W. Lucas (William Lucas) Collins.

Cicero online

. (page 17 of 24)
Online LibraryW. Lucas (William Lucas) CollinsCicero → online text (page 17 of 24)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

it is superfluous till you have heard it."

The following letter shows up Regulus in his char-
acter of a fortune-hunter :


" I have a first-rate story for you, or rather two
stories for the one, which is quite fresh, reminded me
of the other. It makes no difference with which I
begin. Verania, Piso's wife (I mean the Piso adopted
by the Emperor Galba), was seriously ill. Eegulus
pays her a visit. Think of the man's brazen impu-
dence in calling on her in her illness, when he had
been her husband's bitterest enemy, and was utterly
hated by the lady herself ! It would have been bad
enough if he had confined himself to a mere call. He
* Epist. iL 20.


actually sat down by her bedside, and asked her the
day and the hour of her birth. When she had told
him, he looks very grave, fixes his eyes on her, moves
his lips, makes passes with his fingers, and goes through
a calculation. After keeping the unhappy woman for
a long while in suspense, he says, ' You are at a perilous
crisis of your life, but you will recover. To convince
you of this, I will consult an augur whose art I have
often tested.' Without a moment's delay, he had a
sacrifice offered up, and he declares that the victim's
entrails present signs exactly agreeing with what may be
inferred from the stars. The lady, whose danger made
her credulous, asks for some writing-paper, and puts
down in her will a legacy for Regulus. Very soon she
becomes worse ; and, as she is dying, she calls the man
a rogue, a treacherous and worse than perjured villain,
because he had actually sworn falsely to her by his
son's life. It is a practice of Eegulus, as wicked as it
is frequent, to call down the wrath of heaven, which he
so often invokes to witness a lie, on the head of his
unhappy son.

" Velleius Bleesus the wealthy man, I mean, who
rose to the consulship was in his last illness, and
wished to alter his will. Eegulus, who hoped to get
something out of the alteration, because he had of late
paid court to him, begged and implored the physicians
to lengthen his life by all possible means. When the
will had been signed and sealed, he changed his char-
acter and reversed his tone, and said to these same
physicians, ' How long do you mean to keep the un-
happy man in misery; why do you grudge one to


whom you cannot give life, the happy release of death 1 ?'
Blaesus dies, and as if he had heard everything, leaves
Eegulus not a farthing. Are two stories enough for
you, or would you like to have a third, after the man-
ner of school exercises ? Well, I have got one for you.
Aurelia, an extremely elegant lady, when about to set
the seal to her will, had put on a remarkably hand-
some dress. Eegulus came to witness the signature,
and on his arrival he said to the lady, ' Pray, leave me
by your will the dress you have on.' Aurelia thought
the man was joking. Eegulus pressed the matter in
earnest, and, to cut my story short, he actually made
the lady open her desk, and add a clause to her will,
leaving him the dress. All the time she was writing
it, he kept his eye on her, and looked to see whether
she had really written it. The man gets bequests and
legacies just as if he deserved them. Why do I dwell
on such matters, when we are living in a country in
which wickedness and roguery have long been able to
command as great, nay, greater rewards than virtue and
honour 1 Look at Eegulus ; from abject poverty he
has made his way, by all sorts of rascality, to such
prodigious wealth that he himself told me that when
he asked an auguj how soon he should be able to
amass a fortune of half a million, he found that twice
that amount was promised him by the signs exhibited
by the victim's entrails. And he will get it, if he only
pursues his present course of making persons, when
they prepare their wills, add to them clauses which
they never intended to insert."

It would appear, from the two following letters


\vhich describe his strange demeanour on the death
of his son, that Eegulus had all the extravagant
affectation which is sometimes found in the nouveaux


" Eegulus has lost his son ; the only misfortune he
did not deserve, and I am not sure whether he thinks
it a misfortune. The hoy had quick parts, but one
could not be at all sure how he would turn out ; still,
he seemed to have a capacity for virtue, were he not
to grow up like his father. Eegulus gave him the legal
release from parental control, so that the lad might
become heir to his mother's property, and having done
this (I speak of the current rumours, based on the
man's character), he fawned on the lad with a disgust-
ing show of fond affection, which in a parent was
utterly out of place. Incredible, you will say, but
only consider the man. At any rate he deplores his
death in a most insane fashion. The boy had a num-
ber of ponies for riding and driving, of big and little
dogs, and a host of pet nightingales, parrots, and
blackbirds. All these Eegulus had slaughtered on
the funeral pile. It was not grief, but an ostentatious
parade of grief. A crowd of visitors throng to his
house. All hate and detest the man, and as if they
loved and esteemed him, they hurry to his doors and
hang round them, and, to tell you in a word what
I really think, in seeking to do Eegulus a kindness
they make themselves exactly like him. He keeps
* Epist. iv. 2.


himself in his park on the other side the Tiber, where
he has built huge colonnades over a vast extent of
ground, and set up a number of his own statues on the
river-side ; for with all his intense avarice he is extra-
vagant, and in the midst of his infamy he loves fame.
At this very unhealthy time of year he is boring
society, and he feels pleasure and consolation in being
a bore. He says he wishes to marry a piece of per-
versity, like all his other conduct. You will soon hear
of the marriage of one who is in mourning, the mar-
riage of an old man. In the first case, it is too soon,
in the second, too late. You ask me the grounds of
my conjecture ; it is not because he says it himself, for
he is as false as false can be ; it is only because one
may be sure that Eegulus will do whatever is highly


" I often tell you that Regulus has a certain force of
character. It is wonderful to see how he gets through
a thing to which he has applied himself. He made up
his mind to mourn the death of his son ; he is abso-
lutely unequalled as a mourner. It was his fancy to
get together an immense number of statues and pictures
of his son ; so he sends orders to all the sculptors and
painters, and has the boy represented on canvas, in
wax, bronze, silver, gold, ivory, marble, &c. &c. He
himself actually invited to his house a numerous
audience to hear him read his son's memoir the
* Epist. iv. 7.


memoir of a mere boy. However, he read it ; he even
had a thousand copies made of it, and distributed
throughout Italy and the provinces. He had a public
notice put up, that the town-councils were to choose
out of their number the man with the best voice, to
read the book to the people. It was really done. Only
suppose he had used this force of character, or what-
ever you call this earnestness, in trying to get what one
wants, for better ends, and what good would he have
been able to accomplish ! There is, however, less of
this quality about the good than the bad, and as (to
quote Thucydides) ' folly genders confidence, while
thoughtfulness produces hesitation,' so modesty often
cripples the action of virtue, as effrontery strengthens
vice. Eegulus is an example. He has weak lungs, a
confused look, a stammering tongue, a slow and dull
imagination, no memory nothing in short but a sort
of frantic energy ; and yet by his impudence and mad
vehemence he has won the reputation of an orator.
Cato has a famous definition of an orator, which Her-
ennius Senecio has curiously reversed about Eegulus,
thus : ' An orator is a bad man who has no skill in
speaking.' Cato certainly has not more correctly
described the true orator than Senecio has hit off

We now take leave of Eegulus. The tone of this
last letter looks as if Pliny's dislike of the man led
him to speak more contemptuously of him than facts
could have warranted him in doing. If Eegulus


laboured under so many natural disadvantages, his
success in his profession must have implied a force of
character of a remarkably high order. He and many
of his class were no doubt morally as bad as it was
possible to be, but they were by no means intellec-
tually contemptible.



CIRCUMSTANCES combined to produce at Eome in the
days of the Empire a very considerable amount of
literary activity. For more than two centuries the
wealth of the whole civilised world had been pouring
into the capital. This influx had promoted the growth
of two things, which to the men of the old regime to
such Conservatives, for instance, asCato seemed equal-
ly odious, luxury and culture. The first impulse of the
monied class a class whose riches equalled, if they
did not surpass, even the largest fortunes of modern
times was to surround itself with the means of mate-
rial enjoyment and display. But it was not long before
more refined tastes began to be developed. Among
the spoils of the world with which a long series of
conquests had crowded the palaces of Eome, were to
be found the treasures of Hellenic civilisation manu-
scripts, pictures, and statues, the contents of the libra-
ries and museums which the Greek, almost invariably
a scholar as well as a soldier, had founded so plenti-
fully in Eastern Europe and Western Asia. "With


these had come, in throngs which excited the wrath
and scorn of satirists like Juvenal, the teachers of
literature and art. From the decaying and impoverished
cities of the East they crowded to the place where a
nation of wealthy pupils was waiting to welcome and
to remunerate their services. At the same time, the
class which was thus so abundantly furnished with all
the appliances of culture, was profoundly affected in
its habits of life by the revolution which substituted an
empire for a republic. One great resource in which men
of wealth find occupation, which to our own monied
class, for instance, is so fascinating the devotion to
public affairs ceased to be available at Rome. Men
were still selected, indeed, from the highest nobility
to fill the offices of proconsul and praetor in the pro-
vinces; and at Rome the old magistracies of the republic
and the senate still remained, though they had but
the shadow of their former dignity. But politics had
ceased to furnish a profession. Tacitus complains of the
men of his time, that they were as ignorant about their
country as if it were not their own. Under such emper-
ors as Nero, men of average character, who on the one
hand would not stoop to the vile art of the sycophant
and the informer, and, on the other, did not choose to
venture their lives in impossible attempts at reform,
clung to the safe retirement of private life, while a
vigorous ruler like Trajan kept all power in his own
hands, and left nothing for his subjects to do. At the
same time, the bar had greatly degenerated from that
which Hortensius and Cicero had adorned. It was
no longer the avenue to power, though it was still the


road to office, and might be made the means of ac-
cumulating riches. When we consider these circum-
stances, it does not surprise us to find that literature
furnished occupation not only to a numerous class of
professional writers, but to many men of rank and wealth.
Among these must be ranked C. SILIUS ITALICUS.
He was by many years Pliny's senior, having been
born A.D. 25. He followed with success the profes-
sion of an advocate, and had b'een a member of the
Hundred Court. Unfortunately for his character, he
became a prominent person in the state when it was
passing through its most evil day. A sinister rumour
which our author mentions, and evidently does not
disbelieve, had attributed to him a share in the infamous
practices and gains of the informers. In reward, pos-
sibly, for these services, he was raised in the last year
of Nero's reign to the consulship. The " Lists of the
consuls " record that he, with his colleagues, abdicated
office, and that the Emperor, then in his last parox-
ysm of suspicion, succeeded to the vacancy " without
colleague." In the terrible year that followed, "the
year of the three emperors," and while enjoying the
dangerous honour of an intimate friendship with Vitel-
lius, he behaved with wisdom and courtesy. When
that Emperor, pressed hard by the troops of Vespasian,
sought to secure his safety by resigning his throne,
and held for this purpose an interview with the elder
brother of his successful rival, Silius was one of the
two witnesses who were present. The government of
the province of Asia, a province which may be roughly
described as comprising the western half of the penin-


sula of Asia Minor, followed in due course. It was one
of the chief commands in the empire, and Silius exer-
cised it with great distinction and credit. After this
he took no active part in political life, though he was
still a prominent personage at Rome "prominent,"
says Pliny, " but exercising no power and exciting no
hostility." In this position his conduct was so blame-
less, that the errors of his earlier life were willingly
forgotten. No house in the capital was more thronged,
or by more sincere admirers. At some time in the
short reign of Nerva, warned by his increasing infirmities,
he retired from the capital, which, as Pliny mentions
with admiring surprise, he did not even revisit to pay
his respects to a new emperor, when Nerva was suc-
ceeded by Trajan. He was in his seventy-fifth year
when the pain of some incurable disease, probably a
cancer, made him resolve to put an end to his life.
Abstaining from food was then the fashionable method
of suicide, and the old man resolutely starved himself
to death. The name of Silius is known to students
of Latin literature by the accident which has preserved
his tedious poem on the Punic war. Of the poetical
merits of that work little need be said. The author
was wholly without genius an imitator, not surpass-
ingly skilful, of VirgiL And he offends at least modern
taste by the mythological machinery which he intro-
duces into the narrative of historical events. What-
ever interest attaches to his verses belongs to the anti-
quarian or geographical information which they convey.
As a poet, he seems indeed to have been little esteemed
by his contemporaries. Pliny disposes of him with a


very brief criticism. " He used to write verses with
more diligence than force." He has more to say of him
as a connoisseur and collector. These tastes were de-
veloped in him till they grew to a positive frenzy for
buying. " He became the possessor of several country
houses in the same localities, was passionately fond of
the last acquisition, and left the others to neglect. All
of them were crowded with books, with statues, with
busts. These last he not only kept about him, he
absolutely worshipped." Among them was one which
connected together his literary and his artistic tastes.
It was the likeness of Virgil, and he held it in especial
reverence. He was accustomed to keep the birthday
of his master with more solemnity than he kept his
own, and to visit the tomb where the great poet lay on
the shore of the Bay of Naples with such respect as
worshippers pay to a temple.

Much nearer to Pliny, and bound to him by the ties of
intimate friendship, was C. CORNELIUS TACITUS. When,
after his uncle's death, Pliny came, still a mere youth,
to Eome, and began to practise in the law courts, he
found Tacitus at the head of his profession. A splen-
did alliance (he had married the daughter of the great
soldier Agricola) had assured his position, and he
seemed likely to rise to the highest eminence in the
state. Some reason unknown it may have been a
command in the provinces, it may have been the now
precarious position of his father-in-law took him for
several years from the capital, to which he returned
only to become an unwilling witness of the horrors of
the last years of Domitian. In the early days of the

A. c. voL xi. E


better time that followed he took an active part in
public affairs. We have seen him associated with
Pliny in one of the great provincial trials. In A.D.
100 we find him appointed consul to supply the va-
cancy caused by the death of Verginius Eufus. The
funeral oration over the old man, the "Wellington of
his day, who almost seemed to rise above the throne
which he had once refused, was pronounced by his
successor. " It was the crown of his good fortune,"
cried the enthusiastic friend of the orator, " that he
found in Cornelius Tacitus the most eloquent of pane-
gyrists." With his consulate, however, his public life
seems to have closed. Affairs of state must always
be unattractive to men of genius under an absolute
ruler, whether he be an enlightened prince like Trajan,
or a suspicious tyrant like Domitian. How wholly
Tacitus had withdrawn himself from them is evident,
when we find him recommending to the good offices
of Pliny a certain Naso, who was a candidate for one
of the magistracies, wholly ignorant of the fact that it
was under the auspices of Pliny that Naso had origi-
nally started.

Tacitus had probably made his first essay in liter-
ature if the 'Dialogue about Famous Orators' be
really his at a time when Pliny was still a boy.
His ' Life of Agricola * was published in the reign of
Nerva, his 'Treatise on Germany' shortly after the
accession of Trajan. Meanwhile he was living on
terms of close friendship with Pliny. The two con-
stantly interchanged works for mutual criticism. On
the side of Pliny these seem to have been, for the


most part, revisions of speeches which he had delivered.
Among the works which Tacitus submitted to the
judgment of his friend may have been the ' Treatise
on Germany.' About the others we cannot even form
a conjecture. He was busy, however, with prepara-
tions for a greater work, his History, which had for
its subject the period beginning with the accession of
Galba and ending with the death of Domitian. We
have seen how, in his search for materials, he applied
to Pliny for such information as he could give about
the great eruption of Vesuvius. In another letter we
find his friend volunteering particulars of an incident
out of which he believed himself to have come with
considerable credit, and begging that it might find a
place in the forthcoming work. The intimacy that
grew up out of this community of literary interests
became very close, and the Letters repeatedly express
the joy and pride which it gave to the younger and
less distinguished of the two friends. In one place
he remarks with pleasure how frequently both were
named in the wills of friends and acquaintances for
legacies of the same amount. In another he relates
to a correspondent, with great glee, a story which he
had heard from Tacitus himself. The historian, it
seems, was sitting with a stranger, looking on at the
games in the circus. After much learned talk his
new acquaintance asked him, "Are you of Italy or
from the provinces ? " " You know me," replied the
historian, " and that from your reading." " Then," re-
joined the other, " you must be either Tacitus or Pliny."
To a third man of letters, M. VALERIUS MARTIALIS,


Pliny stood in the relation of a patron rather than a
friend. Martial was a native of Bilbilis in Spain,
who had come towards the end of the reign of Nero
to seek his fortune in Borne. He soon attracted
the notice of the Emperor Titus ; and Domitian, who
had at least one redeeming quality in a genuine love
of letters, even admitted him to his intimacy a favour
which he repaid by flattery so gross as not to admit of
any defence. It is possible that one whose adulation
of the tyrant stood on record against him, did not feel
himself at ease under the new regime. Anyhow he
left Rome early in Trajan's reign to return to his
native country. There about four years afterwards he
died, and Pliny records his decease in a letter,* a part
of which it will be worth while to quote : "I hear
that Valerius Martialis is dead, and I am sorry for it.
He was a clever man, of a pointed wit, and of much
spirit. In his writing there was plenty of flavour,
plenty of bitterness, and not less of straightforward
honesty. I presented him, when he was leaving
Rome, with some money for his travelling expenses.
So much was due to our friendship, so much to the
verses he wrote about me.t It was an old custom to

* Epist. iii. 23.

f In these verses (Epig. x. 19) Martial addresses his Muse, and
bids her carry his book to Pliny at his house on the Esquiline
Hill. (The Esquiline had become the fashionable quarter of
Rome since Maecenas had built his great mansion there.) The
latter part of the Epigram, which Pliny quotes in his letter,
may be roughly Englished as follows :

" Only take care, my tipsy Muse,
That a fit and proper time you choose


compliment with distinction or money those who had
written the praise either of persons or of states. With-
in our days it has, like other good and honourable
practices, grown obsolete, and sooner perhaps than
any. When we cease to do what deserves praise,
we soon begin to think that praise is a silly thing."
The transaction such a praise paid for in money
bears a curious resemblance to what was a recognised
practice among ourselves, till, happily both for the
purse and for the honour of our men of letters, the
public superseded the patron.

Of the merits of Silius Italicus, of Tacitus, and of
Martial, we are able to form a judgment for ourselves.
Of the other literary contemporaries of whom Pliny
speaks, nothing has been preserved, nor are their names
even mentioned elsewhere. PASSENNUS PAULLUS, of
whom we shall have an anecdote to relate hereafter,
was a fellow-townsman and descendant of Propertius,
and had inherited a talent for writing elegiac verse.
He also appears to have done what Eoman poets
seldom did, to have imitated Horace. Another friend,

To knock at my Pliny's eloquent gates.
To the stern Minerva he devotes
All his days, and elaborates
What may win the Hundred Judges' votes,
Speeches which this and the coming age
May venture to match with Tully's page.
When may you safely go ? when the light
Of the lamps is burning late, and the night
Grows wild with the wine-cup, and the rose
Is Queen of the feast, and the perfume flows
From dripping locks. In that hour of thine
Stern Catos may read this book of mine."


CANINIUS RUFUS, Pliny encourages in his design of
celebrating in verse Trajan's campaigns in Dacia.
" What subject," he says, " could you find so fresh, so
full of matter, so wide in a word, so poetical, and,
though it deals with the most absolute truth, so ro-
mantic? New rivers made to flow, new bridges
thrown over rivers, mountain precipices occupied with
camps, a king driven from his palace, driven even
from life, yet never despairing these are the things
of which you will sing." But there would be a vast
difficulty, he tells his friend, in raising even his
genius to the height of so vast an undertaking ; and
another, not to be despised, in the task of getting the
barbarous names of Dacian chiefs and towns to suit
the measure of his verse, which was, apparently, the
Greek hexameter. There was the name of the king,
for instance, Diurpaneus. All that could be said was,
that he must take Homeric licence, and Homer was
accustomed to alter much more tractable words.

YERGILIUS ROMANUS, a clever writer of burlesques and
of comedies, which Pliny, a kindly, or perhaps it should
be said, even a flattering critic, thought equal to those
of Plautus and Terence, was another member of the same
literary circle. In his praise of Pompeius Saturninus,
an advocate like himself, our author is still more enthu-
siastic. He was great as a writer ; hear or read his
speeches, you liked them equally well. History he
wrote with the same eloquence, only in a more concise
and compressed style. And verses he could write like

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 17 19 20 21 22 23 24

Online LibraryW. Lucas (William Lucas) CollinsCicero → online text (page 17 of 24)