The Roman Republic

The Roman Republic Before Caesar

Free Constitutions and Imperial Tendencies.--Instructiveness of Roman History.--Character of Historical Epochs.--The Age of Caesar.--Spiritual State of Rome.--Contrasts between Ancient and Modern Civilization. > Julius Caesar > Chapter 1


To the student of political history, and to the English student above all others, the conversion of the Roman Republic into a military empire commands a peculiar interest. Notwithstanding many differences, the English and the Romans essentially resemble one another. The early Romans possessed the faculty of self-government beyond any people of whom we have historical knowledge, with the one exception of ourselves. In virtue of their temporal freedom, they became the most powerful nation in the known world; and their liberties perished only when Rome became the mistress of conquered races, to whom she was unable or unwilling to extend her privileges. If England was similarly supreme, if all rival powers were eclipsed by her or laid under her feet, the Imperial tendencies, which are as strongly marked in us as our love of liberty, might lead us over the same course to the same end. If there be one lesson which history clearly teaches, it is this, that free nations cannot govern subject provinces. If they are unable or unwilling to admit their dependencies to share their own constitution, the constitution itself will fall in pieces from mere incompetence for its duties.

We talk often foolishly of the necessities of things, and we blame circumstances for the consequences of our own follies and vices; but there are faults which are not faults of will, but faults of mere inadequacy to some unforeseen position. Human nature is equal to much, but not to everything. It can rise to altitudes where it is alike unable to sustain itself or to retire from them to a safer elevation. Yet when the field is open it pushes forward, and moderation in the pursuit of greatness is never learnt and never will be learnt. Men of genius are governed by their instinct; they follow where instinct leads them; and the public life of a nation is but the life of successive generations of statesmen, whose horizon is bounded, and who act from day to day as immediate interests suggest. The popular leader of the hour sees some present difficulty or present opportunity of distinction. He deals with each question as it arises, leaving future consequences to those who are to come after him. The situation changes from period to period, and tendencies are generated with an accelerating force, which, when once established, can never be reversed. When the control of reason is once removed, the catastrophe is no longer distant, and then nations, like all organized creations, all forms of life, from the meanest flower to the highest human institution, pass through the inevitably recurring stages of growth and transformation and decay. A commonwealth, says Cicero, ought to be immortal, and for ever to renew its youth. Yet commonwealths have proved as unenduring as any other natural object:

   Everything that grows
  Holds in perfection but a little moment,
  And this huge state presenteth nought but shows,
  Whereon the stars in silent influence comment.

Nevertheless, "as the heavens are high above the earth, so is wisdom above folly." Goethe compares life to a game at whist, where the cards are dealt out by destiny, and the rules of the game are fixed: subject to these conditions, the players are left to win or lose, according to their skill or want of skill. The life of a nation, like the life of a man, may be prolonged in honor into the fulness of its time, or it may perish prematurely, for want of guidance, by violence or internal disorders. And thus the history of national revolutions is to statesmanship what the pathology of disease is to the art of medicine. The physician cannot arrest the coming on of age. Where disease has laid hold upon the constitution he cannot expel it. But he may check the progress of the evil if he can recognize the symptoms in time. He can save life at the cost of an unsound limb. He can tell us how to preserve our health when we have it; he can warn us of the conditions under which particular disorders will have us at disadvantage. And so with nations: amidst the endless variety of circumstances there are constant phenomena which give notice of approaching danger; there are courses of action which have uniformly produced the same results; and the wise politicians are those who have learnt from experience the real tendencies of things, unmisled by superficial differences, who can shun the rocks where others have been wrecked, or from foresight of what is coming can be cool when the peril is upon them.

For these reasons, the fall of the Roman Republic is exceptionally instructive to us. A constitutional government the most enduring and the most powerful that ever existed was put on its trial, and found wanting. We see it in its growth; we see the causes which undermined its strength. We see attempts to check the growing mischief fail, and we see why they failed. And we see, finally, when nothing seemed so likely as complete dissolution, the whole system changed by a violent operation, and the dying patient's life protracted for further centuries of power and usefulness.

Again, irrespective of the direct teaching which we may gather from them, particular epochs in history have the charm for us which dramas have-- periods when the great actors on the stage of life stand before us with the distinctness with which they appear in the creations of a poet. There have not been many such periods; for to see the past, it is not enough for us to be able to look at it through the eyes of contemporaries; these contemporaries themselves must have been parties to the scenes which they describe. They must have had full opportunities of knowledge. They must have had eyes which could see things in their true proportions. They must have had, in addition, the rare literary powers which can convey to others through the medium of language an exact picture of their own minds; and such happy combinations occur but occasionally in thousands of years. Generation after generation passes by, and is crumbled into sand as rocks are crumbled by the sea. Each brought with it its heroes and its villains, its triumphs and its sorrows; but the history is formless legend, incredible and unintelligible; the figures of the actors are indistinct as the rude ballad or ruder inscription, which may be the only authentic record of them. We do not see the men and women, we see only the outlines of them which have been woven into tradition as they appeared to the loves or hatreds of passionate admirers or enemies. Of such times we know nothing, save the broad results as they are measured from century to century, with here and there some indestructible pebble, some law, some fragment of remarkable poetry which has resisted decomposition. These periods are the proper subject of the philosophic historian, and to him we leave them. But there are others, a few, at which intellectual activity was as great as it is now, with its written records surviving, in which the passions, the opinions, the ambitions of the age are all before us, where the actors in the great drama speak their own thoughts in their own words, where we hear their enemies denounce them and their friends praise them; where we are ourselves plunged amidst the hopes and fears of the hour, to feel the conflicting emotions and to sympathize in the struggles which again seem to live: and here philosophy is at fault. Philosophy, when we are face to face with real men, is as powerless as over the Iliad or King Lear. The overmastering human interest transcends explanation. We do not sit in judgment on the right or the wrong; we do not seek out causes to account for what takes place, feeling too conscious of the inadequacy of our analysis. We see human beings possessed by different impulses, and working out a pre-ordained result, as the subtle forces drive each along the path marked out for him; and history becomes the more impressive to us where it least immediately instructs.

With such vividness, with such transparent clearness, the age stands before us of Cato and Pompey, of Cicero and Julius Caesar; the more distinctly because it was an age in so many ways the counterpart of our own, the blossoming period of the old civilization, when the intellect was trained to the highest point which it could reach, and on the great subjects of human interest, on morals and politics, on poetry and art, even on religion itself and the speculative problems of life, men thought as we think, doubted where we doubt, argued as we argue, aspired and struggled after the same objects. It was an age of material progress and material civilization; an age of civil liberty and intellectual culture; an age of pamphlets and epigrams, of salons and of dinner-parties, of senatorial majorities and electoral corruption. The highest offices of state were open in theory to the meanest citizen; they were confined, in fact, to those who had the longest purses, or the most ready use of the tongue on popular platforms. Distinctions of birth had been exchanged for distinctions of wealth. The struggles between plebeians and patricians for equality of privilege were over, and a new division had been formed between the party of property and a party who desired a change in the structure of society. The free cultivators were disappearing from the soil. Italy was being absorbed into vast estates, held by a few favored families and cultivated by slaves, while the old agricultural population was driven off the land, and was crowded into towns. The rich were extravagant, for life had ceased to have practical interest, except for its material pleasures; the occupation of the higher classes was to obtain money without labor, and to spend it in idle enjoyment. Patriotism survived on the lips, but patriotism meant the ascendency of the party which would maintain the existing order of things, or would overthrow it for a more equal distribution of the good things which alone were valued. Religion, once the foundation of the laws and rule of personal conduct, had subsided into opinion. The educated, in their hearts, disbelieved it. Temples were still built with increasing splendor; the established forms were scrupulously observed. Public men spoke conventionally of Providence, that they might throw on their opponents the odium of impiety; but of genuine belief that life had any serious meaning, there was none remaining beyond the circle of the silent, patient, ignorant multitude. The whole spiritual atmosphere was saturated with cant--cant moral, cant political, cant religious; an affectation of high principle which had ceased to touch the conduct, and flowed on in an increasing volume of insincere and unreal speech. The truest thinkers were those who, like Lucretius, spoke frankly out their real convictions, declared that Providence was a dream, and that man and the world he lived in were material phenomena, generated by natural forces out of cosmic atoms, and into atoms to be again resolved.

Tendencies now in operation may a few generations hence land modern society in similar conclusions, unless other convictions revive meanwhile and get the mastery of them; of which possibility no more need be said than this, that unless there be such a revival in some shape or other, the forces, whatever they be, which control the forms in which human things adjust themselves, will make an end again, as they made an end before, of what are called free institutions. Popular forms of government are possible only when individual men can govern their own lives on moral principles, and when duty is of more importance than pleasure, and justice than material expediency. Rome at any rate had grown ripe for judgment. The shape which the judgment assumed was due perhaps, in a measure, to a condition which has no longer a parallel among us. The men and women by whom the hard work of the world was done were chiefly slaves, and those who constitute the driving force of revolutions in modern Europe lay then outside society, unable and perhaps uncaring to affect its fate. No change then possible would much influence the prospects of the unhappy bondsmen. The triumph of the party of the constitution would bring no liberty to them. That their masters should fall like themselves under the authority of a higher master could not much distress them. Their sympathies, if they had any, would go with those nearest their own rank, the emancipated slaves and the sons of those who were emancipated; and they, and the poor free citizens everywhere, were to a man on the side which was considered and was called the side of "the people," and was, in fact, the side of despotism.

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