The literature of the ancient Greeks and the universal empire of the Romans were, next to the Mosaic religion, the chief agents in preparing the world for Christianity. They furnished the human forms, in which the divine substance of the gospel, thoroughly prepared in the bosom of the Jewish theocracy, was moulded. They laid the natural foundation for the supernatural edifice of the kingdom of heaven. God endowed the Greeks and Romans with the richest natural gifts, that they might reach the highest civilization possible without the aid of Christianity, and thus both provide the instruments of human science, art, and law for the use of the church, and yet at the same time show the utter impotence of these alone to bless and save the world.
The Greeks, few in number, like the Jews, but vastly more important in history than the numberless hordes of the Asiatic empires, were called to the noble task of bringing out, under a sunny sky and with a clear mind, the idea of humanity in its natural vigor and beauty, but also in its natural imperfection. They developed the principles of science and art. They liberated the mind from the dark powers of nature and the gloomy broodings of the eastern mysticism. They rose to the clear and free consciousness of manhood, boldly investigated the laws of nature and of spirit, and carried out the idea of beauty in all sorts of artistic forms. In poetry, sculpture, architecture, painting, philosophy, rhetoric, historiography, they left true masterpieces, which are to this day admired and studied as models of form and taste.
All these works became truly valuable and useful only in the hands of the Christian church, to which they ultimately fell. Greece gave the apostles the most copious and beautiful language to express the divine truth of the Gospel, and Providence had long before so ordered political movements as to spread that language over the world and to make it the organ of civilization and international intercourse, as the Latin was in the middle ages, as the French was in the eighteenth century and as the English is coming to be in the nineteenth. |Greek,| says Cicero, |is read in almost all nations; Latin is confined by its own narrow boundaries.| Greek schoolmasters and artists followed the conquering legions of Rome to Gaul and Spain. The youthful hero Alexander the Great, a Macedonian indeed by birth, yet an enthusiastic admirer of Homer, an emulator of Achilles, a disciple of the philosophic world-conqueror, Aristotle, and thus the truest Greek of his age, conceived the sublime thought of making Babylon the seat of a Grecian empire of the world; and though his empire fell to pieces at his untimely death, yet it had already carried Greek letters to the borders of India, and made them a common possession of all civilized nations. What Alexander had begun Julius Caesar completed. Under the protection of the Roman law the apostles could travel everywhere and make themselves understood through the Greek language in every city of the Roman domain.
The Grecian philosophy, particularly the systems of Plato and Aristotle, formed the natural basis for scientific theology; Grecian eloquence, for sacred oratory; Grecian art, for that of the Christian church. Indeed, not a few ideas and maxims of the classics tread on the threshold of revelation and sound like prophecies of Christian truth; especially the spiritual soarings of Plato, the deep religious reflections of Plutarch, the sometimes almost Pauline moral precepts of Seneca. To many of the greatest church fathers, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and in some measure even to Augustine, Greek philosophy was a bridge to the Christian faith, a scientific schoolmaster leading them to Christ. Nay, the whole ancient Greek church rose on the foundation of the Greek language and nationality, and is inexplicable without them.
Here lies the real reason why the classical literature is to this day made the basis of liberal education throughout the Christian world. Youth are introduced to the elementary forms of science and art, to models of clear, tasteful style, and to self-made humanity at the summit of intellectual and artistic culture, and thus they are at the same time trained to the scientific apprehension of the Christian religion, which appeared when the development of Greek and Roman civilization had reached its culmination and began already to decay. The Greek and Latin languages, as the Sanskrit and Hebrew, died in their youth and were embalmed and preserved from decay in the immortal works of the classics. They still furnish the best scientific terms for every branch of learning and art and every new invention. The primitive records of Christianity have been protected against the uncertainties of interpretation incident upon the constant changes of a living language.
But aside from the permanent value of the Grecian literature, the glory of its native land had, at the birth of Christ, already irrecoverably departed. Civil liberty and independence had been destroyed by internal discord and corruption. Philosophy had run down into skepticism and refined materialism. Art had been degraded to the service of levity and sensuality. Infidelity or superstition had supplanted sound religious sentiment. Dishonesty and licentiousness reigned among high and low.
This hopeless state of things could not but impress the more earnest and noble souls with the emptiness of all science and art, and the utter insufficiency of this natural culture to meet the deeper wants of the heart. It must fill them with longings for a new religion.
The Romans were the practical and political nation of antiquity. Their calling was to carry out the idea of the state and of civil law, and to unite the nations of the world in a colossal empire, stretching from the Euphrates to the Atlantic, and from the Libyan desert to the banks of the Rhine. This empire embraced the most fertile and civilized countries of Asia, Africa, and Europe, and about one hundred millions of human beings, perhaps one-third of the whole race at the time of the introduction of Christianity. To this outward extent corresponds its historical significance. The history of every ancient nation ends, says Niebuhr, as the history of every modern nation begins, in that of Rome. Its history has therefore a universal interest; it is a vast storehouse of the legacies of antiquity. If the Greeks had, of all nations, the deepest mind, and in literature even gave laws to their conquerors, the Romans had the strongest character, and were born to rule the world without. This difference of course reached even into the moral and religious life of the two nations. Was the Greek, mythology the work of artistic fantasy and a religion of poesy, so was the Roman the work of calculation adapted to state purposes, political and utilitarian, but at the same time solemn, earnest, and energetic. |The Romans had no love of beauty, like the Greeks. They held no communion with nature, like the Germans. Their one idea was Rome -- not ancient, fabulous, poetical Rome, but Rome warring and conquering; and orbis terrarum domina. S. P. Q. R.is inscribed on almost every page of their literature.|
The Romans from the first believed themselves called to govern the world. They looked upon all foreigners -- not as barbarians, like the cultured Greeks, but -- as enemies to be conquered and reduced to servitude. War and triumph were their highest conception of human glory and happiness. The |Tu, regere imperio populos, Romane, memento!|had been their motto, in fact, long before Virgil thus gave it form. The very name of the urbs aeterna, and the characteristic legend of its founding, prophesied its future. In their greatest straits the Romans never for a moment despaired of the commonwealth. With vast energy, profound policy, unwavering consistency, and wolf-like rapacity, they pursued their ambitious schemes, and became indeed the lords, but also, as their greatest historian, Tacitus, says, the insatiable robbers of the world.
Having conquered the world by the sword, they organized it by law, before whose majesty every people had to bow, and beautified it by the arts of peace. Philosophy, eloquence, history, and poetry enjoyed a golden age under the setting sun of the republic and the rising sun of the empire, and extended their civilizing influence to the borders of barbarianism. Although not creative in letters and fine arts, the Roman authors were successful imitators of Greek philosophers, orators, historians, and poets. Rome was converted by Augustus from a city of brick huts into a city of marble palaces. The finest paintings and sculptures were imported from Greece, triumphal arches and columns were erected on public places, and the treasures of all parts of the world were made tributary to, the pride, beauty, and luxury of the capital. The provinces caught the spirit of improvement, populous cities sprung up, and the magnificent temple of Jerusalem was rebuilt by the ambitious extravagance of Herod. The rights of persons and property were well protected. The conquered nations, though often and justly complaining of the rapacity of provincial governors, yet, on the whole, enjoyed greater security against domestic feuds and foreign invasion, a larger share of social comfort, and rose to a higher degree of secular civilization. The ends of the empire were brought into military, commercial, and literary communication by carefully constructed roads, the traces of which still exist in Syria, on the Alps, on the banks of the Rhine. The facilities and security of travel were greater in the reign of the Caesars than in any subsequent period before the nineteenth century. Five main lines went out from Rome to the extremities of the empire, and were connected at seaports with maritime routes. |We may travel,| says a Roman writer, |at all hours, and sail from east to west.| Merchants brought diamonds from the East, ambers from the shores of the Baltic, precious metals from Spain, wild animals from Africa, works of art from Greece, and every article of luxury, to the market on the banks of the Tiber, as they now do to the banks of the Thames. The Apocalyptic seer, in his prophetic picture of the downfall of the imperial mistress of the world, gives prominence to her vast commerce: |And the merchants of the earth,| he says, |weep and mourn over her; for no man buyeth their merchandise any more: merchandise of gold, and silver, and precious stone, and pearls, and fine linen, and purple, and silk, and scarlet; and all thine wood, and every vessel of ivory, and every vessel made of most precious wood, and of brass, and iron, and marble; and cinnamon, and spice, and incense, and ointment, and frankincense, and wine, and oil, and fine flour, and wheat, and cattle, and sheep; and merchandise of horses and chariots and slaves; and souls of men. And the fruits that thy soul desired are departed from thee, and all things which were dainty and sumptuous are perished from thee, and men shall find them no more at all.|
Heathen Rome lived a good while after this prediction, but, the causes of decay were already at work in the first century. The immense extension and outward prosperity brought with it a diminution of those domestic and civil virtues which at first so highly distinguished the Romans above the Greeks. The race of patriots and deliverers, who came from their ploughs to the public service, and humbly returned again to the plough or the kitchen, was extinct. Their worship of the gods, which was the root of their virtue, had sunk to mere form, running either into the most absurd superstitions, or giving place to unbelief, till the very priests laughed each other in the face when they met in the street. Not unfrequently we find unbelief and superstition united in the same persons, according to the maxim that all extremes touch each other. Man must believe something, and worship either God or the devil. Magicians and necromancers abounded, and were liberally patronized. The ancient simplicity and contentment were exchanged for boundless avarice and prodigality. Morality and chastity, so beautifully symbolized in the household ministry of the virgin Vesta, yielded to vice and debauchery. Amusement came to be sought in barbarous fights of beasts and gladiators, which not rarely consumed twenty thousand human lives in a single month. The lower classes had lost all nobler feeling, cared for nothing but |panem et circenses,| and made the proud imperial city on the Tiber a slave of slaves. The huge empire of Tiberius and of Nero was but a giant body without a soul, going, with steps slow but sure, to final dissolution. Some of the emperors were fiendish tyrants and monsters of iniquity; and yet they were enthroned among the gods by a vote of the Senate, and altars and temples were erected for their worship. This characteristic custom began with Caesar, who even during his lifetime was honored as |Divus Julius| for his brilliant victories, although they cost more than a million of lives slain and another million made captives and slaves. The dark picture which St. Paul, in addressing the Romans, draws of the heathenism of his day, is fully sustained by Seneca, Tacitus, Juvenal, Persius, and other heathen writers of that age, and shows the absolute need of redemption. |The world,| says Seneca, in a famous passage, |is full of crimes and vices. More are committed than can be cured by force. There is an immense struggle for iniquity. Crimes are no longer bidden, but open before the eyes. Innocence is not only rare, but nowhere.| Thus far the negative. On the other hand, the universal empire of Rome was a positive groundwork for the universal empire of the gospel. It served as a crucible, in which all contradictory and irreconcilable peculiarities of the ancient nations and religions were dissolved into the chaos of a new creation. The Roman legions razed the partition-walls among the ancient nations, brought the extremes of the civilized world together in free intercourse, and united north and south and east and west in the bonds of a common language and culture, of common laws and customs. Thus they evidently, though unconsciously, opened the way for the rapid and general spread of that religion which unites all nations in one family of God by the spiritual bond of faith and love.
The idea of a common humanity, which underlies all the distinctions of race, society and education, began to dawn in the heathen mind, and found expression in the famous line of Terentius, which was received with applause in the theatre:
|Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto.|
This spirit of humanity breathes in Cicero and Virgil. Hence the veneration paid to the poet of the Aeneid by the fathers and throughout the middle ages. Augustine calls him the noblest of poets, and Dante, |the glory and light of other poets,| and |his master,| who guided him through the regions of hell and purgatory to the very gates of Paradise. It was believed that in his fourth Eclogue he had prophesied the advent of Christ. This interpretation is erroneous; but |there is in Virgil,| says an accomplished scholar, |a vein of thought and sentiment more devout, more humane, more akin to the Christian than is to be found in any other ancient poet, whether Greek or Roman. He was a spirit prepared and waiting, though he knew it not, for some better thing to be revealed.|
The civil laws and institutions, also, and the great administrative wisdom of Rome did much for the outward organization of the Christian church. As the Greek church rose on the basis of the Grecian nationality, so the Latin church rose on that of ancient Rome, and reproduced in higher forms both its virtues and its defects. Roman Catholicism is pagan Rome baptized, a Christian reproduction of the universal empire seated of old in the city of the seven hills.