1. ROMAN LITERATURE AND ITS DIVISIONS.—Inferior to Greece in the genius of its inhabitants, and, perhaps, in the intrinsic greatness of the events of which it was the theatre, unquestionably inferior in the fruits of intellectual activity, Italy holds the second place in the classic literature of antiquity. Etruria could boast of arts, legislation, scientific knowledge, a fanciful mythology, and a form of dramatic spectacle, before the foundations of Rome were laid. But, like the ancient Egyptians, the Etrurians made no progress in composition. Verses of an irregular structure and rude in sense and harmony appear to have formed the highest limit of their literary achievements. Nor did even the opulent and luxurious Greeks of Southern Italy, while they retained their independence, contribute much to the glory of letters in the West. It was only in their fall that they did good service to the cause, when they redeemed the disgrace of their political humiliation by the honor of communicating the first impulse towards intellectual refinement to the bosoms of their conquerors. When, in the process of time, Sicily, Macedonia, and Achaia had become Roman provinces, some acquaintance with the language of their new subjects proved to be a matter almost of necessity to the victorious people; but the first impression made at Rome by the productions of the Grecian Muse, and the first efforts to create a similar literature, must be traced to the conquest of Tarentum (272 B.C.). From that memorable period, the versatile talents which distinguished the Greeks in every stage of national decline began to exercise a powerful influence on the Roman mind, which was particularly felt in the departments of education and amusement. The instruction of the Roman youth was committed to the skill and learning of Greek slaves; the spirit of the Greek drama was transferred into the Latin tongue, and, somewhat later, Roman genius and ambition devoted their united energies to the study of Greek rhetoric, which long continued to be the guide and model of those schools, in whose exercises the abilities of Cicero himself were trained. Prejudice and patriotism were powerless to resist this flood of foreign innovation; and for more than a century after the Tarentine war, legislative influence strove in vain to counteract the predominance of Greek philosophy and eloquence. But this imitative tendency was tempered by the pride of Roman citizenship. That sentiment breaks out, not merely in the works of great statesmen and warriors, but quite as strikingly in the productions of those in whom the literary character was all in all. It is as prominent in Virgil and Horace as in Cicero and Caesar; and if the language of Rome, in other respects so inferior to that of Greece, has any advantage over the sister tongue, it lies in that accent of dignity and command which seems inherent in its tones. The austerity of power is not shaded down by those graceful softenings so agreeable to the disposition of the most polished Grecian communities. In the Latin forms and syntax we are everywhere conscious of a certain energetic majesty and forcible compression. We hear, as it were, the voice of one who claims to be respected, and resolves to be obeyed.
The Roman classical literature may be divided into three periods. The first embraces its rise and progress, oral and traditional compositions, the rude elements of the drama, the introduction of Greek literature, and the construction and perfection of comedy. To this period the first five centuries of the republic may be considered as introductory, for Rome had, properly speaking, no literature until the conclusion of the first Punic war (241 B.C.), and the first period, commencing at that time, extends through 160 years—that is, to the first appearance of Cicero in public life, 74 B.C.
The second period ends with the death of Augustus, 14 A.D. It comprehends the age of which Cicero is the representative as the most accomplished orator, philosopher, and prose-writer of his time, as well as that of Augustus, which is commonly called the Golden Age of Latin poetry.
The third and last period terminates with the death of Theodoric, 526 A.D. Notwithstanding the numerous excellences which distinguished the literature of this time, its decline had evidently commenced, and, as the age of Augustus has been distinguished by the epithet “golden,” the succeeding period, to the death of Hadrian, 138 A.D., on account of its comparative inferiority, has been designated “the Silver Age.” From this time to the close of the reign of Theodoric, only a few distinguished names are to be found.
2. THE LANGUAGE.—The origin of the Latin language is necessarily connected with that of the Romans themselves. In the most distant ages to which tradition extends, Italy appears to have been inhabited by three stocks or tribes of the great Indo-European family. One of these is commonly known by the name of Oscans; another consisted of two branches, the Sabelians or Sabines, and the Umbrians; the third was called Sikeli, sometimes Vituli or Itali.
The original settlements of the Umbrians extended over the district bounded on one side by the Tiber, and on the other by the Po. All the country to the south was in possession of the Oscans, with the exception of Latium, which was inhabited by the Sikeli. But, in process of time, the Oscans, pressed upon by the Sabines, invaded the abodes of this peaceful and rural people, some of whom submitted, and amalgamated with their conquerors; the rest were driven across the narrow sea into Sicily, and gave their name to the island.
These tribes were not left in undisturbed possession of their rich inheritance. More than 1000 B.C. there arrived in the northern part of Italy the Pelasgians (or dark Asiatics), an enterprising race, famed for their warlike spirit and their skill in the arts of peace, who became the civilizers of Italy. They were far advanced in the arts of civilization and refinement, and in the science of politics and social life. They enriched their newly acquired country with commerce, and filled it with strongly fortified and populous cities, and their dominion rapidly spread over the whole peninsula. Entering the territory of the Umbrians, they drove them into the mountainous districts, or compelled them to live among them as a subject people, while they possessed themselves of the rich and fertile plains. The headquarters of the invaders was Etruria, and that portion of them who settled there were known as Etrurians. Marching southward, they vanquished the Oscans and occupied the plains of Latium. They did not, however, remain long at peace in the districts which they had conquered. The old inhabitants returned from the neighboring highlands to which they had been driven, and subjugated the northern part of Latium, and established a federal anion between the towns of the north, of which Alba was the capital, while of the southern confederacy the chief city was Lavinium.
At a later period, a Latin tribe, belonging to the Alban federation, established itself on the Mount Palatine, and founded Rome, while a Sabine community occupied the neighboring heights of the Quirinal. Mutual jealousy of race kept them, for some time, separate from each other; but at length the two communities became one people, called the Romans. These were, at an early period, subjected to Etruscan rule, and when the Etruscan dynasty passed away, its influence still remained, and permanently affected the Roman language.
The Etruscan tongue being a compound of Pelasgian and Umbrian, the language of Latium may be considered as the result of those two elements combined with the Oscan, and brought together by the mingling of those different tribes. These elements, which entered into the formation of the Latin, may be classified under two heads: the one which has, the other which has not a resemblance to the Greek. All Latin words which resemble the Greek are Pelasgian, and all which do not are Etruscan, Oscan, or Umbrian. From the first of these classes must be excepted those words which are directly derived from the Greek, the origin of which dates partly from the time when Rome began to have intercourse with the Greek colonies of Magna Graecia, partly after the Greeks exercised a direct influence on Roman literature.
Of the ancient languages of Italy, which concurred in the formation of the Latin, little is known. The Eugubine Tables are the only extant fragments of the Umbrian language. These were found in the neighborhood of Ugubio, in the year 1414 A.D.; they date as early as 354 B.C., and contain prayers and rules for religious ceremonies. Some of these tables were engraved in Etruscan or Umbrian characters, others in Latin letters. The remains which have come down to us of the Oscan language belong to a composite idiom made up of the Sabine and Oscan, and consist chiefly of an inscription engraved on a brass plate, discovered in 1793 A.D. As the word Bansae occurs in this inscription, it has been supposed to refer to the town of Bantia, which was situated not far from the spot where the tablet was found, and it is, therefore, called the Bantine Table. The similarity between some of the words found in the Eugubine Tables and in Etruscan inscriptions, shows that the Etruscan language was composed of the Pelasgian and Umbrian, and from the examples given by ethnographers, it is evident that the Etruscan element was most influential in the formation of the Latin language.
The old Roman tongue, or lingua prisca, as it was composed of these materials, and as it existed previous to coming in contact with the Greek, has almost entirely perished; it did not grow into the new, like the Greek, by a process of intrinsic development, but it was remoulded by external and foreign influences. So different was the old Roman from the classical Latin, that some of those ancient fragments were with difficulty intelligible to the cleverest and best educated scholars of the Augustan age.
An example of the oldest Latin extant is contained in the sacred chant of the Fratres Arvales. These were a college of priests, whose function was to offer prayers for plenteous harvests, in solemn dances and processions at the opening of spring. Their song was chanted in the temple with closed doors, accompanied by that peculiar dance which was termed the tripudium, from its containing three beats. The inscription which embodied this litany was discovered in Rome in 1778 A.D. The monument belongs to the reign of Heliogabalus, 218 A.D., but although the date is so recent, the permanence of religious formulas renders it probable that the inscription contains the exact words sung by this priesthood in the earliest times. The “Carmen Saliare,” or the Salian hymn, the leges regiae, the Tiburtine inscription, the inscription on the sarcophagus of L. Cornelius Scipio Barbatus, the great-grandfather of the conqueror of Hannibal, the epitaph of Lucius Scipio, his son, and, above all, the Twelve Tables, are the other principal extant monuments of ancient Latin. The laws of the Twelve Tables were engraven on tablets of brass, and publicly set up in the comitium; they were first made public 449 B.C.
Most of these literary monuments were written in Saturnian verse, the oldest measure used by the Latin poets. It was probably derived from the Etruscans, and until Ennius introduced the heroic hexameter, the strains of the Italian bards flowed in this metre. The structure of the Saturnian is very simple, and its rhythmical arrangement is found in the poetry of every age and country. Macaulay adduces, as an example of this measure, the following line from the well-known nursery song,——
“The queen was in her parlor, | eating bread and honey.”
From this species of verse, which probably prevailed among the natives of Provence (the Roman Provincia), and into which, at a later period, rhyme was introduced as an embellishment, the Troubadours derived the metre of their ballad poetry, and thence introduced it into the rest of Europe.
A wide gap separates this old Latin from the Latin of Ennius, whose style was formed by Greek taste; another not so wide is interposed between the age of Ennius and that of Plautus and Terence, and lastly, Cicero and the Augustan poets mark another age. But in all its periods of development, the Latin bears a most intimate relation with the Greek. This similarity is the result both of their common origin from the primitive Pelasgian and of the intercourse which the Romans at a later period held with the Greeks. Latin, however, had not the plastic property of the Greek, the faculty of transforming itself into every variety of form and shape conceived by the fancy and imagination; it partook of the spirit of Roman nationality, of the conscious dignity of the Roman citizen, of the indomitable will that led that people to the conquest of the world. In its construction, instead of conforming to the thought, it bends the thought to its own genius. It is a fit language for expressing the thoughts of an active and practical, but not of an imaginative and speculative people. It was propagated, like the dominion of Rome, by conquest. It either took the place of the language of the conquered nation, or became ingrafted upon it, and gradually pervaded its composition; hence its presence is discernible in all European languages.
3. THE RELIGION.—The religion and mythology of Etruria left an indelible stamp on the rites and ceremonies of the Roman people. At first they worshiped heaven and earth, personified in Saturn and Ops, by whom Juno, Vesta, and Ceres were generated, symbolizing marriage, family, and fertility; soon after, other Etruscan divinities were introduced, such as Jupiter, Minerva, and Janus; and Sylvanus and Faunus, who delighted in the simple occupations of rural and pastoral life. From the Etrurians the Romans borrowed, also, the institution of the Vestals, whose duty was to watch and keep alive the sacred fire of Vesta; the Lares and Penates, the domestic gods, which presided over the dwelling and family; Terminus, the god of property and the rites connected with possession; and the orders of Augurs and Aruspices, whose office was to consult the flight of birds or to inspect the entrails of animals offered in sacrifice, in order to ascertain future events. The family of the Roman gods continued to increase by adopting the divinities of the conquered nations, and more particularly by the introduction of those of Greece. The general division of the gods was twofold,—the superior and inferior deities. The first class contained the Consentes and the Selecti; the second, the Indigetes and Semones. The Consentes, so called because they were supposed to form the great council of heaven, consisted of twelve: Jupiter, Neptune, Apollo, Mars, Mercury, Vulcan, Juno, Minerva, Ceres, Diana, Venus, and Vesta. The Selecti were nearly equal to them in rank, and consisted of eight: Saturn, Pluto, Bacchus, Janus, Sol, Genius, Rhea, and Luna. The Indigites were heroes who were ranked among the gods, and included particularly Hercules, Castor and Pollux, and Quirinus or Romulus. The Semones comprehended those deities that presided over particular objects, as Pan, the god of shepherds; Flora, the goddess of flowers, etc. Besides these, there were among the inferior gods a numerous class of deities, including the virtues and vices and other objects personified.
The religion of the Romans was essentially political, and employed as a means of promoting the designs of the state. It was prosaic in its character, and in this respect differed essentially from the artistic and poetical religion of the Greeks. The Greeks conceived religion as a free and joyous worship of nature, a centre of individuality, beauty, and grace, as well as a source of poetry, art, and independence. With the Romans, on the contrary, religion conveyed a mysterious and hidden idea, which gave to this sentiment a gloomy and unattractive character, without either moral or artistic influence.