Characters and Events of Roman History/Roman History in Modern Education

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


Roman History in Modern Education

WHEN I announced my intention to write a new history of Rome, many people manifested a sense of astonishment similar to what they would have felt had I said that I meant to retire to a monastery. Was it to be believed that the hurrying modern age, which bends all its energies toward the future, would find time to look back, even for a moment, at that past so far away? That my attempt was rash was the common opinion not only of friends and critics, but also of publishers, who everywhere at first showed themselves skeptical and hesitating. They all said that the public was quite out of touch with Roman affairs. On the contrary, facts have demonstrated that also in this age, in aspect so eager for things modern, people of culture are willing to give attention to the events and personages of ancient Rome.

The thing appears strange and bizarre, as is natural, to those who had not considered it possible; consequently, few have seen how simple and clear is its explanation. To those who showed surprise that the history of Rome could become fashionable in Paris salons, I have always replied: My history has had its fortune because it was the history of Rome. Written with the same method and in the same style, a history of Venice, or Florence, or England, would not have had the same lot. One must not forget that the story of Rome occupies in the intellectual world a privileged place. Not only is it studied in all the schools of the civilised world; not only do nearly all states spend money to bring to light all the documentary evidence that the earth still conceals; but while all other histories are studied fitfully, that of Rome is, so to speak, remade every fifty years, and whoever arrives at the right time to do the making can gain a reputation broader than that given to most historians.

There is, so to speak, in the history of Rome an eternal youth, and for the mind in what is commonly called European-American civilisation, it holds a peculiar attraction. From what deep sources springs this perennial youth? In what consists this particular force of attraction and renewal? It seems to me that the chief reason for the eternal fascination of the history of Rome is this, that it includes, as in a miniature drawn with simple lines, well defined, all the essential phenomena of social life; so that every age is able there to find its own image, its gravest problems, its intensest passions, its most pressing interests, its keenest struggles; therefore Roman history is forever modern, because every new age has only to choose that part which most resembles it, to find its own self.

In the intellectual history of the nineteenth century this leading phenomenon of our culture is clearly evident. If any one asked me why, during the past century, Roman history has proved so interesting, I should not hesitate to reply, "Because Europeans and Americans find, there more than elsewhere what has been the greatest political upheaval of the hundred years that followed the French Revolution--the struggle between monarchy and republic." From the fervid admiration for the Roman Republic which animated the men of the French Revolution to the unmeasured Caesarian apologies of Duruy and of Mommsen, from the ardent cult of Brutus to the detailed studies on the Roman administration of the first two centuries, all historians have studied and regarded Roman history mainly from the point of view of the struggle between the two principles that yet to-day r end in incurable discord the mind of old Europe and from which you have emerged fortunate! You are free, in a new world; you have ended the combat between the Latin principle of the impersonal state and the Oriental principle of the dynastic state; between the state conceived as the thing of all, belonging to every one and therefore of no one, and the state personified in a family of an origin higher and nobler than the common in which all authority derives from some hero-founder by a mysterious virtue unaccountable to reason and human philosophy; you have done with the conflict between the human state, simple, without pomp, without dramatic symbols--the republic as we men of the twentieth century understand it, and as you Americans conceive and practise it--and the monarchy of divine right, vainglorious, full of ceremonies and etiquette, despotic in internal constitution, which still exists in Europe under more or less spurious forms. Now it is easy to explain how, in an age in which the contest between these two conceptions and these two forms of the State was so warm, the history of Rome should so stir the mind.

In no other history do these two political forms meet each other in a more irreconcilable opposition of characters in extreme. The Republic, as Rome had founded it, was so impersonal that, in contrast with modern more democratic republics, it had not even a fixed bureaucracy, and all the public functions were exercised by elective magistrates--even the executive--from public works to the police-system. In the ancient monarchy which the Orient had created, the dynastic principle was so strong that the State was considered by inherent right the personal property of the sovereign, who might expand it, contract it, divide it among his sons and relatives, bequeathing his kingdom and his subjects as a land-owner disposes of his estate and his cattle. Furthermore, although to-day the sovereigns of Europe are pleased to treat quite familiarly with the good Lord, the rulers in the Orient were held to be gods in their own right.

Whence it is easy to understand how terrible must have been the struggle between the two principles so antagonistic, from the time when in the Empire, immeasurable and complicated, the institutions of the Republic proved inadequate to govern so many diverse peoples and territories so vast. The Romans kept on, as at first, rebelling at the idea of placing a man-god at the head of the State, themselves to become, when finally masters of the world, the slaves of a dynasty. The conflict between the two principles lasted a century, from Caesar to Nero, filled the story of Rome with hideous tragedies, but ended with the truce of a glorious compromise; for Rome succeeded in putting into the monarchic constitution of empire some essentially republican ideas, among others, the idea of the indivisibility of the State. Not only Augustus and his family, but also the Flavians and the Antonines, never thought that the Empire belonged to them, that they might dispose of it like private property; on the contrary, they regarded it as an eternal and indivisible holding of the Roman people which they, as representatives of the populus, were charged to administer.

It is therefore easy, as I have said, to explain how, as never before, the history of Rome was looked upon as a great war between the monarchy and the republic. Indeed, the problem of the republic and the monarchy, always present to the minds of writers of the nineteenth century, has been perhaps the chief reason for the gravest mistakes committed by Roman historiography during this period--mistakes I have sought to correct. For example, the republicans have pinned their faith to all the absurd tales told by Suetonius and Tacitus about the family of the Caesars, through preconceived hate for the monarchy; and the monarchists have exaggerated out of measure the felicity of the first two centuries of the Empire, to prove that the provinces lived happy under the monarchic administration as never before or after. Mommsen has fashioned an impossible Caesar, almost making of that great demagogue a literary anticipation of Bismarck.

Little by little, however, as the contest between republic and monarchy gradually spent itself in Europe, in the last twenty-five years of the nineteenth century, the interest for histories of Rome conceived and written in this spirit, declined. The real reason why Mommsen and Duruy are to-day so little read, why at the beginning of the twentieth century Roman history no longer stirs enthusiasm through their books is, above all, this: that readers no longer find in those pages what corresponds directly to living reality. Therefore it was to be believed that Roman history had grown old and out of date; whereas, merely one of its perishing and deciduous forms had grown old, not the soul of it, which is eternally living and young. So true is this, that a writer had only to consider the old story from new points of view, for Caesar and Antony, Lucullus and Pompey, Augustus and the laws of the year 18 B.C., to become subjects of fashionable conversation in Parisian drawing-rooms, in the most refined intellectual centre of the world.

It has never been difficult for me to realise that contemporary Europe and America, the Europe and America of railroads, industries, monstrous swift-growing cities, might find present in ancient Rome a part of their own very souls, restless, turbulent, greedy. In the Rome of the days of Caesar, huge, agitated, seething with freedmen, slaves, artisans come from everywhere, crowded with enormous tenement-houses, run through from morning till night by a mad throng, eager for amusements and distractions; in that Rome where there jostled together an unnumbered population, uprooted from land, from family, from native country, and where from the press of so many men there fermented all the propelling energies of history and all the forces that destroy morality and life--vice and intellectuality, the imperialistic policy, deadly epidemics; in that changeable Rome, here splendid, there squalid; now magnanimous, and now brutal; full of grandeurs, replete with horrors; in that great city all the huge modern metropolises are easily refound, Paris and Ne w York, Buenos Ayres and London, Melbourne and Berlin. Rome created the word that denotes this marvellous and monstrous phenomenon, of history, the enormous city, the deceitful source of life and death--urbs--the city. Whence it is not strange that the countless urbes which the grand economic progress of the nineteenth century has caused to rise in every part of Europe and America look to Rome as their eldest sister and their dean.

Furthermore, into the history of Rome, the historic aristocracy of Europe may look as into the mirror of their own destiny, as everywhere they try to retain wealth and power, playing in the stock-exchange, marrying the daughters of millionaire brewers, giving themselves to commerce; a nobility that resorts, in the effort to preserve its prestige over the middle classes, to the expedients of the most reckless demagogy. Sulla, Lucullus, Pompey, Crassus, Antony, Caesar, exemplify in stupendous types the aristocracy that seeks to conserve riches and power by audaciously employing the forces that menace its own destruction.

Several critics of my work, particularly the French, have observed that the policy of expansion made by Rome in the times of Caesar, as I have described it, resembles closely the craze for imperialism that about ten years ago agitated England. It is true, for imperialism in the time of Caesar was what has existed for the last half century in England--a means of which one part of the historic aristocracy availed itself to keep power and renew decaying prestige, satisfying material interests and flattering with intoxications of vanity the pride of the masses. So, too, the contesting parties in France--the socialist, which represents the labouring classes; the radical, which represents the middle classes; the progressive and the monarchic, which represent the wealthy burghers and the aristocracy--may discover some of their passions, their doings, their invectives, in the political warfare that troubled the age of Caesar; in those scandals, those judicial trials, in that furor of pamphlets and discourses. This is so true, that in consequence my book met a singular fate in France; that of being adopted by each party as an argument in its own favour. Drumont made use of it to demonstrate to France what befalls a country when it allows its national spirit to be corrupted by foreign influx, seeking to persuade his fellow-citizens that the Jews in France do the same work of intellectual and moral dissolution that the Orientals brought about in Rome. Radical writers, like Andre Maurel, have sought arguments in my work to combat the colonial and imperialistic policy. The imperialists also, like Pinon, have looked for arguments to support their stand-point. Was I not merely demonstrating that the policy of expansion is a kind of universal and constant law, which periodically actualises itself through the working of the same forces, in the same ways?

It is not to be thought that the age of Caesar, so disturbed, so stormy, is our only mirror in the story of Rome. When I write the account of the imperial society of the first and second centuries, our own time will be able to recognise even more of itself, to see what must be the future of Europe and America, if for a century or two they have no profound political and social upheavals. In that great pax Romana lasting two centuries, we may study with special facility a phenomenon to be found in all rich civilisations cultured and relatively at peace--the phenomenon to me the most important in contemporary European life, the feminising of all social life; that is, the victory of the feminine over the masculine spirit. Do not fancy that the feminists, the problems and the disputes they excite in modern society, are something quite new and peculiar to us; these are only special forms of a phenomenon more general, the growing influence that woman exercises on society, as civilisation, culture, and wealth steadily increase. Here, too, the history of Rome is luminously clear. In it we see evolving that vast contest between the feminine spirit and the masculine, which is one of the essential phenomena in all human history. We see the masculine spirit--the spirit of domination, of force, of mastery, of daring--ruling complete, when the small community had to fight its first hard battles against nature and men. The father commanded then as monarch in his family; the woman was without right, liberty, personality; had but to obey, to bear children and rear them. But success, power, wealth, greater security, imperceptibly loosened the narrow bondage of the first struggles; then the feminine spirit--the spirit of freedom, of pleasure, of art, of revolt against tradition--gradually acquired strength, and began bit by bit to undermine at its bases the stern masculine rule.

The hard conflict of two centuries is sown with tragedies and catastrophes. Supported by tradition, exasperated by the ever bolder revolts of woman, the masculine spirit every now and then went mad; and brutally tore away her costly jewels and tried to deny her soft raiment and rare perfumes; and when she had already grown accustomed to appearing in the world and shining there, he willed to drive her back into the house, and put beside her there on guard the fieriest threats of law. Sometimes, despairing, he filled Rome with his laments; protested that the liberty of the woman cost the man too dear; cried out that the bills of the dressmaker and the jeweller would send Rome, the Empire, the world, to ruin. In vain, with wealth, in a civilisation full of Oriental influences, woman grew strong, rose, and invaded all society, until in the vast Empire of the first and second centuries, at the climax of her power, with beauty, love, luxury, culture, prodigality, and mysticism she dominated and dissolved a society which in the refinements of wealth and intellectuality had lost the sharp virtues of the pioneer.

It is unnecessary to dilate further on this point; it will be better rather to dwell a moment on the causes and the effects of this singular phenomenon. The history of Rome has been and can be so rich, so manifold, so universal, because in its long record ancient Rome gathered up into itself, welded, fused, the most diverse elements of social life, from all peoples and all regions with which it came into contact. It knew continued war and interrupted peace for centuries. It held united under its vast sway, states decrepit with the oldest of civilisations, and peoples hardly out of primitive barbarism. It exploited with avidity the intelligence, the laboriousness, the science of the former; the physical force, the war-valour and the daring of the latter; it absorbed the vices, the habits, the ideas of the Hellenised Orient, and transfused them in the untamed Occident. Taking men, ideas, money, everywhere and from every people, it created first an empire, then a literature, an architecture, an administration, and a new religion, that were the most tremendous synthesis of the ancient world. So the Roman world turned out vaster and more complex than the Greek, although never assuming proportions exceeding the power of the human mind; and as it grew, it kept that precious quality, wanting in the Greek, unity; hence, the lucid clearness of Roman history. There is everything in it, and everything radiates from one centre, so that comprehension is easy. Without doubt it would be rash to declare that the history of Rome alone may serve as the outline of universal history. It is quite likely that there may be found another history that possesses the same two qualities for which that of Rome is so notable--universality and unity--but one thing we may affirm: up to this time the history of Rome alone has fulfilled this office of universal compendium, which explains how it has always been studied by the learned and lettered of every part of the civilised European-American world, and how in modern intellectual life it is the history universal and cosmopolitan par excellence. This condition of things has a much greater practical importance than is supposed. Indeed it would be a serious mistake to believe that cosmopolitan catholicity is an ideal dower purely of Roman history, for which all the sons of Rome may congratulate themselves as of a thing doing honour only to their stirp. This universality forms part, I should say, of the material patrimony of all the Latin stock; we may number it in the historic inventory of all the good things the sons of Rome possess and of all their reasonable hopes for the future.

This affirmation may at first appear to you paradoxical, strange, and obscure, but I think a short exposition will suffice to clear it. The universality of the history of Rome, the ease of finding in it models in miniature of all our life will have this effect, that classical studies remain the educational foundation of the intelligent classes in all European-American civilisation. These studies may be reformed; they may be as they ought, restricted to a smaller number of persons; but if it is not desired--as of course it cannot be--that in the future all men be purely technical capacities and merely living machines to create material riches; if, on the contrary, it is desired that in every nation the chosen few that govern have a philosophical consciousness of universal life, no means is better suited to instil this philosophic consciousness than the study of ancient Rome, its history, its civilisation, its laws, its politics, its art, and its religions, exactly because Rome is the completest and most lucid synthesis of universal life.

Classical studies are one of the most powerful means of intellectual and moral influence on the Anglo-Saxon and German civilisations that the Latins possess, representing under modern conditions, for the Latin nations, a kind of intellectual entail inherited from their ancestors. The young Germans and Englishmen who study Greek and Latin, who translate Cicero or construe Horace, assimilate the Latin spirit, are brought ideally and morally nearer to us, are prepared without knowing it to receive our intellectual and social influence in other fields, are made in greater or less degree to resemble us. Indeed, it can be said, that, material interests apart, Rome is still in the mental field the strongest bond that holds together the most diverse peoples of Europe; that it unites the French, the English, the Germans, in an ideal identity which overcomes in part the diversity in speech, in traditions, in geographical situation, and in history. If common classical studies did not make kindred spirits of the upper classes in England, France, and Germany, the Rhine and the Channel would divide three nations mentally so different as to be impenetrable each to another.

Therefore the cosmopolitan universality of Roman history is a kind of common good which the Latin races ought to defend with all their might, having care that no other history usurp its place in contemporary culture; that it remain the typical outline, the ideal model of universal history in the education of coming generations. The Latin civilised world has need that every now and then an historian arise to reanimate the history of Rome, in order to maintain its continued supremacy in the education of the intelligent; to prevent other histories from usurping this pre-eminence.

It is useless to cherish illusions as to the task: its accomplishment has become much more arduous than it was fifty years ago; perhaps because the masses have acquired greater power in every part of the European-American world, and democracy advances more or less rapidly, invading everything--the democracy of the technical man, the merchant, the workman, the well-to-do burgher, all of whom easily hold themselves aloof from a culture in itself aristocratic. The accomplishment will become always more and more arduous; for Roman studies, feeling the new generations becoming estranged from them, have for the last twenty-five years tended to take refuge in the tranquil cloisters of learning, of archaeology, in the discreet concourse of a few wise men, who voluntarily flee the noises of the world, Fatal thought! Ancient Rome ought to live daily in the mind of the new social classes that lead onward; ought to irradiate its immortal light on the new worlds that arise from the deeps of the modern age, on pain of undergoing a new destruction more calamitous than that caused by the hordes of Alaric. The day when the history of Rome and its monuments may be but material for erudition to put into the museums by the side of the bricks of the palace of Khorsabad, the cuneiform inscriptions, and the statues of the kings of Assyria, Latin civilisation will be overwhelmed by a fatal catastrophe.

To hinder the extinction of the great light of Rome in the world, to prolong indefinitely this ideal survival, which is the continuation of its material Empire, destroyed centuries ago, there is but one way--to renew historic studies of Rome, and to maintain intact their universal value which forms part of common culture. This is what I have tried to do, seeking to lead back to Roman history the many minds estranged from it, distracted by so many cares and anxieties and present questionings, and to fulfil a solemn duty to my fatherland and the grand traditions of Latin culture. If other histories can grow old, it is indeed the more needful, exactly because it serves to educate new generations, to reanimate Roman history, incorporating in it the new facts constantly discovered by archaeological effort, infusing it with a larger and stronger philosophical spirit, carrying into it the matured experience of the world, which learns not only by studying but also by living.

I do not hesitate to say that every half-century there opens among civilised peoples a contest to find the new conception of Roman history, which, suited to the changed needs, may revivify classical studies; a competition followed by no despicable prize, the intellectual influence that a people may exercise on other peoples by means of these studies. To win in this contest we must never forget, as too many of us have done in the past thirty years, that a man can rule and refashion the world from the depths of a library, but only on condition that he does not immure himself there; that, while the physical sciences propose to understand matter in order to transform it, historico-philosophical discipline has for its end action upon the mind and the will; that philosophical ideas and historic teachings are but seeds shut up to themselves unless they enter the soil of the universal intellectual life.

No: the time-stained marbles of Rome must not end beside cuneiform-inscribed bricks or Egyptian mummies, in the vast dead sections of archaeological halls; they must serve to pave for our feet the way that leads to the future. Therefore nothing could have been pleasanter or more grateful to me, after receiving the invitation tendered me by the College de France, and that from South America, than to accept the invitation of the First Citizen of the United States to visit this world which is being formed. In Paris, that wonderful metropolis of the Latin world, I had the joy, the highest reward for my long, hard labour, to show to the incredulous how much alive the supposedly dead history of Rome still is, when on those unforgettable days so cosmopolite a public gathered from every part of the city in the small plain hall of the old and august edifice. Coming into your midst, I feel that the history of Rome lives not only in the interest with which you have followed these lectures, but also, even if in part without clear cognisance, in things here, in the life you lead, in what you accomplish. The heritage of Rome is, for the peoples of America still more than for those of Europe, an heredity not purely artistic and literary, but political and social, which exercises the most beneficent influence on your history. In a certain sense it might be said that America is to-day politically, more than Europe, the true heir of Rome; that the new world is nearer--by apparent paradox--to ancient Rome than is Europe. Among the most important facts, however little noticed, in the history of the nineteenth century, I should number this: that the Republic, the human state considered as the common property of all--the great political creation of ancient Rome--is reborn here in America, after having died out in Europe. The Latin seed, lying buried for so many centuries beneath the ruins of the ancient world, like the grains of wheat buried in Egyptian tombs, transported from the other side of the ocean, has sprung up in the land that Columbus discovered. If there had been no Rome; if Rome had wholly perished in the great barbarian catastrophe; if in the Renaissance there had not been found among the ruins of the ancient world, together with beautiful Greek statues and manuscripts, this great political idea, there would to-day be no Republic in North America. With the word would probably have perished also the idea and the thing; and there is no assurance that men would have been able so easily and so well to rediscover it by their own effort.

I am a student and not a flatterer. I therefore confess to you frankly, ending these lectures, that I do not belong to that number of Europeans who most enthusiastically admire things American. I think that Americans in general, in North America as in South, so readily recognise in themselves a sufficient number of virtues, that we Europeans hardly need help them in the belief, easy and agreeable to all, that they stand first in the world. Having come from an old society, which has a long historical experience, the most vivid impression made upon me in the two Americas has been just that of entering into a society provided with but meagre historical experience, which therefore easily deludes itself, mistaking for signs of heroic energy and proofs of a finished superiority, the passing advantages of an order chiefly economic, which come from the singular economic condition of the world. In a word, I do not believe that you are superior to Europe in as many things as you think; but a superiority I do recognise, great and, for me at least, indisputable, in the political institutions with which you govern yourselves. The Republic, which you have made to live again, here in this new land, is the true political form worthy of a civilised people, because the only one that is rational and plastic; while the monarchy, the form of government yet ruling so many parts of Europe, is a mixture of mysticism and barbarity, which European interests seek in vain to justify with sophistries unworthy the high grade of culture to which the Continent has attained. To search out the reasons why the old Oriental monarchy holds on so tenaciously in Europe, still threatening the future, would be useless here; certain it is that, when you meet any European other than a Frenchman or a Swiss, you can feel yourselves as superior to him in political institutions as the Roman civis in the times of the Republic felt himself above the Asiatic slave of absolute monarchy. This superiority--never forget it!--you owe to Rome; for its possession, be grateful to the city that has encircled you with such glory, by infusing so tenacious a life into the

"Respublica."