VII. THE FOURTH CENTURY: AUSONIUS AND CLAUDIAN.
For a full century after the death of Marcus Aurelius, Latin literature was, apart from the Christian writers, practically extinct. The authors of the least importance, or whose names even are known to any but professional scholars, may be counted on the fingers of one hand. The stream of Roman law, the one guiding thread down those dark ages, continued on its steady course. Papinian and Ulpian, the two foremost jurists of the reigns of Septimius and Alexander Severus, bear a reputation as high as that of any of their illustrious predecessors. Both rose to what was in this century the highest administrative position in the Empire, the prefecture of the praetorian guards. Papinian, a native it seems of the Syrian town of Emesa, and a kinsman of the Syrian wife of Septimius Severus, was the author of numerous legal works, both in Greek and Latin. Under Severus he was not only commander of the household troops, but discharged what we should now call the duties of Home Secretary. His genius for law was united with an independence of judgment and a sense of equity which rose beyond the limits of formal jurisprudence, and made him one of the great humanising influences of his profession. He was murdered, with circumstances of great brutality, by the infamous Caracalla, almost immediately after his accession to sole power. Domitius Ulpianus, Papinian's successor as the head of Latin jurists, was also a Syrian by birth. Already an assessor to Papinian, and a member of the imperial privy council, he was raised to the praetorian prefecture and afterwards removed from it by his countryman, the Emperor Heliogabalus, but reinstated by Alexander Severus, under whom he was second ruler of the Empire till killed in a revolt of the praetorian guards in the year 228. He was succeeded in the prefecture by Julius Paulus, a jurist of almost equal eminence, though inferior to Ulpian in style and literary grace. Roman law practically remained at the point where these three eminent men left it, or only followed in their footsteps, until its final systematisation under Justinian.
Beyond the field of law, such prose as was written in this century was mainly Greek. The historical works of Herodian and Dio Cassius, poor in quality as they are, seem to have excelled anything written at the same time in Latin. Their contemporary, Marius Maximus, continued the series of biographies of the Emperors begun by Suetonius, carrying it down from Nerva to Heliogabalus; but the work, such as it was, is lost, and is only known as the main source used by the earlier compilers of the Augustan History. Verse-making had fallen into the hands of inferior grammarians. Of their numerous productions enough survives to indicate that a certain technical skill was not wholly lost. The metrical treatises of Terentianus Maurus, a scholar of the later years of the second century, show that the science of metre was studied with great care, not only in its common forms, but in the less familiar lyric measures. The didactic poem on the art of medicine by Quintus Sammonicus Serenus, the son of an eminent bibliophile, and the friend of the Emperor Alexander Severus, though of little poetical merit, is written in graceful and fluent verse. If of little merit as poetry, it is of even less as science. Medicine had sunk lower towards barbarism than versification, when a sovereign remedy against fevers was described in these polished lines:—
Inscribis chartae quod dicitur Abracadabra,
Saepius et subter repetis, sed detrahe summam
Et magis atque magis desint elemenfa figuris,
Singula quae semper rapies et cetera figes
Donec in augustum redigatur litera conum:
His lino nexis collum redimire memento.
Nor is his alternative remedy of a piece of coral hung round the patient's neck much more rational. The drop from the science of Celsus is much more striking here than the drop from the art of Celsus' contemporary Manilius. An intermittent imperial patronage of letters lingered on. The elder and younger Gordian (the latter a pupil of Sammonicus' father, who bequeathed his immense library to him) had some reputation as writers. Clodius Albinus, the governor of Britain who disputed the empire with Septimius Severus, was a devoted admirer of Apuleius, and wrote romances in a similar manner, which, according to his biographer, had no inconsiderable circulation.
Under Diocletian and his successors there was a slight and partial revival of letters, which chiefly showed itself on the side of verse. The Cynegetica, a didactic poem on hunting, by the Carthaginian poet Marcus Aurelius Olympius Nemesianus, is, together with four bucolic pieces by the same author, the chief surviving fragment of the main line of Virgilian tradition. The Cynegetica, in spite of its good taste and its excellent versification, is on the whole a dull performance; but in the other pieces, the pastoral form gives the author now and then an opportunity of introducing a little touch of the romantic tone which is partly imitated from Virgil, but partly natural to the new Latin.
Perdit spina rosas nec semper lilia candent
Nec longum tenet uva comas nec populus umbras,
Donum forma breve est, nec se quod commodet annis:—
in these graceful lines the copied Virgilian cadence is united with the directness and the real or assumed simplicity which belongs to the second childhood of Latin literature, and which is so remarkable in the authors who founded the new style. The new style itself was also largely practised, but only a few scattered remnants survive. Tiberianus, Count of Africa, Vicar of Spain, and praetorian prefect of Gaul (the whole nomenclature of the Empire is now passing from the Roman to the mediaeval type) under Constantine the Great, is usually identified with the author of some of the most strikingly beautiful of these fragmentary pieces. A descriptive passage, consisting of twenty lines of finely written trochaics, reminds one of the Pervigilium Veneris in the richness of its language and the delicate simplicity of its style. The last lines may be quoted for their singular likeness to one of the most elaborately beautiful stanzas of the Faerie Queene, that which describes the sounds “consorted in one harmony" which Guyon hears in the gardens of Acrasia:—
Has per umbras omnis ales plus canora quam putes Cantibus vernis strepebat et susurris dulcibus: Hic loquentis murmur amnis concinebat frondibus Quas melos vocalis aurae, musa Zephyri, moverat: Sic euntem per virecta pulcra odora et musica Ales amnis aura lucus flos et umbra iuverat.
The principal prose work, however, which has come down from this age, shows a continued and even increased degradation of style. The so-called Historia Augusta, a series of memoirs, in continuation of Suetonius' Lives of the Twelve Caesars, of the Roman Emperors from Hadrian to Numerian (A.D. 117-284), was begun under Diocletian and finished under Constantine by six writers—Aelius Spartianus, Julius Capitolinus, Vulcacius Gallicanus, Trebellius Pollio, Aelius Lampridius, and Flavius Vopiscus. Most of them, if not all, were officials of the imperial court, and had free access to the registers of the senate as well as to more private sources of information. The extreme feebleness of the contents of this curious work is only exceeded by the poverty and childishness of the writing. History had sunk into a collection of trivial gossip and details of court life, couched in a language worthy of a second-rate chronicler of the Dark Ages. The mere outward circumstances of the men whose lives they narrated—the purpurati Augusti, as one of the authors calls them in a romantically sonorous phrase—were indeed of world-wide importance, and among the masses of rubbish of which the memoirs chiefly consist there is included much curious information and striking incident. But their main interest is in the light they throw on the gradual sinking of the splendid administrative organisation of the second century towards the sterile Chinese hierarchy of the Byzantine Empire, and the concurrent degradation of paganism, both as a political and a religious system.
Vopiscus, the last of the six authors, apologises, in drawing the work to a close, for his slender literary power, and expresses the hope that his material at least may be found useful to some “eloquent man who may wish to unlock the actions of princes.” What he had in his mind was probably not so much regular history as the panegyrical oratory which about this same time became a prominent feature of the imperial courts, and gave their name to a whole school of writers known as the Panegyrici. Gaul, for a long time the rival of Africa as the nurse of judicial oratory, was the part of the Empire where this new form of literature was most assiduously cultivated. Up to the age of Constantine, it had enjoyed practical immunity from barbarian invasion, and had only had a moderate share of the civil wars which throughout the third century desolated all parts of the Empire. In wealth and civilisation, and in the arts of peace, it probably held the foremost place among the provinces. Marseilles, Narbonne, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Autun, Rheims, and Treves all possessed famous and flourishing schools of oratory. The last-named town was, after the supreme power had been divided among two or more Augusti, a frequent seat of the imperial government of the Western provinces, and, like Milan, became a more important centre of public life than Rome. Of the extant collection of panegyrics, two were delivered there before Diocletian's colleague, the Emperor Maximianus. A florid Ciceronianism was the style most in vogue, and the phraseology, at least, of the old State religion was, until the formal adoption of Christianity by the government, not only retained, but put prominently forward. Eumenius of Autun, the author of five or more pieces in the collection, delivered at dates between the years 297 and 311, is the most distinguished figure of the group. His fluent and ornate Latin may be read with some pleasure, though the purpose of the orations leaves them little value as a record of facts or a candid expression of opinions. Under the influence of these nurseries of rhetoric a new Gallic school of Christian writers rose and flourished during the fourth century. Hilarius of Poitiers, the most eminent of the Gallic bishops of this period, wrote controversial and expository works in the florid involved style of the neo-Ciceronian orators, which had in their day a high reputation. As the first known author of Latin hymns, he is the precursor of Ambrose and Prudentius. Ambrose himself, though as Bishop of Milan he belongs properly to the Italian school of theological writers, was born and probably educated at Treves. But the literature of the province reached its highest point somewhat later, in one of the most important authors of the century, Decimus Magnus Ausonius of Bordeaux.
Ausonius was of Gallic blood by both parents; he was educated in grammar and rhetoric at the university of Bordeaux, and was afterwards for many years professor of both subjects at that of Treves. As tutor to Gratian, son and successor of the Emperor Valentinian, he established himself in court favour, and fulfilled many high State offices. After Gratian was succeeded by Theodosius he retired to a lettered ease near his native town, where he lived till nearly the end of the century. His numerous poetical works are of the most miscellaneous kind, ranging from Christian hymns and elegies on deceased relations to translations from the Greek Anthology and centos from Virgil. Among them the volume of Idyllia constitutes his chief claim to eminence, and gives him a high rank among the later Latin poets. The gem of this collection is the famous Mosella, written at Treves about the year 370. The most beautiful of purely descriptive Latin poems, it is unique in the felicity with which it unites Virgilian rhythm and diction with the new romantic sense of the beauties of nature. The feeling for the charm of landscape which we had occasion to note in the letters of the younger Pliny is here fully developed, with a keener eye and an enlarged power of expression. Pliny's description of the Clitumnus may be interestingly compared with the passage of this poem in which Ausonius recounts, with fine and observant touches, the beauties of his northern river—the liquid lapse of waters, the green wavering reflections, the belt of crisp sand by the water's edge and the long weeds swaying with the stream, the gleaming gravel-beds under the water with their patches of moss and the quick fishes darting hither and thither over them; or the oftener-quoted and not less beautiful lines where he breaks into rapture over the sunset colouring of stream and bank, and the glassy water where, at evening, all the hills waver and the vine-tendril shakes and the grape-bunches swell in the crystal mirror. In virtue of this poem Ausonius ranks not merely as the last, or all but the last, of Latin, but as the first of French poets. His feeling for the country of his birth has all the romantic patriotism which we are accustomed to associate with a much earlier or a much later age. The language of Du Bellay in the sixteenth century—
Plus que le marbre dur me plaist l'ardoise fine,
Plus mon Loire Gaulois que le Tybre Latin—
is anticipated here. The softer northern loveliness, la douceur Angevine, appeals to Ausonius more than all the traditional beauties of Arcadia or Sicily. It is with the Gallic rivers that he compares his loved Moselle: Non tibi se Liger anteferet, non Axona praeceps ... te sparsis incerta Druentia ripis.
O lordly flow the Loire and Seine
And loud the dark Durance!—
we seem to hear the very words of the modern ballad: and at the end of the poem his imagination returns, with the fondness of a lover, to the green lakes and sounding streams of Aquitaine, and the broad sea-like reaches of his native Garonne.
In this poem, alike by the classic beauty of his language and the modernism of his feeling, Ausonius marks one of the great divisions in the history of poetry. He is the last of the poets of the Empire which was still nominally co-extensive with the world, which held in itself East and West, the old and the new. The final division of the Roman world, which took place in the year 395 between the two sons of Theodosius, synchronises with a division as definite and as final between classical and mediaeval poetry; and in the last years of the fourth century the parting of the two streams, the separation of the dying from the dawning light, is placed in sharp relief by the works of two contemporary poets, Claudian and Prudentius. The singular and isolated figure of Claudian, the posthumous child of the classical world, stands alongside of that of the first great Christian poet like the figures which were fabled to stand, regarding the rising and setting sun, by the Atlantic gates where the Mediterranean opened into the unknown Western seas.
Claudius Claudianus was of Asiatic origin, and lived at Alexandria until, in the year of the death of Theodosius, he passed into Italy and became the laureate of the court of Milan. Till then he had, according to his own statement, written in Greek, his life having been passed wholly in the Greek-speaking provinces. But immediately on his arrival at the seat of the Western or Latin Empire he showed himself a master of the language and forms of Latin poetry such as had not been known since the end of the first century. His poems, so far as they can be dated, belong entirely to the next ten years. He is conjectured not to have long survived the downfall of his patron Stilicho, the great Vandal general who, as guardian of the young Emperor Honorius, was practically ruler of the Western Empire. He was the last eminent man of letters who was a professed pagan.
The historical epics which Claudian produced in rapid succession during the last five years of the fourth and the first five of the fifth century are now little read, except by historians who refer to them for details of the wars or court intrigues of the period. A hundred years ago, when Statius and Silius Italicus formed part of the regular course of classical study, he naturally and properly stood alongside of them. His Latin is as pure as that of the best poets of the Silver Age; in wealth of language and in fertility of imagination he is excelled, if at all, by Statius alone. Alone in his age he inherits the scholarly tradition which still lingered among the libraries of Alexandria. Nonnus, the last and not one of the least learned and graceful of the later Greek epicists, who probably lived not long after Claudian, was also of Egyptian birth and training, and he and Claudian are really the last representatives of that Alexandrian school which had from the first had so large and deep an influence over the literature of Rome. The immense range of time covered by Greek literature is brought more vividly to our imagination when we consider that this single Alexandrian school, which began late in the history of Greek writing and came to an end centuries before its extinction, thus completely overlaps at both ends the whole life of the literature of Rome, reaching as it does from before Ennius till after Claudian.
These historical epics of Claudian's—On the Consulate of Stilicho, On the Gildonic War, On the Pollentine War, On the Third, Fourth, and Sixth Consulates of Honorius—are accompanied by other pieces, written in the same stately and harmonious hexameter, of a more personal interest: invectives against Rufinus and Eutropius, the rivals of his patron; a panegyric on Stilicho's wife, Serena, the niece of Theodosius; a fine epithalamium on the marriage of Honorius with Maria, the daughter of Stilicho and Serena; and also by a number of poems in elegiac metre, in which he wrote with equal grace and skill, though not with so singular a mastery. Among the shorter elegiac pieces, which are collected under the title of Epigrams, one, a poem on an old man of Verona who had never travelled beyond his own little suburban property, is among the jewels of Latin poetry. The lines in which he describes this quiet garden life—
Frugibus alternis, non consule computat annum;
Auctumnum pomis, ver sibi flore notat;
Idem condit ager soles idemque reducit,
Metiturque suo rusticus orbe diem,
Ingentem meminit parvo qui germine quercum
Aequaevumque videt consenuisse nemus—
are in grace and feeling like the very finest work of Tibullus; and the concluding couplet—
Erret, et extremos alter scrutetur Hiberos,
Plus habet hic vitae, plus habet ille viae—
though, in its dependence on a verbal point, it may not satisfy the purest taste, is not without a dignity and pathos that are worthy of the large manner of the classical period.
Claudian used the heroic hexameter for mythological as well as historical epics. Of his Gigantomachia we possess only an inconsiderable fragment; but the three books of the unfinished Rape of Proserpineare among the finest examples of the purely literary epic. The description of the flowery spring meadows where Proserpine and her companions gather blossoms for garlands is a passage perpetually quoted. It is interesting to note how the rising tide of romanticism has here, as elsewhere, left Claudian wholly untouched. The passage, though elaborately ornate, is executed in the clear hard manner of the Alexandrian school; it has not a trace of that sensitiveness to nature which vibrates in the Pervigilium Veneris. We have gone back for a moment to that poetical style which perpetually reminds us of the sculptured friezes of Greek art, severe in outline, immensely adroit and learned in execution, but a little chilly and colourless except in the hands of its greatest masters. After paying to the full the tribute of admiration which is due to Claudian's refined and dignified workmanship, we are still left with the feeling that this kind of poetry was already obsolete. It is not only that, as has been remarked with truth of his historical epics, the elaboration of the treatment is disproportionate to the importance or interest of the subject. Materiam superabat opus might be said with equal truth of much of the work of his predecessors. But a new spirit had by this time penetrated literature, and any poetry wholly divorced from it must be not only artificial—for that alone would prove nothing against it—but unnatural. Claudian is a precursor of the Renaissance in its narrower aspect; the last of the classics, he is at the same time the earliest, and one of the most distinguished, of the classicists. It might seem a mere chance whether his poetry belonged to the fourth or to the sixteenth century.
In Claudian's distinguished contemporary, the Spanish poet Aurelius Prudentius Clemens, Christian Latin poetry reached complete maturity. His collected poems were published at Rome in 404, the year celebrated by Claudian as that of the sixth consulship of Honorius. Before Prudentius, Christian poetry had been slight in amount and rude or tentative in manner. We have already had occasion to notice its earliest efforts in the rude verses of Commodianus. The revival of letters in the fourth century, so far as it went, affected Christian as well as secular poetry. Under Constantine, a Spanish deacon, one Gaius Vettius Aquilinus Juvencus, put the Gospel narrative into respectable hexameters, which are still extant. The poems and hymns which have come down under the name of Bishop Hilary of Poitiers are probably spurious, and a similar doubt attaches to those ascribed to the eminent grammarian and rhetorician, Gaius Marius Victorinus, after his conversion. Before Prudentius published his collection, the hymns of St. Ambrose had been written, and were in use among the Western Churches. But these, though they formed the type for all later hymn-writers, were few in number. Out of the so-called Ambrosian hymns a rigorous criticism only allows five or six as authentic. These, however, include two world-famed pieces, still in daily use by the Church, the Aeterne rerum Conditor and the Deus Creator omnium, and the equally famous Veni Redemptor.
To the form thus established by St. Ambrose, Prudentius, in his two books of lyrical poems, gave a larger volume and a more sustained literary power. The Cathemerina, a series of poems on the Christian life, and the Peristephanon, a book of the praise of Christian martyrs—St. Lawrence, St. Vincent, St. Agnes, among other less celebrated names—at once represent the most substantial addition made to Latin lyrical poetry since Horace, and the complete triumph of the new religion. They are not, like the Ambrosian hymns, brief pieces meant for actual singing in churches. Out of the twenty-six poems only three are under one hundred lines in length, and that on the martyrdom of St. Romanus of Antioch runs to no less than eleven hundred and forty, almost the proportions of a small epic. But in the brilliance and vigour of their language, their picturesque style, and the new joy that, in spite of their asceticism, burns throughout them, they gave an impulse of immense force towards the development of Christian literature. In merely technical quality they are superior to any poetry of the time, Claudian alone excepted; in their fullness of life, in the exultant tone which kindles and sustains them, they make Claudian grow pale like a candle-flame at dawn.
With Prudentius, however, as with Claudian, we have almost passed beyond the strict limit of a history of ancient Latin literature: and any fuller discussion, either of these remarkable lyrical pieces, or of his more voluminous expository or controversial treatises in hexameter, properly belongs to a history of the Christian Church. The two most eminent and copious prose writers of the later fourth century, Jerome and Augustine, occupy the same ambiguous position. Apart from them, and from the less celebrated Christian writers who were their predecessors or contemporaries, the prose of the fourth century is both small in amount and insignificant in quality. The revival in verse composition which followed the settlement of the Empire under Constantine scarcely spread to the less imitable art of prose. The school of eminent Roman grammarians who flourished about the middle of the century, and among whom Servius and Donatus are the leading names, while they commented on ancient masterpieces with inexhaustible industry, and often with really sound judgment, wrote themselves in a base and formless style. A few authors of technical manuals and epitomes of history rise a little above the common level, or have a casual importance from the contents of their works. The treatises on husbandry by Palladius, and on the art of war by Flavius Vegetius Renatus, became, to a certain degree, standard works; the little handbooks of Roman history written in the reigns of Constantius and Valens by Aurelius Victor and Eutropius are simple and unpretentious, but have little positive merit, The age produced but one Latin historian, Ammianus Marcellinus. Like Claudian, he was of Asiatic origin, and Greek-speaking by birth, but, in the course of his service on the staff of the captain-general of the imperial cavalry, had spent much of his life in the Latin provinces of Gaul and Italy; and his history was written at Rome, where he lived after retiring from active service. The task he set himself, a history of the Empire, in continuation of that of Tacitus, from the accession of Nerva to the death of Valens, was one of great scope and unusual complexity. He brought to it some at least of the gifts of the historian: intelligence, honesty, tolerance, a large amount of good sense. But his Latin, which he never came to write with the ease of a native, is difficult and confused; and to this, probably, should be ascribed the early disappearance of the greater part of his history. The last eighteen books, containing the history of only five and twenty years, have survived. The greater part of the period which they cover is one of decay and wretchedness; but the account they give of the reign of Julian (whom Ammianus had himself accompanied in his Persian campaign) is of great interest, and his portrait of the feeble incapable rule of Julian's successors, distracted between barbarian inroads and theological disputes, is drawn with a firm and almost a masterly hand.
The Emperor Valens fell, together with nearly the whole of a great Roman army, in the disastrous battle of Adrianople. A Visigothic horde, to the number of two hundred thousand fighting men, had crossed the Danube; and the Huns and Alans, names even more terrible, joined the standards of Fritigern with a countless host of Mongolian cavalry. The heart of the Empire lay helpless; Constantinople itself was besieged by the conquerors. The elevation of Theodosius to the purple bore back for a time the tide of disaster; once more the civilised world staggered to its feet, but with strength and courage fatally broken. At this dramatic moment in the downfall of the Roman Empire the last of the Latin historians closes his narrative.