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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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Classical Literature

Book III.

The Decline. "From the Accession of Tiberius to the Death of Marcus Aurelius" (12-180 A.D.)

Chapter IV.

The Reigns of Caligula, Claudius, and Nero.

3. Other Prose Writers.

Domitius Corbulo
Quintus Curtius
Pomponius Mela
Valerius Protius
Petronius Arbiter
Account of his extant fragments.

Appendix. -- Note I. The "Testamentum Porcelli",
II. On the MS. of Petronius.

We have dwelt fully on Seneca because he is of all the Claudian writers the one best fitted to appear as a type of the time. There were, however, several others of more or less note who deserve a short notice. There is the historian Domitius Corbulo, [1] who wrote under Caligula (39 A.D.) a history of his campaigns in Asia, and to whom Pliny refers as an authority on topographical and ethnographical questions. He was executed by Nero (67 A.D.) and his wealth confiscated to the crown.

Another historian is Quintus Curtius, whose date has been disputed, some placing him as early as Augustus, in direct contradiction to the evidence of his style, which is moulded on that of Seneca, and of his political ideas, which are those of hereditary monarchy. Others again place him as late as the time of Severus, an opinion to which Niebuhr inclined. But it is more probable that he lived in the time of Claudius and the early years of Nero. [2] His work is entitled "Historiae Alexandri Magni", and is drawn from Clitarchus, Timagenes, and Ptolomaeus. It consisted of ten books, of which all but the first two have come down to us. He paid more attention to style than matter, showing neither historical criticism nor original research, but putting down everything that looked well in the relating, even though he himself did not believe it.

Spain was at this time very rich in authors. For more than half a century she gave the Empire most of its greatest names. The entire epoch has been called that of Spanish Latinity. L. Junius Moderatus Columella was born at Gades, probably [3] near the beginning of our era. His grandfather was a man of substance in that part of the province, and a most successful farmer; it was from him that he imbibed that love of agricultural pursuits which led him to write his learned and elegant treatise. This treatise, which has come down to us entire, and consists of twelve books, was intended to form part of an exhaustive treatment of the subject of agriculture, including the incidental questions ("e.g." those of religion) [4] connected with it. It was expanded and improved from a smaller essay, of which we still possess certain fragments. The work is written in a clear, comprehensive way, drawn not only from the best authorities, but from the author's personal experience. Like a true Roman (it is astonishing how fully these provincials entered into the mind of Rome) he descants on the dignity of the subject, on the lapse from old virtue, on the idleness of men who will not labour on their land and draw forth its riches, and on the necessity of taking up husbandry in a practical business-like way. The tenth book, which treats of gardens, is written in smooth verse, closely imitated from the "Georgics". It is in fact intended as a fifth "Georgic. Virgil had said [5] with reference to gardens:

"Verum haec ipse equidem spatiis exclusus iniqnis
Praetereo, atque aliis post me memoranda relinquo."

These words are an oracle to Columella. "I should have written my tenth book in prose," he says, "had not your frequent requests that I would fill up what was wanting to the "Georgics" got the better of my resolution. Even so, I should not have ventured on poetry if Virgil had not indicated that he wished it to be done. Inspired, therefore, by his divine influence, I have approached my slender theme." The verses are good, though their poetical merit is somewhat on the level of a university prize poem. They conclude thus:

"Hactenus arvorum cultus Silvine docebam
Siderei referens vatis praecepta Maronis."

Among scientific writers we possess a treatise by Scribonius Largus (47 A.D.) on "Compositiones Medicae", which is characterised by Teuffel as "not altogether nonsensical, and in tolerable style, although tinged with the general superstition of the period." The critic Q. Asconius Pedianus (3-88 A.D.) is more important. He devoted his life to an elaborate exegesis of the great Latin classics, more particularly Cicero. His commentary on the "Orations", of which we possess considerable fragments, [6] is written with sound sense, and in a clear pointed style. Some commentaries on the "Verrine Speeches" which bear his name, are the work of a much later hand, though perhaps drawn in great part from him. Another series of notes, extending to a considerable number of orations, was discovered by Mai, [7] but these also have been retouched by a later hand.

An interesting treatise on primitive geography, manners and customs ("Chronographia") which we still possess, was written by Pomponius Mela, of Tingentera in Spain. Like Curtius he has obviously imitated Seneca; his account is too concise, but he intended and perhaps carried out elsewhere a fuller treatment of the subject.

The two studies which despotism had done so much to destroy, oratory and jurisprudence, still found a few votaries. The chief field for speaking was the senate, where men like Crispus, Eprius Marcellus, and Suillius the accuser of Seneca, exercised their genius in adroit flattery. Thrasea, Helvidius, and the opposition, were compelled to study repression rather than fulness. As jurists we hear of few eminent names: Proculus and Cassius Longinus are the most prominent.

Grammar was successfully cultivated by Valerius Probus, who undertook the critical revision of the texts of the Latin classics, much as the Alexandrine grammarians had done for those of Greece. He was originally destined for public life, but through want of success betook himself to study. After his arrival at Rome he gave public lectures on philology, which were numerously attended, and he seems to have retained the affection of all his pupils. His oral notes were afterwards edited in an epistolary form. The work "De Notis Antiquis", or at least a portion of it, "De Iuris Notis", has come down to us in a slightly abridged form; also a short treatise called "Catholica", treating of the noun and verb, though it is uncertain whether this is authentic. [8] Another work on grammar is attributed to him, but as it is evidently at least three centuries later than this date, several critics have supposed it to be by a second Probus, also a grammarian, who lived at that period.

We shall conclude the chapter with a notice of an extraordinary book, the "Satires", which pass under the name of Petronius Arbiter. Who he was is not certainly known; but there was a Petronius in the time of Nero, whose death (66 A.D.), is recorded by Tacitus, [9] and who is generally identified with him. This account has often been quoted; nevertheless we may insert it here: "His days were passed in sleep, his nights in business and enjoyment. As others rise to fame by industry, so he by idleness; and he gained the reputation, not like most spendthrifts of a profligate or glutton, but of a cultured epicure. His words and deeds were welcomed as models of graceful simplicity in proportion as they were morally lax and ostentatiously indifferent to appearances. While proconsul, however, in Bithynia he showed himself vigorous and equal to affairs. Then turning to vice, or perhaps simulating it, he became a chosen intimate of Nero, and his prime authority ("arbiter") in all matters of taste, so that he thought nothing delicate or charming except what Petronius had approved. This raised the envy of Tigellinus, who regarded him as a rival purveyor of pleasure preferred to himself. Consequently he traded on the cruelty of Nero, a vice to which all others gave place, by accusing Petronius of being a friend to Scaevinus, having bribed a slave to give the information, and removed the means of defence by hurrying almost all Petronius's slaves into prison. Caesar was then in Campania, and Petronius, who had gone to Cumae, was arrested there. He determined not to endure the suspense of hope and fear. But he did not hurry out of life; he opened his veins gently, and binding them up from time to time, chatted with his friends, not on serious topics or such as might procure him the fame of constancy, nor did he listen to any conversation on immortality or the doctrines of philosophers, but only to light verses on easy themes. He pensioned some of his slaves, chastised others. He feasted and lay down to rest, that his compulsory death might seem a natural one. In his will he did not, like most of the condemned, flatter Nero, or Tigellinus, or any of the powerful, but satirized the emperor's vices under the names of effeminate youths and women, giving a description of each new kind of debauchery. These he sealed and sent to Nero." Many have thought that in the "Satires" we possess the very writing to which Tacitus refers. But to this it is a sufficient answer that they consisted of sixteen books, far too many to have been written in two days. They must have been prepared before, and perhaps the most caustic of them were selected for the emperor's perusal. The fragment that remains is from the fifteenth and sixteenth books, and is a mixture of verse and prose in excellent Latinity, but deplorably and offensively obscene. Nothing can give a meaner idea of the social culture of Rome than this production of one of her most accomplished masters of self-indulgence. As, however, it is important from a literary, and still more from an antiquarian point of view, we add a short analysis of its contents.

The hero is one Encolpius, who begins by bewailing to a rhetor named Agamemnon the decline of native eloquence, which his friend admits, and ascribes to the general laxity of education. While the question is under discussion Encolpius is interrupted and carried off through a variety of adventures, of which suffice it to say that they are best left in obscurity, being neither humorous nor moral. Another day, he is invited to dine with the rich freedman Trimalchio, under whom, doubtless, some court favourite of Nero is shadowed forth. The banquet and conversation are described with great vividness. After some preliminary compliments, the host, eager to display his learning, turns the discourse upon philology; but he is suddenly called away, and topics of more general interest are introduced, the guests giving their opinions on each in a sufficiently interesting way. The remarks of one Ganymedes on the sufferings of the lower classes, the insufficiency of food, and the lack of healthy industries, are pathetic and true. Meanwhile, Trimalchio returns, orders a boar to be killed and cooked, and while this is in preparation entertains his friends with discussions on rhetoric, medicine, history, art, &c. The scene becomes animated as the wine flows; various ludicrous incidents ensue, which are greeted with extemporaneous epigrams in verse, some rather amusing, others flat and diffuse. The conversation thus turns to the subject of poetry. Cicero and Syrus are compared with some ability of illustration. Jests are freely bandied; ghost stories are proposed, and two marvellous fables related, one on the power of owls to predict events, the other on a soldier who was changed into a wolf. The supernatural is then about to be discussed, when a gentleman named Habinnas and his portly wife Scintilla come in. This lady exhibits her jewels with much complacency, and Trimalchio's wife Fortunata, roused to competition, does the same. Trimalchio has now arrived at that stage of the evening's entertainment when mournful views of life begin to present themselves. He calls for the necessary documents, and forthwith proceeds to make his will. His kind provision for his relatives and dependants, combined with his after-dinner pathos, bring out the softer side of the company's feelings; every one weeps, and for a time festivities are suspended. The terrible insecurity of life under Nero is here pointedly hinted at.

The will read, Trimalchio takes a bath, and soon returns in excellent spirits, ready to dine again. At this his good lady takes umbrage, and something very like a quarrel ensues, on which Trimalchio bids the musicians strike up a dead march. The tumult with which this is greeted is too much for many of the guests. Encolpius, the narrator, leaves the room, and the party breaks up.

Encolpius on leaving Trimalchio's meets a poet, Eumolpus, who complains bitterly of poverty and neglect. A debate ensues on the causes of the decline in painting and the arts; it is attributed to the love of money. A picture representing the sack of Troy gives occasion for a mock-tragic poem of some length, doubtless aimed at Nero's effusions. The poet is pelted as a bore, and has to decamp in haste. But he is incorrigible. He returns, and this time brings a still longer and more pretentious poem. Some applaud; others disapprove. Encolpius, seized with a fit of melancholy, thinks of hanging himself, but is persuaded to live by the artless caresses of a fair boy whom he has loved. Several adventures of a similar kind follow, and the book, which towards the end becomes very fragmentary, ends without any regular conclusion. Enough has been given to show its general character. It is something between a Menippean satire and a "Milesian fable", such as had been translated from the Greek long before by Sisenna, and were to be so successfully imitated in a later age by Apuleius. The narrative goes on from incident to incident without any particular connexion, and allows all kinds of digressions. Poetical insertions are very frequent, some original, others quoted, many of considerable elegance. From its central and by many degrees most entertaining incident the whole satire has been called "The Supper of Trimalchio". We have a few short passages remaining from the lost books, and some allusions in these we possess enable us to reconstruct to some extent their argument. It does not seem to have contained anything specially attractive. If only the book were less offensive, its varied literary scope and polished conversational style would make it truly interesting. As it is, the student of ancient manners finds it a mine of important and out-of-the-way information.


Note I. -- "The Testamentum Porcelli."

Connected with the Milesian fables were the Testamentum Porcelli, short "jeux d'esprit", generally in the form of comic anecdotes, as a rule licentious, but sometimes harmless, and intended for children. A specimen of the unobjectionable sort is here given. St Jerome, who quotes it, says (contra Rufinum, i. 17, p. 473) "Quasi non cirratorum turba Milesiarum in scholis figmenta decantet et testamentum suis Bessorum cachinno membra concutiat, atque inter scurrarum epulas nugae istiusmodi frequententur."

"Testamentum Porcelli."

"Incipit testamentum porcelli.

"M. Grunnius Corocotta porcellus testamentum fecit; quoniam manu mea scribere non potui, scribendum dictavi. Magirus cocus dixit 'veni huc, eversor domi, solivertiator, fugitive porcelle, et hodie tibi dirimo vitam.' Corocotta porcellus dixit 'si qua feci, si qua peccavi, si qua vascella pedibus meis confregi, rogo, domine coce, vitam peto, concede roganti.' Magirus cocus dixit 'transi, puer affer mihi de cocina cultrum, ut hunc porcellum faciam cruentum.' Porcellus comprehenditur a famulis, ductas sub die xvi. kal. luceminas, ubi abundant cymae, Clibanato et Piperato consulibus, et ut vidit se moriturum esse, horae spatium petiit et cocum rogavit ut testamentum facere posset, clamavit ad se suos parentes, ut de cibariis suis aliquid dimitteret eis. Quid ait:

"'Patri meo Verrino Lardino do lego dari glandis modios xxx. et matri meae Veturinae Scrofae do lego dari Laeonicae siliginis modios xl. et sorori meae Quirinae, in euius votum interesse non potui, do lego dari hordei modios xxx. et de meis visceribus dabo donabo sutoribus saetas, rixoribus capitinas, surdis auriculas, causidicis et verbosis linguam, bubulariis intestina, isiciariis femora, mulieribus lumbulos, pueris vesicam, puellis caudam, cinaedis musculos, cursoribus et venatoribus talos, latronibus ungulas, et nec nominando coco legato dimitto popiam et pistillum, quae mecum attuleram: de Tebeste usque ad Tergeste liget sibi collo de reste, et volo mihi fieri monumentum aureis litteris scriptum:' M. Grunnius Corocotta porcellus vixit annis DCCCC.XC.VIIII.S. quod si semissem vixisset, mille annos implesset, 'optimi amatores mei vel consules vitae, rogo vos ut cam corpore meo bene faciatis, bene condiatis de bonis condimentis nuclei, piperis et mellis, ut nomen meum in sempiternum nominetur, mei domini vel consobrini mei, qui in medio testamento interfuistis, iubete signari.'

"Lardio signavit, Ofellicus signavit, Cyminatus signavit, Tergillus signavit, Celsinus signavit, Nuptialisus signavit.

"Explicit testamentum porcelli sub die xvi. kal. lucerninas Clibanato et Piperato consulibus feliciter."

Such ridiculous compositions were extremely popular in court circles during the corrupter periods of the Empire. Suetonius (Tib. 42) tells us that Tiberius gave one Asellius Sabinus L1400 for a dialogue in which the mushroom, the beccaficoe, the oyster, and the thrush advanced their respective claims to be considered the prince of delicacies. To this age also belong the collection of epigrams on Priapus called "Priapea", and including many poems attributed to Virgil, Tibullus, and Ovid. They are mostly of an obscene character, but some few, especially those by Tibullus and Catullus which close the series, are simple and pretty. It is almost inconceivable to us how so disgusting a cultus could have been joined with innocence of life; but as Priapus long maintained his place as a rustic deity we must suppose that the hideous literalism of his surroundings must have been got over by ingenious allegorising, or forgotten by rustic veneration.

II. -- "On the MS. of Petronius."

From Thomson's Essay on the Post-Augustan Latin Poets, from the "Encyclopaedia Metropolitana" ("Roman Literature").

Fragments of Petronius had been printed by Bernardinus de Vitalibus at Venice in 1499, and by Jacobus Thanner at Leipsig in 1508; but in the year 1632, Petrus Petitus, or as he styled himself, Marinus Statilius, a literary Dalmatian, discovered at Traw a MS. containing a much more considerable fragment, which was afterwards published at Padua and Amsterdam, and ultimately purchased at Rome for the library of the King of France in the year 1703. The eminent Mr. J. B. Gail, one of the curators of this library, politely allowed M. Guerard, a young gentleman of considerable learning employed in the MS. department, to afford us the following circumstantial information respecting this valuable codex, classed in the library as 7989: -- "It is a small folio two fingers thick, written on very substantial paper, and in a very legible hand. The titles are in vermillion; the beginnings of the chapters, &c. are also in vermillion or blue. It contains the poems of Tibullus, Propertius and Catullus, as we have them in the ordinary printed editions; then appears the date of the 20th Nov. 1423. After these comes the letter of Sappho, and then the work of Petronius. The extracts are entitled 'Petronii Arbitri satyri fragmenta et libro quinto decimo et sexto decimo,' and begin thus: 'cum (not 'num,' as in the printed copies) in alio genere furiarum declamatores inquietantur,' &c. After these fragments, which occupy twenty-one pages of the MS. we have a piece without title or mention of its author, which is "The Supper of Trimalcio". It begins thus: 'Venerat iam tertius dies,' and ends with the words. 'tam plane quam ex incendio fugimus.' This piece is complete by itself, and does not recur in the other extracts. Then follows the "Moretum", attributed to Virgil, and afterwards the "Phoenix" of Claudian. The latter piece is in the character of the seventeenth century, while the rest of the MS. is in that of the fifteenth." The publication of this fragment excited a great sensation among the learned, to great numbers of whom the original was submitted, and by far the majority of the judges decided in favour of its antiquity. Strong as was this external evidence, the internal is yet more valuable; since it is scarcely possible to conceive a forgery of this length, which would not in some point or other betray itself. The difficulty of forging a work like the "Satyricon" will better appear, when it is considered that such attempts have been actually made. A Frenchman, named Nodot, pretended that the entire work of Petronius had been found at Belgrade in the siege of that town in 1688. The forged MS. was published; but the contempt it excited was no less universal than the consideration which was shown to the MS. of Statilius. Another Frenchman, Lallemand, printed a pretended fragment, with notes and a translation, in 1800, but no one was deceived by it.


[1] Tac. An. xv. 16.

[2] For a full list of all the arguments for and against these dates the reader is referred to Teuffel, R. L. S 287.

[3] The exact date is uncertain. He speaks of Seneca as living, probably between 62 and 65 A.D. But he never mentions Pliny, who, on the contrary, frequently refers to him. He must, therefore, have finished his work before Pliny became celebrated.

[4] Perhaps the treatise "Adversus Astrologos" was written with the object of recommending the worship of the rural deities (xii. 1, 31). In one place (ii. 225) he says he intends to treat of "lustrationes ceteraque sacrifitia".

[5] G. iv. 148.

[6] On the "pro Milone, pro Scauro, pro Cornelia, in Pisonem, in toga candida".

[7] "Scholia Bobbiensia".

[8] It is identical with the second book of Sacerdos, who lived at the close of the third century.

[9] Ann. xvi. 18.

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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