Page images
PDF
EPUB

afraid of Cerberus ;"'* and, “ Those descriptions which picture to us the terrible infernal regions, are so many fables. The poets have invented these things, and alarmed us with idle terrors. Death is a release, and the end of all our sorrows.”+

It is manifest from many passages that the same opinions were held by the poets. We find Juvenal singing,

“Esse aliquid manes, et subterranea regna,

Et contum, et Stygio ranas in gurgite nigras,
Atque una transire vadum tot millia cymba,

Nec pueri credunt, nisi qui nondum aere lavantur.”I
Lucan also :

“Et quid, ait, vani terremur imagine visus?

Aut nihil, est sensus animis a morte relictum,

Aut mors ipsa nihil-,"$ It was impossible that such sentiments held by the philoso. phers, poets, and great men of a nation, should not exert a powerful influence over the vulgar mind. These opinions must necessarily descend to the lower ranks. Lucian (Jupiter Tragedus, C. 17. T. II.) represents an Epicurean and a Stoic as disputing before the people about providence—the rabble inclined to the Epicurean. 11 If the victorious party in such a contest carried with it the popular mind, how strong must have been the influence of both, in regard to a doctrine which they were agreed in rejecting. Servius (Ad Æneid, XI. 755) expressly testifies that unbelief was spread as extensively among the common people as among the learned. I

From the preceding representations it is evident that in later times the fundamental doctrines of religion were extensively re. jected in the Roman world. But the removal of all belief in the great truths on which the national religion was based, did not put an end to superstition. On the contrary, this vice was increased a thousand-fold by the change. It is a singular paradox, but an unquestionable fact, that while disbelief in the existence of any God was rapidly gaining ground, the number of the objects of worship was continually increasing. The rage for foreign gods became a mania, and new divinities were summoned from every quarter of the globe-as though the great gulf of atheism could be filled up by a motley collection of un* Epist. XXIV.

+ Consol. ad Marciam, XIX. | Sat. II. 149–152. § Pharsalia, III. 38–40.

Bib Repos. II. 282. 1 Bib. Repos. II. 282.

couth images and barbarous names. The baser the gods the more popular they proved. Several of the emperors devoted themselves to the worship of the Syrian and Egyptian deities. With these new divinities came tribes of priests, soothsayers, necromancers, astrologers, magicians, jugglers, interpreters of dreams and signs, fortune-tellers, and all the other panders to the general superstition. Nor was it simply the superstitious fears of the people that these men dealt with. They ministered to the appetites and passions of the multitude, and became the instigators and negotiators of the most abominable crimes. Under the direction of men who, for a certain price, engaged to furnish means of escape from the wrath of God and man, assassinations, parricides, and impurities of every kind were committed. Nero rejected all the gods except one female divinity, and her he finally subjected to a gross indignity.* At the same time be kept a magician to reveal to him the future, and to exorcise the ghosts of those whom he had murdered, especially that of his mother, by which he was continually tormented. In this example of Nero, we have an illustration of the operation of unbelief and superstition among the Romans of that age. Not that all were as bad as Nero, but all shared in the general skepticism, and all had consciences, which, from the depths of pollution and crime, cried aloud for some mode of expiation. It is impossible for skepticism to annihilate, though it may pervert, the religious nature of man. Hence the prevalence of unbounded superstition.

IV. It has been shown that a great change took place in the moral character of the Romans, and that this change was intimately connected with the preceding change in the national religion. By some, however, it may still be supposed that the prevalence of atheism, superstition, and vice, among the later Romans, is to be ascribed chiefly to the want of a general diffusion of knowledge. Let us, therefore, glance very briefly at this point. The true relation of education and knowledge to morality among the Romans, may be seen by considering attentively two striking facts.

1. At the time when the people were most deeply sunk in superstition and vice, there was more knowledge in the nation, and this knowledge was more widely diffused, than ever before.

* Suet. Vita Neroni, $ 56.

The slender means of education possessed by the virtuous and noble Romans of early times, and the small amount of knowledge which existed among them, have been already stated. Through the virtues of their ancestors, which were the offspring of religion, the Romans became the masters of the world. They were the successors of the Greeks in power, and although themselves the conquerors, submitted to be taught by those whom their arms subdued, and adopted as their own the Grecian learning. Thus a people whose ancestors, though virtuous and free, had been by no means distinguished for intellectual cultivation, became possessed of treasures of foreign knowledge. The spread of the Greek philosophy at Rome, in the time of Sylla and Lucullus, has been already referred to. From that period all existing sects, the Pythagoreans, the Academics, the Stoics, the Peripatetics, and especially the Epicureans, flourished in Italy.* But philosophy (as has been already intimated) was a study for which the Romans had no genius, and in which they never distinguished themselves. It was, therefore, later than other sciences and arts in gaining foothold at Rome. Before the period mentioned, the Roman education had been greatly improved, and a knowledge of the arts and sciences diffused to a reater or less extent. In the war with the last king of Macedonia, an eclipse of the moon occurred on the evening preceding the decisive battle of Pydna. As Paulus Æmilius, the Roman general, was apprehensive that the superstitious fears of the soldiers would be excited, he caused the army to be informed of the approaching obscuration, with its cause. This was more than a century and a half before the birth of Christ. Whether this eclipse was calculated by Roman science, or by Greeks in the Roman service, it shows that knowledge was beginning to spread, at least among the higher ranks. It is observable that Livy ceases by degrees to relate the prodigies, which in the first ten books of his history he so conscientiously records. This is no doubt to be attributed, in part at least, to the increase of knowledge. While the habit of looking back with wonder and admiration to antiquity permitted, and perhaps required, the relation of such marvellous events of the most ancient times as had become incorporated with the history

* Brucker. Hist. Philos. § 288.

+ Buchholz Philosophische Untersuchungen Ueber Die Römer, I. 158.

of the nation, the diffusion of knowledge forbade the belief that the same things could occur in less remote and better defined periods. In the time of Quinctilian, it appears, the sciences were taught to the common people.“ Even among our country people," says that writer, “There are but few who do not know, or seek to learn something of the natural causes of things."* The soldiers in the army of Crassus, it seems, were able to read amatory romances.t

2. Education at Rome furnished no security to virtue. It either simply refined the prevailing superstition, and changed its form, or in sapping the foundations of the existing religious system, it swept with it all religious belief, and thus eradicated the seeds of virtue.

It is objected that whatever may have been the increase of knowledge, and the improvement in the modes of instruction at Rome, there was no system of universal education, such as is proposed at the present day. This is readily admitted. But before the freedom and happiness of a nation are confidently rested on any scherne of education, it is proper to inquire whether education (without religion) so far as it has been enjoyed, has produced the effects which are expected from it.

Whatever may be said of the mass of the Roman people, it cannot be maintained that the higher ranks were not well educated. Were they virtuous in proportion to their cultivation ? Was the line of division between the educated and the uneducated not only intellectual, but moral, so that the virtue and good principle were on one side, the immorality and crime, for the most part, on the other ? This was not the fact. Vice reigned alike among the educated and the uneducated. It asserted its empire over high and low, over the polished courtier not less than the untutored peasant. The description of the dreadful state of morals given by Seneca is not applicable to the uneducated only. The moral debasement was universal. The same is true of the representations of Sallust. The debauched and desperate band of Catilinian conspirators were nobles ; and it is plain that such a company could not have been collected except where depravity reigned among the higher classes. When Jugurtha directed his emissaries to tempt all men with gold, it must be supposed that leading, influential characters are meant; and these were polished and refined. “ All things are venal at Rome," does not simply include the educated, it refers especially to them. In conjunction with the poets and philosophers, such statesinen as Lucullus, Catiline, Crassus, Claudius, Anthony, Pompey, Cæsar, and Augustus, were the men who corrupted the morals, and subverted the liberties of their country.

* Bib. Repos. II. 282.

t" These things were to amuse the populace. But after the farce was over, Surena assembled the Senate of Seleucia, and produced the obscene books of Aristides, called the Milesiacs. Nor was this a groundless invention to blacken the Romans. For the books being really found in the baggage of Rustius, gave Surena an excellent opportunity to say many satirical things of the Romans, who, even in time of war, could not refrain from such libidinous actions, and abominable books." Plutarch, Life of Crassus.

Theirs were characters produced by a skeptical period. They were men who, like Napoleon, carried their hearts in their heads. They were men who, for the most part, rejected all belief in future retribution, and even future existence, and denied the very being of a God. Or if at any time the terrible goadings of conscience vanquished their unbelief, we see them giving way to the grossest superstition. For strange as it may seem, the rankest skepticism and the extreme of superstition appear to be next door neighbors.

There were doubtless noble spirits among the educated and

Augustus was afraid to stay alone in the dark. Nor did he ever do so; but whenever he waked in the night called for some one to sit with him. In a thunder-storm he always wrapped himself in the skin of a sea.calf, and if the peals happened to be unusually severe, or rather when the heavens indicated that they might be so, (ad omnem majoris tempestatis suspicionem,) he crawled into a deep hole dug in the ground for the pur. pose. From this hiding-place he came forth when he had sufficiently quaked, to furnish the nations in their turn an oppor. tunity to quake. The seal-skin was regarded as a kind of amulet or defensive charm. The other measure was taken on the authority of the philosophers, who taught that the lightning never penetrates more than five feet into the earth. The emperor's weakness respecting thunder probably had something to do with a fright which he had while on a journey one night, when the lightning struck his vehicle, and killed the servant who was carrying the light before him. These and other superstitions, see in Sueton. Vita, Augusti 29, 78, 90—93.

« PreviousContinue »