1902 Encyclopedia > Latin Literature

Latin Literature
(original title: Roman Literature)




It would be impossible within the limits allowed for this article to attempt, even in outline, and history of the course of Roman literature which would include an account, not only of the extant works which it contains and of their authors, but also of the principal works and writers known to us from ancient testimony. The mere enumeration of these in chronological order, without some attempt to ascertain their individual features and to estimate their relation to the intellectual movement of their time, could be of no interest or use to any one. All that is possible to accomplish here is to pass in rapid review the first four of the five periods into which Roman literature may most conveniently be divided, to ascertain the chief literary motives and characteristics of each, and to connect these with works and writers in whom they are most conspicuously displayed. It will be unnecessary to give any biographical account even of the greatest authors or to criticize their works in detail, as these have been sufficiently treated in separate articles of the present work. The object of the following survey will be to obtain some appreciation of the relation in which the individual authors noticed stand to the whole subjects, i.e., to the collective literary expression, so far as they found an expression, of the action, the ideas, the character, the various feelings, passions, and moods, of ancient Rome and of the races which it absorbed, so long as that literaryure has a distinct unity and individuality.

The actual beginning of Roman artistic literature can be assigned to a definite date, the year 240 B.C., when Livius Andronicus produced on a Roman stage a drama with a regular plot, instead of the unconnected dramatic dialogues (saturate) by which the holidays of the people had previously been enlivened. Yet the germs of an indigenous literature had existed independently at an earlier period in Rome and in the country districts of Italy. Although there cannot be said to have exercised any marked influence on the subsequent development of literature, they have an importance as indicating natural wants in the Italian race, which were ultimately satisfied by regular literary forms. The art of writing was first employed in the service of the state and of religion for the preservation of the sacred hymns, books of ritual, treaties with other states, the laws of the XII. Tables, &c., An approach to literature was made in the Annales MAximi, although it cannot be supposed that the pontifex maximums in drawing up the dry records of the prodigies and events of the year had any though of gratifying intellectual curiosity or imparting intellectual pleasure. But in the satisfaction they afforded to the commemorative and patriotic instincts they anticipated an office afterwards performed by the national epics and the works of regular historians. A still nearer approach to literature was probably made in oratory, as we learn form Cicero that in the generation before the first regular dramatic representation a speech delivered by Appius Claudius Caecus was given to the world. Appius was also the author of a poem of an ethical and didactic character, which Cicero tells us (Tusc., v. 2,4) was praised by Panaetius. No other name associated with any form of literature belonging to the pre-literary age has been preserved by tradition, and it is to be borne in mind that Appius lived on till the wars with Pyrrhus, when the first active collision between Rome and Greece took place. This premature stirring of literary ambition is like the occasional anticipation by individual thinkers of some important discovery or some great intellectual movement before the world around them is ready to receive it.

But it was rather in extemporaneous effusions than in written compositions that some germs of a native poetry might have been detected. The most genuine indication of that impulse which ultimately finds its realization in artistic literature appears in the use of a metre of pure native origin, the Saturnian, which by its rapid and lively movement gives expression to the vivacity and quick apprehension of the Italian race. This metre appears to have been first used in ritual hymns, which seem to have assumed definite shapes out of the exclamations of a primitive priesthood engaged in a rude ceremonial of a primitive priesthood engaged in a rude ceremonial dance. It was also employed by a class of bards or itinerant sooth-sayers known by the name of "vates." It was used also in the "Fescennine verses," which gave expression to the coarse gaiety of the people and to their strong tendency to personal raillery and satiric comment. This tendency, which under the stern censorship of the patrician rulers of the early republic was repressed by stringent laws, found ultimately its legitimate outlet in Roman satire. The metre was also employed in commemorative poems, accompanied with music, which were sung at funeral banquest in celebration of the exploit and virtues of distinguished men. These had their origin in the same impulse which ultimately found its full gratification in Roman history, Roman epic poetry, and that form of Roman oratory known as "laudations," and in some of the Odes of Horace. The latest and probably the most important of these rude and inchoate forms was that of dramatic saturate (medleys), put together without any regular plot, and consisting apparently of contests of wit and satiric invective, and perhaps of comments on current events, accompanied with music ("saturas impletas modis," Lic., vii. 2). These have a real bearing on the subsequent development of Roman literature. They prepared the mind of the people for the reception of regular comedy. They may have contributed to the formation of the style of comedy which appears at the very outset much more mature than that of serious poetry, tragic or epic. They gave the name and some of the characteristics to that special literary product of the Roman soil, the "satura," addressed to readers, not to spectators which ultimately was developed into pure poetic satire in Lucilius, Horace, Persius, and Juvenal, into the prose and verse miscellany of Varro, and into something approaching the prose novel in Petronius.


First period: from 240 to about 80 B.C.

The historical event which brought about the greatest change in the intellectual condition of the Romans, and thereby exercised a decisive influence on the whole course of human culture, was the capture of Tarentum in 272. After the capture many Greek slaves were brought to Rome, and among them the young Livius Andronicus, who was employed in teaching Greek in the family of his master, a member of the Livian gens. From that time to Greek noble. The capture of Tarentum was followed by the complete Romanizing of all Southern Italy. Soon after came the First Punic war, the principal scene of which was Sicily, where, from common hostility to the Carthaginian, Greek and Roman were brought into friendly relations, and the Roman armies must have brought into friendly relations, and the Roman armies must have become familiar with the spectacles and performances of the Greek theatre . In the year following the conclusion of the war (240), after the armies had returned and the people were at leisure to enjoy the fruits of victory ("et post Punica bella quietus," Hor., Ep., ii. 162), Livius Andronicus "took the bold step" ("ausus set primus argumento fabulam serere," Liv., vii. 2) of substituting at one of the public festivals a regular drama translated or adapted from the Greek for the musical medleys (saturate) hitherto in use. From this time dramatic performances became a regular accompaniment of the public games, and came more and more to encroach on the older kinds of amusement, such as the chariot races. The dramatic work of Livius was, however, merely educative; it can hardly be called in any sense of the word literary. The same may be said of his later work, which was still used as a school-book in the days of Horace,—the translation of the Odyssey; and probably the religious hymn which he was called upon to compose in the latter part of the Second Punic War had no higher literary pretension. He was, however, the first to make the old name of poet a title of honour instead of reproach; and by familiarizing the Romans with the forms of the Greek drama and the Greek epic he determined the main lines which Roman literature followed for more than a century afterwards.

His immediate successor, Cn. Naevius, was not, like Livius, a Greek, but either a Roman citizen or one who enjoyed the limited citizenship of a Latin, and who had served in the Roman army in the First Punic War. His first appearance as a dramatic author was in 235. He adapted both tragedies and comedies from the Greek, but the bent of his genius, the tastes of his audience, and the condition of the language, developed through the active intercourse and business of life, gave a greater impulse to comedy than to tragedy. Naevius tried to use the theatre, as it had been used by the writers of the Old Comedy of Athens, for the purposes of political warfare, and thus seems to have anticipated by a century the part played by Lucilius. Satiric and censorious criticism rather than a humorous sense of the comedy of human life representation. But the state censorship, which in a more revolutionary time tolerated the free criticism of public men in works addressed to a select class of readers, arrested at the outset all such criticism addressed to the mass of the people assembled in the theatre; and NaAevius, after being imprisoned, had to retire in his old age, into banishment. He was not only the first in point of time, and according to ancient testimony one of the first in point of merit, among the economic poets of Rome, and in spirit, though not in form, the earliest of the line of Roman satirists, but he was also the oldest of the national poets. Besides celebrating the success of Marcellus in 225 over the Gauls in a play called Clastidium, he gave the first specimen of the "fibula praetexta" in his Alimonium Romuli et Remi, based on the most national of all Roman traditions. Still more important service was rendered by him in his long Saturnian poem on the First Punic War, in which he not only told the story of contemporary events but gave shape to the legend of the settlement of Aeneas in Latium,—the theme ultimately adopted for the great national epic of Rome.

His younger contemporary Plautus (d. 184) was the greatest comic and dramatic genius of Rome, and is still read as one of the great comic and dramatic writers of the world. He lived and wrote only to amuse his contemporaries, and thus, although more popular in his lifetime and more fortunate than any of the older authors in the ultimate survival of a large number of his works, he is less than any of the great writers of Rome in sympathy with either the serious or the caustic spirit in Roman literature. Yet he is the one extant witness to the humour and vivacity of the Italian temperament at a stage between its early rudeness and rigidity and its subsequent degeneracy.

Thus far Roman literature, of which the predominant characteristics are dignity, gravity, and fervour of feeling, and which more than any other literature aimed at fortifying and elevating the character, seemed likely to become a mere vehicle of amusement adapted to all classes of the people in their holiday mood. But a new spirit came over the Italian Camenae in the time of Plautus, which henceforth became predominant. Roman literature ceased to be in close sympathy with the popular spirit, either in political partisanship or in ministering to general amusement, but became the expression of the ideas, sentiment, and culture of the aristocratic governing class. It was by Q. Ennius (239-169) of Calabria that a new direction was given to Roman literature and new and deeper springs of emotion were elicited from the native genius. Deriving from his birthplace the culture, literary and philosophical, of Magna Graecia, having served with distinction in the Roman armies, and gained the friendship of the greatest of the Romans living in that great age, he was of all the early writers most fitted to be the medium of conciliation between the serious genius of ancient Greece and the serious genius of Rome. Alone among the older writers he was endowed with the gifts of a poetical imagination and animated with enthusiasm for a great ideal. With the widest culture and knowledge among all the men of his generation, he had also the justest discernment of the relation of culture and knowledge to actual life and to the work which he had to accomplish.

First among his special services to Roman literature was the fresh impulse which he gave tragedy. He turned the eyes of his contemporaries from the commonplace social humours of later Greek life to the contemplation of the heroic age. But he did not thereby denationalize the Roman drama. He animated the heroes of early Greece with the martial spirit of Roman soldiers and the ideal magnanimity and sagacity of Roman senators, and imparted weight and dignity to the language and verse in which their sentiments and thoughts were expressed. Although Rome wanted creative force to add a great series of tragic dramas to the literature of the world, yet the spirit of elevation and moral authority breathed into tragedy by Ennius passed into the ethical and didactic writings and the oratory of a later time.

Another work, the ______ of his serious activity, was the saturate, written in various metres, but chiefly in that which came nearest to the spoken language of Rome, the trochaic tetrameter. He thus became the inventor of a new form of literature; and, if in his hands the satura was rude and indeterminate in its scope, it was a proof of the practical bent of his understanding public on matters of the day, or on the materials of his wide reading, in a style not far removed from the language of common life. His greatest work, which made the Romans regard him as the father of their literature, was his epic poem, in eighteen books, the Annales, in which the record of the whole career of Rome was unrolled with idealizing enthusiasm and realistic detail. The idea which inspired Ennius was ultimately realized in both the national epic of Virgil and the national history of Livy. And the metrical vehicle which he conceived as the only one adequate to his great theme was a rude experiment, which was ultimately developed into "the stateliest metre ever moulded buy the lips of man." Even as a grammarian he performed an important service to the literary language of Rome, by fixing its prosody and arresting the tendency to decay in its final syllables. Although we know his writings only in fragments, these fragments are enough, along with what we know of him from ancient testimony, to justify us in regarding him as the most important among markers of Roman literature,—the most important indeed among Roman authors before the age of Cicero.

There is still one other name belonging partly to this, partly to the next generation to be added to those of the men of original force of mind and character who created Roman literature, that of M. Porcius Cato (234-149), the younger contemporary of Ennius.More than Naevius and Plautus he represented the pure native element in that literature, the mind and character of Latium, the plebeian pugnacity, which was one of the great forces in the Roman state. He had no poetic imagination, and set himself in antagonism to the literature of imagination created by Ennius. He strove to make literature ancillary to politics and to objects of practical utility, and thus started prose literature on the main lines which it afterwards followed. Through his industry and vigorous understanding he gave a great impulse to the creation of Roman oratory, history, and systematic didactic writing. He was one of the first to publish his speeches and thus to bring them into the domain of literature. Ciceero speaks of 150 of these speeches as extant in his day. He praises them for their acuteness, their wit, their conciseness. He speaks with emphasis of the impressiveness of Cato’s eulogy and the satiric bitterness of his invective. As an orator he seems to have been akin in spirit to NAevius and Lucilius, and to the last genuine representative of the native temper in literature, the satirist Juvenal.

Porcius Cato also head the roll of the Roman historians, at least of those whose works were ranked as literature. His Origines, the work of his old age, was written with that thoroughly Roman conception of history which regards actions and events not in relation to their causes or their general human interest but as incidents in the continuous and progressive life of the state. Such is the conception of the past in Livy and Tacitus, and in Ennius and Virgil. But in one respect Cato seems to have formed a truer conception of his subject than any of these writers except Virgil, who, availing himself of the labours of Cato, realized and perfected his conception. Cato felt that the record of Roman glory could not be isolated from the story of the other Italian communities, which, after fighting against Rome for their own independence, shared with it the task of conquering the world. To the wider national sympathies which stimulated the researches of the old censor into the legendary history of the Italian towns we owe some of the most truly national parts of the Aenied. There is another point of contact between the work done by Cato and that of Virgil, although they may be regarded as the most dissimilar in intellectual and imaginative gifts in the whole range of Roman literature, the one being the most realistic and prosaic, the other the most idealistic and imaginative. While the ideal charm of the old rural life and industry of Italy still lives in the Georgics, the practical utilitarian prose of that life may best be learned from the De Re Rustica of Cato.





Naevius, Plautus, Ennius, and Cato not only represent but may be said actually to have been the contending forces which strove for ascendancy in determining what was to be the character of the new literature. Although their combined activity was spread over nearly a century, yet so vigorous was their vitality and so prolonged their career that they may be spoken of as contemporaries. Cato the youngest of the four, was a man of mature years , actively engaged in the service of the state, when Naevius was still in the full vigour of his powers, and before Plautus had reached the most productive period of his career. It is characteristic of the time that the genius of all these writers was ripest in their old age. They were thus able partially to overcome the difficulties incident to the beginning of their art. They acquired by the rude exercised with unabated natural force till the end of their lives. In their prolonged career of intellectual energy they remind us of some of the early philosophers and travelers of Greece. The work begun by them was carried on by younger contemporaries and successors, that of Plautus by Caecilius Statius and others, the tragedy of Ennius by his kinsman, Pacuvius, and in the following generation, by Accius. The impulse given to oratory by Cato, Sulpicius Gallus, and others, and along with it the development of prose composition, went on with increased momentum till the age of Cicero. But the interval between the death of Ennius (169) and the beginning of Cicero’s career, while one of progressive advance in the appreciation of literary form and style, was much less distinguishing by original force than the time immediately before and after the end of the Second Punic War. The one complete survival of the generation after the death of Ennius, the comedy of Terence (185-159), exemplifies the gain in literary accomplishment and the loss in literary freedom. Terence has nothing Roman or Italian except his pure and idiomatic Latinity. His relation to the Greek authors whom be copied is that of a fine engraver to the great painters of another age and time. The Athenian elegance of Terence affords the strongest contrast to the Italian rudeness of Cato’s De Re Rustica. By looking at them together we understand how much the comedy of Terence was able to do to refine and humanize the manners of Rome, but at the same time what a solvent it was of the discipline and ideas of the old republic. What makes Terence an importance witness of the culture of his time is that he wrote from the centre of the Scipionic circle, in which what was most humane and liberal in Roman statesmanship was combined with the appreciation of what was most vital in the Greek thought and literature of the time. Cicero tells us that the peculiar glory of that age was the purity of its Latinity; and it is natural to ascribe to the members of that aristocracy of birth and culture the sentiment ascribed to Caesar a century later, that to maintain the purity of the Latin tongue was due to the sense both of personal and of national dignity. The comedies of Terence may therefore be held to give some indication of the tastes of Scipio, Laelius, and their friends in their youth. The influence of Panaetius and Polybius was more adapted to their maturity, when they led the state in war, statesmanship, and oratory, and when the humaner teaching of Stoicism began to enlarge the sympathies of Roman jurists. But in the last years during which this circle kept together a new spirit appeared in Roman politics and a new power in Roman literature,—the revolutionary spirit evoked by the Gracchi in opposition to the long-continued ascendancy of the senate, and the new power of Roman satire, which was exercised impartially and unsparingly against both the excesses of the revolutionary spirit and the arrogance and incompetence of the extreme party among the nobles. Roman satire, though in form a legitimate development of the indigenous dramatic satura through the written satura a Ennius and Pacuvius, is really a birth of this time, and its author was the youngest of those admitted into the intimacy of the Scipionic circle, C. Lucilius of Aurunca (166?1-102). Among the writers before the age of Cicero he alone deserves to be named with Naevius, Plautus, Ennius, and Cato as a great originative force in literature. For about thirty years the production of the satires of Lucilius, in which the politics, morals, society, and letters of the time were criticized with the utmost freedom and pungency, and his own personality was brought immediately and familiarly before his contemporaries, was much the most important event in Roman literature. The years that intervened between his death and the beginning of the Ciceronian age are singularly barren in works of original value.

The general results of the last fifty years of the first period, from c. 80, may be thus summed up. In poetry we have the satires of Lucilius, the tragedies of Accius and of a few successors among the Roman aristocracy, who thus exemplified the affinity of the Roman stage to Roman oratory; the "comoedia togata" of Afranius, in which comedy, while assuming a Roman dress, did not assume the virtue of a Roman matron; various annalistic poems intended to serve as continuations of the great poem of Ennius; minor poems of an epigrammatic and erotic character, unimportant anticipations of the Alexandrian tendency operative in the following period; works of criticism in trochaic tetrameters by Porcius Licinus and others, forming part of the critical and grammatical movement which almost from the first accompanied the creative movement in Roman literature, and which may be regarded as rude precursors of the didactic epistles that Horace devoted to literary criticism.

The only extant prose work which may be assigned to the end of this period is the treatise on rhetoric known by the title Ad Herennium, a work indicative of the attention bestowed on prose style and rhetorical studies during the last century of the republic, and which may be regarded as a precursor of the oratorical treatises of Cicero in the following generation and of the work of Quintilian in the first century of the empire. But the great literary product of this period was oratory, developed indeed with the aid of these rhetorical studies, but itself the immediate outcome of the imperial interests, the legal conflicts, and the political passions of that time of agitation. The speakers and writers of a later age looked back on Scipio and Laelius, the Gracchi and their contemporaries, L. Crassus and M. Antonius, as matters of their art. We can only judge of what they were by the fame of their speeches and a few unimportant fragments. But as we infer from the artistic excellence of the Homeric poems that many poets of power and genius. Whose names were soon forgotten, preceded the great master; as we know that the art of Shakespeare did not come without due preparation into the world; so from the mature perfection of the art of Cicero we may, in a measure, judge of the power and accomplishment of the orators who came before him, from whom he professes to have learned much, and whom he regarded with generous admiration.

In history, regarded as a great branch of prose literature, it is not probable that much was accomplished, although, with the advance of oratory and grammatical studies, there must have been not only greater fluency of composition but the beginning of a richer and more ornate style. Yet Cicero, so candid and indulgent in his estimate of early Roman poetry and oratory, denies to Rome the existence, before his own time, of any adequate historical literature. Nevertheless it was by the work of a number of Roman chronicles during this period that the materials of early Roman history were systematized, and the record of the state, as it was finally given to the world in the artistic work of Livy, was extracted from the early annals, state documents, and private memorials, combined into a coherent unity, and supplemented by invention and reflexion. There were also special works on Roman antiquities and contemporary memoirs, which formed the sources of future historians.

Although the artistic product of the first period of Roman literature which has reached us in a complete shape is limited to the comedies of Plautus and Terence, the influence of the lost literature in determining the spirit, form, and style of the eras of more perfect accomplishment which followed is unmistakable. While humour and vivacity, which were not surpassed in the more advanced stages of literature, had characterized the earlier, and an urbanity of tone, with which Horace by frequent imitation acknowledges his sympathy, characterizes the later development of comedy, the tendency of serious literature had been in the main practical ethical, commemorative, and satirical. The higher poetical imagination had appeared only in Ennius, and had been called forth in him by sympathy with the grandeur of the national life and the great personal qualities of its representative men. Some of the chief motives of the later poetry, such as the love of nature and the pleasures and sorrows of private life, had as yet found scarcely any expression in Roman literature. The fittest metrical vehicle for epic, didactic and satiric poetry had been discovered, but its movement was as yet rude and inharmonious. The idiom of ordinary life and social intercourse and the more fervid and elevated diction of oratorical prose had been made great progress, but the language of imagination and poetical feeling was, if vivid and impressive in isolated expressions, still incapable of being wrought into consecutive passages of artistic composition. Although the impulse which awoke the literary energy of Rome had come from the semi-Greeks of the south of Italy, the character of the literature was in the main Roman and Latin; and to this may be attributed the preponderance of the prosaic over the poetical element in it. The Sabellian races of central and eastern Italy and the Italo-Celtic and Venetian races of the north, in whom the poetic susceptibility of Italy was most manifest two generations later, were not, until after the Social War, sufficiently in sympathy with Rome, and were probably not as yet sufficiently educated to induce them to contribute their share to the national literature. Hence the end of the Social War, and of the Civil War which arose out of it, is most clearly a determining factor in Roman literature, and may most appropriately be taken as marking the end of one period and the beginning of another.


Second Period: from 80-42 B.C.

The last age of the republic coincides with the first half of the Golden Age of Roman literature. It is generally known as the Ciceronian age from the name of its greatest literary representative, whose activity as a speaker and writer was unremitting during nearly the whole period. It is the age of purest in prose, and of a new birth of poetry, characterized rather by great original force and artistic promise than by perfect accomplishment. The five chief representatives of this age who still hold their rank among the great classical writers are Cicero, Caesar, Sallust, Lucretius Catallus. The works of other prose writers, Varro and Cornelius Nepos, have been partially preserved; but these writers have no claim to rank with those already mentioned as creators and masters of literary style. Although literature had not as yet become, as it did in the age of Martial, and to a certain extent in the age represented in the Epistles of Horace, a trade or profession an educated reading public already existed, and books and intellectual intercourse filled a large part of the leisure of men actively engaged in affairs. Even oratory was intended quite as much for readers as for the audiences to which it was immediately addressed; and some of the greatest speeches which have come down from that great age of orators were never delivered at all, but were published as manifestoes after the event with the view of influencing educated opinion, and as works of art with the view of giving pleasure to educated taste.

Thus the speeches of Cicero (106-43), more certainly than any modern speeches, belong to the domain of literature quite as much as to that of forensic or political oratory. And, although Demosthenes is a master of style unrivalled even by Cicero, the literary interest of most Cicero’s speeches is greater than that of the great mass of Greek oratory,--a result of what from a forensic point of view would now be regarded as a serious defect. Thus it is with justice urged that the greater part of the Defence of Archias was irrelevant to the issue and would not have been listened to by a Greek court of justice or a modern jury. But it was fortunate for the interests of literature that a court of educated Romans could be influenced by the considerations there submitted to them. In this way a question of the most temporary interest, concerning an individual of no particular eminence or importance, has produced one of the most impressive vindications of literature ever spoken or written. Oratory at Rome assumed a new type from being cultivated as an art which endeavoured to produce persuasion not so much by intellectual conviction as by appeal to those general human sympathies which are the subject-matter with which literature has to deal. In oratory, as in every other intellectual province, the Greeks had a truer sense of the limits and conditions of their art. But command over from is only one element in the making of an orator poet. The largeness and dignity of the matter with which he has to deal is at least as important. The Roman oratory of the law courts had to deal not with petty questions of disputed property, of fraud, or violence, but with great imperial questions, with matters affecting the wellbeing of large provinces and the honour and safety of the republic; and no man ever lived who, by the intensity of his patriotic and imperial feeling, by his practical experience of great affairs, and by the largeness of his human sympathies, was better fitted than Cicero to be the representative of the type of oratory demanded by the condition of the later republic. He elevates nearly every subject with which he deals, in those speeches at least which he thought worthy of preservation, by connecting it with great political or imperial issues. But with the patriotic motive of his speeches there is generally combined a great moral motive. Whatever were the weaknesses and faults of his personal character, no man of antiquity had higher ethical aspirations. Nowhere is the Roman ideal of character humanized by Greek studies presented with more impressiveness than in the speeches of Cicero. In no writer ancient or modern do we find a greater the enormities of the man whom he accused with the grave rebuke of a censor as well as the passion of a personal enemy, no advocate could feel or awaken in others a keener sympathy with the fortunes and the character of the man whom he was defending.

To his great artistic accomplishments, perfected by practice and elaborate study, to the power of his patriotic, his moral, and personal sympathies, and his passionate emotional nature, must be added his vivid imagination and the rich and copious stream of his language, in which he had no rival among Roman writers or speakers.1

He realizes with the imagination of a great dramatist the personages of his story, their feelings and motives, and the minutest details of their action. It has been said that Roman poetry has produced few, if any, great types of character. But the Verres, Catiline, Antony of Cicero are living and permanent types. The story told in the Pro Cluentio may be true or false, but the picture of provincial crime which it represents is vividly dramatic.

Had we only known Cicero in his speeches we should have ranked him with Demosthenes as one who had realized to an art the effect of which is not often perpetuated. We should think of him also as the creator and master of Latin style,--the writer by whom the amplest, most passionate, and most living powers of the language had been called forth and combined into a great and orderly organ. We know him, moreover, not only as a great orator but as a just appreciative critic of oratory. But to his services to Roman oratory we have to add his services not indeed to philosophy but to the literature of philosophy, and his application to the exposition of his doctrines of the calmer and more equable resources of the language. If not a philosopher he is an admirable interpreter of those branches of philosophy which are fitted for practical applications, and he presents us with the results of Greek reflexion vivified by his own human sympathies and his large experience of men. In giving a model of the style in which human interest can best be imparted to abstract discussions, he has used his great oratorical gift and art to persuade the world to accept the most hopeful opinions on human destiny and the principles of conduct most conducive to elevation and integrity of character.

The Letters of Cicero are the best either in his own or in any other language. They are thoroughly natural,--"colloquia absentium amicorum," to use his own phrase. In nearly all other published correspondence there is some medium which interrupts the natural of the man, something of literary mannerism, natural reserve, academic elaborateness, and after-thought. Cicero’s letters to Atticus and to the friends with whom he was completely at his ease are the most sincere and immediate expression of the thought and feeling of the moment. They let us into the secret of his most serious thoughts and cares, and they give a natural outlet to his vivacity of observation, his wit and humour, his kindliness of nature. It shows how flexible an instrument Latin prose had become in his hand, when it could in accordance with the conditions of perfect literary taste do justice at once to the ample and vehement volume of his oratory, to the calmer and more rhythmical movement of his philosophical meditation, and to the natural interchange of thought and feeling in everyday intercourses of life.

Among the many rival orators of the age the most eminent were Hortensius and Caesar. The former, like other members of the aristocracy, such as Memmius and Torquatus, and like Q. Catulus in the preceding generation, was a kind of dilettante poet and a precursor of the poetry of pleasure, which attained such prominence in the elegiac poets of the Augustan age. Of Julius Caesar (100-44) as an orator we can judge only by his reputation and by the testimony of his great rival and adversary; but we are able to appreciate the special praise of perfect taste in the use of language attributed to him.2

In his Commentaries, by laying aside the ornaments of oratory,3 he created the most admirable style of prose narrative, the style which presents interesting events in their sequence of time and dependence on the will of the actor, rapidly and vividly, with scarcely any colouring of personal or moral feeling, any oratorical passion, any pictorial illustration.

While he shows the persuasive art of an orator by presenting the subjugation of Gaul and his own action in the Civil War in the light most favourable to his to rule the Roman world, he is entirely free from the Roman fashion of self-laudation or disparagement of an adversary. Yet the character of the man is stamped on every line that he writes, and reveals itself especially in a perfect simplicity of style, the result of the clearest intelligence and the strongest sense of personal dignity. He avoids not every unusual but every superfluous word; and, although no writing can be more free from rhetorical colouring, yet there may from time to time be detected a glow of sympathy, like the glow of generous passion in Thucydides, the more effective from the reserve with which it betrays itself whenever he is called on to record any act of personal heroism or of devotion to military duty.

In the simplicity of his style, the directness of his narrative, the entire absence of any didactic tendency, Caesar presents a marked contrast to another prose writer of that age,--the historians Sallust (87-34). Like Varro, he survived Cicero by some years, but the tone and spirit in which his works are written assign him to the republican era. He was the first of the purely artistic historians, as distinct from the annalists and the writers of personal memoirs. He imitated the Greek historians in taking particular actions—the Jugurthan War and the Catilinarian Conspiracy—as the subjects of artistic treatment. He wrote also a continuous work, Historiae, treating of the events of the twelve years following the death of Sulla, of which only fragments are preserved. His two extant works are more valuable as artistic studies of the rival parties in the state and of personal character than as trustworthy narratives of facts. His style aims at effectiveness by pregnant expression, sententiousness, archaism. He produces the impression of caring more for the manner of saying as a painter of historical portraits, some of them those of his contemporaries, and as an author who had been a political partisan and had taken some part in making history before undertaking to write it; and he gives us, from the popular side, the views of a contemporary on the politics of the time.

In following the development of Roman literature we have seen it become the prose organ of great affairs, but since the appearance of the Annals of Ennius, in whom the poetry of national life had originated, no work of great and original poetical genius had appeared. The powerful poetical force which for half a century continued to be the strongest force in literature, and which created masterpieces of art and genius, first revealed itself in the latter part of the Ciceronian age. The strength with which it burst forth seems indicative of latent sources of imaginative feelings and conception long suppressed in the Italian temperament, owing perhaps to the absorption of the mind and passion of the race in war, politics, and practical affairs. The conditions which enabled the poetic genius of Italy to come maturity in the person of Lucretius (99-55) were entire seclusion from public life and absorption in the ideal pleasures of contemplation and artistic production. He produces the impression of a man so possessed by intellectual and imaginative enthusiasm as to have separated himself from the active interests and social pleasures of his time, and to have passed that period of his life which was given to literary production in studying the laws and watching the spectacle of nature, and in the active exercise of imaginative thought on the problems of human life. This isolation from the familiar ways of his contemporaries, while it was, according to tradition and the internal evidences of his poem, destructive to his spirit’s health, resulted in a work of genius, unique in character, which was a second birth of imaginative poetry in Italy, and still stands forth as the greatest philosophical poem in any language. In the form of his poem he followed a Greek original; and the stuff of which the texture of his philosophical argument is framed was derived from Greek science; but all that is of deep human and poetical meaning in the poem is his own. His sense of the grace and beauty of language had indeed been educated by the sympathetic study of Homer and Euripides; but the philosophical guidance which he followed and his reverence for his guide were rather a hindrance than an aid to his art, and were the cause of his presenting the pure ore of his own genius overlaid with great masses of alien alloy. While we recognize in the De Rerum Natura some of the most powerful poetry in any language and feel that few poets have penetrated with such passionate sincerity and courage into the secret of nature and some of the deeper truths of human life, we must acknowledge that, as compared with the great didactic poem of Virgil, it is crude and unformed in artistic design, and often rough an unequal in artistic execution. Yet, apart altogether from its independent value, by his speculative power and enthusiasm, by his revelation of the life and spectacle of nature, by the fresh creativeness of his diction and the elevated movement, of his rhythm, he exercised a more powerful influence than any other on the art of his more powerful influence than any other on the art of his more perfect successors.

While the imaginative and emotional side of Roman poetry was so powerfully represented by Lucretius, attention was directed to its artistic side by a younger generation, who moulded themselves in a great degree, though not exclusively, on Alexandrian models. Of this small group of poets, who were bound together by common tastes and friendships, one only has survived, fortunately the man of most genius among them, Velerius Catallus (841-54).

He too was a new force in Roman literature. Although of a family probably originally Roman, and although brought early in his career into intimate relations with members of the great Roman families, he was a provincial by birth, and was apparently moved in his earliest youth by that fresh enthusiasm for culture which in his own and the following generation enabled Cisalpine Gaul to do so much to enrich Roman literature, His nature, in which sensuous passion and warm affection were united, made him fall a victim to the fascinations of the famous Clodia, whom he has celebrated, under the name of Lesbia, in some of the most powerful and charming love poetry found in any language. The subjects of his best art are taken immediately from his own life,--his loves, his friendships, his travels, his animosities, personal and political. His most original contribution to the substance of Roman literature was that he first shaped into poetry the experience of his own heart, as it had been shaped by Alcaeus and Sappho in the early days of Greek poetry. No poet has surpassed him in the power of vitally reproducing the pleasure and pain of the passing hour, not recalled by idealizing reflexion as in Horace, nor overlaid with mythological ornament as in Propertius, but in all the keenness of immediate impression. He also introduced into Roman literature that personal as distinct from political or social satire which appears later in the Epodes of Horace and the Epigrams of Martial. The sting in Catullus, at least in his iambics and phalaecians, is more concentrated than in the later writers. He anticipated Ovid in recalling the stories of Greek mythology into a second poetical life. His greatest contribution to poetic art consisted in the perfection which he attained in the phalaecian, the pure iambic, and the scazon metres, and in the ease and grace with which he used the language of familiar intercourses, as distinct from that of the creative imagination, of the "rostra," and of the schools, to give at once a lifelike and an artistic expression to his feelings. He has the interest of being the last poet of the free republic. In his life and in his art he was the precursor of those poets who used their genius as the interpreter and minister of pleasure; but he rises above them in the spirit of personal independence, in his affection for his friends, in his keen enjoyment of natural and simple pleasures, and in his power of giving vital expression to these feelings.


Third Period: Augustan Age, 42 B.C. to 17 A.D.

The poetic impulse and culture communicated to Roman literature in the last years of the republic passed on without any break of continuity into the literature of the succeeding age. One or two of the circle of Catallus survived into that age; but an entirely new spirit came over the literature of the new period, and it is by new men, educated under the same literary influences, but living in an altered world and belonging originally to a different in the state, that the new spirit was expressed. The literature of the later republic reflects the sympathies and prejudices of an aristocratic class, sharing in the conduct of national affairs and living on terms of equality with one another; that of the Augustan age, both in its early serious enthusiasm and in the licence and levity of its later development, represents the hopes and aspirations with which the new monarchy was ushered into the world, and the pursuits of pleasure and amusement, which becomes the chief interest of a class cut off from the higher energies of atmosphere of an imperial court. The great inspiring influence of the new literature was the enthusiasm produced first by the hope and afterwards the fulfillment of the restoration of peace, order, national glory, under the rule of Augustus. All that the age longed for seemed to be embodied in a man who had both in his own person and by inheritance the natural spell which sways the imagination of the world. The sentiment of hero-worship was at all times strong in the Romans, and no one was ever the object of more sincere as well as simulated hero-worship than Augustan. It was not, however, by his equals in station that the first feeling was likely to be entertained. The earliest to give expression to it was the humbly-born from the Cisalpine province; but the spell was soon acknowledge by the calmer and more worldly-wise poet whose first enthusiasm had directed him into the opposite camp. The disgust aroused by the anti-national policy of Antony, and the danger to the empire which was averted by the result of the battle of Actium, with the confidence inspired by the new ruler, combined to reconcile the great families as well as the great body of the people to the new order of things.





While the establishment of the empire produced a revival of national and imperial feeling, it suppressed all independent political thought and action. Hence the two great forms of prose literature which drew their nourishment from the struggles of political life, oratory and contemporary history, were arrested in their development. The chief interest of letter-writing and consisted in its being the medium of interchange of thought on politics, and thus, although correspondence between friends still went on as before, no collection of letters was of sufficient importance to be preserved. The main course of literature was thus for a time diverted into poetry. That poetry in its most elevated form aimed at being the organ of the new empire and of realizing the national ideals of life and character under its auspices; and in carrying out this aim it sought to recall the great memories of the past. It became also the organ of the pleasures and interests of private life, the chief motivates of which were the love of nature and the passion of love. It sought also to make the art and poetry of Greece live a new artistic life. Satire, debarred from that comment on political action which had been open to Lucilius and to Catullus and Calvus under the republic, turned to social and individual life, and combined with the newly-developed taste for ethical analysis and reflexion introduced by Cicero. One great work had still to be done in prose—a retrospect of the past history of the state from an idealizing and romanticizing point of view. For that work the Augustan age, as the end of the one great cycle of events and the beginning of another, was eminently suited, and a writer who, by his gifts of imagination and sympathy, was perhaps better fitted than any other man of antiquity for the task, and who through the whole of this period lived a life of literary leisure was found to do justice to the subject.

Although the age did not afford that free scope and stimulus to individual energy and enterprise which have been the conditions under which the most truly creative literature has flourished, no age afforded more material and social advantages for the peaceful cultivation of letters. The new influence of patronage, which in other times has chilled the genial current of literature, became, in the person of Maecenas, the medium through which literature and the imperial policy were brought into union. Poetry thus acquired the tone of the world, kept in close connexion with the chief source of national life, while it was cultivated to the highest pitch of artistic perfection under the most favourable conditions of leisure and freedom from the distractions and anxieties of life.

The earliest in the order of time of the poets who adorn this age—Virgil (70-19)—is also the greatest in genius, the most richly cultivated, and the most perfect in art. He is the idealizing poet of the hopes and aspirations and of the purer and happier life of which the age seemed to contain the promise. He elevates the present by associating it with the past and future of the world, and sanctifies it by seeing in the previous generation, in discord with the dominant tendency of affairs, but in harmony with all that was restorative of the peace, order, and happiness of the world. Virgil is the true representative poet of Rome and Italy, of national glory and of the beauty of nature, the artist in whom all the efforts of the past were made perfect, and the unapproachable standard of excellence t future times. While more richly endowed with sensibility to all native influences, he was more deeply imbued than any of his contemporaries with the poetry, the thought, and the learning of Greece. It was by learning on these supports that his felt its way and begins in imitation of the cadences, the diction, and the pastoral fancies of Theocritus; but even in these imitative poems of his youth we see that he is perfect master of his materials. The Latin hexameter, which in Ennius and Lucretius was the organ of the more dignified and majestic emotions, became in his hands the most perfect measure in which the softer and more luxurious sentiment of nature has been expressed; and the Latin language was enriched with its sweetest and most musical variations. The sentiment of Italian scenery and the love which the Italian peasant has for the familiar sights and sounds of his home found a voice which never can pass away; and the joy and pain of the passion of love were revealed in these poems in a way as yet unapprehended by the world. In this the earliest and least serious effort of Virgil’s genius there is no immaturity of art, ad in poems outwardly most remote from the current of active life there is the recognition of the matter-force by which that current was destined to be impelled and controlled.

In his next poem, the Georgica, we are struck the great advance in the originality and self-dependence of the artist, in the mature perfection of his workmanship, in the deepening and strengthening of all his sympathies and convictions. His genius still works under forms prescribed by Greek art, and under the disadvantages of having a practical and utilitarian aim imposed on it. But he has even in form so far surpassed his originals that he alone has gained for the pure didactic poem a place among the highest forms of serious poetry, while he has so transmuted his material that, without violation of truth, he has made the whole poem alive with poetic feeling. The homeliest details of the farmer’s work are transfigured through the magical potency of the poet’s love of nature in her immediate charm of sight and sound and in her all-pervading presence, especially as that charm and presence reveal themselves in the land and climate of Italy; through his religions feeling and his pious sympathy with the sanctities of human affection; though his patriotic sympathy with the national greatness; and through the rich allusiveness of his art to everything in poetry and legend which can illustrate and glorify his theme.

In the Pastoral Poems and Georgica Virgil is the idealizing poet of the beauty and of the old simple and hardly life of Italy, as the imagination could conceive of it in an altered world. In the Aeneid he is the idealizing poet of national glory, especially as that glory was manifested in the person of Augustus. The epic of national life, vividly conceived but rudely executed by Ennius, was perfected in the years that followed the decisive victory at Actium. To do justice to his idea Virgil enters into rivalry with a greater poet than those whom he had equaled or surpassed in his previous works. And, though he cannot unroll before us the page of heroic action with the power and majesty of Homer, yet by the sympathy with which he realizes the idea of Rome, and by the power with which he has used the details of tradition, of local scenes, of religious usage, to embody it, he has built up in the form of an epic poem the most enduring and the most artistically constructed monument of national grandeur.

The second great poet of the time—Horace (65-8)—holds a lower place in the reverence of the world, but is perhaps as much loved and is even more largely and familiarly known. He is both the realist and the idealist of his age. If we want to know the actual lives, manners, and ways of thinking of the Romans of the generation succeeding the overthrow of the republic it is in the Satires and partially in the Epistles of Horace that we shall find them. If we ask what there was in the life of that time of more exquisite or more piquant, of more elevated enthusiasm, of graver experience, to stir the fancy and move the mood of imaginative reflexion, it is in the lyrical poems of Horace that we shall find the most varied and trustworthy answer. He was prepared for his double task by the experience of life and his strong hold on the actual world, and by drinking long and deeply of the purer and more remote sources of Greek inspiration.

His literary activity extends over about thirty years and naturally divides itself into three periods, each marked by a distinct character. The first—extending from about 40to 29—is that of the composition of the Epodes and Satires. In the former he imitates the Greek poet Archilochus, but takes his subjects from the men, women, and incidents of the day. They are the expression of the least happy part of his career and the least estimable side of his nature. His humorous observation of life and the more serious grain in his character found more congenial occupation in perfecting the national work of Lucilius than in introducing "the Parian iambics to Latium." Personality is the essence of his Epodes; in the Satires it is used merely as illustrative of general tendencies. In the Satires we find realistic pictures of social life, and the conduct and opinions of the world submitted to the standard of good feeling and common sense. The style of the Epodes is pointed and epigrammatic, that of the Satires natural and familiar. The hexameter no longer, as in Lucilius, moves awkwardly as if in fetters, but, like the language o9f Terence, of Catullus in his lighter pieces, of Cicero in his letters to Atticus, adapts itself to the everyday intercourse of life. The next period is the meridian of his genius, the time of his greatest lyrical inspiration, which he himself associates with the peace and leisure secured to9 him by his Sabine farm. The spirit of the child who had lost himself on Monte Voltore seemed to come back to him in his lonely wanderings among the Sabine hills. The life of pleasure which he had lived in his youth comes back to him, not as it was in its actual distractions and disappointments, but in the idealizing light of meditative retrospect. He had not only become to the new order of things, but was moved by his intimate friendship with Maecenas to aid in raising the world to sympathy with the imperial rule through the medium of his lyrical inspiration, as Virgil had through the glory of his epic art. With the completion of the three books of Odes he cast aside for a time the office of the "vates," and resumed that of the critical spectator of human life, but in the spirit of a moralist rather than a satirist. He feels the increasing languor of the time as well as the languor of advancing years, and seeks to encourage younger men to take up the role of lyrical poetry, while he devotes himself to the contemplation of the true art of living. Self-culture rather than the fulfillment of public or social duty, as in the moral teaching of Cicero, is the aim of his teaching; and in this we recognize the influence of the empire in throwing the individual back on himself. As Cicero tones down his oratory in his moral treatise, so Horace tones down the fervour of his lyrical utterances in his Epistles, and thus produces a style combining the ease of the best epistolary style with the grace and concentration of poetry,--the style, as it has been called, of "idealized common sense," that of the "urbanus" and cultivated man of the world who is also in hours of inspiration a genuine poet. In the last decennium of his life he resumed for a time, under pressure of the imperial command, his lyrical functions, and produced some of the most exquisite and mature products of his art. But his chief activity is devoted to criticism. He first vindicates the claims of his own age to literary pre-eminence, and then seeks to stimulate the younger writers of the day to what he regarded as the manlier forms of poetry, and especially to the tragic drama, which seemed for a short time to give promise of an artistic revival. It seems strange that, he must have known the writings of Propertius and the earlier writings of Ovid, he has no word of recognition for them. And, though he writes to Tibullus with friendly regard, he seems to value him as a student of philosophy more than as a poet, and says nothing to indicate that he believed his work would be more enduring than that of Titius or Julius Florus or Iulus Antonius.

But the poetry of the latter half of the Augustan age destined to survive did not follow the lines either of lyrical or of dramatic art marked out for them by Horace. The latest form of poetry adopted from Greece and destined to gain and permanently to hold the ear of the world was the elegy. From the time of Mimnermus this form seems to have presented itself as the most natural vehicle for the poetry of pleasure in an age of luxury, refinement, and incipient decay. Its facile flow and rhythm seem to adapt it to the expression and illustration of personal feeling. It goes to the mind of the reader through a medium of sentiment rather than of continuous thought or imaginative illustration. The greatest masters of this kind of poetry are the elegiac of the Augustan age,--Tibullus, Propertius, and Ovid. Of these Tibullus (d. 19) is the most refined and tender. As the poet of love he gives utterance to the pensive melancholy rather than to the pleasures associated with it. In his sympathy with the life and beliefs of the country people he shows an affinity both to the idyllic spirit and to the piety of Virgil. There is something, too, in his fastidious refinement and in his shrinking from the rough contact of life that reminds us of the English poet Gray.

A poet of more strength and more powerful imagination, but of less refinement in his life and less exquisite taste in his art, is Propertius (c. 50-c. 15), "the Roman Callimachus.: His youth was a more stormy one than that of Tibullus, and was passed, not like his, among the "healthy woods" of his country estate, but amid all the licence of the capital. His passion for Cynthia, the theme of his most finished poetry, is second only in interest to that of Catullus for Lesbia; and Cynthia in her fascination and caprices seems a more real and intelligible personage than the idealized object first of the idolatry and afterwards of the malediction of Catullus. Propertius is a less accomplished artist and a less equably pleasing writer than either Tibullus or Ovid, but he shows more power of dealing gravely with a great tragic situation than either of them, and his diction and rhythm give frequent proof of a concentrated force of conception and a corresponding movement of imaginative feeling which remind us of Lucretius.

The most facile and brilliant of the elegiac poets and the least serious in tone and spirit is Ovid (43 B.C.-17 A.D.), the latest in order of time. As an amatory poet he is the poet of pleasure and intrigue rather than of tender sentiment or absorbing passion. Though he treats his subjects in relation to himself with more levity and irony than real feeling, yet he alone among the elegiac poets is able to embody it in dramatic form, and by his vivid gifts of fancy to create a literature of romantic passion and adventure adapted to amuse and fascinate the idle and luxurious society of which the elder Julia was the centre. The power of continuous narrative is best seen in the Metamorphoses, written in hexameters, to which he has imparted a rapidly and fluidity of movement more suited to romantic and picturesque narrative than the weighty self-restrained verse of Virgil. In his Fasti he treats a subject of national interest; it is not, however, through the strength of Roman sentiment but through the power of vividly conceiving and narrating stories of strong human interest that the poem lives. In his latest works—the Tristia and Ex Ponto--he imparts the interest of personal confessions to the record of a unique experience. Latin poetry is more rich in the expression of personal feeling than of dramatic imagination. In Ovid we have both. We know him in the intense liveliness of his feelings and the human weakness of his nature more intimately than any other writer of antiquity, except perhaps Cicero. As Virgil marks the point of maturest excellence in poetic diction and rhythm, Ovid marks that of the greatest facility.

The Augustan age was one of those great eras in the world, like the era succeeding the Persian War in Greece, the Elizabethan age in England, and the beginning of the present century in Europe, in which what seems a new spring of national and individual life calls out an idealizing retrospect of the past. As the present seems full of new life, the past seems rich in glory and the future in hope. The past of Rome had always a peculiar fascination for Roman writers. Virgil in a supreme degree, and Horace, Propertius, and Ovid in a less degree, had expressed in their poetry the romance of the past. But it was in the great historical work of Livy (59 B.C.-17 A.D.) that the record of the national life, coloured by idealizing retrospect, received its most systematic exposition. The conception of his work must have nearly coincided in point of time with the impulses in which the Aeneid and the national Odes of Horace had their origin. Its execution was the work of a life prolonged through the languor and dissolution following so soon upon the promise of the new era, during which time the past became glorified by contrast with the disheartening aspect of the present. The value of the work consists not in any power of critical investigation or weighing of historical evidence but in the intense sympathy of the writer with the national ideal, and the vivid imagination with which under the influence of this sympathy he gives to the events and personages, the wars and political struggles, of times remote from his own. Although he has no accurate conception of the constitutional history of the state, yet nowhere else in ancient history do we find the patrician and plebeian forces in a state by which that history is worked out so vividly and dramatically embodied. He makes us feel more than any one the majesty of the Roman state, of its great magistracies, and of the august council by which its policy was guided. And, while he makes the words "senatus populusque Romanus" full of significance for all times, no one realizes with more enthusiasm all that is implied in the words "imperium Romanum," and the great military qualities of head and heart by which that empire was acquired and maintained. While the general conception of his work is thus animated by national enthusiasm, the details are filled up with all the resources of a vivid imagination and of literary art. The vast scale on which the work was conceived and the thoroughness of artistic execution with which the details are finished are characteristically Roman. The prose style of Rome, as a vehicle for the continuous narration of events coloured by a rich and picturesque imagination and vivified by dignified emotion, attained its perfection in him.


Fourth Period: from 17 to about 130 A.D.

For more than a century after the death of Augustus Roman literature continues to flow in the old channels. Rome continues the centre of the literary movement. The characteristics of the great writers are essentially national, not provincial nor cosmopolitan. In prose the old forms—oratory, history, the epistle, treatises or dialogues on ethical and literary questions—continue to be cultivated. Scientific and practical subjects, as such natural history, architecture, medicine, agriculture, are treated in more elaborate literary style. The old Roman satura is developed into something like the modern prose novel. In the various provinces of poetry, while there is little novelty or inspiration, there is abundance of industry and ambitious effort. The national love of works of large compass shows itself in the production of long epic poems, both of the historic and of the imitative Alexandrian type. Out of many others four of these have been preserved, two at least of which the world might have allowed ton perish without sensible diminution to its literary wealth. The imitative and rhetorical tastes of Rome showed themselves in the composition of exotic tragedies, as remote in spirit and character from Greek as from Roman life, of which the only extant specimens are those attributed to the younger Seneca. The composition of didactic, lyrical, and elegiac poetry also was the accomplishment and pastime of an educated dilettante class. The only extant specimens of any interest are some of the Silvae of Statius. The only voice with which the poet of this age can express himself with force and sincerity is that of satire and satiric epigram. Ovid was the last of the true poets of Rome who combined idealizing power of imagination with artistic originality. After him we find only imitative echoes of the old music created by Virgil and others, as in Statius, or powerful declamation, as in Lucan and Juvenal. There is a deterioration in the diction as well as in the music of poetry. The elaborate literary culture of the Augustan age has done something to impair the native force of the Latin idiom. The language of literature, in the most elaborate kind of prose as well as poetry, loses all ring of popular speech. The old oratorical tastes and aptitudes find their outlet in public recitations and the practice of declamation. Forced and distorted expression, exaggerated emphasis, point of antithesis, an affected prettiness, "melliti verborum globuli," were studied with the view of gaining the applause of audiences who thronged the lecture and recitation rooms in search of temporary excitement. Education was more widely diffused, but was less thorough, less leisurely in its method, less than before derived from the purer sources o9f culture. The precocious immaturity of Lucan’s career affords a marked contrast to the long preparation of Virgil and Horace for their high office. Although there are some works of the Silver Age of considerable and one at least of supreme interest, from the insight they afford into the experience of a century of organized despotism and its effect on the spiritual life of the ancient world, it cannot be doubted that the steady literary decline which characterized the last centuries of paganism begins with the death of Ovid and Livy. If the world had not altogether ceased to produce men of genius, the conditions under which their genius could unfold itself were no longer the same. The influences which had inspired the republican and Augustan literature were the artistic impulse derived from a familiarity with the great works of Greek genius, becoming more intimate with every new generation, the spell of Rome over the imagination of the kindred Italian races, the charm of Italy, and the vivid sensibility of the Italian temperament. These influences were certainly much less operatives in the first century of the empire. The imitative impulse, which had much of the character of a creative impulse, and had resulted in the appropriation of the forms of poetry suited to the Roman and Italian character and of the metres suited to the genius of the Latin language, no longer stimulated to artistic effort. The great sources of Greek poetry were no longer regarded, as they were by Lucretius and Virgil, as "integri" and "sancti fontes," and approached in a spirit at once of daring adventure and reverential enthusiasm.1We have the testimony of two men of the shrewdest common sense and the most masculine understanding—Martial and Juvenal—to the stale and lifeless character of the art of the Silver Age, which sought to reproduce in the form of species, tragedies, and elegies the bright fancies of the Greek mythology.

The idea of Rome, owing to the antagonism between the policy of the Government and the sympathies of the class by which literature was favoured and cultivated, could no longer be an inspiring motive, as it had been in the literature of the republic and of the Augustan age. The spirit of Rome appears only as animating the protest of Lucan, the satire of Persius and Juvenal, the sombre picture which Tacitus paints of the annals of the empire. Oratory is no longer an independent voice appealing to sentiments of Roman dignity, but the weapon of the "delatores," wielded for their own advancement and the destruction of that class which even in their degeneracy, retained most sympathy with the national traditions. Roman history was no longer a record of national glory, stimulating the patriotism and flattering the pride of all Roman citizens, but a personal eulogy, or a personal invective, according as servility to a present or hatred of a recent ruler was the motive which animated it.

The charm of Italian scenes remained the same, but the fresh and inspiring feeling of nature as a great power in the world, a great restorative influence in human life, gave place to the mere sensuous derived from the luxurious and artificial beauty of the country villa. The idealizing poetry of passion, which found a genuine voice of in Catullus and the elegiac poets could not prolong itself through the exhausting licence of successive generations. The vigorous vitality which gives interest to the personality of Catallus, Propertius, and Ovid no longer characterizes their successors. The pathos of natural affection is occasionally recognized in Statius and more rarely in Martial, but it has not the depth of tenderness found in Lucretius and Virgil. Human life is altogether shallower, has the same capacity for neither joy nor sorrow. The wealth and luxury of succeeding generations, the monotonous routine of life, the separation of the educated class from the higher work of the world, have produced their enervating and paralysing effect on mainsprings of poetic and imaginative feeling.

New elements, however, appear in the literature of this period. AS the result of the severance from the active interests of life, a new interest is awakened in the inner life of the individual. The extreme immorality of the age not only affords abundant material to the satirist but deepens the consciousness of moral evil in purer and more thoughtful minds. To these causes we attribute the pathological observation of Seneca and Tacitus, the new sense of purity in Persius called out by contrast with the impurity around him, the glowing if somewhat sensational exaggeration of Juvenal, the vivid characterization of Martial. The literature of no time presents so powerfully the contrast between moral good and evil. In this respect it is truly representative of the life of the age. Another new element is the influence of a new race. In the two preceding periods the rapid diffusion of literary culture following the Social War and the first Civil War was seen to awaken into new life the elements of original genius in Italy and Cisalpine. In the first century of the empire a similar result was produced by the diffusion of that culture in the Latinized districts of Spain. The fervid temperament of a fresh and vigorous race, which received the Latin discipline just as Latium had two or three centuries previously received the Greek discipline, revealed itself in the writings of the Senecas, Lucan, Quintilian, Martial, and others, who in their own time added literary distinction to the Spanish towns from which they came. This new cosmopolitan element introduced into human literature draws into greater prominence the characteristics of the last great representatives of the genuine Roman and the Italian spirit,--Tacitus and Juvenal.

On the whole this century shows, in form, language, and substance, the beginning of literary decay. But it is still capable of producing men of original force; it still maintains the traditions of a happier time; it is still alive to the value of literary culture, and endeavours by minute attention to style to produce new effects. Though it was not one of the great eras in the annals of literature, yet the century which produced Martial, Juvenal, and Tacitus cannot be pronounced barren in literary originality, nor that which produced Seneca and Quintilian in culture and literary taste.

This forth period is itself subdivided into three divisions:--(1) that extending from the accession of Tiberius to the death of Nero, 68,--the only important part of it being the Neronian age, 54 to 68; (2) the Flavian era, from the death of Nero to the death of Domitian, 96; (3) the period included in the reigns of Nerva and Trajan and part of the reign of Hadrian.

(1) For a generation after the death of Augustus no new original literary forced appeared. The later poetry of the Augustan age had ended in trifling dilettanteism, for the continuance of which the atmosphere of the court was no longer favourable. The class by which literature was encouraged had become both enervated and terrorized. The Fables of Phaedrus, the Pierian freedman, a work of no kind of national significance and representatives in its morality only of the spirit of cosmopolitan individualism, is the chief poetical product of the time. Velleius Paterculus and Valerius Maximus are the most important prose-writers. The traditional culture was still, however, maintained, and the age was rich in grammarians and rhetoricians. The new profession of the "delator" must have given a stimulus to oratory. A high ideal of culture, literary as well as practical, was realized in Germanicus, which seems to have been transmitted to his daughter Agrippina, whose patronage of Seneca and important results in the next generation. The reign of Claudius was a time in which antiquarian learning, grammatical studies, and jurisprudence were cultivated, but no important additions were made to literature. A fresh impulses given to letters on the accession of Nero, and this was partly due to the theatrical and artistic tastes of the young emperor. Four writers of the Neronian age still possess considerable interest,--Seneca, Lucan, Persius, and Petronius. The first three represent the spirit of their age exhibiting the power of the Stoic Philosophy as a moral, political, and religious force, the last is the most cynical exponent of the depravity of the time. Seneca (d. 65) is less than Persius a pure Stoic, and more of a moralist and pathological observer of man’s inner life. He makes the commonplaces of a cosmopolitan philosophy interesting by his abundant illustration drawn from the private and social life of his contemporaries. He has knowledge of the world, the suppleness of a courtier, Spanish vivacity, and the "ingenium amoenum" attributed to him by Tacitus, the fruit of which is sometimes seen in the "honeyed phrases" mentioned by Petronius,--pure aspirations combined with inconsistency of purpose,--the inconsistency of one who tries to make the best of two worlds, the ideal inner life and the successful real life in the atmosphere of a most corrupt court. The Pharsalia of Lucan (39-65), with Cato as its hero, is essentially a Social manifesto of the opposition. It is written with the force and fervour of extreme youth and with the literary ambition of a race as yet new to the discipline of intellectual culture, and is endowed with a rhetorical rather than a poetical imagination. The Satires of Persius (34-62) are the purest product of Stoicism,--a Stoicism that had found in a living contemporary, Thrasea, a more rational and practical hero than Cato. But no important writer of antiquity has less literary charm than Persius. He either would not or could not say anything simply and naturally. In avoiding the recourse to the most unnatural contortions of expressions. Of the works of the time that which from a human point of view is perhaps the most detestable in ancient literature has the most genuine literary quality, the fragment of the prose novel of Petronius. It is most sincere in its representation, least artificial in diction, most penetrating in its satire, most just in its criticism of art and style.

(2) A greater sobriety of tone was introduced both into life and literature with the accession Vespanian. The time was, however, characterized rather by good sense and industry than by original genius. Under Vespanian Pliny the elder is the most important prose-writer, and Valerius Flaccus, author of the Argonautica, the most important among the writers of poetry. The reign of Domitian, although it silenced the more independent spirits of the time, Tacitus and Juvenal, witnessed more important contributions to Roman literature than any other age since the Augustan,--among then the Institutes of Quintilian, the Punic War of Silius Italicus, the epics and the Silvae of Statius, and the Epigrams of Martial. Quintilian (c. 35-95), is brought forward by Juvenal as a unique instance of a thoroughly successful man of letters, of one not belonging by birth to the rich or official class who had risen to wealth and honours though literature. He was well adapted to his time by his good sense and sobriety of judgment. His criticism is just and true rather than subtle or ingenious, and thus stands the test of the judgment of after-times. The poem of Silius (25-101_is a proof of the industry and literary ambition of members of the rich official class. Of the epic ports of the Silver Age Statius (c. 45-96) shows the greatest technical skill and the richest pictorial fancy in the executive of detail; but his epics haver no true inspiring motive, and, although the recitation of the Thebaid could attract and charm an audience in the days of Juvenal, it really belong to the class of poems so unsparingly condemned both by him and Martial. In he Silvae, though many of them have little root in the deeper feelings of human nature, we find occasionally more than in any poetry after the Augustan age something of the purer charm and pathos of life. But it is not in the artificial poetry of the Silvae, nor in the epics and tragedies of the tie, nor in the cultivated criticism of Quintilian that the age of Domitian lives for us. It is in the Epigrams of Martial (c. 41-102) that we have a true image of the average sensual frivolous life of Rome at the end of the 1st century, seen through a medium of wit and humour, but undistorted by the exaggeration which moral indignation and the love of effect add to the representation of Juvenal. Martial represents his age in his Epigrams, as Horace does his in his Satires and Odes, with more variety and incisive force in his sketches, though with much less poetic charm and serious meaning. We know the daily life, the familiar personages, the outward aspect of Rome in the age of Domitian better than at any other period of Roman history, at that knowledge we owe to Martial. Though a less estimable character than some of them, he is a better writer than any of his contemporaries because he did not withdraw into a world of literary interests, but lived and wrote in the central whirl of city life. He tells us the truth of his time without the wish either to protest against or to extenuate its vices.

(3) But it was under Nerva and Trajan that the greatest and most truly representative works of the empire were written, those which at once present the most impressive spectacle to the imagination and have made its meaning sink most deeply into the heart and conscience of the world. The Annals and Histories of Tacitus (54-119), with the supplementary Life of Agricola and the treatise On the manners of the Germans, and the satires of Juvenal (c. 47-130) have summed up for all after-times the moral experience of the roman world from the accession of Tiberius to the death of Domitian. The powerful feeling under which they both wrote, the generous scorn and generous pathos of the historian acting on extraordinary gifts of imaginative insight and imaginative characterization , and the fierce indignation of the satirist finding its vent in exaggerating realism, have undoubtedly disturbed the completeness of the impressions which they received and have perpetuated; nevertheless their works are the last powerful voices of Rome, the last voices expressive of the freedom and manly virtue of the ancient world. In them alone among the writers of the empire the spirit of the Roman republic seems to revive. The Letter of Pliny (61-c. 115), though they do not contradict the representation of Tacitus and Juvenal regarded as an exposure of the political degradation and moral corruption of prominent individuals and classes, do much to, modify the pervadingly tragic and sombre character of their representation, and to show that life even in the higher circles of Roman society has still resources of pure enjoyment and wellbeing.

With the death of Juvenal, the most important part of whose activity falls in the reign of Trajan, Roman literature as an original and national expression of the experience, character, and sentiment of the Roman state and empire, and as one of the one literatures of the world, may be considered as closed. There still continued to be much industry and activity in gathering up the memorials of the past and in explaining and illustrating the works of genius of the ages of literary creation. A kind of archaic revival took place in the reign of Hadrian, which showed itself both in affection of style and in renewed interest in the older literature. The most important works of the age succeeding that of Juvenal are the Biographies of Suetonius (c. 75-160), which did much to preserve a knowledge of both political and literary history. The Noctes Atticae of Aulus Gellius, written in the latter part of the 2d century, have preserved many anecdotes, some of them of doubtful authenticity, concerning the older writers. The persistence of critical and grammatical studies and of interest in the literature of the past resulted in the 4th and 5th centuries in the works of Donatus and Servius and in the Saturnalia of Macrobius. The works of the great Latin grammarians are also to be connected with the scholarly study of antiquity which superseded to a great extent the attempt to produce works of new creation. The writer of most original genius among the successors of Juvenal and Tacitus is probably Apuleius, and his most original work, the Metamorphoses, has nothing of Roman or Italian colouring. The last who combines genius with something of national spirit is the poet Claudian who wrote his epics under the immediate inspiring influence of a great national crisis and a national hero. As fresh blood came to the nearly exhausted literary genius of Italy from Spain in the first century of the empire, so in the later centuries it came from Africa. Whatever of original literary force appears either in the pagan or Christian literature written in the Latin language between the 2d and the 6th century is due to Romanized settlements in Africa. We have to remember during all these comparatively barren centuries that secular literature had again found its organ in the Greek language, and that the new spiritual life of the world had come into stern antagonism with many of the most powerful motives of classical poetry.

Literature.—The most important books on the subject are the Geschichte der römischen Litteratur, by J. C. F. Bähr; the Grundriss der römischen Litteratur, by G. Bernhardy; and the Geschichte der römischen Litteratur, by W. S. Teuffel. The last of these has been translated into English. There is also a Geschichte der römischen Litteratur by G. Munck. The most recent books on the subject in English are Mr. G. A. Simcox’s History of Latin Literature from Ennius to Boethius, and the History of Roman Literature from the Earliest Period to the Death of Marcus Aurelius, by Mr C. T. Cruttwell. (W. Y. S)


Footnotes

FOOTNOTES (page .718)

(1) The reasons for rejecting the date usually assigned to his birth (148) have been given under the heading LUCILIUS.

FOOTNOTES (page 720)

(1) "Qui non illustravit modo sed etiam genuit in hac urbe dicendi copiam" (Cic., Brut., 73).

FOOTNOTES (page 720)

(2) "Latine loqui elegantissime."

FOOTNOTES (page 720)

(3) "Nudi enim sunt, recti et venusti, omni ornatu orationis tanquam veste detracto" (Cicero).

FOOTNOTES (page 721)

(1) The reasons for accepting 84 rather than 87 as the date of his birth have been given in the article CATULLUS.

FOOTNOTES (page 725)

(1) Contrast with the "juvat integros accedere fontes" and the "sanctos ausus recludere fontes" of the older poets the first line of Persius’s proloque "nec fonte labra prolui caballino."



The above article was written by William Young Sellar, M.A.; late Fellow of Oriel College, Oxford; Professor of Greek at St Andrews University, 1857-63; Professor of Humanity at Edinburgh, 1863-90; author of The Roman Poets of the Republic, The Roman Poets of the Augustan Age, and Horace and the Elegaic Poets.



Search the Encyclopedia:



About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Sitemaps
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us



© 2005-17 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries