CHAPTER V. THE ROMAN CONSTITUTION.
The Roman constitution, as gradually developed by the necessities and crises which arose, is a wonderful monument of human wisdom. The people were not ground down. They had rights which they never relinquished; and they constantly gained new privileges, as they were prepared to appreciate them, or as they were in danger of subjection by the governing classes. They never had the ascendency, but they enjoyed renewed and increasing power, until they were strong enough to tempt aristocratic demagogues and successful generals. When Caesar condescended to flatter the people, they had become a power, but a power incapable of holding its own, or using it for the welfare of the state. Then it was subverted, as Napoleon rode into absolute dominion over the bridge which the Revolution had built. And the Roman constitution was remarkable, not only because it prevented a degrading subjection of the masses, even while it refused them the rights of government, but because it maintained a balance among the governing classes themselves, and restricted the usurpations of powerful families, as well as military heroes. For nearly five hundred years, not a man arose whom the Romans feared, or whom they could not control - whom they could not at any time have hurled from the Tarpeian rock had he contemplated the subversion, I will not say of the liberties of the people, but of the constitution which made the aristocracy supreme. There were ambitious and unscrupulous men, doubtless, among those fortunate generals whom the Senate snubbed, and whom the people adored. But, great as they were in war, and powerful from family interest and vast wealth, no one of them ever dared to make himself supreme until Caesar passed the Rubicon - not Scipio, crowned with the laurels which he had taken from the head of Hannibal; not Marius, fresh from his great victories over the barbaric hosts of northern Europe; not even Sulla, after his magnificent conquests in the east, and his triumph over all the parties and factions which democracy raised against him. Pompey may have contemplated what it was the fortune of Caesar to secure. But that pompous magnate could have succeeded only by using the watchwords and practicing the acts to which none but a demagogue could have stooped. Before his time, at least for fifty years, there were too many men in the Senate who had the spirit of Cato, of Cicero, and of Brutus.
[Effects of imperial rule.]
But, tempora mutantur. When the Senate was made up of men whom great generals selected, whether aristocratic sycophants or rich plebeians; when the tribunes played into the hands of the very men whom they were created to oppose; when the high priest of a people, originally religious, was chosen without regard to either moral or religious considerations, but purely political; when the high offices of the state were filled by senators who had never seen military life except for some brief campaign; when factions and parties set old customs aside; when the most aristocratic nobles sought entrance into plebeian ranks in order, like Mirabeau, to steal the few offices which the people controlled, and when the people, mad and fierce from demoralizing spectacles, raised mobs and subverted law, then the constitution, under which the Romans had advanced to the conquest of the world, became subverted. Under the emperors, there was no constitution. They controlled the Senate, the army, the tribunals of the law, the distant provinces, the city itself, and regulated taxes and imposed burdens, and appointed to high offices whomever they wished. The Senate lost its independence, the courts their justice, the army its spirit, and the people their hopes. Yet the old form remained. The Senate met as in the days of the Gracchi. There were consuls and praetors still. But it was merely equites or rich men who filled the senatorial benches - tools of the emperor, as were all the officers of the state. The government of nobles was succeeded by the government of emperors who, in their turn, were too often the tools of favorites, or of praetorian guards, until the assassin's dagger cut short their days.
[The rule of emperors a necessity.]