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J. W. Mackail

The later years of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, while they brought about the complete transformation of the government into an absolute monarchy, also laid the foundations for that reign of the philosophers which had been dreamed of by Plato, and which has never been so nearly realised as it was in Rome during the second century after Christ. The Stoical philosophy, passing beyond the limits of the schools to become at once a religious creed and a practical code of morals for everyday use, penetrated deeply into the life of Rome.

To the age of the rhetoricians succeeded the age of the scholars. Quintilian, Pliny, and Statius, the three foremost authors of the Flavian dynasty, have common qualities of great learning and sober judgment which give them a certain mutual affinity, and divide them sharply from their immediate predecessors. The effort to outdo the Augustan writers had exhausted itself; the new school rather aimed at reproducing their manner.

The end, however, was not yet; and in the generation which immediately followed, the single imposing figure of Cornelius Tacitus, the last of the great classical writers, adds a final and, as it were, a sunset splendour to the literature of Rome. The reigns of Nerva and Trajan, however much they were hailed as the beginning of a golden age, were really far less fertile in literary works than those of the Flavian Emperors; and the boasted restoration of freedom of speech was almost immediately followed by an all but complete silence of the Latin tongue.

To the Romans themselves, as they looked back two hundred years later, the beginnings of a real literature seemed definitely fixed in the generation which passed between the first and second Punic Wars. The peace of B.C. 241 closed an epoch throughout which the Roman Republic had been fighting for an assured place in the group of powers which controlled the Mediterranean world. This was now gained; and the pressure of Carthage once removed, Rome was left free to follow the natural expansion of her colonies and her commerce.

From the name of Tacitus that of Juvenal is inseparable. The pictures drawn of the Empire by the historian and the satirist are in such striking accordance that they create a greater plausibility for the common view they hold than could be given by any single representation; and while Juvenal lends additional weight and colour to the Tacitean presentment of the imperial legend, he acquires from it in return an importance which could hardly otherwise have been sustained by his exaggerated and glaring rhetoric.

Great as was the place occupied in the culture of the Greek world by Homer and the Attic tragedians, the Middle and New Comedy, as they culminated in Menander, exercised an even wider and more pervasive influence. A vast gap lay between the third and fifth centuries before Christ. Aeschylus, and even Sophocles, had become ancient literature in the age immediately following their own.

Though the partial renascence in art and letters which took place in the long peaceful reign of Hadrian was on the whole a Greek, or, at all events, a Graeco-Roman movement, an attempt at least towards a corresponding movement in purely Latin literature, both in prose and verse, was made about the same time, and might have had important results had outward circumstances allowed it a reasonable chance of development.

Law and government were the two great achievements of the Latin race; and the two fountain-heads of Latin prose are, on the one hand, the texts of codes and the commentaries of jurists; on the other, the annals of the inner constitution and the external conquests and diplomacy of Rome. The beginnings of both went further back than Latin antiquaries could trace them. Out of the mists of a legendary antiquity two fixed points rise, behind which it is needless or impossible to go.

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