The Northern Way

The Roman and the Teuton

Lecture 2

Page 1


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 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, 'quae 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. (1)

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 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'importe---Vive 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 aterloo 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-immagrants 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 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.


The early romancers, and especially Achilles Tatius, give pictures of Roman prædial slavery too painful to quote. Roman domestic slavery is not to be described by the pen of an Englishman. And I must express my sorrow, that in the face of such notorious facts, some have of late tried to prove American slavery to be as bad as, or even worse than, that of Rome. God forbid! Whatsoever may have been the sins of the Southern gentleman, he is at least a Teuton, and not a Roman; a whole moral heaven above the effeminate wretch, who in the 4th and 5th centuries called himself a senator and a clarissimus. Back

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