Idolatry is committed, not merely by setting up false gods, but also by setting up false devils; by making men afraid of war or alcohol, or economic law, when they should be afraid of spiritual corruption and cowardice. — G. K. Chesterton

Peeps at Ancient Rome - Jamse Baikie




The Secret of Rome's Greatness

Now that we have come to the last chapter of our little book, and I have told you something of how Rome began, and grew, and won her freedom, how her armies were marshaled on land and her fleets at sea, how her citizens lived, and how they enjoyed themselves, I can imagine you still saying: "But you have not told us how it was that Rome became so great, and that a little Latin town came at last to rule the whole world." And, indeed, when I look over what I have written, I see that I have told you many things that are unpleasant about the Romans—their cruelty, their hardness, their luxury—but have said very little about the better side of their character. And yet that is the most important of all, for when a nation becomes great, it is never by ferocity, or falseness, but always by something in the nation that is good and sterling. So now I want to tell you in a few words what, so far as I can see, was the quality that brought the Romans to the front and kept them there for so long.

It was no wonderful and brilliant genius. That precious gift of Heaven belonged to the Greeks, not to the Romans, and because of it the story of Greece shines like a star through the darkness of the world's early days. Neither in thought, in poetry, nor in art, did Rome ever approach to anything within sight of the greatness of Greece. The torch of her best thinkers was lit at the fire of Greek thought, her dramatists were but bungling copyists of the Greek playwrights. As for her sculpture and painting, she either brought them wholesale from Greece, or had second-rate copies made within her own land of the great works that had made Greece forever glorious.

Not even in her own particular sphere of war did she exhibit any very remarkable genius, until Julius Caesar arose to teach the world what a Roman army was capable of when it had a born soldier to lead it. During all the hundreds of years that she made war, you can count on the fingers of one hand the captains of really outstanding merit whom she produced; and even the best of these, such as Scipio Africanus, the conqueror of Hannibal, have no claim to a place in the very first rank beside such giants as Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, and Napoleon. She produced some of the very worst generals who ever, I suppose, commanded on a battlefield, a few really good and capable soldiers, and a number of steady, average captains who knew the splendid weapon put into their hands and gave it a fair chance to do its work. The army did the rest, whenever it was not hampered by a fool. But I think there is nothing more remarkable in the story of Rome than the scarcity of real military genius in a race which lived by and for war alone.

No, the real secret of Rome's greatness lies not in any brilliancy of intellect, but in a quiet, homely virtue which was bred in every Roman from his very earliest days, which was fostered by every influence in his home life, encouraged by every public influence, demanded of him in his military training, and so continually presented as the natural and necessary thing that finally it became a part of his being, just as much as his hand, his brain, or his life-blood. That virtue was discipline. The first thing a Roman learned was to obey; the next was to regard his obedience as a necessary part in the working of the great machine which, in the State or on the battlefield, was perpetually working out the greatness and glory of the Eternal City; the third was to realize that his own individual life counted as nothing, if the duty of obedience claimed its sacrifice in the greater interests of the State.

Mr. Rudyard Kipling has put it in one sentence in the old engineer's song—

"Now, a' together, hear them lift their lesson—theirs an' mine:

Law, Orrder, Duty an' Restraint, Obedience, Discipline!"

The thing that made McAndrew's engines strong and smooth-running is the thing that made the Roman Empire, and kept its vast machine running for centuries. When discipline died out of the Roman character, the Empire fell.

Just think of the stories in which the Romans delighted. They are not stories of cleverness, like so many of the Greek legends; nor have they, generally, the beauty of those older tales, though they have a stern beauty of their own. They are all stories either of courage, like that of Horatius, of Scaevola, who held his hand in the fire to show how vain it was to dream of tempting him to treachery, or of Cloelia, the maiden hostage who swam the Tiber; or else of devotion to the Fatherland, like that of Marcus Curtius, who leaped into the chasm in the Forum; or of stern obedience to the strict letter of the law, like that of Manlius, who sentenced his own son to death because he fought and slew an enemy against the army order which forbade such combats; or of self-restraint, as when the Senate went out to meet their beaten Consul Varro, after the ghastly slaughter of Cannae, and, instead of reproaching him for his failure, publicly thanked him for that he had not despaired of the Republic.

Not even Hannibal could finally beat a nation which met its defeats in such a spirit; and you must remember that for long centuries that was the spirit of all Rome. It was expected, it was the natural thing, that a Roman should obey; that he should do his work, whatever it might be, with the highest degree of thoroughness and faithfulness; that he should, anywhere and at any time, be ready to die rather than yield a foot of ground that his city had set him to hold. And so Rome's armies, often beaten at the beginning of a war, always triumphed in the end; so the roads that she toilsomely drove across Europe still survive, and her bridges still stand above the streams that she bridled by them, defiant of storm and flood; so nothing short of modern high explosives will uproot the foundations of her ancient buildings. So, above all, she gave to all Europe the law by which she had bound and disciplined herself, and gave it with such thoroughness that the law codes of the nations to-day are mainly founded on the ancient laws of Rome.

To put it all in one sentence, Rome rose to command the world because she had first learned to obey. The great secret she has taught mankind is that all things are possible to a nation that has learned to order its strength in the interests of all, rather than in those of the individual. Indeed, it is a great and a worthy lesson, and cruel, hard, unsympathetic though the Roman often was, we owe him an endless debt of gratitude for this, that he not only tamed the rude ancient world and broke its barbarism, but laid, by his doctrine of discipline and his victorious devotion to it, the foundation of the modern State.