William Spalding.

Italy and the Italian islands, from the earliest ages to the present time (Volume 1) online

. (page 12 of 35)
Online LibraryWilliam SpaldingItaly and the Italian islands, from the earliest ages to the present time (Volume 1) → online text (page 12 of 35)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

that has a warmer flow than we discover in these, —
there is much poetry that possesses an infinitely higher
moral worth, from its closer alliance with life and its
closer sympathy with the great interests of mankind, —
but there is scarcely any single work, and certainly no
body of writings, equalling the perfection of the Augus-
tan poems as works of art, none which unite so many of
the qualities of poetry even in its essence, and none so
faultless in the mechanism and outward form.

The example of Augustus was followed by his cour-
tiers, especially Maecenas and Pollio. The native Italians
who prosecuted literature with success were liberally
patronised, provided always that their knowledge
enabled them to gratify the taste for Grecian learning,
which was universal among the refined aristocracy.
Indeed the nobles made no secret of their contempt for
the Latin tongue, — while scraps of Greek occupied the
same place in their familiar conversation which French
once held in some circles of our own country. Litera-
ture was allowed greater license in its politics than in
its grammar. This reign, in fact, formed one long
comedy, the scene of which was a supposed republic,
the emperor being its first citizen, and the ministers of
his mUd despotism playing the parts of republicans with


as much gravity as he did. Respect to the common-
wealth, and praise of its institutions, were things of
course, to be found in books as well as in ordinary life.
It was only necessary for the author, as for the private
citizen, to recollect that the free state had now for the
first time reached perfection, and that, so far as it had pre-
viously differed from its new condition, its burghers
might be heroes, but its constitution was defective. Even
if the understood limits of Augustan repubhcanism were
sometimes transgressed by a warm-tempered poet, the
crafty rulers let the offence pass, and were right in doing
so. The literature of the day never reached the lower
orders, scarcely indeed any order except the highest ;
and those who did read and were able to understand,
were quite incapable, both morall}'' and from circum-
stances, of moving one step against the new political

We have lost scarcely any author of this age, except
some of those persons of rank, who, like Pollio, wrote
with ease. In prose we possess Titus Livius, a native of
Patavium or its neighbouring village of Abanum (a. u.
695 — 770). In poetry we have Publius Virgilius Maro,
born in the neighbourhood of Mantua, and resident for
the greater part of his life in Rome (683 — 734) ; Quintus
Horatius Flaccus, a native of Venusia in Apulia (688 —
745) ; Publius Ovidius Naso, from Sulmo in the Pelignian
district (710 — 770) ; Sextus Aurelius Propertius, an
Umbrian, and Aulus Albius Tibullus, a Roman, both of
noble birth.* The Greek %vriters of the day are beyond
our limits. Diodorus, indeed, as a Sicilian, might seem
to fall within them ; and Dionj^sius of Halicamassus
must be named for his Roman History, and his residence
of twenty-two years in the capital, spent in collecting
materials for his works, and teacliing oratory to the
young nobles.

• The neglected poem of Gratius Faliscus on Hunting probably
belongs to this age, and deserves to be mentioned as proving how
feeble and mean it was possible to render the Latin of Cicero and


Livy's Roman History consisted of about 140 books,
and extended from the foundation of the city to the
middle of Augustus's reign. Besides a few fragments
and a complete epitome of the work, we possess only
thirty-five of those books ; namely, the first ten, which
bring the nan-ative down to the year of Rome 460,
and the twenty-five which immediately follow the twen-
tieth. These embrace half a century, ending with the
year 587, the earliest event mentioned in them being
Hannibal's siege of Sag-untum, and the latest the con-
quest of Macedon. The historical value of Livy's
work sufifers considerable diminution from the Grecian
taste that prevailed in his day, from his neglect of
constitutional questions, and fi-om his open partisanship
of the aristocracy. But its literary excellence can
scarcely be too highly estimated. In the animation and
picturesqueness of the naiTative, in the heartiness of
its patriotic feeling, and in its lively portraiture of the
Roman character, it possesses qualities which make it
the most fascinatmg of stories even to modern readers,
and must have rendered it in the author's own age one
of the most pleasmg sacrifices ever laid on the altar of
national vanity. Of the language either of Livy or of
the poets in his time it is needless to speak : their dic-
tion is recognised as the standard of the Latin tongue.

Among the poets who have just been named, Proper-
tius and Tibullus, whose works consist of reflective
and sentimental verses in the soft monotonous elegiac
measure, are not characteristic enough to deserve much
notice. Both are palpable imitators of the Greeks,
and our preference may be left doubtful between the
obtrusively learned imagery and vigour of thought
which distinguish Propertius, and the plaintiveness
which pervades the love-poems of Tibullus,

Ovid stands infinitely higher. The careless elegance of
his conversational style (the perfection of familiar Latin
in its best days), and his sweetly flowing versification,
qualified him well to be the poet of a refined society ; and
his subjects were not less happy than was his capacity


for treating them. The loose sentiment, moreover, which
degrades his amatory poems, was but too well suited to
the profligacy of his age. The Metamorphoses, an in-
terminable series of narratives drawn from the classical
mythology, was, with the Art and Remedy of Love, one
of the favourite books in the middle ages, and gave to the
modems their first knowledge of the Greek fables. In
many parts its richness of fancy, and in a few places its
tenderness of feeling, are extremely delightful. The
" Heroides," or letters of the heroic times, are artificial
in their whole conception, with frequent touches of fine
emotion and imagery ; the " Fasti," which detail the
Roman legends in their relation to the calendar, are of
the greatest use as an antiquarian storehouse ; and the
desponding poems written from the poet's place of exile
in Pontus, owed the interest which beyond any other of
his works they excited in Rome, to his own history and
situation rather than to their poetical merits.

Horace and Virgil, like the rest, derived from Greece
the forms of their poetry, much of its materials, and
much of its inspiration; but one cannot help per-
ceiving that the studies of both were different from
those of most men of their time. The later poets of
the artificial school of Alexandria had been the models
of Propertius and Tibullus, and even of Ovid, while the
same patterns had materially injured the far nobler
poetry of Lucretius. Nor was this evil eff'ect altogether
avoided by the two Augustan laureates ; but their dis-
tinguishing characteristic was, that they went back to the
old fountains of the Grecian poetical paradise, and from
these drew their essential conceptions of the art. Apol-
lonius Rhodius might give aids to Virgil, but Homer was
his master ; Horace might abandon imitation of Pindar as
equally unsuited to the bent of his own intellect and the
temper of the age, but that great genius was still the
prototype to which he looked back with admiring regret.
If Ovid was qualified to please a luxurious generation by
holding up to it its own image, Horace and Virgil were
able to lead their contemporaries whil j they seemed only


to follow ; and on modem literature these two have
exerted a greater influence than any other ancient poets.

In spirit, though not in form, Horace's odes are as
original as his satires. With the light playfulness of
the court-poet they unite much of the practical energy
which belongs to the man of action ; they frequently
rise high in the visionary region of lyrical imagery and
feeling ; and they sometimes, though rarely, flame out
with a stern moral sublimity. This last and loftiest
flight is prompted only by one source of inspiration, —
the recollection of Roman greatness. From the imperial
terraces of the Palatine Mount the lyrist casts his eye
on the Capitol and Forum ; the bitter feeling of the
moment is relieved by a burst of indignant scorn, or by a
rapid sketch of republican grandeur ; and he then turns
away, in homage to the powers he served, to weave again
his links of mythologic fancy, or to inculcate with a
poet's art his lessons of worldly wisdom. This character
of acute observation, which he uses for the purpose of
insinuating rather than teaching easy maxims of duty,
constitutes the spirit of Horace's Satires. The form of
these poems was of his own invention, for neither his
own countrymen nor the Greeks possessed writings
of the same kind till his time, though both had com-
positions which received the same name. These Horatian
satires and epistles, travelling a middle road between
prose and poetry, are equally admirable in their mecha-
nism and in their matter. As portraits of Roman man-
ners in the age they describe, they are not more lively
than instructive ; as works addressed to the nation whose
weaknesses they paint, their skill of execution is un-

Virgil possessed neither Horace's sagacity of observa-
tion nor his lively interest in contemporary life and po-
litical relations. He was wholly the poet and the artist,
endowed with all the qualifications of the latter character,
and with many of the most exquisite gifts of the former.
As a poet, every feature of his genius is subservient
to one leading faculty, his unequalled sense of beauty,


clear, delicate, and ideal, which attuned the flow of his
verse, ministered to his felicity of language, and dictated
the themes on which his delighted fancy retired to
repose itself. Primeval simplicity and grandeur, pas-
toral life amidst the luxuriance of rural nature, heroic
adventure seen through the mist of time, and antique
worth exalted into calm greatness by imagination, were
the elements of the world in which his thoughts dwelt ;
and the purposes to which he turned these favourite
visions, were equally well chosen for creating his fame
among his contemporaries, and for preserving it with

His Idylls, examples of an ill-invented species of
poetry, an illegitimate drama to which no degree of skill
can give much interest, were early attempts ; and, though
works of high promise, they have much of the false
Alexandrian taste, and develop but imperfectly Virgil's
highest qualities. Some of them, however, were the
means of introducing him to the patronage of Augustus
and PoUio, before he had reached his thirtieth year ;
and after writing a few more, he retired to the beautiful
neighbourhood of Naples, where, in the course of seven
years, he completed his Georgics, undertaken, it is
said, at the suggestion of Augustus and Maecenas, who,
alarmed by the general neglect of agriculture, wished to
make the art fashionable. The choice of the subject,
and the purely didactic portions of the poem, call for
no remark. As a work of art it is superior to any
composition of the author, perhaps to all the didactic
poems ever written. Every thing is done to idealize
the theme ; there is thrown about it a gorgeous veil of
mythological and historical imagery ; and the scene is
shifted from spot to spot of the most lovely landscape.
The Georgics were completed about the time of Antony's
final ruin and the elevation of Octavius to the uncon-
trolled sovereignty.

Virgil's last and greatest work, which was com-
menced soon after, in the fortieth year of his age, had
not received his last corrections when he died at Brun-


dusium, in his fifty-second. Politically considered, the
legendary story which the uiEneid tells, was in itself
perfectly harmless to the new dynasty ; and it may per-
haps have been thought that it would even be useful in the
foreign provinces, by magnifying the original greatness
of Italy and Rome. In the way in which it was treated
it directly served Augustus ; for, by recognising his
claim of descent from the fabulous founder of the Greco-
Latin race, it reared up in his favour a kind of divine
right to the first magistracy of the republic. These
pretensions of the Julian family, and the general study
of Greek antiquities to the utter neglect of those indige-
nous to the peninsula, were sufficient reasons why Virgil
should adopt, as even Livy the historian did, the fable
of the Trojan descent of Rome, instead of searching
among the national legends for another hero and another
tale. The true materials of Italian history, however, were
clearly known to him ; and he has made most skilful use
of his antiquarian knowledge, in the account he gives of
the adventures of ^neas, and of the state of Italy in
his times. A considerable portion of his historical de-
tails, and a little of his supernatural machinery, are
native to the soil, though these features are kept in
studied subordination to the foreign outline. For
some of the most lovely scenes of his beautiful coun-
try, Virgil, in this poem, did the same service which
Scott has performed for so many places in Scotland. In
the neighbourhood of Rome, along the Tiber, and on the
coast stretching soiithward from its mouth, which though
now a woody marsh, was then covered by a chain of
villas, lay numerous spots which thenceforward were
irrevocably associated Avith the finest poetry and the most
ancient legends of the country. In the vicinity of Naples,
likewise, the favourite resorts of the luxurious aristo-
cracy were elevated into the rank of mythological scenes ;
their sulphureous fountains exhaled the breath of the
buried giants ; the oyster-preserves became the lakes and
rivers of Hades ; and the fashionable cemetery of the
Augustan age, among delightful woods and vineyards,


and below the huge rock of Misenum, was, by the per-
fection of flattery, pointed out as the Elysian plains, the
habitation of the blessed. It would be an intrusion to
enter into minute criticism on the merit of the work, in
respect either to its plan or to its most prominent details.
With no variety and little force of character ; with a
hero about whose fate we remain perfectly indifferent,
if indeed we do not rather wish success to his enemies ;
with a tone of moral feeling which scarcely ever rises
above decent worldliness, and sometimes sinks below it ;
with a story whose baldness is only relieved by a few
episodical tales, which, though exquisitely pathetic, are
really excrescences on its design ; with all these de-
fects and many more, the ^Eneid has always charmed,
and will always continue to charm, every one who has
a heart and fancy for the feeling and imagery of poetry,
an ear for its most delightful melody, or an intellect quali-
fied to appreciate the symmetry and perfection of its art.



A. u. 767—933 ; or a. i>. 14—180.

This period is commonly styled the Silver Age of Ro-
man Literature. Reckoned to the death of Marcus
Aurelius it endured more than a century and a half, and
comprises fifteen reigns. The vicissitudes of learning
were even more frequent than the changes of sovereignty,
since several emperors patronised letters at one time,
and persecuted them at another ; but the era in its lead-
ing features was inferior both to the Augustan and the
last republican age. Its inferiority in style was not its
only defect, for taste in poetry and rhetoric was to a
considerable degree corrupted nearly at the beginning
of it ; and there usually existed a check on philoso-
phical and political speculation, which fettered prose
writing of every kind.

In poetry this period gives us Marcus Annaeus Luca-
nus, a Spaniard (a. d. 88 — 65) ; Valerius Flaccus, who


died young, in the reign of Domitian ; Publius Papinius
Statins, a Neapolitan (61 — 96) ; Caius Silius Italicus
(24—99) ; AulusPersius Flaccus of Volterra (34—62) ;
Decimus Junius Juvenalis, a native of Aquinum {ah.
40 — ah. 120) ; the Spaniard Marcus Valerius Martialis
{ah. 63 — ah. 103) : and the author or authors of the
tragedies which go under the name of Seneca. The
historians of the time were Caius Velleius Paterculus
of Naples {ah. b. c. 18 — a. d. 31) ; Valerius Maximus,
who was somewhat younger ; Caius Cornelius Tacitus,
born at Interamna in Umbria {h. ah. 67 — d. in Trajan's
reign) ; Caius Suetonius Tranquillus, a contemporary
of Tacitus ; Lucius Annseus Florus, who wrote under
Trajan ; and probably Quintus Curtius, or the author,
whoever he was, of the Life of Alexander the Great.
The highest philosophical and scientific names of the
age are Greek. These commence with Strabo the geo-
grapher, who was at Rome in the reign of Tiberius ;
they include Epictetus, who was ^e son of a freedman
of Nero, and was alive in the time of Hadrian ; and
Plutarch, who visited Italy towards the end of Vespa-
sian's government, and was not there later than the
death of Domitian. At the end of the list of writers who
cultivated the Grecian philosophy must also come the
name of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who, educated
by the celebrated Herodes Atticus, warmly promoted
that revival of Greek learning which came to its height
soon after his time. The mental science of the Latins
13 represented by Lucius Annseus Seneca, who was bom
at Cordova {ah. b. c. 1 — a. d. 65) : and their physics by
Caius Plinius Secundus, called the elder Pliny, a native
of Verona or Comum (28 — 79). To these names may be
added those of the Spaniard Lucius Junius Columella, a
writer on agriculture, and a contemporary of Seneca ;
Sextus Juhus Frontinus, the author of a work on the
aqueducts, who flourished in the end of the first and be-
ginning of the second century of our era ; and Aulus Cor-
nelius Celsus, whose treatise on medicine is still extant.
The jurisprudence of the time was more remarkable for
its squabbles than its excellence. In rhetoric, Marcus


Annaeus Seneca, the philosopher's father, scarcely de-
serves mention ; but the theory of the art was expounded
by Marcus Fabius Quinctilianus, supposed to have been
a native of Spain (b. 42 — alive in 117) ; and its practice
was successfully followed by the younger Pliny, Caius
Plinius Caecilius Secundus (b. 62 — d. probably 114).

Several of these writers, being of little importance for
the purpose now in view, may be dismissed very briefly.
In poetry, Virgil was the great model, and his pictur-
esque groups and flowing versification were imitated
by many men of letters in the imperial court. At the
head of these imitations stands an epic on the Second
Punic War, composed by Silius, a noble Roman, of ac-
curate taste and amiable character, who, devoting to
literature the evening of a busy life, was praised by
Martial and the other hungry poets whom he fed. The
poem of Valerius Flaccus on the Argonautic Expedition,
is written in the same taste, though far richer in fancy ;
but its merit rests less with the author than with
ApoUonius Rhodius, whose plan and much of his mate-
rials he borrows. Martial's Fourteen Books of Epigrams,
in which he was the first to give to this species of com-
position that sharpness of turn which characterizes it
in modern times, are full of wit, invective, and ob-
scenity ; and while they are clearly the productions of
one who could have done far better, their chief value
is as illustrations (to be used with due allowance) of the
manners and the deplorable licentiousness of Rome in
the reign of Domitian. The ten tragedies of the pseudo-
Seneca would requhe and reward minute attention in
a detailed history of Italian literature ; but as they are
mere imitations of the Greek, with occasional infusions
of the strong Roman spirit, and much of the lazy de-
clamation of the times, it is enough to indicate them
as the only existing remains of the nation in a branch
of literature in which they never attained to excellence.
Among the historians who have been enumerated, the
servile Paterculus, the gossiping Valerius, and the
epitomist Florus, may be dismissed in the same breath
with the credulous and pleasingly rhetorical biographer of


Alexander. The Lives of the Caesars, by Suetonius,
have little literary merit, though great historical value,
and are here chiefly to be noticed as the first instance
of that rage for personal memoirs, which produced
afterwards so many collections of scandalous anecdotes.
Quinctilian's Institutions, equally admirable for the
soundness of their precepts and criticisms, and for their
own high literary excellence, may be allowed to pass
with the same hearty praise which is due to the younger
Pliny's Panegyric on Trajan, and his interesting, lively,
and elegant collection of Letters.

There still remain the most important literary names
of the time, Seneca the philosopher and the elder Pliny,
the poets Lucan and Statins, Juvenal and Persius, with
Tacitus the historian.

Pliny's thirst for knowledge, which expatiated over
every department of human inquiry, maintained his mind
in ceaseless activity, and finally cost him his life in the
great eruption of Vesuvius, was a remarkable phenome-
non ; but, unaccompanied as it was with creative genius
or extensive powers of reasoning, it would not detain
us, were it not that his only remaining work seems cal-
culated to illustrate forcibly the general narrowness of
intellect brought on by the state of the times. The
thirty-seven books of his " Historia Naturalis," an en-
cyclopaedia of ancient knowledge in natural history,
geography, and art, are the only considerable treatise of
the kind which the Latin empire has bequeathed to us.
The notices contained in it possess importance from
their number and variety, as well as from the fact that
very many sources whence the writer drew his informa-
tion are no longer known ; but the whole is heaped
together without order or inference, and the most
valuable facts, and the shrewdest observations, stand
side by side with extravagant caricatures and foolish

Seneca, whose tutorship of Nero, and his murder by
that wicked prince, are familiar to every one, and whose
moral character remains soiled after every attempt to


cleanse it, exercised on his age an influence scarcely less
than that which Cicero had on the age preceding. His
mode of writing was vicious, rhetorical, antithetical,
and forced, but its strong colouring was the very thing
which gave it an eff'ect in the eyes of an over-refined
and declining generation. His overstrained stoical tenets
were as well calculated for his age as for his style.
His example, it is likely, precipitated the fall of Roman
letters ; but in his OAvn days and for some time after-
wards, it probably did good rather than harm.

"We next approach one of the most interesting pheno-
mena of Latin literature. The tutor of Nero's childhood
introduced to the prince's acquaintance his own nephew
Lucan, a boy of noble Roman parentage, bom in Spain,
but educated in the capital from his infancy. When
the emperor began to rule, his early companion be-
came one of his cherished friends. The youth was en-
thusiastically devoted to letters, a firm believer in the
haughty doctrines of stoicism, and full of those recollec-
tions of perished freedom and greatness, which the deceit-
ful promise of the new reign tempted him, as well as
many others, to express. Besides composmg some poems
which are lost, he gave vent to his melancholy aspira-
tions in his celebrated epic the " Pharsalia." He there
depicted the death-struggle of the Roman republic, and
avowed that his only consolation for the wretchedness
of that fatal period, was the reflection that the fates had
appointed it as the necessary prelude to the happiness of
the state under the good Nero. The dream of the em-
peror's youthful virtue speedily vanished ; and in the
conspiracy of Piso against him, the disappointed poet of
liberty took a share. He was put to the torture, sen-

Online LibraryWilliam SpaldingItaly and the Italian islands, from the earliest ages to the present time (Volume 1) → online text (page 12 of 35)