Front Page Titles (by Subject) 10.: On the Roman Empire in Its First Two Centuries - Judgments on History and Historians
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10.: On the Roman Empire in Its First Two Centuries - Jacob Burckhardt, Judgments on History and Historians 
Judgments on History and Historians, ed. Alberto R. Coll (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999).
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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 Astraea, the goddess of justice, has already withdrawn to heaven in the writings of the Greek poet Aratus in the third century , and Virgil’s “Iam redit et virgo” [Now, too, the virgin returns] does not bring her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.
The Middle Ages