Julius Caesar

Chapter 2

Julius Caesar

The Roman Constitution.--Moral Character of the Romans.--Roman Religion.-- Morality and Intellect.--Expansion of Roman Power.--The Senate.--Roman Slavery.--Effects of Intercourse with Greece.--Patrician Degeneracy.--The Roman Noble.--Influence of Wealth.--Beginnings of Discontent.

Annourbis.com > Julius Caesar > Chapter 2


The Roman Constitution had grown out of the character of the Roman nation. It was popular in form beyond all constitutions of which there is any record in history. The citizens assembled in the Comitia were the sovereign authority in the State, and they exercised their power immediately and not by representatives. The executive magistrates were chosen annually. The assembly was the supreme Court of Appeal; and without its sanction no freeman could be lawfully put to death. In the assembly also was the supreme power of legislation. Any consul, any praetor, any tribune, might propose a law from the Rostra to the people. The people if it pleased them might accept such law, and senators and public officers might be sworn to obey it under pains of treason. As a check on precipitate resolutions, a single consul or a single tribune might interpose his veto. But the veto was binding only so long as the year of office continued. If the people were in earnest, submission to their wishes could be made a condition at the next election, and thus no constitutional means existed of resisting them when these wishes showed themselves.

In normal times the Senate was allowed the privilege of preconsidering intended acts of legislation, and refusing to recommend them if inexpedient, but the privilege was only converted into a right after violent convulsions, and was never able to maintain itself. That under such a system the functions of government could have been carried on at all was due entirely to the habits of self-restraint which the Romans had engraved into their nature. They were called a nation of kings, kings over their own appetites, passions, and inclinations. They were not imaginative, they were not intellectual; they had little national poetry, little art, little philosophy. They were moral and practical. In these two directions the force that was in them entirely ran. They were free politically, because freedom meant to them not freedom to do as they pleased, but freedom to do what was right; and every citizen, before he arrived at his civil privileges, had been schooled in the discipline of obedience. Each head of a household was absolute master of it, master over his children and servants, even to the extent of life and death. What the father was to the family, the gods were to the whole people, the awful lords and rulers at whose pleasure they lived and breathed. Unlike the Greeks, the reverential Romans invented no idle legends about the supernatural world. The gods to them were the guardians of the State, whose will in all things they were bound to seek and to obey. The forms in which they endeavored to learn what that will might be were childish or childlike. They looked to signs in the sky, to thunder-storms and comets and shooting stars. Birds, winged messengers, as they thought them, between earth and heaven, were celestial indicators of the gods' commands. But omens and auguries were but the outward symbols, and the Romans, like all serious peoples, went to their own hearts for their real guidance. They had a unique religious peculiarity, to which no race of men has produced anything like. They did not embody the elemental forces in personal forms; they did not fashion a theology out of the movements of the sun and stars or the changes of the seasons. Traces may be found among them of cosmic traditions and superstitions, which were common to all the world; but they added of their own this especial feature: that they built temples and offered sacrifices to the highest human excellences, to "Valor," to "Truth," to "Good Faith," to "Modesty," to "Charity," to "Concord." In these qualities lay all that raised man above the animals with which he had so much in common. In them, therefore, were to be found the link which connected him with the divine nature, and moral qualities were regarded as divine influences which gave his life its meaning and its worth. The "Virtues" were elevated into beings to whom disobedience could be punished as a crime, and the superstitious fears which run so often into mischievous idolatries were enlisted with conscience in the direct service of right action.

On the same principle the Romans chose the heroes and heroines of their national history. The Manlii and Valerii were patterns of courage, the Lucretias and Virginias of purity, the Decii and Curtii of patriotic devotion, the Reguli and Fabricii of stainless truthfulness. On the same principle, too, they had a public officer whose functions resembled those of the Church courts in mediaeval Europe, a Censor Morum, an inquisitor who might examine into the habits of private families, rebuke extravagance, check luxury, punish vice and self-indulgence, nay, who could remove from the Senate, the great council of elders, persons whose moral conduct was a reproach to a body on whose reputation no shadow could be allowed to rest.

Such the Romans were in the day when their dominion had not extended beyond the limits of Italy; and because they were such they were able to prosper under a constitution which to modern experience would promise only the most hopeless confusion.

Morality thus engrained in the national character and grooved into habits of action creates strength, as nothing else creates it. The difficulty of conduct does not lie in knowing what it is right to do, but in doing it when known. Intellectual culture does not touch the conscience. It provides no motives to overcome the weakness of the will, and with wider knowledge it brings also new temptations. The sense of duty is present in each detail of life; the obligatory "must" which binds the will to the course which right principle has marked out for it produces a fibre like the fibre of the oak. The educated Greeks knew little of it. They had courage and genius and enthusiasm, but they had no horror of immorality as such. The Stoics saw what was wanting, and tried to supply it; but though they could provide a theory of action, they could not make the theory into a reality, and it is noticeable that Stoicism as a rule of life became important only when adopted by the Romans. The Catholic Church effected something in its better days when it had its courts which treated sins as crimes. Calvinism, while it was believed, produced characters nobler and grander than any which Republican Rome produced. But the Catholic Church turned its penances into money payments. Calvinism made demands on faith beyond what truth would bear; and when doubt had once entered, the spell of Calvinism was broken. The veracity of the Romans, and perhaps the happy accident that they had no inherited religious traditions, saved them for centuries from similar trials. They had hold of real truth unalloyed with baser metal; and truth had made them free and kept them so. When all else has passed away, when theologies have yielded up their real meaning, and creeds and symbols have become transparent, and man is again in contact with the hard facts of nature, it will be found that the "Virtues" which the Romans made into gods contain in them the essence of true religion, that in them lies the special characteristic which distinguishes human beings from the rest of animated things. Every other creature exists for itself, and cares for its own preservation. Nothing larger or better is expected from it or possible to it. To man it is said, you do not live for yourself. If you live for yourself you shall come to nothing. Be brave, be just, be pure, be true in word and deed; care not for your enjoyment, care not for your life; care only for what is right. So, and not otherwise, it shall be well with you. So the Maker of you has ordered, whom you will disobey at your peril.

Thus and thus only are nations formed which are destined to endure; and as habits based on such convictions are slow in growing, so when grown to maturity they survive extraordinary trials. But nations are made up of many persons in circumstances of endless variety. In country districts, where the routine of life continues simple, the type of character remains unaffected; generation follows on generation exposed to the same influences and treading in the same steps. But the morality of habit, though the most important element in human conduct, is still but a part of it. Moral habits grow under given conditions. They correspond to a given degree of temptation. When men are removed into situations where the use and wont of their fathers no longer meets their necessities; where new opportunities are offered to them; where their opinions are broken in upon by new ideas; where pleasures tempt them on every side, and they have but to stretch out their hand to take them--moral habits yield under the strain, and they have no other resource to fall back upon. Intellectual cultivation brings with it rational interests. Knowledge, which looks before and after, acts as a restraining power, to help conscience when it flags. The sober and wholesome manners of life among the early Romans had given them vigorous minds in vigorous bodies. The animal nature had grown as strongly as the moral nature, and along with it the animal appetites; and when appetites burst their traditionary restraints, and man in himself has no other notion of enjoyment beyond bodily pleasure, he may pass by an easy transition into a mere powerful brute. And thus it happened with the higher classes at Rome after the destruction of Carthage. Italy had fallen to them by natural and wholesome expansion; but from being sovereigns of Italy, they became a race of imperial conquerors. Suddenly, and in comparatively a few years after the one power was gone which could resist them, they became the actual or virtual rulers of the entire circuit of the Mediterranean. The south-east of Spain, the coast of France from the Pyrenees to Nice, the north of Italy, Illyria and Greece, Sardinia, Sicily, and the Greek Islands, the southern and western shores of Asia Minor, were Roman provinces, governed directly under Roman magistrates. On the African side Mauritania (Morocco) was still free. Numidia (the modern Algeria) retained its native dynasty, but was a Roman dependency. The Carthaginian dominions, Tunis and Tripoli, had been annexed to the Empire. The interior of Asia Minor up to the Euphrates, with Syria and Egypt, were under sovereigns called Allies, but, like the native princes in India, subject to a Roman protectorate. Over this enormous territory, rich with the accumulated treasures of centuries, and inhabited by thriving, industrious races, the energetic Roman men of business had spread and settled themselves, gathering into their hands the trade, the financial administration, the entire commercial control of the Mediterranean basin. They had been trained in thrift and economy, in abhorrence of debt, in strictest habits of close and careful management. Their frugal education, their early lessons in the value of money, good and excellent as those lessons were, led them, as a matter of course, to turn to account their extraordinary opportunities. Governors with their staffs, permanent officials, contractors for the revenue, negotiators, bill-brokers, bankers, merchants, were scattered everywhere in thousands. Money poured in upon them in rolling streams of gold. The largest share of the spoils fell to the Senate and the senatorial families. The Senate was the permanent Council of State, and was the real administrator of the Empire. The Senate had the control of the treasury, conducted the public policy, appointed from its own ranks the governors of the provinces. It was patrician in sentiment, but not necessarily patrician in composition. The members of it had virtually been elected for life by the people, and were almost entirely those who had been quaestors, aediles, praetors, or consuls; and these offices had been long open to the plebeians. It was an aristocracy, in theory a real one, but tending to become, as civilization went forward, an aristocracy of the rich. How the senatorial privileges affected the management of the provinces will be seen more particularly as we go on. It is enough at present to say that the nobles and great commoners of Rome rapidly found themselves in possession of revenues which their fathers could not have imagined in their dreams, and money in the stage of progress at which Rome had arrived was convertible into power.

The opportunities opened for men to advance their fortunes in other parts of the world drained Italy of many of its most enterprising citizens. The grandsons of the yeomen who had held at bay Pyrrhus and Hannibal sold their farms and went away. The small holdings merged rapidly into large estates bought up by the Roman capitalists. At the final settlement of Italy, some millions of acres had been reserved to the State as public property. The "public land," as the reserved portion was called, had been leased on easy terms to families with political influence, and by lapse of time, by connivance and right of occupation, these families were beginning to regard their tenures as their private property, and to treat them as lords of manors in England have treated the "commons." Thus everywhere the small farmers were disappearing, and the soil of Italy was fast passing into the hands of a few territorial magnates, who, unfortunately (for it tended to aggravate the mischief), were enabled by another cause to turn their vast possessions to advantage. The conquest of the world had turned the flower of the defeated nations into slaves. The prisoners taken either after a battle or when cities surrendered unconditionally were bought up steadily by contractors who followed in the rear of the Roman armies. They were not ignorant like the negroes, but trained, useful, and often educated men, Asiatics, Greeks, Thracians, Gauls, and Spaniards, able at once to turn their hands to some form of skilled labor, either as clerks, mechanics, or farm-servants. The great landowners might have paused in their purchases had the alternative lain before them of letting their lands lie idle or of having freemen to cultivate them. It was otherwise when a resource so convenient and so abundant was opened at their feet. The wealthy Romans bought slaves by thousands. Some they employed in their workshops in the capital. Some they spread over their plantations, covering the country, it might be, with olive gardens and vineyards, swelling further the plethoric figures of their owners' incomes. It was convenient for the few, but less convenient for the Commonwealth. The strength of Rome was in her free citizens. Where a family of slaves was settled down, a village of freemen had disappeared; the material for the legions diminished; the dregs of the free population which remained behind crowded into Rome, without occupation except in politics, and with no property save in their votes, of course to become the clients of the millionaires, and to sell themselves to the highest bidders. With all his wealth there were but two things which the Roman noble could buy, political power and luxury; and in these directions his whole resources were expended. The elections, once pure, became matters of annual bargain between himself and his supporters. The once hardy, abstemious mode of living degenerated into grossness and sensuality.

And his character was assailed simultaneously on another side with equally mischievous effect. The conquest of Greece brought to Rome a taste for knowledge and culture; but the culture seldom passed below the surface, and knowledge bore but the old fruit which it had borne in Eden. The elder Cato used to say that the Romans were like their slaves--the less Greek they knew the better they were. They had believed in the gods with pious simplicity. The Greeks introduced them to an Olympus of divinities whom the practical Roman found that he must either abhor or deny to exist. The "Virtues" which he had been taught to reverence had no place among the graces of the new theology. Reverence Jupiter he could not, and it was easy to persuade him that Jupiter was an illusion; that all religions were but the creations of fancy, his own among them. Gods there might be, airy beings in the deeps of space, engaged like men with their own enjoyments; but to suppose that these high spirits fretted themselves with the affairs of the puny beings that crawled upon the earth was a delusion of vanity. Thus, while morality was assailed on one side by extraordinary temptations, the religious sanction of it was undermined on the other. The, Romans ceased to believe, and in losing their faith they became as steel becomes when it is demagnetized; the spiritual quality was gone out of them, and the high society of Rome itself became a society of powerful animals with an enormous appetite for pleasure. Wealth poured in more and more, and luxury grew more unbounded. Palaces sprang up in the city, castles in the country, villas at pleasant places by the sea, and parks, and fish-ponds, and game-preserves, and gardens, and vast retinues of servants. When natural pleasures had been indulged in to satiety, pleasures which were against nature were imported from the East to stimulate the exhausted appetite. To make money--money by any means, lawful or unlawful--became the universal passion. Even the most cultivated patricians were coarse alike in their habits and their amusements. They cared for art as dilettanti, but no schools either of sculpture or painting were formed among themselves. They decorated their porticos and their saloons with the plunder of the East. The stage was never more than an artificial taste with them; their delight was the delight of barbarians, in spectacles, in athletic exercises, in horse-races and chariot-races, in the combats of wild animals in the circus, combats of men with beasts on choice occasions, and, as a rare excitement, in fights between men and men, when select slaves trained as gladiators were matched in pairs to kill each other. Moral habits are all-sufficient while they last; but with rude strong natures they are but chains which hold the passions prisoners. Let the chain break, and the released brute is but the more powerful for evil from the force which his constitution has inherited. Money! the cry was still money!--money was the one thought from the highest senator to the poorest wretch who sold his vote in the Comitia. For money judges gave unjust decrees and juries gave corrupt verdicts. Governors held their provinces for one, two, or three years; they went out bankrupt from extravagance, they returned with millions for fresh riot. To obtain a province was the first ambition of a Roman noble. The road to it lay through the praetorship and the consulship; these offices, therefore, became the prizes of the State; and being in the gift of the people, they were sought after by means which demoralized alike the givers and the receivers. The elections were managed by clubs and coteries; and, except on occasions of national danger or political excitement, those who spent most freely were most certain of success.

Under these conditions the chief powers in the Commonwealth necessarily centred in the rich. There was no longer an aristocracy of birth, still less of virtue. The patrician families had the start in the race. Great names and great possessions came to them by inheritance. But the door of promotion was open to all who had the golden key. The great commoners bought their way into the magistracies. From the magistracies they passed into the Senate; and the Roman senator, though in Rome itself and in free debate among his colleagues he was handled as an ordinary man, when he travelled had the honors of a sovereign. The three hundred senators of Rome were three hundred princes. They moved about in other countries with the rights of legates, at the expense of the province, with their trains of slaves and horses. The proud privilege of Roman citizenship was still jealously reserved to Rome itself and to a few favored towns and colonies; and a mere subject could maintain no rights against a member of the haughty oligarchy which controlled the civilized world. Such generally the Roman Republic had become, or was tending to become, in the years which followed the fall of Carthage, B.C. 146. Public spirit in the masses was dead or sleeping; the Commonwealth was a plutocracy. The free forms of the constitution were themselves the instruments of corruption. The rich were happy in the possession of all that they could desire. The multitude was kept quiet by the morsels of meat which were flung to it when it threatened to be troublesome. The seven thousand in Israel, the few who in all states and in all times remained pure in the midst of evil, looked on with disgust, fearing that any remedy which they might try might be worse than the disease. All orders in a society may be wise and virtuous, but all cannot be rich. Wealth which is used only for idle luxury is always envied, and envy soon curdles into hate. It is easy to persuade the masses that the good things of this world are unjustly divided, especially when it happens to be the exact truth. It is not easy to set limits to an agitation once set on foot, however justly it may have been provoked, when the cry for change is at once stimulated by interest and can disguise its real character under the passionate language of patriotism. But it was not to be expected that men of noble natures, young men especially whose enthusiasm had not been cooled by experience, would sit calmly by while their country was going thus headlong to perdition. Redemption, if redemption was to be hoped for, could come only from free citizens in the country districts whose manners and whoso minds were still uncontaminated, in whom the ancient habits of life still survived, who still believed in the gods, who were contented to follow the wholesome round of honest labor. The numbers of such citizens were fast dwindling away before the omnivorous appetite of the rich for territorial aggrandizement. To rescue the land from the monopolists, to renovate the old independent yeomanry, to prevent the free population of Italy, out of which the legions had been formed which had built up the Empire, from being pushed out of their places and supplanted by foreign slaves, this, if it could be done, would restore the purity of the constituency, snatch the elections from the control of corruption, and rear up fresh generations of peasant soldiers to preserve the liberties and the glories which their fathers had won.

Back - Next