Causes For the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

By | June 29, 2013

From “The Caesars” by Thomas de Quincey

In the first place, we may observe that the people of Rome in that age were generally more corrupt by many degrees than has been usually supposed possible. The effect of revolutionary times, to relax all modes of moral obligation, and to unsettle the moral sense, has been well and philosophically stated by Mr. Coleridge; but that would hardly account for the utter licentiousness and depravity of Imperial Rome. Looking back to Republican Rome, and considering the state of public morals but fifty years before the emperors, we can with difficulty believe that the descendants of a people so severe in their habits could thus rapidly degenerate, and that a populace, once so hardy and masculine, should assume the manners which we might expect in the debauchees of Daphne (the infamous suburb of Antioch) or of Canopus, into which settled the very lees and dregs of the vicious Alexandria. Such extreme changes would falsify all that we know of human nature ; we might a priori pronounce them impossible; and in fact, upon searching history, we find other modes of solving the difficulty. In reality, the citizens of Rome were at this time a new race, brought together from every quarter of the world, but especially from Asia. So vast a proportion of the ancient citizens had been cut off by the sword, and partly to conceal this waste of population, but much more by way of cheaply requiting services, or of showing favor, or of acquiring influence, slaves had been emancipated in such great multitudes, and afterwards invested with all the rights of citizens, that, in a single generation, Rome became almost transmuted into a baser metal; the progeny of those whom the last generation had purchased from the slave merchants. These people derived their stock chiefly from Cappadocia, Pontus, &c., and the other populous regions of Asia Minor ; and hence the taint of Asiatic luxury and depravity, which was so conspicuous to all the Romans of the old republican severity. Juvenal is to be understood more literally than is sometimes supposed, when he complains that long before his time the Orontes (that river which washed the infamous capital of Syria) had mingled its impure waters with those of the Tiber.

Probably in the time of Nero, not one man in six was of pure Roman descent. And the consequences were suitable. Scarcely a family has come down to our knowledge that could not in one generation enumerate a long catalogue of -divorces within its own contracted circle. Every man had married a series of wives; every woman a series of husbands. Even in the palace of Augustus, who wished to be viewed as an exemplar or ideal model of domestic purity every principal member of his family was tainted in that way; himself in a manner and a degree infamous even at that time. For the first 400 years of Rome, not one divorce had been granted or asked, although the statute which allowed of this indulgence had always been in force. But in the age succeeding to the civil wars, men and women married, says one author, with a view to divorce, and divorced in order to marry. Many of these changes happened within the year, especially if the lady had a large fortune, which always went with her and procured her choice of transient husbands. And, can one imagine, asks the same writer, that the fair one who changed her husband every quarter, strictly kept her matrimonial faith all the three months? Thus the very fountain of all the household charities and household virtues was polluted. And after that we need little wonder at the assassinations, poisonings, and forging of wills, which then laid waste the domestic life of the Romans.

2. A second source of the universal depravity was the growing inefficacy of the public religion; and this arose from its disproportion and inadequacy to the intellectual advances of the nation. Religion, in its very etymology, has been held to imply a religatio, that is, a reiterated or secondary obligation of morals; a sanction supplementary to that of the conscience. Now, for a rude and uncultivated people, the Pagan mythology might not be too gross to discharge the main functions of a useful religion. So long as the understanding could submit to the fables of the Pagan creed, so long it was possible that the hopes and fears built upon that creed might be practically efficient on men’s lives and intentions. But when the foundation gave way, the whole superstructure of necessity fell to the ground. Those who were obliged to reject the ridiculous legends which invested the whole of their Pantheon, together with the fabulous adjudgers of future punishments, could not but dismiss the punishments, which were, in fact, as laughable, and as obviously the fictions of human ingenuity, as their dispensers. In short, the civilized part of the world in those days lay in this dreadful condition; their intellect had far outgrown their religion; the disproportions between the two were at length become monstrous; and as yet no purer or more elevated faith was prepared for their acceptance. The case was as shocking as if, with our present intellectual needs, we should be unhappy enough to have no creed on which to rest the burden of our final hopes and fears, of our moral obligations, and of our consolations in misery, except the fairy mythology of our nurses. The condition of a people so situated, of a people under the calamity of having outgrown its religious faith, has never been sufficiently considered. It is probable that such a condition has never existed before or since that era of the world. The consequences to Rome were — that the reasoning and disputatious part of her population took refuge from the painful state of doubt in Atheism; amongst the thoughtless and irreflective the consequences were chiefly felt in their morals, which were thus sapped in their foundation.

3. A third cause, which from the first had exercised a most baleful influence upon the arts and upon literature in Rome, had by this time matured its disastrous tendencies towards the extinction of the moral sensibilities. This was the circus, and the whole machinery, form and substance, of the Circensian shows. Why had tragedy no existence as a part of the Roman literature? Because — and that was a reason which would have sufficed to stifle all the dramatic genius of Greece and England—there was too much tragedy in the shape of gross reality, almost daily before their eyes. The amphitheatre extinguished the theatre. How was it possible that the fine and intellectual griefs of the drama should win their way to hearts seared and rendered callous by the continual exhibition of scenes the most hideous, in which human blood was poured out like water, and a human life sacrificed at any moment either to caprice in the populace, or to a strife of rivalry between the ayes and the noes, or as the penalty for any trifling instance of awkwardness in the performer himself? Even the more innocent exhibitions, in which brutes only were the sufferers, could not but be mortal to all the finer sensibilities. Five thousand wild animals, torn from their native abodes in the wilderness or forest, were often turned out to be hunted, or for mutual slaughter, in the course of a single exhibition of this nature; and it sometimes happened, (a fact which of itself proclaims the course of the public propensities,) that the person at whose expense the shows were exhibited, by way of paying special court to the people and meriting their favor, in the way most conspicuously open to him, issued orders that all, without a solitary exception, should be slaughtered. He made it known, as the very highest gratification which the case allowed, that (in the language of our modern auctioneers) the whole, “without reserve,” should perish before their eyes. Even such spectacles must have hardened the heart, and blunted the more delicate sensibilities; but these would soon cease to stimulate the pampered and exhausted sense. From the combats of tigers or leopards, in which the passions could only be gathered indirectly, and by way of inference from the motions, the transition must have been almost inevitable to those of men, whose nobler and more varied passions spoke directly, and by the intelligible language of the eye, to human spectators; and from the frequent contemplation of these authorized murders, in which a whole people, women as much as men, and children intermingled with both, looked on with leisurely indifferencc, with anxious expectation, or with rapturous delight, whilst below them were passing the direct sufferings of humanity, and not seldom its dying pangs, it was impossible to expect a result different from that which did in fact take place, — universal hardness of heart, obdurate depravity, and a twofold degradation of human nature, which acted simultaneously upon the two pillars of morality, (which are otherwise not often assailed together,) of natural sensibility in the first place, and, in the second, of conscientious principle.

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