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§23. Worldliness and Extravagance.


The secularization of the church appeared most strikingly in the prevalence of mammon worship and luxury compared with the poverty and simplicity of the primitive Christians. The aristocracy of the later empire had a morbid passion for outward display and the sensual enjoyments of wealth, without the taste, the politeness, or the culture of true civilization. The gentlemen measured their fortune by the number of their marble palaces, baths, slaves, and gilded carriages; the ladies indulged in raiment of silk and gold ornamented with secular or religious figures, and in heavy golden necklaces, bracelets, and rings, and went to church in the same flaunting dress as to the theatre.225225   Ammianus Marcellinus gives the most graphic account of the extravagant and tasteless luxury of the Roman aristocracy in the fourth century; which Gibbon has admirably translated and explained in his 31st chapter. Chrysostom addresses a patrician of Antioch: “You count so and so many acres of land, ten or twenty palaces, as many baths, a thousand or two thousand slaves, carriages plated with silver and gold.”226226   Homil. in Matt. 63, § 4 (tom. vii. p. 533), comp. Hom. in 1 Cor. 21, § 6, and many other places in his sermons. Comp. Neander’s Chrysostomus, i. p. 10 sqq. and Is. Taylor’s Anc. Christianity, vol. ii., supplement, p. xxx. sqq. Gregory Nazianzen, who presided for a time in the second ecumenical council of Constantinople in 381, gives us the following picture, evidently rhetorically colored, yet drawn from life, of the luxury of the degenerate civilization of that period: “We repose in splendor on high and sumptuous cushions, upon the most exquisite covers, which one is almost afraid to touch, and are vexed if we but hear the voice of a moaning pauper; our chamber must breathe the odor of flowers, even rare flowers; our table must flow with the most fragrant and costly ointment, so that we become perfectly effeminate. Slaves must stand ready, richly adorned and in order, with waving, maidenlike hair, and faces shorn perfectly smooth, more adorned throughout than is good for lascivious eyes; some, to hold cups both delicately and firmly with the tips of their fingers, others, to fan fresh air upon the head. Our table must bend under the load of dishes, while all the kingdoms of nature, air, water and earth, furnish copious contributions, and there must be almost no room for the artificial products of cook and baker .... The poor man is content with water; but we fill our goblets with wine to drunkenness, nay, immeasurably beyond it. We refuse one wine, another we pronounce excellent when well flavored, over a third we institute philosophical discussions; nay, we count it a pity, if he does not, as a king, add to the domestic wine a foreign also.”227227   Orat. xiv. Comp. Ullmann’s monograph on Gregory, p. 6. Still more unfavorable are the pictures which, a half century later, the Gallic presbyter, Salvianus, draws of the general moral condition of the Christians in the Roman empire.228228   Adv. avarit. and De gubern. Dei, passim. Comp. § 12, at the close.

It is true, these earnest protests against degeneracy themselves, as well as the honor in which monasticism and ascetic contempt of the world were universally held, attest the existence of a better spirit. But the uncontrollable progress of avarice, prodigality, voluptuousness, theatre going, intemperance, lewdness, in short, of all the heathen vices, which Christianity had come to eradicate, still carried the Roman empire and people with rapid strides toward dissolution, and gave it at last into the hands of the rude, but simple and morally vigorous barbarians. When the Christians were awakened by the crashings of the falling empire, and anxiously asked why God permitted it, Salvian, the Jeremiah of his time, answered: “Think of your vileness and your crimes, and see whether you are worthy of the divine protection.”229229   De gubern. Dei, l. iv. c. 12, p. 82. Nothing but the divine judgment of destruction upon this nominally Christian, but essentially heathen world, could open the way for the moral regeneration of society. There must be new, fresh nations, if the Christian civilization prepared in the old Roman empire was to take firm root and bear ripe fruit.



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