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From Seneca to Juvenal
H.E. BUTLER, Fellow of New College
I have attempted in this book to provide something of an introduction
to the poetical literature of the post-Augustan age. Although few of
the writers dealt with have any claim to be called poets of the first
order, and some stand very low in the scale of poetry, as a whole the
poets of this period have suffered greater neglect than they deserve.
Their undeniable weaknesses tend in many cases to obscure their real
merits, with the result that they are at times either ignored or
subjected to unduly sweeping condemnation. I have attempted in these
pages to detach and illustrate their excellences without in any way
passing over their defects.
Manilius and Phaedrus have been omitted on the ground that as regards
the general character of their writings they belong rather to the
Augustan period than to the subsequent age of decadence. Manilius indeed
composed a considerable portion of his work during the lifetime of
Augustus, while Phaedrus, though somewhat later in date, showed a
sobriety of thought and an antique simplicity of style that place him at
least a generation away from his contemporaries. The authorities to
whose works I am indebted are duly acknowledged in the course of the
work. I owe a special debt, however, to those great works of reference,
the Histories of Roman Literature by Schanz and Teuffel, to
Friedlaender's _Sittengeschichte_, and, for the chapters on Lucan and
Statius, to Heitland's _Introduction to Haskin's edition of Lucan_ and
Legras' _Thebaide de Stace_. I wish particularly to express my
indebtedness to Professor Gilbert Murray and Mr. Nowell Smith, who read
the book in manuscript and made many valuable suggestions and
corrections. I also have to thank Mr. A.S. Owen for much assistance in
the corrections of the proofs.
My thanks are owing to Professor Goldwin Smith for permission to print
translations from 'Bay Leaves', and to Mr. A.E. Street and Mr. F.J.
Miller and their publishers, for permission to quote from their
translations of Martial (Messrs. Spottiswoode) and Seneca (Chicago
University Press) respectively.
THE DECLINE OF POST-AUGUSTAN POETRY
Main characteristics, p. 1.
The influence of the principate, p. 1.
Tiberius, p. 2.
Caligula, p. 4.
Claudius, p. 5.
Nero, p. 6.
Decay of Roman character, p. 9.
Peculiar nature of Roman literature, p. 10.
Greatness of Augustan poets a bar to farther advance, p. 11.
Roman education: literary, p. 12;
rhetorical, p. 14.
Absence of true educational spirit, p. 16.
Recitations, p. 18.
Results of these influences, p. 19.
i. THE STAGE.
Drama never really flourishing at Rome, p. 23.
Comedy, represented by Mime and Atellan farce, p. 24.
Legitimate comedy nearly extinct, p. 25.
Tragedy replaced by _salticae fabulae_, p. 26;
or musical recitations, p. 28.
Pomponius Secundus, p. 29.
Curiatius Maternus, p. 30.
ii. SENECA: his life and character, p. 31.
His position in literature, p. 35.
His epigrams, p. 36.
His plays, p. 39.
Their genuineness, p. 40.
The _Octavia, Oedipus, Agamemnon,_ and _Hercules Oetaeus,_ p. 41.
Date of the plays, p. 43.
Their dramatic value, p. 44.
Plot, p. 45.
Descriptions, p. 48.
Declamation, p. 49;
at its best in _Troades_ and _Phaedra_, p. 51.
Dialogue, p. 55.
Stoicism, p. 58.
Poetry (confined mainly to lyrics), p. 63.
Cleverness of the rhetoric, p. 65.
_Sententiae_, p. 68.
Hyperbole, p. 69.
Diction and metre; iambics, p. 70;
lyrics, p. 71.
Plays not written for the stage, p. 72.
Influence on later drama, p. 74.
iii. THE OCTAVIA. Sole example of _fabula praetexta_, p. 74.
Plot, p. 75.
Characteristics, p. 76.
Date and authorship, p. 77.
Life, p. 79.
Works, p. 81.
Influence of Lucilius, p. 83;
of Horace, p. 84.
Obscurity, p. 85.
Qualifications necessary for a satirist; Persius' weakness through
lack of them, p. 87.
Success in purely literary satire, p. 88.
Lack of close observation of life, p. 90.
Persius' nobility of character, p. 91.
His Stoicism, p. 93.
His capacity for friendship, p. 95.
Life, p. 97.
Minor works, p. 99.
His choice of a subject, p. 101,
Choice of epic methods, p. 102.
Petronius' criticism of historical epic, p. 103.
Difficulties of the subject, p. 104.
Design of the poem, p. 106.
Characters: Pompey, p. 106.
Caesar, p. 108.
Cato, p. 109.
Descriptive passages, p. 112.
Hyperbole, p. 115.
Irrelevance, p. 116.
Lack of poetic vocabulary, p. 116.
Tendency to political satire, p. 117.
Speeches, p. 120.
_Sententiae,_ p. 122.
Metre, p. 123.
Summary, p. 123.
Authorship of _Satyricon:_ character of Titus Petronius, p. 125.
Literary criticism, p. 127.
Attack on contemporary rhetoric, p. 128.
Eumolpus the poet, p. 129;
laments the decay of art, p. 130.
Poem on the Sack of Troy, p. 130.
Criticism of historical epic, p. 131.
The poetic fragments, p. 133.
Epigrams, p. 134.
Question of genuineness, p. 135.
Their high poetic level, p. 136.
MINOR POETRY, 14-69 A.D.
I. DIDACTIC POETRY
i. THE AETNA. Its design, p. 140.
Characteristics of the poem, p. 141.
Authorship, p. 143.
Date, p. 145.
ii. COLUMELLA. Life and works, p. 146.
His tenth book, a fifth Georgic on gardening, p. 147.
His enthusiasm and descriptive power, p. 148.
II. CALPURNIUS SICULUS, THE EINSIEDELN FRAGMENTS, AND THE
PANEGYRICUS IN PISONEM
Pastoral poetry, p. 150.
Calpurnius Siculus; date, p. 151.
Who was he? p. 152.
Debt to Vergil, p. 152.
Elaboration of style, p. 153.
Obscurity, affectation and insignificance, p. 154.
Einsiedeln fragments; was the author Calpurnius Piso? p. 156.
_Panegyricus in Pisonem,_ p. 157.
Graceful elaboration, p. 158.
Was the author Calpurnius Siculus? p. 159.
III. ILIAS LATINA
Early translations of _Iliad,_ p. 160.
Attius Labeo, p. 160. Polybius p. 161.
_Ilias Latina,_ a summary in verse, p. 161.
Date, p. 162. Authorship: the question of the acrostic, p. 162.
Wrongly attributed to Silius Italicus. p. 163.
IV. MINOR POETS
Gaetulicus, p. 163.
Caesius Bassua, p. 164.
EMPERORS AND MINOR POETS, 70-117 A.D.
I. EMPERORS AND POETS WHOSE WORKS ARE LOST
Vespasian and Titus, p. 166.
Domitian. The Agon Capitolinus and Agon Albanus, p. 167.
Literary characteristics of the Flavian age, p. 168.
Saleius Bassus, Serranus, and others, p. 169.
Nerva, p. 169.
Trajan, p. 170.
Passennus Paulus, p. 170.
Sentius Augurinus, p. 171.
Pliny the Younger, p. 172.
Almost entire disappearance of poetry after Hadrian. p. 174.
Sulpicia, a lyric poetess, p. 174.
Martial's admiration for her, p. 175.
Characteristics of her work, p. 176.
Her Satire, p. 176.
Is it genuine? p. 177.
Epic in the Flavian age, p. 179.
Who was Valerius? His date, p. 180.
The _Argonautica_, unfinished, p. 181.
Its general design, p. 182.
Merits and defects of the Argonaut-saga as a subject for epic, p. 183.
Valerius' debt to Apollonius Rhodius, p. 183.
Novelties introduced in treatment; Jason, p. 184;
Medea, p. 185.
Valerius has a better general conception as to how the story should be
told, but is far inferior as a poet, p. 186.
Obscure learning; lack of humour, p. 187.
Involved language, p. 188.
Preciosity; compression, p. 189.
Real poetic merit: compared with Statius and Lucan, p. 191.
Debt to Vergil, p. 191.
Metre, p. 192.
Brilliant descriptive power, p. 193.
Suggestion of mystery, p. 193.
Sense of colour, p. 195.
Similes, p. 195.
Speeches, p. 197.
The loves of Jason and Medea, p. 198.
General estimate, p. 200.
Life, p. 202.
Character, p. 205.
The _Thebais_; its high average level, p. 206.
Statius a miniature painter, p, 207.
Weakness of the Theban-saga as a subject for epic, p. 208.
Consequent lack of proportion and unity in _Thebais_, p. 210.
Vergil too closely imitated, p. 211.
Digressions, p. 212.
Character-drawing superficial, p. 213.
Tydeus, p. 214.
Amphiaraus, p. 216.
Parthenopaeus and other characters, p. 218.
Atmosphere that of literature rather than life, p. 220.
Fine descriptive passages, p. 221.
Dexterity, often degenerating into preciosity, p. 224.
Similes, p. 225.
Metre, p. 226.
The _Achilleis_, p. 227.
The _Silvae_, p. 227.
Flattery of Domitian, p. 228.
Extraordinary preciosity, p. 229.
Prettiness and insincerity, p. 230.
Brilliant miniature-painting, p. 232.
The _Genethliacon Lucani_, p. 233.
Invocation to Sleep, p. 234.
Conclusion, p. 235.
Life, p. 236.
Weakness of historical epic, p. 238.
Disastrous intrusion of mythology, p. 239.
Plagiarism from Vergil, p. 240.
Skill in composition of early books, p. 240.
Inadequate treatment of closing scenes of the war, p. 241.
The characters, p. 241.
Total absence of any real poetic gifts, p. 242.
Regulus, p. 244.
The death of Paulus, p. 246.
Fabius Cunctator, p. 247.
Conclusion, p. 249.
Life, p. 251.
The epigram, p. 258.
Martial's temperament, p. 259.
Gift of style, p. 260.
Satirical tone, good-humoured and non-moral, p. 261.
Obscenity, p. 263.
Capacity for friendship, p. 264.
His dislike of Rome, p. 267.
His love of the country, p. 268.
Comparison with Silvae of Statius, p. 271.
Flattery of Domitian, p. 271.
Laments for the dead, p. 272.
Emotion as a rule sacrificed to point, p. 275.
The laureate of triviality, p. 276.
Martial as a client, p. 277.
His snobbery, p. 279.
Redeeming features; polish and wit, p. 281.
The one perfect post-Augustan stylist, p. 284.
Vivid picture of contemporary society, p. 285.
Life, p. 287.
Date of satires, p. 289.
Motives (Sat, i), p. 291.
Themes of the various satires; third satire, p. 293;
fourth, fifth, and sixth satires, p. 294;
seventh and eighth satires; signs of waning power, p. 295;
tenth satire, p. 296;
eleventh, twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth satires, p. 297;
fifteenth and sixteenth satires, showing further decline of
power, p. 298.
Juvenal's narrow Roman ideals; hatred of the foreigner, p. 299.
Exaggeration, p. 301.
Coarseness, p. 303.
Vividness of description, p. 304.
Mordant epigram and rhetoric, p. 308.
Moral and religious ideals, p. 311.
_Sententiae_, p. 315.
Poetry, p. 316.
Metre, p. 317.
The one great poet of the Silver Age, p. 317.
INDEX OF NAMES, p. 321
THE DECLINE OF POST-AUGUSTAN POETRY
During the latter years of the principate of Augustus a remarkable
change in literary methods and style begins to make itself felt. The
gradual extinction of the great luminaries is followed by a gradual
disappearance of originality and of the natural and easy-flowing style
whose phrases and felicities adorn, without overloading or obscuring the
sense. In their place comes a straining after effect, a love of
startling colour, produced now by over-gorgeous or over-minute imagery,
now by a surfeit of brilliant epigram, while controlling good sense and
observance of due proportion are often absent and imitative preciosity
too frequently masquerades as originality. Further, in too many cases
there is a complete absence of moral enthusiasm, close observation, and
What were the causes of this change? Was it due mainly to the evil
influence of the principate or to more subtle and deep-rooted causes?
The principate had been denounced as the _fons et origo mali_. That
its influence was for evil can hardly be denied. But it was rather a
symptom, an outward and visible sign of a deep-engrained decay, which it
accentuated and brought to the surface, but in no way originated. We are
told that the principate 'created around itself the quiet of the
graveyard, since all independence was compelled under threat of death to
hypocritical silence or subterfuge; servility alone was allowed to
speak; the rest submitted to what was inevitable, nay, even endeavoured
to accommodate their minds to it as much as possible.' Even if this
highly coloured statement were true, the influence of such tyrannical
suppression of free thinking and free speaking could only have
_directly_ affected certain forms of literature, such as satire, recent
history, and political oratory, while even in these branches of
literature a wide field was left over which an intending author might
safely range. The _direct_ influence on poetry must have been
exceedingly small. If we review the great poets of the Augustan and
republican periods, we shall find little save certain epigrams of
Catullus that could not safely have been produced in post-Augustan
times. Moreover, when we turn to what is actually known of the attitude
of the early emperors towards literature, the balance does not seriously
incline against them. It may be said without hesitation of the four
emperors succeeding Augustus that they had a genuine taste and some
capacity for literature.
Of two only is it true that their influence was in any way repressive.
The principate of Tiberius is notorious for the silence of literature;
whether the fact is due as much to the character of Tiberius as to the
temporary exhaustion of genius following naturally on the brilliance of
the Augustan period, is more than doubtful. But Tiberius cannot be
acquitted of all blame. The cynical humour with which it pleased him to
mark the steady advance of autocracy, the _lentae maxillae_ which
Augustus attributed to his adopted son, the icy and ironic cruelty
which was--on the most favourable estimate--a not inconsiderable element
in his character, no doubt all exercised a chilling influence, not only
on politics but on all spontaneous expression of human character.
Further, we find a few instances of active and cruel repression.
Lampoons against the emperor were punished with death. Cremutius
Cordus was driven to suicide for styling 'Brutus and Cassius the last of
all the Romans'. Mamercus Scaurus had the misfortune to write a
tragedy on the subject of Atreus in which he advised submission to
Atreus in a version of the Euripidean
[Greek: tas t_on turann_on amathias pherein chre_on]
He too fell a victim to the Emperor's displeasure, though the chief
charges actually brought against him were of adultery with the Princess
Livilla and practice of the black art. We hear also of another case in
which _obiectum est poetae quod in tragoedia Agamemnonem probris
lacessisset_ (Suet. _Tib_. 61). It is worthy of notice that actors also
came under Tiberius's displeasure. The mime and the Atellan farce
afforded too free an opportunity for improvisation against the emperor.
Even the harmless Phaedrus seems to have incurred the anger of Sejanus,
and to have suffered thereby. Nor do the few instances in which
Tiberius appears as a patron of literature fill us with great respect
for his taste. He is said to have given one Asellius Sabinus 100,000
sesterces for a dialogue between a mushroom, a finch, an oyster, and a
thrush, and to have rewarded a worthless writer, Clutorius
Priscus, for a poem composed on the death of Germanicus. On the other
hand, he seems to have had a sincere love of literature, though he
wrote in a crabbed and affected style. He was a purist in language with
a taste for archaism, left a brief autobiography and dabbled in
poetry, writing epigrams, a lyric _conquestio de morte Lucii
Caesaris_ and Greek imitations of Euphorion, Rhianus, and
Parthenius, the learned poets of Alexandria. His taste was bad: he went
even farther than his beloved Alexandrians, awaking the laughter of his
contemporaries even in an age when obscure mythological learning was at
a premium. The questions which delighted him were--'Who was the mother
of Hecuba?' 'What was the name of Achilles when disguised as a girl?'
'What did the sirens sing?' Literature had little to learn from
Tiberius, but it should have had something to gain from the fact that he
was not blind to its charms: at the worst it cannot have required
abnormal skill to avoid incurring a charge of _lese-majeste_.
The reign of the lunatic Caligula is of small importance, thanks to its
extreme brevity. For all his madness he had considerable ability; he was
ready of speech to a remarkable degree, though his oratory suffered from
extravagant ornament and lack of restraint. He had, however, some
literary insight: in his description of Seneca's rhetoric as _merae
commissiones_, 'prize declamations,' and 'sand without lime' he gave an
admirable summary of that writer's chief weaknesses. But he would in
all probability have proved a greater danger to literature than
Tiberius. It is true that in his desire to compare favourably with his
predecessors he allowed the writings of T. Labienus, Cremutius Cordus,
and Cassius Severus, which had fallen under the senate's ban in the two
preceding reigns, to be freely circulated once more. But he by no
means abandoned trials for _lese-majeste_. The rhetorician Carinas
Secundus was banished on account of an imprudent phrase in a _suasoria_
on the hackneyed theme of tyrannicide. A writer of an Atellan farce
was burned to death in the amphitheatre for a treasonable jest, and
Seneca narrowly escaped death for having made a brilliant display of
oratory in the senate. He also seriously meditated the destruction
of the works of Homer. Plato had banished Homer from his ideal state.
Why should not Caligula? He was with difficulty restrained from doing
the like for Vergil and Livy. The former, he said, was a man of little
learning and less wit; the latter was verbose and careless. Even
when he attempted to encourage literature, his eccentricity carried him
to such extremes that the competitors shrank in horror from entering the
lists. He instituted a contest at Lugudunum in which prizes were offered
for declamations in Greek and Latin. The prizes were presented to the
victors by the vanquished, who were ordered to write panegyrics in
honour of their successful rivals, while in cases where the declamations
were decided to be unusually poor, the unhappy authors were ordered to
obliterate their writings with a sponge or even with their own tongues,
under penalty of being caned or ducked in the Rhone.
Literature had some reason to be thankful for his early assassination.
The lunatic was succeeded by a fool, but a learned fool. Claudius was
historian, antiquary, and philologist. He wrote two books on the civil
war, forty-one on the principate of Augustus, a defence of Cicero, eight
books of autobiography, an official diary, a treatise on
dicing. To this must be added his writings in Greek, twenty books of
Etruscan history, eight of Carthaginian, together with a comedy
performed and crowned at Naples in honour of the memory of
Germanicus. His style, according to Suetonius, was _magis ineptus
quam inelegans_. He did more than write: he attempted a reform of
spelling, by introducing three new letters into the Latin alphabet. His
enthusiasm and industry were exemplary. Such indeed was his activity
that a special office, _a studiis_, was established, which was
filled for the first time by the influential freedman Polybius. Claudius
lacked the saving grace of good sense, but in happier days might have
been a useful professor: at any rate his interest in literature was
whole-hearted and disinterested. His own writing was too feeble to
influence contemporaries for ill and he had the merit of having given
literature room to move. Seneca might mock at him after his death,
but he had done good service.
Nero, Claudius' successor, was also a liberal, if embarrassing, patron
of literature. His tastes were more purely literary. He had received an
elaborate and diversified education. He had even enjoyed the privilege
of having Seneca--the head of the literary profession--for his tutor.
These influences were not wholly for the good: Agrippina dissuaded him
from the study of philosophy as being unsuited for a future emperor,
Seneca from the study of earlier and saner orators that he might himself
have a longer lease of Nero's admiration. The result was that a
temperament, perhaps falsely styled artistic, was deprived of the
solid nutriment required to give it stability. Nero's great ambition was
to be supreme in poetry and art as he was supreme in empire. He composed
rapidly and with some technical skill, but his work lacked
distinction, connexion of thought, and unity of style. Satirical
and erotic epigrams, learned mythological poems on Attis and the
Bacchae, all flowed from his pen. But his most famous works were his
_Troica_, an epic on the Trojan legend, which he recited before the
people in the theatre, and his [Greek: Iion al_osis], which may
perhaps have been included in the _Troica_, and is famous as having--so
scandal ran--been declaimed over burning Rome. But his ambition
soared higher. He contemplated an epic on the whole of Roman history. It
was estimated that 400 books would be required. The Stoic Annaeus
Cornutus justly remarked that no one would read so many. It was pointed
out that the Stoic's master, Chrysippus, had written even more. 'Yes,'
said Cornutus, 'but they were of some use to humanity.' Cornutus was
banished, but he saved Rome from the epic. Nero was also prolific in
speeches and, proud of his voice, often appeared on the stage. He
impersonated Orestes matricida, Canace parturiens, Oedipus blind, and
Hercules mad. It is not improbable that the words declaimed or sung
in these scenes were composed by Nero himself. For the encouragement
of music and poetry he had established quinquennial games known as the
Neronia. How far his motives for so doing were interested it is hard to
say. But there is no doubt that he had a passionate ambition to win the
prize at the contest instituted by himself. In A.D. 60, on the first
occasion of the celebration of these games, the prize was won by Lucan
with a poem in praise of Nero. Vacca, in his life of Lucan, states
that this lost him Nero's favour, the emperor being jealous of his
success. The story is demonstrably false, but that Nero subsequently
became jealous of Lucan is undoubted. Till Lucan's fame was assured,
Nero extended his favour to him: then partly through Lucan's extreme
vanity and want of tact, partly through Nero's jealousy of Lucan's
pre-eminence that favour was wholly withdrawn. Nevertheless, though
Nero may have shown jealousy of successful rivals, he seems to have had
sufficient respect for literature to refrain from persecution. He did
not go out of his way to punish personal attacks on himself. If names
were delated to the senate on such a charge, he inclined to mercy. Even
the introduction into an Atellan farce of jests on the deaths of
Claudius and Agrippina was only punished with exile. Only after the
detection of Piso's conspiracy in 65 did his anger vent itself on
writers: towards the end of his reign the distinguished authors,
Virginius Flavus and the Stoic Musonius Rufus, were both driven into
exile. As for the deaths of Seneca and Lucan, the two most distinguished
writers of the day, though both perished at Nero's hands, it was their
conduct, not their writings, that brought them to destruction. Both were
implicated in the Pisonian conspiracy. If, then, Nero's direct influence
on literature was for the bad, it was not because he was adverse: it
suffered rather from his favour: the extravagant tastes of the princeps
and the many eccentricities of his life and character may perhaps find a
reflection in some of the more grotesque extravagances of Lucan, such
for instance as the absurdly servile dedication of the _Pharsalia_. But
even in this direction his influence was probably comparatively small.
In view, then, of what is known of the attitude of the four emperors of
the period most critical for Silver Latin literature, the period of its
birth, it may be said that, on the worst estimate, their direct
influence is not an important factor in the decline. On the other
hand, the indirect influence of the principate was beyond doubt evil.
Society was corrupt enough and public life sufficiently uninspiring
under Augustus. After the first glow of enthusiasm over the restoration
of peace and order, and over the vindication of the Roman power on the
frontiers of empire had passed away, men felt how thinly veiled was
their slavery. Liberty was gradually restricted, autocracy cast off its
mask: the sense of power that goes with freedom dwindled; little was
left to waken man's enthusiasm, and the servility exacted by the
emperors became more and more degrading. Unpleasing as are the
flatteries addressed to Augustus by Vergil and Horace, they fade into
insignificance compared with Lucan's apotheosis of Nero; or to take
later and yet more revolting examples, the poems of the Silvae addressed
by Statius to Domitian or his favourites. Further, these four emperors
of the Julio-Claudian dynasty set a low standard of private life: they
might command flattery, they could hardly exact respect. Two clever
lunatics, a learned fool, and a morose cynic are not inspiring.
Nevertheless, however unhealthy its influence may have been--and there
has been much exaggeration on this point--it must be remembered that the
principate found ready to its hand a society with all the seeds of decay
implanted deep within it. Even a succession of sane and virtuous Caesars
might well have failed, with the machinery and material at their
disposal, to put new and vigorous life into the aristocracy and people
of Rome. Even the encroachments of despotism on popular liberty must be
attributed in no small degree to the incapacity of what should have been
the ruling class at Rome. Despotism was in a sense forced upon the
emperors: they were not reluctant, but, had they been so, they would
still have had little choice. The primary causes of the decline of
literature, as of the decay of life and morals, lie much deeper. The
influence of princeps and principate, though not negligible, is
The really important causes are to be found first in the general decay
of Roman character--far-advanced before the coming of Caesarism,
secondly in the peculiar nature of Roman literature, and thirdly in the
vicious system of Roman education.
It was the first of these factors that produced the lubricity that
defiles and the lack of moral earnestness that weakens such a large
proportion of the literature of this age. It is not necessary to
illustrate this point in any detail. The record of Rome, alike in
home and foreign politics, during the hundred and twenty years preceding
the foundation of the principate forms one of the most fascinating, but
in many respects one of the most profoundly melancholy pages in history.
The poems of Catullus and the speeches of Cicero serve equally to
illustrate the wholesale corruption alike of public and private
morality. The Roman character had broken down before the gradual inroads
of an alien luxury and the opening of wide fields of empire to plunder.
It is an age of incredible scandal, of mob law, of _coups d'etat_ and
proscriptions, saved only from utter gloom by the illusory light shed
from the figures of a few great men and by the never absent sense of
freedom and expansion. There still remained a republican liberty of
action, an inspiring possibility of reform, an outlet for personal
ambition, which facilitated the rise of great leaders and writers. And
Rome was now bringing to ripeness fruit sprung from the seed of
Hellenism, a decadent and meretricious Hellenism, but even in its decay
the greatest intellectual force of the world.
Wonderful as was the fruit produced by the graft of Hellenism, it too
contained the seeds of decay. For Rome owed too little to early Greek
epic and to the golden literature of Athens, too much to the later age
when rhetoric had become a knack, and
the love of letters overdone
Had swamped the sacred poets with themselves.
Roman literature came too late: that it reached such heights is a
remarkable tribute to the greatness of Roman genius, even in its
decline. With the exception of the satires of Lucilius and Horace there
was practically no branch of literature that did not owe its inspiration
and form to Greek models. Even the primitive national metre had died
out. Roman literature--more especially poetry--was therefore bound to be
unduly self-conscious and was always in danger of a lack of spontaneity.
That Rome produced great prose writers is not surprising; they had
copious and untouched material to deal with, and prose structure was
naturally less rapidly and less radically affected by Greek influence.
That she should have produced a Catullus, a Lucretius, a Vergil, a
Horace, and--most wonderful of all--an Ovid was an amazing achievement,
rendered not the less astonishing when it is remembered that the stern
bent of the practical Roman mind did not in earlier days give high
promise of poetry. The marvel is not wholly to be explained by the
circumstances of the age. The new sense of power, the revival of the
national spirit under the warming influence of peace and hope, that
characterize the brilliant interval between the fall of the republic and
the turbid stagnation of the empire, are not enough to account for it.
Their influence would have been in vain had they not found remarkable
genius ready for the kindling.
The whole field of literature had been so thoroughly covered by the
great writers of Hellas, that it was hard for the imitative Roman to be
original. As far as epic poetry was concerned, Rome had poor material
with which to deal: neither her mythology--the most prosaic and
business-like of all mythologies--nor her history seemed to give any
real scope for the epic writer. The Greek mythology was ready to hand,
but it was hard for a Roman to treat it with high enthusiasm, and still
harder to handle it with freshness and individuality. The purely
historical epic is from its very nature doomed to failure. Treated with
accuracy it becomes prosy, treated with fancy it becomes ridiculous.
Vergil saw the one possible avenue to epic greatness. He went back into
the legendary past where imagination could have free play, linked
together the great heroic sagas of Greece with the scanty materials
presented by the prehistoric legends of Rome, and kindled the whole work
to life by his rich historical imagination and his sense of the grandeur
of the Rome that was to be. His unerring choice of subject and his
brilliant execution seemed to close to his successors all paths to epic
fame. They had but well-worn and inferior themes wherefrom to choose,
and the supremacy of Vergil's genius dominated their minds, becoming an
obsession and a clog rather than an assistance to such poetic genius as
they possessed. The same is true of Horace. As complete a master in
lyric verse as Vergil in heroic, he left the after-comer no possibility
of advance. As for Ovid, there could be only one Ovid: the cleverest and
most heartless of poets, he at once challenged and defied imitation.
Satire alone was left with real chance of success: while the human race
exists, there will always be fresh material for satire, and the imperial
age was destined to give it peculiar force and scope. Further, satire
and its nearest kin, the epigram, were the only forms of literature that
were not seriously impaired by the artificial system of education that
had struck root in Rome.
Otherwise the tendency to artificiality on the one hand and inadequacy
of thought on the other, to which the conditions of its birth and growth
exposed Roman literature, were aggravated to an almost incredible extent
by the absurd system of education to which the unformed mind of the
young Roman was subjected. It will be seen that what Greece gave with
the right hand she took away with the left.
There were three stages in Roman education, the elementary, the
literary, the rhetorical. The first, in which the _litterator_ taught
the three R's, does not concern us here. In the second stage the
_grammaticus_ gave instruction in Greek and Latin literature, together
with the elements of grammar and style. The profound influence of Greece
is shown by Quintilian's recommendation that a boy should start on
Greek literature, and by the fact that boys began with Homer. Greek
authors, particularly studied, were Aesop, Hesiod, the tragedians, and
Menander. Among Roman authors Naevius, Ennius, Pacuvius, Accius,
Afranius, Plautus, Caecilius, and Terence were much read, though there
was a reaction against these early authors under the empire, and they
were partly replaced by Vergil, Horace, and Ovid. These authors were
made vehicles for the teaching of grammar and of style. The latter point
alone concerns us here. The Roman boy was taught to read aloud
intelligently and artistically with the proper modulation of the voice.
For this purpose he was carefully taught the laws of metre, with special
reference to the peculiarities of particular poets. After the reading
aloud (_lectio_) came the _enarratio_ or explanation of the text. The
educational value of this was doubtless considerable, though it was
impaired by the importance assigned to obscure mythological knowledge
and unscientific archaeology. The pupil would be further instructed
by exercises in paraphrase and by the treatment in simple essay form of
themes (_sententiae_). 'Great store was set both in speaking and writing
on a command of an abundance of general truths or commonplaces, and even
at school boys were trained to commit them to memory, to expand them,
and illustrate them from history.' Finally they were taught to write
verse. Such at least is a legitimate inference from the extraordinary
precocity shown by many Roman authors. This literary training
contained much that was of great value, but it also had grave
disadvantages. There seems in the first place to have been too much
'spoon-feeding', and too little genuine brain exercise for the
pupil. Secondly, the fact that at this stage boys were nurtured
almost entirely on poetry requires serious consideration. The quality of
the food supplied to the mind, though pre-eminently palatable, must have
tended to be somewhat thin. The elaborate instruction in mythological
erudition was devoid of religious value; and indeed of any value, save
the training of a purely mechanical memory. Attention was called too
much to the form, too little to the substance. Style has its value, but
it is after all only a secondary consideration in education. The effect
upon literature of this poetical training was twofold. It caused an
undue demand for poetical colour in prose, and produced a horrible
precocity and _cacoethes scribendi_ in verse, together with an
abnormal tendency to imitation of the great writers of previous
But the rhetorical training which succeeded was responsible for far
worse evils. The importance of rhetoric in ancient education is easily
explained. The Greek or Roman gentleman was destined to play a part in
the public life of the city state. For this purpose the art of speaking
was of enormous value alike in politics and in the law courts. Hence the
universal predominance of rhetoric in higher education both in Rome and
Greece. The main instrument of instruction was the writing of themes
for declamation. These exercises were divided into _suasoriae_--
deliberative speeches in which some course of action was discussed--
and _controversiae_--where some proposition was maintained or denied.
Pupils began with _suasoriae_ and went on to _controversiae_. Regarded
as a mental gymnastic, these themes may have possessed some value. But
they were hackneyed and absurdly remote from real life, as can be judged
from the examples collected by the elder Seneca. Typical subjects of the
_suasoria_ are--'Agamemnon deliberates whether to slay Iphigenia';
'Cicero deliberates whether to burn his writings, Antony having promised
to spare him on that condition'; 'Three hundred Spartans sent against
Xerxes after the flight of troops sent from the rest of Greece deliberate
whether to stand or fly.'
The _controversia_ requires further explanation. A general law is
stated, e.g. _incesta saxo deiciatur_. A special case follows, e.g.
_incesti damnata antequam deiceretur invocavit Vestam: deiecta vixit_.
The special case had to be brought under the general rule; _repetitur ad
poenam_. Other examples are equally absurd: one and all are
ridiculously remote from real life. It was bad enough that boys' time
should be wasted thus, but the evil was further emphasized by the
practice of recitation. These exercises, duly corrected and elaborated,
were often recited by their youthful authors to an audience of
complaisant friends and relations. Of such training there could be but
one possible result. 'Less and less attention was paid to the substance
of the speech, more and more to the language; justness and
appropriateness of thought came to be less esteemed than brilliance and
novelty of expression.'
These formal defects of education were accompanied by a widespread
neglect of the true educational spirit. The development on healthy lines
of the _morale_, and intellect of the young became in too many instances
a matter of indifference. Throughout the great work of Quintilian we
have continued evidence of the lack of moral and intellectual enthusiasm
that characterized the schools of his day. Even more passionate are the
denunciations levelled against contemporary education by Messala in the
_Dialogus_ of Tacitus. Parents neglect their children from their
earliest years: they place them in the charge of foreign slaves, often
of the most degraded character; or if they do pay any personal attention
to their upbringing, it is to teach them not honesty, purity, and
respect for themselves and their elders, but pertness, luxurious habits,
and neglect alike of themselves and of others. The schools moreover,
apart from their faulty methods and ideals of instruction, encourage
other faults. The boys' interests lie not in their work, but in the
theatres, the gladiatorial games, the races in the circus--those ancient
equivalents of twentieth-century athleticism. Their minds are utterly
absorbed by these pursuits, and there is little room left for nobler
studies. 'How few boys will talk of anything else at home? What topic of
conversation is so frequent in the lecture-room; what other subject so
frequently on the lips of the masters, who collect pupils not by the
thoroughness of their teaching or by giving proof of their powers of
instruction, but by interested visits and all the tricks of
toadyism?' Messala goes on to denounce the unreality of the
exercises in the schools, whose deleterious effect is aggravated by the
low standard exacted. 'Boys and young men are the speakers, boys and
young men the audience, and their efforts are received with
The same faults that were generated in the schools were intensified in
after-life. In the law courts the same smart epigrams, the same
meretricious style were required. No true method had been taught, with
the result that 'frivolity of style, shallow thoughts, and disorderly
structure' prevailed; orators imitated the rhythms of the stage and
actually made it their boast that their speeches would form fitting
accompaniments to song and dance. It became a common saying that 'our
orators speak voluptuously, while our actors dance eloquently'.
Poetical colour was demanded of the orator, rhetorical colour of the
poet. The literary and rhetorical stages of education reacted on one
Further, just as the young poet had to his great detriment been
encouraged to recite at school, so he had to recite if he was to win
fame for his verse in the larger world. Even in a saner society poetry
written primarily for recitation must have run to rhetoric; in a
rhetorical age the result was disastrous. In an enormous proportion of
cases the poet of the Silver Age wrote literally for an audience. Great
as were the facilities for publication the poet primarily made his name,
not by the gradual distribution of his works among a reading public, but
by declaiming before public or private audiences. The practice of
gathering a circle of acquaintances together to listen to the
recitations of a poet is said first to have been instituted by Asinius
Pollio, the patron of Vergil. There is evidence to show that all the
poets of the Augustan age gave recitations. But the practice
gradually increased and became a nuisance to all save the few who had
the courage to stand aloof from these mutual admiration societies.
Indiscriminate praise was lavished on good and bad work alike. Even
Pliny the younger, whose cultivation and literary taste place him high
above the average literary level of his day, approves of the increase of
this melancholy harvest of minor poetry declaimed by uninspired
bards. The effect was lamentable. All the faults of the _suasoria_
and _controversia_ made their appearance in poetry. The poet had
continually to be performing acrobatic feats, now of rhetoric or
epigram, now of learning, or again in the description of blood-curdling
horrors, monstrous deaths and prodigious sorceries. Each work was
overloaded with _sententiae_ and purple patches. So only could the
author keep the attention of his audience. The results were disastrous
for literature and not too satisfactory for the authors themselves,
as the following curious passage from Tacitus (_Dial._ 9) shows:
Bassus is a genuine poet, and his verse possesses both beauty and
charm: but the only result is that, when after a whole year, working
every day and often well into the night, he has hammered out one
book of poems, he must needs go about requesting people to be
good enough to give him a hearing: and what is more he has to
pay for it: for he borrows a house, constructs an auditorium,
hires benches and distributes programmes. And then--admitting
his recitations to be highly successful--yet all that honour and
glory falls within one or two days, prematurely gathered like grass
in the blade or flowers in their earliest bloom: it has no sure or
solid reward, wins no friendship or following or lasting gratitude,
naught save a transient applause, empty words of praise and a
The less fortunate poet had to betake himself to the forum or the public
baths or some temple, there to inflict his tawdry wares upon the ears of
a chance audience. Others more fortunate would be lent a room by
some rich patron. Under Nero and Domitian we get the apotheosis of
recitation. Nero, we have seen, established the Neronia in 60 and
himself competed. Domitian established a quinquennial competition in
honour of Jupiter Capitolinus in 86 and an annual competition held every
Quinquatria Minervae at his palace on the Alban mount. From that
time forward it became the ambition of every poet to be crowned at these
The result of all these co-operating influences will be evident as we
deal with the individual poets. Here we can only give a brief summary
of the general characteristics of this fantastic literature. We have a
striving after originality that ends in eccentricity: writers were
steeped in the great poets of the Augustan age: men of comparatively
small creative imagination, but, thanks to their education, possessed
of great technical skill, they ran into violent extremes to avoid the
charge of imitating the great predecessors whom they could not help but
imitate; hence the obscurity of Persius--the disciple of Horace--and of
Statins and Valerius Flaccus--the followers of Vergil. Hence Lucan's
bold attempt to strike out a new type of epic, an attempt that ended in
a wild orgy of brilliant yet turbid rhetoric. The simple and natural
was at a discount: brilliance of point, bombastic description, gorgeous
colour were preferred to quiet power. Alexandrian learning, already too
much in evidence in the Augustan age, becomes more prominent and more
oppressive. For men of second-rate talent it served to give their work
a spurious air of depth and originality to which it was not entitled.
The necessity of patronage engendered a fulsome flattery, while the
false tone of the schools of rhetoric, aided perhaps by the
influence of the Stoical training so fashionable at Rome, led to a
marvellous conceit and self-complacency, of which a lack of humour was
a necessary corollary. These symptoms are seen at their worst during
the extravagant reign of Nero, though the blame attaches as much to
Seneca as to his pupil and emperor. Traces of a reaction against this
wild unreality are perhaps to be found in the literary criticism
scattered tip and down the pages of Petronius, but it was not till
the extinction of Nero and Seneca that any strong revolt in the
direction of sanity can be traced. Even then it is rather in the sphere
of prose than of poetry that it is manifest. Quintilian headed a
Ciceronian reaction and was followed by Pliny the younger and for a
time by Tacitus. But we may perhaps trace a similar Vergilian reaction
in the verse of Silius, Statius, and Valerius. Their faults do not
nauseate to the same extent of those of their predecessors. But the
mischief was done, and in point of extravagance and meretricious taste
the differense is only one of degree.
Satire alone attains to real eminence: rhetoric and epigram are its most
mordant weapons, and the schools of rhetoric, if they did nothing else,
kept those weapons well sharpened: the gross evils of the age opened an
ample field for the satirist. Hence it is that all or almost all that is
best in the literature of the Silver Age is satirical or strongly tinged
with satire. Tacitus, who had many of the noblest qualifications of a
poet, almost deserves the title of Rome's greatest satirist; the works
of Persius and Juvenal speak openly for themselves while many of the
finest passages in Lucans are most near akin to satire. It is true that
under the principate satire had to be employed with caution; under the
first two dynasties it was compelled to be general in tone: it was not
until after the fall of Domitian, under the enlightened rule of Nerva
and Trajan, that it found a freer scope and was at least allowed to lash
the vices of the present under the names of the past.
It is in satire alone that we find any trace of genuine moral
earnestness and enthusiasm; and the reason for this is primarily that
the satirists wrote under the influence of the one force that definitely
and steadily made for righteousness. It is the Stoic philosophy that
kindles Persius and Lucan, while Tacitus and Juvenal, even if they make
no profession of Stoicism, have yet been profoundly influenced by its
teaching. Their morality takes its colour, if not its form, from the
philosophy oh the 'Porch'. The only non-satirical poetry primarily
inspired by Stoicism is the dramatic verse of Seneca. That its influence
here is not wholly for the best is due only in part to the intrinsic
qualities of its teaching. It is rather in its application that the
fault lies; it dominates and crushes the drama instead of suffusing it
and lending it wings; it insists on preaching instead of suggesting. It
is too insistent and aggressive a creed to harmonize with poetry, unless
that poetry be definitely didactic in type and aim. But it is admirably
suited to be the inspiration of satire, and it is therefore that the
satire makes a far stronger moral appeal than any other form of
Satire apart, the period is in the main an age of _belles lettres_, of
'the literary _gourmet_, the connoisseur, the _blase_ and disillusioned
man of society, passionately appreciative of detail, difficulties
overcome, and petty felicities of expression.' It is the fashion to
despise its works, and the fashion cannot be described as unhealthy or
unjust. Yet it produced a few men of genius, while even in the works of
those who were far removed from genius, the very fact that there is much
refinement of wit, much triumphing over technical difficulties, much
elaborate felicity of expression, makes them always a curious and at
times a remunerative study. But perhaps its greatest claim upon us lies
in the unexpected service that it rendered to the cause of culture. In
the darkness of the Middle Ages when Greek was a hidden mystery to the
western world, Lucan and Statius, Juvenal and Persius, and even the
humble and unknown author of the _Ilias Latina_, did their part in
keeping the lamp alive and illumining the midnight in which lay hidden
the 'budding morrow' of the Renaissance.
The drama proper had never flourished at Rome. The causes are not far
to seek. Tragic drama was dead in Greece by the time Greek influence
made itself felt, while the New Comedy which then held the stage was of
too quietly realistic a type and of too refined a wit and humour to be
attractive to the coarser and less intelligent audiences of Rome.
Terence, the _dimidiatus Menander_, as Caesar called him, though he won
himself a great name with the cultured classes by the purity and
elegance of his Latin and the fine drawing of his characters, was a
failure with popular audiences owing to his lack of broad farcical
humour. Plautus with his coarse geniality and lumbering wit made a
greater success. He had grafted the festive spirit of Roman farce on to
the more artistic comedy of Athens. Tragedy obtained but a passing
vogue. Ennius, Accius, and Pacuvius were read and enjoyed by not a few
educated readers, but for the Augustan age, as far as the stage was
concerned, they were practically dead and buried. The Roman populace
had by that period lost all taste for the highest and most refined
forms of art. The races in the circus, the variety entertainments and
bloodshed of the amphitheatre had captured the favour of the polyglot,
pampered multitude that must have formed such a large proportion of a
Still, dramatic entertainments had by no means wholly disappeared by the
time of the Empire. But what remained was of a degraded type. The New
Comedy of Athens, as transferred to the Roman stage, had given ground
before the advance of the mime and the _fabula Atellana_. The history of
both these forms of comedy belongs to an earlier period. For the
post-Augustan age our evidence as to their development is very scanty.
Little is known save that they were exceedingly popular. Both were
characterized by the broadest farce and great looseness of construction;
both were brief one-act pieces and served as interludes or conclusions
to other forms of spectacle.
The Atellan was of Italian origin and contained four stock characters,
Pappus the old man or pantaloon, Dossennus the wise man, corresponding
to the _dottore_ of modern Italian popular comedy, Bucco the clown, and
Maccus the fool. It dealt with every kind of theme, parodied the legends
of the gods, laughed at the provincial's manners or at the inhabitants
of Italian country towns, or depicted in broad comic style incidents in
the life of farmer and artisan. Maccus appeared as a young girl, as a
soldier, as an innkeeper; Pappus became engaged to be married; Bucco
turned gladiator; and in the rough and tumble of these old friends the
Roman mob found rich food for laughter.
The mime was of a very similar character, but freer in point of form. It
renounced the use of masks and reached, it would seem, an even greater
pitch of indecency than the Atellan. The subjects of a few mimes are
known to us. Among the most popular were the _Phasma_ or _Ghost_ and
the _Laureolus_ of Catullus, a writer of the reign of Caligula. In
the latter play was represented the death by crucifixion of the famous
brigand 'Laureolus'; so degraded was popular taste that on one occasion
it is recorded that a criminal was made to take the part of Laureolus
and was crucified in grim earnest upon the stage. In another mime of
the principate of Vespasian the chief attraction was a performing
dog, which, on being given a pretended opiate, went to sleep and
later feigned a gradual revival in such a realistic manner as to rouse
the wildest applause on the part of the audience.
Both Atellan and mime abounded in topical allusions and spared not even
the emperors. Allusion was made to the unnatural vices attributed to
Tiberius, to the deaths of Claudius and Agrippina, to the
avarice of Galba, to the divorce of Domitian, and on more than
one occasion heavy punishment was meted out to authors and actors
Legitimate comedy led a struggling existence. An inscription at
Aeclanum records the memory of a certain Pomponius Bassulus, who not
only translated certain comedies of Menander but himself wrote original
comedies; while in the letters of Pliny we meet with Vergilius
Romanus, a writer of comedies of 'the old style' and of _mimiambi_. He
possessed, so Pliny writes, 'vigour, pungency, and wit. He gave honour
to virtue and attacked vice.' It is to be feared that such a form of
comedy can hardly have been intended for the public stage, and that
Vergilius, like so many poets of his age, wrote for private performance
or recitation. These two writers are the only authors of legitimate
comedies known to us during the Silver Age. But both _fabulae palliatae_
and _togatae_, that is to say, comedies representing Greek and Roman
life respectively, continued to be acted on the public stage. The
_Incendium_ of Afranius, a _fabula togata_, was performed in the
reign of Nero, and the evidence of Quintilian and Juvenal shows
that _palliatae_ also continued to be performed. But true comedy had
been relegated to a back place and the Silver Age did nothing to modify
the dictum of Quintilian, _in comoedia maxime claudicamus_.
As with comedy so with tragedy. Popular taste rejected the Graeco-Roman
tragedy as tedious, and it was replaced by a more sensuous and
sensational form of entertainment. The intenser passions and emotions
were not banished from the stage, but survived in the _salticae fabulae_
and a peculiar species of dramatic recitation. Infinitely debased as
were these substitutes for true drama, the forms assumed by the
decomposition of tragedy are yet curious and interesting. The first step
was the separation of the _cantica_ from the _diverbia._ Lyric scenes or
even important iambic monologues were taken from their setting and sung
as solos upon the stage. It was found difficult to combine
effective singing with effective gesture and dancing, for music had
become more florid and exacting than in the days of Euripides. A second
actor appeared who supplied the gesture to illustrate the first actor's
song. From this peculiar and to us ridiculous form of entertainment
it is a small step to the _fabula saltica,_ which was at once nearer the
legitimate drama and further from it. It was nearer in that the scenes
were not isolated, but formed part of a more or less carefully
constructed whole. It was further inasmuch as the actor disappeared,
only the dancer remaining upon the stage. The words of the play were
relegated to a chorus, while the character, actions, and emotions of the
person represented by the words of the chorus were set forth by the
dress, gesticulation, and dancing of the _pantomimus_. How the various
scenes were connected is uncertain; but it is almost a necessary
inference that the connexion was provided by the chorus or, as in modern
oratorio, by recitative. To us the mimetic posturing of the _pantomimus_
appears an almost ridiculous substitute for drama; but the dancing of
the actors seems to have been extraordinarily artistic and at times to
have had a profound effect upon the emotions of the audience, while
the brilliant success in our own time of plays in dumb show, such as the
famous _Enfant Prodigue,_ should be a warning against treating the
_pantomimus_ with contempt.
This form of entertainment was first introduced at Rome in 22 B.C. by
the actors Pylades and Bathyllus, the former being famed for his
tragic dancing, the latter for a broader and more comic style, whose
dramatic counterpart would seem to have been the satyric drama. The
satyric element seems, however, never to have become really popular, the
_fabula saltica_ as we know it dealing mainly with tragic or highly
emotional themes. Indeed, to judge from Lucian's disquisition on the art
of dancing, the subjects seem to have been drawn from almost every
conceivable source both of history and mythology. Many of these
_salticae fabulae_ must have been mere adaptations of existing
tragedies. Their literary value was, according to Plutarch, by no means
high; it was sacrificed to the music and the dancing, for the
emotional effect of which Lucian can scarcely find sufficiently high
terms of praise. The themes appear to have been drawn from the more
lurid passages in mythology and history. If the libretto was not coarse
in itself, there is abundant evidence to show that the subjects chosen
were often highly lascivious, while the movements of the dancers--not
seldom men of the vilest character--were frequently to the last degree
obscene. Inadequate as this substitute for the drama must seem to
us, we must remember that southern peoples were--and indeed are--far
more sensitive to the language of signs, to expressive gesticulation and
the sensuous movements of the body than are the less quick-witted
and emotional peoples of the North; and further, even if for the most
part these _fabulae salticae_ had small literary value, distinguished
poets did not disdain to write librettos for popular actors. Passages
from the works of Vergil were adapted for such performances; Lucan
wrote no less than fourteen _fabulae salticae,_ while the _Agave_
of Statius, written for the dancer Paris, is famous from the
well-known passage in the seventh satire of Juvenal. Nothing survives of
these librettos to enlighten us as to their literary characteristics,
and the other details of the performance do not concern us here. It
is sufficient to say that the _pantomimus_ had an enormous vogue in the
Silver Age, and won a rich harvest by his efforts, and that the factions
of the theatre, composed of the partisans of this or that actor, were
scarcely less notorious than the factions of the circus for the
disturbances to which they gave rise.
Of the musical recitations of portions of existing tragedies or of
tragic episodes written for the occasion we possess even less knowledge.
The passages selected or composed for this purpose were in all
probability usually lyric, but we hear also of the chanting of iambics,
as, for instance, in the case of the _Oedipus in Exile,_ in which Nero
made his last appearance on the stage. Of the part played by the
chorus and of the structure of the librettos we know nothing; they may
have been purely episodic and isolated or may, as in the _salticae
fabulae,_ have been loosely strung together into the form of an
ill-constructed play. That they were sometimes written in Greek is known
from the fact that the line quoted by Suetonius from the _Oedipus in
Exile_ mentioned above is in that language. Of the writers of this
debased and bastard offspring of drama we know nothing save that Nero,
who was passionately fond of appearing in them, seems also to have
written them. (Suet. Ner. 39.)
The tragic stage had indeed sunk low, when it served almost entirely for
exhibitions such as these. Nevertheless tragedy had not ceased to exist
even if it had ceased to hold the stage. Varius and Ovid had won
fame in the Augustan age by their Thyestes and Medea, and the
post-Augustan decadence was not without its tragedians. One only is
mentioned by Quintilian in his survey of Roman poetry, Pomponius
Secundus. Of him he says (x. 1. 98), 'Of the tragedians whom I myself
have seen, Pomponius Secundus is by far the most eminent; a writer whom
the oldest men of the day thought not quite tragic enough, but
acknowledged that he excelled in learning and elegance of style.'
Pomponius was a man of great distinction. His friendship for Aelius
Gallus, the son of Sejanus, had brought him into disgrace with Tiberius,
but he recovered his position under Claudius. He attained to the
consulship, and commanded with distinction in a war against the Chatti
in A.D. 50. Of his writings we know but very little. Of his plays
nothing is left save a brief fragment from a play entitled
_Aeneas_; whether it dealt with the deeds of Aeneas in his native land
or in the land of his adoption is uncertain, though it is on the whole
probable that the scene was Italian and that the drama was therefore a
_fabula praetexta_. Whether his plays were performed on the public stage
is not quite clear. Tacitus tells us of riots in the theatre in A.D.
44, when 'poems' by Pomponius were being recited on the stage. But
the words used by the historian (_is carmina scaenae dabat_) point
rather to the recitation of a dramatic solo than to a complete tragedy
of the orthodox type. Pomponius, dramatist and philologist, remains
a mere name for us.
Another distinguished writer of plays was Curiatius Maternus, a
well-known orator; it is in his house that Tacitus places the scene of
the _Dialogus_, and he is the chief character of the conversation. He
had written his first tragedy under Nero, and at the time of the
_Dialogus_ (A.D. 79-81) his _Cato_--a _fabula praetexta_--was the talk
of Rome. He had written another historical drama on the ancestor of
Nero, L. Domitius Ahenobarbus, the persistent foe of Julius Caesar, who
perished on the field of Pharsalia. He had also written plays on
the more hackneyed themes of Medea and Thyestes. He had all the
opportunities and all the requisite gifts for a successful public
career, but his heart was with the Muses, and he resolved to quit public
life and to devote himself wholly to poetry, for there, in his
estimation, the truest fame was to be found. Here our knowledge
ends. Of the details of his life we are as ignorant as of his plays.
A few other names of tragic poets are known to us. Paccius wrote an
_Alcithoe_, Faustus a _Thebais_ and a _Tereus_, Rubrenus Lappa
an _Atreus_, while Scaevus Memor, victor at the Agon
Capitolinus and brother of Turnus the satirist, wrote a _Hercules_ and a
_Hecuba_ or _Troades_. Martial (xi. 9) styles him the 'glory of the
Roman buskin', but he too is but the shadow of an empty name. The
tragedies of the age are lost to us, all save the tragedies of the
philosopher Seneca, plays of which, save for one casual reference
in Quintilian, contemporary literature gives no hint, but which, however
little they may have deserved it, were destined to have no negligible
influence on the subsequent history of the world's drama.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca, one of the most striking figures among the great
writers of Rome, was born at Cordova about the opening of the
Christian era, to be the most remarkable member of a remarkable family.
His father, who bore the same name, was the famous rhetorician to whom
we have already referred. His elder brother, M. Annaeus Novatus,
was adopted by L. Iunius Gallio, whose name he assumed, had a
distinguished public career, and is best known to us, in his capacity of
governor of Achaea, as the 'Gallio' of the Acts. The youngest of the
family, M. Annaeus Mela, remained in the equestrian order and
devoted himself to the acquisition of wealth, regarding this as the
safest path to fame. He succeeded to some extent in his object, but his
main claim upon our remembrance is as the father of the poet Lucan.
Lucius Seneca came to Rome at an early age, and, in spite of the
bad health which afflicted him all his life long, soon made his
mark as an orator. Indeed, so striking was his success that--although he
showed no particular eagerness for a political career--his sheer mastery
of the Roman speech wakened the jealousy of Caligula, who only
spared his life on the ground that he suffered from chronic asthma and
was not likely to live long, and contented himself, therefore, with
mordant but not unjust criticism of the style of his intended
victim. But though oratory provided Seneca with the readiest means
for the gratification of his not inconsiderable vanity, and for the
exercise of his marvellous powers of wit and epigram, it was not the
pursuit of rhetoric and its prizes that really held the first place in
his heart. That place was claimed by philosophy. His first love was
Pythagoreanism, which he studied under Sotion[14l] of Alexandria, whose
influence was sufficient to induce his youthful pupil to become a
convinced vegetarian. But his father, who hated fads and philosophers,
persuaded Seneca without much difficulty to 'dine better', and the
doctrines of Pythagoras were soon displaced by the more fashionable
teaching of the Stoics. From the lips of Attalus he learned all the
principles of that ascetic school. 'I besieged his class-room,' he
writes; 'I was the first to come, the last to go; I would waylay him
when out walking and lead him to discuss serious problems.' Whether he
denounced vice and luxury, or extolled poverty, Attalus found a
convinced disciple in Seneca. His convictions did not possess sufficient
weight to lead him to embrace a life of austere poverty, but he at least
learned to sleep on a hard mattress, and to eschew hot baths, wine,
unguents, oysters, and mushrooms. How far his life conformed to the
highest principles of his creed, it is hard to say. If we are to believe
his detractors, he was guilty of committing adultery with the Princess
Julia Livilla, was surrounded with all the luxuries that the age could
supply, and drained the life-blood of Italy and the provinces by
extortionate usury. During his long exile in Corsica he could write
a consolatory treatise to his mother on the thesis that the true
philosopher is never an exile; wherever he is, there he is at home;
but little more than a year later he writes another consolatory treatise
to the imperial freedman Polybius, full of the most grovelling flattery
of Polybius himself and of the Emperor Claudius, the same Claudius
whom he afterwards bespattered with the coarse, if occasionally
humorous, vulgarity of the _Apocolocyntosis_. He was tutor to the
young Nero, but had not the strength to check his vices. He sought to
control him by flattery and platitudes rather than by the high example
of the philosophy which he professed. The composition of the
treatise _ad Neronem de Clementia_ was a poor reply to Nero's murder of
Britannicus. He could write eloquently of Stoic virtue, but when he
himself was confronted with the hard facts of life over which Stoicism
claimed to triumph, he proved no more than a 'lath painted to look like
iron'. Such is the case against Seneca. That it can be rebutted entirely
it is impossible to claim. But we must remember the age in which he
lived. Its love of debauchery was only equalled by its prurient love of
scandal. Seneca's banishment on the charge of an intrigue with Livilla
is not seriously damaging. The accusation _may_ have been true: it is at
least as likely to have been false, for it was instigated by Messalina.
That he lived in wealth and luxury is undoubted: his only defence was
that he was really indifferent to it; he could face any future; he had,
therefore, a right to enjoy the present. That he ground down the
provincials by his usury is possible; the standard in such matters was
low, and the real nature of his extortions may never have come home to
him; he must have depended largely on his agents. With regard to his
management of the young princeps the case is different. Seneca was given
an almost impossible task. Neither his nature nor his surroundings made
Nero a suitable subject for moral instruction. Seneca must have been
hampered at every turn. He must either bend or break. At least he won
the respect of his pupil, and the good governance of the empire during
the first five years of Nero's reign was due largely to the fact that
the power was really in the hands of Seneca and Burrus. Many of the
weaknesses of his character may be accounted for by physical debility,
and we must further remember that a Stoic of the age of Nero found
himself in a most difficult position. He could not put his principles
into full practice in public life without incurring the certain
displeasure of the emperor. The stricter Stoic, therefore, like Thrasea,
retired to the seclusion of his estates 'condemning the wicked world of
Rome by his absence from it'. Seneca, weaker, but possessed of
greater common sense, chose the _via media_. He was content to sacrifice
something of his principles to the service of Rome--and of himself. It
is not necessary to regard him as wholly disinterested in his conduct;
it is unjust and absurd to regard him as a glorified Tartuffe. Such
a supposition is adequately refuted by his writings. It is easy for a
writer at once so fluent and so brilliant to give the impression of
insincerity; but the philosophical works of Seneca ring surprisingly
true. We cannot doubt his faith, though his life may at times have
belied it. He reveals a warmth of human feeling, a richness of
imagination, a comprehension of human failings and sorrows, that make
him rank high among the great preachers of the world. Even here, it is
true, he has his failings; he repeats himself, has little constructive
talent, and fails at times to conceal a passion for the obvious beneath
the brilliance of his epigram. But alike in the spheres of politics and
literature he is the greatest man of his age. In literature he stands
alone: he is a prose Ovid, with the saving gift of moral fervour. His
style is terse and epigrammatic, but never obscure; it lacks the roll of
the continuous prose of the Augustan age, but its phrases have a beauty
and a music of their own: at their best they are touched with a genuine
vein of poetry, at their worst they have a hard brilliance against the
attractions of which only the most fastidious eye is proof. He towered
over all his contemporaries. In him were concentrated all the
excellences of the rhetorical schools of the day. Seneca became the
model for literary aspirants to copy. But he was a dangerous model. His
lack of connexion and rhythm became exaggerated by his followers, and
the slightest lack of dexterity in the imitator led to a flashy
tawdriness such as Seneca himself had as a rule avoided. He was too
facile and careless a composer to yield a canon for style. The reaction
came soon. Involved, whether justly or not, in the Pisonian conspiracy
of 65 A.D., he was forced to commit suicide. He died as the Stoics of
the age were wont to die, cheerfully, courageously, and with
self-conscious ostentation. Within a few years of his death the
great Ciceronian reaction headed by Quintilian began. The very vehemence
with which the Senecan style was attacked, now by Quintilian and
later by Fronto, shows what a commanding position he held.
He was poet as well as philosopher. Quintilian tells us that he left
scarcely any branch of literature untouched. 'We possess,' he says, 'his
speeches, poems, letters, and dialogues.' Two collections of poems
attributed to Seneca have come down to us, a collection of epigrams and
a collection of dramas. There is strangely little external evidence to
support either attribution, but in neither case can there be any serious
doubt as to the general correctness of the tradition.
The _Anthologia Latina_, compiled at Carthage in the sixth century,
opens with seventy-three epigrams, of which three are attributed by the
MSS. to Seneca (_Poet. Lat. Min._ 1-3, Baehrens). The first is entitled
_de qualitate temporis_ and descants on the ultimate destruction of the
world by fire--a well-known Stoical doctrine. The second and third are
fierce denunciations of Corsica, his place of exile. The rest are
nameless. But there are several which can only be attributed to Seneca.
The ninth is entitled _de se ad patriam_, and is addressed to Cordova by
one plunged in deep misfortune--a clear reference to his banishment in
Corsica. The fifty-first is a prayer that the author's two brothers may
be happier than himself, and that 'the little Marcus may rival his
uncles in eloquence'. The brothers are described one as older, the other
as younger than the author. It is an obvious inference that the brothers
referred to are Gallio and Mela, while it is possible that the little
Marcus is no other than the gifted son of Mela, Marcus Annaeus Lucanus,
the epic poet. The fifteenth represents him as an exile in a barren
land: he appeals to a faithful friend named Crispus, probably the
distinguished orator Passienus Crispus, the younger, who was consul for
the second time in 44 A.D. There are also other epigrams which,
though less explicit, suit the circumstances of Seneca's exile. The
fifth is written in praise of the quiet life. The author has two
brothers (l. 14), and at the opening of the poem cries, 'let others seek
the praetorship!' In this connexion it is noteworthy that at the time of
his banishment Seneca had held no higher office than the quaestorship.
The seventeenth and eighteenth are on the same subject, and contain a
solemn warning against _regum amicitiae_, appropriate enough in the
mouth of the victim of a court intrigue. Epigrams 29-36 are devoted to
the praises of Claudius for his conquest of Britain. Claudius had
banished him and was a suitable subject for flattery. For the rest the
poems are largely of the republican character so fashionable in Stoic
circles during the first century of the empire. There are many epigrams
on Cato  and the Pompeys. Others, again, are of a rhetorical
nature, dealing with scholastic themes; others of an erotic and
even scandalous character. We can claim no certainty for the view that
all these poems are by Seneca, but there is a general resemblance of
style throughout, and probability points to the whole collection being
by the same author. The fact that the same theme is treated more than
once scarcely stands in the way. We cannot dictate the amusements of a
weary exile. It would be rash even to deny the possibility of his being
the author of the erotic poems. Philosopher as he was, he had been
banished on a charge of adultery: without in any way admitting the truth
of that accusation, we may readily believe that he stooped to one of the
fashionable amusements of the day, the composition of pointed and
unsavoury verse; for the standard of morality in writing was far lower
than the standard of morals in actual life.
The poems repay reading, but call for little comment. They lack
originality. The thought is thin, the expression neat, though scarcely
as pointed as we might expect from such an author, while the metre is
graceful: the treatment of the elegiac is freer than that of Ovid, but
pleasing and melodious. At times powerful lines flash out.
qua frigida semper
praefulget stellis Arctos inocciduis (xxxvi. 6)
Where the cold constellation of the heaven gleams
ever with unsetting stars.
shines out from the midst of banal flattery of the emperor with
astonishing splendour. The poem _de qualitate temporis_ (4) closes with
four fine lines with the unmistakable Senecan ring about them--
quid tam parva loquor? moles pulcerrima caeli
ardebit flammis tota repente suis.
omnia mors poscit. lex est, non poena, perire:
hic aliquo mundus tempore nullus erit.
Why speak of things so small? The glorious vault of
heaven one day shall blaze with sudden self-kindled
flame. Death calls for all creation. 'Tis a law, not
a penalty to perish. The universe itself shall one day
be as though it had never been.
Cato (9) deliberates on suicide with characteristic rhetoric, artificial
in the extreme, but not devoid of dignity--
estne aliquid, quod Cato non potuit?
dextera, me vitas? durum est iugulasse Catonem?
sed, quia liber erit, iam puto, non dubitas.
fas non est vivum cuiquam servire Catonem:
quinctiam vivit nunc Cato, si moritur.
Is there then that which Cato had not the heart to do?
Right-hand, dost thou shrink from me? Is it hard to slay
Cato? Nay, methinks thou dost hesitate no more, for thou
shalt set Cato free. 'Tis a crime that Cato should live
to be any man's slave; nay, Cato truly lives if Cato die.
Cleverest of all is the treatment of the rhetorical theme of the two
brothers who meet in battle in the civil war (72). The one unwittingly
slays the other, strips the slain, and discovers what he has done--
quod fuerat virtus, factum est scelus. haeret in hoste
miles et e manibus mittere tela timet.
inde ferox: 'quid, lenta manus, nunc denique cessas?
iustius hoste tibi qui moriatur adest.
fraternam res nulla potest defendere caedem;
mors tua sola potest: morte luenda tua est,
scilicet ad patrios referes spolia ampla penates?
ad patrem victor non potes ire tuum.
sed potes ad fratrem: nunc fortiter utere telo!
impius hoc telo es, hoc potes esse pius.
vivere si poteris, potuisti occidere fratrem!
nescisti: sed scis: haec mora culpa tua est.
viximus adversis, iaccamus partibus isdem
(dixit et in dubio est utrius ense cadat).
ense meo moriar, maculato morte nefanda?
cui moreris, ferrum quo moriare dabit.'
dixit et in fratrem fraterno concidit ense:
victorem et victum condidit una manus.
What had been valour now is made a crime. The soldier
halts by his foe and fears to launch his shafts. Then
his courage rekindled. 'What! coward hand, dost thou
delay _now_? There is one here whom thou shouldst slay
sooner than the foe. Naught can assoil of the guilt of
a brother's blood save only death; 'tis thy death must
atone. Shalt thou bear home to thy father's halls rich
spoil of war? Nay, victor thus, thou canst not go to meet
thy sire. But victor thou canst go to meet thy brother;
_now_ use thy weapon bravely. This weapon stained thee with
crime, 'tis this weapon shall make thee clean. If thou hast
heart to live, thou hadst the heart to slay thy brother;
thou _hadst_ no such murderous thought, but _now_ thou hast;
this thy tarrying brings thee guilt. We have lived foes, let
us lie united in the peace of the grave.' He ceased and
doubted on whose sword to fall.' Shall I die by mine own
sword, thus foul with shameful murder. He for whom thou diest
shall give thee the steel wherewith to die.' He ceased, and
fell dead upon his brother, slain by his brother's sword.
The same hand slew both victor and vanquished.
This is not poetry of the first class, if indeed it is poetry at all.
But it is trick-rhetoric of the most brilliant kind without degenerating
into bombastic absurdity. There is, in fact, a restraint in these
epigrams which provides a remarkable contrast with the turgid
extravagance that defaces so much of the dramas. This is in part due to
the difference of the moulds into which the rhetoric is run, but it is
hard to resist the belief that the epigrams--written mainly during the
exile in Corsica--are considerably later than the plays. They are in
themselves insignificant; they show no advance in dexterity upon the
dramas, but they do show a distinct increase of maturity.
The plays are ten in number; they comprise a _Hercules Furens, Troades,
Phoenissae_ (or _Thebais_), _Medea, Phaedra_ (or _Hippolytus_),
_Oedipus, Agamemnon, Thyestes, Hercules Oetaeus_, and--sole example of
the _fabula praetexta_--the _Octavia_. Despite the curious silence of
Seneca himself and of his contemporaries, there can be little doubt as
to the general correctness of the attribution which assigns to Seneca
the only Latin tragedies that grudging time has spared us. The _Medea,
Hercules Furens, Troades, Phaedra, Agamemnon_, and _Thyestes_ are all
cited by late writers, while Quintilian himself cites a line from
the Medea as the work of Seneca. The name Seneca, without any further
specification, points as clearly to Seneca, the philosopher, as the name
Cicero to the great orator. The absence of any further or more explicit
reference on the part of Quintilian to Seneca's achievements as a
tragedian is easily explained on the supposition that the critic
regarded them as but an insignificant portion of his work. Yet stronger
confirmation is afforded by the internal evidence. The verse is marked
by the same brilliant but fatiguing terseness, the same polish and
point, the same sententiousness, the same succession of short stabbing
sentences, that mark the prose works of Seneca. More remarkable
still is the close parallelism of thought. The plays are permeated
through and through with Stoicism, and the expression given to certain
Stoical doctrines is often almost identical with passages from the
philosophical works. Against these evidences the silence of Seneca
himself counts for little. We may charitably suppose that he rated his
plays at their just value. In any case a poet is under no compulsion to
quote his own verses, or even to refer to them, in works of a totally
A more serious question is whether Seneca is the author of all the plays
transmitted to us under his name. The authenticity of four of these
dramas has been seriously questioned. That the _Octavia_ is by a later
hand may be regarded as certain. Seneca could hardly have dared to write
a play on so dangerous a theme--the brutal treatment by Nero of his
young wife Octavia. Moreover, Seneca himself is one of the dramatis
personae, and there are clear references to the death of Nero, while the
style is simple and restrained, and wholly unlike that of the other
plays. It is the work of a saner and less flamboyant age. The
_Agamemnon_ and the _Oedipus_ have been suspected on the ground that
certain of the lyric portions are written in a curious patchwork metre
of a character fortunately unique in Latin lyric verse. The _Agamemnon_
further has two choruses. But in all other respects the language,
technique, and metre closely resemble the other dramas. Neither
objection need carry any weight. There is no reason why Seneca should
not have introduced a double chorus or have indulged in unsuccessful
metrical experiments. Far more difficult is the problem presented
by the _Hercules Oetaeus_. It presents many anomalies, of which the
least are a double chorus and a change of scene from Oechalia to
Trachis. Imitations and plagiarisms from the other plays abound, and the
work has more than its fair share of vain repetitions and tasteless
absurdities. On the other hand, metre and diction closely recall the
dramas accepted as genuine. It is hard to give any certain answer to
such a complicated problem, but it is noteworthy that all the worst
defects in this play (which among its other peculiarities possesses
abnormal length) occur after l. 705, while the earlier scenes depicting
the jealousy of Deianira show the Senecan dramatic style almost at its
best. Even in the later portion of the play there is much that may be by
the hand of Seneca. It is impossible to brand the drama as wholly
spurious. The opening lines (1-232) may not belong to the play, but may
form an entirely separate scene dealing with the capture of Oechalia:
there is no reason to suppose that they are not by Seneca, and the same
statement applies to the great bulk of ll. 233-705. The remainder has in
all probability suffered largely from interpolation, but its general
resemblance to Seneca in style and diction is too strongly marked to
permit us to reject it _en bloc_. The problem is too obscure to repay
detailed discussion. The most probable solution of the question
would seem to be that the work was left in an unfinished condition with
inconsistencies, self-plagiarisms, repetitions, and absurdities which
revision would have removed; this unfinished drama was then worked over
and corrected by a stupid, but careful student of Seneca.
There is such a complete absence of evidence as to the period of
Seneca's life during which these dramas were composed, that much
ingenuity has been wasted in attempts to solve the problem. The view
most widely held--why it should be held is a mystery--is that they were
composed during Seneca's exile in Corsica (41-9 A.D.). Others,
again, hold that they were written for the delectation of the young
Nero, who had early betrayed a taste for the stage. This view has
nothing to support it save the accusation mentioned by Tacitus, to
the effect that the patronage and approval of Nero led Seneca to write
verse more frequently than his wont. Direct evidence there is none, but
the general crudity of the work, coupled with the pedantic hardness and
rigidity of the Stoicism which pervades the plays, points strongly to an
early date, considerably earlier than the exile in Corsica. There is no
trace of the mature experience and feeling for humanity that
characterize the later philosophical works. On the contrary, these plays
are just what might be expected of a young man fresh from the schools of
rhetoric and philosophy. As to the order in which the plays were
written there is practically nothing to guide us. The _Hercules
Oetaeus_ is probably the latest, for in it we find plagiarisms from the
_Hercules Furens, Oedipus, Thyestes, Phoenissae, Phaedra_, and
_Troades_. Even here, however, there is an element of uncertainty, for
it is impossible to ascertain whether any given plagiarism is due to
Seneca or to his interpolators.
Leaving such barren and unprofitable ground, what can we say of the
plays themselves? Even after making due allowance for the hopeless
decline of dramatic taste and for the ruin wrought by the schools of
rhetoric, it is hard to speak with patience of such productions, when we
recall the brilliance and charm of the prose works of Seneca. We can
forgive him being rhetorical when he speaks for himself; when he speaks
through the lips of others he is less easily tolerable.
Drama is a reading of human life: if it is to hold one's interest it
must deal with the feelings, thought, and action of genuine human beings
and represent their complex interaction: the characters must be real and
must differ one from the other, so that by force of contrast and by the
continued play of diverse aspects and developments of the human soul,
the significance, the pathos, and the power of the fragment of human
life selected for representation may be fully brought out and set before
our eyes. If these characteristics be absent, the drama must of
necessity be an artistic failure by reason of its lack of truth. But it
requires also plot, with a logical growth leading to some great climax
and developing a growing suspense in the spectator as to what shall be
the end. It is true that plot without reality may give us a successful
melodrama, that truth of character-drawing with a minimum of plot may
move and interest us. But in neither case shall we have drama in its
truest and noblest form.
Seneca gives us neither the half nor the whole. The stage is ultimately
the touchstone of dramatic excellence. But if it is to be such a
touchstone, it must have an audience with a penetration of intelligence
and a soundness of taste such as had long ceased to characterize Roman
audiences. The Senecan drama has lost touch with the stage and lacks
both unity and life. Such superficial unity as his plots possess is due
to the fact that they are ultimately imitations of Greek drama. A
full discussion of the plots is neither necessary here nor possible. A
few instances of Seneca's treatment of his material must suffice.
He has no sense of logical development; the lack of sequence and of
proportion traceable in the letters is more painfully evident in the
The _Hercules Furens_ supplies an excellent example of the weakness of
the Senecan plot. It is based on the [Greek: H_erakl_es mainomenos] of
Euripides, and such unity as it possesses is in the main due to that
fact. It is in his chief divergences from the Euripidean treatment of
the story that his deficiencies become most apparent. Theseus appears
early in the play merely that he may deliver a long rhodomontade on the
appearance of the underworld, whence Hercules has rescued him; and,
worst of all, the return of Hercules is rendered wholly ineffective.
Amphitryon hears the approaching steps of Hercules as he bursts his way
to the upper world and cries (523)--
est est sonitus Herculei gradus.
The chorus then, as if they had heard nothing, deliver themselves of a
chant that describes Hercules as still a prisoner in Hades. When
Hercules at last is allowed to appear, he appears alone, and delivers a
long ranting glorification of himself (592-617) before he is joined by
his father, wife, and children. As Leo has remarked, this episode
has been tastelessly torn into two fragments merely to give Hercules an
opportunity for turgid declamation.
The _Medea_, again, is, on the whole, Euripidean in form, though it
probably owes much to the influence of Ovid. It is, moreover, the
least tasteless and best constructed of his tragedies. It loses
comparatively little by the omission of the Aegeus episode, but suffers
terribly by the insertion of a bombastic description of Medea's
incantations. The love of the Silver Age for rhetoric has converted
Medea into a skilful rhetorician, its love for the black art has
degraded her to a vulgar sorceress. Nothing, again, can be cruder or
more awkward than the manner in which the news of the death of Creon and
his daughter is announced. After an interval so brief as scarcely to
suffice even for the conveyance of the poisoned gifts to the palace, in
rushes a messenger crying (879)--
periere cuncta, concidit regni status.
nata atque genitor cinere permixto iacent.
_Cho_. qua fraude capti? _Nunt_. qua solent
reges capi, donis.
_Cho_. in illis esse quis potuit dolus?
_Nunt_. et ipse miror vixque iam facto malo
potuisse fieri credo; quis cladis modus?
avidus per omnem regiae partem furit
ut iussus ignis: iam domus tota occidit,
_Cho_. unda flammas opprimat.
_Nunt_. et hoc in ista clade mirandum accidit,
alit unda flammas, quoque prohibetur magis,
magis ardet ignis: ipsa praesidia occupat.
All is lost! the kingdom's fallen! Father and
daughter lie in mingled dust!
_Ch_. By what snare taken?
_Mess_. By gifts, the snare of kings.
_Ch_. What harm could lurk in them?
_Mess_. Myself I marvel, and scarce though the deed
is done can I believe it possible. How died they?
Devouring flames rage through all the palace as at
her command. Now the whole house is fallen and men
fear for the city.
_Ch_. Let water quench the flames.
_Mess_. Nay, in this overthrow is this added wonder.
Water feeds the flames and opposition makes the fire
burn fiercer. It hath seared even that which should
have stayed its power.
That is all: if we had not read Euripides we should scarcely understand
the connexion between the gifts and the mysterious fire. Seneca, with
the lack of proportion displayed in nearly all his dramas, has spent so
much time in describing the wholly irrelevant and absurd details of
Medea's incantations that he finds no room to give what might be a
really dramatic description of the all-important catastrophe in which
Medea's vengeance finds issue. There is hardly a play which will not
provide similar instances of the lack of genuine constructive power. In
the _Oedipus_ we get the same long narrative of horror that has
disfigured the _Hercules Furens_ and the _Medea_. Creon describes to us
the dark rites of incantation used to evoke the shade of Laius. In
the _Phaedra_ we find what at first would seem to be a clever piece of
stagecraft. Hippolytus, scandalized at Phaedra's avowal of her
incestuous passion, seizes her by the hair and draws his sword as though
to slay her. He changes his purpose, but the nurse has seen him and
calls for aid, denouncing Hippolytus' violence and clearly intending to
make use of it as damning evidence against him. But the chorus refuse to
credit her, and the incident falls flat. Everywhere there is the
same casual workmanship. If we stop short of denying to Seneca the
possession of any dramatic talent, it is at any rate hard to resist the
conviction that he treated the plays as a _parergon_, spending little
thought or care on their _ensemble_, though at times working up a scene
or scenes with an elaboration and skill as unmistakable as it is often
The plays are, in fact, as Nisard has admirably put it, _drames de
recette_. The recipe consists in the employment of three
ingredients--description, declamation, and philosophic aphorism. There
is room for all these ingredients in drama as in human life, but in
Seneca there is little else: these three elements conspire together to
swamp the drama, and they do this the more effectively because, for
all their cleverness, Seneca's description and declamation are
radically bad. It is but rarely that he shows himself capable of
simple and natural language. If a tragic event enacted off the stage
requires description, it must outdo all other descriptions of the same
type. And seeing that one of the chief uses of narrative in tragedy is
to present to the imagination of the audience events which are too
horrible for their eyes, the result in Seneca's hands is often little
less than revolting. For example, the self-blinding of Oedipus is set
forth with every detail of horror, possible and impossible, till the
(961) gemuit et dirum fremens
manus in ora torsit, at contra truces
oculi steterunt et suam intenti manum
ultro insequuntur, vulneri occurrunt suo.
scrutatur avidus manibus uncis lumina,
radice ab ima funditus vulsos simul
evolvit orbes; haeret in vacuo manus
et fixa penitus unguibus lacerat cavos
alte recessus luminum et inanes sinus
saevitque frustra plusque quam satis est furit.
The last line is an epitome of Seneca's methods of description. Yet more
revolting is the speech of the messenger describing the banquet, at
which Atreus placed the flesh of Thyestes' murdered sons before their
father (623-788). Nothing is spared us, much that is impossible is
added. At times, moreover, this love of horrors leads to the
introduction of descriptions wholly alien to the play. In the _Hercules
Furens_ the time during which Hercules is absent from the scene, engaged
in the slaying of the tyrant Lycus, is filled by a description of Hades
from the mouth of Theseus, who is fresh-come from the underworld. The
speech is not peculiarly bad in itself; it is only very long
(658-829) and very irrelevant.
The effect of the declamation is not less unhappy. Seneca's dramatis
personae rarely speak like reasoning human beings: they rant at one
another or at the audience with such overwrought subtleties of speech
and rhetorical perversions that they give the impression of being no
more than mechanical puppets handled by a crafty but inartistic showman.
All speak the same strange language, a language born in the rhetorical
schools of Greece and Rome. Gods and mortals alike suffer the same
melancholy fate. Juno, when she declares her resolve to afflict Hercules
with madness, addresses the furies who are to be her ministers as
follows (_H.F._ 105):
concutite pectus, acrior mentem excoquat
quam qui caminis ignis Aetnaeis furit:
ut possit animo captus Alcides agi
magno furore percitus, nobis prius
insaniendum est--Iuno, cur nondum furis?
me me, sorores, mente deiectam mea
versate primam, facere si quicquam apparo
dignum noverca; vota mutentur mea:
natos reversus videat incolumes precor
manuque fortis redeat: inveni diem
invisa quo nos Herculis virtus iuvet.
me vicit et se vincat et cupiat mori
ab inferis reversus....
Distract his heart with madness: let his soul
More fiercely burn than that hot fire which glows
On Aetna's forge. But first, that Hercules
May be to madness driven, smitten through
With mighty passion, I must be insane.
Why rav'st thou not, O Juno? Me, oh, me,
Ye sisters, first of sanity deprive,
That something worthy of a stepdame's wrath
I may prepare. Let all my hate be change
To favour. Now I pray that he may come
To earth again, and see his sons unharmed;
May he return with all his old time strength.
Now have I found a day when Hercules
May help me with his strength that I deplore.
Now let him equally o'ercome himself
And me; and let him, late escaped from death,
Desire to die... And so at last I'll help
Alcides in his wars. MILLER.
She is clearly a near relative of that Oedipus who, in the _Phoenissae_,
begs Antigone to lead him to the rock where the Sphinx sat of old (120):
dirige huc gressus pedum,
hic siste patrem. dira ne sedes vacet.
monstrum repone maius. hoc saxum insidens
obscura nostrae verba fortunae loquar,
quae nemo solvat.
... saeva Thebarum lues
luctifica caecis verba committens modis
quid simile posuit? quid tam inextricabile?
avi gener patrisque rivalis sui
frater suorum liberum et fratrum parens;
uno avia partu liberos. peperit viro,
sibi et nepotes. monstra quis tanta explicat?
ego ipse, victae spolia qui Sphingis tuli,
haerebo fati tardus interpres mei.
Direct me thither, set thy father there.
Let not that dreadful seat be empty long,
But place me there a greater monster still.
There will I sit and of my fate propose
A riddle dark that no man shall resolve.
* * * * *
What riddle like to this could she propose,
That curse of Thebes, who wove destructive words
In puzzling measures? What so dark as this?
_He was his grandsire's son-in-law, and yet
His father's rival; brother of his sons,
And father of his brothers: at one birth
The grandame bore unto her husband sons,
And grandsons to herself_. Who can unwind
A tangle such as this? E'en I myself,
Who bore the spoils of triumph o'er the Sphinx,
Stand mute before the riddle of my fate.
There is no need to multiply instances; each play will supply many. Only
in the _Troades_ and the _Phaedra_ does this declamatory rhetoric
rise to something higher than mere declamation and near akin to true
poetry. In these plays there are two speeches standing on a different
plane to anything else in Seneca's iambics. In the _Troades_ Agamemnon
is protesting against the proposed sacrifice of Polyxena to the spirit
of the dead Achilles (255).
quid caede dira nobiles clari ducis
aspergis umbras? noscere hoc primum decet,
quid facere victor debeat, victus pati.
violenta nemo imperia continuit diu,
moderata durant; ...
magna momento obrui
vincendo didici. Troia nos tumidos facit
nimium ac feroces? stamus hoc Danai loco,
unde illa cecidit. fateor, aliquando impotens
regno ac superbus altius memet tuli;
sed fregit illos spiritus haec quae dare
potuisset aliis causa, Fortunae favor.
tu me superbum, Priame, tu timidum facis.
ego esse quicquam sceptra nisi vano putem
fulgore tectum nomen et falso comam
vinclo decentem? casus haec rapiet brevis,
nec mille forsan ratibus aut annis decem.
... fatebor ... affligi Phrygas
vincique volui; ruere et aequari solo
Why besmirch with murder foul the noble shade of that
renowned chief? First must thou learn the bounds of a
victor's power, of the vanquished's suffering. No man
for long has held unbridled sway; only self-control may
endure ... I myself have conquered and have learned
thereby that man's mightiness may fall in the twinkling
of an eye. Shall Troy o'erthrown exalt our pride and make
us overbold? Here we the Danaans stand on the spot whence
she has fallen. Of old, I own, I have borne myself too
haughtily, self-willed and proud of my power. But Fortune's
favour, which had made another proud, has broken my pride.
Priam, thou makest me proud, thou makest me tremble. I count
the sceptre naught save a glory bright with worthless tinsel
that sets the vain splendour of a crown upon my brow. All
this the chance of one short hour may take from me without
the aid of a thousand ships and ten long years of siege ...
I will own my fault ... I desired to crush and conquer Troy.
Would I had forbidden to lay her low and raze her walls to
The thought is not deep: the speech might serve for a model for a
_suasoria_ in the schools of rhetoric. But there is a stateliness and
dignity about it that is most rare in these plays. At last after dreary
tracts of empty rant we meet Seneca, the spiritual guide of the epistles
and the treatises.
Far more striking, however, from the dramatic standpoint, are the great
speeches in the _Phaedra_, where the heroine makes known her passion for
Hippolytus (600 sqq.). They are frankly rhetorical, but direct,
passionate, and to the point. They contain few striking lines or
sentiments, but they are clear and comparatively free from affectation.
Theseus has maddened Phaedra by his infidelities, and has long been
absent from her, imprisoned in the underworld. An uncontrollable passion
for her stepson has come upon her. She appeals to the unsuspecting
Hippolytus for pity and protection (619):
muliebre non est regna tutari urbium;
tu qui iuventae flore primaevo viges
cives paterno fortis imperio rege,
sinu receptam supplicem ac servam tege.
_Hipp_. Summus hoc omen deus avertat.
aderit sospes actutum parens.
'Tis no woman's task to rule cities. Do thou,
strong in the flower of thy first youth, flinch
not, but govern the state by the power thy father
held. Take me and shield me in thy bosom, thy
suppliant and thy slave! Pity thy father's widow.
_Hipp_. Nay, high heaven avert the omen. Soon shall
my father return unscathed.
Phaedra then begins to show her true colours. 'Nay!' she replies, 'he
will not come. Pluto holds him fast, the would-be ravisher of his bride,
unless indeed Pluto, like others I wot of, is indifferent to love.'
Hippolytus attempts to console her: he will do all in his power to make
life easy for her:
et te merebor esse ne viduam putes
ac tibi parentis ipse supplebo locum.
I shall prove me worthy of thee: so thou shalt not deem
thyself a widow. I will fill up my absent father's room.
These innocent words are as fuel to Phaedra's passion. She turns to him
again appealing for pity, pity for an ill she dare not name--
quod in novercam cadere vix credas malum.
He bids her speak out. She replies, 'Love consumes me with an
all-devouring flame. 'He still fails to catch her meaning, supposing
that the passion of which she speaks is for the absent Theseus. She can
restrain herself no longer: 'Aye, 'tis for Theseus!' she cries (646):
Hippolyte, sic est; Thesei vultus amo 
illos priores quos tulit quondam puer,
cum prima puras barba signaret genas
monstrique caecam Cnosii vidit domum
et longa curva fila collegit via.
quis tum ille fulsit! presserant vittae comam
et ora flavus tenera tinguebat pudor;
inerant lacertis mollibus fortes tori;
tuaeque Phoebes vultus aut Phoebi mei,
tuusque potius--talis, en talis fuit
cum placuit hosti, sic tulit celsum caput:
in te magis refulget incomptus decor;
est genitor in te totus et torvae tamen
pars aliqua matris miscet ex aequo decus;
in ore Graio Scythicus apparet rigor.
si cum parente Creticum intrasses fretum,
tibi fila potius nostra nevisset soror.
te te, soror, quacumque siderei poli
in parte fulges, invoco ad causam parem:
domus sorores una corripuit duas,
te genitor, at me natus. en supplex iacet
adlapsa genibus regiae proles domus,
respersa nulla labe et intacta, innocens
tibi mutor uni. certa descendi ad preces:
finem hic dolori faciet aut vitae dies,
Even so, Hippolytus; I love the face that Theseus wore,
in the days of old while yet he was a boy, when the first
down marked his bright cheeks and he looked on the dark
home of the Cretan monster and gathered the long magic
thread along the winding way. Ah! how then he shone upon my
eyes. A wreath was about his hair and his delicate cheeks
glowed with the golden bloom of modesty. Strong sinews stood
out upon his shapely arms and his countenance was the
countenance of the goddess that thou servest or of mine own
bright sun-god; nay, rather 'twas as thine own. Even so, even
so looked he when he won the heart of her that was his foe,
and lofty was his carriage like to thine. But in thee still
brighter shines an artless glory, and on thee is all thy
father's beauty. Yet mingled therewith in equal portion is
something of thy wild mother's fairness. On thy Greek face is
seen the fierceness of the Scythian. Hadst thou sailed o'er
the sea with thy sire to Crete, for thee rather had my sister
spun the magic thread. On thee, on thee, my sister, I call
where'er thou shinest in the starry heaven, on thee I call
to aid my cause. Lo! sisters twain hath one house brought to
naught--thee did the father ruin, me the son. Lo! suppliant at