CHAPTER X. INTERNAL CONDITION OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE.
Their cause was wrong. It matters not whether the emperors were good or bad, if the regime, to which they consecrated their energies, was exerted to crush the liberties of mankind. The imperial despotism, whether brilliant or disgraceful, was a mournful retrograde in the polity of Rome. It implied the extinction of patriotism, and the general degradation of the people, or else the fabric of despotism could not have been erected. It would have been impossible in the days of Cato, Scipio, or Metellus. It was simply a choice of evils. When nations emerge from utter barbarism into absolute monarchies, like the ancient Persians or the modern Russians, we forget the evils of a central power in the blessings which extend indirectly to the degraded people. But when a nation loses its liberties, and submits without a struggle to tyrants, it is a sad spectacle to humanity. The despotism of Louis XIV. was not disgraceful to the French people, for they never had enjoyed constitutional liberty. The despotism of Louis Napoleon is mournful, because the nation had waded through a bloody revolution to achieve the recognition of great rights and interests, and dreamed that they were guaranteed. It is a retrograde and not a progress; a reaction of liberty, which seats Napoleon on the throne of Louis Philippe; even as the reign of Charles II. is the saddest chapter in English history. If liberty be a blessing, if it be possible for nations to secure it permanently, then the regime of the Roman emperors is detestable and mournful, whatever necessities may have called it into being, since it annulled all those glorious privileges in which ancient patriots gloried, and prevented that scope for energies which made Rome mistress of the world. It was impossible for the empire to grow stronger and grander. It must needs become weaker and more corrupt, since despotism did not kindle the ambition of the people, but suppressed their noblest sentiments, and confined their energies to inglorious pursuits. Men might acquire more gigantic fortunes under the emperors than in the times of the republic, and art might be more extensively cultivated, and luxury and refinement and material pleasures might increase; but public virtue fled, and those sentiments on which national glory rests vanished before the absorbing egotism which pervaded all orders and classes. The imperial despotism may have been needed, and the empire might have fallen, even if it had not existed; still it was a sad and mournful necessity, and gives a humiliating view of human greatness. No lover of liberty can contemplate it without disgust and abhorrence. No philosopher can view it without drawing melancholy lessons of human degeneracy - an impressive moral for all ages and nations.
If we turn to the class which, before the dictatorship of Julius, had the ascendency in the state, and, for several centuries, the supreme power, we shall find but little that is flattering to a nation or to humanity.
[The Roman aristocracy.]
The Roman aristocracy was the most powerful, most wealthy, and most august that this world has probably seen. It was under patrician leadership that the great conquests were made, and the greatness of the state reached. The glory of Rome was centred in those proud families which had conquered and robbed all the nations known to the Greeks. The immortal names of ancient Rome are identified with the aristocracy. It was not under kings, but under nobles, that military ambition became the vice of the most exalted characters. In the days of the republic, they exhibited a stern virtue, an inflexible policy, an indomitable will, and most ardent patriotism. The generals who led the armies to victory, the statesmen who deliberated in the Senate, the consuls, the praetors, the governors, originally belonged to this noble class. It monopolized all the great offices of the state, and it maintained its powers and privileges, in spite of conspiracies and rebellions. It may have yielded somewhat to popular encroachments, but when the people began to acquire the ascendency, the seeds of public corruption were sown. The real dignity and glory of Rome coexisted with patrician power.
And powerful families existed in Rome until the fall of the empire. Some were descendants of ancient patrician houses, and numbered the illustrious generals of the republic among their ancestors. Others owed their rank and consequence to the accumulation of gigantic fortunes. Others, again, rose into importance from the patronage of emperors. All the great conquerors and generals of the republic were founders of celebrated families, which never lost consideration. Until the subversion of the constitution, they took great interest in politics, and were characterized for manly patriotism. Many of them were famous for culture of mind as well as public spirit. They frowned on the growing immoralities, and maintained the dignity of their elevated rank. The Senate was the most august assembly ever known on earth, controlling kings and potentates, and making laws for the most distant nations, and exercising a power which was irresistible.
[Degeneracy of the nobles.]