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