CHAPTER X. INTERNAL CONDITION OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE.
We have now surveyed all that was glorious in the most splendid empire of antiquity. We have seen a civilization which, in many respects, rivals all that modern nations have to show. In art, in literature, in philosophy, in laws, in the mechanism of government, in the cultivated face of nature, in military strength, in aesthetic culture, the Romans were our equals. And this high civilization was reached by the native and unaided strength of man; by the power of will, by courage, by perseverance, by genius, by fortunate circumstances; by great men, gifted with unusual talents. We are filled with admiration by all these trophies of genius, and cannot but feel that only a superior race could have accomplished such mighty triumphs.
But all this splendid external was deceptive. It was hollow at heart. And the deeper we penetrate the social condition of the people, their real and practical life, the more we feel disgust and pity supplanting all feelings of admiration and wonder. The Roman empire, in its shame and degradation, suggests melancholy feelings in reference to the destiny of man, so far as his happiness and welfare depend upon his own unaided strength. And we see profoundly the necessity of some foreign aid to rescue him from his miseries.
It is a sad picture of oppression, of injustice, of poverty, of vice, and of wretchedness, which I have now to present. Glory is succeeded by shame, and strength by weakness, and virtue by vice. The condition of the great mass is deplorable, and even the great and fortunate shine in a false and fictitious light. We see laws, theoretically good, practically perverted; monstrous inequalities of condition, selfishness, and egotism the mainsprings of life. We see energies misdirected, and art corrupted. All noble aspirations have fled, and the good and the wise retire from active life in despair and misanthropy. Poets flatter the tyrants who trample on human rights, and sensuality and Epicurean pleasures absorb the depraved thoughts of a perverse generation.
[The imperial despotism.]
The first thing which arrests our attention as we survey the grand empire which embraced the civilized countries or the world, is the imperial despotism. It may have been a necessity, an inevitable sequence to the anarchy of civil war, the strife of parties, great military successes, and the corruptions of society itself. It may be viewed as a providential event in order that general peace and security might usher in the triumphs of a new religion. It followed naturally the subversion of the constitution by military leaders, the breaking up of the power of the Senate, the encroachments of democracy and its leaders, the wars of Sulla and Marius, of Pompey and Julius. It succeeded massacres and factions and demagogues. It came when conspiracies and proscriptions and general insecurity rendered a stronger government desirable. The empire was too vast to be intrusted to the guidance of conflicting parties. There was needed a strong, central, irrepressible, irresistible power in the hands of a single man. Safety and peace seemed preferable to glory and genius. So the people acquiesced in the changes which were made; they had long anticipated them; they even hailed them with silent joy. Patriots, like Brutus, Cassius, and Cato, gave themselves up to despair; but most men were pleased with the revolution that seated Augustus on the throne of the world. For twenty years the empire had been desolated by destructive and exhaustive wars. The cry of the whole empire was for peace, and peace could be secured only by the ascendency of a single man, ruling with absolute and unresisted sway.
[Necessity of revolution.]