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The Middle Age

There was a surprising strength in those early institutions of which the fragmentary survival has made Rome what it is. Strongest of all, perhaps, was the patriarchal mode of life which the shepherds of Alba Longa brought with them when they fled from the volcano, and of which the most distinct traces remain to the present day, while its origin goes back to the original Aryan home. Upon that principle all the household life ultimately turned in Rome's greatest times. The Senators were Patres, conscript fathers, heads of strong houses; the Patricians were those who had known 'fathers,' that is, a known and noble descent. Horace called Senators simply 'Conscripts,' and the Roman nobles of today call themselves the 'Conscript' families. The chain of tradition is unbroken from Romulus to our own time, while everything else has changed in greater or less degree.

It is hard for Anglo-Saxons to believe that, for more than a thousand years, a Roman father possessed the absolute legal right to try, condemn and execute any of his children, without witnesses, in his own house and without consulting anyone. Yet nothing is more certain. 'From the most remote ages,' says Professor Lanciani, the highest existing authority, 'the power of a Roman father over his children, including those by adoption as well as by blood, was unlimited. A father might, without violating any law, scourge or imprison his son, or sell him for a slave, or put him to death, even after that son had risen to the highest honours in the state.' During the life of the father, a child, no matter of what age, could own no property independently, nor keep any private accounts, nor dispose of any little belongings, no matter how insignificant, without the father's consent, which was never anything more than an act of favour, and was revocable at any moment, without notice. If a son became a public magistrate, the power was suspended, but was again in force as soon as the period of office terminated. A man who had been Dictator of Rome became his father's slave and property again, as soon as his dictatorship ended.

But if the son married with his father's consent, he was partly free, and became a 'father' in his turn, and absolute despot of his own household. So, if a daughter married, she passed from her father's dominion to that of her husband. A Priest of Jupiter for life was free. So was a Vestal Virgin. There was a complicated legal trick by which the father could liberate his son if he wished to do so for any reason, but he had no power to set any of his children free by a mere act of will, without legal formality. The bare fact that the men of a people should be not only trusted with such power, but that it should be forcibly thrust upon them, gives an idea of the Roman character, and it is natural enough that the condition of family life imposed by such laws should have had pronounced effects that may still be felt. As the Romans were a hardy race and long-lived, when they were not killed in battle, the majority of men were under the absolute control of their fathers till the age of forty or fifty years, unless they married with their parents' consent, in which case they advanced one step towards liberty, and at all events, could not be sold as slaves by their fathers, though they still had no right to buy or sell property nor to make a will.

There are few instances of the law being abused, even in the most ferocious times. Brutus had the right to execute his sons, who conspired for the Tarquins, without any public trial. He preferred the latter. Titus Manlius caused his son to be publicly beheaded for disobeying a military order in challenging an enemy to single combat, slaying him, and bringing back the spoils. He might have cut off his head in private, so far as the law was concerned, for any reason whatsoever, great or small.

As for the condition of real slaves, it was not so bad in early times as it became later, but the master's power was absolute to inflict torture and death in any shape. In slave-owning communities, barbarity has always been, to some extent, restrained by the actual value of the humanity in question, and slaves were not as cheap in Rome as might be supposed. A perfectly ignorant labourer of sound body was worth from eighty to a hundred dollars of our money, which meant much more in those days, though in later times twice that sum was sometimes paid for a single fine fish. The money value of the slave was, nevertheless, always a sort of guarantee of safety to himself; but men who had right of life and death over their own children, and who occasionally exercised it, were probably not, as a rule, very considerate to creatures who were bought and sold like cattle. Nevertheless, the number of slaves who were freed and enriched by their masters is really surprising.

The point of all this, however, is that the head of a Roman family was, under protection of all laws and traditions, an absolute tyrant over his wife, his children, and his servants; and the Roman Senate was a chosen association of such tyrants. It is astonishing that they should have held so long to the forms of a republican government, and should never have completely lost their republican traditions.

In this household tyranny, existing side by side with certain general ideas of liberty and constitutional government, under the ultimate domination of the Emperors' despotism as introduced by Augustus, is to be found the keynote of Rome's subsequent social life. Without those things, the condition of society in the Middle Age would be inexplicable, and the feudal system could never have developed. The old Roman principle that 'order should have precedence over order, not man over man,' rules most of Europe at the present day, though in Rome and Italy it is now completely eclipsed by a form of government which can only be defined as a monarchic democracy.

The mere fact that under Augustus no man was eligible to the Senate who possessed less than a sum equal to a quarter of a million dollars, shows plainly enough what one of the most skilful despots who ever ruled mankind wisely, thought of the institution. It was intended to balance, by its solidity, the ever-unsettled instincts of the people, to prevent as far as possible the unwise passage of laws by popular acclamation, and, so to say, to regulate the pulse of the nation. It has been imitated, in one way or another, by all the nations we call civilized.

But the father of the family was in his own person the despot, the senate, the magistrate and the executive of the law; his wife, his children and his slaves represented the people, constantly and eternally in real or theoretical opposition, while he was protected by all the force of the most ferocious laws. A father could behead his son with impunity; but the son who killed his father was condemned to be all but beaten to death, and then to be sewn up in a leathern sack and drowned. The father could take everything from the son; but if the son took the smallest thing from his father he was a common thief and malefactor, and liable to be treated as one, at his father's pleasure. The conception of justice in Rome never rested upon any equality, but always upon the precedence of one order over another, from the highest to the lowest. There were orders even among the slaves, and one who had been allowed to save money out of his allowances could himself buy a slave to wait on him, if he chose.

Hence the immediate origin of European caste, of different degrees of nobility, of the relative standing of the liberal professions, of the mediæval guilds of artisans and tradesmen, and of the numerous subdivisions of the agricultural classes, of which traces survive all over Europe. The tendency to caste is essentially and originally Aryan, and will never be wholly eliminated from any branch of the Aryan race.

One may fairly compare the internal life of a great nation to a building which rises from its foundations story by story until the lower part can no longer carry the weight of the superstructure, and the first signs of weakness begin to show themselves in the oldest and lowest portion of the whole. Carefully repaired, when the weakness is noticed at all, it can bear a little more, and again a little, but at last the breaking strain is reached, the tall building totters, the highest pinnacles topple over, then the upper story collapses, and the end comes either in the crash of a great falling or, by degrees, in the irreparable ruin of ages. But when all is over, and wind and weather and time have swept away what they can, parts of the original foundation still stand up rough and heavy, on which a younger and smaller people must build their new dwelling, if they build at all.

The aptness of the simile is still more apparent when we confront the material constructions of a nation with the degree of the nation's development or decadence at the time when the work was done.

It is only by doing something of that sort that we can at all realize the connection between the settlement of the shepherds, the Rome of the Cæsars, and the desolate and scantily populated fighting ground of the Barons, upon which, with the Renascence, the city of the later Popes began to rise under Nicholas the Fifth. And lastly, without a little of such general knowledge it would be utterly impossible to call up, even faintly, the lives of Romans in successive ages. Read the earlier parts of Livy's histories and try to picture the pristine simplicity of those primeval times. Read Cæsar's Gallic War, the marvellously concise reports of the greatest man that ever lived, during ten years of his conquests. Read Horace, and attempt to see a little of what he describes in his good-natured, easy way. Read the correspondence of the younger Pliny when proconsul in Bithynia under Trajan, and follow the extraordinary details of administration which, with ten thousand others, the Spanish Emperor of Rome carried in his memory, and directed and decided. Take Petronius Arbiter's 'novel' next, the Satyricon, if you be not over-delicate in taste, and glance at the daily journal of a dissolute wretch wandering from one scene of incredible vice to another. And so on, through the later writers; and from among the vast annals of the industrious Muratori pick out bits of Roman life at different periods, and try to piece them together. At first sight it seems utterly impossible that one and the same people should have passed through such social changes and vicissitudes. Every educated man knows the main points through which the chain ran. Scholars have spent their lives in the attempt to restore even a few of the links and, for the most part, have lost their way in the dry quicksands that have swallowed up so much.

'I have raised a monument more enduring than bronze!' exclaimed Horace, in one of his rare moments of pardonable vanity. The expression meant much more then than it does now. The golden age of Rome was an age of brazen statues apparently destined to last as long as history. Yet the marble outlasted the gilded metal, and Horace's verse outlived both, and the names of the artists of that day are mostly forgotten, while his is a household word. In conquering races, literature has generally attained higher excellence than painting or sculpture, or architecture, for the arts are the expression of a people's tastes, often incomprehensible to men who live a thousand years later; but literature, if it expresses anything, either by poetry, history, or fiction, shows the feeling of humanity; and the human being, as such, changes very little in twenty or thirty centuries. Achilles, in his wrath at being robbed of the lovely Briseïs, brings the age of Troy nearer to most men in its living vitality than the matchless Hermes of Olympia can ever bring the century of Greece's supremacy. One line of Catullus makes his time more alive today than the huge mass of the Colosseum can ever make Titus seem. We see the great stones piled up to heaven, but we do not see the men who hewed them, and lifted them, and set them in place. The true poet gives us the real man, and after all, men are more important than stones. Yet the work of men's hands explains the working of men's hearts, telling us not what they felt, but how the feelings which ever belong to all men more particularly affected the actors at one time or another during the action of the world's long play. Little things sometimes tell the longest stories.


Pliny, suffering from sore eyes, going about in a closed carriage, or lying in the darkened basement portico of his house, obliged to dictate his letters, and unable to read, sends his thanks—by dictation—to his friend and colleague, Cornutus, for a fowl sent him, and says that although he is half blind, his eyes are sharp enough to see that it is a very fat one. The touch of human nature makes the whole picture live. Horace, journeying to Brindisi, and trying to sleep a little on a canal boat, is kept awake by mosquitoes and croaking frogs, and by the long-drawn-out, tipsy singing of a drunken sailor, who at last turns off the towing mule to graze, and goes to sleep till daylight. It is easier to see all this than to call up one instant of a chariot race in the great circus, or one of the ten thousand fights in the Colosseum, wherein gladiators fought and died, and left no word of themselves.

Yet, without the setting, the play is imperfect, and we must have some of the one to understand the other. For human art is, in the first place, a progressive commentary on human nature, and again, in quick reaction, stimulates it with a suggestive force. Little as we really know of the imperial times, we cannot conceive of Rome without the Romans, nor of the Romans without Rome. They belonged together; when the seat of Empire became cosmopolitan, the great dominion began to be weakened; and when a homogeneous power dwelt in the city again, a new domination had its beginning, and was built up on the ruins of the old.

Napoleon is believed to have said that the object of art is to create and foster agreeable illusions. Admitting the general truth of the definition, it appears perfectly natural that since the Romans had little or no art of their own, they should have begun to import Greek art just when they did, after the successful issue of the Second Punic War. Up to that time the great struggle had lasted. When it was over, the rest was almost a foregone conclusion. Rome and Carthage had made a great part of the known world their fighting ground in the duel that lasted a hundred and eighteen years; and the known world was the portion of the victor. Spoil first, for spoil's sake, he brought home; then spoil for the sake of art; then art for what itself could give him. In the fight for Empire, as in each man's struggle for life, success means leisure, and therefore civilization, which is the growth of people who have time at their disposal—time to 'create and foster agreeable illusions.' When the Romans conquered the Samnites they were the least artistic people in the world; when Augustus Cæsar died, they possessed and valued the greater part of the world's artistic treasures, many of these already centuries old, and they owned literally, and as slaves, a majority of the best living artists. Augustus had been educated in Athens; he determined that Rome should be as Athens, magnified a hundred times. Athens had her thousand statues, Rome should have her ten thousand; Rome should have state libraries holding a score of volumes for every one that Greece could boast; Rome's temples should be galleries of rare paintings, ten for each that Athens had. Rome should be so great, so rich, so gorgeous, that Greece should be as nothing beside her; Egypt should dwindle to littleness, and the memory of Babylon should be forgotten. Greece had her Homer, her Sophocles, her Anacreon; Rome should have her immortals also.

Greatly Augustus laboured for his thought, and grandly he carried out his plan. He became the greatest 'art-collector' in all history, and the men of his time imitated him. Domitius Tullus, a Roman gentleman, had collected so much, that he was able to adorn certain extensive gardens, on the very day of the purchase, with an immense number of genuine ancient statues, which had been lying, half neglected, in a barn—or, as some read the passage, in other gardens of his.


Augustus succeeded in one way. Possibly he was successful in his own estimation. 'Have I not acted the play well?' they say he asked, just before he died. The keynote is there, whether he spoke the words or not. He did all from calculation, nothing from conviction. The artist, active and creative or passive and appreciative, calculates nothing except the means of expressing his conviction. And in the over-calculating of effects by Augustus and his successors, one of the most singular weaknesses of the Latin race was thrust forward; namely, that giantism or megalomania, which has so often stamped the principal works of the Latins in all ages—that effort to express greatness by size, which is so conspicuously absent from all that the Greeks have left us. Agrippa builds a threefold temple and Hadrian rears the Pantheon upon its charred ruins; Constantine builds his Basilica; Michelangelo says, 'I will set the Pantheon upon the Basilica of Constantine.' He does it, and the result is Saint Peter's, which covers more ground than that other piece of giantism, the Colosseum; in Rome's last and modern revival, the Palazzo delle Finanze is built, the Treasury of the poorest of the Powers, which, incredible as it may seem, fills a far greater area than either the Colosseum or the Church of Saint Peter's. What else is such constructive enormity but 'giantism'? For the great Cathedral of Christendom, it may be said, at least, that it has more than once in history been nearly filled by devout multitudes, numbering fifty or sixty thousand people; in the days of public baths, nearly sixty-three thousand Romans could bathe daily with every luxury of service; when bread and games were free, a hundred thousand men and women often sat down in the Flavian Amphitheatre to see men tear each other to pieces; of the modern Ministry of Finance there is nothing to be said. The Roman curses it for the millions it cost; but the stranger looks, smiles and passes by a blank and hideous building three hundred yards long. There is no reason why a nation should not wish to be great, but there is every reason why a small nation should not try to look big; and the enormous follies of modern Italy must be charitably attributed to a defect of judgment which has existed in the Latin peoples from the beginning, and has by no means disappeared today. The younger Gordian began a portico which was to cover forty-four thousand square yards, and intended to raise a statue of himself two hundred and nineteen feet high. The modern Treasury building covers about thirty thousand square yards, and goes far to rival the foolish Emperor's insane scheme.


Great contrasts lie in the past, between his age and ours. One must guess at them at least, if one have but little knowledge, in order to understand at all the city of the Middle Age and the Rome we see today. Imagine it at its greatest, a capital inhabited by more than two millions of souls, filling all that is left to be seen within and without the walls, and half the Campagna besides, spreading out in a vast disc of seething life from the central Golden Milestone at the corner of the temple of Saturn—the god of remote ages, and of earth's dim beginning; see, if you can, the splendid roads, where to right and left the ashes of the great rested in tombs gorgeous with marble and gold and bronze; see the endless villas and gardens and terraces lining both banks of the Tiber, with trees and flowers and marble palaces, from Rome to Ostia and the sea, and both banks of the Anio, from Rome to Tivoli in the hills; conceive of the vast commerce, even of the mere business of supply to feed two millions of mouths; picture the great harbour with its thousand vessels—and some of those that brought grain from Egypt were four hundred feet long; remember its vast granaries and store-barns and offices; think of the desolate Isola Sacra as a lovely garden, of the ruins of Laurentum as an imperial palace and park; reckon up roughly what all that meant of life, of power, of incalculable wealth. Mark Antony squandered, in his short lifetime, eight hundred millions of pounds sterling, four thousand millions of dollars. Guess, if possible, at the myriad million details of the vast city.

Then let twelve hundred years pass in a dream, and look at the Rome of Rienzi. Some twenty thousand souls, the remnant and the one hundredth part of the two millions, dwell pitifully in the ruins of which the strongest men have fortified bits here and there. The walls of Aurelian, broken and war-worn and full of half-repaired breaches, enclose a desert, a world too wide for its inhabitants, a vast straggling heterogeneous mass of buildings in every stage of preservation and decay, splendid temples, mossy and ivy-grown, but scarcely injured by time, then wastes of broken brick and mortar; stern dark towers of Savelli, and Frangipani, and Orsini, and Colonna, dominating and threatening whole quarters of ruins; strange small churches built of odds and ends and remnants not too heavy for a few workmen to move; broken-down aqueducts sticking up here and there in a city that had to drink the muddy water of the Tiber because not a single channel remained whole to feed a single fountain, from the distant springs that had once filled baths for sixty thousand people every day. And round about all, the waste Campagna, scratched here and there by fever-stricken peasants to yield the little grain that so few men could need. The villas gone, the trees burned or cut down, the terraces slipped away into the rivers, the tombs of the Appian Way broken and falling to pieces, or transformed into rude fortresses held by wild-looking men in rusty armour, who sallied out to fight each other or, at rare intervals, to rob some train of wretched merchants, riding horses as rough and wild as themselves. Law gone, and order gone with it; wealth departed, and self-respect forgotten in abject poverty; each man defending his little with his own hand against the many who coveted it; Rome a den of robbers and thieves; the Pope, when there was one,—there was none in the year of Rienzi's birth,—either defended by one baron against another, or forced to fly for his life. Men brawling in the streets, ill clad, savage, ready with sword and knife and club for any imaginable violence. Women safe from none but their own husbands and sons, and not always from them. Children wild and untaught, growing up to be fierce and unlettered like their fathers. And in the midst of such a city, Cola di Rienzi, with great heart and scanty learning, labouring to decipher the inscriptions that told of dead and ruined greatness, dreaming of a republic, of a tribune's power, of the humiliation of the Barons, of a resurrection for Italy and of her sudden return to the dominion of the world.

Rome, then, was like a field long fallow, of rich soil, but long unploughed. Scarcely below the surface lay the treasures of ages, undreamt of by the few descendants of those who had brought them thither. Above ground, overgrown with wild creepers and flowers, there still stood some such monuments of magnificence as we find it hard to recall by mere words, not yet voluntarily destroyed, but already falling to pieces under the slow destruction of grinding time, when violence had spared them. Robert Guiscard had burned the city in 1084, but he had not destroyed everything. The Emperors of the East had plundered Rome long before that, carrying off works of art without end to adorn their city of Constantinople. Builders had burned a thousand marble statues to lime for their cement, for the statues were ready to hand and easily broken up to be thrown into the kiln, so that it seemed a waste of time and tools to quarry out the blocks from the temples. The Barbarians of Genseric and the Jews of Trastevere had seized upon such of the four thousand bronze statues as the Emperors had left, and had melted many of them down for metal, often hiding them in strange places while waiting for an opportunity of heating the furnace. And some have been found, here and there, piled up in little vaults, most generally near the Tiber, by which it was always easy to ship the metal away. Already temples had been turned into churches, in a travesty only saved from the ridiculous by the high solemnity of the Christian faith. Other temples and buildings, here and there, had been partly stripped of columns and marble facings to make other churches even more nondescript than the first. Much of the old was still standing, but nothing of the old was whole. The Colosseum had not yet been turned into a quarry. The Septizonium of Septimius Severus, with its seven stories of columns and its lofty terrace, nearly half as high as the dome of Saint Peter's, though beginning to crumble, still crowned the south end of the Palatine; Minerva's temple was almost entire, and its huge architrave had not been taken to make the high altar of Saint Peter's; and the triumphal arch of Marcus Aurelius was standing in what was perhaps not yet called the Corso in those days, but the Via Lata—'Broad Street.'

The things that had not yet fallen, nor been torn down, were the more sadly grand by contrast with the chaos around them. There was also the difference between ruins then, and ruins now, which there is between a king just dead in his greatness, in whose features lingers the smile of a life so near that it seems ready to come back, and a dried mummy set up in a museum and carefully dusted for critics to study.

In even stronger and rougher contrast, in the wreck of all that had been, there was the fierce reality of the daily fight for life amid the seething elements of the new things that were yet to be; the preparation for another time of domination and splendour; the deadly wrestling of men who meant to outlive one another by sheer strength and grim power of killing; the dark ignorance, darkest just before the waking of new thought, and art, and learning; the universal cruelty of all living things to each other, that had grown out of the black past; and, with all this, the undying belief in Rome's greatness, in Rome's future, in Rome's latent power to rule the world again.

That was the beginning of the new story, for the old one was ended, the race of men who had lived it was gone, and their works were following them, to the universal dust. Out of the memories they left and the departed glory of the places wherein they had dwelt, the magic of the Middle Age was to weave another long romance, less grand but more stirring, less glorious but infinitely more human.

Perhaps it is not altogether beyond the bounds of reason to say that Rome was masculine from Romulus to the dark age, and that with the first dawn of the Renascence she began to be feminine. As in old days the Republic and the Empire fought for power and conquest and got both by force, endurance and hardness of character, so, in her second life, others fought for Rome, and courted her, and coveted her, and sometimes oppressed her and treated her cruelly, and sometimes cherished her and adorned her, and gave her all they had. In a way, too, the elder patriots reverenced their city as a father, and those of after-times loved her as a woman, with a tender and romantic love.

Be that as it may, for it matters little how we explain what we feel. And assuredly we all feel that what we call the 'charm,' the feminine charm, of Rome, proceeds first from that misty time between two greatnesses, when her humanity was driven back upon itself, and simple passions, good and evil, suddenly felt and violently expressed, made up the whole life of a people that had ceased to rule by force, and had not yet reached power by diplomacy.

It is fair, moreover, to dwell a little on that time, that we may not judge too hardly the men who came afterwards. If we have any virtues ourselves of which to boast, we owe them to a long growth of civilization, as a child owes its manners to its mother; the men of the Renascence had behind them chaos, the ruin of a slave-ridden, Hun-harried, worm-eaten Empire, in which law and order had gone down together, and the whole world seemed to the few good men who lived in it to be but one degree better than hell itself. Much may be forgiven them, and for what just things they did they should be honoured, for the hardship of having done right at all against such odds.




F. Marion Crawford