Over the past 200 years, Western civilization has increased its wealth dramatically, but has its morality been able to keep up with its material progress?
Throughout history, several empires that were very prosperous eventually fell. The Roman Empire, one of the greatest civilizations known, eventually collapsed. The 19th-century French artist Thomas Couture might give us insight into the fall of Rome through his painting “Romans of the Decadence.”
The Decadence of Rome
Scholars attribute Rome’s fall to many causes: invasion, inflation, political corruption, excessive spending, and so on. However, in his painting Couture is concerned with just one thing: morality
Toward the end of their reign, the Romans indulged increasingly in lewd acts. Promiscuity became the norm, and emperors such as Tiberius, Nero, Caligula, Elagabalus, and Commodus engaged in unrestrained sexual behavior.
Common folk also acted without restraint. Increased slave labor meant fewer jobs for Roman citizens, who then needed state handouts in order to live. Without work to occupy them, citizens often became bored, which then led to civil unrest and riots.
The empire began the gladiator games at the Colosseum and Circus Maximus to keep the unruly mob distracted and entertained. The games included battles to the death and bestiality. The more extreme the entertainment, the more likely the mob remained distracted. This distraction cost up to one-third of the empire’s wealth.
Indulgence of all sorts also appeared in religious festivals such as the Bacchanalia, which was a festival to Bacchus, the god of intoxication and wine. These festivals included bloody sacrifices, sexual promiscuity, and lewd acts.
‘Romans of the Decadence’
Couture painted what appears to be a Bacchanalia. There are over 30 figures participating in the festival. The scene is frantic, and the figures are sprawled out across the canvas. Some figures are intimate, while others chase each other around the party; some share their goblets of wine, and others pass out drunk.
Couture’s painting, however, is not celebrating these partiers. Inspired by the Roman poet Juvenal’s lines “More savage than war, luxury burdened Rome and avenged the conquered world,” Couture was critiquing Rome’s decadence and inevitable fall from grace.
According to Couture, Rome became decadent because it relaxed its moral standard. The woman in white in the middle of the composition looks out at us and grabs our attention. Women dressed in white often symbolized purity and virtue. Here, however, she is relaxed as if she is drunk. The man behind her has his hand on her exposed shoulder. Behind her, a woman slips something into the drink the man holds.
We can presume that the man is about to drug the woman in white and violate her. As a representation of virtue and purity, her relaxed state allows all of the buffoonery around her to occur unchecked.
The drama of the scene gives our eyes little rest. However, the stoic and calm appearance of the statues—most likely of great Roman military leaders and generals—contrasts with the drama below. No matter where we look in the composition, we notice the statues of antiquity looking down on the festival’s participants as if to judge their indulgences.
Some of the partygoers appear to mock the statues: One stands with his back toward us and toasts the statue in back; another at the far right of the composition has climbed up onto a statue and offers it a drink from his goblet. These acts are not expressions of admiration but of vanity.
At the bottom of the composition, amid the frantic play of figures, an overturned vase with spilled fruit and flowers remind us that this is a “vanitas” painting. This style of painting often included worldly objects such as spent candles, spilled wine, and a few skulls. Couture was trying to remind us of the dangers of vanity, that these pleasures are short-lived, and that our lives are better spent trying to understand morality and live accordingly.
Aside from the statues, two philosophers at the right of the composition also seem to be judging the revelers. The fact that they are fully clothed separates them from most of the other figures. Representing rational and critical thinking amidst irrational flightiness, they look disdainfully at the event.
We often hear that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. Couture’s painting provides a visual interpretation of historical immorality. He painted this to warn 19th-century French society about the dangers of its excesses; and here, it speaks to us today.
I think this painting can serve as a reminder that we become good at what we practice, and we should therefore make sure we are practicing the right things.
And what things should we practice? The Bacchanalia was a festival of irrationality, emotional fervor, and indulgent behavior. Couture would have us practice the opposite.
The philosophers on the right side of the composition represent the practice of rational thought and critical thinking used for contemplating profound truths, and the stoic statues surrounding the figures represent strength and self-control. Thus, should we practice critical thinking, self-control, and search for profound truths?
The vanitas elements at the bottom of the composition suggest that we waste too much time pursuing material gain or ephemeral pleasures. Instead, we should recognize that we have limited time on earth and should practice morality, for our collective indulgences could lead to the end of our great prosperity.
The traditional arts often contain spiritual representations and symbols the meanings of which can be lost to our modern minds. In our series “Reaching Within: What Traditional Art Offers the Heart,” we interpret visual arts in ways that may be morally insightful for us today. We do not assume to provide absolute answers to questions generations have wrestled with, but hope that our questions will inspire a reflective journey toward our becoming more authentic, compassionate, and courageous human beings.