Dec 25, 2015
During the height of her political prowess, ancient Rome boasted of her influence throughout the world. Romans had planted their culture in Athens, Corinth, Jerusalem and Alexandria. They had extended their rule to North Africa to Hadrian's Wall in England and the Antonine Wall in Scotland. Great roads, theaters, public baths, gymnasia and the military muscle of the Roman Empire fostered a sense of security and prosperity. But, there was one thing notably missing from the heart of the Roman Empire. There was no compassion.
In this, Romans were not unlike the Greeks from whom they had learned so much. The Greek philosopher Plato had stated that "a poor man who was no longer able to work because of sickness should be left to die" (Republic 3.406d-410a). The Romans subscribed to the same philosophy of life. The Roman playwright Plautus stated, "You do a beggar bad service by giving him food and drink; you lose what you give and prolong his life for misery" (Trinummus 2.338-2.339).
At the height of her power, the luster of Rome's glory was dimmed by her harsh indifference toward the suffering and needy. Amid Rome's unsanitary, disease infested hovels, the sick could find no public institution to care for them. Often sick slaves were abandoned on Tiber Island and left to die. Fathers would regularly abandon their children born with birth defects and leave them in the open to die.
The leaders of ancient Rome did not extol compassion. Since mercy means giving to someone what they do not earn, pagans saw it as contrary to justice. Pliny the Younger certainly was one of the most generous Romans of his day. He paid for public feasts, decorated public baths, built a library and provided scholarships for education. Nonetheless, he questioned the very existence of charities that gave to the poor. Having pity on the indigent and showing mercy to the needy was a weakness, not a virtue. And, then Christianity came upon the scene!