Europe in the Middle Ages
Europe in the Middle Ages
THE DECLINE OF ROME
The years of Rome's greatness seemed to her sons an age of gold, but even at the height of her prosperity there were traces of the evils that brought about her downfall. An autocracy, that is, the rule of one man, might be a perfect form of government were the autocrat not a man but a god, thus combining superhuman goodness and understanding with absolute power. Unfortunately, Roman emperors were representatives of human nature in all its phases. Some, like Augustus, were great rulers; others, though good men, incompetent in the management of public affairs; whilst not a few led evil lives and regarded their office as a means of gratifying their own desires.
The Emperor Nero (54-68), for instance, was cruel and profligate, guilty of the murder of his half-brother, mother, and wife, and also of the deaths of numberless senators and citizens whose wealth he coveted. Because he was an absolute ruler his corrupt officials were able to bribe and oppress his subjects as they wished until he was fortunately assassinated. He was the last of his line, the famous House of Julius to which Augustus had belonged, and the period that followed his death was known as 'the year of the four Emperors', because during that time no less than four rivals claimed and struggled for the coveted honour.
Nominally, the right of election lay with the Senate, but the final champion, Vespasian (69-79), was not even a Roman nor an aristocrat, but a soldier from the provinces. He had climbed the ladder of fame by sheer endurance and his power of managing others, and his accession was a triumph not for the Senate but the legions who had supported him and who now learned their power. Henceforward it would be the soldier with his naked sword who could make and unmake emperors, and especially the Praetorian Guard whose right it was to maintain order in Rome.
The gradual recognition of this idea had a disastrous effect on the government of the Empire. Too often the successful general of a campaign on the frontier would remember Vespasian and become obsessed with the thought that he also might be a Caesar. Led by ambition he would hold out to his legions hopes of the rewards they would receive were he crowned in Rome, and some sort of bargain would be struck, lowering the tone of the army by corrupting its loyalty and making its soldiers insolent and grasping.
The Senate attempted to deal with this difficulty of the succession by passing a law that every Emperor should, during his lifetime, name his successor, and that the latter should at once be hailed as Caesar, take a secondary share in the government, and have his effigy printed on coins. In this way he would become known to the whole Roman world, and when the Emperor died would at once be acknowledged in his place. Thus the Romans hoped to establish the theory that England expresses to-day in the phrase 'The King never dies'.
Though to a certain extent successful in their efforts to avoid civil war, they failed to arrest other evils that were undermining the prosperity of the government. One of these was the imperial expenditure. It was only natural that the Emperor should assume a magnificence and liberality in excess of his wealthiest subjects, but in addition he found it necessary to buy the allegiance of the Praetorian Guard and to keep the Roman populace satisfied in its demands for free corn and expensive amusements.
The standard of luxury had grown, and Romans no longer admired, except in books, the simple life of their forefathers. Instead the fashionable ideal was that of the East they had enslaved, and the Emperor was gradually shut off from the mass of his subjects by a host of court officials who thronged his antechambers and exacted heavy bribes for admission. In this unhealthy atmosphere suspicion and plots grew apace like weeds, and money dripped through the imperial fingers as through a sieve, no