Literary Genius: The Greek And Roman Classics – Beacon Lights of History, Volume I : The Old Pagan Civilizations by John Lord
Ancient Religions: Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian
Religions of India: Brahmanism and Buddhism
Religion of The Greeks and Romans: Classic Mythology
Confucius: Sage and Moralist
Ancient Philosophy: Seeking After Truth
Socrates: Greek Philosophy
Phidias: Greek Art
Literary Genius: The Greek and Roman Classics
Literary Genius: The Greek and Roman Classics
Richness of Greek classic poetry
Greek lyrical poetry
Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides
Greek comedy: Aristophanes
Naevius, Plautus, Terence
Roman epic poetry: Virgil
Lyrical poetry: Horace, Catullus
Didactic poetry: Lucretius
Elegiac poetry: Ovid, Tibullus
Satire: Horace, Martial, Juvenal
Perfection of Greek prose writers
Learned men: Varro
Literary Genius: The Greek and Roman Classics
We know but little of the literature of antiquity until the Greeks applied to it the principles of art. The Sanskrit language has revealed the ancient literature of the Hindus, which is chiefly confined to mystical religious poetry, and which has already been mentioned in the chapter on “Ancient Religions.” There was no history worthy the name in India. The Egyptians and Babylonians recorded the triumphs of warriors and domestic events, but those were mere annals without literary value. It is true that the literary remains of Egypt show a reading and writing people as early as three thousand years before Christ, and in their various styles of pen-language reveal a remarkable variety of departments and topics treated,–books of religion, of theology, of ethics, of medicine, of astronomy, of magic, of mythic poetry, of fiction, of personal correspondence, etc. The difficulties of deciphering them, however, and their many peculiarities and formalisms of style, render them rather of curious historical and archaeological than of literary interest. The Chinese annals also extend back to a remote period, for Confucius wrote history as well as ethics; but Chinese literature has comparatively little interest for us, as also that of all Oriental nations, except the Hindu Vedas and the Persian Zend-Avesta, and a few other poems showing great fertility of the imagination, with a peculiar tenderness and pathos.
Accordingly, as I wish to show chiefly the triumphs of ancient genius when directed to literature generally, and especially such as has had a direct influence upon our modern literature, I confine myself to that of Greece and Rome. Even our present civilization delights in the masterpieces of the classical poets, historians, orators, and essayists, and seeks to rival them. Long before Christianity became a power the great literary artists of Greece had reached perfection in style and language, especially in Athens, to which city youths were sent to be educated, as to a sort of university town where the highest culture was known. Educated Romans were as familiar with the Greek classics as they were with those of their own country, and could talk Greek as the modern cultivated Germans talk French. Without the aid of Greece, Rome could never have reached the civilization to which she attained.
How rich in poetry was classical antiquity, whether sung in the Greek or Latin language! In all those qualities which give immortality classical poetry has never been surpassed, whether in simplicity, in passion, in fervor, in fidelity to nature, in wit, or in imagination. It existed from the early times of Greek civilization, and continued to within a brief period of the fall of the Roman empire. With the rich accumulation of ages the Romans were familiar. They knew nothing indeed of the solitary grandeur of the Jewish muse, or the Nature-myths of the ante-Homeric singers; but they possessed the Iliad and the Odyssey, with their wonderful truthfulness, their clear portraiture of character, their absence of all affectation, their serenity and cheerfulness, their good sense and healthful sentiments, withal so original that the germ of almost every character which has since figured in epic poetry can be found in them.
We see in Homer a poet of the first class, holding the same place in literature that Plato holds in philosophy or Newton in science, and exercising a mighty influence on all the ages which have succeeded him. He was born, probably, at Smyrna, an Ionian city; the dates attributed to him range from the seventh to the twelfth century before Christ. Herodotus puts him at 850 B.C. For nearly three thousand years his immortal creations have been the delight and the inspiration of men of genius; and they are as marvellous to us as they were to the Athenians, since they are exponents of the learning as well as of the consecrated sentiments of the heroic ages. We find in them no pomp of words, no far-fetched thoughts, no theatrical turgidity, no ambitious speculations, no indefinite longings; but we see the manners and customs of the primitive nations, the sights and wonders of the external world, the marvellously interesting traits of human nature as it was and is; and with these we have lessons of moral wisdom,–all recorded with singular simplicity yet astonishing artistic skill. We find in the Homeric narrative accuracy, delicacy, naturalness, with grandeur, sentiment, and beauty, such as Phidias represented in his statues of Zeus. No poems have ever been more popular, and none have extorted greater admiration from critics. Like Shakspeare, Homer is a kind of Bible to both the learned and unlearned among all peoples and ages, –one of the prodigies of the world. His poems form the basis of Greek literature, and are the best understood and the most widely popular of all Grecian compositions. The unconscious simplicity of the Homeric narrative, its high moral tone, its vivid pictures, its graphic details, and its religious spirit create an enthusiasm such as few works of genius can claim. Moreover it presents a painting of society, with its simplicity and ferocity, its good and evil passions, its tenderness and its fierceness, such as no other poem affords. Its influence on the popular mythology of the Greeks has been already alluded to. If Homer did not create the Grecian theogony, he gave form and fascination to it. Nor is it necessary to speak of any other Grecian epic, when the Iliad and the Odyssey attest the perfection which was attained one hundred and twenty years before Hesiod was born. Grote thinks that the Iliad and the Odyssey were produced at some period between 850 B.C. and 776 B.C.
In lyrical poetry the Greeks were no less remarkable; indeed they attained to what may be called absolute perfection, owing to the intimate connection between poetry and music, and the wonderful elasticity and adaptiveness of their language. Who has surpassed Pindar in artistic skill? His triumphal odes are paeans, in which piety breaks out in expressions of the deepest awe and the most elevated sentiments of moral wisdom. They alone of all his writings have descended to us, but these, made up as they are of odic fragments, songs, dirges, and panegyrics, show the great excellence to which he attained. He was so celebrated that he was employed by the different States and princes of Greece to compose choral songs for special occasions, especially for the public games. Although a Theban, he was held in the highest estimation by the Athenians, and was courted by kings and princes. Born in Thebes 522 B.C., he died probably in his eightieth year, being contemporary with Aeschylus and the battle of Marathon. We possess also fragments of Sappho, Simonides, Anacreon, and others, enough to show that could the lyrical poetry of Greece be recovered, we should probably possess the richest collection that the world has produced.
Greek dramatic poetry was still more varied and remarkable. Even the great masterpieces of Sophocles and Euripides now extant were regarded by their contemporaries as inferior to many other Greek tragedies utterly unknown to us. The great creator of the Greek drama was Aeschylus, born at Eleusis 525 B.C. It was not till the age of forty-one that he gained his first prize. Sixteen years afterward, defeated by Sophocles, he quitted Athens in disgust and went to the court of Hiero, king of Syracuse. But he was always held, even at Athens, in the highest honor, and his pieces were frequently reproduced upon the stage. It was not so much the object of Aeschylus to amuse an audience as to instruct and elevate it. He combined religious feeling with lofty moral sentiment, and had unrivalled power over the realm of astonishment and terror. “At his summons,” says Sir Walter Scott, “the mysterious and tremendous volume of destiny, in which is inscribed the doom of gods and men, seemed to display its leaves of iron before the appalled spectators; the more than mortal voices of Deities, Titans, and departed heroes were heard in awful conference; heaven bowed, and its divinities descended; earth yawned, and gave up the pale spectres of the dead and yet more undefined and ghastly forms of those infernal deities who struck horror into the gods themselves.” His imagination dwells in the loftiest regions of the old mythology of Greece; his tone is always pure and moral, though stern and harsh; he appeals to the most violent passions, and is full of the boldest metaphors. In sublimity Aeschylus has never been surpassed. He was in poetry what Phidias and Michael Angelo were in art. The critics say that his sublimity of diction is sometimes carried to an extreme, so that his language becomes inflated. His characters, like his sentiments, were sublime,–they were gods and heroes of colossal magnitude. His religious views were Homeric, and he sought to animate his countrymen to deeds of glory, as it became one of the generals who fought at Marathon to do. He was an unconscious genius, and worked like Homer without a knowledge of artistic laws. He was proud and impatient, and his poetry was religious rather than moral. He wrote seventy plays, of which only seven are extant; but these are immortal, among the greatest creations of human genius, like the dramas of Shakspeare. He died in Sicily, in the sixty-ninth year of his age.
The fame of Sophocles is scarcely less than that of Aeschylus. He was twenty-seven years of age when he publicly appeared as a poet. He was born in Colonus, in the suburbs of Athens, 495 B.C., and was the contemporary of Herodotus, of Pericles, of Pindar, of Phidias, of Socrates, of Cimon, of Euripides,–the era of great men, the period of the Peloponnesian War, when everything that was elegant and intellectual culminated at Athens. Sophocles had every element of character and person to fascinate the Greeks,–beauty of face, symmetry of form, skill in gymnastics, calmness and dignity of manner, a cheerful and amiable temper, a ready wit, a meditative piety, a spontaneity of genius, an affectionate admiration for talent, and patriotic devotion to his country. His tragedies, by the universal consent of the best critics, are the perfection of the Greek drama; and they moreover maintain that he has no rival, Aeschylus and Shakspeare alone excepted, in the whole realm of dramatic poetry. It was the peculiarity of Sophocles to excite emotions of sorrow and compassion. He loved to paint forlorn heroes. He was human in all his sympathies, perhaps not so religious as Aeschylus, but as severely ethical; not so sublime, but more perfect in art. His sufferers are not the victims of an inexorable destiny, but of their own follies. Nor does he even excite emotion apart from a moral end. He lived to be ninety years old, and produced the most beautiful of his tragedies in his eightieth year, the “Oedipus at Colonus.” Sophocles wrote the astonishing number of one hundred and thirty plays, and carried off the first prize twenty-four times. His “Antigone” was written when he was forty-five, and when Euripides had already gained a prize. Only seven of his tragedies have survived, but these are priceless treasures.
Euripides, the last of the great triumvirate of the Greek tragic poets, was born at Athens, 485 B.C. He had not the sublimity of Aeschylus, nor the touching pathos of Sophocles, nor the stern simplicity of either, but in seductive beauty and successful appeal to passion was superior to both. In his tragedies the passion of love predominates, but it does not breathe the purity of sentiment which marked the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles; it approaches rather to the tone of the modern drama. He paints the weakness and corruptions of society, and brings his subjects to the level of common life. He was the pet of the Sophists, and was pantheistic in his views. He does not attempt to show ideal excellence, and his characters represent men not as they ought to be, but as they are, especially in corrupt states of society. Euripides wrote ninety-five plays, of which eighteen are extant. Whatever objection may be urged to his dramas on the score of morality, nobody can question their transcendent art or their great originality.
With the exception of Shakspeare, all succeeding dramatists have copied the three great Greek tragic poets whom we have just named,–especially Racine, who took Sophocles for his model,–even as the great epic poets of all ages have been indebted to Homer.
The Greeks were no less distinguished for comedy than for tragedy. Both tragedy and comedy sprang from feasts in honor of Bacchus; and as the jests and frolics were found misplaced when introduced into grave scenes, a separate province of the drama was formed, and comedy arose. At first it did not derogate from the religious purposes which were at the foundation of the Greek drama; it turned upon parodies in which the adventures of the gods were introduced by way of sport,–as in describing the appetite of Hercules or the cowardice of Bacchus. The comic authors entertained spectators by fantastic and gross displays, by the exhibition of buffoonery and pantomime. But the taste of the Athenians was too severe to relish such entertainments, and comedy passed into ridicule of public men and measures and the fashions of the day. The people loved to see their great men brought down to their own level. Comedy, however, did not flourish until the morals of society were degenerated, and ridicule had become the most effective weapon wherewith to assail prevailing follies. In modern times, comedy reached its culminating point when society was both the most corrupt and the most intellectual,–as in France, when Molière pointed his envenomed shafts against popular vices. In Greece it flourished in the age of Socrates and the Sophists, when there was great bitterness in political parties and an irrepressible desire for novelties. Comedy first made itself felt as a great power in Cratinus, who espoused the side of Cimon against Pericles with great bitterness and vehemence.
Many were the comic writers of that age of wickedness and genius, but all yielded precedence to Aristophanes, of whose writings only his plays have reached us. Never were libels on persons of authority and influence uttered with such terrible license. He attacked the gods, the politicians, the philosophers, and the poets of Athens; even private citizens did not escape from his shafts, and women were the subjects of his irony. Socrates was made the butt of his ridicule when most revered, Cleon in the height of his power, and Euripides when he had gained the highest prizes. Aristophanes has furnished jests for Rabelais, hints to Swift, and humor for Molière. In satire, in derision, in invective, and bitter scorn he has never been surpassed. No modern capital would tolerate such unbounded license; yet no plays in their day were ever more popular, or more fully exposed follies which could not otherwise be reached. Aristophanes is called the Father of Comedy, and his comedies are of great historical importance, although his descriptions are doubtless caricatures. He was patriotic in his intentions, even setting up as a reformer. His peculiar genius shines out in his “Clouds,” the greatest of his pieces, in which he attacks the Sophists. He wrote fifty-four plays. He was born 444 B.C., and died 380 B.C.
Thus it would appear that in the three great departments of poetry,–the epic, the lyric, and the dramatic,–the old Greeks were great masters, and have been the teachers of all subsequent nations and ages.
The Romans in these departments were not the equals of the Greeks, but they were very successful copyists, and will bear comparison with modern nations. If the Romans did not produce a Homer, they can boast of a Virgil; if they had no Pindar, they furnished a Horace; and in satire they transcended the Greeks.
The Romans produced no poetry worthy of notice until the Greek language and literature were introduced among them. It was not till the fall of Tarentum that we read of a Roman poet. Livius Andronicus, a Greek slave, 240 B.C., rudely translated the Odyssey into Latin, and was the author of various plays, all of which have perished, and none of which, according to Cicero, were worth a second perusal. Still, Andronicus was the first to substitute the Greek drama for the old lyrical stage poetry. One year after the first Punic War, he exhibited the first Roman play. As the creator of the drama he deserves historical notice, though he has no claim to originality, but, like a schoolmaster as he was, pedantically labored to imitate the culture of the Greeks. His plays formed the commencement of Roman translation-literature, and naturalized the Greek metres in Latium, even though they were curiosities rather than works of art.
Naevius, 235 B.C., produced a play at Rome, and wrote both epic and dramatic poetry, but so little has survived that no judgment can be formed of his merits. He was banished for his invectives against the aristocracy, who did not relish severity of comedy. Mommsen regards Naevius as the first of the Romans who deserves to be ranked among the poets. His language was free from stiffness and affectation, and his verses had a graceful flow. In metres he closely adhered to Andronicus.
Plautus was perhaps the first great dramatic poet whom the Romans produced, and his comedies are still admired by critics as both original and fresh. He was born in Umbria, 257 B.C., and was contemporaneous with Publius and Cneius Scipio. He died 184 B.C. The first development of Roman genius in the field of poetry seems to have been the dramatic, in which still the Greek authors were copied. Plautus might be mistaken for a Greek, were it not for the painting of Roman manners, for his garb is essentially Greek. Plautus wrote one hundred and thirty plays, not always for the stage, but for the reading public. He lived about the time of the second Punic War, before the theatre was fairly established at Rome. His characters, although founded on Greek models, act, speak, and joke like Romans. He enjoyed great popularity down to the latest times of the empire, while the purity of his language, as well as the felicity of his wit, was celebrated by the ancient critics. Cicero places his wit on a par with the old Attic comedy; while Jerome spent much time in reading his comedies, even though they afterward cost him tears of bitter regret. Modern dramatists owe much to Plautus. Molière has imitated him in his “Avare,” and Shakspeare in his “Comedy of Errors.” Lessing pronounces the “Captivi” to be the finest comedy ever brought upon the stage; he translated this play into German, and it has also been admirably translated into English. The great excellence of Plautus was the masterly handling of language, and the adjusting the parts for dramatic effect. His humor, broad and fresh, produced irresistible comic effects. No one ever surpassed him in his vocabulary of nicknames and his happy jokes. Hence he maintained his popularity in spite of his vulgarity.
Terence shares with Plautus the throne of Roman comedy. He was a Carthaginian slave, born 185 B.C., but was educated by a wealthy Roman into whose hands he fell, and ever after associated with the best society and travelled extensively in Greece. He was greatly inferior to Plautus in originality, and has not exerted a like lasting influence; but he wrote comedies characterized by great purity of diction, which have been translated into all modern languages. Terence, whom Mommsen regards as the most polished, elegant, and chaste of all the poets of the newer comedy, closely copied the Greek Menander. Unlike Plautus, he drew his characters from good society, and his comedies, if not moral, were decent. Plautus wrote for the multitude, Terence for the few; Plautus delighted in noisy dialogue and slang expressions; Terence confined himself to quiet conversation and elegant expressions, for which he was admired by Cicero and Quintilian and other great critics. He aspired to the approval of the cultivated, rather than the applause of the vulgar; and it is a remarkable fact that his comedies supplanted the more original productions of Plautus in the later years of the republic, showing that the literature of the aristocracy was more prized than that of the people, even in a degenerate age.
The “Thyestes” of Varius was regarded in its day as equal to Greek tragedies. Ennius composed tragedies in a vigorous style, and was regarded by the Romans as the parent of their literature, although most of his works have perished. Virgil borrowed many of his thoughts, and was regarded as the prince of Roman song in the time of Cicero. The Latin language is greatly indebted to him. Pacuvius imitated Aeschylus in the loftiness of his style. From the times before the Augustan age no tragic production has reached us, although Quintilian speaks highly of Accius, especially of the vigor of his style; but he merely imitated the Greeks. The only tragedy of the Romans which has reached us was written by Seneca the philosopher.
In epic poetry the Romans accomplished more, though even here they are still inferior to the Greeks. The Aeneid of Virgil has certainly survived the material glories of Rome. It may not have come up to the exalted ideal of its author; it may be defaced by political flatteries; it may not have the force and originality of the Iliad,–but it is superior in art, and delineates the passion of love with more delicacy than can be found in any Greek author. In soundness of judgment, in tenderness of feeling, in chastened fancy, in picturesque description, in delineation of character, in matchless beauty of diction, and in splendor of versification, it has never been surpassed by any poem in any language, and proudly takes its place among the imperishable works of genius. Henry Thompson, in his “History of Roman Literature,” says:–
“Availing himself of the pride and superstition of the Roman people, the poet traces the origin and establishment of the ‘Eternal City’ to those heroes and actions which had enough in them of what was human and ordinary to excite the sympathies of his countrymen, intermingled with persons and circumstances of an extraordinary and superhuman character to awaken their admiration and awe. No subject could have been more happily chosen. It has been admired also for its perfect unity of action; for while the episodes command the richest variety of description, they are always subordinate to the main object of the poem, which is to impress the divine authority under which Aeneas first settled in Italy. The wrath of Juno, upon which the whole fate of Aeneas seems to turn, is at once that of a woman and a goddess; the passion of Dido and her general character bring us nearer to the present world,–but the poet is continually introducing higher and more effectual influences, until, by the intervention of gods and men, the Trojan name is to be continued in the Roman, and thus heaven and earth are appeased.”
Probably no one work of man has had such a wide and profound influence as this poem of Virgil,–a textbook in all schools since the revival of learning, the model of the Carlovingian poets, the guide of Dante, the oracle of Tasso. Virgil was born seventy years before Christ, and was seven years older than Augustus. His parentage was humble, but his facilities of education were great. He was a most fortunate man, enjoying the friendship of Augustus and Maecenas, fame in his own lifetime, leisure to prosecute his studies, and ample rewards for his labors. He died at Brundusium at the age of fifty.
In lyrical poetry, the Romans can boast of one of the greatest masters of any age or nation. The Odes of Horace have never been transcended, and will probably remain through all ages the delight of scholars. They may not have the deep religious sentiment and unity of imagination and passion which belong to the Greek lyrical poets, but as works of art, of exquisite felicity of expression, of agreeable images, they are unrivalled. Even in the time of Juvenal his poems were the common school-books of Roman youth. Horace, born 65 B.C., like Virgil was also a favored man, enjoying the friendship of the great, and possessing ease, fame, and fortune; but his longings for retirement and his disgust at the frivolities around him are a sad commentary on satisfied desires. His Odes composed but a small part of his writings. His Epistles are the most perfect of his productions, and rank with the “Georgics” of Virgil and the “Satires” of Juvenal as the most perfect form of Roman verse. His satires are also admirable, but without the fierce vehemence and lofty indignation that characterized those of Juvenal. It is the folly rather than the wickedness of vice which Horace describes with such playful skill and such keenness of observation. He was the first to mould the Latin tongue to the Greek lyric measures. Quintilian’s criticism is indorsed by all scholars,–Lyricorum Horatius fere solus legi dignus, in verbis felicissime audax. No poetry was ever more severely elaborated than that of Horace, and the melody of the language imparts to it a peculiar fascination. If inferior to Pindar in passion and loftiness, it glows with a more genial humanity and with purer wit. It cannot be enjoyed fully except by those versed in the experiences of life, who perceive in it a calm wisdom, a penetrating sagacity, a sober enthusiasm, and a refined taste, which are unusual even among the masters of human thought.
It is the fashion to depreciate the original merits of this poet, as well as those of Virgil, Plautus, and Terence, because they derived so much assistance from the Greeks. But the Greeks also borrowed from one another. Pure originality is impossible. It is the mission of art to add to its stores, without hoping to monopolize the whole realm. Even Shakspeare, the most original of modern poets, was vastly indebted to those who went before him, and he has not escaped the hypercriticism of minute observers.
In this mention of lyrical poetry I have not spoken of Catullus, unrivalled in tender lyric, the greatest poet before the Augustan era. He was born 87 B.C., and enjoyed the friendship of the most celebrated characters. One hundred and sixteen of his poems have come down to us, most of which are short, and many of them defiled by great coarseness and sensuality. Critics say, however, that whatever he touched he adorned; that his vigorous simplicity, pungent wit, startling invective, and felicity of expression make him one of the great poets of the Latin language.
In didactic poetry Lucretius was pre-eminent, and is regarded by Schlegel as the first of Roman poets in native genius. He was born 95 B.C., and died at the age of forty-two by his own hand. His principal poem “De Rerum Natura” is a delineation of the Epicurean philosophy, and treats of all the great subjects of thought with which his age was conversant. Somewhat resembling Pope’s “Essay on Man” in style and subject, it is immeasurably superior in poetical genius. It is a lengthened disquisition, in seven thousand four hundred lines, upon the great phenomena of the outward world. As a painter and worshipper of Nature, Lucretius was superior to all the poets of antiquity. His skill in presenting abstruse speculations is marvellous, and his outbursts of poetic genius are matchless in power and beauty. Into all subjects he casts a fearless eye, and writes with sustained enthusiasm. But he was not fully appreciated by his countrymen, although no other poet has so fully brought out the power of the Latin language. Professor Ramsay, while alluding to the melancholy tenderness of Tibullus, the exquisite ingenuity of Ovid, the inimitable felicity and taste of Horace, the gentleness and splendor of Virgil, and the vehement declamation of Juvenal, thinks that had the verse of Lucretius perished we should never have known that the Latin could give utterance to the grandest conceptions, with all that self-sustained majesty and harmonious swell in which the Grecian muse rolls forth her loftiest outpourings. The eulogium of Ovid is–
“Carmina sublimis tunc sunt peritura Lucretî,
Exitio terras quum dabit una dies.”
Elegiac poetry has an honorable place in Roman literature. To this school belongs Ovid, born 43 B.C., died 18 A.D., whose “Tristia,” a doleful description of the evils of exile, were much admired by the Romans. His most famous work was his “Metamorphoses,” mythologic legends involving transformations,–a most poetical and imaginative production. He, with that self-conscious genius common to poets, declares that his poem would be proof against sword, fire, thunder, and time,–a prediction, says Bayle, which has not yet proved false. Niebuhr thinks that Ovid next to Catullus was the most poetical of his countrymen. Milton thinks he might have surpassed Virgil, had he attempted epic poetry. He was nearest to the romantic school of all the classical authors; and Chaucer, Ariosto, and Spenser owe to him great obligations. Like Pope, his verses flowed spontaneously. His “Tristia” were more highly praised than his “Amores” or his “Metamorphoses,” a fact which shows that contemporaries are not always the best judges of real merit. His poems, great as was their genius, are deficient in the severe taste which marked the Greeks, and are immoral in their tendency. He had great advantages, but was banished by Augustus for his description of licentious love. Nor did he support exile with dignity; he languished like Cicero when doomed to a similar fate, and died of a broken heart. But few intellectual men have ever been able to live at a distance from the scene of their glories, and without the stimulus of high society. Chrysostom is one of the few exceptions. Ovid, as an immoral writer, was justly punished.
Tibullus, also a famous elegiac poet, was born the same year as Ovid, and was the friend of the poet Horace. He lived in retirement, and was both gentle and amiable. At his beautiful country-seat he soothed his soul with the charms of literature and the simple pleasures of the country. Niebuhr pronounces the elegies of Tibullus to be doleful, but Merivale thinks that “the tone of tender melancholy in which he sung his unprosperous loves had a deeper and purer source than the caprices of three inconstant paramours…. His spirit is eminently religious, though it bids him fold his hands in resignation rather than open them in hope. He alone of all the great poets of his day remained undazzled by the glitter of the Caesarian usurpation, and pined away in unavailing despondency while beholding the subjugation of his country.”
Propertius, the contemporary of Tibullus, born 51 B.C., was on the contrary the most eager of all the flatterers of Augustus,–a man of wit and pleasure, whose object of idolatry was Cynthia, a poetess and a courtesan. He was an imitator of the Greeks, but had a great contemporary fame. He showed much warmth of passion, but never soared into the sublime heights of poetry, like his rival.
Such were among the great elegiac poets of Rome, who were generally devoted to the delineation of the passion of love. The older English poets resembled them in this respect, but none of them have risen to such lofty heights as the later ones,–for instance, Wordsworth and Tennyson. It is in lyric poetry that the moderns have chiefly excelled the ancients, in variety, in elevation of sentiment, and in imagination. The grandeur and originality of the ancients were displayed rather in epic and dramatic poetry.
In satire the Romans transcended both the Greeks and the moderns. Satire arose with Lucilius, 148 B.C., in the time of Marius, an age when freedom of speech was tolerated. Horace was the first to gain immortality in this department. Next Persius comes, born 34 A.D., the friend of Lucian and Seneca in the time of Nero, who painted the vices of his age as it was passing to that degradation which marked the reign of Domitian, when Juvenal appeared. The latter, disdaining fear, boldly set forth the abominations of the times, and struck without distinction all who departed from duty and conscience. There is nothing in any language which equals the fire, the intensity, and the bitterness of Juvenal, not even the invectives of Swift and Pope. But he flourished during the decline of literature, and had neither the taste nor the elegance of the Augustan writers. He was born 60 A.D., the son of a freedman, and was the contemporary of Martial. He was banished by Domitian on account of a lampoon against a favorite dancer, but under the reign of Nerva he returned to Rome, and the imperial tyranny was the subject of his bitterest denunciation next to the degradation of public morals. His great rival in satire was Horace, who laughed at follies; but Juvenal, more austere, exaggerated and denounced them. His sarcasms on women have never been equalled in severity, and we cannot but hope that they were unjust. From an historical point of view, as a delineation of the manners of his age, his satires are priceless, even like the epigrams of Martial. This uncompromising poet, not pliant and easy like Horace, animadverted like an incorruptible censor on the vices which were undermining the moral health and preparing the way for violence; on the hypocrisy of philosophers and the cruelty of tyrants; on the frivolity of women and the debauchery of men. He discoursed on the vanity of human wishes with the moral wisdom of Dr. Johnson, and urged self-improvement like Socrates and Epictetus.
I might speak of other celebrated poets,–of Lucan, of Martial, of Petronius; but I only wish to show that the great poets of antiquity, both Greek and Roman, have never been surpassed in genius, in taste, and in art, and that few were ever more honored in their lifetime by appreciating admirers,–showing the advanced state of civilization which was reached in those classic countries in everything pertaining to the realm of thought and art.
The genius of the ancients was displayed in prose composition as well as in poetry, although perfection was not so soon attained. The poets were the great creators of the languages of antiquity. It was not until they had produced their immortal works that the languages were sufficiently softened and refined to admit of great beauty in prose. But prose requires art as well as poetry. There is an artistic rhythm in the writings of the classical authors–like those of Cicero, Herodotus, and Thucydides–as marked as in the beautiful measure of Homer and Virgil. Plato did not write poetry, but his prose is as “musical as Apollo’s lyre.” Burke and Macaulay are as great artists in style as Tennyson himself. And it is seldom that men, either in ancient or modern times, have been distinguished for both kinds of composition, although Voltaire, Schiller, Milton, Swift, and Scott are among the exceptions. Cicero, the greatest prose writer of antiquity, produced in poetry only a single inferior work, which was laughed at by his contemporaries. Bacon, with all his affluence of thought, vigor of imagination, and command of language, could not write poetry any easier than Pope could write prose,–although it is asserted by some modern writers, of no great reputation, that Bacon wrote Shakspeare’s plays.
All sorts of prose compositions were carried to perfection by both Greeks and Romans, in history, in criticism, in philosophy, in oratory, in epistles.
The earliest great prose writer among the Greeks was Herodotus, 484 B.C., from which we may infer that History was the first form of prose composition to attain development. But Herodotus was not born until Aeschylus had gained a prize for tragedy, nor for more than two hundred years after Simonides the lyric poet nourished, and probably five or six hundred years after Homer sang his immortal epics; yet though two thousand years and more have passed since he wrote, the style of this great “Father of History” is admired by every critic, while his history as a work of art is still a study and a marvel. It is difficult to understand why no work in prose anterior to Herodotus is worthy of note, since the Greeks had attained a high civilization two hundred years before he appeared, and the language had reached a high point of development under Homer for more than five hundred years. The History of Herodotus was probably written in the decline of life, when his mind was enriched with great attainments in all the varied learning of his age, and when he had conversed with most of the celebrated men of the various countries he had visited. It pertains chiefly to the wars of the Greeks with the Persians; but in his frequent episodes, which do not impair the unity of the work, he is led to speak of the manners and customs of the Oriental nations. It was once the fashion to speak of Herodotus as a credulous man, who embodied the most improbable though interesting stories. But now it is believed that no historian was ever more profound, conscientious, and careful; and all modern investigations confirm his sagacity and impartiality. He was one of the most accomplished men of antiquity, or of any age,–an enlightened and curious traveller, a profound thinker; a man of universal knowledge, familiar with the whole range of literature, art, and science in his day; acquainted with all the great men of Greece and at the courts of Asiatic princes; the friend of Sophocles, of Pericles, of Thucydides, of Aspasia, of Socrates, of Damon, of Zeno, of Phidias, of Protagoras, of Euripides, of Polygnotus, of Anaxagoras, of Xenophon, of Alcibiades, of Lysias, of Aristophanes,–the most brilliant constellation of men of genius who were ever found together within the walls of a Grecian city,–respected and admired by these great lights, all of whom were inferior to him in knowledge. Thus was he fitted for his task by travel, by study, and by intercourse with the great, to say nothing of his original genius. The greatest prose work which had yet appeared in Greece was produced by Herodotus,–a prose epic, severe in taste, perfect in unity, rich in moral wisdom, charming in style, religious in spirit, grand in subject, without a coarse passage; simple, unaffected, and beautiful, like the narratives of the Bible, amusing yet instructive, easy to understand, yet extending to the utmost boundaries of human research,–a model for all subsequent historians. So highly was this historic composition valued by the Athenians when their city was at the height of its splendor that they decreed to its author ten talents (about twelve thousand dollars) for reciting it. He even went from city to city, a sort of prose rhapsodist, or like a modern lecturer, reciting his history,–an honored and extraordinary man, a sort of Humboldt, having mastered everything. And he wrote, not for fame, but to communicate the results of inquiries made to satisfy his craving for knowledge, which he obtained by personal investigation at Dodona, at Delphi, at Samos, at Athens, at Corinth, at Thebes, at Tyre; he even travelled into Egypt, Scythia, Asia Minor, Palestine, Babylonia, Italy, and the islands of the sea. His episode on Egypt is worth more, from an historical point of view, than all things combined which have descended to us from antiquity. Herodotus was the first to give dignity to history; nor in truthfulness, candor, and impartiality has he ever been surpassed. His very simplicity of style is a proof of his transcendent art, even as it is the evidence of his severity of taste. The translation of this great history by Rawlinson, with notes, is invaluable.
To Thucydides, as an historian, the modern world also assigns a proud pre-eminence. He was born 471 B.C., and lived twenty years in exile on account of a military failure. He treated only of a short period, during the Peloponnesian War; but the various facts connected with that great event could be known only by the most minute and careful inquiries. He devoted twenty-seven years to the composition of his narrative, and weighed his evidence with the most scrupulous care. His style has not the fascination of Herodotus, but it is more concise. In a single volume Thucydides relates what could scarcely be compressed into eight volumes of a modern history. As a work of art, of its kind it is unrivalled. In his description of the plague of Athens this writer is as minute as he is simple. He abounds with rich moral reflections, and has a keen perception of human character. His pictures are striking and tragic. He is vigorous and intense, and every word he uses has a meaning, but some of his sentences are not always easily understood. One of the greatest tributes which can be paid to him is the estimate of an able critic, George Long, that we have a more exact history of a protracted and eventful period by Thucydides than we have of any period in modern history equally extended and eventful; and all this is compressed into a volume.
Xenophon is the last of the trio of the Greek historians whose writings are classic and inimitable. He was born probably about 444 B.C. He is characterized by great simplicity and absence of affectation. His “Anabasis,” in which he describes the expedition of the younger Cyrus and the retreat of the ten thousand Greeks, is his most famous book. But his “Cyropaedia,” in which the history of Cyrus is the subject, although still used as a classic in colleges for the beauty of its style, has no value as a history, since the author merely adopted the current stories of his hero without sufficient investigation. Xenophon wrote a variety of treatises and dialogues, but his “Memorabilia” of Socrates is the most valuable. All antiquity and all modern writers unite in ascribing to Xenophon great merit as a writer and great moral elevation as a man.
If we pass from the Greek to the Latin historians,–to those who were as famous as the Greek, and whose merit has scarcely been transcended in our modern times, if indeed it has been equalled,–the great names of Sallust, of Caesar, of Livy, of Tacitus rise up before us, together with a host of other names we have not room or disposition to present, since we only aim to show that the ancients were at least our equals in this great department of prose composition. The first great masters of the Greek language in prose were the historians, so far as we can judge by the writings that have descended to us, although it is probable that the orators may have shaped the language before them, and given it flexibility and refinement The first great prose writers of Rome were the orators; nor was the Latin language fully developed and polished until Cicero appeared. But we do not here write a history of the language; we speak only of those who wrote immortal works in the various departments of learning.
As Herodotus did not arise until the Greek language had been already formed by the poets, so no great prose writer appeared among the Romans for a considerable time after Plautus, Terence, Ennius, and Lucretius flourished. The first great historian was Sallust, the contemporary of Cicero, born 86 B.C., the year that Marius died. Q. Fabius Pictor, M. Portius Cato, and L. Cal. Piso had already written works which are mentioned with respect by Latin authors, but they were mere annalists or antiquarians, like the chroniclers of the Middle Ages, and had no claim as artists. Sallust made Thucydides his model, but fell below him in genius and elevated sentiment. He was born a plebeian, and rose to distinction by his talents, but was ejected from the senate for his profligacy. Afterward he made a great fortune as praetor and governor of Numidia, and lived in magnificence on the Quirinal,–one of the most profligate of the literary men of antiquity. We possess but a small portion of his works, but the fragments which have come down to us show peculiar merit. He sought to penetrate the human heart, and to reveal the secret motives which actuate the conduct of men. The style of Sallust is brilliant, but his art is always apparent; he is clear and lively, but rhetorical. Like Voltaire, who inaugurated modern history, Sallust thought more of style than of accuracy as to facts. He was a party man, and never soared beyond his party. He aped the moralist, but exalted egoism and love of pleasure into proper springs of action, and honored talent disconnected with virtue. Like Carlyle, Sallust exalted strong men, and because they were strong. He was not comprehensive like Cicero, or philosophical like Thucydides, although he affected philosophy as he did morality. He was the first who deviated from the strict narratives of events, and also introduced much rhetorical declamation, which he puts into the mouths of his heroes. He wrote for éclat.
Julius Caesar, born 100 or 102 B.C., as an historian ranks higher than Sallust, and no Roman ever wrote purer Latin. Yet his historical works, however great their merit, but feebly represent the transcendent genius of the most august name of antiquity. He was mathematician, architect, poet, philologist, orator, jurist, general, statesman, and imperator. In eloquence he was second only to Cicero. The great value of Caesar’s history is in the sketches of the productions, the manners, the customs, and the political conditions of Gaul, Britain, and Germany. His observations on military science, on the operation of sieges and the construction of bridges and military engines are valuable; but the description of his military career is only a studied apology for his crimes,–even as the bulletins of Napoleon were set forth to show his victories in the most favorable light. Caesar’s fame rests on his victories and successes as a statesman rather than on his merits as an historian,–even as Louis Napoleon will live in history for his deeds rather than as the apologist of his great usurping prototype. Caesar’s “Commentaries” resemble the history of Herodotus more than any other Latin production, at least in style; they are simple and unaffected, precise and elegant, plain and without pretension.
The Augustan age which followed, though it produced a constellation of poets who shed glory upon the throne before which they prostrated themselves in abject homage, like the courtiers of Louis XIV., still was unfavorable to prose composition,–to history as well as eloquence. Of the historians of that age, Livy, born 59 B.C., is the only one whose writings are known to us, in the shape of some fragments of his history. He was a man of distinction at court, and had a great literary reputation,–so great that a Spaniard travelled from Cadiz on purpose to see him. Most of the great historians of the world have occupied places of honor and rank, which were given to them not as prizes for literary successes, but for the experience, knowledge, and culture which high social position and ample means secure. Herodotus lived in courts; Thucydides was a great general, as also was Xenophon; Caesar was the first man of his times; Sallust was praetor and governor; Livy was tutor to Claudius; Tacitus was praetor and consul; Eusebius was bishop and favorite of Constantine; Ammianus was the friend of the Emperor Julian; Gregory of Tours was one of the leading prelates of the West; Froissart attended in person, as a man of rank, the military expeditions of his day; Clarendon was Lord Chancellor; Burnet was a bishop and favorite of William III.; Thiers and Guizot both were prime ministers; while Gibbon, Hume, Robertson, Macaulay, Grote, Milman, Froude, Neander, Niebuhr, Müller, Dahlman, Buckle, Prescott, Irving, Bancroft, Motley, have all been men of wealth or position. Nor do I remember a single illustrious historian who has been poor and neglected.
The ancients regarded Livy as the greatest of historians,–an opinion not indorsed by modern critics, on account of his inaccuracies. But his narrative is always interesting, and his language pure. He did not sift evidence like Grote, nor generalize like Gibbon; but like Voltaire and Macaulay, he was an artist in style, and possessed undoubted genius. His Annals are comprised in one hundred and forty-two books, extending from the foundation of the city to the death of Drusus, 9 B.C., of which only thirty-five have come down to us,–an impressive commentary on the vandalism of the Middle Ages and the ignorance of the monks who could not preserve so great a treasure. “His story flows in a calm, clear, sparkling current, with every charm which simplicity and ease can give.” He delineates character with great clearness and power; his speeches are noble rhetorical compositions; his sentences are rhythmical cadences. Livy was not a critical historian like Herodotus, for he took his materials second-hand, and was ignorant of geography, nor did he write with the exalted ideal of Thucydides; but as a painter of beautiful forms, which only a rich imagination could conjure, he is unrivalled in the history of literature. Moreover, he was honest and sound in heart, and was just and impartial in reference to those facts with which he was conversant.
In the estimation of modern critics the highest rank as an historian is assigned to Tacitus, and it would indeed be difficult to find his superior in any age or country. He was born 57 A.D., about forty-three years after the death of Augustus. He belonged to the equestrian rank, and was a man of consular dignity. He had every facility for literary labors that leisure, wealth, friends, and social position could give, and lived under a reign when truth might be told. The extant works of this great writer are the “Life of Agricola,” his father-in-law; his “Annales,” which begin with the death of Augustus, 14 A.D., and close with the death of Nero, 68 A.D.; the “Historiae,” which comprise the period from the second consulate of Galba, 68 A.D., to the death of Domitian; and a treatise on the Germans. His histories describe Rome in the fulness of imperial glory, when the will of one man was the supreme law of the empire. He also wrote of events that occurred when liberty had fled, and the yoke of despotism was nearly insupportable. He describes a period of great moral degradation, nor does he hesitate to lift the veil of hypocrisy in which his generation had wrapped itself. He fearlessly exposes the cruelties and iniquities of the early emperors, and writes with judicial impartiality respecting all the great characters he describes. No ancient writer shows greater moral dignity and integrity of purpose than Tacitus. In point of artistic unity he is superior to Livy and equal to Thucydides, whom he resembles in conciseness of style. His distinguishing excellence as an historian is his sagacity and impartiality. Nothing escapes his penetrating eye; and he inflicts merited chastisement on the tyrants who revelled in the prostrated liberties of his country, while he immortalizes those few who were faithful to duty and conscience in a degenerate age. But the writings of Tacitus were not so popular as those of Livy, since neither princes nor people relished his intellectual independence and moral elevation. He does not satisfy Dr. Arnold, who thinks he ought to have been better versed in the history of the Jews, and who dislikes his speeches because they were fictitious.
Neither the Latin nor Greek historians are admired by those dry critics who seek to give to rare antiquarian matter a disproportionate importance, and to make this matter as fixed and certain as the truths of natural science. History can never be other than an approximation to the truth, even when it relates to the events and characters of its own age. History does not give positive, indisputable knowledge. We know that Caesar was ambitious; but we do not know whether he was more or less so than Pompey, nor do we know how far he was justified in his usurpation. A great history must have other merits besides accuracy, antiquarian research, and presentation of authorities and notes. It must be a work of art; and art has reference to style and language, to grouping of details and richness of illustration, to eloquence and poetry and beauty. A dry history, however learned, will never be read; it will only be consulted, like a law-book, or Mosheim’s “Commentaries.” We require life in history, and it is for their vividness that the writings of Livy and Tacitus will be perpetuated. Voltaire and Schiller have no great merit as historians in a technical sense, but the “Life of Charles XII.” and the “Thirty Years’ War” are still classics. Neander has written one of the most searching and recondite histories of modern times; but it is too dry, too deficient in art, to be cherished, and may pass away like the voluminous writings of Varro, the most learned of the Romans. It is the art which is immortal in a book,–not the knowledge, nor even the thoughts. What keeps alive the “Provincial Letters” of Pascal? It is the style, the irony, the elegance that characterize them. The exquisite delineation of character, the moral wisdom, the purity and force of language, the artistic arrangement, and the lively and interesting narrative appealing to all minds, like the “Arabian Nights” or Froissart’s “Chronicles,” are the elements which give immortality to the classic authors. We will not let them perish, because they amuse and interest and inspire us.
A remarkable example is that of Plutarch, who, although born a Greek and writing in the Greek language, was a contemporary of Tacitus, lived long in Rome, and was one of the “immortals” of the imperial age. A teacher of philosophy during his early manhood, he spent his last years as archon and priest of Apollo in his native town. His most famous work is his “Parallel Lives” of forty-six historic Greeks and Romans, arranged in pairs, depicted with marvellous art and all the fascination of anecdote and social wit, while presenting such clear conceptions of characters and careers, and the whole so restrained within the bounds of good taste and harmonious proportion, as to have been even to this day regarded as forming a model for the ideal biography.
But it is taking a narrow view of history to make all writers after the same pattern, even as it would be bigoted to make all Christians belong to the same sect. Some will be remarkable for style, others for learning, and others again for moral and philosophical wisdom; some will be minute, and others generalizing; some will dig out a multiplicity of facts without apparent object, and others induce from those facts; some will make essays, and others chronicles. We have need of all styles and all kinds of excellence. A great and original thinker may not have the time or opportunity or taste for a minute and searching criticism of original authorities; but he may be able to generalize previously established facts so as to draw most valuable moral instruction from them for the benefit of his readers. History is a boundless field of inquiry; no man can master it in all its departments and periods. It will not do to lay great emphasis on minute details, and neglect the art of generalization. If an historian attempts to embody too much learning, he is likely to be deficient in originality; if he would say everything, he is apt to be dry; if he elaborates too much, he loses animation. Moreover, different classes of readers require different kinds and styles of histories; there must be histories for students, histories for old men, histories for young men, histories to amuse, and histories to instruct. If all men were to write history according to Dr. Arnold’s views, we should have histories of interest only to classical scholars. The ancient historians never quoted their sources of knowledge, but were valued for their richness of thoughts and artistic beauty of style. The ages in which they flourished attached no value to pedantic displays of learning paraded in foot-notes.
Thus the great historians whom I have mentioned, both Greek and Latin, have few equals and no superiors in our own times in those things that are most to be admired. They were not pedants, but men of immense genius and genuine learning, who blended the profoundest principles of moral wisdom with the most fascinating narrative,–men universally popular among learned and unlearned, great artists in style, and masters of the language in which they wrote.
Rome can boast of no great historian after Tacitus, who should have belonged to the Ciceronian epoch. Suetonius, born about the year 70 A.D., shortly after Nero’s death, was rather a biographer than an historian; nor as a biographer does he take a high rank. His “Lives of the Caesars,” like Diogenes Laertius’s “Lives of the Philosophers,” are rather anecdotical than historical. L. Anneus Florus, who flourished during the reign of Trajan, has left a series of sketches of the different wars from the days of Romulus to those of Augustus. Frontinus epitomized the large histories of Pompeius. Ammianus Marcellinus wrote a history from Nerva to Valens, and is often quoted by Gibbon. But none wrote who should be adduced as examples of the triumph of genius, except Sallust, Caesar, Livy, Plutarch, and Tacitus.
There is another field of prose composition in which the Greeks and Romans gained great distinction, and proved themselves equal to any nation of modern times,–that of eloquence. It is true, we have not a rich collection of ancient speeches; but we have every reason to believe that both Greeks and Romans were most severely trained in the art of public speaking, and that forensic eloquence was highly prized and munificently rewarded. It began with democratic institutions, and flourished as long as the People were a great power in the State; it declined whenever and wherever tyrants bore rule. Eloquence and liberty flourish together; nor can there be eloquence where there is not freedom of debate. In the fifth century before Christ–the first century of democracy–great orators arose, for without the power and the opportunity of defending himself against accusation no man could hold an ascendent position. Socrates insisted upon the gift of oratory for a general in the army as well as for a leader in political life. In Athens the courts of justice were numerous, and those who could not defend themselves were obliged to secure the services of those who were trained in the use of public speaking. Thus arose the lawyers, among whom eloquence was more in demand and more richly paid than in any other class. Rhetoric became connected with dialectics, and in Greece, Sicily, and Italy both were extensively cultivated. Empedocles was distinguished as much for rhetoric as for philosophy. It was not, however, in the courts of law that eloquence displayed the greatest fire and passion, but in political assemblies. These could only coexist with liberty; for a democracy is more favorable than an aristocracy to large assemblies of citizens. In the Grecian republics eloquence as an art may be said to have been born. It was nursed and fed by political agitation, by the strife of parties. It arose from appeals to the people as a source of power: when the people were not cultivated, it addressed chiefly popular passions and prejudices; when they were enlightened, it addressed interests.
It was in Athens, where there existed the purest form of democratic institutions, that eloquence rose to the loftiest heights in the ancient world, so far as eloquence appeals to popular passions. Pericles, the greatest statesman of Greece, 495 B.C., was celebrated for his eloquence, although no specimens remain to us. It was conceded by the ancient authors that his oratory was of the highest kind, and the epithet of “Olympian” was given him, as carrying the weapons of Zeus upon his tongue. His voice was sweet, and his utterance distinct and rapid. Peisistratus was also famous for his eloquence, although he was a usurper and a tyrant. Isocrates, 436 B.C., was a professed rhetorician, and endeavored to base his art upon sound moral principles, and rescue it from the influence of the Sophists. He was the great teacher of the most eminent statesmen of his day. Twenty-one of his orations have come down to us, and they are excessively polished and elaborated; but they were written to be read, they were not extemporary. His language is the purest and most refined Attic dialect. Lysias, 458 B.C., was a fertile writer of orations also, and he is reputed to have produced as many as four hundred and twenty-five; of these only thirty-five are extant. They are characterized by peculiar gracefulness and elegance, which did not interfere with strength. So able were these orations that only two were unsuccessful. They were so pure that they were regarded as the best canon of the Attic idiom.
But all the orators of Greece–and Greece was the land of orators–gave way to Demosthenes, born 385 B.C. He received a good education, and is said to have been instructed in philosophy by Plato and in eloquence by Isocrates; but it is more probable that he privately prepared himself for his brilliant career. As soon as he attained his majority, he brought suits against the men whom his father had appointed his guardians, for their waste of property, and after two years was successful, conducting the prosecution himself. It was not until the age of thirty that he appeared as a speaker in the public assembly on political matters, where he rapidly attained universal respect, and became one of the leading statesmen of Athens. Henceforth he took an active part in every question that concerned the State. He especially distinguished himself in his speeches against Macedonian aggrandizements, and his Philippics are perhaps the most brilliant of his orations. But the cause which he advocated was unfortunate; the battle of Cheronaea, 338 B.C., put an end to the independence of Greece, and Philip of Macedon was all-powerful. For this catastrophe Demosthenes was somewhat responsible, but as his motives were conceded to be pure and his patriotism lofty, he retained the confidence of his countrymen. Accused by Aeschines, he delivered his famous Oration on the Crown. Afterward, during the supremacy of Alexander, Demosthenes was again accused, and suffered exile. Recalled from exile on the death of Alexander, he roused himself for the deliverance of Greece, without success; and hunted by his enemies he took poison in the sixty-third year of his age, having vainly contended for the freedom of his country,—one of the noblest spirits of antiquity, and lofty in his private life.
As an orator Demosthenes has not probably been equalled by any man of any country. By his contemporaries he was regarded as faultless in this respect; and when it is remembered that he struggled against physical difficulties which in the early part of his career would have utterly discouraged any ordinary man, we feel that he deserves the highest commendation. He never spoke without preparation, and most of his orations were severely elaborated. He never trusted to the impulse of the occasion; he did not believe in extemporary eloquence any more than Daniel Webster, who said there is no such thing. All the orations of Demosthenes exhibit him as a pure and noble patriot, and are full of the loftiest sentiments. He was a great artist, and his oratorical successes were greatly owing to the arrangement of his speeches and the application of the strongest arguments in their proper places. Added to this moral and intellectual superiority was the “magic power of his language, majestic and simple at the same time, rich yet not bombastic, strange and yet familiar, solemn and not too ornate, grave and yet pleasing, concise and yet fluent, sweet and yet impressive, which altogether carried away the minds of his hearers.” His orations were most highly prized by the ancients, who wrote innumerable commentaries on them, most of which are lost. Sixty of the great productions of his genius have come down to us.
Demosthenes, like other orators, first became known as the composer of speeches for litigants; but his fame was based on the orations he pronounced in great political emergencies. His rival was Aeschines, who was vastly inferior to Demosthenes, although bold, vigorous, and brilliant. Indeed, the opinions of mankind for two thousand years have been unanimous in ascribing to Demosthenes the highest position as an orator among all the men of ancient and modern times. David Hume says of him that “could his manner be copied, its success would be infallible over a modern audience.” Says Lord Brougham, “It is rapid harmony exactly adjusted to the sense. It is vehement reasoning, without any appearance of art. It is disdain, anger, boldness, freedom involved in a continual stream of argument; so that of all human productions his orations present to us the models which approach the nearest to perfection.”
It is probable that the Romans were behind the Athenians in all the arts of rhetoric; yet in the days of the republic celebrated orators arose among the lawyers and politicians. It was in forensic eloquence that Latin prose first appeared as a cultivated language; for the forum was to the Romans what libraries are to us. The art of public speaking in Rome was early developed. Cato, Laelius, Carbo, and the Gracchi are said to have been majestic and harmonious in speech, yet excelled by Antonius, Crassus, Cotta, Sulpitius, and Hortensius. The last had a very brilliant career as an orator, though his orations were too florid to be read. Caesar was also distinguished for his eloquence, its characteristics being force and purity. “Coelius was noted for lofty sentiment, Brutus for philosophical wisdom, Calidius for a delicate and harmonious style, and Calvus for sententious force.”
But all the Roman orators yielded to Cicero, as the Greeks did to Demosthenes. These two men are always coupled together when allusion is made to eloquence. They were pre-eminent in the ancient world, and have never been equalled in the modern.
Cicero, 106 B.C., was probably not equal to his great Grecian rival in vehemence, in force, in fiery argument which swept everything away before him, nor generally in original genius; but he was his superior in learning, in culture, and in breadth. Cicero distinguished himself very early as an advocate, but his first great public effort was made in the prosecution of Verres for corruption. Although Verres was defended by Hortensius and backed by the whole influence of the Metelli and other powerful families, Cicero gained his cause,–more fortunate than Burke in his prosecution of Warren Hastings, who also was sustained by powerful interests and families. The speech on the Manilian Law, when Cicero appeared as a political orator, greatly contributed to his popularity. I need not describe his memorable career,–his successive elections to all the highest offices of state, his detection of Catiline’s conspiracy, his opposition to turbulent and ambitious partisans, his alienations and friendships, his brilliant career as a statesman, his misfortunes and sorrows, his exile and recall, his splendid services to the State, his greatness and his defects, his virtues and weaknesses, his triumphs and martyrdom. These are foreign to my purpose. No man of heathen antiquity is better known to us, and no man by pure genius ever won more glorious laurels. His life and labors are immortal. His virtues and services are embalmed in the heart of the world. Few men ever performed greater literary labors, and in so many of its departments. Next to Aristotle and Varro, Cicero was the most learned man of antiquity, but performed more varied labors than either, since he was not only great as a writer and speaker, but also as a statesman, being the most conspicuous man in Rome after Pompey and Caesar. He may not have had the moral greatness of Socrates, nor the philosophical genius of Plato, nor the overpowering eloquence of Demosthenes, but he was a master of all the wisdom of antiquity. Even civil law, the great science of the Romans, became interesting in his hands, and was divested of its dryness and technicality. He popularized history, and paid honor to all art, even to the stage; he made the Romans conversant with the philosophy of Greece, and systematized the various speculations. He may not have added to philosophy, but no Roman after him understood so well the practical bearing of all its various systems. His glory is purely intellectual, and it was by sheer genius that he rose to his exalted position and influence.
But it was in forensic eloquence that Cicero was pre-eminent, in which he had but one equal in ancient times. Roman eloquence culminated in him. He composed about eighty orations, of which fifty-nine are preserved. Some were delivered from the rostrum to the people, and some in the senate; some were mere philippics, as severe in denunciation as those of Demosthenes; some were laudatory; some were judicial; but all were severely logical, full of historical allusion, profound in philosophical wisdom, and pervaded with the spirit of patriotism. Francis W. Newman, in his “Regal Rome,” thus describes Cicero’s eloquence:–
“He goes round and round his object, surveys it in every light, examines it in all its parts, retires and then advances, compares and contrasts it, illustrates, confirms, and enforces it, till the hearer feels ashamed of doubting a position which seems built on a foundation so strictly argumentative. And having established his case, he opens upon his opponent a discharge of raillery so delicate and good-natured that it is impossible for the latter to maintain his ground against it; or, when the subject is too grave, he colors his exaggerations with all the bitterness of irony and vehemence of passion.”
Critics have uniformly admired Cicero’s style as peculiarly suited to the Latin language, which, being scanty and unmusical, requires more redundancy than the Greek. The simplicity of the Attic writers would make Latin composition bald and tame. To be perspicuous, the Latin must be full. Thus Arnold thinks that what Tacitus gained in energy he lost in elegance and perspicuity. But Cicero, dealing with a barren and unphilosophical language, enriched it with circumlocutions and metaphors, while he freed it of harsh and uncouth expressions, and thus became the greatest master of composition the world has seen. He was a great artist, making use of his scanty materials to the best effect; he had absolute control over the resources of his vernacular tongue, and not only unrivalled skill in composition, but tact and judgment. Thus he was generally successful, in spite of the venality and corruption of the times. The courts of justice were the scenes of his earliest triumphs; nor until he was praetor did he speak from the rostrum on mere political questions, as in reference to the Manilian and Agrarian laws. It is in his political discourses that Cicero rises to the highest ranks. In his speeches against Verres, Catiline, and Antony he kindles in his countrymen lofty feelings for the honor of his country, and abhorrence of tyranny and corruption. Indeed, he hated bloodshed, injustice, and strife, and beheld the downfall of liberty with indescribable sorrow.
Thus in oratory as in history the ancients can boast of most illustrious examples, never even equalled. Still, we cannot tell the comparative merits of the great classical orators of antiquity with the more distinguished of our times; indeed only Mirabeau, Pitt, Fox, Burke, Brougham, Webster, and Clay can even be compared with them. In power of moving the people, some of our modern reformers and agitators may be mentioned favorably; but their harangues are comparatively tame when read.
In philosophy the Greeks and Romans distinguished themselves more even than in poetry, or history, or eloquence. Their speculations pertained to the loftiest subjects that ever tasked the intellect of man. But this great department has already been presented. There were respectable writers in various other departments of literature, but no very great names whose writings have descended to us. Contemporaries had an exalted opinion of Varro, who was considered the most learned of the Romans, as well as their most voluminous author. He was born ten years before Cicero, and is highly commended by Augustine. He was entirely devoted to literature, took no interest in passing events, and lived to a good old age. Saint Augustine says of him that “he wrote so much that one wonders how he had time to read; and he read so much, we are astonished how he found time to write.” He composed four hundred and ninety books. Of these only one has descended to us entire,–“De Re Rustica,” written at the age of eighty; but it is the best treatise which has come down from antiquity on ancient agriculture. We have parts of his other books, and we know of still others that have entirely perished which for their information would be invaluable, especially his “Divine Antiquities,” in sixteen books,–his great work, from which Saint Augustine drew materials for his “City of God.” Varro wrote treatises on language, on the poets, on philosophy, on geography, and on various other subjects; he also wrote satire and criticism. But although his writings were learned, his style was so bad that the ages have failed to preserve him. The truly immortal books are most valued for their artistic excellences. No man, however great his genius, can afford to be dull. Style is to written composition what delivery is to a public speaker. The multitude do not go to hear the man of thoughts, but to hear the man of words, being repelled or attracted by manner.
Seneca was another great writer among the Romans, but he belongs to the domain of philosophy, although it is his ethical works which have given him immortality,–as may be truly said of Socrates and Epictetus, although they are usually classed among the philosophers. Seneca was a Spaniard, born but a few years before the Christian era; he was a lawyer and a rhetorician, also a teacher and minister of Nero. It was his misfortune to know one of the most detestable princes that ever scandalized humanity, and it is not to his credit to have accumulated in four years one of the largest fortunes in Rome while serving such a master; but since he lived to experience Nero’s ingratitude, Seneca is more commonly regarded as a martyr. Had he lived in the republican period, he would have been a great orator. He wrote voluminously, on many subjects, and was devoted to a literary life. He rejected the superstitions of his country, and looked upon the ritualism of religion as a mere fashion. In his own belief he was a deist; but though he wrote fine ethical treatises, he dishonored his own virtues by a compliance with the vices of others. He saw much of life, and died at fifty-three. What is remarkable in Seneca’s writings, which are clear but labored, is that under Pagan influences and imperial tyranny he should have presented such lofty moral truth; and it is a mark of almost transcendent talent that he should, unaided by Christianity, have soared so high in the realm of ethical inquiry. Nor is it easy to find any modern author who has treated great questions in so attractive a way.
Quintilian is a Latin classic, and belongs to the class of rhetoricians. He should have been mentioned among the orators, yet, like Lysias the Greek, Quintilian was a teacher of eloquence rather than an orator. He was born 40 A.D., and taught the younger Pliny, also two nephews of Domitian, receiving a regular salary from the imperial treasury. His great work is a complete system of rhetoric. “Institutiones Oratoriae” is one of the clearest and fullest of all rhetorical manuals ever written in any language, although, as a literary production, it is inferior to the “De Oratore” of Cicero. It is very practical and sensible, and a complete compendium of every topic likely to be useful in the education of an aspirant for the honors of eloquence. In systematic arrangement it falls short of a similar work by Aristotle; but it is celebrated for its sound judgment and keen discrimination, showing great reading and reflection. Quintilian should be viewed as a critic rather than as a rhetorician, since he entered into the merits and defects of the great masters of Greek and Roman literature. In his peculiar province he has had no superior. Like Cicero or Demosthenes or Plato or Thucydides or Tacitus, Quintilian would be a great man if he lived in our times, and could proudly challenge the modern world to produce a better teacher than he in the art of public speaking.
There were other classical writers of immense fame, but they do not represent any particular class in the field of literature which can be compared with the modern. I can only draw attention to Lucian,–a witty and voluminous Greek author, who lived in the reign of Commodus, and who wrote rhetorical, critical, and biographical works, and even romances which have given hints to modern authors. His fame rests on his “Dialogues,” intended to ridicule the heathen philosophy and religion, and which show him to have been one of the great masters of ancient satire and mockery. His style of dialogue–a combination of Plato and Aristophanes–is not much used by modern writers, and his peculiar kind of ridicule is reserved now for the stage. Yet he cannot be called a writer of comedy, like Molière. He resembles Rabelais and Swift more than any other modern writers, having their indignant wit, indecent jokes, and pungent sarcasms. Like Juvenal, Lucian paints the vices and follies of his time, and exposes the hypocrisy that reigns in the high places of fashion and power. His dialogues have been imitated by Fontanelle and Lord Lyttleton, but these authors do not possess his humor or pungency. Lucian does not grapple with great truths, but contents himself with ridiculing those who have proclaimed them, and in his cold cynicism depreciates human knowledge and all the great moral teachers of mankind. He is even shallow and flippant upon Socrates; but he was well read in human nature, and superficially acquainted with all the learning of antiquity. In wit and sarcasm he may be compared with Voltaire, and his object was the same,–to demolish and pull down without substituting anything instead. His scepticism was universal, and extended to religion, to philosophy, and to everything venerated and ancient. His purity of style was admired by Erasmus, and his works have been translated into most European languages. In strong contrast to the “Dialogues” of Lucian is the “City of God” by Saint Augustine, in which he demolishes with keener ridicule all the gods of antiquity, but substitutes instead the knowledge of the true God.
Thus the Romans, as well as Greeks, produced works in all departments of literature that will bear comparison with the masterpieces of modern times. And where would have been the literature of the early Church, or of the age of the Reformation, or of modern nations, had not the great original writers of Athens and Rome been our school-masters? When we further remember that their glorious literature was created by native genius, without the aid of Christianity, we are filled with amazement, and may almost be excused if we deify the reason of man. Nor, indeed, have greater triumphs of intellect been witnessed in these our Christian times than are produced among that class which is the least influenced by Christian ideas. Some of the proudest trophies of genius have been won by infidels, or by men stigmatized as such. Witness Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Hegel, Fichte, Gibbon, Hume, Buckle. May there not be the greatest practical infidelity with the most artistic beauty and native reach of thought? Milton ascribes the most sublime intelligence to Satan and his angels on the point of rebellion against the majesty of Heaven. A great genius may be kindled even by the fires of discontent and ambition, which may quicken the intellectual faculties while consuming the soul, and spread their devastating influence on the homes and hopes of man.
Since, then, we are assured that literature as well as art may flourish under Pagan influences, it seems certain that Christianity has a higher mission than the culture of the mind. Religious scepticism cannot be disarmed if we appeal to Christianity as the test of intellectual culture. The realm of reason has no fairer fields than those that are adorned by Pagan achievements.
There are no better authorities than the classical authors themselves, and their works must be studied in order to comprehend the spirit of ancient literature. Modern historians of Roman literature are merely critics, like Dalhmann, Schlegel, Niebuhr, Muller, Mommsen, Mure, Arnold, Dunlap, and Thompson. Nor do I know of an exhaustive history of Roman literature in the English language; yet nearly every great writer has occasional criticisms upon the subject which are entitled to respect. The Germans, in this department, have no equals.