CHAPTER X. INTERNAL CONDITION OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE.
Nevertheless, it was a most lamentable change from that condition of things which existed before the civil wars. Roman liberties were prostrated forever. Tyrants, armed with absolute and irresponsible power, ruled over the empire; nor could their tyranny end but with their lives. Noble sentiments and aspirations were rebuked. The times were unfavorable to the development of genius, except in those ways which subserved the interests of the government. Under the emperors we read of no more great orators like Cicero, battling for human rights, and defending the public weal. Eloquence was suppressed. Nor was there liberty of speech in the Senate. The usual jealousy of tyrants was awakened to every emancipating influence on the people. They were now amused with shows and spectacles, but could not make their voices heard regarding public injuries. The people were absolutely in the hands of iron masters. So was the Senate. So were all orders and conditions of men. One man reigned supreme. His will was law. Resistance to it was vain. It was treason to find fault with any public acts. From the Pillars of Hercules to the Caspian Sea one stern will ruled all classes and orders. No one could fly from the agents and ministers of the empire. He was the vicegerent of the Almighty, worshiped as a deity, undisputed master of the lives and liberties of one hundred and twenty millions of people. There was no restraint on his inclinations. He could do whatever he pleased, without rebuke and without fear. No general or senator or governor could screen himself from his vengeance. He controlled the army, the Senate, the judiciary, the internal administration of the empire, and the religious worship of the people. All offices and honors and emoluments emanated from him. All opposition ceased, and all conspired to elevate still higher that supreme arbiter of fortune whom no one could hope successfully to rival. Revolt was madness, and treason absurdity. And so perfect was the mechanism of the government that the emperor had time for his private pleasures. It was never administered with greater rigor than when Tiberius secluded himself in his guarded villa. And a timid, or weak, or irresolute emperor was as much to be feared as a monster, since he was surrounded with minions who might be unscrupulous. Nor was the imperial power exercised to check the gigantic social evils of the empire, - those which were gradually but surely undermining the virtues on which strength is based. They did not seek to prevent irreligion, luxury, slavery, and usury, the encroachments of the rich upon the poor, the tyranny of foolish fashions, demoralizing sports and pleasures, money-making, and all the follies which lax principles of morality allowed. They fed the rabble with com and oil and wine, and thus encouraged idleness and dissipation. The world never saw a more rapid retrograde in human rights, or a greater prostration of liberties. Taxes were imposed according to the pleasure or necessities of the government. Provincial governors became still more rapacious and cruel. Judges hesitated to decide against the government. A vile example was presented to the people in their rulers. The emperors squandered immense sums on their private pleasures, and set public opinion at defiance. Patriotism, in its most enlarged sense, became an impossibility. All lofty spirits were crushed. Corruption, in all forms of administration, fearfully increased, for there was no safeguard. Women became debased from the pernicious influences of a corrupt and unblushing court. Adultery, divorce, and infanticide became still more common. The emperors thought more of securing their own power and indulging their own passions than of the public good. The humiliating conviction was fastened upon all classes that liberty was extinguished, and that they were slaves to an irresponsible power. There are those who are found to applaud a despotism; but despotism presupposes the absence of the power of self- government, and the necessity of severe and rigorous measures. It presupposes the tendency to crime and violence, that men are brutes and must be coerced like wild beasts. We are warranted in assuming a very low condition of society when despotism became a necessity. Theoretically, absolutism may be the best government, if rulers are wise and just; but, practically, as men are, despotisms are cruel and revengeful. There are great and glorious exceptions; but it cannot be denied that society is mournful when tyrants bear rule. And it is seldom that society improves under them, without very powerful religious influences. It generally grows worse and worse. Despotism implies slavery, and slavery is the worst condition of mankind, - doubtless a wholesome discipline, under certain circumstances, yet still a great calamity.