Gibbon expresses the opinion that in no period of the world's history has the human race been happier or more prosperous than during the time which elapsed between the reigns of Domitian and Commodus. There is not a little that may be said in support of this remarkable conclusion. Under Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the Antonines, the Empire enjoyed the calm and brilliant evening following a long day of bitter strife and perilous turmoil, and preceding the moral darkness of the rule of the tyrants under whom paganism was fated to expire.
During this period, Italy and the interior provinces of the Empire were entirely free from the rude alarms of war. The home of that day was as secure from violence as it is among ourselves at the present time. No wife or daughter had occasion unavailingly to beg the life of husband or father from the jealous or timid cruelty of a self-indulgent ruler. In the home circle, there was no foreboding dread of proscription. The terrible laws regarding crimen majestatis, under which so many cruelties had been perpetrated and so many families unjustly bereaved, were held in abeyance. Pliny writes to Trajan: "It is said, sir, that a woman and her sons have been buried in the same place where your statue is set up." This, under some of the former emperors, would have been a grave matter; a woman was executed under Domitian because she disrobed before a statue of the emperor. But Trajan writes: "You should not have hesitated about such a question, for you know very well that I do not propose to make my name respected by terror and by accusations of treason. Dismiss this charge, which I shall not consider."
The people were prosperous. The vast extent of the Roman dominion, with its thoroughly organized and centralized government and its easy means of communication, interchanged a wonderful abundance and variety of the products of industry and commerce. At no time previous to the discovery of America did housewife ever draw the supplies for her table and her wardrobe from such widely separated quarters of the earth's surface as did the Roman woman in the time of Hadrian. As a modern historian has said: "The world was opened; the most secluded places had become accessible; all things circulated without let or hindrance. It was free trade, with its advantageous results in abundance and low prices. All the produce of the world came into Rome by the Tiber. The women of the Bernese Oberland bought their ornaments of a jeweller in Asia Minor, and thought less of it than we of procuring rugs from Smyrna or Damascus."
The people also were protected by salutary laws. The women of that day, when they went to the shops and purchased by weight or measure, were assured of honest dealing. There were standards kept in the municipal cities, and every tradesman was obliged to have his weights and measures tested by them; he was also subject to unannounced inspection. Never were wise laws more perfectly executed. How thoroughly the mind of Trajan was imbued with the idea that his mission was to administer the Empire for the benefit of the people is shown by his correspondence with Pliny. Hadrian spent almost the whole of his reign in travelling from one province to another, in order that he might not only satisfy his curiosity, but also secure good government by personal inspection.
The people also enjoyed a fair semblance of liberty. True, they were not free. The rule of the Antonines was as absolute as that of the first Cæsars; but the emperors of the period we are describing, ostentatiously and to the great contentment of the people, professed to administer the laws only as they were enacted by the Senate and to be themselves governed by the constitution. It was but a phantom of liberty, truly; but when has the world really seen more? The five emperors who followed Domitian exercised their absolute power under the guidance of virtue and wisdom; and, whether or not it were an honorable peace, the people were contented and happy.
The effect of this wise, strong, all-pervading government must have been made especially apparent in the woman's world of that time. There are no gains for women in war. The glory sought by man is no compensation for the wife's anxiety entailed by her fear of bereavement. In the hazards of foreign strife or the dangers of civil turmoil, woman may exemplify those possibilities of her character which reveal themselves in the heroism of devotion or resignation; but the normal qualities of her nature do not expand as in the quiet comfort of a home life where safety is assured.
In the history of Roman women, down to the period which we have now reached, there has been no opportunity to ascertain what the combined influences of culture and peace might accomplish. In the ancient Republic, culture of any appreciable degree was absent and life was continuously strenuous. In later days, when Roman hardihood was first touched by Greek civilization, and the love of letters began to find a place in woman's life, the Roman matron, though admirable and statuesque, was too heroic in her virtue to be altogether attractive. A writer of a later day--than whom none more keenly regretted the ancient purity--felt this. "Let her be more chaste than any single Sabine that, with hair dishevelled, rushed between the combatants and brought the war to a close; let her be a very phoenix upon earth, rare as a black swan; who could tolerate a wife in whom all excellencies are concentrated! I would rather, far rather, have a country maiden from Venusia than you, O Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi, if along with your estimable virtues you bring as part of your dower a haughty and disdainful brow, and reckon as a portion of your fortune the triumphs of your house! Away, I beg, with your Hannibal and Syphax conquered in his camp, and march with all your Carthage!"
Equally unconducive to a feminine life combining sweetness with nobility were those later times, when danger was always imminent from a tyrant's lust or jealousy. Agrippina, travelling with Germanicus in expeditions against the Teutonic tribes, might earn the title "Mother of the Camps"; menaced by Tiberius, she might strengthen her mind in anticipation of the inevitable storm with the stern fortitude becoming to a Roman matron of the house of Augustus; but with years and affliction comes an unamiable sourness of disposition. Livia, Agrippina, and Antonia were women of the most unquestionable virtue; but they were ungentle in their manner and capable of extreme harshness in their methods. We know them fairly well; but there is no indication of their interesting themselves in any such womanly work as those public charities which graced the reign of Trajan, and with which we may be reasonably certain that Plotina, his noble consort, actively sympathized. With assured security of life, woman's heart expanded and her sympathies widened. Faustina, the wife of Aurelius, may not have been irreproachable; but she is represented in the position of the Lady Bountiful by the side of her husband in the public distributions. Under these noble emperors, a social conscience was developed; and there was nothing to prevent or disturb any of the genial graces of the home life, which are only possible when women are respected and happy.
During this period, the legal condition of the Roman woman was also greatly ameliorated. The acute sense of justice which actuated these emperors could not neglect this result of civilization. On one occasion, a matron stopped Hadrian in the street and begged leave to submit to him a matter in which she was suffering injustice. He refused to be delayed. "Why, then, are you emperor?" she bitterly exclaimed. This appealed to him; for he was conscious that he had no right to govern unless he allowed the salutary influence of his rule to extend to all alike.
A man and a woman, who, though they had cohabited, were not legally married, disputed as to the possession of their child in order to receive its share of the public allowance. "With whom do you live?" asked Hadrian of the child. "My mother," was the answer. "You rascal," said the emperor to the man, "you have no right to this allowance."
"I implore you," cried another woman, "to order that a part of my son's allowance be given to me." "But, my lord," said the son, "I do not acknowledge her to be my mother." "Then," answered Hadrian, "I shall not acknowledge you as a citizen."
These, it may be, were only casual incidents; but they indicate the sort of rule under which Rome had come, and they must have formed powerful precedents in future rulings in such cases. Laws were also passed which helped to relieve the burden of legal injustice which from the first had rested upon the Roman woman. A father had it always in his power to compel his son to put away his wife, and could thus, if he chose, shatter the life of a faithful, loving woman and drive her from her home. Marcus Aurelius amended this tyrannical law, so that it could only be executed for great and just cause. Under the old code, a child was always subject to the condition of his mother at his birth; hence, if a free woman, after conception, was relegated to servitude by sentence of law, her child was born a slave. Hadrian decreed that if a woman was free at any time during her pregnancy, her child should be free. This would seem to be more of a relief to the child so born than to the mother; but, apart from the mother sympathy, the parent of a free son would be much more likely to regain her own liberty. This emperor also decided that women should have the power to dispose of the whole of their property by will, on obtaining the consent of their guardians. It was soon afterward decreed that such a will should be valid without such consent, and this made the property rights of the Roman woman as untrammelled as such laws have been in any country, almost down to the present time. There was also a modification of the law of inheritance, so that women were allowed to take from their sons; but to avail herself of this new law a freedwoman must have had no less than four children.
This material comfort and security of life would, of itself, hardly suffice to substantiate Gibbon's opinion as to the superior happiness of this particular period of the world's history; but there was something more. Human life is not rendered felicitous solely by the abundance of the things which a people possesses; there must be the power to make the most of and enjoy them. It is with the life of a nation as it is with that of an individual--the happiest age is that immediately previous to the beginning of decadence; prior to that, the attention and energy are wholly taken up with the process of acquiring. The Roman Empire was now, as it were, balanced and resting on the summit of its greatness.
With one or two exceptions, never in the history of the world has so large a proportion of the citizens of a nation been capable of so fully appreciating the highest mental enjoyments. Art in those days was closely inwoven with the life of the people; they lived artistic lives. The women of that day moved habitually among those objects which the ladies of our time go to museums to admire. Their eyes were every day accustomed to rest upon the beautiful structures and statuary which are the wonder and the models of modern times. Every home, however modest, had about it much of the artistic; every public building was a magnificent example of architecture. Nothing was purely utilitarian, for life was not sordid. With an ample supply of the necessaries and luxuries of existence, and perfect protection through wise and beneficently administered laws, this added grace and beauty which pervaded everything lacked little to make the life of women in the days of Trajan, Hadrian, and the Antonines broader and happier than it has been in any other period, ancient or modern.
There were, however, two classes of persons which must not be left out of the estimate; and it may be suggested that a proper understanding of the conditions of their existence may detract greatly from the foregoing appreciation of the period under discussion: these are the slaves and the poor. But, inasmuch as what has been said is of the nature of a comparison, it can be justly answered that the poor we have always with us, and until recently the institution of slavery has been a cherished one. At any rate, it was rare that a Roman slave woman was ill fed, while compulsory hunger is by no means uncommon in modern times.
Since so large a portion of those Roman slaves were women, it will be quite pertinent to our subject if we take a glance at this institution of slavery as it existed in the ancient world.
It is estimated that at one time no less than one-fifth of the population of Rome was in a condition of compulsory servitude. The number was kept up by birth, by the slave market, and by war. In ancient times, the creditor could sell the family of the debtor; the father also could dispose of his children in the same manner. These barbarous measures, however, were less resorted to as manners grew milder, though the laws permitting them were not repealed until the time of Diocletian. Parents had the legal right to expose their unwelcome children, and whoever chose to take the abandoned infants owned them as slaves; but Trajan granted to such children the perpetual right of claiming their freedom, on condition that they could prove that of their parents.
By the ancient law, the slave was nothing but a chattel. He possessed no rights, he had no will of his own, he was not a person, and could not seek protection from the law. Over him his master owned absolute power of life and death. Women slaves were wholly subject to their owner's will. They might be required to bear offspring for the mere sake of increasing their master's number of servants, with absolutely no regard to any sentiment they might cherish relative to such a matter. A slave could not legally marry; and for many centuries no union of that nature was held to have any binding force. When it is considered that a large proportion of the slaves owned by Roman masters were secured as the spoils of war, or by kidnapping, and consequently included many persons of both sexes who were well born and educated, it is seen how peculiarly cruel was slavery in those times.
Gradually, principles of humanity prevailed in the softening of this condition, and it is probable that instincts of humanity on the part of the majority of owners induced them to do better than the law demanded. In the house of Columella, every slave woman who had three children was set free from labor, and she who had more was emancipated. During the period of the Antonines, laws were passed prohibiting masters from selling slaves to fight in the arena unless these had been convicted of some crime by public authority. They were not allowed to be left by will with the understanding that they were to fight with beasts. The killing of slaves became punishable as for murder; and even the slave's honor came to be protected, for a complaint could be lodged against the master for an attempt on the slave's modesty. Regard was also paid to the natural feelings of these unfortunate persons; for while those in a condition of slavery could not legally marry, yet, where the nuptial union had been formed it was not permitted that the husband and wife should be separated by sale. Thus we see that the Roman slaves, from a condition of absolute inhumanity in the days of the early Republic, came in the time of the Antonines to be so hedged about with the protection of the law that there was left little to be desired save the possession of their own persons. Still, it is not meant to be asserted that even in this mild period there was not ample scope for cruelty on the part of barbarous or ill-natured owners. Juvenal describes with great indignation how women would cause their female attendants to be unmercifully whipped. But a just complaint of intolerable treatment was, in the reign of Marcus Aurelius, legal ground for compelling the emancipation of the slave, or at least for providing him or her with a kinder owner.
Paganism has often been accused of having paid no attention whatsoever to public charities. On the contrary, during the period with which we are now occupied institutions of poor-relief were founded and were as remarkable for the wisdom with which they were organized as for the spirit of beneficence which they manifested. There was abundance of evidence in Pliny's time to show that his beautiful words were not mere rhetoric: "It is a duty to seek out those who are in want, to bring them aid, to support, and make them in a sense one's own family." Has the modern spirit anything better to say than this sentence which was inscribed upon a tomb: Therc is in life but one beautiful thing, and this is beneficence. The Romans of the Antonine period put this sentiment into practical operation in more ways than one. Nerva conceived the project of rendering State aid to poor parents to enable them to rear their children. Trajan, his successor, adopted this scheme and developed it on a magnificent scale. As early as the year 100, there were, in the city of Rome, as we learn from Pliny, no less than five thousand children who received this assistance. So much consideration was shown in the arrangement for this distribution, that it was ordered that the apportionment of the sick or absent should be reserved until it was sent for. From the Inscription of Veleia, one of the longest which have come down to us, and the table of the Bæbiani for the apportionment of food among the poor, we learn of the poor-relief system under which two hundred and sixty-four boys and thirty-six girls were supported. "The boys received annually one hundred and ninety-two sesterces [$9.20], the girls one hundred and forty-four [$6.90]. The foundation was established for a definite number of children, a number that did not change so long as the foundation was not increased; but the assistance varied, doubtless with the price of provisions, in different localities; thus, at Veleia, sixteen sesterces per month; at Tarracina, twenty." The writer of the above demonstrates by authorities and examples that from sixteen to twenty sesterces per month was sufficient to support a Roman child. He continues:
"It cannot be affirmed that the institution was in a general measure established in the whole of Italy; but coins, inscriptions, and even sculptures, enable us to discover it in many places. Thus the bas-reliefs of the Arch of Beneventum represent men carrying boys on their shoulders, and four women, their heads adorned with mural crowns, conducting young girls to Trajan. Do these women represent the four towns of the vicinity, or are they the symbol of all the cities of Italy which had profited by the same benefaction? The second hypothesis is the more probable, and Dion confirms it.
"Provincial cities and wealthy individuals followed the example given by the emperors; this pagan society, which ameliorated the lot of the slave, which was mindful of the destitution of its poor, thus showed before its downfall that it possessed within itself powers of renewal sufficient to save it, had it not been ruined by bad legislation."
This annuity did not cease with the end of Trajan's reign. Hadrian increased the length of time through which the boys and girls were to receive it. It is noticeable that fewer girls than boys were assisted, and, while the latter received the pension until the age of eighteen, it was taken from the girls at the age of fourteen. It must be confessed that this introduced a suspicion of utilitarianism into the beneficence, girls at that time being considered of less advantage to the State than their brothers; but Antoninus, who was a man of peace and who would have much liked to be able to dispense with the army, in honor of his wife increased the number of girls on the lists for support; while on the death of the second Faustina, Marcus Aurelius followed his predecessor's example. Private persons, and especially ladies, also established foundations of this kind. To provide for a hundred children at Tarracina, Cælia Macrina bequeathed one million sesterces; Hispalis profited in a similar way by the legacy of a wealthy lady resident. The spirit in which the times viewed this subject is shown in the words of Paulus: "Donations," says he, "may be made to the city, either for its adornment or for its honor; and among the things which honor a city the most is the practice of giving support to infirm old men and to young children of both sexes." There is also proof that in many cities physicians were salaried by the municipality and required to render gratuitous assistance to the poor.
It is a fact exceedingly to be regretted that, while we find so much that is admirable in this period by means of which the female portion of society was benefited and for the existence of which much credit is undoubtedly owing to the noble women of the time, yet the records of individual women are extremely unsatisfactory. In the first place, they are very meagre. Unfortunately, there are no such brilliant and copious histories of the reigns of Trajan and Hadrian as of those of the previous and less worthy emperors. Of individual women, apart from those of the imperial house of this period, we know nothing. The records of the empresses and of their female relatives exhibit a similarity to the scandalous accounts of their predecessors which is sadly monotonous and entirely unworthy of the otherwise wonderfully improved conditions. It is doubtful whether or not the characters of the Faustinas could be rehabilitated if trustworthy evidence were obtainable; but, even if that were possible, there would still be nothing to secure for them equal moral rank with their noble husbands. There is a fine exception, however, in the character of Plotina, the wife of Trajan. In the Vatican Museum there is a bust of this noble woman. It shows a lady advanced in years, but with a countenance charmingly suggestive of intelligence and moral dignity.
Trajan was a plain, honest soldier, who, when he was proclaimed emperor on the death of Nerva, entered the city on foot and recognized his old friends as he passed on his way to the palace. Plotina Pompeia accompanied him; and as she mounted the steps of the imperial abode, she turned to the people and said: "Such as I am entering here, I desire to be when I leave here." She must have been then in the prime of her womanhood; for her husband reigned nineteen years, and she outlived him. Her life in the palace, unlike that of the majority of her predecessors, was distinguished by her unassailable virtue, her affability, and her charitable activity on behalf of the poor and needy. We may safely be assured that though the charitable scheme already described was developed by the mind of her husband, he was stimulated thereto by the gracious counsel of Plotina. She accompanied her husband on his expedition in the East, and was with him when he died in Cilicia, whence she carried his ashes to Rome. Under Hadrian she still continued to enjoy all the honors and titles of a Roman empress.
The accession of Hadrian to the throne is surrounded by a mystery which must forever remain impenetrable. Gibbon repeats the gossip which the ancient historians handed down as veritable fact, when he says: "We may readily believe that the father of his country hesitated whether he ought to intrust the various and doubtful character of his kinsman Hadrian with sovereign power. In his last moments, the arts of the Empress Plotina either fixed the irresolution of Trajan, or boldly supposed a fictitious adoption; the truth of which could not be safely disputed, and Hadrian was peaceably acknowledged as his lawful successor." Dion asserted on the authority of his father, who was Governor of Cilicia, where Trajan died, that the adoption never took place and that Plotina forged the letters which were sent to Rome, apparently from Trajan, informing the Senate of his choice. Some even went so far as to say that, the moment after the emperor's death, he not having named Hadrian, Plotina caused a man to be placed in his bed to simulate his dying voice saying that he appointed Hadrian his successor.
This is a flimsy story, and rather suggests the triviality of the minds of those who concocted it than it impairs the character of Plotina. Hadrian had married Sabina, the daughter of Matilda, who was in turn the daughter of Marciana, Trajan's sister. Moreover, the emperor had showered favors upon him, and appointed him to the highest offices. To whom else should Trajan leave the Empire? Nevertheless, it is probable that Hadrian was greatly liked by the powerful empress, and she may have shown a deep interest in the adoption of the youth by her husband. In courts, where there are of necessity jealousy and rival ambitions, from such innocent facts will formidable scandals grow. Every other mention of her is evidence against the insinuation that the maternal affection of Plotina for Hadrian was tinctured with love of a stronger nature.
Hadrian's mother was a native of Cadiz. How she was held in the esteem of her imperial son is indicated in the following letter which he wrote her: "All hail, very dear and excellent mother. Whatever you ask of the gods for me, I ask the same for you. By Hercules, I am delighted that my acts seem to you worthy of praise. To-day is my birthday; we must take supper together. Come, then, well dressed, with my sisters. Sabina, who is at our villa, has sent her share for the family repast."
Through the meagre and inconclusive accounts we have of the private affairs of Hadrian, the allegation is circulated that his life with Sabina was far from being an amicable one. The empress was said to be of a morose and sour disposition, and Hadrian is even accused of having rid himself of her by the help of poison. The latter is a calumny unworthy of serious attention. It is altogether impossible to believe that, even if the chasm between the two were as wide as is reported, the emperor would not have sought relief in divorce rather than in murder. However praiseworthy may have been Hadrian's character as an emperor, if Sabina stood upon her rights as a wife, she had every reason for holding him in supreme contempt; for common as may have been the vice to which there seems to be little doubt Hadrian was addicted, it is difficult to believe that any woman retaining the least respect for herself could at the same time retain any regard for such a husband. The state of affairs between this imperial couple may have been very unpleasant; but at least a semblance of harmony was preserved. Hadrian even protected his wife; when Suetonius the historian in some way failed in proper respect for Sabina, the emperor immediately banished him from the court. The empress also seems to have accompanied her husband on many of his extensive journeys. We have an interesting proof and record of her having been with him in Egypt. She ascended the Nile as far as Thebes and visited the statue of Memnon, the son of Aurora, who was reported to sing every morning in honor of his radiant mother's return. Balbilla the poetess caused three of her verses to be engraved on the leg of the statue, in which she records this visit. They are dated the twentieth and twenty-first of November, 130. It seems that the god did not show proper respect for Sabina, nor did he in the least stand in awe of "the angry countenance of the empress," for on the occasion of her first visit he was not in a singing mood.
From her portraits, one would not judge Sabina to have been of a morose and bitter disposition. There is in the Vatican a statue of the empress represented as Venus Genitrix, while there is also a bust of her in the Capitol Museum. If these are faithful likenesses, it is as difficult to believe that Sabina was of an unamiable disposition as it is to understand Hadrian's preference for Antinous. In connection with this subject Gibbon says that, down to the time of Hadrian, Claudius was the only emperor whose taste in love matters was at all correct. This being the case, it is only just to say that, if example could afford it, the empresses had ample excuse for the most flagrant irregularities recorded of them.
Antoninus Pius was adopted by Hadrian and designated his successor, without the aid of any woman whatsoever--except that Sabina failed to provide an occupant for the throne by the act of maternity.
The wife of Antoninus was Annia Galeria Faustina. She had borne him four children; but at the time of his accession only one daughter, named after her mother, survived. The annals of the period of this reign are extremely meagre and unsatisfactory. It has been said that while the unanimous praises that are bestowed upon the virtues of Antoninus earn for him in pagan history the place held by Saint Louis among Christian kings, his political career is so uncertain that, as emperor, he appears before us a half-effaced figure, whose outlines are wholly indistinct.
Faustina the Elder did not live long to enjoy the dignity of empress; but in private life she had established for herself such a reputation, if all accounts be true, that she simply added one more to the list of immoral empresses who had disgraced the palace. Yet it must be admitted that these reflections upon her character are extremely ill-founded, and indeed there is evidence to the contrary which tends to make them seem absurd. Fronto, a philosopher of the period, pronounced a eulogy upon her, concerning which Antoninus wrote: "In the discourse which thou hast devoted to my Faustina I have found even more truth than eloquence. For it is the fact--yes, by the gods! I would rather live with her on the desert island of Gyaros than without her in the palace." This is not merely affection; from a man of Antoninus's character, it indicates an esteem which it would have been impossible for him to cherish, or even express, had Faustina been the wanton that the unreliable memoirs of the time describe her.
After the death of his wife, Antoninus refused to marry again, though he consoled himself with a concubine; he would not impart to another woman the honors and the position which he had rejoiced to share with Faustina. Indeed, such devoted affection is shown in the manner in which this emperor revered the memory of his deceased wife, that it would be one of the beautiful things in history were it not for the fact that the suspicion fastened upon her reputation, though very improbable, cannot be entirely eradicated, for lack of evidence to the contrary. Antoninus built a temple to her honor, and after his death the Senate reconsecrated it: To the god Antoninus and to the goddess Faustina. The emperor also did what was far more advantageous to his people, and was an equal proof of his love for Faustina: he established in the name of his wife a charitable foundation for the support and education of girls. There is in existence a medal bearing the empress's image, and on the reverse a representation of Antoninus surrounded by young children, with this inscription: Puelloe Faustinianoe.
When Hadrian appointed Antoninus as his successor, he obliged the latter to adopt as his son Marcus Annius Verus, known in history and in philosophy as Marcus Aurelius. The mother of Marcus Aurelius was Domitia Lucilla, a lady of consular rank and a descendant of Domitius Afer. She seems to have been a woman in every way an ornament to these better times. In his Meditations, the imperial philosopher acknowledges that from his mother he inherited "piety, and beneficence, and abstinence not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts; and further, simplicity of life far removed from the habits of the rich." One would like to dwell on the character of this sweet-natured, pure-hearted Lucilla. It would be an inestimable boon to the interests of history and also of moral philosophy if we had a biography of the mother of a good emperor; but unfortunately the pitiable historians of the time have given us instead scandals regarding Faustina. There are, however, one or two little incidents recorded which warrant us in the belief that if we only knew more of her life we should have in Lucilla a name and a portrait worthy of a place among those of the most honored women of the world. She encouraged her son in his philosophic studies; but when his enthusiasm carried him to such an excess of self-discipline that he purposed to sleep on bare boards, his mother prevailed on him to indulge himself with the luxury of a sheepskin rug.
Marcus Aurelius expresses his thankfulness that "though it was my mother's fate to die young, she spent the last years of her life with me." In one of his letters to Fronto, he describes a day spent in the country during the vintage. "When I returned home," he says, "I studied a little, but not to much advantage. I had a long talk with my mother, who was lying on her couch." Those talks with a mother from whom he had learned to hate the thought of evil were of inestimable value to his character, and thus have not been wholly lost to the world.
On one occasion, Lucilla was noticed by Antoninus Pius in the act of earnest prayer before the image of Apollo. "What think you she is praying for so intently?" insinuated a mischief maker named Valerius Omulus; "it is that you may die, and her son reign in your stead." Antoninus ignored the base suggestion in silent contempt. It is very possible that Lucilla was praying for her son's reign, but for the worthiness of its character rather than for the speediness of its commencement.
Unfortunately, though it may not be necessary to believe all that is said against her, it is at least very apparent that Faustina the wife of Marcus Aurelius was not such a woman as Lucilla his mother. Gibbon sums up in the following paragraph the whole story as it may be gleaned from the very indifferent ancient authorities:
"Faustina, the daughter of Pius and the wife of Marcus, has been as much celebrated for her gallantries as for her beauty. The grave simplicity of the philosopher was ill calculated to engage her wanton levity, or to fix that unbounded passion for variety which often discovered merit in the meanest of mankind. The Cupid of the ancients was, in general, a very sensual deity; and the amours of an empress, as they exact on her side the plainest advances, are seldom susceptible of much sentimental delicacy, Marcus was the only man in the Empire who seemed ignorant or insensible of the irregularities of Faustina; which, according to the prejudices of every age, reflected some disgrace on the injured husband. He promoted several of her lovers to posts of honor and profit, and, during a connection of thirty years, invariably gave her proofs of the most tender confidence and of a respect which ended not with her life. In his Meditations, he thanks the gods who had bestowed on him a wife so faithful, so gentle, and of such a wonderful simplicity of manners. The obsequious Senate, at his earnest request, declared her a goddess. She was represented in her temples with the attributes of Juno, Venus, and Ceres; and it was decreed that, on the day of their nuptials, the youth of either sex should pay their vows before the altar of their chaste patroness."
It would be a preposterous undertaking to accept a brief for Faustina; and yet, judging such evidence as we have in the light of common sense, one is inclined to acquit her of some charges, or at least to demand for her a verdict of "not proven." Who are the witnesses against her? Capitolinus, who wrote the life of Marcus Aurelius, is one. He wrote in the time of Diocletian, one hundred and twenty years after the events. Surely the lapse of time will to a certain degree depreciate the value of the evidence; and then Capitolinus is an exceedingly poor biographer. Dion Cassius is the principal witness; but it is very apparent that Dion Cassius was accustomed to report indiscriminately every bit of scandal he heard about anybody. He was constitutionally malignant. It is very doubtful if any modern jury, knowing his character, would convict a petty thief on the evidence of Dion Cassius. Because Commodus, the son of Faustina, developed an abnormal love for bloody sports and manifested a strong regard for the heroes of the arena, malicious tongues asserted that he was the son of a gladiator; but the strong resemblance which may be traced in the statues and bust of Marcus Aurelius and Commodus is sufficient to refute this part of the charge. This likeness is also attested by Fronto, who, though he may have desired to compliment the emperor, was assuredly a man of too much character to adopt this particular method if he knew Faustina to be the woman she is represented. Then again, if her habits were as vicious as they are described, it is absolutely inconceivable that her husband should have remained in ignorance of the fact; it would imply that he must have been nothing more or less than an imbecile, which Marcus Aurelius decidedly was not. If, on the other hand, he knew of his wife's promiscuous amours, it is incredible that he should have had the effrontery to laud his wife's faithfulness and virtue before the public; it is inconceivable that he should have manifested toward her such confidence and esteem in their private relations. Our judgment is influenced more by the treatment she received from her husband than by the venomous testimony of Dion.
One of the charges against Faustina is that she abetted the conspiracy of Avidius Cassius by offering him her hand in the event of her husband's being slain. This even the biographer of Cassius denies, and quotes a letter of Faustina's in proof.
There must, however, have been some cause for these reports of the empress's conduct, even though they are greatly exaggerated. We may take it for granted that Faustina was not worthy of her noble husband. It is very possible that she had little regard for his philosophical maxims and less liking for his austerities. She may have been more forcibly attracted by the handsome appearance and gay manner of Verus, her husband's colleague in the Empire; but that she was so absolutely wanton as the ancient anecdotists describe requires no contravention of the principles of historical criticism to disbelieve.
The letters of Faustina to Marcus Aurelius were preserved by Vulcatius Gallicanus, and Victor Duruy says they are those of an empress, a wife, and a mother. She often accompanied her husband on his many trying expeditions, and thus gained from the soldiers the title of "Mother of the Camps." It was on such a journey, at the foot of Mount Taurus, that she died. There has been preserved a bas-relief which represents Faustina carried by a winged being in human form from the funeral pyre to heaven; the emperor sits below and points out to his daughter the apotheosis of her mother, while he himself follows the departing figure with affectionate eyes. At the theatre, her statue, formed of gold, was placed in the position which she had been accustomed to occupy. To honor her memory, a new foundation for the support of the daughters of indigent parents was instituted; and at the Villa Albani there is another bas-relief, which represents Faustina surrounded by young girls and distributing among them corn, which they receive in the folds of their dresses.
In the period of the Antonines, paganism was at its best. It was then afforded a magnificent opportunity to show how far in the direction of social progress and moral development the human race could be carried under its influence. It was on its trial before the evolutionary forces of the universe. What is the verdict? That paganism has disappeared cannot be said; for much that was essential to the system is still inherent in the prevailing religion of the civilized world to-day. But how did the ancient system of religion respond to the quest for those influences which make for human happiness, both for the man and the woman--for here there can be no distinction? There is much in the old system, as it answers for itself in the period under discussion, that is extremely satisfactory, much that will compare most favorably with like conditions in modern times. We have seen how a social conscience was evolved, and how most admirable methods were adopted for the purpose of supporting poor girls and boys. It has been noticed how in this period life was secure, happy, and beautiful. The conditions of slavery were ameliorated, so that involuntary servitude became, in some respects, less severe than it was in Christian lands during the last century. Woman's legal position was greatly improved, affording her an independence, all things considered, which she did not enjoy during the Middle Ages. This banner age of paganism was also capable of producing such men as Pliny and the Antonines. Unfortunately, history lacks such records as would reveal the best examples of the women who graced this period. Instead of the noblest, we have only the most conspicuous. We are shown the Faustinas, because they lived in the palace; but, notwithstanding the excellence of the husbands of these women, it is true that a palace is the least promising soil for the cultivation of moral beauty. Yet in Plotina and Lucilla we find such characters as warrant the belief that in humbler walks there were many women whose lives would not have suffered severe criticism if they had been tried by the principles of the modern morality.
Much was accomplished under the ancient system; but the time exhibited the best possibilities of paganism. It could do no better; and it soon prepared to leave the field in the possession of a victor. It could not soften the heart and thus dispense with its cruelties. It could not emancipate all its slaves; it contained in itself no indictment of slavery. It recognized that all men are of one blood, but it did not evolve the idea of universal brotherhood or the Golden Rule. It had no argument for morality which could appeal to the unphilosophic common multitude. In these things it was weighed and found wanting; for these reasons it could not perpetuate itself.
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