Page images
PDF
EPUB

wound. They were instructed by the Lanistæ, not only in the art of fighting, but also in the most graceful manner of dying; and when those wretched men felt themselves mortally wounded, they assumed such attitudes as they knew pleased the beholders ; and they seemed to receive pleasure themselves from the applause bestowed upon them in their last moments.

When a gladiator was thrown by his antagonist to the ground, and directly laid down his arms, it was a sign that he could resist no longer, and declared himself vanquished; but still his life depended on the spectators. If they were pleased with his performance, or, in a merciful disposition, they held up their hands, with the thumb folded down, and the life of the man was spared; but if they were in the humour to see him die, they held up the hand clenched, with the thumb only erect. As soon as the prostrate victim beheld that fatal signal, he knew all hopes of life were vain, and immediately presented his breast to the sword of his adversary, who, whatever his own inclinations might be, was obliged to put him to death instantly.

As these combats formed the supreme pleasure of the inhabitants of Rome, the most cruel of their emperors were sometimes the most popular ; merely because they gratified the people, without restraint, in their favourite amusement.

Wen Marcus Aurelius thought it necessary, for the public service, to recruit his army from the gladia. tors of Rome, it raised more discontent among

the lace, than many of the wildest pranks of Caligula. In the times of some of the emperors, the lower class of Roman citizens were certainly as worthless a set of men as ever existed; stained with all the vices which arise from idleness and dependence; living upon the largesses of the great ; passing their whole time in the Circus and amphitheatres, where every sentiment of humanity was annihiJated within their breasts, and where the agonies and torments of their fellow-creatures were their chicf pastime. That no occasion might be lost of indulging this savage

poputaste of the populace, criminals were condemned to fight with wild beasts in the arena, or were exposed, unarmed, to be torn in pieces by them; at other times, they were blindfolded, and in that condition obliged to cut and slaughter each other. So that, instead of victims solemnly sacrificed to public justice, they seemed to be brought in as buffoons to raise the mirth of the spectators.

The practice of domestic slavery had also a great influ. ence in rendering the Romans of a cruel and haughty character. Masters could punish their slaves in what manner, and to what degree, they thought proper. It was as late as the emperor Adrian's time, before any law was made, ordaining that a master who should put his slave to death without sufficient cause, should be tried for his life. The usual porter at the gate of a great man's house in ancient Rome, was a chained slave. The noise of whips and lashes resounded from one house to another, at the time when it was customary for the masters of families to take an account of the conduct of their servants. This cruel disposition, as is the case wherever domestic slavery prevails, extended to the gentle sex, and hardened the mild tempers of the women. What a picture has Juvenal drawn of the toilet of a Roman lady!

Nama si constituit, solitoque decentius optat
Ornari
Componit crinem laceratis ipsa capillis,
Nuda humeros Psecas infelix, nudisque mamillis.
Altior hic quare cincinnus? Taurea punit.

Continuo Alexi crimen saçinusque capilli. It was customary for avaricious masters, to send their infirm and sick slaves, to an island in the Tiber, where there was a temple of Æsculapius; if the god pleased to recover them, the master took them back to his family ; if they died, no farther inquiry was made about them. The emperor Claudius put a check to this piece of inhumanity, by ordaining, that every sick slave, thus abandoned by his master, should be declared free when he recovered his health.

From these observations, are we to infer, that the ancient Romans were naturally of a more cruel turn of mind, than the present inhabitants of Europe ? Or is there not reason to believe that, in the same circumstances, modern nations would act in the same manner ? Do we not perceivė, that the practice of domestic slavery has, at this day, a strong tendency to render men haughty, capricious, and cruel. Such, I am afraid, is the nature of man, that if he has power without controul, he will use it without justice; absolute power has a strong tendency to make good men bad, and never fails to make bad men worse.

It was an observation of the late mareschal Saxe, that in all the contests between the army waggoners and their horses, the waggoners were in the wrong; which he imputed to their having absolute authority over the horses. In the qualities of the head and heart, and in most other respects, he thought the men and horses on an equality. Caprice is a vice of the temper, which increases faster than any other by indulgence; it often spoils the best qualities of the heart, and, in particular situations, degenerates into the most unsufferable tyranny. The first appearance of it in young minds ought to be opposed with firmness, and prevented from farther progress, otherwise our future attempts to arrest it may be fruitless ; for

Mobilitate viget, viresque acquirit eundo. The combats in the amphitheatres were, as I have al. ready said, introduced by degrees at Rome. The custom of making prisoners fight around the funeral piles of deceased heroes, was a refinement on a more barbarous practice; and the Romans, no doubt, valued themselves on their humanity, in not butchering their prisoners in cold blood, as was the custom in the earliest ages of Greece. The institution of obliging criminals to fight in the arena, and thus giving them a chance for their lives, would also appear to them a very merciful improvement on the common manner of execution. The grossest sophistry will pass on men's understandings, when it is used in support of measures to which they are already inclined. And when we consider the eagerness with which the populace

[ocr errors][merged small]

of every country behold the accidental combats which occur in the streets, we need not be surprised to find, that when once the combats of gladiators were permitted among the Roman populace, on whatever pretext, the taste for them would daily increase, till it erased every idea of compunction from their breasts, and became their ruling passion. The patricians, enriched by the pillage of kingdoms, and knowing that their power at Rome, and consequently all over the world, depended on the favour and suffrages of the people, naturally sought popularity by gratifying their favourite taste. Afterwards the emperors might imagine, that such shows would keep the citizens from reflecting on their lost liberties, or the enormities of the new form of government; and, exclusive of every political reason, many of them, from the barbarous disposition of their own minds, would take as much pleasure in the scenes acted on the arena, as the most savage of the vulgar.

While we express horror and indignation at the fondness which the Romans displayed for the bloody combats of the amphitheatre, let us reflect, whether this proceeded from any peculiar cruelty of disposition inherent in that people, or belongs to mankind in general ; let us reflect, whether it is probable, that the people of any other nation would not be gradually led, by the same degrees, to an equal passion for such horrid entertainments. Let us consider, whether there is reason to suspect that those who arm cocks with steel, and take pleasure in beholding the spirited little animals cut one another to death, would not take the same, or superior delight, in obliging men to slaughter each other if they had the power.-And what restrains them ? Is there no reason to believe, that the influence of a purer religion, and brighter example, than were known to the heathen world, prevents mankind from those enormities now, which were permitted and countenanced formerly? As soon as the benevolent precepts of Christianity were received by the Romans as the laws of the Deity, the prisoners and the slaves were treated with

humanity, and the bloody exhibitions in the amphitheatreswere abolished.

LETTER XL.

Rome.

You are surprised that I have hitherto said nothing of the Capitol, and the Forum Romanum, which is by far the most interesting scene of antiquities in Rome. The objects worthy of attention are so numerous, and appear so confused, that it was a considerable time before I could form a tolerable distinct idea of their situation with respect to each other, though I have paid many ́more visits to this than any other spot since I have been in this city. Before we entered a church or palace, we ran thither with as much impatience as if the Capitol had been in danger of falling before our arrival. The approach to the modern Campidoglio is very noble, and worthy of the genius of Michael Angelo. The building itself is also the work of that great artist ; it is raised on part of the ruins of the ancient Capitol, and fronts St. Peter's church, with its back to the Forum and old Rome. Ascending this cele brated hill, the heart beats quick, and the mind warms with a thousand interesting ideas. You are carried back, at once, to the famous robber who first founded it. With. out thinking of the waste of time which must have effaced what you are looking for, you cast about your eyes in search of the path by which the Gauls climbed up, and where they were opposed and overthrown by Manlius. You withdraw your eyes with disdain, from every modern object, and are even displeased with the elegant structure you see before you, and contemplate, with more respect, the ruins on which it is founded; because they are more truly Roman.

The two sphynxes of basalte, at the bottom of the as. cent, though excellent specimens of Egyptian sculpture, engage little of your attention. Warm with the glory of Rome, you cannot bestow a thought on the hieroglyphics

« PreviousContinue »