Frank Frost Abbott.

The Common People of Ancient Rome Studies of Roman Life and Literature online

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Whom you force to live
A life apart from you.
Death will be a boon,
Not to be tormented.
Yet what hope has snatched away
To the lover hope gives back."

This effusion has led another passer-by to write beneath it the Delphic
sentiment: "May the man who shall read this never read anything else." The
symptoms of the ailment in its most acute form are described by some Roman
lover in the verses which he has left us on the wall of Caligula's palace,
on the Palatine:[68]

"No courage in my heart,
No sleep to close my eyes,
A tide of surging love
Throughout the day and night."

This seems to come from one who looks upon the lover with a sympathetic
eye, but who is himself fancy free:

"Whoever loves, good health to him,
And perish he who knows not how,
But doubly ruined may he be
Who will not yield to love's appeal."[69]

The first verse of this little poem,

"Quisquis amat valeat, pereat qui nescit amare,"

represented by the first couplet of the English rendering, calls to mind
the swinging refrain which we find a century or two later in the
_Pervigilium Veneris_, that last lyrical outburst of the pagan world,
written for the eve of the spring festival of Venus:

"Cras amet qui nunquam amavit quique amavit eras amet."

(To-morrow he shall love who ne'er has loved
And who has loved, to-morrow he shall love.)

An interesting study might be made of the favorite types of feminine
beauty in the Roman poets. Horace sings of the "golden-haired" Pyrrhas,
and Phyllises, and Chloes, and seems to have had an admiration for
blondes, but a poet of the common people, who has recorded his opinion on
this subject in the atrium of a Pompeian house, shows a more catholic
taste, although his freedom of judgment is held in some constraint:

"My fair girl has taught me to hate
Brunettes with their tresses of black.
I will hate if I can, but if not,
'Gainst my will I must love them also."[70]

On the other hand, one Pompeian had such an inborn dread of brunettes
that, whenever he met one, he found it necessary to take an appropriate
antidote, or prophylactic:

"Whoever loves a maiden dark
By charcoal dark is he consumed.
When maiden dark I light upon
I eat the saving blackberry."[71]

These amateur poets do not rely entirely upon their own Muse, but borrow
from Ovid, Propertius, or Virgil, when they recall sentiments in those
writers which express their feelings. Sometimes it is a tag, or a line, or
a couplet which is taken, but the borrowings are woven into the context
with some skill. The poet above who is under compulsion from his blonde
sweetheart, has taken the second half of his production verbatim from
Ovid, and for the first half of it has modified a line of Propertius.
Other writers have set down their sentiments in verse on more prosaic
subjects. A traveller on his way to the capital has scribbled these lines
on the wall, perhaps of a wine-shop where he stopped for refreshment:[72]

"Hither have we come in safety.
Now I hasten on my way,
That once more it may be mine
To behold our Lares, Rome."

At one point in a Pompeian street, the eye of a straggler would catch this
notice in doggerel verse:[73]

"Here's no place for loafers.
Lounger, move along!"

On the wall of a wine-shop a barmaid has thus advertised her wares:[74]

"Here for a cent is a drink,
Two cents brings something still better.
Four cents in all, if you pay,
Wine of Falernum is yours."

It must have been a lineal descendant of one of the parasites of Plautus
who wrote:[75]

"A barbarian he is to me
At whose house I'm not asked to dine."

Here is a sentiment which sounds very modern:

"The common opinion is this:
That property should be divided."[76]

This touch of modernity reminds one of another group of verses which
brings antiquity into the closest possible touch with some present-day
practices. The Romans, like ourselves, were great travellers and
sightseers, and the marvels of Egypt in particular appealed to them, as
they do to us, with irresistible force. Above all, the great statue of
Memnon, which gave forth a strange sound when it was struck by the first
rays of the rising sun, drew travellers from far and near. Those of us who
know the Mammoth Cave, Niagara Falls, the Garden of the Gods, or some
other of our natural wonders, will recall how fond a certain class of
visitors are of immortalizing themselves by scratching their names or a
sentiment on the walls or the rocks which form these marvels. Such
inscriptions We find on the temple walls in Egypt - three of them appear
on the statue of Memnon, recording in verse the fact that the writers had
visited the statue and heard the voice of the god at sunrise. One of these
Egyptian travellers, a certain Roman lady journeying up the Nile, has
scratched these verses on a wall of the temple at Memphis:[77]

"The pyramids without thee have I seen,
My brother sweet, and yet, as tribute sad,
The bitter tears have poured adown my cheek,
And sadly mindful of thy absence now
I chisel here this melancholy note."

Then follow the name and titles of the absent brother, who is better known
to posterity from these scribbled lines of a Cook's tourist than from any
official records which have come down to us. All of these pieces of
popular poetry which we have been discussing thus far were engraved on
stone, bronze, stucco, or on some other durable material. A very few bits
of this kind of verse, from one to a half dozen lines in length, have come
down to us in literature. They have the unique distinction, too, of being
specimens of Roman folk poetry, and some of them are found in the most
unlikely places. Two of them are preserved by a learned commentator on
the Epistles of Horace. They carry us back to our school-boy days. When we

"The plague take him who's last to reach me,"[78]

we can see the Roman urchin standing in the market-place, chanting the
magic formula, and opposite him the row of youngsters on tiptoe, each one
waiting for the signal to run across the intervening space and be the
first to touch their comrade. What visions of early days come back to
us - days when we clasped hands in a circle and danced about one or two
children placed in the centre of the ring, and chanted in unison some
refrain, upon reading in the same commentator to Horace a ditty which

"King shall you be
If you do well.
If you do ill
You shall not be."

The other bits of Roman folk poetry which we have are most of them
preserved by Suetonius, the gossipy biographer of the Cæsars. They recall
very different scenes. Cæsar has returned in triumph to Rome, bringing in
his train the trousered Gauls, to mingle on the street with the toga-clad
Romans. He has even had the audacity to enroll some of these strange
peoples in the Roman senate, that ancient body of dignity and convention,
and the people chant in the streets the ditty:[80]

"Cæsar leads the Gauls in triumph,
In the senate too he puts them.
Now they've donned the broad-striped toga
And have laid aside their breeches."

Such acts as these on Cæsar's part led some political versifier to write
on Cæsar's statue a couplet which contrasted his conduct with that of the
first great republican, Lucius Brutus:

"Brutus drove the kings from Rome,
And first consul thus became.
This man drove the consuls out,
And at last became the king."[81]

We may fancy that these verses played no small part in spurring on Marcus
Brutus to emulate his ancestor and join the conspiracy against the
tyrant. With one more bit of folk poetry, quoted by Suetonius, we may
bring our sketch to an end. Germanicus Cæsar, the flower of the imperial
family, the brilliant general and idol of the people, is suddenly stricken
with a mortal illness. The crowds throng the streets to hear the latest
news from the sick-chamber of their hero. Suddenly the rumor flies through
the streets that the crisis is past, that Germanicus will live, and the
crowds surge through the public squares chanting:

"Saved now is Rome,
Saved too the land,
Saved our Germanicus."[82]

The Origin of the Realistic Romance among the Romans

One of the most fascinating and tantalizing problems of literary history
concerns the origin of prose fiction among the Romans. We can trace the
growth of the epic from its infancy in the third century before Christ as
it develops in strength in the poems of Nævius, Ennius, and Cicero until
it reaches its full stature in the _Æneid_, and then we can see the
decline of its vigor in the _Pharsalia_, the _Punica_, the _Thebais_, and
_Achilleis_, until it practically dies a natural death in the mythological
and historical poems of Claudian. The way also in which tragedy, comedy,
lyric poetry, history, biography, and the other types of literature in
prose and verse came into existence and developed among the Romans can be
followed with reasonable success. But the origin and early history of the
novel is involved in obscurity. The great realistic romance of Petronius
of the first century of our era is without a legally recognized ancestor
and has no direct descendant. The situation is the more surprising when we
recall its probable size in its original form. Of course only a part of it
has come down to us, some one hundred and ten pages in all. Its great size
probably proved fatal to its preservation in its complete form, or at
least contributed to that end, for it has been estimated that it ran from
six hundred to nine hundred pages, being longer, therefore, than the
average novel of Dickens and Scott. Consequently we are not dealing with a
bit of ephemeral literature, but with an elaborate composition of a high
degree of excellence, behind which we should expect to find a long line of
development. We are puzzled not so much by the utter absence of anything
in the way of prose fiction before the time of Petronius as by the
difficulty of establishing any satisfactory logical connection between
these pieces of literature and the romance of Petronius. We are
bewildered, in fact, by the various possibilities which the situation
presents. The work shows points of similarity with several antecedent
forms of composition, but the gaps which lie in any assumed line of
descent are so great as to make us question its correctness.

If we call to mind the present condition of this romance and those
characteristic features of it which are pertinent to the question at
issue, the nature of the problem and its difficulty also will be apparent
at once. Out of the original work, in a rather fragmentary form, only four
or five main episodes are extant, one of which is the brilliant story of
the Dinner of Trimalchio. The action takes place for the most part in
Southern Italy, and the principal characters are freedmen who have made
their fortunes and degenerate freemen who are picking up a precarious
living by their wits. The freemen, who are the central figures in the
novel, are involved in a great variety of experiences, most of them of a
disgraceful sort, and the story is a story of low life. Women play an
important rôle in the narrative, more important perhaps than they do in
any other kind of ancient literature - at least their individuality is more
marked. The efficient motif is erotic. I say the efficient, because the
conventional motif which seems to account for all the misadventures of the
anti-hero Encolpius is the wrath of an offended deity. A great part of
the book has an atmosphere of satire about it which piques our curiosity
and baffles us at the same time, because it is hard to say how much of
this element is inherent in the subject itself, and how much of it lies in
the intention of the author. It is the characteristic of parvenu society
to imitate smart society to the best of its ability, and its social
functions are a parody of the like events in the upper set. The story of a
dinner party, for instance, given by such a _nouveau riche_ as Trimalchio,
would constantly remind us by its likeness and its unlikeness, by its sins
of omission and commission, of a similar event in correct society. In
other words, it would be a parody on a proper dinner, even if the man who
described the event knew nothing about the usages of good society, and
with no ulterior motive in mind set down accurately the doings of his
upstart characters. For instance, when Trimalchio's chef has three white
pigs driven into the dining-room for the ostensible purpose of allowing
the guests to pick one out for the next course, with the memory of our own
monkey breakfasts and horseback dinners in mind, we may feel that this is
a not improbable attempt on the part of a Roman parvenu to imitate his
betters in giving a dinner somewhat out of the ordinary. Members of the
smart set at Rome try to impress their guests by the value and weight of
their silver plate. Why shouldn't the host of our story adopt the more
direct and effective way of accomplishing the same object by having the
weight of silver engraved on each article? He does so. It is a very
natural thing for him to do. In good society they talk of literature and
art. Why isn't it natural for Trimalchio to turn the conversation into the
same channels, even if he does make Hannibal take Troy and does confuse
the epic heroes and some late champions of the gladiatorial ring?

In other words, much of that which is satirical in Petronius is so only
because we are setting up in our minds a comparison between the doings of
his rich freedmen and the requirements of good taste and moderation. But
it seems possible to detect a satirical or a cynical purpose on the part
of the author carried farther than is involved in the choice of his
subject and the realistic presentation of his characters. Petronius seems
to delight in putting his most admirable sentiments in the mouths of
contemptible characters. Some of the best literary criticism we have of
the period, he presents through the medium of the parasite rhetorician
Agamemnon. That happy phrase characterizing Horace's style, "curiosa
felicitas," which has perhaps never been equalled in its brevity and
appositeness, is coined by the incorrigible poetaster Eumolpus. It is he
too who composes and recites the two rather brilliant epic poems
incorporated into the _Satirae_, one of which is received with a shower of
stones by the bystanders. The impassioned eulogy of the careers of
Democritus, Chrysippus, Lysippus, and Myron, who had endured hunger, pain,
and weariness of body and mind for the sake of science, art, and the good
of their fellow-men, and the diatribe against the pursuit of comfort and
pleasure which characterized the people of his own time, are put in the
mouth of the same _roué_ Eumolpus.

These situations have the true Horatian humor about them. The most serious
and systematic discourse which Horace has given us, in his Satires, on the
art of living, comes from the crack-brained Damasippus, who has made a
failure of his own life. In another of his poems, after having set forth
at great length the weaknesses of his fellow-mortals, Horace himself is
convicted of being inconsistent, a slave to his passions, and a victim of
hot temper by his own slave Davus. We are reminded again of the literary
method of Horace in his Satires when we read the dramatic description of
the shipwreck in Petronius. The blackness of night descends upon the
water; the little bark which contains the hero and his friends is at the
mercy of the sea; Lichas, the master of the vessel, is swept from the deck
by a wave, Encolpius and his comrade Giton prepare to die in each other's
embrace, but the tragic scene ends with a ridiculous picture of Eumolpus
bellowing out above the roar of the storm a new poem which he is setting
down upon a huge piece of parchment. Evidently Petronius has the same
dread of being taken too seriously which Horace shows so often in his
Satires. The cynical, or at least unmoral, attitude of Petronius is
brought out in a still more marked way at the close of this same passage.
Of those upon the ill-fated ship the degenerates Encolpius, Giton, and
Eumolpus, who have wronged Lichas irreparably, escape, while the pious
Lichas meets a horrible death. All this seems to make it clear that not
only does the subject which Petronius has treated inevitably involve a
satire upon contemporary society, but that the author takes a satirical or
cynical attitude toward life.

Another characteristic of the story is its realism. There are no
marvellous adventures, and in fact no improbable incidents in it. The
author never obtrudes his own personality upon us, as his successor
Apuleius sometimes does, or as Thackeray has done. We know what the people
in the story are like, not from the author's description of them, but from
their actions, from the subjects about which they talk, and from the way
in which they talk. Agamemnon converses as a rhetorician might talk,
Habinnas like a millionnaire stone-cutter, and Echion like a rag-dealer,
and their language and style are what we should expect from men of their
standing in society and of their occupations. The conversations of
Trimalchio and his freedmen guests are not witty, and their jests are not
clever. This adherence to the true principles of realism is the more
noteworthy in the case of so brilliant a writer as Petronius, and those of
us who recall some of the preternaturally clever conversations in the
pages of Henry James and other contemporary novelists may feel that in
this respect he is a truer artist than they are.

The novel of Petronius has one other characteristic which is significant,
if we attempt to trace the origin of this type of literature. It is cast
in the prose-poetic form, that is, passages in verse are inserted here and
there in the narrative. In a few cases they are quoted, but for the most
part they are the original compositions of the novelist. They range in
length from couplets to poems of three hundred lines. Sometimes they form
an integral part of the narrative, or again they illustrate a point,
elaborate an idea in poetry, or are exercises in verse.

We have tried to bring out the characteristic features of this romance in
order that we may see what the essential elements are of the problem which
faces one in attempting to explain the origin of the type of literature
represented by the work of Petronius. What was there in antecedent
literature which will help us to understand the appearance on Italian soil
in the first century of our era of a long erotic story of adventure,
dealing in a realistic way with every-day life, marked by a satirical
tone and with a leaning toward the prose-poetic form? This is the question
raised by the analysis, which we have made above, of the characteristics
of the story. We have no ambitious hope of solving it, yet the mere
statement of a puzzling but interesting problem is stimulating to the
imagination and the intellect, and I am tempted to take up the subject
because the discovery of certain papyri in Egypt within recent years has
led to the formulation of a new theory of the origin of the romance of
perilous adventure, and may, therefore, throw some light on the source of
our realistic novel of every-day life. My purpose, then, is to speak
briefly of the different genres of literature of the earlier period with
which the story of Petronius may stand in some direct relation, or from
which the suggestion may have come to Petronius for his work. Several of
these lines of possible descent have been skilfully traced by others. In
their views here and there I have made some modifications, and I have
called attention to one or two types of literature, belonging to the
earlier period and heretofore unnoticed in this connection, which may help
us to understand the appearance of the realistic novel.

It seems a far cry from this story of sordid motives and vulgar action to
the heroic episodes of epic poetry, and yet the _Satirae_ contain not a
few more or less direct suggestions of epic situations and characters. The
conventional motif of the story of Petronius is the wrath of an offended
deity. The narrative in the _Odyssey_ and the _Æneid_ rests on the same
basis. The ship of their enemy Lichas on which Encolpius and his
companions are cooped up reminds them of the cave of the Cyclops; Giton
hiding from the town-crier under a mattress is compared to Ulysses
underneath the sheep and clinging to its wool to escape the eye of the
Cyclops, while the woman whose charms engage the attention of Encolpius at
Croton bears the name of Circe. It seems to be clear from these
reminiscences that Petronius had the epic in mind when he wrote his story,
and his novel may well be a direct or an indirect parody of an epic
narrative. Rohde in his analysis of the serious Greek romance of the
centuries subsequent to Petronius has postulated the following development
for that form of story: Travellers returning from remote parts of the
world told remarkable stories of their experiences. Some of these stories
took a literary form in the _Odyssey_ and the Tales of the Argonauts. They
appeared in prose, too, in narratives like the story of Sinbad the Sailor,
of a much later date. A more definite plot and a greater dramatic
intensity were given to these tales of adventure by the addition of an
erotic element which often took the form of two separated lovers. Some use
is made of this element, for instance, in the relations of Odysseus and
Penelope, perhaps in the episode of Æneas and Dido, and in the story of
Jason and Medea. The intrusion of the love motif into the stories told of
demigods and heroes, so that the whole narrative turns upon it, is
illustrated by such tales in the Metamorphoses of Ovid as those of Pyramus
and Thisbe, Pluto and Proserpina, or Meleager and Atalanta. The love
element, which may have been developed in this way out of its slight use
in the epic, and the element of adventure form the basis of the serious
Greek romances of Antonius Diogenes, Achilles Tatius, and the other
writers of the centuries which follow Petronius.

Before trying to connect the _Satirae_ with a serious romance of the type
just mentioned, let us follow another line of descent which leads us to
the same objective point, viz., the appearance of the serious story in
prose. We have been led to consider the possible connection of this kind
of prose fiction with the epic by the presence in both of them of the love
element and that of adventure. But the Greek novel has another rather
marked feature. It is rhetorical, and this quality has suggested that it
may have come, not from the epic, but from the rhetorical exercise.
Support has been given to this theory within recent years by the discovery
in Egypt of two fragments of the Ninos romance. The first of these
fragments reveals Ninos, the hero, pleading with his aunt Derkeia, the
mother of his sweetheart, for permission to marry his cousin. All the
arguments in support of his plea and against it are put forward and
balanced one against the other in a very systematic way. He wins over
Derkeia. Later in the same fragment the girl pleads in a somewhat similar
fashion with Thambe, the mother of Ninos. The second fragment is mainly
concerned with the campaigns of Ninos. Here we have the two lovers,
probably separated by the departure of Ninos for the wars, while the
hero, at least, is exposed to the danger of the campaign.

The point was made after the text of this find had been published that the
large part taken in the tale by the carefully balanced arguments indicated
that the story grew out of exercises in argumentation in the rhetorical
schools.[83] The elder Seneca has preserved for us in his _Controversiae_
specimens of the themes which were set for students in these schools. The
student was asked to imagine himself in a supposed dilemma and then to
discuss the considerations which would lead him to adopt the one or the
other line of conduct. Some of these situations suggest excellent dramatic
possibilities, conditions of life, for instance, where suicide seemed
justifiable, misadventures with pirates, or a turn of affairs which
threatened a woman's virtue. Before the student reached the point of
arguing the case, the story must be told, and out of these narratives of
adventure, told at the outset to develop the dilemma, may have grown the
romance of adventure, written for its own sake. The story of Ninos has a

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Online LibraryFrank Frost AbbottThe Common People of Ancient Rome Studies of Roman Life and Literature → online text (page 6 of 15)