VIII. THE BEGINNINGS OF THE MIDDLE AGES.
In August 410, while the Emperor Honorius fed his poultry among the impenetrable marshes of Ravenna, Rome was sacked by a mixed army of Goths and Huns under the command of Alaric. Eight hundred years had elapsed since the imperial city had been in foreign possession; and, though it had ceased to be the actual seat of government, the shock spread by its capture through the entire Roman world was of unparalleled magnitude. Six years later, a wealthy and distinguished resident, one Claudius Rutilius Namatianus, was obliged to take a journey to look after the condition of his estates in the south of France, which had been devastated by a band of wandering Visigoths. A large portion is extant of the poem in which he described this journey, one of the most charming among poems of travel, and one of the most interesting of the fragments of early mediaeval literature. Nowhere else can we see portrayed so strongly the fascination which Rome then still possessed for the whole of Western Europe, and the adoration with which she was still regarded as mother and light of the world. The magical statue had been cast away, with other heathen idols, from the imperial bedchamber; but the Fortuna Urbis itself, the mystical divinity which the statue represented, still exercised an overwhelming influence over men's imagination. After all the praises lavished on her for centuries by so many of her illustrious children, it was left for this foreigner, in the age of her decay, to pay her the most complete and most splendid eulogy:—
Quod regnas minus est quam quod regnare mereris;
Excedis factis grandia fata tuis:
Nam solis radiis aequalia munera tendis,
Qua circumfusus fluctuat oceanus.
Fecisti patriam diversis gentibus unam:
Profuit invitis te dominante capi;
Dumque offers victis proprii consortia iuris,
Urbem fecisti quod prius orbis erat.
In this noble apostrophe Rutilius addressed the fading mistress of the world as he passed lingeringly through the Ostian gate. Far away in Northern Africa, the most profound thinker and most brilliant writer of the age, as deeply but very differently moved by the ancestral splendours of the city and the tragedy of her fall, was then composing, with all the resources of his vast learning and consummate dialectical skill, the epitaph of the ancient civilisation. It was the capture of Rome by Alaric which induced St. Augustine to undertake his work on the City of God. “In this middle age,” he says,—in hoc interim seculo—the two cities with their two citizenships, the earthly and the heavenly, are inextricably enwound and intermingled with each other. Not until the Last Judgment will they be wholly separated; but the philosophy of history is to trace the steps by which the one is slowly replaced by, or transformed into, the other. The earthly Empire, all the splendid achievement in thought and arts and deeds of the Roman civilisation, already fades away before that City of God on which his eyes are fixed—gloriosissimam Civitatem Dei, sive in hoc temporum cursu cum inter impios peregrinatur ex fide vivens, sive in illa stabililate sedis aeternae, quam nunc exspectat per patientiam, quoadusque iustitia convertatur in iudicium.
The evolution of this change was, even to the impassioned faith of Augustine, slow, intermittent, and fluctuating: nor, among many landmarks and turning-points, is it easy to fix any single one as definitely concluding the life of the ancient world, and marking the beginning of what St. Augustine for the first time called by the name, which has ever since adhered to it, of the Middle Age. The old world slid into the new through insensible gradations. In nearly all Latin literature after Virgil we may find traces or premonitions of mediaevalism, and after mediaevalism was established it long retained, if it ever wholly lost, traces of the classical tradition. Thus, while the beginning of Latin literature may be definitely placed in a particular generation, and almost in a single year, there is no fixed point at which it can be said that its history concludes. Different periods have been assigned from different points of view. In the year 476, Romulus Augustulus, the last of the Western Emperors, handed over the name as well as the substance of sole power to the Herulian chief Odoacer, the first King of Italy; and the Roman Senate, still in theory the supreme governing body of the civilised world, formally renounced its sovereignty, and declared its dominions a diocese of the Byzantine Empire. This is the date generally adopted by authors who deal with literature as subordinate to political history. But the writer of the standard English work on Latin grammar limits his field to the period included between Plautus and Suetonius; while another scholar, extending his scope three centuries and a half further, has written a history of Latin literature from Ennius to Boethius. Suetonius and Boethius probably represent the extreme variation of limit which can be reasonably adopted; but between them they leave room for many points of pause. Up to the end of the fourth century we have followed a stream of tendency, not, indeed, continuous, but yet without any absolute rupture. Between the writers of the fourth century and their few successors of the fifth there is no marked change in language or manner. Sidonius Apollinaris continues more feebly the style of poetry initiated a century before him by Ausonius. Boethius wrote his fine treatise On the Consolation of Philosophy half a century after the extinction of the Empire of the West. By a strange freak of history, it was at the Greek capital that Latin scholarship finally faded away. Priscian and Tribonian wrote at Constantinople; and the Western world received its most authoritative works on Latin grammar and Roman law, not from the Latin Empire, nor from one of the Latin-speaking kingdoms which rose on its ruins, but from the half-oriental courts of Anastasius and Justinian.
The two long lives of the great Latin fathers, Jerome and Augustine, cover conjointly a space of just a century. Jerome was born probably a few months after the main seat of empire was formally transferred to New Rome by Constantine. Augustine, born twenty-three years later, died in his cathedral city of Hippo during its siege by Genseric in the brief war which transformed Africa from a Roman province to a Vandal kingdom. The City of God had been completed four years previously. A quarter of a century before the death of Augustine, Jerome issued, from his monastery at Bethlehem, the Latin translation of the Bible which, on its own merits, and still more if we give weight to its overwhelming influence on later ages, is the greatest literary masterpiece of the Lower Empire. Our own Authorised Version has deeply affected all post-Shakespearian English; the Vulgate of Jerome, which was from time to time revised in detail, but still remains substantially as it issued from his hands, had an equally profound influence over a vastly greater space and time. It was for Europe of the Middle Ages more than Homer was to Greece. The year 405, which witnessed its publication and that of the last of the poems of Claudian to which we can assign a certain date, may claim to be held, if any definite point is to be fixed, as marking the end of ancient and the complete establishment of mediaeval Latin.
In the six and a half centuries which had passed since the Greek prisoner of war from Tarentum produced the first Latin play in the theatre of the mid-Italian Republic which was celebrating her victories over the formidable sea-power of Carthage, Latin literature had shared the vicissitudes of the Roman State; and the successive stages of its development and decay are intimately connected with the political and social changes which are the matter of Roman history. A century passed between the conclusion of the first Punic war and the tribunate of Tiberius Gracchus. It was a period for the Republic of internal tranquillity and successful foreign war. At its conclusion, Italy was organised under Roman control. Greece, Macedonia, Spain, and Africa had become subject provinces; a Roman protectorate was established in Egypt, and the Asiatic provinces of the Macedonian Empire only preserved a precarious and partial independence. During this century, Latin literature had firmly established itself in a broad and vigorous growth. Dramatic and epic poetry, based on diligent study of the best Greek models, formed a substantial body of actual achievement, and under Greek impulse the Latin language was being wrought into a medium of expression at once dignified and copious, a substance capable of indefinite expansion and use in the hands of trained artists. Prose was rapidly overtaking verse. The schools of law, and the oratory of the senate-house and the forum, were developing national forms of literature on distinctively Roman lines: a beginning had been made in the more difficult field of history; and the invention and popularisation of the satire, or mixed form of familiar prose and verse, began to enlarge the scope of literature over a broader field of life and thought, while immensely adding to the flexibility and range of the written language.
A century followed during which Roman rule was extended and consolidated over the whole area of the countries fringing the Mediterranean, while concurrently a long series of revolutions and counter-revolutions ended in the overthrow of the republican oligarchy, and the establishment of the imperial government. Beginning with the democratic movement of the Gracchi, this century includes the civil wars of Marius and Sulla, the temporary reconstitution of the oligarchy, the renewed outbreak of war between Julius Caesar and the senate, and the confused period of administrative anarchy which was terminated by the rise of Augustus to a practical dictatorship, and the arrangement by him of a working compromise between the two great opposing forces. During this century of revolution the whole attitude of Rome towards the problems both of internal and of foreign politics was forced through a series of important changes. The revolt of Italy, which, after bringing Rome to the verge of destruction, was finally crushed by the Asiatic legions of Sulla, was almost immediately followed by the unification of Italy, and her practical absorption into the Roman citizenship. With renewed and enlarged life, Rome then entered on a second extension of her dominions. The annexation of Syria and the conquest of Gaul completed the circle of her empire; the subjugation of Spain was completed, and the Eastern frontier pushed towards Armenia and the Euphrates; finally Egypt, the last survivor of the kingdoms founded by Alexander's generals, passed wholly into Roman hands with the extinction of its own royal house.
During this period of perpetual excitement and high political tension, literature, in the forms both of prose and verse, rapidly grew towards maturity, and, in the former field at least, reached its perfection. Oratory, the great weapon of politicians under the unique Republican constitution, was in its golden age. Greek culture had permeated the governing class. History began to be written by trained statesmen, whose education for the command of armies and the rule of provinces had been based on elaborate linguistic and rhetorical study. Alongside of grammar and rhetoric, poetry and philosophy took a place as part of the higher education of the citizen. The habit and capacity of abstract thought reached Rome from the schools of Athens; with the growing power of expression and the increased tension of actual life, the science of politics and the philosophy of life and conduct became the material of a new and splendid literature. Along with the world of ideas diffused by Athens there arrived the immense learning and high technical skill of the Alexandrian scholars and poets. Roman poetry set itself anew to learn the Greek lesson of exquisite form and finish. In the hands of two poets of the first order, and of a crowd of lesser students, the conquest of poetical form passed its crucial point, and the way was prepared for the consummation of Latin poetry in the next age.
Another century carries us from the establishment of the Empire by Augustus to the extinction of his family at the death of Nero. At the opening of this period the Empire was exhausted by civil war, and welcomed any form of settled rule. The settlement of the constitution, based as it was on a number of elaborate legal fictions meant to combine republican forms with the reality of a strong monarchical government, left the political situation in a state of very unstable equilibrium; all through the century the government was in an uncertain or even a false position, and, when Nero's misrule had made it intolerable, it collapsed with a crash which almost shivered the Empire into fragments. But it had lasted long enough to lay the foundations of the new and larger Rome broadly and securely. The provinces, while still in a sense subordinate to Italy, had already become organic parts of the Empire, instead of subject countries. The haughty and obstinate Roman oligarchy was tamed by long years of proscription, confiscation, perpetual surveillance, careful exclusion from great political power. The municipal institutions and civic energy of Rome were multiplied in a thousand centres of local life. Internal peace allowed commerce and civilisation to spread; in spite of the immense drain caused by the extravagance of the capital and the expense of the great frontier armies, the provinces generally rose to a higher state of material welfare than they had enjoyed since their annexation.
The earlier years of this century are the most brilliant in the history of Latin literature. During the last fifty years of the Republic a series of Roman authors of remarkable genius had gradually met and mastered the technical problems of both prose and verse. The new generation entered into their labours. In prose there was little, if any, advance remaining to be made. In the fields of oratory and philosophy it had already reached its perfection; in that of history it acquired further amplitude and colour. But the achievement of the new age was mainly in verse. Profound study of the older poetry, and the laborious training learned from the schools of Alexandria, now bore fruit in a body of poetry which, in every field except that of the drama, excelled what had hitherto been known, and was at once the model and the limit for succeeding generations. Latin poetry, like the Empire itself, took a broader basis; the Augustan poets are still Romans, but this is because Rome had extended itself over Italy, The copious and splendid production of the earlier years of the principate of Augustus was followed by an almost inevitable reaction. The energy of the Latin speech had for the time exhausted itself; and the political necessities of the uneasy reigns which followed set further barriers in the way of a weakening literary impulse. Then begins the movement of the Latin-speaking provinces. Rome had absorbed Italy; Italy in turn begins to absorb and coalesce with Gaul, Spain, and Africa. The first of the provinces in the field was Spain, which had become Latinised earlier than either of the others. At the court of Nero a single brilliant Spanish family founded a new and striking style, which for the moment eclipsed that formed by a purer taste amid a graver and a more exclusive public.
A hundred years from the downfall of Nero carry us down to the reign of Marcus Aurelius. The Empire, when it recovered from the collapse of the year 69, assumed a settled and stable organisation. Traditions of the old jealousies and discontents lingered during the reigns of the three Flavian Emperors; but the imperial system had now got into permanent working order. The cataclysm which followed the deposition of Nero is in the strongest contrast to the ease and smoothness, only broken by a trifling mutiny of the praetorian guards, with which the principate passed into the hands of Nerva after the murder of Domitian.
This century is what is properly known as the Silver Age. A school of eminent writers, in whom the provincial and the Italian quality are now hardly to be distinguished, produced during its earlier years a large body of admirable prose and not undistinguished verse. But before the century was half over, the signs of decay began to appear. A mysterious languor overcame thought and art, as it did the whole organism of the Empire. The conquests of Trajan, the peace and material splendour of the reign of Hadrian, were followed by a series of years almost without events, suddenly broken by the appalling pestilence of the year 166, and the outbreak, at the same time, of a long and desperate war on the northern frontiers. During these eventless years Latin literature seemed to die away. The classical impulse was exhausted; the attempts made towards founding a new Latin bore, for the time, little fruit. Before this period of exhaustion and reaction could come to a natural end, two changes of momentous importance had overtaken the world. The imperial system broke down under Commodus. All through the third century the civil organisation of the Empire was at the mercy of military adventurers. Twenty-five recognised Emperors, besides a swarm of pretenders, most of them raised to the purple by mutinous armies, succeeded one another in the hundred years between Commodus and Diocletian. At the same time the Christian religion, already recognised under the Antonines as a grave menace to the very existence of the Empire, was extending itself year by year, rising more elastic than ever from each fresh persecution, and attracting towards itself all the vital forces which go to make literature.
The coalition between the Empire and the Church, which, after various tentative preliminaries, was finally effected by Constantine, launched the world upon new paths: and his transference of the main seat of empire to the shores of the Bosporus left Western Europe to pursue fragmentary and independent courses. The Latin-speaking provinces were falling away in great lumps. An independent empire of Britain had already existed for six or seven years under the usurper Carausius. After the middle of the fourth century Gaul was practically in possession of the Visigoths and the Salian Franks. During the reign of Honorius mixed hordes of Vandals, Suabians, and Alans poured through Gaul across the Pyrenees, and divided Spain into barbarian monarchies. A few years later the Vandals, called across the Straits of Gibraltar by the treachery of Count Boniface, overran the province of Africa, and established a powerful kingdom, whose fleets, issuing from the port of Carthage, swept the Mediterranean and sacked Rome itself. Rome had, by the famous edict of Antoninus Caracalla, given the world a single citizenship; to give organic life to that citizenship, and turn her citizens into a single nation, was a task beyond her power. So long as the Latin-speaking world remained nominally subject to a single rule, exercised in the name of the Senate and People of Rome, Latin literature had some slight external bond of unity; after the Western Empire was shattered into a dozen independent kingdoms, the phrase almost ceases to have any real meaning. Latin, in one form or another, remained an almost universal language; but we must speak henceforth of the literatures of France or Spain or Britain, whether the work produced be written in a provincial dialect or in the international language handed down from the Empire and preserved by the Church.
For the Catholic Church now became the centre of European cohesion, and gave continuity and common life to the scattered remains of the ancient civilisation. Already, in the fifth century, Pope Leo the Great is a more important figure than his contemporary, Valentinian the Second, for thirty years the shadowy and impotent Emperor of the West. Christian literature had taken firm root while the classical tradition was still strong; in the hands of men like Jerome and Augustine that tradition was caught up from the wreck of the Empire and handed down, not unimpaired, yet still in prodigious force and vitality, to the modern world.
Latin is now no longer a universal language; and the direct influence of ancient Rome, which once seemed like an immortal energy, is at last, like all energies, becoming slowly absorbed in its own results. Yet the Latin language is still the necessary foundation of one half of human knowledge, and the forms created by Roman genius underlie the whole of our civilisation. So long as mankind look before and after, the name of Rome will be the greatest of those upon which their backward gaze can be turned. In Greece men first learned to be human: under Rome mankind first learned to be civilised. Law, government, citizenship, are all the creations of the Latin race. At a thousand points we still draw directly from the Roman sources. The codes of Latin jurists are the direct source of all systems of modern law. The civic organisation which it was the great work of the earlier Roman Empire to spread throughout the provinces is the basis of our municipal institutions and our corporate social life. The names of our months are those of the Latin year, and the modern calendar is, with one slight alteration, that established by Julius Caesar. The head of the Catholic Church is still called by the name of the president of a Republican college which goes back beyond the beginnings of ascertained Roman history. The architecture which we inherit from the Middle Ages, associated by an accident of history with the name of the Goths, had its origin under the Empire, and may be traced down to modern times, step by step, from the basilica of Trajan and the palace of Diocletian. These are but a few instances of the inheritance we have received from Rome. But behind the ordered structure of her law and government, and the majestic fabric of her civilisation, lay a vital force of even deeper import; the strong grave Roman character, which has permanently heightened the ideal of human life. It is in their literature that the inner spirit of the Latin race found its most complete expression. In the stately structure of that imperial language they embodied those qualities which make the Roman name most abidingly great— honour, temperate wisdom, humanity, courtesy, magnanimity; and the civilised world still returns to that fountain-head, and finds a second mother-tongue in the speech of Cicero and Virgil.