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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Eternity of Rome

By William Torrey Harris (1835–1909)

[The Andover Review. 1886.]

AFTER the process of assimilating Roman law had been completed new centres arose outside of Rome and the unity of the Roman Empire was broken This process is usually called the “decline and fall” of Rome. But instead of a retrogressive metamorphosis it is rather a progressive one,—a moving forward of the empire into a system of empires, a multiplication of the eternal city into a system of cities, all of which were copies of Rome in municipal organization. For the new retained what was essential in the old. London and Paris, Cologne and Vienna, Naples and Alexandria,—these and a hundred other cities were indestructible centres of Roman laws and usages. When an inundation of barbarism moved out of the Teutonic woods and swept over Western or Southern Europe, the cities were left standing out above the floods like islands. The conquerors were prevailed upon by means of heavy ransoms to spare the cities, and even to confirm their municipal self-government by charters. A city with a Roman organization was a complete personality, and could deliberate and act, petition and bargain, with the utmost facility. A city is a giant individuality which can in one way or another defend itself against a conqueror; sometimes by successful war, but oftener by purchasing its peace from him. For the city has the wealth of the land and the power to dazzle with its gifts the eyes of the invader. No matter how much it gives him in money, it can soon recover it all, by way of trade. All the commerce of the land passes through the cities. They can levy toll on all that is collected and on all that is distributed. Any article of luxury that the conqueror needs must be had from the city. After he has received the heavy ransom from the city and confirmed its charter, he must return thither to expend his wealth and furnish himself with luxury. The city has the power, therefore, to peaceably recover all that has paid for its preservation. It is soon as rich as before; and besides, its liberty of self-government is confirmed. But the most important circumstance is to be found in the fact that the city is a perennial fountain of law, civil and criminal, as well as a model on which newly arising centres of population may form their local self-government. Indeed, no sooner is the new conqueror firmly seated in the province than martial law begins to yield place to the civil code. He divides the land among his followers, but the cities retain their self-government, although they pay heavy subsidies. The new property-holders in the rural districts begin to need the aid of law in settling their disputes and in protecting their newly acquired rights. Accordingly laws are borrowed and courts are set up to administer them. Thus it happens that the sacred Vesta fires of Roman law left burning in the cities lend of their flame to light the torches of justice throughout all the land, and civilization, only partially quenched by the inundation, is all relighted again.

Thus it is that Rome, in furnishing the forms of municipal government and the laws that govern the rights of private property, never has declined or fallen, but has only multiplied and spread. Every new town rising upon the far-off borders of European or American civilization to-day lights its torch of self-government and jurisprudence at the Roman flame. It borrows the forms of older cities that have received them from Rome through a long line of descent.