Front Page Titles (by Subject) I: Antiquity - Judgments on History and Historians
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I: Antiquity - Jacob Burckhardt, Judgments on History and Historians 
Judgments on History and Historians, ed. Alberto R. Coll (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999).
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Ancient History and Its Scope
A general introduction to history will be omitted here; the specific introduction to ancient history can be disposed of briefly. As regards the scope of our subject, this may be observed: Only the civilized nations, not the primitive ones, are part of history in a higher sense. Ample information has been preserved even about the latter (Herodotus). For the old ιστορíα [history in Herodotus’ sense] is in itself ethnography and history in one. Primitive peoples, however, interest us only when civilized nations come into conflict with them, as in the cases of Cyrus with the Massagetae and Darius with the Scythians. The ethnographic is thus to be confined to its essentials. Of the civilized peoples, our discipline does not embrace those whose culture did not flow into European civilization, for instance Japan and China. Of India, too, only the very oldest period concerns us—first, because of the Aryan tribal type shared with the Zend peoples, and then because of the contact with the Assyrians, Persians, Macedonians, and others. Our subject is that past which is clearly connected with the present and with the future. Our guiding idea is the course of civilization, the succession of levels of culture in various peoples and within individual peoples themselves. Actually, one ought to stress especially those historical realities from which threads run to our own period and culture.
There are more of them than one would think. The continuum is magnificent. The peoples around the Mediterranean and over to the Gulf of Persia are really one animate being, active humanity par excellence. In the Roman Empire, this being does attain a kind of unity. Here alone the postulates of the intellect are realized; here alone there prevails development with no absolute decline, but only a transition.
After renewed intermingling with the Germanic peoples, after another fifteen hundred or two thousand years, this active humanity strikes out anew, assimilates America for itself and is now about to open Asia thoroughly. How long will it be before all passive existences are subjected and penetrated by it? The non-Caucasian races offer resistance, give way, and die out. Egyptians, Babylonians, and Phoenicians have by now laid the foundations for this world-conquering power. Through slow development as well as by leaps and the arousing of opposition we are intellectually connected with them. It is a great good fortune to be part of this active humanity.
On the Intellectual Indispensability of Studying Ancient History
Among all the fields of learning in the world there prevails, like a fundamental chord that keeps sounding through, the history of the ancient world, i.e., of all those peoples whose lives have flowed into ours.
It would be idle to assume that after four centuries of humanism everything had been learned from the ancient world, all experiences and data had been utilized, and there were no longer anything to be gained there, so that one could content oneself with a knowledge of more modern times or, possibly, make a pitying or reluctant study of the Middle Ages and spend the time saved on more useful things.
We shall never be rid of antiquity as long as we do not become barbarians again. Barbarians and modern American men of culture live without consciousness of history.
In our problematical and wonderful existence we cling involuntarily to the knowledge of man as such, of mankind, empirical, as we meet it in life, and as it is revealed by history. The contemplation of Nature does not suffice us, does not console or instruct us enough.
And here we must not seal ourselves off from anything past, we must leave no gaps; only the whole speaks to us, in all centuries that have left us records.
Are the three great ages of the world perhaps like the three times of day in the riddle of the Sphinx? They are, rather, a continual metempsychosis of acting and suffering man through countless incarnations. A genuine inquiry will want to recognize all these mutations and abandon any partiality for specific ages (it is all right to have a predilection, for that is a matter of taste), and it will do this all the sooner the livelier the feeling for human inadequacy in general is. Once it is understood that there never were, nor ever will be, any happy, golden ages in a fanciful sense, one will remain free from the foolish overvaluation of some past, from senseless despair of the present or fatuous hope for the future, but one will recognize in the contemplation of historical ages one of the noblest undertakings. It is the story of the life and suffering of mankind viewed as a whole.
And yet antiquity has a great specific importance for us; our concept of the state derives from it; it is the birthplace of our religions and of the most permanent part of our civilization. Of its creations in form and writing a great deal is exemplary and unequaled. Our accounting with it in affinity as well as in contrast is infinite.
However, let us regard antiquity as merely the first act of the drama of man, to our eyes a tragedy with immeasurable exertion, guilt, and sorrow. And even though we are descended from peoples who were still slumbering in a state of childhood alongside the great civilized peoples of antiquity, yet we feel ourselves the true descendants of the latter, because their soul has passed over into us; their work, their mission, and their destiny live on in us.
The Limits of Civilization and Barbarism
We can no more begin our presentation of history with the earliest state formations than with the transition from barbarism to civilization. Here, also, the concepts are much too vague.
At what point, with what discovery, what accumulation of material comforts, does civilization begin? With the solar year? The alphabet? The loom? The chemical analysis of metals? Or with what else? And where does “barbarism” end? This is especially difficult in view of the ambiguous quality of the word in German where it is used in an intellectual and a moral sense. To some the Greeks are barbarians because they kept slaves and annihilated their political opponents. The Romans are considered barbarians if only because of their sacrifice of human lives in the circuses and amphitheaters. The Middle Ages again are barbaric for other reasons, because of religious persecution and the eradication of dissenters. In the final analysis, the use or non-use of this word becomes a matter of temperament. I consider it barbarism to keep birds in cages.
First one ought to eliminate those elements which have lived on from the infant days of mankind in petrified form in the most advanced civilization, perhaps for sacral or political reasons, such as individual human sacrifice. Then it might be asked whether such primitive peoples would not find some things in our civilization barbarism, i.e., running counter to their ethics.
And now we come to the real distinguishing feature which essentially separates barbarism from culture; the only reason it cannot serve us as a guiding rod or for the determination of the beginning is that the documentary evidence is inadequate. It is the question: Where does mere living in the present, such as the savage does, cease, and where does life in the past and the present, i.e., differentiating comparison, begin? When does the mere present, devoid of history, end?
A valuable possession of a people is its first heroic epic. In addition to daily life there at least exists an ideal past, such as Tacitus reports in his De Germania: “Celebrant carminibus antiquis (quod unum apud illos memoriae et annalium genus est) Tuistonem deum terra editum et filium Mannum, originem gentis conditoresque.” [In their ancient songs—the only means they have of remembering historical events—they celebrate Tuisto, a god born of the earth, and his son Mannus as the origin and founders of their race.] This is the way a people with a great future acts.
To be sure, side by side with a very beautiful tribal legend like that of the Scythians utter barbarism can still live on and be preponderant, permanently drowning out the upright and noble features. It can do this in various ways: through excessive savagery (the annual communion of those who have killed enemies; the sauromatic virgins); through servitude to symbols, religious fears instilled early, and narrow views of the beyond (the killing of the court servants and an entire equitatio [funeral procession on horseback] at a king’s grave); or through the impossibility of urban life and a sentencing to nomadism (the steppe, until people may move away from there). Purest barbarism is the behavior toward the soothsayers at the sickbed of a king (the king is ill because someone took a false oath at the royal hearth), and, finally, thralldom to nature magic.
Chronic, late wickedness which may be connected with advanced civilization may finally degenerate into pure barbarism with the decline of the people concerned.
At any rate, historically minded Egypt, with its records and comparisons, early moves into the first rank, as far as we can know anything. Even with an absolutely much lower culture, Egypt would take top place by virtue of its fondness for making written records.
Why Today’s “Educated Man” Can No Longer Understand Antiquity
At our universities, the historians like to dump the Ancient History course in the lap of the philologists, and vice versa. Here and there it is treated like a poor old relation whom it would be a disgrace to let go to ruin entirely. But with the public at large antiquity is completely out of fashion, and the “culture” which is supported by this public even feels hatred for it. Various faults of antiquity serve as a pretext. The real reason is conceit about modern communication and transport and the inventions of our century; then, too, there is the inability to distinguish technical and material greatness from the intellectual and moral kinds; and finally, the prevalent views about refinement of manners, philanthropy, and the like.
But what makes it generally impossible for the present-day average “educated” man to find anything appealing in the ancient world is the total egoism of today’s private person who wants to exist as an individual and asks of the community only the greatest possible security for himself and his property, for which he pays his taxes amid sighs, and who also likes to attach himself to the community in a specific sense as an “official.”
On the other hand, the peoples of the ancient Orient, who lived tribally, impress us as races of which each individual is only a type, with the king as the highest type.
And even where the individual develops, especially since the Greeks, we still deal for a long time essentially with types, e.g., the heroes, the lawgivers. They are, to be sure, depicted as great individuals, and this is borne out by feeling and tradition; but at the same time they are all the more fully types and condensations of the characteristic and the general. And last, the complete individual in antiquity is, above all, πΟλíτης [part of the state] to a degree of which we now, in the present mode of connection between the individual and the state, have no idea. Whenever one breaks with the πóλις (polis) or when it is lost, it is a tragedy every time.
Finally, today’s “educated” men are firmly resolved to make a bargain, with whatever power, for their existence at any given time. There is an enormous veneration of life and property. There is a mass abdication, and not just on the part of rulers! And there are numerous bargaining positions and concessions against the worst—and all this with great touchiness in matters of recognition and so-called honor.
With the ancients, on the contrary, it was all or nothing, with no fear of disaster. The fall of states, cities, and kings was considered glorious. That is something utterly alien to us.
The Historical Significance of Egypt
We must keep our view unaffected by the ease with which changes and new developments in state and culture now occur, and take a wide and high perspective. Then Egypt will appear in its unique greatness.
After thousands of years must have passed with a growing civilization of which, except at the Nile, no one had any inkling; after, possibly, even these advances had involved immeasurable sacrifices; after gods, heroes, and the dead had ruled for numberless dynasties, Egypt made a tremendous new stride under Menes and United Egypt was founded. And after that time there was here a state with a superior will, a nation, a way of life, a religion; while the Egyptians were founding and recording, in the rest of the world there can have been only primitive life or the first rudiments of a civilization. In addition, due to a providence most significant for us, there appeared the strongest impulse of the monumental, of recording and tradition. Gradually the other peoples, except for desert tribes, had to be affected by all this in some way. It is idle to argue about Egypt’s priority. Chronologically it is assured, in all matters; its influence is obscured from our view, which does not make it any the less probable.
Even though the other peoples—the Babylonians, Phoenicians, Assyrians, Iranians, and others—may differ from the Egyptians in every single element of their civilizations, still they were most probably subjected to a general Egyptian impetus without which their development might have been delayed and perhaps not have occurred at all.
The period of the Old Empire offers us a complete government with numerous officials and priests; a very rich outward life, graded into numerous occupations; a monumental will to portray all this and lend it permanence; realistically alive, quite vigorous graphic arts (Beni-Hassan; the Scribe in the Louvre) and at the same time the greatest monumentality; but side by side with this, a true separation of the spiritual from the material, attached to the idea of life after death. Here belong the ideas of the tomb system (up to the royal graves, the pyramids) and embalming. Already at that time pre-existence and metempsychosis must have existed as fully developed doctrines; but the mere subordination of the transitory to the permanent, of the individual life on earth to a colossal community of the dead would be something of giant proportions.
Accordingly, even though life then was undoubtedly “a hard service, with many sacred customs,” still there was no mere priestly tyranny and superstition. The Prisse Papyrus with the babbling beginnings of a code of ethics dates from as early as the fifth dynasty.
As the main feature of this epoch there stands out the will to feel and act as a united Egypt. Apart from the subjection of Ethiopia, the willingness to share glory is predominant.
The Phoenicians as the Earliest Creators of πóλεις (Polis)
Egypt and Old Babylon were great despotisms with sacred laws and universal obedience, Egypt, in addition, having a functioning caste system. Their outer life was spent in wars, marauding expeditions, the defection and subjugation of outlying countries.
The Phoenician cities were the first polities, constitutional states with city areas, community life, albeit under kings; some formed self- perpetuating aristocracies which not only had to be consulted, but must have had direct control of the most important matters. All of them later became republics. Their constitution balanced the claims of many. Did perhaps the patriarchal tribal constitution of the nomads serve as a model? This polis has the power of multiplication; while despotism can only deport, forcibly transplant peoples, and at best found military states, the polis creates genuine colonies and becomes a metropolis for many. The joint founding of Tripolis by Sidon, Tyre, and Arados is a voluntary action of higher intelligence.
To such a fatherland a real patriotism could at last attach itself, one that went beyond the dull Egyptian national arrogance and in the wide world outside was not a fish out of water, but bestirred itself all the more.
Whether the later Greek polis owes anything to the Phoenicians as models may remain quite uncertain. Ordinarily something like the polis does not come into being merely through imitation. Nevertheless, the Phoenician influence must have been inestimable. In any case, the Phoenicians are assured of chronological priority, and this fact redounds to their eternal glory.
To be sure, as early as Homeric times the Phoenicians were regarded by the Greeks only as land thieves, τρώχτης [greedy rascals]. Carthage, too, even before the contact with Rome appears in unpleasant political and military guise.
A little more respect for the tribe of Ham which furnished Egypt, Old Babylon, Phoenicia, and Carthage would not be amiss. The fact that it was accursed by the Jews did not make it fare any the worse in the world. A curse is, after all, only the product of violent hatred and utter impotence. The curse in Genesis IX, 25–27, was not fulfilled; Ham did not become a serf, but for thousands of years was a very great lord. We resent any demand that we base our historical standards on the hatreds of the Jews. If they make their patriarchs or their Jehovah curse in one way or another, or if they represent what happens to other peoples as the vengeance of Jehovah, it does not follow that we have to think about these peoples in any particular way.
It is very deplorable that instead of Justin’s Epitome, XVIII and XIX, we no longer have all of Trogus Pompeius at least. It is the only halfway coherent and comprehensive piece of Carthaginian history from its founding until the fourth century
The fair number of Carthaginians who appear among the Greek philosophers in Diogenes Laertius are evidence of a pronounced talent in this field. Of their literature the Romans salvaged only the books about agriculture, much as Jiménez did with the Arab books.
Throughout the seventh century Athens does not seem to stand out especially from the other Greek communities. But from the sixth century on, these words gradually come to apply to it: “Verum haec tantum alias inter caput extulit urbes, Quantum lenta solent inter viburna cupressi.” [But this city towers above others as much as the cypresses do above the swaying viburnums. Virgil, Eclogues, I, 24–25.]
From then on the inhabitants paid attention to the old peculiarities, to the regional myths almost wholly sundered from the Greek ones, to the old characteristic of no intermingling with absolute hospitality toward the persecuted. A unique development came about: in the political sphere, all transitions were accomplished without frightful peripeteia and reactions; Solonian legislation meant the complete victory of speculative thought and of gentle and fair customs; the tyranny of the Pisistradae was the most enlightened; the subsequent refinement of democracy from Clisthenes on was the calmest and most gradual.
All this demonstrates, first of all, consummate political aptitude. At the same time, the Athenians rise far above all other Hellenes onto the throne of education, art, and superior social graces.
The central location helped greatly to bring this about, but a more basic reason is the happy blend of rural and commercial life and the most favorable set of conditions ever encountered on earth. It was as if Nature had for centuries saved up all its resources to expend them at that time.
Through the complete, and also false, unleashing of all its powers, Athens wore itself out politically rather fast. But it had salvaged its cultural position and remained the intellectual capital of the Hellenes when the sites of athletic festivals and the Oracle of Delphi had lost their central significance. It saved itself materially as well and was able to finish its life decently under the Romans.
The great parallel to this is furnished by Florence and the Renaissance. One city desires most and accomplishes what a whole people wants and would like to accomplish, just as specific family traits may predominate most strongly in one son of a house.
It is hard for us to give a fair judgment between Athens and Sparta, since we owe an infinitude to Athens and nothing to Sparta, and because Sparta did not hold on to any venerable primitive piety in the face of rapid Athenian progress, but from the beginning maintained a depraved rule of force over subjugated fellow Hellenes. We do not know, however, whether without such an adversary Athens would not soon have degenerated in other ways, e.g., gone in for conquests of the type of the Sicilian campaign and other adventures.
Rome and Its Mission in World History
Rome, which had emerged from obscure Hellenic-Trojan-Italic beginnings, became the mistress of the Mediterranean and thus realized the historic moment of Italy.
The Orient with its attempts at world monarchies, Greece with its colonial world, Carthage with its location and its commerce, and the entire great barbaric West are fused into one Empire and one civilization; then this whole, close to collapse, is entrusted to a great new world movement, Christianity, under whose protective wing enough of it lives on to make possible a revival in the culture of the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries.
Since then our horizon has been overshadowed by it. Rome is everywhere the conscious or tacit premise of our views and thought; if in the essential intellectual points we are now no longer part of a specific people and country but belong to Western civilization, this is a consequence of the fact that at one time the world was Roman, universal, and that this ancient common culture has passed over into ours.
That East and West belong together, that they constitute a humanity, the world owes to Rome and its Imperium.
The history of Rome is in the highest sense the second part of ancient history. The currents issuing from everywhere flowed together, not merely into serfdom, but into one transmissible civilization.
That is why we are concerned with the ῥώμαική ἀρχριολογíα (antiquities of Rome—Dionysius of Halicarnassus) only to the extent necessary for an understanding of what was needful for the growth and development of Rome as mistress of the world; moreover, we shall gladly do without the true secret.
Among the individual peoples this is the mightiest; its individuality, to be sure, can be described and circumscribed like that of a person, but its remote causalities remain concealed. Verum haec tantum alias inter caput extulit urbes, Quantum lenta solent inter viburna cupressi.
After a semi-mythical, typical period of monarchy there begins a century and a half of struggle between two strata of the population in which a brand of politics and virtue is developed that differs from that in any Greek republic, and immediately after the end of this struggle Rome rises to the conquest of Italy as the property naturally due it. Its earlier political perseverance now reveals itself as greatness on a world scale, i.e., through a natural process Rome grows into all tasks of the management of power; it seems to have an innate talent for the proper handling of all matters concerning power, and it is equal to the greatest task. “Tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento, Haec tibi erunt artes, pacisque imponere morem, Parcere subjectis et debellare superbos.” [Remember, O Roman, to rule the peoples with power. These will be your arts: to impose the habit of peace, to spare the conquered and to cast down the proud. Anchises, Virgil, Aeneid, vi, 851–853.]
Rome shook the Gauls and the Etruscans, subdued the Samnites, and made its presence felt in lower Italy. Then the highest representative of the Diadochian war lords appears, Pyrrhus, and Rome is victorious and loses its fear of elephants.
Then Rome wages its first war with Carthage for hegemony over Sicily, in grand style and with the clear understanding that world dominion was at stake. Japhet and Ham test their strength and pay each other calls; Rome forces itself to become a naval power and gains victories at enormous cost.
From that point on, world history becomes σώματοεéδές (systematic— Polybius). The inner weakness of Carthage, as contrasted with Rome’s strength, is strikingly revealed in the war fought with mercenaries.
But a kindly fate lets worthy opponents for the Romans arise. Just after the Romans have subdued the Upper Italic Celts, it appears that one Carthaginian family (a branch of the Barcas—father, sons, and a brother-in-law) has been able to rid itself of any Hamitic acquisitive spirit and devote itself to the one goal of saving their homeland and destroying Rome. It is superior to anything else that we know about Ham and Shem. And as for Hannibal, in a certain sense he ranks above all Greeks, even Alexander. Rome could have reckoned with anything but such an adversary. And this adversary it overcame, confined Carthage to a strip of Africa, and surrounded it with the envious, like Massinissa.
After that, the Greeks and Diadochi are just a light morning snack; Philip comes closest to being a worthy opponent. But here Rome displays its initial veneration of Hellenism, considering itself the preserver and protector of the Greek tradition; the age-old Greek spirit stirs within the Romans. Rome Hellenizes itself, primarily under the leadership of Titus Quinctius Flamininus and the Scipios, who, for their part, had enforced Rome’s political and military power in Greece.
However, with the enormous gains that were to be had from the Diadochi system, Rome grows brutish. It begins to take its percentage when it gives away whole empires, when whole flocks of kings and royal emissaries appear before the Senate, and when Egypt derives its internal peace from Roman protection.
There is a marked change in Rome after the destruction of Carthage and Corinth. Maltreatment of subjects, exploitation of the semi-freemen, and frequently wicked warmaking go hand in hand with growing ferment in Italy, even while Spain and the Gallic provincia are being acquired.
The City of Rome is demoralized by the optimates who have waxed rich in the provinces or want to do so. The Roman citizenry shrinks as compared to the world empire, even though nominally it is spread over all of Italy. Could all the agrarian laws in the world have helped? Or the wholesale addition of the Italici to the ruling people?
During the incipient civil wars military personalities become decisive—individually distinguished ones, but also wicked ones who stand out from the inadequate conduct of the war by the Senate, such as Marius in the war against Jugurtha and the Cimbri. The Italici are vanquished in the Social Wars. All popular excitement is now merely urban demagoguery, designed to exploit people for the benefit of the mighty. There is no hurry about the monarchy, however. Sulla’s proscriptions restore the rule of the optimates; the dictator himself abdicates.
On the outside, power is preserved and extended from Spain to Asia, around the entire Mediterranean and the Black Sea, and victories are gained over Mithridates, Tigranes, and the pirates, while in Rome the republic cannot die and yet must be in dread of becoming at any moment the prey of an optimate, a democrat, or of the Catilinarians. The pseudo-rule of the Senate actually leans on a succession of strong men.
At length the First Triumvirate is formed.
It includes Caesar, the greatest of mortals. First he saves the Empire by conquering Gaul and securing it against the Germani, then he takes possession of it through his victories at Pharsalus, Thapsus, and Munda, and gives the tormented provinces a foretaste of government instead of mere desultory plundering by optimates.
The republicans find it a simple matter to remove him from the scene, but do not stop to consider that his veterans will still be mightier than themselves; then they console themselves with the dissension among his actual heirs, until the latter in the Second Triumvirate join in proscriptions and separate into East and West. Finally, after another terrible exhaustion of the available strength Augustus becomes sole ruler. Now it is realized that monarchy can no longer be swept away through mere attempts at assassination.
The optimates and their mentality are eradicated by the Augustan house. Lust for the principate quickly manifests itself; the transmission of power becomes extremely uncertain. The good governments of Vespasian and Trajan and up to Marcus Aurelius seem like extraordinary gifts of the gods.
But this is a great period in world history, independent of individuals, through the sway of practical realities. For, in the first and second centuries , there occurred the most important consequences of the world empire: the uniform organization and administration of the provinces; the catching up on things neglected (Britannia, Dacia, Mesopotamia are conquered); the smooth adjustment of Greco-Roman culture and its extension to the westernmost regions. Only now is there full intellectual intercourse in the entire ancient world. And at the same time the religions are denationalized. While Rome Romanizes the Gallic gods, it is itself orientalized.
Then, with renewed unsteadiness of power and appalling individual governments, the deathly force begins to rise: Neo-Persians and Germani appear and make frightful incursions into the Empire. The multiplicity of imperators, such as the Thirty Tyrants, can be explained by local defense needs alone. But once more the Empire is saved and united by great generals (the Illyrians); the Illyrian triangle, now so passive, becomes the nucleus at that time. To assure the transmission of power, Diocletian tries his system of adoptions. This is overthrown by Constantine, who allies himself with the great new world religion.
Just as Rome had once made Hellenistic culture its own and thus enabled Hellenism to live on for all time (and on this depended all knowledge and understanding of the Orient), Christianity now took over the Greco-Roman heritage, to salvage it beyond the time of the Germanic invasion.
After a dreadful period of decline, Romanism lives on partly as the Byzantine state, partly as the Western church; gradually it gathers all heathen and Arian Germani into its fold, and from night springs the new day of the Middle Ages which finds its spiritual unity in Rome. “His ego nec metas rerum nec tempora pono, imperium sine fine dedi” [For them I set no limits in space or time, I have given them power without end—Virgil, Aeneid], says Jupiter to Venus.
What would we know of the ancient world if the Germani had taken by surprise a pagan Rome and therefore had established no other relationship with it but that of crudest possession?
Our intellect, however, no matter how independent of the past it may behave in science and technology, is ever renewed and consecrated by the consciousness of its connection with the mind of the remotest times and civilization. Indeed, it gets to know itself and value its lofty nature only through comparison with that which it, the eternally unchanging, has been in all times.
On the Roman Empire in Its First Two Centuries
The confluence of the ancient lands of Greek civilization with Italy, Africa, and the West into one world empire is no mere accretion of flotsam. Its significance does not lie in its size, but in the fact that it benefited so many peoples, stopped the wars among the nations, and let the ancient world come to about as favorable an end as was possible.
The Roman Empire as such is not responsible for the general heritage of antiquity, namely, the lack of human rights, the continuation of slavery (which, however, was no worse than in the golden age of Greece with its torture of slaves and its Attic mine slaves), the bankruptcy of the independent state (the Romans saved the Greeks from their internecine rage and destruction). As for the very impure world of the gods and religion in the process of decay, these are Greek, as are the speculative thought which respects nothing, and the disdain of all existence. Astraea, the goddess of justice, has already withdrawn to heaven in the writings of the Greek poet Aratus in the third century , and Virgil’s “Iam redit et virgo” [Now, too, the virgin returns] does not bring her back.
The complaints about evil humanity, e.g., in Pausanias, refer to the Antonine period, to be sure, but they do not prove conclusively that egoism was greater then than it had been previously.
To what extent is Artemidorus a source as to morality in general? And what about Lucian and Apuleius? Lucian, the last genuine enlightener and utter infidel, denier of all religion, bears witness to a general heartlessness, but is himself a poisonous personality of boundless self-praise.
Lucian’s entire future life, with its ἰσοτιμíα [equality of honor] where everything is of one color and no one is more beautiful than anyone else, is nothing but a shrill mockery, a void provided with a touch of life only to the extent that a few chosen ones may indulge in their mocking laughter and the celebrities of the ancient world may be maltreated. They are nothing but skeletons, so that a person’s identity has to be ascertained every time (one is reminded of the medieval Dances of Death). Menippus is a mocking skeleton, Charon already a half-devil. The shades favored by Lucian, such as Micyllus, rejoice even during the crossing: γελασόμεϴα οἰμώζοντας ὁρῶντες [We shall laugh when we see them grieving].
This future life, which was so miserable for almost everyone, was in contrast with the Christian hereafter and also with the striving of the pagans to catch up in some fashion with the Christian life to come through the mysteries of that time. In this connection one should not forget the small but distinguished band of Stoics under Marcus Aurelius that represented a veritable religion, complete with father confessors and casuists (regarding this a number of passages from Aulus Gellius can be cited). The virtuous among the Romans lived on a veritable diet of the soul.
To what extent is the general worthlessness of life also reflected in the evident readiness for death on the part of the Christians?
Lucian still bestows high praise on Epicurus as the liberator from all this-worldly and other-worldly superstition. But in the third century Epicureanism is extinguished.
The senescence can be admitted in a certain sense and degree.
How much might wickedness and wretchedness have differed from the wickedness and misery of all times and of mankind generally?
Gladiatorial combats and much else can sour us on the Romans in general, but so many things can make us dislike the Greeks of the so- called golden age!
In any case, the first and second centuries are to be viewed separately from the subsequent ones.
The character of the second century is determined by the Antonines.
It is really most remarkable that there were able to succeed to the throne of the Julian dynasty and of Domitian two great rulers and then two wholly virtuous ones, of whom Marcus Aurelius quite obviously seeks to tower above his enormous imperial office through his Stoic personality.
The influence of the Stoa makes itself felt among the jurists of the time and we get the beginnings of humane legislation; one direct consequence of this is that slaves are given some rights. But on the whole, “Roman law,” for which Justinian’s compilers were later given credit, is actually the work of the great emperors of the second century and the great jurists of the third.
To be sure, when Marcus Aurelius, who hated the amphitheater, sent the gladiators off to war against the Marcomanni, there was almost an uprising, as though the emperor wanted to force the people to philosophize.
He fought the war very conscientiously and efficiently, at least liberated all of Pannonia, then cleared the entire right bank of the Danube of barbarians and even penetrated far beyond the Danube. But for the revolt of Avidius Cassius he might have made Bohemia (the land of the Marcomanni) and Galicia (Sarmatia) into provinces.
The emperors since Nerva had found it easy to make wise adoptions if they were childless. Marcus Aurelius, who had his Commodus, observed the law of inheritance again and acted according to this expectation from his son’s childhood on. As early as 176–177 he made him Imperator, Consul, Augustus. If afterwards he had wanted to disinherit him, considering the development of Commodus’ character, it would have been too late. If, for example, he had let his son-in-law Pompeianus or Pertinax succeed him, the soldiers would probably have promoted Commodus notwithstanding.
In the third century there appear the instructive consequences of inheritability, pseudo-inheritability, and usurpation of the throne, until Diocletian introduces adoption as a complete system.
As the restorer of the Empire’s unity, Septimius Severus is another Vespasian, but Caracalla, his campaign within his own Empire, and the emperor’s dependence on the soldiers make everything uncertain again. Finally the Empire passes into the hands of the Syrian emperors, and even the best of these, Alexander Severus, is murdered in 235.
The Empire, which since the Augustans has been in charge of provincial officers, now comes under the control of petty officers and murderous soldiers. Prior to Commodus, the emperors who are murdered are monsters; after 235 the murdered are the efficient ones, those who want to maintain discipline. In addition, the barbarians now invade the Empire from all sides. A terrible period is the half-century from 235 to 284.
The greatest miracle and the justification of the Roman Empire is the fact that it could be reunited at all.
The Imperium contented itself chiefly with the maintenance of general obedience and of the taxes and boundaries; it was infinitely better than the predatory Senate government. Taxation was direct. The Empire had large tax and customs districts. The direct taxes were revised from time to time; the inland duties, a kind of indirect taxation, were high. The taxes were collected in grain, and goods were used to defray the wages of troops and officials. The rest was in large measure left to local life, the regional constitutions of the cities, pagi, and so on. The polis, the municipium, still existed, as did benevolence within it.
For the time being, outside of the governing power there was no spiritual or material magnet that could have alienated the people’s loyalty.
Freedom of intellect and speech was almost unlimited. Education provided by the state, where it occurs, is, after all, not a tool of power. Private life was not controlled by the police. The Empire did not harass the people, but people did harass one another.
Of the cruel emperors of the Julian and Flavian dynasties (Domitian), only the raging wastrels were actually a menace to the entire Empire, because they had to resort to depredation on a grand scale and probably made use of a band of informers. But the Greek polis, too, had plundered its wealthy.
Absolutism was considered a natural thing in the Roman Empire and the principle of obedience was at no time in question. That is why the absolute state was able to act unabashedly and never, theoretically, in an underhanded manner. Obedience was not a matter of a doctrine that had to be maintained laboriously and systematically. The government did not need to defend conservatism, nor did it have to organize a bureaucracy as an army of loyalty, and least of all to make education the monopoly and basis of the bureaucracy with the aid of a system of examinations. A great many offices belonged only to the municipium.
In the whole Empire there was no political party with which the Imperium would have had to contend for power.
Here Mommsen’s words apply: “Even today there is many a region of both East and West for which the imperial period marks the high point of good government, modest in itself, but never attained before or since. And if some day an angel of the Lord were to draw up a balance sheet as to whether the area ruled by Severus Antoninus is governed with greater understanding and humaneness today than it was then, whether morals and human happiness in general have progressed or regressed since then, it is very doubtful if the verdict would be in favor of the present.”
The sole danger was from the military, especially from provincial armies, when they fought over installing an emperor.
The clamor of Greek democracies for “χοεῶν ἄφεσις” and “ἀναδασμὸςτῆς χώοας” [“freedom from want” and “a distribution of land”] was decidedly at an end, although it is threatened once more in Lucian.
But what never occurred was any attempt to restore the republic, except for a brief conspiracy after Caligula’s death.
As regards economic conditions, we must not forget the great premise which is present in the anti-banausic thinking of early antiquity, especially that of the Greeks, the main reason for which was the presence of domestic, industrial, and agricultural slaves. After the third century one surmises at most a marked decrease of domestic slaves, because the tombstones of freedmen became far less frequent from that time on; at least the inscriptions cease. As want increased, perhaps it became more economical and more desirable to cut expenses and make shift with free servants rather than buy slaves for which there may have been no funds. Did a free domestic system begin at that time? This does not prove anything regarding the increase or decrease of field slaves. And the average condition of the factory slaves must be surmised rather than proved in any way. Their percentage was probably not great.
The only universal right of the slaves was that their masters could not kill them or take away the peculium [small property] they had saved. Otherwise a slave was a chattel and barely had a legal marriage, which his master did not respect in practice anyway. A distinction was made between a slave’s death “after” or “in consequence of” ill-treatment; in the former case even the laws of Constantine the Great did not punish the master.
That free labor greatly predominated in the trades is shown by the existence of the collegia or guilds. They are to be differentiated clearly from the frequently prohibited and politically suspect sodalities whose purpose was merely social enjoyment, religious worship, and burial. The craftsmen can only have been free individual masters. Did they work more with slaves or with free men? In any case, they took part in the labor themselves. Where they did collective work, e.g., for armies, they probably shared the load and the profit. They also seem to have possessed joint funds. Later on there was compulsory membership in the collegia; whoever performed certain work had to belong to the appropriate collegium. The state reimbursed itself for the taxes through the decuriones, first of all, and then through these collegia. In an emergency the state made a squeezing machine out of each corporation. At the same time, both classes jointly bore the responsibility for municipal expenses, construction, supplies, and amusement.
In addition, the imperial factories (slave labor, because collective?) retained as a monopoly certain businesses, like armaments, purple garments, and mines; later this monopoly system was expanded still further. There, too, collegia are involved; these may be thought of as contractors. The collegia had common religious services and burying places; however, they appeared in complete form only in the larger cities.
Must not labor have been more highly esteemed than it was with the Greeks and early Romans?
Prosperity in general depended on whether the country in question had previously had a higher or a lower civilization.
Sybel complains of the absence of any large industry, an activity creating new value, in addition to the purely passive trade without exports. If things were really as bad as that, it is hard to understand how the Roman Empire was able to stand it.
As regards the cultivation of the soil, or rather, the alleged desolation and non-cultivation, we must differentiate among
Latifundia and desolation were not yet necessary reciprocal concepts; at any rate, there were great differences in degree among the provinces. To be sure, the complaint about latifundia is justified for Italy. They originated through patrician occupation of the ager publicus, then spread throughout Italy and the provinces. But in themselves they would not necessarily be bound up with bad, not very profitable planting and with the maltreatment of coloni and slaves.
As reasons for the decline of agriculture Sybel cites the following: war service of the small farmers; failure of the medium ones because of their own wastefulness and the pressure of state taxes; the formation of a small number of colossal estates (latifundia) and the resultant unwholesome economic and social conditions for cultivation and yield, as well as the desolation and depopulation attendant upon them.
Aside from the fact that Sybel’s reasons are very limited and insufficient and disregard the main causes of the decline of the Roman Empire, which do not become operative until the third century, it was Rome that put an end to collective property, the common pasture land of whole tribes, e.g., in the Celtic lands of the West, recognizing only definitely circumscribed property. Only after that did nomadic life probably give way to agriculture in many places. For Gaul it has been demonstrated clearly (Cellier) that the introduction and increase of the chief cultivated plants were due to the Romans.
However, every state of ownership has beside it an oppressed class which under certain circumstances makes an uproar. Even what now seems to us like a very imperfect, culture-impeding institution, such as collective property, the common pasture land of whole tribes, probably fitted in with the life of the time, and when, e.g., the Romans put a stop to such things, large segments of the population were made very unhappy. A shepherd does not become a farmer, as has been thought; he dies off.
Incidentally, apropos of latifundia, we have no right to shoot off our mouths, at a time when the whole farm-owning class is undermined by usurers, the bankrupt are in the majority, the Jews are in the saddle, and the peasants retreat to the cities.
Nor does it behoove us to consider the Roman Empire especially unhappy because of its lack of competitive factory industries with “free” workers.
And as far as the “desolation” is concerned, it should be noted that, e.g., the Hauran, east of the Upper Jordan, only now became a populated country and remained so until Islam. By contrast, Dio Chrysostom described Thessalia as desolate, Arcadia as a wasteland, and Pausanias traveled through long, deserted stretches. In all these cases it was the fault of the Greeks themselves among whom since the time of Polybius intentional childlessness had come into practice. In Campania the marked decline in the cultivation of the soil appears to have occurred only later, and in North Africa, whose bread Rome ate, the very large number of bishoprics, 477, is proof of a large population. Britain’s growth is evident also; there the Celtic language, now confined to Wales and Cornwall, had already given way to the Roman idiom prior to the Angles and the Saxons. In Gaul, both culture and population appear to have increased right up to the Antonines. This seems to be borne out by the long and vigorous life of the Gaulish language. The population of the agri decumates [land worked on tithes], arisen from the levissimus quisque Gallorum [every wisp of a Gaul] and the inopia audax [fierce want], appears to have been an overflow of the already Romanized Gallo-Romans. Trajan and Hadrian then drew the limes [boundary] around it.
All that Sybel adduces is thus very one-sided and insufficient to explain the fall of the Roman Empire. The main causality, rather, is shown to be as follows: the internal disorganization of the Empire after Commodus, Caracalla, and Heliogabalus, along with the attendant imperial wars; further, after Marcus Aurelius, the new movements of the Germani on all borders and their great human resources—possibly a sudden increase; also, the Sassanids. As a counterforce and in part because of the inner disorganization of the Empire, the Thirty Tyrants appear to save the situation.
The restoration of the Empire by the Illyrian emperors had to be accompanied by force, even under the best of conditions, and the situation after that inevitably became a permanent state of emergency, even without famine and pestilence.
The Empire of the first and second centuries must therefore be regarded as distinct from that of the third. Would the abolition of agricultural slavery and the forcible establishment of arms-bearing free farmers have availed anything in the third century? Many such, but not nearly enough, were actually created through the settling of Germani. Instead, there was a most pernicious, unalterable financial system. But in an emergency it is difficult to change such a system.
At this point, a counterbalance should be drawn up. How much general and inevitable human misery was present and a contributing factor, as it is at any time? Misery is a relative concept and is equal to the degree of discontent within a given situation. One is not miserable until one realizes it and no longer wants to put up with things.
In the late third century the world empire had to reconstruct itself and remain together so that it could become Christian as a unit.
Let us have proper respect for the Roman Empire. No other dynasty of the world can boast of five rulers in succession like those from Nerva to Marcus Aurelius (mere hereditary dynasties cannot possibly achieve this), as well as a series of rescuers like that from Claudius the Goth to Diocletian.