Part 2 out of 7
thy knees I fall, the daughter of a king, stainless and pure
and innocent. For thee alone I swerve from my course. I have
steeled my soul and stooped to beg of thee. Today shall end
either my sorrow or my life. Pity, have pity, on her that
Then the storm of Hippolytus' anger breaks. Here at least Seneca has
used his great rhetorical gifts to good effect. The passion may be
highly artificial when compared with the passion of the genuinely human
Phaedra of Euripides, but it is nevertheless passion and not bombast:
crudity there may be, but there is no real irrelevance.
There is less to praise and more to wonder at in Seneca's dialogue.
Instead of rational conversation or controversy, he gives us a brilliant
but meretricious display of epigram, the mechanical nature of which is
often emphasized by a curious symmetry of structure. For line after line
one character takes up the words of another and turns them against him
with dexterity as extraordinary as it is monotonous. The resulting
artificiality is almost incredible. It appears in its most extravagant
form in the _Thyestes_. Scarcely less strained, though from the
nature of the subject the extravagance is less repellent, is a passage
in the _Troades_. Achilles' ghost has demanded the sacrifice of
Polyxena. Agamemnon hesitates to give orders for the sacrifice. Pyrrhus,
Achilles' son, enumerates the great deeds of his father, and asks,
indignantly, if such glory is to win naught save neglect after death.
Agamemnon has sacrificed his own daughter, why should he not sacrifice
Priam's? Agamemnon--in the speech quoted above--refuses indignantly.
'Sacrifice oxen if you will: no human blood shall be shed!' Pyrrhus
hac dextra Achilli victimam reddam suam.
quam si negas retinesque, maiorem dabo
dignamque quam det Pyrrhus; et nimium diu
a caede nostra regia cessat manus
paremque poscit Priamus.
_Agam_. haud equidem nego hoc esse Pyrrhi
maximum in bello decus, saevo peremptus
ense quod Priamus iacet, _supplex paternus.
_Pyrrh_. _supplices_ nostri _patris_
hostesque eosdem novimus. Priamus tamen
praesens rogavit; tu gravi pavidus metu,
nec ad rogandum fortis Aiaci preces
Ithacoque mandas clausus atque hostem tremens.
By this right hand he shall receive his own.
And if thou dost refuse and keep the maid,
A greater victim will I slay, and one
More worthy Pyrrhus' gift: for all too long
From royal slaughter hath my hand been free,
And Priam asks an equal sacrifice.
_Agam_. Far be it from my wish to dim the praise
That thou dost claim for this most glorious deed--
Old Priam slain by thy barbaric sword,
Thy father's suppliant.
_Pyrrh_. I know full well
My father's suppliants--and well I know
His enemies. Yet royal Priam came
And made his plea before my father's face;
But thou, o'ercome with fear, not brave enough
Thyself to make request, within thy tent
Did trembling hide, and thy desires consign
To braver men, that they might plead for thee.
Agamemnon retorts, 'What of your father, when he shirked the toils of
war and lay idly in his tent?'--
levi canoram verberans plectro chelyn.
_Pyrrh_. tunc magnus Hector, arma contemnens tua,
cantus Achillis timuit et tanto in metu
_navalibus pax alta Thessalicis fuit_.
_Agam_. nempe isdem in _istis Thessalis navalibus
pax alta_ rursus Hectoris patri _fuit_.
_Pyrrh_. est _regis_ alti _spiritum_ regi dare.
_Agam_. cur dextra _regi spiritum_ eripuit tua?
_Pyrrh_. mortem _misericors_ saepe pro vita dabit.
_Agam_. et nunc _misericors_ virginem busto petis?
_Pyrrh_. iamne immolari virgines credis nefas?
_Agam_. praeferre patriam liberis regem decet.
_Pyrrh_. _lex_ nulla capto parcit aut poenam impedit.
_Agam_. quod non vetat _lex_, hoc vetat fieri pudor.
_Pyrrh_. quodcumque _libuit_ facere victori _licet_.
_Agam_. minimum decet _libere_ cui multum _licet_.
Idly strumming on his tuneful lyre.
_Pyrrh_. Then mighty Hector, scornful of thy arms,
Yet felt such wholesome fear of that same lyre,
That our _Thessalian ships_ were left in _peace_.
_Agam_. An equal _peace_ did Hector's father find,
When he betook him to Achilles' _ships_.
_Pyrrh_. 'Tis regal thus to spare a _kingly life_.
_Agam_. Why then didst thou a _kingly life_ despoil?
_Pyrrh_. But _mercy_ oft doth offer death for life.
_Agam_. Doth _mercy_ now demand a maiden's blood?
_Pyrrh_. Canst thou proclaim such sacrifice a sin?
_Agam_. A king must love his country more than child.
_Pyrrh_. No _law_ the wretched captive's life doth spare.
_Agam_. What _law_ forbids not, yet may shame forbid.
_Pyrrh_. 'Tis victor's right to do whate'er he _will_.
_Agam_. Then should he _will_ the least, who most can do.
The cleverness of this is undeniable: individual lines (e.g. the last)
are striking. Taken collectively they are ineffective; we feel,
moreover, that the cleverness is mere knack: the continued picking up of
the adversary's words to be used as weapons against himself is
wearisome. It would be nearly as great a strain to listen to such a
dialogue as to take part in it: the atmosphere is that of the school of
rhetoric, an atmosphere in which sensible and natural dialogue is
The characters naturally suffer from this continued display of
declamatory rhetoric. They have but one voice and language; they differ
from one another only in their clothes and the situations in which they
are placed. It is true that some of them are patterns of virtue and
others monsters of iniquity. But strip off the coating of paint, and
within the limits of these two types--for there are but two--the puppets
are precisely the same. There is none of the play of light and shade so
essential to drama: all is agonizingly crude and lurid. This is not due
to the rhetoric alone, there is another influence at work. The plays are
permeated by a strong vein of Stoicism. Carried to its logical
conclusion Stoicism lays itself open to taunts such as Cicero levels at
his friend Cato in the _pro Murena_, where he delivers a humorous
_reductio ad absurdum_ of its tenets. Such a philosophy is fatal to the
drama. It allows no room for human sentiment or human weakness; the most
virtuous affections are chilled and robbed of their attractiveness:
there are no gradations of temperament, intellect, or character: pathos
disappears. The Stoic ideal was a being in whom the natural impulses and
desires should be completely subjected to the laws of pure reason. It
tends in its intensity to a narrowness, an abstract unreality which is
unfavourable to the development of the more human virtues. What it gave
with one hand the more rigid Stoic philosophy took away with the other.
It preached the brotherhood of man and took away half the value of
sympathy. And here in the plays there is nothing of the _mitis
sapientia_, the concessions to mortal weakness, the humanity, which
characterize the prose works of Seneca and have won the hearts of many
generations of men. There the hardness of Stoicism is softened by ripe
experience and a tendency to eclecticism, and the doctrinaire stands
less sharply revealed. 'Sous l'austerite du philosophe, on trouve un
homme.' The most noteworthy result of this hard Stoicism upon the plays
is the almost complete absence of pathos springing from the tenderer
human affections. Seneca's tragedy may sometimes succeed in horrifying
us, as in the ghastly rhetoric of the _Thyestes_ or the _Medea_. He
moves us rarely.
But there are a few striking exceptions to the rule, notably the
beautiful passage of the _Troades_, where Andromache bids her companions
in misfortune cease from useless lamentation (409):
quid, maesta Phrygiae turba, laceratis comas
miserumque tunsae pectus effuso genas
fletu rigatis? levia perpessae sumus,
si flenda patimur. Ilium vobis modo,
mihi cecidit olim, cum ferus curru incito
mea membra raperet et gravi gemeret sono
Peliacis axis pondere Hectoreo tremens.
tunc obruta atque eversa quodcumque accidit
torpens malis rigeusque sine sensu fero.
iam erepta Danais coniugem sequerer meum,
nisi hic teneret: hic meos animos domat
morique prohibet; cogit hic aliquid deos
adhuc rogare--tempus aerumnae addidit.
Why, ye sad Phrygian women, do ye rend your hair and
beat your woeful breasts and bedew your cheeks with
streaming tears? But light is our sorrow, if it lies
not too deep for tears. For you Ilium but now has fallen,
for me it fell long ago, when the cruel wheels of the
swift ear of Peleus' son dragged in the dust the limbs of
him I loved, and groaned loud as they quivered beneath
the weight of Hector dead. Then was I overthrown, then
cast to utter ruin, and since then I bear whatso falleth
upon me, with a heart that is numb with grief, chilled and
insensible, and long since had I snatched myself from the
hands of the Greeks and followed my husband, did not my
child keep me among the living: he checks my purpose and
forbids me to die; he constrains me still to make
supplication to heaven and prolongs my anguish.
Even here the pathos is the calm and reasoned pathos of hopelessness,
the pathos of a Stoic who preaches endurance of evils against which his
philosophy is not proof. Here, too, we find the Stoic attitude towards
death. Death is the end of all; there is naught to dread; death puts an
end to hope and fear: to die is to be as though we had never been (394):
post mortem nihil est, ipsaque mors nihil.
velocis spatii meta novissima;
spem ponant avidi, solliciti metum.
tempus nos avidum devorat et chaos:
mors individua est, noxia corpori
nec parcens animae: Taenara et aspero
regnum sub domino limen et obsidens
custos non facili Cerberus ostio
rumores vacui verbaque inania
et par sollicito fabula somnio.
quaeris quo iaceas post obitum loco?
quo non nata iacent.
Since naught remains, and death is naught
But life's last goal, so swiftly sought:
Let those who cling to life abate
Their fond desires, and yield to fate;
Soon shall grim time and yawning night
In their vast depths engulf us quite;
Impartial death demands the whole--
The body slays nor spares the soul.
Dark Taenara and Pluto fell,
And Cerberus, grim guard of hell--
All these but empty rumours seem,
The pictures of a troubled dream.
Where then will the departed spirit dwell?
Let those who never came to being tell.
Death brings release from sorrow: the worst of torture is to be forced
to live on in the midst of woe--
mors votum meum--cries Hecuba--(1171)
infantibus violenta, virginibus venis,
ubique properas, saeva: me solam times.
O death, my sole desire, for boys and maids
Thou com'st with hurried step and savage mien:
But me alone of mortals dost thou fear.
So, too, Andromache, in the passage quoted above, almost apologizes for
not having put an end to her existence. Polyxena meets death with
exultation (_Tro_. 945, 1152-9): even the little Astyanax is infected
with Stoic passion for suicide (1090):
nec gradu segni puer
ad alta pergit moenia. ut summa stetit
pro turre, vultus huc et huc acres tulit
non flet e turba omnium
qui fletur; ac, dum verba fatidici et preces
concipit Vlixes vatis et saevos ciet
ad sacra superos, sponte desiluit sua
in media Priami regna.
And with no lingering pace the boy climbed the lofty
battlements, and all about him cast his keen gaze with
dauntless soul.... But he alone of all the throng who
wept for him wept not at all, and, while Ulysses 'uttered
in priestly wise the words of fate and prayed' and called
the cruel gods to the sacrifice, the boy of his own will
cast himself down to death on the fields that Priam ruled.
The enthusiasm for death is carried too far. Even the agony of the
_Troades_ fails really to stir us: it depresses us without wakening our
sympathy. So, too, with other scenes: in the _Hercules Furens_ we have
the virtuous Stoic--in the persons of Megara and Amphitryon--confronting
the _instans tyrannus_ in the person of Lycus: it is the hackneyed theme
of the schools of rhetoric, but derives its inspiration from
_Meg_. cogi qui potest nescit mori.
_Lyc_. effare potius, quod novis thalamis parem
_Meg_. aut tuam mortem aut meam.
_Lyc_. moriere demens.
_Meg_. coniugi occurram meo.
_Lyc_. sceptrone nostro famulus est potior tibi?
_Meg_. quot iste famulus tradidit reges neci.
_Lyc_. cur ergo regi servit et patitur iugum?
_Meg_. imperia dura tolle: quid virtus erit?
_Lyc_. obici feris monstrisque virtutem putas?
_Meg_. virtutis est domare quae cuncti pavent.
_Lyc_. tenebrae loquentem magna Tartareae premunt.
_Meg_. non est ad astra mollis e terris via.
_Lyc_. Thou shalt be forced.
_Meg_. He can be forced, who knows not how to die.
_Lyc_. Tell me what gift I could bestow more rich
Than royal wedlock?
_Meg_. Or thy death or mine.
_Lyc_. Then die, thou fool.
_Meg_. 'Tis thus I'll meet my lord.
_Lyc_. Is that slave more to thee than I, a king?
_Meg_. How many kings has that slave given to death!
_Lyc_. Why does he serve a king and bear the yoke?
_Meg_. Remove hard tasks, and where would valour be?
_Lyc_. To conquer monsters call'st thou valour then?
_Meg_. 'Tis valour to subdue what all men fear.
_Lyc_. The shades of Hades hold that boaster fast.
_Meg_. No easy way leads from the earth to heaven.
So, too, a little later (463) Amphitryon crushes Lycus with a true
_Lyc_. quemcumque miserum videris, hominem scias.
_Amph_. quemcumque fortem videris, miserum neges.
_Lyc_. Whoe'er is wretched, him mayst thou know for mortal.
_Amph_. Whoe'er is brave, thou mayst not call him wretched.
Admirable as are the sentiments expressed by these virtuous and
calamitous persons, they leave us cold: they are too self-sufficient to
need our sympathy. Pain and death have no terrors for them; why should
we pity them? But it would be unjust to lay the blame for this absence
of pathetic power entirely on the influence of Stoicism. The scholastic
rhetoric is not a good vehicle for pathos, and must bear a large portion
of the blame, though even the rhetoric is due in no small degree to the
Stoic type of dialectic. As Seneca himself says, speaking of others than
himself, 'Philosophia quae fuit, facta philologia est.' And it must
further be remembered that of the few flights of real poetry in these
plays some of the finest were inspired by Stoicism. The drama cannot
nourish in the Stoic atmosphere, poetry can. Seneca was sometimes a
poet. His best-known chorus, the famous _regem non faciunt opes_ of the
_Thyestes_ (345), is directly inspired by Stoicism. The speeches of
Agamemnon and Andromache, together with the chorus already quoted from
the _Troades_, all bear the impress of the Stoic philosophy. The same is
true of the scarcely inferior chorus on fate from the _Oedipus_ (980).
But there are other passages of genuine poetry where the Stoic is
silent. The chorus in the _Hercules Furens_ (838), giving the
conventional view of death, will stand comparison with the chorus of the
_Troades_, giving the philosophic view. The chorus on the dawn (_H.F._
125) brings the fresh sounds and breezes of early morning into the
atmosphere of the rhetorician's lecture-room. The celebrated
venient annis saecula seris
quibus Oceanus vincula rerum
laxet et ingens pateat tellus
Tethysque novos detegat orbes
nec sit terris ultima Thule (_Med._ 375)
Late in time shall come an age, when Ocean shall
unbar the world, and the whole wide earth be
revealed, and Tethys shall show forth a new world,
nor Thule be earth's limit any more.
has acquired a fictitious importance since the discovery of the new
world, but shows a fine imagination, even if--as has been maintained--it
is merely a courtly reference to the British expedition of Claudius. And
the invocation to sleep in the _Hercules Furens_ proved worthy to
provide an inspiration for Shakespeare (1063):
solvite tantis animum monstris
solvite superi, caecam in melius
flectite mentem. tuque, o domitor
Somne malorum, requies animi,
pars humanae melior vitae,
volucre o matris genus Astracae,
frater durae languide Mortis,
veris miscens falsa, futuri
certus et idem pessimus auctor,
pax errorum, portus vitae,
lucis requies noctisque comes,
qui par regi famuloque venis,
pavidum leti genus humanum
cogis longam discere noctem:
placidus fessum lenisque fove,
preme devinctum torpore gravi.
Save him, ye gods, from monstrous madness, save
him, restore his darkened mind to sanity. And thou,
O sleep, subduer of ill, the spirit's repose, thou
better part of human life, swift-winged child of
Astraca, drowsy brother of cruel death, mixing
false with true, prescient of what shall be, yet
oftener prescient of sorrow, peace mid our wanderings,
haven of man's life, day's respite, night's companion,
that comest impartially to king and slave, thou that
makest trembling mankind to gain a foretaste of the
long night of death; do thou bring gentle rest to his
weariness, and sweet balm to his anguish, and overwhelm
him with heavy stupor.
But the poetry is confined mainly to the lyrics. In them, though the
metre be monotonous and the thought rarely more than commonplace, the
feeling rings true, the expression is brilliant, and the never absent
rhetoric is sometimes transmuted to a more precious substance with a
far-off resemblance to true lyrical passion. In the iambics, with the
exception of the passages already quoted from the _Troades_ and the
_Phaedra_, touches of genuine poetry are most rare. In certain of
the long descriptive passages (_H.F._ 658 sqq., _Oed._ 530 sqq.) we get
a stagey picturesqueness, but no more. It is for different qualities
that we read the iambics of Seneca, if we read them at all.
Even in its worst moments the rhetoric is capable of extorting our
unwilling admiration by its sheer cleverness and audacity. A good
example is to be found in the passage of the _Thyestes_, where Atreus
meditates whether he shall call upon his sons Menelaus and Agamemnon to
aid him in his unnatural vengeance on Thyestes. He has doubts as to
whether he is their father, for Thyestes had seduced their mother
prolis incertae fides
ex hoc petatur scelere: si bella abnuunt
et gerere nolunt odia, si patruum vocant,
pater est. eatur.
And by this test of crime,
Let their uncertain birth be put to proof:
If they refuse to wage this war of death
And will not serve my hatred; if they plead
He is their uncle--then he is their sire.
So to my work!
MILLER'S translation slightly altered.
Equally ingenious is the closing scene between Atreus and Thyestes after
the vengeance is accomplished and Thyestes has feasted on the flesh of
his own sons (1100):
_Thy_. quid liberi meruere?
_Atr_. quod fuerant tui.
_Thy_. natos parenti--
_Atr_. fateor et, quod me iuvat, certos.
_Thy_. piorum praesides testor deos.
_Atr_. quin coniugales?
_Thy_. scelere quid pensas scelus?
_Atr_. scio quid queraris: scelere praerepto doles,
nec quod nefandas hauseris angit dapes;
quod non pararis: fuerat hic animus tibi
instruere similes inscio fratri cibos
et adiuvante liberos matre aggredi
similique leto sternere--hoc unum obstitit:
_Thy_. What was my children's sin?
_Atr_. This, that they were thy children.
_Thy_. But to think
That children to the father--
_Atr_. That indeed,
I do confess it, gives me greatest joy,
That thou art well assured they were thy sons.
_Thy_. I call upon the gods of innocence--
_Atr_. Why not upon the gods of marriage call?
_Thy_. Why dost thou seek to punish crime with crime?
_Atr_. Well do I know the cause of thy complaint:
Because I have forestalled thee in the deed.
Thou grievest, not because thou hast consumed
This horrid feast, but that thou wast not first
To set it forth. This was thy fell intent,
To arrange a feast like this unknown to me,
And with their mother's aid attack my sons,
And with a like destruction lay them low.
But this one thing opposed--thou thought'st them thine.
These passages are as unreal as they are repulsive, but they are
diabolically clever. Seneca's rhetoric is, however, as we have already
seen, capable of rising to higher things, and even where he does not
succeed, as in the passages quoted above from the _Phaedra_ and
_Troades_, in introducing a genuine poetic element, he often
produces striking declamatory effects. The exit of the blind Oedipus, as
he goes forth into life-long banishment, bringing peace to Thebes at the
last, is highly artificial in form, but, given the rhetorical drama, is
not easily surpassed as a conclusion--
mortifera mecum vitia terrarum extraho.
violenta Fata et horridus Morbi tremor,
Maciesque et atra Pestis et rabidus Dolor,
mecum ite, mecum. ducibus his uti libet (1058).
With me to exile lead I forth 'all pestilential humours of
the land. Ye blasting fates', ye trembling agues, famine and
deadly plague and maddened grief, go forth with me, with me!
My heart rejoices to follow in your train.
So likewise the last despairing cry of Jason, as Medea sails
victoriously away in her magic car--
per alta vade spatia sublimi aethere,
testare nullos esse qua veheris deos
Sail on through the airy depths of highest heaven, and
bear witness that, where thou soarest, no gods can be.
forms a magnificent ending to a play which, for all its unreality,
succeeds for more than half its length (l 578) in arresting our
attention by its ingenious rhetoric and its comparative freedom from
mere bombast. Excellent, too, is the speech (_Phoen_. 193) in which
Antigone dissuades her father from suicide. 'What ills can time have in
store for him compared to those he has endured?'--
qui fata proculcavit ac vitae bona
proiecit atque abscidit et casus suos
oneravit ipse, cui deo nullo est opus,
quare ille mortem cupiat aut quare petat?
utrumque timidi est: nemo contempsit mori
qui concupivit. cuius haut ultra mala
exire possunt, in loco tuto est situs,
quis iam deorum, velle fac, quicquam potest
malis tuis adicere? iam nec tu potes
nisi hoc, ut esse te putes dignum nece--
non es nec ulla pectus hoc culpa attigit.
et hoc magis te, genitor, insontem voca,
quod innocens es dis quoque invitis....
... ... quidquid potest
auferre cuiquam mors, tibi hoc vita abstulit.
Who tramples under foot his destiny,
Who disregards and scorns the goods of life,
And aggravates the evils of his lot,
Who has no further need of Providence:
Wherefore should such a man desire to die,
Or seek for death? Each is the coward's act.
No one holds death in scorn who seeks to die.
The man whose evils can no further go
Is safely lodged. Who of the gods, think'st thou,
Grant that he wills it so, can add one jot
Unto thy sum of trouble? Nor canst thou,
Save that thou deem'st thyself unfit to live.
But thou art not unfit, for in thy breast
No taint of sin has come. And all the more,
My father, art thou free from taint of sin,
Because, though heaven willed it otherwise,
Thou still art innocent....
From any man can take, thy life hath taken.
It is, however, in isolated lines and striking _sententiae_ that
Seneca's gift for rhetorical epigram is seen at its best. Nothing could
be better turned than
quaeris Alcidae parem?
nemo est nisi ipse: (_H.F_. 84).[A]
curae leves loquuntur, ingentes stupent (_Phaedra_ 607).[B]
fortem facit vicina libertas senem (_Phaedra_ 139).[C]
qui genus iactat suum,
aliena laudat (_H.F_. 340).
fortuna fortes metuit, ignavos premit (_Med_. 159).
fortuna opes auferre, non animum potest (_Med_. 176).
maius est monstro nefas:[D]
nam monstra fato, moribus scelera imputes (_Phaedra_ 143).
[A] Cp. Theobald: None but himself can be his parallel.
[B] Cp. Sir W. Raleigh: Passions are best compared with floods and
streams, The shallow murmur but the deep are dumb.
[C] For dawning freedom makes the aged brave. MILLER.
[D] For thy impious love is worse
Than her unnatural and impious love.
The first you would impute to character,
The last to fate.
If nothing had survived of Seneca's plays but a collection of
_sententiae_, we might have regretted his loss almost as we regret the
loss of Menander.
Here his merits, such as they are, end: they fail to justify us in
placing him high as a dramatist; and he has many faults over and above
those incidental to his style and modes of thought. While freer than
most of his contemporaries from the vain display of obscure erudition,
he falls into the common vice of introducing 'catalogues'. They are dull
in epic: in drama they are worse than dull. The _Hercules Furens_ is no
place for a matter-of-fact catalogue of the hero's labours, set forth
(210-248) in monotonous iambics from the mouth of Amphitryon. If they
are to be described at all, they demand the decorative treatment of
lyric verse, nor is a catalogue of the herbs used by Medea to
poison the robe destined for her rival any more excusable. Again,
like his contemporaries, he shows a lack of taste and humour which in
its worst manifestations passes belief. Not a few of the passages
already quoted serve to illustrate the point. But for fatuity it would
be hard to surpass the words with which Amphitryon interrupts Theseus'
account of the horrors of the underworld:
estne aliqua tellus Cereris aut Bacchi ferax? (_H.F._ 697.)
Scarcely less absurd is the chorus in the _Phaedra_, who, when hymning
the power of love, give a long list of animals subject to such passion:
the catalogue culminates with the statement that even whales and
elephants fall in love (351):
amat insani belua ponti
But all such instances pale before the conclusion of the _Phaedra_. Not
content with giving a ghastly and exaggerated account of the death of
Hippolytus, Seneca must needs bring the fragments of his mutilated body
upon the scene. Theseus, at the suggestion of the chorus, attempts to
put them together again. The climax comes when, finding an
unidentifiable portion, he cries (1267):
quae pars tui sit dubito, sed pars est tui!
The actual language of the plays is pure and classical. There is no
trace of provincialism, nothing to suggest that Seneca was a Spaniard.
Its vices proceed from the false mould in which it has been cast. There
is a lack of connecting particles, and we proceed by a series of short
rhetorical jerks. It is the style that Seneca himself condemns in
his letters (114. 1). Its faults are further aggravated by the metre:
taken line by line, the iambics of Seneca are impressive: taken
collectively they are monotonous in the extreme. The ear suffers a
continual series of stabs, which are not the less unpleasant because
none of them go deep. The verse seems formed, one might almost say
punched out, by a relentless machine. It is never modified by
circumstances; it is the same in narrative and dialogue, the same in
passion and in calm, if indeed Seneca can ever be said to be either
passionate or calm. Its pauses come with monotonous regularity at the
end of the line, diversified only by an occasional break at the caesura
in the third foot. Nor does the rule observed by Seneca, that only
a spondee or anapaest is permitted in the fifth foot, tend to relieve
the monotony, though it does much to give the individual lines such
weight as they possess. A more complete contrast with the iambics of the
early Latin Tragedies cannot be imagined. What has been gained in polish
has been lost in dignity. Whence the Senecan iambic is derived, is a
question which cannot be answered with certainty. It is wholly unlike
the early Roman tragic iambic. Elision is rare, and there is little
variety. Instead of the massive and rugged measure of Pacuvius or
Accius, we have a finished and elegant monotony. In all likelihood it is
the lineal descendant of the iambic of Ovid. In view of Seneca's
great admiration for Ovid--he quotes him continually in his prose
works--of Ovid's mastery of rhetoric and epigram, and yet more of the
distinct parallels traceable between the _Phaedra_ and _Medea_ of Seneca
and the corresponding _Heroides_ of Ovid, it becomes a strong
probability that the Senecan iambic was deeply influenced--if not
actually created--by the iambic style of the earlier poet's lost drama,
the famous _Medea_.
As to the models to which he is indebted for his treatment of choric
metres we know nothing. In spite of the fact that he employs a large
variety of metres, and that his choruses at times stray from rhetoric
into poetry of a high order, there is in them a still more deadly
monotony than in his iambics. The chorus are devoid of life; they are
there partly as a concession to convention, but mainly to supply
incidental music. Their inherent dullness is not relieved by the metre.
Of strophic arrangement there is no clear trace; in a large proportion
of cases the choruses are written in one fixed and rigid metre admitting
of no variety: even where different metres alternate, the relaxation is
but small, for the same monotony reigns unchecked within the limits of
each section. The strange experiments in mixed metres in the _Agamemnon_
and _Oedipus_ show Seneca's technique at its worst: they are composed of
fragments of Horatian metres, thinly disguised by inversions and
resolutions of feet: they lack all governing principle and are an
unqualified failure. Of the remaining metres the Anapaestic, Asclepiad,
Sapphic, and Glyconic predominate. He is, perhaps, least unsuccessful in
his treatment of the Anapaest: the lines do not lack melody, and the
natural flexibility of the metre saves them from extreme monotony,
though they would have been more successful had he employed the
paroemiac line as a solemn and resonant close to the march of the
dimeter. But one wearies soon of the eternal Asclepiads and Glyconics
which he often allows to continue in unbroken and unvaried series for
seventy or eighty lines together. He rarely allows any variation within
the Glyconic and never makes use of it to break the monotony of the
Asclepiad. Still worse are his Sapphics. Abandoning the usual
arrangement in stanzas of three lesser Sapphics followed by an Adonic
verse, his Sapphic choruses consist almost entirely of the lesser
Sapphic varied by a very occasional Adonic. The continual succession of
these lines without so much as an occasional change of caesura to
diversify the rhythm is at times almost intolerable. At the close of
such choruses we feel as though we had jogged at a rapid trot for long
miles on a very hard and featureless road.
Language and metre work hand in hand with rhetoric to make these
strange plays dramatically ineffective. So strange are they and in many
ways so unlike anything else in Classical literature, that the question
as to the purpose with which they were written and the place they
occupied in the literature of their day affords an interesting subject
for speculation. Were they written for the stage? Decayed as was the
taste for tragedy, tragedies may occasionally have been acted. But
there are considerations which suggest doubt as to whether the plays of
Seneca were written with any such purpose. Even under Nero it is
scarcely credible that the introduction of the mangled fragments of
Hippolytus upon the stage would be possible or palatable. Medea
kills her children _coram populo_, and, not content with killing them,
flings their bodies at Jason from her magic chariot high in air.
Hercules kills his children in full view of the audience, not within the
house as in the corresponding drama of Euripides. Such scenes suggest
that the plays were written not for the stage but for recitation with
musical interludes from a trained choir. Indications that this was the
case are to be found in the _Hercules Furens_. While the hero is engaged
in slaying his children, Amphitryon, in a succession of short speeches,
gives the details of the murder. This would be ridiculous and
unnecessary were the scene actually presented on the stage, whereas they
become absolutely necessary on the assumption that the play was written
for recitation. This assumption has the further merit of being
charitable; skilful recitation would cover many defects that would be
almost intolerable on the stage.
It is improbable, however, that the drama of Seneca occupied an
important position in the literature of their day. The golden age of
tragedy was past, and it is hard to believe that these plays are
favourable specimens even of their own age. The authors of the Silver
Age virtually ignore their existence, and, with the exception of two
references in Tertullian and one in Apollinaris Sidonius, they are
quoted only by scholars and grammarians.
They have small intrinsic value: but they afford interesting evidence
for the taste of their own day, and their influence on modern drama
has been enormous. In the Renaissance at the dawn of the drama's
revival, Seneca was regarded as a dramatist of the first order. Scaliger
ranked him above Euripides: it was to him men turned to find models for
tragedy. Everywhere we see traces of the Senecan drama. It is a
tribute to the dexterity of his rhetoric that his influence should have
been so enormous, but it is to be regretted in the interests of the
drama. For to Seneca more than to any other man is due the excessive
prominence of declamatory rhetoric, which has characterized the drama
throughout Western Europe from the Renaissance down to the latter half
of the nineteenth century, and has proved a blemish to the work of all
save a few great writers who recognized the value of rhetoric, but never
mistook the shadow for the substance.
A tragedy with this title is included by the MSS. among the plays of
Seneca. Its chief interest lies in the fact that it is the one surviving
example of a _fabula praetexta_, or tragedy, drawn from Roman life. It
deals with a tragic incident of Nero's reign, the final extinction of
the Claudian house. Octavia, daughter of Claudius and Messalina, is the
heroine. Her life was one long tragedy. Her childhood was darkened by
the disaster that befell her unworthy mother, her maturer years by her
marriage to Nero. She was a mere pawn in the game of politics. The
marriage was brought about by the designs of Agrippina, to render Nero
secure of the principate. To effect this end her betrothed Silanus was
killed, Claudius, her father, and Britannicus, her brother, dispatched
by poison. Soon her own wedded life turned to tragedy. Nero fell madly
in love with Poppaea, and resolved to put away Octavia. At Poppaea's
instigation she was accused of a base intrigue. The plot failed; the
false charge could not be pressed home; she was divorced on the ground
of sterility, and imprisoned in a town of Campania. A rumour arose that
she was to be reinstated; the mob of Rome declared itself in her favour
and gave wild expression to its joy. Poppaea's statues were cast down,
Octavia's replaced. Poppaea was furious. She laid siege to Nero and won
him to her will. The old false charge of adultery was trumped up; a
complaisant freed man was found to confess himself Octavia's lover. She
was banished to Pandataria and slain (June 9, 62 A.D.).
The play gives us a compressed version of the tragedy. It opens with a
speech by Octavia's nurse, setting forth the sorrows of her young
mistress. The speech over, she leaves the stage to be succeeded by
Octavia, who, in a lament closely modelled on the lament of the
Sophoclean Electra, bewails the sorrows of her house, the deaths of
Messalina, Claudius, and Britannicus. The nurse reappears, attempts to
console her, and counsels submission to fate. Octavia changes her strain
and prays for death. After a lament from the chorus, Nero and Seneca
enter on the scene. Seneca urges moderation and sets forth his ideal of
monarchy. Nero is quite his match in argument, rejects his advice, and,
concluding with the words
desiste tandem, iam gravis nimium mihi,
instare: liceat facere quod Seneca improbat (588).
Have done at last,
For wearisome has thine insistence grown;
One still may do what Seneca condemns ...
declares his intention of marrying Poppaea without delay. An interesting
chorus follows, describing how Rome of old expelled the kings for their
crimes. Nero has sinned even more than they. Has he not slain even his
mother? There follows a long and interesting description of the
murder, which serves as an introduction to the entrance of the
ghost of Agrippina in the guise of an avenging fury, prophesying the
dethronement and death of her unnatural son. She is succeeded on the
stage by Octavia, resigned to the surrender of her position and content
to be no more than Nero's sister; once more the chorus bewail her fate.
At last her rival Poppaea appears in conversation with her nurse. The
nurse congratulates her, but Poppaea has been terrified by visions of
the night and is ill at ease. Her rival is not yet removed and her own
place is still insecure. At this point comes the one ray of hope that
illumines this sombre drama. A messenger arrives with the news that the
people have risen in Octavia's favour. But the reader is not left in
suspense for a moment. Nero appears and orders the suppression of the
_emeute_ and the execution of Octavia. The chorus mourn the fate of the
beloved of the Roman people. Their power and splendour is but brief:
Octavia perishes untimely, like Gracchus and Livius Drusus. She herself
appears in the hands of soldiers, being dragged off to execution and
death. Like Cassandra, she compares her fate with that of the
nightingale, to whom the gods gave a new life of peace full of sweet
lamentation as a close to her troubled human existence. One more song of
condolence from the chorus, one more song of sorrow from Octavia, and
she is taken from our sight, and the play closes with a denunciation by
the chorus of the hardness of heart and the insatiate cruelty of Rome.
It is not hard to summarize the general effect of this curious drama.
Its author has read the Greek tragedians carefully and to some purpose;
he has studied the characters of Electra, Cassandra, and Antigone with
diligence, if without insight. He clearly feels deep sympathy for
Octavia, and to some extent succeeds in communicating this sympathy to
the audience. His heroine speaks in character: she is never a male
Stoic, flaunting in female garb, she is a genuine woman, a gentle,
lovable creature broken down by misfortune. The other characters are
uninteresting. Nero is an academic tyrant, Seneca an academic adviser,
Poppaea is little more than a lay figure. The most that can be said for
them is that they do not rant. The chorus are on the whole a fairly
satisfactory imitation of a chorus of sympathetic Greek women.
There is nothing forced or unnatural about them; they are real human
beings; their sympathy is genuine, and its expression appropriate. But
they are dull; monotonous lamentation in monotonous anapaests is the
height of their capacity. The play is a failure: the subject is not in
itself dramatic; if it had been, it would have been spoiled by the
treatment it receives. We are never in suspense; Octavia has never the
remotest chance of escape; our pity for her is genuine enough, but her
character lacks both grandeur and psychological interest: the pathos of
her situation will not compensate us for the absence of a dramatic plot.
The fall of the house of Claudius compares ill with the tragedy of the
Pelopidae. And the treatment of the story, from the dramatic standpoint,
is childish. The play is scarcely more than a series of melancholy
monologues interspersed with not less melancholy dirges from the chorus.
The most we can say of it is that it is simple and unaffected: if it
lacks brilliance, it also lacks exaggeration. Thought and diction are
commonplace and uninspired, but they are never absurd--an extraordinary
merit in a poet of the Silver Age.
It will have been sufficiently evident from this brief sketch that
the _Octavia_ is in all respects very different indeed from the other
plays that claim Seneca for their author. It is free from their
faults and their merits alike. It never sinks to their depths, but
it never rises to their heights. Apart, however, from these general
considerations, there is evidence amounting almost to certainty
that the _Octavia_ is not by Seneca. The tragedy takes place in the
lifetime of Seneca. Seneca himself figures in the play. The story is of
such a nature that it could hardly have been written, much less
published, in the reign of Nero. Yet more conclusive is the fact that
the ghost of Agrippina prophesies the fate of Nero in such a way as to
make it certain that the author outlived the emperor and was acquainted
with the facts of his death.
Who then was the author? When did he write? Evidence is almost
absolutely lacking. From its comparative sanity and simplicity and its
intense hatred of Nero it may reasonably be conjectured that it is the
work of the Flavian age; the age of the anti-Neronian reaction and of
the return to saner models in life and literature. But there is no
certainty; it may have been written under Nerva, Trajan, or Hadrian. It
stands detached and aloof from the literature of its age.
It is possible to form a clearer picture of the personality of Aulus
Persius Flaccus, the satirist, than of any other poet of the Silver Age.
Not only are the essential facts of his brief career preserved for us in
a concise, but extremely relevant biography taken from the commentary of
the famous critic Valerius Probus, but there are few poets whose works
so clearly reveal the character of their author.
Persius was born at the lofty hill-town of Volaterrae, in Tuscany, on
the 4th of December, 34 A.D. He was scarcely six years old when he
lost his father, a wealthy Roman knight, named Flaccus. His mother,
Fulvia Sisennia, married again, but her second husband, a knight named
Fusius, died after a few years of wedded life. Persius was educated at
home up to the age of twelve, when he was taken to Rome to be taught
literature by Remmius Palaemon and rhetoric by Verginius Flavus. Of the
latter nothing is known save that he wrote a much-approved textbook on
rhetoric and was exiled by Nero; the former was a freedman whose
remarkable talents were only equalled by his gross vices; he had a
prodigious memory, was a skilful _improvvisatore_, and the most
distinguished teacher of the day. At the age of sixteen, shortly
after his assumption of the _toga virilis_, the young Persius made the
friendship which was to be the ruling influence of his life. He learned
to know and love the great Stoic teacher, Cornutus, with an attachment
that was broken only by death. It was from Cornutus that he imbibed the
principles of Stoicism, and at his house that he met the Greek
philosophers, Petronius Aristocrates of Magnesia and the Lacedaemonian
physician, Claudius Agathurnus, whose influence upon his character was
only less than that of Cornutus. Among his intimates he counted
Calpurnius Statura, who died in early youth, and the famous lyric poet,
Caesius Bassus, who was destined long to survive his friend and to
do him the last service of editing the satires, which his premature
death left unpublished and unfinished. Lucan also was one of his fellow
students in the house of Cornutus, while at a later date he made
the acquaintance of Seneca, the leading writer of the day, although he
never felt the seductive attractions of his fluent style and subtle
intellect. More important influences were his almost filial respect and
affection for the distinguished orator, M. Servilius Nonianus, and
his close companionship with Thrasea Paetus, the leader of the Stoic
opposition. At one time Persius, if the scholiast may be
believed, contemplated a military career. The statement is scarcely
probable in view of the contempt and dislike with which he invariably
speaks of soldiers, nor is it easy to conceive a profession less suited
to the temperament of the quiet and retiring poet. Whatever his original
intentions may have been, he actually chose the secluded life of study,
the _vita umbratilis_, as the Romans called it, remote from the dust and
heat of the great world. That he was wise we cannot doubt. It was the
only life possible in those days for a man of his character. 'Fuit morum
lenissimorum, verecundiae virginalis, pietatis erga matrem et sororem et
amitam exemplo sufficientis: fuit frugi, pudicus.' Even in a saner,
purer, and less turbulent age, such a one would have been more fitted
for the paths of study than for any branch of public life. He died of a
disease of the stomach on the 24th of November, 62 A.D., in his villa on
the Appian Way, some eight miles south of Rome, leaving behind him
a valuable library, a small amount of unpublished verse, and a
considerable fortune, amounting to 2,000,000 sesterces. The whole of
this fortune he bequeathed to his mother and sister, only begging them
to give to his friend Cornutus a sum of 100,000 sesterces, twenty pounds
weight of silver plate, and the whole of his library, containing no less
than 700 volumes by the Stoic Chrysippus. Cornutus accepted the books,
but refused the rest, showing that indifference to wealth that was to be
looked for, though not always to be found, in professors of the Stoic
philosophy. The literary work left by the dead poet was submitted by his
mother to the judgement of Cornutus, himself a poet. The bulk of
the work was not great. Persius had in his boyhood written a _praetexta_
or tragedy with a Roman plot, a book of poems describing his journeys
with Thrasea, and a few verses on his kinswoman Arria, the wife of
Caecina Paetus, immortalized by her devotion to her husband and her
heroic death. As the work of his maturer years he left his satires.
Cornutus recommended that all save the satires should be destroyed; they
alone, unfinished though they might be, were worthy of the memory of his
dead friend. He began the task of correcting them for publication, but
transferred it to Caesius Bassus, at the latter's earnest entreaty. Of
the nature of the correction and editing required we are ignorant, save
for the statement of Probus that a few lines were removed from the end
of the book to give it an appearance of completion. The poems met
with instant success; they excited both wonder and criticism; that
they continued to be read is shown by the existence of copious scholia,
which must, indeed, have been almost necessary for such continuance of
The slender volume of Persius' works is composed of six satires in
hexameter verse and a prologue written in choliambi. The first deals
with the corruption of literature; the second, addressed to Macrinus on
his birthday, treats of the right and wrong objects of prayer; the third
is an appeal to an indolent young man for energy and earnestness; the
fourth, almost a continuation of the third, attacks the lack of
'self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control', in public men; the
fifth, addressed to his friend and teacher Cornutus, maintains the Stoic
doctrine that all the world are slaves; only the righteous man attains
to freedom; in the sixth, addressed to Caesius Bassus, the poet claims
the right to spend his wealth in reasonable enjoyment, and denounces the
grasping and unseemly selfishness of an imaginary heir to his fortune.
In the prologue--or epilogue as it is sometimes regarded--he
sarcastically disclaims any pretensions to poetic inspiration, and hints
ironically that, in view of the number of poets who write merely to win
their bread, inspiration may be regarded as unnecessary.
The ambition to win fame as a satirist was first fired in Persius by his
reading the tenth book of the satires of Lucilius. If we may believe
Probus, he imitated the opening of that book in his first satire,
beginning like Lucilius by detracting from himself and proceeding to
attack other authors indiscriminately. Not enough of the tenth book
of Lucilius has survived to enable us to check the accuracy of this
statement, though it finds independent testimony in a remark of the
scholiast on Horace, that the tenth book of Lucilius contained free
criticisms of the early poets of Rome. Further, the third satire is
said by the scholiast to have been modelled on the fourth book of
Lucilius, and there is a certain amount of evidence for supposing the
choliambi of the epilogue to be an imitation of a Lucilian model.
We have, however, no means of testing the truth of these assertions: the
debt of Persius to Lucilius must be taken on trust. Of his enormous
indebtedness to Horace we have, on the other hand, the clearest
evidence. It is hard to conceive two poets with less in common as
regards ideals, temperament, and technique; and yet throughout Persius
we are startled by strange, though unmistakable, echoes of Horace.
He knows his Horace by heart, and Horace has become a veritable
obsession. He is not content with giving his characters Horatian
names. That might be convention, not plagiarism. But phrase after
phrase calls up the Horatian original. He runs through the whole gamut
of plagiarism. There is plagiarism, simple and direct.
sub rastro crepet argenti mihi seria, dextro
Hercule! (2. 10)
O that I could hear a crock of silver chinking under
my harrow, by the blessing of Hercules. CONINGTON.
is undisguisedly copied from Horace (_Sat._ ii. 6. 10).
O si urnam argenti fors quae mihi monstret, ut illi,
thesauro invento, qui mercennarius agrum
ilium ipsum mercatus aravit, dives amico
But as a rule, since he cannot keep Horace out, he strives to disguise
him. The familiar
si vis me flere, dolendum est
primum ipsi tibi
of the _Ars Poetica_ (102) reappears in the far less natural
verum nec nocte paratum
plorabit, qui me volet incurvasse querela (_Pers_. i. 91).
A man's tears must come from his heart at the moment, not
from his brains overnight, if he would have me bowed down
beneath his piteous tale. CONINGTON.
He speaks of his verses so finely turned and polished--
ut per leve severos
effundat iunctura unguis (i. 64).
So that the critical nail runs glibly along even where the
parts join. CONINGTON.
In this fantastically contorted and affected phrase we may espy an
ingenious blending of two Horatian phrases,
totus teres atque rotundus,
externi ne quid valeat per leve morari (_Sat._ ii. 7. 86),
and the simple
ad unguem factus
f _Sat._ i. 5. 32.
There is no need to multiply instances. Horace appears everywhere, but
_quantum mutatus ab illo!_ As the result of this particular method of
borrowing, assisted by affectations and obscurities which are all his
own, Persius attains to a kind of spurious originality of diction, which
often degenerates into sheer eccentricity. In spite of the fact that the
original text can almost everywhere be reconstructed with certainty, he
is almost the most obscure of Latin poets to the modern reader. A few
instances will suffice. There were, it appears, three ways of mocking a
person behind his back: one might tap the fingers against the lower
portion of the hand in imitation of a stork's beak, one might imitate a
donkey's ears, or one might put out one's tongue. When Persius wishes to
say 'Janus, I envy you your luck, for no one can mock at you behind your
back!' he writes (i. 58):
O Iane, a tergo quem nulla ciconia pinsit,
nec manus auriculas imitari mobilis albas,
nec linguae, quantum sitiat canis Apula, tantae.
Happy Janus, whom no stork's bill batters from behind,
no nimble hand quick to imitate the ass's white ears,
no long tongues thrust out like the tongue of a thirsty
The obscurity of the first line springs in part from the fact that the
custom is not elsewhere spoken of. The second line may pass. The third
defies literal translation. It means 'no long tongues thrust out like
the tongue of a thirsty Apulian bitch'. But the omission of all mention
both of 'protrusion' and of the 'dog days' makes the Latin almost
without meaning. The epithet _Apula_ becomes absurd. A 'thirsty Apulian
dog' is barely sufficient to suggest the midsummer drought of Apulia.
This is an extreme case; it is perhaps fairer to quote lines such as
si puteal multa cautus vibice flagellas (iv. 49),
'if in your zeal for the main chance you flog the exchange with many a
stripe,' a mysterious passage generally supposed to mean 'if you exact
exorbitant usury'. A little less enigmatic, but fully as forced and
dum veteres avias tibi de pulmone revello (v. 92),
'while I pull your old grandmotherly views from your heart,' or the
extraordinarily harsh metaphor of the first satire (24)--
quo didicisse, nisi hoc fermentum et quae semel intus
innata est rupto iecore exierit caprificus?
What is the good of past study, unless this leaven--unless
the wild fig-tree which has once struck its root into the
breast, break through and come out? CONINGTON.
which means nothing more than 'What is the good of study unless a man
brings out what he has in him?' A far more serious source of obscurity,
however, is his obscurity of thought. Even when the sense of individual
lines has been discovered, it is often difficult to see the drift of the
passage as a whole. Logical development is perhaps not to be expected in
the 'hotch-potch' of the 'satura'. But one has a right to demand that
the transitions should be easy and the drift of the argument clear. This
Persius refuses us. The difficulties which he presents are--as in the
case of Robert Browning--in part due to his adoption of the traditional
dramatic form in satire, a form in which clearness of expression is as
difficult as it is desirable. But we cannot excuse his obscurity as we
sometimes can in Browning--either as being to some extent a realistic
representation of the discursiveness and lack of method that
characterize the reasonings of the average intelligent man, or on the
other hand as springing from the intensity of the poet's thought. It is
not the case with Persius that his thoughts press so thick and quick
upon him, or are of so deep and complicated a character, as to be
incapable of simple and lucid expression. It is sheer waywardness and
perversity springing from the absence of true artistic feeling to which
we must attribute this cardinal defect. For his thought is commonplace,
and his observation of the minds and ways of men is limited.
The qualities that go to the making of the true satirist are many. He
must be dominated by a moral ideal, not necessarily of the highest kind,
but sufficiently exalted to lend dignity to his work and sufficiently
strongly realized to permeate it. He must have a wide and comprehensive
knowledge of his fellow men. A knowledge of the broad outlines of the
cardinal virtues and of the deadly sins is not sufficient. The satirist
must know them in their countless manifestations in the life of man, as
they move our awe or our contempt, our admiration or our terror, our
love or our loathing, our laughter or our tears. He must be able to
paint society in all its myriad hues. He must have a sense of humour,
even if he lacks the sense of proportion; he must have the gift of
laughter, even though his laughter ring harsh and painful. He must have
the gift of mordant speech, of epigram, and of rhetoric. He must drive
his points home with directness and lucidity. Mere denunciation of vice
is not enough. Few prophets are satirists; few satirists are prophets.
Of these qualities Persius has all too few. The man who has become the
pupil of a Cornutus at the age of sixteen, who has shunned a public
career, and is characterized by a _virginalis verecundia_, is not
likely, even in a long life, to acquire the knowledge of the world
required for genuine satire. The satirist, it might almost be said, must
not only have walked abroad in the great world, but must have passed
through the fire himself, and in some sense experienced the vices he has
set himself to lash. But Persius is young and, as far as might be in
that age, innocent. His outlook is from the seclusion of literary and
philosophic circles, and his satire lacks the peculiar vigour that can
only be got from jostling one's way in the wider world. In consequence
the picture of life which he presents lacks vividness. A few brilliant
sketches there are; but they are drawn from but a narrow range of
experience. There is nothing better of its kind than the description in
the first satire of the omnipresent poetaster of the reign of Nero, with
his affected recitations of tawdry, sensuous, and soulless verse (15):
Scilicet haec populo pexusque togaque recenti
et natalicia tandem cum sardonyche albus
sede leges celsa, liquido cum plasmate guttur
mobile conlueris, patranti fractus ocello.
tunc neque more probo videas nec voce serena
ingentis trepidare Titos, cum carmina lumbum
intrant et tremulo scalpuntur ubi intima versu.
Yes--you hope to read this out some day, got up sprucely with
a new toga, all in white, with your birthday ring on at last,
perched up on a high seat, after gargling your supple throat by
a liquid process of tuning, with a languishing roll of your
wanton eye. At this you may see great brawny sons of Rome all in
a quiver, losing all decency of gesture and command of voice, as
the strains glide into their very bones, and the marrow within is
tickled by the ripple of the measure. CONINGTON.
A few lines later comes a similar and equally vivid picture (30):
ecce inter pocula quaerunt
Romulidae saturi, quid dia poemata narrent.
hic aliquis, cui circum umeros hyacinthina laena est,
rancidulum quiddam balba de nare locutus,
Phyllidas Hypsipylas, vatum et plorabile siquid,
cliquat ac tenero subplantat verba palato.
Listen. The sons of Rome are sitting after a full meal, and
inquiring in their cups, 'What news from the divine world of
poesy?' Hereupon a personage with a hyacinth-coloured mantle
over his shoulders brings out some mawkish trash or other, with
a snuffle and a lisp, something about Phyllises or Hypsipyles,
or any of the many heroines over whom poets have snivelled,
filtering out his tones and tripping up the words against the
roof of his delicate mouth. CONINGTON.
Here the poet is describing what he has seen; in the world of letters he
is at home. He can laugh pungently enough at the style of oratory
prevailing in the courts--
nilne pudet capiti non posse pericula cano
pellere, quin tepidum hoc optes audire 'decenter'.
'fur es', ait Pedio. Pedius quid? crimina rasis
librat in antithetis, doctas posuisse figuras
laudatur, 'bellum hoc?' (i. 83).
Are you not ashamed not to be able to plead against perils
threatening your grey hairs, but you must needs be ambitious
of hearing mawkish compliments to your 'good taste'? The
accuser tells Pedius point blank, 'You are a thief.' What does
Pedius do? Oh, he balances the charges in polished antitheses--
he is deservedly praised for the artfulness of his tropes.
Monstrous fine that! CONINGTON.
He can parody the decadent poets with their effeminate rhythms and their
absurdities of speech. He can mock the archaizer who goes to Accius
and Pacuvius for his inspiration. He can give an admirable summary
of the genius of Lucilius and Horace--
secuit Lucilius urbem,
te Lupe, te Muci, et genuinum fregit in illis;
omne vafer vitium ridenti Flaccus amico
tangit et admissus circum praecordia ludit,
callidus excusso populum suspendere naso (i. 114).
Lucilius bit deep into the town of his day, its Lupuses and
Muciuses, and broke his jaw-tooth on them. Horace, the rogue,
manages to probe every fault while making his friend laugh; he
gains his entrance and plays about the heartstrings with a sly
talent for tossing up his nose and catching the public on it.
But the first satire stands alone _qua_ satire. It is not, perhaps, the
most interesting to the modern reader. It mocks at empty literary
fashions, which have comparatively small human interest. But it is in
this satire that Persius comes nearest the true satirist. The obscurity
and affectation of its language is its one serious fault; otherwise it
shows sound literary ideals, close observation, and a pretty vein of
humour. Elsewhere there is small trace of keen observation of
actual life; he calls up before his reader no vision of the varied life
of Rome, whether in the streets or in the houses of the rich. Instead,
he laboriously tricks out some vice in human garb, converses with it in
language such as none save Persius ever dreamed of using, or scourges it
with all the heavy weapons of the Stoic armoury. There is at times a
certain violence and even coarseness of description which does duty
for realism, but the words ring hollow and false. The picture described
or suggested is got at second-hand. He lacks the vivacity, realism, and
common sense of Horace, the cultured man of the world, the biting wit,
the astonishing descriptive power, and the masterly rhetoric of Juvenal.
We care little for the greater part of Persius' disquisition on the
trite theme of the schools, 'what should be the object of man's prayers
to heaven?' when we have read the tenth satire of Juvenal. There is the
same commonplace theme in both, and there is perhaps less originality to
be found in the general treatment applied to it by Juvenal. But Juvenal
makes us forget the triteness of the theme by his extraordinary gift of
style. Like Victor Hugo, he has the gift of imparting richness and
splendour to the obvious by the sheer force and glory of his declamatory
power. Similarly the fifth satire, where Persius descants on the theme
that only the good man is free, while all the rest are slaves, compares
ill as a whole with the dialogue between Horace and Davus on the same
subject (_Sat._ ii. 7). There is such a harshness, an angularity and
bitterness about it, that he wholly fails of the effect produced by the
easy dignity of the earlier poet. It is abrupt, violent, and obscure;
and for this reason the austere Stoic makes less impression than his
more engaging and easy-going predecessor. Horace knew how to press home
his points, even while he played about the hearts of men. Persius has
neither the persuasiveness of Horace nor the force of Juvenal.
But Persius, if he falls below his great rivals in point of art, is in
one respect immeasurably their superior. He is a better and a nobler
man. In his denunciations of vice his eyes are set on a more exalted
ideal, an ideal from which he never wanders. There is a world of
difference between the 'golden mean' of Horace, and the worship of
virtue that redeems the obscurities of Persius. There is a still greater
gulf between the high scorn manifested by Persius for all that is base
and ignoble, and the fierce, almost petulant, indignation of Juvenal,
that often seems to rend for the mere delight of rending, and is at
times disfigured by such grossness of language that many an
unsympathetic reader has wondered whether the indignation was genuine.
Neither Horace nor Juvenal ever rose to the moral heights of the
conclusion of the second satire (61):
O curvae in terris animae et caelestium inanes,
quid iuvat hoc, templis nostros immittere mores
et bona dis ex hac scelerata ducere pulpa?
haec sibi corrupto casiam dissolvit olivo
et Calabrum coxit vitiato murice vellus,
haec bacam conchae rasisse et stringere venas
ferventis massae crudo de pulvere iussit.
peccat et haec, peccat, vitio tamen utitur. at vos
dicite, pontifices, in sancto quid facit aurum?
nempe hoc quod Veneri donatae a virgine pupae.
quin damus id superis, de magna quod dare lance
non possit magni Messalae lippa propago?
compositum ius fasque animo sanctosque recessus
mentis et incoctum generoso pectus honesto:
haec cedo ut admoveam templis et farre litabo.
O ye souls that cleave to earth and have nothing heavenly
in you! How can it answer to introduce the spirit of the age
into the temple-service and infer what the gods like from
this sinful pampered flesh of ours? The flesh it is that has
got to spoil wholesome oil by mixing casia with it--to steep
Calabrian wool in purple that was made for no such use; that
has made us tear the pearl from the oyster, and separate the
veins of the glowing ore from the primitive slag. It sins--yes,
it sins; but it takes something by its sinning; but you,
reverend pontiffs, tell us what good gold can do in a holy
place. Just as much or as little as the dolls which a young
girl offers to Venus. Give _we_ rather to the gods such an
offering as great Messala's blear-eyed representative has no
means of giving, even out of his great dish--duty to God and
man well blended in the mind--purity in the shrine of the heart,
and a manly flavour of nobleness pervading the bosom. Let me
have these to carry to the temple, and a handful of meal shall
win me acceptance. CONINGTON.
This is real enthusiasm, though the theme be trite, and it is
noteworthy that the enthusiasm has clarified the language, which goes
straight to the point without obscurity or circumlocution. Here alone
does the second satire of Persius surpass the more famous tenth satire
of Juvenal. Yet even this fine outburst is surpassed by the deservedly
well-known passage of the third satire, in which Persius appeals to a
young man 'who has great possessions' to live earnestly and
udum et molle lutum es, nunc nunc properandus et acri
fingendus sine fine rota. sed rure paterno
est tibi far modicum, purum et sine labe salinum
(quid metuas?) cultrixque foci secura patella est.
hoc satis? an deceat pulmonem rumpere ventis,
stemmate quod Tusco ramum millesime ducis,
censoremve tuum vel quod trabeate salutas?
ad populum phaleras, ego te intus et in cute novi.
non pudet ad morem discincti vivere Nattae.
sed stupet hic vitio et fibris increvit opimum
pingue, caret culpa, nescit quid perdat, et alto
demersus summa rursus non bullit in unda.
magne pater divum, saevos punire tyrannos
haut alia ratione velis, cum dira libido
moverit ingenium ferventi tincta veneno:
virtutem videant intabescantque relicta.
anne magis Siculi gemuerunt aera iuvenci,
et magis auratis pendens laquearibus ensis
purpureas subter cervices terruit, 'imus,
imus praecipites' quam si sibi dicat et intus
palleat infelix quod proxima nesciat uxor?
You are moist soft earth, you ought to be taken instantly,
instantly, and fashioned without end by the rapid wheel. But you
have a paternal estate with a fair crop of corn, a salt-cellar
of unsullied brightness (no fear of ruin surely!), and a snug
dish for fireside service. Are you to be satisfied with this? or
would it be decent to puff yourself and vapour because your branch
is connected with a Tuscan stem, and you are thousandth in the line,
or because you wear purple on review days and salute your censor?
Off with your trappings to the mob! I can look under them and see
your skin. Are you not ashamed to live the loose life of Natta? But he
is paralysed by vice; his heart is overgrown by thick collops of fat;
he feels no reproach; he knows nothing of his loss; he is sunk in the
depth and makes no more bubbles on the surface. Great Father of the
Gods, be it thy pleasure to inflict no other punishment on the monsters
of tyranny, after their nature has been stirred by fierce passion, that
has the taint of fiery poison--let them look upon virtue and pine that
they have lost her for ever! Were the groans from the brazen bull of
Sicily more terrible, or did the sword that hung from the gilded cornice
strike more dread into the princely neck beneath it, than the voice
which whispers to the heart, 'We are going, going down a precipice,' and
the ghastly inward paleness, which is a mystery, even to the wife of our
The man who wrote this has 'loved righteousness and hated iniquity'. In
the work of Persius' rivals it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that
it is the hatred of iniquity that is most prominent; the love of
righteousness holds but a secondary place.
Persius is uncompromising; he is the true Stoic with the motto 'all or
nothing'. But he has nothing of the stilted Stoicism that is such a
painful feature of the plays of Seneca; nor, however perverse and
affected he may be in diction, do we ever feel that his Stoicism is in
some respects no better than a moral pose, a distressing feeling that
sometimes afflicts as we read Seneca's letters or consolatory treatises.
He speaks straight from the heart. His faults are more often the faults
of the school of philosophy than of the schools of rhetoric. The young
Lucan is said to have exclaimed, after hearing a recitation given by
Persius: 'That is real poetry, my verses are mere _jeux d'esprit_.'
If we take Persius at his noblest, Lucan's criticism is just. In these
passages not only is the thought singularly pure and noble, and the
expression felicitous, but the actual metre represents almost the
high-water mark of the post-Vergilian hexameter. Here, as in other
writers of the age, the influence of Ovid is traceable in the increase
of dactyls and the avoidance of elision. But the verse has a swing and
dignity, together with a variety, that can hardly be found in any other
poetry of the Silver Age. It is the existence of passages such as
these, and the high unswerving moral enthusiasm characterizing all his
work, that have made Persius live through the centuries. It is
fashionable for the critic to say, 'We lay down Persius with a sigh of
relief.' That is true, but we feel the better for reading him. He is
one of the few writers of Rome whose personality awakens a feeling of
warm affection. He was a rigid Stoic, yet not proud or cold. In an age
of almost universal corruption he kept himself unspotted from the
world. He had a rare capacity for whole-hearted friendship. If his
teacher Cornutus had never made another convert, and his preaching had
been vain, it would have been ample reward to have won such a tribute
of affection and gratitude as the lines in which Persius pours forth
his soul to him (v. 21):
tibi nunc hortante Camena
excutienda damus praecordia, quantaque nostrae
pars tua sit, Cornute, animae, tibi, dulcis amice,
ostendisse iuvat. pulsa dinoscere cautus
quid solidum crepet et pictae tectoria linguae.
hic ego centenas ausim deposcere fauces,
ut quantum mihi te sinuoso in pectore fixi,
voce traham pura, totumque hoc verba resignent,
quod latet arcana non enarrabile fibra.
cum primum pavido custos mihi purpura cessit
bullaque subcinctis Laribus donata pependit,
cum blandi comites totaque inpune Subura
permisit sparsisse oculos iam candidus umbo,
cumque iter ambiguum est et vitae nescius error
deducit trepidas ramosa in compita mentes,
me tibi supposui. teneros tu suscipis annos
Socratico, Cornute, sinu. tune fallere sollers
adposita intortos extendit regula mores,
et premitur ratione animus vincique laborat
artificemque tuo ducit sub pollice vultum.
tecum etenim longos memini consumere soles,
et tecum primas epulis decerpere noctes.
unum opus et requiem pariter disponimus ambo,
atque verecunda laxamus seria mensa.
non equidem hoc dubites, amborum foedere certo
consentire dies et ab uno sidere duci:
nostra vel aequali suspendit tempora libra
Parca tenax veri, seu nata fidelibus hora
dividit in geminos concordia fata duorum,
Saturnumque gravem nostro Iove frangimus una:
nescio quod certe est quod me tibi temperat astrum.
It is to you, at the instance of the muse within me, that I
would offer my heart to be sifted thoroughly; my passion is to
show you, Cornutus, how large a share of my inmost being is
yours, my beloved friend; strike it, use every test to tell what
rings sound, and what is the mere plaster of a varnished tongue.
An occasion indeed it is for which I may well venture to ask a
hundred voices, that I may bring out in clear utterance how
thoroughly I have lodged you in the very corners of my breast, and
unfold in words all the unutterable feelings which lie entwined
deep down among my heart-strings. When first the guardianship of the
purple ceased to awe me and the band of boyhood was hung up as an
offering to the quaint old household gods, when my companions made
themselves pleasant, and the folds of my gown, now white, the stripe
of purple gone, left me free to cast my eyes at will over the whole
Subura--just when the way of life begins to be uncertain, and the
bewildered mind finds that its ignorant ramblings have brought it to
a point where roads branch off--then it was that I made myself your
adopted child. You at once received the young foundling into the
bosom of a second Socrates; and soon your rule, with artful surprise,
straightens the moral twists that it detects, and my spirit becomes
moulded by reason and struggles to be subdued, and assumes plastic
features under your hand. Aye, I mind well how I used to wear away
long summer suns with you, and with you pluck the early bloom of the
night for feasting. We twain have one work and one set time for rest,
and the enjoyment of a moderate table unbends our gravity. No, I would
not have you doubt that there is a fixed law that brings our lives
into one accord, and one star that guides them. Whether it be in the
equal balance that truthful Destiny hangs our days, or whether the
birth-hour sacred to faithful friends shares our united fates between
the Heavenly Twins, and we break the shock of Saturn together by the
common shield of Jupiter, some star, I am assured, there is which
fuses me with you. CONINGTON.
There is a sincerity about these beautiful lines that is as rare as it
is welcome in the poetry of this period. Much may be forgiven to the
poet who could write thus, even though rarely. And it must be remembered
that Persius is free from the worst of the besetting sins of his age,
the love of rhetorical brilliance at the expense of sense, a failing
that he criticizes with no little force in his opening satire. His
harshness and obscurity are due in part to lack of sufficient literary
skill, but still more to his attempt to assert his originality against
the insistent obsession of the satires of Horace. As in the case of so
many of his contemporaries, his literary fame must depend in the main on
his 'purple patches'.
But he does what few of his fellow poets do; he leaves a vivid
impression of his personality, and reveals a genuine moral ardour and
nobility of character that refuse to be clouded or hidden by his dark
sayings and his perverse obscurity.
Marcus Annaeus Lucanus, the poet who more than any other exhibits
the typical excellences and defects of the Silver Age, was born at
Cordova on November 3, in the year 39 A.D. He came of a
distinguished line. He was the son of M. Annaeus Mela, brother of Seneca
the philosopher and dramatist, and son of Seneca the rhetorician. Mela
was a wealthy man, and in 40 A.D. removed with his family to Rome.
His son (whose future as a great poet is said to have been portended by
a swarm of bees that settled on the cradle and the lips of the bard that
was to be) received the best education that Rome could bestow. He
showed extraordinary precocity in all the tricks of declamatory
rhetoric, soon equalling his instructors in skill and far out-distancing
his fellow pupils. Among his preceptors was his kinsman, the famous
Stoic, L. Annaeus Cornutus, well known as the friend and teacher of
Persius. His first appearance before the public was at the Neronia
in 60 A.D., when he won the prize for Latin verse with a poem in praise
of Nero. Immediately afterwards he seems to have proceeded to
Athens. But his talents had attracted the attention and patronage of
Nero. He was recalled to Rome, and at the nomination of the
princeps became Quaestor, although he had not yet attained the requisite
age of twenty-five. He was also admitted to the College of Augurs,
and for some time continued to enjoy Nero's friendship. But it was not
to last. Lucan had been educated in Stoic surroundings. Though his own
relatives managed to combine the service of the emperor with their Stoic
principles, Lucan had not failed to imbibe the passionate regret for the
lost liberty of the republic that was so prominent a feature in Stoic
circles. It was not a mere pose that led him to select the civil war as
the subject of his poem. His enthusiasm for liberty may have been
literary rather than political in character. But when we are dealing
with an artistic temperament we must bear in mind that the ideals which
were primarily inspiration for art may on slight provocation become
incentives to action. And in the case of Lucan that provocation was not
lacking. As his fame increased, Nero's friendship was replaced by
jealousy. The protege had become too serious a rival to the patron.
Lucan's vanity was injured by Nero's sudden withdrawal from a
recitation. From servile flattery he turned to violent criticism:
he spared his former patron neither in word nor deed. He turned the
sharp edge of his satire against him in various pungent epigrams, and
was forbidden to recite poetry or to plead in the law courts. But
it would be unjust to Lucan to attribute his changed attitude purely to
wounded vanity. Seneca was at this very moment attempting to retire from
public life. The court of Nero had become no place for him. Lucan cannot
have been unaffected by the action of his uncle, and it is only just to
him to admit the possibility that the change in his attitude may have
been due, at any rate in part, to a change in character, an awakening to
the needs of the State and the needs of his own soul. There is no need
to question the genuineness of his political enthusiasm, even though it
tended to be theatrical and may have been largely kindled by motives not
wholly disinterested. The Pisonian conspiracy found in him a ready
coadjutor. He became one of the ringleaders of the plot ('paene signifer
coniurationis'), and in a bombastic vein would promise Nero's head to
his fellow-conspirators. On the detection of the plot, in 65 A. D.,
he, with the other chiefs of the conspiracy, was arrested. For long he
denied his complicity; at last, perhaps on the threat or application of
torture, his nerve failed him; he descended to grovelling entreaties,
and to win himself a reprieve accused his innocent mother, Acilia, of
complicity in the plot. His conduct does not admit of excuse. But
it is not for the plain, matter-of-fact man to pass judgement lightly on
the weakness of a highly-strung, nervous, artistic temperament; the
artist's imagination may transmute pain such as others might hope to
bear, to anguish such as they cannot even imagine. There lies the
palliation, if palliation it be, of Lucan's crime. But it availed him
nothing: the reprieve was never won; he was condemned to die, the manner
of his death being left to his free choice. He wrote a few instructions
for his father as to the editing of his poems, partook of a sumptuous
dinner, and then, adopting the fashionable form of suicide, cut the
arteries of his arms and bled to death. He died declaiming a passage
from his own poetry in which he had described the death of a soldier
from loss of blood. It was a theatrical end, and not out of keeping
with his life.
He lived but a little over twenty-five years and five months, but he
left behind him a vast amount of poetry and an extraordinary reputation.
His earliest work seems to have been the _Iliacon_, describing the
death of Hector, his ransom and burial. Next came the _Catachthonion_, a
short work on the underworld. This was followed by the _laudes Neronis_,
to which reference has already been made, and the _Orpheus_, which was
extemporized in a competition with other poets. If we follow the
order given by Statius, his next work was the prose declamation on the
burning of the city (64 A.D.) and a poem addressed to his wife Polla
(_adlocutio ad Pollam_). Then comes his _chef d'oeuvre_, the
_Pharsalia_, to which we shall return. Of the other works mentioned by
Vacca, the _Silvae_ must have been, like the _Silvae_ of Statius,
trifles thrown off hurriedly for the gratification of friends or for the
celebration of some great occasion. The _salticae fabulae_ were
_libretti_ written for the _pantomimus_, while the _Saturnalia_
were light verse sent as presents to friends on the festival of
Saturn. Of these works nothing has come down to us save a few
scanty fragments, not in any way calculated to make us regret their
loss. Even Vacca can find no very high praise for them. Judging
alike from the probabilities of the case and from the _Pharsalia_
itself, they must have suffered from Lucan's fatal gift of fluency.
It was the _Pharsalia_ that won Lucan undying fame. Three books of this
ambitious historical epic were finished and given to the world during
the poet's lifetime. These the poet had, at any rate in part,
recited in public, calling attention, with a vanity worthy of himself
and of the age, to his extreme youth; he was younger than Vergil when
he composed the _Culex_! The remaining seven books never had the
benefit of revision, owing to the poet's untimely end, though
curiously enough they show no special signs of lack of finish, and
contain some of the finest passages in the whole work. The composition
of all ten books falls between 60 and 65 A.D. Lucan had chosen for his
theme the death-struggle of the republic. It was a daring choice for
more reasons than one. There were elements of danger in singing the
praises of Pompey and Cato under the principate. To that the fate of
Cremutius Cordus bore eloquent testimony. But Nero was less
sensitive about the past than Tiberius. The republic had never become
officially extinct. Tyrannicide was a licensed and hackneyed theme of
the schools of rhetoric; in skilful hands it might be a subtle
instrument of flattery. Moreover, Nero was descended in direct line
from Domitius Ahenobarbus, who had fought and died for Pompey on the
field of Pharsalus. In the books published during Lucan's lifetime
there is not a line that could have given personal offence to the
princeps, while the fulsome dedication would have covered a multitude
of indiscretions. Far more serious were the difficulties presented
by the nature of the story itself. Historical epic rarely admits of
artistic treatment, and the nearer the date of the events described,
the more insoluble is the problem.
Two courses were open to Lucan: he might treat the story with
comparative fidelity to truth, avoiding all supernatural machinery, save
such as was justified by historical tradition; on the other hand he
might adopt the course subsequently pursued by Silius Italicus in his
poem on the Punic War, and introduce all the hackneyed interventions of
Olympus, sanctioned by Vergil and followed by many a poet since. The
latter method is obviously only suited for a purely legendary epic,
though even the legendary epic can well dispense with it, and it might
have been supposed that an age so sceptical and careless of the orthodox
theology, as that into which Lucan was born, would have felt the full
absurdity of applying such a device to historical epic. Lucan was wise
in his choice, and left Olympus severely alone. But his choice roused
contemporary criticism. In the _Satyricon_ of Petronius we find a
defence of the old conventional mechanism placed in the mouth of a
shabby and disreputable poet named Eumolpus (118). He complains 'that
young men plunge headlong into epic verse thinking that it requires no
more skill than a showy declamation at the school of rhetoric. They do
not realize that to be a successful poet one must be steeped in the
great ocean of literature. They do not recognize that there is such a
thing as a special poetic vocabulary, or that the commonplaces of
rhetoric require to be interwoven with, not merely tacked on to, the
fabric of their verse, and so it comes about that the writer who would
turn the Civil War into an epic is apt to stumble beneath the burden he
takes upon his shoulders, unless indeed he is permeated through and
through with literature. You must not simply turn history into verse:
historians do it better in prose. Rather the poet should sweep on his
way borne by the breath of inspiration and untrammelled by hard fact,
making use of cunning artifice and divine intervention, and interfusing
his "commonplaces" with legendary lore; only so will his work seem to be
the fine frenzy of an inspired bard rather than the exactitude of one
who is giving sworn evidence before a judge'. He then proceeds in 295
verses to deal, after the manner he has prescribed, with the events
contained in the first three books of the _Pharsalia_, the only books
that had been made public at the time when Petronius' romance was
composed. Pluto inspires Caesar to the crime of civil war. Peace,
Fidelity, and Concord fly from the earth at his approach. The gods range
themselves on this side and on that. Discord perched high on Apennine
incites the peoples of Italy to war. The verse is uninspired, the method
is impossible, the remedy is worse than the disease. The last hope of
our taking the poem seriously has departed. Yet this passage of
Petronius contains much sound criticism. Military and political history
does _not_ admit of being turned into genuine poetry; an epic on an
historic war must depend largely on its purple patches of description
and rhetoric: it almost demands that prominence of epigram and
'commonplace' that Eumolpus condemns.[27l] Petronius sees the weakness
of Lucan's epic; he fails because, like Silius Italicus, he thinks he
has discovered a remedy. The faults of Lucan's poem are largely inherent
in the subject chosen; they will stand out clearly as we review the
structure and style of the work.
In taking the whole of the Civil War for his subject Lucan was
confronted with a somewhat similar problem to that which faced
Shakespeare in his _Julius Caesar_. The problem that Shakespeare had to
meet was how to prolong and sustain the interest of the play after the
death of Caesar and the events that centre immediately round it. The
difficulty was surmounted triumphantly. The obstacles in Lucan's path
were greater. The poem is incomplete, and there must be some uncertainty
as to its intended scope. That it was planned to include the death of
Cato is clear from the importance assigned him in the existing books.
But could the work have concluded on such a note of gloom as the death
of the staunchest champion of the republic? The whole tone of the poem
is republican in the extreme. If the republic must perish, it should not
perish unavenged. There are, moreover, many prophetic allusions to the
death of Caesar, which point conclusively to Lucan's intention to
have made the vengeance of Brutus and Cassius the climax of his poem.
The problem which the poet had to resolve was how to prevent the
interest from nagging, as his heroes were swept away before the
triumphant advance of Caesar. He concentrates our attention at the
outset on Pompey. Throughout the first eight books it is for him that he
claims our sympathy. And then he is crushed by his rival and driven in
flight to die an unheroic death. It is only at this point that Cato
leaps into prominence. But though he has a firmness of purpose and a
grandeur of character that Lucan could not give Pompey, he never has the
chance to become the protagonist. Both Pompey and Cato, for all the fine
rhetoric bestowed on them, fail to grip the reader, while from the very
facts of history it is impossible for either of them to lend unity to
the plot. Both are dwarfed by the character of Caesar. Caesar is the
villain of the piece; he is a monster athirst for blood, he will not
permit the corpses of his enemies (over which he is made to gloat) to be
buried after the great battle, and when on his coming to Egypt the head
of his rival is brought him, his grief and indignation are represented
as being a mere blind to conceal his real joy. The successes are often
merely the result of good fortune. Lucan is loth to admit even his
greatness as a general. And yet, blacken his character as he may, he
feels that greatness. From the moment of his brilliant characterization
of Caesar in the first book we feel we have a man who knows what he
desires and will shrink from nothing to attain his ends; he 'thinks
naught yet done while aught remains to do', he 'strikes fear into
men's hearts because he knows not the meaning of fear', and through
all the melodramatic rhetoric with which he addresses his soldiers,
there shines clear the spirit of a great leader of men. Whoever was
intended by the poet for his hero, the fact remains that Caesar
dominates the poem as none save the hero should do. He is the hero of
the _Pharsalia_ as Satan is the hero of _Paradise Lost_. It is
through him above all that Lucan retains our interest. The result is
fatal for the proper proportion of the plot. Lucan does not actually
alienate our sympathies from the republic, but, whatever our moral
judgement on the conflict may be, our interest centres on Caesar, and it
is hardly an exaggeration to say that the true tragedy of the epic would
have come with his death. The _Pharsalia_ fails of its object as a
republican epic; its success comes largely from an unintended quarter.
What the exact scale of the poem was meant to be it is hard to say.
Vergil had set the precedent for an epic of twelve books, and it is not
improbable that Lucan would have followed his example. On the other
hand, if Cato and Caesar had both to be killed in the last two books,
great compression would have been necessary. In view of the diffuseness
of Lucan's rhetoric, and the rambling nature of his narrative, it is
more than probable that the epic would have exceeded the limit of twelve
books and been a formidable rival in bulk to the _Punica_ of Silius
Italicus. On the other hand, the last seven books of the existing poem
are unrevised, and may have been destined for abridgement. There is so
much that is irrelevant that the task would have been easy.
But it is not for the plot that Lucan's epic is read. It has won
immortality by the brilliance of its rhetoric, its unsurpassed
epigrams, its clear-cut summaries of character, its biting satire, and
its outbursts of lofty political enthusiasm. These features stand out
pre-eminent and atone for its astounding errors of taste, its strained
hyperbole, its foolish digression. Lucan fails to make his actors live
as they move through his pages; their actions and their speeches are
alike theatrical; he has no dramatic power. But he can sum up their
characters in burning lines that live through all time and have few
parallels in literature. And these pictures are in all essentials
surprisingly just and accurate. His affection for Pompey and the
demands of his plot presented strong temptations to exalt his character
at the expense of historical truth. Yet what can be more just than the
famous lines of the first book, where his character is set against
in senium longoque togae tranquillior usu
dedidicit iam pace ducem: famaeque petitor
multa dare in volgus; totus popularibus auris
inpelli plausuque sui gaudere theatri;
nec reparare novas vires, multumque priori
credere fortunae, stat magni nominis umbra:
qualis frugifero querens sublimis in agro
exuvias veteres populi sacrataque gestans
dona ducum: nec iam validis radicibus haerens
pondere fixa suo est, nudosque per aera ramos
effundens trunco non frondibus efficit umbram.
One aged grown
Had long exchanged the corselet for the gown:
In peace forgotten the commander's art,
And learned to play the politician's part,--
To court the suffrage of the crowd, and hear
In his own theatre the venal cheer;
Idly he rested on his ancient fame,
And was the shadow of a mighty name.
Like the huge oak which towers above the fields
Decked with ancestral spoils and votive shields.
Its roots, once mighty, loosened by decay,
Hold it no more: weight is its only stay;
Its naked limbs bespeak its glories past,
And by its trunk, not leaves, a shade is cast.
PROF. GOLDWIN SMITH.
Even the panegyric pronounced on him by Cato on hearing the news of his
death is as moderate as it is true and dignified (ix. 190):
civis obit, inquit, multum maioribus inpar
nosse modum iuris, sed in hoc tamen en utilis aevo,
cui non ulla fuit iusti reverentia; salva
libertate potens, et solus plebe parata
privatus servire sibi, rectorque senatus,
sed regnantis, erat.
... invasit ferrum, sed ponere, norat;
praetulit arma togae, sed pacem armatus amavit:
iuvit sumpta ducem iuvit dimissa potestas.
A man, he said, is gone, unequal far
To our good sires in reverence for the law,
Yet useful in an age that knew not right,
One who could power with liberty unite,
Uncrowned 'mid willing subjects could remain,
The Senate rule, yet let the Senate reign.
* * * * *
He drew the sword, but he could sheathe it too,
War was his trade, yet he to peace inclined,
Gladly command accepted-and resigned.--PROF. GOLDWIN SMITH.
Elsewhere he is as one of the 'strengthless dead', here he lives.
Elsewhere he may be invested with the pathos that must cling to the
shadow of a mighty name, but he is too weak and ineffective to be
interesting. His wavering policy in his last campaign is unduly
emphasized. When he is face to face with Caesar at Pharsalus and
exhorts his men, he can but boast, he cannot inspire. When the
battle turns against him he bids his men cease from the fight, and
himself flies, that he may not involve them in his own disaster. No
less convincing portrait could be drawn. The material was unpromising,
but Lucan emphasizes all his weaknesses and wholly fails to bring out
his nobler elements. He is unworthy of the line
nec cinis exiguus tantam compescuit umbram.
So, too, in a lesser degree with Caesar. For a moment in the first book
he flashes upon us in his full splendour (143):
sed non in Caesare tantum
nomen erat nec fama ducis: sed nescia virtus
stare loco, solusque pudor non vincere bello.
acer et indomitus, quo spes quoque ira vocasset.
ferre manum et numquam temerando parcere ferro,
successus urgere suos, instare fauori
numinis, inpellens quidquid sibi summa petenti
obstaret, gaudensque viam fecisse ruina.
Not such the talisman of Caesar's name,
But Caesar had, in place of empty fame.
The unresting soul, the resolution high
That shuts out every thought but victory.
Whate'er his goal, nor mercy nor dismay
He owned, but drew the sword and cleft his way:
Pressed each advantage that his fortune gave;
Constrained the stars to combat for the brave;
Swept from his path whate'er his rise delayed,
And marched triumphant through the wreck he made.
PROF. GOLDWIN SMITH.
Here at any rate is Caesar the general: in such a poem there is no room
for Caesar the statesman. But from this point onward we see no true
Caesar. Henceforward, save for a few brief moments, he is a figure for
the melodramatic stage alone, a 'brigand chief', a master hypocrite, the
favourite of fortune. And yet, for all his unreality, Lucan has endowed
him with such impetuous vigour and such a plenitude of power that he
dwarfs the other puppets that throng his pages even more, if possible,
than in real life he overtopped his contemporaries.
Cato, the third great figure of the _Pharsalia_, was easier to draw.
Unconsciously stagey in life, he is little stagier in Lucan. And yet,
in spite of his absurdity, he has a nobility and a sincerity of purpose
which is without parallel in that corrupt age. He was the hero of the
Stoic republicans of the early principate, the man of principle,
stern and unbending. He requires no fine touches of light and shade,
for he is the perfect Stoic. But from the very rigidity of his
principles he was no statesman and never played more than a secondary
part in politics.
Lucan's task is to exalt him from the second rank to the first. But it
is no easy undertaking, since it was not till after the disaster of
Pharsalus that he played any conspicuous part in the Civil War. He first
appears as warrant for the justice of the republican cause (i. 128). We
next see him as the hope of all true patriots at Rome (ii. 238). Pompey
has fled southward. Cato alone remains the representative of all that is
noblest and best in Rome. He has no illusions as to Pompey's character.
He is not the leader he would choose for so sacred a cause; but between
Pompey and Caesar there can be no wavering. He follows Pompey. Not till
the ninth book does he reappear in the action. Pompey is fallen, and all
turn to Cato as their leader. The cause is lost, and Cato knows it well;
but he obeys the call of duty and undertakes the hopeless enterprise
undismayed. He is a stern leader, but he shares his men's hardships to
the full, and fortifies them by his example. He is in every action what
the real Cato only was at Utica. On him above all others Lucan has
lavished all his powers; and he has succeeded in creating a character of
such real moral grandeur that, in spite of its hardness and austerity,
it almost succeeds in winning our affection (ii. 380):
hi mores, haec duri inmota Catonis
secta fuit, servare modum finesque tenere
naturamque sequi patriaeque inpendere vitam
nec sibi sed toti genitum se credere mundo.
'Twas his rule
Inflexible to keep the middle path
Marked out and bounded; to observe the laws
Of natural right; and for his country's sake
To risk his life, his all, as not for self
Brought into being, but for all the world.
SIR E. RIDLEY.
Here is a man indeed worthy to be the hero of a republican epic, did
history permit it. Our chief reason--at moments there is a temptation to
say 'our only reason'--for regretting the incompletion of the
_Pharsalia_ is that Lucan did not live to describe Cato's death. _There_
was a subject which was worthy of his pen and would have been a labour
of love. With what splendour of rhetoric he might have invested it can
only be conjectured from the magnificent passage where Cato refuses to
inquire into his fate at Ammon's oracle (ix. 566):
quid quaeri, Labiene, iubes? an liber in armis
occubuisse velim potius quam regna videre?
an sit vita nihil, sed longa? an differat aetas?
an noceat vis ulla bono, fortunaque perdat
opposita virtute minas, laudandaque velle
sit satis, et numquam successu crescat honestum?
scimus, et hoc nobis non altius inseret Hammon.
haeremus cuncti superis, temploque tacente
nil facimus non sponte dei; nec vocibus ultis
numen eget, dixitque semel nascentibus auctor
quidquid scire licet, steriles nec legit harenas,
ut caneret paucis, mersitque hoc pulvere verum.
estque dei sedes, nisi terra et pontus et aer
et caelum et virtus? superos quid quaerimus ultra?
Iuppiter est quodcumque vides quodcumque moveris.
sortilegis egeant dubii semperque futuris
casibus ancipites; me non oracula certum,
sed mors certa facit. pavido fortique cadendum est;
hoc satis est dixisse Iouem.
What should I ask? Whether to live a slave
Is better, or to fill a soldier's grave?
What life is worth drawn to its utmost span,
And whether length of days brings bliss to man?
Whether tyrannic force can hurt the good,
Or the brave heart need quail at Fortune's mood?
Whether the pure intent makes righteousness,
Or virtue needs the warrant of success?
All this I know: not Ammon can impart
Force to the truth engraven on my heart.
All men alike, though voiceless be the shrine,
Abide in God and act by will divine.
No revelation Deity requires,
But at our birth, all men may know, inspires.
Nor is truth buried in this desert sand
And doled to few, but speaks in every land.
What temple but the earth, the sea, the sky,
And heaven and virtuous hearts, hath deity?
As far as eye can range or feet can rove
Jove is in all things, all things are in Jove.
Let wavering souls to oracles attend,
The brave man's course is clear, since sure his end.
The valiant and the coward both must fall
This when Jove tells me, he has told me all.
PROF. GOLDWIN SMITH.
One Cato will not lend life to an epic, and history, to the great loss
of art, forbids him to play a sufficiently important role. It is
unnecessary to comment on the lesser personages of the epic; if the
leading characters lack life, the minor characters lack individuality as
well. Lucan has nothing of the dramatic vitalising power that is so
necessary for epic.
He is equally defective in narrative power. He can give us brilliant
pictures as in the lines describing the vision of Caesar at the
Rubicon or Pompey's last sight of Italy. But such passages are
few and far between. Of longer passages there are not perhaps more than
three in the whole work where we get any sustained beauty of
narrative-the parting of Pompey and his wife, Pompey's dream before
Pharsalus, and a description of a Druid grove in Southern
Gaul. The first of these is noticeable as being one of the few
occasions on which Lucan shows any command of simple pathos unmarred by
tricks of tawdry rhetoric. The whole episode is admirably treated. The
speeches of both husband and wife are commendably and unusually simple
and direct, but the climax comes after Cornelia's speech, where the poet
describes the moment before they part. With the simplest words and the
most severe economy of diction, he produces an effect such as Vergil
rarely surpassed, and such as was never excelled or equalled again in
the poetry of Southern Europe till Dante told the story of Paolo and
Francesca (v. 790):
sic fata relictis
exsiluit stratis amens tormentaque nulla
vult differre mora. non maesti pectora Magni
sustinet amplexu dulci, non colla tenere,
extremusque perit tam longi fructus amoris,
praecipitantque sues luctus, neuterque recedens
sustinuit dixisse 'vale', vitamque per omnem
nulla fuit tarn maesta dies; nam cetera damna
durata iam mente malis firmaque tulerunt.
So spake she, and leaped frenzied from the couch, loth to
put off the pangs of parting by the least delay. She cannot
bear to cast her arms about sad Magnus' bosom, or clasp his
neck in a last sweet embrace; and thus the last delight, such
long love as theirs might know, is cast away: they hasten
their own agony; neither as they parted had the heart to say
farewell; and while they lived they knew no sadder day than
this. All other losses they bore with hearts hardened and
steeled by misery.
It is faulty and monotonous in rhythm, but one would gladly have more
from Lucan of the same poetic quality, even at the expense of the same
blemishes. The dream of Pompey is scarcely inferior (vii. 7):
at nox, felicis Magno pars ultima vitae,
sollicitos vana decepit imagine somnos.
nam Pompeiani visus sibi sede theatri
innumeram effigiem Romanae cernere plebis
attollique suum laetis ad sidera nomen
vocibus et plausu cuneos certare sonantes;
qualis erat populi facies clamorque faventis,
olim cum iuvenis primique aetate triumphi
* * * * *
sedit adhuc Romanus eques; seu fine bonorum
anxia venturis ad tempera laeta refugit,
sive per ambages solitas contraria visis
vaticinata quies magni tulit omina planctus.
seu vetito patrias ultra tibi cernere sedes
sic Romam fortuna dedit. ne rumpite somnos,
castrorum vigiles, nullas tuba verberet aures.
crastina dira quies et imagine maesta diurna
undique funestas acies feret, undique bellum.
But night, the last glad hours that Magnus' life should
know, beguiled his anxious slumbers with vain images of
joy. He seemed to sit in the theatre himself had built, and
to behold the semblance of the countless Roman multitude,
and hear his name uplifted to the stars by joyous voices,
and all the roaring benches vying in their applause. Even so
he saw the people and heard their cheers in the days of old,
when still a youth, in the hour of his first triumph ... he sat