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It is not alone by the rapidity, or extent of conquest
, that we should estimate the greatness of Rome
. The sovereign of the Russian
deserts commands a larger portion of the globe. In the seventh summer after his passage of the Hellespont, Alexander
Macedonian trophies on the banks of the Hyphasis. 1
Within less than a century, the irresistible Zingis, and the Mogul princes of his
race, spread their cruel devastations and transient empire from the Sea of China
, to the confines of Egypt
and Germany. 2
firm edifice of Roman power was raised and preserved by the wisdom of ages. The obedient provinces of Trajan and the Antonines
were united by laws, and adorned by arts. They might occasionally suffer from the partial abuse of delegated authority; but the general
principle of government was wise, simple, and beneficent. They enjoyed the religion of their ancestors, whilst in civil honors and
advantages they were exalted, by just degrees, to an equality with their conquerors.
Note 1: They were erected about the midway
between Lahor and Delhi. The conquests of Alexander in Hindostan were confined to the Punjab, a country watered by the five great
streams of the Indus.
Note: The Hyphasis is one of the five rivers which join the Indus or the Sind, after having traversed the province of the Pendj-ab - a
name which in Persian, signifies five rivers. * * * G.
Note 2: See M. de Guignes, Histoire des Huns, l. xv. xvi. and xvii.
I. The policy of the emperor
s and the senate, as far as it concerned religion, was happily seconded by the reflections of the
enlightened, and by the habits of the superstitious, part of their subjects. The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman
world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher
, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful.
And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.
The superstition of the people was not imbittered by any mixture of theological
rancor; nor was it confined by the chains of any
speculative system. The devout polytheist, though fondly attached to his national rites, admitted with implicit faith the different
religions of the earth. 3
Fear, gratitude, and curiosity, a dream or an omen, a singular disorder, or a distant journey, perpetually
disposed him to multiply the articles of his belief, and to enlarge the list of his protectors. The thin texture of the Pagan
interwoven with various but not discordant materials. As soon as it was allowed that sages and heroes, who had lived or who had died
for the benefit of their country, were exalted to a state of power and immortality, it was universally confessed, that they deserved, if
not the adoration, at least the reverence, of all mankind. The deities of a thousand groves and a thousand streams possessed, in peace,
their local and respective influence; nor could the Romans who deprecated the wrath of the Tiber
, deride the Egyptian who presented
his offering to the beneficent genius of the Nile
. The visible powers of nature, the planets, and the elements were the same throughout
the universe. The invisible governors of the moral world were inevitably cast in a similar mould of fiction and allegory. Every virtue,
and even vice, acquired its divine representative; every art and profession its patron, whose attributes, in the most distant ages and
countries, were uniformly derived from the character of their peculiar votaries. A republic
of gods of such opposite tempers and
interests required, in every system, the moderating hand of a supreme magistrate, who, by the progress of knowledge and flattery,
was gradually invested with the sublime perfections of an Eternal Parent, and an Omnipotent
Such was the mild spirit of
antiquity, that the nations were less attentive to the difference, than to the resemblance, of their religious worship. The Greek, the
Roman, and the Barbarian
, as they met before their respective altars, easily persuaded themselves, that under various names, and with
various ceremonies, they adored the same deities. 5
The elegant mythology of Homer gave a beautiful, and almost a regular form, to
the polytheism of the ancient world.
Note 3: There is not any writer who describes in so lively a manner as Herodotus the true
genius of polytheism. The best commentary may be found in Mr. Hume's Natural History of Religion; and the best contrast in
Bossuet's Universal History. Some obscure traces of an intolerant spirit appear in the conduct of the Egyptians, (see Juvenal, Sat. xv.;)
and the Christians, as well as Jews, who lived under the Roman empire, formed a very important exception; so important indeed, that
the discussion will require a distinct chapter of this work. Note: M. Constant, in his very learned and eloquent work, "Sur la Religion," with the two additional volumes, "Du Polytheisme
Romain," has considered the whole history of polytheism in a tone of philosophy, which, without subscribing to all his opinions, we
may be permitted to admire. "The boasted tolerance of polytheism did not rest upon the respect due from society to the freedom of
individual opinion. The polytheistic nations, tolerant as they were towards each other, as separate states, were not the less ignorant of
the eternal principle, the only basis of enlightened toleration, that every one has a right to worship God in the manner which seems to
him the best. Citizens, on the contrary, were bound to conform to the religion of the state; they had not the liberty to adopt a foreign
religion, though that religion might be legally recognized in their own city, for the strangers who were its votaries." - Sur la Religion, v.
184. Du. Polyth. Rom. ii. 308. At this time, the growing religious indifference, and the general administration of the empire by
Romans, who, being strangers, would do no more than protect, not enlist themselves in the cause of the local superstitions, had
introduced great laxity. But intolerance was clearly the theory both of the Greek and Roman law. The subject is more fully considered
in another place. - M.
Note 4: The rights, powers, and pretensions of the sovereign of Olympus are very clearly described in the xvth book of the Iliad;
in the Greek original, I mean; for Mr. Pope, without perceiving it, has improved the theology of Homer. Note: There is a curious coincidence between Gibbon's expressions and those of the newly-recovered "De Republica" of Cicero,
though the argument is rather the converse, lib. i. c. 36.
Note 5: See, for instance, Caesar de Bell. Gall. vi. 17. Within a century or two, the Gauls themselves applied to their gods the
names of Mercury, Mars, Apollo, &c.
s of Greece deduced their morals from the nature of man, rather than from that of God. They meditated, however, on
Nature, as a very curious and important speculation; and in the profound inquiry, they displayed the strength and weakness
of the human understanding. 6
Of the four most celebrated schools, the Stoic
s and the Platonists endeavored to reconcile the jaring
interests of reason and piety. They have left us the most sublime proofs of the existence and perfections of the first cause; but, as it
was impossible for them to conceive the creation of matter, the workman in the Stoic
philosophy was not sufficiently distinguished
from the work; whilst, on the contrary, the spiritual God of Plato
and his disciples resembled an idea, rather than a substance. The
opinions of the Academics and Epicurean
s were of a less religious cast; but whilst the modest science of the former induced them to
doubt, the positive ignorance of the latter urged them to deny, the providence of a Supreme Ruler. The spirit of inquiry, prompted by
emulation, and supported by freedom, had divided the public teachers of philosophy into a variety of contending sects; but the
ingenious youth, who, from every part, resorted to Athens
, and the other seats of learning in the Roman empire, were alike instructed
in every school to reject and to despise the religion of the multitude. How, indeed, was it possible that a philosopher
should accept, as
divine truths, the idle tales of the poets, and the incoherent traditions of antiquity; or that he should adore, as gods, those imperfect
beings whom he must have despised, as men? Against such unworthy adversaries, Cicero
condescended to employ the arms of reason
and eloquence; but the satire of Lucian
was a much more adequate, as well as more efficacious, weapon. We may be well assured,
that a writer, conversant with the world, would never have ventured to expose the gods of his country to public ridicule, had they not
already been the objects of secret contempt among the polished and enlightened orders of society. 7
Note 6: The admirable work of Cicero de Natura Deorum is the best clew we have to guide us through the dark and profound
abyss. He represents with candor, and confutes with subtlety, the opinions of the philosophers.
Note 7: I do not pretend to assert, that, in this irreligious age, the natural terrors of superstition, dreams, omens, apparitions, &c.,
had lost their efficacy.
Notwithstanding the fashionable irreligion which prevailed in the age of the Antonines
, both the interest of the priests and the credulity
of the people were sufficiently respected. In their writings and conversation, the philosopher
s of antiquity asserted the independent
dignity of reason; but they resigned their actions to the commands of law and of custom. Viewing, with a smile of pity and indulgence,
the various errors of the vulgar
, they diligently practised the ceremonies of their fathers, devoutly frequented the temples of the gods;
and sometimes condescending to act a part on the theatre of superstition, they concealed the sentiments of an atheist under the
sacerdotal robes. Reasoners of such a temper were scarcely inclined to wrangle about their respective modes of faith, or of worship.
It was indifferent to them what shape the folly of the multitude might choose to assume; and they approached with the same inward
contempt, and the same external reverence, the altars of the Libyan, the Olympian
, or the Capitoline Jupiter
Note 8: Socrates,
Epicurus, Cicero, and Plutarch always inculcated a decent reverence for the religion of their own country, and of mankind. The
devotion of Epicurus was assiduous and exemplary. Diogen. Laert. x. 10.
It is not easy to conceive from what motives a spirit of persecution could introduce itself into the Roman councils. The magistrates
could not be actuated by a blind, though honest bigotry, since the magistrates were themselves philosopher
s; and the schools of
Athens had given laws to the senate. They could not be impelled by ambition or avarice, as the temporal and ecclesiastical powers
were united in the same hands. The pontiffs were chosen among the most illustrious of the senators; and the office of Supreme
Pontiff was constantly exercised by the emperor
s themselves. They knew and valued the advantages of religion, as it is connected
with civil government. They encouraged the public festivals which humanize the manners of the people. They managed the arts of
divination as a convenient instrument of policy; and they respected, as the firmest bond of society, the useful persuasion, that, either in
this or in a future life, the crime of perjury is most assuredly punished by the avenging gods. 9
But whilst they acknowledged the
general advantages of religion, they were convinced that the various modes of worship contributed alike to the same salutary purposes;
and that, in every country, the form of superstition, which had received the sanction of time and experience, was the best adapted to
the climate, and to its inhabitants. Avarice
and taste very frequently despoiled the vanquished nations of the elegant statues of their
gods, and the rich ornaments of their temples; 10
but, in the exercise of the religion which they derived from their ancestors, they
uniformly experienced the indulgence, and even protection, of the Roman conquerors. The province of Gaul
seems, and indeed only
seems, an exception to this universal toleration. Under the specious pretext of abolishing human sacrifices, the emperor
Claudius suppressed the dangerous power of the Druid
but the priests themselves, their gods and their altars, subsisted in
peaceful obscurity till the final destruction of Pagan
Note 9: Polybius, l. vi. c. 53, 54. Juvenal, Sat. xiii. laments that in his time this apprehension had lost much of its effect.
Note 10: See the fate of Syracuse, Tarentum, Ambracia, Corinth, &c., the conduct of Verres, in Cicero, (Actio ii. Orat. 4,) and
the usual practice of governors, in the viiith Satire of Juvenal.
Note 11: Seuton. in Claud. - Plin. Hist. Nat. xxx. 1. Note 12: Pelloutier, Histoire des Celtes, tom. vi. p. 230 - 252.
, the capital of a great monarchy, was incessantly filled with subjects and strangers from every part of the world, 13
introduced and enjoyed the favorite superstitions of their native country. 14
Every city in the empire was justified in maintaining the
purity of its ancient ceremonies; and the Roman senate
, using the common privilege, sometimes interposed, to check this inundation of
foreign rites. *
superstition, of all the most contemptible and abject, was frequently prohibited: the temples of Serapis
and Isis demolished, and their worshippers banished from Rome
and Italy. 15
But the zeal of fanaticism prevailed over the cold and
feeble efforts of policy. The exiles returned, the proselytes multiplied, the temples were restored with increasing splendor, and Isis and
Serapis at length assumed their place among the Roman Deities. 16
Nor was this indulgence a departure from the old maxims of
government. In the purest ages of the commonwealth
, Cybele and Aesculapius had been invited by solemn embassies; 17
and it was
customary to tempt the protectors of besieged cities, by the promise of more distinguished honors than they possessed in their native
country. 18 Rome
gradually became the common temple of her subjects; and the freedom of the city was bestowed on all the gods of
Note 13: Seneca, Consolat. ad Helviam, p. 74. Edit., Lips.
Note 14: Dionysius Halicarn. Antiquitat. Roman. l. ii. (vol. i. p. 275, edit. Reiske.)
Note 15: In the year of Rome 701, the temple of Isis and Serapis was demolished by the order of the Senate, (Dion Cassius, l. xl.
p. 252,) and even by the hands of the consul, (Valerius Maximus, l. 3.) After the death of Caesar it was restored at the public
expense, (Dion. l. xlvii. p. 501.) When Augustus was in Egypt, he revered the majesty of Serapis, (Dion, l. li. p. 647;) but in the
Pomaerium of Rome, and a mile round it, he prohibited the worship of the Egyptian gods, (Dion, l. liii. p. 679; l. liv. p. 735.) They
remained, however, very fashionable under his reign (Ovid. de Art. Amand. l. i.) and that of his successor, till the justice of Tiberius
was provoked to some acts of severity. (See Tacit. Annal. ii. 85. Joseph. Antiquit. l. xviii. c. 3.) Note: See, in the pictures from the walls of Pompeii, the representation of an Isiac temple and worship. Vestiges of Egyptian worship
have been traced in Gaul, and, I am informed, recently in Britain, in excavations at York. - M.
Note 16: Tertullian in Apologetic. c. 6, p. 74. Edit. Havercamp. I am inclined to attribute their establishment to the devotion of the
Note 17: See Livy, l. xi. Suppl. and xxix.
Note 18: Macrob. Saturnalia, l. iii. c. 9. He gives us a form of evocation.
Note 19: Minutius Faelix in Octavio, p. 54. Arnobius, l. vi. p. 115.
II. The narrow policy of preserving, without any foreign mixture, the pure blood of the ancient citizens, had checked the fortune, and
hastened the ruin, of Athens
. The aspiring genius of Rome
sacrificed vanity to ambition, and deemed it more prudent, as
well as honorable, to adopt virtue and merit for her own wheresoever they were found, among slave
s or strangers, enemies or
During the most flourishing aera of the Athenian commonwealth
, the number of citizens gradually decreased from
about thirty 21
to twenty-one thousand. 22
If, on the contrary, we study the growth of the Roman republic, we may discover, that,
notwithstanding the incessant demands of wars and colonies, the citizens, who, in the first census of Servius Tullius, amounted to no
more than eighty-three thousand, were multiplied, before the commencement of the social war, to the number of four hundred and
sixty-three thousand men, able to bear arms in the service of their country. 23
When the allies of Rome
claimed an equal share of
honors and privileges, the senate indeed preferred the chance of arms to an ignominious concession. The Samnites and the Lucanians
paid the severe penalty of their rashness; but the rest of the Italian states, as they successively returned to their duty, were admitted
into the bosom of the republic, 24
and soon contributed to the ruin of public freedom
. Under a democratical government, the citizens
exercise the powers of sovereignty; and those powers will be first abused, and afterwards lost, if they are committed to an unwieldy
multitude. But when the popular assemblies had been suppressed by the administration of the emperor
s, the conquerors were
distinguished from the vanquished nations, only as the first and most honorable order of subjects; and their increase, however rapid,
was no longer exposed to the same dangers. Yet the wisest princes, who adopted the maxims of Augustus
, guarded with the strictest
care the dignity of the Roman name, and diffused the freedom of the city with a prudent liberality. 25
Note 20: Tacit. Annal. xi.
24. The Orbis Romanus of the learned Spanheim is a complete history of the progressive admission of Latium, Italy, and the
provinces, to the freedom of Rome. Note: Democratic states, observes Denina, (delle Revoluz. d' Italia, l. ii. c. l., are most jealous of communication the privileges of
citizenship; monarchies or oligarchies willingly multiply the numbers of their free subjects. The most remarkable accessions to the
strength of Rome, by the aggregation of conquered and foreign nations, took place under the regal and patrician - we may add, the
Imperial government. - M.
Note 21: Herodotus, v. 97. It should seem, however, that he followed a large and popular estimation.
Note 22: Athenaeus, Deipnosophist. l. vi. p. 272. Edit. Casaubon. Meursius de Fortuna Attica, c. 4. Note: On the number of citizens in Athens, compare Boeckh, Public Economy of Athens, (English Tr.,) p. 45, et seq. Fynes Clinton,
Essay in Fasti Hel lenici, vol. i. 381. - M.
Note 23: See a very accurate collection of the numbers of each Lustrum in M. de Beaufort, Republique Romaine, l. iv. c. 4. Note:
All these questions are placed in an entirely new point of view by Nicbuhr, (Romische Geschichte, vol. i. p. 464.) He rejects the
census of Servius fullius as unhistoric, (vol. ii. p. 78, et seq.,) and he establishes the principle that the census comprehended all the
confederate cities which had the right of Isopolity. - M.
Note 24: Appian. de Bell. Civil. l. i. Velleius Paterculus, l. ii. c. 15, 16, 17.
Note 25: Maecenas had advised him to declare, by one edict, all his subjects citizens. But we may justly suspect that the historian
Dion was the author of a counsel so much adapted to the practice of his own age, and so little to that of Augustus.
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To cite original text:
Gibbon, Edward, 1737-1794. The history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.
1st ed. (London : Printed for W. Strahan ; and T. Cadell, 1776-1788.), pp. 29-35.