John Lord.

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

. (page 24 of 50)
Online LibraryJohn LordThe Old Roman World, : the Grandeur and Failure of Its Civilization → online text (page 24 of 50)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Xenophon; Caesar wrote his own exploits; Sallust was praetor and governor;
Livy was tutor to Claudius; Tacitus was praetor and consul suffectus;
Eusebius was bishop and favorite of Constantine; Ammianus was the friend
of the Emperor Julian; Gregory of Tours was one of the leading prelates
of the West; Froissart attended in person, as a man of rank, the
military expeditions of his day; Clarendon was Lord Chancellor; Burnet
was a bishop and favorite of William III.; Thiers and Guizot both were
prime ministers; while Gibbon, Hume, Robertson, Macaulay, Grote, Milman,
Neander, Niebuhr, Muller, Dahlman, Buckle, Prescott, Irving, Bancroft,
Motley, have all been men of wealth or position. Nor do I remember a
single illustrious historian who has been poor and neglected.

[Sidenote: Livy.]

The ancients regarded Livy as the greatest of historians, - an opinion
not indorsed by modern critics, on account of his inaccuracies. But his
narrative is always interesting, and his language pure. He did not sift
evidence like Grote, nor generalize like Gibbon; but he was, like
Voltaire and Macaulay, an artist in style, and possessed undoubted
genius. His annals are comprised in one hundred and forty-two books,
extending from the foundation of the city to the death of Drusus, B.C.
9, of which only thirty-five have come down to us - an impressive
commentary on the vandalism of the Middle Ages, and the ignorance of the
monks who could not preserve so great a treasure. "His story flows in a
calm, clear, sparkling current, with every charm which simplicity and
ease can give." He delineates character with great clearness and power;
his speeches are noble rhetorical compositions; his sentences are
rhythmical cadences. He was not a critical historian, like Herodotus,
for he took his materials secondhand, and he was ignorant of geography;
nor did he write with the exalted ideal of Thucydides, but as a painter
of beautiful forms, which only a rich imagination could conjure, he is
unrivaled in the history of literature. Moreover, he was honest and
sound in heart, and was just and impartial in reference to those facts
with which he was conversant.

[Sidenote: Tacitus.]

In the estimation of modern critics, the highest rank, as an historian,
is assigned to Tacitus, and it would be difficult to find his rival in
any age or country. He was born A.D. 57, about forty-three years after
the death of Augustus. He belonged to the equestrian rank, and was a man
of consular dignity. He had every facility for literary labors that
leisure, wealth, friends, and social position could give, and he lived
under a reign when truth could be told.

The extant works of this great writer are the "Life of Agricola," his
father-in-law; his "Annales," which commence with the death of Augustus,
A.D. 14, and close with the death of Nero, A.D. 68; the "Historiae,"
which comprise the period from the second consulate of Galba, A.D. 68,
to the death of Domitian; and a treatise on the Germans.

[Sidenote: Histories of Tacitus.]

His histories describe Rome in the fullness of imperial glory, when the
will of one man was the supreme law of the empire. He also wrote of
events when liberty had fled, and the yoke of despotism was nearly
insupportable. He describes a period of great moral degradation, nor
does he hesitate to lift the veil of hypocrisy in which his generation
had wrapped itself. He fearlessly exposes the cruelties and iniquities
of the early emperors, and writes with judicial impartiality respecting
all the great characters he describes. No ancient writer shows greater
moral dignity and integrity of purpose than Tacitus. In point of
artistic unity he is superior to Livy and equal to Thucydides, whom he
resembles in conciseness of style. His distinguishing excellence as an
historian is his sagacity and impartiality. Nothing escapes his
penetrating eye; and he inflicts merited chastisement on the tyrants who
reveled in the prostrated liberties of his country, while he
immortalizes those few who were faithful to duty and conscience in a
degenerate age. But his writings were not so popular as those of Livy.
Neither princes nor people relished his intellectual independence and
moral elevation. He does not satisfy Dr. Arnold, who thinks he ought to
have been better versed in the history of the Jews, and who dislikes his
speeches because they were fictitious.

[Sidenote: Qualities which give immortality to historians.]

Neither the Latin nor Greek historians are admired by those dry critics,
who seek to give to rare antiquarian matter a disproportionate
importance, and to make this matter as fixed and certain as the truths
of natural science. History can never be other than an approximation to
the truth, even when it relates to the events and characters of our own
age. History does not give positive knowledge which cannot be disputed
except in general terms. We _know_ that Caesar was ambitious, but we
do not know whether he was more or less so than Pompey, nor do we know
how far he was justified in his usurpation. A great history must have
other merits than mere accuracy, or antiquarian research, or display of
authorities and notes. It must be a work of art, and art has reference
to style and language, to grouping of details and richness of
illustration, to eloquence and poetry and beauty. A dry history, if ever
so learned, will never be read; it will only be consulted, like a law-
book, or Mosheim's "Commentaries." We wish _life_ in history, and
it is for the life that the writings of Livy and Tacitus will be
perpetuated. Voltaire and Schiller have no great merit as historians, in
a technical sense, but the "Life of Charles XII." and the "Thirty Years'
War" are still classics. Neander has written one of the most searching
and recondite histories of modern times, but it is too dry, too
deficient in art, to be cherished, and may pass away, like the
voluminous writings of Varro, the most learned of the Romans. It is the
_art_ which is immortal in a book, not the knowledge, or even the
thoughts. What keeps alive the "Provincial Letters"? It is the style,
the irony, the elegance. It is the exquisite delineation of character,
the moral wisdom, the purity and force of language, the artistic
arrangement, and the lively and interesting narratives, appealing to all
minds, like the "Arabian Nights," or Froissart's "Chronicles," which
give immortality to the classic authors of antiquity. We will not let
them perish, because they amuse us, and inspire us. Livy doubtless was
too ambitious in aspiring to write accurately the whole history of his
country. He would have been wiser had he confined himself to a
particular epoch, of which he was conversant, like Tacitus and
Thucydides. But it is taking a narrow view of history to make all
writers after the same pattern, even as it would be bigoted to make all
Christians belong to the same sect. Some will be remarkable for style,
others for learning, and others again for moral and philosophical
wisdom. Some will be minute, and others generalizing. Some dig out a
multiplicity of facts without apparent object, and others induce from
those facts. Some will make essays, and others chronicles. We have need
of all styles and all kinds of excellence. A great and original thinker
may not have the time or opportunity or taste for a minute and searching
criticism of original authorities; but he may be able to generalize
previously established facts, so as to draw most valuable moral
instruction. History is a boundless field of inquiry. No man can master
it, in all its departments and periods. What he gains in minute details,
he is apt to lose in generalization. If he attempts to embody too much
learning, he may be deficient in originality; if he would say every
thing, he is apt to be dry; if he elaborates too much, he loses life.
Society, too, requires different kinds and styles of history, - history
for students, history for ladies, histories for old men, histories for
young men, histories to amuse, and histories to instruct. If all men
were to write history according to Dr. Arnold's views, then we should
have histories of interest only to classical scholars. A fellow of
Christ Church may demand authorities, even if he never consults one of
them, but a member of Congress may wish to see learning embodied in the
text, and animated by genius, after the fashion of the ancient
historians, who never quoted their sources of knowledge, and who were
valued for the richness of thoughts and artistic beauty of style. The
ages in which they flourished, attached no value to pedantic displays of
labor, or evidences of learning paraded in foot-notes.

[Sidenote: Greatness of the ancient historians.]

Thus the great historians whom I have alluded to, both Greek and Latin,
have few equals and no superiors, in our own times, in those things
which are most to be admired. They were not pedants, but men of immense
genius and learning, who blended the profoundest principles of moral
wisdom with the most fascinating narratives, men universally popular
among learned and unlearned, and men who were great artists in style,
and masters of the language in which they wrote. We claim a superiority
to them, because we are more recondite and critical; but the decline of
Roman literature can be dated to times when commentaries became the
fashion. We improve on commentaries. They are chiefly confined to
biblical questions. _We_ write dictionaries and encyclopedias. In
this respect we are superior to the ancients. Our latest fashion of
histories makes them very long, and very uncertain, containing much
irrelevant matter, and more remarkable for learning than for genius, or
elegance of diction. Yet Macaulay, Prescott, and Motley have few equals
among the ancients in interest or artistic beauty.

[Sidenote: Suetonius.]

[Sidenote: Marcellinus.]

Rome can boast of no great historian after Tacitus, who should have
belonged to the Ciceronian epoch. Suetonius, born about the year A.D.
70, shortly after Nero's death, was rather a biographer than historian.
Nor as a biographer does he take a high rank. His "Lives of the Caesars,"
like Diogenes Laertius' "Lives of the Philosophers," are rather
anecdotical than historical. L. A. Florus, who flourished during the
reign of Trajan, has left a series of sketches of the different wars
from the days of Romulus to those of Augustus. Frontinus epitomized the
large histories of Pompeius. Marcellinus wrote a history from Nerva to
Valens, and is often quoted by Gibbon. But none wrote who should be
adduced as examples of the triumph of genius, except Sallust, Caesar,
Livy, and Tacitus.

[Sidenote: Ancient orators.]

[Sidenote: Ancient eloquence.]

There is another field of prose compositions in which the Greeks and
Romans gained great distinction, and proved themselves equal to any
nation of modern times, and this was that of eloquence. It is true we
have not a rich collection of ancient speeches. But we have every reason
to believe that both Greeks and Romans were most severely trained in the
art of public speaking, and that forensic eloquence was highly prized
and munificently rewarded. It commenced with democratic institutions,
and flourished as long as the people were a great power in the state. It
declined whenever and as soon as tyrants bore rule. Eloquence and
liberty flourished together; nor can there be eloquence when there is
not freedom of debate. In the fifth century before Christ - the first
century of democracy - great orators arose, for without the power and the
opportunity of defending himself against accusation, no man could hold
an ascendent position. Socrates insisted upon the gift of oratory to a
general in the army, [Footnote: Xen. _Mem._, iii. 3, 11.] as well as
to a leader in political life. In Athens the courts of justice were
numerous, and those who could not defend themselves were obliged to
secure the services of those who were trained in the use of public
speaking. Thus the lawyers arose, among whom eloquence has been more in
demand, and more richly paid than in any other class, certainly of
ancient times. Rhetoric became connected with dialectics, and in Greece,
Sicily, and Italy, both were most extensively cultivated. Empedocles was
distinguished as much for rhetoric as for philosophy. It was not,
however, in the courts of law that eloquence displayed the greatest fire
and passion, but in political assemblies. These could only coexist with
liberty; and a democracy was more favorable than an aristocracy to a
large concourse of citizens. In the Grecian republics, eloquence as an
art, may be said to have been born. It was nursed and fed by political
agitations; by the strife of parties. It arose from appeals to the
people as a source of power; and, when the people were not cultivated,
it appealed chiefly to popular passions and prejudices. When they were
enlightened, it appealed to interests.

[Sidenote: Pericles.]

It was in Athens, where there existed the purest form of democratic
institutions, that eloquence rose to the loftiest heights in the ancient
world, so far as eloquence appeals to popular passions. Pericles, the
greatest statesman of Greece, was celebrated for his eloquence, although
no specimens remain to us. It was conceded by the ancient authors, that
his oratory was of the highest kind, and the epithet of Olympian was
given him as carrying the weapons of Zeus upon his tongue. [Footnote:
Plutarch; Cic. _De Orat_., iii. 34; Quin., x. i. Section 82;
Plat. _Phed_., p. 262.] His voice was sweet, and his utterance
distinct and rapid. Pisistratus was also famous for his eloquence,
although he was a usurper and a tyrant. Isocrates [Footnote: Born 436
B.C.] was a professed rhetorician, and endeavored to base it upon sound
moral principles, and rescue it from the influence of the Sophists. He
was the great teacher of the most eminent statesmen of his day. Twenty-
one of his orations have come down to us, and they are excessively
polished and elaborated; but they were written to be read; they were not
extemporary. His language is the purest and most refined Attic dialect.
Lysias [Footnote: Born B.C. 458.] was a fertile writer of orations also,
and he is reputed to have produced as many as four hundred and twenty-
five. Of these only thirty-five are extant. They are characterized by
peculiar gracefulness and elegance, which did not interfere with
strength. So able were these orations, that only two were unsuccessful.
They were so pure that they were regarded as the best canon of the Attic
idiom. [Footnote: Dion. _Lys_., ii. 3.]

[Sidenote: Demosthenes.]

But all the orators of Greece - and Greece was the land of orators - gave
way to Demosthenes, born B.C. 385. He received a good education, and is
said to have been instructed in philosophy by Plato, and in eloquence by
Isocrates. But it is more probable that he privately prepared himself
for his brilliant career. As soon as he attained his majority, he
brought suits against the men whom his father had appointed his
guardians for their waste of property, and was, after two years,
successful, conducting the prosecution himself. It was not until the age
of thirty that he appeared as a speaker in the public assembly on
political matters, and he enjoyed universal respect, and became one of
the leading statesmen of Athens, and henceforth he took an active part
in every question that concerned the state. He especially distinguished
himself in his speeches against Macedonian aggrandizements, and his
Philippics are, perhaps, the most brilliant of his orations. But the
cause which he advocated was unfortunate. The battle of Cheronea, B.C.
338, put an end to the independence of Greece, and Philip of Macedon was
all-powerful. For this catastrophe Demosthenes was somewhat responsible,
but his motives were pure and his patriotism lofty, and he retained the
confidence of his countrymen. Accused by Aeschines, he delivered his
famous Oration on the Crown. Afterwards, during the supremacy of
Alexander, he was again accused, and suffered exile. Recalled from
exile, on the death of Alexander, he roused himself for the deliverance
of Greece, without success, and, hunted by his enemies, he took poison
in the sixty-third year of his age, having vainly contended for the
freedom of his country, - one of the noblest spirits of antiquity,
spotless in his public career, and lofty in his private life. As an
orator, he has not probably been equaled by any man of any country. By
his contemporaries he was regarded as faultless as a public speaker, and
when it is remembered that he struggled against physical difficulties
which, in the early part of his career, would have utterly discouraged
any ordinary man, we feel that he deserves the highest commendation. He
never spoke without preparation, and most of his orations were severely
elaborated. He never trusted to the impulse of the occasion. And all his
orations exhibit him as a pure and noble patriot, and are full of the
loftiest sentiments. He was a great artist, and his oratorical successes
were greatly owing to the arrangement of his speeches and the
application of the strongest arguments in their proper places. Added to
this moral and intellectual superiority was the "magic power of his
language, majestic and simple at the same time, rich yet not bombastic,
strange and yet familiar, solemn without being ornamented, grave and yet
pleasing, concise and yet fluent, sweet and yet impressive, which
altogether carried away the minds of his hearers." [Footnote: Leonhard
Schmitz.] His orations were most highly prized by the ancients, who
wrote innumerable commentaries on them, but most of these criticisms are
lost. Sixty, however, of these great productions of genius have come
down to us, and are contained in the various collections of the Attic
orators by Aldus, Stephens, Taylor, Reiske, Dukas, Bekker, Dobson, and
Sauppe. Demosthenes, like other orators, first became known as the
composer of speeches for litigants; but his great fame was based on the
orations he pronounced in great political emergencies. His rival was
Aeschines, but he was vastly inferior to Demosthenes, although bold,
vigorous, and brilliant. Indeed, the opinions of mankind, for two
thousand years, have been unanimous in ascribing to Demosthenes the
highest position as an orator of all the men of ancient and modern
times. David Hume says of him, "that, could his manner be copied, its
success would be infallible over a modern audience." "It is rapid
harmony exactly adjusted to the sense. It is vehement reasoning, without
any appearance of art. It is disdain, anger, boldness, freedom involved
in a continual stream of argument; so that, of all human productions,
his orations present to us the models which approach the nearest to
perfection." [Footnote: _Dissertation of Lord Brougham on the
Eloquence of the Ancients._]

[Sidenote: Roman orators.]

It is probable that the Romans were behind the Athenians in all the arts
of rhetoric; and yet in the days of the republic celebrated orators
arose, called out by the practice of the law and political meetings. It
was, in fact, in forensic eloquence that Latin prose first appears as a
cultivated language; for the forum was to the Romans what libraries are
to us. And the art of public speaking was very early developed. Cato,
Laelius, Carbo, and the Gracchi are said to have been majestic and
harmonious in speech. Their merits were eclipsed by Antonius, Crassus,
Cotta, Sulpitius, and Hortensius. The last had a very brilliant career
as an orator, although his orations were too florid to be read. Caesar
was also distinguished for his eloquence, the characteristics of which
were force and purity. Caelius was noted for lofty sentiment; Brutus for
philosophical wisdom; Callidus for a delicate and harmonious style, and
Calvus for sententious force.

[Sidenote: Cicero.]

But all the Roman orators yielded to Cicero, as the Greeks did to
Demosthenes. These two men are always coupled together when allusion is
made to eloquence. They were preeminent in the ancient world, and have
never been equaled in the modern.

Cicero was not probably equal to his great Grecian rival in vehemence,
in force, in fiery argument, which swept every thing away before him;
and he was not probably equal to him in original genius; but he was his
superior in learning, in culture, and in breadth. [Footnote: Born B.C.
106.] He distinguished himself very early as an advocate; but his first
great public effort was in the prosecution of Verres for corruption.
Although defended by Hortensius, and the whole influence of the Metelli
and other powerful families, Cicero gained his cause, - more fortunate
than Burke in his prosecution of Warren Hastings, who was also sustained
by powerful interests and families. Burke also resembled Cicero in his
peculiarities and in his fortunes more than any modern orator. His
speech on the Manilian law, when he appeared as a political orator,
greatly contributed to his popularity. I need not describe his memorable
career; his successive election to all the highest offices of state, his
detection of Catiline's conspiracy, his opposition to turbulent and
ambitious partisans, his alienations and friendships, his brilliant
career as a statesman, his misfortunes and sorrows, his exile and
recall, his splendid services to the state, his greatness and his
defects, his virtues and weaknesses, his triumphs and martyrdom. These
are foreign to my purpose. No man of heathen antiquity is better known
to us, and no man, by pure genius, ever won more glorious laurels. His
life and labors are immortal. His virtues and services are embalmed in
the heart of the world. Few men ever performed greater literary labors,
and in most of its departments. Next to Aristotle, he was the most
learned man of antiquity, but performed more varied labors than he,
since he was not only great as a writer and speaker, but as a statesman,
and was the most conspicuous man in Rome after Pompey and Caesar. He may
not have had the moral greatness of Socrates, nor the philosophical
genius of Plato, nor the overpowering eloquence of Demosthenes, but he
was a master of all the wisdom of antiquity. Even civil law, the great
science of the Romans, became interesting in his hands, and is divested
of its dryness and technicality. He popularized history, and paid honor
to all art, even to the stage. He made the Romans conversant with the
philosophy of Greece, and systematized the various speculations. He may
not have added to the science, but no Roman, after him, understood so
well the practical bearing of all the various systems. His glory is
purely intellectual, and it was by pure genius that he rose to his
exalted position and influence.

But it was in forensic eloquence that he was preeminent, and in which he
had but one equal in ancient times. Roman eloquence culminated in him.
He composed about eighty orations, of which fifty-nine are preserved.
Some were delivered from the rostrum to the people, and some in the
Senate. Some were mere philippics, as savage in denunciation as those of
Demosthenes. Some were laudatory; some were judicial; but all were
severely logical, full of historical allusion, profound in philosophical
wisdom, and pervaded with the spirit of patriotism. "He goes round and
round his object, surveys it in every light, examines it in all its
parts, retires and then advances, compares and contrasts it,
illustrates, confirms, and enforces it, till the hearer feels ashamed of
doubting a position which seems built on a foundation so strictly
argumentative. And having established his case, he opens upon his
opponent a discharge of raillery so delicate and good natured that it is
impossible for the latter to maintain his ground against it; or, when
the subject is too grave, he colors his exaggerations with all the
bitterness of irony and vehemence of passion. But the appeal to the
gentler emotions is reserved for the close of the oration, as in the
defense of Cluentius, Caelius, Milo, and Flaccus; the most striking
instances of which are the poetical bursts of feeling with which he
addresses his client, Plaucius, and his picture of the desolate
condition of the vestal Fonteia, should her brother be condemned. At
other times his peroration contains more heroic and elevated sentiments,
as in the invocation of the Alban Altars, and in his defense of Sextius,
and that on liberty at the close of the third Philippic." [Footnote:
Newman, _Hist. Rom. Lit._, p. 305.]

Critics have uniformly admired his style as peculiarly suited to the



Online LibraryJohn LordThe Old Roman World, : the Grandeur and Failure of Its Civilization → online text (page 24 of 50)