Hegel’s Philosophy of History
Napoleon, in a conversation which he once had with Goethe on the nature of Tragedy, expressed the opinion that its modern phase differed from the ancient, through our no longer recognizing a Destiny to which men are absolutely subject, and that Policy occupies the place of the ancient Fate [La politique est la fatalité]. This therefore he thought must be used as the modern form of Destiny in Tragedy – the irresistible power of circumstances to which individuality must bend. Such a power is the Roman World, chosen for the very purpose of casting the moral units into bonds, as also of collecting all Deities and all Spirits into the Pantheon of Universal dominion, in order to make out of them an abstract universality of power. The distinction between the Roman and the Persian principle is exactly this – that the former stifles all vitality, while the latter allowed of its existence in the fullest measure. Through its being the aim of the State, that the social units in their moral life should be sacrificed to it, the world is sunk in melancholy: its heart is broken, and it is all over with the Natural side of Spirit, which has sunk into a feeling of unhappiness. Yet only from this feeling could arise the supersensuous, the free Spirit in Christianity.
In the Greek principle we have seen spiritual existence in its exhilaration – its cheerfulness and enjoyment: Spirit had not yet drawn back into abstraction; it was still involved with the Natural element – the idiosyncrasy of individuals; – on which account the virtues of individuals themselves became moral works of art. Abstract universal Personality had not yet appeared, for Spirit must first develop itself to that form of abstract Universality which exercised the severe discipline over humanity now under consideration. Here, in Rome, then, we find that free universality, that abstract Freedom, which on the one hand sets an abstract state, a political constitution and power, over concrete individuality; on the other side creates a personality in opposition to that universality – the inherent freedom of the abstract Ego, which must be distinguished from individual idiosyncrasy. For Personality constitutes the fundamental condition of legal Right: it appears chiefly in the category of Property, but it is indifferent to the concrete characteristics of the living Spirit with which individuality is concerned. These two elements, which constitute Rome – political Universality on the one hand, and the abstract freedom of the individual on the other – appear, in the first instance, in the form of Subjectivity. This Subjectivity – this retreating into one’s self which we observed as the corruption of the Greek Spirit – becomes here the ground on which a new side of the World’s History arises. In considering the Roman World, we have not to do with a concretely spiritual life, rich in itself; but the world-historical element in it is the abstractum of Universality, and the object which is pursued with soulless and heartless severity, is mere dominion, in order to enforce that abstractum.
In Greece, Democracy was the fundamental condition of political life, as in the East, Despotism; here we have Aristocracy of a rigid order, in a state of opposition to the people. In Greece also the Democracy was rent asunder, but only in the way of factions; in Rome it is principles that keep the entire community in a divided state – they occupy a hostile position towards, and struggle with each other: first the Aristocracy with the Kings, then the Plebs with the Aristocracy, till Democracy gets the upper hand ; then first arise factions in which originated that later aristocracy of commanding individuals which subjugated the world. It is this dualism that, properly speaking, marks Rome’s inmost being.
Erudition has regarded the Roman History from various points of view, and has adopted very different and opposing opinions: this is especially the case with the more ancient part of the history, which has been taken up by three different classes of literati – Historians, Philologists, and Jurists. The Historians hold to the grand features, and show respect for the history as such; so that we may after all see our way best under their guidance, since they allow the validity of the records in the case of leading events. It is otherwise with the Philologists, by whom generally received traditions are less regarded, and who devote more attention to small details which can be combined in various ways. These combinations gain a footing first as historical hypotheses, but soon after as established facts. To the same degree as the Philologists in their department, have the Jurists in that of Roman law, instituted the minutest examination and involved their inferences with hypothesis. The result is that the most ancient part of Roman History has been declared to be nothing but fable; so that this department of inquiry is brought entirely within the province of learned criticism, which always finds the most to do where the least is to be got for the labor. While on the one side the poetry and the myths of the Greeks are said to contain profound historical truths, and are thus transmuted into history, the Romans on the contrary have myths and poetical views affiliated upon them; and epopees are affirmed to be at the basis of what has been hitherto taken for prosaic and historical.
With these preliminary remarks we proceed to describe the Locality.
The Roman World has its centre in Italy; which is extremely similar to Greece, and, like it, forms a peninsula, only not so deeply indented. Within this country, the city of Rome itself formed the centre of the centre. Napoleon in his Memoirs takes up the question, which city – if Italy were independent and formed a totality – would be best adapted for its capital. Rome, Venice, and Milan may put forward claims to the honor; but it is immediately evident that none of these cities would supply a centre. Northern Italy constitutes a basin of the river Po, and is quite distinct from the body of the peninsula; Venice is connected only with Higher Italy, not with the south; Rome, on the other hand, would, perhaps, be naturally a centre for Middle and Lower Italy, but only artificially and violently for those lands which were subjected to it in Higher Italy. The Roman State rests geographically, as well as historically, on the clement of force. The locality of Italy, then, presents no natural unity – as the valley of the Nile; the unity was similar to that which Macedonia by its sovereignty gave to Greece; though Italy wanted that permeation by one spirit, which Greece possessed through equality of culture; for it was inhabited by very various races. Niebuhr has prefaced his Roman history by a profoundly erudite treatise on the peoples of Italy; but from which no connection between them and the Roman History is visible. In fact, Niebuhr’s History can only be regarded as a criticism of Roman History, for it consists of a series of treatises which by no means possess the unity of history.
We observed subjective inwardness as the general principle of the Roman World. The course of Roman History, therefore, involves the expansion of undeveloped subjectivity – inward conviction of existence – to the visibility of the real world. The principle of subjective inwardness receives positive application in the first place only from without – through the particular volition of the sovereignty, the government, etc. The development consists in the purification of inwardness to abstract personality, which gives itself reality in the existence of private property; the mutually repellent social units can then be held together only by despotic power. The general course of the Roman World may be defined as this; the transition from the inner sanctum of subjectivity to its direct opposite. The development is here not of the same kind as that in Greece – the unfolding and expanding of its own substance on the part of the principle; but it is the transition to its opposite, which latter does not appear as an element of corruption, but is demanded and posited by the principle itself. – As to the particular sections of the Roman History, the common division is that into the Monarchy, the Republic, and the Empire – as if in these forms different principles made their appearance; but the same principle – that of the Roman Spirit – underlies their development. In our division, we must rather keep in view the course of History generally. 1 he annals of every Worldhistorical people were divided above into three periods, and this statement must prove itself true in this case also. The first period comprehends the rudiments of Rome, in which the elements which are essentially opposed, still repose in calm unity; until the contrarieties have acquired strength, and the unity of the State becomes a powerful one, through that antithetical condition having been produced and maintained within it. In this vigorous condition the State directs its forces outwards – i.e., in the second period – and makes its debut on the theatre of general history; this is the noblest Period of Rome – the Punic Wars and the contact with the antecedent World-Historical people. A wider stage is opened, towards the East; the history at the epoch of this contact has been treated by the noble Polybius. The Roman Empire now acquired that world-conquering extension which paved the way for its fall. Internal distraction supervened, while the antithesis was developing itself to self-contradiction and utter incompatibility; it closes with Despotism, which marks the third period. The Roman power appears here in its pomp and splendor; but it is at the same time profoundly ruptured within itself, and the Christian Religion, which begins with the imperial dominion, receives a great extension. The third period comprises the contact of Rome with the North and the German peoples, whose turn is now come to play their part in History.
Before we come to the Roman History, we have to consider the Elements of the Roman Spirit in general, and mention and investigate the origin of Rome with a reference to them. Rome arose outside recognised countries, viz., in an angle where three different districts met – those of the Latins, Sabines and Etruscans; it was not formed from some ancient stem, connected by natural patriarchal bonds, whose origin might be traced up to remote times (as seems to have been the case with the Persians, who, however, even then ruled a large empire); but Rome was from the very beginning, of artificial and violent, not spontaneous growth. It is related that the descendants of the Trojans, led by Æneas to Italy, founded Rome; for the connection with Asia was a much cherished tradition, and there are in Italy, France, and Germany itself (Xanten) many towns which refer their origin, or their names, to the fugitive Trojans. Livy speaks of the ancient tribes of Rome, the Ramnenses, Titienses, and Luceres. Now if we look upon these as distinct nations, and assert that they were really the elements from which Rome was formed – a view which in recent times has very often striven to obtain currency – we directly subvert the historical tradition. All historians agree that at an early period, shepherds, under the leadership of chieftains, roved about on the hills of Rome; that the first Roman community constituted itself as a predatory state; and that it was with difficulty that the scattered inhabitants of the vicinity were thus united. The details of these circumstances are also given Those predatory shepherds received every contribution to their community that chose to join them (Livy calls it a colluvies). The rabble of all the three districts between which Rome lay, was collected in the new city. The historians state that this point was very well chosen on a hill close to the river, and particularly adapted to make it an asylum for all delinquents. It is equally historical that in the newly formed state there were no women, and that the neighboring states would enter into no connubia with it: both circumstances characterize it as predatory union, with which the other states wished to have no connection. They also refused the invitation to their religious festivals; and only the Sabines – a simple agricultural people, among whom, as Livy says, prevailed a tristis atque tetrica superstitio –partly from superstition, partly from fear, presented themselves at them. The seizure of the Sabine women is also a universally received historical fact. This circumstance itself involves a very characteristic feature, viz., that Religion is used as a means for furthering the purposes of the infant State. Another method of extension was the conveying to Rome of the inhabitants of neighboring and conquered towns. At a later date there was also a voluntary migration of foreigners to Rome; as in the case of the so celebrated family of the Claudii, bringing their whole clientela. The Corinthian Demaratus, belonging to a family of consideration, had settled in Etruria; but as being an exile and a foreigner, he was little respected there, and his son, Lucumo, could no longer endure this degradation. He betook himself to Rome, says Livy, because a new people and a repentin a atque ex virtute nobilitaswere to be found there. Lucumo attained, we are told, such a degree of respect, that he afterwards became king.
It is this peculiarity in the founding of the State which must be regarded as the essential basis of the idiosyncrasy of Rome. For it directly involves the severest discipline, and self-sacrifice to the grand object of the union. A State which had first to form itself, and which is based on force, must be held together by force. It is not a moral, liberal connection, but a compulsory condition of subordination, that results from such an origin. The Roman virtus is valor; not, however, the merely personal, but that which is essentially connected with a union of associates ; which union is regarded as the supreme interest, and may be combined with lawless violence of all kinds. While the Romans formed a union of this kind, they were not, indeed, like the Lacedaemonians, engaged in an internal contest with a conquered and subjugated people; but there arose a distinction and a struggle between Patricians andPlebeians. This distinction was mythically adumbrated in the hostile brothers, Romulus and Remus. Remus was buried on the Aventine mount; this is consecrated to the evil genii, and to it are directed the Secessions of the Plebs. The question comes, then, how this distinction originated? It has been already said, that Rome was formed by robber-herdsmen, and the concourse of rabble of all sorts. At a later date, the inhabitants of captured and destroyed towns were also conveyed thither. The weaker, the poorer, the later additions of population are naturally underrated by, and in a condition of dependence upon those who originally founded the state, and those who were distinguished by valor, and also by wealth. It is not necessary, therefore, to take refuge in a hypothesis which has recently been a favorite one – that the Patricians formed a particular race.
The dependence of the Plebeians on the Patricians is often represented as a perfectly legal relation – indeed, even a sacred one; since the Patricians had the sacra in their hands, while the plebs would have been godless, as it were, without them. The Plebeians left to the Patricians their hypocritical stuff (ad decipiendam plebem, Cic.) and cared nothing for their sacra and auguries; but in disjoining political rights from these ritual observances, and making good their claim to those rights, they were no more guilty of a presumptuous sacrilege than the Protestants, when they emancipated the political power of the State, and asserted the freedom of conscience. The light in which, as previously stated, we must regard the relation of the Patricians and Plebeians is, that those who were poor, and consequently helpless, were compelled to attach themselves to the richer and more respectable, and to seek for their patrocinium: in this relation of protection on the part of the more wealthy, the protected are called clientes. But we find very soon a fresh distinction between the plebs and the clientes. In the contentions between the Patricians and the Plebeians, the clientes held to their patroni, though belonging to the plebs as decidedly as any class. That this relation of the clientes had not the stamp of right and law is evident from the fact, that with the introduction and knowledge of the laws among all classes, the cliental relation gradually vanished; for as soon as individuals found protection in the law, the temporary necessity for it could not but cease.
In the first predatory period of the state, every citizen was necessarily a soldier, for the state was based on war; this burden was oppressive, since every citizen was obliged to maintain himself in the field. This circumstance, therefore, gave rise to the contracting of enormous debts – the Patricians becoming the creditors of the Plebeians. With the introduction of laws, this arbitrary relation necessarily ceased; but only gradually, for the Patricians were far from being immediately inclined to release the plebs from the cliental relation; they rather strove to render it permanent. The laws of the Twelve Tables still contained much that was undefined; very much was still left to the arbitrary will of the judge – the Patricians alone being judges; the antithesis, therefore, between Patricians and Plebeians, continues till a much later period. Only by degrees do the Plebeians scale all the heights of official station, and attain those privileges which formerly belonged to the Patricians alone.
In the life of the Greeks, although it did not any more than that of the Romans originate in the patriarchal relation, Family love and the Family tie appeared at its very commencement, and the peaceful aim of their social existence had for its necessary condition the extirpation of freebooters both by sea and land. The founders of Rome, on the contrary – Romulus and Remus – are, according to the tradition, themselves freebooters – represented as from their earliest days thrust out from the Family, and as having grown up in a state of isolation from family affection. In like manner, the first Romans are said to have got their wives, not by free courtship and reciprocated inclination, but by force. This commencement of the Roman life in savage rudeness excluding the sensibilities of natural morality, brings with it one characteristic element – harshness in respect to the family relation; a selfish harshness, which constituted the fundamental condition of Roman manners and laws, as we observe them in the sequel. We thus find family relations among the Romans not as a beautiful, free relation of love and feeling; the place of confidence is usurped by the principle of severity, dependence, and subordination. Marriage, in its strict and formal shape, bore quite the aspect of a mere contract; the wife was part of the husband’s property (in manum conventio), and the marriage ceremony was based on a cocmtio, in a form such as might have been adopted on the occasion of any other purchase. The husband acquired a power over his wife, such as he had over his daughter; nor less over her property; so that everything which she gained, she gained for her husband. During the good times of the republic, the celebration of marriages included a religious ceremony – confarreatio –but which was omitted at a later period. The husband obtained not less power than by the coemtio, when he married according to the form called usiis, that is, when the wife remained in the house of her husband without having been absent a trinoctium in a year. If the husband had not married in one of the forms of the in manum conventio, the wife remained either in the power of her father, or under the guardianship of her agnates, and was free as regarded her husband. The Roman matron, therefore, obtained honor and dignity only through independence of her husband, instead of acquiring her honor through her husband and by marriage. If a husband who had married under the freer condition – that is, when the union was not consecrated by the confarreatio – wished to separate from his wife, he dismissed her without further ceremony. The relation of sons was perfectly similar: they were, on the one hand, about as dependent on the paternal power as the wife on the matrimonial; they could not possess property – it made no difference whether they filled a high office in the State or not (though the peculia castrensia, and adventitia were differently regarded) ; but on the other hand, when they were emancipated, they had no connection with their father and their family. An evidence of the degree in which the position of children was regarded as analogous to that of slaves, is presented in the imaginaria servitus (mancipium), through which emancipated children had to pass. In reference to inheritance, morality would seem to demand that children should share equally. Among the Romans, on the contrary, testamentary caprice manifests itself in its harshest form. Thus perverted and demoralized, do we here see the fundamental relations of ethics. The immoral active severity of the Romans in this private side of character, necessarily finds its counterpart in the passive severity of their political union. For the severity which the Roman experienced from the State he was compensated by a severity, identical in nature, which he was allowed to indulge towards his family – a servant on the one side, a despot on the other. This constitutes the Roman greatness, whose peculiar characteristic was stern inflexibility in the union of individuals with the State, and with its law and mandate. In order to obtain a nearer view of this Spirit, we must not merely keep in view the actions of Roman heroes, confronting the enemy as soldiers or generals, or appearing as ambassadors – since in these cases they belong, with their whole mind and thought, only to the state and its mandate, without hesitation or yielding – but pay particular attention also to the conduct of the plebs in times of revolt against the patricians. How often in insurrection and in anarchical disorder was the plebs brought back into a state of tranquillity by a mere form, and cheated of the fulfilment of its demands, righteous or unrighteous! How often was a Dictator, e.g., chosen by the senate, when there was neither war nor danger from an enemy, in order to get the plebeians into the army, and to bind them to strict obedience by the military oath! It took Licinius ten years to carry laws favorable to the plebs; the latter allowed itself to be kept back by the mere formality of the veto on the part of other tribunes, and still more patiently did it wait for the long-delayed execution of these laws. It may be asked: By what were such a disposition and character produced? Produced it cannot be, but it is essentially latent in the origination of the State from that primal robber-community, as also in the idiosyncrasy of the people who composed it, and lastly, in that phase of the World-Spirit which was just ready for development. The elements of the Roman people were Etruscan, Latin and Sabine; these must have contained an inborn natural adaptation to produce the Roman Spirit. Of the spirit, the character, and the life of the ancient Italian peoples we know very little – thanks to the non-intelligent character of Roman historiography! – and that little, for the most part, from the Greek writers on Roman history. But of the general character of the Romans we may say that, in contrast with that primeval wild poetry and transmutation of the finite, which we observe in the East – in contrast with the beautiful, harmonious poetry and well-balanced freedom of Spirit among the Greeks – here, among the Romans the prose of life makes its appearance – the self-consciousness of finiteness – the abstraction of the Understanding and a rigorous principle of personality, which even in the Family does not expand itself to natural morality, but remains the unfeeling non-spiritual unit, and recognizes the uniting bond of the several social units only in abstract universality.
This extreme prose of the Spirit we find in Etruscan art, which though technically perfect and so far true to nature, has nothing of Greek Ideality and Beauty: we also observe it in the development of Roman Law and in the Roman religion. To the constrained, non-spiritual, and unfeeling intelligence of the Roman world we owe the origin and the development of positive law. For we saw above, how in the East, relations in their very nature belonging to the sphere of outward or inward morality, were made legal mandates; even among the Greeks, morality was at the same time juristic right, and on that very account the constitution was entirely dependent on morals and disposition, and had not yet a fixity of principle within it, to counterbalance the mutability of men’s inner life and individual subjectivity. The Romans then completed this important separation, and discovered a principle of right, which is external – i.e. one not dependent on disposition and sentiment. While they have thus bestowed upon us a valuable gift, in point of form, we can use and enjoy it without becoming victims to that sterile Understanding – without regarding it as the ne plus ultra of Wisdom and Reason. They were its victims, living beneath its sway; but they thereby secured for others Freedom of Spirit – viz., that inward Freedom which has consequently become emancipated from the sphere of the Limited and the External. Spirit, Soul, Disposition, Religion have now no longer to fear being involved with that abstract juristical Understanding. Art too has its external side; when in Art the mechanical side has been brought to perfection, Free Art can arise and display itself. But those must be pitied who knew of nothing but that mechanical side, and desired nothing further; as also those who, when Art has arisen, still regard the Mechanical as the highest. We see the Romans thus bound up in that abstract understanding which pertains to finiteness. This is their highest characteristic, consequently also their highest consciousness, in Religion. In fact, constraint was the religion of the Romans; among the Greeks, on the contrary, it was the cheerfulness of free fantasy. We are accustomed to regard Greek and Roman religion as the same, and use the names Jupiter, Minerva, etc. as Roman deities, often without distinguishing them from those of Greeks. This is admissible inasmuch as the Greek divinities were more or less introduced among the Romans; but as the Egyptian religion is by no means to be regarded as identical with the Greek, merely because Herodotus and the Greeks form to themselves an idea of the Egyptian divinities under the names “Latona,” “Pallas,” etc., so neither must the Roman be confounded with the Greek. We have said that in the Greek religion the thrill of awe suggested by Nature was fully developed to something Spiritual – to a free conception, a spiritual form of fancy – that the Greek Spirit did not remain in the condition of inward fear, but proceeded to make the relation borne to man by Nature, a relation of freedom and cheerfulness. The Romans, on the contrary, remained satisfied with a dull, stupid subjectivity; consequently, the external was only an Object – something alien, something hidden. The Roman spirit which thus remained involved in subjectivity, came into a relation of constraint and dependence, to which the origin of the word “re-ligio” (lig-are) points. The Roman had always to do with something secret; in everything he believed in and sought for something concealed; and while in the Greek religion everything is open and clear, present to sense and contemplation – not pertaining to a future world, but something friendly, and of this world – among the Romans everything exhibits itself as mysterious, duplicate: they saw in the object first itself, and then that which lies concealed in it: their history is pervaded by this duplicate mode of viewing phenomena. The city of Rome had besides its proper name another secret one, known only to a few. It is believed by some to have been “Valentia,” the Latin translation of “Roma”; others think it was “Amor” (“Roma” read backwards). Romulus, the founder of the State, had also another, a sacred name – “Quirinus” – by which title he was worshipped: the Romans too were also called Quirites. (This name is connected with the term “curia”: in tracing its etymology the name of the Sabine town “Cures,” has been had recourse to.) Among the Romans the religious thrill of awe remained undeveloped; it was shut up to the mere subjective certainty of its own existence. Consciousness has therefore given itself no spiritual objectivity – has not elevated itself to the theoretical contemplation of the eternally divine nature, and to freedom in that contemplation; it has gained no religious substantiality for itself from Spirit. The bare subjectivity of conscience is characteristic of the Roman in all that he does and undertakes – in his covenants, political relations, obligations, family relations, etc.; and all these relations receive thereby not merely a legal sanction, but as it were a solemnity analogous to that of an oath. The infinite number of ceremonies at the comitia, on assuming offices, etc., are expressions and declarations that concern this firm bond. Everywhere the sacra play a very important part. Transactions, naturally the most alien to constraint, became a sacrum, and were petrified, as it were, into that. To this category belongs, e.g., in strict marriages, the confarreatio, and the auguries and auspices generally. The knowledge of these sacra is utterly uninteresting and wearisome, affording fresh material for learned research as to whether they are of Etruscan, Sabine, or other origin. On their account the Roman people have been regarded as extremely pious, both in positive and negative observances; though it is ridiculous to hear recent writers speak with unction and respect of these sacra. The Patricians were especially fond of them; they have therefore been elevated in the judgment of some, to the dignity of sacerdotal families, and regarded as the sacred gentes – the possessors and conservators of Roman religion: the plebeians then become the godless element. On this head what is pertinent has already been said. The ancient kings were at the same time also reges sacrorum. After the royal dignity had been done away with, there still remained a Rex Sacrorum; but he, like all the other priests, was subject to the Pontifex Maximus, who presided over all the “sacra,” and gave them such a rigidity and fixity as enabled the patricians to maintain their religious power so long.
But the essential point in pious feeling is the subject matter with which it occupies itself – though it is often asserted, on the contrary, in modern times, that if pious feelings exist, it is a matter of indifference what object occupies them. It has been already remarked of the Romans, that their religious subjectivity did not expand into a free spiritual and moral comprehensiveness of being. It can be said that their piety did not develop itself into religion; for it remained essentially formal, and this formalism took its real side from another quarter. From the very definition given, it follows that it can only be of a finite, unhallowed order, since it arose outside the secret sanctum of religion. The chief characteristic of Roman Religion is therefore a hard and dry contemplation of certain voluntary aims, which they regard as existing absolutely in their divinities, and whose accomplishment they desire of them as embodying absolute power, These purposes constitute that for the sake of which they worship the gods, and by which, in a constrained, limited way, they are bound to their deities. The Roman religion is therefore the entirely prosaic one of narrow aspirations, expediency, profit. The divinities peculiar to them are entirely prosaic; they are conditions [of mind or body], sensations, or useful arts, to which their dry fancy, having elevated them to independent power, gave objectivity; they are partly abstractions, which could only become frigid allegories – partly conditions of being which appear as bringing advantage or injury, and which were presented as objects of worship in their original bare and limited form. We can but briefly notice a few examples. The Romans worshipped “Pax,” “Tranquillitas,” “Vacuna” (Repose), “Angeronia” (Sorrow and Grief), as divinities; they consecrated altars to the Plague, to Hunger, to Mildew (Robigo), to Fever, and to the Dea Cloacina. Juno appears among the Romans not merely as “Lucina,” the obstetric goddess, but also as “Juno Ossipagina,” the divinity who forms the bones of the child, and as “Juno Unxia,” who anoints the hinges of the doors at marriages (a matter which was also reckoned among the “sacra”). How little have these prosaic conceptions in common with the beauty of the spiritual powers and deities of the Greeks! On the other hand, Jupiter as “Jupiter Capitolinus” represents the generic essence of the Roman Empire, which is also personified in the divinities “Roma” and “Fortuna Publica.”
It was the Romans especially who introduced the practice of not merely supplicating the gods in time of need, and celebrating “lectisternia,” but of also making solemn promises and vows to them. For help in difficulty they sent even into foreign countries, and imported foreign divinities and rites. The introduction of the gods and most of the Roman temples thus arose from necessity – from a vow of some kind, and an obligatory, not disinterested acknowledgment of favors. The Greeks on the contrary erected and instituted their beautiful temples, and statues, and rites, from love to beauty and divinity for their own sake.
Only one side of the Roman religion exhibits something attractive, and that is the festivals, which bear a relation to country life, and whose observance was transmitted from the earliest times. The idea of the Saturnian time is partly their basis – the conception of a state of things antecedent to and beyond the limits of civil society and political combination; but their import is partly taken from Nature generally – the Sun, the course of the year, the seasons, months, etc., (with astronomical intimations) – partly from the particular aspects of the course of Nature, as bearing upon pastoral and agricultural life. There were festivals of sowing and harvesting and of the seasons; the principal was that of the Saturnalia, etc. In this aspect there appears much that is naive and ingenuous in the tradition. Yet this series of rites, on the whole, presents a very limited and prosaic appearance; deeper views of the great powers of nature and their generic processes are not deducible from them; for they are entirely directed to external vulgar advantage, and the merriment they occasioned, degenerated into a buffoonery unrelieved by intellect. While among the Greeks their tragic art developed itself from similar rudiments, it is on the other hand remarkable that among the Romans the scurrilous dances and songs connected with the rural festivals were kept up till the latest periods without any advance from this naive but rude form to anything really artistic.
It has already been said that the Romans adopted the Greek Gods, (the mythology of the Roman poets is entirely derived from the Greeks); but the worship of these beautiful gods of the imagination appears to have been among them of a very cold and superficial order. Their talk of Jupiter, Juno, Minerva sounds like a mere theatrical mention of them. The Greeks made their Pantheon the embodiment of a rich intellectual material, and adorned it with bright fancies; it was to them an object calling forth continual invention and exciting thoughtful reflection; and an extensive, nay inexhaustible, treasure has thus been created for sentiment, feeling and thought in their mythology. The Spirit of the Romans did not indulge and delight itself in that play of a thoughtful fancy; the Greek mythology appears lifeless and exotic in their hands. Among the Roman poets – especially Virgil – the introduction of the gods is the product of a frigid Understanding and of imitation. The gods are used in these poems as machinery, and in a merely superficial way; regarded much in the same way as in our didactic treatises on the belleslettres, where among other directions we find one relating to the use of such/machinery in epics – in order to produce astonishment.
The Romans were as essentially different from the Greeks in respect to their public games. In these the Romans were, properly speaking, only spectators. The mimetic and theatrical representation, the dancing, foot-racing and wrestling, they left to manumitted slaves, gladiators, or criminals condemned to death. Nero’s deepest degradation was his appearing on a public stage as a singer, lyrist and combatant. As the Romans were only spectators, these diversions were something foreign to them; they did not enter into them with their whole souls. With increasing luxury the taste for the baiting of beasts and men became particularly keen. Hundreds of bears, lions, tigers, elephants, crocodiles, and ostriches, were produced, and slaughtered for mere amusement. A body consisting of hundreds, nay thousands of gladiators, when entering the amphitheatre at a certain festival to engage in a sham sea-fight, addressed the Emperor with the words: “Those who are devoted to death salute thee,” to excite some compassion. In vain! the whole were devoted to mutual slaughter. In place of human sufferings in the depths of the soul and spirit, occasioned by the contradictions of life, and which find their solution in Destiny, the Romans instituted a cruel reality of corporeal sufferings: blood in streams, the rattle in the throat which signals death, and the expiring gasp were the scenes that delighted them. – This cold negativity of naked murder exhibits at the same time that murder of all spiritual objective aim which had taken place in the soul. I need only mention, in addition, the auguries, auspices, and Sibylline books, to remind you how fettered the Romans were by superstitions of all kinds, and how they pursued exclusively their own aims in all the observances in question. The entrails of beasts, flashes of lightning, the flight of birds, the Sibylline dicta determined the administration and projects of the State. All this was in the hands of the patricians, who consciously made use of it as a mere outward [non-spiritual, secular] means of constraint to further their own ends and oppress the people.
The distinct elements of Roman religion are, according to what has been said, subjective religiosity and a ritualism having for its object purely superficial external aims. Secular aims are left entirely free, instead of being limited by religion – in fact they are rather justified by it. The Romans are invariably pious, whatever may be the substantial character of their actions. But as the sacred principle here is nothing but an empty form, it is exactly of such a kind that it can be an instrument in the power of the devotee; it is taken possession of by the individual, who seeks his private objects and interests; whereas the truly Divine possesses on the contrary a concrete power in itself. But where there is only a powerless form, the individual – the Will, possessing an independent concreteness able to make that form its own, and render it subservient to its views – stands above it. This happened in Rome on the part of the patricians. The possession of sovereignty by the patricians is thereby made firm, sacred, incommunicable, peculiar: the administration of government, and political privileges, receive the character of hallowed private property. There does not exist therefore a substantial national unity – not that beautiful and moral necessity of united life in the Polis; but every “gens” is itself firm, stern, having its own Penates and sacra; each has it own political character, which it always preserves: strict, aristocratic severity distinguished the Claudii; benevolence towards the people, the Valerii; nobleness of spirit, the Cornelii. Separation and limitation were extended even to marriage, for the connubia of patricians with plebeians were deemed profane. But in that very subjectivity of religion we find also the principle of arbitrariness: and while on the one hand we have arbitrary choice invoking religion to bolster up private possession, we have on the other hand the revolt of arbitrary choice against religion. For the same order of things can, on the one side, be regarded as privileged by its religious form, and on the other side wear the aspect of being merely a matter of choice – of arbitrary volition on the part of man. When the time was come for it to be degraded to the rank of a mere form, it was necessarily known and treated as a form – trodden under foot – represented as formalism. – The inequality which enters into the domain of sacred things forms the transition from religion to the bare reality of political life. The consecrated inequality of will and of private property constitutes the fundamental condition of the change. The Roman principle admits of aristocracy alone as the constitution proper to it, but which directly manifests itself only in an antithetical form – internal inequality. Only from necessity and the pressure of adverse circumstances is this contradiction momentarily smoothed over; for it involves a duplicate power, the sternness and malevolent isolation of whose components can only be mastered and bound together by a still greater sternness, into a unity maintained by force.