1902 Encyclopedia > Greece > The Literature of the Decadence

(Part 24)



III. The Literature of the Decadence

The period of decadence in Greek literature begins with the extinction of free political life in the Greek cities. So of the creative age in Greek literature.

The transition to Hellenism.

long as the Greek commonwealths were independent and vigorous, Greek life rested on the identity of the man with the citizen. The city was the highest unit of social organization ; the whole training and character of the man were viewed relatively to his membership of the city. The market-place, the assembly, the theatre, were places of fre-quent meeting, where the sense of citizenship was quickened, where common standards of opinion or feeling were formed. Poetry, music, sculpture, literature, art, in all their forms, were matters of public interest. Every citizen had some degree of acquaintance with them, and was in some measure capable of judging them. The poet and the musician, the historian and the sculptor, did not live a life of studious seclusion or engrossing professional work. They were, as a rule, in full sympathy with the practical interests of their time. Their art, whatever its form might be, was the concentrated and ennobled expression of their political existence. iEschylus breathed into tragedy the inspiration of one who had himself fought the great fight of national liberation. Sophocles was the colleague of Pericles in a high military command. Thucydides describes the operations of the Peloponnesian War with the practical knowledge of one who had been in charge of a fleet. Ictinus and Phidias gave shape in stone, not to mere visions of the studio, but to the more glorious, because more real and vivid, perceptions which had been quickened in them by a living communion with the Athenian spirit, by a daily contemplation of Athenian greatness, in the theatre where tragic poets idealized the legends of the past, in the ecclesia where every citizen had his vote on the policy of the state, or in that free and gracious society, full of beauty, yet exempt from vexatious constraint, which belonged to the age of Pericles. The tribunal which judged these works of literature or art was such as was best fitted to preserve the favourable conditions under which they arose. Criticism was not in the hands of a literary clique or of a social caste. The influence of jealousy or malevolence, and the more fatal influence of affectation, had little power to affect the verdict. The verdict was pronounced by the whole body of the citizens. The success or failure of a tragedy was decided, not by the minor circumstance that it gained the first or second prize, but by the collective opinion of the citizens assembled in the theatre of Dionysus. A work of architecture or sculpture was approved or condemned, not by the sentence of a few whom the multitude blindly followed, but by the general judgment of some twenty thousand persons, each of whom was in some degree qualified by education and by habit to form an independent estimate. The artist worked for all his fellow-citizens, and knew that he would be judged by all. The soul of his work was the fresh and living inspiration of nature; it was the ennobled expression of his own life; and the public opinion before which it came was free, intelligent, and sincere.
Philip of Macedon did not take away the municipal independence of the Greek cities, but he dealt a death-blow to the old political life. The Athenian poet, historian, artist, might still do good work, but he could never again have that which used to be the very mainspring of all such activity,—the daily experience and consciousness of participation in the affairs of an independent state. He could no longer breathe the invigorating air of constitutional freedom, or of the social intercourse to which that freedom lent dignity as well as grace. Then came Alexander's conquests; Greek civilization was diffused over Asia and the East by means of Greek colonies in which Asiatic and Greek elements were mingled. The life of such settlements, under the monarchies into which Alexander's empire broke up, could not be animated by the spirit of the Greek commonwealths in the old days of political freedom. But the externals of Greek life were there,—the tempies, the statues, the theatres, the porticos. Ceremonies and festivals were conducted in the Greek manner. In private life Greek usages prevailed. Greek was the language most used ; Greek books were in demand. The mixture of races would always in some measure distinguish even the outward life of such a community from that of a pure Greek state ; and the facility with which Greek civilization was adopted would vary in different places. Syria, for example, was rapidly and completely Hellenized. Judaea resisted the process to the last. In Egypt a Greek aristocracy of office, birth, and intellect existed side by side with a distinct native life. But, viewed in its broadest aspect, this new civilization may be called Hellenism. As hellenizo means " to do like a Hellene," Hellenism means the adoption of Hellenic ways; and it is properly applied to a civilization, generally Hellenic in external things, pervading people not necessarily or exclusively Hellenic by race. What the Hel-lenic literature was to Hellas, that the Hellenistic literature was to Hellenism. The literature of Hellenism has the Hellenic form without the Hellenic soul. The literature of Hellas was creative; the literature of Hellenism is derivative.
1. Alexandria was the centre of Greek intellectual ac-TheAlex-tivity from Alexander to Augustus. Its " Museum" or andrian college, and its library, both founded by the first Ptolemy Period-(Soter), gave it such attractions for learned men as no other city could rival. The labours of research or arrangement are those which characterize the Alexandrian period. Even in its poetry spontaneous motive was replaced by erudite Poetry, skill, as in the hymns, epigrams, and elegies of Callimachus, in the enigmatic verses of Lycophron, in the highly finished epic of Apollonius Bhodius, and in the versified lore, astronomical or medical, of Aratus and Meander. The pastoral poetry of the age—Dorian by origin—was the most pleasing; for this, if it is to please at all, must have its spring in the contemplation of nature. Theocritus is not exempt from the artificialism of the Hellenizing literature; but his true sense of natural beauty entitles him to a place in the first rank of pastoral poets. Bion of Ionia and Moschus of Syracuse also charm by the music and often by the pathos of their bucolic verse. But it is not for its poetry of any kind that this period of Greek literature is memorable. . Its true work was in erudition and science. Erudition Aristarchus (156 B.C.), the greatest in a long line of Alex-an.d andrian critics, set the example of a more thorough method sclenc<?-in revising and interpreting the ancient texts, and may in this sense be said to have become the founder of scientific scholarship. The critical studies of Alexandria, carried on by the followers of Aristarchus, gradually formed the basis for a science of grammar. Translation was another province of work which employed the learned of Alexandria,—where the Septuagint version of the Old Testament was begun, probably about 300-250 B.C. Chronology was treated scientifically by Eratosthenes, and was combined with history by Manetho in his chronicles of Egypt, and by Berosus in his chronicles of Chaldaea. Euclid was at Alexandria in the Summary, reign of Ptolemy Soter. The general results of the Alexandrian period might perhaps be stated thus. Alexandria produced a few eminent men of science, some learned poets (in afew cases, of great literary merit), and many able scholars. The preservation of the best Greek literature was due chiefly to the unremitting care of the Alexandrian critics, whose appreciation of it partly compensated for the decay of the old Greek perceptions in literature and art, and who did their utmost to hand it down in a form as free as possible from the errors of copyists. On the whole, the patronage of letters by the Ptolemies had probably as large a measure of success as was possible under the existing conditions; and it was afforded at a time when there was special danger that a true literary tradition might die out of the world.

2. The Grieco-Roman period in the literature of Hellenism may be dated from the Roman subjugation of Greece. "Greece made a captive of the rough conqueror," but it did not follow from this intellectual conquest that Athens became once more the intellectual centre of the world. Under the empire, indeed, the university of Athens long enjoyed a pre-eminent reputation. But Rome gradually became the point to which the greatest workers in every kind were drawn. Greek literature had already made a home there before the close of the 2d century B.C. Sulla brought a Greek library from Athens to Rome. Such men as Cicero and Atticus were indefatigable collectors and readers of Greek books. The power of speaking and writing the Greek language became an indispensable accomplish-ment for highly educated Romans. The library planned by Julius Cajsar and founded by Augustus had two principal departments, one for Latin, the other for Greek works. Tiberius, Vespasian, Domitian, and Trajan contributed to enlarge the collection. Rome became more and more the rival of Alexandria, not only as possessing great libraries, but also as a seat of learning at which Greek men of letters found appreciation and encouragement. Greek poetry, especially in its higher forms, rhetoric and literary criticism, history and philosophy, were all cultivated by Greek writers at Rome.
The first part of the Grseco-Roman period may be defined as extending from 146 B.C. to the close of the Roman republic. At its commencement stands the name of one who had more real affinity than any of his contemporaries with the great writers of old Athens, and who, at the same time, saw most clearly how the empire of the world was passing to Rome. The subject of Polybius was the history of Roman conquest from 264 to 146 B.C. His style, plain and straightforward, is free from the florid rhetoric of the time. But the distinction of Polybius is that he is the last Greek writer who in some measure retains the spirit of the old citizen-life. He chose his subject, not because it gave scope to learning or literary skill, but with a motive akin to that which prompted the history of Thucydides—namely, because, as a Greek citizen, he felt intensely the political importance of those wars which had given Rome the mas-tery of the world. The chief historical work which the following century produced—the Universal History of Dio-dorus Siculus—resembled that of Polybius in recognizing Rome as the political centre of the earth, as the point on which all earlier series of events converged. In all else Diodorus represents the new age in which the Greek historian had no longer the practical knowledge and insight of a traveller, a soldier, or a statesman, but only the diligence, and usually the dulness, of a laborious compiler.
The Greek literature of the Roman empire, from Augustus to Justinian, was enormously prolific. The area over which the Greek language was diffused—either as a medium of intercourse or as an established branch of the higher education—was co-extensive with the empire itself. An immense store of materials had now been accumulated, on which critics, commentators, compilers, imitators, were employed with incessant industry. In very many of its forms, the work of composition or adaptation had been reduced to a mechanical knack. If there is any one characteristic which broadly distinguishes the Greek literature of these five centuries, it is the absence of originality either in form or in matter. Lucian is, in his way, a rare exception; and his great popularity—he is the only Greek writer of this period, except Plutarch, who has been widely popular—illustrates the flatness of the arid level above which he stands out. The sustained abundance of literary production under the empire was partly due to the fact that there was no open political career. Never, probably, was literature so important as a resource for educated men ; and the habit of reciting before friendly or obsequious audiences swelled the number of writers whose taste had been cultivated to a point just short of perceiving that they ought not to write.
In the manifold prose work of this period, four principal Depart-departments may be distinguished. (1) History, with ments of Biography, and Geography. It would exceed the limits of j^^ture the present summary to notice in detail the works which belong to this and to the other provinces ; but it may be useful, for purposes of reference aucl classification, to give some chief names in each. History is represented by Diony-sius of Halicarnassus,—also memorable for his criticisms on the orators and his effort to revive a true standard of Attic prose,—by Josephus, Arrian, Appian, and Herodian. In biography, the foremost names are Plutarch, Diogenes Laertius, and Philostratus; in geography, Strabo and Pausanias. (2) Erudition and Science. The learned labours of the Alexandrian schools were continued in all their various fields. Under this head may be mentioned such works as the lexicon of Julius Pollux ; the commentaries of Galen on Plato and on Hippocrates ; the learned miscellanies of Athenaeus, .ZElian, and Stobseus; and the Stratagems of Polysenus. (3) Rhetoric and Belles Lettres. The most popular writers on the theory of rhetoric were Hermogenes, Aphthonius, and Cassius Longinus-—the last the reputed author of the essay On Sublimity. Among the most renowned teachers of rhetoric—now distinctively called " Sophists," or rhetoricians—were Dion Chrysostom, iElius Aristides, Themistius, Himerius, Libanius, and Herodes Atticus. Akin to the rhetorical exercises were various forms of ornamental or imaginative prose-—dialogues, letters, essays, or novels. Lucian, in his dialogues, exhibits more of the classical style and of the classical spirit than any writer of the later age; he has also a remarkable affinity with the tone of modern satire, as in Swift or Voltaire. His Attic prose, though necessarily artificial, was at least the best that had been written for four centuries. The emperor Julian was the author both of orations and of satirical pieces. The chief of the Greek novelists are Xeuophon of Ephesus and Longus, representing a purely Greek type of romance, and Heliodorus,—with his imitators Achilles Tatius and Chariton,—representing a school influenced by Oriental fiction. There were also many Christian romances in Greek, usually of a religious tendency. Alciphron's fictitious Letters—founded largely on the New Comedy of Athens-—represent the same kind of industry which produced the letters of Phalaris and many similar collections. (4) Philosophy is represented chiefly by Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, in both of whom the Stoic element is the prevailing one; by the Neoplatonists, such as Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichus; and by Proclus, of that eclectic school which arose at Athens in the 5th century A.D.
The Greek poetry of this period presents no work of high Verse, merit. Babrius versified the ^Esopic Fables ; Oppian wrote didactic poems on fishing and hunting; Nonnus and Quin-tus Smyrnaeus made elaborate essays in epic verse ; and the Orphic lore inspired some poems and hymns of a mystic character. The so-called Sibylline Oracles, in hexameter verse, range in date from about 170 B.C. to 700 A.D., and are partly the expression of the Jewish longings for the restoration of Israel, partly predictions of the triumph of Christianity. By far the most pleasing compositions in The Adverse which have come to us from this age are some of the thology, short poems in the Greek Anthology, which includes some pieces as early as the beginning of the 5th century B.C., and some as late as the 6th century of the Christian era.
The 4th century may be said to mark the beginning of the last stage in the decay of literary Hellenism. From that point the decline was rapid and nearly continuous. The atti-tude of the church towards it was no longer that which had

been held by Clement of Alexandria, by Justin Martyr, or by Origen. There was now a Christian Greek literature, and a Christian Greek eloquence of extraordinary power. The laity became more and more estranged from the Greek literature—however intrinsically pure and noble—of the pagan past. At the same time the Greek language—which had maintained its purity in Italian seats—was becoming corrupted in the new Greek Rome of the East. In 529 A,D. Justinian put forth an edict by which the schools of heathen philosophy were formally closed. The act had at least a symbolical meaning. It is necessary to guard against the supposition that such assumed landmarks in political or literary history always mark a definite transition from one order of things to another. But it is practically convenient, or necessary, to use such kndmarks. And, in this case, if a line is to be drawn at any one point between the Old and the Byzantine literature, it may be said that the edict of Justinian was the official record of the fact that the old literature of Greece was dead. Then came the Byzantine age, with its massive but formless erudition, its comment-aries, annals, and lexicons, represented by such works as those of Eustathius, Photius, and Suidas. The golden time of the Byzantine literature was from about 850 to 1200 A.D. Just as this was drawing to an end, a poetry—at first satirical —arose in the popular dialect, which had now decidedly diverged from the literary ; and thus the link was made which connects the Byzantine period with the Greek litera-ture of to-day. The Greek language has never died, and the continuity of Greek literature has never been broken.

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