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§ 89. Moral Corruption of the Roman Empire.


Besides the Lit. quoted in § 88, comp. the historical works on the Roman Empire by Gibbon, Merivale, and Ranke; also J. J. A. Ampère’s Histoire Romaine à Rome (1856–64, 4 vols.).

Friedlaender’sSittengeschichte Roms (from Augustus to the Antonines. Leipzig, 3 vols., 5th ed. 1881); and Marquardt and Mommsen’s Handbuch der römischen Alterthümer (Leipz. 1871, second ed. 1876, 7 vols., divided into Staatsrecht, Staatsverwaltung, Privatleben).


Christianity is not only the revelation of truth, but also the fountain of holiness under the unceasing inspiration of the spotless example of its Founder, which is more powerful than all the systems of moral philosophy. It attests its divine origin as much by its moral workings as by its pure doctrines. By its own inherent energy, without noise and commotion, without the favor of circumstance—nay, in spite of all possible obstacles, it has gradually wrought the greatest moral reformation, we should rather say, regeneration of society which history has ever seen while its purifying, ennobling, and cheering effects upon the private life of countless individuals are beyond the reach of the historian, though recorded in God’s book of life to be opened on the day of judgment.

To appreciate this work, we must first review the moral condition of heathenism in its mightiest embodiment in history.

When Christianity took firm foothold on earth, the pagan civilization and the Roman empire had reached their zenith. The reign of Augustus was the golden age of Roman literature; his successors added Britain and Dacia to the conquests of the Republic; internal organization was perfected by Trajan and the Antonines. The fairest countries of Europe, and a considerable part of Asia and Africa stood under one imperial government with republican forms, and enjoyed a well-ordered jurisdiction. Piracy on the seas was abolished; life and property were secure. Military roads, canals, and the Mediterranean Sea facilitated commerce and travel; agriculture was improved, and all branches of industry flourished. Temples, theatres, aqueducts, public baths, and magnificent buildings of every kind adorned the great cities; institutions of learning disseminated culture; two languages with a classic literature were current in the empire, the Greek in the East, the Latin in the West; the book trade, with the manufacture of paper, was a craft of no small importance, and a library belonged to every respectable house. The book stores and public libraries were in the most lively streets of Rome, and resorted to by literary people. Hundreds of slaves were employed as scribes, who wrote simultaneously at the dictation of one author or reader, and multiplied copies almost as fast as the modern printing press.564564    Friedländer, III. 369 sqq. (5th ed.), gives much interesting information about the book trade in Rome, which was far more extensive than is generally supposed, and was facilitated by slave-labor. Books were cheap. The first book of Martial (over 700 verses in 118 poems) cost in the best outfit only 5 denarii (80 cts.). Julius Caesar conceived the plan of founding public libraries, but was prevented from carrying it into effect. In the fourth century there were no less than twenty-eight public libraries in Rome. The ease and enjoyment of reading, however, were considerably diminished by the many errors, the absence of division and punctuation. Asinius Pollio introduced the custom of public readings of new works before invited circles.64 The excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum reveal a high degree of convenience and taste in domestic life even in provincial towns; and no one can look without amazement at the sublime and eloquent ruins of Rome, the palaces of the Caesars, the Mausoleum of Hadrian, the Baths of Caracalla, the Aqueducts, the triumphal arches and columns, above all the Colosseum, built by Vespasian, to a height of one hundred and fifty feet, and for more than eighty thousand spectators. The period of eighty-four years from the accession of Nerva to the death of Marcus Aurelius has been pronounced by high authority "the most happy and prosperous period in the history of the world."565565    Gibbon, Decline and Fall, ch. III. Renan expresses the same view.65

But this is only a surface view. The inside did not correspond to the outside. Even under the Antonines the majority of men groaned under the yoke of slavery or poverty; gladiatorial shows brutalized the people; fierce wars were raging on the borders of the empire; and the most virtuous and peaceful of subjects—the Christians—had no rights, and were liable at any moment to be thrown before wild beasts, for no other reason than the profession of their religion. The age of the full bloom of the Graeco-Roman power was also the beginning of its decline. This imposing show concealed incurable moral putridity and indescribable wretchedness. The colossal piles of architecture owed their erection to the bloody sweat of innumerable slaves, who were treated no better than so many beasts of burden; on the Flavian amphitheatre alone toiled twelve thousand Jewish prisoners of war; and it was built to gratify the cruel taste of the people for the slaughter of wild animals and human beings made in the image of God. The influx of wealth from conquered nations diffused the most extravagant luxury, which collected for a single meal peacocks from Samos, pike from Pessinus, oysters from Tarentum, dates from Egypt, nuts from Spain, in short the rarest dishes from all parts of the world, and resorted to emetics to stimulate appetite and to lighten the stomach. "They eat," says Seneca, "and then they vomit; they vomit, and then they eat." Apicius, who lived under Tiberius, dissolved pearls in the wine he drank, squandered an enormous fortune on the pleasures of the table, and then committed suicide.566566    Either from disgust of life, or because he thought he could not live off the remaining ten million of sesterces, after he had wasted sixty or a hundred million. Seneca, Ad Helv. x. 9. Heliogabalus chose Apicius as his model. These, however, are exceptional cases, and became proverbial. See on this whole subject of Roman luxury the third volume of Friedlaender’s Sittengeschichte, pp. 1-152. He rather modifies the usual view, and thinks that Apicius had more imitators among French epicures under Louis XIV., XV., and XVI. than among the Roman nobles, and that some petty German princes of the eighteenth century, like King August of Saxony (who wasted eighty thousand thalers on a single opera), and Duke Karl of Württemberg, almost equalled the heathen emperors in extravagance and riotous living, at the expense of their poor subjects. The wealth of the old Romans was much surpassed by that of some modern Russian and English noblemen, French bankers, and American merchant princes, but had a much greater purchasing value. The richest Romans were Ca. Lentulus, and Narcissus (a freedman of Nero), and their fortune amounted to four hundred million sesterces (from sixty-five to seventy million marks); while Mazarin left two hundred million francs, Baron James Rothschild (d. 1868) two thousand million francs (l.c. p. 13 sqq.). The architecture of the imperial age surpassed all modern palaces in extravagance and splendor, but in parks and gardens the modem English far surpass the ancient Romans (p. 78 sqq.).66 He found imperial imitators in Vitellius and Heliogabalus (or Elaogabal). A special class of servants, the cosmetes, had charge of the dress, the smoothing of the wrinkles, the setting of the false teeth, the painting of the eye-brows, of wealthy patricians. Hand in hand with this luxury came the vices of natural and even unnatural sensuality, which decency forbids to name. Hopeless poverty stood in crying contrast with immense wealth; exhausted provinces, with revelling cities. Enormous taxes burdened the people, and misery was terribly increased by war, pestilence, and famine. The higher or ruling families were enervated, and were not strengthened or replenished by the lower. The free citizens lost physical and moral vigor, and sank to an inert mass. The third class was the huge body of slaves, who performed all kinds of mechanical labor, even the tilling of the soil, and in times of danger were ready to join the enemies of the empire. A proper middle class of industrious citizens, the only firm basis of a healthy community, cannot coëxist with slavery, which degrades free labor. The army, composed largely of the rudest citizens and of barbarians, was the strength of the nation, and gradually stamped the government with the character of military despotism. The virtues of patriotism, and of good faith in public intercourse, were extinct. The basest avarice, suspicion and envy, usuriousness and bribery, insolence and servility, everywhere prevailed.

The work of demoralizing the people was systematically organized and sanctioned from the highest places downwards. There were, it is true, some worthy emperors of old Roman energy and justice, among whom Trajan, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius stand foremost; all honor to their memory. But the best they could do was to check the process of internal putrefaction, and to conceal the sores for a little while; they could not heal them. Most of the emperors were coarse military despots, and some of them monsters of wickedness. There is scarcely an age in the history of the world, in which so many and so hideous vices disgraced the throne, as in the period from Tiberius to Domitian, and from Commodus to Galerius. "The annals of the emperors," says Gibbon, "exhibit a strong and various picture of human nature, which we should vainly seek among the mixed and doubtful characters of modern history. In the conduct of those monarchs we may trace the utmost lines of vice and virtue; the most exalted perfection and the meanest degeneracy of our own species."567567    Decline and Fall, ch. III.67 "Never, probably," says Canon Farrar, "was there any age or any place where the worst forms of wickedness were practised with a more unblushing effrontery than in the city of Rome under the government of the Caesars."568568    Seekers after God, p. 37.68 We may not even except the infamous period of the papal pornocracy, and the reign of Alexander Borgia, which were of short duration, and excited disgust and indignation throughout the church.

The Pagan historians of Rome have branded and immortalized the vices and crimes of the Caesars: the misanthropy, cruelty, and voluptuousness of Tiberius; the ferocious madness of Caius Caligula, who had men tortured, beheaded, or sawed in pieces for his amusement, who seriously meditated the butchery of the whole senate, raised his horse to the dignity of consul and priest, and crawled under the bed in a storm; the bottomless vileness of Nero, "the inventor of crime," who poisoned or murdered his preceptors Burrhus and Seneca, his half-brother and brother-in-law Britannicus, his mother Agrippina, his wife Octavia, his mistress Poppaea, who in sheer wantonness set fire to Rome, and then burnt innocent Christians for it as torches in his gardens, figuring himself as charioteer in the infernal spectacle; the swinish gluttony of Vitellins, who consumed millions of money in mere eating; the refined wickedness of Domitian, who, more a cat than a tiger, amused himself most with the torments of the dying and with catching flies; the shameless revelry of Commodus with his hundreds of concubines, and ferocious passion for butchering men and beasts on the arena; the mad villainy of Heliogabalus, who raised the lowest men to the highest dignities, dressed himself in women’s clothes, married a dissolute boy like himself, in short, inverted all the laws of nature and of decency, until at last he was butchered with his mother by the soldiers, and thrown into the muddy Tiber. And to fill the measure of impiety and wickedness, such imperial monsters were received, after their death, by a formal decree of the Senate, into the number of divinities and their abandoned memory was celebrated by festivals, temples, and colleges of priests! The emperor, in the language of Gibbon, was at once "a priest, an atheist, and a god." Some added to it the dignity of amateur actor and gladiator on the stage. Domitian, even in his lifetime, caused himself to be called "Dominus et Deus noster," and whole herds of animals to be sacrificed to his gold and silver statues. It is impossible to imagine a greater public and official mockery of all religion.

The wives and mistresses of the emperors were not much better. They revelled in luxury and vice, swept through the streets in chariots drawn by silver-shod mules, wasted fortunes on a single dress, delighted in wicked intrigues, aided their husbands in dark crimes and shared at last in their tragic fate, Messalina the wife of Claudius, was murdered by the order of her husband in the midst of her nuptial orgies with one of her favorites; and the younger Agrippina, the mother of Nero, after poisoning her husband, was murdered by her own son, who was equally cruel to his wives, kicking one of them to death when she was in a state of pregnancy. These female monsters were likewise deified, and elevated to the rank of Juno or Venus.

From the higher regions the corruption descended into the masses of the people, who by this time had no sense for anything but "Panem et Circenses," and, in the enjoyment of these, looked with morbid curiosity and interest upon the most flagrant vices of their masters.

No wonder that Tacitus, who with terse eloquence and old Roman severity exposes the monstrous character of Nero and other emperors to eternal infamy, could nowhere, save perhaps among the barbarian Germans, discover a star of hope, and foreboded the fearful vengeance of the gods, and even the speedy destruction of the empire. And certainly nothing could save it from final doom, whose approach was announced with ever-growing distinctness by wars, insurrections, inundations, earthquakes, pestilence, famine, irruption of barbarians, and prophetic calamities of every kind. Ancient Rome, in the slow but certain process of dissolution and decay, teaches the


"... sad moral of all human tales;

’Tis but the same rehearsal of the past;

First freedom, and then glory—when that fails,

Wealth, vice, corruption, barbarism at last."



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