ancient civilizations

The Menace of Privilege, by Henry George Jr.
Installment 57
Roman Empire

We are pleased to present, in installments, a very rare yet significant book written by former Congressman Henry George Jr. in 1905.

Earlier installments are available at the Progress Report Archive.


How the Roman Civilization Rotted

It is not that the Romans did not have a good code of laws. Of all people of which we know they preeminently had the genius for law. They were lawgivers to succeeding nations.

Nor was it that they did not begin with good morals. They were essentially moral. They were at beginning, as Sallust says, "the most religious of all men." Froude says in his "Caesar," "They built temples and offered sacrifices to the highest human excellences, to 'Valor,' to 'Truth,' to 'Good Faith,' to 'Modesty,' to 'Charity,' to 'Concord.'"

In these qualities lay all that raised man above the animals with which he had so much in common. In them, therefore, were to be found the link which connected him with the divine nature, and moral qualities were regarded as divine influences which gave his life its meaning and its worth. The "Virtues" were elevated into beings to whom disobedience would be punished as a crime, and the superstitious fears which run so often into mischievous idolatries were enlisted with conscience in the direct service of right action.

Morality thus ingrained in the national character and grooved into action creates strength, as nothing else creates it. The difficulty of right conduct does not lie in knowing what it is right to do, but in doing it when known. Intellectual culture does not touch the conscience. It provides no motives to overcome the weakness of the will, and with wider knowledge it brings also new temptations. The sense of duty is present in each detail of life; the obligatory "must" which binds the will to the course which right principle has marked out for it produces a fiber like the fiber of the oak. ("Caesar: a Sketch," Chap. IL)

Yet in face of all this, public and private morality melted down to almost nothing in the furnace of passions awakened by the despoilment of the masses for the advantage of the few. "The ties of family life," says Mommsen, "became relaxed with fearful rapidity. The evil of grisettes and boy favorites spread like a pestilence, and, as matters stood, it was not possible to take any material steps in the way of legislation against it." Long before Caesar's time, he tells us, marriage had become on both sides a matter of mercantile speculation.

Marriage, once so sacred to the Roman, came to be almost the lightest of ties. Lecky, in his "History of European Morals," condenses the matter into a few lines: - Does all this not have a solemn lesson for us? We, as a nation, started with high moral public and private precepts, yet have we not merely to look about to see them broken down and flouted? What is the significance of our fine "bachelor" hotels and apartments? Js it not notorious that the very rich do not want the care and responsibility of children? Do we not hear it explained almost as a matter of course that many heirs would divide and dissipate estates? Therefore the aim is to have few heirs, so that the great estates shall hold together and augment. And marriage, venerated by our people of old, is being attacked by divorces of the "get-married-again-quick" order, and at a shocking rate of increase. Yet it cannot with justice be implied that even the "smart set" of our Princes of Privilege have come to the Roman pass in divorces. That may never come. We may turn to the old French, rather than follow the Roman example to its extreme.

To appreciate what this means, observe what Taine, in his "Ancient Régime," tells us: That under the old regime 270,000 persons constituted the privileged classes of France -- the classes that sat upon the necks of the people, and at last caused the horrors of the Revolution. This was but little more than one per cent. of that nation's population, which at that time was approximately 26,000,000. ("The Ancient Regime," Book I, Chap. II, Sec. I.)

Those privileged classes comprised the nobility and the clergy. They were the direct offspring of feudalism which had its roots in the soil. A fifth of the territory of France at that time belonged to the crown and the communes, a fifth to the Third Estate or middle class, a fifth to the rural population, a fifth to the nobles and a fifth to the clergy.

"Accordingly," remarks Taine, "if we deduct the public lands, the privileged own one half the kingdom" which "at the same time is the richest, for it comprises almost all the large and handsome buildings, the palaces, castles, convents and cathedrals, and almost all the valuable movable property, such as furniture, plate, objects of art, the accumulated masterpieces of centuries." (Book I, Chap II, Sec. II.)

Reduced to its lowest terms this means: that the privileged classes of France before the Revolution, constituting one per cent. of the population, owned one half the land, and almost all the important improvements and valuable movables.

Rousseau summed up the attitude of the privileged classes toward the rest of the population in these words, "I make an agreement with you wholly at your expense, and to my advantage, which I shall respect as long as I please, and which you shall respect as long as it pleases me."

And as a result of this order of things, we have the court at Versailles. "It is said," remarks Taine, "that a hundred thousand roses are required to make an ounce of the unique perfume used by Persian kings; such is this drawing-room, the frail vial of crystal and gold containing the substance of a human vegetation. To fill it a great aristocracy had to be transplanted to a hothouse and become sterile in fruit and flowers, and then in the royal alembic, its pure sap is concentrated into a few drops of aroma. The price is excessive, but only at this price can the most delicate perfumes be manufactured."

How much this sounds like young Mr. Rockefeller's parable, that modern great fortunes are produced like the American Beauty rose -- by nipping off most of the surrounding buds.

The price is, indeed, excessive. Says Taine again, "Each largess of the monarch, considering the state of the taxes, is based on the privation of the peasants, the sovereign, through his clerks, taking bread from the poor to give coaches to the rich." From wanton heedlessness a quarter of the Soil of France was, according to competent authority, lying waste. Listen to the testimony of the English traveler, Arthur Young, who journeyed through France, making notes even after the first mutterings of the Revolution had begun: --

What could be expected of morals in the small but brilliant world of privilege in and about the French court? In some respects they were nil, at least as measured by the standards we have been taught to accept. The French aristocrat and his wife were for all society rather than for each other. The woman to whom a man paid the least attention was his wife, and vice versa. Taine quotes M. de Bezenval, a contemporary of those times, who wrote:-- And here is the parallel in our own conditions, as described by an ex-vicar of a fashionable Episcopal church, in New York: -- What are we to suppose this means?

"Freedom, facilities, Monsieur l'Abbé: without these, life would be a desert." Such was the utterance of Cardinal Rohan to his secretary. It was in that order of things in France when the cassock took equal liberty and license with the robe. And what his Eminence, the Cardinal, meant by "freedom and facilities," we learn from a manuscript from which Taine quotes, describing how the Cardinal conducted a hunt on his estate at Saverne: --

The one great, rigid law for this privileged class of old France was that appearances be sacredly respected. An uninformed stranger would detect nothing to excite suspicion. "Whatever indecency there may be," says Taine, "it is never expressed in words, the sense of propriety in language imposing itself not only on the outbursts of the passions, but again on the grossness of instincts." (Taine offers two typical anecdotes from manuscripts of the time (Book II, Chap. II, Sec. III): --
"A husband said to his wife, 'I allow you everybody outside of princes and lackeys.' He was true to the fact, these two bringing dishonor on account of the scandal attending them."
"On a wife being discovered by her husband, he simply exclaims 'Madam, what imprudence ! Suppose I was another man!'")

Will not the observant and thoughtful find much food for serious meditation in these things when taken in connection with facts and tendencies among us?

Next Week: The Remedy!

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