“A Society Without Morality and Without a God” (Part 1)

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Editor’s note: The following article by Prof. Goldwin Smith — a response to Richard Congreve’s four-lecture series, “The Roman Empire of the West” — is extracted from Oxford Essays (published 1856).

It has recently occurred to an advanced and slightly terrorist school of philanthropists that under free institutions it is necessary occasionally to defer to the opinions of other people, and that as other people are obviously in the wrong, this is a great hindrance to the improvement of our political system and the progress of the species. They therefore propose, for the checks and responsibilities of a constitutional system, to substitute an autocracy with no checks except those which may be imposed on the autocrat by his own sense of the eternal fitness of things, and no responsibility, except to the judgment of professors of the political science, for the safety of whose heads, when the adverse verdict of science shall have been pronounced, no adequate provision has yet been made. To secure the ascendancy of reason in politics, the autocrat is to be elected through a process not yet determined on, by the uneducated part of the nation; and to purify government from class influences and antipathies, and inaugurate the fraternity of men, he is to represent the interests and feelings of the lower classes against the upper. In our time and country probably the fulfilment of this theory would have raised Mr. Feargus O’Connor to the throne, or rather to the altar; and the first measure of that eminent leader of the proletariat would most likely have been to create a few dozen dukes; his second, to take off the heads of writers of Roman history and editors of Greek classics, as obviously useless to a proletariat republic founded on the organization of labour. This bright hope of a demagogic tyranny for the future, with which Mr. Congreve feels a cultivated sympathy, has not failed to throw back its light upon the past, and in the clear and interesting resumé of the history of the Empire before us, it gilds the cruelties of Caligula, the extortions of Caracalla, and even the brow of Tiberius.

Hitherto we have believed that the Republic was the youth and manhood of Rome, the Empire its decline; Mr. Congreve has arrived at the opposite conclusion. With him the Empire is the manhood, the Republic is the infancy and youth; and the history of the latter is to be studied only as preparatory to the organization of the former. The question naturally arises, — If the Empire was full of that moral, intellectual, and physical vigour which the analogy of manhood implies, how it came ever to decay? Why did not everything continually grow better, stronger, more capable of resisting destructive forces both internal and external, under the ‘type of all good government,’ as Mr . Congreve gallantly styles it? Why did not intellect become invigorated, patriotism and public spirit increase, the bonds of society strengthen, and the whole system become consolidated day by day? Mr. Congreve says that Gibbon makes the decline begin from Commodus. Gibbon, however, points to causes of decline anterior to Commodus; though his peculiar temperament, and his peculiar views of religion and morality, did not suffer him to appreciate the deepest causes of national decline, or to see the seeds of corruption in a system under which, when administered by a mild emperor, an intellectual voluptuary would have been perfectly at his ease. But we must again ask — Why did decline begin, even with Commodus? Commodus was not worse in himself than Nero or Domitian; and he had been immediately preceded by the best and ablest emperors in the whole series. Mr. Congreve, we presume, will hardly fall back on the false analogy between states and individuals, and argue that nations full of political ability and virtue, and ruled by the type of all government on the principles of reason and justice, must yet, like men, inevitably decay.

Mr. Congreve represents, and is not alone in representing, Cæsar as a man with a grand ideal of popular and cosmopolitan monarchy, which he deliberately set himself to work out by a policy which was not less beneficial because it furthered his own supremacy. Cæsar is being gradually surrounded with a strange halo of fictitious splendour by the adorers of his fortune and his sword. One writer represents the religious scepticism which he shared with all the voluptuaries and political adventurers of his day, as the result of an exhaustion by his great mind of the whole of philosophy, terminating in a grand despair. Another would have us believe that his avowed readiness to sacrifice political honesty to the attainment of absolute power was a philosophic preference of the higher moral object to the lower. Really these gentlemen would have prospered under the type of all government. Cæsar was a demagogue, it is true, but a hypocritical demagogue; he used the political lazzaroni of the Roman power most unscrupulously for every purpose of faction and sedition; but it would be very simple to think that he ever intended to hand over the prize into their hands. He had no sooner grasped supreme power than he faced about upon the revolution, formed his government with the aid of the senatorial chiefs, put down the popular guilds which he had compelled the senate to restore, turned the popular element out of the courts of justice, and disfranchised nearly half the rabble whom he had led, to save his exchequer the largesses of corn. The first triumvirate completely dispels the notion that he was the sincere advocate of any popular principle, whether derived from Marius or from any purer or nobler source. Some of his political associates, such as Catiline and his crew, were desperate and ruined members of the nobility, who had been partizans of Sylla; while some of his chief admirers, such as Cato, Brutus, and Cicero, were enemies to Sylla’s name and acts. His political friends were men whom we cannot, with the utmost exertion of historical charity, believe to have been actuated by any aims grander than those of ordinary political pirates; although to the enthusiastic vision of a German historiographer, they may appear to have been the apostles of a new era of things, whom the opposite party ought immediately to have recognised and adored. They were bound to their leader by the simple tie of pecuniary corruption. That leader himself was pledged in an immense sum of debt to achieve the regeneration of his country and the liberties of the human race. He was not borne into power, as Mr. Congreve says in one passage, by the people, but, as he more correctly says in another passage, by the army of Gaul, which had been equipped for him by the senate, with that magnanimity which it always showed in supporting its political adversaries when in the field for the Republic, and which he systematically converted into a body of debauched and licentious, though brave and highly-disciplined prætorians, by a process the reverse of that which Cromwell employed to train his Ironsides as the servants of a great cause. The prætorians, however, we observe, are fast being absorbed into the general theory, and becoming political missionaries — the organs and supports of a beneficent revolution. Their sale of the empire to Didius Julianus, will probably some day appear in a new light, as an effort to invest commercial transactions with a dignity which they had not previously attained.

What were the actual measures of Cæsar when he had obtained supreme power and had carte blanche for the regeneration of the universe? He very properly introduced a strict system of criminal law among his old fellow-rioters, and, as we have said, docked their largesses and put down their clubs. He reformed the Calendar, — a useful work, which the despot ordered and the astronomers performed. He projected a codification of the law, which Cicero seems to have projected also, — just as the Convention left the Code Napoleon in their bureau. He planned several great public works, which requires no great effort of genius on the part of any one who has an unlimited command of public money. He showed a liberal taste by opening a public library, — a munificence which Lucullus had anticipated, and perhaps exceeded, by opening to the public his own. He formed a scheme for restoring Carthage and Corinth by transporting inhabitants to them, which would perhaps have been more gratifying to the historical sentimentalist than advantageous to the persons transported. He remitted a portion of all debts, wisely, perhaps, but without much more effort or expense than it cost a mediæval king to remit, for the sake of God, the debts which his subjects owed the Jews. His attempts to revive and enforce the censorship of morals and the sumptuary laws were in the narrowest and most pedantic spirit of Roman antiquity; though Herculean efforts are made to show that they were more rational when made by the lover of Cleopatra than they would have been if made by Cato. The measures which he took for the purpose of recruiting and stimulating Roman population, admitted on all hands to have been futile in themselves, clearly indicate a design of repairing and strengthening, not of merging the dominant race of which their author had become the chief. His extension of the freedom of the city to his own province of Gaul, and to his favourite legion, Alauda, and his introduction of a number of his own Gallic officers into the senate, were clearly measures of personal policy, like Sylla’s enfranchisement of his political army of Cornelii; and the bestowal of a privilege on a particular province, so far from implying that all privileges were to be abolished, implied distinctly that they were to be retained. The gift of citizenship to all men of science was a more generous measure, but even this is stated by Suetonius (who was not at all in the secret of the cosmopolitan dictatorship) to have had for its object the increase of population in the city. But what do the Neo-Cæsareans say to the creation of a new batch of patrician houses? How do they find a place for this in the democratic theory? We could furnish them, if they will, with a very ready, though commonplace explanation, and even with an historical analogy, if they please, in the aristocracy recently created by his democratic majesty, King Suluk. But do these measures, all taken together, amount to, or indicate any real attempt to deal with the great evils of the Roman world? They display, no doubt, a genius for government and national organization, acting in the plenitude of that despotic power which enables even mean capacities to become, in the eyes of the educated vulgar, the master-spirits of their age. But can they soberly be said to display conceptions at all beyond the reach of any able Roman of that age? Can they be said to display conceptions equal in liberality to those which are found in the political philosophy of Cicero?

Modern Cæsarean writers make a great flourish of trumpets, and place the reform of the Calendar in as favourable and striking a light as they can; but they are obliged, after all, to own that the reform of the Calendar is not the regeneration of the world; and therefore they find it necessary to assume that the recorded measures of the Dictator were only parts and germs of a greater scheme, which he was prevented from executing by his death. But this assumption seems to us (with deference be it said) to be merely the play of a religious fancy, anxious to save the reputation of its idol. Cæsar, when he was slain, was not meditating further constitutional reforms; he was about to set out, and had sent on the legions, for a Parthian war. None of his successors ever referred to his divine counsels. No principle was proclaimed, no standard but that of vengeance was raised by his party after his death. His friend Matius, in defending his memory, in a long letter to Cicero, says nothing about any magnificent schemes for Rome or the world which had been cut short by his death. We are fervently enjoined by Mr. Congreve to study ‘every recorded word’ of the ‘master of Roman policy,’ and the study might lead us to some information respecting his views of political improvement which the ancients did not possess. But we really know no recorded words of Cæsar’s relating to Roman policy, unless it be his favourite Greek apothegm, that if you mean to play the rogue, you had better play the rogue for absolute power.

Cæsar, indeed, though a great soldier, and very successful, and therefore entitled to unlimited admiration, does not seem to us to have been the sort of man who was likely to find a remedy for the great evils of the world at that time. The great evils of the world at that time were atheism, immorality, conquest, and slavery, the consequence of conquest. Cæsar was a sensualist, an Epicurean, and an atheist. It is vain to represent his atheism as anything but atheism, especially as it was accompanied in him, as in Tiberius and Caligula, by a very grovelling superstition. So far from being competent to infuse a new principle of moral life into the mass of corruption, he was scarcely competent to perceive the use of any moral principle, except in an oratorical point of view. As to conquest, he was the incarnation of its most ruthless and unscrupulous spirit. No member of the senatorial party could more entirely regard the world as the ‘legitimate prey’ of Rome. He goaded the peaceful Lusitanians to war, merely to enrich himself and his soldiers by their plunder. He records with naked grandeur the slaughter of half a million of Gauls. Suetonius says that he stormed towns merely for the sake of booty. His invasion of these kingdoms was as unprovoked as the late aggression of the Pope. He kept Vercingetorix in store for several years, and then butchered him to grace his triumph, — the same triumph at which he outraged the magnanimity, if not the chivalry of Rome, by insulting the misfortunes of a woman and a queen in the person of Arsinoe. He wanted to annex Egypt, for the purpose of pillaging it. He procured, through Claudius, the infamous decree for the dethronement of Ptolemæus, King of Cyprus, and the confiscation of his treasures, with the double object of gorging the people and furthering an intrigue (singular in a man who is represented as so remarkably free from intrigue) against the honour of Cato. Nor does he seem to have been a great philanthropist even towards the provinces, since by him or through him, and to reward attachment to his interests, Gabinius, Piso, and Sallust were furnished with spheres of plunder and oppression. But everything is pardonable, and not only pardonable but enlightened and beneficent, in a man with an idea. The senate ought to have stopped in its career of conquest at Numantia: Cæsar was quite right to carry the arms of the Republic into Gaul; and we have no doubt he would have been quite in the right if he had conquered Parthia also, though it seems a sound diplomacy required his successors to let it alone. He has been termed by M. Michelet ‘the man of humanity;’ but as he was what we have described, and, moreover, an enormous butcher of gladiators, the epithet must apply rather to the laxity of his morals than to his extraordinary regard for the rights and feelings of his species.

We are a little jealous of the apotheosis of Cæsar, because it is an inconvenient and embarrassing principle, that a man who has, or fancies he has, a political idea, may identify that idea with his own supremacy, — get together a set of desperadoes, — use without scruple every instrument of intrigue, faction, and corruption, — debauch the armies of the state, levy civil war in his own interest, — and then, perhaps, die with the idea still undeveloped in his head, and leave the world, in which he has extinguished every principle of government and order but himself, it may be to anarchy, it may be to Neros and Caligulas. We claim a right to look into the antecedents of saviours of society, who identify the salvation of society with their own attainment of absolute power. And we must insist on crediting Cæsar, not with the great and beneficent measures which, if he ever conceived them, he did not carry into effect, but with the tyrants to whom he bequeathed the dominion of the world.

Mr. Congreve lectures, as it were from the pulpit of destiny, the republicans who refused to accept the judgment of events, and speaks of them as convicted of folly by their impotence after the death of Cæsar. But after the death of Cæsar they were for some time masters of the government and the army; Cæsar’s best officers served under them, and his legions formed the greater part of the forces of Brutus and Cassius. If Antony had died with Cæsar, — if Hirtius and Pansa had not fallen at the crisis of events, — if the success of their fleet had been made known in time to Brutus and Cassius, — if the centurion of Cassius had not lingered at Philippi, Destiny would scarcely have vindicated her hierophants. We must remember that the restoration of the Republic was thought practicable, not only by Brutus and Cassius, but by Germanicus. The assassination of Cæsar produced at least one good effect, — the beginnings of Despotism are always popular and moderate; and Rome enjoyed the beginnings. Modern Cæsareans may be consoled by the reflection, that though the man died, he must soon have died in the course of nature; and that the institution revived and lived. They do their theory injustice by making so much depend on a single man. It is a question, not between the Republic and Julius, but between the Republic and all the Cæsars.

Mr. Congreve is inclined to say that, though Augustus was Cæsar’s heir and pupil, his policy was less liberal than that of Cæsar. He is certainly concerned to maintain this view, though we do not know how he is authorized to do so. The policy of Augustus was an attempt to restore old Rome, and his government was as thorough a government of the upper classes as the world ever saw. He tried to patch up the respectability of the senate, and to purify it by a high pecuniary gratification. He endeavoured to restore ancient manners, himself a libertine, with a libertine for his minister, and a libertine poet to celebrate and popularize his reforms. So far from having any plans for the enfranchisement of the world, he was very sparing in bestowing the freedom of the city, and by his will enjoined the government to pursue this policy, expressly in order that the distinction might be preserved between the dominant and the subject races. He also forbade the enfranchisement of slaves; though he paid a graceful tribute to humanity by mildly rebuking the voluptuous friend who was in the habit of throwing his slaves to feed his lampreys. If this was the policy of the second founder of the Empire, is it possible to believe that, either in the mind of its first founder, or in any other mind but those of recent theorists, it was a vast scheme for reversing the wrongs of senatorial conquest, and establishing, on a basis of liberality unprecedented then, and unapproached since, the rights and relations of mankind. At what period after Augustus did this ideal come into being? Or did it lurk in the mind of Augustus himself, and was he so severely practical as to treat the realization of his own ideal as a dangerous abuse?

Mr. Congreve, who in one part of his book treats the empire as a positive blessing, and the model of all good government, even at the present day, elsewhere treats it, less alarmingly, as a blessing relatively to the then state of the Roman world. Tacitus tells us, what we should naturally suppose, that the change from the government of the senate to the government of the emperors was accepted with satisfaction by the provinces. Nor could we much deplore the extinction, in the interest of the conquered world, of the narrow liberties of a conquering nation, though we must not forget what the narrow liberties of Greece and Rome did for the political, and still more for the intellectual progress of mankind. But there seems much reason to doubt whether the hopes of the provincials were fulfilled, and whether that government which had a Nero or a Tigellinus for its centre, really diffused through its circumference prosperity and justice. Count Franz de Champagny, in his admirable work on The Cæsars down to Nero (which we cordially recommend to the perusal of imperialists), has collected a large number of facts tending to a contrary conclusion, and we will venture to say that his statements will, on verification, prove correct. His profound knowledge of the subject leads him to affirm that the Roman tyrants disliked the provinces, and that if they governed in anybody’s interest, it was in the interest of the mob of Rome. Mr. Congreve suggests that the cruelties of Caligula to the Romans had a deep meaning, and was the exaggeration of that side of the imperial policy which marked out the emperors as the representatives of the whole empire, as distinct from the exclusively Roman element, — a side of the imperial policy, we may observe, which would have seemed rather strange to the Roman people, whose tribunes Mr. Congreve supposes the emperors to have been, and who, according to him, bore the founder of the Empire to his demagogic throne. But, unluckily, Dion Cassius has narrated the atrocities personally committed by Caligula in Gaul. Mr. Congreve also thinks that the words of St. Paul, which have hitherto been taken as a general precept of submission to constitutional government, were really a special tribute of approbation to the blessings of the imperial government, even under a Nero. St. Paul belonged to a country where the name of an imperial collector of the revenue was a by-word, and where imperial soldiers increased their wages by extortion. He was one of a sect founded by a just man, of whose blood an imperial procurator (not a proconsul) had washed his hands before he delivered him over to be crucified. He had himself been scourged, stoned, and imprisoned, without law. He came to Rome, because he would not bribe imperial judges, to die for no crime but that of teaching and practising a pure religion. His nation was a singular instance of what Mr. Congreve represents as the gentle and harmonizing influences of the imperial system. Having, alone of all the nations in the worīd, a real religion, and refusing to be absorbed into the general worship of the Llama of a sensualist despotism, they were systematically outraged, and at last exterminated. The Jews mourned beside the ashes of Cæsar; but from those ashes sprang Titus. Under the able reign of Diocletian, the earth swarmed with the consuming hierarchy of extortion, so that it was said that they who received taxes were more in number than they who paid them; and, from the general misery, infanticide was common. Gibbon says that from that period it would be easy to deduce an unbroken series of complaints. Caracalla, driven by the furies of his brother, made a regular tour of rapine and massacre through the principal provinces of the empire. Before a barbarian had set foot in Italy, a large district of Campania was lying uncultivated, and therefore exempted from taxation. A good emperor would no doubt treat the provinces well, as his property; but a bad emperor had no public opinion to check his misgovernment; for in those days, at all events, there was no controlling hierarchy of political science to announce, with the voice of an oracle, that pillage and murder were not in accordance with the laws of nature as observed by positive philosophy. Augustus himself, visiting the Cæsarean province of Gaul, clearly convicted its Gallic and Cæsarean governor, Licinius, on the complaint of the natives, of extortionate and oppressive practices, nearly resembling those of Verres. But, instead of punishing him, and being a terror, as Mr. Congreve says the emperors were, to evil works, he lightly dismissed the complainants, and hushed up the whole affair, in order, Dion Cassius expressly says, to avoid scandal to the government, — accepting the sinister excuse that the money had been extorted for the benefit of Rome and of the Emperor. In the evil days of Verres the Gauls would at least have found a Cicero.

The Roman senate, however they may be abused as having looked on the world merely as a prey, were widely and honourably distinguished from all other conquerors of the ancient world by their system of graduated privileges and progressive incorporation; and it would be difficult to prove that the Empire was animated by any more liberal idea. The policy of Augustus, in this respect, was, as we have seen, scandalously retrograde. Claudius admitted some natives of Gaul, his own native province, to a senate which was then no longer an assembly of kings, but a puppet assembly of sycophants and slaves; and the speech which Tacitus puts into his mouth on this occasion is liberal, though we may well doubt whether it is really the speech of the imperial dotard or of the friend of Trajan. But, be that as it may, the precedents quoted by Claudius to justify his liberality, are taken from the practice of the Republic. When the name of Roman citizen became worthless, and implied no immunity from taxation, imprisonment, death, or even torture, at the will of a despot, it was forced on the whole world by what Mr. Congreve rather mildly describes as the fiscal considerations of Caracalla. Without the intervention of any fixed policy of enfranchisement, the Roman military population became exhausted; and the provinces gave soldiers, generals, emperors to Rome.

(Continue to Part 2)

Raised in a home filled with books on Western civilization, P.G. Mantel became a lover of history at an early age. An amateur writer of verse, he makes himself useful as an editor for Men of the West.

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