Historical Sketches: Volumes 1 To 3 -Blessed John Henry Newman

THERE never was, perhaps, in the history of this tumultuous world, prosperity so great, so far-spreading, so lasting, as that which began throughout the vast Empire of Rome, at the time when the Prince of Peace was born into it. Preternatural as was the tyranny of certain of the Cæsars, it did not reach the mass of the population; and the reigns of the Five good Emperors, who succeeded them, are proverbs of wise and gentle government. The sole great exception to this universal happiness was the cruel persecution of the Christians; the sufferings of a whole world fell and were concentrated on them, and the children of heaven were tormented, that the sons of men might enjoy their revel. Their Lord, while His shadow brought peace upon earth, foretold that in the event He came to send “not peace but a sword;” and that sword was first let loose upon His own people. “Judgment commenced with the House of God;” and though, as time went on, it left Jerusalem behind, and began to career round the world and sweep the nations as it travelled on, nevertheless, as if by some paradox of Providence, it seemed at first, that truth and wretchedness had “met together,” and sin and prosperity had “kissed one another.” The more the heathens enjoyed themselves, the more they scorned, hated, and persecuted their true Light and true Peace. They persecuted Him, for the very reason that they had little else to do; happy and haughty, they saw in Him the sole drawback, the sole exception, the sole hinderance, to a universal, a continual sunshine; they called Him “the enemy of the human race:” and they felt themselves bound, by their loyalty to the glorious and immortal memory of their forefathers, by their traditions of state, and their duties towards their children, to trample upon, and, if they could, to stifle that teaching, which was destined to be the life and mould of a new world.

But our immediate subject here is, not Christianity, but the world that passed away; and before it passed, it had, I say, a tranquillity great in proportion to its former commotions. Ages of trouble terminated in two centuries of peace. The present crust of the earth is said to be the result of a long war of elements, and to have been made so beautiful, so various, so rich, and so useful, by the discipline of revolutions, by earthquake and lightning, by mountains of water and seas of fire; and so in like manner, it required the events of two thousand years, the multiform fortunes of tribes and populations, the rise and fall of kings, the mutual collision of states, the spread of colonies, the vicissitudes and the succession of conquests, and the gradual adjustment and settlement of innumerous discordant ideas and interests, to carry on the human race to unity, and to shape and consolidate the great Roman Power.

And when once those unwieldy materials were welded together into one mass, what human force could split them up again? what “hammer of the earth” could shiver at a stroke a solidity which it had taken ages to form? Who can estimate the strength of a political establishment, which has been the slow birth of time? and what establishment ever equalled pagan Rome? Hence has come the proverb, “Rome was not built in a day:” it was the portentous solidity of its power that forced the gazer back upon an exclamation, which was the relief of his astonishment, as being his solution of the prodigy. And, when at length it was built, Rome, so long in building, was “Eternal Rome:” it had been done once for all; its being was inconceivable before hand, and its not being was inconceivable afterwards. It had been a miracle that it was brought to be; it would take a second miracle that it should cease to be. To remove it from its place was to cast a mountain into the sea. Look at the Palatine Hill, penetrated, traversed, cased with brickwork, till it appears a work of man, not of nature; run your eye along the cliffs from Ostia to Terracina, covered with the debris of masonry; gaze around the bay of Baiæ, whose rocks have been made to serve as the foundations and the walls of palaces; and in those mere remains, lasting to this day, you will have a type of the moral and political strength of the establishments of Rome. Think of the aqueducts making for the imperial city, for miles across the plain; think of the straight roads stretching off again from that one centre to the ends of the earth; consider the vast territory round about it strewn to this day with countless ruins; follow in your imagination its suburbs, extending along its roads, for as much, at least in some directions, as forty miles; and number up its continuous mass of population, amounting, as grave authors say, to almost six million; and answer the question, how was Rome ever to be got rid of? why was it not to progress? why was it not to progress for ever? where was that ancient civilization to end? Such were the questionings and anticipations of thoughtful minds not specially proud or fond of Rome. “The world,” says Tertullian, “has more of cultivation every day, and is better furnished than in times of old. All places are opened up now; all are familiarly known; all are scenes of business. Smiling farms have obliterated the notorious wilderness; tillage has tamed the forest land; flocks have put to flight the beasts of prey. Sandy tracts are sown; rocks are put into shape; marshes are drained. There are more cities now, than there were cottages at one time. Islands are no longer wild; the crag is no longer frightful; everywhere there is a home, a population, a state, and a livelihood.” Such was the prosperity, such the promise of progress and permanence, in which the Assyrian, the Persian, the Greek, the Macedonian conquests had terminated.

Education had gone through a similar course of difficulties, and had a place in the prosperous result. First, carried forth upon the wings of genius, and disseminated by the energy of individual minds, or by the colonizing missions of single cities, Knowledge was irregularly extended to and fro over the spacious regions, of which the Mediterranean is the common basin. Introduced, in course of time, to a more intimate alliance with political power, it received the means, at the date of Alexander and his successors, both of its cultivation and its propagation. It was formally recognized and endowed under the Ptolemies, and at length became a direct object of the solicitude of the government under the Cæsars. It was honoured and dispensed in every considerable city of the Empire; it tempered the political administration of the conquering people; it civilized the manners of a hundred barbarian conquests; it gradually reconciled uncongenial, and associated distant countries, with each other; while it had ever ministered to the fine arts, it now proceeded to subserve the useful. It took in hand the reformation of the world’s religion; it began to harmonize the legends of discordant worships; it purified the mythology by making it symbolical; it interpreted it, and gave it a moral, and explained away its idolatry. It began to develope a system of ethics, it framed a code of laws: what might not be expected of it, as time went on, were it not for that illiberal, unintelligible, fanatical, abominable sect of Galileans? If they were allowed to make play, and get power, what might not happen? There again Christians were in the way, as hateful to the philosopher, as to the statesman. Yet in truth it was not in this quarter that the peril of civilization lay: it lay in a very different direction, over against the Empire to the North and North-East, in a black cloud of inexhaustible barbarian populations: and when the storm mounted overhead and broke upon the earth, it was those scorned and detested Galileans, and none but they, the men-haters and God-despisers, who, returning good for evil, housed and lodged the scattered remnants of that old world’s wisdom, which had so persecuted them, went forth valiantly to meet the savage destroyer, tamed him without arms, and became the founders of a new and higher civilization. Not a man in Europe now, who talks bravely against the Church, but owes it to the Church, that he can talk at all.

But what was to be the process, what the method, what the instruments, what the place, for sheltering the treasures of ancient intellect during the convulsion, of bridging over the abyss, and of linking the old world to the new? In spite of the consolidation of its power, Rome was to go, as all things human go, and vanish for ever. In the words of inspiration, “Great Babylon came in remembrance before God, and every island fled away, and the mountains were not found.” All the fury of the elements was directed against it; and, as a continual dropping wears away the stone, so blow after blow, and revolution after revolution, sufficed at last to heave up, and hurl down, and smash into fragments, the noblest earthly power that ever was. First came the Goth, then the Hun, and then the Lombard. The Goth took possession, but he was of noble nature, and soon lost his barbarism. The Hun came next; he was irreclaimable, but did not stay. The Lombard kept both his savageness and his ground; he appropriated to himself the territory, not the civilization of Italy, fierce as the Hun, and powerful as the Goth, the most tremendous scourge of Heaven. In his dark presence the poor remains of Greek and Roman splendour died away, and the world went more rapidly to ruin, material and moral, than it was advancing from triumph to triumph in the time of Tertullian. Alas! the change between Rome in the hey-day of her pride, and in the agony of her judgment! Tertullian writes while she is exalted; Pope Gregory when she is in humiliation. He was delivering homilies upon the Prophet Ezekiel, when the news came to Rome of the advance of the Lombards upon the city, and in the course of them he several times burst out into lamentations at the news of miseries, which eventually obliged him to cut short his exposition.

“Sights and sounds of war,” he says, “meet us on every side. The cities are destroyed; the military stations broken up; the land devastated; the earth depopulated. No one remains in the country; scarcely any inhabitants in the towns; yet even the poor remains of human kind are still smitten daily and without intermission. Before our eyes some are carried away captive, some mutilated, some murdered. She herself, who once was mistress of the world, we behold how Rome fares: worn down by manifold and incalculable distresses, the bereavement of citizens, the attack of foes, the reiteration of overthrows, where is her senate? where are her people? We, the few survivors, are still the daily prey of the sword and of other innumerable tribulations. Where are they who in a former day revelled in her glory? where is their pomp, their pride, their frequent and immoderate joy?—youngsters, young men of the world, congregated here from every quarter, where they aimed at a secular advancement. Now no one hastens up to her for preferment; and so it is with other cities also; some places are laid waste by pestilence, others are depopulated by the sword, others are tormented by famine, and others are swallowed up by earthquakes.”

These words, far from being a rhetorical lament, are but a meagre statement of some of the circumstances of a desolation, in which the elements themselves, as St. Gregory intimates, as well as the barbarians, took a principal part. In the dreadful age of that great Pope, a plague spread from the lowlands of Egypt to the Indies on the one hand, along Africa across to Spain on the other, till, reversing its course, it reached the eastern extremity of Europe. For fifty-two years did it retain possession of the infected atmosphere, and, in Constantinople, during three months, five thousand, and at length ten thousand persons, are said to have died daily. Many cities of the East were left without inhabitants; and in several districts of Italy there were no labourers to gather either harvest or vintage. A succession of earthquakes accompanied for years this heavy calamity. Constantinople was shaken for above forty days. Two hundred and fifty thousand persons are said to have perished in the earthquake of Antioch, crowded, as the city was, with strangers for the festival of the Ascension. Berytus, the Eastern school of Roman jurisprudence, called, from its literary and scientific importance, the eye of Phoenicia, shared a similar fate. These, however, were but local visitations. Cities are indeed the homes of civilization, but the wide earth, with her hill and dale, open plain and winding valley, is its refuge. The barbarian invaders, spreading over the country, like a flight of locusts, did their best to destroy every fragment of the old world, and every element of revival. Twenty-nine public libraries had been founded at Rome; but, had these been destroyed, as in Antioch, or Berytus, by earthquakes or by conflagration, yet a large aggregate of books would have still survived. Such collections had become a fashion and a luxury in the latter Empire, and every colony and municipium, every larger temple, every prætorium, the baths, and the private villas, had their respective libraries. When the ruin swept across the country, and these various libraries were destroyed, then the patient monks had begun again, in their quiet dwellings, to bring together, to arrange, to transcribe and to catalogue; but then again the new visitation of the Lombards fell, and Monte Cassino, the famous metropolis of the Benedictines, not to mention monasteries of lesser note, was sacked and destroyed.

Truly was Christianity revenged on that ancient civilization for the persecutions which it had inflicted on Christianity. Man ceased from the earth, and his works with him. The arts of life, architecture, engineering, agriculture, were alike brought to nought. The waters were let out over the face of the country; arable and pasture lands were drowned; landmarks disappeared. Pools and lakes intercepted the thoroughfares; whole districts became pestilential marshes; the strong stream or the abiding morass, sapped and obliterated the very site of cities. Here the mountain torrent cut a channel in the plain; there it elevated ridges across it; elsewhere it disengaged masses of rock and earth in its precipitous passage, and, hurrying them on, left them as islands in the midst of the flood. Forests overspread the land, in rivalry of the waters, and became the habitation of wild animals, of wolves, and even bears. The dwindled race of man lived in scattered huts of mud, where best they might avoid marauder, and pestilence, and inundation; or clung together for mutual defence in cities, where wretched cottages, on the ruins of marble palaces, overbalanced the security of numbers by the frequency of conflagration.

In such a state of things, the very mention of education was a mockery, the very aim and effort to exist was occupation enough for mind and body. The heads of the Church bewailed a universal ignorance, which they could not remedy; it was a great thing that schools remained sufficient for clerical education, and this education was only sufficient, as Pope Agatho informs us, to enable them to hand on the traditions of the Fathers, without scientific exposition or polemical defence. In that Pope’s time, the great Council of Rome, in its letter to the Emperor of the East, who had asked for Episcopal legates of correct life and scientific knowledge of the Scriptures, made answer, that, if by science was meant knowledge of revealed truth, the demand could be supplied; not, if more was required; “since,” continue the Fathers, “in these parts, the fury of our various heathen foes is ever breaking out, whether in conflicts, or in inroads and rapine. Hence our life is simply one of anxiety of soul and labour of body; of anxiety, because we are in the midst of the heathen; of labour, because the maintenance, which used to come to us as ecclesiastics, is at an end; so that faith is our only substance, to live in its possession our highest glory, to die for it our eternal gain.” The very profession of the clergy is the knowledge of letters: if even these lost it, would others retain it in their miseries, to whom it was no duty? And what then was the hope and prospect of the world in the generations which were to follow?

“What is coming? what is to be the end?” Such was the question, that weighed so heavily upon the august line of Pontiffs, upon whom rested “the solicitude of all the churches,” and whose failure in vigilance and decision in that miserable time would had been the loss of ancient learning, and the indefinite postponement of new civilization. What could be done for art, science, and philosophy, when towns had been burned up, and country devastated? In such distress, islands, or deserts, or the mountain-top have commonly been the retreat, to which in the last instance the hopes of humanity have been conveyed. Thus the monks of the fourth century had preserved the Catholic faith from the tyranny of Arianism in the Egyptian desert; and so the inhabitants of Lombardy had taken refuge from the Huns in the shallows of the Adriatic; so too just then the Christian Goths were biding their time to revenge themselves on the Saracens, in the mountains of Asturias. Where should the Steward of the Household deposit the riches, which his predecessors had inherited from Jew and heathen, the things old as well as new, in an age, in which each succeeding century threatened them with woes worse than the centuries which had gone before! Pontiff after Pontiff looked out from the ruins of the Imperial City, which were to be his ever-lasting, ever-restless throne, if perchance some place was to be found, more tranquil than his own, where the hope of the future might be lodged. They looked over the Earth, towards great cities and far provinces, and whether it was Gregory, or Vitalian, or Agatho, or Leo, their eyes had all been drawn in one direction, and fixed upon one quarter for that purpose,—not to the East, from which the light of knowledge had arisen, not to the West, whither it had spread,—but to the North.

High in the region of the North, beyond the just limits of the Roman world, though partly included in its range, so secluded and secure in their sea-encircled domain, that they have been thought to be the fabulous Hesperides, where heroes dwelt in peace, lay two sister islands,—whose names and histories, warned by my diminished space, I must reserve for another Chapter.

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