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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Roman Civilization under Nero

By Frederic William Farrar (1831–1903)

From ‘The Early Days of Christianity’

I NEED but make a passing allusion to its enormous wealth; its unbounded self-indulgence; its coarse and tasteless luxury; its greedy avarice; its sense of insecurity and terror; its apathy, debauchery, and cruelty; its hopeless fatalism; its unspeakable sadness and weariness; its strange extravagances alike of infidelity and of superstition.

At the lowest extreme of the social scale were millions of slaves, without family, without religion, without possessions, who had no recognized rights, and towards whom none had any recognized duties, passing normally from a childhood of degradation to a manhood of hardship and an old age of unpitied neglect. Only a little above the slaves stood the lower classes, who formed the vast majority of the free-born inhabitants of the Roman Empire. They were for the most part beggars and idlers, familiar with the grossest indignities of an unscrupulous dependence. Despising a life of honest industry, they asked only for bread and the games of the circus, and were ready to support any government, even the most despotic, if it would supply these needs. They spent their mornings in lounging about the Forum or in dancing attendance at the levées of patrons, for a share in whose largesses they daily struggled. They spent their afternoons and evenings in gossiping at the public baths, in listlessly enjoying the polluted plays of the theatre, or looking with fierce thrills of delighted horror at the bloody sports of the arena. At night they crept up to their miserable garrets in the sixth and seventh stories of the huge insulæ,—the lodging-houses of Rome,—into which, as into the low lodging-houses of the poorer quarters of London, there drifted all that was most wretched and most vile. Their life, as it is described for us by their contemporaries, was largely made up of squalor, misery, and vice.

Immeasurably removed from these needy and greedy freemen, and living chiefly amid crowds of corrupted and obsequious slaves, stood the constantly diminishing throng of the wealthy and the noble. Every age in its decline has exhibited the spectacle of selfish luxury side by side with abject poverty; of—

  • “Wealth, a monster gorged
  • ’Mid starving populations:”
  • but nowhere and at no period were these contrasts so startling as they were in imperial Rome. There a whole population might be trembling lest they should be starved by the delay of an Alexandrian corn-ship, while the upper classes were squandering a fortune at a single banquet, drinking out of myrrhine and jeweled vases worth hundreds of pounds, and feasting on the brains of peacocks and the tongues of nightingales. As a consequence, disease was rife, men were short-lived, and even women became liable to gout. Over a large part of Italy, most of the free-born population had to content themselves even in winter with a tunic, and the luxury of the toga was reserved only, by way of honor, to the corpse. Yet at this very time the dress of Roman ladies displayed an unheard-of splendor. The elder Pliny tells us that he himself saw Lollia Paulina dressed for a betrothal feast in a robe entirely covered with pearls and emeralds, which had cost forty million sesterces, and which was known to be less costly than some of her other dresses. Gluttony, caprice, extravagance, ostentation, impurity, rioted in the heart of a society which knew of no other means by which to break the monotony of its weariness, or alleviate the anguish of its despair.
  • On that hard pagan world disgust
  • And secret loathing fell;
  • Deep weariness and sated lust
  • Made human life a hell.
  • In his cool hall, with haggard eyes,
  • The Roman noble lay;
  • He drove abroad in furious guise
  • Along the Appian Way;
  • He made a feast, drank fierce and fast,
  • And crowned his hair with flowers—
  • No easier nor no quicker passed
  • The impracticable hours.”
  • At the summit of the whole decaying system—necessary, yet detested; elevated indefinitely above the very highest, yet living in dread of the very lowest; oppressing a population which he terrified, and terrified by the population which he oppressed—was an emperor, raised to the divinest pinnacle of autocracy, yet conscious that his life hung upon a thread; an emperor who in the terrible phrase of Gibbon was at once a priest, an atheist, and a god.

    The general condition of society was such as might have been expected from the existence of these elements. The Romans had entered on a stage of fatal degeneracy from the first day of their close intercourse with Greece. Greece learnt from Rome her cold-blooded cruelty; Rome learnt from Greece her voluptuous corruption. Family life among the Romans had once been a sacred thing, and for 520 years divorce had been unknown among them. Under the empire, marriage had come to be regarded with disfavor and disdain. Women, as Seneca says, married in order to be divorced, and were divorced in order to marry; and noble Roman matrons counted the years not by the Consuls, but by their discarded or discarding husbands.

    To have a family was regarded as a misfortune, because the childless were courted with extraordinary assiduity by crowds of fortune-hunters. When there were children in a family, their education was left to be begun under the tutelage of those slaves who were otherwise the most decrepit and useless, and was carried on, with results too fatally obvious, by supple, accomplished, and abandoned Greeklings. But indeed, no system of education could have eradicated the influence of the domestic circle. No care could have prevented the sons and daughters of a wealthy family from catching the contagion of the vices of which they saw in their parents a constant and unblushing example.

    Literature and art were infected with the prevalent degradation. Poetry sank in great measure into exaggerated satire, hollow declamation, or frivolous epigrams. Art was partly corrupted by the fondness for glare, expensiveness, and size, and partly sank into miserable triviality, or immoral prettinesses, such as those which decorated the walls of Pompeii in the first century and the Pare aux Cerfs in the eighteenth. Greek statues of the days of Phidias were ruthlessly decapitated, that their heads might be replaced by the scowling or imbecile features of a Caius or a Claudius. Nero, professing to be a connoisseur, thought that he improved the Alexander of Lysimachus by gilding it from head to foot. Eloquence, deprived of every legitimate aim and used almost solely for purposes of insincere display, was tempted to supply the lack of genuine fire by sonorous euphony and theatrical affectation. A training in rhetoric was now understood to be a training in the art of emphasis and verbiage, which was rarely used for any loftier purpose than to make sycophancy plausible, or to embellish sophistry with speciousness. The drama, even in Horace’s days, had degenerated into a vehicle for the exhibition of scenic splendor or ingenious machinery. Dignity, wit, pathos, were no longer expected on the stage, for the dramatist was eclipsed by the swordsman or the rope-dancer. The actors who absorbed the greatest part of popular favor were pantomimists, whose insolent prosperity was generally in direct proportion to the infamy of their character. And while the shamelessness of the theatre corrupted the purity of all classes from the earliest age, the hearts of the multitude were made hard as the nether millstone with brutal insensibility, by the fury of the circus, the atrocities of the amphitheatre, and the cruel orgies of the games. Augustus, in the document annexed to his will, mentioned that he had exhibited 8,000 gladiators, and 3,510 wild beasts. The old warlike spirit of the Romans was dead, among the gilded youth of families in which distinction of any kind was certain to bring down upon its most prominent members the murderous suspicion of irresponsible despots. The spirit which had once led the Domitii and the Fabii “to drink delight of battle with their peers” on the plains of Gaul and in the forests of Germany, was now satiated by gazing on criminals fighting for dear life with bears and tigers, or upon bands of gladiators who hacked each other to pieces on the encrimsoned sand. The languid enervation of the delicate and dissolute aristocrat could only be amused by magnificence and stimulated by grossness or by blood. Thus the gracious illusions by which true art has ever aimed at purging the passions of terror and pity, were extinguished by the realism of tragedies ignobly horrible and comedies intolerably base. Two phrases sum up the characteristics of Roman civilization in the days of the empire—heartless cruelty, and unfathomable corruption.