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J. W. MACKAIL, Sometime Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford
A history of Latin Literature was to have been written for this series of Manuals by the late Professor William Sellar. After his death I was asked, as one of his old pupils, to carry out the work which he had undertaken; and this book is now offered as a last tribute to the memory of my dear friend and master. J. W. M.
I. THE REPUBLIC.
I. ORIGINS OF LATIN LITERATURE: EARLY EPIC AND TRAGEDY. Andronicus–Naevius–Ennius–Pacuvius–Accius II. COMEDY: PLAUTUS AND TERENCE.
III. EARLY PROSE: THE SATURA, OR MIXED MODE. The Early Jurists, Annalists, and Orators–Cato–The Scipionic Circle–Lucilius
V. LYRIC POETRY: CATULLUS.
Cinna and Calvus–Catullus
VII. PROSE OF THE CICERONIAN AGE.
Julius Caesar–The Continuators of the Commentaries– Sallust–Nepos–Varro–Publilius Syrus
II. THE AUGUSTAN AGE.
III. PROPERTIUS AND THE ELEGISTS.
Augustan Tragedy–Gallus–Propertius–Tibullus IV. OVID.
VI. THE LESSER AUGUSTANS.
Manilius–Phaedrus–Velleius–Paterculus–Celsus– Vitruvius–The Elder Seneca
III. THE EMPIRE.
I. THE ROME OF NERO.
The Younger Seneca–Lucan–Persius–Quintus Curtius –Columella–Calpurnius–Petronius
II. THE SILVER AGE.
Statius–Valerius Flaccus–Silius Italicus–Martial–The Elder Pliny–Quintilian
IV. JUVENAL, THE YOUNGER PLINY, SUETONIUS: DECAY OF CLASSICAL LATIN. V. THE ELOCUTIO NOVELLA.
Fronto–Apuleius–The Pervigilium Veneris VI. EARLY LATIN CHRISTIANITY.
Minucius Felix–Tertullian–Cyprian–Arnobius– Lactantius–Commodianus
VII. THE FOURTH CENTURY.
Papinian and Ulpian–Sammonicus–Nemesianus– Tiberianus–The Augustan History–Ausonius–Claudian –Prudentius–Ammianus Marcellinus
VIII. THE BEGINNINGS OF THE MIDDLE AGES. The End of the Ancient World–The Four Periods of Latin Literature–The Empire and the Church
INDEX OF AUTHORS.
ORIGINS OF LATIN LITERATURE: EARLY EPIC AND TRAGEDY.
To the Romans themselves, as they looked back two hundred years later, the beginnings of a real literature seemed definitely fixed in the generation which passed between the first and second Punic Wars. The peace of B.C. 241 closed an epoch throughout which the Roman Republic had been fighting for an assured place in the group of powers which controlled the Mediterranean world. This was now gained; and the pressure of Carthage once removed, Rome was left free to follow the natural expansion of her colonies and her commerce. Wealth and peace are comparative terms; it was in such wealth and peace as the cessation of the long and exhausting war with Carthage brought, that a leisured class began to form itself at Rome, which not only could take a certain interest in Greek literature, but felt in an indistinct way that it was their duty, as representing one of the great civilised powers, to have a substantial national culture of their own.
That this new Latin literature must be based on that of Greece, went without saying; it was almost equally inevitable that its earliest forms should be in the shape of translations from that body of Greek poetry, epic and dramatic, which had for long established itself through all the Greek-speaking world as a common basis of culture. Latin literature, though artificial in a fuller sense than that of some other nations, did not escape the general law of all literatures, that they must begin by verse before they can go on to prose.
Up to this date, native Latin poetry had been confined, so far as we can judge, to hymns and ballads, both of a rude nature. Alongside of these were the popular festival-performances, containing the germs of a drama. If the words of these performances were ever written down (which is rather more than doubtful), they would help to make the notion of translating a regular Greek play come more easily. But the first certain Latin translation was a piece of work which showed a much greater audacity, and which in fact, though this did not appear till long afterwards, was much more far-reaching in its consequences. This was a translation of the _Odyssey_ into Saturnian verse by one Andronicus, a Greek prisoner of war from Tarentum, who lived at Rome as a tutor to children of the governing class during the first Punic War. At the capture of his city, he had become the slave of one of the distinguished family of the Livii, and after his manumission was known, according to Roman custom, under the name of Lucius Livius Andronicus.
The few fragments of his _Odyssey_ which survive do not show any high level of attainment; and it is interesting to note that this first attempt to create a mould for Latin poetry went on wrong, or, perhaps it would be truer to say, on premature lines. From this time henceforth the whole serious production of Latin poetry for centuries was a continuous effort to master and adapt Greek structure and versification; the _Odyssey_ of Livius was the first and, with one notable exception, almost the last sustained attempt to use the native forms of Italian rhythm towards any large achievement; this current thereafter sets underground, and only emerges again at the end of the classical period. It is a curious and significant fact that the attempt such as it was, was made not by a native, but by a naturalised foreigner.
The heroic hexameter was, of course, a metre much harder to reproduce in Latin than the trochaic and iambic metres of the Greek drama, the former of which especially accommodated itself without difficulty to Italian speech. In his dramatic pieces, which included both tragedies and comedies, Andronicus seems to have kept to the Greek measures, and in this his example was followed by his successors. Throughout the next two generations the production of dramatic literature was steady and continuous. Gnaeus Naevius, the first native Latin poet of consequence, beginning to produce plays a few years later than Andronicus, continued to write busily till after the end of the second Punic War, and left the Latin drama thoroughly established. Only inconsiderable fragments of his writings survive; but it is certain that he was a figure of really great distinction. Though not a man of birth himself, he had the skill and courage to match himself against the great house of the Metelli. The Metelli, it is true, won the battle; Naevius was imprisoned, and finally died in exile; but he had established literature as a real force in Rome. Aulus Gellius has preserved the haughty verses which he wrote to be engraved on his own tomb–
_Immortelles mortales si foret fas flere Flerent divae Camenae Naevium poetam;
Itaque postquam est Orci traditus thesauro Obliti sunt Romai loquier lingua Latina._
The Latin Muses were, indeed, then in the full pride and hope of a vigorous and daring youth. The greater part of Naevius’ plays, both in tragedy and comedy, were, it is true, translated or adapted from Greek originals; but alongside of these,–the _Danae_, the _Iphigenia_, the _Andromache_, which even his masculine genius can hardly have made more than pale reflexes of Euripides–were new creations, “plays of the purple stripe,” as they came to be called, where he wakened a tragic note from the legendary or actual history of the Roman race. His _Alimonium Romuli et Remi_, though it may have borrowed much from the kindred Greek legends of Danae or Melanippe, was one of the foundation-stones of a new national literature; in the tragedy of _Clastidium_, the scene was laid in his own days, and the action turned on an incident at once of national importance and of romantic personal heroism–a great victory won over the Gallic tribes of Northern Italy, and the death of the Gallic chief in single combat at the hand of the Roman consul.
In his advanced years, Naevius took a step of even greater consequence. Turning from tragedy to epic, he did not now, like Andronicus, translate from the Greek, but launched out on the new venture of a Roman epic. The Latin language was not yet ductile enough to catch the cadences of the noble Greek hexameter; and the native Latin Saturnian was the only possible alternative. How far he was successful in giving modulation or harmony to this rather cumbrous and monotonous verse, the few extant fragments of the _Bellum Punicum_ hardly enable us to determine; it is certain that it met with a great and continued success, and that, even in Horace’s time, it was universally read. The subject was not unhappily chosen: the long struggle between Rome and Carthage had, in the great issues involved, as well as in its abounding dramatic incidents and thrilling fluctuations of fortune, many elements of the heroic, and almost of the superhuman; and in his interweaving of this great pageant of history with the ancient legends of both cities, and his connecting it, through the story of Aeneas, with the war of Troy itself, Naevius showed a constructive power of a very high order. It is, doubtless, possible to make too much of the sweeping statements made in the comments of Macrobius and Servius on the earlier parts of the _Aeneid_–“this passage is all taken from Naevius;” “all this passage is simply conveyed from Naevius’ _Punic War_.” Yet there is no doubt that Virgil owed him immense obligations; though in the details of the war itself we can recognise little in the fragments beyond the dry and disconnected narrative of the rhyming chronicler. Naevius laid the foundation of the Roman epic; he left it at his death–in spite of the despondent and perhaps jealous criticism which he left as his epitaph–in the hands of an abler and more illustrious successor.
Quintus Ennius, the first of the great Roman poets, and a figure of prodigious literary fecundity and versatility, was born at a small town of Calabria about thirty years later than Naevius, and, though he served as a young man in the Roman army, did not obtain the full citizenship till fifteen years after Naevius’ death. For some years previously he had lived at Rome, under the patronage of the great Scipio Africanus, busily occupied in keeping up a supply of translations from the Greek for use on the Roman stage. Up to his death, at the age of seventy, he continued to write with undiminished fertility and unflagging care. He was the first instance in the Western world of the pure man of letters. Alongside of his strictly literary production, he occupied himself diligently with the technique of composition–grammar, spelling, pronunciation, metre, even an elementary system of shorthand. Four books of miscellaneous translations from popular Greek authors familiarised the reading public at Rome with several branches of general literature hitherto only known to scholars. Following the demand of the market, he translated comedies, seemingly with indifferent success. But his permanent fame rested on two great bodies of work, tragic and epic, in both of which he far eclipsed his predecessors.
We possess the names, and a considerable body of fragments, of upwards of twenty of his tragedies; the greater number of the fragments being preserved in the works of Cicero, who was never tired of reading and quoting him. As is usual with such quotations, they throw light more on his mastery of phrase and power of presenting detached thoughts, than on his more strictly dramatic qualities. That mastery of phrase is astonishing. From the silver beauty of the moonlit line from his _Melanippe_–
_Lumine sic tremulo terra et cava caerula candent_,
to the thunderous oath of Achilles–
_Per ego deum sublimas subices Umidas, unde oritur imber sonitu saevo et spiritu_
they give examples of almost the whole range of beauty of which the Latin language is capable. Two quotations may show his manner as a translator. The first is a fragment of question and reply from the prologue to the _Iphigenia at Aulis_, one of the most thrilling and romantic passages in Attic poetry–
Agam. _Quid nocti videtur in altisono Caeli clupeo?_
Senex. _Temo superat
Cogens sublime etiam atque etiam Noctis iter_.
What is singular here is not that the mere words are wholly different from those of the original, but that in the apparently random variation Ennius produces exactly the same rich and strange effect. This is no accident: it is genius. Again, as a specimen of his manner in more ordinary narrative speeches, we may take the prologue to his _Medea_, where the well-known Greek is pretty closely followed–
_Utinam ne in nemore Pelio securibus Caesa cecidisset abiegna ad terram trabes, Neve inde navis inchoandae exordium
Coepisset, quae nunc nominatur nomine Argo, quia Argivi in ea dilecti viri
Vecti petebant pellem inauratam arietis Colchis, imperio regis Peliae, per dolum: Nam nunquam era errans mea domo ecferret pedem Medea, animo aegra, amore saevo saucia._
At first reading these lines may seem rather stiff and ungraceful to ears familiar with the liquid lapse of the Euripidean iambics; but it is not till after the second or even the third reading that one becomes aware in them of a strange and austere beauty of rhythm which is distinctively Italian. Specially curious and admirable is the use of elision (in the eighth, for instance, and even more so in the fifth line), so characteristic alike of ancient and modern Italy. In Latin poetry Virgil was its last and greatest master; its gradual disuse in post-Virgilian poetry, like its absence in some of the earliest hexameters, was fatal to the music of the verse, and with its reappearance in the early Italian poetry of the Middle Ages that music once more returns.
It was in his later years, and after long practice in many literary forms, that Ennius wrote his great historical epic, the eighteen books of _Annales_, in which he recorded the legendary and actual history of the Roman State from the arrival of Aeneas in Italy down to the events of his own day. The way here had been shown him by Naevius; but in the interval, chiefly owing to Ennius’ own genius and industry, the literary capabilities of the language had made a very great advance. It is uncertain whether Ennius made any attempt to develop the native metres, which in his predecessor’s work were still rude and harsh; if he did, he must soon have abandoned it. Instead, he threw himself on the task of moulding the Latin language to the movement of the Greek hexameter; and his success in the enterprise was so conclusive that the question between the two forms was never again raised. The _Annales_ at once became a classic; until dislodged by the _Aeneid_, they remained the foremost and representative Roman poem, and even in the centuries which followed, they continued to be read and admired, and their claim to the first eminence was still supported by many partisans. The sane and lucid judgment of Quintilian recalls them to their true place; in a felicitous simile he compares them to some sacred grove of aged oaks, which strikes the senses with a solemn awe rather than with the charm of beauty. Cicero, who again and again speaks of Ennius in terms of the highest praise, admits that defect of finish on which the Augustan poets lay strong but not unjustified stress. The noble tribute of Lucretius, “as our Ennius sang in immortal verse, he who first brought down from lovely Helicon a garland of evergreen leaf to sound and shine throughout the nations of Italy,” was no less than due from a poet who owed so much to Ennius in manner and versification.
It is not known when the _Annales_ were lost; there are doubtful indications of their existence in the earlier Middle Ages. The extant fragments, though they amount only to a few hundred lines, are sufficient to give a clear idea of the poet’s style and versification, and of the remarkable breadth and sagacity which made the poem a storehouse of civil wisdom for the more cultured members of the ruling classes at Rome, no less than a treasury of rhythm and phrase for the poets. In the famous single lines like–
_Non cauponantes bellum sed belligerantes_,
_Quem nemo ferro potuit superare me auro_,
_Ille vir haud magna cum re sed plenu’ fidei_,
or the great–
_Moribus antiquis res stat Romana virisque_
Ennius expressed, with even greater point and weight than Virgil himself, the haughty virtue, the keen and narrow political instinct, by which the small and struggling mid-Italian town grew to be arbitress of the world; not Lucretius with his vast and melancholy outlook over a world where patriotism did not exist for the philosopher, not Virgil with his deep and charmed breedings over the mystery and beauty of life and death, struck the Roman note so exclusively and so certainly.
The success of the Latin epic in Ennius’ hands was indeed for the period so complete that it left no room for further development; for the next hundred years the _Annales_ remained not only the unique, but the satisfying achievement in this kind of poetry, and it was only when a new wave of Greek influence had brought with it a higher and more refined standard of literary culture, that fresh progress could be attained or desired. It was not so with tragedy. So long as the stage demanded fresh material, it continued to be supplied, and the supply only ceased when, as had happened even in Greece, the acted drama dwindled away before the gaudier methods of the music-hall. Marcus Pacuvius, the nephew of Ennius, wrote plays for the thirty years after his uncle’s death, which had an even greater vogue; he is placed by Cicero at the head of Roman tragedians. The plays have all perished, and even the fragments are lamentably few; we can still trace in them, however, that copiousness of fancy and richness of phrase which was marked as his distinctive quality by the great critic Varro. Only one Roman play (on Lucius Aemilius Paulus, the conqueror of Pydna) is mentioned among his pieces; and this, though perhaps accidental, may indicate that tragedy had not really pushed its roots deep enough at Rome, and was destined to an early decay. Inexhaustible as is the life and beauty of the old Greek mythology, it was impossible that a Roman audience should be content to listen for age after age to the stories of Atalanta and Antiope, Pentheus and Orestes, while they had a new national life and overwhelming native interests of their own. The Greek tragedy tended more and more to become the merely literary survival that it was in France under Louis Quatorze, that it has been in our own day in the hands of Mr. Arnold or Mr. Swinburne. But one more poet of remarkable genius carries on its history into the next age.
Lucius Accius of Pisaurum produced one of his early plays in the year 140 B.C., on the same occasion when one of his latest was produced by Pacuvius, then an old man of eighty. Accius reached a like age himself; Cicero as a young man knew him well, and used to relate incidents of the aged poet’s earlier life which he had heard from his own lips. For the greater part of the fifty years which include Sulla and the Gracchi, Accius was the recognised literary master at Rome, president of the college of poets which held its meetings in the temple of Minerva on the Aventine, and associating on terms of full equality with the most distinguished statesmen. A doubtful tradition mentions him as having also written an epic, or at least a narrative poem, called _Annales_, like that of Ennius; but this in all likelihood is a distorted reflection of the fact that he handed down and developed the great literary tradition left by his predecessor. The volume of his dramatic work was very great; the titles are preserved of no less than forty-five tragedies. In general estimation he brought Roman tragedy to its highest point. The fragments show a grace and fancy which we can hardly trace in the earlier tragedians.
Accius was the last, as he seems to have been the greatest, of his race. Tragedy indeed continued, as we shall see, to be written and even to be acted. The literary men of the Ciceronian and Augustan age published their plays as a matter of course; Varius was coupled by his contemporaries with Virgil and Horace; and the lost _Medea_ of Ovid, like the never-finished _Ajax_ of Augustus, would be at the least a highly interesting literary document. But the new age found fresh poetical forms into which it could put its best thought and art; while a blow was struck directly at the roots of tragedy by the new invention, in the hands of Cicero and his contemporaries, of a grave, impassioned, and stately prose.
COMEDY: PLAUTUS AND TERENCE.
Great as was the place occupied in the culture of the Greek world by Homer and the Attic tragedians, the Middle and New Comedy, as they culminated in Menander, exercised an even wider and more pervasive influence. A vast gap lay between the third and fifth centuries before Christ. Aeschylus, and even Sophocles, had become ancient literature in the age immediately following their own. Euripides, indeed, continued for centuries after his death to be a vital force of immense moment; but this force he owed to the qualities in him that make his tragedy transgress the formal limits of the art, to pass into the wider sphere of the human comedy, with its tears and laughter, its sentiment and passions. From him to Menander is in truth but a step; but this step was of such importance that it was the comedian who became the Shakespeare of Greece. _Omnem vitae imaginem expressit_ are the words deliberately used of him by the greatest of Roman critics.
When, therefore, the impulse towards a national literature began to be felt at Rome, comedy took its place side by side with tragedy and epic as part of the Greek secret that had to be studied and mastered; and this came the more naturally that a sort of comedy in rude but definite forms was already native and familiar. Dramatic improvisations were, from an immemorial antiquity, a regular feature of Italian festivals. They were classed under different heads, which cannot be sharply distinguished. The _Satura_ seems to have been peculiarly Latin; probably it did not differ deeply or essentially from the two other leading types that arose north and south of Latium, and were named from the little country towns of Fescennium in Etruria, and Atella in Campania. But these rude performances hardly rose to the rank of literature; and here, as elsewhere, the first literary standard was set by laborious translations from the Greek.
We find, accordingly, that the earlier masters–Andronicus, Naevius, Ennius–all wrote comedies as well as tragedies, of the type known as _palliata_, or “dressed in the Greek mantle,” that is to say, freely translated or adapted from Greek originals. After Ennius, this still continued to be the more usual type; but the development of technical skill now results in two important changes. The writers of comedy become, on the whole and broadly speaking, distinct from the writers of tragedy; and alongside of the _palliata_ springs up the _togata_, or comedy of Italian dress, persons, and manners.
As this latter form of Latin comedy has perished, with the exception of trifling fragments, it may be dismissed here in few words. Its life was comprised in less than a century. Titinius, the first of the writers of the _fabula togata_ of whom we have any certain information, was a contemporary of Terence and the younger Scipio; a string of names, which are names and nothing more, carries us down to the latest and most celebrated of the list, Lucius Afranius. His middle-class comedies achieved a large and a long-continued popularity; we hear of performances of them being given even a hundred years after his death, and Horace speaks with gentle sarcasm of the enthusiasts who put him on a level with Menander. With his contemporary Quinctius Atta (who died B.C. 77, in the year of the abortive revolution after the death of Sulla), he owed much of his success to the admirable acting of Roscius, who created a stage tradition that lasted long after his own time. To the mass of the people, comedy (though it did not err in the direction of over-refinement) seemed tame by comparison with the shows and pageants showered on them by the ruling class as the price of their suffrages. As in other ages and countries, fashionable society followed the mob. The young man about town, so familiar to us from the brilliant sketches of Ovid, accompanies his mistress, not to comedies of manners, but to the more exciting spectacles of flesh and blood offered by the ballet-dancers and the gladiators. Thus the small class who occupied themselves with literature had little counteracting influence pressed on them to keep them from the fatal habit of perpetually copying from the Greek; and adaptations from the Attic New Comedy, which had been inevitable and proper enough as the earlier essays of a tentative dramatic art, remained the staple of an art which thus cut itself definitely away from nature.
That we possess, in a fairly complete form, the works of two of the most celebrated of these playwrights, and of their many contemporaries and successors nothing but trifling fragments, is due to a chance or a series of chances which we cannot follow, and from which we must not draw too precise conclusions. Plautus was the earliest, and apparently the most voluminous, of the writers who devoted themselves wholly to comedy. Between him and Terence a generation intervenes, filled by another comedian, Caecilius, whose works were said to unite much of the special excellences of both; while after the death of Terence his work was continued on the same lines by Turpilius and others, and dwindled away little by little into the early Empire. But there can be no doubt that Plautus and Terence fully represent the strength and weakness of the Latin _palliata_. Together with the eleven plays of Aristophanes, they have been in fact, since the beginning of the Middle Ages, the sole representatives of ancient, and the sole models for modern comedy.
Titus Maccius Plautus was born of poor parents, in the little Umbrian town of Sarsina, in the year 254 B.C., thus falling midway in age between Naevius and Ennius. Somehow or other he drifted to the capital, to find employment as a stage-carpenter. He alternated his playwriting with the hardest manual drudgery; and though the inexhaustible animal spirits which show themselves in his writing explain how he was able to combine extraordinary literary fertility with a life of difficulty and poverty, it must remain a mystery how and when he picked up his education, and his surprising mastery of the Latin language both in metre and diction. Of the one hundred and thirty comedies attributed to him, two-thirds were rejected as spurious by Varro, and only twenty-one ranked as certainly genuine. These last are extant, with the exception of one, called _Vidularia_, or _The Carpet-Bag_, which was lost in the Middle Ages; some of them, however, exist, and probably existed in Varro’s time, only in abridged or mutilated stage copies.
The constructive power shown in these pieces is, of course, less that of Plautus himself than of his Greek originals, Philemon, Diphilus, and Menander. But we do not want modern instances to assure us that, in adapting a play from one language to another, merely to keep the plot unimpaired implies more than ordinary qualities of skill or conscientiousness. When Plautus is at his best–in the _Aulularia_, _Bacchides_, or _Rudens_, and most notably in the _Captivi_–he has seldom been improved upon either in the interest of his action or in the copiousness and vivacity of his dialogue.
Over and above his easy mastery of language, Plautus has a further Claim to distinction in the wide range of his manner. Whether he ever Went beyond the New Comedy of Athens for his originals, is uncertain; But within it he ranges freely over the whole field, and the twenty Extant pieces include specimens of almost every kind of play to which the name of comedy can be extended. The first on the list, the famous _Amphitruo_, is the only surviving specimen of the burlesque. The Greeks called this kind of piece [Greek: ilarotrag_oidia]–a term for Which _tragedie-bouffe_ would be the nearest modern equivalent; _tragico-comoedia_ is the name by which Plautus himself describes it in the prologue. The _Amphitruo_ remains, even now, one of the most masterly specimens of this kind. The version of Moliere, in which he did little by way of improvement on his original, has given it fresh currency as a classic; but the French play gives but an imperfect idea of the spirit and flexibility of the dialogue in Plautus’ hands.
Of a very different type is the piece which comes next the _Amphrituo_ in acknowledged excellence, the _Captivi_. It is a comedy of sentiment, without female characters, and therefore without the coarseness which (as one is forced to say with regret) disfigures some of the other plays. The development of the plot has won high praise from all critics, and justifies the boast of the epilogue, _Huiusmodi paucas poetae reperiunt comoedias_. But the praise which the author gives to his own piece–
_Non pertractate facta est neque item ut ceterae, Neque spurcidici insunt versus immemorabiles, Hic neque periurus leno est nec meretrix mala Neque miles gloriosus–_
is really a severe condemnation of two other groups of Plautine plays. The _Casina_ and the _Truculentus_ (the latter, as we know from Cicero, a special favourite with its author) are studies in pornography which only the unflagging animal spirits of the poet can redeem from being disgusting; and the _Asinaria, Curculio_, and _Miles Gloriosus_ are broad farces with the thinnest thread of plot. The last depends wholly on the somewhat forced and exaggerated character of the title-role; as the _Pseudolus_, a piece with rather more substance, does mainly on its _periurus leno_, Ballio, a character who reminds one of Falstaff in his entire shamelessness and inexhaustible vocabulary.
A different vein, the domestic comedy of middle-class life, is opened in one of the most quietly successful of his pieces, the _Trinummus_, or _Threepenny-bit_. In spite of all the characters being rather fatiguingly virtuous in their sentiments, it is full of life, and not without gracefulness and charm. After the riotous scenes of the lighter plays, it is something of a comfort to return to the good sense and good feeling of respectable people. It forms an interesting contrast to the _Bacchides_, a play which returns to the world of the bawd and harlot, but with a brilliance of intrigue and execution that makes it rank high among comedies.
Two other plays are remarkable from the fact that, though neither in construction nor in workmanship do they rise beyond mediocrity, the leading motive of the plot in one case and the principal character in the other are inventions of unusual felicity. The Greek original of both is unknown; but to it, no doubt, rather than to Plautus himself, we are bound to ascribe the credit of the _Aulularia_ and _Menaechmi_. The _Aulularia_, or _Pot of Gold_, a commonplace story of middle-class life, is a mere framework for the portrait of the old miser, Euclio–in itself a sketch full of life and brilliance, and still more famous as the original of Moliere’s Harpagon, which is closely studied from it. The _Menaechmi_, or _Comedy of Errors_, without any great ingenuity of plot or distinction of character, rests securely on the inexhaustible opportunities of humour opened up by the happy invention of the twin-brothers who had lost sight of one another from early childhood, and the confusions that arise when they meet in the same town in later life.
There is yet one more of the Plautine comedies which deserves special notice, as conceived in a different vein and worked out in a different tone from all those already mentioned–the charming romantic comedy called _Rudens_, or _The Cable_, though a more fitting name for it would be _The Tempest_. It is not pitched in the sentimental key of the _Captivi_; but it has a higher, and, in Latin literature, a rarer, note. By a happy chance, perhaps, rather than from any unwonted effort of skill, this translation of the play of Diphilus has kept in it something of the unique and unmistakeable Greek atmosphere–the atmosphere of the _Odyssey_, of the fisher-idyl of Theocritus, of the hundreds of little poems in the Greek Anthology that bear clinging about their verses the faint murmur and odour of the sea. The scene is laid near Cyrene, on the strange rich African coast; the prologue is spoken, not by a character in the piece, nor by a decently clothed abstraction like the figures of Luxury and Poverty which speak the prologue of the _Trinummus_, but by the star Arcturus, watcher and tempest-bearer.
_Qui gentes omnes, mariaque et terras movet, Eius sum civis civitate caelitum;
Ita sum ut videtis, splendens stella candida, Signum quod semper tempore exoritur suo Hic atque in caelo; nomen Arcturo est mihi. Noctu sum in caelo clarus atque inter deos; Inter mortales ambulo interdius_.
The romantic note struck in these opening lines is continued throughout the comedy, in which, by little touches here and there, the scene is kept constantly before us of the rocky shore in the strong brilliant sun after the storm of the night, the temple with its kindly priestess, and the red-tiled country-house by the reeds of the lagoon, with the solitary pastures behind it dotted over with fennel. Now and again one is reminded of the _Winter’s Tale_, with fishermen instead of shepherds for the subordinate characters; more frequently of a play which, indeed, has borrowed a good deal from this, _Pericles Prince of Tyre_.
The remainder of the Plautine plays may be dismissed with scant notice. They comprise three variations on the theme which, to modern taste, has become so excessively tedious, of the _Fourberies de Scapin_–the _Epidicus_, _Mostellaria_, and _Persa_; the _Poenulus_, a dull play, which owes its only interest to the passages in it written in the Carthaginian language, which offer a tempting field for the conjectures of the philologist; two more, the _Mercator_ and _Stichus_, of confused plot and insipid dialogue; and a mutilated fragment of the _Cistellaria_, or _Travelling-Trunk_, which would not have been missed had it shared the fate of the _Carpet-Bag_.
The humour of one age is often mere weariness to the next; and farcical comedy is, of all the forms of literature, perhaps the least adapted for permanence. It would be affectation to claim that Plautus is nowadays widely read outside of the inner circle of scholars; and there he is read almost wholly on account of his unusual fertility and interest as a field of linguistic study. Yet he must always remain one of the great outstanding influences in literary history. The strange fate which has left nothing but inconsiderable fragments out of the immense volume of the later Athenian Comedy, raised Plautus to a position co-ordinate with that of Aristophanes as a model for the reviving literature of modern Europe; for such part of that literature (by much the more important) as did not go beyond Latin for its inspiration, Plautus was a source of unique and capital value, in his own branch of literature equivalent to Cicero or Virgil in theirs.
Plautus outlived the second Punic War, during which, as we gather from prefaces and allusions, a number of the extant plays were produced. Soon after the final collapse of the Carthaginian power at Zama, a child was born at Carthage, who, a few years later, in the course of unexplained vicissitudes, reached Rome as a boy-slave, and passed there into the possession of a rich and educated senator, Terentius Lucanus. The boy showed some unusual turn for books; he was educated and manumitted by his master, and took from him the name of Publius Terentius the African. A small literary circle of the Roman aristocracy–men too high in rank to need to be careful what company they kept–admitted young Terence to their intimate companionship; and soon he was widely known as making a third in the friendship of Gaius Laelius with the first citizen of the Republic, the younger Scipio Africanus. This society, an informal academy of letters, devoted all its energies to the purification and improvement of the Latin language. The rough drafts of the Terentian comedies were read out to them, and the language and style criticised in minute detail; gossip even said that they were largely written by Scipio’s own hand, and Terence himself, as is not surprising, never took pains to deny the rumour. Six plays had been subjected to this elaborate correction and produced on the Roman stage, when Terence undertook a prolonged visit to Greece for the purpose of further study. He died of fever the next year– by one account, at a village in Arcadia; by another, when on his voyage home. The six comedies had already taken the place which they have ever since retained as Latin classics.
The Terentian comedy is in a way the turning-point of Roman literature. Plautus and Ennius, however largely they drew from Greek originals, threw into all their work a manner and a spirit which were essentially those of a new literature in the full tide of growth. The imitation of Greek models was a means, not an end; in both poets the Greek manner is continually abandoned for essays into a new manner of their own, and they relapse upon it when their imperfectly mastered powers of invention or expression give way under them. In the circle of Terence the fatal doctrine was originated that the Greek manner was an end in itself, and that the road to perfection lay, not in developing any original qualities, but in reproducing with laborious fidelity the accents of another language and civilisation. Nature took a swift and certain revenge. Correctness of sentiment and smooth elegance of diction became the standards of excellence; and Latin literature, still mainly confined to the governing class and their dependents, was struck at the root (the word is used of Terence himself by Varro) with the fatal disease of mediocrity.
But in Terence himself (as in Addison among English writers) this mediocrity is, indeed, golden–a mediocrity full of grace and charm. The unruffled smoothness of diction, the exquisite purity of language, are qualities admirable in themselves, and are accompanied by other striking merits; not, indeed, by dramatic force or constructive power, but by careful and delicate portraiture of character, and by an urbanity (to use a Latin word which expresses a peculiarly Latin quality) to which the world owes a deep debt for having set a fashion. In some curious lines preserved by Suetonius, Julius Caesar expresses a criticism, which we shall find it hard to improve, on the “halved Menander,” to whom his own fastidious purity in the use of language, no less than his tact and courtesy as a man of the world, attracted him strongly, while not blinding him to the weakness and flaccidity of the Terentian drama. Its effect on contemporary men of letters was immediate and irresistible. A curious, if doubtfully authentic, story is told of the young poet when he submitted his first play, _The Maid of Andros_, for the approval of the Commissioners of Public Works, who were responsible for the production of plays at the civic festivals. He was ordered to read it aloud to Caecilius, who, since the death of Plautus, had been supreme without a rival on the comic stage. Terence presented himself modestly while Caecilius was at supper, and was carelessly told to sit down on a stool in the dining-room, and begin. He had not read beyond a few verses when Caecilius stopped him, and made him take his seat at table. After supper was over, he heard his guest’s play out with unbounded and unqualified admiration.
But this admiration of the literary class did not make the refined conventional art of Terence successful for its immediate purposes on the stage: he was caviare to the general. Five of the six plays were produced at the spring festival of the Mother of the Gods–an occasion when the theatre had not to face the competition of the circus; yet even then it was only by immense efforts on the part of the management that they succeeded in attracting an audience. The _Mother-in-Law_ (not, it is true, a play which shows the author at his best) was twice produced as a dead failure. The third time it was pulled through by extraordinary efforts on the part of the acting-manager, Ambivius Turpio. The prologue written by Terence for this third performance is one of the most curious literary documents of the time. He is too angry to extenuate the repeated failure of his play. If we believe him, it fell dead the first time because “that fool, the public,” were all excitement over an exhibition on the tight-rope which was to follow the play; at the second representation only one act had been gone through, when a rumour spread that “there were going to be gladiators” elsewhere, and in five minutes the theatre was empty.
The Terentian prologues (they are attached to all his plays) are indeed very interesting from the light they throw on the character of the author, as well as on the ideas and fashions of his age. In all of them there is a certain hard and acrid purism that cloaks in modest phrases an immense contempt for all that lies beyond the writer’s own canons of taste. _In hac est pura oratio_, a phrase of the prologue to _The Self-Tormentor_, is the implied burden of them all. He is a sort of Literary Robespierre; one seems to catch the premonitory echo of well-known phrases, “degenerate condition of literary spirit, backsliding on this hand and on that, I, Terence, alone left incorruptible.” Three times there is a reference to Plautus, and always with a tone of chilly superiority which is too proud to break into an open sneer. Yet among these haughty and frigid manifestoes some felicity of phrase or of sentiment will suddenly remind us that here, after all, we are dealing with one of the great formative intelligences of literature; where, for instance, in the prologue to the lively and witty comedy of _The Eunuch_, the famous line–
_Nullumst iam dictum quod non dictum sit prius–
drops with the same easy negligence as in the opening dialogue of _The Self-Tormentor_, the immortal–
_Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto–_
falls from the lips of the old farmer. Congreve alone of English playwrights has this glittering smoothness, this inimitable ease; if we remember what Dryden, in language too splendid to be insincere, wrote of his young friend, we may imagine, perhaps, how Caecilius and his circle regarded Terence. Nor is it hard to believe that, had Terence, like Congreve, lived into an easy and honoured old age, he would still have rested his reputation on these productions of his early youth. Both dramatists had from the first seen clearly and precisely what they had in view, and had almost at the first stroke attained it: the very completeness of the success must in both cases have precluded the dissatisfaction through which fresh advances could alone be possible.
This, too, is one reason, though certainly not the only one, why, with the death of Terence, the development of Latin comedy at once ceased. His successors are mere shadowy names. Any life that remained in the art took the channel of the farces which, for a hundred years more, retained a genuine popularity, but which never took rank as literature of serious value. Even this, the _fabula tabernaria_, or comedy of low life, gradually melted away before the continuous competition of the shows which so moved the spleen of Terence–the pantomimists, the jugglers, the gladiators. By this time, too, the literary instinct was beginning to explore fresh channels. Not only was prose becoming year by year more copious and flexible, but the mixed mode, fluctuating between prose and verse, to which the Romans gave the name of satire, was in process of invention. Like the novel as compared with the play at the present time, it offered great and obvious advantages in ease and variety of manipulation, and in the simplicity and inexpensiveness with which, not depending on the stated performances of a public theatre, it could be produced and circulated. But before proceeding to consider this new literary invention more fully, it will be well to pause in order to gather up, as its necessary complement, the general lines on which Latin prose was now developing, whether in response to the influence of Greek models, or in the course of a more native and independent growth.
EARLY PROSE: THE _SATURA_, OR MIXED MODE.
Law and government were the two great achievements of the Latin race; and the two fountain-heads of Latin prose are, on the one hand, the texts of codes and the commentaries of jurists; on the other, the annals of the inner constitution and the external conquests and diplomacy of Rome. The beginnings of both went further back than Latin antiquaries could trace them. Out of the mists of a legendary antiquity two fixed points rise, behind which it is needless or impossible to go. The code known as that of the Twelve Tables, of which large fragments survive in later law-books, was drawn up, according to the accepted chronology, in the year 450 B.C. Sixty years later the sack of Rome by the Gauls led to the destruction of nearly all public and private records, and it was only from this date onwards that such permanent and contemporary registers–the consular _fasti_, the books of the pontifical college, the public collections of engraved laws and treaties–were extant as could afford material for the annalist. That a certain amount of work in the field both of law and history must have been going on at Rome from a very early period, is, of course, obvious; but it was not till the time of the Punic Wars that anything was produced in either field which could very well be classed as literature.
In history as in poetry, the first steps were timidly made with the help of Greek models. The oldest and most important of the early historians, Quintus Fabius Pictor, the contemporary of Naevius and Ennius, actually wrote in Greek, though a Latin version of his work certainly existed, whether executed by himself or some other hand is doubtful, at an almost contemporary date. Extracts are quoted from it by the grammarians as specimens of the language of the period. The scope of his history was broadly the same as that of the two great contemporary poets. It was a narrative of events starting from the legendary landing of Aeneas in Italy, becoming more copious as it advanced, and dealing with the events of the author’s own time at great length and from abundant actual knowledge. The work ended, so far as can be judged, with the close of the second Punic War. It long remained the great quarry for subsequent historians; and though Polybius wrote the history of the first Punic War anew from dissatisfaction with Pictor’s prejudice and inaccuracy, he is one of the chief authorities followed in the earlier decads of Livy. A younger contemporary of Pictor, Lucius Cincius Alimentus, who commanded a Roman army in the war against Hannibal, also used the Greek language in his annals of his own life and times, and the same appears to be the case with the memoirs of other soldiers and statesmen of the period. It is only half a century later that we know certainly of historians who wrote in Latin. The earliest of them, Lucius Cassius Hemina, composed his annals in the period between the death of Terence and the revolution of the Gracchi; a more distinguished successor, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Frugi, is better known as one of the leading opponents of the revolution (he was consul in the year of the tribuneship of Tiberius Gracchus) than as the author of annals which were certainly written with candour and simplicity, and in a style where the epithets “artless and elegant,” used of them by Aulus Gellius, need not be inconsistent with the more disparaging word “meagre,” with which they are dismissed by Cicero. History might be written in Greek–as, indeed, throughout the Republican and Imperial times it continued to be–by any Roman who was sufficiently conversant with that language, in which models for every style of historical composition were ready to his hand. In the province of jurisprudence it was different. Here the Latin race owed nothing to any foreign influence or example; and the development of Roman law pursued a straightforward and uninterrupted course far beyond the limits of the classical period, and after Rome itself had ceased to be the seat even of a divided empire. The earliest juristic writings, consisting of commentaries on collections of the semi-religious enactments in which positive law began, are attributed to the period of the Samnite Wars, long before Rome had become a great Mediterranean power. About 200 B.C. two brothers, Publius and Sextus Aelius, both citizens of consular and censorial rank, published a systematic treatise called _Tripertita_, which was long afterwards held in reverence as containing the _cunabula iuris_, the cradle out of which the vast systems of later ages sprang. Fifty years later, in the circle of the younger Scipio, begins the illustrious line of the Mucii Scaevolae. Three members of this family, each a distinguished jurist, rose to the consulate in the stormy half-century between the Gracchi and Sulla. The last and greatest of the three represented the ideal Roman more nearly than any other citizen of his time. The most eloquent of jurists and the most learned of orators, he was at the same time a brilliant administrator and a paragon of public and private virtue; and his murder at the altar of Vesta, in the Marian proscription, was universally thought the most dreadful event Of an age of horrors. His voluminous and exhaustive treatise on Civil Law remained a text-book for centuries, and was a foundation for the Writings of all later Roman jurists.
The combination of jurisconsult and orator in the younger Scaevola was somewhat rare; from an early period the two professions of jurist and pleader were sharply distinguished, though both were pathways to the highest civic offices. Neither his father nor his cousin (the other two of the triad) was distinguished in oratory; nor were the two great contemporaries of the former, who both published standard works on civil law, Manius Manilius and Marcus Junius Brutus. The highest field for oratory was, of course, in the political, and not in the purely legal, sphere; and the unique Roman constitution, an oligarchy chosen almost wholly by popular suffrage, made the practice of oratory more or less of a necessity to every politician. Well-established tradition ascribed to the greatest statesman of the earlier Republic, Appius Claudius Caecus, the first institution of written oratory. His famous speech in the senate against peace with Pyrrhus was cherished in Cicero’s time as one of the most precious literary treasures of Rome. From his time downwards the stream of written oratory flowed, at first in a slender stream, which gathered to a larger volume in the works of the elder Cato.
In the history of the half-century following the war with Hannibal, Cato is certainly the most striking single figure. It is only as a man of letters that he has to be noticed here; and the character of a man of letters was, perhaps, the last in which he would have wished to be remembered or praised. Yet the cynical and indomitable old man, with his rough humour, his narrow statesmanship, his obstinate ultra-conservatism, not only produced a large quantity of writings, but founded and transmitted to posterity a distinct and important body of critical dogma and literary tradition. The influence of Greece had, as we have already seen, begun to permeate the educated classes at Rome through and through. Against this Greek influence, alike in literature and in manners, Cato struggled all his life with the whole force of his powerful intellect and mordant wit; yet it is most characteristic of the man that in his old age he learned Greek himself and read deeply in the masterpieces of that Greek literature from which he was too honest and too intelligent to be able to withhold his admiration. While much of contemporary literature was launching itself on the fatal course of imitation of Greek models, and was forcing the Latin language into the trammels of alien forms, Cato gave it a powerful impulse towards a purely native, if a somewhat narrow and harsh development. The national prose literature, of which he may fairly be called the founder, was kept up till the decay of Rome by a large and powerful minority of Latin writers. What results it might have produced, if allowed unchecked scope, can only be matter for conjecture; in the main current of Latin literature the Greek influence was, on the whole, triumphant; Cato’s was the losing side (if one may so adapt the famous line of Lucan), and the men of genius took the other.
The speeches of Cato, of which upwards of a hundred and fifty were extant in Cicero’s time, and which the _virtuosi_ of the age of Hadrian preferred, or professed to prefer, to Cicero’s own, are lost, with the exception of inconsiderable fragments. The fragments show high oratorical gifts; shrewdness, humour, terse vigour and controlled passion; “somewhat confused and harsh,” says a late but competent Latin critic, “but strong and vivid as it is possible for oratory to be.” We have suffered a heavier loss in his seven books of _Origines_, the work of his old age. This may broadly be called an historical work, but it was history treated in a style of great latitude, the meagre, disconnected method of the annalists alternating with digressions into all kinds of subjects– geography, ethnography, reminiscences of his own travels and experiences, and the politics and social life of his own and earlier times. It made no attempt to keep up either the dignity or the continuity of history. His absence of method made this work, however full of interest, the despair of later historians: what were they to think, they plaintively asked, of an author who dismissed whole campaigns without even giving the names of the generals, while he went into profuse detail over one of the war-elephants in the Carthaginian army?
The only work of Cato’s which has been preserved in its integrity is that variously known under the titles _De Re Rustica_ or _De Agri Cultura_. It is one of a number of treatises of a severely didactic nature, which he published on various subjects–agricultural, sanitary, military, and legal. This treatise was primarily written for a friend who owned and cultivated farms in Campania. It consists of a series of terse and pointed directions following one on another, with no attempt at style or literary artifice, but full of a hard sagacity, and with occasional flashes of dry humour, which suggest that Cato would have found a not wholly uncongenial spirit in President Lincoln. A brief extract from one of the earlier chapters is not without interest, both as showing the practical Latin style, and as giving the prose groundwork of Virgil’s stately and beautiful embroidery in the _Georgics_.
_Opera omnia mature conficias face. Nam res rustica sic est; si unam rem sero feceris, omnia opera sero facies. Stramenta si deerunt frondem iligneam legito; earn substernito ovibus bubusque. Sterquilinium magnum stude ut habeas. Stercus sedulo conserva, cum exportabis spargito et comminuito; per autumnum evehito. Circum oleas autumnitate ablaqueato et stercus addito. Frondem populneam, ulmeam, querneam caedito, per tempus eam condito, non peraridam, pabulum ovibus. Item foenum cordum, sicilimenta de prato; ea arida condito. Post imbrem autumni rapinam, pabulum, lupinumque serito._
To the Virgilian student, every sentence here is full of reminiscences.
In his partial yielding, towards the end of a long and uncompromising life, to the rising tide of Greek influence, Cato was probably moved to a large degree by his personal admiration for the younger Scipio, whom he hailed as the single great personality among younger statesmen, and to whom he paid (strangely enough, in a line quoted from Homer) what is probably the most splendid compliment ever paid by one statesman to another. Scipio was the centre of a school which included nearly the whole literary impulse of his time. He was himself a distinguished orator and a fine scholar; after the conquest of Perseus, the royal library was the share of the spoils of Macedonia which he chose for himself, and bequeathed to his family. His celebrated friend, Gaius Laelius, known in Rome as “the Wise,” was not only an orator, but a philosopher, or deeply read, at all events, in the philosophy of Greece. Another member of the circle, Lucius Furius Philus, initiated that connection of Roman law with the Stoic philosophy which continued ever after to be so intimate and so far-reaching. In this circle, too, Roman history began to be written in Latin. Cassius Hemina and Lucius Calpurnius Piso have been already mentioned; more intimately connected with Scipio are Gaius Fannius, the son-in-law of Laelius, and Lucius Caelius Antipater, who reached, both in lucid and copious diction and in impartiality and research, a higher level than Roman history had yet attained. Literary culture became part of the ordinary equipment of a statesman; a crowd of Greek teachers, foremost among them the eminent philosopher, afterwards Master of the Portico, Panaetius of Rhodes, spread among the Roman upper classes the refining and illuminating influence of Greek ideas and Attic style.
Meanwhile, in this Scipionic circle, a new figure had appeared of great originality and force, the founder of a kind of literature which, with justifiable pride, the Romans claimed as wholly native and original. Gaius Lucilius was a member of a wealthy equestrian family, and thus could associate on equal terms with the aristocracy, while he was removed from the necessity, which members of the great senatorian houses could hardly avoid, of giving the best of their time and strength to political and administrative duties. After Terence, he is the most distinguished and the most important in his literary influence among the friends of Scipio. The form of literature which he invented and popularised, that of familiar poetry, was one which proved singularly suited to the Latin genius. He speaks of his own works under the name of _Sermones_, “talks” –a name which was retained by his great successor, Horace; but the peculiar combination of metrical form with wide range of subject and the pedestrian style of ordinary prose, received in popular usage the name _Satura_, or “mixture.” The word had, in earlier times, been used of the irregular stage performances, including songs, stories, and semi-dramatic interludes, which formed the repertory of strolling artists at popular festivals. The extension of the name to the verse of Lucilius indicates that written literature was now rising to equal importance and popularity with the spoken word.
Horace comments, not without severity, on the profuse and careless production of Lucilius. Of the thirty books of his _Satires_, few fragments of any length survive; much, probably the greater part of them, would, if extant, long have lost its interest. But the loss of the bulk of his work is matter of sincere regret, because it undoubtedly gave a vivid and detailed picture of the social life and the current interests of the time, such as the _Satires_ of Horace give of Rome in the Augustan age. His criticisms on the public men of his day were outspoken and unsparing; nor had he more reverence for established reputations in poetry than in public life. A great deal of his work consisted in descriptions of eating and drinking; much, also, in lively accounts of his own travels and adventures, or those of his friends. One book of the _Satires_ was occupied with an account of Scipio’s famous mission to the East, in which he visited the courts of Egypt and Asia, attended by a retinue of only five servants, but armed with the full power of the terrible Republic. Another, imitated by Horace in his story of the journey to Brundusium, detailed the petty adventures, the talk and laughter by roads and at inns, of an excursion of his own through Campania and Bruttium to the Sicilian straits. Many of the fragments deal with the literary controversies of the time, going down even to the minutiae of spelling and grammar; many more show the beginnings of that translation into the language of common life of the precepts of the Greek schools, which was consummated for the world by the poets and prose-writers of the following century. But, above all, the _Satires_ of Lucilius were in the fullest sense of the word an autobiography. The famous description of Horace, made yet more famous for English readers by the exquisite aptness with which Boswell placed it on the title-page of his _Life of Johnson_–
_Quo fit ut omnis
Votiva pateat veluti descripta tabella Vita senis–_
expresses the true greatness of Lucilius. He invented a literary method which, without being great, yields to no other in interest and even in charm, and which, for its perfection, requires a rare and refined genius. Not Horace only, nor all the satirists after Horace, but Montaigne and Pepys also, belong to the school of Lucilius.
Such was the circle of the younger Scipio, formed in the happy years–as they seemed to the backward gaze of the succeeding generation–between the establishment of Roman supremacy at the battle of Pydna, and the revolutionary movement of Tiberius Gracchus. Fifty years of stormy turbulence followed, culminating in the Social War and the reign of terror under Marius and Cinna, and finally stilled in seas of blood by the counter-revolution of Sulla. This is the period which separates the Scipionic from the Ciceronian age. It was naturally, except in the single province of political oratory, not one of great literary fertility; and a brief indication of the most notable authors of the period, and of the lines on which Roman literature mainly continued to advance during it, is all that is demanded or possible here.
In oratory, this period by general consent represented the golden age of Latin achievement. The eloquence of both the Gracchi was their great political weapon; that of Gaius was the most powerful in exciting feeling that had ever been known; and his death was mourned, even by fierce political opponents, as a heavy loss to Latin literature. But in the next generation, the literary perfection of oratory was carried to an even higher point by Marcus Antonius and Lucius Licinius Crassus. Both attained the highest honours that the Republic had to bestow. By a happy chance, their styles were exactly complementary to one another; to hear both in one day was the highest intellectual entertainment which Rome afforded. By this time the rules of oratory were carefully studied and reduced to scientific treatises. One of these, the _Rhetorica ad Herennium_, is still extant. It was almost certainly written by one Quintus Cornificius, an older contemporary of Cicero, to whom the work was long ascribed. It, no doubt, owes its preservation to this erroneous tradition. The first two books were largely used by Cicero in his own treatise _De Inventione_, part of a work on the principles of rhetoric which he began in early youth.
Latin history during this period made considerable progress. It was a common practice among statesmen to write memoirs of their own life and times; among others of less note, Sulla the dictator left at his death twenty-two books of _Commentarii Rerum Gestarum_, which were afterwards published by his secretary. In regular history the most important name is that of Quintus Claudius Quadrigarius. His work differed from those of the earlier annalists in passing over the legendary period, and beginning with the earliest authentic documents; in research and critical judgment it reached a point only excelled by Sallust. His style was formed on that of older annalists, and is therefore somewhat archaic for the period, Considerable fragments, including the well-known description of the single combat in 361 B.C. between Titus Manlius Torquatus and the Gallic chief, survive in quotations by Aulus Gellius and the archaists of the later Empire. More voluminous but less valuable than the _Annals_ of Claudius were those of his contemporary, Valerius Antias, which formed the main groundwork for the earlier books of Livy, and were largely used by him even for later periods, when more trustworthy authorities were available. Other historians of this period, Sisenna and Macer, soon fell into neglect–the former as too archaic, the latter as too diffuse and rhetorical, for literary permanence.
Somewhat apart from the historical writers stand the antiquarians, who wrote during this period in large numbers, and whose treatises filled the library from which, in the age of Cicero, Varro compiled his monumental works. As numerous probably were the writers of the school of Cato, on husbandry, domestic economy, and other practical subjects, and the grammarians and philologists, whose works formed two other large sections in Varro’s library. On all sides prose was full of life and growth; the complete literary perfection of the age of Cicero, Caesar, and Sallust might already be foreseen as within the grasp of the near future.
Latin poetry, meanwhile, hung in the balance. The first great wave of the Greek impulse had exhausted itself in Ennius and the later tragedians. Prose had so developed that the poetical form was no longer a necessity for the expression of ideas, as it had been in the palmy days of Latin tragedy. The poetry of the future must be, so to speak, poetry for its own sake, until some new tradition were formed which should make certain metrical forms once more the recognised and traditional vehicle for certain kinds of literary expression. In the blank of poetry we may note a translation of the _Iliad_ into hexameters by one Gnaeus Matius, and the earliest known attempts at imitation of the forms of Greek lyrical verse by an equally obscure Laevius Melissus, as dim premonitions of the new growth which Latin poetry was feeling after; but neither these, nor the literary tragedies which still were occasionally produced by a survival of the fashions of an earlier age, are of any account for their own sake. Prose and poetry stood at the two opposite poles of their cycle; and thus it is that, while the poets and prose-writers of the Ciceronian age are equally imperishable in fame, the latter but represent the culmination of a broad and harmonious development, while of the former, amidst but apart from the beginnings of a new literary era, there shine, splendid like stars out of the darkness, the two immortal lights of Lucretius and Catullus.
The age of Cicero, a term familiar to all readers as indicating one of the culminating periods of literary history, while its central and later years are accurately fixed, may be dated in its commencement from varying limits. Cicero was born in 106 B.C., the year of the final conquest of Jugurtha, and the year before the terrible Cimbrian disaster at Orange: he perished in the proscription of the triumvirate in December, 43 B.C. His first appearance in public life was during the dictatorship of Sulla; and either from this date, or from one ten years later when the Sullan constitution was re-established in a modified form by Pompeius and Crassus in their first consulate, the Ciceronian age extends over a space which approximates in the one case to thirty, in the other to forty years. No period in ancient, and few even in more modern history are so pregnant with interest or so fully and intimately known. From the comparative obscurity of the earlier age we pass into a full blaze of daylight. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the Rome of Cicero is as familiar to modern English readers as the London of Queen Anne, to readers in modern France as the Paris of Louis Quatorze. We can still follow with unabated interest the daily fluctuations of its politics, the current gossip and scandal of its society, the passing fashions of domestic life as revealed in private correspondence or the disclosures of the law courts. Yet in the very centre of this brilliantly lighted world, one of its most remarkable figures is veiled in almost complete darkness. The poem of Lucretius, _On the Nature of Things_, though it not only revealed a profound and extraordinary genius, but marked an entirely new technical level in Latin poetry, stole into the world all but unnoticed; and of its author’s life, though a pure Roman of one of the great governing families, only one or two doubtful and isolated facts could be recovered by the curiosity of later commentators. The single sentence in St. Jerome’s _Chronicle_ which practically sums up the whole of our information runs as follows, under the year 94 B.C:–
_Titus Lucretius poeta nascitur, posted amatorio poculo in furorem versus cum aliquot libros per intervalla insaniae conscripsisset quos postea Cicero emendavit, propria se manu interfecit anno aetatis xliiii._
Brief and straightforward as the sentence is, every clause in it has given rise to volumes of controversy. Was Lucretius born in the year named, or is another tradition correct, which, connecting his death with a particular event in the youth of Virgil, makes him either be born a few years earlier or die a few years younger? Did he ever, whether from a poisonous philtre or otherwise, lose his reason? and can a poem which ranks among the great masterpieces of genius have been built up into its stately fabric–for this is not a question of brief lyrics like those of Smart or Cowper–in the lucid intervals of insanity? Did Cicero have anything to do with the editing of the unfinished poem? If so, which Cicero–Marcus or Quintus? and why, in either case, is there no record of the fact in their correspondence, or in any writing of the period? All these questions are probably insoluble, and the notice of Jerome leaves the whole life and personality of the poet still completely hidden. Yet we have little or nothing else to go upon. There is a brief and casual allusion to him in one of Cicero’s letters of the year 54 B.C.: yet it speaks of “poems,” not the single great poem which we know; and most editors agree that the text of the passage is corrupt, and must be amended by the insertion of a _non_, though they differ on the important detail of the particular clause in which it should be inserted. That the earlier Augustan poets should leave their great predecessor completely unnoticed is less remarkable, for it may be taken as merely a part of that curious conspiracy of silence regarding the writers of the Ciceronian age which, whether under political pressure or not, they all adopted. Even Ovid, never ungenerous though not always discriminating in his praise, dismisses him in a list of Latin poets with a single couplet of vague eulogy. In the reactionary circles of the Empire, Lucretius found recognition; but the critics who, according to Tacitus, ranked him above Virgil may be reasonably suspected of doing so more from caprice than from rational conviction. Had the poem itself perished (and all the extant manuscripts are copies of a single original), no one would have thought that such a preference could be anything but a piece of antiquarian pedantry, like the revival, in the same period, of the plays of the early tragedians. But the fortunate and slender chance which has preserved it shows that their opinion, whether right or wrong, is one which at all events is neither absurd nor unarguable. For in the _De Rerum Natura_ we are brought face to face not only with an extraordinary literary achievement, but with a mind whose profound and brilliant genius has only of late years, and with the modern advance of physical and historical science, been adequately recognised.
The earliest Greek impulse in Latin poetry had long been exhausted; and the fashion among the new generation was to admire and study beyond all else the Greek poets of the decadence, who are generally, and without any substantial injustice, lumped together by the name of the Alexandrian school. The common quality in all this poetry was its great learning, and its remoteness from nature. It was poetry written in a library; it viewed the world through a highly coloured medium of literary and artistic tradition. The laborious perfectness of execution which the taste of the time demanded was, as a rule, lavished on little subjects, patient carvings in ivory. One side of the Alexandrian school which was largely followed was that of the didactic poets–Aratus, Nicander, Euphorion, and a host of others less celebrated. Cicero, in mature life, speaks with some contempt of the taste for Euphorion among his contemporaries. But he had himself, as a young man, followed the fashion, and translated the _Phaenomena_ of Aratus into wonderfully polished and melodious hexameter verse.
Not unaffected by this fashion of the day, but turning from it to older and nobler models–Homer and Empedocles in Greek, Ennius in Latin– Lucretius conceived the imposing scheme of a didactic poem dealing with the whole field of life and nature as interpreted by the Epicurean philosophy. He lived to carry out his work almost to completion. It here and there wants the final touches of arrangement; one or two discussions are promised and not given; some paragraphs are repeated, and others have not been worked into their proper place; but substantially, as in the case of the _Aeneid_, we have the complete poem before us, and know perfectly within what limits it might have been altered or improved by fuller revision.
As pure literature, the _Nature of Things_ has all the defects inseparable from a didactic poem, that unstable combination of discordant elements, and from a poem which is not only didactic, but argumentative, and in parts highly controversial. Nor are these difficulties in the least degree evaded or smoothed over by the poet. As a teacher, he is in deadly earnest; as a controversialist, his first object is to refute and convince. The graces of poetry are never for a moment allowed to interfere with the full development of an argument. Much of the poem is a chain of intricate reasoning hammered into verse by sheer force of hand. The ardent imagination of the poet struggles through masses of intractable material which no genius could wholly fuse into a metal pure enough to take perfect form. His language, in the fine prologue to the fourth book of the poem, shows his attitude towards his art very clearly.
_Avia Pieridum peragro loca nullius ante Trita solo; iuvat integros accedere fontes Atque haurire, iuvatque novos decerpere flores Insignemque meo capiti petere inde coronam Unde prius milli velarint tempora Musae: Primum quod magnis doceo de rebus, et artis Religionum animum nodis exsolvere pergo, Deinde quod obscura de re tam lucida pango Carmina, musaeo contingens cuncta lepore._
The joy and glory of his art come second in his mind to his passionate love of truth, and the deep moral purport of what he believes to be the one true message for mankind. The human race lies fettered by superstition and ignorance; his mission is to dispel their darkness by that light of truth which is “clearer than the beams of the sun or the shining shafts of day.” Spinoza has been called, in a bold figure, “a man drunk with God;” the contemplation of the “nature of things,” the physical structure of the universe, and the living and all but impersonate law which forms and sustains it, has the same intoxicating influence over Lucretius. God and man are alike to him bubbles on the ceaseless stream of existence; yet they do not therefore, as they have so often done in other philosophies, fade away to a spectral thinness. His contemplation of existence is no brooding over abstractions; Nature is not in his view the majestic and silent figure before whose unchanging eyes the shifting shadow-shapes go and come; but an essential life, manifesting itself in a million workings, _creatrix, gubernans, daedala rerum_. The universe is filled through all its illimitable spaces by the roar of her working, the ceaseless unexhausted energy with which she alternates life and death.
To our own age the Epicurean philosophy has a double interest. Not only was it a philosophy of life and conduct, but, in the effort to place life and conduct under ascertainable physical laws, it was led to frame an extremely detailed and ingenious body of natural philosophy, which, partly from being based on really sound postulates, partly from a happy instinct in connecting phenomena, still remains interesting and valuable. To the Epicureans, indeed, as to all ancient thinkers, the scientific method as it is now understood was unknown; and a series of unverified generalizations, however brilliant and acute, is not the true way towards knowledge. But it still remains an astonishing fact that many of the most important physical discoveries of modern times are hinted at or even expressly stated by Lucretius. The general outlines of the atomic doctrine have long been accepted as in the main true; in all important features it is superior to any other physical theory of the universe which existed up to the seventeenth century. In his theory of light Lucretius was in advance of Newton. In his theory of chemical affinities (for he describes the thing though the nomenclature was unknown to him) he was in advance of Lavoisier. In his theory of the ultimate constitution of the atom he is in striking agreement with the views of the ablest living physicists. The essential function of science–to reduce apparently disparate phenomena to the expressions of a single law –is not with him the object of a moment’s doubt or uncertainty.
Towards real progress in knowledge two things are alike indispensable: a true scientific method, and imaginative insight. The former is, in the main, a creation of the modern world, nor was Lucretius here in advance of his age. But in the latter quality he is unsurpassed, if not unequalled. Perhaps this is even clearer in another field of science, that which has within the last generation risen to such immense proportions under the name of anthropology. Thirty years ago it was the first and second books of the _De Rerum Natura_ which excited the greatest enthusiasm in the scientific world. Now that the atomic theory has passed into the rank of received doctrines, the brilliant sketch, given in the fifth book, of the beginnings of life upon the earth, the evolution of man and the progress of human society, is the portion of the poem in which his scientific imagination is displayed most astonishingly. A Roman aristocrat, living among a highly cultivated society, Lucretius had been yet endowed by nature with the primitive instincts of the savage. He sees the ordinary processes of everyday life–weaving, carpentry, metal-working, even such specialised forms of manual art as the polishing of the surface of marble–with the fresh eye of one who sees them all for the first time. Nothing is to him indistinct through familiarity. In virtue of this absolute clearness of vision it costs him no effort to throw himself back into prehistoric conditions and the wild life of the earliest men. Even further than this he can pierce the dim recesses of the past. Before his imagination the earth rises swathed in tropical forests, and all strange forms of life issuing and jostling one another for existence in the steaming warmth of perpetual summer. Among a thousand types that flowered and fell, the feeble form of primitive man is distinguished, without fire, without clothing, without articulate speech. Through the midnight of the woods, shivering at the cries of the stealthy-footed prowlers of the darkness, he crouches huddled in fallen leaves, waiting for the rose of dawn. Little by little the prospect clears round him. The branches of great trees, grinding one against another in the windy forest, break into a strange red flower; he gathers it and hoards it in his cave. There, when wind and rain beat without, the hearth-fire burns through the winter, and round it gathers that other marvellous invention of which the hearth-fire became the mysterious symbol, the family. From this point the race is on the full current of progress, of which the remainder of the book gives an account as essentially true as it is incomparably brilliant. If we consider how little Lucretius had to go upon in this reconstruction of lost history, his imaginative insight seems almost miraculous. Even for the later stages of human progress he had to rely mainly on the eye which saw deep below the surface into the elementary structure of civilisation. There was no savage life within the scope of his actual observation. Books wavered between traditions of an impossible golden age and fragments of primitive legend which were then quite unintelligible, and are only now giving up their secret under a rigorous analysis. Further back, and beyond the rude civilisation of the earlier races of Greece and Italy, data wholly failed. We have supplemented, but hardly given more life to, his picture of the first beginnings, by evidence drawn from a thousand sources then unknown or unexplored–from coal-measures and mud-deposits, Pictish barrows and lacustrine middensteads, remote tribes of hidden Africa and islands of the Pacific Sea.
Such are the characteristics which, to one or another epoch of modern times, give the poem of Lucretius so unique an interest. But for these as for all ages, its permanent value must lie mainly in more universal qualities. History and physical science alike are in all poetry ancillary to ideas. It is in his moral temper, his profound insight into life, that Lucretius is greatest; and it is when dealing with moral ideas that his poetry rises to its utmost height. The Epicurean philosophy, in his hands, takes all the moral fervour of a religion. The depth of his religious instinct may be measured by the passion of his antagonism to what he regarded as superstition. Human life in his eyes was made wretched, mean, and cruel by one great cause–the fear of death and of what happens after it. That death is not to be feared, that nothing happens after it, is the keystone of his whole system. It is after an accumulation of seventeen proofs, hurled one upon another at the reader, of the mortality of the soul, that, letting himself loose at the highest emotional and imaginative tension, he breaks into that wonderful passage, which Virgil himself never equalled, and which in its lofty passion, its piercing tenderness, the stately roll of its cadences, is perhaps unmatched in human speech.
_”Iam iam non domus accipiet te Iaeta, neque uxor Optima, nee dulces occurrent oscula nati Praeripere et tacita pectus dulcedine tangent: Non poteris factis florentibus esse, tuisque Praesidium: misero misere” aiunt, “omnia ademit Una dies infesta tibi tot praemia vitae….”_
“‘Now no more shall a glad home and a true wife welcome thee, nor darling children race to snatch thy first kisses and touch thy heart with a sweet and silent content; no more mayest thou be prosperous in thy doings and a defence to thine own: alas and woe!’ say they, ‘one disastrous day has taken all these prizes of thy life away from thee’–but thereat they do not add this, ‘and now no more does any longing for these things beset thee.’ This did their thought but clearly see and their speech follow, they would release themselves from great heartache and fear. ‘Thou, indeed, as thou art sunk in the sleep of death, wilt so be for the rest of the ages, severed from all weary pains; but we, while close by us thou didst turn ashen on the awful pyre, made unappeasable lamentation, and everlastingly shall time never rid our heart of anguish.’ Ask we then this of him, what there is that is so very bitter, if sleep and peace be the conclusion of the matter, to make one fade away in never-ending grief?
“Thus also men often do when, set at the feast, they hold their cups and shade their faces with garlands, saying sadly, ‘Brief is this joy for wretched men; soon will it have been, and none may ever after recall it!’ as if this were to be first and foremost of the ills of death, that thirst and dry burning should waste them miserably, or desire after anything else beset them. For not even then does any one miss himself and his life when soul and body together are deep asleep and at rest; for all we care, such slumber might go on for ever, nor does any longing after ourselves touch us then, though then those first beginnings through our body swerve away but a very little from the movements that bring back the senses when the man starts up and gathers himself out of sleep. Far less, therefore, must we think death concerns us, if less than nothing there can be; for a greater sundering in the mass of matter follows upon death, nor does any one awake and stand, whom the cold stoppage of death once has overtaken.
“Yet again, were the Nature of things suddenly to utter a voice, and thus with her own lips upbraid one of us, ‘What ails thee so, O mortal, to let thyself loose in too feeble grievings? why weep and wail at death? for if thy past life and overspent has been sweet to thee, and all the good thereof has not, as if poured into a pierced vessel, run through and joylessly perished, why dost thou not retire like a banqueter filled with life, and calmly, O fool, take thy peaceful sleep? But if all thou hast had is perished and spilt, and thy life is hateful, why seekest thou yet to add more which shall once again all perish and fall joylessly away? why not rather make an end of life and labour? for there is nothing more that I can contrive and invent for thy delight; all things are the same for ever. Even were thy body not yet withered, nor thy limbs weary and worn, yet all things remain the same, didst thou go on to live all the generations down, nay, even more, wert thou never doomed to die’–what do we answer?”
It is in passages of which the two hundred lines beginning thus are the noblest instance, passages of profound and majestic broodings over life and death, that the long rolling weight of the Lucretian hexameter tells with its full force. For the golden cadence of poesy we have to wait till Virgil; but the strain that Lucretius breathes through bronze is statelier and more sonorous than any other in the stately and sonorous Roman speech. Like Naevius a century and a half before, he might have left the proud and pathetic saying on his tomb that, after he was dead, men forgot to speak Latin in Rome. He stands side by side with Julius Caesar in the perfect purity of his language. The writing of the next age, whether prose or verse, gathered richness and beauty from alien sources; if the poem of Lucretius had no other merit, it would be a priceless document as a model of the purest Latin idiom in the precise age of its perfection. It follows from this that in certain points of technique Lucretius kept behind his age, or rather, deliberately held aloof from the movement of his age towards a more intricate and elaborate art. The wave of Alexandrianism only touched him distantly; he takes up the Ennian tradition where Ennius had left it, and puts into it the immensely increased faculty of trained expression which a century of continuous literary practice, and his own admirably clear and quick intelligence, enable him to supply. The only Greek poets mentioned by him are Homer and Empedocles. His remoteness from the main current of contemporary literature is curiously parallel to that of Milton. The Epicurean philosophy was at this time, as it never was either earlier or later, the predominant creed among the ruling class at Rome: but except in so far as its shallower aspects gave the motive for light verse, it was as remote from poetry as the Puritan theology of the seventeenth century. In both cases a single poet of immense genius was also deeply penetrated with the spirit of a creed. In both cases his poetical affinity was with the poets of an earlier day, and his poetical manner something absolutely peculiar to himself. Both of them under this strangely mixed impulse set themselves to embody their creed in a great work of art. But the art did not appeal strongly to sectaries, nor the creed to artists. The _De Rerum Natura_ and the _Paradise Lost_, while they exercised a profound influence over later poets, came silently into the world, and seem to have passed over the heads of their immediate contemporaries. There is yet another point of curious resemblance between them. Every student of Milton knows that the only English poet from whom he systematically borrowed matter and phrase was a second-rate translator of a second-rate original, who now would be almost forgotten but for the use Milton made of him. For one imitation of Spenser or Shakespeare in the _Paradise Lost_ it would be easy to adduce ten–not mere coincidences of matter, but direct transferences–of Sylvester’s Du Bartas. While Lucretius was a boy, Cicero published the version in Latin hexameters of the _Phaenomena_ and _Prognostica_ of Aratus to which reference has already been made. These poems consist of only between eleven and twelve hundred lines in all, but had, in the later Alexandrian period, a reputation (like that of the _Sepmaine_ of Du Bartas) far in excess of their real merit, and were among the most powerful influences in founding the new style. The many imitations in Lucretius of the extant fragments of these Ciceronian versions show that he must have studied their vocabulary and versification with minute care. The increased technical possibilities shown by them to exist in the Latin hexameter–for in them, as in nearly all his permanent work, Cicero was mastering the problem of making his own language an adequate vehicle of sustained expression–may even have been the determining influence that made Lucretius adopt this poetical form. Till then it may have been just possible that native metrical forms might still reassert themselves. Inscriptions of the last century of the Republic show that the saturnian still lingered in use side by side with the rude popular hexameters which were gradually displacing it; and the _Punic War_ of Naevius was still a classic. Lucretius’ choice of the hexameter, and his definite conquest of it as a medium of the richest and most varied expression, placed the matter beyond recall. The technical imperfections which remained in it were now reduced within a visible compass; its power to convey sustained argument, to express the most delicate shades of meaning, to adjust itself to the greatest heights and the subtlest tones of emotion, was already acquired when Lucretius handed it on to Virgil. And here, too, as well as in the wide field of literature with which his fame is more intimately connected, from the actual impulse given by his own early work and heightened by admiration of his brilliant maturity, even more than from the dubious tradition of his critical revision of the poem, the glory of the Ciceronian age is in close relation to the personal genius of Cicero.
LYRIC POETRY: CATULLUS.
Contemporary with Lucretius, but, unlike him, living in the full whirl and glare of Roman life, was a group of young men who were professed followers of the Alexandrian school. In the thirty years which separate the Civil war and the Sullan restoration from the sombre period that opened with the outbreak of hostilities between Caesar and the senate, social life at Rome among the upper classes was unusually interesting and exciting. The outward polish of Greek civilisation was for the first time fully mastered, and an intelligent interest in art and literature was the fashion of good society. The “young man about town,” whom we find later fully developed in the poetry of Ovid, sprang into existence, but as the government was still in the hands of the aristocracy, fashion and politics were intimately intermingled, and the lighter literature of the day touched grave issues on every side. The poems of Catullus are full of references to his friends and his enemies among this group of writers. Two of the former, Cinna and Calvus, were poets of considerable importance. Gaius Helvius Cinna–somewhat doubtfully identified with the “Cinna the poet” who met such a tragical end at the hands of the populace after Caesar’s assassination–carried the Alexandrian movement to its most uncompromising conclusions. His fame (and that fame was very great) rested on a short poem called _Zmyrna_, over which he spent ten years’ labour, and which, by subject and treatment alike, carried the method of that school to its furthest excess. In its recondite obscurity it outdid Lycophron himself. More than one grammarian of the time made a reputation solely by a commentary on it. It throws much light on the peculiar artistic position of Catullus, to bear in mind that this masterpiece of frigid pedantry obtained his warm and evidently sincere praise.
The other member of the triad, Gaius Licinius Macer Calvus, one of the most brilliant men of his time, was too deeply plunged in politics to be more than an accomplished amateur in poetry. Yet it must have been more than his intimate friendship with Catullus, and their common fate of too early a death, that made the two names so constantly coupled afterwards. By the critics of the Silver Age, no less than by Horace and Propertius, the same idea is frequently repeated, which has its best-known expression in Ovid’s beautiful invocation in his elegy on Tibullus–
Obvius huic venias, hedera iuvenilia cinctus Tempora, cum Calvo, docte Catulle, tuo._
We must lament the total loss of a volume of lyrics which competent judges thought worthy to be set beside that of his wonderful friend.
Gaius Valerius Catullus of Verona, one of the greatest names of Latin poetry, belonged, like most of this group, to a wealthy and distinguished family, and was introduced at an early age to the most fashionable circles of the capital. He was just so much younger than Lucretius that the Marian terror and the Sullan proscriptions can hardly have left any strong traces on his memory. When he died, Caesar was still fighting in Gaul, and the downfall of the Republic could only be dimly foreseen. In time, no less than in genius, he represents the fine flower of the Ciceronian age. He was about five and twenty when the attachment began between him and the lady whom he has immortalised under the name of Lesbia. By birth a Claudia, and wife of her cousin, a Caecilius Metellus, she belonged by blood and marriage to the two proudest families of the inner circle of the aristocracy. Clodia was seven years older than Catullus; but that only made their mutual attraction more irresistible: and the death of her husband in the year after his consulship, whether or not there was foundation for the common rumour that she had poisoned him, was an incident that seems to have passed almost unnoticed in the first fervour of their passion. The story of infatuation, revolt, relapse, fresh revolt and fresh entanglement, lives and breathes in the verses of Catullus. It was after their final rupture that Catullus made that journey to Asia which gave occasion to his charming poems of travel. In the years which followed his return to Italy, he continued to produce with great versatility and force, making experiments in several new styles, and devoting great pains to an elaborate metrical technique. Feats of learning and skill alternate with political verses, into which he carries all his violence of love and hatred. But while these later poems compel our admiration, it is the earlier ones which win and keep our love. Though the old liquid note ever and again recurs, the freshness of these first lyrics, in which life and love and poetry are all alike in their morning glory, was never to be wholly recaptured. Nor did he live to settle down on any matured second manner. He was thirty-three at the utmost–perhaps not more than thirty–when he died, leaving behind him the volume of poems which sets him as the third beside Sappho and Shelley.
The order of the poems in this volume seems to be an artificial compromise between two systems–one an arrangement by metre, and the other by date of composition. In the former view the book falls into three sections–the pure lyrics, the idyllic pieces, and the poems in elegiac verse. The central place is occupied by the longest and most elaborate, if not the most successful, of his poems, the epic idyl on the marriage of Peleus and Thetis. Before this are the lyrics, chiefly in the phalaecian eleven-syllabled verse which Catullus made so peculiarly his own, but in iambic, sapphic, choriambic, and other metres also, winding up with the fine epithalamium written for the marriage of his friends, Mallius and Vinia. The transition from this group of lyrics to the _Marriage of Peleus and Thetis_ is made with great skill through another wedding-chant, an idyl in form, but approaching to a lyric in tone, without any personal allusions, and not apparently written for any particular occasion. Finally comes a third group of poems, extending to the end of the volume, all written in elegiac verse, but otherwise extremely varied in date, subject, and manner. The only poem thus left unaccounted for, the _Atys_, is inserted in the centre of the volume, between the two hexameter poems, as though to make its wild metre and rapid movement the more striking by contrast with their smooth and languid rhythms. Whether the arrangement of the whole book comes from the poet’s own hand is very doubtful. His dedicatory verses, which stand at the head of the volume, are more probably attached to the first part only, the book of lyrics. Catullus almost certainly died in 54 B.C.; the only positive dates assignable to particular poems, in either the lyric or the elegiac section, alike lie within the three or four years previous, and, while no strict chronological order is followed, the pieces at the beginning of the book are almost certainly the earliest, and those at the end among the latest.
Among the poems of Catullus, those connected with Lesbia hold the foremost place, and, as expressions of direct personal emotion, are unsurpassed, not merely in Latin, but in any literature. There are no poems of the growth of love among them; from the first, Lesbia appears as the absolute mistress of her lover’s heart:
_Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus, Rumoresque senum severiorum
Omnes unius aestimemus assis.
Soles occidere et redire possunt; Nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux
Nox est perpetua una dormienda:–_
thus he cries in the first intoxication of his happiness, as yet ignorant that the brief light of his love was to go out before noon. Clodia soon showed that the advice not to care for the opinion of the world was, in her case, infinitely superfluous. That intolerable pride which was the proverbial curse of the Claudian house took in her the form of a flagrant disregard of all conventions. In the early days of their love, Catullus only felt, or only expressed, the beautiful side of this recklessness. His affection for Clodia had in it, he says, something of the tenderness of parents for their children; and the poems themselves bear out the paradox. We do not need to read deeply in Catullus to be assured that merely animal passion ran as strong in him as it ever did in any man. But in the earlier poems to Lesbia all this turns to air and fire; the intensity of his love melts its grosser elements into one white flame. There is hardly even a word of Lesbia’s bodily beauty; her great blazing eyes have only come down to us in the sarcastic allusions made to them by Cicero in his speeches and letters. As in a few of the finest lyrics of Burns, with whom Catullus, as a poet of love, has often been compared, the ardency of passion has effected for quintessential moments the work that long ages may work out on the whole fabric of a human soul– _Concretam exemit labem purumque reliquit aetherium sensum atque aurai simplicis ignem_.
But long after the rapture had passed away the enthralment remained. Lesbia’s first infidelities only riveted her lover’s chains–
_Amantem iniuria talis
Cogit amare magis;_
then he hangs between love and hatred, in the poise of soul immortalised by him in the famous verse–
_Odi et amo: quare id faciam fortasse requiris; Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior._
There were ruptures and reconciliations, and renewed ruptures and repeated returns, but through them all, while his love hardly lessens, his hatred continually grows, and the lyrical cry becomes one of the sharpest agony: through protestations of fidelity, through wails over ingratitude, he sinks at last into a stupor only broken by moans of pain. Then at last youth reasserts itself, and he is stung into new life by the knowledge that he has simply dropped out of Lesbia’s existence. His final renunciation is no longer addressed to her deaf ears, but flung at her in studied insult through two of the associates of their old revels in Rome.
_Cum suis vivat valeatque moechis
Quos simul complexa tenet trecentos Nullum amans vere, sed identidem omnium Ilia rumpens–_
so the hard clear verse flashes out, to melt away in the dying fall, the long-drawn sweetness of the last words of all–
_Nec meum respectet ut ante amorem
Qui illius culpa cecidit, velut prati Ultimi flos, praetereunte postquam
Tactus aratro est._
Foremost among the other lyrics of Catullus which have a personal reference are those concerned with his journey to Asia, and the death in the Troad of the deeply loved brother whose tomb he visited on that journey. The excitement of travel and the delight of return have never been more gracefully touched than in these little lyrics, of which every other line has become a household word, the _Iam ver egelidos refert tepores_, and the lovely _Paene insularum Sirmio insularumque_, whose cadences have gathered a fresh sweetness in the hands of Tennyson. But a higher note is reached in one or two of the short pieces on his brother’s death, which are lyrics in all but technical name. The finest of these has all the delicate simplicity of an epitaph by the best Greek artists, Leonidas or Antipater or Simonides himself; and with this it combines the specific Latin dignity, and a range of tones, from the ocean-roll of its opening hexameter, _Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus_, to the sobbing wail of the _Atque in perpehtum frater ave atque vale_ in which it dies away, that is hardly equalled except in some of Shakespeare’s sonnets.
It is in these short lyrics of personal passion or emotion that the genius of Catullus is most eminent; but the same high qualities appear in the few specimens he has left of more elaborate lyrical architecture, the _Ode to Diana_, the marriage-song for Mallius and Vinia, and the _Atys_. The first of these, brief as it is, has a breadth and grandeur of manner which–as in the noble fragment of Keats’ _Ode to Maia_–lift it into the rank of great masterpieces. The epithalamium, on the other hand, with which the book of lyrics ends, while very simple in structure, is large in scale. It is as much longer than the rest of the lyrics as the marriage-song which stands at the end of _In Memoriam_ is than the other sections of that poem. In the charm of perfect simplicity it equals the finest of his lyrics; but besides this, it has in its clear ringing music what is for this period an almost unique premonition of the new world that rose out of the darkness of the Middle Ages, the world that had invented bells and church-organs, and had added a new romantic beauty to love and marriage. With a richness of phrase that recalls the Song of Solomon, the verses clash and swing: _Open your bars, O gates! the bride is at hand! Lo, how the torches shake out their splendid tresses!… Even so in a rich lord’s garden-close might stand a hyacinth-flower. Lo, the torches shake out their golden tresses; go forth, O bride! Day wanes; go forth, O bride!_ And the verse at the end, about the baby on its mother’s lap–
_Torqutatus volo parvulus
Matris e gremio suae
Porrigens teneras manus
Dulce rideat ad patrem
is as incomparable; not again till the Florentine art of the fifteenth century was the picture drawn with so true and tender a hand.
Over the _Atys_ modern criticism has exhausted itself without any definite result. The accident of its being the only Latin poem extant in the peculiar galliambic metre has combined with the nature of the subject to induce a tradition about it as though it were the most daring and extraordinary of Catullus’ poems. The truth is quite different. It stands midway between the lyrics and the idyls in being a poem of most studied and elaborate artifice, in which Catullus has chosen, not the statelier and more familiar rhythms of the hexameter or elegiac, but one of the Greek lyric metres, of which he had already introduced several others into Latin. As a _tour de force_ in metrical form it is remarkable enough, and probably marks the highest point of Latin achievement in imitation of the more complex Greek metres. As a lyric poem it preserves, even in its highly artificial structure, much of the direct force and simplicity which mark all Catullus’ best lyrics. That it goes beyond this, or that–as is often repeated–it transcends both the idyls and the briefer lyrics in sustained beauty and passion, cannot be held by any sane judgment.
How far elaboration could lead Catullus is shown in the long idyllic poem on the _Marriage of Peleus and Thetis_. Here he entirely abandons the lyric manner, and adventures on a new field, in which he does not prove very successful. The poem is full of great beauties of detail; but as a whole it is cloying and yet not satisfying. For a few lines together Catullus can write in hexameter more exquisitely than any other Latin poet. The description in this piece of the little breeze that rises at dawn, beginning _Hic qualis flatu placidum mare matutino_, like the more famous lines in his other idyllic poem–
_Ut flos in septis secretum nascitur hortis, Ignotus pecori, nullo contusus aratro, Quem mulcent aurae, firmat sol, educat imber; Multi illum pueri, multae optavere puellae–_
has an intangible and inexpressible beauty such as never recurs in the more mature art of greater masters. But Catullus has no narrative gift; his use of the hexameter is confined to a limited set of rhythms which in a poem about the length of a book of the _Georgics_ become hopelessly monotonous; and it finally stops, rather than ends, when the writer (as is already the case with the reader) grows tired of it. It is remarkable that the poet who in the lightness and speed of his other metres is unrivalled in Latin, should, when he attempts the hexameter, be more languid and heavy, not only than his successors, but than his contemporaries. Here, as in the elaborate imitations of Callimachus with which he tested his command of the Latin elegiac, he is weak because he wanders off the true line, not from any failure in his own special gift, which was purely and simply lyrical. When he uses the elegiac verse to express his own feeling, as in the attacks on political or personal enemies, it has the same direct lucidity (as of an extraordinarily gifted child) which is the essential charm of his lyrics.
It is just this quality, this clear and almost terrible simplicity, that puts Catullus in a place by himself among the Latin poets. Where others labour in the ore of thought and gradually forge it out into sustained expression, he sees with a single glance, and does not strike a second time. His imperious lucidity is perfectly unhesitating in its action; whether he is using it for the daintiest flower of sentiment–_fair passions and bountiful pities and loves without stain_–or for the expression of his fiery passions and hatreds in some flagrant obscenity or venomous insult, it is alike straight and reckless, with no scruple and no mincing of words; in Mr. Swinburne’s curiously true and vivid phrase, he “makes mouths at our speech” when we try to follow him.
With the death of Catullus and Calvus, an era in Latin poetry definitely ends. Only thirteen or fourteen years later a new era begins with the appearance of Virgil; but this small interval of time is sufficient to mark the passage from one age–we might almost say from one civilisation –to another. During these years poetry was almost silent, while the Roman world shook with continuous civil war and the thunder of prodigious armies. The school of minor Alexandrian poets still indeed continued; the “warblers of Euphorion” with their smooth rhythms and elaborate _finesse_ of workmanship are spoken of by Cicero as still numerous and active ten years after Catullus’ death. But their artifice had lost the gloss of novelty; and the enthusiasm which greeted the appearance of the Eclogues was due less perhaps to their intrinsic excellence than to the relief with which Roman poetry shook itself free from the fetters of so rigorous and exhausting a convention.
Meanwhile, in the last age of the Republic, Latin prose had reached its full splendour in the hands of the most copious and versatile master of style whom the Graeco-Roman world had yet produced. The claims of Cicero to a place among the first rank of Roman statesmen have been fiercely canvassed by modern critics; and both in oratory and philosophy some excess of veneration once paid to him has been replaced by an equally excessive depreciation. The fault in both estimates lay in the fact that they were alike based on secondary issues. Cicero’s unique and imperishable glory is not, as he thought himself, that of having put down the revolutionary movement of Catiline, nor, as later ages thought, that of having rivalled Demosthenes in the _Second Philippic_, or confuted atheism in the _De Natura Deorum_. It is that he created a language which remained for sixteen centuries that of the civilised world, and used that language to create a style which nineteen centuries have not replaced, and in some respects have scarcely altered. He stands in prose, like Virgil in poetry, as the bridge between the ancient and modern world. Before his time, Latin prose was, from a wide point of view, but one among many local ancient dialects. As it left his hands, it had become a universal language, one which had definitely superseded all others, Greek included, as the type of civilised expression.
Thus the apparently obsolete criticism which ranked Cicero together with Plato and Demosthenes, if not above them, was based on real facts, though it may be now apparent that it gave them a wrong interpretation. Even Hellenists may admit with but slight reluctance that the prose of the great Attic writers is, like the sculpture of their contemporary artists, a thing remote from modern life, requiring much training and study for its appreciation, and confined at the best to a limited circle. But Ciceronian prose is practically the prose of the human race; not only of the Roman empire of the first and second centuries, but of Lactantius and Augustine, of the mediaeval Church, of the earlier and later Renaissance, and even now, when the Renaissance is a piece of past history, of the modern world to which the Renaissance was the prelude.
The life of Cicero as a man of letters may be divided into four periods, which, though not of course wholly distinct from one another, may be conveniently treated as separate for the purpose of criticism. The first is that of his immature early writings–poems, treatises on rhetoric, and forensic speeches–covering the period from his boyhood in the Civil wars, to the first consulship of Pompeius and Crassus, in 70 B.C. The second, covering his life as an active statesman of the first prominence, begins with the Verrine orations of that year, and goes down to the consulship of Julius Caesar, in 59 B.C. These ten years mark his culmination as an orator; and there is no trace in them of any large literary work except in the field of oratory. In the next year came his exile, from which indeed he returned within a twelvemonth, but as a broken statesman. From this point to the outbreak of the Civil war in 50 B.C., the third period continues the record of his great speeches; but they are no longer at the old height, nor do they occupy his full energy; and now he breaks new ground in two fields with works of extraordinary brilliance, the _De Oratore_ and the _De Republica_. During the heat of the Civil war there follows a period of comparative silence, but for his private correspondence; then comes the fourth and final period, perhaps the most brilliant of all, the four years from 46 B.C. to his death in 43 B.C. The few speeches of the years 46 and 45 show but the ghost of former splendours; he was turning perforce to other subjects. The political philosophy of the _De Republica_ is resumed in the _De Legibus_; the _De Oratore_ is continued by the history of Roman oratory known as the _Brutus_. Then, as if realising that his true work in life was to mould his native language into a vehicle of abstract thought, he sets to work with amazing swiftness and copiousness to reproduce a whole series of Greek philosophical treatises, in a style which, for flexibility and grace, recalls the Greek of the best period–the _De Finibus_, the _Academics_, the _Tusculans_, the _De Natura Deorum_, the _De Divinatione_, the _De Officiis_. Concurrently with these, he continues to throw off further manuals of the theory and practice of oratory, intended in the first instance for the use of the son who proved so thankless a pupil, the _Partitiones Oratoriae_, the _Topica_, the _De Optimo Genere Oratorum_. Meanwhile, the Roman world had again been plunged into civil war by the assassination of Caesar. Cicero’s political influence was no longer great, but it was still worth the while of younger and more unscrupulous statesmen to avail themselves of his eloquence by assumed deference and adroit flattery. The series of fourteen speeches delivered at Rome against Marcus Antonius, between September, 44, and April, 43 B.C., were the last outburst of free Roman oratory before the final extinction of the Republic. That even at the time there was a sense of their unreality–of their being rhetorical exercises to interest the capital while the real issues of the period were being fought out elsewhere–is indicated by the name that from the first they went under, the _Philippics_. In the epoch of the _Verrines_ and the _Catilinarians_ it had not been necessary to find titles for the weapons of political warfare out of old Greek history. Yet, in spite of this unreality, and of the decline they show in the highest oratorical qualities, the _Philippics_ still remain a noble ruin of eloquence.
Oratory at Rome had, as we have already seen, attained a high degree of perfection when Cicero entered on public life. Its golden age was indeed, in the estimation of some critics, already over; old men spoke with admiring regret of the speeches of the younger Scipio and of Gaius Gracchus; and the death of the great pair of friendly rivals, Crassus and Antonius, left no one at the moment who could be called their equal. But admirable as these great orators had been, there was still room for a higher formal perfection, a more exhaustive and elaborate technique, without any loss of material qualities. Closer and more careful study led the orators of the next age into one of two opposed, or rather complementary styles, the Attic and Asiatic; the calculated simplicity of the one being no less artificial than the florid ornament of the other. At an early age Cicero, with the intuition of genius, realised that he must not attach himself to either school. A fortunate delicacy of health led him to withdraw for two years, at the age of seven and twenty, from the practice at the bar, in which he was already becoming famous; and in the schools of Athens and Rhodes he obtained a larger view of his art, both in theory and practice, and returned to Rome to form, not to follow, a style. Quintus Hortensius Hortalus, the foremost representative of the Asiatic school, was then at the height of his forensic reputation. Within a year or two Cicero was recognised as at least his equal: it is to the honour of both, that the eclipse of Hortensius by his younger rival brought no jealousy or alienation; up to the death of Hortensius, about the outbreak of the Civil war, they remained good friends. Years afterwards Cicero inscribed with his name the treatise, now lost, but made famous to later ages by having been one of the great turning-points in the life of St. Augustine, which he wrote in praise of philosophy as an introduction to the series of his philosophical works.
The years which followed Cicero’s return from the East were occupied, with the single break of his quaestorship in Sicily, by hard and continuous work at the bar. His speeches of this date, being non- political, have for the most part not been preserved. The two still imperfectly extant, the _Pro Roscio Comoedo_ of 76, and the _Pro Tullio_ of 72 B.C., form, together with two other speeches dating from before his visit to the East, the _Pro Quinctio_ and _Pro Roscio Amerino_, and, with his juvenile treatise on rhetoric known as the _De Inventione_, the body of prose composition which represents the first of his four periods. These early speeches are carefully composed according to the scholastic canons then in vogue, the hard legal style of the older courts alternating with passages of carefully executed artificial ornament. Their chief interest is one of contrast with his matured style; for they show, no doubt with much accuracy, what the general level of oratory was out of which the great Ciceronian eloquence sprang.
In 70 B.C., at the age of thirty-six, Cicero at last found his great chance, and seized it. The impeachment of Verres for maladministration in the government of Sicily was a political trial of great constitutional importance. It was undertaken at the direct encouragement of Pompeius, who had entered on his first or democratic consulate, and was indirectly a formidable attack both on the oligarchic administration of the provinces and on the senatorian jury-panels, in whose hands the Sullan constitution had placed the only check upon misgovernment. The defence of Verres was undertaken by Hortensius; the selection of Cicero as chief counsel for the prosecution by the democratic leaders was a public recognition of him as the foremost orator on the Pompeian side. He threw