Obrazy na stronie
PDF
ePub

with a small volume published by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, and being prevented by its dissolution or suspension from continuing his original plan, he has expanded it into the present voluminous work. We owe therefore to this Society, which it is now the fashion with liberals and illiberals to depreciate and deride, an undertaking which supplies a notable deficiency in our historical literature. The time was come when the history of the overthrow of the Republic required to be written again, after Hooke and Ferguson ; and for that of the Empire, before the time when Gibbon begins his Decline and Fall, recourse could be had only to such unattractive writers as Crevier and the Universal History. Mr. Merivale's work, therefore, is very welcome, as occupying a most important period. We may dissent from his views both of the overthrow of the Republic and the characters of the Cæsars, but we have no doubt that it will take a permanent place among our standard histories. Its bulk, indeed, is somewhat alarming ; five octavo volumes, of nearly 600 pages each, have only brought us to the poisoning of Claudius, and 276 years have yet to be traversed before the author reaches his terminus, the foundation of Constantinople. The modern practice of publishing large works in small successive portions is a great temptation to diffuseness. The writer takes no just measure of the proportions of his labour, or the relation which a single volume bears to his entire subject. Unless Mr. Merivale compresses his style, he will need as large a space for his four centuries as Gibbon for fourteen.

We purpose to pass, with only a general remark or two, over the history of the overthrow of the Republic, and confine ourselves chiefly to the two last published volumes, which include the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius, Caius (Caligula) and Claudius. Mr. Merivale is decidedly Cæsarean and anti-senatorial in his history of the Civil War. His moral judgment compels him to condemn the notorious profligacy of Cæsar's private life, and he is unable to vindicate many of his political measures; but his evident leaning is to represent him as a man more sinned against than sinning, and to justify his assumption of absolute power. In an age when both public and private morality had reached such a point of degeneracy, it is impossible to arrive at a just verdict by weighing the misdeeds of one side against those of the other. There was no politician of the times, except perhaps Cato, who kept himself pure from illegal acts, and who is not chargeable with selfishness and want of incorruptible patriotism. It is easy, therefore, to make out a case for Cæsar as the victim of an aristocratic faction, and it would be weakness to accept as literal truth the compliments which Cicero pays to his own party as if they were all “ boni viri." But, all' deduction made for individual misdeeds and unjust party measures on the senatorial side, the broad fact remains that they constituted the legitimate chief power of the state, and that Cæsar, in order to overthrow them, availed himself of every means with which the corruption and weakness of the commonwealth furnished him. He cannot be allowed to plead this weakness and corruption, which he fostered instead of endeavouring to correct, as a justification for overthrowing the government in which they were inherent. Throughout his whole career he manifested no higher purpose than his own advancement; and the mildness of his temper, when compared with Marius or Sylla, or the projects of public usefulness which he meditated after his usurpation, cannot redeem him from the reproach of having destroyed the constitution of his country. Corruption in the administration of the law is no justification of the overthrow of all law, and the substitution of irresponsible will. And if law is to be respected, it is no light offence to lift the hand of violence against those whom the constitution appoints as its administrators. If the crown of Charles I. had been the emblem of law,-not, as it was, of a prerogative setting itself above the law,—we could have approved the advice of the cavalier to his son, to stand by it, though it hung on a bush. And corrupt as the Roman senate had become, we think it was the duty of good citizens to uphold it when assailed by military violence. Even granting that the time had arrived when an adaptation and reform of the existing constitution was hopeless, we should still condemn the man who availed himself of its condition to accomplish his own ambitious purposes. In this view, Cæsar appears to disadvantage when compared even with Marius and Sylla. They were the fanatics, one of democracy and the other of aristocracy, each striving for the ascendancy of his own exclusive principle and party. But Cæsar's projects were directed solely to his own aggrandizement, and by that fact his character must be judged. It would be equally unfair either to charge on him all the evils which in the course of generations flowed from the establishinent of an imperial despotism, or to give him the credit of some incidental benefits which may have resulted from the consolidation of power in a single hand. We cannot accede to Mr. Merivale's views of the principle upon which the historian is to deal out praise and censure of character, when he says (II. 117), “ It is not his province to condemn or absolve the great names of human annals. He leaves the philosophical moralist to denounce crimes or errors, upon a full survey of the character and position of the men and their times; but it is his business to distinguish, in analyzing the causes of events, between the personal views of the actors in revolutions and the general interests which their conduct subserved, and to claim for their deeds the sympathy of posterity in proportion as they tended to the benefit of mankind." We do not quite understand the phrase of claiming sympathy for the deeds of public men, and can only suppose that Mr. Merivale meant, but shrunk from saying, the approbation or indulgence of posterity. A Jewish prophet might have given him a clearer insight into an historian's duty. “O Assyrian, the rod of mine anger, and the staff in their hand is mine indignation. I will send him against a hypocritical nation, and against the people of my wrath will I give him a charge. Howbeit he meaneth not so, neither doth his heart think so; but it is in his heart to destroy and to cut off nations not a few.” (Is. x. 5.) Sennacherib's ambition was employed by Providence for the correction of national vices and the consequent “ benefit of mankind,” but this gained him no sympathy from the prophet for his deeds. Undoubtedly the historian should discriminate between the motives and the results of the actions of public men, but it is for their motives only that he can claiın approbation. Cæsar founded a despotism which contained in itself the seeds of corruption and decay; Washington, a free community with the elements of life and growth; but this is not the ground of the difference of our moral judgment of the two men.

It is, that we discern in one a selfish ambition, in the other a disinterested patriotism. Mr. Merivale's leaning towards the founder of imperialism at Rome, evidently biasses him in favour of his successors in the empire. What softenings or apologies he may have in store for Domitian or Commodus remains to be seen ; but in his history of the reigns of Tiberius, Caius and Claudius, he is ever studious to abate something of the reader's feeling of abhorrence and contempt, and if the facts cannot be called in question, at least to obtain an acquittal on the ground of insanity.

The reign of Augustus, which occupies the last chapters of the third and the whole of the fourth volume of Mr. Merivale's History, exhibits the most favourable aspect of the imperial system, which owed its establishment to him; and the author has given a very comprehensive view of its principles and details. Few readers will be of opinion that after the two civil wars any cther form of government was practicable at Rome. Mankind had long been familiar with absolute monarchies; with such oriental history originates; it was upon the ruins of absolute monarchies that the Roman republic had been founded. The peculiarity of the imperial system of Augustus was, that it was established among a people to whom even monarchy had been insufferable, who for centuries had abhorred the name of king, and whose laws, institutions and traditions were all tinged with a republican character. Corrupted as the national character had been, and depressed as all aspirations after liberty were, under the weight of power supported by arms, it was impossible that the new ruler should not be apprehensive of the revival of republican feeling among the people. He had equally to fear that the senatorial order, to whom the honours and prizes of executive government had fallen, would be impatient at seeing their disposal monopolized by one; or that other claimants of power might arise among the many able and nobly born men whom that order comprehended. The power of Augustus was based neither on hereditary right nor popular election; at most on popular acquiescence; on attachment to the name of Cæsar, and the command of legions whose fidelity was, as regarded him, not a sentiment but a mercenary calculation. Nothing but his own exquisite prudence, and the statecraft of his able ministers, could have enabled him to deal with these various difficulties. Instead of the odious name of king, he placed first in his titles, after the example of Julius, the military imperator, which carried with it in fact, though not in appearance, an authority far greater than had belonged to the kings. Although his government rested on the soldiery, who swore allegiance to him, and the whole military administration was retained in his hands, he carefully avoided every exhibition of himself to the people in his military functions, and allowed no troops to occupy the city. The title of Princeps implied only a presidency, freely accorded by the senate to the most distinguished of their members; the consulship and proconsulship were pre-eminently republican titles; and the tribunitial power, which he took to himself, seemed to connect him directly with the popular element in the state, while it conferred on him the sacrosanct character by which the plebeian magistracy had been guarded. The penalties of the indefinite crime of majestas or high treason, originally designed to protect the liberties of the people, now became the safeguard of the usurper of those liberties. As Pontifex Maximus he was Head of the Church and had the state religion under his control, an important prerogative among a people in whom superstition became more rife as true piety declined. But he left to the senate the rights of formal legislation, secure of being always able to obtain his purposes by the less obnoxious methods of suggestion and initiation, and never claimed for his own edicts an authority equal or superior to the laws.* He deprived the people of their elective franchises and their judicial power, but kept them quiet and in good humour by donatives of corn, by public spectacles and the embellishment of the capital. Such were the balanced and stealthy steps by which the advances of absolute power were made. We have briefly indicated them ; the reader will find them clearly and amply stated in the pages of Mr. Merivale.

So far the policy of Augustus appears simply selfish, and directed by the desire of consolidating the power which he had seized. In his organization of the state and the empire, in his

* Mr. Merivale explains very well (II. 488) the exaggerations by which the courtly lawyers of later times endeavoured to make it appear that the emperor's edicts had always possessed the force of law. This doctrine still infects the codes of continental monarchies, and but for the determined stand of our com. mon lawyers might have found its way into our own.

religious and moral legislation, in his patronage of literature and art, and in the maxims of policy which he bequeathed to his successor, we see the sagacious statesman, alive to all the difficulties of his position, and while anxiously providing means to perpetuate the system which he had established, endeavouring also to promote the public welfare. The interests of public order were concerned in the character of the senate; it was still in theory a co-ordinate power with that of the emperor, though doomed to be subordinate whenever an opposition of will arose. One of his first undertakings, while he yet bore only the name of Octavius, was to purify this body from the unworthy members who had found their way into it (among whom of course were reckoned the most ardent of the republicans), and to supply their place with others who, while they were attached to his cause, might by their property and character give weight to the senatorial order. As a patriot, Augustus must have regretted that religion had lost its ancient influence over the Roman mind, * during the crimes and turmoil of the civil war; as an absolute ruler, he set the example of seeking a powerful ally in the influence of the priesthood. He restored the ruined temples and renewed their ceremonies, giving especial honour to Apollo, to whom he built a temple on the Palatine Hill.t He laboured earnestly, but ineffectually, to correct the disposition of the Romans to live in a state of licentious celibacy, rather than contract a legitimate marriage. His laws and exhortations might have been more successful, had he practised in youth the doctrine which he preached in middle life and in old age, or if the Romans had not remembered the morals of the divine Julius.

The civil wars had suspended the progress of the Roman arms, and prevented the thorough incorporation of the recent conquests. Augustus, though not inclined by policy to war, nor possessed of marked military talent, was aware that his empire could have no stability or coherence till all within its limits was

* Polybius, vi. 56. He calls it deloidalpovía, evidently using the word in a bad sense.

+ Mr. Merivale adds, that to honour him he transplanted to Rome an obelisk from Heliopolis. We know not on what authority he supposes that this was done in honour of Apollo. The notion that the pointed summit of the obelisk represented flame and the sun's ray, is a fancy of the older Egyptologists. The obelisk was the Egyptian stele, erected as much for the glory of the monarch who inscribed it with his shield, as the god whose titles it bore. Mr. Merivale goes on-"It is interesting to trace an intelligible motive for the first introduction into Europe of these grotesque and unsightly monuments of Eastern superstition." Tastes differ, and it is not fair to judge of the obelisk when torn from its original position and associations. As a form of honorary record, it is much more rational than the column, which, after the example of the Romans, we have detached from the architrave, in union with which it alone has a meaning, and made the mere pedestal of a colossal statue. We think a more intelligible motive for the removal of an Egyptian trophy might be found in the desire of Augustus to signalize to the Romans his victory over Antony and Cleopatra, "ausa Jovi nostro latrantem opponere Anubim." (Prop. iii. 2, 41.)

« PoprzedniaDalej »