CHAPTER XI. THE FALL OF THE EMPIRE.
We have contemplated the grandeur and the glory of the Roman empire; and we have also seen, in connection with the magnificent triumphs of art, science, literature, and philosophy, a melancholy degradation of society, so fatal and universal, that all strength was undermined, and nothing was left but worn-out mechanisms and lifeless forms to resist the pressure of external enemies. So vast, so strong, so proud was this empire, that no one dreamed it could ever be subverted. With all the miseries of the people, with that hateful demoralization which pervaded all classes and orders and interests, there was still a splendid external, which called forth general panegyrics, and the idea of public danger was derided or discredited. If Rome, in the infancy of the republic, had resisted the invading Gauls, what was there to fear from the half-naked barbarians who lived beyond the boundaries of the empire? The long-continued peace and prosperity had engendered not merely the vices of self-interest, those destructive cankers which ever insure a ruin, but a general feeling of security and self-exaggeration. The eternal city was still prosperous and proud, the centre of all that was grand in the civilization of the ancient world. Provincial cities vied with the capital in luxuries, in pomps, in sports, and in commercial wealth. The cultivated face of nature betokened universal prosperity. Nothing was wanting but energy, genius, and virtue among the people.
But all this prosperity was deceptive. All was rotten and hollow at heart; and, had there not been universal delusion, it would have been apparent that the machine would break up at the first great shock. There was no spring in the splendid mechanism. It was broken, and society had really been retrograding from the time of Trajan - from the moment that it had completed its task of conquest. There was a strange torpor everywhere, so soon as external antagonism had ceased, and if the barbarians had not come the empire would have been disintegrated, and would scarcely have lasted two centuries longer.
[The empire had fulfilled its mission.]
Moreover, the empire had fulfilled its mission. It had conquered the world that a great centralization of power might be created, under which peace and plenty might reign, and a new religion might spread.
Still, whatever the plans of Providence may have been in allowing that imperial despotism to grow and spread from the banks of the Tiber to the uttermost parts of the civilized world, we cannot but feel that a great retribution was deserved for the crimes which Rome had committed upon mankind. He that takes the sword shall perish with the sword. Rome had drank of the blood of millions, and was foul with all the abominations of the countries she had subdued, and her turn must come, and a new race must try new experiments for humanity.
[War the instrument of punishment.]
The great instrument of God in punishing wicked nations and effecting important changes, is war. There are other forms or divine displeasure. Plague, pestilence, and famine are often sent upon degraded peoples. But these are either the necessary attendants on war itself, or they are limited and transient. They do not produce the great revolutions in which new ideas are born and new forms of social life arise.
But war seems to be the ultimate scourge of God, when he dooms nations to destruction, or to great changes. It combines within itself all kinds of evil and calamity - poverty, sickness, captivity, disgrace, and death. A conquered nation is most forlorn and dismal. The song of the conquered is - "By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept."
The passions which produce war are born in hell. They are pride, ambition, cruelty, avarice, and lust. These are the natural causes which array nation against nation, or people against people. But these are second causes. The primary cause is God, who useth the passions and interests of men, as his instruments of punishment.
[Illustrated by the history of nations.]
How impressive the history of the different civilized nations, which formed so large a part of the universal monarchy of the Romans. Assyria, Egypt, Persia, Asia Minor, Palestine, Greece, had successively been great empires and states - independent and conquering. They arose from the prevalence of martial virtues, of courage, temperance, fortitude, allied with ambition and poverty. Then monarchs craved greater power and possessions. Their passions were inexcusable; but they possessed men who were powerful and not enslaved to enervating vices. They made war on nations sunk in effeminacy and vile idolatries - men worse than they. The conquered nations needed chastisement and reconstruction; and, generally, by their blindness and arrogance, provoked the issue. Wealth and power had inflated them with false security, with egotistic aims; or else had enervated them and undermined their strength. They became subject to a stronger power. Their pride was buried in the dust. They became enslaved, miserable, ruined. They were punished in as signal, though not miraculous manner, as the Antediluvians, or the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. The same hand, however, is seen in vengeance and in mercy. They regained in adversity the strength they had lost in prosperity, and civilization lost nothing by their sufferings.
The conquering powers, in their turn, became powerful, wealthy, and corrupt. Effeminacy and weakness succeeded; war came upon them, and they became the prey of the stronger. Their conquerors, again, were enslaved by their vices, and their empire passed away in the same gloom and despair.