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The Old Roman World, : the Grandeur and Failure of Its Civilization online

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Although it is my chief aim to present the magnificent civilization of
the Roman empire under the emperors, I must cite the examples of Grecian
as well as Roman genius, since Greece became a part of that grand
empire, and since Grecian and Roman culture is mixed up and blended
together. Roman youth were trained in the Grecian schools. Young men
were sent to Athens and Rhodes after they had finished their education
in the capital. Athens continued to be, for several hundred years after
her political glory had passed away, the great university city of the
world. Educated Romans were as familiar with the Greek classics as they
were with those of their own country, and could talk Greek as modern
Germans can talk French. The poems which kindled the enthusiasm of Roman
youth are as worthy of notice as the statues which the conquerors
brought from the Ionian cities, to ornament their palaces and baths.
They equally attest the richness of the old civilization. And as it is
the triumph of the pagan intellect which I wish to show, it matters but
little whether we draw our illustrations from Greece or Rome. Without
the aid of Greece, Rome could never have reached the height she
attained.

[Sidenote: Richness of Greek Poetry.]

[Sidenote: The Homeric poems.]

Now how rich in poetry was classical antiquity, whether sung in the
Greek or Latin languages. In all those qualities which give immortality,
it has never been surpassed, whether in simplicity, in passion, in
fervor, in fidelity to nature, in wit, or in imagination. It existed
from the early ages, and continued to within a brief period of the fall
of the empire. With the rich accumulation of ages, the Romans were
familiar. They knew nothing indeed of the solitary grandeur of the
Jewish muse, or the mythological myths of the Ante-Homeric songsters;
but they possessed the Iliad and the Odyssey, with their wonderful
truthfulness, and clear portraiture of character, their absence of all
affectation, their serenity and cheerfulness, their good sense and
healthful sentiments, yet so original that the germ of almost every
character which has since figured in epic poetry can be found in them.
We see in Homer [Footnote: Born probably at Smyrna, an Ionian city,
about one hundred and fifty years after the Trojan War.] a poet of the
first class, holding the same place in literature that Plato does in
philosophy, or Newton in science, and exercising a mighty influence on
all the ages which have succeeded him. For nearly three thousand years
his immortal creations have been the delight and the inspiration of men
of genius, and they are as marvelous to us as they were to the
Athenians, since they are exponents of the learning, as well as of the
consecrated sentiments of the heroic ages. We see no pomp of words, no
far-fetched thoughts, no theatrical turgidity, no ambitious
speculations, no indefinite longings; but we read the manners and
customs of the primitive nations, and lessons of moral wisdom and human
nature as it is, and the sights and wonders of the external world, all
narrated with singular simplicity, yet marvelous artistic skill. We find
accuracy, delicacy, naturalness, yet grandeur, sentiment, and beauty,
such as Pheidias represented in his statues of Jupiter. No poems have
ever been more popular, and none have extorted greater admiration from
critics. Like Shakespeare, Homer is a kind of Bible to both the learned
and unlearned among all people and ages - one of the prodigies of this
world. His poems form the basis of Greek literature, and are the best
understood and the most widely popular of all Grecian composition. The
unconscious simplicity of the Homeric narrative, its vivid pictures, its
graphic details and religious spirit, create an enthusiasm such as few
works of genius can claim. Moreover, it presents a painting of society,
with its simplicity and ferocity, its good and evil passions, its
compassion and its fierceness, such as no other poem affords. [Footnote:
The Homeric poems have been translated into nearly all the European
languages, and several times into English. The last translation is by
the Earl of Derby - a most remarkable work. Guizot, _Cours d'Hist.
Mod_., Lecon 7me; Grote, vol. ii. p. 277; _Studies in Homer_, by
Hon. W. E. Gladstone; Mure, _Critical Hist. of Lang. and Lit. of
Greece_; Muller, _Hist, of the Lit. of Ancient Greece_, translated
by Donaldson.] Nor is it necessary to speak of any other Grecian
epic, when the Iliad and the Odyssey attest the perfection which
was attained one hundred and twenty years before Hesiod was born. Grote
thinks that the Iliad and the Odyssey were produced at some period
between 850 B.C., and 776 B.C.

[Sidenote: Pindar.]

In lyrical poetry the Greeks were no less remarkable, and indeed they
attained to absolute perfection, owing to the intimate connection
between poetry and music. Who has surpassed Pindar in artistic skill?
His _triumphal odes_ are paeans, in which piety breaks out in
expressions of the deepest awe, and the most elevated sentiments of
moral wisdom. They alone of all his writings have descended to us, but
all possess fragments of odes, songs, dirges, and panegyrics, which show
the great excellence to which he attained. He was so celebrated that he
was employed by the different states and princes of Greece to compose
choral songs for special occasions, especially the public games.
Although a Theban, he was held in the highest estimation by the
Athenians, and was courted by kings and princes. [Footnote: Born in
Thebes 522 B.C., and died probably in his eightieth year, and was
contemporary with Aeschylus and the battle of Marathon.] We possess,
also, fragments of Sappho, Simonides, Anacreon, and others, enough to
show that, could the lyrical poetry of Greece be recovered, we should
probably possess the richest collection that the world has produced.

[Sidenote: Greek dramatic poetry.]

But dramatic poetry was still more varied and remarkable. Even the great
masterpieces of Sophocles and Euripides, were regarded by contemporaries
as inferior to many tragedies utterly unknown to us.

[Sidenote: Aeschylus.]

The great creator of the Greek drama was Aeschylus, born at Eleusis, 525
B.C. It was not till the age of forty-one that he gained his first
prize. Sixteen years afterwards, defeated by Sophocles, he quitted
Athens in disgust, and went to the court of Hiero, king of Syracuse. But
he was always held, even at Athens, in the highest honor, and his pieces
were frequently reproduced upon the stage. It was not so much his object
to amuse an audience, as to instruct and elevate it. He combined
religious feeling with lofty moral sentiment. And he had unrivaled power
over the realm of astonishment and terror. "At his summons," says Sir
Walter Scott, "the mysterious and tremendous volume of destiny, in which
is inscribed the doom of gods and men, seemed to display its leaves of
iron before the appalled spectators; the more than mortal voices of
Deities, Titans, and departed heroes, were heard in awful conference;
heaven bowed, and its divinities descended; earth yawned and gave up the
pale spectres of the dead, and yet more undefined and ghastly forms of
those infernal deities who struck horror into the gods themselves." His
imagination dwells in the loftiest regions of the old mythology of
Greece; his tone is always pure and moral, though stern and harsh. He
appeals to the most violent passions, and he is full of the boldest
metaphors. In sublimity he has never been surpassed. He was in poetry,
what Pheidias and Michael Angelo were in art. The critics say that his
sublimity of diction is sometimes carried to an extreme, so that his
language becomes inflated. His characters are sublime, like his
sentiments; they were gods and heroes of colossal magnitude. His
religious views were Homeric, and he sought to animate his countrymen to
deeds of glory, as it became one of the generals who fought at Marathon
to do. He was an unconscious genius, and worked, like Homer, without a
knowledge of artistical laws. He was proud and impatient, and his poetry
was religious rather than moral. He wrote seventy plays, of which only
seven are extant; but these are immortal, among the greatest creations
of human genius, like the dramas of Shakespeare. He died in Sicily in
the sixty-ninth year of his age. The principal English translation of
his plays are by Potter, Harford, and Medwin. [Footnote: See Muller and
Bode, histories of Greek Literature.]

[Sidenote: Sophocles.]

The fame of Sophocles is scarcely less than that of Aeschylus. He was
twenty-seven years of age when he appeared as a rival. He was born in
Colonus, in the suburbs of Athens, 495 B.C., and was the contemporary of
Herodotus, of Pericles, of Pindar, of Pheidias, of Socrates, of Cimon,
of Euripides - the era of great men; the period of the Peloponnesian War,
when every thing that was elegant and intellectual culminated at Athens.
Sophocles had every element of character and person which fascinated the
Greeks: beauty of person, symmetry of form, skill in gymnastics,
calmness and dignity of manner, a cheerful and amiable temper, a ready
wit, a meditative piety, a spontaneity of genius, an affectionate
admiration for talent, and patriotic devotion to his country. His
tragedies, by the universal consent of the best critics, are the
perfection of the Grecian drama, and they, moreover, maintain that he
has no rival, Shakespeare alone excepted, in the whole realm of dramatic
poetry, unless it be Aeschylus himself, to whom he bears the same
relation in poetry that Raphael does to Michael Angelo in the world of
art. It was his peculiarity to excite emotions of sorrow and compassion.
He loved to paint forlorn heroes. He was human in all his sympathies,
not so religious as his great rival, but as severely ethical; not so
sublime, but more perfect in art. His sufferers are not the victims of
an inexorable destiny, but of their own follies. Nor does he even excite
emotion apart from a moral end. He lived to be ninety years old, and
produced the most beautiful of his tragedies in his eightieth year, the
"Oedipus at Colonus." He wrote the astonishing number of one hundred and
thirty plays, and carried off the first prize twenty-four times. His
"Antigone" was written when he was forty-five, and when Euripides had
already gained a prize. Only seven of his tragedies have survived, but
these are priceless treasures. The fertility of his genius was only
equaled by his artistic skill. [Footnote: Schlegel, _Lectures on
Dramatic Art_; Muller, _Hist. Lit._; Donaldson's _Antigone_;
Lessing, _Leben des Sophokles_; Philip Smith, article in Smith's
_Dict._.]

[Sidenote: Euripides.]

Euripides, the last of the great triumvirate of the Greek tragic poets,
was born at Athens, B.C. 485. He had not the sublimity of Aeschylus, nor
the touching pathos of Sophocles, but, in seductive beauty and
successful appeal to passion, was superior to both. Nor had he their
stern simplicity. In his tragedies the passion of love predominates, nor
does it breathe the purity of sentiment. It approaches rather to the
tone of the modern drama. He paints the weakness and corruptions of
society, and brings his subjects to the level of common life. He was the
pet of the Sophists, and was pantheistic in his views. He does not paint
ideal excellence, and his characters are not as men ought to be, but as
they are, especially in corrupt states of society. He wrote ninety-five
plays, of which eighteen are extant. Whatever objection may be urged in
reference to his dramas on the score of morality, nobody can question
their transcendent art, or his great originality. With the exception of
Shakespeare, all succeeding dramatists have copied these three great
poets, especially Racine, who took Sophocles for his model. [Footnote:
Muller, Schlegel. Sir Walter Scott on the Drama; Gote, vol. viii. p.
442, Thorne, _Mag. Via. Eurip._ Potter has made a translation of
all his plays.]

[Sidenote: Greek comedy.]

[Sidenote: Aristophanes.]

The Greeks were no less distinguished for comedy. Both tragedy and
comedy sprung from feasts in honor of Bacchus; and as the jests and
frolics were found misplaced when introduced into grave scenes, a
separate province of the drama was formed, and comedy arose. At first it
did not derogate from the religious purposes which were at the
foundation of the Greek drama. It turned upon parodies, in which the
adventures of the gods are introduced by way of sport, like the appetite
of Hercules, or the cowardice of Bacchus. Then the comic authors
entertained spectators by fantastic and gross displays; by the
exhibition of buffoons and pantomimes. But the taste of the Athenians
was too severe to relish such entertainments, and comedy passed into
ridicule of public men and measures, and of the fashions of the day. The
people loved to see their great men brought down to their own level. Nor
did comedy flourish until the morals of society were degenerated, and
ridicule had become the most effective weapon to assail prevailing
follies. Comedy reached its culminating point when society was both the
most corrupt and the most intellectual, as in France, when Moliere
pointed his envenomed shafts against popular vices. It pertained to the
age of Socrates and the Sophists, when there was great bitterness in
political parties, and an irrepressible desire for novelties. In
Cratinus, comedy first made herself felt as a great power, who espoused
the side of Cimon against Pericles, with great bitterness and vehemence.
Many were the comic writers of that age of wickedness and genius, but
all yielded precedence to Aristophanes, whose plays only have reached
us. Never were libels on persons of authority and influence uttered with
such terrible license. He attacked the gods, the politicians, the
philosophers, and the poets of Athens; even private citizens did not
escape from his shafts, and women were subjects of his irony. Socrates
was made the butt of his ridicule, when most revered, and Cleon in the
height of his power, and Euripides when he had gained the highest
prizes. He has furnished jests for Rabelais, and hints to Swift, and
humor for MoliEre. In satire, in derision, in invective, and bitter
scorn, he has never been surpassed. No modern capital would tolerate
such unbounded license. Yet no plays were ever more popular, or more
fully exposed follies which could not otherwise be reached. He is called
the Father of Comedy, and his comedies are of great historical
importance, although his descriptions are doubtless caricatures. He was
patriotic in his intentions, and set up for a reformer. His peculiar
genius shines out in his "Clouds," the greatest of his pieces, in which
he attacks the Sophists. He wrote fifty-four plays. He was born B.C.
444, and died B.C. 380. His best comedies are translated by Mitchell.

Thus it would appear that in the three great departments of poetry, - the
epic, the lyric, and the dramatic, - the old Greeks were great masters,
and have been the teachers of all subsequent nations and ages.

The Romans, in these departments, were not their equals, but they were
very successful copyists, and will bear competition with modern nations.
If the Romans did not produce a Homer, they can boast of a Virgil; if
they had no Pindar, they furnished a Horace, while in satire they
transcended the Greeks.

[Sidenote: Naevius.]

The Romans, however, produced no poetry worthy of notice until the Greek
language and literature were introduced. It was not till the fall of
Tarentum that we read of a Roman poet. Livius Andronicus, a Greek slave,
B.C. 240, rudely translated the Odyssey into Latin, and was the author
of various plays, all of which have perished, and none of which,
according to Cicero, were worth a second perusal. Still he was the first
to substitute the Greek drama for the old lyrical stage poetry. One year
after the first Punic War, he exhibited the first Roman play. As the
creator of the drama, he deserves historical notice, though he has no
claim to originality, and like a schoolmaster as he was, pedantically
labored to imitate the culture of the Greeks. And his plays formed the
commencement of Roman translation-literature, and naturalized the Greek
metres in Latium, even though they were curiosities rather than works of
art. [Footnote: Mommsen, vol. ii. b. ii. ch. xiv.] Naevius, B.C. 235,
produced a play at Rome, and wrote both epic and dramatic poetry, but so
little has survived, that no judgment can be formed of his merits. He
was banished for his invectives against the aristocracy, who did not
relish severity of comedy. [Footnote: Horace, _Ep_. ii. 11, 53.]
Mommsen regards Naevius as the first among the Romans who deserves to be
ranked among the poets. He flourished about the year 550, and closely
adhered to Andronicus in metres. His language is free from stiffness and
affectation, and his verses have a graceful flow. Plautus was perhaps
the first great poet whom the Romans produced, and his comedies are
still admired by critics, as both original and fresh. He was born in
Umbria, B.C. 257, and was contemporaneous with Publius and Cneius
Scipio. He died B.C. 184.

[Sidenote: Plautus.]

The first development of Roman genius in the field of poetry, seems to
have been the dramatic, in which the Greek authors were copied. Plautus
might be mistaken for a Greek, were it not for the painting of Roman
manners. His garb is essentially Greek. He wrote one hundred and thirty
plays, not always for the stage, but for the reading public. He lived
about the time of the second Punic War, before the theatre was fairly
established at Rome. His characters, although founded on Greek models,
act, speak, and joke like Romans. He enjoyed great popularity down to
the latest times of the empire, while the purity of his language, as
well as the felicity of his wit, was celebrated by the ancient critics.
[Footnote: Quint., x. i. Section 99.] Cicero places his wit on a par
with the old Attic comedy, [Footnote: Cicero, _De Off_., i. 29.]
while Jerome spent much time in reading his comedies, even though they
afterward cost him tears of bitter regret. Modern dramatists owe much to
him. Moliere has imitated him in his "_Avare_," and Shakespeare in
his "Comedy of Errors." Lessing pronounces the "_Captivi_" to be
the finest comedy ever brought upon the stage. [Footnote: Smith, _Dict.
of Ant._ art. _Plaut_.] He has translated this play into German.
It has also been admirably translated into English. The great excellence
of Plautus was the masterly handling of the language, and the adjusting
the parts for dramatic effect. His humor, broad and fresh, produced
irresistible comic effects. No one ever surpassed him in his vocabulary
of nicknames, and his happy jokes. Hence he maintained his popularity in
spite of his vulgarity. [Footnote: Mommsen, vol. ii. b. iii. ch. xiv.]

[Sidenote: Terence.]

Terence shares with Plautus the throne of Roman comedy. He was a
Carthaginian slave, and was born B.C. 160, but was educated by a wealthy
Roman, into whose hands he fell, and ever after associated with the best
society, and traveled extensively into Greece. He was greatly inferior
to Plautus in originality, nor has he exerted a lasting influence like
him; but he wrote comedies characterized by great purity of diction, and
which have been translated into all modern languages. [Footnote:
Coleman's _Terence_; Dryden, _On Dram. Poet._; Mommsen, vol.
iii. b. v. ch. xiii.] Anterior to the Augustan age, no tragic production
has reached us, although Quintilian speaks highly of Accius, [Footnote:
Quint., x. 1. Section 97.] especially of the vigor of his style. But
he merely imitated the Greeks. Terence closely copied Menander, whom
Mommsen regards as the most polished, elegant, and chaste of all the
poets of the newer comedy. Unlike Plautus, he draws his characters from
good society, and his comedies, if not moral, were decent. Plautus wrote
for the multitude; Terence for the few. Plautus delighted in a noisy
dialogue and slang expressions; Terence confines himself to quiet
conversation and elegant expressions, for which he was admired by Cicero
and Quintilian, and other great critics. He aspired to the approval of
the good, rather than the applause of the vulgar; and it is a remarkable
fact that his comedies supplanted the more original productions of
Plautus in the latter years of the republic, showing that the literature
of the aristocracy was more prized than that of the people, even in a
degenerate age. The "_Thyestes_" [Footnote: Hor., _Sat_. I 9;
Martial, viii. 18.] of Varius, was regarded in its day as equal to Greek
tragedies. Ennius composed tragedies in a vigorous style, and was
regarded by the Romans as the parent of their literature, although most
of his works have perished. [Footnote: Born B.C. 239.] Virgil borrowed
many of his thoughts, and he was regarded as the prince of Roman song in
the time of Cicero. The Latin language is greatly indebted to him.
Pacuvius imitated Aeschylus in the loftiness of his style. [Footnote:
Born B.C. 170] The only tragedy of the Romans which has reached us was
written by Seneca the philosopher.

[Sidenote: The Aeneid.]

[Sidenote: Virgil.]

In epic poetry the Romans accomplished more, though still inferior to
the Greeks. The "Aeneid" has certainly survived the material glories of
Rome. It may not have come up to the exalted ideal of its author; it may
be defaced by political flatteries; it may not have the force and
originality of the "Iliad," but it is superior in art, and delineates
the passion of love with more delicacy than can be found in any Greek
author. In soundness of judgment, in tenderness of feeling, in chastened
fancy, in picturesque description, in delineation of character, in
matchless beauty of diction, and in splendor of versification, it has
never been surpassed by any poem in any language, and proudly takes its
place among the imperishable works of genius. "Availing himself of the
pride and superstition of the Roman people, the poet traces the origin
and establishment of the 'Eternal City,' to those heroes and actions
which had enough in them of what was human and ordinary to excite the
sympathies of his countrymen, intermingled with persons and
circumstances of an extraordinary and superhuman character to awaken
their admiration and awe. No subject could have been more happily
chosen. It has been admired also for its perfect unity of action; for
while the episodes command the richest variety of description, they are
always subordinate to the main object of the poem, which is to impress
the divine authority under which Aeneas first settled in Italy. The wrath
of Juno, upon which the whole fate of Aeneas seems to turn, is at once
that of a woman and a goddess; the passion of Dido, and her general
character, bring us nearer to the present world; but the poet is
continually introducing higher and more effectual influences, until, by
the intervention of gods and men, the Trojan name is to be continued in
the Roman, and thus heaven and earth are appeased." [Footnote: Thompson,
_Hist. Rom. Lit._, p. 92.] No one work of man has probably had such
a wide and profound influence as this poem of Virgil, - a text-book in
all schools since the revival of learning, the model of the Carlovingian
poets, the guide of Dante, the oracle of Tasso. [Footnote: Virgil was
born seventy years before Christ, and was seven years older than
Augustus. His parentage was humble, but his facilities of education were
great. He was a most fortunate man, enjoying the friendship of Augustus
and Maecenas, fame in his own lifetime, leisure to prosecute his studies,
and ample rewards for his labors. He died at Brundusium at the age of
fifty.]

[Sidenote: Horace.]

In lyrical poetry, the Romans can boast of one of the greatest masters
of any age or nation. The Odes of Horace have never been transcended,
and will probably remain through all the ages, the delight of scholars.
They may not have the deep religious sentiment, and the unity of
imagination and passion which belong to the Greek lyrical poets, but as
works of art, of exquisite felicity of expression, of agreeable images,
they are unrivaled. Even in the time of Juvenal, his poems were the
common school books of Roman youth. Horace, like Virgil, was a favored
man, enjoying the friendship of the great with ease, fame, and fortune.
But his longings for retirement, and his disgust at the frivolities
around him, are a sad commentary on satisfied desires. [Footnote: Born
B.C. 65. The best translation of his works is by Francis; but Horace is



Online LibraryJohn LordThe Old Roman World, : the Grandeur and Failure of Its Civilization → online text (page 22 of 50)