Gateway to the Classics: Eighteen Christian Centuries by James White
Eighteen Christian Centuries by  James White

First Century

  Augustus Caesar.
14. Tiberius.
37. Caius Caligula.
41. Claudius.
54. Nero. First persecution of the Christians.
68. Galba.
69. Otho,
69. Vitellius.
69. Vespasian.
79. Titus.
81. Domitian. Second persecution of the Christians.
96. Nerva.
98. Trajan.


Livy, Ovid, Tibullus, Strabo, Columella, Quintus Curtius, Seneca, Lucan, Petronius, Silius Italicus, Pliny the Elder, Martial, Quinctilian, Tacitus.

Christian Fathers and Writers

Barnabas, Clement of Rome, Hermas, Ignatius, Polycarp.

The First Century

The Bad Emperors

Nobody disputes the usefulness of History. Many prefer it, even for interest and amusement, to the best novels and romances. But the extent of time over which it has stretched its range is appalling to the most laborious of readers. And as History is growing every day, and every nation is engaged in the manufacture of memorable events, it is pitiable to contemplate the fate of the historic student a hundred years hence. He is not allowed to cut off at one end, in proportion as he increases at the other. He is not allowed to forget Marlborough, in consideration of his accurate acquaintance with Wellington. His knowledge of the career of Napoleon is no excuse for ignorance of Julius Caesar. All must be retained—victories, defeats—battles, sieges—knights in armour, soldiers in red; the charge at Marathon, the struggle at Inkermann—all these things, a thousand other things, at first apparently of no importance, but growing larger and larger as time develops their effects, till men look back in wonder that the acorn escaped their notice which has produced such a majestic oak,—a thousand other things still, for a moment rising in apparently irresistible power, and dying off apparently without cause, must be folded up in niches of the memory, ready to be brought forth when needed, and yet room be left for the future. And who can pretend to be qualified for so great a work? Most of us confess to rather dim recollections of things occurring in our own time,—in our own country—in our own parish; and some, contemplating the vast expanse of human history, its innumerable windings and perplexing variations, are inclined to give it up in despair, and have a sulky sort of gratification in determining to know nothing, since they cannot know all. All kings, they say, are pretty much alike, and whether he is called John in England, or Louis in France, doesn't make much difference. Nobles also are as similar as possible, and peoples are everywhere the same. Now, this, you see, though it ambitiously pretends to be ignorance, is, in fact, something infinitely worse. It is false knowledge. It might be very injurious to liberty, to honour, and to religion itself, if this wretched idea were to become common, for wThere would be the inducement to noble endeavour? to reform of abuses? to purity of life? Kings and nobles and peoples are not everywhere the same. They are not even like each other, or like themselves in the same land at different periods. They are in a perpetual series, not only of change, but of contrast. They are "variable as the sea,"—calm and turbulent, brilliant and dark by turns. And it is this which gives us the only chance of attaining clearness and distinctness in our historic views. It is by dissimilarities that things are individualized: now, how pleasant it would be if we could simplify and strengthen our recollections of different times, by getting personal portraits, as it were, of the various centuries, so as to escape the danger of confounding their dress or features It would be impossible in that case to mistake the Spanish hat and feather of the sixteenth century for the steel helmet and closed vizor of the fourteenth. We should be able, in the same way, to distinguish between the modes of thought and principles of action of the early ages, and those of the present time. We should be able to point out anachronisms of feeling and manners if they occurred in the course of our reading, as well as of dress and language. It is surely worth while, therefore, to make an attempt to individualize the centuries, not by affixing to them any arbitrary marks of one's own, but by taking notice of the distinguishing quality they possess, and grouping round that, as a centre, the incidents which either produce this characteristic or are produced by it. What should we call the present century, for instance? We should at once name it the Century of Invention. The great war with Napoleon ending in 1815, exciting so many passions, and calling forth such energy, was but the natural introduction to the wider efforts and amazing progress of the succeeding forty years. Battles and bulletins, alliances and quarrels, ceased, but the intellect aroused by the struggle dashed into other channels. Commerce spread its humanizing influences over hitherto closed and unexplored regions the steamboat and railway began their wondrous career, The lightning was trained to be our courier in the electric telegraph, and the sun took our likenesses in the daguerreotype. How changed this century is in all its attributes and tendencies from its predecessor, let any man judge for himself, who compares the reigns of our first Hanoverian kings with that of our gracious queen.

In nothing, indeed, is the course of European history so remarkable as in the immense differences which intervals of a few years introduce. In the old monarchies of Asia, time and the world seem almost to stand still.

The Indian, the Arab, the Chinese of a thousand years ago, wore the same clothes, thought the same thoughts. and led the same life as his successor of to-day. But with us the whole character of a people is changed in a lifetime. In a few years we are whirled out of all our associations. Names perhaps remain unaltered, but the inner life is different; modes of living, states of education, religious sentiments, great national events, foreign wars, or deep internal struggles—all leave such ineffaceable marks on the history of certain periods, that their influence can be traced through all the particulars of the time. The art of printing can be followed, on its first introduction, into the recesses of private life, as well as in the intercourse of nations. The Reformation of religion so entirely altered the relations which the states of the world bore to each other, that it may be said to have put a limit between old history and new, so that human character itself received a new development; and actions, both public and private, were regulated by principles hitherto unknown.

In one respect all the past centuries are alike,—that they have done their part towards the formation of this. We bear the impress, at this hour, of the great thoughts and high aspirations, the struggles, and even the crimes, of our ancestral ages; and yet they have no greater resemblance to the present, except in the unchangeable characteristics of human nature itself, than the remotest forefathers in a long line of ancestry, wThose likenesses hang in the galleries of our hereditary nobles, bear to the existing owrner of title and estate. The ancestor who fought in the wars of the Roses has a very different expression and dress from the other ancestor who cheated and lied (politically, of course) in the days of the early Georges. Yet from both the present proprietor is descended. He retains the somewhat rusty armour on an ostentatious nail in the hall, and the somewhat insincere memoirs in a secret drawer in the library, and we cannot deny that he is the joint production of the courage of the warrior and the duplicity of the statesman; anxious to defend what he believes to be the right, like the supporter of York or Lancaster—but trammelled by the ties of party, like the patriot of Sir Robert Walpole,

If we could affix to each century as characteristic a presentment as those portraits do of the steel-clad hero of Towton, or the be-wigged, be-buckled courtier of George the Second, our object would be gained. We should see a whole history in a glance at a century's face. If it were peculiarly marked by nature or accident, so much the more easy would it be to recognise the likeness. If the century was a warlike, quarrelsome century, and had scars across its brow; if it was a learned, plodding century, and wore spectacles on nose; if it was a frivolous, gay century, and simpered forever behind bouquets of flowers, or tripped on fantastic toe with a jewelled rapier at its side, there would be no mistaking the resemblance; there would also be no chance of confusing the actions: the legal century would not fight, the dancing century would not depose its king.

Taking our stand at the beginning of our era, there are only eighteen centuries with which we have to do, and how easily any of us get acquainted with the features and expression of eighteen of our friends! Not that we know every particular of their birth and education, or can enter into the minute parts of their character and feelings; but we soon know enough of them to distinguish them from each other. We soon can say of which of the eighteen such or such an action or opinion is characteristic. We shall not mistake the bold deed or eloquent statement of one as proceeding from another.

"Boastful and rough, your first son is a squire.

The next a tradesman, meek, and much a liar;

Tom struts a soldier, open, bold, and brave:

Will sneaks a scrivener, an exceeding knave.

Is he a churchman? then he's fond of power:

A Quaker? sly: a Presbyterian? sour;

A smart free-thinker? all things in an hour."

Now, though it is impossible to put the characteristics of a whole century into such terse and powerful language as this, it cannot be doubted that each century, or con-siderable period, has its prevailing Thought,—a thought which it works out in almost all the ramifications of its course; which it receives from its predecessor in a totally different shape, and passes on to its successor in a still more altered form. Else why do we find the faith of one generation the ridicule and laughing-stock of the next? How did knighthood rise into the heroic regions of chivalry, and then sink in a succeeding period into the domain of burlesque? How did aristocracy in one age concentrate into kingship in another? And in a third, how did the golden ring of sovereignty lose its controlling power, and republics take their rise? How did the reverence of Europe settle at one time on the sword of Edward the Third, and at another on the periwig of Louis the Fourteenth? These and similar inquiries will lead us to the real principles and motive forces of a particular age, as they distinguished it from other ages. We shall label the centuries, as it were, with their characteristic marks, and know where to look for thoughts and incidents of a particular class and type.

Let us look at the first century.

Throughout the civilized world there is nothing but Rome. Under whatever form of government—under consuls, or triumvirs, or dictators—that wonderful city was mistress of the globe. Her internal dissensions had Lot weakened her power. While her streets were running with the blood of her citizens, her eagles were flying triumphant in Farther Asia and on the Ehine Her old constitution had finally died off almost without a blow, and unconsciously the people, still talking of Cato and Brutus, became accustomed to the yoke. For seven -and-twenty years they had seen all the power of the state concentrated in one man; but the names of the offices of which their ancestors had been so proud were retained; and when Octavius, the nephew of the conqueror Julius Caesar, placed himself above the law, it was only by uniting in his own person all the authority which the law had created. He was consul, tribune, praetor, pontifex, imperator,—whatever denomination conferred dignity and power; and by the legal exercise of all these trusts he had no rival and no check. He was finally presented by the senate with the lofty title of Augustus, which henceforth had a mysterious significance as the seal of imperial greatness, and his commands were obeyed without a murmur from the Tigris to the Tyne. But whilst in the enjoyment of this pre-eminence, the Roman emperor was unconscious that in a village of Judea, in the lowest rank of life, among the most contemned tribe of his dominions, his Master was s born. By this event the whole current of the world's history was changed. The great became small and the small great. Rome itself ceased to be the capital of the world, for men's eyes and hearts, when the wonderful story came to be known, were turned to Jerusalem. From her, commissioned emissaries were to proceed with greater powers than those of Roman praetors or governors. From her gates went forth Peter and John to preach the gospel. Down her steep streets rode Paul and his companions, breathing anger against the Church, and ere they reached Damascus, behold, the wyes of the persecutor are blinded with lightning, and his understanding illuminated with the same flash; and henceforth he proceeds, in lowliness and humility, to convey to others the glad tidings that had been revealed to himself. Away in all directions, but all radiating from Jerusalem, travelled the messengers of the amazing dispensation. Everywhere—in all centuries—in all regions, we shall encounter the results of their ministry; and as we watch the swelling of the mighty tide, first of Christian faith and then of priestly ambition, which overspread the fairest portions of the globe, we shall wonder more and more at the apparent poweiiessness of its source, and at the vast effects for good and evil which it has produced upon mankind.

What were they doing at Rome during the thirty-three years of our Saviour's sojourn upon earth? For the first fourteen of them Augustus was gathering round him the wits, and poets, and sages, who have made his reign immortal. After that date his successor, Tiberius, built up by stealthy and slow degrees the most dreadful tyranny the world had ever seen,—a tyranny the results of which lasted long after the founders of it had expired. For from this period mankind had nothing to hope but from the bounty of the emperor. It is humiliating to reflect that the history of the world for so long a period consists of the deeds and dispositions of the successive rulers of Rome. All men, wherever their country, or whatever their position, were dependent, in greater or less degree, for their happiness or misery on the good or bad temper of an individual man. If he was cruel, as so many of them were, he filled the patricians of Rome with fear, and terrified the distant inhabitants of Thrace or Gaul. His benevolence, on the other hand, was felt at the extremities of the earth. No wonder that every one was on the watch for the frst glimpse of a new emperor's character and disposition. What rejoicings in Italy and Greece and Africa; and all through Europe, when a trait of goodness was reported! and what a sinking of the heart when the old story was renewed, and a monster of cruelty succeeded to a monster of deceit! For the fearfullest thing in all the descriptions of Tiberius is the duplicity of his behaviour. He withdrew to an island in the sunniest part of the Mediterranean, and covered it with gorgeous buildings, and supplied it with all the implements of luxury and enjoyment. From this magnificent retirement he uttered a whisper, or made a motion with his hand, which displaced an Eastern monarch from his throne, or doomed a senator to death. He was never seen. He lived in the dreadful privacy of some fabled deity, and was only felt at the farthest ends of his empire by the unhappiness he occasioned; by his murders, and imprisonments, and every species of suffering, men's hearts and minds were bowed down beneath this invisible and irresistible oppressor. Self-respect was at an end, and liberty was not even wished for. The emperor had swallowed up the empire, and there was no authority or influence beside. This is the main feature of the first or Imperial Century, that, wherever we look, we see but one,—one gorged and bloated brutalized man, sitting on the throne of earthly power, and all the rest of mankind at his feet. Humanity at its flower had culminated into a Tiberius; and when at last he was slain, and the world began to breathe, the sorrow was speedily deeper than before, for it was found that the Imperial tree had blossomed again, and that its fruit was a Caligula.

This was a person with much the same taste for blood as his predecessor, but he was more open in the gratification of this propensity. He did not wait for trial and sentence,—those dim mockeries of justice in which Tiberius sometimes indulged. He had a peculiar way of nodding with his head or pointing with his finger, and the executioner knew the sign. The man he nodded to died. For the more distinguished of the citizens he kept a box,—not of snuff, like some monarchs of the present day, but of some strong and instantaneous poison. Whoever refused a pinch died as a traitor, and whoever took one died of the fatal drug. Even the degenerate Romans could not endure this long, and Chaereas, an officer of his guard, put him to death, after a sanguinary reign of four years. Still the hideous catalogue goes on. Claudius, a nephew of Tiberius, is forced upon the unwilling senate by the spoilt soldiers of the capital, the Praetorian Guards. Colder, duller, more brutal than the rest, Claudius perhaps increased the misery of his country by the apathy and stupidity of his mind. The other tyrants had some limit to their wickedness, for they kept all the powers of the State in their own hands, but this man enlisted a countless host of favourites and courtiers in his crusade against the happiness of mankind. Badly eminent among these was his wife, the infamous Messalina, whose name has become a symbol of all that is detestable in the female sex. Some people, indeed, in reading the history of this period, shut the book with a shudder, and will not believe it true. They prefer to think that authors of all lands and positions have agreed to paint a fancy picture of depravity and horror, than that such things were. But the facts are too well proved to be doubted. We see a dull, unimpassioned, moody despot; fond of blood, but too indolent to shed it himself, unless at the dictation of his fiendish partner and her friends; so brutalized that nothing amazed or disturbed himj so unobservant that, relying on hia blindness, she went through the ostentatious ceremony of a public marriage with one of her paramours during the lifetime, almost under the eyes, of her husband; and yet to this frightful combination of ferocity and stupidity England owes its subjection to the Roman power, and all the blessings which Roman civilization—bringing as it did the lessons of Christianity in its train—was calculated to bestow. In the forty-fourth year of this century, and the third year of the reign of Claudius, Aulua Plautius landed in Britain at the head of a powerful army; and the tide of Victory and Settlement never subsided till the whole country, as far north as the Solway, submitted to the Eagles. The contrast between the central power at Rome, and the officials employed at a distance, continued for a long time the most remarkable circumstance in the history of the empire Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, vied with each other in exciting the terror and destroying the happiness of the world; but in the remote extremities of their command, their generals displayed the courage and virtue of an earlier age. They improved as well as conquered, They made roads, and built bridges, and cut down woods. They established military stations, which soon became centres of education and law. They deepened the Thames, and commenced those enormous embankments of the river, to which, in fact, London owes its existence, without being aware of the labour they bestowed upon the work. If by some misfortune a great fissure took place—as has occurred on a small scale once before—in these artificial dikes, it would task the greatest skill of modern engineers to repair the damage. They superseded the blood-stained ceremonies of the Druids with the more refined worship of the heathen deities, making Claudius himself a tutelary god, with priest and temple, in the town of Colchester; and this, though in our eyes the deification of one of the worst of men, was, perhaps, in the estimation of our predecess sors, only the visible embodiment of settled government and beneficent power. But murder and treachery, and unspeakable iniquity, went their way as usual in the city of the Caesars. Messalina was put to death, and another disgrace to womanhood, in the person of Agrippina, took her place beside the phlegmatic tyrant. Thirteen years had passed when the boundary of human patience was attained, and Rome was startled one morning with the joyful news that her master was no more. The combined cares of his loving spouse and a favourite physician had produced this happy result,—the one presenting him with a dish of deadly mushrooms, and the other painting his throat for a hoarseness with a poisoned feather. Is there no hope for Rome or for mankind? Is there to be a perpetual succession of monster after monster, with no cessation in the dreadful line? It would bo pleasant to conceal for a minute or two the name of the next emperor, that we might point to the glorious prospect now opening on the world. But the name has become so descriptive that deception is impossible. When the word Nero is said, little more is required. But it was not so at first; a brilliant sunrise never had so terrible a course, or so dark a setting. We still see in the earlier statues which remain of him the fine outline of his face, and can fancy what its expression must have been before the qualities of his heart had stamped their indelible impression on his features. For the first five years of his reign the world seemed lost as much in surprise as in admiration, Some of his actions were generous; none of them were cruel or revengeful. He was young, and seemed anxious to fulfil the duties of his position. But power and flattery had their usual effect. All that was good in him was turned into evil. He tortured the noblest of the citizens; and degraded the throne to such a degree by the expositions he made of himself, sometimes as a musician on the stage, sometimes as a charioteer in the arena, that if there had been any Romans left they would have despised the tyrant more than they feared him. But there were no Romans left. The senators, the knights, the populace, vied with each other in submission to his power and encouragement of his vices. The rage of the monster, once excited, knew no bounds. He burned the city in the mere wantonness of crime, and fixed the blame on the unoffending Christians. These, regardless of age or condition or sex, he destroyed by every means in his power. He threw young maidens into the amphitheatre, where the hungry tigers leapt out upon them; he exposed the aged professors of the gospel to fight in single combat with the trained murderers of the circus, called the Gladiators; and once, in ferocious mockery of human suffering, he enclosed whole Christian families in a coating of pitch and other inflammable materials, and, setting fire to the covering, pursued his sport all night by the light of these living flambeaux. Some of his actions it is impossible to name. It will be sufficient to say that at the end of thirteen years the purple he disgraced was again reddened with blood. Terrified at the opposition that at last rose against him—deserted, of course, by the confederates of his wickedness—shrinking with unmanly cowardice from a defence which might have put off the evil day, he fled and hid himself from his pursuers. Agonized with fear, howling with repentant horror, he was indebted to one of his attendants for the blow which his own cowardly hand could not administer, and he died the basest, lowest, and most pitiless of all the emperors. And all those hopes he had disappointed, and all those iniquities he had perpetrated, at the age of thirty-two. He was the last of the line of Caesar; and if that conqueror had foreseen that in so few years after his death the Senate of Rome would have been so debased, and the people of Home so brutalized, he would have pardened to Brutus the precautionary blow which was intended to prevent so great a calamity.

Galba was elected to fill his place, and was murdered in a few months.

The degraded praetorians then elevated one of the companions of Nero's guilty excesses to the throne in the person of Otho, but resistance was made to their pn selection. The forces in Germany nominated Vitellius to the supreme authority; and Otho, either a voluptuary tired of life, or a craven incapable of exertion, committed suicide to save the miseries of civil war. Bat this calamity was averted by a nobler hand. Vitellius had only time to show that, in addition to the usual vices of the throne, he was addicted to the animal enjoyments of eating and drinking to an almost incredible degree, when he heard a voice from the walls of Jerusalem which hurled him from the seat he had so lately taken; for the legions engaged in that most memorable of sieges had decided on giving the empire of the world to the man who deserved it best, and had proclaimed their general, Flavius Vespasian, Imperator and Master of Rome.

Now we will pause, for we have come to the year seventy of this century, and a fit breathing-time to look round us and see what condition mankind has fallen into within a hundred years of the end of the Republic. We leave out of view the great empires of the farther East, where battles were won, and dynasties established on the plains of Hindostan, and within the Chinese Wall. The extent of our knowledge of Oriental affairs is limited to the circumference of the Roman power. Following that vast circle, we see it on all sides surrounded by tribes and nations who derive their sole illumination from its light, for unless the Roman conquests had extended to the confines of those barbaric states, we should have known nothing of their existence. Beyond that ring of fire it is almost matter of conjecture what must have been going on. Yet we learn from the traditions of many peoples; and can guess with some accuracy from the occurrences of a later period, what was the condition of those "outsiders," and what were their feelings and intentions with regard to the civilized portions of the world. Bend your eyes in any direction you please, and what names, what thoughts, suggest themselves to our minds! We see swarms of wild adventurers with wives and cattle traversing with no definite object the uncultivated districts beyond the Danube; occasionally pitching their tents, or even forming more permanent establishments, around the roots of Caucasus and north of the Caspian Sea, where grass was more plentiful and hills or marshes formed an easily defended barrier against enemies as uncivilized as themselves. Coming from no certain region—that is, forgetting in a few years of wandering the precise point from which they set out, pushed forward by the advancing waves of great national migrations in their rear—moving onward across the upper fields of Europe, but keeping themselves still cautiously from actual contact with the Roman limits, from those hordes of homeless, lawless savages are derived the most polished and greatest nations of the present day. Forming into newer combinations, and taking different names, their identity is scarcely to be recognised when, three or four centuries after this, they come into the daylight of history; but nobody can doubt that, during these preliminary ages, they were gathering their power together, hereafter, under the impulse of frash additions, to be hurled like a dammed-up river upon the prostrate realm, carrying ruin and destruction in their course, but no less certainly than the overflowing Nile leaving the germs of future fertility, and enriching with newer vegetation the fields they had so ruthlessly submerged. And year by year the mighty mass goes on accumulating. The northern plains become peopled no one knows how. The vast forests eastward of the Rhine receive new accessions of warriors, who rapidly assimilate with the old. United in one common object of retaining the wild freedom of their tribe, and the possession of the lands they have seized, they have opposed the advance of the Roman legions into the uncultivated districts they call their own; they have even succeeded in destroying the military forces which guarded the Rhine, and have with difficulty been restrained from crossing the great river by a strong line of forts and castles, of which the remains astonish the traveller of the present day, as, with Murray's Guide-Book in his hand, he gazes upon their ruins between Bingen and Aix-la-Chapelle.

Repelled by these barriers, they cluster thicker than ever in the woods and valleys, to which the Romans have no means of penetrating. Southern Gaul submits, and becomes a civilized outpost of the central power; but far up in the wild regions of the north, and even to the eastward of the Gulfs of Bothnia and Finland, the assemblage goes on. Scandinavia itself becomes overcrowded by the perpetual arrival of thousands of these armed and expatriated families, and sends her teeming populations to the east and south. But all these incidents, I must remind you, are occurring in darkness. We only know that the desert is becoming peopled with crowded millions, and that among them all there floats a confused notion of the greatness of the Roman power, the wealth of the cities and plains of Italy; and that, clustering in thicker swarms on the confines of civil government, the watchful eyes of unnumbered savage warriors are fixed on the territories lying rich and beautiful within the protection of the Roman name. So the whole Roman boundary gets gradually surrounded by barbaric hosts. Their trampings may be heard as they marshal theii myriads and skirt the upper boundaries of Thrace; but as yet no actual conflict has occurred. A commotion may become observable among some of the farthest distant of the half intimidated of the German tribes; or an enterprising Roman settler beyond the frontier, or travelling merchant, who has penetrated to the neighbourhood of the Baltic, may bring back amazing reports of the fresh accumulations of unknown hordes of strange and threatening aspect; but the luxurious public in Rome receive them merely as interesting anecdotes to amuse their leisure or gratify their curiosity: they have no apprehension of what may be the result of those multitudinous arrivals. They do not foresee the gradual drawing closer to their outward defences—the struggle to get within their guarded lines—the fight that is surely coming between a sated, dull, degraded civilization on the one side, and a hungry, bold, ambitious savagery on the other. They trust every thing to the dignity of the Eternal City, and the watchfulness of the Emperor: for to this, his one idea of irresistible power equally for good or evil, the heart of the Roman was sure to turn. And for the eleven years of the reigns of Yespasian and Titus, the Roman did not appeal for protection against a foreign enemy in vain. Rome itself was compensated by shows and buildings—with a triumph and an arch—for the degradation in which it was held. But praetor and proconsul still pursued their course of oppressing the lands committed to their defence; and the subject, stripped of his goods, and hopeless of getting his wrongs redressed, had only the satisfaction of feeling that the sword he trembled at was in the hand of a man and not of an incarnate demon. A poor consolation this when the blow was equally fatal. Vespasian, in fact, was fonder of money than of blood, and the empire rejoiced in having exchanged the agony of being murdered for the luxury of being fleeced. With Titus, whom the fond gratitude of his subjects named the Delight of the human race, a new age of happiness was about to open on the world; but all the old horrors of the Caesars were revived and magnified when he was succeeded, after a reign of two years, by his brother, the savage and cowardly Domitian. With the exception of the brief period between the years 70 and 81, the whole century was spent in suffering and inflicting pain. The worst excesses of Nero and Caligula were now imitated and surpassed. The bonds of society became rapidly loosened. As in a shipwreck, the law of self-preservation was the only rule. No man could rely upon his neighbour, or his friend, or his nearest of kin.

There were spies in every house, and an executioner at every door. An unconsidered word maliciously reported, or an accusation entirely false, brought death to the rich and great. To the unhappy class of men who in other times are called the favourites of fortune, because they are born to the possession of great ancestral names and hereditary estates, there was no escape from the jealous and avaricious hatred of the Emperor. If a patrician of this description lived in the splendour befitting his rank—he was currying favour with the mob! If he lived re tired—he was trying to gain reputation by a pretence of giving up the world! If he had great talents—he was dangerous to the state! If he was dull and stupid—oh! don't believe it—he was only an imitative Brutus, concealing his deep designs under the semblance of fatuity! If a man of distinguished birth was rich, it was not a fitting condition for a subject—if he was poor, he was likely to be seduced into the wildest enterprises. So the prisons were filled by calumny and suspicion, and emptied by the executioner. A dreadful century this—the worst that ever entered into tale or history; for the memory of former glories and comparative freedom was still recent. A man who was sixty years old, in the midst of the terrors of Tiberius, had associated in his youth with the survivors of the Civil War, with men who had embraced Brutus and Cassius; he had seen the mild administration of Augustus, and perhaps had supped with Yirgil and Horace in the house of Maecenas. And now he was tortured till he named a slave or freedman of the Emperor his heir, and then executed to expedite the succession. There was a hideous jocularity in some of these imperial proceedings, which, however, was no laughing-matter at the time. When a senator was very wealthy, it was no unusual thing for Tiberius and his successors to create themselves the rich man's nearest relations by a decree of the Senate. The person so honoured by this graft upon his family tree seldom survived the operation many days. The emperor took possession of the property as heir-at-law and next of kin; and mourned for his uncle or brother—as the case might be—with the most edifying decorum. But besides giving the general likeness of a period, it Is necessary to individualize it still further by introducing, in the background of the picture, some incident by which it is peculiarly known, as we find Nelson generally represented with Trafalgar going on at the horizon, and Wellington sitting thoughtful on horseback in the foreground of the fire of Waterloo. Now, there cannot be a more distinguishing mark than a certain great military achievement which happened in the year 70 of this century, and is brought home to us, not only as a great historical event in itself, but as the commencement of a new era in human affairs, and the completion of a long line of threats and prophecies. This was the capture and destruction of Jerusalem. The accounts given us of this siege transcend in horror all other records of human sorrow. It was at the great annual feast of the Passover, when Jews from all parts of the world flocked to the capital of their nation to worship in the Temple, which to them was the earthly dwelling-place of Jehovah. The time was come, and they did not know it, when God was to be worshipped in spirit and in truth. More than a million strangers were resident within the walls. There was no room in house or hall for so vast a multitude; so they bivouacked in the streets, and lay thick as leaves in the courts of the holy place. Suddenly the Roman trumpets blew. The Jews became inspired with fanatical hatred of the enemy, and insane confidence that some miracle would be wrought for their deliverence. They deliberated, and chose for their leaders the wildest and most enthusiastic of the crowd. They refused the offers of mercy and reconciliation made to them by Titus. They sent back insulting messages to the Roman general, and stood expectant on the walls to see the idolatrous legions smitten by lightning or swallowed up by an earthquake. But Titus advanced his forces and hemmed in the countless multitude of men, and women, and children—few able to resist, but all requiring to be fed. Famine and pestilence came on; but still the mad fanatics of the Temple determined to persevere. They occasionally opened a gate and rushed out with the cry of " The sword of the Lord and of Gideon!" and were slaughtered by the unpitying hatred of the Roman soldiers. Their cruelty to their prisoners, when they succeeded in carrying off a few of their enemies, was great; but the patience of Titus at last gave way, and he soon bettered the instruction they gave him in pitilessness and blood. He drew a line of circumvallation closer round the city, and intercepted every supply; when deserters came over; he crucified them all round the trenches; when the worn-out people came forth, imploring to be suffered to pass through his ranks, he drove them back, that they might increase the scarcity by their lives, or the pestilence by adding to the heaps of unburied dead. Dissensions were raging all this time among the defenders themselves. They fought in the streets, in the houses, and heaped the floor and outcourts of the Temple with thousands of the slain. There was no help either from heaven or earth; eleven hundred thousand people had died of plague and the sword; and the rest were doomed to perish by more lingering torments. Nearest relations—sisters, brothers, fathers, wives—all forgot the ties of natural affection under this great necessity, and fought for a handful of meal, or the possession of some reptile's body if they were lucky enough to trace it to its hiding-place; and at last—the crown of all horrors—the daughter of Eleazer killed her own child and converted it into food. The measure of man's wrong and Heaven's vengeance was now full. The daily sacrifice ceased to be offered; voices were audible to the popular ear uttering in the Holy of Holies, "Let us go hence." The Romans rushed on—climbed over the neglected walls—forced their way into the upper Temple, and the gore flowed in streams so rapid and so deep that it seemed like a purple river! Large conduits had been made for the rapid conveyance away of the blood of bulls and goats offered in sacrifice; they all became choked now with the blood of the slaughtered people. At last the city was taken; the inhabitants were either dead or dying Many were crushed as they lay expiring in the great tramplings of the triumphant Romans; many were recovered by food and shelter, and sold into slavery. The Temple and walls were levelled with the ground, and not one stone was left upon another. The plough passed over where palace and tower had beeft, and the Jewish dispensation was brought to a close.

History in ancient days was as exclusive as the court newsman in ours, and never published the movements of anybody below a senator or a consul. All the Browns and Smiths were left out of consideration; and yet to us who live in the days when those families—with the Joneses and Robinsons—form the great majority both in number and influence, it wTould be very interesting to have any certain intelligence of their predecessors during the first furies of the Empire. "We have but faint descriptions even of the aristocracy, but what we hear of them shows, more clearly than any thing, else, the frightful effect on morals and manliness of so uncontrolled a power as was vested in the Caesars, and teaches us that the worst of despotisms is that which is established by the unholy union of the dregs of the population and the ruling power, against the peace and happiness and security of the middle class. You see how this combination of tyrant and mob succeeded in crushing all the layers of society which lay between them, till there were left only tw70 agencies in all the world—the Emperor on his throne, and the millions fed by his bounty. The hereditary nobility—the safest bulwark of a people and least dangerous support of a throne—were extirpated before the end of the century, and impartiality makes us confess that they fell by their own fault. As if the restraints of shame had been thrown off with the last hope of liberty, the whole population broke forth into the most incredible licentiousness. If the luxury of Lucullus had offended the common sense of propriety in the later days of the republic, there were numbers now who looked back upon his feasts as paltry entertainments, and on the wealth of Croesus as poverty. The last of the Pompeys, in the time of Caligula, had estates so vast, that navigable rivers larger than the Thames performed the whole of their course from their fountain-head to the sea without leaving his domain. There were spendthrifts in the time of Tiberius who lavished thousands of pounds upon a supper. The pillage of the world had fallen into the hands of a few favoured families, and their example had introduced a prodigality and ostentation unheard of before. No one who regarded appearances travelled anywhere without a troop of Numidian horsemen, and outriders to clear the way. He was followed by a train of mules and sumpter-horses loaded with his vases of crystal—his richly-carved cups and dishes of silver and gold. But this profusion had its natural result in debt and degradation. The patricians who had been rivals of the imperial splendour became dependants on the imperial gifts; and the grandson of the conqueror of a kingdom, or the proconsul of the half of Asia, sold his ancestral palace, lived for a while on the contemptuous bounty of his master, and sank in the next generation into the nameless mass. Others, more skilful, preserved or improved their fortunes while they rioted in expense. By threats or promises, they prevailed on the less powerful to constitute them their heirs; they traded on the strength, or talents, or the beavity of their slaves, and lent money at such usurious interest that (he borrower tried in vain to escape the shackles of the haw, and ended by becoming the bondsman of the kind-hearted gentleman who had induced him to accept the loan.

If these were the habits of the rich, how were the poor treated? The free and penniless citizens of the capital were degraded and gratified at the same time The wealthy vied with each other in buying the favour of the mob by shows and other entertainments, by gifts of money and donations of food. But when these arts failed, and popularity could no longer be obtained by merely defraying the expense of a combat of gladiators, the descendants of the old patricians—of the men who had bought the land on which the Gauls were encamped outside the gates of Rome—went down into the arena themselves and fought for the public entertainment. Laws indeed were passed even in the reign of Tiberius, and renewed at intervals after that time, against this shameful degradation, and the stage was interdicted to all who were not previously declared infamous by sentence of a court. But all was in vain. Ladies of the highest rank, and the loftiest-born of the nobility, actually petitioned for a decree of defamation, that they might give themselves up undisturbed to their favourite amusement. This perhaps added a zest to their enjoyment, and rapturous applauses must have hailed the entrance of the beautiful grandchild of Anthony or Agrippa, in the character and drapery of a warlike amazon—the louder the applause and greater the admiration. Yet in order to gratify them with such a sight, she had descended to the level of the convict, and received the brand of qualifying disgrace from a legal tribunal. But the faint barrier of this useless prohibition was thrown down by the policy and example of Domitian. The emperor himself appeared in the arena, and all restraint was at an end. Rather, there was a fury of emulation to copy so great a model, and "Rome's proud dames, whose garments swept the ground," forgot more than ever their rank and sex, and were proud, like their lovers and brothers, not merely to mount the stage in the lascivious costume of nymph or dryad, but to descend into the blood-stained lists of the Coliseum and murder each other with sword and spear. There is something strangely horrible in this transaction, when we read that it occurred for the first time in celebration of the games of Flora—the goddess of flowers and gardens, who, in old times, was worshipped under the blossomed apple-trees in the little orchards surrounding each cottage within the walls, and was propitiated with children's games and ehaplets hung upon the boughs. But now the loveliest of the noble daughters of the city lay dead upon the trampled sand. What was the effect upon the populace of these extraordinary shows?

Always stern and cruel, the Roman was now never satisfied unless with the spectacle of death. Sometimes in the midst of a play or pantomime the fierce lust of blood would seize him, and he would cry out for a combat of gladiators or nobles, who instantly obeyed, and after the fight was over, and the corpses removed, the play would go on as if nothing had occurred. The banners of the empire still continued to bear the initial letters of the great words—the Senate and people of Rome. We have now, in this rapid survey, seen what both those great names have come to—the Senate crawl-ing at the feet of the emperor, and the people living on charity and shows. The slaves fared worst of all, for they were despised by rich and poor. The sated voluptuary whose property they were sometimes found an excitement to his jaded spirits by having them tortured in his sight. They were allowed to die of starvation when they grew old, unless they were turned to use, as was done by one of their possessors, Vidius Pollio, who cast the fattest of his domestics into his fish-pond to feed his lampreys. The only other classes were the actors and musicians, the dwarfs and the philosophers. They contributed by their wit, or their uncouth shape, or their oracular sentences, to the amusement of their employers, and were safe. They were licensed characters, and could say what they chose, protected by the long-drawn countenance of the stoic, or the comic grimaces of the buffoon. So early as the time of Nero, the people he tyrannized and flattered were not less ruthless than himself. In his cruelty—in his vanity—in his frivolity, and his entire devotion to the gratification of his passions—he was a true representative of the men over whom he ruled. Emperor and subject had even then become fitted for each other, and flowers, we are credibly told by the historians, were hung for many years upon his tomb.

Humanity itself seemed to be sunk beyond the possibility of restoration; but we see now how necessary it was that our nature should reach its lowest point of depression to give full force to the great reaction which Christianity introduced. Men were slavishly bending at the footstool of a despot, trembling for life, bowed down by fear and misery, when suddenly it was reported that a great teacher had appeared for a while upon earth, and declared that all men were equal in the sight of God, for that God was the Father of all. The slave heard this in the intervals of his torture—the captive in his dungeon—the widow and the orphan. To the poor the gospel, or good news, was preached. It was this which made the trembling courtiers of the worst of the emperors slip out noiselessly from the palace, and hear from Paul of Tarsus or his disciples the new prospect that was opening on mankind. It spread quickly among those oppressed and hopeless multitudes. The subjection of the Roman empire—its misery and degradation—were only a means to an end. The harsher the laws of the tyrant, the more gracious seemed the words of Christ. The two masters were plainly set before them, which to choose. And who could hesitate? One said, "Tremble! suffer! die!" The other said, "Come unto me, all ye that are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest!"

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home 
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2020   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.