« ZurückWeiter »
AT THE BIRTH OF CHRIST.
Rome is said to have owed her greatness as much to the manners as to the arms of her citizens. Whenever they had subdued a particular territory, they prepared to civilize it. They transferred into each of the conquered countries their laws, manners, arts, sciences, and literature. The advantages that resulted from the bringing of so many different nations into subjection to one people—or, to speak more properly, under one man—were no doubt, in many respects, considerable. For by this means the people of various countries, alike strangers to each other's language, manners, and laws, became associated together in amity and enjoyed reciprocal intercourse. By Roman' munificence, which spared no expense to render the public roads commodious to travellers, an easy access was given to parts the most distant and remote. Literature and the arts became generally diffused, and the cultivation of them extended even to countries that had previously formed no other scale by which to estimate the dignity of man than that of corporeal vigour, or muscular strength. In short, men that had hitherto known no other rules of action, or modes of life, than those of savage and uncultivated nature, had now before them the example of a polished nation, and were gradually instructed by their conquerors to form themselves after it. These things deserve mention, because, as they contributed in some measure to facilitate the propagation of the gospel by the labours of the apostles, they may consequently be entitled to rank among those concurring events which constituted the period of our Lord's advent “ the fulness of time.”
The subjects of the Roman Empire, at this period, have been estimated at about one hundred and twenty millions of persons, who were divided into three classes ; namely, Citizens, Provincials, and Slaves. The first class enjoyed ample liberty, and were entitled to peculiar immunities; the second had only the shadow of liberty, without any constitutional freedom; while the last were entirely dependent on the arbitrary will of their masters, who, as best suited their purpose, either enfranchised, or oppressed, or barbarously punished and destroyed them. Enthusiastic in the cause of liberty themselves, the Romans studied the most prudent methods of rendering the provinces of the empire insensible to the yoke that was imposed on them. They treated willing captives with commendable liberality, and used the conquered
countries with that moderation which evinced that their leading object was not the destruction of mankind, but the increase of the empire. They colonized foreign countries with Romans, who introduced agriculture, arts, sciences, learning, and commerce. Having made the art of government a particular branch of study, they excelled in it above all the inhabitants of the globe. Their history, indeed, exhibits wise councils, prudent measures, equitable laws, and all classes of men are represented to us as conducting themselves so as to command the admiration of posterity,
Having thus briefly glanced at the state of civilization which prevailed in the Roman Empire at the date of the Christian æra, we shall next examine its condition more especially with regard to morals and religion; for it is with these that the history of the Christian church is chiefly concerned. And, that we may have a more enlarged and distinct view of the matter, it may be profitable for us to go back in our enquiries, and take a rapid glance of the state of the Heathen world from a much earlier period. Much has been said of late respecting the sufficiency of reason to direct the human mind in its pursuit of the chief good, or of the knowledge of the true character of God and of obedience to his will: the enquiry on which we are entering may possibly serve to evince how little such representations are entitled to regard, and perhaps tend to prove the truth of the apostle's assertion, that “the world by wisdom knew not God.”
Our knowledge of the state of any of those nations which were situated beyond the confines of the Roman Empire is necessarily very imperfect and obscure, arising from the paucity of their historical monuments and writers. We have sufficient light, however, to perceive that the eastern nations were distinguished by a low and servile spirit, prone to slavery and every species of abject humiliation; whilst those towards the north prided themselves in cherishing a warlike and savage disposition, that scorned even the restraint of a fixed habitation, and placed its chief gratification in the liberty of roaming at large through scenes of devastation, blood, and slaughter. A soft and feeble constitution both of body and mind, with powers barely adequate to the cultivation of the arts of peace, and chiefly exercised in ministering at the shrine of voluptuous gratification, may be considered as the characteristic trait of the former; a robust and vigorous corporeal frame, ani
AT THE BIRTH OF CHRIST.
mated with a glowing spirit that looked with contempt on life, and every thing by which its cares are soothed, that of the latter.
The minds of the people inhabiting these various countries were fettered by superstitions of the most degrading kind. Though the sense of a Supreme Being, from whom all things had their origin, and whose decrees regulate the universe, had not become wholly extinct; yet in every nation a general belief prevailed that all things were subordinate to an association of powerful spirits, who were called gods, and whom it was incumbent on every one, who wished for a happy and prosperous course of life, to worship and conciliate. One of these deities was supposed to excel the rest in dignity, and to possess a supereminent authority, by which the tasks or offices of the inferior ones were allotted, and the whole of the assembly, in a certain degree, directed and governed. His rule, however, was not conceived to be by any means arbitrary; neither was it supposed that he could so far invade the provinces of the others as to interfere with their particular functions; and hence it was deemed necessary for those who would secure the favour of heaven religiously to cultivate the patronage of every separate deity, and assiduously to pay that homage to each of them which was respectively his due.
Every nation, however, did not worship the same gods, but each had its peculiar deities, differing from those of other countries, not only in name, but in their nature, attributes, actions, and other respects; nor is there any just foundation for the supposition which some have adopted, that the gods of Greece and Rome were the same with those worshipped by the Germans, the Syrians, the Arabians, the Persians, the Egyptians, and others. The Greeks and Romans, indeed, pretended that the deities which they acknowledged were equally reverenced in every other part of the world; and it might probably be the case. with most nations, that the gods of other countries were hela in a sort of secondary reverence, and perhaps, in some instances, privately worshipped; but it is certain that each country had its appropriate deities, and that to neglect or disparage the established worship of the state was always considered as an offence of the most atrocious kind.
This diversity of deities and religious worship seldom generated animosity; for each nation readily conceded to others the right of forming their own opinions, and of judging for themselves in religious matters; and left them, both in the choice of their deities and mode of worshipping them, to be guided by whatever principles they might think proper to adopt. Those who were accustomed to regard this world in the light of a commonwealth, divided into several districts, over each of which a certain order of deities presided, could with an ill grace assume the liberty of forcing other nations to discard their own favourite deities, and receive in their stead the same objects of adoration with themselves. It is certain that the Romans were extremely jealous of introducing any new divinities, or of making the least change in the public religion; yet the citizens were never denied the privilege of individually conforming to any foreign mode of worship, or of manifesting, by the most solemn acts of devotion, their veneration for the gods of other countries. *
The principal deities of most nations consisted of heroes renowned in antiquity, emperors, kings, founders of cities, and other illustrious persons, whose eminent exploits and the benefits they had conferred on mankind were treasured up and embalmed in the breasts of posterity, by whose gratitude they were crowned with divine honours and raised to the rank of gods. But in no other respects were the heathen deities supposed to be distinguished beyond the human species than by the enjoyment of power and an immortal existence. To the worship of divinities of this description, however, was joined in many countries that of some of the noblest and most excellent parts of the creation; the luminaries of heaven in particular, the sun, the moon, and the stars, in whom, as the effects of their influence was always perceptible, an intelligent mind was supposed to reside. The superstitious practices of some countries were carried to an almost endless extreme: mountains, rivers, trees, the earth, the sea, and the winds, even the diseases of the body, the virtues and the vices (or rather certain tutelary genii, to whom the guardianship and care of all these things was conceived to belong) were made the object of adoration, and had divine honours regularly paid to them.
Buildings of the most superb and magnificent kind, under the
* See Warburton's Works, Vol. II, Edit, 8vo. 1811. Divine Legation of Moses.
AT THE BIRTH OF CHRIST.
names of temples, fanes, &c., were raised and dedicated by the people of almost every country to their gods, with the expectation that the divinities would condescend to make these sumptuous edifices the places of their own immediate residence. They were not all open to the public, for some of them were confined to the exercise of private devotion; but those of either description were internally ornamented with images of their deities, and furnished with altars and the requisite apparatus for offering sacrifice. The statues were supposed to be animated by the deities whom they represented; for, though the worshippers of gods, such as have now been described, must, in a great measure, have relinquished every dictate of reason, they were not willing to appear by any means so destitute of every principle of common sense as to pay their adoration to a mere idol of metal, or wood, or stone; they always maintained that their statues, when properly consecrated, were filled with the presence of those divinities whose impress they bore.*
The religious homage paid to these deities consisted chiefly in the frequent performance of various rites; such as the offering up of victims and sacrifices, accompanied by prayers and other ceremonies. The sacrifices and offerings were different, according to the nature and attributes of the gods to whom they were addressed, Brute animals were commonly devoted to this purpose; but in some nations, of a more savage and ferocious character, the horrible practice of sacrificing human victims prevailed. And it has been remarked by the learned Bishop Warburton that the attributes and qualities assigned to their gods always corresponded with the nature and genius of the government of the country. If this was gentle, benign, compassionate, and forgiving, goodness and mercy were considered as most essential to the deity; but if severe, inexorable, captious, or unequal, the very gods were supposed to be tyrants, and expiations, atonements, lustrations, and bloody sacrifices, then composed the system of religious worship.t
* Arnobius adv. Gentes, lib. 6. Augustin de Civitate, lib, 8. + Thus characterised by Pope, in his Essay on Man:
“Gods partial, changeful, passionate, unjust,
And, formed like tyrants, tyrants would believe.”