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ART. II. – MORAL LIFE UNDER THE EMPIRE.
Darstellungen aus der Sittengeschichte Roms in der Zeit von August
bis zum Ausgang der Antonine. Von LUDWIG FRIEDLÄNDER, Professor in Königsburg. 2 vols. Leipzig: Verlag von S. Hirzel. 1865.
The political history of Rome, from its rise to its fall, has been treated in its successive stages by many writers, - rewritten by Niebuhr, and analyzed by Mommsen, and compassed in its last vast sweep of splendor and decrepitude by Gibbon; but the Roman life, as it ebbed and flowed in the Roman palaces and amphitheatres and villas and temples, furnishes a not less instructive, and altogether more fascinating, subject for illustration; - a subject which has been much overlooked, for the reason that one who is fitted to do it justice is likely to be drawn away to more ambitious topics. Professor Friedländer, however, has not yielded to the usual temptation, but has confine his exhaustive survey of the ancient life of Rome strictly to its social aspects. He has done, indeed, little more than accumulate facts; but facts well arranged are better than rhetoric, better than disquisition, better than any thing but the original grasp and the swift illumination of genius. Every page of his book brings us face to face with the multitudinous · throngs that swayed to and fro through the narrow streets of Rome, throbbing out their restless life, as it were, in a ceaseless surge of greed and lust. You may hear the sounds of all languages known to men, and see the colors of all races,— fairhaired Germans of the imperial body-guard, with glittering helmets; and black slaves leading elephants from the emperor's stables; and Egyptian priests in linen robes, with smoothly shaven heads, bearing an image of Isis in slow procession; and Greek philosophers, with Hindoo boys behind them carrying their books; and Eastern princes in high caps and manycolored garments, silent and serious; while tattooed savages from Britain look on in wonder at it all.
That a great festival might be celebrated in Rome with
the splendor to which the Romans had become at last accus. tomed, the energies of all nations were tasked, from the Rhine to the Ganges. The Hindoo set his tame elephants in motion to hunt their wild kindred of the plains : the savage Teuton spread his nets in the swampy thickets of the Rhine where the wild boar rooted; and the Ethiopian on his swift desertsteed chased the ostrich in ever-lessening circles, or lurked in the dreary wildernesses of Atlas, around the cunning traps set there for the lion; while men of every hue and all ages were dragged from the obscurest corners of the earth to furnish victims for the bloody sports of the arena. For, though in the times of the republic the gladiators had consisted for the most part of Samnites and Thracians and Gauls, as the limits of the empire were extended, they were brought from even greater distances: tattooed savages of Britain, and blonde Germans from the Rhine and Danube, and tawny Moors of Atlas, and negroes from the interior of Africa, and nomades from the Russian steppes, - all went up to fight and die in the amphitheatres of Rome; and scaly Parthian coats of mail and British war-chariots came at last to be as familiar a sight as the small, round shield of the Thracians, or the square bucklers of the Samnites.
Yet what a mass of human misery beneath all this pomp does the occasional anecdote of the historian reveal! Seneca relates, that a gladiator whom they were carrying to the arena in a wagon, sitting between soldiers appointed to guard him, feigned himself asleep; and, nodding his head, at last let it sink down till he could bring it within the spokes of one of the wheels, and held it there till the revolution of the wheel had broken his neck. And Symmachus testifies, that a number of those adventurous Saxons who at that time were in the habit of coming down in small boats from the North Sea on expeditions of plunder to the coasts of Gaul, falling into the hands of the Romans, were condemned to appear as gladiators in the sports which Symmachus was about to institute; and, on the very first day of their imprisonment, twenty-nine of them throttled one another with their own hands.
Even in taming animals for the arena, the object seems to have been to teach them just what was most contrary to their nature. Wild bulls suffered boys to dance on their backs, and stood on their hind feet, and played tricks with horses in the water, and stood immovable as charioteers on swiftly flying chariots. Stags were taught to be obedient to the bridle, and leopards to go in a yoke, and cranes to run in circles and fight each other, and peaceful antelopes to butt each other with their horns till one or the other lay dead on the ground; while lions were made as docile as dogs, for in Domitian's games they were seen to catch bares, and hold them uninjured between their teeth, and let them go and again catch them at command; and elephants sank upon their knees at the wink of their black attendants, and performed dances for which one of the elephants themselves struck the cymbals, while others reclined at table, and four of them bore a fifth like a child in a litter, and another went upon the tight rope, and still another wrote Latin; and Pliny affirms that once, when several of them were training together, one of the elephants — who was slower to learn than the rest, and was therefore frequently threatened with blows — was found at night practising by himself, by moonlight, what he had been taught in the day.
Yet, cruel as the Romans were to animals, they were even more cruel to men." In the theatrical, especially pantomimic, representations which took place in the arena, the players were condemned malefactors, and the torments and the death they represented were not feigned, but real; for, as out of the death-bringing garments of Medea, flames would suddenly shoot up out of the costly gold-embroidered tunics and purple mantles in which they appeared, and consume them. There was indeed scarcely a species of torture or death, which was not introduced for the amusement of the people: Hercules died in the flames of Eta; Mucius Scævola held his hand over the live coals till it was consumed; the robber Laureolus, the hero of a well-known play, was hung upon a cross, and his limbs were torn away one by one by wild beasts; while, in the same play, another malefactor represented Orpheus
ascending out of the underworld, while all nature was charmed by his music, and rocks and trees moved towards him, and birds hovered over him, and wild beasts surrounded him; and, when the play had lasted long enough, the actor was thrown to a bear to be devoured in the presence of the multitude. And in all the Roman literature there is scarcely an expression of abhorrence at such inhumanities. The deeds of the gladiators were to Martial superior to those of Hercules ; while Statius compared the women who fought each other in the arena with clubs to Amazons; and found the sight of dwarfs tearing each other in pieces a joke good enough to be laughed at by Father Mars and the bloody goddess of bravery.
Professor Friedländer, however, is not merely successful in thus depicting the obvious features of this multiform life; but, with the instinct of a true philosopher, occasionally brings his army of facts to bear upon the causes which were slowly wasting the giant strength of the empire. And to one of these causes, certainly the most curious, if not most characteristic of the hypocrisy of that formalism into which the Roman civilization was gradually passing, it will be worth while to allude.
The very existence of the practice of legacy-hunting would indicate the approaching dissolution of almost any state of society; but the extent and vigor with which it was pursued in Rome are a frightful commentary upon the one-sidedness of the whole ancient civilization. In earlier times, marriage was an institution to be reverenced: to remain unmarried was alike contrary to nature and the laws. But, in the later periods of the republic, marriage was a burden; and, finally, under the empire, after the civil wars had brought their disastrous blight upon the moral and social relations, it was a restraint not to be tolerated. Augustus, indeed, attempted to create a reform; but, as might have been expected, legislation, if not wholly impotent, was but a superficial cure for an evil so deeply rooted. He found, as other reformers have found since, that you cannot legislate men into virtue. A pervading sentiment of opposition to a given practice, springing
from the universal recognition of it as a sin, must go before the law; and in Rome there was practically little recognition of any thing but pleasure.
Now, pleasure took the form, for the most part, of banquets; and, as they became therefore enormously expensive, it was a weighty question with the giver, of course, what guests were worth inviting to share in the extravagance which was very likely to end in his bankruptcy. Obviously, one would turn to those who might be of use in an emergency; that is, to those who had wealth at their command to dispose of when they themselves were done with it, - to the childless rich, who, on the one hand, were swayed by personal friend. ships much stronger in their nature in ancient than in modern times; and, on the other, were unrestrained by those claims of kindred to which more regard is paid now than at that period.
Thus there grew up, out of this strange blending of virtues and vices, a theory of life more desolating in its last results than was ever witnessed on so large a scale before or since. There was nothing the rich might not demand and expect in the way of personal service and sacrifice, on the part of those who waited for their death. They were overwhelmed with presents of the costliest delicacies from the remotest kingdoms: fish, game, wine of the rarest sort, poured in upon them, year in and year out. Did the house of one of their friends please them, they could not do him a greater favor than to accept it as a gift; did their own house burn down, it was at once rebuilt by the contributions of their friends ; did they get involved in lawsuits, their friends stood ready to defend them; did they make verses, they had at once loud admirers; did they give readings, a numerous and attentive audience. Were they ill, their couch was surrounded by sympathizing attendants, the walls of the temples were covered with votive offerings, the soothsayers were interrogated, and the smoke of sacrifice ascended to the gods: all that art and wealth and friendship could do, was done ; while at the same time, of course, the anxious waiters for the legacies that were to fall in, employed astrologers to calculate