CHARACTERS AND EVENTS OF ROMAN HISTORY
FROM CAESAR TO NERO
THE LOWELL LECTURES OF 1908
GUGLIELMO FERRERO, LITT.D.
"THE GREATNESS AND DECLINE OF ROME," ETC.
FRANCES LANCE FERRERO
The Chautauqua Press
CHAUTAUQUA, NEW YORK
By G.P. Putnam's Sons
The Chautauqua Print Shop
In the spring of 1906, the College de France invited me to deliver, during November of that year, a course of lectures on Roman history. I accepted, giving a resume, in eight lectures, of the history of the government of Augustus from the end of the civil wars to his death; that is, a resume of the matter contained in the fourth and fifth volumes of the English edition of my work, The Greatness and Decline of Rome.
Following these lectures came a request from M. Emilio Mitre, Editor of the chief newspaper of the Argentine Republic, the Nacion, and one from the Academia Brazileira de Lettras of Rio de Janeiro, to deliver a course of lectures in the Argentine and Brazilian capitals. I gave to the South American course a more general character than that delivered in Paris, introducing arguments which would interest a public having a less specialized knowledge of history than the public I had addressed in Paris.
When President Roosevelt did me the honour to invite me to visit the United States and Prof. Abbott Lawrence Lowell asked me to deliver a course at the Lowell Institute in Boston, I selected material from the two previous courses of lectures, moulding it into the group that was given in Boston in November-December, 1908. These lectures were later read at Columbia University in New York, and at the University of Chicago in Chicago. Certain of them were delivered elsewhere—before the American Philosophical Society and at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, at Harvard University in Cambridge, and at Cornell University in Ithaca.
Such is the record of the book now presented to the public at large. It is a work necessarily made up of detached studies, which, however, are bound together by a central, unifying thought; so that the reading of them may prove useful and pleasant even to those who have already read my Greatness and Decline of Rome.
The first lecture, "The Theory of Corruption in Roman History," sums up the fundamental idea of my conception of the history of Rome. The essential phenomenon upon which all the political, social, and moral crises of Rome depend is the transformation of customs produced by the augmentation of wealth, of expenditure, and of needs,—a phenomenon, therefore, of psychological order, and one common in contemporary life. This lecture should show that my work does not belong among those written after the method of economic materialism, for I hold that the fundamental force in history is psychologic and not economic.
The three following lectures, "The History and Legend of Antony and Cleopatra," "The Development of Gaul," and "Nero," seem to concern themselves with very different subjects. On the contrary, they present three different aspects of the one, identical problem—the struggle between the Occident and the Orient—a problem that Rome succeeded in solving as no European civilisation has since been able to do, making the countries of the Mediterranean Basin share a common life, in peace. How Rome succeeded in accomplishing this union of Orient and Occident is one of the points of greatest interest in its history. The first of these three lectures, "Antony and Cleopatra," shows how Rome repulsed the last offensive movement of the Orient against the Occident; the second, "The Development of Gaul," shows the establishing of equilibrium between the two parts of the Empire; the third, "Nero," shows how the Orient, beaten upon fields of battle and in diplomatic action, took its revenge in the domain of Roman ideas, morals, and social life.
The fifth lecture, "Julia and Tiberius," illustrates, by one of the most tragic episodes of Roman history, the terrible struggle between Roman ideals and habits and those of the Graeco-Asiatic civilisation. The sixth lecture, "The Development of the Empire," summarises in a few pages views to be developed in detail in that part of my work yet to be written.
I have said that not all history can be explained by economic forces and factors, but this does not prevent me from regarding economic phenomena as also of high importance. The seventh lecture, "Wine in Roman History," is an essay after the plan in accordance with which, it seems to me, economic phenomena should be treated.
The last lecture deals with a subject that perhaps does not, properly speaking, belong to Roman history, but upon which an historian of Rome ought to touch sooner or later; I mean the role which Rome can still play in the education of the upper classes. It is a subject important not only to the historian of Rome, but to all those who are interested in the future of culture and civilisation. The more specialisation in technical labour increases, the greater becomes the necessity of giving the superior classes a general education, which can prepare specialists to understand each other and to act together in all matters of common interest. To imagine a society composed exclusively of doctors, engineers, chemists, merchants, manufacturers, is impossible. Every one must also be a citizen and a man in sympathy with the common conscience. I have, therefore, endeavoured to show in this eighth lecture what services Rome and its great intellectual tradition can render to modern civilisation in the field of education.
These lectures naturally cannot do more than make known ideas in general form; it would be too much to expect in them the precision of detail, the regard for method, and the use of frequent notes, citations, and references to authorities or documents, that belong to my larger work on Rome; but they are published partly because I consider it useful to popularise Roman history, and partly because some of the pleasantest of memories attach to them. Their origin, the course on Augustus given at the College de France, which proved one of the happiest occasions of my life, and their development, leading to my travels in the two Americas, have given me experiences of the greatest interest and pleasure.
I am glad of the opportunity here to thank all those who have contributed to make the sojourn of my wife and myself in the United States delightful. I must thank all my friends at once; for to name each one separately, I should need, as a Latin poet says, "a hundred mouths and a hundred tongues."
TURIN, February 22, 1909.
"CORRUPTION" IN ANCIENT ROME, AND ITS COUNTERPART IN MODERN HISTORY ......... 1 THE HISTORY AND LEGEND OF ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA ............................. 37 THE DEVELOPMENT OF GAUL ................. 69 NERO .................................... 101 JULIA AND TIBERIUS ...................... 143 WINE IN ROMAN HISTORY ................... 179 SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE .. 207 ROMAN HISTORY IN MODERN EDUCATION ....... 239 INDEX ................................... 265
"Corruption" in Ancient Rome And Its Counterpart in Modern History
Two years ago in Paris, while giving a course of lectures on Augustus at the College de France, I happened to say to an illustrious historian, a member of the French Academy, who was complimenting me: "But I have not remade Roman history, as many admirers think. On the contrary, it might be said, in a certain sense, that I have only returned to the old way. I have retaken the point of view of Livy; like Livy, gathering the events of the story of Rome around that phenomenon which the ancients called the 'corruption' of customs—a novelty twenty centuries old!"
Spoken with a smile and in jest, these words nevertheless were more serious than the tone in which they were uttered. All those who know Latin history and literature, even superficially, remember with what insistence and with how many diverse modulations of tone are reiterated the laments on the corruption of customs, on the luxury, the ambition, the avarice, that invaded Rome after the Second Punic War. Sallust, Cicero, Livy, Horace, Virgil, are full of affliction because Rome is destined to dissipate itself in an incurable corruption; whence we see, then in Rome, as to-day in France, wealth, power, culture, glory, draw in their train—grim but inseparable comrade!—a pessimism that times poorer, cruder, more troubled, had not known. In the very moment in which the empire was ordering itself, civil wars ended; in that solemn Pax Romana which was to have endured so many ages, in the very moment in which the heart should have opened itself to hope and to joy, Horace describes, in three fine, terrible verses, four successive generations, each corrupting Rome, which grew ever the worse, ever the more perverse and evil-disposed:
Aetas parentum, peior avis, tulit Nos nequiores, mox daturos Progeniem vitiosiorem.
"Our fathers were worse than our grandsires; we have deteriorated from our fathers; our sons will cause us to be lamented." This is the dark philosophy that a sovereign spirit like Horace derived from the incredible triumph of Rome in the world. At his side, Livy, the great writer who was to teach all future generations the story of the city, puts the same hopeless philosophy at the base of his wonderful work:
Rome was originally, when it was poor and small, a unique example of austere virtue; then it corrupted, it spoiled, it rotted itself by all the vices; so, little by little, we have been brought into the present condition in which we are able neither to tolerate the evils from which we suffer, nor the remedies we need to cure them.
The same dark thought, expressed in a thousand forms, is found in almost every one of the Latin writers.
This theory has misled and impeded my predecessors in different ways: some, considering that the writers bewail the unavoidable dissolution of Roman society at the very time when Rome was most powerful, most cultured, richest, have judged conventional, rhetorical, literary, these invectives against corruption, these praises of ancient simplicity, and therefore have held them of no value in the history of Rome. Such critics have not reflected that this conception is found, not only in the literature, but also in the politics and the legislation; that Roman history is full, not only of invectives in prose and verse, but of laws and administrative provisions against luxuria, ambitio, avaritia—a sign that these laments were not merely a foolishness of writers, or, as we say to-day, stuff for newspaper articles. Other critics, instead, taking account of these laws and administrative provisions, have accepted the ancient theory of Roman corruption without reckoning that they were describing as undone by an irreparable dissolution, a nation that not only had conquered, but was to govern for ages, an immense empire. In this conception of corruption there is a contradiction that conceals a great universal problem.
Stimulated by this contradiction, and by the desire of solving it, to study more attentively the facts cited by the ancients as examples of corruption, I have looked about to see if in the contemporary world I could not find some things that resembled it, and so make myself understand it. The prospect seemed difficult, because modern men are persuaded that they are models of all the virtues. Who could think to find in them even traces of the famous Roman corruption? In the modern world to-day are the abominable orgies carried on for which the Rome of the Caesars was notorious? Are there to-day Neros and Elagabaluses? He who studies the ancient sources, however, with but a little of the critical spirit, is easily convinced that we have made for ourselves out of the much-famed corruption and Roman luxury a notion highly romantic and exaggerated. We need not delude ourselves: Rome, even in the times of its greatest splendour, was poor in comparison with the modern world; even in the second century after Christ, when it stood as metropolis at the head of an immense empire, Rome was smaller, less wealthy, less imposing, than a great metropolis of Europe or of America. Some sumptuous public edifices, beautiful private houses—that is all the splendour of the metropolis of the empire. He who goes to the Palatine may to-day refigure for himself, from the so-called House of Livia, the house of a rich Roman family of the time of Augustus, and convince himself that a well-to-do middle-class family would hardly occupy such a house to-day.
Moreover, the palaces of the Caesars on the Palatine are a grandiose ruin that stirs the artist and makes the philosopher think; but if one sets himself to measure them, to conjecture from the remains the proportions of the entire edifices, he does not conjure up buildings that rival large modern constructions. The palace of Tiberius, for example, rose above a street only two metres wide—less than seven feet,—an alley like those where to-day in Italian cities live only the most miserable inhabitants. We have pictured to ourselves the imperial banquets of ancient Rome as functions of unheard of splendour; if Nero or Elagabalus could come to life and see the dining-room of a great hotel in Paris or New York—resplendent with light, with crystal, with silver,—he would admire it as far more beautiful than the halls in which he gave his imperial feasts. Think how poor were the ancients in artificial light! They had few wines; they knew neither tea nor coffee nor cocoa; neither tobacco, nor the innumerable liqueurs of which we make use; in face of our habits, they were always Spartan, even when they wasted, because they lacked the means to squander.
The ancient writers often lament the universal tendency to physical self-indulgence, but among the facts they cite to prove this dismal vice, many would seem to us innocent enough. It was judged by them a scandalous proof of gluttony and as insensate luxury, that at a certain period there should be fetched from as far as the Pontus, certain sausages and certain salted fish that were, it appears, very good; and that there should be introduced into Italy from Greece the delicate art of fattening fowls. Even to drink Greek wines seemed for a long time at Rome the caprice of an almost crazy luxury. As late as 18 B.C., Augustus made a sumptuary law that forbade spending for banquets on work-days more than two hundred sesterces (ten dollars); allowed three hundred sesterces (fifteen dollars) for the days of the Kalends, the Ides, and the Nones; and one thousand sesterces (fifty dollars) for nuptial banquets. It is clear, then, that the lords of the world banqueted in state at an expense that to us would seem modest indeed. And the women of ancient times, accused so sharply by the men of ruining them by their foolish extravagances, would cut a poor figure for elegant ostentation in comparison with modern dames of fashion. For example, silk, even in the most prosperous times, was considered a stuff, as we should say, for millionaires; only a few very rich women wore it; and, moreover, moralists detested it, because it revealed too clearly the form of the body. Lollia Paulina passed into history because she possessed jewels worth several million francs: there are to-day too many Lollia Paulinas for any one of them to hope to buy immortality at so cheap a rate.
I should reach the same conclusions if I could show you what the Roman writers really meant by corruption in their accounts of the relations between the sexes. It is not possible here to make critical analyses of texts and facts concerning this material, for reasons that you readily divine; but it would be easy to prove that also in this respect posterity has seen the evil much larger than it was.
Why, then, did the ancient writers bewail luxury, inclination to pleasure, prodigality—things all comprised in the notorious "corruption"—in so much the livelier fashion than do moderns, although they lived in a world which, being poorer and more simple, could amuse itself, make display, and indulge in dissipation so much less than we do? This is one of the chief questions of Roman history, and I flatter myself not to have entirely wasted work in writing my book  above all, because I hope to have contributed a little, if not actually to solve this question, at least to illuminate it; because in so doing I believe I have found a kind of key that opens at the same time many mysteries in Roman history and in contemporary life. The ancient writers and moralists wrote so much of Roman corruption, because—nearer in this, as in so many other things, to the vivid actuality—they understood that wars, revolutions, the great spectacular events that are accomplished in sight of the world, do not form all the life of peoples; that these occurrences, on the contrary, are but the ultimate, exterior explanation, the external irradiation, or the final explosion of an internal force that is acting constantly in the family, in private habit, in the moral and intellectual disposition of the individual. They understood that all the changes, internal and external, in a nation, are bound together and in part depend on one very common fact, which is everlasting and universal, and which everybody may observe if he will but look about him—on the increase of wants, the enlargement of ideas, the shifting of habits, the advance of luxury, the increase of expense that is caused by every generation.
[Footnote 1: The Greatness and Decline of Rome. 5 vols. New York and London.];
Look around you to-day: in every family you may easily observe the same phenomenon. A man has been born in a certain social condition and has succeeded during his youth and vigour in adding to his original fortune. Little by little as he was growing rich, his needs and his luxuries increased. When a certain point was reached, he stopped. The men are few who can indefinitely augment their particular wants, or keep changing their habits throughout their lives, even after the disappearance of vigour and virile elasticity. The increase of wants and of luxury, the change of habits, continues, instead, in the new generation, in the children, who began to live in the ease which their fathers won after long effort and fatigue, and in maturer age; who, in short, started where the previous generation left off, and therefore wish to gain yet new enjoyments, different from and greater than those that they obtained without trouble through the efforts of the preceding generation. It is this little common drama, which we see re-enacted in every family and in which every one of us has been and will be an actor—to-day as a young radical who innovates customs, to-morrow as an old conservative, out-of-date and malcontent in the eyes of the young; a drama, petty and common, which no one longer regards, so frequent is it and so frivolous it seems, but which, instead, is one of the greatest motive forces in human history—in greater or less degree, under different forms, active in all times and operating everywhere. On account of it no generation can live quietly on the wealth gathered, with the ideas discovered by antecedent generations, but is constrained to create new ideas, to make new and greater wealth by all the means at its disposal—by war and conquest, by agriculture and industry, by religion and science. On account of it, families, classes, nations, that do not succeed in adding to their possessions, are destined to be impoverished, because, wants increasing, it is necessary, in order to satisfy them, to consume the accumulated capital, to make debts, and, little by little, to go to ruin. Because of this ambition, ever reborn, classes renew themselves in every nation. Opulent families after a few generations are gradually impoverished; they decay and disappear, and from the multitudinous poor arise new families, creating the new elite which continues under differing forms the doings and traditions of the old. Because of this unrest, the earth is always stirred up by a fervour for deeds or adventure—attempts that take shape according to the age: now peoples make war on each other, now they rend themselves in revolutions, now they seek new lands, explore, conquer, exploit; again they perfect arts and industries, enlarge commerce, cultivate the earth with greater assiduity; and yet again, in the ages more laborious, like ours, they do all these things at the same time—an activity immense and continuous. But its motive force is always the need of the new generations, that, starting from the point at which their predecessors had arrived, desire to advance yet farther—to enjoy, to know, to possess yet more.
The ancient writers understood this thoroughly: what they called "corruption" was but the change in customs and wants, proceeding from generation to generation, and in its essence the same as that which takes place about us to-day. The avaritia of which they complained so much, was the greed and impatience to make money that we see to-day setting all classes beside themselves, from noble to day-labourer; the ambitio that appeared to the ancients to animate so frantically even the classes that ought to have been most immune, was what we call getting there—the craze to rise at any cost to a condition higher than that in which one was born, which so many writers, moralists, statesmen, judge, rightly or wrongly, to be one of the most dangerous maladies of the modern world. Luxuria was the desire to augment personal conveniences, luxuries, pleasures—the same passion that stirs Europe and America to-day from top to bottom, in city and country. Without doubt, wealth grew in ancient Rome and grows to-day; men were bent on making money in the last two centuries of the Republic, and to-day they rush headlong into the delirious struggle for gold; for reasons and motives, however, and with arms and accoutrements, far diverse.
As I have already said, ancient civilisation was narrower, poorer, and more ignorant; it did not hold under its victorious foot the whole earth; it did not possess the formidable instruments with which we exploit the forces and the resources of nature: but the treasures of precious metals transported to Italy from conquered and subjugated countries; the lands, the mines, the forests, belonging to such countries, confiscated by Rome and given or rented to Italians; the tributes imposed on the vanquished, and the collection of them; the abundance of slaves,—all these then offered to the Romans and to the Italians so many occasions to grow rich quickly; just as the gigantic economic progress of the modern world offers similar opportunities to-day to all the peoples that, by geographical position, historical tradition, or vigorous culture and innate energy, know how to excel in industry, in agriculture, and in trade. Especially from the Second Punic War on, in all classes, there followed—anxious for a life more affluent and brilliant—generations the more incited to follow the examples that emanated from the great metropolises of the Orient, particularly Alexandria, which was for the Romans of the Republic what Paris is for us to-day. This movement, spontaneous, regular, natural, was every now and then violently accelerated by the conquest of a great Oriental state. One observes, after each one of the great annexations of Oriental lands, a more intense delirium of luxury and pleasure: the first time, after the acquisition of the kingdom of Pergamus, through a kind of contagion communicated by the sumptuous furniture of King Attalus, which was sold at auction and scattered among the wealthy houses of Italy to excite the still simple desires and the yet sluggish imaginations of the Italians; the second time, after the conquest of Pontus and of Syria, made by Lucullus and by Pompey; finally, the third time, after the conquest of Egypt made by Augustus, when the influence of that land—the France of the ancient world—so actively invaded Italy that no social force could longer resist it.
In this way, partly by natural, gradual, almost imperceptible diffusion, partly by violent crises, we see the mania for luxury and the appetite for pleasure beginning, growing, becoming aggravated from generation to generation in all Roman society, for two centuries, changing the mentality and morality of the people; we see the institutions and public policy being altered; all Roman history a-making under the action of this force, formidable and immanent in the whole nation. It breaks down all obstacles confronting it—the forces of traditions, laws, institutions, interests of classes, opposition of parties, the efforts of thinking men. The historical aristocracy becomes impoverished and weak; before it rise to power the millionaires, the parvenus, the great capitalists, enriched in the provinces. A part of the nobility, after having long despised them, sets itself to fraternise with them, to marry their wealthy daughters, cause them to share power; seeks to prop with their millions the pre-eminence of its own rank, menaced by the discontent, the spirit of revolt, the growing pride, of the middle class. Meanwhile, another part of the aristocracy, either too haughty and ambitious, or too poor, scorns this alliance, puts itself at the head of the democratic party, foments in the middle classes the spirit of antagonism against the nobles and the rich, leads them to the assault on the citadels of aristocratic and democratic power. Hence the mad internal struggles that redden Rome with blood and complicate so tragically, especially after the Gracchi, the external polity. The increasing wants of the members of all classes, the debts that are their inevitable consequence, the universal longing, partly unsatisfied for lack of means, for the pleasures of the subtle Asiatic civilisations, infused into this whole history a demoniac frenzy that to-day, after so many centuries, fascinates and appals us.
To satisfy their wants, to pay their debts, the classes now set upon each other, each to rob in turn the goods of the other, in the cruelest civil war that history records; now, tired of doing themselves evil, they unite and precipitate themselves on the world outside of Italy, to sack the wealth that its owners do not know how to defend. In the great revolutions of Marius and Sulla, the democratic party is the instrument with which a part of the debt-burdened middle classes seek to rehabilitate themselves by robbing the plutocracy and the aristocracy yet opulent; but Sulla reverses the situation, makes a coalition of aristocrats and the miserable of the populace, and re-establishes the fortunes of the nobility, despoiling the wealthy knights and a part of the middle classes—a terrible civil war that leaves in Italy a hate, a despondency, a distress, that seem at a certain moment as if they must weigh eternally on the spirit of the unhappy nation. When, lo! there appears the strongest man in the history of Rome, Lucullus, and drags Italy out of the despondency in which it crouched, leads it into the ways of the world, and persuades it that the best means of forgetting the losses and ruin undergone in the civil wars, is to recuperate on the riches of the cowardly Orientals. As little by little the treasures of Mithridates, conquered by Lucullus in the Orient, arrive in Italy, Italy begins anew to divert itself, to construct palaces and villas, to squander in luxury. Pompey, envious of the glory of Lucullus, follows his example, conquers Syria, sends new treasures to Italy, carries from the East the jewels of Mithridates, and displaying them in the temple of Jove, rouses a passion for gems in the Roman women; he also builds the first great stone theatre to rise in Rome. All the political men in Rome try to make money out of foreign countries: those who cannot, like the great, conquer an empire, confine themselves to blackmailing the countries and petty states that tremble before the shadow of Rome; the courts of the secondary kings of the Orient, the court of the Ptolemies at Alexandria,—all are invaded by a horde of insatiable senators and knights, who, menacing and promising, extort money to spend in Italy and foment the growing extravagance. The debts pile up, the political corruption overflows, scandals follow, the parties in Rome rend each other madly, though hail-fellow-well-met in the provinces to plunder subjects and vassals. In the midst of this vast disorder Caesar, the man of destiny, rises, and with varying fortune makes a way for himself until he beckons Italy to follow him, to find success and treasures in regions new—not in the rich and fabulous East, but beyond the Alps, in barbarous Gaul, bristling with fighters and forests.
But this insane effort to prey on every part of the Empire finally tires Italy; quarrels over the division of spoils embitter friends; the immensity of the conquests, made in a few years of reckless enthusiasm, is alarming. Finally a new civil war breaks out, terrible and interminable, in which classes and families fall upon each other anew, to tear away in turn the spoils taken together abroad. Out of the tremendous discord rises at last the pacifier, Augustus, who is able gradually, by cleverness and infinite patience, to re-establish peace and order in the troubled empire. How?—why? Because the combination of events of the times allows him to use to ends of peace the same forces with which the preceding generations had fomented so much disorder—desires for ease, pleasure, culture, wealth growing with the generations making it. Thereupon begins in the whole Empire universal progress in agriculture, industry, trade, which, on a small scale, may be compared to what we to-day witness and share; a progress for which, then as now, the chief condition was peace. As soon as men realised that peace gives that greater wealth, those enjoyments more refined, that higher culture, which for a century they had sought by war, Italy became quiet; revolutionists became guardians and guards of order; there gathered about Augustus a coalition of social forces that tended to impose on the Empire, alike on the parts that wished it and those that did not, the Pax Romana.
Now all this immense story that fills three centuries, that gathers within itself so many revolutions, so many legislative reforms, so many great men, so many events, tragic and glorious, this vast history that for so many centuries holds the interest of all cultured nations, and that, considered as a whole, seems almost a prodigy, you can, on the track of the old idea of "corruption," explain in its profoundest origins by one small fact, universal, common, of the very simplest—something that every one may observe in the limited circle of his own personal experience,—by that automatic increase of ambitions and desires, with every new generation, which prevents the human world from crystallising in one form, constrains it to continual changes in material make-up as well as in ideals and moral appearance. In other words, every new generation must, in order to satisfy that part of its aspirations which is peculiarly and entirely its own, alter, whether little or much, in one way or another, the condition of the world it entered at birth. We can then, in our personal experiences every day, verify the universal law of history—a law that can act with greater or less intensity, more or less rapidity, according to times and places, but that ceases to authenticate itself at no time and in no place.
The United States is subject to that law to-day, as is old Europe, as will be future generations, and as past ages were. Moreover, to understand at bottom this phenomenon, which appears to me to be the soul of all history, it is well to add this consideration: It is evident that there is a capital difference between our judgment of this phenomenon and that of the ancients; to them it was a malevolent force of dissolution to which should be attributed all in Roman history that was sinister and dreadful, a sure sign of incurable decay; that is why they called it "corruption of customs," and so lamented it. To-day, on the contrary, it appears to us a universal beneficent process of transformation; so true is this that we call "progress" many facts which the ancients attributed to "corruption." It were useless to expand too much in examples; enough to cite a few. In the third ode of the first book, in which he so tenderly salutes the departing Virgil, Horace covers with invective, as an evil-doer and the corrupter of the human race, that impious being who invented the ship, which causes man, created for the land, to walk across waters. Who would to-day dare repeat those maledictions against the bold builders who construct the magnificent trans-Atlantic liners on which, in a dozen days from Genoa, one lands in Boston or New York? "Coelum ipsum petimus stultitia," exclaims Horace—that is to say, in anticipation he considered the Wright brothers crazy.
Who, save some man of erudition, has knowledge to-day of sumptuary laws? We should laugh them all down with one Homeric guffaw, if to-day it entered somebody's head to propose a law that forbade fair ladies to spend more than a certain sum on their clothes, or numbered the hats they might wear; or that regulated dinners of ceremony, fixing the number of courses, the variety of wines, and the total expense; or that prohibited labouring men and women from wearing certain stuffs or certain objects that were wont to be found only upon the persons of people of wealth and leisure. And yet laws of this tenor were compiled, published, observed, up to two centuries ago, without any one's finding it absurd. The historic force that, as riches increase, impels the new generations to desire new satisfactions, new pleasures, operated then as to-day; only then men were inclined to consider it as a new kind of ominous disease that needed checking. To-day men regard that constant transformation either as beneficent, or at least as such a matter of course that almost no one heeds it; just as no one notices the alternations of day and night, or the change of seasons. On the contrary, we have little by little become so confident of the goodness of this force that drives the coming generation on into the unknown future, that society, European, American, among other liberties has won in the nineteenth century, full and entire, a liberty that the ancients did not know—freedom in vice.
To the Romans it appeared most natural that the state should survey private habits, should spy out what a citizen, particularly a citizen belonging to the ruling classes, did within domestic walls—should see whether he became intoxicated, whether he were a gourmand, whether he contracted debts, spending much or little, whether he betrayed his wife. The age of Augustus was cultured, civilised, liberal, and in many things resembled our own; yet on this point the dominating ideas were so different from ours, that at one time Augustus was forced by public opinion to propose a law on adultery by which all Roman citizens of both sexes guilty of this crime were condemned to exile and the confiscation of half their substance, and there was given to any citizen the right to accuse the guilty. Could you imagine it possible to-day, even for a few weeks, to establish this regime of terror in the kingdom of Amor? But the ancients were always inclined to consider as exceedingly dangerous for the upper classes that relaxing of customs which always follows periods of rapid enrichment, of great gain in comforts; behind his own walls to-day, every one is free to indulge himself as he will, to the confines of crime.
How can we explain this important difference in judging one of the essential phenomena of historic life? Has this phenomenon changed nature, and from bad, by some miracle, become good? Or are we wiser than our forefathers, judging with experience what they could hardly comprehend? There is no doubt that the Latin writers, particularly Horace and Livy, were so severe in condemning this progressive movement of wants because of unconscious political solicitude, because intellectual men expressed the opinions, sentiments, and also the prejudices of historic aristocracy, and this detested the progress of ambitio, avaritia, luxuria, because they undermined the dominance of its class. On the other hand, it is certain that in the modern world every increase of consumption, every waste, every vice, seems permissible, indeed almost meritorious, because men of industry and trade, the employees in industries—that is, all the people that gain by the diffusion of luxuries, by the spread of vices or new wants—have acquired, thanks above all to democratic institutions, and to the progress of cities, an immense political power that in times past they lacked. If, for example, in Europe the beer-makers and distillers of alcohol were not more powerful in the electoral field than the philosophers and academicians, governments would more easily recognise that the masses should not be allowed to poison themselves or future generations by chronic drunkenness.
Between these two extremes of exaggeration, inspired by a self-interest easy to discover, is there not a true middle way that we can deduce from the study of Roman history and from the observation of contemporary life?
In the pessimism with which the ancients regarded progress as corruption, there was a basis of truth, just as there is a principle of error in the too serene optimism with which we consider corruption as progress. This force that pushes the new generations on to the future, at once creates and destroys; its destructive energy is specially felt in ages like Caesar's in ancient Rome and ours in the modern world, in which facility in the accumulation of wealth over-excites desires and ambitions in all classes. They are the times in which personal egoism—what to-day we call individualism—usurps a place above all that represents in society the interest of the species: national duty, the self-abnegation of each for the sake of the common good. Then these vices and defects become always more common: intellectual agitation, the weakening of the spirit of tradition, the general relaxation of discipline, the loss of authority, ethical confusion and disorder. At the same time that certain moral sentiments refine themselves, certain individualisms grow fiercer. The government may no longer represent the ideas, the aspirations, the energetic will of a small oligarchy; it must make itself more yielding and gracious at the same time that it is becoming more contradictory and discordant. Family discipline is relaxed; the new generations shake off early the influence of the past; the sentiment of honour and the rigour of moral, religious, and political principles are weakened by a spirit of utility and expediency by which, more or less openly, confessing it or dissimulating, men always seek to do, not that which is right and decorous, but that which is utilitarian. The civic spirit tends to die out; the number of persons capable of suffering, or even of working, disinterestedly for the common good, for the future, diminishes; children are not wanted; men prefer to live in accord with those in power, ignoring their vices, rather than openly opposing them. Public events do not interest unless they include a personal advantage.
This is the state of mind that is now diffusing itself throughout Europe; the same state of mind that, with the documents at hand, I have found in the age of Caesar and Augustus, and seen progressively diffusing itself throughout ancient Italy. The likeness is so great that we re-find in those far-away times, especially in the upper classes, exactly that restless condition that we define by the word "nervousness." Horace speaks of this state of mind, which we consider peculiar to ourselves, and describes it, by felicitous image, as strenua inertia—strenuous inertia,—agitation vain and ineffective, always wanting something new, but not really knowing what, desiring most ardently yet speedily tiring of a desire gratified. Now it is clear that if these vices spread too much, if they are not complemented by an increase of material resources, of knowledge, of sufficient population, they can lead a nation rapidly to ruin. We do not feel very keenly the fear of this danger—the European-American civilisation is so rich, has at its disposal so much knowledge, so many men, so many instrumentalities, has cut off for itself such a measureless part of the globe, that it can afford to look unafraid into the future. The abyss is so far away that only a few philosophers barely descry it in the gray mist of distant years. But the ancient world—so much poorer, smaller, weaker—felt that it could not squander as we do, and saw the abyss near at hand.
To-day men and women waste fabulous wealth in luxury; that is, they spend not to satisfy some reasonable need, but to show to others of their kind how rich they are, or, further, to make others believe them richer than they are. If these resources were everywhere saved as they are in France, the progress of the world would be quicker, and the new countries would more easily find in Europe and in themselves the capital necessary for their development. At all events, our age develops fast, and notwithstanding all this waste, abounds in a plenty that is enough to keep men from fearing the growth of this wanton luxury and from planning to restrain it by laws. In the ancient world, on the other hand, the wealthy classes and the state had only to abandon themselves a little too much to the prodigality that for us has become almost a regular thing, when suddenly means were wanting to meet the most essential needs of social life. Tacitus has summarised an interesting discourse of Tiberius, in which the famous emperor censures the ladies of Rome in terms cold, incisive, and succinct, because they spend too much money on pearls and diamonds. "Our money," said Tiberius, "goes away to India and we are in want of the precious metals to carry on the military administration; we have to give up the defence of the frontiers." According to the opinion of an administrator so sagacious and a general so valiant as Tiberius, in the richest period of the Roman Empire, a lady of Rome could not buy pearls and diamonds without directly weakening the defence of the frontiers. Indulgence in the luxury of jewels looked almost like high treason.
Similar observations might be made on another grave question—the increase of population. One of the most serious effects of individualism that accompanies the increase of civilisation and wealth, is the decrease of the birth-rate. France, which knows how to temper its luxury, which gives to other peoples an example of saving means for the future, has on the other hand given the example of egoism in the family, lowering the birth-rate. England, for a long time so fecund, seems to follow France. The more uniformly settled and well-to-do parts of the North American Union, the Eastern States and New England, are even more sterile than France. However, no one of these nations suffers to-day from the small increase of population; there are yet so many poor and fecund peoples that they can easily fill the gaps. In the ancient world this was not the case; population was always and everywhere so scanty that if for some reason it diminished but slightly, the states could not get on, finding themselves at the mercy of what they called a "famine of men," a malady more serious and troublesome than over-population. In the Roman Empire the Occidental provinces finally fell into the hands of the barbarians, chiefly because the Graeco-Latin civilisation sterilised the family, reducing the population incurably. No wonder that the ancients applied the term "corruption" to a momentum of desires which, although increasing culture and the refinements of living, easily menaced the sources of the nation's physical existence.
There is, then, a more general conclusion to draw from this experience. It is not by chance, nor the unaccountable caprice of a few ancient writers, that we possess so many small facts on the development of luxury and the transformation of customs in ancient Rome; that, for example, among the records of great wars, of diplomatic missions, of catastrophes political and economic, we find given the date when the art of fattening fowls was imported into Italy. The little facts are not so unworthy of the majesty of Roman history as one at first might think. Everything is bound together in the life of a nation, and nothing without importance; the humblest acts, most personal and deepest hidden in the penetralia of the home, that no one sees, none knows, have an effect, immediate or remote, on the common life of the nation. There is, between these small, insignificant facts and the wars, the revolutions, the tremendous political and social events that bewilder men, a tie, often invisible to most people, yet nevertheless indestructible.
Nothing in the world is without import: what women spend for their toilet, the resistance that men make from day to day to the temptations of the commonest pleasures, the new and petty needs that insinuate themselves unconsciously into the habits of all; the reading, the conversations, the impressions, even the most fugacious that pass in our spirit—all these things, little and innumerable, that no historian registers, have contributed to produce this revolution, that war, this catastrophe, that political overturn, which men wonder at and study as a prodigy.
The causes of how many apparently mysterious historical events would be more clearly and profoundly known, of how many periods would the spirit be better understood, did we only possess the private records of the families that make up the ruling classes! Every deed we do in the intimacy of the home reacts on the whole of our environment. With our every act we assume a responsibility toward the nation and posterity, the sanction for which, near or far away, is in events. This justifies, at least in part, the ancient conception by which the state had the right to exercise vigilance over its citizens, their private acts, customs, pleasures, vices, caprices. This vigilance, the laws that regulated it, the moral and political teachings that brought pressure to bear in the exercise of these laws, tended above all to charge upon the individual man the social responsibility of his single acts; to remind him that in the things most personal, aside from the individual pain or pleasure, there was an interest, a good or an evil, in common.
Modern men—and it is a revolution greater than that finished in political form in the nineteenth century—have been freed from these bonds, from these obligations. Indeed, modern civilisation has made it a duty for each one to spend, to enjoy, to waste as much as he can, without any disturbing thought as to the ultimate consequences of what he does. The world is so rich, population grows so rapidly, civilisation is armed with so much knowledge in its struggle against the barbarian and against nature, that to-day we are able to laugh at the timid prudence of our forefathers, who had, as it were, a fear of wealth, of pleasure, of love; we can boast in the pride of triumph that we are the first who dare in the midst of a conquered world, to enjoy—enjoy without scruple, without restriction—all the good things life offers to the strong.
But who knows? Perhaps this felicitous moment will not last forever; perhaps one day will see men, grown more numerous, feel the need of the ancient wisdom and prudence. It is at least permitted the philosopher and the historian to ask if this magnificent but unbridled freedom which we enjoy suits all times, and not only those in which nations coming into being can find a small dower in their cradle as you have done—three millions of square miles of land!
The History and Legend of Antony and Cleopatra
In the history of Rome figures of women are rare, because only men dominated there, imposing everywhere the brute force, the roughness, and the egoism that lie at the base of their nature: they honoured the mater familias because she bore children and kept the slaves from stealing the flour from the bin and drinking the wine from the amphore on the sly. They despised the woman who made of her beauty and vivacity an adornment of social life, a prize sought after and disputed by the men. However, in this virile history there does appear, on a sudden, the figure of a woman, strange and wonderful, a kind of living Venus. Plutarch thus describes the arrival of Cleopatra at Tarsus and her first meeting with Antony:
She was sailing tranquilly along the Cydnus, on a bark with a golden stern, with sails of purple and oars of silver, and the dip of the oars was rhythmed to the sound of flutes, blending with music of lyres. She herself, the Queen, wondrously clad as Venus is pictured, was lying under an awning gold embroidered. Boys dressed as Cupids stood at her side, gently waving fans to refresh her; her maidens, every one beautiful and clad as a Naiad or a Grace, directed the boat, some at the rudder, others at the ropes. Both banks of the stream were sweet with the perfumes burning on the vessel.
Posterity is yet dazzled by this ship, refulgent with purple and gold and melodious with flutes and lyres. If we are spellbound by Plutarch's description, it does not seem strange to us that Antony should be—he who could not only behold in person that wonderful Venus, but could dine with her tete-a-tete, in a splendour of torches indescribable. Surely this is a setting in no wise improbable for the beginning of the famous romance of the love of Antony and Cleopatra, and its development as probable as its beginning; the follies committed by Antony for the seductive Queen of the Orient, the divorce of Octavia, the war for love of Cleopatra, kindled in the whole Empire, and the miserable catastrophe. Are there not to be seen in recent centuries many men of power putting their greatness to risk and sometimes to ruin for love of a woman? Are not the love letters of great statesmen—for instance, those of Mirabeau and of Gambetta—admitted to the semi-official part of modern history-writing? And so also Antony could love a queen and, like so many modern statesmen, commit follies for her. A French critic of my book, burning his ships behind him, has said that Antony was a Roman Boulanger.
The romance pleases: art takes it as subject and re-takes it; but that does not keep off the brutal hands of criticism. Before all, it should be observed that moderns feel and interpret the romance of Antony and Cleopatra in a way very different from that of the ancients. From Shakespeare to De Heredia and Henri Houssaye, artists and historians have described with sympathy, even almost idealised, this passion that throws away in a lightning flash every human greatness, to pursue the mantle of a fleeing woman; they find in the follies of Antony something profoundly human that moves them, fascinates them, and makes them indulgent. To the ancients, on the contrary, the amours of Antony and Cleopatra were but a dishonourable degeneration of the passion. They have no excuse for the man whom love for a woman impelled to desert in battle, to abandon soldiers, friends, relatives, to conspire against the greatness of Rome.
This very same difference of interpretation recurs in the history of the amours of Caesar. Modern writers regard what the ancients tell us of the numerous loves—real or imaginary—of Caesar, as almost a new laurel with which to decorate his figure. On the contrary, the ancients recounted and spread abroad, and perhaps in part invented, these storiettes of gallantry for quite opposite reasons—as source of dishonour, to discredit him, to demonstrate that Caesar was effeminate, that he could not give guarantee of knowing how to lead the armies and to fulfil the virile and arduous duties that awaited every eminent Roman. There is in our way of thinking a vein of romanticism wanting in the ancient mind. We see in love a certain forgetfulness of ourselves, a certain blindness of egoism and the more material passions, a kind of power of self-abnegation, which, inasmuch as it is unconscious, confers a certain nobility and dignity; therefore we are indulgent to mistakes and follies committed for the sake of passion, while the ancients were very severe. We pardon with a certain compassion the man who for love of a woman has not hesitated to bury himself under the ruin of his own greatness; the ancients, on the contrary, considered him the most dangerous and despicable of the insane.
Criticism has not contented itself with re-giving to the ancient romance the significance it had for those that made it and the public that first read it. Archaeologists have discovered upon coins portraits of Cleopatra, and now critics have confronted these portraits with the poetic descriptions given by Roman historians and have found the descriptions generously fanciful: in the portraits we do not see the countenance of a Venus, delicate, gracious, smiling, nor even the fine and sensuous beauty of a Marquise de Pompadour, but a face fleshy and, as the French would say, bouffie; the nose, a powerful aquiline; the face of a woman on in years, ambitious, imperious, one which recalls that of Maria Theresa. It will be said that judgments as to beauty are personal; that Antony, who saw her alive, could decide better than we who see her portraits half effaced by the centuries; that the attractive power of a woman emanates not only from corporal beauty, but also—and yet more—from her spirit. The taste of Cleopatra, her vivacity, her cleverness, her exquisite art in conversation, is vaunted by all.
Perhaps, however, Cleopatra, beautiful or ugly, is of little consequence; when one studies the history of her relations with Antony, there is small place, and that but toward the end, for the passion of love. It will be easy to persuade you of this if you follow the simple chronological exposition of facts I shall give you. Antony makes the acquaintance of Cleopatra at Tarsus toward the end of 41 B.C., passes the winter of 41-40 with her at Alexandria; leaves her in the spring of 40 and stays away from her more than three years, till the autumn of 37. There is no proof that during this time Antony sighed for the Queen of Egypt as a lover far away; on the contrary, he attends, with alacrity worthy of praise, to preparing the conquest of Persia, to putting into execution the great design conceived by Caesar, the plan of war that Antony had come upon among the papers of the Dictator the evening of the fifteenth of March, 44 B.C. All order social and political, the army, the state, public finance, wealth private and public, is going to pieces around him. The triumvirate power, built up on the uncertain foundation of these ruins, is tottering; Antony realises that only a great external success can give to him and his party the authority and the money necessary to establish a solid government, and resolves to enter into possession of the political legacy of his teacher and patron, taking up its central idea, the conquest of Persia.
The difficulties are grave. Soldiers are not wanting, but money. The revolution has ruined the Empire and Italy; all the reserve funds have been dissipated; the finances of the state are in such straits that not even the soldiers can be paid punctually and the legions every now and then claim their dues by revolt. Antony is not discouraged. The historians, however antagonistic to him, describe him as exceedingly busy in those four years, extracting from all parts of the Empire that bit of money still in circulation. Then at one stroke, in the second half of 37, when, preparations finished, it is time to put hand to the execution, the ancient historians without in any way explaining to us this sudden act, most unforeseen, make him depart for Antioch to meet Cleopatra, who has been invited by him to join him. For what reason does Antony after three years, all of a sudden, re-join Cleopatra? The secret of the story of Antony and Cleopatra lies entirely in this question.
Plutarch says that Antony went to Antioch borne by the fiery and untamed courser of his own spirit; in other words, because passion was already beginning to make him lose common sense. Not finding other explanations in the ancient writers, posterity has accepted this, which was simple enough; but about a century ago an erudite Frenchman, Letronne, studying certain coins, and comparing with them certain passages in ancient historians, until then remaining obscure, was able to demonstrate that in 36 B.C., at Antioch, Antony married Cleopatra with all the dynastic ceremonies of Egypt, and that thereupon Antony became King of Egypt, although he did not dare assume the title.
The explanation of Letronne, which is founded on official documents and coins, is without doubt more dependable than that of Plutarch, which is reducible to an imaginative metaphor; and the discovery of Letronne, concluding that concatenation of facts that I have set forth, finally persuades me to affirm that not a passion of love, suddenly re-awakened, led Antony in the second half of 37 B.C. to Antioch to meet the Queen of Egypt, but a political scheme well thought out. Antony wanted Egypt and not the beautiful person of its queen; he meant by this dynastic marriage to establish the Roman protectorate in the valley of the Nile, and to be able to dispose, for the Persian campaign, of the treasures of the Kingdom of the Ptolemies. At that time, after the plunderings of other regions of the Orient by the politicians of Rome, there was but one state rich in reserves of precious metals, Egypt. Since, little by little, the economic crisis of the Roman Empire was aggravating, the Roman polity had to gravitate perforce toward Egypt, as toward the country capable of providing Rome with the capital necessary to continue its policy in every part of the Empire.
Caesar already understood this; his mysterious and obscure connection with Cleopatra had certainly for ultimate motive and reason this political necessity; and Antony, in marrying Cleopatra, probably only applied more or less shrewdly the ideas that Caesar had originated in the refulgent crepuscle of his tempestuous career. You will ask me why Antony, if he had need of the valley of the Nile, recurred to this strange expedient of a marriage, instead of conquering the kingdom, and why Cleopatra bemeaned herself to marry the triumvir. The reply is not difficult to him who knows the history of Rome. There was a long-standing tradition in Roman policy to exploit Egypt but to respect its independence; it may be, because the country was considered more difficult to govern than in truth it was, or because there existed for this most ancient land, the seat of all the most refined arts, the most learned schools, the choicest industries, exceedingly rich and highly civilised, a regard that somewhat resembles what France imposes on the world to-day. Finally, it may be because it was held that if Egypt were annexed, its influence on Italy would be too much in the ascendent, and the traditions of the old Roman life would be conclusively overwhelmed by the invasion of the customs, the ideas, the refinements—in a word, by the corruptions of Egypt. Antony, who was set in the idea of repeating in Persia the adventure of Alexander the Great, did not dare bring about an annexation which would have been severely judged in Italy and which he, like the others, thought more dangerous than in reality it was. On the other hand, with a dynastic marriage, he was able to secure for himself all the advantages of effective possession, without running the risks of annexation; so he resolved upon this artifice, which, I repeat, had probably been imagined by Caesar. As to Cleopatra, her government was menaced by a strong internal opposition, the causes for which are ill known; marrying Antony, she gathered about her throne, to protect it, formidable guards, the Roman legions.
To sum up, the romance of Antony and Cleopatra covers, at least in its beginnings, a political treaty. With the marriage, Cleopatra seeks to steady her wavering power; Antony, to place the valley of the Nile under the Roman protectorate. How then was the famous romance born? The actual history of Antony and Cleopatra is one of the most tragic episodes of a struggle that lacerated the Roman Empire for four centuries, until it finally destroyed it, the struggle between Orient and Occident. During the age of Caesar, little by little, without any one's realising it at first, there arose and fulfilled itself a fact of the gravest importance; that is, the eastern part of the Empire had grown out of proportion: first, from the conquest of the Pontus, made by Lucullus, who had added immense territory in Asia Minor; then by Pompey's conquest of Syria, and the protectorate extended by him over all Palestine and a considerable part of Arabia. These new districts were not only enormous in extension; they were also populous, wealthy, fertile, celebrated for ancient culture; they held the busiest industrial cities, the best cultivated regions of the ancient world, the most famous seats of arts, letters, science, therefore their annexation, made rapidly in few years, could but trouble the already unstable equilibrium of the Empire. Italy was then, compared with these provinces, a poor and barbarous land; because southern Italy was ruined by the wars of preceding epochs, and northern Italy, naturally the wealthier part, was still crude and in the beginning of its development. The other western provinces nearer Italy were poorer and less civilised than Italy, except Gallia Narbonensis and certain parts of southern Spain. So that Rome, the capital of the Empire, came to find itself far from the richest and most populous regions, among territories poor and despoiled, on the frontiers of barbarism—in such a situation as the Russian Empire might find itself to-day if it had a capital at Vladivostok or Kharbin. You know that during the last years of the life of Caesar it was rumoured several times that the Dictator wished to remove the capital of the Empire; it was said, to Alexandria in Egypt, to Ilium in the district where Troy arose. It is impossible to judge whether these reports were true or merely invented by enemies of Caesar to damage him; at any rate, true or false, they show that public opinion was beginning to concern itself with the "Eastern peril"; that is, with the danger that the seat of empire must be shifted toward the Orient and the too ample Asiatic and African territory, and that Italy be one day uncrowned of her metropolitan predominance, conquered by so many wars. Such hear-says must have seemed, even if not true, the more likely, because, in his last two years, Caesar planned the conquest of Persia. Now the natural basis of operations for the conquest of Persia was to be found, not in Italy, but in Asia Minor, and if Persia had been conquered, it would not have been possible to govern in Rome an empire so immeasurably enlarged in the Orient. Everything therefore induces to the belief that this question was at least discussed in the coterie of the friends of Caesar; and it was a serious question, because in it the traditions, the aspirations, the interests of Italy were in irreconcilable conflict with a supreme necessity of state which one day or other would impose itself, if some unforeseen event did not intervene to solve it.
In the light of these considerations, the conduct of Antony becomes very clear. The marriage at Antioch, by which he places Egypt under the Roman protectorate, is the decisive act of a policy that looks to transporting the centre of his government toward the Orient, to be able to accomplish more securely the conquest of Persia. Antony, the heir of Caesar, the man who held the papers of the Dictator, who knew his hidden thoughts, who wished to complete the plans cut off by his death, proposes to conquer Persia; to conquer Persia, he must rely on the Oriental provinces that were the natural basis of operations for the great enterprise; among these, Antony must support himself above all on Egypt, the richest and most civilised and most able to supply him with the necessary funds, of which he was quite in want. Therefore he married the Cleopatra whom, it was said at Rome, Caesar himself had wished to marry—with whom, at any rate, Caesar had much dallied and intrigued. Does not this juxtaposition of facts seem luminous to you? In 36 B.C., Antony marries Cleopatra, as a few years before he had married Octavia, the sister of the future Augustus, for political reasons—in order to be able to dispose of the political subsidies and finances of Egypt, for the conquest of Persia. The conquest of Persia is the ultimate motive of all his policy, the supreme explanation of his every act.
However, little by little, this move, made on both sides from considerations of political interest, altered its character under the action of events, of time, through the personal influence of Antony and Cleopatra upon each other, and above all, the power that Cleopatra acquired over Antony: here is truly the most important part of all this story. Those who have read my history know that I have recounted hardly any of the anecdotes, more or less odd or entertaining, with which ancient writers describe the intimate life of Antony and Cleopatra, because it is impossible to discriminate in them the part that is fact from that which was invented or exaggerated by political enmity. In history the difficulty of recognising the truth gradually increases as one passes from political to private life; because in politics the acts of men and of parties are always bound together by either causes or effects of which a certain number is always exactly known; private life, on the other hand, is, as it were, isolated and secret, almost invariably impenetrable. What a great man of state does in his own house, his valet knows better than the historians of later times.
If for these reasons I have thought it prudent not to accept in my work the stories and anecdotes that the ancients recount of Antony and Cleopatra, without indeed risking to declare them false, it is, on the contrary, not possible to deny that Cleopatra gradually acquired great ascendency over the mind of Antony. The circumstance is of itself highly probable. That Cleopatra was perhaps a Venus, as the ancients say, or that she was provided with but a mediocre beauty, as declare the portraits, matters little: it is, however, certain that she was a woman of great cleverness and culture; as woman and queen of the richest and most civilised realm of the ancient world, she was mistress of all those arts of pleasure, of luxury, of elegance, that are the most delicate and intoxicating fruit of all mature civilisations. Cleopatra might refigure, in the ancient world, the wealthiest, most elegant, and cultured Parisian lady in the world of to-day.
Antony, on the other hand, was the descendant of a family of that Roman nobility which still preserved much rustic roughness in tastes, ideas, habits; he grew up in times in which the children were still given Spartan training; he came to Egypt from a nation which, notwithstanding its military and diplomatic triumphs, could be considered, compared with Egypt, only poor, rude, and barbarous. Upon this intelligent man, eager for enjoyment, who had, like other noble Romans, already begun to taste the charms of intellectual civilisation, it was not Cleopatra alone that made the keenest of impressions, but all Egypt, the wonderful city of Alexandria, the sumptuous palace of the Ptolemies—all that refined, elegant splendour of which he found himself at one stroke the master. What was there at Rome to compare with Alexandria?—Rome, in spite of its imperial power, abandoned to a fearful disorder by the disregard of factions, encumbered with ruin, its streets narrow and wretched, provided as yet with but a single forum, narrow and plain, the sole impressive monument of which was the theatre of Pompey; Rome, where the life was yet crude, and objects of luxury so rare that they had to be brought from the distant Orient? At Alexandria, instead, the Paris of the ancient world, were to be found all the best and most beautiful things of the earth. There was a sumptuosity of public edifices that the ancients never tire of extolling—the quay seven stadia long, the lighthouse famous all over the Mediterranean, the marvellous zoological garden, the Museum, the Gymnasium, innumerable temples, the unending palace of the Ptolemies. There was an abundance, unheard of for those times, of objects of luxury—rugs, glass, stuffs, papyruses, jewels, artistic pottery—because they made all these things at Alexandria. There was an abundance, greater than elsewhere, of silk, of perfumes, of gems, of all the things imported from the extreme East, because through Alexandria passed one of the most frequented routes of Indo-Chinese commerce. There, too, were innumerable artists, writers, philosophers, and savants; society life and intellectual life alike fervid; continuous movement to and fro of traffic, continual passing of rare and curious things; countless amusements; life, more than elsewhere, safe—at least so it was believed—because at Alexandria were the great schools of medicine and the great scientific physicians.
If other Italians who landed in Alexandria were dazzled by so many splendours, Antony ought to have been blinded; he entered Alexandria as King. He who was born at Rome in the small and simple house of an impoverished noble family who had been brought up with Latin parsimony to eat frugally, to drink wine only on festival occasions, to wear the same clothes a long time, to be served by a single slave—this man found himself lord of the immense palace of the Ptolemies, where the kitchens alone were a hundred times larger than the house of his fathers at Rome; where there were gathered for his pleasure the most precious treasures and the most marvellous collections of works of art; where there were trains of servants at his command, and every wish could be immediately gratified. It is therefore not necessary to suppose that Antony was foolishly enamoured of the Queen of Egypt, to understand the change that took place in him after their marriage, as he tasted the inimitable life of Alexandria, that elegance, that ease, that wealth, that pomp without equal.
A man of action, grown in simplicity, toughened by a rude life, he was all at once carried into the midst of the subtlest and most highly developed civilisation of the ancient world and given the greatest facilities to enjoy and abuse it that ever man had: as might have been expected, he was intoxicated; he contracted an almost insane passion for such a life; he adored Egypt with such ardour as to forget for it the nation of his birth and the modest home of his boyhood. And then began the great tragedy of his life, a tragedy not love-inspired, but political. As the hold of Egypt strengthened on his mind, Cleopatra tried to persuade him not to conquer Persia, but to accept openly the kingdom of Egypt, to found with her and with their children a new dynasty, and to create a great new Egyptian Empire, adding to Egypt the better part of the provinces that Rome possessed in Africa and in Asia, abandoning Italy and the provinces of the West forever to their destiny.
Cleopatra had thought to snatch from Rome its Oriental Empire by the arm of Antony, in that immense disorder of revolution; to reconstruct the great Empire of Egypt, placing at its head the first general of the time, creating an army of Roman legionaries with the gold of the Ptolemies; to make Egypt and its dynasty the prime potentate of Africa and Asia, transferring to Alexandria the political and diplomatic control of the finest parts of the Mediterranean world.
As the move failed, men have deemed it folly and stupidity; but he who knows how easy it is to be wise after events, will judge this confused policy of Cleopatra less curtly. At any rate, it is certain that her scheme failed more because of its own inconsistencies than through the vigour and ability with which Rome tried to thwart it; it is certain that in the execution of the plan, Antony felt first in himself the tragic discord between Orient and Occident that was so long to lacerate the Empire; and of that tragic discord he was the first victim. An enthusiastic admirer of Egypt, an ardent Hellenist, he is lured by his great ambition to be king of Egypt, to renew the famous line of the Ptolemies, to continue in the East the glory and the traditions of Alexander the Great: but the far-away voice of his fatherland still sounds in his ear; he recalls the city of his birth, the Senate in which he rose so many times to speak, the Forum of his orations, the Comitia that elected him to magistracies; Octavia, the gentlewoman he had wedded with the sacred rites of Latin monogamy; the friends and soldiers with whom he had fought through so many countries in so many wars; the foundation principles at home that ruled the family, the state, morality, public and private.
Cleopatra's scheme, viewed from Alexandria, was an heroic undertaking, almost divine, that might have lifted him and his scions to the delights of Olympus; seen from Rome, by his childhood's friends, by his comrades in arms, by that people of Italy who still so much admired him, it was the shocking crime of faithlessness to his country; we call it high treason. Therefore he hesitates long, doubting most of all whether he can keep for the new Egyptian Empire the Roman legions, made up largely of Italians, all commanded by Italian officers. He does not know how to oppose a resolute No to the insistences of Cleopatra and loose himself from the fatal bond that keeps him near her; he can not go back to live in Italy after having dwelt as king in Alexandria. Moreover, he does not dare declare his intentions to his Roman friends, fearing they will scatter; to the soldiers, fearing they will revolt; to Italy, fearing her judgment of him as a traitor; and so, little by little, he entangles himself in the crooked policy, full of prevarications, of expedients, of subterfuges, of one mistake upon another, that leads him to Actium.
I think I have shown that Antony succumbed in the famous war not because, mad with love, he abandoned the command in the midst of the battle, but because his armies revolted and abandoned him when they understood what he had not dared declare to them openly: that he meant to dismember the Empire of Rome to create the new Empire of Alexandria. The future Augustus conquered at Actium without effort, merely because the national sentiment of the soldiery, outraged by the unforeseen revelation of Antony's treason, turned against the man who wanted to aggrandise Cleopatra at the expense of his own country.
And then the victorious party, the party of Augustus, created the story of Antony and Cleopatra that has so entertained posterity; this story is but a popular explanation—in part imaginatively exaggerated and fantastic—of the Eastern peril that menaced Rome, of both its political phase and its moral. According to the story that Horace has put into such charming verse, Cleopatra wished to conquer Italy, to enslave Rome, to destroy the Capitol; but Cleopatra alone could not have accomplished so difficult a task; she must have seduced Antony, made him forget his duty to his wife, to his legitimate children, to the Republic, the soldiery, his native land,—all the duties that Latin morals inculcated into the minds of the great, and that a shameless Egyptian woman, rendered perverse by all the arts of the Orient, had blotted out in his soul; therefore Antony's tragic fate should serve as a solemn warning to distrust the voluptuous seductions, of which Cleopatra symbolised the elegant and fatal depravity. The story was magnified, coloured, diffused, not because it was beautiful and romantic, but because it served the interests of the political coterie that gained definite control of the government on the ruin of Antony. At Actium, the future Augustus did not fight a real war, he only passively watched the power of the adversary go to pieces, destroyed by its own internal contradictions. He did not decide to conquer Egypt until the public opinion of Italy, enraged against Antony and Cleopatra, required this vengeance with such insistence that he had to satisfy it.
If Augustus was not a man too quick in action, he was, instead, keenly intelligent in comprehending the situation created by the catastrophe of Antony in Italy, where already, for a decade of years, public spirit, frightened by revolution, was anxious to return to the ways of the past, to the historic sources of the national life. Augustus understood that he ought to stand before Italy, disgusted as it was with long-continued dissension and eager to retrace the way of national tradition, as the embodiment of all the virtues his contemporaries set in opposition to eastern "corruption,"—simplicity, severity of private habits, rigid monogamy, the anti-feministic spirit, the purely virile idea of the state. Naturally, the exaltation of these virtues required the portrayal in his rival of Actium, as far as possible, the opposite defects; therefore the efforts of his friends, like Horace, to colour the story of Antony and Cleopatra, which should magnify to the Italians the idea of the danger from which Augustus had saved them at Actium; which was meant to serve as a barrier against the invading Oriental "corruption," that "corruption" the essence of which I have already analysed.
In a certain sense, the legend of Antony and Cleopatra is chiefly an antifeminist legend, intended to reinforce in the state the power of the masculine principle, to demonstrate how dangerous it may be to leave to women the government of public affairs, or follow their counsel in political business.
The people believed the legend; posterity has believed it. Two years ago when I published in the Revue de Paris an article in which I demonstrated, by obvious arguments, the incongruities and absurdities of the legend, and tried to retrace through it the half-effaced lines of the truth, everybody was amazed. From one end of Europe to the other, the papers resumed the conclusions of my study as an astounding revelation. An illustrious French statesman, a man of the finest culture in historical study, Joseph Reinach, said to me:
After your article I have re-read Dion and Plutarch. It is indeed singular that for twenty centuries men have read and reread those pages without any one's realising how confused and absurd their accounts are.
It seems to be a law of human psychology that almost all historic personages, from Minos to Mazzini, from Judas to Charlotte Corday, from Xerxes to Napoleon, are imaginary personages; some transfigured into demigods, by admiration and success; the others debased by hate and failure. In reality, the former were often uglier, the latter more attractive than tradition has pictured them, because men in general are neither too good nor too bad, neither too intelligent nor too stupid. In conclusion, historic tradition is full of deformed caricatures and ideal transfigurations; because, when they are dead, the impression of their political contemporaries still serves the ends of parties, states, nations, institutions. Can this man exalt in a people the consciousness of its own power, of its own energy, of its own value? Lo, then they make a god of him, as of Napoleon or Bismarck. Can this other serve to feed in the mass, odium and scorn of another party, of a government, of an order of things that it is desirable to injure? Then they make a monster of him, as happened in Rome to Tiberius, in France to Napoleon III, in Italy to all who for one motive or another opposed the unification of Italy.
It is true that after a time the interests that have coloured certain figures with certain hues and shades disappear; but then the reputation, good or bad, of a personage is already made; his name is stamped on the memory of posterity with an adjective,—the great, the wise, the wicked, the cruel, the rapacious,—and there is no human force that can dissever name from adjective. Some far-away historian, studying all the documents, examining the sequence of events, will confute the tradition in learned books; but his work not only will not succeed in persuading the ignorant multitude, but must also contend against the multiplied objections offered by the instinctive incredulity of people of culture.
You will say to me, "What is the use of writing history? Why spend so much effort to correct the errors in which people will persist just as if the histories were never written?" I reply that I do not believe that the office of history is to give to men who have guided the great human events a posthumous justice. It is already work serious enough for every generation to give a little justice to the living, rather than occupy itself rendering it to the dead, who indeed, in contradistinction from the living, have no need of it. The study of history, the rectification of stories of the past, ought to serve another and practical end; that is, train the men who govern nations to discern more clearly than may be possible from their own environment the truth underlying the legends. As I have already said, passions, interests, present historic personages in a thousand forms when they are alive, transfiguring not only the persons themselves, but events the most diverse, the character of institutions, the conditions of nations.
It is generally believed that legends are found only at the dawn of history, in the poetic period; that is a great mistake; the legend—the legend that deceives, that deforms, that misdirects—is everywhere, in all ages, in the present as in the past—in the present even more than in the past, because it is the consequence of certain universal forms of thought and of sentiment. To-day, just as ten or twenty centuries ago, interests and passions dominate events, alter them and distort them, creating about them veritable romances, more or less probable. The present, which appears to all to be the same reality, is instead, for most people, only a huge legend, traversed by contemporaries stirred by the most widely differing sentiments.