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The Story Of Religious Controversy
by Joseph McCabe
Life and Morals in Greece and Rome
- The Glory That Was Greece
- Morals of the Athenians
- The Development of Religion
- Rise of Philosophy and Skepticism
- The Splendor That Was Rome
- Morals in Ancient Rome
The Glory That Was Greece
IN the summer of 1922 I spent five weeks in Athens; and it would not be far from the truth to say that I spent those weeks in ancient, not modern, Athens. Day after day I mounted the hill, the Acropolis, the center of the ancient city, which today proudly bears the bleached bones of the most superb buildings that this earth has ever seen. While all Athens slept its noonday sleep, I sat on some stone on the flat summit of the hill, in the full blaze of the August sun, and drank the beauty of the shattered marble frame of the Temple of the Virgin, the Parthenon.
Even in its ruin, discolored by two thousand years of time, the Parthenon will thus hold a lover of beauty for days. No photograph conveys an impression of its massive symmetry, its blended air of strength and moderation, its princely form and exquisite detail. It is a small building, compared with the temples of Egypt or the great cathedrals of Europe or the mosque of Cordova: yet its glorious facade towered above me, shining dully like old gold in the fierce sunlight, framed in the brilliant blue of a cloudless sky with a majesty that is indescribable. The spirit of Paganism seemed, by some strange error, to mistake me for a Christian, and to smile, as one does at a child, out of the marble stones at my pride in the works of Christendom.
I picture the temple as we know it to have been in old times, and down the ages until, in the seventeenth century, red-hot Christian cannon-balls falling upon Turkish powder, wrecked this wonder of the world. It stood about sixty feet high, an exquisitely simple, square building of a delicately veined white marble, its stones so skillfully put together that it looked like a single carving from some giant block. One could not see the lines between the separate stones of its mighty columns; and so wonderful was the genius of the architect that every line of the structure is so cunningly waved that the temple looks more graceful and symmetrical than it would if the lines were straight. Above, on the triangular pediment, was a great group of figures — representing the birth of Athene — carved in the finest-grained white marble by the most consummate artist the world has ever known, Phidias. At the back was a corresponding group; and both giant pieces of superb sculpture, in pure white marble of Paros, gleamed against a background of brilliant red. Round the temple ran a high carved frieze, the Athenian procession in honor of Athene, with blue background, every fragment of which is now a priceless work of art.
I imagine myself entering, twenty-three hundred years ago, with a group of wandering scholars from Egypt or Persia or Chaldea. There were no windows. The light streamed through the great open door and lit the simple hundred-foot-long interior. At the end was a statue of Athene, forty feet high, carved by the master Phidias out of ivory, vested in the most magnificent robes and accoutered in pure gold. The arms and decoration used up seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars’ worth of gold.
Out in the open, on the partially leveled summit of the hill, was a bronze statue of Athene, thirty feet high, the spear of the warrior maiden — she was goddess of war as well as wisdom — glinting in the sun and catching the eye forty miles out at sea. On one side of the hill was another beautiful marble temple, the Erechtheum, in archaic style. There were old sacred treasures of the people to be preserved — the stone, for instance, that bore the authentic mark of Father Neptune’s trident — and the more liberal-minded artists of the new generation built this second temple to accommodate them. And the gateway to the hill itself was a massive and lofty marble portico, or series of arches, of great beauty.
I look out from the hill, five hundred feet high, in an air still so pure that I see the lines of the mountains forty miles away and the bays of the Mediterranean shining blue in the folds of the picturesque coast. Down below me, all round the hill, was the ancient city.
Yonder is the field, with unadorned stone platform, where the first democracy in the world held the first parliament. Not far away is the stadium, the sport-ground of two thousand years ago, so solidly built that fifty thousand people sit in it today to watch modern sport and hardly see that it is an ancient building. On the slope of the Acropolis itself, carved out of the rock, is the ancient theater, where thirty thousand Athenians used to witness, in the open air, the greatest comedies and tragedies that man ever produced. Beyond are a few relics of the great temple of Jupiter, once girt by more than a hundred superb marble columns. Below the other side of the hill is a temple, the Theseum, so well preserved that it looks only a century or two old. It rises now in a squalid quarter, like a lady of the Russian nobility in a slum of Sofia, and the children play hide and seek in its porches.
Of the city, of secular Athens, apart from the theater and the stadium, hardly a stone remains. It is always temples of false gods on which man lavished most of his devotion and resources! But at least in Athens there is no palace of king or emperor to tell of the second great waste of human effort — on royalty.
We know that the central square of the city, the Agora, the cattle-market of more primitive Athens, was lined with lovely buildings. Along two sides were the civic structures, of handsome limestone, carved by these great masters of the chisel. On the other two sides were colonnades, where one might find shelter from the sun. One had its inner walls painted — Greeks called it the “Stoa Poikile” — and philosophers used to squabble and teach in its shade; and, in fine, it gave birth to the finest non-religious system of morals — I mean the most austere system — that the world ever produced: the Stoic philosophy. “Stoa” is the Greek for Colonnade; and it was here that Zeno anticipated Christ in his moral fanaticism.
Thus one quick survey from the summit of the Acropolis assures you that when literary men speak of the genius of ancient Greece, or of “meteoric” Athens, they use no exaggeration. Athens was a human miracle of achievement. There is hardly any field of human thought and endeavor in which the Athenians did not rise to the greatest height in the very dawn of European civilization.
Ask any architect where were the finest structures that the hand of man ever put together? In ancient Athens. Ask a philosopher where was the greatest series of thinkers the world has ever known? In ancient Greece, chiefly Athens. Ask a literary man where the best verse and prose, the best comedy and tragedy, were created? Ancient Greece. Ask a politician — no, that would be useless: ask a sociologist — where the most rapid and brilliant political evolution, from monarchy to complete democracy, took place? Ancient Athens. Ask who invented the theater, the gymnasium, the stadium, the public hall, the science of ethics or politics? The ancient Greeks.
We surpass them only in science and the application of science; yet even here the earliest Greek thinkers provided magnificent foundations, and it was the one great error of Athens to turn to “spiritual” things and philosophy and neglect to build on scientific truth which they first discovered.
I have shown how paltry was the science of the Egyptians; and how puny a conception of the universe the most learned of the Babylonians had, after three thousand years’ contemplation of the heavens. But the Greeks had hardly been civilized a few centuries when they discovered, or guessed, three great fundamental truths of science: the vastness of the universe, the existence of atoms, and the law of evolution. If Aristotle, one of the greatest intellects of all time, had worked only on scientific lines, science would have been largely developed two thousand years ago. And if the Christian Church bad not subsequently crushed all science, we should live now the wonderful life that our descendants will live in the year 3000.
To the historians of all later time this genius, or “meteoric” brilliance, of the Greek intellect has always been a mystery. if the Hebrews had had one-half of the brilliance of the Greeks we should be reminded of it in every sermon. It would be a miracle, an outcome of revelation and inspiration. But the Hebrews, though tutored by two ancient civilizations, show not one-tenth the achievements of the Greeks; and it has ever mystified scholars that the first European nation to become civilized should, a few centuries after its initiation to civilization, reach the high- water mark in nearly every branch of culture. One has only to reflect on the language we use today to realize the world’s debt to little Greece. Philosophy, ethics, politics, esthetics, democracy, gymnastics, athletics, music, theater, chorus, comedy, tragedy — these and a thousand others are Greek words, because they stand for things which the Greeks invented or discovered.
To talk of the “genius” of the Greeks is mere mysticism; and it is only a new kind of mysticism when certain writers speak about the wonderful “germ plasm” of the Greek race. These are words and phrases. They conceal the need for real explanation. Nor can the explanation be given by, as older writers did, reflecting on the glorious climate, the picturesque world, the blue sky and the blue sea and golden sun, of the Greeks. Greece is scorched brown during most of the year and powdered thick with dust. It is arm-chair philosophers who imagine it a land of perpetual flowers and fresh green foliage. In any case, the sun and sea and hills are the same now as they were two thousand years ago, and they inspire no genius.
It is a good opportunity to point out the real value of the kind of explanation which we now call “scientific.” It simply means real explanation instead of verbiage and mysticism. The explanation is given in realities, not phrases. That is why it is so deadly to old thought. We either point out the real agencies at work or we candidly confess that we have not yet discovered them.
Now, we have not yet discovered the whole secret of the Greeks, but a very little sketch of their history will show that we have made a considerable advance. The Greeks, Romans, Teutons, Celts, and Slavs are one family, and the ancestral tribe lived some-where in the Caucasus district during the Ice Age. It moved northward as the ice melted and forests full of game spread over Europe. But the section of the race which was to give birth to the Greeks soon turned south and made its way across the mountains to the land we now call Greece.
Here our discovery of the ancient civilization of Crete has greatly helped us. The earliest Greeks, powerful barbarians with iron weapons, destroyed Crete. Half the Cretan race fled to Asia Minor, where they had long ago founded colonies; and in time large numbers of the Greeks crossed the narrow sea to Asia Minor and learned civilization from them. Nearly all the early poets and scientists of Greek literature belong to Asia Minor.
That is part of the explanation. Athens, in the extreme east of Greece, was sheltered from the barbaric waves which continued to pour south; and it was also very conveniently situated for communication with Asia Minor. The physical circumstances, as usual, explain more than germ plasm or genius or religion does. But until the fifth century Athens had only a moderate civilization, with no outstanding achievements except the abolition of royalty and the creation of democracy — the first democracy in history. This does not puzzle us. Such a change was comparatively simple in a small community like that of the Athenians, but quite impossible in rigorously organized monarchies with millions of people and vast armies of mercenary soldiers.
For this, remember, is part of the wonder of Athens. It was not an empire; we may ignore the sort of small empire it had in its degenerate days. Athens was a city-state: a single city with a moderate amount of the surrounding country. And it never had more than a population of about four hundred thousand, of whom three- fourths were slaves. In effect, a city of one hundred thousand men and women produced all the talent we have seen: and all their glorious creations were achieved with a treasury of only about eleven million dollars, the cost of a big modern hotel!
What was it that so ensnared Athens in the fifth century? It was the correct learning of the lesson of a terrific defeat and then the avoidance of war for a century. The Persians completely destroyed the old Athens in 479 B.C., and the Athenians, in rebuilding, were fortunate enough to secure a statesman who was also a thinker and an artist. Pericles proposed that they should raise on the ashes of the older Athens the most beautiful city in all the world: and that they succeeded will be told in the world’s literature until the end of time. Never again will such artistic and literary wonders be crowded into one century by so small a people.
So we, largely at least, understand Athens. One of H.G. Wells’ many errors about the Greeks — A.W. Gomme has shown in his “Wells as Historian” how numerous they are — is his statement that a handful of the Greeks did all these wonderful things, and that the vast majority were indifferent or hostile. He forgets that Athens was a perfect democracy. Not a dollar could be used from the treasury, not a building designed or raised, without the consent of the twenty thousand male citizens and voters. Moreover, the theater (which was also, in later years, the parliament house) seated thirty thousand spectators, to witness the superb tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, as well as the comedies of Aristophanes and Menander.
Narrow-minded men the Athenians certainly were on the religious side — religion is always the great retarding influence — but even here they rarely enforced their laws. Professor Bury has lately shown (“R. .A. Annual,” 1925) that the condemnation to death of Socrates had a political element. They were, at all events, bigoted; but we have every reason to believe that they were proud of their unique city and its unique achievements.
Morals Of The Athenians
We grant you all this greatness in the field of intellect, the preacher says, but what was the spirituality, the moral level, of the Athenians?
That precious spirituality! I wish to talk quietly and sensibly with my religious neighbor, and I ask him why he lays so much stress on spirituality and virtue. He gasps in astonishment and speechlessness. The truth is that he is repeating a shibboleth. He has been accustomed to hearing these things. But I press for reasons, and be attempts to give them. Why, he says, without a high moral and spiritual level society itself degenerates, the intellect is paralyzed, the energy is sapped, the great deeds of the strong early race. … He breaks down when be perceives my smile. Precisely these Athenians, whom be accuses of lack of spirituality and morality, maintained a splendid social order and gave the world such brilliant intellectual achievements that no single nation, even twenty times as large, will ever rival them. The whole Athenian state, remember, was no bigger than Minneapolis, and not one-tenth as wealthy; and this little corrupt state, as you call it, produced “the most refined, brilliant civilization the world has yet seen.” Those, we shall see, are the words of a clergyman.
Let us have done with this kind of bunk. But surely, my friend says, it is admitted by all the authorities that the Athenians were very brilliant in art and intellect and very loose in morals. If that were true though my experience is that the man who speaks glibly about “all the authorities” could not even name three of them — it would follow that immorality is quite consistent with brilliant art and intellect, if it does not actually promote them.
But it is not true; and to disprove it, I will take at once a high authority who is also a Protestant clergyman, Professor Mahaffy. Indeed, in the work from which I am going to quote, “Social Life in Greece,” an express study of moral and social life by a master of Greek literature, and therefore, even on the academic side, the most reliable book we could choose, the conflict of Christian (or clerical) sentiment and scholarly love of facts (and even of the Greeks themselves) is somewhat amusing. Professor Mahaffy is bound to hold that Christianity is superior to paganism; but he is singularly unfortunate in vindicating his belief.
In particular he forgets that, in comparing the Greeks of more than two thousand years ago with modern times, he is not comparing paganism and Christianity, Our generation is, as I have shown, not Christian; and, being two thousand years later than the Greeks, it ought to be a little wiser in its social life. But let us keep in mind that, if we want to compare Greek morals with Christian, we must not take the twentieth century or the end of the nineteenth. We must take ages when practically everybody was a Christian; and we may see in another chapter how sordid their morals were.
Let us run through this most authoritative work of Professor Mahaffy, as it naturally refers to morals every few pages; and, since it covers the whole of social life, it will give us the verdict of a Christian scholar on the charges which less scholarly clergymen bring against the Greeks.
Right at the start, in the introduction, Professor Mahaffy betrays the embarrassment which his professional, and no doubt personal, zeal for his religion causes. “The refinement of Greek manners culminated in the gentle Menander,” he says (p. 6). Menander was the second greatest comedian of Athens, though few but scholars ever heard of him. We have only fragments of his comedies. On the other hand, we have a large number of complete works of the other great Greek comedian, Aristophanes, and religious writers are fond of quoting the scurrilities of some of those comedies as “typical” of Athenian sentiment. Menander, as we see from the fragments, was the opposite of scurrilous. “The gentle Menander,” is the professor’s customary way of naming him. He quotes these “almost Christian” words from one of the fragments: “Prefer to be injured rather than to injure, for (in so doing) you will blame others, and you will escape censure.” He tells us that Menander’s comedies reflected a state of moral and domestic sentiment very like our own, and they were full of moral scenes and happy endings. But, since only scholars read these things, we take our opinion of the Athenian stage from Aristophanes.
Strange, isn’t it, that those pious and industrious monks of the Middle Ages, who “preserved for us all that is best in classical literature” — you know the Catholic boast — should have so carefully preserved the “scurrilous” plays of Aristophanes and so completely ignored the “almost Christian” comedies of Menander!
However, Professor Mahaffy at once tells us that there were “cruelties and barbarities” in Greek life. These, he says, were “violently in conflict with the humanity of a Socrates, a Euripides, or a Plato”; in other words, the world had not to wait for Christ to correct them and they were corrected in Greece. But the amusing thing is that Professor Mahaffy sees here an opportunity to say a word for his religion. These blemishes he thinks, “would exist now among us, but for two great differences in our society — one of them the direct result of Christianity. They are the invention of printing and the abolition of slavery.” I will say only that Christianity had no more to do with the abolition of slavery than it had with the invention of printing!
And the Christian scholar immediately undoes even the little be has claimed. He wonders at “the smallness of the advance in public morality which has been attained.” He confesses that it is precisely in the field of morals that “we are led to wonder most at the superiority of Greek genius, which, in spite of an immoral and worthless theology, worked out in its higher manifestations a morality approaching in many points the best type of modern Christianity.” This “modern Christianity” is good! He means Christianity purified by modern humanitarianism. And he ends his introduction thus: “Socrates and Plato are far superior to the Jewish moralist [who is supposed to have been inspired], they are far superior to the average Christian moralist; it is only in the matchless teaching of Christ himself that we find them surpassed.”
It may seem ungenerous, after this hard stroke at the Old Testament, to cavil with the praise of the New: but there is not a point in the “matchless” teaching of Christ that cannot be matched in the pagan moralists.
We will, however, return to the philosophers presently. In his survey of Greek literature generally, in so far as it reflects Greek life (which we have no other means of knowing), Professor Mahaffy finds no evidence whatever of the supposed low morals of the Greeks. He quotes a number of the early poets and concludes: “In all these quotations we see a moral attitude which is about the same as that of average society in our day,” (p. 106). This refers to a time long before Socrates and Plato; and the Athenians grew better, not worse.
Next Professor Mahaffy analyzes the great early tragedian, Aeschylus, and this is his verdict: “Let me add that no modern theology has taught higher and purer moral notions than those of Aeschylus and his school, developed afterwards by Socrates and Plato, but first attained by the genius of Aeschylus,” (p. 154).
Not feeble praise for an age preceding the preaching of Christ by five whole centuries, and before the best “prophecies” and psalms of the Old Testament were written! (And pray remember all the time that it is a devout clergyman I am quoting.) Aeschylus, he says, “shows the indelible nature of sin, and how it recoils upon the third and fourth generation, thus anticipating one of the most marked features in Christian theology.” I do not admire Aeschylus for that; but perhaps the reader does. And finally the Christian professor drives the lesson home in these decisive words: “The agreement of Sophocles (in his “Oedipus”) shows that these deep moral ideas were no individual feature in Aeschylus, and that there must have been a sober earnestness at Athens very far apart from the ribaldry of Aristophanes. Such immorality as that of the modern French stage was never tolerated among the Greeks, in spite of all their license” (p. 155).
At the risk, again, of seeming ungenerous, I must make two comments. One is that the “license” here referred to is not proved anywhere in the book, and it is at variance with every page of the book. The second is that “the modern French stage” is not quite as bad as the Paris stage used to be when France was Catholic; and that I have seen in Catholic Mexico, Spain, Italy and Greece whatever I have seen in secular Paris.
The third great tragedian, Euripides, is put almost on an even higher level:
These [his heroines] are the women who have so raised the ideal of the sex that, in looking upon them, the world has passed from neglect to courtesy, from courtesy to veneration; these are they who, across many centuries, first of frivolity and sensuality, then [in the Christian Middle Ages], of rudeness and barbarism, join hands with the ideals of our religion and our chivalry, the martyred saints, the chaste and holy virgins of romance — nay more, with the true wives, the devoted mothers of our own day (p. 204).
Upon which, again, I will comment only that, as we shall see, most of the stories of our “martyred saints” and “chaste and holy virgins” are forgeries.
These were the three greatest dramatists of Greece. These were the tragedies which for centuries, twenty or thirty thousand Athenians used to witness, sitting for many hours on stone seats, in the theater on the flank of the Acropolis. The theater, remember, more fully reflects the sentiments of the audience than sermons do.
Next to these was “the gentle Menander,” full of virtue which was truer to life because it was more homely. Next — now we get to the really dark spot — was the great comedian Aristophanes.
Aristophanes was unquestionably “licentious”; so the worthy monks have preserved all his works for us. His “Lysistrata” is a supremely funny and daring picture of a venereal strike on the part of the women of Greece. Prostitutes walk on his stage, and talk freely. Sex jokes are as common as in a French vaudeville — or in a high-class Chicago theater.
Well, Professor Mahaffy emphatically denies that we can judge the morals of Athens by the comedian. Is it likely, he asks, that such pictures are characteristic of “the most refined and brilliant civilization the world has yet seen”? That is a shrewd blow at the preacher in the nations which “lay in darkness and the shadow of death.” Incidentally, it hits Mr. Wells pretty hard. The simple explanation, Professor Mahaffy says, is that Aristophanes neither had a low opinion of woman nor wished to indict the women of his time, but be had in mind merely “the remnant of some old religious customs.” Religion again!
And later comes an even shrewder blow at Mr. Wells’ division of Athens into a score of refined people and a brutal mass:
“Nor do I find any trace of that severance of amusements which is one of the saddest features of modern life, where refined art and high excellence are only exhibited under such restrictions [especially pecuniary) as to exclude the masses, which are now so brutalized that they require a separate literature as well as a separate art, if art it can be called, to amuse them in their rapidly increasing leisure. We hear of no Liberties, or Seven Dials [the old thieves’ quarter in London], at Athens. We hear of no hells, or low music halls, or low dancing saloons. Even such vice as existed was chiefly refined and gentlemanly” (p. 255).
No wonder the professor has to strain matters to show that his religion has made the world better! If this be true — and it is the outcome of a study by a first-class authority of the whole of Greek literature — even our world is morally inferior to the Greek: the medieval world was unspeakably inferior.
In short, says Professor Mahaffy, “We have before us in Plato’s Dialogues, and in the numerous fragments of the Middle and the New Comedy [plays too virtuous for the monks to copy], a life not inferior to the best society of our own day” (p. 261). We find the early barbarities ending in a humane penal system which casts a blush upon “the most cultivated and humane European nation in the nineteenth century” (p. 263). Of Plato’s account of the death of Socrates it is said: “There is, I think, in all Greek literature no scene which ought to make us more ashamed of our boasted Christian culture” (p. 265).
But, you ask, if you have read any of these cheap and ignorant flings at the Athenians, has the learned professor forgotten that minx Aspasia, and the naughty hetairai, and Alcibiades, and the immoralities of the gods themselves?
Not in the least. Aspasia, the friend of Pericles, is, Mahaffy says, merely lampooned by “the scurrilous buffoonery” of the comedians. “There is no absolute proof of her want of dignity and morality” (p. 214). She was a virtuous lady to whose house even Socrates and Xenophon, the great moralists, went “for the purpose of serious mental improvement.” And there is no evidence that there were hetairai at Athens (though there were at Corinth), and no evidence that the hetairai were immoral. And as to the immorality of some of the legends about the gods, the clerical professor reminds us that several chapters of the Bible are “unsuited to modern perusal” and that “manifest immoralities are read” out of it. The portrait of Alcibiades in Plutarch, in fine, is said to be “hardly of any use as a specimen of manners, for we are told that he was in every way exceptional” (p. 221). And, to conclude the list, the Greek love of boys was perfectly innocent, as Jowett had proved long before, and Edward Carpenter has proved again in his beautiful “Iolaus.”
I have almost let Professor Mahaffy write this chapter for me, for I could not quote a more acceptable authority. In spite of all his allusions to Christ, it is clear that the Greeks were not morally inferior to us, and were far superior to Europe when it was entirely Christian. I know modern Athens well; and I know that, though it is intensely Christian, there is in it quite as much looseness, and incomparably more unnatural vice, than there was in ancient Athens.
In sum, the Greeks, like the Babylonians and Egyptians, were much the same as ourselves. They had the same ideals: they seem to have observed them in the same proportion. The great mass of the Greek women and girls were guarded in an almost oriental seclusion, and they could hardly philander much, if they were so disposed. In precise consequence of this there were prostitutes. Gay Corinth had a great number of them: and the fast young man of Athens went there as naturally as the young man of Chicago seeks the prostitution quarter today. Human nature was just the same, human ideals were just the same, then as now: and therefore I have attempted no sort of detailed picture of the life of a Greek. It differed from ours only in details which do not concern this book.
But let me, while showing that even sexually the Greeks were no freer than the Christians, point out once more that sex is not the whole, or the main part, of morals. Justice, honor, kindliness, truthfulness, generosity, temperance — these are the great laws; and I know no informed writer who thinks the Greeks were less familiar with them than we are.
The Development Of Religion
The gods of the Greek were quite indifferent to moral laws. They lied, cheated, quarreled — and loved. The amours of the great god Zeus were known to every little girl in Greece. If she were pretty, she must almost have half expected any night a visit from Zeus in the form of a bull, a swan, a shower of gold, or what not. Greek literature abounded in stories of human virgins impregnated miraculously by Zeus and giving birth to gods or demigods.
If, therefore, the popular religion included only gods who were very far from “holy,” where was the sanction of morals, and what was the real influence of religion? We must devote a very short section to the Greek religion.
The old gods of Greece, father Zeus and his wife and daughter, Hephaestos and Aphrodite and all the rest, were brought down from the northeast into the sunny peninsula by the early barbaric Greeks. They were nature-gods, married and adjusted to each other and given new attributes in the course of time. The Greeks bad no sacred books about them in the same sense as the Hebrews. It is from the early poets, Homer and Hesiod and others, that we learn the stories.
And a critical study of the Greek writers in different ages shows that, since there was no “inspired” record (though Plato works out a theory of inspiration of the poets just like the Christian theory) to limit a man’s imagination, the gods were quite differently conceived by different individuals and at different times.
To the austere tragedians Zeus was the moral ruler of the world; and, as we saw, none ever took moral principles more seriously than they did. To lighter poets the amours of the gods were good poetic material. In fact, Professor Mahaffy shows that much, if not all, of the moral light-heartedness that was attributed to the gods was not original in Greek religion. It was the poets or bards at the courts of the petty and pleasure-loving early kings who embroidered the legends with all sorts of amorous adventures.
In any case, these stories of the immorality of the gods had no concern with the morals of mortals. A parallel case must at once occur to the mind of any Christian reader. He is told that he must not be vindictive. He must suffer injury or insult without retaliating. But God does nothing of the kind. He inflicts an appalling punishment on those who insult his majesty. It is a platitude that God’s ways are not the ways of mortals.
So the Greek maid would not for a moment receive a lover because of the example of Zeus. Any person of common sense will assume that Greek maids admitted lovers in about the same proportion as they have done since, and had done since civilization began. Professor Mahaffy, the clergyman, is more zealous for Greek sex-morals than I should be. I have no doubt that Aspasia loved Pericles. She was a Milesian, not an Athenian, and could not wed an Athenian. I assume that she dispensed with the ceremony; and I assume that the hetairai, while unquestionably more like the Japanese geishas than English or American prostitutes — that is to say, they were women who earned their living by entertaining in a general way — did admit lovers to a great extent.
The plain fact is that the official religion as such was not concerned with morals in Greece. It did not even teach any particular theology about the gods. It taught nothing whatever about a life after death. The Greek idea, generally, was much the same as the Babylonian. There was some sort of life beyond, but it was useless to try to penetrate the mists. The dead “slept” and there was an end of it. The word “cemetery” makes the flesh of a Christian creep, in spite of his certain hope of resurrection. But it is a beautiful Greek word. It means the same as “dormitory”; it is the “sleeping place.” Glorious as life was in Athens, no people ever met death and talked about death with such sane and serene recognition of it as a natural fact.
Unlike the Babylonian, on the other hand, the Greek had no belief in legions of devils whom the gods would permit to torment him if he sinned. His sunny nature, the brightening of his whole outlook when he came down from the northeast into his lovely home by the sparkling Mediterranean, gave his religious development a special character. He brought with him the belief in innumerable spirits as well as the great gods. Originally these would be very largely malicious or evil spirits, as we have seen amongst all nations. Babylonians, Egyptians, Chinese, and others kept the evil spirits as legions of devils in their religion; but the Greek almost allowed them to pass out of existence. Just as his gods became genial and pleasure-loving like himself, so his minor spirits were mainly nymphs, dryads, satyrs, and so on: sportive and generally fair creatures living in the woods and waters.
In passing let me say a word about this “sunny nature” of the Greek. It is more than a phrase, and it did color his religion. But some misunderstand it and lightly assume that it must have meant great freedom of morals.
On the contrary, Greece produced the most austere of moralists: the tragedians of our last section and the moral philosophers of the next. And every dramatist or teacher implies a large audience of like-minded people. But writers who confuse lightness and looseness of mind are very superficial. In the first place, a sunny nature might be disposed to transgress the sex part of morals, the authenticity of much of which has always been, and is, disputed, but it would be just as naturally disposed in favor of the more substantial part of the moral or social code: the law of kindliness, generosity, honor, just and friendly relations with one’s fellows.
In the second place, however, one must remember that the Greeks were also the first nation in the world to develop sport in the modern sense. Our modern stadia, our Olympic games, the very words gymnastics and athletics, are Greek. The Greek’s love of beauty was nowhere more conspicuous than in his love of a clean and comely human body. Even the maidens, although they were carefully guarded in the home, had their sports; and they had in the glorious open air endless graceful dances which had not at all the same tendency as the “buckle-polishing” of modern Europe and America.
For the youths there was as fine and healthy a system of athletics and gymnastics as exists anywhere in the world. Stadia were as important as theaters. Both were in the open air; and both might be said to be physically and intellectually healthful. Olympia, which gave the name to the Olympic games, was a special recreation city, up country, for all the Greeks. a cluster of beautiful marble buildings, with exquisite sculpture, to which crowds streamed for the games every four years. Our modern Olympic games are degenerate imitations of these; for the Greeks had intellectual, poetic, and musical contests, in superb halls, as well as races and wrestling.
The result was the creation of a magnificent type of young manhood and womanhood. It was partly on this account that there was in Greece a remarkable development of love of boys and youths. Preachers have, apparently, not the least idea of the appalling prevalence of pederasty in southern Europe today. I have met one who naively believed that unnatural vice died out with paganism! They are apt to think that the ancient Greek’s love of boys was evil. No doubt there were cases; but one authority after another has shown that the Greek love of youths was healthy. It is enough that the great moralist Plato gives us in his “Symposium” a glowing and beautiful eulogy of the practice. Had there been in his time any considerable abuse of the passion Plato would never have written that page. Like other moralists, he thought the love of woman merely sensual, and the love of youth for youth virtuous.
The Greek had a sane and broad ideal of life to which the world is only now returning: beautiful body, beautiful mind, beautiful character — or, equal cultivation of body, mind, and will. The wonderful statues left us by the great Greek sculptors, chiefly Phidias and Praxiteles, which are from living models, show us the result. This manliness was the real expression of the sunny nature of the Greek.
In all this mortals differed fundamentally from the gods, and there was nothing in Greek religion in the least analogous to modern religion. There was no exhortation to “imitate” the gods. They were in no sense models. Zeus was, as I said, often conceived as the supreme guardian of justice, but the general Greek idea was that certain other high and mysterious beings which they called “fate” or “the fates” pursued the criminal and avenged law. Zeus was just “Father Zeus.” His full name really means (like Jupiter) “the father in heaven” or in the sky. He sent the rain and the sunshine upon just and unjust alike; but they came in fairly steady and happy proportions in Greece, and so no one worried about Zeus.
The official religion, in other words, never troubled about ethics. Sacrifices, ceremonies, and processions — artistic developments of ancient practices — were all that it enjoined. If you seduced a man’s wife or daughter, it was not the business of Zeus. It was the business of the husband or father, and he paid very close attention to it: much closer than we do. It was the same with justice. It was a social matter, a secular concern. After the contents of the last section you will realize that Greece is really, like China and Japan, a splendid proof of the complete superfluousness of religion in regard to character.
The normal development of this religion would be that the educated would tolerate it, perhaps practice it in public and smile at it in private, as long as the mass of the people remained sufficiently ignorant to believe in it. Remember that there was no code of doctrine, no “sacred record,” in Greece. It is, in a sense, quite wrong to say that there were immoralities in Greek religion. The stories of the amours of Zeus were in no sense dogmas. No man need believe them, and the more serious probably did not. You were still a good Greek if you thought Zeus merely the spirit of the universe and the other gods and goddesses aspects of the same principle. We shall see in the next section that educated Greeks so believed, and that the final stage, Atheism, set in.
But quite early this normal development was complicated by certain secret cults known as “mysteries,” which the modern will best understand by thinking of the secret ceremonies of the Freemasons. The “Eleusinian Mysteries,” the best known, consisted, in historic times, of a nine days’ celebration at Eleusis. Every freeborn Athenian had to be initiated, and had to take an oath never, under pain of death, to reveal what he or she saw. We know, however, quite well what they saw; but this is no place to describe the long ceremonies.
Just as the secret gatherings of the early Christians were said to be for the purpose of orgies — and as late as the fourth century St. Ambrose tells us that they sometimes were — so the Greek mysteries” were said by early Christians to cover orgies of indecency. It is now well known that, on the contrary, they concentrated the most austere and pious elements of the Greek nature. There is reason to think that originally the mysteries were a secret cult (possibly with sexual rites, I should say) of the old fertility-goddess Demeter or Ceres. But the emptiness of the official religion for certain types of mind caused them to turn to these mysteries.
There are in all ages people who are not happy unless they have an occasional or frequent opportunity to groan over their sins. Moreover, the official religion not only gave no sure and certain hope of a resurrection, but it never bothered about a future life. The type of mind I have referred to cannot possibly wait to see what happens after death, but must retire underground periodically to try to forecast its future. These elements found their expression in the “mysteries,” which to a very large number of the Greeks meant what the Holy Week services mean to the Catholic or a revival meeting means to the American Protestant. It must not for a moment be supposed that all the Greeks took their religion gaily. A large number bemoaned their sins, and were baptized, at the “mysteries” in the most exemplary and devastating fashion.
The cult of Dionysus (or Bacchus) was another new cult which attracted the deeper religious fervor. He was the “spirit of the vine.” In his “mysteries” there was probably a representation of the birth of the baby-god Dionysus like that of Horus in Egypt or of Christ in Catholic churches today.
The fact is that hardly one of the preachers who talk so glibly about the pagan Greeks and their immoral Zeus has the least idea of the immense amount of deep “spiritual” life, akin to the deeper Christian life, that there was in ancient Greece. About the middle of the sixth century, long before the Golden Age of Pericles, a religious revival passed all over the country, and had permanent results in the cults I have mentioned. It had also an effect on philosophy, which had then begun, and we must see how this in turn leads in Greece to the inevitable skepticism and to a creation of systems of ethics without religion.
Rise Of Philosophy And Skepticism
Greek philosophy is as brilliant as every other creation of the Greek intellect. The line of thinkers which that little nation produced in the course of three centuries has no parallel in the history of thought, and every conceivable variety or cast of speculation made its appearance.
The history of Greek thought is the procedure which the mind of the race is now following. “In all that we do today,” says one of the best Greek scholars of Britain, G. Lowes Dickinson, “we join hands with the Greeks across the abyss of the Middle Ages.” And our clerical friend Professor Mahaffy has a fine page (p. 2) which may be summarized in the same sentence. He says that Egyptian moralists and Hebrew prophets — he seems to love a sly hit at Bible- worshippers — would, even if they were taught our language, quite fail to understand our ideas; but any intelligent Greek would “at once find his way.” We are discussing just what he was discussing in the Agora twenty-three hundred years ago. We are taking up the development of human culture where it dropped from his hands more than two millennia ago.
Could there be a more eloquent eulogium of the Greek, or a more deadly indictment of the Christian faith which has dominated the world during the intervening two thousand years?
But the course of Greek thought did not run smoothly. It was distorted by religion. It turned away from science to “spiritual truths”; and it has shown for all time how futile and mischievous is that high-sounding appeal to us to turn from science to spiritual truths. In this short section I can do no more than emphasize that point and show how eventually Greek thought reached its inevitable term in Skepticism.
I have already said how Greek civilization first reached a high development in the Mediterranean fringe of Asia Minor or on the islands off the coast, and how this points to a mingling with the refugees from Crete. The early Greek philosophers nearly all belong to this region. In fact, we may say that philosophy was born of the marriage of ancient Cretan culture and the fresh, strong manhood of the newly arrived Greeks. But the most essential condition to bear in mind is the liberty the Greeks enjoyed in Asia Minor. They were in a colonial world; they were free to speculate.
This Greek fringe on the coast of Asia Minor was known as Ionia, and the first school of thinkers is known as the Ionic school. From the start it was more scientific than metaphysical. Its leaders studied nature, and man as a part of nature. They sought the “first principles” of things, not in abstract metaphysical formulae, and not at all in religion, but in physical realities. Thales, the “father of philosophy,” thought that water was the original element out of which all other things came. It was not a bad beginning, but just then the religious revival of which I have spoken took place, and the next Greek thinker said that “the infinite” — not God, but something hopelessly indefinite — was the first principle. The third, Anaximenes, took air — an infinite quantity of air — as the starting point. The fourth, Xenophanes, said that the primordial element was earth. The fifth chose fire.
We must remember that this was the birth of speculation about nature — apart from the windy metaphysics of the Hindus — and guesses were bound to be crude. But thought was really finding its way onward. On the one hand, the world was being interpreted on natural principles, without the absurdities of the Babylonian (and Hebrew) creation. Xenophanes, the fourth thinker I mentioned, emphatically called attention to the repulsiveness of the legends about gods, and he seems pretty plainly to have been very skeptical. The next thinker, Heraclitus, expressly denied that the world was created by gods, and said that it was an eternally changing substance. The next thinker in the line, Empedocles (of the Greek colony in Sicily), whose mind was a strange blend of mysticism and science, maintained that there was only one God, “a sacred and unutterable mind”; in other words, he, in the fifth century B.C., conceived God as the most advanced Modernists do today.
And these speculations about the universe, besides showing men how to think without gods, led naturally to a belief in evolution. If there was no “in the beginning,” as Babylonians and Hebrews said, if the universe was eternal, and there was one primordial element of all things, then there has been an eternal evolution of this element into the contents of the universe today. Every one of these early Greek thinkers believed that; and the doctrine was further developed by two of the boldest of them all, Leucippus and Democritus, whom I would call the real fathers of science.
About the middle of the fifth century Leucippus, another Ionian Greek, hit upon the idea that matter must be composed of “atoms.” The universe consisted of an infinite number of atoms, of different shapes and sizes, which have, without any directing mind, gradually come together in the bodies we see today. Democritus developed this idea with real scientific genius. All the contents of the universe, including man, were the result of an eternal, unguided, quite purposeless tossing and mingling of the atoms. Democritus, moreover, while completely rejecting all religion, worked out an elevated system of humanitarian morals. A.W. Benn, in his small “History of Ancient Philosophy” (which may be recommended to those who wish to go a little further) quotes several ethical maxims of the materialist Democritus which fully match the “matchless” ethic of Christ. They are in fact, much too moral and austere for me.
It need hardly be said that the working out in detail of such an evolutionary theory, at a time when science was nearly all guess work and there was little or no observation, led to much crudeness and absurdity. But three very great principles had been fixed: the eternity of the world and its independence of gods, the existence of atoms, and the fact of evolution. At the same time these early thinkers observed much in astronomy, and they were (for the time) good mathematicians. Many of them visited Egypt, and learned whatever the priests of Egypt could tell them. They obtained some idea of the immense size of the sun and of the vastness of the universe; and Pythagoras actually declared, for the first time in the history of thought, that the earth revolved round the sun.
Here certainly was a most promising foundation for science; but, as I said, religion hampered the development and diverted thought to other channels. Anaxagoras took the speculations of the physicists to Athens; and the democracy made him fly for his life for uttering such impieties, although he judiciously blended his science with some theological mysticism.
Another train of thought, in Greece itself, had in the meantime led to Skepticism. There arose a school of Sophists who took pleasure in contending that the mind could come to no valid conclusions whatever. The first of them, Protagoras, talked about the gods even less respectfully than Confucius. “I cannot say whether they exist or not,” he said. “Life is too short for such difficult investigations.” Both this man and Anaxagoras were great friends of Pericles, and it is clear that these skeptical ideas pervaded the whole group of artists and thinkers of the Golden Age. But — partly in political opposition to the aristocratic party, to which they belonged — the democracy raged against them, and Protagoras in turn had to hurry from the country.
It was in these circumstances that Socrates, the leader of a very different line of Greek thinkers, came upon the scene at Athens, in the second half of the fifth century B.C. He was put to death in 399 B.C. I do not mean that this great thinker and moralist, whom H.G. Wells so strangely belittles, was at all intimidated by the popular clamor against blasphemy. He was a man of the highest and most independent character, and he met death on the grotesque and utterly false charge of having corrupted the young men of Athens, with a smile on his lips.
But he naturally did not foresee any development of importance to human welfare in these speculations about the ultimate principles of things. No genius in the world could have anticipated what science would one day mean to the race. What did it seem to matter whether the ultimate principle was air or water or fire? Or whether there were atoms? What did matter was that human conduct should be effectively guided and that men should understand the real nature of justice and “the good.” So Socrates turned the brilliant race aside from the foundations of science which had been laid, and he provided instead the bases of philosophy and ethics. Pythagoras, the Greek who had first realized that the earth traveled round the sun, yet a strange mystic, had preceded him. Philosophy was to be profoundly religious. Religion was to become a philosophy.
We have no works written by Socrates. His ideas are known only from his pupils, Plato (especially) and Xenopbon; and very probably Plato has given them a little color from his own more mystical mind. But I need not here give any description of the ideas of Plato. Like Socrates, he believed in one God, an eternal spiritual being such as Modernists now offer us; be believed intensely in the immortality of the soul, and provided proofs of it which we still read for the beauty of the language and smile at for the feebleness of the argument; and he was a most austere moralist, belittling matter and the flesh, and tracing everything good and true and beautiful in the world to “spirit.”
In other words, Plato set a mischievous fashion which has not yet died out. Half the verbiage that befogs the minds of people today is due to this glorification of “spirit” and depreciation of “mere matter”; and it begs the whole question whether the mind is or is not material. The only profit of Plato to us is that he and these other Greek thinkers show that the purest Monotheism could be reached without the faintest gleam of revelation, and that they anticipated the entire ethic of Christ centuries before he was born.
In fact, they prove in another way a truth which I have previously established: that a man’s philosophy of life, whether materialist or spiritualist, religious or non-religious, makes no difference to his moral ideal. The materialist Democritus had as lofty sentiments as the mystic Pythagoras or the spiritual Plato. The skeptical Alcidamas, a Sophist and Agnostic, was the first man to denounce slavery; hundreds of years before anybody discovered that it was condemned by Christian principles. The Agnostic Epicurus had as sane and sober a conception of character as the Theistic Aristotle. Morality is a human matter. It has its roots in human experience, not in speculation.
I have said the “Theistic Aristotle,” but that great thinker was far less mystic than Plato. His god, or Supreme Mind, was unconscious of sublunary matters, and therefore not a universal providence or a creator. Nor did he believe in personal immortality. His system of thought is one of the most learned and original ever given to the world. He summarized all the science of his time, and he made a science of ethics and politics. Unfortunately, he was also a metaphysician. He thought that besides our knowledge of nature (ta physica) it was possible to get a knowledge of things beyond the physical (ta meta ta physics, or metaphysics), and these were more important and more worthy of the mind. In that sense Aristotle, though for his time a great scientific man, joined Plato in leading human thought astray.
What I am chiefly concerned with here is that all these thinkers were high moral idealists. It is worth while to stress this, as to the average Christian it must seem very mysterious that “wicked pagan Greece” should produce a line of lofty moralists to which — in the same space of time — there is no parallel in the history of thought. Athens was not so much the city of vice as the greatest morality-making center the world has ever known.
This culminated in the Stoic School. The philosophers used to gather groups about them in their gardens or in public places, and one of them, Zeno, chose the Painted Colonnade (Stoa Poikile) of which I spoke in the first section. Hence the “Stoic” philosophy.
It was not a religion, as it is so often called. Zeno and the Stoics spoke of “God,” but he was a material entity, and he was not at all the author and vindicator of the moral law. The law was an eternal part of nature, and a man was urged to live in harmony with nature. This may seem to some a poor basis; but, as we shall see presently, this philosophy inspired in the Roman world the greatest humanitarian movement ever known until modern times. It kept educated Romans at a high level of character, and it produced Christ-like austere moralists such as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Let me repeat — let me emphasize — this most austere and (in its more sober Roman form) most effective of moral systems was a dogmatic Materialism! The Stoics ridiculed the very ideas of spirit and free will: which we are asked to regard as the indispensable bases of any moral conduct.
Passing over schools of Pantheists, Cynics, and Sophists (or all-round Skeptics), Greek philosophy ended in the system of Epicurus. I hold that he was the sanest of all. He built upon science, gathering together all that the early scientists had said about the universe. He spoke of “gods” as beings somewhere out in the abysses of space with whom a sensible man need not concern himself. It seems to me that, like Confucius, he was really an Agnostic. In any case, his ethics, one of the sanest systems given to the world, had nothing whatever to do with religion. Moral law was social law. Epicurus was — contrary to the libelous, ridiculous idea of his philosophy which Christian writers put into circulation — one of the most abstemious of men. “Tranquillity,” the quiet life, was his idea. If he was wrong at all, it was in being too ascetic.
But Athens was now in full decay. The work of Greece was done: nobly and brilliantly done. The republic, enfeebled by a long civil war, had fallen. The monarchy of the Macedonians overshadowed it. The philosophy of Epicurus reflects the time: the wish for a quiet, passionless life. Those were the last days of autumn for the great race. Its spirit was sinking. In vain did Epicurus strive to bring men back to the foundations of science. They had no energy to build. The work of civilization passed on to Rome.
The Splendor That Was Rome
Since I have already said that the ethical code of ancient Rome was mainly the Stoic philosophy of the Greeks, and since the official religion closely resembled the Greeks and did not attempt to control conduct, I need not linger so long over the sister- civilization. But ancient Rome is little understood except by scholars, and there is no other nation of antiquity except the Babylonian that is so often selected by preachers as an awful example of depravity before Christ, or apart from Christianity. Rome was the second Babylon, they say. Well, we saw what Babylon really was; and the reader will now be almost as completely disillusioned in regard to Rome.
Let me first describe its people in a general way, for many of the misunderstandings about Rome arise from certain broad ideas which are almost entirely false. Ancient Rome has suffered in a peculiar way in modern literature. Supplementing the preachers, who never tire of speaking of its vices (of which they know nothing), certain advanced social writers have calumniated Rome because to them it was an awful example of capitalism. They confirm the very common impression that the population of ancient Rome consisted of a few very wealthy and very unscrupulous men and a vast army of exploited and vilely treated slaves.
Even H.G. Wells, who at least knows that there was a large body of free workers in Rome, has so wrong an idea of their condition that he actually wonders if they were happy! You shall learn their condition, and you will smile.
First as to the economic question. The wealth of the Roman capitalists or rich men is usually very much exaggerated. For more than half a century scholars have been interested in calculating the actual wealth, in modern currency, of these Roman millionaires; it is almost enough to say that the largest fortune amongst them that is definitely known to us is that of Crassus, who left less than ten million dollars. Several people die even in England every year with larger estates than that, while in America it would be deemed a moderate fortune. The chief authority of the preachers, when they trouble to seek an authority at all, is the Roman poet Juvenal: an early “Bolshevik,” the kind of prophet to whom they do not pay the least attention in our own time. But we know positively that the richest man of Juvenal’s day had not one million dollars a year, which I may, perhaps, capitalize as a total fortune of about fifteen million dollars. In short, any six wealthy patricians of ancient Rome could have been bought up by more than one capitalist of modern America; and there are men in America who could have bought up twenty of the richest patricians Rome ever had!
Next, it is quite a mistake to suppose that all the work in Greece and Rome was done by slaves. Slavery is one of the blots on the old civilizations; but we must remember that Greece and Rome were only a few centuries out of barbarism; while Christian nations had hordes of slaves not very long ago. To the Greeks and Romans it seemed that enslaving a man was a humane improvement upon the older practice of killing him when he was taken captive: whereas the Christian nations raided Africa for the express purpose of enslaving men. Finally, it is a sheer myth that the Christian Church abolished slavery, or made any protest whatever against it for many centuries; yet I have already quoted a Greek moralist, Alcidamas, condemning slavery in the fourth century B.C., and one Stoic moralist after another condemned it.
No one really knows what proportion the slaves bear to the general population in Greece and Rome. In Greece, the best authorities say, they were three to one — a recent Socialist writer makes them thirty to one! — and were humanely treated. In the Roman Empire they are generally estimated at ten to one at the time when incessant warfare brought millions of captives into the Empire. Professor Belock, however, who has made a special study of the matter in his work “Die Bevolkerung der griechisch-romischen Welt,” warns us that all these figures are enormously exaggerated, and we will only deplore that the luxuries of the Romans, workers (as we shall see in a moment) as well as patricians, were based upon the labor of millions of rural slaves who were, generally, badly treated. In the city of Rome they were not generally ill- used, and from the first century onward they had the protection of the law.
But it is of the free Romans — most of the slaves were foreigners — that we have to speak. In Rome, when its population reached one million, there were between three and four hundred thousand free workers; and they had a position of privilege and entertainment which no “modern body of workers remotely approaches.”
To begin with, they had in the city itself a superb public home to which not even the richest city in the world today affords a parallel. In American cities — I remember Denver and Minneapolis, for instance — there is an admirable practice growing of having “civic centers”: pretty open spaces in the center of the city, with gardens, handsome little buildings or colonnades, for the citizens to enjoy. The very best of these is but a feeble imitation of the marble heart of ancient Rome.
In Athens, we saw, the Agora, the old cattle-market, was the public square. It was lined with beautiful buildings and colonnades and adorned with statues; and on one side of it towered the Acropolis with its superb marble portico and exquisite temple. At Rome the civic center was the Forum (also the old cattle-market, or center of the primitive village of Rome). It was a very broad, oblong space, richly adorned with statues and lined with marble buildings from end to end.
The Romans had not the artistic genius of the Greeks, but when they incorporated Greece in their possessions, thousands of Greek artists and scholars flocked to wealthy Rome and educated it in the art of living. Temples, palaces, and public buildings, in the most beautiful marbles the world afforded, lined each side of the Forum. At one end stood the great Amphitheater or (as we call it) Colosseum; at the other rose the sacred hill, the Capitol, with a gold-roofed marble temple of Jupiter at the summit. And nearly every building had broad, cool colonnades to shelter the Roman workers from the sun. But this was not enough, and the Emperors built a new series of Fora — magnificent marble avenues and colonnades, of which we still find exquisite fragments — so that in the end the Romans had nearly a mile of these wonderful structures.
I calculate — I know old Rome well and have the deepest affection for it — that every Roman worker lived within ten minutes’ walk of this beautiful center. The workers were housed in crowded tenement-blocks, four or five stories high, with very narrow streets. But in their glorious climate one lives in the open air most of the year, and there is in the whole world today no civic center remotely approaching that which the Romans had to lounge and play in.
All very well, you say, but how much time had the Roman worker for lounging and playing? Was he not, though nominally a free artisan, really ground and exploited to create the wealth of the patricians in their palaces on the hills? Was there a Christian day of rest?
Here, I find, in lecturing on Rome, is the greatest surprise for the modern worker. The old Roman artisan worked far less than any worker of modern times. The British or American worker is employed on about two hundred and eighty days in the year. And this, remember, is what the secular civilization of modern times has done for him. A hundred years ago, when England was still Christian, a man worked three hundred and ten days out of the three hundred and sixty-five; and he worked fourteen to sixteen hours a day for six full days a week! Now, let us say, the modern spirit, not the Christian religion, has won for him an eight-hour day and about eighty days’ rest. And the pagan worker, at the height of the Roman Empire, worked only about one hundred and seventy days a year and played the rest!
What his wage was in modern coinage it would be useless to try to determine. Prices were totally different. His rent was high; but apart from rent and his simple clothing (little more than a single robe or tunic) his expenses were few.
For this is the next great surprise. He received for nothing the most solid part of his food — corn (and at one time a little pork and oil) — and all his entertainments. Three times a week the workers lined up on the “bread steps,” and received their corn. It was not a “dole.” It was a right; and you begin to see how even the Roman worker lived on the labor of slaves. It was armies of badly treated slaves in Africa, Gaul, and Spain who produced his free food. It was slaves working in the galleys who brought it to Rome.
Most princely of all were the free entertainments of the Roman worker. Mr. Wells repeats the popular opinion when he says that the bloody games of the Amphitheater, where gladiators fought each other or wild beasts, were the great passion of the Roman people. The Colosseum, as we call it, was in its prime a magnificent marble-lined building seating ninety thousand spectators. On fifty or more days a year rich officials or emperors provided free shows there for the Romans, and they were gala days, with gorgeous processions, for the whole of Rome.
But this brutal display, against which the Stoics sternly protested, was not the great passion of the Romans. The Amphitheater, I said, seated ninety thousand spectators. But the Great Circus, the real pride and passion of the Romans, seated three hundred and eighty thousand; the entire body of the free workers of Rome. The chariot races in the Circus, the keen discussions for weeks in advance, the same intense excitement as there is in connection with a baseball match today, the universal betting on the result — these were the great sports of the Romans. And no blood was shed, except by accident, in the Circus. The vast crowd — three times as large as the largest sports ground in the world can accommodate today — witnessed only chariot races, horse races, foot races, wrestling, juggling, and so on. Performers were brought from the ends of the world. The rival syndicates which ran the chariots spent enormous sums. A Roman charioteer earned as much as a good baseball player now does in America. And the Roman workers never paid one cent for admission.
Then there were the theaters, also free, where the finest mimes (actors without words) in the world performed and the classical tragedies of Plautus and Terence were given. Beyond these were the baths: vast marble-lined structures, including princely baths, libraries, gymnasia, and spacious colonnades. It was the only entertainment for which the Roman worker paid. When the bells rang the end of work at three in the afternoon, he could slip on his clean tunic and spend hours in these unique pleasure-houses. And the price was about half a cent! These palaces were gifts of the emperors to the workers. The Roman had sold his democratic birthright; but be got a tremendous price for it.
Another part of the price was an abundant supply of pure water to every floor of every tenement in Rome. As late as twenty years ago I found the water so generally contaminated in Italy that one had to avoid it. Two thousand years ago every worker had a supply of the purest water, brought by aqueducts from the hills many miles away; and the supply per person was as ample as in a modern city.
Free schooling was the next gift. One of Mr. Wells’ most elementary errors is to say that Christianity, with all its faults, at least abolished slavery and gave the world schools. As I told him, no authority in the world on either subject would give him the least support. No great leader in the Christian Church denounced slavery for eight centuries after Christ. It was killed by economic factors: by the killing off of the wealthy Roman slave-owners when the Empire fell.
As to schools, there could not be a more erroneous statement. The Roman municipalities supplied free elementary instruction for the children of all workers. Anywhere you went, in a suburb of Rome or a small Italian town, you would see the teacher, in the porch of a house perhaps, teaching the children how to write on wax-faced tablets. Practically every Roman worker could read and write by the year 380 A.D., when Christianity began to have real power. By 480 nearly every school in the Empire was destroyed. By 580, and until 1780 at least, from ninety to ninety-five percent of the people of Europe were illiterate and densely ignorant. That is the undisputed historical record of Christianity as regards education.
The Roman Empire provided higher as well as elementary education, and for the children of the workers this also was free. Even shorthand was as well known to the Romans as it is to us. Few people except scholars realize how the development of civilization was broken off when Greece and Rome fell, how it was suspended during the long domination of Roman Catholicism, and how we are today “joining hands with the Greeks (and Romans) across the abyss of the Middle Ages.” High schools were ‘Provided in all important Roman centers; and there were a few still higher schools of the type we now call universities (for law, medicine, etc.). The son of the worker paid nothing.
Medical service, again, was free in the city of Rome for the poorer workers. Every temple of Aesculapius (the god of healing) gave free medical treatment, and the municipality of Rome paid a number of doctors to give free service to the poor. It is another vain and ignorant boast of the preacher that Christianity first founded hospitals and helped the sick poor. It is rubbish. Rome did what it could for them in the then state of medical science; and one has only to read what the “hospital” service was until modern times to measure what the world owes to the Church in this respect. It shattered Roman science and education, and it fought and hampered the men who, like Vesalius, tried in the Middle Ages to resume the development of medical science.
Finally, there is the boast that if the Church did not give the worker his modern Unions — even the boldest preacher hesitates to say that — at least it gave the world the famous medieval guilds, which inspired the Unions.
And this is as empty a boast as the claim to have given the world schools! I have proved elsewhere that the medieval guilds were, at their start, fiercely resisted and drastically condemned by the Church, precisely because they were pagan.
The truth is that both Greek and Roman workers had a perfect system of “Trade Unionism.” All the tanners, builders, carpenters, etc., of any district were incorporated in what they called a “School” or “College” (in the original meaning of the word). They had a clubroom, frequent suppers, and funds for burial and mutual aid. Imperial decrees also plainly hint that they used their Unions for economic, if not political, purposes. It is now actually suggested that Paul, the tent-maker, used his trade connection to travel over the Roman world and spread Christianity. At all events, we know from inscriptions that slaves were admitted on equal terms in many of these colleges, and women were sometimes enrolled as members. The women of Rome were well on the way to winning, two thousand years ago, the rights they had to fight for in our own time.
Morals In Ancient Rome
“Yes, yes,” says my clerical reader impatiently, “I grant you all these material things, but what of the spiritual and moral condition of the Romans? It is in that priceless department of life that Christianity counts.”
It is something that he grants these “material things.” He was probably totally unaware of them before, and had repeated hundreds of times the shibboleth that Christianity had bettered the lot of woman and the worker. It did precisely the opposite. Moreover, the modern working man is not quite so sure as his fathers were about the inferiority of these “material things” in comparison with spirituality and virtue. However, I boldly take up the challenge about the morals of Rome.
And let me say that, as the reader will have gathered already, I am not here going to give Rationalist bunk instead of Christian bunk, as many do. I have said all through that the Christian emphasis on sex-rules is mischievous: it obscures the far greater importance of justice and honor, and it confuses real moral principle in sex-relations with ancient ideas that the world is discarding. I am not offering “the good life for its own sake” instead of for Christ’s sake. The only moral standard I acknowledge is a solid social rule. I am not straining evidence to prove that pagans and Rationalists were all stained-glass angels. I assume, after reading all the available evidence, that in the cities of Babylon, Egypt, and Persia, in Athens and Rome, men lived pretty much as they do in Paris and London, New York and Chicago, today: and that is a bit more decently than they did in Christian times.
In the case of Rome it is especially difficult and dangerous to generalize. Now and again a very vulgar or half-mad emperor came to the throne, and during his reign there certainly were orgies. It is to the reigns of these men that the preacher turns for his material.
But he does not say — I doubt if any religious writer in the world has ever taken the trouble to count — that of the twenty- nine pagan Roman emperors twenty-one were admirable men of “good character,” and eight only were “bad” (and several of those insane). Further, the twenty-one fine emperors ruled for two hundred and forty-five years, and the eight vicious monarchs for only seventy-five years, collectively. For one hundred and fifty years — nearly half the period — Rome had a series of Stoic emperors to which you will not find a parallel in the history of Christendom; and under them the world made a humanitarian progress that has no parallel except in our own “pagan” days. Let me add one fact to what I have said in the previous chapter. In the first century (A.D.), under the pagan emperors, more than three hundred thousand orphans were reared in public institutions in Italy alone.
Now those are facts and figures which any man may easily verify. I will go further and give an amusing illustration of the way in which the vices of Rome even under the bad emperors are exaggerated.
Years ago I was invited to write a series of biographical sketches of the Roman empresses. I wrote the work (“The Empresses of Rome”), covering five hundred years of Roman history and myself examining the whole relevant Roman and Greek literature. I inserted all the scandalous things said about the empresses and emperors, only warning the reader when (as was most commonly the case) these things were unreliable gossip. I told, from Juvenal, how the Empress Messalina was said to have gone, night after night, to a common brothel to prostitute herself and return to the palace, in the words of the fiery poet, “tired, yet not sated, with men.” I told how the young Emperor Elagabalus, a maniac from Syria (not a Roman), had the empire searched for a powerful male lover. I told everything; and the publisher was disappointed at the slenderness of the scandalous bits in the long prosy chronicle! To appease him and the public — he was not personally interested in such matters — I had then to write a similar series of sketches of the Byzantine empresses (“The Empresses of Constantinople”), who were all Christians, and the proportion of scandal was much greater!
These facts show the kind of nonsense that is written and preached about the “morals of Rome.” It is very difficult for any conscientious student to generalize. There are no statistics whatever. Take the mass of the people. Were they more or less immoral than in a modern city? Candidly, after reading practically the whole of Latin literature, I don’t know. There is no evidence. There were plenty of brothels (lupanaria) in Rome. You might go along a street and hear a curtain, stretched over the doorway, rattle impatiently on its rod. A courtesan behind it was attracting your attention.
What of that? I go along in the “black and tan” district of Chicago, and, under the glare of the arc lamps on the main road, there are half a dozen brothels, with a score of colored girls shamelessly laying hold of the coats of men on the pavement. I go along a quiet street in Mexico City, and at the open door, or before the door, of every house sits a prostitute, quietly “soliciting your custom.” I enter a cafe in Madrid, under its Catholic dictators, and I count twelve obvious prostitutes at the tables speaking to me with their eyes. So the world over. We have not the least evidence that there was more of this in ancient Rome than there is in London. In fact, when London was more Christian than it now is, when seven-eighths went to church on Sunday instead of one-eighth (as now), there were, the police reported (at the beginning of the nineteenth century) twenty-five thousand loose women to a million people. I doubt if there were nearly so many in Rome.
So I conclude that, on the whole, the mass of men were just about as immoral as they now are, and rather less than in the Middle Ages, when the clergy were nearly all immoral and some owned brothels. All the evidence is consistent with the assumption.
Talk about the vices of Rome always refers to the wealthy: to one-tenth, or less, of the population. And this talk is mainly taken from one writer, the poet Juvenal. As has been repeatedly shown, Juvenal is quite unreliable as to facts. Every Roman historian tells you that. To understand him, imagine the most fiery and most rhetorical of modern democratic writers not curbed by a libel law, and you realize how lightly he would reproduce the wildest gossip. But you have to understand, in addition, that Juvenal is not generally speaking of his own age. He wrote his famous “Satires” about the year 90 A.D.; and the sins of Messalina, which I have just quoted from him, had been perpetrated nearly half a century before that! No historian would accept such evidence.
Another scandal I have quoted, the folly of Elagabalus, is taken, with hundreds of other spicy stories, from a series of Latin lives of the Roman Emperors. It is anonymous, and historically almost worthless. More scandals are taken from the fiery and unscrupulous Christian rhetorician (writing long after the events) Lactantius.
One of the most serious contemporary critics of Roman luxury is Ammianus Marcellinus. An old and severe soldier, be returns from his campaigns to Rome, and, in disgust, describes what he sees. Such men do not usually examine very critically the material they use; yet even Ammianus, who is mainly concerned about effeminate luxury, says little about vice. St. Jerome, writing in the same age about the Christian priests and ladies of Rome, whom he knew well, has far more to say about immorality. Salvianus, a priest, writing in the next century, tells his Christian readers that the virtues of the pagans, who have disappeared, shame the vices of the Christians who have taken their place.
In fact, it is fairly easy to sum up the morals of the small wealthy class at Rome. To begin with, there was less adultery than there is now or was in the Middle Ages. Adultery was punished with death in Roman law. That law was rarely enforced, but intrigue might get a man impeached at any time. The first emperor, Octavian, who ruled for forty years during the most luxurious period of Rome, sternly enforced the law, to the extent of banishment for life, against his own passionately loved daughter Julia. That was “wicked” Rome. Now, for the same offense, a man passes with a smile through a divorce court.
That is Modernism. Until modern times there was, as a rule, no penalty to pay at all, except to confess, and repeat, your “sin.” That was Christendom.
Apart from intercourse with a married woman, a man was free in Roman (and all other) law. But there is no evidence that the middle and wealthy class of Rome were more free in practice than they are today. There was always a “fast set,” and it grew larger under the bad emperors. These men gave, in their marble mansions with cedar ceilings, banquets which were orgies of choice wine and naked Syrian girls, while slaves in the roof poured perfume and flowers on the intoxicated guests. There is no reason whatever to think that this set was more numerous, proportionately, than the corresponding set which patronizes actresses and chorus-girls today, and sets up mistresses in luxurious apartments.
But these are just the things which “get into the papers.” Virtue, which we so much admire, is uninteresting. Vice, which we deplore, fascinates us; and the more picturesque it is, the more readily we read about it.
Any real student of Roman literature will conclude that the great body of the men and women of Rome were as temperate and regular as we are. Really intimate and reliable pictures are best afforded by private letters, which reflect the character of the circle to which they belong. We have several volumes of such: the letters of Cicero, Pliny, Seneca, and Symmacbus. Every single letter could have been read without a blush by Theodore Roosevelt. Bryan would have been disappointed in them. They reflect, in different centuries, circles in which vice is ignored, as a thing not done by gentlemen.
I have already said that the Stoic philosophy had a wonderful influence in Rome. Emperors were Stoics. Crowds followed Stoic orators like Dion Chrysostom, or read Stoic moralists like Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius. Most of the famous Roman jurists, the creators of European law, were Stoics: humanitarians of the highest character. A kind of blend of sober Stoicism and Epicureanism was the philosophy of life of the gentlemen of Rome. Their letters, and such works as the “Saturnalia” of Macrobius, a slave author who describes what is under his eyes in his master’s house, give us the true measure of Roman character. lt was generally fine.
The two leading authorities of our time on the subject are Gaston Boissier (“La religion romaine”), and Sir Samuel Dill, a Protestant (“Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius,” “Roman Society in the Last Centuries of the Western Empire”). They agree in this verdict. Dill, in particular, analyzes the whole Roman literature for the first, fourth and fifth centuries, and he comes to the same conclusion that I have. The middle- and wealthy-class Romans, as a body, were as decent as we are. Another Protestant writer, a close student of Rome, Dr. Emil Reich, breaks into indignation when be notices (“The History of Civilization, p. 371) how his religious colleagues slander Rome. “The average Roman gentleman,” he says, “was a firm believer in the pure doctrines of the Stoic” and he writes a long and glowing eulogy of what he sarcastically calls “these rotten Romans.”
This Roman world, like the Greek world, produced moralists whose sentiments were the same as those of Christ. The Asiatic religions which celebrated the birth of a savior-god in mid-winter or the death and resurrection of a god in spring, became extremely popular in the Roman Empire and prepared the way for Christianity. The old Roman religion was actually suppressed and Christianity substituted by force for it: and the world sank into barbarism within a hundred years.
I here conclude this brief survey of the real morals and character and achievements of the great civilizations before Christ. No shining sword divides the history of the world into B.C. and A.D. It is ludicrous to repeat that these old civilizations lay in darkness and the shadow of death. We have seen how, in ethic and religious belief, they provide the whole material for the new religion.