The Roman and the Teuton
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 begun 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 incredible, 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 were 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 say 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 debaunched 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 Christain'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 debaunched 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.