The Happiest Period

THE happiest period in human history in which to have lived, concludes Gibbon after a learned dissertation on the subject, was that of imperial Rome under the Antonines in the second century of the Christian era. Although he fails to say so, no doubt the famous historian argues on the assumption that he, or anyone making the election, would have enjoyed the privileges of aristocracy and wealth. It would be unreasonable to expect great satisfaction from life as a member of a slave gang on one of the great latifundia, or as one of the rabble dependent on public largesses and the uncertain arrival of the grain ships from Egypt. Indeed, this same uncertainty as to the food supply must have hung like a black cloud over the heads even of the favored ones of the imperial city, unless, like certain fabled patricians, they were fortunate enough to possess an ample supply of fish requiring no more problematic nutriment than the flesh of slaves. It is one of the privileges of the imagination, however, always to picture one’s self in the most pleasant circumstances. No one, following Gibbon’s lead, is likely, therefore, to envisage himself clothed in any lesser garment than the senatorial toga, or even the purple itself.

Even so, however, numerous objections might be urged against the thesis of the author of Rome’s Decline and Fall. Not the least valid of these would be based on the fact that the reign of the benevolent Marcus was of only moderate length, so that the historical changeling might, through inadvertence, find himself surviving over into the era of the imperial Stoic’s somewhat impetuous and inconsiderate successor, Commodus. Before entering into any rash bargain, therefore, with fate, it would be wise to have the term of one’s sojourn in this happy interim of Rome’s troubled history clearly defined and delimited.

In determining the happiest epoch of human existence, many strong arguments might doubtless be urged by classical students in favor of the Athenian period —say, from the battle of Salamis to the destruction of the long walls. Born in 480 B.C., according to this arrangement, such an adventurer into the past would have completed the allotted span of life several years before the final Spartan triumph, and might conceivably be quite ready, after the horrors of the siege and plague, to descend into the lower realms still ignorant of the impending cataclysm. Exactly how happy existence may have been, however, even for the more fortunate during this era, is somewhat difficult to determine; so much depends on the point of view. Indeed, that is the trouble with Gibbon’s whole argument: are we admirers of freedom and the abuses of democracy, or are we wedded to monarchy and its special iniquities? As an elder member of the Areopagus during the later Periclean Age, one would, no doubt, encounter many subversive and shocking ideas regarding dress and behavior among the representatives of the younger generation, calculated to undermine the good oldfashioned concepts of duty and filial respect and of woman’s proper place in the gynæceum. It is easy to imagine that these might prove extremely unpleasant to one brought up in what may be termed the later Victorian Age of Greek culture. Likewise, the new revolutionary ideas regarding the sacredness of the old dramatic ‘unities’ and the permissibility of greater freedom in the use of rhythm and metre, foreshadowing, as it were, the free verse of our own day, would no doubt add to the sense of strangeness and discomfort. Nevertheless, even under these circumstances there would be distinct compensations.

‘I remember at the première of Euripides’ Andromache . . .’ Or, ‘When Cimon made his great speech against Ephialtes, I turned to Callias, who was sitting next to me, and said . . .’

There would be a certain authority about a remark of this kind calculated to impress even revolutionary youngsters like Alcibiades. Likewise, the days of the poets were not yet so distant that one might not entertain a hope — faint, perhaps, but still valid — of encountering a nymph or two on the way to Piræus, if one strayed sufficiently from the beaten path. Phryne’s vindication, at a somewhat later period, justified the expectation that divagations of this nature would not entail extreme penalties.

Altogether, the Periclean Age seems not to be unfavorable for an essay in retroactive reincarnation, although a little closer study of the period might be advisable before reaching a final decision.

I realize, however, that there may exist a certain excusable prejudice in the minds of strict churchmen against pagan countries and periods as the scene of a second venture into existence. It may be well, therefore, to turn to later ages in the search for the ideal era. If left to the decision of the more learned and liturgical of the churchmen in question, the choice would, presumably, be nearly unanimous in favor of the thirteenth century, the century of Saint Francis and Dante, of the revival of faith and learning without the turmoil of the Reformation, and of the praiseworthy activity in cathedral construction. Undoubtedly there is much to be said in favor of the thirteenth century, although it is hard to forget that the first half of it was darkened by the so-called ‘crusade’ against the Albigenses and the second half by the Sicilian Vespers. Indeed, I have often wondered, in listening to the benevolent ecclesiastical panegyrists of the period, how much at home, how comfortable they would feel as a suddenly converted contemporary of the redoubtable Thomas Aquinas. Heretical as it may sound, I am inclined to think they might find themselves more in sympathy with the broad tolerance of a Zeno or an Epictetus, or even of an Epicurus.

Personally, I should not select the thirteenth century for any rash chronologic-sociologic experiments. Certain rather liberal and heterodox opinions which I happen to entertain on capitalistic and ecclesiastical questions might, I fear, involve me in difficulties with both Guelf and Ghibelline, and even lead to premature termination of the venture.

I should elect, I think, a much later age in the world’s history and a fresher soil — that, namely, of Virginia during the period pictured by Thackeray, or even of a later date. All things considered, my choice would fall, I think, on the early days of the Republic — say, the period immediately following Washington’s death and extending down to the Civil War. There is a certain careless, regal prodigality about the age, especially as exemplified in the South, without the annoyances of royalty, that appeals to the imagination. The arrangement in question would find me but twelve years of age at the outbreak of the second war against Great Britain and removed from the danger of being called to the colors during the conflict, while by the time of the Mexican disturbance I should be safely in the second or third line of reserves. Besides, with the influence which would be mine as a member of the state’s aristocracy, to which of course I should make it a condition to belong before consenting to any chronologic readjustment, there would be little difficulty in avoiding military duties of an unpleasant nature. To be sure, the existence of slavery during the period of my election might be urged as an unpleasant feature for one of even mild socialistic leanings; but this drawback, I feel convinced, would cease to be felt as such after initial adaptation to conditions. Indeed, the undeniable advantages of the institution might not unlikely recommend themselves with considerable force to the mind of one fresh from the scene of modern domestic and industrial labor troubles.

Decidedly, the more thought I give to the question, the more inclined I feel toward the Era of Good Feeling and the spacious days of Jackson and Harrison as the scene of personally conducted historical investigations.