Corruption in Ancient Rome And Its Counterpart in Modern History
To satisfy their wants, to pay their debts, the classes now set upon each other, each to rob in turn the goods of the other, in the cruelest civil war that history records; now, tired of doing themselves evil, they unite and precipitate themselves on the world outside of Italy, to sack the wealth that its owners do not know how to defend. In the great revolutions of Marius and Sulla, the democratic party is the instrument with which a part of the debt-burdened middle classes seek to rehabilitate themselves by robbing the plutocracy and the aristocracy yet opulent; but Sulla reverses the situation, makes a coalition of aristocrats and the miserable of the populace, and re-establishes the fortunes of the nobility, despoiling the wealthy knights and a part of the middle classes - a terrible civil war that leaves in Italy a hate, a despondency, a distress, that seem at a certain moment as if they must weigh eternally on the spirit of the unhappy nation. When, lo! there appears the strongest man in the history of Rome, Lucullus, and drags Italy out of the despondency in which it crouched, leads it into the ways of the world, and persuades it that the best means of forgetting the losses and ruin undergone in the civil wars, is to recuperate on the riches of the cowardly Orientals. As little by little the treasures of Mithridates, conquered by Lucullus in the Orient, arrive in Italy, Italy begins anew to divert itself, to construct palaces and villas, to squander in luxury. Pompey, envious of the glory of Lucullus, follows his example, conquers Syria, sends new treasures to Italy, carries from the East the jewels of Mithridates, and displaying them in the temple of Jove, rouses a passion for gems in the Roman women; he also builds the first great stone theatre to rise in Rome. All the political men in Rome try to make money out of foreign countries: those who cannot, like the great, conquer an empire, confine themselves to blackmailing the countries and petty states that tremble before the shadow of Rome; the courts of the secondary kings of the Orient, the court of the Ptolemies at Alexandria, - all are invaded by a horde of insatiable senators and knights, who, menacing and promising, extort money to spend in Italy and foment the growing extravagance. The debts pile up, the political corruption overflows, scandals follow, the parties in Rome rend each other madly, though hail-fellow-well-met in the provinces to plunder subjects and vassals. In the midst of this vast disorder Caesar, the man of destiny, rises, and with varying fortune makes a way for himself until he beckons Italy to follow him, to find success and treasures in regions new - not in the rich and fabulous East, but beyond the Alps, in barbarous Gaul, bristling with fighters and forests.
But this insane effort to prey on every part of the Empire finally tires Italy; quarrels over the division of spoils embitter friends; the immensity of the conquests, made in a few years of reckless enthusiasm, is alarming. Finally a new civil war breaks out, terrible and interminable, in which classes and families fall upon each other anew, to tear away in turn the spoils taken together abroad. Out of the tremendous discord rises at last the pacifier, Augustus, who is able gradually, by cleverness and infinite patience, to re-establish peace and order in the troubled empire. How? - why? Because the combination of events of the times allows him to use to ends of peace the same forces with which the preceding generations had fomented so much disorder - desires for ease, pleasure, culture, wealth growing with the generations making it. Thereupon begins in the whole Empire universal progress in agriculture, industry, trade, which, on a small scale, may be compared to what we to-day witness and share; a progress for which, then as now, the chief condition was peace. As soon as men realised that peace gives that greater wealth, those enjoyments more refined, that higher culture, which for a century they had sought by war, Italy became quiet; revolutionists became guardians and guards of order; there gathered about Augustus a coalition of social forces that tended to impose on the Empire, alike on the parts that wished it and those that did not, the Pax Romana.
Now all this immense story that fills three centuries, that gathers within itself so many revolutions, so many legislative reforms, so many great men, so many events, tragic and glorious, this vast history that for so many centuries holds the interest of all cultured nations, and that, considered as a whole, seems almost a prodigy, you can, on the track of the old idea of "corruption," explain in its profoundest origins by one small fact, universal, common, of the very simplest - something that every one may observe in the limited circle of his own personal experience, - by that automatic increase of ambitions and desires, with every new generation, which prevents the human world from crystallising in one form, constrains it to continual changes in material make-up as well as in ideals and moral appearance. In other words, every new generation must, in order to satisfy that part of its aspirations which is peculiarly and entirely its own, alter, whether little or much, in one way or another, the condition of the world it entered at birth. We can then, in our personal experiences every day, verify the universal law of history - a law that can act with greater or less intensity, more or less rapidity, according to times and places, but that ceases to authenticate itself at no time and in no place.