SermonIndex Audio Sermons

Women Of Early Christianity by Alfred Brittain


The Empire had forfeited its right to take its title from the ancient city on the Tiber long before its final dismemberment. Constantine had removed his court and capital to the Bosphorus, and there the metropolis of the East remained. The Western emperors established their courts in various parts of Europe, their locations being usually determined by the exigences of rivalry and the territorial success of their usurpation. Roman citizenship had become universal and at the same time meaningless: it represented no privileges other than the bare fact that its owner was not a slave. The freedom it conferred was only relative and, to a very great extent, merely theoretical; practically, all were the slaves of the emperor. The race of Romulus had degenerated into a pretentious but pusillanimous aristocracy, who desired no title to glory save that found in pedigree. There was not left in them sufficient virility to set up, much less to maintain, an emperor of their own race; their rulers were of barbarian extraction. The Roman army was a cosmopolitan aggregation, in which Italy was the least represented of the provinces. Ammianus Marcellinus, the historian, writing late in the fourth century, says: |The modern nobles measure their rank and consequence according to the loftiness of their chariots and the weighty magnificence of their dress. Their long robes of silk and purple float in the wind; and as they are agitated by art or accident, they occasionally discover the under-garments, the rich tunics, embroidered with the figures of various animals.| Gibbon notes that the more pious coxcombs substituted the figure of some favorite saint. Ammianus goes on to describe how, |followed by a train of fifty servants, and tearing up the pavement, they move along the streets with the same impetuous speed as if they travelled with post-horses; and the example of the senators is boldly imitated by the matrons and ladies, whose covered carriages are continually driving round the immense space of the city and suburbs. Whenever these persons of high distinction condescend to visit the public baths, they assume, on their entrance, a tone of loud and insolent command, and appropriate to their exclusive use the conveniences which were designed for the Roman people. If, in these places of mixed and general resort, they meet any of the infamous ministers of their pleasures, they express their affection by a tender embrace; while they proudly disdain the salutation of their fellow-citizens who are not permitted to aspire above the honor of kissing their hands or their knees. As soon as they have indulged themselves in the refreshment of the bath, they resume their rings and the other ensigns of their dignity, select from their private wardrobe (of the finest linen, and of a quantity such as might suffice for a dozen persons), the garments most agreeable to their fancy, and maintain till their departure the same haughty demeanor.... The acquisition of knowledge seldom engages the attention of nobles, who abhor the fatigue and disdain the advantages of study. The libraries which they have inherited from their fathers are secluded, like dreary sepulchres, from the light of day. The art of obtaining the signature of a favorable testament, and sometimes of hastening the moment of its execution, is perfectly understood; and it has happened that in the same house, though in different apartments, a husband and a wife, with the laudable design of over-reaching each other, have summoned their respective lawyers, to declare, at the same time, their mutual but contradictory wishes.|

It is probable that Ammianus, with the disdain which students are apt to affect toward the unphilosophic multitude, has exaggerated the disregard of the Roman nobility for books. We have seen that many of the female friends of Jerome were most ardent lovers of literature; and the Christian Fathers constantly evince an expectation of finding among their female followers an enthusiastic reading public. These women read theological works; it is not unreasonable to suppose that their less heavenly-minded sisters were as assiduous students of the classical secular books.

We have the names and somewhat of the history of a few of the women who lived in this period, but they are all from the highest and most conspicuous society. History loves a shining mark. If the chroniclers of the time had favored us with a detailed descriptive account of the life of the common people, it would have been of more value than that of many nobles.

The population of Rome at this time has been estimated at between one million two hundred thousand and two million. This, of course, includes the vast army of slaves, which remained undiminished after the change of the national religion. But there was also a great horde of free, poor plebeians, who were the perpetual paupers of the government. These lived in the same careless, indigent idleness as had the same class in preceding centuries. They inhabited tenements not unlike those known to the great cities of modern times. These houses were of several stories, each tenement sheltering a number of families. That they were exceedingly uncomfortable is easy to believe, seeing that even the wealthy of ancient times, notwithstanding the architectural grandeur which they could command, were ignorant of the ordinary modern domestic conveniences. The free working class of the present day was then practically unknown: that place was taken by the slaves. So the poverty-stricken Roman citizen was both necessarily and willingly unemployed. Generally, however, corn, wine, and oil were supplied him with little or no expense to himself. Each morning, at a set time, his wife would repair to a prescribed station in the district, and there, on showing a citizen's ticket, she would receive a three-pound loaf of bread. So indulgent was the government, that it ground and baked the allowance which at one time was made in the shape of corn. During five months in the year there was also distributed, to the poorer people, an allowance of pork; the annual consumption of this kind of meat in Rome was three million six hundred and twenty-eight thousand pounds. When the populace had clamored before Augustus for free wine as well as bread, that wise and firm ruler reminded them that since his friend Agrippa had brought into the city a bountiful supply of pure water, no Roman need complain of thirst. But those emperors who denuded Roman citizenship entirely of its right of suffrage yet had an interest in keeping the populace quiet and contented; hence, in the fourth century there existed public cellars from whence was dispensed, at a small cost to the inhabitants of Rome, the fermented vintage of Campania.

It was also necessary, the people being idle, that they should be amused. There were the magnificent public baths where they could while away the time in luxury and gossip. But the amusement with which the multitude was never satiated was found in the exhibitions of the circus. On special occasions, many would sleep in the porticoes near by, in order to be the first on hand to obtain seats in the morning. The immense amphitheatre would accommodate four hundred thousand. Christianity abolished the gladiatorial combat of former times; but there still remained the exciting and perilous chariot race and the hunting and fighting of wild beasts. Nor had Christianity been able to purify the stage to any great extent. The Muses of Tragedy and a statelier comedy were entirely abandoned for licentious farces. No fewer than three thousand female dancers were occupied in the theatres of Rome. At a time of famine when all strangers were banished from the city, and also the teachers of the liberal arts, these dancers were exempted by the edict.

The people of Rome were afforded an additional source of interest in the ecclesiastical contentions which were aroused by the ambitions and the theological disputes of the clergy. Before the close of the fourth century the bishopric of Rome had become an office more fitted to be sought after by the worldly-minded than by the imitator of the humble Galilean fishermen. Its vacation was the signal for a contention in which rival candidates were not averse to employing the violence of the common people as well as the influence of noble Christian ladies. Ammianus describes how |the ardor of Damasus and Ursinus to seize the episcopal seat surpassed the ordinary measure of human ambition. They contended with the rage of party; the quarrel was maintained by the wounds and death of their followers; and the prefect, unable to resist or appease the tumult, was constrained, by superior violence, to retire into the suburbs. Damasus prevailed: the well-disputed victory remained on the side of his faction; one hundred and thirty-seven dead bodies were found in the Basilica of Sicininus, where the Christians held their religious assemblies; and it was long before the angry minds of the people resumed their accustomed tranquillity. When I consider the splendor of the capital, I am not astonished that so valuable a prize should inflame the desires of ambitious men, and produce the fiercest and most obstinate contests. The successful candidate is confident that he will be enriched by the offerings of matrons; that, as soon as his dress is composed with becoming care and elegance, he may proceed in his chariot through the streets of Rome; and that the sumptuousness of the imperial table will not equal the profuse and delicate entertainments provided by the taste and expense of the Roman bishops.|

The practice of taking advantage of the charity -- or the sentiment -- of wealthy ladies had become so prevalent among the clergy that the government had been compelled to regard it as an abuse to be severely legislated against. By his enemies, Bishop Damasus himself was nicknamed Auriscalpius Matronarum (the ladies' ear scratcher). An edict on the subject was addressed by Valentinian to this bishop who was directed to have it read in the churches of his diocese. It must have been a humiliating document for the clerics of the time to listen to in the presence of their congregations. It admonished them not to frequent the houses of virgins and widows. The habit had become popular for wealthy and devout ladies to choose some monk or priest as their individual and private spiritual director. That the confidence reposed in the latter was often abused is indicated by the edict which prohibited him from profiting by any gift or legacy from his spiritual protegee; the same abuse is also frankly acknowledged in the writings of the Fathers. As we have seen in the case of Jerome and Paula, such a relationship might be perfectly innocent, though somewhat hysterical. Human nature is the same in all ages; and, given a woman whose sentimental nature predisposed her to seek an indemnification in spiritual companionship for those ordinary delights which, by pious vows, she had denied herself; an ecclesiastic, frail in principle, but apt to cloak his designs with the sanctity of ghostly affection and disinterested charity, and the result is not unlikely to be disastrous to the reputation of the lady and, also, to the expectations of her heirs. The law of Valentinian, forbidding these women to make clerics their legatees, precluded the former from the comfort of an ostentatious guaranty of their piety, and stigmatized the disinterestedness of the latter.

Such, then, was the condition of the Roman Empire at the time when the causes leading to its decline were nearing their culmination. After Julian's death under the assassin's hand, Jovian followed in a brief reign. Then Valentinian came to the throne. In this emperor is witnessed that astonishing mixture of vice and virtue, barbarous cruelty and Christian belief which characterized that period. It was an age of bitter warfare; every human force was engaged in deadly contention; both the Church and the Empire were fighting for their lives. The latter could scarcely keep off the hordes of barbarians which were swarming and surging upon its borders, and at times it seemed as if the former had quite succumbed to the heresy of Arianism. It was the most deadly battle that the Church has ever had to wage. After the question of who should rule, theology was the most important item in the politics of the time. Varying metaphysical definitions which baffled the acumen of the wisest philosophers were confidently espoused in a spirit of partisanship by mechanics and ignorant persons of both sexes. It was the difference of an iota -- homoousios or homoiousios.

Valentinian favored orthodoxy, not because of sturdy convictions (he said it was a question for bishops), but because the Church in the West was mainly Catholic; but in Justina, his wife, the Arians were compensated by a powerful champion. Socrates, the historian, describes the marriage of Justina as having taken place under most remarkable circumstances. The story is interesting, though of somewhat doubtful veracity: |Justus, the father of Justina, who had been governor of Picenum under the reign of Constantius, had a dream in which he seemed to himself to bring forth the imperial purple out of his right side. When this dream had been told to many persons, it at length came to the knowledge of Constantius, who conjecturing it to be a presage that a descendant of Justus would become emperor, caused him to be assassinated. Justina, being thus bereft of her father, still continued a virgin. Some time after, she became known to Severa, wife of the Emperor Valentinian, and had frequent intercourse with the empress, until their intimacy at length grew to such an extent that they were accustomed to bathe together. When Severa saw Justina in the bath she was greatly struck with the beauty of the virgin, and spoke of her to the emperor, saying that the daughter of Justus was so lovely a creature and possessed of such symmetry of form, that she herself, though a woman, was altogether charmed with her. The emperor, treasuring this description by his wife in his own mind, considered with himself how he could espouse Justina, without repudiating Severa, who had borne him Gratian, whom he had created Augustus a short time before. He accordingly framed a law, and caused it to be published throughout all the cities, by which any man was permitted to have two lawful wives. The law was promulgated and he married Justina, by whom he had Valentinian the younger, and three daughters -- Justa, Grata, and Galla.... Galla was afterwards married to Theodosius the Great, who had by her a daughter named Placidia.|

This story, romantic as it is, lacks all the hallmarks of credibility. In the first place, there is absolutely no trace of this remarkable law either in the codes or in other historians. Furthermore, the ancient Church was more severely opposed to bigamy and polygamy than it was to any other deviation from common morals. Also the Roman law strongly discountenanced plurality in marriage. Moreover, we have it on the authority of Ammianus, who is a most trustworthy witness, that Valentinian was remarkable for his chastity, both at home and abroad. Also in contradiction to what Socrates relates, Zosimus asserts that Justina had already been married to Magnentius, and that the emperor was joined to her in matrimony after the death of Severa, his first wife. Either this latter statement must be accepted as the fact in the case, or we must believe that the first empress was divorced, a procedure that was certainly not difficult and was extremely customary for the rulers of Rome. What is probably the truth of the matter is that this story of Justina being the partner of Valentinian in bigamy was a malicious invention; possibly the discredit of its promulgation should be laid at the door of some of the Unscrupulous among the orthodox, who were incensed at her support of heresy.

It was customary for the empress to accompany her imperial husband in his military expeditions about the Empire. Apart from other considerations, this was necessary to her safety and that of her offspring. Conspirators are apt to perpetrate their designs in the absence of the ruler against whom they are plotting; and in that case, the legitimate successor, with his protectors -- if within reach -- is the first victim of the ambition or precaution of his father's enemies. Consequently, it was usual for the emperors to take their families with them even in the most distant journeys. The advantage of this was illustrated in the death of Valentinian. He had marched against the Quadi who were vexing the frontier on the bank of the Danube. In his customary cruel manner, he put to death all who fell into his power, murdering even the women and children. The desperate people sent envoys begging for peace and forgiveness, but Valentinian broke out upon them in one of those paroxysms of rage to which he was subject, and, in the midst of his terrible invectives, ruptured a blood vessel in his lungs, which caused his death upon the spot.

At the moment, Justina was occupying a palace at a short distance from Bregetio, where the death of her husband occurred. Gratian, the son of Severa, had already been invested by his father with the imperial purple; but the court ministers, inspired probably with the thought of those advantages which such men enjoy during the reign of an infant, immediately planned to exalt to the throne of Valentinian the latter's four-year-old son, who bore the same name. Justina was sent for and placed by the ministers on a regal platform facing the troops. She held her young son in her arms; and the picture of a beautiful woman, endowed both with the fruit and the graces of motherhood, had its never failing effect of stirring the soldiers to an outburst of chivalric enthusiasm. The infant was there and then invested with the purple and the insignia of empire, which, it may be added, he never wore with greater effect than in the hour when his puny infant form was first arrayed in them. Whatever real influence his name had in the government was wielded by Justina. But Gratian was emperor. He it was who commanded the army and ruled the Empire, while Justina held court and engaged in petty domestic politics at Milan and Sirmium. One thing is certain and is remarkable enough to be mentioned -- the two empress-mothers, Severa and Justina, lived as co-widows in that mutual harmony which Socrates would have us believe characterized them as co-wives.

Perhaps the principal event of the life of Justina was her controversy with Saint Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, who was one of the noblest men of the ancient Church, and who, by his courage and integrity, set an example for all succeeding bishops. Contemning the pomps and vanities of the world, he did not disdain to use the powers of his office for the political advantage of either the Church or the state; so, when Maximus usurped the imperial privilege in the Gallic provinces, Ambrose was sent as an ambassador by Justina to beg the clemency of the new emperor for herself and her son. Maximus reigned in the far West, while at his sufferance Valentinian II. was emperor in Italy.

While this young emperor -- who died at the age of twenty-one -- reigned, his mother ruled. Justina, however, appears to have been an easy-going woman. She does not seem to have been possessed of much ambition, and there is no indication that she interfered very strenuously in the affairs of the Empire. She found herself in the position which she occupied, and endeavored to preserve herself and her son in safety. Tolerance was marked in all that she did, and there was a very evident willingness to leave others unmolested, provided she and her son were allowed to maintain their position in security. Of course, while they retained the names of empress-mother and emperor, their real power was but slight. Valentinian II. was never more than a boy, and Justina possessed no military command. Nevertheless, it does seem as if she were endowed with some real ability, or she could not have maintained herself in comparative security during seventeen years of such troublous and changeful times.

Justina's controversy with Saint Ambrose seems to have been the one point on which she had serious difficulty with her subjects, and this appears to have affected only the people of Milan. Gibbon, in his inimitable manner, thus describes the incident: |The government of Italy and of the young emperor naturally devolved to his mother Justina, a woman of beauty and spirit, but who, in the midst of an orthodox people, had the misfortune of professing the Arian heresy, which she endeavored to instil into the mind of her son. Justina was persuaded that a Roman emperor might claim, in his own dominions, the public exercise of his religion; and she proposed to the archbishop, as a moderate and reasonable concession, that he should resign the use of a single church, either in the city or suburbs of Milan. But the conduct of Ambrose was governed by very different principles. The palaces of earth might indeed belong to Caesar, but the churches were the houses of God; and, within the limits of his diocese, he himself, as the lawful successor of the apostles, was the only minister of God. The privileges of Christianity, temporal as well as spiritual, were confined to the true believers; and the mind of Ambrose was satisfied that his own theological opinions were the standard of truth and orthodoxy. The archbishop, who refused to hold any conference or negotiation with the instruments of Satan, declared with modest firmness his resolution to die a martyr rather than to yield to the impious sacrilege; and Justina, who resented the refusal as an act of insolence and rebellion, hastily determined to exert the imperial prerogative of her son.|

Under ordinary circumstances, in a like situation, it is very probable that the bishop's reiterated desire for martyrdom would have been gratified. But Ambrose was secure, owing to the intense orthodoxy of all Justina's subjects. In an attack on religion, there was no one to carry out her commands. |As she desired to perform her public devotions on the approaching festival of Easter, Ambrose was ordered to appear before the council. He obeyed the summons with the respect of a faithful subject, but he was followed, without his consent, by an innumerable people: they pressed, with impetuous zeal, against the gates of the palace; and the affrighted ministers of Valentinian, instead of pronouncing a sentence of exile on the archbishop of Milan, humbly requested that he would interpose his authority, to protect the person of the emperor, and to restore the tranquillity of the capital.|

In the end the bishop prevailed. There are extant certain letters written by the saint to his sister, Marcellina, in which he describes the circumstances of this dispute with Justina. He recounts how soldiers were sent to occupy the church which the empress desired for her own heretical use, and how they fraternized with the Catholic people who refused to give up the sacred building. The bishop asserts that in the midst of all this tumult and public inharmony, he gave utterance only to |freer groans.| But there is evidence in bis own letters that Ambrose took a more active and also a more effective course than mere pious groaning; indeed, he showed a remarkable boldness of decision, as well as astuteness, in his political methods. He met the occasion with a sermon on the trials of Job, which could hardly have aroused pleasant reflections in the mind of Justina. |But Job was tried by accumulated tidings of evils, he was also tried by his wife, who said, 'Speak a word against God and die.' You see what terrible things are of a sudden stirred up, the Goths, armed men, the heathen.... You observe what was commanded when the order was given: 'Surrender the Basilica!' that is, speak a word against God and die.... So, then, we are prepared by the imperial commands, but are strengthened by the words of Scripture, which replies: 'Thou hast spoken as one of the foolish.' That temptation then is no light one, for we know that those temptations are more severe which arise through women. For even Adam was overthrown by Eve, whereby it came to pass that he erred from the divine commandments.... Why should I relate that Jezebel, also, persecuted Elijah after a bloodthirsty fashion? Or that Herodias caused John the Baptist to be slain?... Of women change follows on change, their hatreds alternate, their falsehoods vary, elders assemble together, wrong done to the emperor is made a pretence.|

This homiletic punishment of the empress by the intrepid saint was opportunely followed by the discovery of certain holy and potent relics. By means of these, the sick were healed and the blind restored, and thus the people were convinced that God was on their side. The empress derided these marvels with an incredulity which would do credit to the present time; but she was compelled to take the wise counsel of Theodosius and surrender her purpose. She took her revenge, however, by publishing a decree that the Arian worship should be lawful throughout the dominions of her son, Valentinian II.

During this time, Maximus, the usurper of Gaul, had acted toward the empress and her feeble son with apparent friendliness; but he had not in reality set bounds to the range of his ambition. In 377, his first hostile operations commenced. Justina was not prepared for warfare. She fled with the emperor and her daughter, Galla, to Theodosius, the great ruler of the East, who first married Galla, and then took up successfully the cause of her mother and her brother. Of this marriage was born Placidia whose strange adventures we shall shortly relate. It is probable that Justina died during the war waged by Theodosius against Maximus. Of her character nothing derogatory is recorded with the exception of her heresy. It is hardly remarkable that, in an ecclesiastical dispute, she should be unable to cope with the man who, later, had the strength and the courage to close the door of the cathedral in the face of the great Theodosius, after his crime at Thessalonica.

Events so moved that, by the year 394, Theodosius had become the sole ruler of the Empire; but four months later he died at Milan, leaving the dominion of the East and the West to his sons Arcadius and Honorius respectively. Honorius was of a weakly constitution, and too young to take part in public matters. Flavius Stilicho, a Vandal, and the ablest man both in court and in camp that those times produced, defended the Empire in the attacks of the barbarians who poured over the Danube and over the Rhine.

Stilicho had married the beautiful and accomplished Serena, the favorite niece of Theodosius. Claudian, in a poem devoted to the praise of Serena, has portrayed her excellences of mind and person as being of the most attractive quality. To her devotion to her husband the modern historian pays this tribute: |The arts of calumny might have been successful, if the tender and vigilant Serena had not protected her husband against his domestic foes, while he vanquished in the field the enemies of the empire.|

The daughter of Serena, whose name was Maria, was made the wife of Honorius when that emperor was in his fourteenth year. Claudian wrote an epithalamium and some fescennine verses for the occasion, after the ancient manner; nothing else of this kind could ever have been quite so ridiculously conventional, for, on the authority of Zosimus, we learn that Maria died a virgin after she had been ten years a wife. The debility of her husband's constitution rendered the continence, which the ecclesiastic of that time so greatly admired, uncommonly easy. Honorius sat on the Roman throne through a period of twenty-eight years, with little more influence or effect upon the history of his time than would have been exerted if his place had been filled by a wooden image.

In the meantime, those commotions had taken place in the interior of Asia which were to result in the flooding and overthrowing of the Roman Empire by hordes of migrating barbarians. The most formidable of these were the Huns, a Mongol race which had roamed the steppes from time immemorial. The Huns were the more terrible because of their extreme ugliness. Their appearance was a fearful visitation for the women of the civilized nations which they overran. These hardy and vicious savages suddenly swarmed out from their own country, and, driving the Ostrogoths before them, with devastating persistence rolled, a human wave, to the westward. The Goths were between |the devil and the deep sea.| But, while the Huns were an irresistible force, the Romans were not an immovable body. Steadily the Goths gained ground westward with the Huns surging after them. Rome was doomed. The effeminating arts of civilization prepared a prey for the necessities of virile barbarism. A brave ruler like Theodosius, who was not of the enervated Roman race, might stem the tide for a while; but the disintegration of the Empire was as inevitable as is that of a pile of lumber when caught in the flooding of a river.

In the year 402, Alaric the Goth for the first time broke into the Western empire. He carried his conquering arms into Italy, spreading a pathway of devastation and misery wherever he went. In modern times, it is impossible to estimate the suffering which an invasion brought upon the women of that fated country. The old and those deficient in personal attractions were robbed and, as likely as not, murdered; the young and the beautiful were outraged and enslaved. All this wretchedness and more, the barbarians visited upon Rome; but Alaric's first exploit was ended at Pollentia by the brave generalship of Stilicho, though the goodwill of the barbarian was purchased by tribute. As soon as this danger was, for the time, averted, a new and not less fearful invasion spread over the Empire. Horde after horde of Vandals, Alani, Burgundians, and Alemannians crossed the frontiers in search of plunder and adventure. They, too, were held in check by the able minister; but gratitude for public service rendered is never so potential as is envy of the high position of the one giving it, and the sole defender of the Empire fell a victim to political machinations at the precise moment when the peril of Rome was greatest.

With Alaric pounding on the gates of the capital, the Romans, with the consent of Honorius, murdered the only man in the world who had proved himself the barbarian's match. Nor did they stop with the death of Stilicho; as Gibbon says: |Perhaps in the person of Serena, the Romans might have respected the niece of Theodosius, the aunt, nay, even the adoptive mother of the reigning emperor; but they abhorred the widow of Stilicho; and they listened with credulous passion to the tale of calumny which accused her of maintaining a secret and criminal correspondence with the Gothic invader. Actuated, or overawed, by the same popular frenzy, the senate, without requiring any evidence of her guilt, pronounced the sentence of her death. Serena was ignominiously strangled; and the infatuated multitude were astonished to find that this cruel act of injustice did not immediately produce the retreat of the barbarians, and the deliverance of the city.| One offence alleged against Serena was that she had taken a necklace from the statue of Vesta -- it was then the fashion to clothe and adorn the statues, whether in the interest of modesty or ostentation we cannot say.

The description which the great student of ancient history just now quoted gives of the siege which Rome at that time endured is entirely in keeping with our subject. |That unfortunate city gradually experienced the distress of scarcity, and at length the horrid calamities of famine. The daily allowance of three pounds of bread was reduced to one-half, to one-third, to nothing.... The poorer citizens, who were unable to purchase the necessaries of life, solicited the precarious charity of the rich; and for a while the public misery was alleviated by the humanity of Lasta, the widow of the emperor Gratian, who had fixed her residence at Rome, and consecrated to the use of the indigent the princely revenue which she annually received from the grateful successors of her husband. But these private and temporary donatives were insufficient to appease the hunger of a numerous people; and the progress of famine invaded the marble palaces of the senators themselves. The persons of both sexes, who had been educated in the enjoyment of ease and luxury, discovered how little is requisite to supply the demands of nature; and lavished their unavailing treasures of gold and silver, to obtain the coarse and scanty sustenance which they would formerly have rejected with disdain.|

The outbreak of a pestilence soon added to the horrors of famine. Rome again suffered the loss of thousands of her citizens through disease. If the extent of this calamity was less than during the Great Plague, a century and a half before, mourning was nevertheless almost universal. Gibbon says, |many thousands of the inhabitants of Rome expired in their houses or in the streets, for want of sustenance.| But the almost unending funeral procession of the former period was now lacking, as the public sepulchres without the walls were within the circle of the invading horde.

[Illustration 4: FAMINE AND PESTILENCE After the painting by A. Hirschl.

The outbreak of a pestilence soon added to the horrors of famine. Rome again suffered the loss of thousands of her citizens through disease. If the extent of this calamity was less than during the Great Plague, a century and a half before, mourning was nevertheless almost universal. Gibbon says, |many thousands of the inhabitants of Rome expired in their houses or in the streets, for want of sustenance.| But the almost unending funeral procession of the former period was now lacking, as the public sepulchres without the walls were within the circle of the invading horde.]

There was no relief. When ambassadors pleaded with Alaric for the great multitude of the people against whom he was contending, his sole reply was: |The thicker the hay, the easier it is mowed.| When he stipulated the ransom by which alone the city could be saved, and the ministers of the senate humbly inquired what he purposed to leave to them, he haughtily replied: |Your lives.| The promise of five thousand pounds of gold, thirty thousand pounds of silver, four thousand robes of silk, three thousand pieces of fine scarlet cloth, and three thousand pounds of pepper suspended for a time the vengeance which centuries of oppression by Rome had accumulated in barbarian hearts.

The Roman courtiers, however, had neither the wisdom nor the honesty to keep faith with the enemy whom they could not resist and on whose good graces depended their safety. The patience of Alaric became exhausted. He threw off all restraint, determining to take the fate and also the resources of the Empire into his own hands. The year 410 saw the city, which had for a millennium been the proud mistress of the world, captured and at the mercy of the barbaric nations which for so many centuries had furnished her wealth and slaves.

The conqueror declared that he waged war with the Romans and not with the Apostles. Consequently, while he encouraged his soldiers to seize the opportunity to enrich themselves and enjoy the fruits of victory, he gave commands that the sanctity of the churches should be observed. The ecclesiastical writers recount instances of seemingly remarkable protection vouchsafed to the holy virgins, who were at the mercy of a licentious soldiery. But there is every evidence that the customary fate of the conquered in those savage times was abundantly meted out. It is on record that many Christian women, in order to save themselves from what they dreaded still more, sought death in the waters of the Tiber. Others were more fortunate in being able to find protection in flight. |The most illustrious of these fugitives,| says Gibbon, |was the noble and pious Proba, the widow of the prefect, Petronius. After the death of her husband, the most powerful subject of Rome, she had remained at the head of the Anician family, and successively supplied, from her private fortune, the expense of the consulships of her three sons. When the city was besieged and taken by the Goths, Proba supported, with Christian resignation, the loss of immense riches; embarked in a small vessel, from which she beheld, at sea, the flames of her burning palace, and fled with her daughter, Laeta, and her grand-daughter, the celebrated virgin, Demetrias, to the coast of Africa. The benevolent profusion with which the matron distributed the fruits or the price of her estates contributed to alleviate the misfortunes of exile and captivity. But the family of Proba herself was not exempt from the rapacious oppression of Count Heraclian, who basely sold, in matrimonial prostitution, the noblest maidens of Rome to the lust or avarice of Syrian merchants.|

Alaric died shortly after his conquest, and the sceptre of the Gothic kingdom passed to the hand of Adolphus, his brother-in-law. The latter was a brave and able general, and seems to have possessed a nature not discreditable to the time in which he lived. He proposed -- the proposal had all the effect of a command -- a treaty of alliance with Honorius. It practically amounted to annexation; but the Roman emperor was not in a position to refuse any proposition which the Goth might see fit to make. Nor could the Romans prevent Adolphus from strengthening his own interest, as well as consulting his passion, in taking to wife the half-sister of Honorius, Placidia, the daughter of Theodosius and Galla.

Placidia was just ripening into womanhood when Alaric first appeared before Rome. She was taken as a hostage by the Gothic conqueror, and, though reduced to the indignity of being a prisoner in a barbarian camp, was treated with great consideration. Her beauty and her mental gifts won the regard of Adolphus: and no sooner had he succeeded to the kingship, than he requested of Honorius her hand. Such an alliance was repugnant to the Romans, but, as in other matters, the request was only a polite form of command. Placidia herself does not appear to have been unwilling to accept the situation, and her nuptials were celebrated in splendid state. The exploits of his army in Italy had enabled Adolphus to present his bride with a magnificent wedding gift. The historian Olympiodorus recounts that fifty handsome boys were employed to carry this present. They came before her, carrying a bowl in each hand. One bowl was filled with pieces of gold, the other with precious gems. Adolphus always manifested a strong and tender affection for his wife; nor did he ever lose an opportunity to honor her birth, seating her above himself on state occasions.

This union, however, was destined to be short-lived. Adolphus was stricken down by the hand of an assassin; his enemy was seated upon his throne; and Placidia, being brutally and of purpose made one of a number of common captives, was compelled to run for twelve miles before the horse of the barbarian chieftain, the murderer of a husband whom she had sincerely loved. Possibly it was her sufferings which aroused the people; however, her persecutor was himself assassinated a few days after his own murderous act; and Placidia was restored to her brother, her ransom being six hundred thousand measures of wheat.

Placidia would have been willing, in accordance with the Christian teaching of the time, to have lamented the loss of Adolphus in continual widowhood. But another marriage was arranged for her, without her consent: she was awarded as a prize to Constantius the general for his services to Honorius. The results of this marriage were the birth of Honoria and of Valentinian III., and, probably through the schemes of Placidia, the promotion of her husband to the title of Augustus. But it was not long before the princess again found herself a widow; and though mischievous tongues magnified the caresses of childish affection on the part of Honorius to signs of a fondness warmer than their kinship would warrant, a quarrel between these two caused Placidia to go with her children to Constantinople.

At the death of Honorius, Valentinian, though no more than six years of age, was invested with the purple. But his mother was empress; the policy of the Empire was directed by her; and for twenty-five years she maintained her power. Gibbon speaks slightingly of her ability; but it could not have been little, else how did she retain a rule which any chance military adventurer might be tempted to seize? The historian refers to Cassiodorus, who compares the regencies of Placidia and Amalasuntha, to the disadvantage of the former.

The life of the Roman empress had been filled with more adventures and changes of fortune than were wont to fall to the lot of woman, even in those troublous times, but her story is less strange and is certainly happier than that of her daughter, Honoria. There is in existence a medal bearing the countenance of Honoria, and it is a fair face; it bears the inscription Augusta. The young princess was invested with this honor and rank in order that she might be above the aspirations of any subject. As early as her sixteenth year, however, she chafed against the isolation to which she was doomed. Denied legitimate love, she abandoned herself to an illicit relationship with one of the domestic officers of the palace, the fact of which was soon revealed by her pregnancy. She was exiled by her mother to Constantinople, where she spent several years in close restraint and great unhappiness. Attila the Hun was at that time the particular barbarian who was harassing the Empire; and suddenly he announced that he had received the betrothal of the princess Honoria, and that he claimed her as his bride. Then her astonished relatives learned that she really had been in correspondence with Attila, and had besought him to claim her in marriage. It is probable that a spirit of mischief actuated Honoria in this; for no educated woman could in reality desire to be joined in marriage with the Hun, unless it were from motives very different from love. The king had at first disdained her advances, and was willing to act upon them only when it suited the policy dictated by his ambition. But Placidia steadfastly refused to countenance her daughter's procedure; and Honoria, being first married to a man of mean extraction, in order that the question of her matrimonial disposal might never again be a source of trouble, was shut up in a close prison for the rest of her days. It is not unlikely that her misfortunes arose rather from her position than her character. That her life with Attila, had she attained her object, would have proved more desirable than perpetual imprisonment is difficult to believe. His respect for woman may be estimated from the fact that he was a polygamist, and also from the fact that he watched his soldiers amuse themselves with the awful death agonies of two hundred maidens, whom they tore limb from limb with wild horses and crushed under the wheels of heavy wagons.

Placidia died in the year 450. She was buried at Ravenna; and, with some ambiguity of meaning, it is said that there her corpse, seated in a chair of cypress wood, was preserved for ages. Her son perished by the avenging hand of a senator whose wife he had perfidiously violated. He was the last emperor of the house of Theodosius; and his mother was the last woman, with a name in history, who was worthy of mention in the records of the perishing Western Empire.

With the death of Placidia, we arrive at the end of a cycle in the evolution of the human race. It was contemporaneous with the terminus of ancient Aryan civilization -- it was during a climacteric in human history. Again the world was to revert to the rudeness necessarily accompanying the vigorous strength which characterizes the setting forth of a new race. The world began again -- polished manners and social order gave place to strenuosity and individualism. The strong hand again became the one thing needful. Literature was silent, and art was forgotten. Of the glory of classic civilization there remained only a memory; and even this grew faint, for the struggle for existence became exacting. Nevertheless, from all that Rome had done and had been there remained an imperishable deposit. From the ruins of one civilization there is gathered the foundations for the succeeding. Rome left, among other contributions to absolute progress, the idea of nationality and a belief in the necessity of popular law. In these two respects, woman shared in the determined progress of the world. The Roman woman manifested the capacity of her sex to place a steady hand on the helm of the state; she wrested for herself some of those legal rights to which, by virtue of her humanity at least, she is indubitably entitled.

<<  Contents  >>

Promoting Genuine Biblical Revival.
Affiliate Disclosure | Privacy Policy