THE ancient Roman character was not the product of the Roman religion. It was based not on the worship of the gods but on the intense sentiment of patriotism; enthusiasm attached not to the gods but to the aspects of patriotism which they embodied, involving the supreme idea of unhesitating self-sacrifice on behalf of the state, which permeated the free population.
The expansion of the Imperial Republic de-nationalised the religion by contact with others and identification of Roman with foreign deities. The spirit of patriotism and self-sacrifice was atrophied when the Roman was no longer waging his wars against aggressive rivals. The population, which in the old times developed the military and agricultural virtues in a high degree, lost the incentive not only to the former but to the latter also, when the old yeomanry were displaced by the huge estates cultivated by slave labour, and the free population was maintained by the free distribution of corn imported from the provinces and was kept amused by constant public entertainments of an increasingly demoralising character. The disappearance of the religious sanction left the inculcation of moral teaching and moral ideals to the philosophers and the small section to whom philosophy appeals.
It is therefore the Stoics to whom we must turn as the upholders of the lamp of moral ideals. Epicureanism, recognizing self-interest as the sole motive to morality, cannot excite moral enthusiasm. Stoicism assumes that virtue is itself the end for which man exists, not a means to some other end. Duty is supreme. Self-control, control over the passions which lead us astray and perturb our vision, is essential. Death has no terrors, though it is debatable whether it be the entrance to a new life or a simple ceasing to be, or whether circumstances may warrant us in seeking it voluntarily.
Duty, however, is not a state of passive acquiescence; it calls for the active promotion of the welfare of society and for the benevolent virtues; though the austerity of the Stoical creed is more obviously associated with the heroic types of virtue, its disciples were distinguished by their humanity; and alike in doctrine and practice, Stoicism attains its culmination in the slave Epictetus and the emperor and master of the civilized world, Marcus Aurelius. In a society which was corrupt examples abound of both men and women of the noblest and purest among the followers of Stoicism.
The Stoic suppression of emotion tended to a certain hardness appropriate to the traditional Roman character, softened to more lovableness when touched with the gentler Greek spirit as in Plutarch. But other influences were coming into play in the second century. The popular need for a concrete religion was growing insistent. Oriental creeds imbued with supernaturalism were finding common acceptance, and the Neo-Platonism of the Alexandrian schools was penetrated with mysticism though the intellectual world at least was unconscious or wholly contemptuous of that strange faith which, despised and ostracized as yet, was about to achieve an overwhelming supremacy.
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