IV. JUVENAL, THE YOUNGER PLINY, SUETONIUS: DECAY OF CLASSICAL LATIN.
From the name of Tacitus that of Juvenal is inseparable. The pictures drawn of the Empire by the historian and the satirist are in such striking accordance that they create a greater plausibility for the common view they hold than could be given by any single representation; and while Juvenal lends additional weight and colour to the Tacitean presentment of the imperial legend, he acquires from it in return an importance which could hardly otherwise have been sustained by his exaggerated and glaring rhetoric.
As regards the life and personality of the last great Roman satirist we are in all but total ignorance. Several lives of him exist which are confused and contradictory in detail. He was born at Aquinum, probably in the reign of Nero; an inscription on a little temple of Ceres, dedicated by him there, indicates that he had served in the army as commander of a Dalmatian cohort, and was superintendent (as one of the chief men of the town) of the civic worship paid to Vespasian after his deification. The circumstance of his banishment for offence given to an actor who was high in favour with the reigning Emperor is well authenticated; but neither its place nor its time can be fixed. It appears from the Satires themselves that they were written late in life; we are informed that he reached his eightieth year, and lived into the reign of Antoninus Pius. Martial, by whom he is repeatedly mentioned, alludes to him only as a rhetorician, not as a satirist. The sixteen satires (of which the last is, perhaps, not genuine) were published at intervals under Trajan and Hadrian. They fall into two groups; the first nine, which are at once the most powerful and the least agreeable, being separated by a considerable interval of years from the others, in which a certain softening of tone and a tendency to dwell on the praise of virtue more than on the ignoble details of vice is united with a failing power that marks the approach of senility.
Juvenal is the most savage—one might almost say the most brutal—of all the Roman satirists. Lucilius, when he “scourged the town,” did so in the high spirits and voluble diction of a comparatively simple age. Horace soon learned to drop the bitterness which appears in his earlier satires, and to make them the vehicle for his gentle wisdom and urbane humour. The writing of Persius was that of a student who gathered the types he satirised from books rather than from life. Juvenal brought to his task not only a wide knowledge of the world—or, at least, of the world of the capital—but a singular power of mordant phrase, and a mastery over crude and vivid effect that keeps the reader suspended between disgust and admiration. In the commonplaces of morality, though often elevated and occasionally noble, he does not show any exceptional power or insight; but his graphic realism, combined (as realism often is) with a total absence of all but the grimmest forms of humour, makes his verses cut like a knife. Facit indignatio versum, he truly says of his own work; with far less flexibility, he has all the remorselessness of Swift. That singular product of the last days of paganism, the epigrammatist Palladas of Alexandria, is the only ancient author who shows the same spirit. Of his earlier work the second and ninth satires, and a great part of the sixth, have a cold prurience and disgustingness of detail, that even Swift only approaches at his worst moments. Yet the sixth satire, at all events, is an undeniable masterpiece; however raw the colour, however exaggerated the drawing, his pictures of Roman life have a force that stamps them permanently on the imagination; his Legend of Bad Women, as this satire might be called, has gone far to make history.
It is in the third satire that his peculiar gift of vivid painting finds its best and easiest scope. In this elaborate indictment of the life of the capital, put into the mouth of a man who is leaving it for a little sleepy provincial town, he draws a picture of the Rome he knew, its social life and its physical features, its everyday sights and sounds, that brings it before us more clearly and sharply than even the Rome of Horace or Cicero. The drip of the water from the aqueduct that passed over the gate from which the dusty squalid Appian Way stretched through its long suburb; the garret under the tiles where, just as now, the pigeons sleeked themselves in the sun and the rain drummed on the roof; the narrow crowded streets, half choked with builders' carts, ankle-deep in mud, and the pavement ringing under the heavy military boots of guardsmen; the tavern waiters trotting along with a pyramid of hot dishes on their head; the flowerpots falling from high window ledges; night, with the shuttered shops, the silence broken by some sudden street brawl, the darkness shaken by a flare of torches as some great man, wrapped in his scarlet cloak, passes along from a dinner-party with his long train of clients and slaves: these scenes live for us in Juvenal, and are perhaps the picture of ancient Rome that is most abidingly impressed on our memory. The substance of the satire is familiar to English readers from the fine copy of Johnson, whose Londonfollows it closely, and is one of the ablest and most animated modern imitations of a classical original. The same author's noble poem on the Vanity of Human Wishes is a more free, but equally spirited rendering of the tenth satire, which stands at the head of the later portion of Juvenal's work. In this, and in those of the subsequent satires which do not show traces of declining power, notably the eleventh and thirteenth, the rhetoric is less gaudy and the thought rises to a nobler tone. The fine passage at the end of the tenth satire, where he points out what it is permitted mankind to pray for, and that in the thirteenth, where he paints the torments of conscience in the unpunished sinner, have something in them which combines the lofty ardour of Lucretius with the subtle psychological insight of Horace, and to readers in all ages have been, as they still remain, a powerful influence over conduct. Equally elevated in tone, and with a temperate gravity peculiar to itself, is the part of the fourteenth satire which deals with the education of the young. We seem to hear once more in it the enlightened eloquence of Quintilian; in the famous Maxima debetur puero reverentia he sums up in a single memorable phrase the whole spirit of the instructor and the moralist. The allusions to childhood here and elsewhere show Juvenal on his most pleasing side; his rhetorical vices had not infected the real simplicity of his nature, or his admiration for goodness and innocence. In his power over trenchant expression he rivals Tacitus himself. Some of his phrases, like the one just quoted, have obtained a world-wide currency, and even reached the crowning honour of habitual misquotation; his Hoc volo sic iubeo, his Mens Sana in corpore sano, his Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? are more familiar than all but the best-known lines of Virgil and Horace. But perhaps his most characteristic lines are rather those where his moral indignation breaks forth in a sort of splendid violence quite peculiar to himself; lines like—
Et propter vitam vivendi perdere causas,
Magnaque numinibus vota exaudita malignis,
in which the haughty Roman language is still used with unimpaired weight and magnificence.
To pass from Juvenal to the other distinguished contemporary of Tacitus, the younger Pliny, is like exchanging the steaming atmosphere and gorgeous colours of a hot-house for the commonplace trimness of a suburban garden. The nephew and adopted son of his celebrated uncle, Pliny had received from his earliest years the most elaborate training which ever fell to the lot of mediocrity. His uncle's death left him at the age of seventeen already a finished pedant. The story which he tells, with obvious self-satisfaction, of how he spent the awful night of the eruption of Vesuvius in making extracts from Livy for his commonplace book, sets the whole man before us. He became a successful pleader in the courts, and passed through the usual public offices up to the consulate. At the age of fifty he was imperial legate of Bithynia: the extant official correspondence between him and the Emperor during this governorship shows him still unchanged; upright and conscientious, but irresolute, pedantic, and totally unable to think and act for himself in any unusual circumstances. The contrast between Pliny's fidgety indecision and the quiet strength and inexhaustible patience of Trajan, though scarcely what Pliny meant to bring out, is the first and last impression conveyed to us by this curious correspondence. The nine books of his private letters, though prepared, and in many cases evidently written for publication, give a varied and interesting picture of the time. Here, too, the character of the writer in its virtues and its weakness is throughout unmistakable. Pliny, the patriotic citizen,— Pliny, the munificent patron,—Pliny, the eminent man of letters,—Pliny, the affectionate husband and humane master,—Pliny, the man of principle, is in his various phases the real subject of the whole collection. His opinions are always just and elegant; few writers can express truisms with greater fervour. The letters to Tacitus with whom he was throughout life in close intimacy, are among the most interesting and the fullest of unintentional humour. Tacitus was the elder of the two; and Pliny, “when very young”—the words are his own,—had chosen him as his model and sought to follow his fame. “There were then many writers of brilliant genius; but you,” he writes to Tacitus, “so strong was the affinity of our natures, seemed to me at once the easiest to imitate and the most worthy of imitation. Now we are named together; both of us have, I may say, some name in literature, for, as I include myself, I must be moderate in my praise of you.” This to the author who had already published the Histories! Before so exquisite a self-revelation criticism itself is silenced.
The cult of Ciceronianism established by Quintilian is the real origin of the collection of Pliny's Letters. Cicero and Pliny had many weaknesses and some virtues in common, and the desire of emulating Cicero, which Pliny openly and repeatedly expresses, had a considerable effect in exaggerating his weaknesses. Cicero was vain, quick-tempered, excitable; his sensibilities were easily moved, and found natural and copious expression in the language of which he was a consummate master. Pliny, the most steady-going of mankind, sets himself to imitate this excitable temperament with the utmost seriousness; he cultivates sensibility, he even cultivates vanity. His elaborate and graceful descriptions of scenery—the fountain of Clitumnus or the villa overlooking the Tiber valley—are no more consciously insincere than his tears over the death of friends, or the urgency with which he begs his wife to write to him from the country twice a day. But these fine feelings are meant primarily to impress the public; and a public which could be impressed by the spectacle of a man giving a dinner-party, and actually letting his untitled guests drink the same wine that was being drunk at the head of the table, put little check upon lapses of taste.
Yet with all his affectations and fatuities, Pliny compels respect, and even a measure of admiration, by the real goodness of his character. Where a good life is lived, it hardly becomes us to be too critical of motives and springs of action; and in Pliny's case the practice of domestic and civic virtue was accompanied by a considerable literary gift. Had we a picture drawn with equal copiousness and grace of the Rome of Marcus Aurelius half a century later, it would be a priceless addition to history. Pliny's world—partly because it is presented with such rich detail—reminds us, more than that of any other period of Roman history, of the society of our own day. To pass from Cicero's letters to his is curiously like passing from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century. In other respects, indeed, they have what might be called an eighteenth century flavour. Some of the more elaborate of them would fall quite naturally into place among the essays of the Spectator or the Rambler; in many others the combination of thin and lucid common-sense with a vein of calculated sensibility can hardly be paralleled till we reach the age of Rousseau.
Part of this real or assumed sensibility was the interest in scenery and the beauties of nature, which in Pliny, as in the eighteenth century authors, is cultivated for its own sake as an element in self-culture. In the words with which he winds up one of the most elaborate of his descriptive pieces, that on the lake of Vadimo in Tuscany—Me nihil aeque ac naturae opera delectant—there is an accent which hardly recurs till the age of the Seasons and of Gray's Letters. Like Gray, Pliny took a keen pleasure in exploring the more romantic districts of his country; his description of the lake in the letter just mentioned is curiously like passages from the journal in which Gray records his discovery—for it was little less—of Thirlmere and Derwentwater. He views the Clitumnus with the eye of an accomplished landscape-gardener; he notes the cypresses on the hill, the ash and poplar groves by the water's edge; he counts the shining pebbles under the clear ice-cold water, and watches the green reflections of the overhanging trees; and finally, as Thomson or Cowper might have done, mentions the abundance of comfortable villas as the last charm of the landscape.
The munificent benefactions of Pliny to his native town of Comum, and his anxiety that, instead of sending its most promising boys to study at Milan—only thirty miles off—it should provide for them at home what would now be called a university education, are among the many indications which show us how Rome was diffusing itself over Italy, as Italy was over the Latin-speaking provinces. Under Hadrian and the Antonines this process went on with even growing force. Country life, or that mixture of town and country life afforded by the small provincial towns, came to be more and more of a fashion, and the depopulation of the capital had made sensible progress long before the period of renewed anarchy that followed the assassination of Commodus. Whether the rapid decay of Latin literature which took place after the death of Pliny and Tacitus was connected with this weakening of the central life of Rome, is a question to which we hardly can hazard a definite answer. Under the three reigns which succeeded that of Trajan, a period of sixty-four years of internal peace, of beneficent rule, of enlightened and humane legislation, the cultured society shown to us in Pliny's Letters as diffused all over Italy remained strangely silent. Of all the streams of tradition which descended on this age, the schools of law and grammar alone kept their course; the rest dwindle away and disappear. Sixty years pass without a single poet or historian, even of the second rate; one or two eminent jurists share the field with one or two inconsiderable extract-makers and epitomators, who barely rise out of the common herd of undistinguished grammarians. Among the obscure poets mentioned by Pliny, the name of Vergilius Romanus may excite a momentary curiosity; he was the author of Terentian comedies, which probably did not long survive the private recitations for which they were composed. The epitome of the History of Pompeius Trogus, made by the otherwise unknown Marcus Junianus Justinus, has been already mentioned; like the brief and poorly executed abridgment of Livy by Julius or Lucius Annaeus Florus (one of the common text-books of the Middle Ages), it is probably to be placed under Hadrian. Javolenus Priscus, a copious and highly esteemed juridical writer, and head of one of the two great schools of Roman jurisprudence, is best remembered by the story of his witty interruption at a public recitation, which Pliny (part of whose character it was to joke with difficulty) tells with a scandalised gravity even more amusing than the story itself. His successor as head of the school, Salvius Julianus, was of equal juristic distinction; his codification of praetorian law received imperial sanction from Hadrian, and became the authorised civil code. He was one of the instructors of Marcus Aurelius. The wealth he acquired by his profession was destined, in the strange revolutions of human affairs, to be the purchase-money of the Empire for his great- grandson, Didius Julianus, when it was set up at auction by the praetorian guards. More eminent as a man of letters than either of these is their contemporary Gaius, whose Institutes of Civil Law, published at the beginning of the reign of Marcus Aurelius, have ever since remained one of the foremost manuals of Roman jurisprudence.
But the literary poverty of this age in Latin writing is most strikingly indicated by merely naming its principal author. At any previous period the name of Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus would have been low down in the second rank: here it rises to the first; nor is there any other name which fairly equals his, either in importance or in interest. The son of an officer of the thirteenth legion, Suetonius practised in early life as an advocate, subsequently became one of Hadrian's private secretaries, and devoted his later years to literary research and compilation, somewhat in the manner, though without the encyclopedic scope, of Varro. In his youth he had been an intimate friend of the younger Pliny, who speaks in high terms of his learning and integrity. The greater part of his voluminous writings are lost; they included many works on grammar, rhetoric, and archaeology, and several on natural history and physical science. Fragments survive of his elaborate treatise De Viris Illustribus, an exhaustive history of Latin literature up to his own day: excerpts made from it by St. Jerome in his Chronicle are the source from which much of our information as to Latin authors is derived, and several complete lives have been prefixed to manuscripts of the works of the respective authors, and thus independently preserved. But his most interesting, and probably his most valuable work, the Lives of the Twelve Caesars, has made him one of the most widely known of the later classical writers. It was published under Hadrian in the year 120, and dedicated to his praetorian prefect, Septicius Clarus. Tacitus (perhaps because he was still alive) is never mentioned, and not certainly made use of. Both authors had access, in the main, to the same materials; but the confidential position of Suetonius as Hadrian's secretary no doubt increased his natural tendency to collect stories and preserve all sorts of trivial or scandalous gossip, rather than make any attempt to write serious history. It is just this, however, which gives unique interest and value to the Lives of the Caesars. We can spare political insight or consecutive arrangement in an author who is so lavish in the personal detail that makes much of the life of history; who tells us the colour of Caesar's eyes, who quotes from a dozen private letters of Augustus, who shows us Caligula shouting to the moon from his palace roof, and Nero lecturing on the construction of the organ. There perhaps never was a series of biographies so crammed with anecdote. Nor is the style without a certain sort of merit, from its entire and unaffected simplicity. After all the fine writing of the previous century it is, for a little while, almost a relief to come on an author who is frankly without style, and says what he has to say straightforwardly. But it is only the absorbing interest of the matter which makes this kind of writing long endurable. It is, in truth, the beginning of barbarism; and Suetonius measures more than half the distance from the fine familiar prose of the Golden Age to the base jargon of the authors of the Augustan History a century and a half later, under Diocletian.
Amid the decay of imagination and of the higher qualities of style, the tradition of industry and accuracy to some degree survived. The biographies of Suetonius show considerable research and complete honesty; and the same qualities, though united with a feebler judgment, appear in the interesting miscellanies of his younger contemporary, Aulus Gellius. This work, published under the fanciful title of Noctes Atticae, is valuable at once as a collection of extracts from older writers and as a source of information regarding the knowledge and studies of his own age. Few authors are more scrupulously accurate in quotation; and by this conscientiousness, as well as by his real admiration for the great writers, he shows the pedantry of the time on its most pleasing side.
The twenty books of the Noctes Atticae were the compilation of many years; but the title was chosen from the fact of the work having been begun during a winter spent by the author at Athens, when about thirty years of age. He was only one among a number of his countrymen, old as well as young, who found the atmosphere of that university town more congenial to study than the noisy, unhealthy, and crowded capital, or than the quiet, but ill-equipped, provincial towns of Italy. Athens once more became, for a short time, the chief centre of European culture. Herodes Atticus, that remarkable figure who traced his descent to the very beginnings of Athenian history and the semi-mythical Aeacidae of Aegina, and who was consul of Rome under Antoninus Pius, had taken up his permanent residence in his native town, and devoted his vast wealth to the architectural embellishment of Athens, and to a munificent patronage of letters. Plutarch and Arrian, the two most eminent authors of the age, both spent much of their time there; and the Emperor Hadrian, by his repeated and protracted visits—he once lived at Athens for three years together—established the reputation of the city as a fashionable resort, and superintended the building of an entirely new quarter to accommodate the great influx of permanent residents. The accident of imperial patronage doubtless added force to the other causes which made Greek take fresh growth, and become for a time almost the dominant language of the Empire. Though two centuries were still to pass before the foundation of Constantinople, the centre of gravity of the huge fabric of government was already passing from Italy to the Balkan peninsula, and Italy itself was becoming slowly but surely one of the Western provinces. Nature herself seemed to have fixed the Eastern limit of the Latin language at the Adriatic, and even in Italy Greek was equally familiar with Latin to the educated classes. Suetonius, Fronto, Hadrian himself, wrote in Latin and Greek indifferently. Marcus Aurelius used Greek by preference, even when writing of his predecessors and the events of Roman history. From Plutarch to Lucian the Greek authors completely predominate over the Latin. In the sombre century which followed, both Greek and Latin literature were all but extinguished; the partial revival of the latter in the fourth century was artificial and short-lived; and though the tradition of the classical manner took long to die away, the classical writers themselves completely cease with Suetonius. A new Latin, that of the Middle Ages, was already rising to take the place of the speech handed down by the Republic to the Empire.