The Roman and the Teuton: The Dying Empire

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Editor’s note: This is the second of twelve lectures by Charles Kingsley, published as The Roman and the Teuton (1889).

Go Back to Lecture I: The Forest Children

It is not for me to trace the rise, or even the fall of the Roman Empire.  That would be the duty rather of a professor of ancient history, than of modern.  All I need do is to sketch, as shortly as I can, the state in which the young world found the old, when it came in contact with it.

The Roman Empire, toward the latter part of the fourth century, was in much the same condition as the Chinese or the Turkish Empire in our own days.  Private morality (as Juvenal and Persius will tell you), had vanished long before.  Public morality had, of course, vanished likewise.  The only powers really recognised were force and cunning.  The only aim was personal enjoyment.  The only God was the Divus Cæsar, the imperial demigod, whose illimitable brute force gave him illimitable powers of self-enjoyment, and made him thus the paragon and ideal of humanity, whom all envied, flattered, hated, and obeyed.  The palace was a sink of corruption, where eunuchs, concubines, spies, informers, freedmen, adventurers, struggled in the basest plots, each for his share of the public plunder.  The senate only existed to register the edicts of their tyrant, and if need be, destroy each other, or any one else, by judicial murders, the willing tools of imperial cruelty.  The government was administered (at least since the time of Diocletian) by an official bureaucracy, of which Professor Goldwin Smith well says, ‘the earth swarmed with the consuming hierarchy of extortion, so that it was said that they who received taxes were more than those who paid them.’  The free middle class had disappeared, or lingered in the cities, too proud to labour, fed on government bounty, and amused by government spectacles.  With them, arts and science had died likewise.  Such things were left to slaves, and became therefore, literally, servile imitations of the past.  What, indeed, was not left to slaves?  Drawn without respect of rank, as well as of sex and age, from every nation under heaven by an organized slave-trade, to which our late African one was but a tiny streamlet compared with a mighty river; a slave-trade which once bought 10,000 human beings in Delos in a single day; the ‘servorum nationes’ were the only tillers of the soil, of those ‘latifundia’ or great estates, ‘quæ perdidere Romam.’  Denied the rights of marriage, the very name of humanity; protected by no law, save the interest or caprice of their masters; subjected, for slight offences, to cruel torments, they were butchered by thousands in the amphitheatres to make a Roman holiday, or wore out their lives in ‘ergastula’ or barracks, which were dens of darkness and horror.  Their owners, as ‘senatores,’ ‘clarissimi,’ or at least ‘curiales,’ spent their lives in the cities, luxurious and effeminate, and left their slaves to the tender mercy of ‘villici,’ stewards and gang-drivers, who were themselves slaves likewise.

More pampered, yet more degraded, were the crowds of wretched beings, cut off from all the hopes of humanity, who ministered to the wicked pleasures of their masters, even in the palaces of nominally Christian emperors—but over that side of Roman slavery I must draw a veil, only saying, that the atrocities of the Romans toward their slaves—especially of this last and darkest kind—notably drew down on them the just wrath and revenge of those Teutonic nations, from which so many of their slaves were taken.

And yet they called themselves Christians—to whom it had been said, ‘Be not deceived, God is not mocked.  For these things cometh the wrath of God on the children of disobedience.’  And the wrath did come.

If such were the morals of the Empire, what was its political state?  One of complete disorganization.  The only uniting bond left seems to have been that of the bureaucracy, the community of tax-gatherers, who found it on the whole safer and more profitable to pay into the imperial treasury a portion of their plunder, than to keep it all themselves.  It stood by mere vi inertiæ, just because it happened to be there, and there was nothing else to put in its place.  Like an old tree whose every root is decayed, it did not fall, simply because the storm had not yet come.  Storms, indeed, had come; but they had been partial and local.  One cannot look into the pages of Gibbon, without seeing that the normal condition of the empire was one of revolt, civil war, invasion—Pretenders, like Carausius and Allectus in Britain, setting themselves up as emperors for awhile—Bands of brigands, like the Bagaudæ of Gaul, and the Circumcelliones of Africa, wandering about, desperate with hunger and revenge, to slay and pillage—Teutonic tribes making forays on the frontier, enlisted into the Roman armies, and bought off, or hired to keep back the tribes behind them, and perish by their brethren’s swords.

What kept the empire standing, paradoxical as it may seem, was its own innate weakness.  From within, at least, it could not be overthrown.  The masses were too crushed to rise.  Without unity, purpose, courage, they submitted to inevitable misery as to rain and thunder.  At most they destroyed their own children from poverty, or, as in Egypt, fled by thousands into the caves and quarries, and turned monks and hermits; while the upper classes, equally without unity or purpose, said each to himself, ‘Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die.’

The state of things at Rome, and after the rise of Byzantium under Constantine at Byzantium likewise, was one altogether fantastic, abnormal, utterly unlike anything that we have seen, or can imagine to ourselves without great effort.  I know no better method of illustrating it, than quoting, from Mr. Sheppard’s excellent book, The Fall of Rome and the Rise of New Nationalities, a passage in which he transfers the whole comi-tragedy from Italy of old to England in 1861.

I have not thought it necessary to give a separate and distinct reply to the theory of Mr. Congreve, that Roman Imperialism was the type of all good government, and a desirable precedent for ourselves.  Those who feel any penchant for the notion, I should strongly recommend to read the answer of Professor G. Smith, in the Oxford Essays for 1856, which is as complete and crushing as that gentleman’s performances usually are.  But in order to convey to the uninitiated some idea of the state of society under Cæsarian rule, and which a Cæsarian rule, so far as mere government is concerned, if it does not produce, has never shewn any tendency to prevent, let us give reins to imagination for a moment, and picture to ourselves a few social and political analogies in our own England of the nineteenth century.

‘An entire revolution has taken place in our principles, manners, and form of government.  Parliaments, meetings, and all the ordinary expressions of the national will, are no longer in existence.  A free press has shared their fate.  There is no accredited organ of public opinion; indeed there is no public opinion to record.  Lords and Commons have been swept away, though a number of the richest old gentlemen in London meet daily at Westminster to receive orders from Buckingham Palace.  But at the palace itself has broken out one of those sanguinary conspiracies which have of late become unceasing.  The last heir of the house of Brunswick is lying dead with a dagger in his heart, and everything is in frightful confusion.  The armed force of the capital are of course “masters of the situation,” and the Guards, after a tumultuous meeting at Windsor or Knightsbridge, have sold the throne to Baron Rothschild, for a handsome donation of £25 a-piece.  Lord Clyde, however, we may be sure, is not likely to stand this, and in a few months will be marching upon London at the head of the Indian Army.  In the mean time the Channel Fleet has declared for its own commander, has seized upon Plymouth and Portsmouth, and intends to starve the metropolis by stopping the imports of “bread-stuffs” at the mouth of the Thames.  And this has become quite possible; for half the population of London, under the present state of things, subsist upon free distributions of corn dispensed by the occupant of the throne for the time being.  But a more fatal change than even this has come over the population of the capital and of the whole country.  The free citizens and ’prentices of London; the sturdy labourers of Dorsetshire and the eastern counties; and the skilful artizans of Manchester, Sheffield and Birmingham; the mariners and shipwrights of Liverpool, have been long ago drafted into marching regiments, and have left their bones to bleach beneath Indian suns and Polar snows.  Their place has been supplied by countless herds of negro slaves, who till the fields and crowd the workshops of our towns, to the entire exclusion of free labour; for the free population, or rather the miserable relics of them, disdain all manual employment: they divide their time between starvation and a degrading debauchery, the means for which are sedulously provided by the government.  The time-honoured institutions of the bull-bait, the cockpit, and the ring, are in daily operation, under the most distinguished patronage.  Hyde Park has been converted into a gigantic arena, where criminals from Newgate “set-to” with the animals from the Zoological Gardens.  Every fortnight there is a Derby Day, and the whole population pour into the Downs with frantic excitement, leaving the city to the slaves.  And then the moral condition of this immense mass!  Of the doings about the palace we should be sorry to speak.  But the lady patronesses of Almack’s still more assiduously patronize the prize-fights, and one of them has been seen within the ropes, in battle array, by the side of Sayers himself.  No tongue may tell the orgies enacted, with the aid of French cooks, Italian singers, and foreign artists of all sorts, in the gilded saloons of Park Lane and Mayfair.  Suffice to say, that in them the worst passions of human nature have full swing, unmodified by any thought of human or divine restraints, and only dashed a little now and then by the apprehension that the slaves may rise, and make a clean sweep of the metropolis with fire and steel.  But n’importeVive la bagatelle!  Mario has just been appointed prime minister, and has made a chorus singer from the Opera Duke of Middlesex and Governor-General of India.  All wise men and all good men despair of the state, but they are not permitted to say anything, much less to act.  Mr. Disraeli lost his head a few days ago; Lords Palmerston and Derby lie in the Tower under sentence of death; Lord Brougham, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Mr. Gladstone, opened their veins and died in a warm bath last week.  Foreign relations will make a still greater demand on the reader’s imagination.  We must conceive of England no longer as

“A precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive of a house.”

but rather as open to the inroad of every foe whom her aggressive and colonizing genius has provoked.  The red man of the West, the Caffre, the Sikh, and the Sepoy, Chinese braves, and fierce orientals of all sorts, are hovering on her frontiers in “numbers numberless,” as the flakes of snow in the northern winter.  They are not the impotent enemy which we know, but vigorous races, supplied from inexhaustible founts of population, and animated by an insatiate appetite for the gold and silver, purple and fine linen, rich meats and intoxicating drinks of our effete civilization.  And we can no longer oppose them with those victorious legions which have fought and conquered in all regions of the world.  The men of Waterloo and Inkermann are no more.  We are compelled to recruit our armies from those very tribes before whose swords we are receding!

‘Doubtless the ordinary reader will believe this picture to be overcharged, drawn with manifest exaggeration, and somewhat questionable taste.  Every single statement which it contains may be paralleled by the circumstances and events of the decadence of the Roman Empire.  The analogous situation was with the subjects of this type of all good government, always a possible, often an actual, state of things.  We think this disposes of the theory of Mr. Congreve.  With it may advantageously be contrasted the opinion of a man of more statesman-like mind.  “The benefits of despotism are short-lived; it poisons the very springs which it lays open; if it display a merit, it is an exceptional one; if a virtue, it is created of circumstances; and when once this better hour has passed away, all the vices of its nature break forth with redoubled violence, and weigh down society in every direction.”  So writes M. Guizot.  Is it the language of prophecy as well as of personal experience?’

Mr. Sheppard should have added, to make the picture complete, that the Irish have just established popery across St. George’s Channel, by the aid of re-immigrants from America; that Free Kirk and National Kirk are carrying on a sanguinary civil war in Scotland; that the Devonshire Wesleyans have just sacked Exeter cathedral, and murdered the Bishop at the altar, while the Bishop of London, supported by the Jews and the rich churchmen (who are all mixed up in financial operations with Baron Rothschild) has just commanded all Dissenters to leave the metropolis within three days, under pain of death.

I must add yet one more feature to this fearful, but accurate picture, and say how, a few generations forward, an even uglier thing would be seen.  The English aristocracy would have been absorbed by foreign adventurers.  The grandchildren of these slaves and mercenaries would be holding the highest offices in the state and the army, naming themselves after the masters who had freed them, or disguising their barbarian names by English endings.  The De Fung-Chowvilles would be Dukes, the Little-grizzly-bear-Joe-Smiths Earls, and the Fitz-Stanleysons, descended from a king of the gipsies who enlisted to avoid transportation, and in due time became Commander-in-Chief, would rule at Knowsley in place of the Earl of Derby, having inherited the same by the summary process of assassination.  Beggars on horseback, only too literally; married, most of them, to Englishwomen of the highest rank; but looking on England merely as a prey; without patriotism, without principle; they would destroy the old aristocracy by legal murders, grind the people, fight against their yet barbarian cousins outside, as long as they were in luck: but the moment the luck turned against them, would call in those barbarian cousins to help them, and invade England every ten years with heathen hordes, armed no more with tulwar and matchlock, but with Enfield rifle and Whitworth cannon.  And that, it must be agreed, would be about the last phase of the British empire.  If you will look through the names which figure in the high places of the Roman empire, during the fourth and fifth centuries, you will see how few of them are really Roman.  If you will try to investigate, not their genealogies—for they have none—not a grandfather among them—but the few facts of their lives which have come down to us; you will see how that Nemesis had fallen on her which must at last fall on every nation which attempts to establish itself on slavery as a legal basis.  Rome had become the slave of her own slaves.

It is at this last period, the point when Rome has become the slave of her own slaves, that I take up the story of our Teutonic race.

I do not think that anyone will call either Mr. Sheppard’s statements, or mine, exaggerated, who knows the bitter complaints of the wickedness and folly of the time, which are to be found in the writings of the Emperor Julian.  Pedant and apostate as he was, he devoted his short life to one great idea, the restoration of the Roman Empire to what it had been (as he fancied) in the days of the virtuous stoic Emperors of the second century.  He found his dream a dream, owing to the dead heap of frivolity, sensuality, brutality, utter unbelief, not merely in the dead Pagan gods whom he vainly tried to restore, but in any god at all, as a living, ruling, judging, rewarding, punishing power.

No one, again, will call these statements exaggerated who knows the Roman history of his faithful servant and soldier, Ammianus Marcellinus, and especially the later books of it, in which he sets forth the state of the Empire after Julian’s death, under Jovian, Procopius, Valentinian, (who kept close to his bed-chamber two she-bears who used to eat men, one called Golden Camel, and the other Innocence—which latter, when she had devoured a sufficiency of his living victims, he set free in the forests as a reward for her services—a brutal tyrant, whose only virtue seems to have been his chastity); and Valens, the shameless extortioner who perished in that great battle of Adrianople, of which more hereafter.  The last five remaining books of the honest soldier’s story are a tissue of horrors, from reading which one turns away as from a slaughter-house or a witches’ sabbath.

No one, again, will think these statements exaggerated who knows Salvian’s De Gubernatione Dei.  It has been always and most justly held in high esteem, as one great authority of the state of Gaul when conquered by the Franks and Goths and Vandals.

Salvian was a Christian gentleman, born somewhere near Treves.  He married a Pagan lady of Cologne, converted her, had by her a daughter, and then persuaded her to devote herself to celibacy, while he did the like.  His father-in-law, Hypatius, quarrelled with him on this account; and the letter in which he tries to soothe the old man is still extant, a curious specimen of the style of cultivated men in that day.  Salvian then went down to the south of France and became a priest at Marseilles, and tutor to the sons of Eucherius, the Bishop of Lyons.  Eucherius, himself a good man, speaks in terms of passionate admiration of Salvian, his goodness, sanctity, learning, talents.  Gennadius (who describes him as still living when he wrote, about 490) calls him among other encomiums, the Master of Bishops; and both mention familiarly this very work, by which he became notorious in his own day, and which he wrote about 450 or 455, during the invasion of the Britons.  So that we may trust fully that we have hold of an authentic contemporaneous work, written by a good man and true.

Let me first say a few words on the fact of his having—as many good men did then—separated from his wife in order to lead what was called a religious life.  It has a direct bearing on the History of those days.  One must not praise him because he (in common with all Christians of his day) held, no doubt, the belief that marriage was a degradation in itself; that though the Church might mend it somewhat by exalting it into a sacrament, still, the less of a bad thing the better:—a doctrine against which one need not use (thank God) in England, the same language which Michelet has most justly used in France.  We, being safe from the poison, can afford to talk of it calmly.  But I boldly assert, that few more practically immoral doctrines than that of the dignity of celibacy and the defilement of marriage (which was the doctrine of all Christian devotees for 1000 years) have, as far as I know, ever been preached to man.  That is a strong statement.  It will be answered perhaps, by the patent fact, that during those very 1000 years the morality of Europe improved more, and more rapidly, than it had ever done before.  I know it; and I thank God for it.  But I adhere to my statement, and rejoin—And how much more rapidly have the morals of Europe improved, since that doctrine has been swept away; and woman, and the love of woman, have been restored to their rightful place in the education of man?

But if we do not praise Salvian, we must not blame him, or any one else who meant to be an honest and good man.  Such did not see to what their celibate notions would lead.  If they had, we must believe that they would have acted differently.  And what is more, their preference for celibacy was not fancy, but common sense of a very lofty kind.  Be sure that when two middle-aged Christian people consider it best to part, they have very good reasons for such a solemn step, at which only boys or cynics will laugh.  And the reasons, in Salvian’s case, and many more in his day, are patent to common human understanding.  Do not fancy that he had any private reason, such as we should very fairly assign now: public reasons, and those, such as God grant no living man may see, caused wise men to thank God that they were not burdened with wife and child.  Remember the years in which Salvian lived—from 416 perhaps to 490.  It was a day of the Lord such as Joel saw; ‘a day of clouds and of thick darkness, as the morning spread upon the mountains; a great people and strong; there had not been ever the like, neither should be any more after it: the land was a garden of Eden before them, and behind them a desolate wilderness: Yea, and nothing should escape them.’  All things were going to wrack; the country was overrun by foreign invaders; bankruptcy, devastation, massacre, and captivity were for perhaps 100 years the normal state of Gaul, and of most other countries besides.  I have little doubt that Salvian was a prudent man, when he thought fit to bring no more human beings into the world.  That is an ugly thought—I trust that you feel how ugly, unnatural, desperate a thought it is.  If you do not, think over it till you do, till it frightens you.  You will gain a great step thereby in human sympathy, and therefore in the understanding of history.  For many times, and in many places, men have said, rightly or wrongly, ‘It is better to leave none behind me like myself.  The miseries of life (and of what comes after this life) are greater than its joys.  I commit an act of cruelty by bringing a fresh human being into the world.’  I wish you to look at that thought steadily, and apply it for yourselves.  It has many applications: and has therefore been a very common one.

But put to yourselves—it is too painful for me to put to you—the case of a married gentleman who sees his country gradually devastated and brought to utter ruin by foreign invaders; and who feels—as poor Salvian felt, that there is no hope or escape; that the misery is merited, deserved, fairly earned (for that is the true meaning of those words), and therefore must come.  Conceive him seeing around him estates destroyed, farms burnt, ladies and gentlemen, his own friends and relations, reduced in an hour to beggary, plundered, stript, driven off in gangs—I do not choose to finish the picture: but ask yourselves, would an honourable man wish to bring sons—much more daughters—into the world to endure that?

Put yourselves in Salvian’s place.  Forget for a few minutes that you are Englishmen, the freest and bravest nation upon earth, strong in all that gives real strength, and with a volunteer army which is now formidable by numbers and courage—which, did the terrible call come, might be increased ten times in as many months.  Forget all that awhile; and put yourselves in Salvian’s place, the gentleman of Gaul, while Franks and Goths, Burgunds and Vandals were sweeping, wave after wave, over that lovely land; and judge him rationally, and talk as little as possible of his superstition, and as much as possible of his human feeling, prudence, self-control, and common sense.  Believe me, neither celibacy, nor any other seemingly unnatural superstition would have held its ground for a generation if there had not been some practical considerations of common sense to back them.  We wonder why men in old times went into monasteries.  The simplest answer is, common sense sent them thither.  They were tired of being the slaves of their own passions; they were tired of killing, and of running the chance of being killed.  They saw society, the whole world, going to wrack, as they thought, around them: what could they do better, than see that their own characters, morals, immortal souls did not go to wrack with the rest.  We wonder why women, especially women of rank, went into convents; why, as soon as a community of monks was founded, a community of nuns sprung up near them.  The simplest answer is, common sense sent them thither.  The men, especially of the upper fighting classes, were killed off rapidly; the women were not killed off, and a large number always remained, who, if they had wished to marry, could not.  What better for them than to seek in convents that peace which this world could not give?

They may have mixed up with that simple wish for peace the notion of being handmaids of God, brides of Christ, and so forth.  Be it so.  Let us instead of complaining, thank heaven that there was some motive, whether quite right or not, to keep alive in them self-respect, and the feeling that they were not altogether useless and aimless on earth.  Look at the question in this light, and you will understand two things; first, how horrible the times were, and secondly, why there grew up in the early middle age a passion for celibacy.

Salvian, in a word, had already grown up to manhood and reason, when he saw a time come to his native country, in which were fulfilled, with fearful exactness, the words of the prophet Isaiah:—

‘Behold, the Lord maketh the land empty, and maketh it waste, and turneth it upside down, and scattereth abroad the inhabitants thereof.  And it shall be, as with the people, so with the priest; as with the slave, so with his master; as with the maid, so with her mistress; as with the seller, so with the buyer; as with the lender, so with the borrower; as with the taker of usury, so with the giver of usury to him.  The land shall be utterly emptied, and utterly spoiled; for the Lord hath spoken this word.’

And Salvian desired to know the reason why the Lord had spoken that word, and read his Bible till he found out, and wrote thereon his book De Gubernatione Dei, of the government of God; and a very noble book it is.  He takes his stand on the ground of Scripture, with which he shews an admirable acquaintance.  The few good were expecting the end of the world.  Christ was coming to put an end to all these horrors: but why did he delay his coming?  The many weak were crying that God had given up the world; that Christ had deserted his Church, and delivered over Christians to the cruelties of heathen and Arian barbarians.  The many bad were openly blaspheming, throwing off in despair all faith, all bonds of religion, all common decency, and crying, Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die.  Salvian answers them like an old Hebrew prophet: ‘The Lord’s arm is not shortened.  The Lord’s eyes are not closed.  The Lord is still as near as ever.  He is governing the world as He has always governed it: by the everlasting moral laws, by which the wages of sin are death.  Your iniquities have withheld good things from you.  You have earned exactly what God has paid you.  Yourselves are your own punishment.  You have been wicked men, and therefore weak men; your own vices, and not the Goths, have been your true conquerors.’  As I said in my inaugural lecture—that is after all the true theory of history.  Men may forget it in piping times of peace.  God grant that in the dark hour of adversity, God may always raise up to them a prophet, like good old Salvian, to preach to them once again the everlasting judgments of God; and teach them that not faulty constitutions, faulty laws, faulty circumstances of any kind, but the faults of their own hearts and lives, are the causes of their misery.

M. Guizot, in his elaborate work on the History of Civilization in France, has a few curious pages, on the causes of the decline of civil society in Roman Gaul, and its consequent weakness and ruin.  He tells you how the Senators or Clarissimi did not constitute a true aristocracy, able to lead and protect the people, being at the mercy of the Emperor, and nominated and removed at his pleasure.  How the Curiales, or wealthy middle class, who were bound by law to fulfil all the municipal offices, and were responsible for the collection of the revenue, found their responsibilities so great, that they by every trick in their power, avoided office.  How, as M. Guizot well puts it, the central despotism of Rome stript the Curiales of all they earned, to pay its own functionaries and soldiers; and gave them the power of appointing magistrates, who were only after all the imperial agents of that despotism, for whose sake they robbed their fellow-citizens.  How the plebs, comprising the small tradesmen and free artizans, were utterly unable to assert their own opinions or rights.  How the slave population, though their condition was much improved, constituted a mere dead weight of helpless brutality.

And then he says, that the Roman Empire was dying.  Very true: but often as he quotes Salvian, he omits always to tell us what Roman society was dying of.  Salvian says, that it was dying of vice.  Not of bad laws and class arrangements, but of bad men.  M. Guizot belongs to a school which is apt to impute human happiness and prosperity too exclusively to the political constitution under which they may happen to live, irrespectively of the morality of the people themselves.  From that, the constitutionalist school, there has been of late a strong reaction, the highest exponent, nay the very coryphæus of which is Mr. Carlyle.  He undervalues, even despises, the influence of laws and constitutions: with him private virtue, from which springs public virtue, is the first and sole cause of national prosperity.  My inaugural lecture has told you how deeply I sympathize with his view—taking my stand, as Mr. Carlyle does, on the Hebrew prophets.

There is, nevertheless, a side of truth in the constitutionalist view, which Mr. Carlyle, I think, overlooks.  A bad political constitution does produce poverty and weakness: but only in as far as it tends to produce moral evil; to make men bad.  That it can help to do.  It can put a premium on vice, on falsehood, on peculation, on laziness, on ignorance; and thus tempt the mass to moral degradation, from the premier to the slave.  Russia has been, for two centuries now but too patent a proof of the truth of this assertion.  But even in this case, the moral element is the most important, and just the one which is overlooked.  To have good laws, M. Guizot is apt to forget, you must first have good men to make them; and second, you must have good men to carry them out, after they are made.  Bad men can abuse the best of laws, the best of constitutions.  Look at the working of our parliaments during the reigns of William III and Anne, and see how powerless good constitutions are, when the men who work them are false and venal.  Look, on the other hand, at the Roman Empire from the time of Vespasian to that of the Antonines, and see how well even a bad constitution will succeed, when good men are working it.

Bad laws, I say, will work tolerably under good men, if fitted to the existing circumstances by men of the world, as all Roman laws were.  If they had not been such, how was the Roman Empire, at least in its first years, a blessing to the safety, prosperity, and wealth of every country it enslaved?  But when defective Roman laws began to be worked by bad men, and that for 200 years, then indeed came times of evil.  Let us take, then, Salvian’s own account of the cause of Roman decay.  He, an eye-witness, imputes it all to the morals of Roman citizens.  They were, according to him, of the very worst.  To the general dissoluteness he attributes, in plain words, the success of the Frank and Gothic invaders.  And the facts which he gives, and which there is no reason to doubt, are quite enough to prove him in the right.  Every great man’s house, he says, was a sink of profligacy.  The women slaves were at the mercy of their master; and the slaves copied his morals among themselves.  It is an ugly picture: but common sense will tell us, if we but think a little, that such will, and must, be the case in slave-holding countries, wherever Christianity is not present in its purest and strongest form, to control the passions of arbitrary power.

But there was not merely profligacy among these Gauls.  That alone would not have wrought their immediate ruin.  Morals were bad enough in old Greece and Rome; as they were afterwards among the Turks: nevertheless as long as a race is strong; as long as there is prudence, energy, deep national feeling, outraged virtue does not avenge itself at once by general ruin.  But it avenges itself at last, as Salvian shews—as all experience shews.  As in individuals so in nations, unbridled indulgence of the passions must produce, and does produce, frivolity, effeminacy, slavery to the appetite of the moment, a brutalized and reckless temper, before which, prudence, energy, national feeling, any and every feeling which is not centered in self, perishes utterly.  The old French noblesse gave a proof of this law, which will last as a warning beacon to the end of time.  The Spanish population of America, I am told, gives now a fearful proof of this same terrible penalty.  Has not Italy proved it likewise, for centuries past?  It must be so, gentlemen.  For national life is grounded on, is the development of, the life of the family.  And where the root is corrupt, the tree must be corrupt likewise.  It must be so.  For Asmodeus does not walk alone.  In his train follow impatience and disappointment, suspicion and jealousy, rage and cruelty, and all the passions which set man’s hand against his fellow-man.  It must be so.  For profligacy is selfishness; and the family, and the society, the nation, exists only by casting away selfishness and by obeying law:—not only the outward law, which says in the name of God, ‘Thou shalt not,’ but the inward law, the Law of Christ, which says, ‘Thou must;’ the law of self-sacrifice, which selfish lust tramples under foot, till there is no more cohesion left between man and man, no more trust, no more fellow-help, than between the stags who fight for the hinds; and God help the nation which has brought itself to that!

No wonder, therefore, if Salvian’s accounts of Gaulish profligacy be true, that Gaulish recklessness reached at last a pitch all but incredible.  It is credible, however shocking, that as he says, he himself saw, both at Treves, and another great city (probably Cologne, Colonia Agrippina, or ‘The Colony’ par excellence) while the destruction of the state was imminent, ‘old men of rank, decrepit Christians, slaves to gluttony and lust, rabid with clamour, furious with bacchanalian orgies.’  It is credible, however shocking, that all through Gaul the captivity was ‘foreseen, yet never dreaded.’  And ‘so when the barbarians had encamped almost in sight, there was no terror among the people, no care of the cities.  All was possest by carelessness and sloth, gluttony, drunkenness, sleep, according to that which the prophet saith: A sleep from the Lord had come over them.’  It is credible, however shocking, that though Treves was four times taken by the barbarians, it remained just as reckless as ever; and that—I quote Salvian still—when the population was half destroyed by fire and sword, the poor dying of famine, corpses of men and women lying about the streets breeding pestilence, while the dogs devoured them, the few nobles who were left comforted themselves by sending to the Emperor to beg for Circensian games.

Those Circensian games, and indeed all the public spectacles, are fresh proofs of what I said just now; that if a bad people earn bad government, still a bad government makes a bad people.

They were the most extraordinary instance which the world ever saw, of a government setting to work at a vast expense to debauch its subjects.  Whether the Roman rulers set that purpose consciously before them, one dare not affirm.  Their notion probably was (for they were as worldly wise as they were unprincipled) that the more frivolous and sensual the people were, the more quietly they would submit to slavery; and the best way to keep them frivolous and sensual, the Romans knew full well; so well, that after the Empire became Christian, and many heathen matters were done away with, they did not find it safe to do away with the public spectacles.  The temples of the Gods might go: but not the pantomimes.

In one respect, indeed, these government spectacles became worse, not better, under Christianity.  They were less cruel, no doubt: but also they were less beautiful.  The old custom of exhibiting representations of the old Greek myths, which had something of grace and poetry about them, and would carry back the spectators’ thoughts to the nobler and purer heroic ages, disappeared before Christianity; but the old vice did not.  That was left; and no longer ennobled by the old heroic myths round which it had clustered itself, was simply of the silliest and most vulgar kind.  We know in detail the abominations, as shameless and ridiculous, which went on a century after Salvian, in the theatres of Constantinople, under the eyes of the most Christian Emperor Justinian, and which won for that most infamous woman, Theodora, a share in his imperial crown, and the right to dictate doctrine to the Christian Bishops of the East, and to condemn the soul of Origen to everlasting damnation, for having exprest hopes of the final pardon of sinners.  We can well believe, therefore, Salvian’s complaints of the wickedness of those pantomimes of which he says, that ‘honeste non possunt vel accusari;’ he cannot even accuse them without saying what he is ashamed to say; I believe also his assertion, that they would not let people be modest, even if they wished; that they inflamed the passions, and debauched the imaginations of young and old, man and woman, and—but I am not here to argue that sin is sin, or that the population of London would be the worse if the most shameless persons among them were put by the Government in possession of Drury Lane and Covent Garden; and that, and nothing less than that, did the Roman pantomimes mean, from the days of Juvenal till those of the most holy and orthodox Empress Theodora.

‘Who, knowing the judgment of God, that they who do such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them.’

Now in contrast to all these abominations, old Salvian sets, boldly and honestly, the superior morality of the barbarians.  That, he says, is the cause of their strength and our weakness.  We, professing orthodoxy, are profligate hypocrites.  They, half heathens, half Arians, are honester men, purer men than we.  There is no use, he says, in despising the Goths as heretics, while they are better men than we.  They are better Christians than the Romans, because they are better men.  They pray to God for success, and trust in him, and we presumptuously trust in ourselves.  We swear by Christ: but what do we do but blaspheme him, when we swear ‘Per Christum tollo eum,’ ‘I will make away with him,’ ‘Per Christum hunc jugulo,’ ‘I will cut his throat,’ and then believe ourselves bound to commit the murder which we have vowed?…. ‘The Saxons,’ he says, ‘are fierce, the Franks faithless, the Gepidæ inhuman, the Huns shameless.  But is the Frank’s perfidy as blameable as ours?  Is the Alman’s drunkenness, or the Alan’s rapacity, as damnable as a Christian’s?  If a Hun or a Gepid deceives you, what wonder?  He is utterly ignorant that there is any sin in falsehood.  But what of the Christian who does the same?  The Barbarians,’ he says, ‘are better men than the Christians.  The Goths,’ he says, ‘are perfidious, but chaste.  The Alans unchaste, but less perfidious.  The Franks are liars, but hospitable; the Saxons ferociously cruel, but venerable for their chastity.  The Visigoths who conquered Spain,’ he says, ‘were the most “ignavi” (heavy, I presume he means, and loutish) of all the barbarians: but they were chaste, and therefore they conquered.’

In Africa, if we are to believe Salvian, things stood even worse, at the time of the invasion of the Vandals.  In his violent invectives against the Africans, however, allowance must be made.  Salvian was a great lover of monks; and the Africans used, he says, to detest them, and mob them wherever they appeared; for which offence, of course, he can find no words too strong.  St. Augustine, however, himself a countryman of theirs, who died, happily, just before the storm burst on that hapless land, speaks bitterly of their exceeding profligacy—of which he himself in his wild youth, had had but too sad experience.  Salvian’s assertion is, that the Africans were the most profligate of all the Romans; and that while each barbarian tribe had (as we have just seen) some good in them, the Africans had none.

But there were noble souls left among them, lights which shone all the more brightly in the surrounding darkness.  In the pages of Victor Vitensis, which tell the sad story of the persecution of the African Catholics by the Arian Vandals, you will find many a moving tale which shews that God had his own, even among those degraded Carthaginians.

The causes of the Arian hatred to the Catholics is very obscure.  You will find all that is known in Dean Milman’s History of Latin Christianity.  A simple explanation may be found in the fact that the Catholics considered the Arians, and did not conceal their opinion, as all literally and actually doomed to the torments of everlasting fire; and that, as Gibbon puts it, ‘The heroes of the north, who had submitted with some reluctance, to believe that all their ancestors were in hell, were astonished and exasperated to learn, that they themselves had only changed the mode of their eternal condemnation.’  The Teutons were (Salvian himself confesses it) trying to serve God devoutly, in chastity, sobriety, and honesty, according to their light.  And they were told by the profligates of Africa, that this and no less, was their doom.  It is not to be wondered at, again, if they mistook the Catholic creed for the cause of Catholic immorality.  That may account for the Vandal custom of re-baptizing the Catholics.  It certainly accounts for the fact (if after all it be a fact) which Victor states, that they tortured the nuns to extort from them shameful confessions against the priests.  But the history of the African persecution is the history of all persecutions, as confest again and again by the old fathers, as proved by the analogies of later times.  The sins of the Church draw down punishment, by making her enemies confound her doctrine and her practice.  But in return, the punishment of the Church purifies her, and brings out her nobleness afresh, as the snake casts his skin in pain, and comes out young and fair once more; and in every dark hour of the Church, there flashes out some bright form of human heroism, to be a beacon and a comfort to all future time.  Victor, for instance, tells the story of Dionysia, the beautiful widow whom the Vandals tried to torture into denying the Divinity of our Lord.—How when they saw that she was bolder and fairer than all the other matrons, they seized her, and went to strip her: and she cried to them, ‘Qualiter libet occidite: verecunda tamen membra nolite nudare,’ but in vain.  They hung her up by the hands, and scourged her till streams of blood ran down every limb.  Her only son, a delicate boy, stood by trembling, knowing that his turn would come next; and she saw it, and called to him in the midst of her shame and agony.  ‘He had been baptized into the name of the Blessed Trinity; let him die in that name, and not lose the wedding-garment.  Let him fear the pain that never ends, and cling to the life that endures for ever.’  The boy took heart, and when his turn came, died under the torture; and Dionysia took up the little corpse, and buried it in her own house; and worshipped upon her boy’s grave to her dying day.

Yes.  God had his own left, even among those fallen Africans of Carthage.

But neither there, nor in Spain, could the Vandals cure the evil.  ‘Now-a-days,’ says Salvian, ‘there are no profligates among the Goths, save Romans; none among the Vandals, save Romans.  Blush, Roman people, everywhere, blush for your morals.  There is hardly a city free from dens of sin, and none at all from impurity, save those which the barbarians have begun to occupy.  And do we wonder if we are surpassed in power, by an enemy who surpasses us in decency?  It is not the natural strength of their bodies which makes them conquer us.  We have been conquered only by the vices of our own morals.’

Yes.  Salvian was right.  Those last words were no mere outburst of national vanity, content to confess every sin, save that of being cowards.  He was right.  It was not the mere muscle of the Teuton which enabled him to crush the decrepit and debauched slave-nations, Gaul and Briton, Iberian and African, as the ox crushes the frogs of the marsh.  The ‘sera juvenum Venus, ideoque inexhausta pubertas,’ had given him more than his lofty stature, and his mighty limbs.  Had he had nought but them, he might have remained to the end a blind Samson, grinding among the slaves in Cæsar’s mill, butchered to make a Roman holiday.  But it had given him more, that purity of his; it had given him, as it may give you, gentlemen, a calm and steady brain, and a free and loyal heart; the energy which springs from health; the self-respect which comes from self-restraint; and the spirit which shrinks from neither God nor man, and feels it light to die for wife and child, for people, and for Queen.

Continue to Lecture III: The Human Deluge

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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