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Mommsen has truly remarked that the culminating point of Roman development was the period which had no literature. Had the Roman people continued to move in the same lines as they did before coming in contact with the works of Greek genius, it is possible that they might have long remained without a literature. Or if they had wrought one out for themselves, it would no doubt have been very different from that which has come down to us. As it is, Roman literature forms a feature in human history quite without a parallel. We see a nation rich in patriotic feeling, in heroes legendary and historical, advancing step by step to the fullest solution then known to the world of the great problems of law and government, and finally rising by its virtues to the proud position of mistress of the nations, which yet had never found nor, apparently, even wanted, any intellectual expression of its life and growth, whether in the poet's inspired song or in the sober narrative of the historian.

The cause of this striking deficiency is to be sought in the original characteristics of the Latin race. The Latin character, as distinguished from the Greek, was eminently practical and unimaginative. It was marked by good sense, not by luxuriant fancy: it was “natum rebus agendis.” The acute intellect of the Romans, directing itself from the first to questions of war and politics, obtained such a clear and comprehensive grasp of legal and political rights as, united with an unwavering tenacity of purpose, made them able to administer with profound intelligence their vast and heterogeneous empire. But in the meantime reflective thought had received no impulse.

The stern and somewhat narrow training which was the inheritance of the governing class necessarily confined their minds to the hard realities of life. Whatever poetical capacity the Romans may once have had was thus effectually checked. Those aspirations after an ideal beauty which most nations that have become great have embodied in “immortal verse”—if they ever existed in Rome—faded away before her greatness reached its meridian, only to be rekindled into a shadowy and reflected brightness when Rome herself had begun to decay.

There is nothing that so powerfully influences literature as the national religion. Poetry, with which in all ages literature begins, owes its impulse to the creations of the religious imagination. Such at least has been the case with those Aryan races who have been most largely endowed with the poetical gift. The religion of the Roman differed from that of the Greek in having no background of mythological fiction. For him there was no Olympus with its half-human denizens, no nymph-haunted fountain, no deified heroes, no lore of sacred bard to raise his thoughts into the realm of the ideal. His religion was cold and formal. Consisting partly of minute and tedious ceremonies, partly of transparent allegories whereby the abstractions of daily life were clothed with the names of gods, it possessed no power over his inner being. Conceptions such as Sowing (Saturnus), War (Bellona), Boundary (Terminus), Faithfulness (Fides), much as they might influence the moral and social feelings, could not be expanded into material for poetical inventions. And these and similar deities were the objects of his deepest reverence. The few traces that remained of the ancient nature-worship, unrelated to one another, lost their power of producing mythology. The Capitoline Jupiter never stood to the Romans in a true personal relation. Neither Mars nor Hercules (who were genuine Italian gods) was to Rome what Apollo was to Greece. Whatever poetic sentiment was felt centred rather in the city herself than in the deities who guarded her. Rome was the one name that roused enthusiasm; from first to last she was the true Supreme Deity, and her material aggrandisement was the never-exhausted theme of literary, as it had been the consistent goal of practical, effort.

The primitive culture of Latium, in spite of all that has been written about it, is still so little known, that it is hard to say whether there existed elements out of which a native art and literature might have been matured. But it is the opinion of the highest authorities that such elements did exist, though they never bore fruit. The yearly Roman festival with its solemn dance, [1] the masquerades in the popular carnival, [2] and the primitive litanies, afforded a basis for poetical growth almost identical with that which bore such rich fruit in Greece. It has been remarked that dancing formed a more important part of these ceremonies than song. This must originally have been the case in Greece also, as it is still in all primitive stages of culture. But whereas in Greece the artistic cultivation of the body preceded and led up to the higher conceptions of pure art, in Rome the neglect of the former may have had some influence in repressing the existence of the latter.

If the Romans had the germ of dramatic art in their yearly festivals, they had the germ of the epos in their lays upon distinguished warriors. But the heroic ballad never assumed the lofty proportions of its sister in Greece. Given up to women and boys it abdicated its claim to widespread influence, and remained as it had begun, strictly “gentile.” The theory that in a complete state place should be found for the thinker and the poet as well as for the warrior and legislator, was unknown to ancient Rome. Her whole development was based on the negation of this theory. It was only when she could no longer enforce her own ideal that she admitted under the strongest protest the dignity of the intellectual calling. This will partly account for her singular indifference to historical study. With many qualifications for founding a great and original historical school, with continuous written records from an early date, with that personal experience of affairs without which the highest form of history cannot be written, the Romans yet allowed the golden opportunity to pass unused, and at last accepted a false conception of history from the contemporary Greeks, which irreparably injured the value of their greatest historical monuments. Had it been customary for the sober-minded men who contributed to make Roman history for more than three centuries, to leave simple commentaries for the instruction of after generations, the result would have been of incalculable value. For that such men were well qualified to give an exact account of facts is beyond doubt. But the exclusive importance attached to active life made them indifferent to such memorials, and they were content with the barren and meagre notices of the pontifical annals and the yearly registers of magistrates in the temple of Capitoline Jupiter.

These chronicles and registers on the one hand, and the hymns, laws, [3] and formulas of various kinds on the other, formed the only written literature existing in the times before the Punic wars. Besides these, there, were a few speeches, such as that of Ap. Claudius Caecus (280 B.C.) against Pyrrhus, published, and it is probable that the funeral orations of the great families were transmitted either orally or in writing from one generation to another, so as to serve both as materials for history and models of style.

Much importance has been assigned by Niebuhr and others to the ballad literature that clustered round the great names of Roman history. It is supposed to have formed a body of national poetry, the complete loss of which is explained by the success of the anti-national school of Ennius which superseded it. The subjects of this poetry were the patriots and heroes of old Rome, and the traditions of the republic and the struggles between the orders were faithfully reflected in it. Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome are a brilliant reconstruction of what he conceived to be the spirit of this early literature. It was written, its supporters contend, in the native Saturnian, and, while strongly leavened with Greek ideas, was in no way copied from Greek models. It was not committed to writing, but lived in the memory of the people, and may still be found embedded in the beautiful legends which adorn the earlier books of Livy. Some idea of its scope may be formed from the fragments that remain of Naevius, who was the last of the old bards, and bewailed at his own death the extinction of Roman poetry. Select lays were sung at banquets either by youths of noble blood, or by the family bard; and if we possessed these lays, we should probably find in them a fresher and more genuine inspiration than in all the literature which followed.

This hypothesis of an early Roman epos analogous to the Homeric poems, but preserved in a less coherent shape, has met with a close investigation at the hands of scholars, but is almost universally regarded as “not proven.” The scanty and obscure notices of the early poetry by no means warrant our drawing so wide an inference as the Niebuhrian theory demands. [4] All they prove is that the Roman aristocracy, like that of all other warlike peoples, listened to the praises of their class recited by minstrels during their banquets or festive assemblies. But so far from the minstrel being held in honour as in Greece and among the Scandinavian tribes, we are expressly told that he was in bad repute, being regarded as little better than a vagabond. [5] Furthermore, if these lays had possessed any merit, they would hardly have sunk into such complete oblivion among a people so conservative of all that was ancient. In the time of Horace Naevius was as well known as if he had been a modern; if, therefore, he was merely one, though, the most illustrious, of a long series of bards, it is inconceivable that his predecessors should have been absolutely unknown. Cicero, indeed, regrets the loss of these rude lays; but it is in the character of an antiquarian and a patriot that he speaks, and not of an appraiser of literary merit. The really imaginative and poetical halo which invests the early legends of Rome must not be attributed to individual genius, but partly to patriotic impulse working among a people for whom their city and her faithful defenders supplied the one material for thought, and partly, no doubt, though we know not in what degree, to early contact with the legends and culture of Greece. The epitaphs of the first two Scipios are a good criterion of the state of literary acquirement at the time. They are apparently uninfluenced by Greek models, and certainly do not present a high standard either of poetical thought or expression.

The fact, also, that the Romans possessed no native term for a poet is highly significant. Poeta, which we find as early as Naevius, [6] is Greek; and vates, which Zeuss [7] traces to a Celtic root, meant originally “soothsayer,” not “poet.” [8] Only in the Augustan period does it come into prominence as the nobler term, denoting that inspiration which is the gift of heaven and forms the peculiar privilege of genius. [9] The names current among the ancient Romans, librarius, scriba, were of a far less complimentary nature, and referred merely to the mechanical side of the art. [10] These considerations all tend to the conclusion that the true point from which to date the beginning of Roman literature is that assigned by Horace, [11] viz. the interval between the first and second Punic wars. It was then that the Romans first had leisure to contemplate the marvellous results of Greek culture, revealed to them by the capture of Tarentum (272 B.C.), and still more conspicuously by the annexation of Sicily in the war with Carthage. In Sicily, even more than in Magna Graecia, poetry and the arts had a splendid and enduring life. The long line of philosophers, dramatists, and historians was hardly yet extinct. Theocritus was still teaching his countrymen the new poetry of rustic life, and many of the inhabitants of the conquered provinces came to reside at Rome, and imported their arts and cultivation; and from this period the history of Roman poetry assumes a regular and connected form. [12]

Besides the scanty traces of written memorials, there were various elements in Roman civilisation which received a speedy development in the direction of literature and science as soon as Greek influence was brought to bear on them. These may be divided into three classes, viz. rudimentary dramatic performances, public speaking in the senate and forum, and the study of jurisprudence.

The capacity of the Italian nations for the drama is attested by the fact that three kinds of dramatic composition were cultivated in Rome, and if we add to these the semi-dramatic Fescenninae, we shall complete the list of that department of literature. This very primitive type of song took its rise in Etruria; it derives its name from Fescennium, an Etrurian town, though others connect it with fascinum, as if originally it were an attempt to avert the evil eye. [13] Horace traces the history of this rude banter from its source in the harvest field to its city developments of slander and abuse, [14] which needed the restraint of the law. Livy, in his sketch of the rise of Roman drama, [15] alludes to these verses as altogether unpolished, and for the most part extemporaneous. He agrees with Horace in describing them as taking the form of dialogue (alternis), but his account is meagre in the extreme. In process of time the Fescennines seem to have modified both their form and character. From being in alternate strains, they admitted a treatment as if uttered by a single speaker,—so at least we should infer from Macrobius's notice of the Fescennines sent by Augustus to Pollio, [16] which were either lines of extempore raillery, or short biting epigrams, like that of Catullus on Vatinius, [17] owing their title to the name solely to the pungency of their contents. In a general way they were restricted to weddings, and we have in the firstEpithalamium of Catullus, [18] and some poems by Claudian, highly-refined specimens of this class of composition. The Fescennines owed their popularity to the light-hearted temper of the old Italians, and to a readiness at repartee which is still conspicuous at the present day in many parts of Italy.

With more of the dramatic element than the Fescennines, the Saturae appear to have early found a footing in Rome, though their history is difficult to trace. We gather from Livy [19] that they were acted on the stage as early as 359 B.C. Before this the boards had been occupied by Etruscan dancers, and possibly, though not certainly, by improvisers of Fescennine buffooneries; but soon after this date Saturaewere performed by one or more actors to the accompaniment of the flute. The actors, it appears, sang as well as gesticulated, until the time of Livius, who set apart a singer for the interludes, while he himself only used his voice in the dialogue. The unrestrained and merry character of the Saturae fitted them for the after-pieces, which broke up the day's proceedings (exodium); but in later times, when tragedies were performed, this position was generally taken by the Atellana or the Mime. The name Satura (or Satira) is from lanx saturu, the medley or hodge-podge, “quae referta variis multisque primitiis in sacro apud priscos diis inferebatur.” Mommsen supposes it to have been the “masque of the full men” (saturi), enacted at a popular festival, while others have connected it with the Greek Satyric Drama. In its dramatic form it disappears early from history, and assumes with Ennius a different character, which has clung to it ever since.

Besides these we have to notice the Mime and the Atellanae. The former corresponds roughly with our farce, though the pantomimic element is also present, and in the most recent period gained the ascendancy. Its true Latin name is Planipes (so Juvenal Planipedes audit Fabios [20] in allusion to the actor's entering the stage barefoot, no doubt for the better exhibition of his agility). Mimes must have existed from very remote times in Italy, but they did not come into prominence until the later days of the Republic, when Laberius and Syrus cultivated them with marked success. We therefore defer noticing them until our account of that period.

There still remain the fabulae Atellanae, so called from Atella, an Oscan town of Campania, and often mentioned as Osci Ludi. These were more honourable than the other kinds, inasmuch as they were performed by the young nobles, wearing masks, and giving the reins to their power of improvisation. Teuffel (L. L. S 9) considers the subjects to have been “comic descriptions of life in small towns, in which the chief personages gradually assumed a fixed character.” In the period of which we are now treating, i.e. before the time of a written literature, they were exclusively in the hands of free-born citizens, and, to use Livy's expression, were not allowed to be polluted by professional actors. But this hindered their progress, and it was not until several centuries after their introduction, viz., in the time of Sulla, that they received literary treatment. They adopted the dialect of the common people, and were more or less popular in their character. More details will be given when we examine them in their completer form. All such parts of these early scenic entertainments as were not mere conversation or ribaldry, were probably composed in the Saturnian metre.

This ancient rhythm, the only one indigenous to Italy, presents some points worthy of discussion. The original application of the name is not agreed upon. Thompson says, “The term Saturnius seems to have possessed two distinct applications. In both of these, however, it simply meant 'as old as the days of Saturn,' and, like the Greek Ogugios, was a kind of proverbial expression for something antiquated. Hence (1) the rude rhythmical effusions, which contained the early Roman story, might be called Saturnian, not with reference to their metrical law, but to their antiquity; and (2) the term Saturnius was also applied to a definite measure on the principles of Greek prosody, though rudely and loosely moulded—the measure employed by Naevius, which soon became antiquated, when Ennius introduced the hexameter—and which is the metrum Saturnium recognised by the grammarians.” [21] Whether this measure was of Italian origin, as Niebuhr and Macaulay think, or was introduced from Greece at an early period, it never attained to anything like Greek strictness of metrical rules. To scan a line of Livius or Naevius, in the strict sense of the word, is by no means an easy task, since there was not the same constancy of usage with regard to quantity as prevailed after Ennius, and the relative prominence of syllables was determined by accent, either natural or metrical. By natural accent is meant the higher or lower pitch of the voice, which rests on a particular syllable of each word e.g. Lucius; by metrical accent the ictus or beat of the verse, which in the Greek rhythms implies a long quantity, but in the Saturnian measure has nothing to do with quantity. The principle underlying the structure of the measure is as follows. It is a succession of trochaic beats, six in all, preceded by a single syllable, as in the instance quoted by Macaulay:

  “The | queen was in her chamber eating bread and honey,”

So in the Scipionic epitaph,

  “Qui | bus si in longa licuiset tibi utier vita.”

These are, doubtless, the purest form of the measure. In these there is no break, but an even continuous flow of trochaic rhythm. But even in the earliest examples of Saturnians there is a very strong tendency to form a break by making the third trochaic beat close a word, e.g.

  “Cor | nelius Lucius || Scipio Barbatus,”

and this structure prevailed, so that in the fragments of Livius and Naevius by far the greater number exhibit it.

When Greek patterns of versification were introduced, the Saturnian rhythm seems to have received a different explanation. It was considered as a compound of the iambic and trochaic systems. It might be described as an iambic hepthemimer followed by a trochaic dimeter brachycatalectic. The latter portion was preserved with something like regularity, but the former admitted many variations. The best example of this Graecised metre is the celebrated line—

  “Dabunt malum Metelli | Naevio poetae.”

If, however, we look into the existing fragments of Naevius and Livius, and compare them with the Scipionic epitaphs, we shall find that there is no appreciable difference in the rhythm; that whatever theory grammarians might adopt to explain it, the measure of these poets is the genuine trochaic beat, so natural to a primitive people, [22] and only so far elaborated as to have in most cases a pause after the first half of the line. The idea that the metre had prosodiacal laws, which, nevertheless, its greatest masters habitually violated, [23] is one that would never have been maintained had not the desire to systematise all Latin prosody on a Greek basis prevailed almost universally. The true theory of early Latin scansion is established beyond a doubt by the labours of Ritschl in regard to Plautus. This great scholar shows that, whereas after Ennius classic poetry was based on quantity alone, before him accent had at least as important a place; and, indeed, that in the determination of quantity, the main results in many cases were produced by the influence of accent.

Accent (Gr. prosodia) implied that the pronunciation of the accented syllable was on a higher or lower note than the rest of the word. It was therefore a musical, not a quantitative symbol. The rules for its position are briefly as follows. No words but monosyllables or contracted forms have the accent on the last; dissyllables are therefore always accented on the first, and polysyllables on the first or second, according as the penultimate is short or long, Lucius, cecidi. At the same time, old Latin was burdened with a vast number of suffixes with a long final vowel. The result of the non-accentuation of the last syllable was a continual tendency to slur over and so shorten these suffixes. And this tendency was carried in later times to such an extent as to make the quantity of all final vowels after a short syllable bearing the accent indifferent. There were therefore two opposing considerations which met the poet in his capacity of versifier. There was the desire to retain the accent of every- day life, and so make his language easy and natural, and the desire to conform to the true quantity, and so make it strictly correct. In the early poets this struggle of opposing principles is clearly seen. Many apparent anomalies in versification are due to the influence of accent over-riding quantity, and many again to the preservation of the original quantity in spite of the accent. Ennius harmonised with great skill the claims of both, doing little more violence to the natural accent in his elaborate system of quantity than was done by the Saturnian and comic poets with their fluctuating usage. [24]

To apply these results to the Saturnian verses extant, let us select a few examples:

  “Gnaivod patre prognatus | fortis vir sapiensque.”

patre or patred retains its length by position, i.e. its metrical accent, against the natural accent patre. In the case of syllables on which the ictus does not fall the quantity and accent are indifferent. They are always counted as short, two syllables may stand instead of one—

  per liquidum mare sudantes | ditem vexarant.

or the unaccented syllable may be altogether omitted, as in the second half of the line—

  “ditem vexarant.”

In a line of Naevius—

  “Runcus atque Purpureus | filii terras.”

we have in Purpureus an instance of accent dominating over quantity. But the first two words, in which the ictus is at variance with both accent and quantity, show the loose character of the metre. An interesting table is given by Corssen proving that the variance between natural and metrical accent is greater in the Saturnian verses than in any others, and in Plautus than in subsequent poets, and in iambics than in trochaics. [25] We should infer from these facts (1) that the trochaic metre was the one most naturally suited to the Latin language; (2) that the progress in uniting quantity and accent, which went on in spite of the great inferiority of the poets, proves that the early poets did not understand the conditions of the problem which they had set before them. To follow out this subject into detail would be out of place here. The main point that concerns our present purpose is, that the great want of skill displayed in the construction of the Saturnian verse [26] shows the Romans to have been mere novices in the art of poetical composition.

The Romans, as a people, possessed a peculiar talent for public speaking. Their active interest in political life, their youthful training and the necessity of managing their own affairs at an age which in most countries would be wholly engrossed with boyish sports, all combined to make readiness of speech an almost universal acquirement. The weighty earnestness (gravitas) peculiar to the national character was nowhere more conspicuously displayed than in the impassioned and yet strictly practical discussions of the senate. Taught as boys to follow at their father's side, whether in the forum, at the law courts, in the senate at a great debate, or at home among his agricultural duties, they gained at an early age an insight into public business and a patient aptitude for work, combined with a power of manly and natural eloquence, which nothing but such daily familiarity could have bestowed. In the earlier centuries of Rome the power of speaking was acquired solely by practice. Eloquence was not reduced to the rules of an art, far less studied through manuals of rhetoric. The celebrated speech of Appius Claudius when, blind, aged, and infirm, he was borne in a litter to the senate-house, and by his burning words shamed the wavering fathers into an attitude worthy of their country, was the greatest memorial of this unstudied native eloquence. When Greek letters were introduced, oratory, like everything else, was profoundly influenced by them; and although it never, during the republican period, lost its national character, yet too much of mere display was undoubtedly mixed up with it, and the severe self-restraint of the native school disappeared, or was caricatured by antiquarian imitators. The great nurse of Roman eloquence was Freedom; when that was lost, eloquence sank, and while that existed, the mere lack of technical dexterity cannot have greatly abated from the real power of the speakers.

The subject which the Romans wrought out for themselves with the least assistance from Greek thought, was Jurisprudence. In this they surpassed not only the Greeks, but all nations ancient and modern. From the early formulae, mostly of a religious character, which existed in the regal period, until the publication of the Decemviral code, conservatism and progress went hand in hand. [27] After that epoch elementary legal knowledge began to be diffused, though the interpretation of the Twelve Tables was exclusively in the hands of the Patricians. But the limitation of the judicial power by the establishment of a fixed code, and the obligation of the magistrate to decide according to the written letter, naturally encouraged a keen study of the sources which in later times expanded into the splendid developments of Roman legal science. The first institution of the table of legis actiones, attributed to Appius Claudius (304 B.C.), must be considered as the commencement of judicial knowledge proper. The responsa prudentium, at the giving of which younger men were present as listeners, must have contributed to form a legal habit of thought among the citizens, and prepared a vast mass of material for the labours of the philosophic jurists of a later age.

But inasmuch as neither speeches nor legal decisions were generally committed to writing, except in the bare form of registers, we do not find that there was any growth of regular prose composition. The rule that prose is posterior to poetry holds good in Rome, in spite of the essentially prosaic character of the people. It has been already said that religious, legal, and other formulae were arranged in rhythmical fashion, so as to be known by the name of carmina. And conformably to this we see that the earliest composers of history, who are in point of time the first prose writers of Rome, did not write in Latin at all, but in Greek. The history of Latin prose begins with Cato. He gave it that peculiar colouring which it never afterwards entirely lost. Having now completed our preliminary remarks, we shall proceed to a more detailed account of the earliest writers whose names or works have come down to us.