From the reign of Commodus must be dated the beginning of the Decline. From now on, two influences are at work undermining the structure of the ancient Empire; we see the double process of disintegration and conversion. Pagan civilization had finished its day and must make way for the dawn of a new era. The Roman Empire fell to pieces because the sword, which was the only bond by which its heterogeneous conquests could be held together, became insubordinate to the political authority. After the second century, the army was rarely led to new foreign victories. It became the instrument of revolt; it bartered the Empire, and supported or assassinated adventitious claimants for the throne at its wild caprice. At last, the old Roman spirit having entirely departed, the barbarians made an easy prey of the decaying body.
In the meantime the gods, who, so far as their effective existence was concerned, had been long since discredited, were deposed from the minds of an increasing number of the people, to make room for a new and purer faith. But the rise of Christianity did not follow the brilliant day of paganism without an intervening night. Literature, art, and the science of domestic and social life deteriorated, as European society fell to the rude habits of the dark ages of feudalism. In this closing chapter, it is our purpose to follow the fortunes of pagan woman life down to the time when, under Constantine, Christianity became the State religion.
In the accession of Commodus is seen the return to the rule of that despotism, joined with moral insanity, from which Rome had been free since the days of Domitian. The Empire was again allowed to take care of itself, while the emperor occupied himself with abominable indulgences and murderous executions.
Under the preceding emperors, moral courtiers had been in favor. Now, the opposite example was set, and the women as well as the men were much more eager to rush into profligacy than they had been, under Marcus Aurelius, to take up philosophy. The two empresses were leaders in the new fashion. Crispina, the wife of Commodus, either carried her intrigues too far or in some other way made herself obnoxious to her husband, for she was banished to Capri and shortly afterward put to death. It is noticeable that the worst men were the quickest to punish laxity in the conduct of their own wives. They were more suspicious; they had a more alert sense of amorous possibilities; they were in a better position to discover clues; and they were devoid of conscience, which, at least, might have dictated to them a policy of fair play.
Lucilla, the daughter of Marcus Aurelius and the sister of Commodus, inherited nothing of her grandmother's character with her name. Atavism in her case was not effectual. She had been the spouse of her father's colleague, Verus, and she retained her imperial honors from this connection; so that she occupied the emperor's box at the theatre and had the sacred fire, the symbol of majesty, carried before her as she passed through the streets. Her lovers were numerous.
Apart from such failings as those sensual indulgences so customary among the Romans, the reign of Commodus for the first three years was fairly respectable. He had as yet shown no symptom of mercilessness; but one night, as he was traversing an ill-lighted passage in the palace, a Senator rushed upon him with the words: "The Senate sends you this." The threat saved the emperor's life, the guards at once overpowering the assassin. The plot owed its origin to Lucilla. Dissatisfied with the second place in the Empire, the misguided woman designed, upon the death of her brother, to place on the throne one of her lovers, with whom she would reign in concert. That her destined accomplice was not Claudius Pompeianus, her respectable though somewhat aged husband, may be assumed from the fact that he was not privy to the plot. Lucilla was punished with exile and, later, with death. From this time, Commodus gave rein to his cruel disposition without restraint; the slightest suspicion on his part, or an insinuation on that of his favorites, sufficed to authorize an execution. Rome had once been at the mercy of a buffoon who was deluded with the idea that he possessed a heavenly voice; she was now ravaged by a gladiator who believed himself to be a second Hercules. His extravagance being enormous, and the execution of the rich being the easiest way to recuperate the treasury, many women as well as men lost their lives on account of their wealth.
Among the possessions of one of his victims, Commodus discovered a very beautiful woman, with whom he at once fell desperately in love. There is in the Cabinet de France a bronze medallion representing the features of Commodus and Marcia conjoined in profile. There are also other indications that this woman, whom the emperor made his concubine, was accorded almost the honors of an empress. She is traditionally credited with having been a Christian; but, though she may have favored Christianity, and probably it was to her influence that its adherents owed their safety during this reign, her own life did not so closely correspond with the teaching of that faith as to render her worthy of the title of Christian.
Marcia endeavored to dissuade her imperial lover from some of his bloodthirsty purposes, and as a reward he placed her own name with that of two of his chief officials on his tablets which contained the list of the fated. These tablets were discovered under his pillow and fell into Marcia's hands. She realized that desperate measures were immediately demanded. Consulting with the others whose lives were threatened, they decided that she should administer to the emperor poison in his wine. This she did; but, doubtful as to the effect, they introduced a young wrestler, who strangled Commodus in his sleep. No assassination planned by a female mind was ever more excusable than this. The act saved Marcia her life, and rid the world of one in comparison with whom the monsters slain by Perseus were desirable neighbors.
For a time the Empire went begging for a ruler. Pertinax, a man who from being the son of a charcoal dealer had raised himself to the position of consul, was chosen by the assassins of Commodus; but Pertinax was not eager for the exalted but dangerous position of emperor. He offered it to some of the Senators, but they declined the magnificent gift with thanks. The soldiers, finding in their camp a Senator whom they preferred to Pertinax, proposed to make him emperor; but he escaped and ran away from the city. Pertinax was at last induced to accept; and could he have retained the rule, Rome would have entered again upon a period like that of Trajan. He refused to allow his wife to take the title of Augusta, judging that she had done nothing to earn it. He put up to auction the inmates of the seraglio of Commodus, in order to replenish the empty treasury, giving, however, their liberty to those who had been forcibly abducted from their homes. But his government was too rigid for the prætorian guard, and they ended it by assassinating him after a reign of only eighty days.
There was in Rome at this time a woman named Manlia Scantilla. She was the wife of a Senator, by name Julianus, who possessed immense wealth and had filled all the highest offices of the State. After the murder of Pertinax, Manlia heard that the prætorian guards were offering the Empire to the highest bidder. Her household was at the moment sitting down to a sumptuous banquet. Manlia and her daughter, carried away by their ambition, urged Julianus not to miss so favorable an opportunity to seat himself on the throne and to clothe them in the imperial purple; if wealth was the only qualification, Julianus possessed it. He hurried to the camp, and while the father-in-law of the dead Pertinax made his offers from within he raised them from without the ramparts. At last the Empire was knocked down to him for six thousand two hundred and fifty drachmas [about one thousand two hundred and fifty dollars] to each prætorian. After he had received the oaths of his new guards and had been presented to the Senate, he went to the palace. There he saw, still untouched, the frugal meal which had been prepared for Pertinax. Contemptuously sneering at this, he commanded a banquet to be served that was worthy of an emperor, at which he, Manlia, and their friends, while regaling themselves, were entertained by the performances of Pylades, a celebrated dancer. Their occupancy of the palace, however, was brief. The people were disgusted, and the legions in the provinces were roused to furious indignation. Pescennius Niger, commanding in Syria, was proclaimed emperor by his soldiers, and Septimus Severus received the same honor in Upper Pannonia. The latter marched upon Rome, and Julianus was soon convinced that his high-priced glory was not a good bargain. He was without support, though he endeavored to maintain the regard of the prætorians by executing Marcia, who had slain their darling Commodus; but the guards who had sold him the Empire were not minded to sacrifice themselves by maintaining him in its possession. They made no resistance when the Senate passed a decree of deposition and death against Julianus, at the same time acknowledging Severus as emperor. The former was beheaded, after reigning sixty-six days.
Once more Rome was to have an emperor worthy of the name. The manner in which Severus was received in the city was a good omen for his reign. "At the city's gates," says Dion Cassius, "Severus dismounted from his horse, and laid aside his military dress before entering Rome; but his whole army followed him into the city. It was the most imposing sight I ever saw. Throughout the city were garlands of flowers and laurel wreaths; the houses, adorned with hangings of different colors, were resplendent with the fire of sacrifices and the light of torches. The citizens, clad in white, filled the air with acclamations, and the soldiers advanced in martial order, as if at a triumph. We Senators headed the procession, wearing the insignia of our rank."
With the enthronement of Septimus Severus, there came to the city as his wife one of the most remarkable women of Roman history. Julia Domna was a native of Emesa in Syria, but at the same time a Roman subject. Severus had lost his first wife while he was governor in Gaul; and while he was commanding in Syria he became acquainted with the daughter of Bassianus, priest of the Sun. It was not alone Julia's beauty that captivated him, though the bust and the noble stola-clad statue which are still preserved at Rome warrant the opinion that a single man of any susceptibility might well have excused in himself the lack of any other consideration. Severus, however, was a student of omens and divination, and well versed in the science of astrology. Julia's nativity had been cast, and the stars indicated that she was to be the wife of a sovereign. This decided Severus. He concluded that he could not do better than link his fortunes with those of a young lady who, though poor at present, had in prospect a future so promising. Julia Domna deserved all that the stars could predict for her. With the attractions of her person were united unusual powers of mind. It is said of her that she was capable of great boldness of purpose and equal prudence in putting her plans into effect; and to her is attributed also a strength of mind that is uncommon in her sex. Severus held her in the highest regard, and she was so accustomed to accompany him on his expeditions that she also earned that title which the soldiers always bestowed on such ladies--"The Mother of the Camps." On inscriptions she was spoken of as domina--the mistress. The number of these inscriptions proves the popularity of Julia among the Greeks also, by whom she was honored as "a new Demeter."
This empress was a patroness of letters; her friends were principally among the learned and the students of philosophy. Severus himself, we are told, greatly admired one of the ladies of her circle because she could read and understand Plato. It is extremely pleasant, after a long list of empresses the records of whose frailties are exceedingly monotonous, to imagine Julia Domna engaged in the study of the highest problems of life and befriending such men as Ulpian and Galen. She thus earned for herself the title of Julia the Philosopher. There is every reason to believe that Diogenes Laertius dedicated to her his History of the Greek Philosophers. The book is dedicated to a woman who greatly admired the Academy; but as the name and the dedicatory epistle are missing, it is not absolutely certain whether it was Arria, mentioned in an earlier chapter, or the empress, who was thus honored. There is no doubt, however, that Julia engaged Philostratus to write for her the life of Apollonius of Tyana, the great Pythagorean thaumaturgist.
The great historian of the Decline of the Roman Empire says that while the grateful flattery of these learned men has extolled the virtues of the wife of Severus, "if we may credit the scandal of ancient history, chastity was very far from being the most conspicuous virtue of the Empress Julia." But Gibbon rarely questions an allegation of this sort; on the other hand, Dion Cassius, who zealously reports every such accusation, is, for a wonder, silent on this. Julia's intellectual tastes, not to speak of her four children, would be likely to preclude her falling into any gross immoralities.
Associated with the empress in the palace were her sister and two nieces, all bearing like her the name Julia. Her sister, Julia Mæsa, was no less remarkable than the empress; and in later days, by placing her grandsons on the throne, she presided over the destinies of the Empire as no other woman had hitherto done. Julia Soæmias is represented on coins as the Heavenly Virgin; but if the statement of Lampridius in regard to her mundane frailties is to be credited, her lightly adorned statue as Venus was more in character. Then there was Julia Mammæa, who reared one of the best, though not of the strongest, men who attained to the purple, and who, by her influence over his mind, held the reins of government greatly to the immediate profit of the Empire.
Another lady of the court which surrounded Julia Domna was Plautilla, the daughter of Plautianus the prefect. Plautianus was the emperor's relative, and by him vested with powers almost equal to his own. He was an ambitious man, and, while probably faithful to his master, sought to secure his own position by marrying his daughter to the young prince Caracalla. This marriage was forced upon Caracalla much against his will, and proved disastrous to Plautilla; but it was an astoundingly magnificent affair. Dion relates that he saw the dowry of the bride carried into the palace, and declares that it was enough for fifty kings' daughters. The same historian tells of many tyrannous extravagances which Plautianus allowed himself on this occasion; but when he informs us that the latter caused one hundred freeborn Romans, many of them husbands and fathers of families, to be mutilated, in order that his daughter might be attended by a retinue of eunuchs in the Oriental fashion, our sense of what is possible, even in the most despotic circumstances, rebels. The ancient anecdotist further says that "the thing was not known until after Plautianus's death." It is surely inconceivable that the wives of these victims should have allowed such a thing to pass in silence.
Caracalla threatened the destruction of his bride and her father when he should come to the throne. The latter part of this menace he put into effect without waiting for his father's death. Plautilla seems not to have been blameless in the matter. Her father made himself the enemy of the empress and her son, and Plautilla with him turned the indifference of her husband into positive hatred. The imperial family was rent with discord. Julia Domna did not endeavor to conciliate the powerful favorite, and he sought her ruin by means of the new laws which had been passed against conjugal infidelity. If Dion may be believed in the matter, the prefect went so far as to subject women of noble family to torture, in order to procure evidence against the empress. This attempt does not seem to have been successful, and Caracalla soon found an opportunity to avenge the attempt to injure the reputation of his mother. Surprising his father with an accusation of treason on the part of the prefect, he caused the latter to be struck down before the emperor had time to ascertain the truth. Shortly afterward, Plautilla was exiled to Lipari; and when her husband came to the throne he caused her to be put to death.
Under Severus were decreed a number of laws which affected the life and the status of women. He had a strong sense of justice. When persons were banished, the law required that their property should be confiscated. On one occasion, when a mother and her son were about to suffer that punishment, the mother begged that enough might be taken from her possessions to afford her son the bare necessaries of life. The son also pleaded that from his property his mother might receive the same mercy. This mutual solicitude touched the emperor, and he said: "I cannot change the law; but it shall be as you desire."
He decreed that the husband who did not avenge his murdered wife should forfeit whatever of her dowry would otherwise legally fall to him. He also commanded that women who deprived their husbands of the hope of children by producing abortion should be condemned to temporary exile.
There were many women who, in slavery, were reduced to the necessity of earning money for their owners by their own prostitution. This was their only means of securing their liberty. It was made a misdemeanor for anyone to reproach them for this misfortune, nor was it allowed that any woman should be forced against her will to adopt a life of infamy. Women were also prohibited from fighting in the arena. The laws against adultery were rendered more severe; but, from what we can learn of the times, this did not result in any marked effect upon social morality.
There was in existence a law forbidding provincial officials, and even their sons, to take wives from the province to which they were appointed. This was a wise measure; for it is easy to see how these officials, by the power afforded them through their position, might, in order to secure rich dowries, compel unwilling brides to accept their suit. Nevertheless, such marriages at times did take place. In order to enforce the spirit of the law, and to protect provincials from official tyranny in this respect, Severus ordered that an official who had married a wealthy heiress in his province should not be allowed to inherit from her.
Since Rome had possessed a standing army it had always been the rule that the soldiers should not be permitted to marry. The consequence was that the camps were surrounded by crowds of profligate women, as well as other women who had become the constant companions of soldiers but could not be legally married. Severus repealed this law and allowed the legionaries to contract legitimate marriages. Anyone who is cognizant of the effect of the residence of a garrison of unmarried soldiers in a European town can understand what a salutary influence this enactment of Severus would have upon general morality.
The principal thing in the life of Severus for which he can be justly criticised with severity is his appointment of Caracalla as one of his successors, and thus allowing his parental affection to overcome his judgment of what was good for the Empire.
On their father's death, Caracalla and his greatly superior brother Geta were made joint emperors; but they were jealous of each other and could not agree. They proposed to divide the Empire. "But will you also divide your mother?" asked Julia; and with many exhortations she dissuaded them from resorting to this impracticable scheme.
Rome was once more to be harassed by the fury of a youthful monster. Caracalla concluded that one emperor would suffice. In order to carry out his purpose, he agreed to meet his brother in their mother's apartments and there discuss terms of reconciliation. While he was conversing with Geta, some centurions rushed into the room; and though his mother tried to protect her younger son with her arms, Caracalla urged the assassins to their work, and the empress herself was wounded and also covered with Geta's blood. Afterward, when the murderer found his mother in the midst of her female friends weeping over the fate of his brother, he threatened them all with death. This menace was indeed executed upon Fadilla, a surviving daughter of Marcus Aurelius. Milman says: "The most valuable paragraph of Dion, which the industry of M. Mai has recovered, relates to this daughter of Marcus, executed by Caracalla. Her name, as appears from Fronto, as well as from Dion, was Cornificia. When commanded to choose the kind of death she was to suffer, she burst into womanish tears; but remembering her father Marcus, she thus spoke: 'O my hapless soul, now imprisoned in the body, burst forth! be free! Show them, however reluctant to believe it, that thou art the daughter of Marcus.' She then laid aside all her ornaments, and, preparing herself for death, ordered her veins to be opened." Many other women died at this time because they were supposed to be sympathizers with Geta.
It would have been an unnatural thing and a disgrace to humanity if Caracalla himself had escaped the assassin's hand. His fate came to him in his twenty-ninth year, as he was on a pilgrimage to the temple of the Moon; and Macrinus, who began life as a slave and was at one time a gladiator, reigned in his stead.
The Empress Julia Domna did not long outlive her son. Hers had been a strange career. From a humble position she had been raised to that of the highest lady in the world; and she had been a power in her time. During the reign of Caracalla, though she could not restrain his enormities, she had really administered the Empire. With her exaltation had also come the most bitter sorrow. One son had been killed in her arms by the other; and now the fratricide had fallen by the assassin's weapon. She was at Antioch when she heard of her son's death. The news wounded her both as a mother and also as an empress; one who had been the servant of her husband was now to rule over her. Though Macrinus treated her with great consideration, life seemed no longer tolerable, and she resolved to starve herself to death. This resolution was not less easy to form, inasmuch as she was suffering from an incurable disease. There are some intimations that she first thought it possible to raise herself to the throne and reign, as did some of her famous female contemporaries in the East; but she soon carried out the project dictated by hopelessness and starved herself to death.
After the death of Julia Domna, the other three Julias were commanded to return to Emesa, where was the temple of the Sun, in which the father of the family had been a priest. They were allowed to carry with them their wealth; and this gold they soon found a means of using to the overthrow of Macrinus. Soæmias had a son named Bassianus, and Mammæa also had a son, who is most favorably known as the Emperor Alexander.
Bassianus was consecrated to the priesthood of the Sun. Macrinus had made the mistake of stationing a great many troops at Emesa, where he had sent these women, with minds full of dislike for himself and a house full of gold which they might use to his disadvantage. The soldiers fell in love with the young Bassianus, as they viewed his fine figure arrayed in the magnificent robes of his priestly office. Mæsa spread the idea among these legionaries that Bassianus was the son of the murdered Caracalla; the men thought they could detect a likeness, and Mæsa gave them large quantities of gold in order to improve their vision. Then they were sure that Bassianus bore a strong likeness to Caracalla, who must therefore have been his father. Mæsa had no more compunction about sacrificing her money than she had about casting an imputation upon her daughter's honor; she considered that the Empire would make amends for both, if she could only secure it. Bassianus--who was afterward known by the name of his god, Elagabalus--was but a youth of fifteen; he was sent by his grandmother to the camp, with wagons filled with gold. After distributing these arguments, he was proclaimed emperor under the name of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, it being supposed that this honor to the great philosopher would gain him favor with the people; and never was a better name adopted for the furtherance of a base purpose.
This was a conspiracy of women; but, owing to the corrupt character and the power of the soldiery, it succeeded. Macrinus made one hesitating effort to maintain his position on the throne; he scattered donations, and his troops fought a battle with those of Elagabalus. The latter were on the point of being defeated, when Mæsa and Soæmias threw themselves into the fight, and by their courage and ardor reheartened the soldiers and thus gained the day.
Macrinus was not a bad emperor. He was considering plans of reform which would have been greatly for the benefit of the people; but he was removed to make way for the dissolute, effeminate Syrian priest of the Sun. There is a cameo of the time, which represents Elagabalus riding in a chariot drawn by two women who are crawling on their hands and knees. Mæsa and Soæmias assuredly did debase themselves in dragging such an emperor to the palace. His impure religion, added to his natural disposition, his absolute power, and his youth, made of his reign the very apotheosis of lust. The Senate received an emperor arrayed in the silken robes of his priesthood to a Syrian god, adorned with a tiara, necklaces, and bracelets, with his eyebrows tinged and his cheeks painted like those of an Oriental woman.
His grandmother and her two daughters accompanied him to Rome. These women differed in their character, and consequently in their conception of how Elagabalus and themselves should employ the newly gained power. Mæsa had been trained under the strict rule of Severus. She knew how moderation and attention to the welfare of the Empire was the course most likely to bring good results to the ruler and his family. The administration she proposed to keep in her own hands; but she desired her grandson at least to keep himself within the bounds of that liberty which in those times was considered decent. Soæmias, on the other hand, encouraged the young profligate in the belief that it was his right to indulge himself in any manner which his inclination warranted and his power made possible. Her advice seemed to him the more sensible, and he acted accordingly. He allowed his grandmother to take full charge of all public matters, only requiring that she should not interfere with him in his pleasures. Mæsa had her seat in the Senate, near that of the Consuls; and for the first time Rome was confessedly under the rule of a woman. To his mother Elagabalus gave an appointment which was in accord with her tastes; she was made president of the woman's senate, which determined for the matrons their rank, costumes, and the quantity and nature of ornaments which each might wear according to her social position. Mammæa, however, kept in retirement, and endeavored as far as possible to shield her son from the contamination which surrounded them and also from the dangers of public notice.
The astounding follies of this reign, the licentiousness, the tyrannies, especially as they affected women, cannot better be summed up than in this picture drawn by Gibbon: "Elagabalus lavished away the treasures of the people in the wildest extravagance, his own voice and that of his flatterers applauded a spirit and magnificence unknown to the tameness of his predecessors. To confound the order of seasons and climates, to sport with the passions and prejudices of his subjects, to subvert every law of nature and decency, were in the number of his most delicious amusements. A long train of concubines, and a rapid succession of wives, among whom was a Vestal virgin, ravished by force from her sacred asylum, were insufficient to satisfy the impotence of his passions. The master of the Roman world affected to copy the dress and manners of the female sex, preferred the distaff to the sceptre, and dishonored the principal dignities of the Empire by distributing them among his numerous lovers, one of whom was publicly invested with the title and authority of the emperor's, or, as he more properly styled himself, of the empress's husband."
What a fall was this from the stern independence and the grand morality of the Romans who knew the mother of the Gracchi! The Roman Senators had become the slaves of a youth who pretended to be a dissolute woman; the best ladies of the Empire, however virtuously inclined, had no protection for their honor and no redress for their injuries, if they attracted the fancy of the emperor or his favorites. The ancient gods and goddesses, who, though the creations of superstitious imagination, had inspired the Romans in their struggle for empire and in that manner had aided them in securing it, were made the courtiers of the Syrian Sun-god, represented by a shapeless black stone.
The shrewd Mæsa saw that it would be impossible for Elagabalus to retain the throne and at the same time insult prejudices which were still dear and deep-rooted in the minds of the otherwise indifferent Romans. She determined, however, still to keep her family in power. The means thereto she found in her other grandson, Alexander, the son of Mammæa. By employing the argument that the high priest of the Sun should be uninterrupted in his heavenly calling and in his pleasures by the affairs of the world, she induced Elagabalus to adopt his cousin and invest him with the dignity of Cæsar.
Mammæa had encouraged the natural disposition of her son, who was inclined to amiability and uprightness; he speedily became a great favorite with the people and, what was to more purpose, with the soldiery. The son of Soæmias was not so blinded by his follies but that he saw with envy the growing popularity of his younger colleague; but instead of seeking to emulate his cousin in the good graces of the people by reforming his own life, he determined to remove his rival after the customary Roman fashion. But the watchful Mammæa so hedged her son about with faithful servants that Elagabalus, who was weak-minded enough to talk of all his purposes, could find no instrument capable of penetrating this armor of a mother's care.
At last the emperor ordered the Senate to degrade Alexander from the dignity of Cæsar, while at the same time he sent assassins to murder him. The latter, for the reason already stated, failed in their errand; and the Senate received the command in silence and indignation. The soldiers were furious. They commanded the boys to be brought before the Senate, and charged that body to protect the one and see to the reformation of the manners of the other. The soldiers reproving the conduct of their emperor represents exactly the position which the supposed chief ruler of the Roman world now occupied. He was the subject of the army.
The rivalry between the two princes soon came to a crisis, and Mammæa, in order to save her son, set herself against her sister. Each of the two women endeavored to incite the prætorians against the other. Mammæa won; and Soæmias and her infamous son were slain.
Alexander was raised to the supreme position; but, being a dutiful and obedient youth, he allowed those two noble women, his grandmother and his mother, to hold the reins of government and also to advise him in his own personal conduct. The former, however, soon died, and Mammæa was constituted sole regent.
Mammæa was a woman who exhibited in herself the highest type of intelligence, as well as an honorably regulated life. She was a patroness of all learning and a student of philosophy. It was her desire to become acquainted with all theories concerning the highest problems of human existence; so much so that she sent for Origen, the best-educated Christian of his time, in order that she might satisfy her curiosity in regard to the teachings of that rapidly spreading faith. She did not, however, become a Christian; even had she been convinced of the truth of Origen's doctrines, her position demanded of her a policy which, viewed from an entirely mundane standpoint, she could not afford to abandon. She had provided her son with instructors who were not only noted for their learning, but also for their unquestioned integrity. Herodian says: "The statues of the gods which Elagabalus had taken away were at once restored to their places. Those officials who had unworthily obtained office were dismissed and their places filled by the most capable citizens. In order to preserve the emperor from the mistakes which might be caused by absolute authority, the ardor of youth, or by some of the vices natural to his family, Mammæa strictly guarded the entrance to the palace, and allowed no man to gain admission whose morals were of bad repute."
Mammæa not only guarded her son, but, in his name and so far as the palace was able to reserve any real authority from the power of the camp, she ruled the Empire. She was wise and broad-minded enough to care nothing for the title and pageantry of rule; indeed, the indications seem to be that she was more anxious to reëstablish good government than to hold the reins herself. Herodian says that she made an effort to bring back good morals and the ancient dignified demeanor. She caused to be chosen sixteen Senators, the most eminent for experience and integrity of life, to form an imperial council, and without their approval no measures were carried into execution. The people, the army, the Senate, the historian assures us, were delighted with this new form of government, which replaced the most insolent of tyrannies by a sort of aristocracy. From the time of Commodus to that of Constantine, Rome had no better government than that which was inspired by the genius and ability of Mammæa; and if the organization and the subordination which existed in the time of Trajan had still prevailed, the rule of this remarkable woman would have equalled in uprightness and beneficence that of any period in the history of the Empire.
The care of Mammæa in the education of her son was rewarded by its good effect upon his character. Virtue for him never lost its charm, and a fearless advocacy of the right made him respected by all. He inscribed over the entrance to his palace, and had the heralds proclaim when criminals were chastised, these words, which it is probable his mother may have learned from her interview with Origen: Do not to another what you would not have done to yourself.
While Mammæa was not jealous of public honors and titles, she was avaricious in regard to the affections of her son; there she could not endure a rival. With her consent, he married the daughter of a patrician; but his love for his young wife, as much as his respect for his father-in-law, caused Mammæa to have the latter executed on a charge of treason and to banish the empress into Africa. It is somewhat derogatory to the character of Alexander if, as Dion assures us, he lamented the fate of his wife but durst not oppose it. How his second wife fared with his mother we do not know. Her name was Sallustia Orbiana. On a medallion she is represented as wearing a diadem; the other side of the medal is inscribed with the words Fecunditas Temporum, and there Orbiana is shown seated, while Fecundity, kneeling before her, holds a horn of plenty and carries two children.
The faults of Mammæa were avarice and her insistence upon dominating over her son after he had attained the years of manhood; and these errors in the end brought about the ruin of herself and Alexander. The people were glad of a respite after the excesses of Caracalla and Elagabalus; but they were not prepared for an empress-regent who spent nothing on entertainments and gave no donations, or for an emperor whose policy was formed on Plato's Republic. Julian, who characterized the Cæsars, represents Alexander Severus sitting sadly on the steps of the hall where the emperors and the gods are banqueting; Silenus mocks at him and at his mother, who hoards her treasure; while Justice consents to chastise his murderers, but has little sympathy for "the poor fool, the great simpleton, who in a corner bewails his misfortune."
Only a strong man who could manage the army as Severus had done could save himself in the Rome of that day. When Maximin, a barbarian of immense personal strength and lifelong military experience, headed a revolt in the army, the soldiers were quite ready to believe that the Empire had long enough been ruled by "a parsimonious woman and a pusillanimous boy." While on an expedition, the emperor endeavored to maintain peace by making presents of gold to the Germans; this, above all things, was displeasing to soldiers who, besides being eager to ply their trade, expected to gain gold by war rather than by it to purchase peace. The emperor was slain in his tent, after reigning thirteen years, and his mother, who had been at all times the real ruler, perished with him.
Alexander had favored the enemies of the ancient gods, and even decided to the advantage of the Christians when there occurred a dispute in regard to some land in Rome which they claimed in opposition to certain innkeepers. "It is better," he said, "that this spot should be occupied by a house of prayer than by a house of debauchery." Mammæa has even been claimed for Christianity; but on her coins she was represented as the beneficent Juno, and at her death the Senate decreed her apotheosis. The end of paganism was not yet. It was to prove its lingering vitality by its fierce and final death struggles under Decius and Diocletian.
From this time there was a quick succession of emperors, most of whom were slain almost as soon as created. The State was becoming constantly more disorganized. Every province desired its own emperor; and down to the time of Diocletian, civil war was almost constant. Morals did not improve, and families took on more and more the appearance of Oriental establishments. We read of one emperor, Carinus, in the course of a few months taking successively no less than nine wives, each of whom was divorced to make room for the next. In his time, the palace was filled with dancers and prostitutes, who were even invited to the imperial table. Though morality suffered in the palace and among the nobility, among the common and middle-class people there was working a leaven which provided a new and more effective argument for the ancient purity of manners.
The status and condition of women underwent no legal change during this period. Their manner of life remained very much the same, for in those days there were no inventions such as in modern times change the whole aspect of social life within fifty years; but all the time there was passing away from among the people that ancient spirit which we now speak of as classic. Art was depreciating; the old religion was living on its past. Imagination was dead, and consequently creation had ceased. Paganism, that had learned to satisfy itself with the black stone of Elagabalus, had no need of art. Statues were still made, temples were frequently built; but there was no original genius. The Christianity of that early time did not favor art. In literature, the educated had also to depend on the past, except as they were satisfied with productions so inferior that nothing save accident can explain their preservation. The old Roman largeness of life was no more, and even the joyousness which had associated itself with some phases of paganism had departed. The twilight preceding the dark ages was deepening; the cycle of history was again falling toward the lowest point of its orbit.
In the Museum of the Capitol, there is one bust of an empress in which it is easy to fancy that one sees typified the spiritlessness of the life of the woman of the period. It is that of the Empress Salonina, the wife of Gallienus. The face is finely featured, but profoundly sad; it reminds one more of a pictured saint of the Middle Ages than of a pagan Roman empress. The hair, parted in the middle, hangs in a plain loop behind; there is none of that gay and frequently bizarre dressing which characterized the heads of the women of a former time. We can account partly for Salonina's sad demeanor. Her husband brought home one Pipa, the fair-haired daughter of a barbarian king; this Pipa he not only made his concubine, but seated her on the throne, beside the empress. Salonina could only console herself with her empty honors, and occupy her mind with researches into the mazy philosophy of the Neo-platonists. It has been thought, on account of a medal bearing her image and the words in pace, that she became a Christian; but, though undoubtedly she was greatly interested in the tenets of Christianity, and though her husband, it may be by her advice, published a decree of toleration in regard to the growing faith, the Church could not have admitted one who built a temple to a pagan goddess and never abjured the practice of the old religion. The countenance of Salonina is a type of the face of the ancient life, out of which the light has departed and which has not yet become illumined by the hope inherent in the new faith.
Religious ideas were now greatly confused. There were many who were not prepared to abandon the old gods and who were yet impressed with the new doctrine. One lady built a chapel in which she burnt incense before statues of Jesus, Pythagoras, Homer, and others. Frequently, in the persecutions, noble women were obliged to offer sacrifices in order to prove to the judges that they were not Christians. In many cases, the historians of the new religion claimed for adherents those who were only tolerant inquirers. Even in those days, the high position which a lady held made the bishops anxious to claim her as an adherent, before her conduct had become conformed to the Christian requirements.
The ancient deities were ready to take their departure, since even those who consistently supported the State religion retained but little faith in them; but Diocletian proved himself not only a firm ruler but also a lover of the old system. His decree ran: "The Christians oppose themselves to the laws of the State, which enjoin the worship of the gods; let them either sacrifice or suffer the penalty." Even the imperial household was to be put to the test, and it is believed that it was with reluctance that the emperor's wife and daughter burned the grains of incense.
In the province governed by Constantius, however, the edict was carried out with great lukewarmness; and soon the son of Constantius sat on the throne of Diocletian, and by his side was the Christian Helena. In this woman we see the transition from paganism to the new religion. Yet there is no clear record of her conversion; there is no mark in her life to indicate that it was in any moral sense created anew. So it was with Roman society. Women intrigued and took part in sensual indulgence and cruel revenge after Constantine had seen the Cross in the sky, just as they had done before. The new doctrine was a leaven which required many centuries to spread; but in the meantime the ancient paganism, with all its grandeur and all its weakness, had disappeared, just as the ancient type of Roman womanhood had given place to a new womanhood of conglomerate nationality, with more privilege but not more character.
In the days of Valentinian, when the pagan worship was definitely prohibited, the orator Symmachus represented the old religion as an aged matron pleading thus for tolerance: "Most excellent princes, fathers of your country, pity and respect my age, which has hitherto flowed in an uninterrupted course of piety. Since I do not repent, permit me to continue in the practice of my ancient rites. Since I am born free, allow me to enjoy my domestic institutions. This religion has reduced the world under my laws. These rites have repelled Hannibal from the city and the Gauls from the Capitol. Were my gray hairs reserved for such intolerable disgrace? I am ignorant of the new system I am required to adopt; but I am well assured that the correction of old age is always an ungrateful and ignominious office."
The history of the Roman woman we have essayed to recount has run contemporaneously with the life of this worship of the old gods. What she was that religion largely made her. In it she found inspiration for her brave deeds; its ideals were the expression of her love of beauty; it strengthened her fortitude in times of trial; and when we remember her frailties, charity must also remind us that, apart from her own nature and the custom of her time, this religion was all that she had.