THEODOSIUS THE GREAT.
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THE LATTER DAYS OF ROME.
The last of those Roman emperors whom we call great was Theodosius. After him there is no great historic name, unless it be Justinian, who reigned when Rome had fallen. With Theodosius is associated the life-and-death struggle of Rome with the Gothic barbarians, and the final collapse of Paganism as a tolerated religion. Paganism in its essence, its spirit, was not extinguished; it entered into new forms, even into the Church itself; and it still exists in Christian countries. When Bismarck was asked why he did not throw down his burdens, he is reported to have said: “Because no man can take my place. I should like to retire to my estates and raise cabbages; but I have work to do against Paganism: I live among Pagans.” Neither Theodosius nor Bismarck was what we should call a saint. Both have been stained by acts which it is hard to distinguish from crimes; but both have given evidence of hatred of certain evils which undermine society. Theodosius, especially, made war and fought nobly against the two things which most imperilled the Empire,—the barbarians who had begun their ravages, and the Paganism which existed both in and outside the Church. For which reasons he has been praised by most historians, in spite of great crimes and some vices. The worldly Gibbon admires him for the noble stand he took against external dangers, and the Fathers of the Church almost adored him for his zealous efforts in behalf of orthodoxy. An eminent scholar of the advanced school has seen nothing in him to admire, and much to blame. But he was undoubtedly a very great man, and rendered important services to his age and to civilization, although he could not arrest the fatal disease which even then had destroyed the vitality of the Empire. It was already doomed when he ascended the throne. No mortal genius, no imperial power, could have saved the crumbling Empire.
In my lecture on Marcus Aurelius I alluded to the external prosperity and internal weakness of the old Roman world during his reign. That outward prosperity continued for a century after he was dead,—that is, there were peace, thrift, art, wealth, and splendor. Men were unmolested in the pursuit of pleasure. There were no great wars with enemies beyond the limits of the Empire. There were wars of course; but these chiefly were civil wars between rival aspirants for imperial power, or to suppress rebellions, which did not alarm the people. They still sat under their own vines and fig-trees, and danced to voluptuous music, and rejoiced in the glory of their palaces. They feasted and married and were given in marriage, like the antediluvians. They never dreamed that a great catastrophe was near, that great calamities were impending.