CHAPTER X. INTERNAL CONDITION OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE.
Under the emperors this noble class had degenerated in morals as well as influence. They still retained their enormous fortunes, originally acquired as governors of provinces, and continually increased by fortunate marriages and speculations. Indeed, nothing was more marked and melancholy at Rome than the disproportionate fortunes, the general consequences of a low or a corrupt civilization. In the better days of the republic, property was more equally divided. The citizens were not ambitious for more land than they could conveniently cultivate. But the lands, obtained by conquest, gradually fell into the possession of powerful families. The classes of society widened as great fortunes were accumulated. Pride of wealth kept pace with pride of ancestry. And when Plebeian families had obtained great estates, they were amalgamated with the old aristocracy. The Equestrian order, founded substantially on wealth, grew daily in importance. Knights ultimately rivaled senatorial families. Even freedmen, in an age of commercial speculation, became powerful for their riches. Ultimately the rich formed a body by themselves. Under the emperors, the pursuit of money became a passion; and the rich assumed all the importance and consideration which had once been bestowed upon those who had rendered great public services. The laws of property were rigorous among the Romans, and wealth, when once obtained, was easily secured and transmitted.
Such gigantic fortunes were ultimately made, since the Romans were masters of the world, that Rome became a city of palaces, and the spoils and riches of all nations flowed to the capital. Rome was a city of princes, and wealth gave the highest distinction. The fortunes were almost incredible. It has been estimated that the income of some of the richest of the senatorial families equaled a sum of five million dollars a year in our money. It took eighty thousand dollars a year to support the ordinary senatorial dignity. Some senators owned whole provinces. Trimalchio - a rich freedman whom Petronius ridiculed - could afford to lose thirty millions of sesterces in a single voyage without sensibly diminishing his fortune. Pallas, a freedman of the Emperor Claudius, possessed a fortune of three hundred millions of sesterces. Seneca, the philosopher, amassed an enormous fortune.
[Character of the nobles.]
[Luxury of the aristocracy.]
[Luxury of the nobles.]
The Romans were a sensual, ostentatious, and luxurious people, and they accordingly wasted their fortunes by an extravagance in their living which has had no parallel. The pleasures of the table and the cares of the kitchen were the most serious avocation of the aristocracy in the days of the greatest corruption. They had around them a regular court of parasites and flatterers, and they employed even persons of high rank as their chamberlains and stewards. Carving was taught in celebrated schools, and the masters of this sublime art were held in higher estimation than philosophers or poets. Says Juvenal: -
"To such perfection now is carving brought,
That different gestures, by our curious men
Are used for different dishes, hare or hen."
Their entertainments were accompanied with every thing which could flatter vanity or excite the passions. Musicians, male and female dancers, players of farce and pantomime, jesters, buffoons, and gladiators, exhibited while the guests reclined at table. The tables were made of Thuja-root, with claws of ivory or Delian bronze, and cost immense sums. Even Cicero, in an economical age, paid six hundred and fifty pounds for his banqueting table. These tables were waited upon by an army of slaves, clad in costly dresses. In the intervals of courses they played with dice, or listened to music, or were amused with dances. They wore a great profusion of jewels - such as necklaces and rings and bracelets. They reclined at table after the fashion of the Orientals. They ate, as delicacies, water-rats and white worms. Gluttony was carried to such a point that the sea and earth scarcely sufficed to set off their tables. The women passed whole nights at the table, and were proud of their power to carry off an excess of wine. As Cleopatra says of her riotings with Antony, -
"O times! -
I laughed him out of patience; and that night
I laughed him into patience: and next morn,
Ere the ninth hour, I drank him to his bed."