Each of these " gorgeous criminals " lived in the midst of a humble crowd of flatterers, parasites, clients, dependants, and slaves. Among the throng that at early morning jostled each other in the marble atrium were to be found a motley and heterogeneous set of men. Slaves of every age and nation — Germans, Egyptians, Gauls, Goths, Syrians, Britons, Moors, pampered and conse-quential freedmen, impudent confidential servants, greedy buffoons, who lived by making bad jokes at other people's tables; Dacian gladiators, with whom fighting was a trade; philosophers, whose chief claim to reputation was the length of their beards : and among all these a number of poor but honest clients, forced quietly to put up with a thousand forms of contumely and insult, and living in discontented idleness on the sportula or daily largesse which was administered by the grudging liberality of their haughty patrons. The stout old Roman burgher had well-nigh disappeared; the sturdy independence, the manly self-reliance of an industrial population were all but unknown.
It was an age at once of atheism and superstition. Strange to say, the two things usually go together. The Romans under the Empire sneered at all the whole crowd of gods and goddesses whom their fathers had worshipped, but gave an implicit credence to sorcerers, astrologers, spirit-rappers, exorcists, and every species of impostor and quack. The ceremonies of religion were performed with ritualistic splendour, but all belief in religion was dead and gone. The priests, and Salii, and Flamens, and Augurs continued to fulfil their solemn functions, and the highest title of the Emperor himself was that of Pon-tifex Maximus, or Chief Priest, which he claimed as the recognised head of the national religion.
It was an age of boundless luxury,—an age in which women recklessly vied with one another in the race of splendour and extravagance, and in which men plunged headlong, without a single scruple of conscience, and with every possible resource at their command, into the pursuit of pleasure. There was no form of luxury, there was no refinement of vice invented by any foreign nation, which had not been eagerly adopted by the Roman patricians. " The softness of Sybaris, the manners of Rhodes and Antioch, and of perfumed, drunken, flower-crowned Miletus," were all to be found at Rome. There was no more of the ancient Roman severity and dignity and self-respect. The descendants of AEmilius and Gracchus— even generals and consuls and praetors—mixed familiarly with the lowest canaille in their vilest and most squalid purlieus of shameless vice. They fought as amateur gladiators in the arena. They drove as competing charioteers on the race-course. They even condescended to appear as actors on the stage. They devoted themselves with such frantic eagerness to the excitement of gambling, that we read of their staking hundreds of pounds on a single throw of the dice, when they could not even restore the pawned tunics to their shivering slaves.
Yet it was an age of deep sadness. That it should have been so is an instructive and solemn lesson. In proportion to the luxury of the age were its misery and its exhaustion. The mad pursuit of pleasure was the death and degradation of all true happiness. Suicide— suicide out of pure ennui and discontent at a life overflowing with every possible means of indulgence—was extraordinarily prevalent. Men ran to death because their mode of life had left them no other refuge. They died because it seemed so tedious and so superfluous to be seeing and doing and saying the same things over and over again; and because they had exhausted the very possibility of the only pleasures of which they had left themselves capable.
And it was an age of cruelty. The shows of gladiators, the sanguinary combats of wild beasts, the not unfrequent spectacle of savage tortures and capital punishments, the occasional sight of innocent martyrs burning to death in their shirts of pitchy fire, must have hardened and imbruted the public sensibility. The immense prevalence of slavery tended still more inevitably to the general corruption. " Lust," as usual, was " hard by hate." One hears with perfect amazement of the number of slaves in the wealthy houses. A thousand slaves was no extravagant number, and the vast majority of them were idle, uneducated, and corrupt. Treated as little better than animals, they lost much of the dignity of men. Their masters possessed over them the power of life and death, and it is shocking to read of the cruelty with which they were often treated. An accidental murmur, a cough, a sneeze, was punished with rods. Mute, motionless, fasting, the slaves had to stand by while their masters supped.
A brutal and stupid barbarity often turned a house into the shambles of an executioner, sounding with scourges, chains, and yells. Even women inflicted upon their female slaves punishments of the most cruel atrocity for faults of the most venial character. A brooch wrongly placed, a tress of hair ill-arranged, and the enraged matron orders her slave to be lashed and crucified. If her milder husband interferes, she not only justifies the cruelty, but asks in amazement: "What! is a slave so much of a human being ? " No wonder that there was a proverb, " As many slaves, so many foes." No wonder that many masters lived in perpetual fear, and that " the tyrant's devilish plea, necessity," might be urged in favour of that odious law which enacted that, if a master was murdered by an unknown hand, the whole body of his slaves should suffer death,—a law which more than once was carried into effect under the reigns of the Emperors. Slavery, as we see in the case of Sparta and many other nations, always involves its own retribution. The class of free peasant proprietors gradually disappears. Long before this time Tib. Gracchus, in coming home from Sardinia, had observed that there was scarcely a single freeman to be seen in the fields. The slaves were infinitely more numerous than their owners. Hence arose the constant dread of servile insurrections ; the constant hatred of a slave population to which any conspirator or revolutionist might successfully appeal; and the constant insecurity of life, which must have struck terror into many hearts.
Such is but a faint and broad outline of some of the features of Seneca's age; and we shall be unjust if we do not admit that much at least of the life he lived, and nearly all the sentiments he uttered, gain much in grandeur and purity from the contrast they offer to the common life of " that people victor once, now vile and base".
Seekers after God, p. 36.