THE APPIAN WAY

The custom of bordering the main approaches of the city with sepulchral monuments was, in all likelihood, derived from the Etruscans, to whom the Romans owed many of their institutions. These monuments were usually structures of great beauty and elegance. Some of them were fashioned as conical mounds, on the slopes of which trees and parterres of flowers were planted; others were built after the model of graceful Grecian temples; others were huge circular masses of masonry; and others were simple sarcophagi with lids, resting on square elevated pedestals. Most of them were adorned with busts and statues of the departed, with altars, columns, and carvings. What these tombs were in their prime, it is difficult for us to picture; but even their remains at the present day produce the conviction that no grander mode of approach to a great city could have been devised.

It would seem to us altogether incongruous to line our public roads with tombs, and to transact the business and pursue the pleasures of the living among the dead. All our ideas of propriety would be shocked by seeing a circus for athletic games beside a cemetery. But the ancient Romans had no such feeling. They buried their dead, not in lonely spots and obscure churchyards as we do, but where the life of the city was gayest. One of the grandest of their sepulchral monuments was placed beside one of the most frequented of their circuses. The last objects which a Roman beheld when he left the city, and the first that greeted him on his coming back, were the tombs of his ancestors and friends; and their silent admonition did not deepen the sadness of farewell, or cast a shadow upon the joy of return. Many of the marble sarcophagi were ornamented with beautiful bas-reliefs of mythical incidents, utterly inconsistent, we should suppose, with the purpose for which they were designed. Nuptials, bacchanalian fêtes, games, and dances, are crowded upon their sculptured sides, in seeming mockery of the pitiable relics of humanity within. They treated death lightly and playfully, these ancient Romans, and tried to hide his terror with a mask of smiles, and to cover his dart with a wreath of flowers.

Why is it that we Christians look upon death with feelings so widely different? Why, when life and immortality have been brought to light in the gospel, are the mementoes of mortality more painful and saddening to us than they were to these pagans who had no hopes of a resurrection? It seems a paradox, but the Christianity which has brought the greatest hope into the world has also brought the greatest fear. By increasing the value of life, our religion has increased the fear of death. By quickening the conscience, it has quickened the imagination; and that death which to the man conscious only of a physical existence is the mere natural termination of life, to the nature convinced of sin is a violent breach of the beautiful order of the world, and the gate to final retribution. The ancient Roman was but a child in spiritual apprehension, and therefore as a child he surrendered his happy pagan life as thoughtlessly as the weary child falls asleep at the end of its play. No terrors of futurity darkened his last hours; he had his own turn at the feast of life, and as a satisfied guest he was content to depart and make room for others. As cheerfully as he had formerly begun his ordinary journeys from Rome through a street of tombs, so now he took the last journey, he knew not whither, through the valley of the shadow of death, and feared no evil; not because a greater Power was with him to defend him, but because for him no evil except the common pangs of dissolution existed. All that he cared for in death was that he should not be altogether separated from the presence and the enjoyments of human life, from the haunts where he had been so happy. He wished to have his tomb on the public thoroughfare, that he might "feel, as it were, the tide of life as it flowed past his monument, and that his mute existence might be prolonged in the remembrance of his friends." I may observe that the Roman custom of bordering the public roads with tombs gives a significance to the inscriptions which some of them bore,—such as, Siste, viatorAspice, viator, "Stop, traveller"—"Look, traveller"; a significance which is altogether lost when the same inscriptions are carved, as we have often seen them, on tombstones in secluded country churchyards where no traveller ever passes by, and hardly even friends come to weep.