CHAPTER IV. THE LATINS
The Latins, Imitators of the Greeks. Epic Poets, Dramatic Poets. Golden Age: Virgil, Horace, Ovid. Silver Age: Prose Writers, Historians and Philosophers:—Titus-Livy, Tacitus, Seneca. Decadence Still Brilliant.
LATIN LITERATURE.—Latin literature is little more than a branch of Greek literature. It commenced much later, finished earlier, and has always poured into the others at least a portion of its living force. Roman literature really begins only at the moment when the Romans came into contact with the Greeks, read their works, and were tempted to imitate them; that is to say, it commences in the third century before Christ. The first manifestation of this literature was epic. Naevius and Livius Andronicus made epopees. They are destitute of talent. Ennius made one: it possessed merit; what the Latin critics have quoted of his Annals is marked, first by an energetic patriotic sentiment which affords pleasure; then it possesses energy and sometimes even a certain brilliance. In addition, Ennius wrote several didactic and satiric poems. Among the Romans, Ennius was the great ancestor and father of Latin literature.
LUCILIUS.—Lucilius was a satirist. Judging by the fragments of his work which have come down to us, he was a very acute and penetrating political satirist. Horace, despite his sovereign disdain for all that preceded his own century, did not fail to value him and agreed that there was something to be drawn and appreciated from this “muddy torrent.”
COMEDY: PLAUTUS; TERENCE.—Comedy and tragedy existed at this period. It may be apposite here to point out that it was later and in the finest period of Latin literature that they ceased to exist. Plautus conceived the plan of transporting to Rome Grecian comedies of the time of the new comedy and of adapting them more or less to Latin morals. He possessed a strong and brutal verve which did not lack power, and more than once Moliere did him the honour of taking inspiration from him. Terence, after him, the friend of Scipio the second Africanus, and perhaps in collaboration with him, in a way widely different from that of Plautus so far as type of talent, tender, gentle, romantic, sentimental, smiling rather than witty, so far as can be judged directly inspired by Menander, wrote comedies which are highly agreeable to read, but it is doubtful if they could ever have been widely appreciated on the stage. However, the Roman writers held him in great esteem, and at one epoch of our own history, in the seventeenth century, he enjoyed remarkable and unanimous appreciation.
L'ATELLANE.—To comedy strictly defined, whether it dealt with Romans or Greeks, the Romans also added the atellane, which came to them from the Etruscans (Atella, a city of Etruria) and which was a sort of farce with stereotyped characters (the fat glutton, the lean glutton, the old miser always baffled, etc.). Pomponius and Naevius endeavoured to raise this popular recreation to a literary standard and succeeded. It then became a thoroughly national characteristic. There was considerable analogy between it and the modern popular Italian comedy, showing its Cassandras, its Pantaloon, and its Harlequin, without it being possible to assert that the Italian comedy proceeded from the atellane. The atellane enjoyed much success in the second century before Christ. It was, however, ousted by the mime, which was the kind of comic literature thoroughly national at Rome. The mime was a farce of popular morals, particularly of the lower classes; it was a portrayal of the dregs of society in their comic aspects. It maintained its sway until the close of the Roman Empire without becoming more dignified; rather the reverse. The names of some authors of mimes have survived: Publius Syrus and Laberius, in the time of Caesar. What is curious is that these mimes, licentious and even obscene though they were, throughout gave occasional utterance to highly moral observations which Latin grammarians have preserved for us. This curious mixture may be explained or contrasted at pleasure; perhaps it was only a conventional habit.
TRAGEDY.—As for what there was of tragedy, it was destined to be yet shorter-lived than comedy, but it was evidently very brilliant and it is regrettable that it has not been preserved. Livius Andronicus and Nasvius wrote tragedies, but the three greatest tragedians were Ennius, his nephew Pacuvius, and Attius. Ennius imitated Euripides, Pacuvius Sophocles, and Attius Aeschylus. All three soared to the grand, the majestic, and the sublime; all seem to have been very sententious and replete with maxims; but it is needful to be cautious: these authors are known to us only by the citations made by grammarians, and grammarians who, having naturally cited phrases rather than fragments of dialogue, make it possible that these authors appear to us sententious when they were in reality not abnormally so.
PROSE LITERATURE.—Prose literature at Rome appeared almost at the same time as the poetic. Cicero has given us the names of great orators, contemporaries of Ennius, and there were historians and didacticians in prose of the same period. The elder Cato, the great censor, was an historian; he wrote a work, The Origins, which seems to have been the history not only of Rome but of all Italy since the foundation of Rome; he was didactic; he wrote a De Re Rustica (On Rural Life) which has come down to us and is infinitely valuable as showing the simplicity, the hardness, and the avarice of the old Roman proprietors, all qualities which Cato thoroughly well knew they possessed.
THE AGE OF CAESAR.—The age of Caesar was a great literary epoch. Before all and almost over all was Caesar himself: great orator, letter-writer, grammarian, and historian. His Commentaries, that is, his memoirs, history of his campaigns, are admirable in their conciseness and precision of rapid and running narrative. Apart from him, Cornelius Nepos made a very clear abridgment, characterised by marked sobriety, of universal history under the title of Chronica. Varro, a kind of encyclopaedist, wrote a De Re Rustica, also a work on the Latin language, Menippic Satires—satires it is true, but mixtures of prose and verse—and a work on Roman Life, as well as a crowd of small books dealing with every possible subject. Cicero told him, “You have taught us all things human and divine.” He possessed immense erudition and a violent mind not without charm. He can be imagined as a sage of our own sixteenth century.
CICERO.—Cicero was perhaps the greatest litterateur that has ever lived. It is obvious that all tastes were in his soul at the same time, as Voltaire said of himself, and he gratified them all. He was politician, lawyer, orator, poet, philosopher, professor of rhetoric, moralist, grammarian, political writer, correspondent; he encompassed all human knowledge, involved himself in all human matters and was a very great writer. What to-day interests us most in his immense output are his political discourses, his letters and his moral treatises. His political discourses are those of an honest man who always held upright views and the sentiment of the great interests of his country; his letters are those of a witty man and of an excellent friend; his moral treatises, more particularly his De Officiis (On Duties), are in a very elevated spirit which subordinates all other human duties beneath obligations towards one's country. He did not always rise to circumstances; he was well content, on the contrary, that they should serve him.
SALLUST.—Sallust, who as an individual seems to have been contemptible, was a highly sagacious and excellent historian. He has left a history of Catiline and another of Jugurtha. They are masterpieces of lucidity and of dramatic vivacity. Admirable especially are his maxims, which seem as well thought out as those of La Rochefoucauld: “Friendship is to desire the same things and to hate the same things”; “the spirit of faction is the friendship of scoundrels.”
POETRY: CATULLUS.—Poetry was not less brilliant than prose in the time of Caesar. It was the era of Lucretius and of Catullus. Catullus, a delightful man of the world, a charming voluptuary, passionate and eloquent lover, formidable epigrammatist, a little coloured by Alexandrianism (but barely, for this trait has been much exaggerated), comes very close to being a great poet. In many respects he closely recalls Andre Chenier, who, it may be added, was thoroughly conversant with his writing.
LUCRETIUS.—Lucretius is a very noble poet. If we knew Epicurus otherwise than by fragments, it is highly probable we should be tempted to assert that Lucretius was only a translator; but on that we cannot pronounce, and of the didactic part of the poem of Lucretius (On Nature), even if it were a simple translation, all the oratorical and the descriptive portions would remain, and they are the most beautiful of the work. In his invocations to Epicurus, in his prosopopoeia of nature to man inviting resignation to death, in his descriptions of the immolation of Iphigenia and of the cow wandering in the fields in search of her lost heifer, there are a breadth, a grasp, and an epic grandeur, which recall Homer, arouse thoughts of Dante, and which Virgil himself, whilst much less unequal though never greater, has not attained.
THE AUGUSTAN AGE.—The Augustan Age, which was only really very great if under this title is also included the epoch of Caesar and also that of Octavius, and thus it was understood by our ancestors, does not fail to offer writers of fine genius. These are Virgil, Horace, and Titus-Livy.
TITUS-LIVY.—Titus-Livy, who is one of the purest and most beautiful writers and an orator of seductive talent in his own chamber, wrote a Roman history composed, as to the first portion, of the legends transmitted at Rome from generation to generation, and in which it is impossible for us to distinguish the false from the true; for two-thirds of the work made very accurate investigations of all that previous historians and the annals of the pontiffs could give the author. As has been observed, Titus-Livy, being a Cisalpine, was a Gaul who already possessed the French qualities: order, clearness, regulated development, sustained and careful style, oratorical tastes. An ardent patriot, republican at his soul, yet treated in friendly fashion by Augustus, he wrote Roman history at first, no doubt, to make it known, but above all to inspire the Romans of his own time with admiration, respect, and love for the austere morals and exalted virtues of their ancestors. He erected a monument, one portion of which is unhappily destroyed, but into which modern tragedians have often quarried and which orators have not scorned when desiring to instruct themselves in their art.
VIRGIL.—Virgil came from almost the same country. His was a charming soul, tender and gentle, infinitely capable of friendship, very pure and white, as Horace said, with a tendency to melancholy. The two sources of his inspiration were Homer and love of Rome; add, for a time, Theocritus. Lover of the country and of moral life, he first wrote those delicious Bucolics wherein he did not venture to be as realistic as the Sicilian poet, but in which there is not only infinite grace and delicate sensibility, but also, in certain verses, admirable descriptions that arouse memories of those of La Fontaine. Lover of the soil and desirous, in harmony with Augustus, to attract the Italians back to a taste for agriculture, he wrote the Georgics : that is, the toils of the field, describing these labours with singular exactitude and precision; then, to give the reader variety, he introduced from time to time an episode which is a fragment of history or of mythological legend. At length, desirous of attributing to Rome the most glorious past possible, he revived the old legend which claimed that the ancient kings of Rome descended from the famous kings of Troy in her zenith, and he composed the Aeneid. The Aeneid is at once both an Odyssey and an Iliad. The first five books containing the adventures of Aeneas after the fall of Troy until his arrival in Italy form an Odyssey; the last six books, containing the combats of Aeneas in Italy in order to conquer a place for himself, form an Iliad. In the middle, the sixth book is a descent into hell, again an imitation of Homer, yet altogether new, enriched as it is with very fine philosophical ideas which Homer could never have known. The main theme of the poem and what gives it unity is Rome, which does not yet exist, but which is always to be seen looming in the future. All the poem leans in that direction, and alike by ingenious artifices, by prophecies more and more exact, by the description of the shield of Aeneas, Roman history itself, in its broad lines, is traced.
The sovereign merit of Virgil is his artistic sense. Others are more powerful or more profound. No man has written better verse than he on any subject on which he wrote.
HORACE.—Horace was a man of infinite wit, profoundly conversant with the Grecian poets. With that knowledge of the poets he filled his odes with recollections of Alcasus and Stesichorus; they were minutely and finely polished, accustoming the Romans to find in Latin words the musical phrases of the Greeks, but withal remaining very cold. With his wit, his verve, his very lively sense of humour, his pretty moral philosophy borrowed a little from the Stoics but mainly from the Epicureans, he created his Satires and his Epistles, which form the most delicate feast and which have no more lost their interest for us than Montaigne has. Here was a charming man. He was not a great poet. He was the most witty of poets, the poet of the men of wit.
TIBULLUS; PROPERTIUS; OVID.—Tibullus, Propertius, and Ovid immediately followed him. Tibullus was a tender and sad elegiast, less passionate and less powerful than Catullus, but gracious and touching. All the elegiacal poets, and Andre Chenier in particular, have evinced recollections of him. Propertius possessed great talent for versification, but was more erudite than inspired; being almost pure Alexandrine, he is more interesting to the humourist than to the ordinary man. Ovid, gifted with facility and the skill of a prodigious versifier, dexterous descriptist in his Metamorphoses, ingenious and cold in his Art of Love, has found some pathetic notes in his elegies wherein as an exile he weeps over his own misfortunes.
DECADENCE.—With the second century arrived the commencement of decadence. The rhetoricians, who in Rome were what the sophists were in Athens, only far less intelligent, directed the public mind. They did not spoil it completely, but they did not give it strength, and the Latins, believing they had reached the zenith of the Greeks, seemed to draw less inspiration from the eternal models.
QUINTUS CURTIUS.—However, the Latin sap is still strong. Quintus Curtius, romantic historian, who wrote a history of Alexandria which is too generous towards the legendary, narrates brilliantly and strews his pages with vigorously phrased maxims and apothegms. He is a remarkable author. The elder Pliny, a very erudite sage and a somewhat precious writer, is a worthy successor of Varro.
SENECA.—Seneca, who certainly was well nurtured in Greek philosophy, preached stoicism in concise, antithetic, and epigrammatic styles, all in highly thoughtful points which sometimes attain power.
PETRONIUS; LUCIAN; MARTIAL.—Petronius was a man possessing highly refined taste who painted extremely ugly morals. Tragedy endeavoured to obtain renaissance with Seneca the tragic, who is perhaps the same as the moralist Seneca, alluded to above, and the effort was sufficiently brilliant for our tragedians of the sixteenth century, and even Racine in his Phedre, frequently to follow it. Perseus, pupil of Horace so far as his satires are concerned, was concise to the point of obscurity, but often displayed such vigour and ruggedness as to be powerfully moving. Lucian, spoilt by a certain taste for declamation, is really a sound poet, more especially as a poetic orator, and in this respect he is often admirable. Silius Italicus, Valerius Flaccus, Statius, revert to the school of Virgil and display talent for versification. Martial, almost exclusively epigrammatic, was extremely witty.
JUVENAL.—Juvenal, arising sardonically from the crowd, is the prince of satirists for all time. He possessed a passion for honesty, spirit, and oratorical breadth, and incredible vigour as colourist, the gift of verse cast in medallions and also the gift of energetic metallic sonorousness. Victor Hugo, in the satiric portion of his work, not merely drew inspiration from but seemed saturated with him.
THE TRAJAN EPOCH.—now came the Trajan epoch. Quintilian, in elegant fashion, with point and rather affected graces, taught us excellent rhetoric full of sense and taste. Pliny the Younger, gentle and gay, honest and amusing, pleaded as an insinuating orator, and, under the pretext of Letters to his friends, wrote essays of amiable morality which evoke recollections of Montaigne.
TACITUS.—Tacitus is a great psychological historian and moralist. He is, as Racine observed, “the greatest painter of antiquity,” and Racine meant the greatest painter of portraits. He possessed an entirely fresh style of his own creation: nervous, articulate, coloured, concise, with brief metaphors which reveal not only a poet, but a fine poet, in the vein of Michelet, but with the difference of febrility to the potent discharge of power.
AULUS GELLIUS; APULEIUS.—Under Marcus Aurelius Latin literature fell into decay. Aulus Gellius was only a rather untidy or at least not very methodical scholar who wrote feebly; Apuleius with hisGolden Ass was merely a fantastic romancist, very complex, curious about everything, more especially with regard to singularities, lively, amusing, mystical at times; in short, distinctly disconcerting.
WRITERS ON CHRISTIANITY.—Christianity was at an adult age. There were writers of importance and some who were really great; the energetic and violent Tertullian, beloved by Bossuet; Saint Cyprian, full of unction, gentleness, and charity; Lactantius, skilful Christian philosopher, ingenious and possessing insinuating subtlety; Saint Hilarius, an ardent polemist, impetuous and torrential; Saint Ambrose, exalted, wise, serene, very well read, very “Roman,” who may be styled the Cicero of Christianity; Saint Jerome, ardent, impassioned, possessing lively sensibility, an animated and seductive imagination, who—excluding all idea of scandal—suggests what is purest and most beautiful in Jean Jacques Rousseau; finally, that great doctor and noble philosopher of the Church, Saint Augustine.
SAINT AUGUSTINE.—Saint Augustine is pre-eminently a philosopher, a man who analysed ideas and saw all that they contained, their first principle and their trend as well as their ultimate consequences. He was in addition a great orator; he was also a historian, or at least a philosopher of history, in his City of God; finally, he was a poet at heart and imbued with the most exquisite sensibility in his immortalConfessions. Probably he was the most extraordinary man of the world of antiquity.
CHRISTIAN POETS.—Christianity even had its poets: Commodian, Juvencus, the impassioned and skilful Prudentius, St. Paulinus of Nola. None were very prominent, all possessed lively sentiment, such as Chateaubriand evinced, for what is profoundly poetic in Christianity.
SECULAR POETS.—The last mundane poets were more brilliant than those of Christianity. Avienus possessed charming elegance and rather effeminate grace. It should be noted that he (with Prudentius) was the sole lyric poet after Horace. Ausonius had sensibility and remarkable descriptive talent; Claudian, rhetorician in verse, rose sometimes to veritable eloquence and maintained a continual brilliance which is fatiguing because it is continual, but does not fail to be a marvellous fault. Finally must be cited Rutilius, first because he had talent, then because even amid the invasions of the barbarians he made an impassioned eulogy of Rome which is, involuntarily, a funeral oration; finally, because, despite being a bitter foe to Christianity, he once more involuntarily defined the great and noble change from paganism to Christianity: Tunc mutabantur corpora, nunc animi (“Formerly bodies were metamorphosed, now souls").