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untranslatable.] His odes compose but a small part of his writings. His
epistles are the most perfect of his productions, and rank with the
Georgics of Virgil and the satires of Juvenal, as the most perfect form
of Roman verse. His satires are also admirable, but without the fierce
vehemence and lofty indignation that characterized Juvenal. It is the
folly rather than the wickedness of vice which he describes with such
playful skill and such keenness of observation. He was the first to
mould the Latin tongue to the Greek lyric measures. Quintilian's
criticism is indorsed by all scholars. "_Lyricorum Horatius fere solus
legi dignus, in verbis felicissime audax_." No poetry was ever more
severely elaborated than that of Horace, and the melody of the language
imparts to it a peculiar fascination. If inferior to Pindar in passion
and loftiness, it glows with a more genial humanity, and with purer wit.
It cannot be enjoyed fully, except by those versed in the experiences of
life. Such perceive a calm wisdom, a penetrating sagacity, a sober
enthusiasm, and a refined taste, which are unusual even among the
masters of human thought. It is the fashion to depreciate the original
merits of this poet, as well as those of Virgil and Plautus and Terence,
because they derived so much assistance from the Greeks. But the Greeks
borrowed from each other. Pure originality is impossible. It is the
mission of art to add to its stores, without hoping to monopolize the
whole realm. Even Shakespeare, the most original of modern poets, was
vastly indebted to those who went before him, and even he has not
escaped the hypercriticism of minute observers.

[Sidenote: Catullus.]

In this allusion to lyrical poetry, I have not spoken of Catullus,
unrivaled in tender lyric, and the greatest poet before the Augustan
era. He was born B.C. 87, and enjoyed the friendship of the most
celebrated characters. One hundred and sixteen of his poems have come
down to us, most of which are short, and many of them defiled by great
coarseness and sensuality. Critics say, however, that whatever he
touched he adorned; that his vigorous simplicity, pungent wit, startling
invective, and felicity of expression, make him one of the great poets
of the Latin language.

[Sidenote: Lucretius.]

In didactic poetry, Lucretius was preeminent, and is regarded by
Schlegel as the first of Roman poets in native genius. [Footnote: Born
B.C. 95, died B.C. 52. Smith's _Dict._] He lived before the
Augustan era, and died at the age of forty-two by his own hand. His
great poem "De Rerum Natura," is a delineation of the epicurean
philosophy, and treats of all the great subjects of thought with which
his age is conversant. It somewhat resembles Pope's "Essay on Man," in
style and subject, but immeasurably superior in poetical genius. It is a
lengthened disquisition, in seven thousand four hundred lines, of the
great phenomena of the outward world. As a painter and worshiper of
nature, he was superior to all the poets of antiquity. His skill in
presenting abstruse speculations is marvelous, and his outbursts of
poetic genius are matchless in power and beauty. Into all subjects he
casts a fearless eye, and writes with sustained enthusiasm. But he was
not fully appreciated by his countrymen, although no other poet has so
fully brought out the power of the Latin language. Professor Ramsay,
[Footnote: The translation of Lucretius into English was made by I. M.
Goode, Evelyn, and Drummond.] while alluding to the melancholy
tenderness of Tibullus, the exquisite ingenuity of Ovid, the inimitable
felicity and taste of Horace, the gentleness and splendor of Virgil, and
the vehement declamation of Juvenal, thinks that, had the verses of
Lucretius perished, we should never have known that it could give
utterance to the grandest conceptions with all that self-sustained
majesty and harmonious swell, in which the Grecian muse rolls forth her
loftiest outpourings. The eulogium of Ovid is -

"Carmina sublimis tune sunt peritura Lucreti,
Exitio terras quum dabit una dies."

[Sidenote: Ovid.]

Elegiac poetry has an honorable place in Roman literature. To this
school belongs Ovid, [Footnote: Born B.C. 43. Died A.D. 18.] whose
"Metamorphoses" will always retain their interest. He, with that self-
conscious genius common to poets, declares that his poem would be proof
against sword, fire, thunder, and time, - a prediction, says Bayle,
[Footnote: Bayle, _Dict._] which has not yet proved false. Niebuhr
[Footnote: _Lect._, vol. ii. p. 166.] thinks that, next to
Catullus, he was the most poetical of his countrymen. Milton thinks he
could have surpassed Virgil had he attempted epic poetry. He was nearest
to the romantic school of all the classical authors, and Chaucer,
Ariosto, and Spenser owe to him great obligations. Like Pope, his verses
flowed spontaneously. His "Tristia" were more admired by the Romans than
his "Amores" or "Metamorphoses," - probably from the doleful description
of his exile, - a fact which shows that contemporaries are not always the
best judges of real merit. His poems, great as was their genius, are
deficient in the severe taste which marked the Greeks, and are immoral
in their tendency. He had great advantages, but was banished by Augustus
for his description of licentious love, "Carmina per libidinosa." Nor
did he support exile with dignity. He died of a broken heart, and
languished, like Cicero, when doomed to a similar fate. But few
intellectual men have ever been able to live at a distance from the
scene of their glories, and without the stimulus of high society.
Chrysostom is one of the few exceptions. Ovid, as an immoral man, was
justly punished.

[Sidenote: Tibullus.]

Tibullus was also a famous elegiac poet, and was born the same year as
Ovid, and was the friend of Horace. He lived in retirement, and was both
gentle and amiable. At his beautiful country seat he soothed his soul
with the charms of literature and the simple pleasures of the country.
Niebuhr pronounces his elegies doleful, [Footnote: _Lect._, vol.
iii. p. 143.] but Merivale [Footnote: _Hist_, vol. iv. p. 602.]
thinks that "the tone of tender melancholy in which he sung his
unprosperous loves had a deeper and purer source than the caprices of
three inconstant paramours." "His spirit is eminently religious, though
it bids him fold his hands in resignation rather than open them in hope.
He alone of all the great poets of his day remained undazzled by the
glitter of the Caesarian usurpation, and pined away in unavailing
despondency, in beholding the subjugation of his country."

[Sidenote: Propertius.]

His contemporary, Propertius, [Footnote: Born B.C. 51.] was, on the
contrary, the most eager of all the flatterers of Augustus, - a man of
wit and pleasure, whose object or idolatry was Cynthia, a poetess and a
courtesan. He was an imitator of the Greeks, but had a great
contemporary fame, [Footnote: Quint., x. 1. Section 93.] and shows
great warmth of passion, but he never soared into the sublime heights of
poetry, like his rival. Such were among the great elegiac poets of Rome,
generally devoted to the delineation of the passion of love. The older
English poets resembled them in this respect, but none of them have
soared to such lofty heights as the later ones, like Wordsworth and
Tennyson. It is in lyric poetry that the moderns have chiefly excelled
the ancients, in variety, in elevation of sentiment, and in imagination.
The grandeur and originality of the ancients were displayed rather in
epic and dramatic poetry.

[Sidenote: Juvenal.]

[Sidenote: Perseus.]

In _satire_ the Romans transcended both the Greeks and the moderns.
There is nothing in any language which equals the fire, the intensity,
and the bitterness of Juvenal, - not even Swift and Pope. But he
flourished in the decline of literature, and has neither the taste nor
elegance of the Augustan writers. He was the son of a freedman, and was
born A.D. 38, and was the contemporary of Martial. He was banished by
Domitian on account of a lampoon against a favorite dancer, but under
the reign of Nerva he returned to Rome, and the imperial tyranny was the
subject of his bitterest denunciation, next to the degradation of public
morals. His great rival in satire was Horace, who laughed at follies;
but he, more austere, exaggerated and denounced them. His sarcasms on
women have never been equaled in severity, and we cannot but hope that
they were unjust. In an historical point of view, as a delineation of
the manners of his age, his satires are priceless, even like the
epigrams of Martial. Satire arose with Lucilius, [Footnote: Born B.C.
148.] in the time of Marius, an age when freedom of speech was
tolerated. Horace was the first to gain immortality in this department.
Persius comes next, born A.D. 34, the friend of Lucan and Seneca in the
time of Nero; and he painted the vices of his age when it was passing to
that degradation which marked the reign of Domitian when Juvenal
appeared, who, disdaining fear, boldly set forth the abominations of the
times, and struck without distinction all who departed from duty and
conscience. This uncompromising poet, not pliant and easy like Horace,
animadverted, like an incorruptible censor, on the vices which were
undermining the moral health and preparing the way for violence; on the
hypocrisy of philosophers and the cruelty of tyrants; on the weakness of
women and the debauchery of men. He discourses on the vanity of human
wishes with the moral wisdom of Dr. Johnson, and urges self-improvement
like Socrates and Epictetus. [Footnote: The best translations of Juvenal
are those of Dryden, Gifford, and Badham.]

I might speak of other celebrated poets, - of Lucan, of Martial, of
Petronius; but I only wish to show that the great poets of antiquity,
both Greek and Roman, have never been surpassed in genius, in taste, and
in art, and few were ever more honored in their lifetime by appreciating
admirers showing the advanced state of civilization which was reached in
every thing pertaining to the realm of thought.

But the genius of the ancients was displayed in prose composition as
well as in poetry, although perfection was not so soon attained. The
poets were the great creators of the languages of antiquity. It was not
until they had produced their immortal works that the languages were
sufficiently softened and refined to admit of great beauty in prose. But
prose requires art as well as poetry. There is an artistic rhythm in the
writings of the classical authors, like those of Cicero and Herodotus
and Thucydides, as marked as in the beautiful measure of Homer and
Virgil. Burke and Macaulay are as great artists in style as Tennyson
himself. Plato did not write poetry, but his prose is as "musical as
Apollo's lyre." And it is seldom that men, either in ancient or modern
times, have been distinguished for both kinds of composition, although
Voltaire, Schiller, Milton, Swift, and Scott are among the exceptions.
Cicero, the greatest prose writer of antiquity, produced only an
inferior poem, laughed at by his contemporaries. Bacon could not write
poetry, with all his affluence of thought and vigor of imagination and
command of language, any easier than Pope could write prose.

All sorts of prose compositions were carried to perfection by both
Greeks and Romans, in history, in criticism, in philosophy, in oratory,
in epistles.

[Sidenote: Herodotus.]

The earliest great prose writer among the Greeks was Herodotus,
[Footnote: Born B.C. 484.] from which we may infer that _History_
was the first form of prose composition which attained development. But
Herodotus was not born until Aeschylus had gained a prize for tragedy,
more than two hundred years after Simonides, the lyric poet, flourished,
and probably six hundred years after Homer sung his immortal epics.
After more than two thousand years the style of this great "Father of
History" is admired by every critic; while his history, as a work of
art, is still a study and a marvel. It is difficult to understand why no
anterior work in prose is worthy of note, since the Greeks had attained
a high civilization two hundred years before he appeared, and the
language had reached a high point of development under Homer for more
than five hundred years. The history of Herodotus was probably written
in the decline of life, when his mind was enriched with great
attainments in all the varied learning of his age, and when he had
conversed with most of the celebrated men of the various countries which
he visited. It pertains chiefly to the wars of the Greeks with the
Persians; but, in his frequent episodes, which do not impair the unity
of the work, he is led to speak of the manners and customs of the
oriental nations. It was once the fashion to speak of Herodotus as a
credulous man, who embodied the most improbable, though interesting
stories. But now it is believed that no historian was ever more
profound, conscientious, and careful; and all modern investigations
confirm his sagacity and impartiality. He was one of the most
accomplished men of antiquity, or of any age, - an enlightened and
curious traveler, a profound thinker, a man of universal knowledge,
familiar with the whole range of literature, art, and science in his
day, acquainted with all the great men of Greece and at the courts of
Asiatic princes, the friend of Sophocles, of Pericles, of Thucydides, of
Aspasia, of Socrates, of Damon, of Zeno, of Pheidias, of Protagoras, of
Euripides, of Polygnotus, of Anaxagoras, of Xenophon, of Alcibiades, of
Lysias, of Aristophanes, - the most brilliant constellation of men of
genius who were ever found together within the walls of a Grecian city,
respected and admired by these great lights, all of whom he transcended
in knowledge. Thus was he fitted for his task by travel, by study, and
by intercourse with the great, to say nothing of his original genius,
and the greatest prose work which had yet appeared in Greece was
produced, - a prose epic, severe in taste, perfect in unity, rich in
moral wisdom, charming in style, religious in spirit, grand in subject,
without a coarse passage; simple, unaffected, and beautiful, like the
narratives of the Bible; amusing, yet instructive, easy to understand,
yet extending to the utmost boundaries of human research - a model for
all subsequent historians. So highly was it valued by the Athenians,
when their city was at the height of its splendor, that they decreed to
its author ten talents, about twelve thousand dollars, for reciting it.
He even went from city to city, a sort of prose rhapsodist, or like a
modern lecturer, reciting his history - an honored and extraordinary man,
a sort of Humboldt, having mastered every thing. And he wrote, not for
fame, but to communicate the results of his inquiries, from the pure
love of truth which he learned by personal investigation at Dodona, at
Delphi, at Samos, at Athens, at Corinth, at Thebes, at Tyre; yea, he
traveled into Egypt, Scythia, Asia Minor, Palestine, Babylonia, Italy,
and the islands of the sea. His episode in Egypt is worth more, in an
historical point of view, than every thing combined which has descended
to us from antiquity. Herodotus was the first to give dignity to
history; nor, in truthfulness, candor, and impartiality, has he ever
been surpassed. His very simplicity of style is a proof of his
transcendent art, even as it is the evidence of his severity of taste.
[Footnote: Dahlman has written an admirable life of Herodotus; but
Rawlinson's translation, with his notes, is invaluable.]

[Sidenote: Thucydides.]

To Thucydides, as an historian, the modern world also assigns a proud
preeminence. He treated only of a short period, during the Peloponnesian
War; but the various facts connected with that great event could only be
known by the most minute and careful inquiries. He devoted twenty-seven
years to the composition of his narration, and he weighed his testimony
with the most scrupulous care. His style has not the fascination of
Herodotus, but it is more concise. In a single volume he relates what
could scarcely be compressed into eight volumes of a modern history. As
a work of art, of its kind, it is unrivaled. In his description of the
plague of Athens he is minute as he is simple. He abounds with rich
moral reflections, and has a keen perception of human character. His
pictures are striking and tragic. He is vigorous and intense, and every
word he uses has a meaning. But some of his sentences are not always
easily understood. One of the greatest tributes which can be paid to him
is, that, according to the estimate of an able critic, [Footnote: George
Long, Oxford.] we have a more exact history of a long and eventful
period by Thucydides than we have of any period in modern history,
equally long and eventful; and all this is compressed into a volume.
[Footnote: Born 471 B.C.; lived twenty years in exile on account of a
military failure.]

[Sidenote: Xenophon.]

Xenophon is the last of the trio of the Greek historians, whose writings
are classical and inimitable. [Footnote: Born probably about 444 B.C.]
He is characterized by great simplicity and absence of affectation. His
"Anabasis," in which he describes the expedition of the younger Cyrus
and the retreat of the ten thousand Greeks, is his most famous book. But
his "Cyropaedia," in which the history of Cyrus is the subject, although
still used as a classic in colleges for the beauty of the style, has no
value as a history, since the author merely adopted the current stories
of his hero without sufficient investigation. Xenophon wrote a variety
of treatises and dialogues, but his "Memorabilia" of Socrates is the
most valuable. All antiquity and all modern writers unite in giving to
Xenophon great merit as a writer, and great moral elevation as a man.

If we pass from the Greek to the Latin historians, - to those who were as
famous as the Greek, and whose merit has scarcely been transcended in
our modern times, if, indeed, it has been equaled, - the great names of
Sallust, of Caesar, of Livy, of Tacitus, rise up before us, together with
a host of other names we have not room or disposition to present, since
we only aim to show that the ancients were at least our equals in this
great department of prose composition. The first great masters of the
Greek language in prose were the historians, so far as their writings
have descended, although it is probable that the orators may have shaped
the language before them, and given it flexibility and refinement. The
first great prose writers of Rome were the orators. Nor was the Latin
language fully developed and polished until Cicero appeared. But we do
not write a history of the language: we speak only of those who wrote
immortal works in the various departments of learning.

As Herodotus did not arise until the Greek language had been already
formed by the poets, so no great prose writer appeared among the Romans
for a considerable time after Plautus, Terence, Ennius, and Lucretius

[Sidenote: Sallust.]

The first great historian was Sallust, the contemporary of Cicero, born
B.C. 86, the year that Marius died. Q. Fabius Pictor, M. Portius Cato,
L. Cal. Piso had already written works which are mentioned with respect
by the Latin authors, but they were mere annalists or antiquarians, like
the chroniclers of the Middle Ages, and had no claim as artists. Sallust
made Thucydides his model, but fell below him in genius and elevated
sentiment. He was born a plebeian, and rose to distinction by his
talents, but was ejected from the Senate for his profligacy. Afterwards
he made a great fortune as praetor and governor of Numidia, and lived in
magnificence on the Quirinal - one of the most profligate of the literary
men of antiquity. We possess but a small portion of his works, but the
fragments which have come down to us show peculiar merit. He sought to
penetrate the human heart, and reveal the secret motives which actuate
the conduct of men. His style is brilliant, but his art is always
apparent. He is clear and lively, but rhetorical. Like Voltaire, who
inaugurated modern history, he thought more of style than of accuracy of
facts. He was a party man, and never soared beyond his party. He aped
the moralist, but erected egotism and love of pleasure into proper
springs of action, and honored talent disconnected with virtue.
Like Carlyle, he exalted _strong_ men, and _because_ they were
strong. He was not comprehensive like Cicero, or philosophical like
Thucydides, although he affected philosophy as he did morality. He was
the first who deviated from the strict narratives of events, and also
introduced much rhetorical declamation, which he puts into the mouths of
his heroes. [Footnote: The best translations of this author are those by
Stewart, 1806, and Murphy, 1807.] He wrote for eclat.

[Sidenote: Caesar.]

Caesar, as an historian, ranks higher, and no Roman ever wrote purer
Latin than he. But his historical works, however great their merit, but
feebly represent his transcendent genius - the most august name of
antiquity. He was mathematician, architect, poet, philologist, orator,
jurist, general, statesman - imperator. In eloquence he was only second
to Cicero. The great value of his history is in the sketches of the
productions, the manners, the customs, and the political state of Gaul,
Britain, and Germany. His observations on military science, on the
operation of sieges, and construction of bridges and military engines,
are valuable. But the description of his military operations is only a
studied apology for his crimes, even as the bulletins of Napoleon were
set forth to show his victories in the most favorable light. His fame
rests on his victories and successes as a statesman rather than on his
merits as an historian, even as Louis Napoleon will live in history for
his deeds rather than as the apologist of Caesar. [Footnote: See
_History of Caesar_, by Napoleon, a work more learned than popular,
however greatly he may be indebted to the labors of others.] The
"Commentaries" resemble the history of Herodotus more than any other
Latin production, at least in style; they are simple and unaffected,
precise and elegant, plain and without pretension.

Caesar was born B.C. 100, and while I admire his genius and his
generosity, I hold in detestation the ambition which led him to overturn
the constitution of his country on the plea of revolutionary necessity.
It is true that there was the strife of parties and factions, greedy of
revenge, and still more of spoils. It was a period of "_great
offenses_," but it was also the brightest period in Roman history, so
far as pertains to the development of genius. It was more favorable to
literature than the lauded "Augustan era." It was an age of free
opinions, in which liberty gave her last sigh, and when heroic efforts
were made to bring back the ancient virtue, and to save the state from
despotism. The lives of Piso, of Milo, of Cinna, of Lepidus, of Cotta,
of Dolabella, of Crassus, of Quintus Maximus, of Aquila, of Pompey, of
Brutus, of Cassius, of Antony, show what extraordinary men of action
were then upon the stage, both good and evil, while Varro, Cicero,
Catullus, Lucretius, and Sallust gave glory to the world of letters. It
may have resulted favorably to the peace of society that the imperial
rule supplanted the aristocratic regime, but it was a change fatal to
liberty of speech and all independent action - a change, the good of
which was on the outside, and in favor of material interests, but the
evil of which was internal, and consumed secretly, but surely, the real
greatness of the empire.

[Sidenote: Prose composition.]

[Sidenote: High social position of historians.]

The Augustan age, though it produced a constellation of poets who shed
glory upon the throne before which they prostrated themselves in abject
homage, like the courtiers of Louis XIV., still was unfavorable to prose
composition, - to history as well as eloquence. Of the historians, Livy
is the only one whose writings are known to us, and only fragments of
his history. [Footnote: Born B.C. 59.] He was a man of distinction at
court, and had a great literary reputation - so great that a Spaniard
traveled from Cadiz on purpose to see him. Most of the great historians
of the world have occupied places of honor and rank, which were given to
them not as prizes for literary successes, but for the experience,
knowledge, and culture which high social position and ample means
secured. Herodotus lived in courts; Thucydides was a great general, also

Online LibraryJohn LordThe Old Roman World, : the Grandeur and Failure of Its Civilization → online text (page 23 of 50)