CHAPTER XI. THE FALL OF THE EMPIRE.
It is this great revolution which I seek to present, this great catastrophe to which the Romans were subjected, after having conquered one hundred and twenty millions of people. It was probably the most mournful, in all its aspects, ever seen on the face of this earth since the universal deluge. Never, surely, were such calamities produced by the hand of man. The Greeks and Romans, when they had conquered a rebellious or enervated nation, introduced their civilization, and promoted peace and general security. They brought laws, science, literature, and arts, in the train of their armies; they did not sweep away ancient institutions; they left the people as they found them, only with greater facilities of getting rich; they preserved the pictures, the statues, and the temples; they honored the literature and revered the sages who taught it; they may have brought captives to their capitals as slaves, but they did not root out every trace of cultivation, or regarded it with haughty scorn. But, when their turn of punishment came, the whole world was filled with mourning and desolation, and all the relations of society were reversed.
[Infatuation of the Romans.]
It was a sad hour in the old capital of the world, when its blinded inhabitants were aroused from the stupendous delusion that they were invincible; when the crushing fact stared every one in the face, that the legions had been conquered, that province after province had been overrun, that proud and populous cities had fallen, that the barbarians were advancing, treading beneath their feet all that had been deemed valuable, or rare, or sacred, that they were advancing to the very gates of Rome, - that her doom was sealed, that there was no shelter to which they could fly, that there was no way by which ruin could be averted, that they were doomed to hopeless poverty or servitude, that their wives and daughters would be subject to indignities which were worse than death, and that all the evils their ancestors had inflicted in their triumphant march, would be visited upon them with tenfold severity. The Romans, even then, when they cast their eyes upon external nature, saw rich corn-fields, smiling vineyards, luxurious gardens, yea, villas and temples and palaces without end; and how could these be destroyed which had lasted for centuries? How could the eternal city, which had not seen a foreign enemy near its gates since the invasion of the Gauls, which had escaped all dangers, so rich and gay, how could she now yield to naked barbarians from unknown forests? They still beheld the splendid mechanism of government, the glitter and the pomp of armies, triumphal processions, new monuments of victory, the proud eagles, and all the emblems of unlimited dominion. What had they to fear? "Nihil est, Quirites, quod timere possitis."
[Fatal security of the Romans.]
Nor to the eye of contemporaries was the great change, which had gradually taken place since the reign of Trajan, apparent. Cowardice and weakness were veiled from the view of men. In proportion to the imbecility of the troops, were the richness of their uniform, and the insolence of their manners. It was the day of boasts and pomps. All forms and emblems had their ancient force. All men partook of the vices and follies which were praised. In their levity and delusion, they did not see the real emptiness and hollowness of their institutions. A blinded generation never can see the signs of the times. Only a few contemplative men hid themselves in retired places, but were denounced as croakers or evil minded. Every body was interested in keeping up the delusion. Panics seldom last long. The world is too fond of its ease to believe the truths which break up repose and gains. All felt safe, because they had always been protected. Ruin might come ultimately, but not in their day. "Apres moi le deluge" No one would make sacrifices, since no one feared immediate danger. Moreover, public spirit and patriotism had fled. If their cities were in danger, they said, better perish here with our wives and children than die on the frontiers after having suffered every privation and exposure. There must have been a universal indifference, or the barbarians could not have triumphed. The Romans had every inducement which any people ever had to a brave and desperate resistance. Not merely their own lives, but the security of their families was at stake. Their institutions, their interests, their rights, their homes, their altars, all were in jeopardy. And they were attacked by most merciless enemies, without pity or respect, and yet they would not fight, as nations should fight, and do sometimes fight, when their country is invaded. Why did they offer no more stubborn resistance? Why did the full-armed and well-trained legions yield to barbaric foes, without discipline and without the most effective weapons? Alas, dispirited and enervated people will never fight. They prefer slavery to death. Thus Persia succumbed before Alexander, and Asia Minor before the Saracen generals. Martial courage goes hand in hand with virtue. Without elevation of sentiment there will be no self-sacrifice. There is no hope when nations are abandoned to sensuality or egotism.
[Weakness of the empire.]