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280

CHAPTER XXVII.

DEATH OF MARCUS-AURELIUS—THE END OF THE OLD WORLD.

On the 5th August, 178, the holy emperor quitted Rome to return, with Commodus, to those interminable wars of the Danube, which he wished to crown by the formation of solidly-constituted frontier provinces. The success was brilliant. They seemed to touch the limit so much longed for, and which had only been retarded by the revolt of Avidius. Some months afterwards the most important military enterprise of the second century is being terminated. Unfortunately the emperor was very weak. His stomach was so ruined that he often lived a whole day on some grains of theriac. He ate nothing except when he had to address the soldiers. Vienna on the Danube was, it would appear, the headquarters of the army. A contagious malady reigned in the country, for some years back, and it decimated the legions.

On the l0th March, 180, the emperor fell sick. He at once hailed death as welcome, abstained from all nourishment and all drink, and he spoke and acted henceforth only as from the brink of the grave. Having made Commodus come to him, he begged him to complete the war so as not to appear to betray the State by a precipitate departure. On the sixth day of his sickness he called his friends together, and spoke to them in his customary tone, that is to say, with a slight irony, as to the absolute vanity of things and the small importance he attached to death. They shed abundant tears. “Why weep for me?” he said to them. “Think of 281saving the army. I do nothing but precede you. Adieu!” They wished to know to whose care he recommended his son. “To you,” said he, “if he is worthy, and to the immortal gods.” The army was inconsolable; for they adored Marcus-Aurelius, and they saw too well into what an abyss of evils they were about to fall after his death. The emperor had still energy enough to present Commodus to the soldiers. His art of preserving peace in the midst of the greatest griefs made him keep, in this cruel moment, a calm countenance.

On the seventh day he felt his end approaching. He only received his son now, and he sent him away after a few moments, lest he might contract the malady from which he was suffering: probably this was only an excuse to free himself from his odious presence. Then he covered his head as if to sleep. The following night he yielded up his soul.

They brought his body to Rome and interred it in Hadrian’s mausoleum. The effusion of the popular piety was touching. Such was the affection they had for him that they never called him by his name or titles. Each one, according to his age, called him “Marcus, my father, brother, son.” On the day of his obsequies scarcely any tears were shed, all being certain that he had only returned to the gods who had lent him for a moment to the world. During the very funeral ceremony they proclaimed him “Propitious God,” with an unexampled spontaneity. They declared it sacrilege for any one, if his means permitted it, not to have his portrait in their houses. And this cult was not like so many ephemeral apotheoses. A hundred years after the statue of Marcus-Aurelius was seen in a great number of collections of lares among the penates. The emperor Diocletian had a separate worship for him. The name of 282Antoninus was henceforth sacred. It became, like that of Cæsar and Augustus, a sort of attribute of the empire, a sign of human and civil sovereignty. The numen Antoninum was like the beneficent star of that government whose admirable programme remained for the century which followed it, a reproach, a hope, a regret. We see some minds as little poetical as that of Septimus Severus, dreaming of it as of a lost heaven. Even Constantine bowed before that clement divinity, and wished that the golden statue of the Antonines might be reckoned among those of the ancestors and guardians of his power, founded nevertheless under quite different auspices.

Never was cult more legitimate, and it is ours still to-day. Yes, such as we are, we carry in heart a mourning for Marcus-Aurelius, as if he had died yesterday. With him philosophy has reigned. For a moment, thanks to him, the world has been governed by the best and greatest man of his century. It is of importance that this experience should have been made. Will it ever occur a second time? Shall modern philosophy, like the ancient, ever reign in its turn? Shall it have its Marcus-Aurelius, supported by his Fronton and Junius Rusticus? Will the government of human things belong once more to the wisest? What does it matter, since that reign would be for only a day, and since the reign of fools would succeed it once more? Accustomed to contemplate with a calm and smiling eye the everlasting mirage of human illusions, modern philosophy knows the law of the passing creators of opinion. But it would be curious to seek for what should come forth from such principles, if they ever should arrive at power. It would be a pleasure to construct, à priori; the Marcus-Aurelius of modern times, to see what a mixture of force and feebleness could create, in a 283chosen soul called to the largest action, the kind of reflection particular to our age. One would like to see how criticism would ally itself to the highest virtue and to the most lively ardour for the good, what attitude a thinker of that school would observe before the social problems of the nineteenth century, by what art he would seek to turn them, lull them to sleep, elude them or solve them. What is certain is that the man called to govern his fellow-men ought always to contemplate the exquisite model of the sovereign which Rome in her best days presents. If it is true that it might be possible to surpass him in certain parts of the science of government, who does not know that in modern times the son of Annius Verus will always remain inimitable by his force of soul, his resignation, his accomplished nobility, and the perfection of his goodness?

The day of Marcus-Aurelius’ death may probably be taken as the decisive moment when the ruin of the old civilisation was decided. In philosophy, the great emperor had raised such a high ideal of virtue that no one cared to follow him; in politics, the fault of having so profoundly separated the duties of the father from those of the Cæsar, he reopened without desiring it the era of tyrants and anarchy. In religion, through being too much attached to a State religion, whose weakness he saw thoroughly, he prepared the violent triumph of the non-official worship, and he left to be laid to his memory a reproach unjust, it is true, but whose shadow ought not to have met us in a life so pure. In everything, except the laws, feebleness could be felt. Twenty years of kindness had relaxed the administration and favoured abuses. A certain reaction in the sense of the ideas of Avidius Cassius was necessary; in place of that, there had been a thorough uprooting. Horrible 284deception for good people! So much virtue, so much love, only ending in placing the world in the hands of a knacker of beasts—a gladiator. After this beautiful apparition of an Elysian world on earth, to fall into the hell of the Cæsars’ which was believed to be closed for ever! Faith in good was then lost. After Caligula, Nero, and Domitian one was able to hope. Experiences had not been decisive. Now, it is after the greatest effort of governmental rationalism, after eighty-four years of an excellent régime, after Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus, Marcus-Aurelius, that the reign of evil recommences, worse than ever. Adieu, virtue! adieu, reason! Since Marcus-Aurelius could not save the world, who shall save it? Now, long live the fools, the absurd, the Syrian and his ambiguous gods! The grave physicians can do nothing. The invalid is worse than ever. Let the quacks come in, they often know better than honourable practitioners what the people need.

What is sad in this is really that the day of Marcus-Aurelius’ death, so evil for philosophy and civilisation, was a splendid day for Christianity. Commodus, having taken up the task of doing everything contrary to what he had seen, showed himself much less unfavourable to Christianity than his illustrious father. Marcus-Aurelius is the accomplished Roman with his traditions and prejudices. Commodus is of no race. He liked the Egyptian cults; he personally, with his head shaved, presided at the processions, carried the Anubis, and went through all the ceremonies with which the women were so pleased. He had himself represented in that attitude in the mosaics of the circular porticos of his gardens. He had Christians in his household. His mistress Marcia was almost a Christian, and used the love he gave her 285with credit, so as to alleviate the lot of the confessors condemned to the mines of Sardinia. The martyrdom of the Sicilians which took place on 17th July, 180, four months therefore after the ascension of Commodus, was no doubt the result of orders given before the death of Marcus, which the new government had not had time to withdraw. The number of victims under Commodus appears to have been less considerable than under Antoninus and Marcus-Aurelius. So true is it that between the Roman maxims and Christianity the war was to the death. Decius, Valerian, Aurelian, Diocletian, who sought to elevate the maxims of the empire, shall turn out to be ardent persecutors, while the emperors foreign to Roman patriotism, such as Alexander Severus, Philip the Arabian, and the Cæsars of Palmyra, will show themselves tolerant.

With a principle less disastrous than that of an unbridled military despotism, the empire, even after the ruin of the Roman principle by the death of Marcus-Aurelius, would have been able to live still, and to give place to Christianity a century sooner than it did, and to avoid the rivers of blood that Decius and Diocletian made to flow from pure wastefulness. The rôle of the Roman aristocracy was ended; after having used folly in the first century, it used virtue in the second. But the hidden forces of the great Mediterranean Confederation were not exhausted. Just as, after the falling down of the political edifice built under the title of the family of Augustus, there was formed a provincial dynasty, the Flavii, to restore the empire; just as, after the falling to pieces of the edifice built by the adoption of the high Roman nobility, there were found some among Provincials, Orientals, and Syrians, for the restoration of the grand association where all would find peace and 286profit, Septimus Severus did again without moral elevation, but not without glory, what Vespasian had done before.

Certainly the men of that new dynasty are not comparable to the great emperors of the second century. Even Alexander Severus, who equals Antoninus and Marcus-Aurelius in goodness, is far inferior to them in intelligence and nobility. The principle of the government is detestable. It is the outbidding of complaisance among the legions, revolt placed at a price; one does not address soldiers except with the purse in the hand. Military despotism never clothed itself in a more shameless form, but military despotism can have a long life. By the side of hideous spectacles, under those Syrian emperors whom they despise, what reforms are there? What a progress in legislation! What a day was that (under Caracalla) when every free man dwelling in the empire obtained equality of the laws! The advantages which this equality offered at that time must not be exaggerated; words, moreover, are never always empty in politics. Some excellent things were inherited. Philosophers of the school of Marcus-Aurelius had disappeared; but the juris-consulti replaced them. Papinian, Ulpian, Paul, Gaius, Modestinus, Florentinus, Marcian, during these execrable years, produced the chef-d’œuvres, and really created the law of the future. Very inferior to Trajan and to the Antonines in political traditions, the Syrian emperors, inasmuch as they were not Romans, and had no Roman prejudices, often gave evidence of an openness of mind which the great emperors of the second century could not have, all so deeply conservative. They permitted, encouraged even, colleges or syndicates. Allowing themselves to go in that matter even to excess, they desired to have bodies of tradesmen organised in castes with 287special dresses. They opened the two leaves of the doors of the empire. One of them, the son of Mammæa, that good and affecting Alexander Severus, equals nearly, by his plebeian goodness, the patrician virtues of the great centuries; the highest thoughts pale before some righteous effusions of his heart.

It is especially in religion that the emperors called Syrian inaugurated a breadth of ideas and a tolerance alike unknown till then. These Syrian ladies of Emesa, handsome, intelligent, rash even to Utopianism, Julia Domna, Julia Mæsa, Julia Mammæa, Julia Sæmia, were not restrained by any tradition or social rule. They dared what no Roman lady had dared to do; they entered the Senate, deliberated there, effectively governed the empire, repeated Semiramis and Nitocris over again. Faustina never could have done this, in spite of her lightness; she would have been stopped by tact, by the feeling of ridicule, by the rules of good Roman society. The Syrian ladies drew back before nothing. They had a senate of women, who decreed every extravagance. The Roman cult appeared cold and insignificant to them. Not being restrained by any family reasons, and their imagination finding itself more in harmony with Christianity than with Italian Paganism, these women amused themselves with accounts of the travels of the gods on the earth; Philostratus enchanted them with his Apollonius; probably they had a secret affiliation with Christianity. During this time the last respectable ladies of ancient society, like that aged daughter of Marcus-Aurelius, honoured by all, whom Caracalla caused to be killed, assisted in darkness at an orgie which formed a strange contrast to their recollections of youth.

The provinces, and especially the provinces of the 288East, much more active and awake than those of the West, went definitely forward. Certainly Heliogabalus was a madman; and while his chimera of a central monotheistic cult, established at Rome, and absorbing all the other cults, showed that the strict circle of the Antonine idea was quite broken, Mamma and Alexander Severus went farther; while the juris-consulti continued to transcribe with the quietness of routine their old cruel maxims against liberty of conscience, the Syrian emperor and his mother were instructed in Christianity, testifying their sympathy with it. Not content to give security to the Christians, Alexander introduced Jesus among his lares, by a touching eclecticism. Peace seemed made, not as under Constantine, by the humbling of one of the parties, but by a large reconciliation. There was certainly in all this an audacious attempt at reform, inferior in its rational aspect to that of the Antonines, but more capable of succeeding, for it was much more popular; it heldin more esteem the province and the East. In such a democratic work people without ancestors, like those Africans and Syrians, had more chances of success than people with an irreproachable style like the aristocratic emperors. But the profound vice of the imperial system revealed itself for the tenth time. Alexander Severus was assassinated by the soldiers on the 19th March, 235 A.D. It was clear that the army could no longer tolerate tyrants. The empire had gradually fallen from the high Roman nobility to the officers of the province, now it passed to sub-officials and military assassins. While up to Commodus the assassinated emperors were intolerable monsters, at present it is the good emperor who creates some new discipline, he who represses the crimes of the army, who is surely marked out for death.

289

Then opens that hell of a half-century (235-284 A.D.) when all philosophy, all civility, all delicacy foundered. The bidding, as at auction, the soldiery masters of everything, sometimes ten tyrants at once, the barbarian penetrating through all the fissures of the cracked world; Athens demolishing her ancient monuments to surround herself with evil walls against the terror of the Goths. If anything proves to what a degree the Roman empire was necessary, by intrinsic reason, it is that it was not totally dislocated in this anarchy. It is that it kept breath enough to revive under the powerful action of Diocletian, and to complete a course of two centuries yet. Among all orders the decadence was frightful. In fifty years they had forgotten the art of sculpture. Latin literature ceased completely. It seemed as if a bad genius brooded over this society, drinking its blood and its life. Christianity took to itself what was good in it, and impoverished to that extent civil order. The army was dying for want of a good recruitment of officers; the Church drew everything to itself. The religious and moral elements of the State have a very simple manner of punishing the State which does not give them the position to which they think they have a right; it is to retire to their tents. For a State cannot go away from them. Civil society has nothing thenceforth but the refuse intellects. Religion absorbs everything in it that is good. People leave a country which does not represent anything but a principle of material force. People chose their country in the ideal or rather in the institution which takes the place of the overthrown city and country. The Church became exclusively the bond of souls, and as it increased by the very misfortunes of civil society they comforted themselves easily for these misfortunes, in which it 290was easy to show a revenge of Christ and his saints.

“If we were permitted to render evil for evil,” said Tertullian, “one night and some torches would be enough for our revenge.” They were patient, for they were sure of the future. Now, the world slew the saints; but to-morrow the saints shall judge the world. “Look at our faces well, for you will recognise us at the last judgment,” said one of the martyrs of Carthage to the Pagans. “Our patience,” said the most moderate, “comes to us from the certainty of being revenged; it heaps coals of fire on the heads of our enemies. What a day will that be when the Most High shall reckon up his faithful, shall send away the guilty to Gehenna and make our persecutors burn in the furnace of eternal fires! What a tremendous spectacle; what shall be my transports, my admiration, and my laughter! flow shall I applaud as I see in the depths of darkness, with Jupiter and their own worshippers, so many princes who have been declared received into heaven after their death! What joy to see the persecuting magistrates of the Lord’s name consumed by flames more devouring than those the executioners lit up for the Christians!”

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