult for a society to put up with such attacks, without replying. The Sibylline books which contained those which were attributed to the pretended Hystaspes, and which announced the destruction of the empire, were condemned by the Roman authorities, and those who possessed them or read them were condemned to death. The uneasy search into the future was a crime under the empire; in fact, such vain curiosity almost always served as a cloak or a wish for revolutions and incitements to murder.
It would certainly have been worthy of the wise emperor, so many humane reforms, if he had despised the intemperate imagination without a real object, and if he had abrogated the severe laws which, under Roman despotism, weighed on the liberty of worship and of meeting; but evidently no one about thought of it, any more than any one did who was about Marcus Aurelius. The unfettered thinker alone can be quite tolerant; now Antoninus observed and scrupulously maintained the ceremonies of the Roman worship. The policy of his 162predecessors had been unvarying in that respect. They saw in Christianity a secret anti-social sect which dreamt of the overthrow of the empire; like all the men who were attached to the old Roman principles, they believed it necessary to repress it. There was no necessity for special edicts: the laws against cœtus illiciti and illicita collegia were numerous. The Christians came in a quite regular manner under the power of those laws. It must be observed, first of all, that the true spirit of liberty, as we understand it, was not understood by any one at that time; and that Christianity, when it became the master, did not practise it any more than the heathen emperors; in the second place, that the abrogation of the law of illicit societies would most likely in fact have been the ruin of the empire, founded essentially on this principle that the State cannot admit any society which differs from it into its midst. The idea was wrong, according to our ideas; however, it is quite certain that it was the corner-stone of the Roman constitution. The foundations of the empire would have been thought to be overthrown if those repressive laws which were looked upon as essential conditions to the stability of the State had been relaxed.
The Christians seemed to understand this. Far from finding fault with Antoninus personally, they rather looked upon him as having ameliorated their lot. A fact which does this sovereign infinite honour, is that the principal advocate of Christianity ventured to address him with full confidence, in order to obtain redress from a legal situation which he reasonably found unjust and unbecoming in such a fortunate reign. They went further, and there is no doubt that during the first years of Marcus Aurelius different rescripts were forged in the name of Antoninus, which, supposed to be addressed to the Lariseans, the Thessalonians, the Athenians, to all 163the Greeks, to the Asiatic States, were so favourable to the Church that if Antoninus had really countersigned them he would have been very inconsistent in not turning Christian. These documents only prove one thing,—the opinion which the Christians retained of the excellent emperor. He did not show himself less benevolent towards the Jews, who no longer menaced the empire. The laws forbidding circumcision, which had been the consequence of Bar-Coziba’s revolt, were abrogated, as far as they were vexatious. The Jew was at perfect liberty to sacrifice his sun, but the penalty for practising the operation on a non-Jew was castration, that is, death. Civil jurisdiction within the community does not appear to have been restored to the Jews till later.
Such was the rigour of the established legal order, such was the popular effervescence against the Christians, that even 'during this reign one is sorry to find many martyrs. Polycarp and Justin are the most illustrious amongst them, but they were not the only ones. Asia Minor was stained with the blood of very many judicial murders, which were all provoked by riots; we shall see Montanism rise up like a hallucination of that intoxication for martyrdom. In Rome, the book of the false Hernias will appear to us as if it came out of a bath of blood. Prejudice for martyrdom, questions relating to renegades, or to those who had shown some weakness, fill up the whole book. Justin has described to us on every page Christians as victims who expect nothing but death; their very name, like in the time of Pliny, was a crime.
Jews and heathens persecute us on all sides; they rob us of our possessions, and only leave us our life when they cannot deprive us of it. They cut off our heads, nail us to the cross, expose us to wild beasts, torture us with chains, with fire, with the most horrible torments. But the more ills we have to endure, 164the more the number of the faithful increases. The vine-grower prunes his vines to make them shoot out anew; he cuts off the branches that have borne fruit, to make it throw out others more vigorous and fruitful; the same thing happens to God’s people, which is like a fertile vine, planted by its band and that of our Lord Jesus Christ.
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