The Roman Decadence

The great service of the Roman Empire to the nations of Western Europe was ultimately its own great weakness. It had brought the Gauls, the British, the Spaniards, and the West and South Germans within the pale of civilization, but it could not leaven so large a mass of population with its own culture without suffering a corresponding loss of vitality and without sacrificing the standards of perfection in literature, in art, and in public taste, which it had either inherited or transferred from the older Greek culture of the Eastern Mediterranean.

The history of the beginnings of the empire and its art is not a history of evolution or development (outside of politics) so much as it is a history of diffusion and of transfer. The arch with its borrowed Greek decorative adjuncts spread from Italy all over Western Europe. The style of Roman-Greek sculpture was found in Hungary and in Britain, but there was a certain loss of quality involved in these transfers. The Roman Italian himself was a borrower as we have seen, therefore he could not lend too lavishly to others without encroaching on his own resources. In the very beginnings of the empire the party of reaction against the policy of favoring the provincials had instinctively foreseen these results. Caesar was assassinated because he had admitted Gauls and Spaniards to the Roman Senate. In this policy he represented the march of events, but this march of events led to the decline and downfall of ancient civilization in one sense, though not in all.

In the first century of the empire we naturally distinguish excellences in the art of the capital city and of Italy which do not hold of the Roman art of Gaul or of Africa. As the provinces became more thoroughly Romanized, their still inferior art and culture reacted on the capital city and on Italy at large. In the second century A.D. we thus distinguish a certain decline, for instance, in the general quality of the sculpture done at Rome as compared with that of the first century A. D. In the third century of the Christian era the decline was so rapid in the art of ancient sculpture that the close of the century had almost witnessed the downfall of this art, as regards the production of any representative examples which could be quoted beside the master pieces of antiquity. In architecture the same change was going on as regards the purity of classic Greek details and the refinements of masonry construction. The monuments which would illustrate this decline in classic buildings are mainly lacking in Italy, but the fragments which exist are sufficient testimony. We might specify, for instance, the base Ionic capitals and the unfluted columns (also lacking the entasis) of the so-called Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum. In the buildings of the East Jordan territory, which belong mainly to this time, there are numerous instances of the corruption and disintegration of classic architecture.

Throughout the first three centuries of the Christian era there was another element of disintegration of classic art involved in the rise and rapid spread of the Christian religion. The bitter persecutions of the second and third century are only a witness to the large number of converts then existing, and the action taken by the Emperor Constantine at the opening of the fourth century definitely announced that the Christians formed the majority of his subjects. Although the emperor was himself baptized on his deathbed, it is clear that his earlier action in placing Christianity under state protection and giving it a state recognition, was based on political motives, and that it was intended to secure, as it did secure him, the political support of the majority of his subjects in his own struggle for power against his rival, Licinius.

In contrasting this political recognition of the Christian faith in the fourth century with the bitter persecutions which preceded, it is well to remember that Roman policy was in general one of toleration to all religions, but that it only recognized those of national character.

Sects and schisms within the national limit could not be tolerated without sacrificing the national good will to Rome which the policy of toleration was intended to secure. Christianity was at first considered a sect or schism of the Jews, whose own faith was tolerated. The refusal of the Christians to do divine honors to the emperor, which to them was contrary to conscience, was also supposed by the pagans to be an indication of disloyalty to the state. The general tolerance practiced by the Romans is indicated by the dedication of the Pantheon to the gods of the conquered nations.

These explanations may serve to show that there was no real break with Roman political traditions involved in the triumph of Christianity, and that this triumph was a logical continuation of the idea which the Romans had represented in ancient politics. They had represented the ideal of the political brotherhood of man and the spiritual brotherhood announced by Christianity was a logical result. The Romans had broken down the prejudices of national antagonism and had united all the nations of the then civilized world under one government. The downfall of national religions in favor of a universal religion was a counterpart of this movement.

But the decadence and absolute downfall of ancient art were an inevitable consequence of the triumph of Christianity. Ancient temple architecture was pagan. Ancient sculpture was pagan and ancient painting was pagan. The destruction of the idols and the temples was the first duty and the first act of the successful Christians. That the Greek statues had been personifications of noble and beautiful ideas was not so clear to the early Christians as it is to us. With them the imputation of idolatry involved the wholesale condemnation of the art.

There was involved here a double cause of art decay. First and foremost the art of sculpture was abandoned in so far as its subjects had been mythical or religious, that is to say pagan. Now, aside from Roman portraits almost the entire ancient art was ostensibly mythical in subject. The cessation of patronage involved the downfall of the art. There was furthermore the antagonism of the Christian ideal of those days to the ancient ideal of beauty and physical well-being as expressed in sculpture. The mission of the Christian was to exalt the things of the spirit above the things of the body—poverty, humility, long-suffering, and the mortification of human desires were the virtues which he exalted. There was, moreover, a natural bond of connection between the deterioration of Roman art (involved in the widespread diffusion among the provincials) and the triumph of the Christians. For in this triumph was involved a revolution in the social order and in the standing of the classes of society. The Christian faith found its first converts among the poor and lowly. It spread most rapidly among the lower orders of society. Their triumph was the defeat of the aristocracies of wealth and blood which did not ally themselves with the new movement. For it was with the philosophers, with the learned, and with the well-born, that paganism especially found its strongest supporters and advocates. The deterioration of taste and refinement which has been explained as a natural result of the diffusion of Roman culture over Western Europe, was allied with the social revolution which the triumph of the Christians carried with it.

But there is still something to be said as to the decadence of antique Roman art, which regards the introduction of foreign barbaric elements within the limits of its civilization. In the later days of the empire (third century B.C.) its borders may be roughly described, outside of Britain, as the Rhine, Danube, Black Sea, Caucasus, and the Syrian, Arabian, and African deserts. On one of its frontier lines especially, that of the Rhine and Danube, there had long been going on a Romanizing process beyond the frontier among the German and Gothic tribes. These were semi-barbarians, of great vigor and valor, addicted to warfare and renowned for military prowess. It was among these tribes that the Roman legions of these frontiers were very largely recruited, the interior populations of the empire having by long peace grown unaccustomed to war. A final element of deterioration was therefore the employment and settlement within the empire of enormous masses of barbarian troops and ultimately not only the legions themselves were thus recruited, but certain tribes were enrolled in mass under the Roman standards and subsequently settled on Roman territory. The tribes so enrolled were partly Romanized and were Christian converts.

It was at the close of the fifth century after Christ that all these various elements of disintegration showed their results in what historians call “the downfall of the Roman Empire of the West.”

There is not the slightest reason why the Christian pictures of the catacombs, and the sculptured Christian sarcophagi which are our main relics of early Christian art should not be formally included with the Roman art of the ancient Roman Empire. They belong to it in time and in civilization. They reflected and shared and partly caused its decadence and they assist us when so placed and studied to comprehend the continuity of history as existing between the late Roman Empire and the early Middle Age. There were two entire centuries after the recognition of Christianity by Constantine before the establishment of the first Germanic state in Western Europe, with which the history of the Middle Ages should properly begin. From the opening of the fourth century onward, there were Christian churches and there was Christian art in all the territories of the empire—in Britain, France, Spain, Italy, North Africa, Egypt, Syria, Asia Minor, the Danube countries, Macedonia, and Greece.

The oldest standing Christian Church is the Church of the Manger at Bethlehem, built in the early fourth century and traditionally reputed to stand on the site of Christ’s nativity. This is the only positively dated standing church of the fourth century A. D. There are some ruins in North Africa of older churches, but in general the persecutions made constructions definitely assigned to worship impossible, and these persecutions were not forbidden till the opening of the fourth century.

The most famous churches of this time were the Roman church basilicas of St. Peter and St. Paul, each reputed to be on the site of the martyrdom of its saint. The St. Peter’s basilica was torn down in the sixteenth century to make way for the new church then built. The St. Paul’s basilica was mainly destroyed by fire in our own century (1828), and has been since rebuilt, but one portion is ancient. In general we are dependent on churches of the sixth, seventh, or eighth centuries for our knowledge of the earlier ones, but these are also few in number. We should not the less insist on the fact that both the western and eastern portions of the Roman Empire were full of Christian churches after the opening of the fourth century A.D.

The most interesting remains of early Christian art are the paintings of the catacombs. These were underground cemeteries to which the early Christians resorted for refuge in times of persecution. Small chapels for prayer and worship were occasionally associated with the burial places of eminent martyrs or saints and are the points at which these decorative paintings are found. The earliest known are probably of the second century A. D., and they continue through the eighth century. The style of these pictures is the same as that of the con-temporary pagan art. The subjects of some of them are adaptations of pagan myths to a Christian use. In one of them Christ appears as Orpheus.

The catacomb pictures (paintings on the plastered walls) are small, but bright and happy in color and combined with pattern ornaments of classic style. The remains, however, are scanty and the number known is not large. The treatment of the subjects, the “Last Supper,” the “Woman at the Well,” etc., has an imposing simplicity and earnestness. The technical execution and perfection of these works vary with the period and, strangely enough, we have here the spectacle of a newborn art as to subject which declines in quality of style as time goes on. The third century art of the catacombs is inferior to that of the second century. This is one curious illustration of the general deterioration in ancient art whose causes have been considered.

The catacombs are variously named according to the most eminent saints who were buried in them.

Aside from these paintings the early remains of Christian art consist mainly of coffin sculptures. The sarcophagi carved in relief, which were used for burial by the later Romans, continued in Christian use and were likewise decorated with relief sculptures of Christian subjects. The most interesting collections of these sarcophagi are in the Lateran Museum at Rome, at Ra venna, and at Arles in Southern France. The practice of making these sculptured coffins disappeared with other late classic influences and was gradually abandoned after the fifth century A.D. It is a consideration which helps one to understand the decadence of ancient sculpture that in early Christian art its only important use was the decoration of the stone coffins, and that even this use was rapidly abandoned.

Of all the arts of design that which lasted longest and which survived in finest style was the carving of ivory. This was practiced for book covers and for the “diptychs” or tablets of ivory which were distributed by the consuls of the later empire in honor of their election to office.

It is obviously indifferent to the student in what material or how small and apparently insignificant the object is which illustrates the history or style of a period. Partly because the practice of this art was a favored one, partly because the ivory tablets did not offer the temptation to pillage in the times of the German invasions to which the works of metal were exposed, and partly because the ivory material has been a durable one—it is especially to the ivories that we must turn when we wish to find a survival of fair antique design at a late period of the Roman decadence. The connecting links with the later art of the Middle Ages are consequently most obvious here and the way in which one period always merges into another without abrupt changes or sudden revolutions, is especially well illustrated by these objects.

A curious exception to the general law of inferior style and declining force in the later Roman art is offered by the art of glass. As the practice of placing objects in the tombs generally disappeared with the Christian conversions, we cannot trace this art farther than the sixth century, but when its relics disappear the art was at a very high level of excellence. The explanation is a commentary on the general conditions which otherwise explain the decline of ancient design. Glass making was not an art in which figure designs, and consequently pagan subjects, could be generally introduced. Consequently it was not exposed to the antagonisms and destruction which befell the arts of temple architecture, of sculpture, of painting, and of metal.