Ancient History & Civilisation


HAVE all these events any direct messages or warnings to ourselves? The history of a remarkable period is an absorbing and rewarding study even when it throws no direct light on today, but it may also throw such a light, and there are reasons for supposing that the years described in this book are indeed relevant to our own times. The ancient Greco-Roman world, which has given us so many of our own characteristics, is the only civilisation or group of civilisations which is spread out completely for our examination from its beginnings until its last years –the years which I have tried to describe in this book. It produced artistic, literary, spiritual and political brilliance with unequalled lavishness. The Roman empire is unique for the huge size of the territories of Europe, western Asia and northern Africa – the matrices of modern nations – which it comprehended under its single government. Although history does not reproduce exact analogies, this convergence of circumstances makes it evident that so remarkable a civilisation will illuminate subsequent ages.

The later Roman empire, the period discussed in this book, was this ancient world’s final and therefore most hereditable phase. Certain suggestive links and resemblances become evident at once (Part II). First, the continual coups d’état and politico-military succession struggles, which did more than anything else to reduce the empire to financial crisis and encourage its enemies, are still with us nearly two thousand years later. The newly created states of the world have often during the past decade suffered from rapid sequences of governments lasting for as short a time as Roman emperors and then coming to as violent an end. Very soon too, perhaps before these words are read, similar discontinuities are likely to recur in several countries of Europe and America, possibly with the same grave effects of widespread dislocation as attended similar emergencies at Rome. This was the characteristic political problem of the later Roman empire, which it failed to solve, with disastrous results. Today, the solution continues to elude vast areas of the world, and its politicians and political scientists and political psychologists would do well, in the light of what befell the Roman empire, to study how a country can best increase the efficiency of its steps to secure peaceful continuity of control.

A second resemblance between late Rome and modern times lies in the military and financial situations and their political consequences. Like the states of the modern western world, the Roman government was faced quite suddenly, within a couple of generations, with foreign enemies or potential enemies far more menacing than for many centuries past. The resulting military efforts necessitated governmental expenditure on a hitherto unknown, astronomical, scale –as is again the case in western countries, and for that matter eastern countries, today. Thirdly, the collection of these funds from the subjects of the empire prompted the same trends towards egalitarianism that are a feature of the twentieth century; and there was a tendency for the levelling to be downwards rather than upwards. Fourthly, the levying of the necessary funds only seemed attainable by developing authoritarian rule to unprecedented lengths. This too is of concern in our own times. For our century too has witnessed the establishment of total autocracy in several great countries, and today many other governments too, including those with liberal democratic traditions, are tempted to feel that the only way to meet their financial needs is by constantly intensifying regimentation. The outcome of this tendency cannot be foreseen, but a scrutiny of the later Roman empire, of which the conditions were in many ways anticipatory of our own, will help us how to avoid some of the tragic paths which led to its iron compulsions and controls.

Rome’s actions were based on certain hypotheses which deserve to be tested upon ourselves. For one thing, there was the conclusion that dangers beyond its frontiers could best be dealt with by increased expenditure on military operations. For reasons of prestige, diplomacy was never really seriously tried for long. After a while, it was too late; no diplomacy would have halted the Persians and Germans in the mid-third century. But earlier that was not so, and the opportunity was missed. In modern Britain there is much self-questioning as to whether we can afford not to retract our imperial role; and in the United States the obligations of a world-wide policy are also the subject of ever-continuing discussion. Like Britain, Rome found it difficult to grow out of old-fashioned expansive attitudes which were too costly and out of keeping with its major needs. On the other hand, it is also true that an occasional emperor rejected the policy of his predecessors, and the period even shows two examples of actual permanent withdrawals from an area. One of these, Gallienus’ evacuation of the upper Rhine-upper Danube re-entrant, was the involuntary product of pressure. Aurelian, when he evacuated Dacia and moved back to the line of the lower Danube, provided the only example of a ruler who deliberately withdrew from a hard-pressed province for ever. What should or could Rome have done, in order to avoid a burden that had become unendurable ? There were grave practical and humanitarian as well as prestige objections to drawing in its horns. Probably, while it had the chance, it should have relied more on negotiations; and ancient writers who unanimously scorned the subsidisation of emergent peoples across the frontiers may well have been wrong.

The Roman government, in setting such high sights for its military and consequently also for its financial obligations, achieved a certain grand simplicity and potential (if unrealised) justice in the grant of universal citizenship. But meanwhile it was transformed into a totalitarian régime. Will that happen to us ? It need not, since we can avoid certain evil results of Rome’s backward economy. We, like the Romans, need a seller’s market in order to meet our enormous financial needs: indeed we need it much more than they did, since they depended so largely on agriculture. Their external market, during most of the period covered by this book, hardly spread in any substantial degree beyond the frontiers, because of strained or hostile political relations with northern and eastern neighbours alike which may be compared with the modern division imposed by the Iron Curtain. But in addition to such obstacles Rome’s market, in its provinces as well as foreign lands, reached saturation point, because of the decentralisation of industry itself. So perhaps will ours, as new countries develop their own resources. But when this happened in the Roman empire, most people were so poor that there was no internal market to expand instead. We on the other hand, not being bound to the stagnant technology and lack of incentives imposed on the Romans by their social system, can create material wealth and provide our own people with the resources for buying the products of their labour.1

So there are certain means by which we might escape slipping, like the Romans, into government by compulsion. We can avoid their foreign policies which cost more than they could afford and limited their external markets; and if external markets fail, we can profit from our superiority to Rome’s social and technological structure and develop a sufficient internal market. These are not panaceas but they provide grounds for hope.

While, owing to circumstances not altogether unlike those pressing upon ourselves, Rome was falling under authoritarian rule, it also achieved a military recovery so remarkable that it seems to-day, as it must have seemed to many contemporaries, to disprove the theory that there are inevitable tendencies in history. The whole of an apparent process of disintegration and collapse was arrested in full flood and delayed for a century and a half. This was surely not the achievement of a decaying empire. After the stringent exactions which made survival possible had been enforced by the most influential and perhaps the most talented lawyers the world has known, this military reassertion was stabilised by a series of the first annual budgets that any government had ever produced. And finally, by one of the most imaginative acts in history, a new capital was established at Constantinople, from which not only another of the greatest of the world’s civilisations emerged, but a huge part of the classical heritage, reprieved and preserved by the third century recovery, was handed on (Part III).

These were portentous events, but I am doubtful whether in themselves they would have justified the title of the Climax of Rome which I have chosen for this book. (Although, witness Soviet Russia, a national climax may well be harsh.) That title, however, is deserved by a number of simultaneous or successive artistic, intellectual and spiritual developments during the same period. In spite of incessant military and financial crisis, fine arts developed along lines of exceptional novelty and excellence. The portrait sculpture of emperors, passing rapidly through diverse stages of development, attained a brilliance and depth of insight which have never been equalled in any earlier or later age; and then imperial architects made revolutionary use of older conceptions in order to develop the huge halls, domes, apses and vaults of the greatest palaces ever yet seen, and of equally magnificent and even more original Christian churches and shrines. Together with the lawyers and the last important ancient doctor Galen, these architects and engineers were the outstanding products of an educational system which had become sterile in its other higher branches. Yet it was more widely diffused than before, and in contrast, therefore, with the various traditional literary genres its characteristic product was the middle-brow romantic novel, which attained its zenith during this epoch and profoundly influenced the reading habits of many ages to come.

Meanwhile, however, amid a rapidly rising tide of irrationality, two philosophers of unique and eternal interest, Marcus Aurelius and Plotinus, had graver counsels to offer. Marcus is the noblest and most moving of all those guides to life who have drawn their principal strength from sources other then religious hope: in order to play his imperial part, he took his sustenance from within himself. The old classical world of self-reliance and courageous achievement is still there, but it has been turned inwards into channels which led to medieval ideas. A long further step in the same direction was taken by Plotinus. His grand and compelling systems anticipating existentialism in its ethics and Freud in its original psychology of the unconscious, again concludes that the task of man is introverted contemplation. But now Marcus’ classical dutifulness to public life has gone. And above all this inward contemplation brought Plotinus to the supreme experience which he interpreted as mystical union with the controlling power and essence of the universe. Plotinus is at one with the portrait-busts of his day which gaze beyond the apparent realities of our day-to-day world to a truer reality beyond; and he is a pioneer of that rich tradition of mysticism which many believe to carry a powerful message for the modern world, in ‘transcendental meditation’ or sterner forms.

While ancient philosophy thus came to its culmination and verged upon the Middle Ages, Rome’s official world appealed for reliance upon traditional and imperial cult (Part IV). This patriotic feeling, which played its part in the military salvation of Rome, gradually became concentrated upon a revived and almost monotheistic version of the ancient Sun-worship which, with its noble and comprehensive simplicity, seemed to be taking control of the empire in the last days of official paganism. For those who wanted a more personal religion, the worship of the Sun provided an offshoot in Mithraism, a moral variant of the mystery cults promising their initiates that personal immortality after death which had become the principal preoccupation of religion. But the outstanding spiritual leader of the age, living in Persia yet exercising profound effects upon the Greco-Roman world, was Mani, whose compelling Manichaean religion, handed down by one elect to another, held that evil exists because there is not one high God but two. The Gnostics had seen not only a good power but also, since good cannot create or allow evil, an evil creator of the world. Mani expressed this in the ancient Persian terms of a fundamental distinction between Light and its perpetual enemy Darkness: it is our millennial task to refine the Light from the Dark with which it has become mingled.

This dualism, which formed great churches in the Middle Ages and has continued ever since to attract those who think they see the Devil at work, was unacceptable to Jewish monotheism or to its offspring the religion of Christ. During the period under consideration in this book, the fateful decisions were taken by which the New Testament assumed its present shape. Varying blends of Hebrew and Greco-Roman ideas, possessing infinite significance for the spiritual future of millions of Christians who accepted or rejected them, were being moulded by speculative theologians of unprecedented calibre. Meanwhile other, less learned, contemporary interpretations of the faith and the immortality that it conferred were depicted by artists of catacombs and sarcophagi, illuminating the mentalities and preoccupations of the people whose belief and endurance and cohesion had begun to make Christianity into a world religion. Its message of love possessed a universality and simplicity which proved to have a greater appeal than the doctrines of any other faith. Christian communities expressed this conception–and thereby brought the humanitarian tendencies of the age into unprecedentedly practical effect – by their expansion of the welfare organisations they had inherited from Jews and Greeks.

This was also the age in which the attitude of the Roman state to this small but increasingly well-organised church underwent a revolution to which history can offer no parallel. Alienation between Greco-Roman society and the Christians had erupted into repeated official persecutions. But Galerius, on his deathbed, called off these attacks; Constantine proclaimed his personal adhesion to this religion of a minority of his subjects, and the church, instead of being the enemy of the government, became its subsidised auxiliary. This apocalyptic empire-wide reversal did not extend to the Persian empire, whose Christian communities found no similar unexpected royal protector. But it transformed the future of Europe and the Mediterranean world. The ecclesiastical unity which Constantine championed was as universal as that of any modern ecumenicalist, but it was the ecumenism of a confident, aggressive advance – and indeed a single united church was nearer to achievement than it ever has been again.

Nevertheless, there were still many Christians who could not comprehend the identification of the church with the state. Instead they preferred to withdraw, creating from pagan precedents the monasticism which exercised so formative an influence upon medieval life. Moreover, Constantine’s insistence upon ecclesiastical unity prompted another phenomenon which had an equally durable role to play in later Europe, the persecution of fellow-Christians. The victims of his forcible measures were members of dissenting puritan sects, and his inability to suppress these groups (since violence only encouraged their determination) sowed the seeds of future differentiation between Catholics and Protestants. Meanwhile the foundation of Constantinople was accentuating another division which had already been latent in the whole intellectual history of the times and has again lasted until our own day, the breach between the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

These are a few of the happenings which make the epoch between Marcus Aurelius and Constantine the most significant in the history of the Roman empire. Even the Augustan age had not seen such a variety of original talent and thought and productive events. Although Rome itself had now lost much of its practical importance and gave birth to hardly any of the chief actors on the world stage, this epoch of supposed decline, by a significant paradox which I mentioned in the Foreword, was the climax of Rome.

What, during the later Roman empire, was the general pattern of relationship, by correspondence or reaction, between cultural and religious achievements and contemporary political and social trends? Sometimes, as in the times of Augustus or Pericles, literary and artistic and spiritual developments are almost all in close harmony with national and official life. But during the period which begins with Marcus Aurelius intellectual schizophrenia prevailed. There were spheres in which late Rome directly inspired greatness. The lawyers produced most of their unequalled work in the service of the government which they helped to make authoritarian. Portrait sculptors not only benefited from patronage, but were directly inspired by the flamboyance and anxiety and brutal virility of their imperial models. They moved with the tide rather than against it, and so did the imperial architects, who were prompted to achieve masterpieces by the magnitude of the emperor and the diminutiveness of man. Moreover, certain pagan religious movements, such as the traditional Roman cults and Mithraism, were patriotic, and at the very end of the period Constantine similarly brought the dominant trends of Christianity into line with the policy of the state.

Yet for the most part, during the hundred and fifty years before this happened, the greatest and most influential advances of the mind and soul give no comfort to an admirer of classical public spirit, for they were often escapist reactions against the miseries of the times. The bridge between those who devoted their gifts to serving the state and those who sought a means of escaping from it is provided by the complex personality of Marcus Aurelius. Though an emperor, he felt an urgent desire, characteristic of the epoch, to remain an individual impregnable to external pressures, and that is the tension which gives the Meditations their perennial and modern fascination. The characteristic literary men of the age, the novelists, saw and described, in symbolic fashion, the discomforts of the world, but wove phantasies which enabled people to forget them. Their outstanding contemporary, Plotinus, even more unmistakably teaches avoidance of the sordidness of this life; and it is in order to turn away from these mundane miseries that innumerable pagan monuments of many different creeds manifest a passionate desire for immortality. The supreme religious leader of the age, Mani, was again deeply influenced by the troubles of existence–and they moved him not only, like his contemporaries, to preach withdrawal, but to provide a uniquely imposing analysis of their basic causes. Finally the Christians too were prompted to other-worldly devotion by the unhappiness of their lives. Martyrs carried this rejection of the world to its extremity, and, after the church had become Constantine’s instrument, monks and puritans continued in the same tradition of alienation.

Accordingly, there were two different and simultaneous relationships between daily life on the one hand and cultural and religious life on the other: a relationship of direct stimulus, perceptible in the lawyers and sculptors and architects and in the official versions of pagan and then Christian religion, and a relationship of stimulus by reaction, visible in the novelists and philosophers and most religious groups, including pre-Constantinian and then dissenting Christianity. By these two different and opposite processes the torments of the times produced not inertia but abundant greatness. The ruthlessness of the government did not reduce outstanding thinkers and believers to silence, but provided them with sources of energy. Here there is a contrast with modern times. In their most accentuated phases, the totalitarian governments of the twentieth century have evoked comparatively little original cultural or spiritual activity; artists and architects in sympathy with them are nearly always sterile; rebels are few and mostly ineffective or inaudible. That is because the governments of our own age, with their modern technologies, are capable of regimenting people with a thoroughness which all the efforts of the Roman state and its agents were unable to achieve. ‘Too much evil and too much suffering’, as Aldous Huxley remarked, ‘can make it impossible for men to be creative; but within very wide limits greatness is perfectly compatible with organised insanity, sanctioned crime, and intense, chronic unhappiness for the majority.’

Admittedly the later empire, for all its levelling tendencies, was a gloomy place for the majority. This was nothing new, but the exigencies of the times had made it worse. In this final phase of the ancient world, as in its earlier phases, achievements (other than mere endurance and survival) are due not to the many but the few. Despite egalitarian tendencies, this remained an undemocratic time, and its history cannot profitably be written from a wholly democratic standpoint.2 It was the few who kept civilisation going and handed it on, and during this period they presented subsequent ages with superlative creations of the mind and spirit. Despite all their anxieties and troubles and perils, certain men brought into being, for themselves and for people who felt like them their own worlds of thought and belief which are the ultimate monuments of a terrible but marvellous age.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!