The subject of this book is "Life in the Roman World of Nero and St. Paul." This is not quite the same thing as "Life in Ancient Rome" at the same date. Our survey is to be somewhat wider than that of the imperial city itself, with its public and private structures, its public and private life. The capital, and these topics concerning it, will naturally occupy the greater portion of our time and interest. But it is quite impossible to realise Rome, its civilisation, and the meaning of its monuments, unless we first obtain some general comprehension of the empire - the Roman world - with its component parts, its organisation and administration. The date is approximately anno Domini 64, although it is not desirable, even if it were possible, to adhere in every detail to the facts of that particular year. In A.D. 64 the Emperor Nero was at the height of his folly and tyranny, and, so far as our information goes, the Apostle Paul was journeying about the Roman world in the interval between his first and second imprisonments in the capital.
One cannot, perhaps, achieve a wholly satisfying picture in a treatise of the present dimensions. It would require a very bulky volume to realise with any adequateness the ideal aim. It would be well if, in the first instance, we could imagine ourselves standing somewhere far aloft over the centre of the empire, and possessing as wide-ranging a vision as that of the Homeric gods. From that exalted standpoint we might gaze upon the active life of towns, upon the labourers working their lands from the Atlantic to the Euphrates, and upon the men who go down to the sea in ships and do their business in great waters. We should perceive their occupations and amusements, their material surroundings, their various dress and manners, their methods of travel, the degree of their personal safety and liberty. Then we should descend to earth in the middle of Rome itself, and become for the time being inhabitants of that city, privileged to take part in its public business and its public pleasures, to enter the houses of what may be called its representative citizens, to share in the various elements of its social day, and to estimate the moral, intellectual, and artistic cultivation of Roman society.
Such would be the ideal. Here it must suffice, to select the most essential or interesting matters, and to present them with such vividness as the necessary brevity will permit. Very little preliminary knowledge will be taken for granted; the use of Latin or technical terms will be shunned, and every topic will be dealt with, as far as possible, in the plainest of English.
Nevertheless, while aiming at entire lucidity, the following chapters will aim even more scrupulously at telling the truth. There are doubtless a number of matters - though generally of relatively small moment - about which we are, and probably always shall be, uncertain. The best way to deal with these, in a work which is descriptive rather than argumentative, is to omit them. For the rest it must be expected of any one whose professional concern it has been to saturate himself for many years in the literature of the times, and to study carefully their monumental remains, that he should occasionally make some statement, drop some passing remark or judgment, which may appear to be in conflict with assertions made in other quarters. If a few examples are met with in the present book, they may be taken as made with all deference, but with deliberation.
It is perhaps well to say this with some emphasis, in view of the blunders often innocently committed by those who happen to be speaking of this period. There are those who know it almost only through the medium of the Acts of the Apostles, and who entertain the most erroneous notions concerning Gallio or Festus, concerning Roman justice, Roman taxation, or Roman moral and religious attitudes. There are those, again, who know it almost only through the manuals of history; that is to say, they know the dates and facts of the reigns of the emperors, but have never realised, not to say visualised, the contemporary Roman as a human being. There exist denunciations of the morals of the Roman world of this date which would lead one to believe that every man was a Nero and every woman a Messalina: denunciations so lurid that, if they were a third part true, the continuance of the Roman Empire, or even of the Roman race, for a single century would be simply incomprehensible. On the other hand there have been accounts of the material glory of Rome which have conjured up visions of splendour worthy only of the Arabian Nights; and sometimes the comment is added that it was all won from the blood and sweat heartlessly wrung from a world of miserable slaves. It is not too much to say that none of these descriptions could come from a writer or speaker who knew the period at first hand.
The most dangerous form of falsehood is that which contains some portion of truth. The life of many a Roman was deplorably dissolute; the splendour of Rome was beyond doubt astonishing; of oppression there were too many scattered instances; but we do not judge the civilisation of the British Empire by the choicest scandals of London, nor the good sense of the United States by the freak follies of New York. We do not take it that the modern satirist who vents his spleen on an individual or a class is describing each and all of his contemporaries, nor even that what he says is necessarily true of such individual or class. Nor is the professional moralist himself immune from jaundice or from the disease of exaggeration.