THE EPIC OF ANTIQUITY
Later to develop than the national epopee was that which formed the cycle of antiquity. Their romantic matter made the works of the Greco-Roman decadence even more attractive than the writings of the great classical authors to poets who would enter into rivalry with the singers of the chansons de geste. These poems, which mediævalise ancient literature—poems often of portentous length—have been classified in three groups—epic romances, historical or pseudo-historical romances, and mythological tales, including the imitations of Ovid. The earliest in date of the first group (about 1150-1155) is the ROMANCE OF THEBES, the work of an unknown author, founded upon a compendium of the Thebaid of Statius, preceded by the story of OEdipus. It opened the way for the vast ROMANCE OF TROY, written some ten years later, by Benoit de Sainte-More. The chief sources of Benoit were versions, probably more or less augmented, of the famous records of the Trojan war, ascribed to the Phrygian Dares, an imaginary defender of the city, and the Cretan Dictys, one of the besiegers. Episodes were added, in which, on a slender suggestion, Benoit set his own inventive faculty to work, and among these by far the most interesting and admirable is the story of Troilus and Briseida, known better to us by her later name of Cressida. Through Boccaccio's Il Filostrato this tale reached our English Chaucer, and through Chaucer it gave rise to the strange, half-heroic, half-satirical play of Shakespeare.
Again, ten years later, an unknown poet was adapting Virgil to the taste of his contemporaries in his Eneas, where the courtship of the Trojan hero and Lavinia is related in the chivalric manner. All these poems are composed in the swift octosyllabic verse; the Troy extends to thirty thousand lines. While the names of the personages are classical, the spirit and life of the romances are wholly mediæval: Troilus, and Hector, and Æneas are conceived as if knights of the Middle Ages; their wars and loves are those of gallant chevaliers. The Romance of Julius Cæsar (in alexandrine verse), the work of a certain Jacot de Forest, writing in the second half of the thirteenth century, versifies, with some additions from the Commentaries of Cæsar, an earlier prose translation by Jehan de Thuin (about 1240) of Lucan's Pharsalia—the oldest translation in prose of any secular work of antiquity. Cæsar's passion for Cleopatra in the Romance is the love prescribed to good knights by the amorous code of the writer's day, and Cleopatra herself has borrowed something of the charm of Tristram's Iseult.
If Julius Cæsar may be styled historical, the ROMAN D'ALEXANDRE, a poem of twenty thousand lines (to the form of which this romance gave its name—"alexandrine" verse), the work of Lambert le Tort and Alexandre de Bernay, can only be described as legendary. All—or nearly all—that was written during the Middle Ages in French on the subject of Alexander may be traced back to Latin versions of a Greek compilation, perhaps of the first century, ascribed to Callisthenes, the companion of Alexander on his Asiatic expedition.5 It is uncertain how much the Alexandre may owe to a Provençal poem on the same subject, written in the early years of the twelfth century, probably by Albéric de Briançon, of which only a short fragment, but that of high merit, has been preserved. From his birth, and his education by Aristotle and the enchanter Nectanebus, to the division, as death approaches, of his empire between his twelve peers, the story of Alexander is a series of marvellous adventures; the imaginary wonders of the East, monstrous wild beasts, water-women, flower-maidens, Amazons, rain of fire, magic mountains, magic fountains, trees of the sun and of the moon, are introduced with a liberal hand. The hero is specially distinguished by the virtue of liberality; a jongleur who charms him by lays sung to the flute, is rewarded with the lordship of Tarsus, a worthy example for the twelfth-century patrons of the poet. The romance had a resounding fame.
5 Not quite all, for certain borrowings were made from the correspondence of Alexander with Dindimus, King of the Brahmans, and from the Alexandri Magni iter ad Paradisum.
Of classical poets, Ovid ranked next to Virgil in the esteem of the Middle Ages. The mythology of paganism was sanctified by the assumption that it was an allegory of Christian mysteries, and thus the stories might first be enjoyed by the imagination, and then be expounded in their spiritual meaning. The Metamorphoses supplied Chrétien de Troyes with the subject of his Philomena; other writers gracefully dealt with the tales of Piramus and of Narcissus. But the most important work founded upon Ovid was a versified translation of the Metamorphoses (before 1305) by a Franciscan monk, Chrétien Legouais de Sainte-Maure, with appended interpretations, scientific, historical, moral, or religious, of the mythological fables. Ovid's Art of Love, of which more than one rendering was made, aided in the formation or development of the mediæval theory of love and the amorous casuistry founded upon that theory.