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CHAPTER III. THE INTRODUCTION OF GREEK LITERATURE—LIVIUS AND NAEVIUS (240-204 B.C.).

It is not easy for us to realise the effect produced on the Romans by their first acquaintance with Greek civilisation. The debt incurred by English theology, philosophy, and music, to Germany, offers but a faint parallel. If we add to this our obligations to Italy for painting and sculpture, to France for mathematical science, popular comedy, and the culture of the salon, to the Jews for finance, and to other nations for those town amusements which we are so slow to invent for ourselves, we shall still not have exhausted or even adequately illustrated the multifarious influences shed on every department of Roman life by the newly transplanted genius of Hellas. It was not that she merely lent an impulse or gave a direction to elements already existing. She did this; but she did far more. She kindled into life by her fruitful contact a literature in prose and verse which flourished for centuries. She completely undermined the general belief in the state religion, substituting for it the fair creations of her finer fancy, or when she did not substitute, blending the two faiths together with sympathetic skill; she entwined herself round the earliest legends of Italy, and so moulded the historical aspirations of Rome that the great patrician came to pride himself on his own ancestral connection with Greece, and the descent of his founder from the race whom Greece had conquered. Her philosophers ruled the speculations, as her artists determined the aesthetics, of all Roman amateurs. Her physicians held for centuries the exclusive practice of scientific medicine; while in music, singing, dancing, to say nothing of the lighter or less reputable arts of ingratiation, her professors had no rivals. The great field of education, after the break up of the ancient system, was mainly in Greek hands; while her literature and language were so familiar to the educated Roman that in his moments of intensest feeling it was generally in some Greek apophthegm that he expressed the passion which moved him. [1]

It would, therefore, be scarcely too much to assert that in every field of thought (except that of law, where Rome remained strictly national) the Roman intellect was entirely under the ascendancy of the Greek. There are, of course, individual exceptions. Men like Cato, Varro, and in a later age perhaps Juvenal, could understand and digest Greek culture without thereby losing their peculiarly Roman ways of thought; but these patriots in literature, while rewarded with the highest praise, did not exert a proportionate influence on the development of the national mind. They remained like comets moving in eccentric orbs outside the regular and observed motion of the celestial system.

The strongly felt desire to know something about Greek literature must have produced within a few years a pioneer bold enough to make the attempt, if the accident of a schoolmaster needing text-books in the vernacular for his scholars had not brought it about. The man who thus first clothed Greek poetry in a Latin dress, and who was always gratefully remembered by the Romans in spite of his sorry performance of the task, was LIVIUS ANDRONICUS (285-204? B.C.), a Greek from Tarentum, brought to Rome 275 B.C., and made the slave probably of M. Livius Salinator. Having received his freedom, he set up a school, and for the benefit of his pupils translated the Odyssey into Saturnian verse. A few fragments of this version survive, but they are of no merit either from a poetical or a scholastic point of view, being at once bald and incorrect. [2] Cicero [3] speaks slightingly of his poems, as also does Horace, [4] from boyish experience of their contents. It is curious that productions so immature should have kept their position as text-books for near two centuries; the fact shows how conservative the Romans were in such matters.

Livius also translated tragedies from the Greek. We have the names of the Achilles, Aegisthus, Ajax, Andromeda, Danae, Equus Trojanus, Tereus, Hermione. In this sphere also he seems to have written from a commendable motive, to supply the popular want of a legitimate drama. His first play was represented in 240 B.C. He himself followed the custom, universal in the early period, [5] of acting in his own dramas. In them he reproduced some of the simpler Greek metres, especially the trochaic; and Terentianus Maurus [6] gives from the Ino specimens of a curious experiment in metre, viz. the substitution of an iambus for a spondee in the last foot of a hexameter. As memorials of the old language these fragments present some interest; words like perbitere (= perire), anculabant ( =hauriebant), nefrendem (= infantem), dusmus (= dumosus), disappeared long before the classical period.

His plodding industry and laudable aims obtained him the respect of the people. He was not only selected by the Pontifices to write the poem on the victory of Sena (207 B.C.), [7] but was the means of acquiring for the class of poets a recognised position in the body corporate of the state. His name was handed down to later times as the first awakener of literary effort at Rome, but he hardly deserves to be ranked among the body of Roman authors. The impulse which he had communicated rapidly bore fruit. Dramatic literature was proved to be popular, and a poet soon arose who was fully capable of fixing its character in the lines which its after successful cultivation mainly pursued. CN. NAEVIUS, (269?-204 B.C.) a Campanian of Latin extraction and probably not a Roman citizen, had in his early manhood fought in the first Punic war. [8] At its conclusion he came to Rome and applied himself to literary work. He seems to have brought out his first play as early as 235 B.C. His work mainly consisted of translations from the Greek; he essayed both tragedy and comedy, but his genius inclined him to prefer the latter. Many of his comedies have Latin names, Dolus, Figulus, Nautae, &c. These, however, were not togatae but palliatae, [9] treated after the same manner as those of Plautus, with Greek costumes and surroundings. His original contribution to the stage was the Praetexta, or national historical drama, which thenceforth established itself as a legitimate, though rarely practised, branch of dramatic art. We have the names of two Praetextae by him, Clastidium and Romulus or Alimonium Romuli et Remi.

The style of his plays can only be roughly inferred from the few passages which time has spared us. That it was masculine and vigorous is clear; we should expect also to find from the remarks of Horace as well as from his great antiquity, considerable roughness. But on referring to the fragments we do not observe this. On the contrary, the style both in tragedy and comedy is simple, natural, and in good taste. It is certainly less laboured than that of Ennius, and though it lacks the racy flavour of Plautus, shows no inferiority to his in command of the resources of the language. [10] On the whole, we are inclined to justify the people in their admiration for him as a genuine exponent of the strong native humour of his day, which the refined poets of a later age could not appreciate.

Naevius did not only occupy himself with writing plays. He took a keen interest in politics, and brought himself into trouble by the freedom with which he lampooned some of the leading families. The Metelli, especially, were assailed by him, and it was probably through their resentment that he was sent to prison, where he solaced himself by composing two comedies. [11] Plautus, who was more cautious, and is by some thought to have had for Naevius some of the jealousy of a rival craftsman, alludes to this imprisonment [12]:—

  “Nam os columnatum poetae esse indaudivi barbaro, 
  Quoi bini custodes semper totis horis accubant.”

The poet, however, did not learn wisdom from experience. He lampooned the great Scipio in some spirited verses still extant, and doubtless made many others feel the shafts of his ridicule. But the censorship of literary opinion was very strict in Rome, and when he again fell under it, he was obliged to leave the city. He is said to have retired to Utica, where he spent the rest of his life and died (circ. 204 B.C.). It was probably there that he wrote the poem which gives him the chief interest for us, and the loss of which by the hand of time is deeply to be regretted. Debarred from the stage, he turned to his own military experience for a subject, and chose the first Punic war. He thus laid the foundation of the class of poetry known as the “National Epic,” which received its final development in the hands of Virgil. The poem was written in Saturnian verse, perhaps from a patriotic motive; and was not divided into books until a century after the poet's death, when the grammarian Lampadio arranged it in seven books, assigning two to the mythical relations of Rome and Carthage, and the remainder to the history of the war. The narrative seems to have been vivid, truthful, and free from exaggerations of language. The legendary portion contained the story of Aeneas's visit to Carthage, which Virgil adopted, besides borrowing other single incidents. What fragments remain are not very interesting and do not enable us to pronounce any judgment. But Cicero's epithet “luculente scripsit” [13] is sufficient to show that he highly appreciated the poet's powers; and the popularity which he obtained in his life-time and for centuries after his death, attests his capacity of seizing the national modes of thought. He had a high opinion of himself; he held himself to be the champion of the old Italian school as opposed to the Graecising innovators. His epitaph is very characteristic: [14]

  “Mortales immortales si foret fas flere, 
  Flerent Divae Camenae Naevium poetam. 
  Itaque postquamst Orcino traditus thesauro 
  Obliti sunt Romae loquier Latina lingua.”