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Under the reign of these monsters, the slavery of the Romans was accompanied with two peculiar circumstances, the one occasioned by their former liberty
, the other by their extensive
conquests, which rendered their condition more completely wretched than that of the victims of tyranny in any other age or country. From these causes were derived, 1. The exquisite
sensibility of the sufferers; and, 2. The impossibility of escaping from the hand of the oppressor.
I. When Persia was governed by the descendants of Sefi, a race of princes whose wanton cruelty often stained their divan, their table, and their bed, with the blood of their favorites, there is a
saying recorded of a young nobleman, that he never departed from the sultan's presence, without satisfying himself whether his head was still on his shoulders. The experience of every day
might almost justify the scepticism of Rustan. 52
Yet the fatal sword, suspended above him by a single thread, seems not to have disturbed the slumbers, or interrupted the tranquillity, of
the Persian. The monarch's frown, he well knew, could level him with the dust; but the stroke of lightning or apoplexy might be equally fatal; and it was the part of a wise man to forget the
inevitable calamities of human life in the enjoyment of the fleeting hour. He was dignified with the appellation of the king's slave; had, perhaps, been purchased from obscure parents, in a
country which he had never known; and was trained up from his infancy in the severe discipline of the seraglio. 53
His name, his wealth, his honors, were the gift of a master, who might,
without injustice, resume what he had bestowed. Rustan's knowledge, if he possessed any, could only serve to confirm his habits by prejudices. His language afforded not words for any form
of government, except absolute monarchy
. The history of the East informed him, that such had ever been the condition of mankind. 54
The Koran, and the interpreters of that divine book,
inculcated to him, that the sultan was the descendant of the prophet, and the vicegerent of heaven; that patience was the first virtue of a Mussulman, and unlimited obedience the great duty of
note 52: Voyage de Chardin en Perse, vol. iii. p. 293.
note 53: The practice of raising slaves to the great offices of state is still more common among the Turks than among the
Persians. The miserable countries of Georgia and Circassia supply rulers to the greatest part of the East.
note 54: Chardin says, that European travellers have diffused among the Persians some ideas of the freedom and mildness of our governments. They have done them a very ill office.
The minds of the Romans were very differently prepared for slavery. Oppressed beneath the weight of their own corruption and of military violence, they for a long while preserved the
sentiments, or at least the ideas, of their free-born ancestors. The education of Helvidius and Thrasea, of Tacitus
, was the same as that of Cato and Cicero
. From Grecian
philosophy, they had imbibed the justest and most liberal notions of the dignity
of human nature, and the origin of civil society. The history of their own country had taught them to revere a
free, a virtuous, and a victorious Commonwealth
; to abhor the successful crimes of Caesar
; and inwardly to despise those tyrants whom they adored with the most abject
flattery. As magistrates and senator
s they were admitted into the great council, which had once dictated laws to the earth, whose authority
was so often prostituted to the vilest purposes of
, and those emperors who adopted his maxims, attempted to disguise their murders by the formalities of justice, and perhaps enjoyed a secret pleasure in rendering the Senate
their accomplice as well as their victim. By this assembly, the last of the Romans were condemned for imaginary crimes and real virtues. Their infamous accusers assumed the language of
independent patriots, who arraigned a dangerous citizen before the tribunal of his country; and the public service was rewarded by riches and honors. 55
The servile judges professed to assert
the majesty of the Commonwealth
, violated in the person of its first magistrate, 56
whose clemency they most applauded when they trembled the most at his inexorable and impending
The tyrant beheld their baseness with just contempt, and encountered their secret sentiments of detestation with sincere and avowed hatred for the whole body of the Senate
note 55: They alleged the example of Scipio and Cato, (Tacit. Annal. iii. 66.) Marcellus Epirus and Crispus Vibius had acquired two millions and a half under Nero. Their wealth,
which aggravated their crimes, protected them under Vespasian. See Tacit. Hist. iv. 43. Dialog. de Orator. c. 8. For one accusation, Regulus, the just object of Pliny's satire, received from
the Senate the consular ornaments, and a present of sixty thousand pounds.
note 56: The crime of majesty was formerly a treasonable offence against the Roman people. As tribunes of
the people, Augustus and Tiberius applied tit to their own persons, and extended it to an infinite latitude. Note: It was Tiberius, not Augustus, who first took in this sense the words crimen
laesae majestatis. Bachii Trajanus, 27. - W.
note 57: After the virtuous and unfortunate widow of Germanicus had been put to death, Tiberius received the thanks of the Senate for his
clemency. she had not been publicly strangled; nor was the body drawn with a hook to the Gemoniae, where those of common male factors were exposed. See Tacit. Annal. vi. 25. Sueton.
in Tiberio c. 53.
II. The division of Europe into a number of independent states, connected, however, with each other by the general resemblance of religion, language, and manners, is productive of the most
beneficial consequences to the liberty
of mankind. A modern tyrant, who should find no resistance either in his own breast, or in his people, would soon experience a gentle restrain form the
example of his equals, the dread of present censured the advice of his allies, and the apprehension of his enemies. The object of his displeasure, escaping from the narrow limits of his
dominions, would easily obtain, in a happier climate, a secure refuge, a new fortune adequate to his merit, the freedom of complaint, and perhaps the means of revenge. But the Empire
Romans filled the world, and when the Empire
fell into the hands of a single person, he wold became a safe and dreary prison for his enemies. The slave of Imperial despotism
, whether he
was condemned to drags his gilded chain in Rome
and the Senate
, or to were out a life of exile on the barren rock of Seriphus, or the frozen bank of the Danube, expected his fate in silent
To resist was fatal, and it was impossible to fly. On every side he was encompassed with a vast extent of sea and land, which he could never hope to traverse without being
discovered, seized, and restored to his irritated master. Beyond the frontiers, his anxious view could discover nothing, except the ocean, inhospitable deserts, hostile tribes of barbarian
fierce manners and unknown language, or dependent kings, who would gladly purchase the emperor's protection by the sacrifice of an obnoxious fugitive. 59
"Wherever you are," said Cicero
to the exiled Marcellus, "remember that you are equally within the power of the conqueror." 60
note 58: Seriphus was a small rocky island in the Aegean Sea, the inhabitants of which were despised for their ignorance and obscurity. The place of Ovid's exile is well known, by his
just, but unmanly lamentations. It should seem, that he only received an order to leave Rome in so many days, and to transport himself to Tomi. Guards and jailers were unnecessary.
note 59: Under Tiberius, a Roman knight attempted to fly to the Parthians. He was stopped in the straits of Sicily; but so little danger did there appear in the example, that the most
jealous of tyrants disdained to punish it. Tacit. Annal. vi. 14.
note 60: Cicero ad Familiares, iv. 7.
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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. 81-84.