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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Work of the Roman Empire
By James Bryce (1838–1922)
 
From ‘The Holy Roman Empire’

NO one who reads the history of the last three hundred years—no one, above all, who studies attentively the career of Napoleon—can believe it possible for any State, however great her energy and material resources, to repeat in modern Europe the part of ancient Rome; to gather into one vast political body races whose national individuality has grown more and more marked in each successive age. Nevertheless, it is in great measure due to Rome and to the Roman Empire of the Middle Ages that the bonds of national union are on the whole both stronger and nobler than they were ever before. The latest historian of Rome [Mommsen], after summing up the results to the world of his hero’s career, closes his treatise with these words:
          “There was in the world as Cæsar found it the rich and noble heritage of past centuries, and an endless abundance of splendor and glory; but little soul, still less taste, and least of all, joy in and through life. Truly it was an old world, and even Cæsar’s genial patriotism could not make it young again. The blush of dawn returns not until the night has fully descended. Yet with him there came to the much-tormented races of the Mediterranean a tranquil evening after a sultry day; and when after long historical night the new day broke once more upon the peoples, and fresh nations in free self-guided movement began their course toward new and higher aims, many were found among them in whom the seed of Cæsar had sprung up,—many who owed him, and who owe him still, their national individuality.”
  1
  If this be the glory of Julius, the first great founder of the Empire, so is it also the glory of Charles, the second founder, and of more than one among his Teutonic successors. The work of the mediæval Empire was self-destructive; and it fostered, while seeming to oppose, the nationalities that were destined to replace it. It tamed the barbarous races of the North and forced them within the pale of civilization. It preserved the arts and literature of antiquity. In times of violence and oppression, it set before its subjects the duty of rational obedience to an authority whose watchwords were peace and religion. It kept alive, when national hatreds were most bitter, the notion of a great European Commonwealth. And by doing all this, it was in effect abolishing the need for a centralizing and despotic power like itself; it was making men capable of using national independence aright; it was teaching them to rise to that conception of spontaneous activity, and a freedom which is above law but not against it, to which national independence itself, if it is to be a blessing at all, must be only a means. Those who mark what has been the tendency of events since A.D. 1789, and who remember how many of the crimes and calamities of the past are still but half redressed, need not be surprised to see the so-called principle of nationalities advocated with honest devotion as the final and perfect form of political development. But such undistinguishing advocacy is after all only the old error in a new shape. If all other history did not bid us beware the habit of taking the problems and the conditions of our own age for those of all time, the warning which the Empire gives might alone be warning enough. From the days of Augustus down to those of Charles V., the whole civilized world believed in its existence as a part of the eternal fitness of things, and Christian theologians were not behind heathen poets in declaring that when it perished the world would perish with it. Yet the Empire is gone, and the world remains, and hardly notes the change.  2
 
 
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