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CHAPTER VII. THE EARLY HISTORY OF SATIRE (ENNIUS TO LUCILIUS). 200-103 B.C.

Satire, as every one knows, is the one branch of literature claimed by the Romans as their own. [1] It is, at any rate, the branch in which their excellence is most characteristically displayed. Nor is the excellence confined to the professed satirists; it was rather inherent in the genius of the nation. All their serious writings tended to assume at times a satirical spirit. Tragedy, so far as we can judge, rose to her clearest tones in branding with contempt the superstitions of the day. The epic verses of Ennius are not without traces of the same power. The prose of Cato abounds with sarcastic reflections, pointedly expressed. The arguments of Cicero's theological and moral treatises are largely sprinkled with satire. The whole poem of Lucretius is deeply imbued with it: few writers of any age have launched more fiery sarcasm upon the fear of death, or the blind passion of love than he has done in his third and fourth books. Even the gentle Virgil breaks forth at times into earnest invective, tipped with the flame of satire: [2] Dido's bitter irony, Turnus' fierce taunts, show that he could wield with stern effect this specially Roman weapon. Lucan and Seneca affect a style which, though grotesque, is meant to be satirical; while at the close of the classical period, Tacitus transforms the calm domain of history into satire, more burning because more suppressed than that of any of his predecessors. [3]

The claim to an independent origin advanced by Quintilian has been more than once disputed. The name Satire has been alleged as indicative of a Greek original (Satyrion). [4] It is true this can no longer be maintained. Still some have thought that the poems of Archilochus or the Silli may have suggested the Roman form of composition. But the former, though full of invective, were iambic or personal, not properly satirical. And the Silli, of which examples are found in Diogenes Laertius and Dio Chrysostom, were rather patched together from the verses of serious writers, forming a kind of Cento like theCarmen Nuptiale of Ausonius, than original productions. The Roman Satire differed from these in being essentially didactic. Besides ridiculing the vices and absurdities of individuals or of society, it had a serious practical purpose, viz. the improvement of public culture or morals. Thus it followed the old Comedy of Athens in its plain speaking, and the method of Archilochus in its bitter hostility to those who provoked attack. But it differed from the former in its non-political bias, as well as its non-dramatic form: and from the latter in its motive, which is not personal enmity, but public spirit. Thus the assertion of Horace, that Lucilius is indebted to the old comedians, [5] must be taken in a general sense only, and not be held to invalidate the generally received opinion that, in its final and perfected form, Satire was a genuine product of Rome.

The metres adopted by Satire was originally indifferent. The Saturae of Ennius were composed in trochaics, hexameters, and iambics; those of Varro (called Menippean, from Menippus of Gadara), mingled together prose and verse. [6] But from Lucilius onwards, Satire, accurately so called, was always treated in hexameter verse. [7]

Nevertheless, Horace is unquestionably right in saying that it had more real affinity for prose than for poetry of any kind—

  “Primum ego me illorum, dederim quibus esse poetis, 
  Excerpam numero: neque enim concludere versum 
  Dixeris esse satis; neque si quis scribat, uti nos, 
  Sermoni propiora, pates hunc esse poetam.” [8]

The essence of satiric talent is that it should be able to understand the complexities of real life, that it should penetrate beneath the surface to the true motives of action, and if these are bad, should indicate by life- like touches their ridiculous or contemptible nature. There is room here for great variety of treatment and difference of personnel. One may have a broad and masculine grasp of the main outlines of social intercourse; another with subtler analysis may thread his way through the intricacies of dissimulation, and lay bare to the hypocrite secrets which he had concealed even from himself; a third may select certain provinces of conduct or thought, and by a good-humoured but discriminating portraiture, throw them into so new and clear a light, as to enable mankind to look at them, free from the prejudices with which convention so often blinds our view.

The qualifications for excelling in this kind of writing are clearly such as have no special connection with poetry. Had the modern prose essay existed at Rome, it is probable the satirists would have availed themselves of it. From the fragments of Lucilius we should judge that he found the trammels of verse somewhat embarrassing. Practice had indeed enabled him to write with unexampled fluency; [9] but except in this mechanical facility he shows none of the characteristics of a poet. The accumulated experience of modern life has pronounced in favour of abandoning the poetic form, and including Satire in the domain of prose. No doubt many celebrated poets in France and England have cultivated verse satire; but in most cases they have merely imitated, whereas the prose essay is a true formation of modern literary art. Conington, in an interesting article, [10] regards the progressive enlargement of the sphere of prose composition as a test of a nation's intellectual advance. Thus considered, poetry is the imperfect attempt to embody in vivid language ideas which have themselves hardly assumed definite form, and necessarily gives way to prose when clearness of thought and sequence of reasoning have established for themselves a more perfect vehicle. However inadequate such a view may be to explain the full nature of poetry, it is certainly true so far as concerns the case at present before us. The assignment of each special exercise of mind to its proper department of literature is undoubtedly a late growth of human culture, and such nations as have not attained to it, whatever may be the splendour of their literary creations, cannot be said to have reached the full maturity of intellectual development.

The conception of Satire by the ancients is illustrated by a passage in Diomedes: [11] “Satira dicitur carmen apud Romanos nunc quidem maledicum et ad carpenda hominum vitia archaeae comoediae charactere compositum, quale scripserunt Lucilius et Horatius et Persius; at olim carmen quod ex variis poematibus constabat satira cocabatur, quale scripserunt Pacuvius et Ennius.” This old-fashioned satura of Ennius may be considered as half-way between the early semi-dramatic farce and the classical Satire. It was a genuine medley, containing all kinds of subjects, often couched in the form of dialogue, but intended for recitation, not for action. The poem on Scipio was classed with it, but what this poem was is not by any means clear; from the fragment that remains, describing a calm after storm in sonorous language, we should gather that Scipio's return voyage from Africa may have formed its theme. [12] Other subjects, included in the Saturae of Ennius, were the Hedyphagetica, a humorous didactic poem on the mysteries of gastronomy, which may have suggested similar effusions by Lucilius and Horace; [13] the Epicharmus and Euhemerus, both in trochaics, the latter a free translation of the iera anagraphae, or explanation of the gods as deified mortals; and the Epigrams, among which two on the great Scipio are still preserved, the first breathing the spirit of the Republic, the second asserting with some arrogance the exploits of the hero, and his claims to a place among the denizens of heaven. [14]

Of the Saturae of Pacuvius nothing is known. C. LUCILIUS (148-103 B.C.), the founder of classical Satire, was born in the Latin town of Suessa Aurunca in Campania. He belonged to an equestrian family, and was in easy circumstances. [15] He is supposed to have fought under Scipio in the Numantine war (133 B.C.) when he was still quite a youth; and it is certain from Horace that he lived on terms of the greatest intimacy, both with him, Laelius, and Albinus. He is said to have possessed the house which had been built at the public expense for the son of King Antiochus, and to have died at Naples, where he was honoured with a public funeral, in the forty-sixth year of his age. His position, at once independent and unambitious (for he could not hold office in Rome), gave him the best possible chance of observing social and political life, and of this chance he made the fullest use. He lived behind the scenes: he saw the corruption prevalent in high circles; he saw also the true greatness of those who, like Scipio, stood aloof from it, and he handed down to imperishable infamy each most signal instance of vice, whether in a statesman, as Lupus, [16] Metellus, or Albucius, or in a private person, as the glutton Gallonius.

It is possible that he now and then misapplied his pen to abuse his own enemies or those of his friends, for we know that the honourable Mucius Scaevola was violently attacked by him; [17] and there is a story that being once lampooned in the theatre in a libellous manner, the poet sued his detractor, but failed in obtaining damages, on the ground that he himself had done the same to others. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt whatever that on the whole he nobly used the power he possessed, that his trenchant pen was mainly enlisted on the side of patriotism, virtue, and enlightenment, and that he lashed without mercy corruption, hypocrisy, and ignorance. The testimony of Horace to his worth, coming from one who himself was not easily deceived, is entitled to the highest consideration; [18] that of Juvenal, though more emphatic, is not more weighty, [19] and the opinion, blamed by Quintilian, [20] that he should be placed above all other poets, shows that his plain language did not hinder the recognition of his moral excellence.

Although a companion of the great, he was strictly popular in his tone. He appealed to the great public, removed on the one hand from accurate learning, on the other from indifference to knowledge. “Nec doctissimis,” he says, [21] “Manium Persium haec legere nolo, Junium Congum volo.” And in another passage quoted by Cicero, [22] he professes to desire that his readers may be the Tarentines, Consentines, and Sicilians,—those, that is, whose Latin grammar and spelling most needed improvement. But we cannot extend this humility [23] to his more famous political allusions. Those at any rate would be nothing if not known to the parties concerned; neither the poet's genius nor the culprit's guilt could otherwise be brought home to the individual.

In one sense Lucilius might be called a moderniser, for he strove hard to enlarge the people's knowledge and views; but in another and higher sense he was strictly national: luxury, bribery, and sloth, were to him the very poison of all true life, and cut at the root of those virtues by which alone Rome could remain great. This national spirit caused him to be preferred to Horace by conservative minds in the time of Tacitus, but it probably made his critics somewhat over-indulgent. Horace, with all his admiration for him, cannot shut his eyes to his evident faults, [24] the rudeness of his language, the carelessness of his composition, the habit of mixing Greek and Latin words, which his zealous admirers construed into a virtue, and, last but not least, the diffuseness inseparable from a hasty draft which he took no trouble to revise. Still his elegance of language must have been considerable. Pliny speaks of him as the first to establish a severe criticism of style, [25] and the fragments reveal beneath the obscuring garb of his uncouth hexameters, a terse and pure idiom not unlike that of Terence. His faults are numerous, [26] but do not seriously detract from his value. The loss of his works must be considered a serious one. Had they been extant we should have found useful information in his pictures of life and manners in a state of moral transition, amusement in such pieces as his journal of a progress from Rome to Capua, [27] and material for philological knowledge in his careful distinctions of orthography and grammar.

As a favourable specimen of his style, it will be sufficient to quote his definition of virtue:

  “Virtus, Albine, est pretium persolvere verum 
  Quis in versamur, quis vivimus rebus potesse. 
  Virtus est homini scire id quod quaeque habeat res. 
  Virtus scire homini rectum, utile, quid sit honestum, 
  Quae bona, quae mala item, quid inutile, turpe, inhonestum. 
  Virtus, quaerendae finem rei scire modumque; 
  Virtus divitiis pretium persolvere posse. 
  Virtus, id dare quod reipsa debetur honori, 
  Hostem esse atque inimicum hominum morumque malorum 
  Contra, defensorem hominum morumque bonorum; 
  Magnificare hos, his bene velle, his vivere amicum; 
  Commoda praeterea patriai prima putare, 
  Deinde parentum, tertia iam postremaque nostra.”

We see in these lines a practical and unselfish standard—that of the cultivated but still truly patriotic Roman, admitting the necessity of knowledge in a way his ancestors might have questioned, but keeping steadily to the main points of setting a true price upon all human things, and preferring the good of one's country to personal advantage. This is a morality intelligible to all, and if it falls below the higher enlightenment of modern, knowledge, it at least soars above the average practice. We are informed [28] that Lucilius did not spare his immediate predecessors and contemporaries in literature any more than in politics. He attacked Accius for his unauthorised innovations in spelling, Pacuvius and Ennius for want of a sustained level of dignity. His satire seems to have ranged over the whole field of life, so far as it was known to him; and though his learning was in no department deep, [29] it was sound so far as it went, and was guided by natural good taste. He will always retain an interest for us from the charming picture given by Horace of his daily life; how he kept his books beside him like the best of friends, as indeed they were, and whatever he felt, thought, or saw, intrusted to their faithful keeping, whence it comes that the man's life stands as vividly before one's eyes as if it had been painted on a votive tablet. Then the way in which Laelius and Scipio unbent in his company, mere youth as he was compared to them, gives us a pleasing notion of his social gifts; he who could make the two grave statesmen so far forget their decorum as to romp in the manner Horace describes, must at least have been gifted with contagious light-heartedness. This genial humour Horace tried with success to reproduce, but he is conscious of inferiority to the master. In English literature Dryden is the writer who most recalls him, though rather in his higher than in his more sportive moods.