During this period the Romans come into contact with the people destined to succeed them as a World-Historical nation; and we have to consider that period in two essential aspects, the secular and the spiritual. In the secular aspect two leading phases must be specially regarded: first, the position of the Ruler; and secondly, the conversion of mere individuals into persons – the world of legal relations.
The first thing to be remarked respecting the imperial rule is that the Roman government was so abstracted from interest, that the great transition to that rule hardly changed anything in the constitution. The popular assemblies alone were unsuited to the new state of things, and disappeared. The emperor was princeps senatus, Censor, Consul, Tribune: he united all their nominally continuing offices in himself; and the military power – here the most essentially important – was exclusively in his hands. The constitution was an utterly unsubstantial form, from which all vitality, consequently all might and power, had departed; and the only means of maintaining its existence were the legions which the Emperor constantly kept in the vicinity of Rome. Public business was indeed brought before the senate, and the Emperor appeared simply as one of its members; but the senate was obliged to obey, and whoever ventured to gainsay his will was punished with death, and his property confiscated. Those therefore who had certain death in anticipation, killed themselves, that if they could do nothing more, they might at least preserve their property to their family. Tiberius was the most odious to the Romans on account of his power of dissimulation: he knew very well how to make good use of the baseness of the senate, in extirpating those among them whom he feared. The power of the Emperor rested, as we have said, on the army, and the Pretorian bodyguard which surrounded him. But the legions, and especially the Pretorians, soon became conscious of their importance, and arrogated to themselves the disposal of the imperial throne. At first they continued to show some respect for the family of Caesar Augustus, but subsequently the legions chose their own generals; such, viz., as had gained their good will and favor, partly by courage and intelligence, partly also by bribes, and indulgence in the administration of military discipline.
The Emperors conducted themselves in the enjoyment of their power with perfect simplicity, and did not surround themselves with pomp and splendor in Oriental fashion. We find in them traits of simplicity which astonish us. Thus, e.g., Augustus writes a letter to Horace, in which he reproaches him for having failed to address any poem to him, and asks him whether he thinks that that would disgrace him with posterity. Sometimes the Senate made an attempt to regain its consequence by nominating the Emperor: but their nominees were either unable to maintain their ground, or could do so only by bribing the Pretorians. The choice of the senators and the constitution of the senate was moreover left entirely to the caprice of the Emperor. The political institutions were united in the person a the Emperor; no moral bond any longer existed; the will of the Emperor was supreme, and before him there was absolute equality. The freedmen who surrounded the Emperor were often the mightiest in the empire; for caprice recognizes no distinction. In the person of the Emperor isolated subjectivity has gained a perfectly unlimited realization. Spirit has renounced its proper nature, inasmuch as Limitation of being and of volition has been constituted an unlimited absolute existence. This arbitrary choice, moreover, has only one limit, the limit of all that is human – death; and even death became a theatrical display. Nero, e.g., died a death, which may furnish an example for the noblest hero, as for the most resigned of sufferers. Individual subjectivity thus entirely emancipated from control, has no inward life, no prospective nor retrospective emotions, no repentance, nor hope, nor fear – not even thought; for all these involve fixed conditions and aims, while here every condition is purely contingent. The springs of action are none other than desire, lust, passion, fancy – in short, caprice absolutely unfettered. It finds so little limitation in the will of others, that the relation of will to will may be called that of absolute sovereignty to absolute slavery. In the whole known world, no will is imagined that is not subject to the will of the Emperor. But under the sovereignty of that One, everything is in a condition of order; for as it actually is [as the Emperor has willed it], it is in due order, and government consists in bringing all into harmony with the sovereign One. The concrete element in the character of the Emperors is therefore of itself of no interest, because the concrete is not of essential importance. Thus there were Emperors of noble character and noble nature, and who highly distinguished themselves by mental and moral culture. Titus, Trajan, the Antonines, are known as such characters, rigorously strict in self-government; yet even these produced no change in the state. The proposition was never made during their time, to give the Roman Empire an organization of free social relationship: they were only a kind of happy chance, which passes over without a trace, and leaves the condition of things as it was. For these persons find themselves here in a position in which they cannot be said to act, since no object confronts them in opposition; they have only to will – well or ill – and it is so. The praiseworthy emperors Vespasian and Titus were succeeded by that coarsest and most loathsome tyrant, Domitian: yet the Roman historian tells us that the Roman world enjoyed tranquillizing repose under him. Those single points of light, therefore, effected no change; the whole empire was subject to the pressure of taxation and plunder; Italy was depopulated; the most fertile lands remained untilled: and this state of things lay as a fate on the Roman world.
The second point which we have particularly to remark, is the position taken by individuals as persons. Individuals were perfectly equal (slavery made only a trifling distinction), and without any political right. As early as the termination of the Social War, the inhabitants of the whole of Italy were put on an equal footing with Roman citizens; and under Caracalla all distinction between the subjects of the entire Roman empire was abolished. Private Right developed and perfected this equality. The right of property had been previously limited by distinctions of various kinds, which were now abrogated. We observed the Romans proceeding from the principle of abstract Subjectivity, which now realizes itself as Personality in the recognition of Private Right. Private Right, viz., is this, that the social unit as such enjoys consideration in the state, in the reality which he gives to himself – viz., in property. The living political body – that Roman feeling which animated it as its soul – is now brought back to the isolation of a lifeless Private Right. As, when the physical body suffers dissolution, each point gains a life of its own, but which is only the miserable life of worms; so the political organism is here dissolved into atoms – viz., private persons. Such a condition is Roman life at this epoch: on the one side, Fate and the abstract universality of sovereignty; on the other, the individual abstraction. “Person,” which involves the recognition of the independent dignity of the social unit – not on the ground of the display of the life which he possesses – in his complete individuality – but as the abstract individuum. It is the pride of the social units to enjoy absolute importance as private persons; for the Ego is thus enabled to assert unbounded claims; but the substantial interest thus comprehended – themeum – is only of a superficial kind, and the development of private right, which this high principle introduced, involved the decay of political life. – The Emperor domineered only, and could not be said to rule; for the equitable and moral medium between the sovereign and the subjects was wanting – the bond of a constitution and organization of the state, in which a gradation of circles of social life, enjoying independent recognition, exists in communities and provinces, which, devoting their energies to the general interest, exert an influence on the general government. There are indeed Curiae in the towns, but they are either destitute of weight, or used only as means for oppressing individuals, and for systematic plunder. That, therefore, which was abidingly present to the minds of men was not their country, or such a moral unity as that supplies: the whole state of things urged them to yield themselves to fate, and to strive for a perfect indifference to life – an indifference which they sought either in freedom of thought or in directly sensuous enjoyment. Thus man was either at war with existence, or entirely given up to mere sensuous existence. He either recognized his destiny in the task of acquiring the means of enjoyment through the favor of the Emperor, or through violence, testamentary frauds, and cunning; or he sought repose in philosophy, which alone was still able to supply something firm and independent: for the systems of that time – Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Scepticism – although within their common sphere opposed to each other, had the same general purport, viz., rendering the soul absolutely indifferent to everything which the real world had to offer. These philosophies were therefore widely extended among the cultivated: they produced in man a selfreliant immobility as the result of Thought, i.e., of the activity which produces the Universal. But the inward reconciliation by means of philosophy was itself only an abstract one – in the pure principle of personality; for Thought, which, as perfectly refined, made itself its own object, and thus harmonized itself, was entirely destitute of a real object, and the immobility of Scepticism made aimlessness itself the object of the Will. This philosophy knew nothing but the negativity of all that assumed to be real, and was the counsel of despair to a world which no longer possessed anything stable. It could not satisfy the living Spirit, which longed after a higher reconciliation,