1. Education

A History of Roman Literature: From the Earliest Period to the Death of Marcus Aurelius

By Charles Thomas Cruttwell, M.A. (1877)
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BOOK I.

CHAPTER VI.

Naevius and Ennius -- Olympic deities and heroes of Roman story -- Hexameter of Ennius -- Its treatment -- Matius -- Hostius -- Furius.

EPIC POETRY. ENNIUS -- FURIUS (200-100 B.C.)

We must now retrace our steps, and consider Ennius in the capacity of epic poet. It was in this light that he acquired his chief contemporary renown, that he accredits himself to posterity in his epitaph, and that he obtained that commanding influence over subsequent poetic literature, which, stereotyped in Virgil, was never afterwards lost. The merit of discerning the most favourable subject for a Roman epic belongs to Naevius; in this department Ennius did but borrow of him; it was in the form in which he cast his poem that his originality was shown. The legendary history of Rome, her supposed connection with the issues of the Trojan war, and her subsequent military achievements in the sphere of history, such was the groundwork both of Naevius's and Ennius's conception. And, however unsuitable such a consecutive narrative might be for a heroic poem, there was something in it that corresponded with the national sentiment, and in a changed form it re-appears in the "Aeneid". Naevius had been contented with a single episode in Rome's career of conquest. Ennius, with more ambition but less judgment, aspired to grasp in an epic unity the entire history of the nation; and to achieve this, no better method occurred to him than the time-honoured and prosaic system of annals. The difficulty of recasting these in a poetic mould might well have staggered a more accomplished master of song; but to the enthusiastic and laborious bard the task did not seem too great. He lived to complete his work in accordance with the plan he had proposed, and though, perhaps, the "manus ultima" may have been wanting, there is nothing to show that he was dissatisfied with his results. We may perhaps smile at the vanity which aspired to the title of Roman Homer, and still more at the partiality which so willingly granted it; nevertheless, with all deductions on the score of rude conception and ruder execution, the fragments that remain incline us to concur with Scaliger in wishing that fate had spared us the whole, and denied us Silius, Statius, Lucan, "et tous ces garcons la." The whole was divided into eighteen books, of which the first contained the introduction, the earliest traditions, the foundation of Rome, and the deification of Romulus; the second and third contained the regal period; the fourth began the history of the Republic and carried it down to the burning of the city by the Gauls; the fifth comprised the Samnite wars; the sixth, that with Pyrrhus; the seventh, the first Punic war; the eighth and ninth, the war with Hannibal; the tenth and eleventh, that with Macedonia; the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth, that with Syria; the fifteenth, the campaign of Fulvius Nobilior in Aetolia, and ended apparently with the death of the great Scipio. The work then received a new preface, and continued the history down to the poet's last years, containing many personal notices, until it was finally brought to a close in 172 B.C. after having occupied its author eighteen years. [1] "The interest of this last book," says Conington, [2] "must have centred, at least to us, in the discourse about himself, in which the old bard seems to have indulged in closing this his greatest poem. Even now we may read with sympathy his boastful allusion to his late enrolment among the citizens of the conquering city; we may be touched by the mention he appears to have made of the year of his age in which he wrote, bordering closely on the appointed term of man's life; and we may applaud as the curtain falls on his grand comparison of himself to a victorious racer laden with Olympian honours, and now at last consigned to repose: --

'Sicut fortis equus, spatio qui saepe supremo
Vicit Olimpia, nunc senio confectus quiescit.'"

He was thus nearly fifty when he began to write, a fact which strikes us as remarkable. We are accustomed to associate the poetic gift with a highly-strung nervous system, and unusual bodily conditions not favourable to long life, as well as with a precocious special development which proclaims unmistakably in the boy the future greatness of the man. None of these conditions seem to have been present in the early Roman school. Livius was a quiet schoolmaster, Naevius a vigorous soldier, Ennius a self-indulgent but hard-working "litterateur", Plautus an active man, whose animal spirits not even the flour-mill could quench, Pacuvius a steady but genial student, Accius and Terence finished men of the world; and all, except Terence (and he probably met his early death through an accident), enjoyed the full term of man's existence. Moreover, few of them began life by being poets, and some, as Ennius and Plautus, did not apply themselves to poetry until they had reached mature years. With these facts the character of their genius as a rule agrees. We should not expect in such men the fine inspiration of a Sophocles, a Goethe, or a Shelley, and we do not find it. The poetic frenzy, so magnificently described in the "Phaedrus" of Plato, which caused the Greeks to regard the poet in his moments of creation as actually possessed by the god, is nowhere manifest among the early Romans; and if it claims to appear in their later literature, we find it after all a spurious substitute, differing widely from the emotion of creative genius. It is not mere accident that Rome is as little productive in the sphere of speculative philosophy as she is in that of the highest poetry, for the two endowments are closely allied. The problem each sets before itself is the same; to arrest and embody in an intelligible shape the idea that shall give light to the dark questionings of the intellect, or the vague yearnings of the heart. To Rome it has not been given to open a new sphere of truth, or to add one more to the mystic voices of passion; her epic mission is the humbler but still not ignoble one of bracing the mind by her masculine good sense, and linking together golden chains of memory by the majestic music of her verse.

There were two important elements introduced into the mechanism of the story by Ennius; the Olympic Pantheon, and the presentation of the Roman worthies as heroes analogous to those of Greece. The latter innovation was only possible within narrow limits, for the idea formed by the Romans even of their greatest heroes, as Romulus, Numa, or Camillus was different in kind from that of the Greek hero-worshipper. Thus we see that Virgil abstains from applying the name to any of his Italian characters, confining it to such as are mentioned in Homer, or are connected with the Homeric legends. Still we find at a later period Julius Caesar publicly professing his descent on both sides from a superhuman ancestor, for such he practically admits Ancus Martius to be. [3] And in the epic of Silius Italicus the Roman generals occupy quite the conventional position of the hero-leader.

The admission of the Olympic deities as a kind of divine machinery for diversifying and explaining the narrative was much more pregnant with consequences. Outwardly, it is simply adopted from Homer, but the spirit which animates it is altogether different. The Greek, in spite of his intellectual scepticism, retained an aesthetic and emotional belief in his national gods, and at any rate it was natural that he should celebrate them in his verse; but the Roman poet claimed to utilize the Greek Pantheon for artistic purposes alone. He professed no belief in the beings he depicted. They were merely an ornamental, supernatural element, either introduced at will, as in Horace, or regulated according to traditional conceptions, as in Ennius and Virgil. Apollo, Minerva, and Bacchus, were probably no more to him than they are to us. They were names, consecrated by genius and convenient for art, under which could be combined the maximum of beautiful associations with the minimum of trouble to the poet. The custom, which perpetuated itself in Latin poetry, revived again with the rise of Italian art; and under a modified form its influence may be seen in the grand conceptions of Milton. The true nature of romantic poetry is, however, alien to any such mechanical employment of the supernatural, and its comparative infrequency in the highest English and German poetry, stamps these as products of the modern spirit. Had the Romans left Olympus to itself, and occupied themselves only with the rhetorical delineation of human action and feeling, they would have chosen a less ambitious but certainly more original path. Lucretius struggles against the prevailing tendency; but so unable were the Romans to invest their finer fancies with any other shape, that even while he is blaming the custom he unawares falls into it.

It was in the metrical treatment that Ennius's greatest achievement lay. For the first time in any consecutive way he introduced the hexameter into Latin poetry. It is true that Plautus had composed his epitaph in that measure, if we may trust Varro's judgment on its genuineness. [4] And the Marcian oracles, though their rhythm has been disputed, were in all probability written in the same. [5] But these last were translations, and were in no sense an epoch in literature. Ennius compelled the intractable forms of Latin speech to accommodate themselves to the dactylic rhythm. Difficulties of two kinds met him, those of accent and those of quantity. The former had been partially surmounted by the comic writers, and it only required a careful extension of their method to render the deviations from the familiar emphasis of daily life harmonious and acceptable. In respect of quantity the problem was more complex. Plautus had disregarded it in numerous instances ("e.g. dari"), and in others had been content to recognize the natural length or shortness of a vowel ("e.g. senex ipse"), neglecting the subordinate laws of position, &c. This custom had, as far as we know, guided Ennius himself in his dramatic poems; but for the epos he adopted a different principle. Taking advantage of the tendency to shorten final vowels, he fixed almost every doubtful case as short, "e.g. musa, patre, dare, omnibus, amaveris, pater", only leaving the long syllable where the metre required it, as "condiderit". By this means he gave a dactylic direction to Latin prosody which it afterwards, though only slightly, extended. At the same time he observed carefully the Greek laws of position and the doubled letters. He admitted hiatus, but not to any great extent, and chiefly in the caesura. The lengthening of a short vowel by the ictus occurs occasionally in his verses, but almost always in words where it was originally by nature long. In such words the lengthening may take place even in the thesis of the foot, as in --

"non enim rumores ponebat ante salutem."

Elision played a prominent part in his system. This was natural, since with all his changes many long or intractable terminations remained, "e.g. enim, quidem, omnium", &c. These were generally elided, sometimes shortened as in the line quoted, sometimes lengthened as in the comedians, --

"inimicitiam agitantes."

Very rarely does he improperly shorten a naturally long vowel, "e.g. contra" (twice); terminations in "o" he invariably retains, except "ego" and "modo". The final "s" is generally elided before a consonant when in the thesis of the foot, but often remains in the arsis ("e.g. plenu' fidei, Isque dies"). The two chief blots on his versification are his barbarous examples of tmesis, -- "saxo cere comminuit brum: Massili portant invenes ad litora tanas" (= cerebrum, Massilitanas), and his quaint apocope, "cael, gau, do" ("caelum, gaudium, domum"), probably reflected from the Homeric "do, kri", in which Lucilius imitates him, "e.g. nol." (for "nolueris"). The caesura, which forms the chief feature in each verse, was not understood by Ennius. Several of his lines have no caesura at all; and that delicate alternation of its many varieties which charms us in Homer and Virgil, is foreign to the conception, as it would have been unattainable by the efforts, of the rugged epic bard. Nevertheless his labour achieved a great result. He stamped for centuries the character and almost the details of subsequent versification. [6] If we study the effect of his passages, we shall observe far greater power in single lines or sentences than in a continuous description. The solemn grandeur of some of his verses is unsurpassable, and, enshrined in the Aeneid, their dignity seems enhanced by their surroundings. Such are --

"Tuque pater Tiberine tuo cum ilumino sancto."

"Unus homo nobis cunctando restituit rem."

"Quae neque Dardaniis campis potuere perire
Nec quom capta capi, nec quom combusta cremari,
Augusto augurio postquam incluta condita Roma est."

On the other hand he sometimes falls into pure prose;

"Cives Romani tum facti sunt Campani,"

and the like, are scarcely metre, certainly not poetry. Later epicists in their desire to avoid this fault over elaborate their commonplace passages. Ennius tries, however clumsily, to copy Homer in dismissing them without ornament. The one or two similes that are preserved are among his least happy efforts. [7] Among battle scenes he is more at home, and these he paints with reality and strength. There are three passages of considerable length, which the reader who desires to judge of his narrative power should study. They are the dream of Ilia and the auspices of Romulus in the first book, and the description of the friend of Servilius in the seventh. This last is generally thought to be a picture of the poet himself, and to intimate in the most pleasing language his relations to his great patron. For a singularly appreciative criticism of these fragments the student is referred to Sellar's "Poets of the Republic". The massive Roman vigour of treatment which shone forth in the "Annals" and made them as it were a rock-hewn monument of Rome's glory, secured to Ennius a far greater posthumous renown than that of any of the other early poets. Cicero extols him, and has no words too contemptuous for those who despise him, Lucretius praises him in the well known words --

"Ennius ut noster cecinit, qui primus amoeno
Detulit ex Helicone perenni fronde coronam,
Per gentis Italas hominum quae clara clueret." [8]

Virgil, it is true, never mentions him, but he imitates him continually. Ovid, with generous appreciation, allows the greatness of his talent, though he denies him art; [9] and the later imperial writers are even affected in their admiration of him. He continued to be read through the Middle Ages, and was only lost as late as the thirteenth century.

Ennius produced a few scattered imitators, but not until upwards of two generations after his death, if we except the doubtful case of Accius. The first is MATIUS, who translated the Iliad into hexameters. This may be more properly considered as the sequel to Livius, but the few fragments remaining show that his versification was based on that of Ennius. Gellius, with his partiality for all that was archaic, warmly praises this work.

HOSTIUS wrote the "Bellum Istricum" in three books. This was no doubt a continuation of the great master's "Annales". What the war was is not quite certain. Some fix it at 178 B.C.; others as late as 129 B.C. The earlier date is the more probable. We then have to ask when Hostius himself lived. Teuffel inclines to place him before Accius; but most commentators assign him a later date. A few lines are preserved in Macrobius, [10] which seem to point to an early period, "e.g."

"non si mihi linguae
Centum atque ora sient totidem vocesque liquatae,"

and again,

"Dia Minerva, semol autem tu invictus Apollo
Arquitenens Latonius."

His object in quoting these is to show that they were copied by Virgil. A passage in Propertius has been supposed to refer to him, [11]

"Splendidaque a docto fama refulget avo,"

where he would presumably be the grandfather of that Hostia whom under the name of Cynthia so many of Propertius's poems celebrate. Another poet of whom a few lines are preserved in Gellius and Macrobius is A. FURIUS of Antium, which little town produced more than one well-known writer. His work was entitled "Annals". Specimens of his versification are --

"Interea Oceani linquens Aurora cubile."

"Quod genus hoc hominum Saturno sancte create?"

"Pressatur pede pes, mucro mucrone, viro vir." [12]

FOOTNOTES

[1] Vahlen, quoted by Teuffel, S 90, 3; see Gell. xvii. 21, 43.

[2] Post. Works, i. p. 344.

[3] Inest in genere et sanctitas regum, qui plurimum inter nomines
pollent, et caerimonia deorum, quorum ipsi in potestate sunt reges. --
"Suet. Jul." 6.

[4] "Postquamst morte datus Plautus Comoedia luget:
Scaenast deserta; dein Risus, Ludus, Jocusque
Et numeri innumeri simul omnes collacrumarunt."
-- "Gell." i. 24, 3.

[5] "Amnem, Troiugena, Cannam Romane fuge hospes," is the best known of these lines. Many others have been collected, and have been arranged with less probability, in Saturnian verse by Hermann. The substance is given, Livy, xxv. 12. See Browne, Hist. Rom. Lit. p. 34, 35. Another is preserved by Ennius, Aio te, Aeacida, Romanes vincere posse.

[6] The shortening of final "o, ergo, pono, vigilando", through the influence of accent, is almost the only change made after Ennius except in a few proper names.

[7] Compare that of the horse (II. vi. 506), "Et tum sicut equus qui de praesepibu' fartus Vincla suis magnis animis abrupit, et inde Fert sese campi per caerula laetaque prata Celso pectore, saepe iubam quassat simul altam. Spiritus ex anima calida spumas agit albas," with Virg. Aen. xi. 492.

[8] Lucr. i. 111.

[9] Tr. ii. 424.

[10] Sat. vi. 1.

[11] III. 20, 8.

[12] Imitated respectively, Virg. A. iv. 585; A. i. 539; A. x. 361.

CONTENTS - A History of Roman Literature:


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A History of Roman Literature: From the Earliest Period to the Death of Marcus Aurelius
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