The Roman Empire affected the history of culture in various more or less separate ways.
First: there is the direct effect of Rome on Hellenistic thought. This is not very important or profound.
Second: the effect of Greece and the East on the western half of the empire. This was profound and lasting, since it included the Christian religion.
Third: the importance of the long Roman peace in diffusing culture and in accustoming men to the idea of a single civilization associated with a single government.
Fourth: the transmission of Hellenistic civilization to the Mohammedans, and thence ultimately to western Europe.
Before considering these influences of Rome, a very brief synopsis of the political history will be useful.
Alexander's conquests had left the western Mediterranean untouched; it was dominated, at the beginning of the third century B.C., by two powerful City States, Carthage and Syracuse. In the first and second Punic Wars (264–241 and 218–201), Rome conquered Syracuse and reduced Carthage to insignificance. During the second century, Rome conquered the Macedonian monarchies—Egypt, it is true, lingered on as a vassal state until the death of Cleopatra (30 B.C.). Spain was conquered as an incident in the war with Hannibal; France was conquered by Caesar in the middle of the first century B.C., and England was conquered about a hundred years later. The frontiers of the Empire, in its great days, were the Rhine and Danube in Europe, the Euphrates in Asia, and the desert in North Africa.
Roman imperialism was, perhaps, at its best in North Africa (important in Christian history as the home of Saint Cyprian and Saint Augustine), where large areas, uncultivated before and after Roman times, were rendered fertile and supported populous cities. The Roman Empire was on the whole stable and peaceful for over two hundred years, from the accession of Augustus (30 B.C.) until the disasters of the third century.
Meanwhile the constitution of the Roman State had undergone important developments. Originally Rome was a small City State, not very unlike those of Greece, especially such as, like Sparta, did not depend upon foreign commerce. Kings, like those of Homeric Greece, had been succeeded by an aristocratic republic. Gradually, while the aristocratic element, embodied in the Senate, remained powerful, democratic elements were added; the resulting compromise was regarded by Panaetius the Stoic (whose views are reproduced by Polybius and Cicero) as an ideal combination of monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic elements. But conquest upset the precarious balance; it brought immense new wealth to the senatorial class, and, in a slightly lesser degree, to the 'knights', as the upper middle class were called. Italian agriculture, which had been in the hands of small farmers growing grain by their own labour and that of their families, came to be a matter of huge estates belonging to the Roman aristocracy, where vines and olives were cultivated by slave labour. The result was the virtual omnipotence of the Senate, which was used shamelessly for the enrichment of individuals, without regard for the interests of the State or the welfare of its subjects.
A democratic movement, inaugurated by the Gracchi in the latter half of the second century B.C., led to a series of civil wars, and finally—as so often in Greece—to the establishment of a 'tyranny'. It is curious to see the repetition, on such a vast scale, of developments which, in Greece, had been confined to minute areas. Augustus, the heir and adopted son of Julius Caesar, who reigned from 30 B.C. to A.D. 14, put an end to civil strife, and (with few exceptions) to external wars of conquest. For the first time since the beginnings of Greek civilization, the ancient world enjoyed peace and security.
Two things had ruined the Greek political system: first, the claim of each city to absolute sovereignty; second, the bitter and bloody strife between rich and poor within most cities. After the conquest of Carthage and the Hellenistic kingdoms, the first of these causes no longer afflicted the world, since no effective resistance to Rome was possible. But the second cause remained. In the civil wars, one general would proclaim himself the champion of the Senate, the other of the people. Victory went to the one who offered the highest rewards to the soldiers. The soldiers wanted not only pay and plunder, but grants of land; therefore each civil war ended in the formally legal expulsion of many existing landholders, who were nominally tenants of the State, to make room for the legionaries of the victor. The expenses of the war, while in progress, were defrayed by executing rich men and confiscating their property. This system, disastrous as it was, could not easily be ended; at last, to every one's surprise, Augustus was so completely victorious that no competitor remained to challenge his claim to power.
To the Roman world, the discovery that the period of civil war was ended came as a surprise, which was a cause of rejoicing to all except a small senatorial party. To every one else, it was a profound relief when Rome, under Augustus, at last achieved the stability and order which Greeks and Macedonians had sought in vain, and which Rome, before Augustus, had also failed to produce. In Greece, according to Rostovtseff, republican Rome had 'introduced nothing new, except pauperization, bankruptcy, and a stoppage of all independent political activity'.1
The reign of Augustus was a period of happiness for the Roman Empire. The administration of the provinces was at last organized with some regard to the welfare of the population, and not on a purely predatory system. Augustus was not only officially deified after his death, but was spontaneously regarded as a god in various provincial cities. Poets praised him, the commercial classes found the universal peace convenient, and even the Senate, which he treated with all the outward forms of respect, lost no opportunity of heaping honours and offices on his head.
But although the world was happy, some savour had gone out of life, since safety had been preferred to adventure. In early times, every free Greek had had the opportunity of adventure; Philip and Alexander put an end to this state of affairs, and in the Hellenistic world only Macedonian dynasts enjoyed anarchic freedom. The Greek world lost its youth, and became either cynical or religious. The hope of embodying ideals in earthly institutions faded, and with it the best men lost their zest. Heaven, for Socrates, was a place where he could go on arguing; for philosophers after Alexander, it was something more different from their existence here below.
In Rome, a similar development came later, and in a less painful form. Rome was not conquered, as Greece was, but had, on the contrary, the stimulus of successful imperialism. Throughout the period of the civil wars, it was Romans who were responsible for the disorders. The Greeks had not secured peace and order by submitting to the Macedonians, whereas both Greeks and Romans secured both by submitting to Augustus. Augustus was a Roman, to whom most Romans submitted willingly, not only on account of his superior power; moreover he took pains to disguise the military origin of his government, and to base it upon decrees of the Senate. The adulation expressed by the Senate was, no doubt, largely insincere, but outside the senatorial class no one felt humiliated.
The mood of the Romans was like that of a jeune homme rangé in nineteenth-century France, who, after a life of amatory adventure, settles down to a marriage of reason. This mood, though contented, is not creative. The great poets of the Augustan age had been formed in more troubled times; Horace fled at Philippi, and both he and Virgil lost their farms in confiscations for the benefit of victorious soldiers. Augustus, for the sake of stability, set to work, somewhat insincerely, to restore ancient piety, and was therefore necessarily rather hostile to free inquiry. The Roman world began to become stereotyped, and the process continued under later emperors.
The immediate successors of Augustus indulged in appalling cruelties towards Senators and towards possible competitors for the purple. To some extent, the misgovernment of this period extended to the provinces; but in the main the administrative machine created by Augustus continued to function fairly well.
A better period began with the accession of Trajan in A.D. 98, and continued until the death of Marcus Aurelius in A.D. 180. During this time, the government of the Empire was as good as any despotic government can be. The third century, on the contrary, was one of appalling disaster. The army realized its power, made and unmade emperors in return for cash and the promise of a life without warfare, and ceased, in consequence, to be an effective fighting force. The barbarians, from north and east, invaded and plundered Roman territory. The army, preoccupied with private gain and civil discord, was incompetent in defence. The whole fiscal system broke down, since there was an immense diminution of resources and, at the same time, a vast increase of expenditure in unsuccessful war and in bribery of the army. Pestilence, in addition to war, greatly diminished the population. It seemed as if the Empire was about to fall.
This result was averted by two energetic men, Diocletian (A.D. 286–305) and Constantine, whose undisputed reign lasted from A.D. 312 to 337. By them the Empire was divided into an eastern and western half, corresponding, approximately, to the division between Greek and Latin languages. By Constantine the capital of the eastern half was established at Byzantium, to which he gave the new name of Constantinople. Diocletian curbed the army, for a while, by altering its character; from his time onwards, the most effective fighting forces were composed of barbarians, chiefly German, to whom all the highest commands were open. This was obviously a dangerous expedient, and early in the fifth century it bore its natural fruit. The barbarians decided that it was more profitable to fight for themselves than for a Roman master. Nevertheless it served its purpose for over a century. Diocletian's administrative reforms were equally successful for a time, and equally disastrous in the long run. The Roman system was to allow local self-government to the towns, and to leave their officials to collect the taxes, of which only the total amount due from any one town was fixed by the central authorities. This system had worked well enough in prosperous times, but now, in the exhausted state of the empire, the revenue demanded was more than could be borne without excessive hardship. The municipal authorities were personally responsible for the taxes, and fled to escape payment. Diocletian compelled well-to-do citizens to accept municipal office, and made flight illegal. From similar motives he turned the rural population into serfs, tied to the soil and forbidden to migrate. This system was kept on by later emperors.
Constantine's most important innovation was the adoption of Christianity as the State religion, apparently because a large proportion of the soldiers were Christian.2 The result of this was that when, during the fifth century, the Germans destroyed the Western Empire, its prestige caused them to adopt the Christian religion, thereby preserving for western Europe so much of ancient civilizations as had been absorbed by the Church.
The development of the territory assigned to the eastern half of the Empire was different. The Eastern Empire, though continually diminishing in extent (except for the transient conquests of Justinian in the sixth century), survived until 1453, when Constantinople was conquered by the Turks. But most of what had been Roman provinces in the east, including also Africa and Spain in the west, became Mohammedan. The Arabs, unlike the Germans, rejected the religion, but adopted the civilization, of those whom they had conquered. The Eastern Empire was Greek, not Latin, in its civilization; accordingly, from the seventh to the eleventh centuries, it was it and the Arabs who preserved Greek literature and whatever survived of Greek, as opposed to Latin, civilization. From the eleventh century onward, at first through Moorish influences, the west gradually recovered what it had lost of the Grecian heritage.
I come now to the four ways in which the Roman Empire affected the history of culture.
I. The direct effect of Rome on Greek thought. This begins in the second century B.C., with two men, the historian Polybius, and the Stoic philosopher Panaetius. The natural attitude of the Greek to the Roman was one of contempt mingled with fear; the Greek felt himself more civilized, but politically less powerful. If the Romans were more successful in politics, that only showed that politics is an ignoble pursuit. The average Greek of the second century B.C. was pleasure-loving, quick-witted, clever in business, and unscrupulous in all things. There were, however, still men of philosophic capacity. Some of these—notably the sceptics, such as Carneades—had allowed cleverness to destroy seriousness. Some, like the Epicureans and a section of the Stoics, had
withdrawn wholly into a quiet private life. But a few, with more insight than had been shown by Aristotle in relation to Alexander, realized that the greatness of Rome was due to certain merits which were lacking among the Greeks.
The historian Polybius, born in Arcadia about 200 B.C., was sent to Rome as a prisoner, and there had the good fortune to become the friend of the younger Scipio, whom he accompanied on many of his campaigns. It was uncommon for a Greek to know Latin, though most educated Romans knew Greek; the circumstances of Polybius, however, led him to a thorough familiarity with Latin. He wrote, for the benefit of the Greeks, the history of the later Punic Wars, which enabled Rome to conquer the world. His admiration of the Roman constitution was becoming out of date while he wrote, but until his time it had compared very favourably, in stability and efficiency, with the continually changing constitutions of most Greek cities. The Romans naturally read his history with pleasure; whether the Greeks did so is more doubtful.
Panaetius the Stoic has been already considered in the preceding chapter. He was a friend of Polybius, and, like him, a protégé of the younger Scipio. While Scipio lived, he was frequently in Rome, but after Scipio's death in 129 B.C. he stayed in Athens as head of the Stoic school. Rome still had, what Greece had lost, the hopefulness connected with the opportunity for political activity. Accordingly the doctrines of Panaetius were more political, and less akin to those of the Cynics, than were those of earlier Stoics. Probably the admiration of Plato felt by cultivated Romans influenced him in abandoning the dogmatic narrowness of his Stoic predecessors. In the broader form given to it by him and by his successor Posidonius, Stoicism strongly appealed to the more serious among the Romans.
At a later date, Epictetus, though a Greek, lived most of his life in Rome. Rome supplied him with most of his illustrations; he is always exhorting the wise man not to tremble in the presence of the Emperor. We know the influence of Epictetus on Marcus Aurelius, but his influence on the Greeks is hard to trace.
Plutarch (ca. A.D. 46–120), in his Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, traced a parallelism between the most eminent men of the two countries. He spent a considerable time in Rome, and was honoured by the Emperors Hadrian and Trajan. In addition to his Lives, he wrote numerous works on philosophy, religion, natural history, and morals. His Lives are obviously concerned to reconcile Greece and Rome in men's thoughts.
On the whole, apart from such exceptional men, Rome acted as a blight on the Greek-speaking part of the Empire. Thought and art alike declined. Until the end of the second century A.D., life, for the well-to-do, was pleasant and easy-going; there was no incentive to strenuousness, and little opportunity for great achievement. The recognized schools of philosophy—the Academy, the Peripatetics, the Epicureans, and the Stoics—continued to exist until they were closed by Justinian. None of these, however, showed any vitality throughout the time after Marcus Aurelius, except the Neoplatonists in the third century A.D., whom we shall consider in the next chapter; and these men were hardly at all influenced by Rome. The Latin and Greek halves of the Empire became more and more divergent; the knowledge of Greek became rare in the west, and after Constantine Latin, in the east, survived only in law and in the army.
II. The influence of Greece and the East on Rome. There are here two very different things to consider: first, the influence of Hellenic art and literature and philosophy on the most cultivated Romans; second, the spread of non-Hellenic religions and superstitions throughout the Western world.
(1) When the Romans first came in contact with Greeks, they became aware of themselves as comparatively barbarous and uncouth. The Greeks were immeasurably their superiors in many ways: in manufacture and in the technique of agriculture; in the kinds of knowledge that are necessary for a good official; in conversation and the art of enjoying life; in art and literature and philosophy. The only things in which the Romans were superior were military tactics and social cohesion. The relation of the Romans to the Greeks was something like that of the Prussians to the French in 1814 and 1815; but this latter was temporary, whereas the other lasted a long time. After the Punic Wars, young Romans conceived an admiration for the Greeks. They learnt the Greek language, they copied Greek architecture, they employed Greek sculptors. The Roman gods were identified with the gods of Greece. The Trojan origin of the Romans was invented to make a connection with the Homeric myths. Latin poets adopted Greek metres, Latin philosophers took over Greek theories. To the end, Rome was culturally parasitic on Greece. The Romans invented no art forms, constructed no original system of philosophy, and made no scientific discoveries. They made good roads, systematic legal codes, and efficient armies; for the rest they looked to Greece.
The Hellenizing of Rome brought with it a certain softening of manners, abhorrent to the elder Cato. Until the Punic Wars, the Romans had been a bucolic people, with the virtues and vices of farmers: austere, industrious, brutal, obstinate, and stupid. Their family life had been stable and solidly built on the patria potestas; women and young people were completely sub-ordinated. All this changed with the influx of sudden wealth. The small farms disappeared, and were gradually replaced by huge estates on which slave labour was employed to carry out new scientific kinds of agriculture. A great class of traders grew up, and a large number of men enriched by plunder, like the nabobs in eighteenth-century England. Women, who had been virtuous slaves, became free and dissolute; divorce became common; the rich ceased to have children. The Greeks, who had gone through a similar development centuries ago, encouraged, by their example, what historians call the decay of morals. Even in the most dissolute times of the Empire, the average Roman still thought of Rome as the upholder of a purer ethical standard against the decadent corruption of Greece.
The cultural influence of Greece on the Western Empire diminished rapidly from the third century A.D. onwards, chiefly because culture in general decayed. For this there were many causes, but one in particular must be mentioned. In the last times of the Western Empire, the government was more undisguisedly a military tyranny than it had been, and the army usually selected a successful general as emperor; but the army, even in its highest ranks, was no longer composed of cultivated Romans, but of semi-barbarians from the frontier. These rough soldiers had no use for culture, and regarded the civilized citizens solely as sources of revenue. Private persons were too impoverished to support much in the way of education, and the State considered education unnecessary. Consequently, in the West, only a few men of exceptional learning continued to read Greek.
(2) Non-Hellenic religion and superstition, on the contrary, acquired, as time went on, a firmer and firmer hold on the West. We have already seen how Alexander's conquests introduced the Greek world to the beliefs of Babylonians, Persians, and Egyptians. Similarly the Roman conquests made the Western world familiar with these doctrines, and also with those of Jews and Christians. I shall consider what concerns the Jews and Christians at a later stage; for the present, I shall confine myself as far as possible to pagan superstitions.3
In Rome every sect and every prophet was represented, and sometimes won favour in the highest government circles. Lucian, who stood for sane scepticism in spite of the credulity of his age, tells an amusing story, generally accepted as broadly true, about a prophet and miracle-worker called Alexander the Paphlagonian. This man healed the sick and foretold the future, with excursions into blackmail. His fame reached the ears of Marcus Aurelius, then fighting the Marcomanni on the Danube. The Emperor consulted him as to how to win the war, and was told that if he threw two lions into the Danube a great victory would result. He followed the advice of the seer, but it was the Marcomanni who won the great victory. In spite of this mishap, Alexander's fame continued to grow. A prominent Roman of consular rank, Rutilianus, after consulting him on many points, at last sought his advice as to the choice of a wife. Alexander, like Endymion, had enjoyed the favours of the moon, and by her had a daughter, whom the oracle recommended to Rutilianus.
'Rutilianus, who was at the time sixty years old, at once complied with the divine injunction, and celebrated his marriage by sacrificing whole hecatombs to his celestial mother-in-law.'4
More important than the career of Alexander the Paphlagonian was the reign of the Emperor Elagabalus or Heliogabalus (A.D. 218–22), who was, until his elevation by the choice of the army, a Syrian priest of the sun. In his slow progress from Syria to Rome, he was preceded by his portrait, sent as a present to the Senate. 'He was drawn in his sacerdotal robes of silk and gold, after the loose flowing fashion of the Medes and Phoenicians; his head was covered with a lofty tiara, his numerous collars and bracelets were adorned with gems of inestimable value. His eyebrows were tinged with black, and his cheeks painted with an artificial red and white. The grave senators confessed with a sigh, that, after having long experienced the stern tyranny of their own countrymen, Rome was at length humbled beneath the effeminate luxury of Oriental despotism.'5Supported by a large section in the army, he proceeded, with fanatical zeal, to introduce in Rome the religious practices of the East; his name was that of the sun-god worshipped at Emesa, where he had been chief priest. His mother, or grandmother, who was the real ruler, perceived that he had gone too far, and deposed him in favour of her nephew Alexander (222–35), whose Oriental proclivities were more moderate. The mixture of creeds that was possible in his day was illustrated in his private chapel, in which he placed the statues of Abraham, Orpheus, Apollonius of Tyana, and Christ.
The religion of Mithras, which was of Persian origin, was a close competitor of Christianity, especially during the latter half of the third century A.D. The emperors, who were making desperate attempts to control the army, felt that religion might give a much needed stability; but it would have to be one of the new religions, since it was these that the soldiers favoured. The cult was introduced at Rome, and had much to commend it to the military mind. Mithras was a sun-god, but not so effeminate as his Syrian colleague; he was a god concerned with war, the great war between good and evil which had been part of the Persian creed since Zoroaster. Rostovtseff6 reproduces a basrelief representing his worship, which was found in a subterranean sanctuary at Heddernheim in Germany, and shows that his disciples must have been numerous among the soldiers, not only in the East, but in the West also.
Constantine's adoption of Christianity was politically successful, whereas earlier attempts to introduce a new religion failed; but the earlier attempts were, from a governmental point of view, very similar to his. All alike derived
their possibility of success from the misfortunes and weariness of the Roman world. The traditional religions of Greece and Rome were suited to men interested in the terrestrial world, and hopeful of happiness on earth. Asia, with a longer experience of despair, had evolved more successful antidotes in the form of other-worldly hopes; of all these, Christianity was the most effective in bringing consolation. But Christianity, by the time it became the State religion, had absorbed much from Greece, and transmitted this, along with the Judaic element, to succeeding ages in the West.
III. The unification of government and culture. We owe it first to Alexander and then to Rome that the achievements of the great age of Greece were not lost to the world, like those of the Minoan age. In the fifth century B.C., a Jenghiz Khan, if one had happened to arise, could have wiped out all that was important in the Hellenic world; Xerxes, with a little more competence, might have made Greek civilization very greatly inferior to what it became after he was repulsed. Consider the period from Aeschylus to Plato: all that was done in this time was done by a minority of the population of a few commercial cities. These cities, as the future showed, had no great capacity for withstanding foreign conquest, but by an extraordinary stroke of good fortune their conquerors, Macedonian and Roman, were Philhellenes, and did not destroy what they conquered, as Xerxes or Carthage would have done. The fact that we are acquainted with what was done by the Greeks in art and literature and philosophy and science is due to the stability introduced by Western conquerors who had the good sense to admire the civilization which they governed but did their utmost to preserve.
In certain respects, political and ethical, Alexander and the Romans were the causes of a better philosophy than any that was professed by Greeks in their days of freedom. The Stoics, as we have seen, believed in the brotherhood of man, and did not confine their sympathies to the Greeks. The long dominion of Rome accustomed men to the idea of a single civilization under a single government. We are aware that there were important parts of the world which were not subject to Rome—India and China, more especially. But to the Roman it seemed that outside the Empire there were only more or less barbarian tribes, who might be conquered whenever it should be worth while to make the effort. Essentially and in idea, the empire, in the minds of the Romans, was world-wide. This conception descended to the Church, which was 'Catholic' in spite of Buddhists, Confucians, and (later) Mohammedans. Securus judicat orbis terrarum is a maxim of St Augustine's embodying the doctrine of the later Stoics; it owes its appeal to the apparent universality of the Roman Empire. Throughout the Middle Ages, after the time of Charlemagne, the Church and the Holy Roman Empire were worldwide in idea, although everybody knew that they were not so in fact. The conception of one human family, one Catholic religion, one universal culture, and one world-wide State, has haunted men's thoughts ever since its approximate realization by Rome.
The part played by Rome in enlarging the area of civilization was of immense importance. Northern Italy, Spain, France, and parts of western Germany, were civilized as a result of forcible conquest by the Roman legions. All these regions proved themselves just as capable of a high level of culture as Rome itself. In the last days of the Western Empire, Gaul produced men who were at least the equals of their contemporaries in regions of older civilization. It was owing to the diffusion of culture by Rome that the barbarians produced only a temporary eclipse, not a permanent darkness. It may be argued that the quality of civilization was never again as good as in the Athens of Pericles; but in a world of war and destruction, quantity is, in the long run, almost as important as quality, and quantity was due to Rome.
IV. The Mohammedans as vehicles of Hellenism. In the seventh century, the disciples of the Prophet conquered Syria, Egypt, and North Africa; in the following century, they conquered Spain. Their victories were easy, and the fighting was slight. Except possibly during the first few years, they were not fanatical; Christians and Jews were unmolested so long as they paid the tribute. Very soon the Arabs acquired the civilization of the Eastern Empire, but with the hopefulness of a rising polity instead of the weariness of decline. Their learned men read Greek authors in translation, and wrote commentaries. Aristotle's reputation is mainly due to them; in antiquity, he was not regarded as on a level with Plato.
It is instructive to consider some of the words that we derive from Arabic, such as: algebra, alcohol, alchemy, alembic, alkali, azimuth, zenith. With the exception of 'alcohol'—which meant, not a drink, but a substance used in chemistry—these words would give a good picture of some of the things we owe to the Arabs. Algebra had been invented by the Alexandrian Greeks, but was carried further by the Mohammedans. 'Alchemy', 'alembic', 'alkali' are words connected with the attempt to turn base metals into gold, which the Arabs took over from the Greeks, and in pursuit of which they appealed to Greek philosophy.7 'Azimuth' and 'zenith' are astronomical terms, chiefly useful to the Arabs in connection with astrology.
The etymological method conceals what we owe to the Arabs as regards knowledge of Greek philosophy, because, when it was again studied in Europe, the technical terms required were taken from Greek or Latin. In philosophy, the Arabs were better as commentators than as original thinkers. Their importance, for us, is that they, and not the Christians, were the
immediate inheritors of those parts of the Greek tradition which only the Eastern Empire had kept alive. Contact with the Mohammedans, in Spain, and to a lesser extent in Sicily, made the West aware of Aristotle; also of Arabic numerals, algebra, and chemistry. It was this contact that began the revival of learning in the eleventh century, leading to the Scholastic philosophy. It was later, from the thirteenth century onward, that the study of Greek enabled men to go direct to the works of Plato and Aristotle and other Greek writers of antiquity. But if the Arabs had not preserved the tradition, the men of the Renaissance might not have suspected how much was to be gained by the revival of classical learning.