There was a mother in Rome, not rich, but of great race, for she was daughter to Scipio of Africa; and she called her sons her jewels when other women showed their golden ornaments and their precious stones and boasted of their husbands' wealth. Cornelia's two sons, Tiberius and Caius, lost their lives successively in a struggle against the avarice of the rich men who ruled Rome, Italy and the world; against that grasping avarice which far surpassed the greed of any other race before the Romans, or after them, and which had suddenly taken new growth as the spoils of the East and South and West poured into the city. Yet the vast booty men could see was but an earnest of the wide lands which had fallen to Rome, called 'Public Lands' almost as if in derision, while they fell into the power of the few and strong, by the hundred thousand acres at a time.
Three hundred and fifty years before the Gracchi, when little conquests still seemed great, Spurius Cassius had died in defence of his Agrarian Law, at the hands of the savage rich who accused him of conspiring for a crown. Tiberius Gracchus set up the rights of the people to the public land, and perished.
He fell within a stone's throw of the spot on which the great tribune, Nicholas Rienzi, died. The strong, small band of nobles, armed with staves and clubs, and with that supremacy of contemptuous bearing that cows the simple, plough their way through the rioting throng, murderously clubbing to right and left. Tiberius, retreating, stumbles against a corpse and his enemies are upon him; a stave swung high in air, a dull blow, and all is finished for that day, save to throw the body into the Tiber lest the people should make a revolution of its funeral.
Next came Caius, a boy of six and twenty, fighting the same fight for a few years. On his head the nobles set a price—its weight in gold. He hides on the Aventine, and the Aventine is stormed. He escapes by the Sublician bridge and the bridge is held behind him by one friend, almost as Horatius held it against an army. Yet the nobles and their hired Cretan bowmen force the way and pursue him into Furina's grove. There a Greek slave ends him, and to get more gold fills the poor head with metal—and is paid in full. Three hundred died with Tiberius, three thousand were put to death for his brother's sake. With the goods of the slain and the dowries of their wives, Opimius built the Temple of Concord on the spot where the later one still stands in part, between the Comitium and the Capitol. The poor of Rome, and Cornelia, and the widows and children of the murdered men, knew what that 'Concord' meant.
Then followed revolution, war with runaway slaves, war with the immediate allies, then civil war, while wealth and love of wealth grew side by side, the one, insatiate, devouring the other.
First the slaves made for Sicily, wild, mountainous, half-governed then as it is today, and they held much of it against their masters for five years. Within short memory, almost yesterday, a handful of outlaws has defied a powerful nation's best soldiers in the same mountains. It is small wonder that many thousand men, fighting for liberty and life, should have held out so long.
And meanwhile Jugurtha of Numidia had for long years bought every Roman general sent against him, had come to Rome himself and bought the laws, and had gone back to his country with contemptuous leave-taking—'Thou city where all is sold!' And still he bought, till Caius Marius, high-hearted plebeian and great soldier, brought him back to die in the Mamertine prison.
Then against wealth arose the last and greatest power of Rome, her terrible armies that set up whom they would, to have their will of Senate and fathers and people. First Marius, then Sylla whom he had taught to fight, and taught to beat him in the end, after Cinna had been murdered for his sake at Ancona.
Marius and Sylla, the plebeian and the patrician, were matched at first as leader and lieutenant, then both as conquerors, then as alternate despots of Rome and mortal foes, till their long duel wrecked what had been and opened ways for what was to be.
First, Sylla claims that he, and not Marius, took Jugurtha, when the Numidian ally betrayed him, though the King and his two sons marched in the train of the plebeian's triumph. Marius answers by a stupendous victory over the Cimbrians and Teutons, slays a hundred thousand in one battle, comes home, triumphs again, sets up his trophies in the city and builds a temple to Honour and Courage. Next, in greed of popular power, he perjures himself to support a pair of murderous demagogues, betrays them in turn to the patricians, and Saturninus is pounded to death with roof tiles in the Capitol. Then, being made leader in the war with the allies, already old for fighting, he fails at the outset, and his rival Sylla is General in his stead.
Then riot on riot in the Forum, violence after violence in the struggle for the consulship, murder after murder, blood upon blood not yet dry. Sylla gets the expedition against Mithridates; Marius, at home, undermines his enemy's influence and forces the tribes to give him the command, and sends out his lieutenants to the East. Sylla's soldiers murder them, and Sylla marches back against Rome with six legions. Marius is unprepared; Sylla breaks into the city, torch in hand, at the head of his troops, burning and slaying; the rivals meet face to face in the Esquiline market-place, Roman fights Roman, and the plebeian loses the day and escapes to the sea.
The reign of terror begins, and a great slaying. Sylla declares his rival an enemy of Rome, and Marius is found hiding in the marshes of Minturnæ, is dragged out naked, covered with mud, a rope about his neck, and led into a little house of the town to be slain by a slave. 'Darest thou kill Caius Marius?' asks the old man with flashing eyes, and the slave executioner trembles before the unarmed prisoner. They let him go. He wanders to Africa and sits alone among the ruins of Carthage, while Sylla fights victoriously in the East. Rome, momentarily free of both, is torn by dissensions about the voting of the newly enfranchised. Instead of the greater rivals, Cinna and Octavius are matched for plebs and nobles. Knife-armed the parties fight it out in the Forum, the bodies of citizens lie in heaps, and the gutters are gorged with free blood, and again the patricians win the day. Cinna, fleeing from wrath, is deposed from office. Marius sees his chance again. Unshaven and unshorn since he left Rome last, he joins Cinna, leading six thousand fugitives, seizes and plunders the towns about Rome, while Cinna encamps beneath the walls. Together they enter Rome and nail Octavius' head to the Rostra. Then the vengeance of wholesale slaying, in another reign of terror, and Marius is despot of the city for a while, as Sylla had been before, till spent with age, his life goes out amid drunkenness and blood. The people tear down Sylla's house, burn his villa and drive out his wife and his children. Back he comes after four years, victorious, fighting his way right and left, against Lucanians and Samnites, back to Rome still fighting them, almost loses the battle, is saved by Crassus to take vengeance again, and again the long lists of the proscribed are written out and hung up in the Forum, and the city runs blood in a third Terror. Amid heaps of severed heads, Sylla sits before the temple of Castor and sells the lands of his dead enemies; and Catiline is first known to history as the executioner of Caius Gratidianus, whom he slices to death, piecemeal, beyond the Tiber.
Sylla, cold, aristocratic, sublimely ironical monster, was Rome's first absolute and undisputed military lord. Tired of blood, he tried reform, invented an aristocratic constitution, saw that it must fail, and then, to the amazement of his friends and enemies, abdicated and withdrew to private life, protected by a hundred thousand veterans of his army, and many thousands of freedmen, to die at the last without violence.
Of the chaos he left behind him, Cæsar made the Roman Empire.
The Gracchi, champions of the people, were foully done to death. Marius and Sylla, tearing the proud Republic to pieces for their own greatness, both died in their beds, the one of old age, the other of disease. There is no irony like that which often ended the lives of great Romans. Marcus Manlius, who saved the Capitol from the Gauls, was hurled to his death from the same rock, by the tribunes of the people, and Rome's citadel and sanctuary was desecrated by the blood of its preserver. Scipio of Africa breathed his last in exile, but Appius Claudius, the Decemvir, died rich and honoured.
One asks, naturally enough, how Rome could hold the civilized nations in subjection while she was fighting out a civil war that lasted fifty years. We have but little idea of her great military organization, after arms became a profession and a career. We can but call up scattered pictures to show us rags and fragments of the immense host that patrolled the world with measured tread and matchless precision of serried rank, in tens and scores and hundreds of thousands, for centuries, shoulder to shoulder and flank to flank, learning its own strength by degrees, till it suddenly grasped all power, gave it to one man, and made Caius Julius Cæsar Dictator of the earth.
The greatest figure in all history suddenly springs out of the dim chaos and shines in undying glory, the figure of a man so great that the office he held means Empire, and the mere name he bore means Emperor today in four empires,—Cæsar, Kaiser, Czar, Kaisár,—a man of so vast power that the history of humanity for centuries after him was the history of those who were chosen to fill his place—the history of nearly half the twelve centuries foretold by the augur Attus, from Romulus, first King, to Romulus Augustulus, last Emperor. He was a man whose deeds and laws have marked out the life of the world even to this far day. Before him and with him comes Pompey, with him and after him Mark Antony, next to him in line and greatness, Augustus—all dwarfs compared with him, while two of them were failures outright, and the third could never have reached power but in his steps.
In that long tempest of parties wherein the Republic went down for ever, it is hard to trace the truth, or number the slain, or reckon up account of gain and loss. But when Cæsar rises in the centre of the storm the end is sure and there can be no other, for he drives it before him like a captive whirlwind, to do his bidding and clear the earth for his coming. Other men, and great men, too, are overwhelmed by it, dashed down and stunned out of all sense and judgment, to be lost and forgotten like leaves in autumn, whirled away before the gale. Pompey, great general and great statesman, conqueror in Spain, subduer of Spartacus and the Gladiators, destroyer of pirates and final victor over Mithridates, comes back and lives as a simple citizen. Noble of birth, but not trusted by his peers, he joins with Cæsar, leader of all the people, and with Crassus, for more power, and loses the world by giving Cæsar an army, and Gaul to conquer. Crassus, brave general, too, is slain in battle in far Parthia, and Pompey steals a march by getting a long term in Spain. Cæsar demands as much and is refused by Pompey's friends. Then the storm breaks and Cæsar comes back from Gaul to cross the Rubicon, and take all Italy in sixty days. Pompey, ambitious, ill-starred, fights losing battles everywhere. Murdered at last in Egypt, he, too, is dead, and Cæsar stands alone, master of Rome and of the world. One year he ruled, and then they slew him; but no one of them that struck him died a natural death.
Creation presupposes chaos, and it is the divine prerogative of genius to evolve order from confusion. Julius Cæsar found the world of his day consisting of disordered elements of strength, all at strife with each other in a central turmoil, skirted and surrounded by the relative peace of an ancient and long undisturbed barbarism.
It was out of these elements that he created what has become modern Europe, and the direction which he gave to the evolution of mankind has never wholly changed since his day. Of all great conquerors he was the least cruel, for he never sacrificed human life without the direct intention of benefiting mankind by an increased social stability. Of all great lawgivers, he was the most wise and just, and the truths he set down in the Julian Code are the foundation of modern justice. Of all great men who have leaped upon the world as upon an unbroken horse, who have guided it with relentless hands, and ridden it breathless to the goal of glory, Cæsar is the only one who turned the race into the track of civilization and, dying, left mankind a future in the memory of his past. He is the one great man of all, without whom it is impossible to imagine history. We cannot take him away and yet leave anything of what we have. The world could have been as it is without Alexander, without Charlemagne, without Napoleon; it could not have been the world we know without Caius Julius Cæsar.
That fact alone places him at the head of mankind.
In Cæsar's life there is the same matter for astonishment as in Napoleon's; there is the vast disproportion between beginnings and climax, between the relative modesty of early aims and the stupendous magnitude of the climacteric result. One asks how in a few years the impecunious son of the Corsican notary became the world's despot, and how the fashionable young spendthrift lawyer of Rome, dabbling in politics and almost ignorant of warfare, rose in a quarter of a century to be the world's conqueror, lawgiver and civilizer. The daily miracle of genius is the incalculable speed at which it simultaneously thinks and acts. Nothing is so logical as creation, and creation is the first sign as well as the only proof that genius is present.
Hitherto the life of Cæsar has not been logically presented. His youth appears almost always to be totally disconnected from his maturity. The first success, the conquest of Gaul, comes as a surprise, because its preparation is not described. After it everything seems natural, and conquest follows victory as daylight follows dawn; but when we try to think backwards from that first expedition, we either see nothing clearly, or we find Cæsar an insignificant unit in a general disorder, as hard to identify as an individual ant in a swarming ant-hill. In the lives of all 'great men,' which are almost always totally unlike the lives of the so-called 'great,'—those born, not to power, but in power,—there is a point which must inevitably be enigmatical. It may be called the Hour of Fate—the time when in the suddenly loosed play of many circumstances, strained like springs and held back upon themselves, a man who has been known to a few thousands finds himself the chief of millions and the despot of a nation.
Things which are only steps to great men are magnified to attainments in ordinary lives, and remembered with pride. The man of genius is sure of the great result, if he can but get a fulcrum for his lever. What strikes one most in the careers of such men as Cæsar and Napoleon is the tremendous advance realized at the first step—the difference between Napoleon's half-subordinate position before the first campaign in Italy and his dominion of France immediately after it, or the distance which separated Cæsar, the impeached Consul, from Cæsar, the conqueror of Gaul.
It must not be forgotten that Cæsar came of a family that had held great positions, and which, though impoverished, still had credit, subsequently stretched by Cæsar to the extreme limit of its borrowing power. At sixteen, an age when Bonaparte was still an unknown student, Cæsar was Flamen Dialis, or high priest of Jupiter, and at one and twenty, the 'ill-girt boy,' as Sylla called him from his way of wearing his toga, was important enough to be driven from Rome, a fugitive. His first attempt at a larger notoriety had failed, and Dolabella, whom he had impeached, had been acquitted through the influence of friends. Yet the young lawyer had found the opportunity of showing what he could do, and it was not without reason that Sylla said of him, 'You will find many a Marius in this one Cæsar.'
Twenty years passed before the prophecy began to be realized with the commencement of Cæsar's career in Gaul, and more than once during that time his life seemed a failure in his own eyes, and he said scornfully and sadly of himself that he had done nothing to be remembered at an age when Alexander had already conquered the world.
Those twenty years which, to the thoughtful man, are by far the most interesting of all, appear in history as a confused and shapeless medley of political, military and forensic activity, strongly coloured by social scandals, which rested upon a foundation of truth, and darkened by accusations of worse kind, for which there is no sort of evidence, and which may be safely attributed to the jealousy of unscrupulous adversaries.
The first account of him, which we have in the seventeenth year of his age, evokes a picture of youthful beauty. The boy who is to win the world is appointed high priest of Jove in Rome,—by what strong influence we know not,—and we fancy the splendid youth with his tall figure, full of elastic endurance, the brilliant face, the piercing, bold, black eyes; we see him with the small mitre set back upon the dark and curling locks that grow low on the forehead, as hair often does that is to fall early, clad in the purple robe of his high office, summoning all his young dignity to lend importance to his youthful grace as he moves up to Jove's high altar to perform his first solemn sacrifice with his young consort; for the high priesthood of Jove was held jointly by man and wife, and if the wife died the husband lost his office.
He was about twenty when he cast his lot with the people, and within the year he fled from Sylla's persecution. The life of sudden changes and contrasts had begun. Straight from the sacred office, with all its pomp, and splendour, and solemnity, Cæsar is a fugitive in the Sabine hills, homeless, wifeless, fever-stricken, a price on his head. Such quick chances of evil fell to many in the days of the great struggle between Marius and Sylla, between the people and the nobles.
Then as Sylla yielded to the insistence of the young 'populist' nobleman's many friends, the quick reverse is turned to us. Cæsar has a military command, sees some fighting and much idleness by the shores of the Bosphorus, in Bithynia—then in a fit of sudden energy, the soldier's spirit rises; he dashes to the attack on Mytilene, and shows himself a man.
One or two unimportant campaigns, as a subordinate officer, a civic crown won for personal bravery, an unsuccessful action brought against a citizen of high rank in the hope of forcing himself into notice, a trip to Rhodes made to escape the disgrace of failure, and an adventure with pirates—there, in a few words, is the story of Julius Cæsar's youth, as history tells it. But then suddenly, when his projected studies in quiet Rhodes were hardly begun, he crosses to the mainland, raises troops, seizes cities, drives Mithridates' governor out of the province, returns to Rome and is elected military tribune. The change is too quick, and one does not understand it. Truth should tell that those early years had been spent in the profound study of philosophy, history, biography, languages and mankind, of the genesis of events from the germ to the branching tree, of that chemistry of fate which brews effect out of cause, and distils the imperishable essence of glory from the rougher liquor of vulgar success.
What strikes one most in the lives of the very great is that every action has a cumulative force beyond what it ever has in the existence of ordinary men. Success moves onward, passing through events on the same plane, as it were, and often losing brilliancy till it fades away, leaving those who have had it to outlive it in sorrow and weakness. Genius moves upward, treading events under its feet, scaling Olympus, making a ladder of mankind, outlasting its own activity for ever in a final and fixed glory more splendid than its own bright path. The really great man gathers power in action, the average successful man expends it.
And so it must be understood that Cæsar, in his early youth, was not wasting his gifts in what seemed to be a half-voluptuous, half-adventurous, wholly careless life, but was accumulating strength by absorbing into himself the forces with which he came in contact, exhausting the intelligence of his companions in order to stock his own, learning everything simultaneously, forgetting nothing he learned till he could use all he knew to the extreme limit of its value.
There is something mysterious in the almost unlimited credit which Cæsar seems to have enjoyed when still a very young man; and if the control of enormous sums of money by which he made himself beloved among the people explains, in a measure, his rapid rise from office to office, it is, on the other hand, hard to account for the trust which his creditors placed in his promises, and to explain why, when he was taken by pirates, the cities of Asia Minor should have voluntarily contributed money to make up the ransom demanded, seeing that he had never served in Asia, except as a subordinate. The only possible explanation is that while there, his real energies were devoted to the attainment of the greatest possible popularity in the shortest possible time, and that he was making himself beloved by the Asiatic cities, while his enemies said of him that he was wasting his time in idleness and dissipation.
In any case, it was the control of money that most helped him in obtaining high offices in Rome, and from the very first he seems to have acted on the principle that in great enterprises economy spells ruin, and that to check expenditure is to trip up success. And this is explained, if not justified, by his close association with the people, from his very childhood. Until he was made Pontifex Maximus he seems to have lived in a small house in the Suburra, in one of the most crowded and least fashionable quarters of Rome; and as a mere boy, it was his influence with the common people that roused Sylla's anxiety. To live with the people, to take their part against the nobles, to give them of all he had and of all he could borrow, were the chief rules of his conduct, and the fact that he obtained such enormous loans proves that there were rich lenders who were ready to risk fortunes upon his success. And it was in dealing with the Roman plebeian that he learned to command the Roman soldier, with the tact of a demagogue and the firmness of an autocrat. He knew that a man must give largely, even recklessly, to be beloved, and that in order to be respected he must be able to refuse coldly and without condition, and that in all ages the people are but as little children before genius, though they may rise against talent like wild beasts and tear it to death.
He knew also that in youth ten failures are nothing compared with one success, while in the full meridian of power one failure undoes a score of victories; hence his recklessness at first, his magnificent caution in his latter days; his daring resistance of Sylla's power before he was twenty, and his mildness towards the ringleaders of popular conspiracies against him when he was near his end; his violence upon the son of King Juba, whom he seized by the beard in open court when he himself was but a young lawyer, and his moderation in bearing the most atrocious libels, to punish which might have only increased their force.
Cæsar's career divides itself not unnaturally into three periods, corresponding with his youth, his manhood and his maturity; with the absorption of force in gaining experience, the lavish expenditure of force in conquest, the calm employment of force in final supremacy. The man who never lost a battle in which he commanded in person, began life by failing in everything he attempted, and ended it as the foremost man of all humanity, past and to come, the greatest general, the greatest speaker, the greatest lawgiver, the greatest writer of Latin prose whom the great Roman people ever produced, and also the bravest man of his day, as he was the kindest. In an age when torture was a legitimate part of justice, he caused the pirates who had taken him, and whom he took in turn, to be mercifully put to death before he crucified their dead bodies for his oath's sake, and when his long-trusted servant tried to poison him he would not allow the wretch to be hurt save by the sudden stroke of instant death; nor ever in a long career of conquest did he inflict unnecessary pain. Never was man loved of women as he was, and his sins were many even for those days, yet in them we find no unkindness, and when his own wife should have been condemned for her love of Clodius, Cæsar would not testify against her. He divorced her, he said, not because he knew anything, but because his family should be above suspicion. He plundered the world, but he gave it back its gold in splendid gifts and public works, keeping its glory alone for himself. He was hated by the few because he was beloved by the many, and it was not revenge, but envy, that slew the benefactor of mankind. The weaknesses of the supreme conqueror were love of woman and trust of man, and as the first Brutus made his name glorious by setting his people free, the second disgraced it and blackened the name of friendship with a stain that will outlast time, and by a deed second only in infamy to that of Judas Iscariot. The last cry of the murdered master was the cry of a broken heart—'And thou, too, Brutus, my son!' Alexander left chaos behind him; Cæsar left Europe, and it may be truly said that the crowning manifestation of his sublime wisdom was his choice of Octavius—of the young Augustus—to complete the carving of a world which he himself had sketched and blocked out in the rough.
The first period of his life ended with his election to the military tribuneship on his return to Rome after his Asian adventures, and his first acts were directed towards the reconstruction of what Sylla had destroyed, by reëstablishing the authority of tribunes and recalling some of Sylla's victims from their political exile. From that time onward, in his second period, he was more or less continually in office. Successively a tribune, a quæstor, governor of Farther Spain, ædile, pontifex maximus, prætor, governor of Spain again, and consul with the insignificant Bibulus, a man of so small importance that people used to date documents, by way of a jest, 'in the Consulship of Julius and Cæsar.' Then he obtained Gaul for his province, and lived the life of a soldier for nine years, during which he created the army that gave him at last the mastery of Rome. And in the tenth year Rome was afraid, and his enemies tried to deprive him of his power and passed bills against him, and drove out the tribunes of the people who took his part; and if he had returned to Rome then, yielding up his province and his legions, as he was called upon to do, he would have been judged and destroyed by his enemies. But he knew that the people loved him, and he crossed the Rubicon in arms.
This second period of his life closed with the last triumph decreed to him for his victories in Spain. The third and final period had covered but one year when his assassins cut it short.
Nothing demonstrates Cæsar's greatness so satisfactorily as this, that at his death Rome relapsed at once into civil war and strife as violent as that to which Cæsar had put an end, and that the man who brought lasting peace and unity into the distracted state, was the man of Cæsar's choice. But in endeavouring to realize his supreme wisdom, nothing helps us more than the pettiness of the accusations brought against him by such historians as Suetonius—that he once remained seated to receive the whole body of Conscript fathers, that he had a gilded chair in the Senate house, and appointed magistrates at his own pleasure to hold office for terms of years, that he laughed at an unfavourable omen and made himself dictator for life; and such things, says the historian, 'are of so much more importance than all his good qualities that he is considered to have abused his power and to have been justly assassinated.' But it is the people, not the historian, who make history, and when Caius Julius Cæsar was dead, the people called him God.
Beardless Octavius, his sister's daughter's son, barely eighteen years old, brings in by force the golden age of Rome. As Triumvir, with Antony and Lepidus, he hunts down the murderers first, then his rebellious colleagues, and wins the Empire back in thirteen years. He rules long and well, and very simply, as commanding general of the army and by no other power, taking all into his hands besides, the Senate, the chief priesthood, and the Majesty of Rome over the whole earth, for which he was called Augustus, the 'Majestic.' And his strength lay in this, that by the army, he was master of Senate and people alike, so that they could no longer strive with each other in perpetual bloodshed, and the everlasting wars of Rome were fought against barbarians far away, while Rome at home was prosperous and calm and peaceful. Then Virgil sang, and Horace gave Latin life to Grecian verse, and smiled and laughed, and wept and dallied with love, while Livy wrote the story of greatness for us all to this day, and Ovid touched another note still unforgotten. Then temple rose by temple, and grand basilicas reared their height by the Sacred Way; the gold of the earth poured in and Art was queen and mistress of the age. Julius Cæsar was master in Rome for one year. Augustus ruled nearly half a century. Four and forty years he was sole monarch after Antony's fall at Actium. About the thirtieth year of his reign, Christ was born.
All men have an original claim to be judged by the standard of their own time. Counting one by one the victims of the proscription proclaimed by the triumvirate in which Augustus was the chief power, some historians have brought down his greatness in quick declination to the level of a cold-blooded and cruel selfishness; and they account for his subsequent just and merciful conduct on the ground that he foresaw political advantage in clemency, and extension of power in the exercise of justice. The death of Cicero, sacrificed to Antony's not unreasonable vengeance, is magnified into a crime that belittles the Augustan age.
Yet compared with the wholesale murders done by Marius and Sylla, and by the patricians themselves in their struggles with the people, the few political executions ordered by Augustus sink into comparative insignificance, and it will generally be seen that those who most find fault with him are ready to extol the murderers of Julius Cæsar as devoted patriots, if not as glorious martyrs to the divine cause of liberty.
It is easier, perhaps, to describe the growth of Rome from the early Kings to Augustus, than to account for the change from the Rome of the Empire at the beginning of our era to the Rome of the Popes in the year eight hundred. Probably the easiest and truest way of looking at the transition is to regard it according to the periods of supremacy, decadence and ultimate disappearance from Rome of the Roman Army. For the Army made the Emperors, and the Emperors made the times. The great military organization had in it the elements of long life, together with all sudden and terrible possibilities. The Army made Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero, the Julian Emperors; then destroyed Nero and set up Vespasian after one or two experiments. The Army chose such men as Trajan and Marcus Aurelius, and such monsters as Domitian and Commodus; the Army conquered the world, held the world and gave the world to whomsoever it pleased. The Army and the Emperor, each the other's tool, governed Rome for good and ill, for ill and good, by fear and bounty and largely by amusement, but ultimately to their own and Rome's destruction.
For all the time the two great adversaries of the Empire, the spiritual and material, the Christian and the men of the North, were gaining strength and unity. Under Augustus, Christ was born. Under Augustus, Hermann the German chieftain destroyed Varus and his legions. By sheer strength and endurance, the Army widened and broadened the Empire, forcing back the Northmen upon themselves like a spring that gathers force by tension. Unnoticed, at first, Christianity quietly grew to power. Between Christians and Northmen, the Empire of Rome went down at last, leaving the Empire of Constantinople behind it.
The great change was wrought in about five hundred years, by the Empire, from the City of the Republic to what had become the City of the Middle Age; between the reign of Augustus, first Emperor, and the deposition of the last Emperor, Romulus Augustulus, by Odoacer, Rome's hired Pomeranian general.
In that time Rome was transubstantiated in all its elements, in population, in language, in religion and in customs. To all intents and purposes, the original Latin race utterly disappeared, and the Latin tongue became the broken dialect of a mixed people, out of which the modern Italian speech was to grow, decadent in form, degenerate in strength but renascent in a grace and beauty which the Latin never possessed. First the vast population of slaves brought in their civilized and their barbarous words—Greek, Hebrew and Arabic, or Celtic, German and Slav; then came the Goth, and filled all Italy with himself and his rough language for a hundred years. The Latin of the Roman Mass is the Latin of slaves in Rome between the first and fifth centuries, from the time of the Apostles to that of Pope Gelasius, whose prayer for peace and rest is the last known addition to the Canon, according to most authorities. Compare it with the Latin of Livy and Tacitus; it is not the same language, for to read the one by no means implies an understanding of the other.
Or take the dress. It is told of Augustus, as a strange and almost unknown thing, that he wore breeches and stockings, or leg swathings, because he suffered continually with cold. Men went barelegged and wrapped themselves in the huge toga which came down to their feet. In the days of Augustulus the toga was almost forgotten; men wore leggings, tunics and the short Greek cloak.
In the change of religion, too, all customs were transformed, private and public, in a way impossible to realize today. The Roman household, with the father as absolute head, lord and despot, gradually gave way to a sort of half-patriarchal, half-religious family life, resembling the first in principle but absolutely different from it in details and result, and which, in a measure, has survived in Italy to the present time.
In the lives of men, the terror of one man, as each despot lost power, began to give way to the fear of half-defined institutions, of the distant government in Constantinople and of the Church as a secular power, till the time came when the title of Emperor raised a smile, whereas the name of the Pope—of the 'Father-Bishop'—was spoken with reverence by Christians and with respect even by unbelievers. The time came when the army that had made Emperors and unmade them at its pleasure became a mere band of foreign mercenaries, who fought for wages and plunder when they could be induced to fight for Rome at all.
So the change came. But in the long five hundred years of the Western Empire Rome had filled the world with the results of her own life and had founded modern Europe, from the Danube to England and from the Rhine to Gibraltar; so that when the tide set towards the south again, the Northmen brought back to Italy some of the spirit and some of the institutions which Rome had carried northwards to them in the days of conquest; and they came not altogether as strangers and barbarians, as the Huns had come, to ravage and destroy, and be themselves destroyed and scattered and forgotten, but, in a measure, as Europeans against Europeans, hoping to grasp the remnants of a civilized power. Theodoric tried to make a real kingdom, Totila and Teias fell fighting for one; the Franks established one in Gaul, and at last it was a Frank who gave the Empire life again, and conquests and laws, and was crowned by the Christian Pontifex Maximus in Rome when Julius Cæsar had been dead more than eight hundred years.
One of the greatest of the world's historians has told the story of the change, calling it the 'Decline and Fall of the Empire,' and describing it in some three thousand pages, of which scarcely one can be spared for the understanding of the whole. Thereby its magnitude may be gauged, but neither fairly judged nor accurately measured. The man who would grasp the whole meaning of Rome's name, must spend a lifetime in study and look forward to disappointment in the end. It was Ampère, I believe, who told a young student that he might get a superficial impression of the city in ten years, but that twenty would be necessary in order to know anything about it worthy to be written. And perhaps the largest part of the knowledge worth having lies in the change from the ancient capital of the Empire to the mediæval seat of ecclesiastic domination.
And, indeed, nothing in all history is more extraordinary than the rise of Rome's second power under the Popes. In the ordinary course of human events, great nations appear to have had but one life. When that was lived out, and when they had passed through the artistic period so often coincident with early decadence, they were either swept away, or they sank to the insignificance of mere commercial prosperity, thereafter deriving their fashions, arts, tastes, and in fact almost everything except their wealth, from nations far gone in decay.
But in Rome it was otherwise. The growth of the faith which subjected the civilized world was a matter of first importance to civilization, and Rome was the centre of that growing. Moreover, that development and that faith had one head, chosen by election, and the headship itself became an object of the highest ambition, whereby the strength and genius of individuals and families were constantly called into activity, and both families and isolated individuals of foreign race were attracted to Rome. It was no small thing to hold the kings of the earth in spiritual subjection, to be the arbiter of the new Empire founded by Charlemagne, the director of the kingdoms built up in France and England, and, almost literally, the feudal lord over all other temporal powers. The force of a predominant idea gave Rome new life, vivifying new elements with the vitality of new ambitions. The theatre was the same. The actors and the play had changed. The world was no longer governed by one man as monarch; it was directed by one man, who was the chief personage in the vast and intricate feudal system by which strong men agreed to live, and to which they forced the weak to submit.
The Barons came into existence, and Rome was a city of fortresses and towers, as well as churches. Orsini and Colonna, Caetani and Vitelleschi, Savelli and Frangipani, fought with each other for centuries among ruins, built strongholds of the stones of temples, and burned the marble treasures of the world to make lime. And fiercely they held their own. Nicholas Rienzi wanders amid the deserted places, deciphers the broken inscriptions, gathers a little crowd of plebeians about him and tells them of ancient Rome, and of the rights of the people in old times. All at once he rises, a grand shadow of a Roman, a true tribune, brave, impulsive, eloquent. A little while longer and he is half mad with vanity and ambition, a public fool in a high place, decking himself in silks and satins, and ornaments of gold, and the angry nobles slay him on the steps of the Aracœli, as other nobles long ago slew Tiberius Gracchus, a greater and a better man, almost on the same spot.
Meanwhile the great schism of the Church rages, before and after Rienzi. The Empire and its Kingdoms join issue with each other and with the Barons for the lordship of Christendom; there are two Popes, waging war with nations on both sides, and Rome is reduced to a town of barely twenty thousand souls. Then comes Hildebrand, Pope Gregory the Seventh, friend of the Great Countess, humbler of the Emperor, a restorer of things, the Julius Cæsar of the Church, and from his day there is stability again, as Urban the Second follows, like an Augustus; Nicholas the Fifth, the next great Pontiff, comes in with the Renascence. Last of destroyers Charles, the wild Constable of Bourbon, marches in open rebellion against King, State and Church, friend to the Emperor, straight to his death at the walls, his work of destruction carried out to the terrible end by revengeful Spaniards who spare only the churches and the convents. Out of those ashes Rome rose again, for the last time, the Rome of Sixtus the Fifth, which is, substantially, the Rome we see today; less powerful in the world after that time, but more beautiful as she grew more peaceful by degrees; flourishing in a strange, motley way, like no other city in the world, as the Empire of the Hapsburgs and the Kingdoms of Europe learned to live apart from her, and she was concentrated again upon herself, still and always a factor among nations, and ever to be. But even in latter days, Napoleon could not do without her, and Francis the Second of Austria had to resign the Empire, in order that Pius the Seventh might call the self-crowned Corsican soldier, girt with Charlemagne's huge sword, the anointed Emperor of Christendom.
Once more a new idea gives life to fragments hewn in pieces and scattered in confusion. A dream of unity disturbs Italy's sleep. Never, in truth, in all history, has Italy been united save by violence. By the sword the Republic brought Latins, Samnites and Etruscans into subjection; by sheer strength she crushed the rebellion of the slaves and then forced the Italian allies to a second submission; by terror Marius and Sylla ruled Rome and Italy; and it was the overwhelming power of a paid army that held the Italians in check under the Empire, till they broke away from each other as soon as the pressure was removed, to live in separate kingdoms and principalities for thirteen or fourteen hundred years, from Romulus Augustulus—or at least from Justinian—to Victor Emmanuel, King of Italy, in whose veins ran not one drop of Italian blood.
One asks whence came the idea of unity which has had such power to move these Italians, in modern times. The answer is plain and simple. Unity is the word; the interpretation of it is the name of Rome. The desire is for all the romance and the legends and the visions of supreme greatness which no other name can ever call up. What will be called hereafter the madness of the Italian people took possession of them on the day when Rome was theirs to do with as they pleased. Their financial ruin had its origin at that moment, when they became masters of the legendary Mistress of the world. What the end will be, no one can foretell, but the Rome of old was not made great by dreams. Her walls were founded in blood, and her temples were built with the wealth of conquered nations, by captives and slaves of subject races.
The Rome we see today owes its mystery, its sadness and its charm to six and twenty centuries of history, mostly filled with battle, murder and sudden death, deeds horrible in that long-past present which we try to call up, but alternately grand, fascinating and touching now, as we shape our scant knowledge into visions and fill out our broken dreams with the stuff of fancy. In most men's minds, perhaps, the charm lies in that very confusion of suggestions, for few indeed know Rome so well as to divide clearly the truth from the legend in her composition. Such knowledge is perhaps altogether unattainable in any history; it is most surely so here, where city is built on city, monument upon monument, road upon road, from the heart of the soil upwards—the hardened lava left by many eruptions of life; where the tablets of Clio have been shattered again and again, where fire has eaten, and sword has hacked, and hammer has bruised ages of records out of existence, where even the race and type of humanity have changed and have been forgotten twice and three times over.
Therefore, unless one have half a lifetime to spend in patient study and deep research, it is better, if one come to Rome, to feel much than to try and know a little, for in much feeling there is more human truth than in that dangerous little knowledge which dulls the heart and hampers the clear instincts of natural thought. Let him who comes hither be satisfied with a little history and much legend, with rough warp of fact and rich woof of old-time fancy, and not look too closely for the perfect sum of all, where more than half the parts have perished for ever.
It matters not much whether we know the exact site of Virgil's Laurentum; it is more interesting to remember how Commodus, cruel, cowardly and selfish, fled thither from the great plague, caring not at all that his people perished by tens of thousands in the city, since he himself was safe, with the famous Galen to take care of him. We can leave the task of tracing the enclosures of Nero's golden house to learned archælogists, and let our imagination find wonder and delight in their accounts of its porticos three thousand feet long, its game park, its baths, its thousands of columns with their gilded capitals, and its walls encrusted with mother-of-pearl. And we may realize the depth of Rome's abhorrence for the dead tyrant, as we think of how Vespasian and his son Titus pulled down the enchanted palace for the people's sake, and built the Colosseum where the artificial lake had been, and their great baths on the very foundations of Nero's gorgeous dwelling.
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