A Christian Survey of World History

Roman Republic and Empire, I


*This is an unedited and unofficial print version of R.J. Rushdoony’s lecture.

R.J. Rushdoony: 00:00 … under God, our Heavenly Father, for the right to supply grace and the certainty of [inaudible 00:00:06], we give you thanks. We thank thee, our Father, that thou who hast [inaudible 00:00:11]. We [inaudible 00:00:11], so that we can rest assured that all the days of our life, thine hand will be upon us, O Lord. And so, our God, we come into thy presence in this confidence, to prepare ourselves for thy service, know more of thy workings in times past and at times to come. We praise thee for thy grace unto us, age after age, and we rejoice in thy mercy. Lift us, our Father, and strengthen us in thy service. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

R.J. Rushdoony: 00:54 Tonight we continue our study of ancient history and our survey of world history by dealing, first of all, with the Roman Republic, chapter eight. And as I’ve said previously, if you have read the text before coming, it will enable you to understand better what you have read and what I say, because the text and the lectures complement each other. It has been our purpose in these lectures to try to understand the faith behind the events in particular periods of history. And therefore our concern tonight is therefore, first of all, with the Roman religion. The word piety and pious come from Latin, from Roman civilization, and it tells us a great deal about Rome when we understand what the world pious means. The word pious means, in Latin, a man who is subordinate to authority. Ultimately, the authority of the state as the highest authority.

R.J. Rushdoony: 02:14 Thus, in Roman religion, a pious man was ultimately a statist man. Now, it did involve authority to parents and to employers and to people in the immediate vicinity, but the ultimate authority of the pious man’s obedience was the state. This is a very important fact because it tells us something about the life of Rome and its religion. Tertullian, centuries later in the Christian era, ridiculed the Romans because he said, “The Senate of Rome can make and unmake gods,” and this was indeed true. The ultimate power in their religion was the state. Emperors were made gods because of the services they had rendered to the state, so that, ultimately, it was the Roman state that was divine, the Roman state that was the object of faith.

R.J. Rushdoony: 03:26 Rome began primarily as a state. There are a great many stories about Romulus and Remus and how the two brothers, who had been abandoned as twins when they were small children and up grew wild, nursed ostensibly by a she-wolf, built the city when they were young men, hardly more than boys, in terms of our thinking. Now historians treat this story as a myth, because historians, of course, are given very much to treating anything that is old as a myth. In Voltaire’s day, which was only two or three centuries ago, the idea was that anything before their day was automatically suspect and a myth. There is no reason to doubt that there is some truth to the Romulus and Remus story, and it tells us something psychologically about Rome that is very important.

R.J. Rushdoony: 04:37 And here I shall quote a passage from my own book, The One and the Many, in which I deal with this Romulus and Remus story. And I quote, “It is today a mark of intellectual respectability to treat ancient records as non-historical, but even an elementary respect for the Roman record points to rather startling conclusions. Two boys, abandoned twins, set out to found a city. Romulus plowed a furrow as the first wall around the planned city, with a trench or furrow as a moat and the overturned earth as the wall. By this act, he created his sacred city. His brother Remus expressed his contempt for the wall and moat by leaping across them into the city, whereupon Romulus killed him at once, declaring, ‘So perish all who cross my walls!’ Rome thus began, first, with two boys abandoned by their family, and second, with the murder of a brother as its first sacrifice.

R.J. Rushdoony: 05:49 “The priority of the city to the family is emphatically set forth. But this is not all. Third, the first citizens were not members of a common family. That is, no relatives of Romulus, but neighboring shepherds, outlaws, and stateless persons. The city made them Romans, not ties of family or of blood. [inaudible 00:06:18]. Roman family life and Rome’s first alliance began by an assault on the family, when the woman-less men joined in the rape of the Sabine women, with an ensuing war against their fathers, ending in peace and a close alliance, when the Sabine women who had been carried off by the Romans interceded with their fathers to restore peace.” Unquote.

R.J. Rushdoony: 06:45 Now, this is a very interesting thing. The family was very important in Rome. Extremely important, but always subordinate to the state, so that Rome began its history not as evolutionary people would have us to believe of cultures, with first the family and then the clan, and then the tribe, and then the city, and then the broader country. It began as a city, before there was a family. And the families that were important were those that were most associated with the life of the city, but the ultimate authority was always the city. The state. The government. So that Rome clearly, from the beginning, gave priority to statism. The state was very important, thus, in Rome, and it was the answer to things. Whenever there was a problem, the answer was the state.

R.J. Rushdoony: 08:04 And as a result, very early, a number of powers were created to enable the state to cope with emergencies. We would say they had their own set of executive orders. Now, in the early years, Rome was a monarchy with elected kings. Then they dispensed with the monarchy and formed a republic. But even in the days of the republic, the laws stipulated that if anytime there was an emergency, Rome would become a total dictatorship for six months, so that anytime the Senate could vote a total dictatorship and a private dictator whose term ran for six months. If the crisis ended before, he could surrender the dictatorial powers, and some did, before the time was over. At the end of the six months, the Senate could renew it.

R.J. Rushdoony: 09:13 Now, this plan was a very effective one for war. They were thus not only a statist people, they were a military people. And so their answer to things was to organize in terms of statism and war. Well, in wartime, it is very important to have a central command. Extremely important. And if you dilute the command, you dilute the strength. This is war. It’s an interesting sidelight here that Nazi Germany had a centralized command with civilian control, which actually diluted it. There were too many channels to go through, and when the war was over, American officers went over there to ask them what they thought of their own semi-Pentagon structure with army, navy, and air corps unified with civilians at the top, and all the German admirals and generals said it was a mess. It bogged things down. It led to trouble.

R.J. Rushdoony: 10:32 The only one who did not say so was the tank car general, Hans Guderian. And Guderian was so contemptuous of the United States that he didn’t want to give them any good advice, so he’s the only one who recommended it. And he recommended it with evil intentions. And they took his advice against every other general and admiral. So, you see, this is the way it is with people when they ask for advice. They go searching until they find the one person who gives them what they want to say. So in Hans Guderian, the man who hated the US most, they got the advice they wanted, and it hasn’t done us any good. Of course, this idea of centralizing everything was ineffective for peace, but the Romans, as a military and a statist people, saw all problems in military and statist answers. Give strong power to one man to solve the problems.

R.J. Rushdoony: 11:39 This, of course, was ultimately the downfall of Rome. Every answer they gave was some kind of governmental control. Law came from the state. Religion came from the state. Ancestor worship was in the background of the Romans. This is an interesting fact, because people tell us, “Well, ancestor worship, of course, is family-oriented.” But is it? The curious fact is that wherever you have ancestor worship in the world, you have strong statism, totalitarianism. The background of China is ancestor worship, and China has not been noted as a country for liberty. Japan, of course, Shintoism is ancestor worship. And again, Japan has not been noted for having a free kind of government until after World War II. Why does ancestor worship, which supposedly is family-oriented, actual mean statism? Well, the point is that when you have ancestor worship, it isn’t the family as such that you’re honoring. The family is a living thing. When you worship ancestors, you’re worshiping the dead and their authority. A vague kind of rule which coalesces around the emperor, who himself may become a god, or the ruler, or the state.

R.J. Rushdoony: 13:41 How much family authority was there in old China? Well, people who first went over there after photography was invented and took pictures of old China, found that the Chinese believed that when you took someone’s picture, you captured their soul, and he would die soon. So naturally, a lot of people didn’t want to be photographed. But the interesting thing was that everywhere they went, families were dragging out grandpa and grandma, and momma and papa, and demanding that the photographer take their picture. Now, is that a strong family life? Or sometimes, they were asking that their husband’s or wife’s picture be taken, too. Now, of course, that’s no sign of family life. And yes, that was, tragically, what photographers found when they first went there, before all the superstition died. So the family life was not strong. Ancestor worship does not strengthen the present family. It strengthens the dead, whose power accrues to the state.So ancestor worship in Rome did not mean that the family was strong, but that there was authority in the clan and the state.

R.J. Rushdoony: 15:28 It’s commonly said that the old Romans were men of character and men of great virtue, and so on. Well, this is questionable. Their character was there, it was character of a sort, but could we really call it character in a Christian sense? Was it good? Actually, the thing that characterized the Romans throughout their history was a feeling that the flesh, the body, represented something lower, so that in the days of the Republic, to give into the flesh was something disgraceful. For anyone who was a person of any consequence to kiss his wife in public was shameful. In fact, I believe that a Senator was once disgraced because he had kissed his wife at the door of their house. Cato the elder once said that the only time he’d ever hugged his wife was when it thundered and she ran into his arms for protection.

R.J. Rushdoony: 16:54 Any indulgence, therefore, of things material was very much frowned upon, especially by the men. The women were not quite as sold on this sold of thing, so that in the days of the Republic, one of the problems was that the men frowned very much on drinking, and the women … their wives were much more given to taking a little nip now and then. So spiced wines became very popular among the women, because they could take a drink when they sat around to visit and chat and have their gossiping parties, and with a spiced wine, they could kill, with very strong spices, the smell of the wine. And about the only time in those days of the Republic that the Roman men would kiss their wives was when they wanted to see if there were any liquor on their breath. Now, the kind of thing you see that people today talk about when they talk about being Puritanical characterized the Romans in those days. And, in more recent history, the Unitarians of the last century. Not the Puritans, the real Puritans. This characterized the Romans.

R.J. Rushdoony: 18:20 The reason, as I indicated, was a contempt of the flesh. Later on, when their pagan character broke down and they become an extremely licentious people, profligate and immoral to the extreme, they still had this contempt of the flesh. And this is why they so readily went into perversions, because their idea of being sexual was not anything normal or Godly or healthy, it was perverted to the Nth degree. We’ll deal with that a little more when we get into the empire. Because the Roman religion was a statist religion, their program of salvation, of course, was therefore statist. And as a result, their every answer to things was political. In our text, I deal with what was the New Deal in Ancient Rome, when the Gracchi brothers offered their plan of salvation for Rome. And it’s very interesting to go back and read the history of the times.

R.J. Rushdoony: 19:43 I recall, when I was still a student, there was a young woman I knew, and a very superior girl. A very, very intelligent girl. And I used to see quite a bit of her in a purely platonic way. We knew a lot of people in common. But unfortunately, she was very strongly influenced by Marxism, and as I was reading history, and of the Roman Republic, I ran across statements of the day that sounded just like the Marxist statements of today, and the New Deal statements, because that was the days of the New Deal and FDR, about driving the money-changers from the temple and the exploitation by the rich of the poor, and the middle man, and so on and so forth, all the same old garbage, way back then. Of course, her answer was, “That proves the Marxist theory of society is true.” What it actually proves is that in every age, men as sinners want a scapegoat.

R.J. Rushdoony: 21:09 Of course, the Gracchis came along with this, blaming everybody for everything. And the Gracchi brothers, one after another, took over the government and imposed a New Deal on Ancient Rome. It didn’t solve anything, but made everything worse. They were assassinated, and, of course, they had a marker for the cause. From there on, the Roman Republic progressively moved into civil war as hatred has fanned between the Roman aristocracy and the plebs. And of course, just as in this country it was an aristocrat, Roosevelt, who took over the leadership of the plebs, the common people, so in Ancient Rome it was aristocrats, degenerate aristocrats like Julius Caesar, who took over the revolution and carried it to a success in the name of the people and made the people the real victims. But then as now, they did it. They robbed the people by saying, “It is the system. It’s the aristocrats. It’s the moneylenders. It’s the capitalists,” and so on.

R.J. Rushdoony: 22:33 Now to pass onto the ninth chapter. On page 65, the second paragraph, I sum up this problem that marked Rome and its downfall. Page 65, the second paragraph, near the bottom of the page. ” The Roman answer to the problem of man had been defined. First, man’s problem was not sin but lack of political order, and this political order the divine and Messianic state provided. Second, Rome answered the problem of the one and the many, that is, the individual versus the group, in favor of the oneness, the unity of all things in terms of Rome. Hence, over-organization, undue simplification, and centralization increasingly characterized Rome. This, then was the problem. They said that it is not sin. Oh, no. That was not the answer. It was lack of political order. Lack of strong, central, unified government.”

R.J. Rushdoony: 23:59 In the text, I point out how Julius Caesar gained power. It was really a religious and Messianic program. His keyword was clementia, mercy, forgiveness, grace, but without regeneration. And forgiveness without regeneration is, of course, the program of man today. We should forgive people even though they’re not regenerated, even though they’ve made no restitution. And, of course, the very men Julius Caesar forgave were among those who … Well, they were the ones who stabbed him. His mercy changed no one. His forgiveness did not remove sin. But Rome was not ready to say the problem was sin, only lack of political power. And as a result, there was a steady concentration of power into the hands of the councils, and finally in the hands of the emperors.

R.J. Rushdoony: 25:31 It’s very interesting. The first emperor, Octavius, or Octavian, gained power by ostensibly reviving the old republic and its constitution. He leaned over backwards to look like Mr. John Doe, average man. Very simple and unassuming, very modest. Observing all the old ways and talking about the glories of the Republic and how they had to observe the old laws, even while, in reality, he created the empire irrevocably. This, very definitely, was his strategy, this modest front. It is interesting how Octavian gained power as against Antony and Cleopatra when the showdown came. It was a question, after Julius Caesar was assassinated, who would come out on top: Antony, Mark Antony, or Octavian. Octavian was the young fellow in the situation, in his twenties. All the odds were against him, seemingly inexperienced. Mark Antony was a popular man, a veteran hero and commander of the forces. Very powerful. On top of that, he allied himself with one of the shrewdest women of history, Cleopatra.

R.J. Rushdoony: 26:57 There’s a great deal of nonsense about Cleopatra, as though she were a sex-bot. This is nonsense. Cleopatra was a hard-headed, calculating woman whose purpose was world empire. She ruled Egypt and a great deal of the Middle East. She knew that Roman military power was superior to hers, and she would not be able to resist it, and so she made an alliance, had an affair with Julius Caesar. They had a child who was later put to death, and figured that in league with Julius Caesar, they would rule the world and create a worldwide empire. She had a magnificent dream, an unscrupulous one. She at first put her half-brother, who was her husband, to death, so there would be no one in the way when she had her alliance with Julius Caesar. So she immediately went for Mark Antony, and one would think that with that tremendous combination of power, they would’ve won.

R.J. Rushdoony: 28:13 Because the empire was divided into two zones of influence, one for Octavian and one for Mark Antony. And Mark Antony got Greece and portions of the middle east that were far richer. Why did they lose? Well, supposedly, Mark Antony lost the battle. But actually, his troops deserted, many of them before the fighting got underway. Why? Mark Antony was a veteran military man. He should have run Octavian off the map without any trouble. The key was money. Octavian came from a background of gold merchants, and he knew the value of good, hard money. Gold coins. Silver coins. Nothing else. But Mark Antony did not have such a view, and he and Cleopatra began to issue counterfeits, coins that were just thinly washed with gold. And the troops were being paid off with these. Well, Mark Antony and Cleopatra were living it up.

R.J. Rushdoony: 29:37 And, of course, very quickly, those coins would wear down to the copper, and the merchants didn’t want the money that these soldiers wanted to spend. And an army that finds its getting paid in counterfeit loses its loyalty to its general. So Mark Antony was the old hero, but they weren’t interested in what he was five or 10 or 15 or 20 years ago. They thought he was fine then. But what about our paychecks now? We’re being paid off with worthless counterfeits. And so he was doomed before he went to battle. The army and the navy knew who had paid them off in good money. They had been told that. Go over to Octavian. He’ll give you real wages. Now, that’s what counts.

R.J. Rushdoony: 30:39 They’re still wondering in Washington why, suddenly, when they thought they had all the votes lined up in the UN, they lost that with regards to nationalist China. And none of the great powers except Japan really stood with them. Britain and all the other countries deserted us. Why? Well, remember? We, not too long before all that, spoke about the non-convertibility of the dollar. We weren’t going to pay off. And when you’ve welshed on your debts, you don’t have many friends. Mark Antony found that out and committed suicide, and so did Cleopatra. They had some to the end of the road. Everything in their favor, and they blew it. They blew it. Everything was in our favor, and we are blowing it. The economic crisis came again before too long, because Octavian’s hard common sense in this respect was forgotten by the Romans.

R.J. Rushdoony: 31:57 You know, in the last volume of his World War II memoirs, Churchill says, “And thus ended the greatest war of history, after which the great powers returned to the policies which very nearly destroyed them.” And the policies which had destroyed Mark Antony and Cleopatra, they became the policies to which Rome, after a century or two, returned. Bad money. The law of the state replacing economic law. And, of course, increasingly, because of the tradition started bad, way back, centuries before, in the days of the Republic, a welfarism. The welfare rose, growing and growing. Bread and circuses, and the circuses more and more catering to the perverted taste that was developing in the Romans because of their false view of the body of flesh.

R.J. Rushdoony: 33:14 There are practically no books that tell the truth about the Roman circus. Day after day, the arena opened for welfare people and for the well-to-do for all classes. Every kind of act of perversion. Not only gladiators fighting to the death and chariot races, Christians being thrown to the lions and other animals, but these animals being trained, first of all, to rape the victims, and then to kill and eat them. And much, much more. One of the most frightful eras in world history. There are many fine scholars like B. B. Warfield, one of the great reform scholars of a couple generations ago, who have held, and I think with reason, that when Scripture speaks of a great tribulation, it was speaking about that which the people of the early Church were going to face in Rome. It was a fearful thing. I had intended to bring the account of the martyrdom of one girl from the early second century. Perhaps I can remember to bring it next time to give you an idea of that which happened in those days.

R.J. Rushdoony: 34:51 But the Christians stood their ground, one great persecution after another. That’s beyond our story now. We’ll come to that next time. The circus was a familiar place for them, because so many died there most horribly. But the circus was basic to Roman religion. In The One and the Many, I point out why it was. It was a part of their perverted faith. Rome was going downhill. In 312, Constantine the Great came to power, accepting Christianity and making it the faith of the empire. His point was purely pragmatic. He may have been, in a very weak way, a believer. He was clearly a great man. But he saw that there was only one element in the empire that had any health in it and that could save the empire. It was near death. It was collapsing.

R.J. Rushdoony: 36:09 Diocletian, just before Constantine, had passed the most stringent types of controls, as I point out in the text, such vicious controls that a man who had a shop had no choice but to close his shop. He could not maintain it in terms of the rules, and if he broke the rules, he would’ve been executed. So it was better to close up shop and face starvation. And the empire just fell apart. And at the same time, the most savage persecution of Christians of all, determined to wipe them out to the last man. Constantine felt, “These people are the most law-abiding, hardworking, and most hopeful element in the empire. We’ve got to use them instead of killing them off.” So he approached Christianity pragmatically. He accepted it nominally. He may have come to believe it. He was baptized only on his deathbed.

R.J. Rushdoony: 37:24 But it was 312 only, 98 years before Rome fell. And even then, Constantine recognized that the days were numbered, that it would be next to impossible to save the empire, that the best hope was to find a new capital and a new center and to try to make a better beginning there. And he made Constantinople, named after him, the new capital, and began the construction of a great center for the empire then. He was wise in his choice, because the eastern half of the empire, known as Byzantium, lasted for a thousand years, better than a thousand years, falling only in 1492. But many people found it hard to believe that Rome would fall. The emperors who followed Constantine, one of them was an apostate, hating Christianity and again trying to destroy it. Julian, the apostate.

R.J. Rushdoony: 38:44 The others were nominal Christians, but actually they were Arians, heretics, dedicated to its destruction. To them, the most desirable thing at all was to use the Christians and to use the Church to salvage the empire, and therefore they would profess Arianism, which did not believe in Christ as the Son of God and as savior, and which held to a doctrine of God which was really no different from that of [inaudible 00:39:21] and the Death of God school today, because they declared that God neither speaks nor thinks nor can reveal Himself. He’s just kind of a vague, evolving power in the universe. He’s not a person. And the emperors turned the Church over to the Arians, and the orthodox bishops were again and again persecuted, like Athanasius. We’ll come to that, perhaps, next chapter. And so it was that Rome really went back to its persecuting policy after Constantine. There were one or two emperors that were tolerably good, that might past for Christians of a kind, but basically the empire continued its course and collapsed. It did not get overthrown. It collapsed. One general in Rome, who alone was able to defeat the enemies, was so distrusted by the Roman emperor that the one man who again and again had defeated the barbarians was arrested and executed because they were afraid that if he defeated … Well, that when he defeated the barbarians, he would claim powers alongside the emperor. But he was so loyal, he submitted to the arrest and execution, whereas if he had given the word, the army would have overthrown the emperor and fought beside him. And as a result, the army was wiped out. The barbarians simply marched into Rome. When they entered the Senate, they thought it was deserted and that the Senators sitting there were statues. And it was only when they went up to feel these lifelike-seeming statues that they jumped back, and then they proceeded with their slaughter. So Rome fell. But people everywhere found it hard to believe that Rome could fall. That civilization as they had known it could disappear. And one gentleman bishop, because already some were developing, I refer to in the last paragraph of this chapter, chapter nine. Even after Rome fell, many were unable to believe … This is page 72, at the bottom of the page: “Even after Rome fell, many were unable to believe that its fall were more than a temporary setback. In Southern France, the gentleman bishop Sidonius lived the life of Roman of the old order, with a villa in the hills, a library, a dining room with a fireplace, baths, and hunting parties as well as dinner parties.

R.J. Rushdoony: 43:02 “Although the barbarians were destroying cities and ravaging the countryside throughout the western empire, Sidonius could not believe that Rome was finished. As he wrote to a friend, ‘Providence, I doubt not, will grant a happy issue to our prayers, and under new blessings of peace we shall look back upon these terrors as mere memories.’ Soon after Sidonius’ death, his own villa was burned, and the easy, cultured life he knew was gone. Providence, as always, had moved not in terms of men’s wishes, but in terms of the unfailing law of God.” People kept telling themselves, “Well” … People who were well-to-do like Sidonius, “Well, life the way we have it is too good for God to do away with it. After all, those barbarians don’t bathe, and they’re wild people, and certainly God couldn’t favor them against us,” forgetting that the judgment of God was upon Rome because to whom much is given, from him much is expected.

R.J. Rushdoony: 44:23 And as a result, the Sidoniuses of the day either died, and everything they had was destroyed, or they saw everything destroyed before their eyes. And the tragedy of it was that many who could’ve done something kept looking backward. They did not think about reconstruction. They thought about restoring what they had.

Speaker 2: 45:00 Please turn over the cassette and continue the message.

Rev. R.J. Rushdoony (1916–2001), was a leading theologian, church/state expert, and author of numerous works on the application of Biblical law to society. He started the Chalcedon Foundation in 1965.  His Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) began the contemporary theonomy movement which posits the validity of Biblical law as God’s standard of obedience for all. He therefore saw God’s law as the basis of the modern Christian response to the cultural decline, one he attributed to the church’s false view of God’s law being opposed to His grace. This broad Christian response he described as “Christian Reconstruction.”  He is credited with igniting the modern Christian school and homeschooling movements in the mid to late 20th century. He also traveled extensively lecturing and serving as an expert witness in numerous court cases regarding religious liberty. Many ministry and educational efforts that continue today, took their philosophical and Biblical roots from his lectures and books.

Learn more about R.J. Rushdoony by visiting: https://chalcedon.edu/founder