Page:The Harvard Classics Vol. 51; Lectures.djvu/39

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29
HISTORY

of bastard Cæsar. On the other hand, Augustus, Cæsar's adopted son, to whom the command of the rest of the troops fell, proved to be a statesman of the highest order. He roused national and republican feeling in Italy against Antony and his Egyptian "harlot"; but, after defeating them at Actium in 31 B. C., he had to reckon with the demon—or was it a ghost?—which he had conjured up. This he did by establishing a peculiar compromise between republicanism and monarchy called the principate, which lasted, with fitful reversions to Caesar's model, and gradual degeneracy toward a more and more complete despotism, until the great military revolt of the third century A. D. occurred, when the Roman system of government, and with it the Græco-Roman civilization, sank in rapid decay. For two hundred and fifty years sixty millions of people had enjoyed the material blessings of peace and orderly government. They had cut down forests, made the desert a garden, built cities by the hundreds, and created eternal monuments of the sense for justice and magnificence which penetrated from Rome to the ends of the known world. Then they became the helpless prey of a few hundred thousand native and barbarian soldiers. The decline of the Roman Empire is the greatest tragedy in history.

During the principate the prince or emperor seemed to be the source of all actions, good and bad. Upon the will and character of a single individual hung suspended, apparently, the life and weal of every human being. It was, therefore, natural for this age to be interested in biography. Hence Plutarch is at once a "document" for the time in which he lived and a charming "betrayer" of the Græco-Roman world on which he looked back.