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Latin Literature

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.

The new religion was long in adapting itself to literary form; and if, between the era of the Antonines and that of Diocletian, a century passes in which all the important literature is Christian, this is rather due to the general decay of art and letters, than to any high literary quality in the earlier patristic writing.

The age of Cicero, a term familiar to all readers as indicating one of the culminating periods of literary history, while its central and later years are accurately fixed, may be dated in its commencement from varying limits. Cicero was born in 106 B.C., the year of the final conquest of Jugurtha, and the year before the terrible Cimbrian disaster at Orange: he perished in the proscription of the triumvirate in December, 43 B.C.

For a full century after the death of Marcus Aurelius, Latin literature was, apart from the Christian writers, practically extinct. The authors of the least importance, or whose names even are known to any but professional scholars, may be counted on the fingers of one hand. The stream of Roman law, the one guiding thread down those dark ages, continued on its steady course. Papinian and Ulpian, the two foremost jurists of the reigns of Septimius and Alexander Severus, bear a reputation as high as that of any of their illustrious predecessors.

Contemporary with Lucretius, but, unlike him, living in the full whirl and glare of Roman life, was a group of young men who were professed followers of the Alexandrian school. In the thirty years which separate the Civil war and the Sullan restoration from the sombre period that opened with the outbreak of hostilities between Caesar and the senate, social life at Rome among the upper classes was unusually interesting and exciting.

In August 410, while the Emperor Honorius fed his poultry among the impenetrable marshes of Ravenna, Rome was sacked by a mixed army of Goths and Huns under the command of Alaric. Eight hundred years had elapsed since the imperial city had been in foreign possession; and, though it had ceased to be the actual seat of government, the shock spread by its capture through the entire Roman world was of unparalleled magnitude.

Fertile as the Ciceronian age was in authorship of many kinds, there was only one person in it whose claim to be placed in an equal rank with Cicero could ever be seriously entertained; and this was, strangely enough, one who was as it were only a man of letters by accident, and whose literary work is but among the least of his titles to fame—Julius Caesar himself.

Publius Vergilius Maro was born at the village of Andes, near Mantua, on the 15th of October, 70 B.C. The province of Cisalpine Gaul, though not formally incorporated with Italy till twenty years later, had before this become thoroughly Romanised, and was one of the principal recruiting grounds for the legions.

In that great turning-point of the world's history marked by the establishment of the Roman Empire, the position of Virgil is so unique because he looks almost equally forwards and backwards. His attitude towards his own age is that of one who was in it rather than of it.

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