Pagan and Christian Rome

IN Pagan and Christian Rome,1 Signor Lanciani, the engineer and antiquarian, whose lectures in this country will be remembered with pleasure by many, has given to English readers another volume of Roman antiquities strung upon a slender thread of general subject. As it is a long way from the farmer’s plough to the table of the citizen, so the distance is very great from the spade of the antiquarian to the mind of the reading public. Signor Lanciani essays to communicate directly with the reader, without having recourse to any middleman.

This method has its distinct advantages as well as its compensating drawbacks. No knowledge is so interesting as that which comes to us with the suggestion that it is absolutely new to others as well as to ourselves. No matter how dry a subject may be, or how ill presented, it cannot help being attractive when we find it out ourselves, or participate in the anxiety of the search and the satisfaction of the discovery ; and we do so participate by sympathy whenever information is given fresh from the inventor’s brain, with a narrative of the search. It is almost as if we had done the thing with him. And however thirsty men’s minds are for knowledge in general, it is after all the chase that pleases far more than the game. To seek, whether one finds or not, is the natural attitude of the human intellect. It is sometimes said that " there is no culture in facts; ” but certainly in the search for facts is all the culture there is or can be. So, dealing directly with the investigator is second only to being an investigator one’s self.

On the other hand, the mental attitude of the investigator is rarely the one most suitable for the presentation of knowledge in an organized, well-digested form. The preparation of a monograph requires a very different kind of mental effort from that employed in setting forth a large subject completely and lucidly, with all its parts in logical order, each in its due proportion and proper perspective. The microscopic myopia necessary for the discovery of new truths nowadays is at least a hindrance to a broad general view of a subject, and a series of monographs and notizie dei scavt does not constitute an effective treatise.

Thus, Signor Lanciani’s book is not merely an account of the great discoveries which he has himself made, and with which he has been connected, discoveries whose value is recognized by all students of classic literature, of art, and of religion, nor is it strictly an account of the changes from Pagan to Christian Rome. Such a narrative would require a dozen volumes like his, and, despite the wealth of material already discovered, is not yet ready to be written. His book is in some manner an attempt to combine the two. It is distinctly a popular book, and in its handsome binding and fine workmanship a “holiday” volume. It gives a running account of recent discoveries in the field and in the archives in which the author has been concerned, interspersed with much other material, illustrative and explanatory, for those who have little or no previous knowledge of the subject. As these discoveries bring to light important links between the two great civilizations, the book may well enough be called by the title which the author has given it. But almost inevitably some things are introduced which are not directly connected with his theme, and hence there is an occasional aspect of scrappiness, an occasional cicerone style, which is perhaps unavoidable.

It is doubtful, however, whether the author could have found any more effective form of presentation for the general reader than that which he has chosen. The compromise between a scientific and a popular method has been on the whole very well managed. He is a picturesque and an enthusiastic writer, and gives a very vivid if not always exact impression of whatever he wishes to convey. We share in his delight at important discoveries, and feel a sense of proprietorship in them, so contagious is his enthusiasm. The whole gets a freshness that could not be given to a formal treatise on the subject, however eloquent. The zeal of the actual discoverer shines through the statement even of things which have been known to investigators for many years. For along with the new discoveries there is a great deal of old matter, which either gets or gives new significance when taken in connection with the later discoveries; and most of what is given is hidden in scientific publications and in foreign languages.

Besides the actual facts recorded, there are many suggestions of points of view which, though not new to archæologists, are quite strange to most American readers. Few persons, for instance, have any adequate idea of the nature and action of the forces which effected the union of the Pagan and Christian civilizations. Our natural divisions of history tend to make us consider the dates B. c. and those A. D. as far apart as the epochs of Chinese and American history. Our sense of a Christian inheritance makes us think that Paganism and Christianity were mutually irreconcilable forces, waging a war of extermination ; and this is especially true in this country, where the intellectual and ethical sides of religion are more prominent than sides which manifest themselves in the sensuous cults of the Old World.

The first chapter of this book suggests an entirely different point of view. It gives some idea of the gradual funguslike growth of the new sect, beginning with Jewish slaves, and propagating itself until it had permeated the whole structure of society, so that when the time came for the state establishment of Christianity under Constantine it was already established. It also gives a hint at the ease with which Pagan usages were bodily transferred and incorporated, or were utilized and absorbed, into the new system. One begins to think that C liristian and Pagan are not such contradictory terms, after all.

The second chapter, on Pagan Shrines and Temples, even in its somewhat rambling form, will give many persons new ideas of the simplicity and godly sincerity of the Roman religion. Particularly the accounts of ex voto offerings and the details of sacrifices suggest how intimately the ancient religions entered into all the affairs of life. The shrine of Diana Nemorensis could not have differed much from that of Our Lady of Lourdes or of La Bonne Ste. Anne, either in its use or its efficacy ; and the state of mind of Tullia Superiana, who put up a tablet to Minerva showing her gratitude for the restitution of her hair, must have been much the same as that of a modern Catholic devotee or of Mr. Moody on the Spree.

All persons interested in the history of religion, who are not antiquarian specialists, will find much food for thought in the whole of this chapter. Perhaps the most interesting detail is the account of the discoveries relating to the Secular Games, — that great festival of Augustus, which is inseparably associated with the name of Horace. This account has appeared before in The Atlantic Monthly, but it well deserves preservation in a more permanent but still popular form. By the way, the inscription printed at the end of the book is a blunder for which, we are told, Signor Laneiani is in no way responsible. Possibly he ought to have given it for publication in a correct form, but the incorrect transcription is not bis work at all. This error might be easily remedied.

The relief representing a Roman family “ going to church,” so to speak, on page 83, is a lesson in Roman private life worth a score of treatises on ancient religious feeling. We are familiar with state sacrifices, and are accustomed to regard them as perfunctory ceremonials, at which the officials winked at one another whenever they could do so unnoticed by the ignorant crowd ; but the private devotions even of princes and potentates are rarely brought to our attention. The reliefs of which the one given is a specimen have long been known, it is true, but in this connection, and in the more enlightened state of the public on the subject of religion, they acquire new significance.

The final settlement of the location of the Capitol is interesting to travelers and classical students, categories which must include all readers of The Atlantic. The discoveries described by the author are not strictly new, but they are certainly not well known, and the facts told in regard to the use made of this great temple, as well as others, belong to very recondite lore.

The account of the discovery of the temple of Isis and Serapis, a discovery which really uncovers a period of more than five hundred years, shows the peculiar position of foreign cults in the Roman religion, and throws light on the status of the Jewish and Christian cults. In fact, throughout the book there are many suggestions bearing upon the obscure history of Christianity in the first two centuries.

The third chapter, Christian Churches, though containing much that is interesting, does not seem to us so good as the preceding chapters. In fact, much of it seems, in its general tendency, to be misleading. The statement of the origin of the Christian house of worship is, to our thinking, especially wrong. The theory advanced, not, to be sure, as certain, but as the only one worth mentioning, is clearly incorrect. It is very likely that the private house suggested the appropriateness of the form later adopted, but the Christian basilica cannot possibly be separated from the Roman basilica, a secular edifice, which was itself borrowed from Greece long before Christianity was thought of. Again, the account of the origin of the two great churches of St. Peter and St. Paul contains much that is extremely doubtful. Still, after all, there are so many things that are certain and almost entirely unknown to Protestant readers that we may well be glad to have the whole in so interesting a form, particularly when the uncertainties are in matters which to Protestants are unimportant. Whether St. Peter or St. Paul was buried exactly in one spot or another concerns only pilgrims (but who is not one to the Eternal City, in some sense ?) and devotees. At any rate, as the old story goes, “ Abram was thar, or tharabouts.” But the evolution of the basilica is a more important matter.

The fourth and fifth chapters have rather more of the guidebook quality than is observable in the others. In them there is hardly any notice of modern discoveries, or of any facts not to be found in various sources of information ; but the matter is in itself very interesting and extremely well told. The popular accounts of the Monumentnm Ancyratmm and of the manner of its preservation, of the obsequies of Augustus and his mausoleum, of the ruins on the Via Quirinale and Venti Settembre, of the later imperial tombs, all written from the point of view of the investigator, although the remains were discovered long ago, have an interest which no learned disquisition could possibly have, even if such were easily accessible to the public. The reader feels like taking his spade and digging in his own back yard for relics of the Norsemen or the Indians, and rewriting a chapter or two of American history. There is a peculiar sensation from the idea of living on a soil that consists of innumerable strata of past civilizations, and treading, like the Italian, on the certain relics and possible treasures of departed potentates. Think of going to a circus (as we did once) in the mausoleum of the great Augustus, or of picking up a missing page in the world’s history while mending your drain!

The notice of the papal tombs, in the fifth chapter, is less redolent of antiquity, but is perhaps not less effective upon the imagination. The whole chapter, though a list of relics, is written in the spirit of the discoverer, and not of the showman, and, interspersed as it is with bits of ecclesiastical and Italian history, becomes so interesting that one forgets to inquire whether he is reading a guidebook of Rome or a history of the Popes.

The two chapters on Pagan and Christian Cemeteries are among the most interesting in the book. Nothing is so human as death, so that tombstones and burial rites always have a most pathetic interest; and the Romans seem to have been more simple and natural in their ‘‘ mortuary utterances,’’ if we may venture on such an expression, than almost any other people. Their very lack of inventive genius tended to give a special realism to the records thus preserved. The tombs furnish also some of the best preserved specimens of works of art in all its various forms. Paintings, stucco, sculpture, gem-cutting, and metal work are all represented in the tombs lately discovered by the author, or mentioned in connection with them.

The account of “ the marvelous boy,” Quintus Sulpieius Maximus, on page 281, is as good as an American “ short story.” It is a pity that the artists among them should have made such a botch of his statue as the reproduction opposite page 282. The objects found in the grave of Crepereia Tryphæna, represented opposite page 302, make a whole chapter of girl life. So, again, we find the record of Helius the shoemaker, who left in stone his portrait and the insignia of his trade, and of the Christian, Alexander the dentist, whose tomb is a suggestive memorial of that now honored profession. In fact, throughout the book there are constant hints at the continuity of civilization and the “ solidarity ” of human nature, which will appeal to the public much more strongly, perhaps, from the somewhat disjointed manner in which they are introduced.

The discovery of a marble statue of Christ, a few years ago, prompts Signor Lanciani to a most interesting excursus on Christian art in the catacombs, and particularly the types of the figure of Christ in art. This part is made more valuable by frequent citations of authorities. An illustration taken from the catacombs, given on page 357, will perhaps suggest new ideas to many as to the early celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Our modern symbolism has become much etherealized since the time when “Irene da calda ” and “Agape misce mi ” could be regarded as religious mottoes.

On the whole, in spite of many statements which, if not untrue, are at least “ premature,” the book is a valuable one. Signor Lanciani is, as it were, a “romantic ” archæologist. It is probable that he owes his success in great part to this quality. His constructive imagination often enables him to scent a conclusion where other less active minds are at fault, and his conclusions turn out, in the main, sound; but occasionally a salto mortale over a gap where the stepping-stones are faint or insecure takes him in the wrong direction. Thus, on page 4, the tombstone assigned to Marcus Acilius Glabrio, consul A. D. 91, cannot possibly be his, nor is there the slightest convincing evidence that he was a Christian. We might almost as well infer from the aquatic exploits of the “ Adams boys that John Adams was a yachtsman. There is no doubt that Christianity, coming in at the back door, so to speak, did make some progress in the salon and win over some of the great. The indications which Signor Lanciani gives point clearly in that direction ; but when it comes to proving the Christianity of particular individuals, it is a much more difficult matter. Even in the case of St. Petronilla it is uncertain what her relation was to the Petronilla who was the favorite (delicata) of Flavius Clemens. How early any members of the Flavian family were won over to Christianity is uncertain. It was in the nature of things that the new religion should work its way silently, and leave slight records of its onward advance.

The style of the book is marvelous for a foreigner. We have found hardly an error in the application of words. One, however, on page 22, is misleading. The word “uncompromising” is used where the author evidently means “ noncommittal.” A hasty reading might wholly obscure the sense of the passage.

The mechanical execution of the book is admirable, except the one picture mentioned above. In fine, if one reads the book through, from one scarlet cover to the other, he cannot fail to be continually interested and edified ; and nobody but a reviewer could ask that the book should be other than what it purports to be and is.

  1. Pagan and Christian Rome. By RODOLFO LANCIANI. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1892.