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

Introduction to A History of Roman Literature, by Charles Thomas Cruttwell, M.A. (1877)

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Introduction
Preface
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A Smaller History of Greece
A History of Rome
Classical Literature

Introduction

In the latter part of the seventeenth century, and during nearly the whole of the eighteenth, the literature of Rome exercised an imperial sway over European taste. Pope thought fit to assume an apologetic tone when he clothed Homer in an English dress, and reminded the world that, as compared with Virgil, the Greek poet had at least the merit of coming first. His own mind was of an emphatically Latin order. The great poets of his day mostly based their art on the canons recognised by Horace. And when poetry was thus affected, it was natural that philosophy, history, and criticism should yield to the same influence. A rhetorical form, a satirical spirit, and an appeal to common sense as supreme judge, stamp most of the writers of western Europe as so far pupils of Horace, Cicero, and Tacitus. At present the tide has turned. We are living in a period of strong reaction. The nineteenth century not only differs from the eighteenth, but in all fundamental questions is opposed to it. Its products have been strikingly original. In art, poetry, science, the spread of culture, and the investigation of the basis of truth, it yields to no other epoch of equal length in the history of modern times. If we go to either of the nations of antiquity to seek for an animating impulse, it will not be Rome but Greece that will immediately suggest itself to us. Greek ideas of aesthetic beauty, and Greek freedom of abstract thought, are being disseminated in the world with unexampled rapidity. Rome, and her soberer, less original, and less stimulating literature, find no place for influence. The readiness with which the leading nations drink from the well of Greek genius points to a special adaptation between the two. Epochs of upheaval, when thought is rife, progress rapid, and tradition, political or religious, boldly examined, turn, as if by necessity, to ancient Greece for inspiration. The Church of the second and third centuries, when Christian thought claimed and won its place among the intellectual revolutions of the world, did not disdain the analogies of Greek philosophy. The Renaissance owed its rise, and the Reformation much of its fertility, to the study of Greek. And the sea of intellectual activity which now surges round us moves ceaselessly about questions which society has not asked itself since Greece started them more than twenty centuries age. On the other hand, periods of order, when government is strong and progress restrained, recognise their prototypes in the civilisation of Rome, and their exponents in her literature. Such was the time of the Church's greatest power: such was also that of the fully developed monarchy in France, and of aristocratic ascendancy in England. Thus the two literatures wield alternate influence; the one on the side of liberty, the other on the side of government; the one as urging restless movement towards the ideal, the other as counselling steady acceptance of the real.

From a more restricted point of view, the utility of Latin literature may be sought in the practical standard of its thought, and in the almost faultless correctness of its composition. On the former there is no need to enlarge, for it has always been amply recognised. The latter excellence fits it above all for an educational use. There is probably no language which in this respect comes near to it. The Romans have been called with justice a nation of grammarians. The greatest commanders and statesmen did not disdain to analyse the syntax and fix the spelling of their language. From the outset of Roman literature a knowledge of scientific grammar prevailed. Hence the act of composition and the knowledge of its theory went hand in hand. The result is that among Roman classical authors scarce a sentence can be detected which offends against logical accuracy, or defies critical analysis. In this Latin stands alone. The powerful intellect of an Aeschylus or Thucydides did not prevent them from transgressing laws which in their day were undiscovered, and which their own writing helped to form. Nor in modern times could we find a single language in which the idioms of the best writers could be reduced to conformity with strict rule. French, which at first sight appears to offer such an instance, is seen on a closer view to be fuller of illogical idioms than any other language; its symmetrical exactness arises from clear combination and restriction of single forms to a single use. English, at least in its older form, abounds in special idioms, and German is still less likely to be adduced. As long, therefore, as a penetrating insight into syntactical structure is considered desirable, so long will Latin offer the best field for obtaining it. In gaining accuracy, however, classical Latin suffered a grievous loss. It became a cultivated as distinct from a natural language. It was at first separated from the dialect of the people, and afterwards carefully preserved from all contamination by it. Only a restricted number of words were admitted into its select vocabulary. We learn from Servius that Virgil was censured for admitting "avunculus" into epic verse; and Quintilian says that the prestige of ancient use alone permits the appearance in literature of words like "balare", "hinnire", and all imitative sounds. [1] Spontaneity, therefore, became impossible, and soon invention also ceased; and the imperial writers limit their choice to such words as had the authority of classical usage. In a certain sense, therefore, Latin was studied as a dead language, while it was still a living one. Classical composition, even in the time of Juvenal, must have been a labour analogous to, though, of course, much less than, that of the Italian scholars of the sixteenth century. It was inevitable that when the repositaries of the literary idiom were dispersed, it should at once fall into irrecoverable disuse; and though never properly a dead language, should have remained as it began, an artificially cultivated one. [2] An important claim on our attention put forward by Roman literature is founded upon its actual historical position. Imitative it certainly is. [3] But it is not the only one that is imitative. All modern literature is so too, in so far as it makes a conscious effort after an external standard. Rome may seem to be more of a copyist than any of her successors; but then they have among other models Rome herself to follow. The way in which Roman taste, thought, and expression have found their way into the modern world, makes them peculiarly worthy of study; and the deliberate method of undertaking literary composition practised by the great writers and clearly traceable in their productions, affords the best possible study of the laws and conditions under which literary excellence is attainable. Rules for composition would be hard to draw from Greek examples, and would need a Greek critic to formulate them. But the conscious workmanship of the Romans shows us technical method as separable from the complex aesthetic result, and therefore is an excellent guide in the art.

The traditional account of the origin of literature at Rome, accepted by the Romans themselves, is that it was entirely due to contact with Greece. Many scholars, however, have advanced the opinion that, at an earlier epoch, Etruria exercised an important influence, and that much of that artistic, philosophical, and literary impulse, which we commonly ascribe to Greece, was in its elements, at least, really due to her. Mommsen's researches have re-established on a firmer basis the superior claims of Greece. He shows that Etruscan civilisation was itself modelled in its best features on the Hellenic, that it was essentially weak and unprogressive and, except in religion (where it held great sway) and in the sphere of public amusements, unable permanently to impress itself upon Rome. [4] Thus the literary epoch dates from the conquest of Magna Graecia. After the fall of Tarentum the Romans were suddenly familiarised with the chief products of the Hellenic mind; and the first Punic war which followed, unlike all previous wars, was favourable to the effects of this introduction. For it was waged far from Roman soil, and so relieved the people from those daily alarms which are fatal to the calm demanded by study. Moreover it opened Sicily to their arms, where, more than in any part of Europe except Greece itself, the treasures of Greek genius were enshrined. A systematic treatment of Latin literature cannot therefore begin before Livius Andronicus. The preceding ages, barren as they were of literary effort, afford little to notice except the progress of the language. To this subject a short essay has been devoted, as well as to the elements of literary development which existed in Rome before the regular literature. There are many signs in tradition and early history of relations between Greece and Rome; as the decemviral legislation, the various consultations of the Delphic Oracle, the legends of Pythagoras and Numa, of Lake Regillus, and, indeed, the whole story of the Tarquins; the importation of a Greek alphabet, and of several names familiar to Greek legend -- "Ulysses, Poenus, Catamitus", &c. -- all antecedent to the Pyrrhic war. But these are neither numerous enough nor certain enough to afford a sound basis for generalisation. They have therefore been merely touched on in the introductory essays, which simply aim at a compendious registration of the main points; all fuller information belonging rather to the antiquarian department of history and to philology than to a sketch of the written literature. The divisions of the subject will be those naturally suggested by the history of the language, and recently adopted by Teuffel, "i.e." --

1. The sixth and seventh centuries of the city (240-80 B.C.), from Livius to Sulla.

2. The Golden Age, from Cicero to Ovid (80 B.C.-A.D. 14).

3. The period of the Decline, from the accession of Tiberius to the death of Marcus Aurelius (14-180 A.D.).

These Periods are distinguished by certain strongly marked characteristics. The First, which comprises the history of the legitimate drama, of the early epos and satire, and the beginning of prose composition, is marked by immaturity of art and language, by a vigorous but ill-disciplined imitation of Greek poetical models, and in prose by a dry sententiousness of style, gradually giving way to a clear and fluent strength, which was characteristic of the speeches of Gracchus and Antonius. This was the epoch when literature was popular; or at least more nearly so than at any subsequent period. It saw the rise and fall of dramatic art: in other respects it merely introduced the forms which were carried to perfection in the Ciceronian and Augustan ages. The language did not greatly improve in smoothness, or adaptation to express finished thought. The ancients, indeed, saw a difference between Ennius, Pacuvius, and Accius, but it may be questioned whether the advance would be perceptible by us. Still the "labor limae" unsparingly employed by Terence, the rules of good writing laid down by Lucilius, and the labours of the great grammarians and orators at the close of the period, prepared the language for that rapid development which it at once assumed in the masterly hands of Cicero.

The Second Period represents the highest excellence in prose and poetry. The prose era came first, and is signalised by the names of Cicero, Sallust, and Caesar. The celebrated writers were now mostly men of action and high position in the state. The principles of the language had become fixed; its grammatical construction was thoroughly understood, and its peculiar genius wisely adapted to those forms of composition in which it was naturally capable of excelling. The perfection of poetry was not attained until the time of Augustus. Two poets of the highest renown had indeed flourished in the republican period; but though endowed with lofty genius they are greatly inferior to their successors in sustained art, "e.g." the constructions of prose still dominate unduly in the domain of verse, and the intricacies of rhythm are not fully mastered. On the other hand, prose has, in the Augustan age, lost somewhat of its breadth and vigour. Even the beautiful style of Livy shows traces of that intrusion of the poetic element which made such destructive inroads into the manner of the later prose writers. In this period the writers as a rule are not public men, but belong to what we should call the literary class. They wrote not for the public but for the select circle of educated men whose ranks were gradually narrowing their limits to the great injury of literature. If we ask which of the two sections of this period marks the most strictly national development, the answer must be -- the Ciceronian; for while the advancement of any literature is more accurately tested by its prose writers than by its poets, this is specially the case with the Romans, whose genius was essentially prosaic. Attention now began to be bestowed on physical science, and the applied sciences also received systematic treatment. The rhetorical element, which had hitherto been overpowered by the oratorical, comes prominently forward; but it does not as yet predominate to a prejudicial extent.

The Third Period, though of long duration, has its chief characteristics clearly defined from the beginning. The foremost of these is unreality, arising from the extinction of freedom and consequent loss of interest in public life. At the same time, the Romans, being made for political activity, did not readily content themselves with the less exciting successes of literary life. The applause of the lecture-room was a poor substitute for the thunders of the assembly. Hence arose a declamatory tone, which strove by frigid and almost hysterical exaggeration to make up for the healthy stimulus afforded by daily contact with affairs. The vein of artificial rhetoric, antithesis, and epigram, which prevails from Lucan to Fronto, owes its origin to this forced contentment with an uncongenial sphere. With the decay of freedom, taste sank, and that so rapidly that Seneca and Lucan transgress nearly as much against its canons as writers two generations later. The flowers which had bloomed so delicately in the wreath of the Augustan poets, short-lived as fragrant, scatter their sweetness no more in the rank weed-grown garden of their successors.

The character of this and of each epoch will be dwelt on more at length as it comes before us for special consideration, as well as the social or religious phenomena which influenced the modes of thought or expression. The great mingling of nationalities in Rome during the Empire necessarily produced a corresponding divergence in style, if not in ideas. Nevertheless, although we can trace the national traits of a Lucan or a Martial underneath their Roman culture, the fusion of separate elements in the vast capital was so complete, or her influence so overpowering, that the general resemblance far outweighs the differences, and it is easy to discern the common features which signalise unmistakeably the writers of the Silver Age.

Footnotes

Introduction

[1] Quint. I. 5, 72. The whole chapter is most interesting. [2] How different has been the lot of Greek! An educated Greek at the present day would find little difficulty in understanding Xenophon or Menander. The language, though shaken by rude convulsions, has changed according to its own laws, and shown that natural vitality that belongs to a genuinely popular speech. [3] See Conington on the Academical Study of Latin. Post. Works, i. 206. [4] See esp. R. II. Bk. 1, ch. ix. and xv.

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