Early Writings of Prose: in Latin Literature

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      Law and government were the two great achievements of the Latin race; and the two fountain-heads of Latin prose. On the one hand, the texts of codes and the commentaries of jurists; on the other, the annals of the inner constitution and the external conquests and diplomacy of Rome. The beginnings of both went further back than Latin antiquaries could trace them. Out of the mists of a legendary antiquity two fixed points rise, behind which it is needless or impossible to go. The code known as that of the Twelve Tables, of which large fragments survive in later law-books, was drawn up, according to the accepted chronology, in the year 450 B.C. Sixty years later the sack of Rome by the Gauls led to the destruction of nearly all public and private records, and it was only from this date onwards that such permanent and contemporary registers—the consular fasti, the books of the pontifical college, the public collections of engraved laws and treaties—were extant as could afford material for the annalist. That a certain amount of work in the field both of law and history must have been going on at Rome from a very early period, is, of course, obvious; but it was not till the time of the Punic Wars that anything was produced in either field which could very well be classed as literature.

In history as in poetry, the first steps were timidly made with the help of Greek models. The oldest and most important of the early historians, Quintus Fabius Pictor, the contemporary of Naevius and Ennius, actually wrote in Greek, though a Latin version of his work certainly existed, whether executed by himself or some other hand is doubtful, at an almost contemporary date. Extracts are quoted from it by the grammarians as specimens of the language of the period. The scope of his history was broadly the same as that of the two great contemporary poets. It was a narrative of events starting from the legendary landing of Aeneas in Italy, becoming more copious as it advanced, and dealing with the events of the author's own time at great length and from abundant actual knowledge. The work ended, so far as can be judged, with the close of the second Punic War. It long remained the great quarry for subsequent historians; and though Polybius wrote the history of the first Punic War anew from dissatisfaction with Pictor's prejudice and inaccuracy, he is one of the chief authorities followed in the earlier decads of Livy.
Early Writings of Prose: in Latin Literature

      In history as in poetry, the first steps were timidly made with the help of Greek models. The oldest and most important of the early historians, Quintus Fabius Pictor, the contemporary of Naevius and Ennius, actually wrote in Greek, though a Latin version of his work certainly existed, whether executed by himself or some other hand is doubtful, at an almost contemporary date. Extracts are quoted from it by the grammarians as specimens of the language of the period. The scope of his history was broadly the same as that of the two great contemporary poets. It was a narrative of events starting from the legendary landing of Aeneas in Italy, becoming more copious as it advanced, and dealing with the events of the author's own time at great length and from abundant actual knowledge. The work ended, so far as can be judged, with the close of the second Punic War. It long remained the great quarry for subsequent historians; and though Polybius wrote the history of the first Punic War anew from dissatisfaction with Pictor's prejudice and inaccuracy, he is one of the chief authorities followed in the earlier decads of Livy.

      A younger contemporary of Pictor, Lucius Cincius Alimentus, who commanded a Roman army in the war against Hannibal, also used the Greek language in his annals of his own life and times, and the same appears to be the case with the memoirs of other soldiers and statesmen of the period. It is only half a century later that we know certainly of historians who wrote in Latin. The earliest of them, Lucius Cassius Hemina, composed his annals in the period between the death of Terence and the revolution of the Gracchi; a more distinguished successor, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Frugi, is better known as one of the leading opponents of the revolution (he was consul in the year of the tribuneship of Tiberius Gracchus) than as the author of annals which were certainly written with candour and simplicity, and in a style where the epithets "artless and elegant," used of them by Aulus Gellius, need not be inconsistent with the more disparaging word "meagre," with which they are dismissed by Cicero. History might be written in Greek—as, indeed, throughout the Republican and Imperial times it continued to be—by any Roman who was sufficiently conversant with that language, in which models for every style of historical composition were ready to his hand. In the province of jurisprudence it was different. Here the Latin race owed nothing to any foreign influence or example; and the development of Roman law pursued a straightforward and uninterrupted course far beyond the limits of the classical period, and after Rome itself had ceased to be the seat even of a divided empire.

      The earliest juristic writings, consisting of commentaries on collections of the semi-religious enactments in which positive law began, are attributed to the period of the Samnite Wars, long before Rome had become a great Mediterranean power. About 200 B.C. two brothers, Publius and Sextus Aelius, both citizens of consular and censorial rank, published a systematic treatise called Tripertita, which was long afterwards held in reverence as containing the cunabula iuris, the cradle out of which the vast systems of later ages sprang. Fifty years later, in the circle of the younger Scipio, begins the illustrious line of the Mucii Scaevolae. Three members of this family, each a distinguished jurist, rose to the consulate in the stormy half-century between the Gracchi and Sulla. The last and greatest of the three represented the ideal Roman more nearly than any other citizen of his time. The most eloquent of jurists and the most learned of orators, he was at the same time a brilliant administrator and a paragon of public and private virtue; and his murder at the altar of Vesta, in the Marian proscription, was universally thought the most dreadful event Of an age of horrors. His voluminous and exhaustive treatise on Civil Law remained a text-book for centuries, and was a foundation for the Writings of all later Roman jurists.

      The combination of jurisconsult and orator in the younger Scaevola was somewhat rare; from an early period the two professions of jurist and pleader were sharply distinguished, though both were pathways to the highest civic offices. Neither his father nor his cousin (the other two of the triad) was distinguished in oratory; nor were the two great contemporaries of the former, who both published standard works on civil law, Manius Manilius and Marcus Junius Brutus. The highest field for oratory was, of course, in the political, and not in the purely legal, sphere; and the unique Roman constitution, an oligarchy chosen almost wholly by popular suffrage, made the practice of oratory more or less of a necessity to every politician. Well-established tradition ascribed to the greatest statesman of the earlier Republic, Appius Claudius Caecus, the first institution of written oratory. His famous speech in the senate against peace with Pyrrhus was cherished in Cicero's time as one of the most precious literary treasures of Rome. From his time downwards the stream of written oratory flowed, at first in a slender stream, which gathered to a larger volume in the works of the elder Cato.

      In the history of the half-century following the war with Hannibal, Cato is certainly the most striking single figure. It is only as a man of letters that he has to be noticed here; and the character of a man of letters was, perhaps, the last in which he would have wished to be remembered or praised. Yet the cynical and indomitable old man, with his rough humour, his narrow statesmanship, his obstinate ultra-conservatism, not only produced a large quantity of writings, but founded and transmitted to posterity a distinct and important body of critical dogma and literary tradition. The influence of Greece had, as we have already seen, begun to permeate the educated classes at Rome through and through. Against this Greek influence, alike in literature and in manners, Cato struggled all his life with the whole force of his powerful intellect and mordant wit; yet it is most characteristic of the man that in his old age he learned Greek himself and read deeply in the masterpieces of that Greek literature from which he was too honest and too intelligent to be able to withhold his admiration. While much of contemporary literature was launching itself on the fatal course of imitation of Greek models, and was forcing the Latin language into the trammels of alien forms, Cato gave it a powerful impulse towards a purely native, if a somewhat narrow and harsh development. The national prose literature, of which he may fairly be called the founder, was kept up till the decay of Rome by a large and powerful minority of Latin writers. What results it might have produced, if allowed unchecked scope, can only be matter for conjecture; in the main current of Latin literature the Greek influence was, on the whole, triumphant; Cato's was the losing side (if one may so adapt the famous line of Lucan), and the men of genius took the other.

      The speeches of Cato, of which upwards of a hundred and fifty were extant in Cicero's time, and which the virtuosi of the age of Hadrian preferred, or professed to prefer, to Cicero's own, are lost, with the exception of inconsiderable fragments. The fragments show high oratorical gifts; shrewdness, humour, terse vigour and controlled passion; "somewhat confused and harsh," says a late but competent Latin critic, "but strong and vivid as it is possible for oratory to be." We have suffered a heavier loss in his seven books of Origines, the work of his old age. This may broadly be called an historical work, but it was history treated in a style of great latitude, the meagre, disconnected method of the annalists alternating with digressions into all kinds of subjects—geography, ethnography, reminiscences of his own travels and experiences, and the politics and social life of his own and earlier times. It made no attempt to keep up either the dignity or the continuity of history. His absence of method made this work, however full of interest, the despair of later historians: what were they to think, they plaintively asked, of an author who dismissed whole campaigns without even giving the names of the generals, while he went into profuse detail over one of the war-elephants in the Carthaginian army?

      The only work of Cato's which has been preserved in its integrity is that variously known under the titles De Re Rustica or De Agri Cultura. It is one of a number of treatises of a severely didactic nature, which he published on various subjects—agricultural, sanitary, military, and legal. This treatise was primarily written for a friend who owned and cultivated farms in Campania. It consists of a series of terse and pointed directions following one on another, with no attempt at style or literary artifice, but full of a hard sagacity, and with occasional flashes of dry humour, which suggest that Cato would have found a not wholly uncongenial spirit in President Lincoln. A brief extract from one of the earlier chapters is not without interest, both as showing the practical Latin style, and as giving the prose groundwork of Virgil's stately and beautiful embroidery in the Georgics.

 "Opera omnia mature conficias face. Nam res rustica sic est; si unam rem sero feceris, omnia opera sero facies. Stramenta si deerunt frondem iligneam legito; earn substernito ovibus bubusque. Sterquilinium magnum stude ut habeas. Stercus sedulo conserva, cum exportabis spargito et comminuito; per autumnum evehito. Circum oleas autumnitate ablaqueato et stercus addito. Frondem populneam, ulmeam, querneam caedito, per tempus eam condito, non peraridam, pabulum ovibus. Item foenum cordum, sicilimenta de prato; ea arida condito. Post imbrem autumni rapinam, pabulum, lupinumque serito."

      To the Virgilian student, every sentence here is full of reminiscences.

      In his partial yielding, towards the end of a long and uncompromising life, to the rising tide of Greek influence, Cato was probably moved to a large degree by his personal admiration for the younger Scipio, whom he hailed as the single great personality among younger statesmen, and to whom he paid (strangely enough, in a line quoted from Homer) what is probably the most splendid compliment ever paid by one statesman to another. Scipio was the centre of a school which included nearly the whole literary impulse of his time. He was himself a distinguished orator and a fine scholar; after the conquest of Perseus, the royal library was the share of the spoils of Macedonia which he chose for himself, and bequeathed to his family. His celebrated friend, Gaius Laelius, known in Rome as "the Wise," was not only an orator, but a philosopher, or deeply read, at all events, in the philosophy of Greece. Another member of the circle, Lucius Furius Philus, initiated that connection of Roman law with the Stoic philosophy which continued ever after to be so intimate and so far-reaching. In this circle, too, Roman history began to be written in Latin. Cassius Hemina and Lucius Calpurnius Piso have been already mentioned; more intimately connected with Scipio are Gaius Fannius, the son-in-law of Laelius, and Lucius Caelius Antipater, who reached, both in lucid and copious diction and in impartiality and research, a higher level than Roman history had yet attained. Literary culture became part of the ordinary equipment of a statesman; a crowd of Greek teachers, foremost among them the eminent philosopher, afterwards Master of the Portico, Panaetius of Rhodes, spread among the Roman upper classes the refining and illuminating influence of Greek ideas and Attic style.

      Meanwhile, in this Scipionic circle, a new figure had appeared of great originality and force, the founder of a kind of literature which, with justifiable pride, the Romans claimed as wholly native and original. Gaius Lucilius was a member of a wealthy equestrian family, and thus could associate on equal terms with the aristocracy, while he was removed from the necessity, which members of the great senatorian houses could hardly avoid, of giving the best of their time and strength to political and administrative duties. After Terence, he is the most distinguished and the most important in his literary influence among the friends of Scipio. The form of literature which he invented and popularised, that of familiar poetry, was one which proved singularly suited to the Latin genius. He speaks of his own works under the name of Sermones, "talks"—a name which was retained by his great successor, Horace; but the peculiar combination of metrical form with wide range of subject and the pedestrian style of ordinary prose, received in popular usage the name Satura, or "mixture." The word had, in earlier times, been used of the irregular stage performances, including songs, stories, and semi-dramatic interludes, which formed the repertory of strolling artists at popular festivals. The extension of the name to the verse of Lucilius indicates that written literature was now rising to equal importance and popularity with the spoken word.

      Horace comments, not without severity, on the profuse and careless production of Lucilius. Of the thirty books of his Satires, few fragments of any length survive; much, probably the greater part of them, would, if extant, long have lost its interest. But the loss of the bulk of his work is matter of sincere regret, because it undoubtedly gave a vivid and detailed picture of the social life and the current interests of the time, such as the Satires of Horace give of Rome in the Augustan age. His criticisms on the public men of his day were outspoken and unsparing; nor had he more reverence for established reputations in poetry than in public life. A great deal of his work consisted in descriptions of eating and drinking; much, also, in lively accounts of his own travels and adventures, or those of his friends. One book of the Satires was occupied with an account of Scipio's famous mission to the East, in which he visited the courts of Egypt and Asia, attended by a retinue of only five servants, but armed with the full power of the terrible Republic. Another, imitated by Horace in his story of the journey to Brundusium, detailed the petty adventures, the talk and laughter by roads and at inns, of an excursion of his own through Campania and Bruttium to the Sicilian straits. Many of the fragments deal with the literary controversies of the time, going down even to the minutiae of spelling and grammar; many more show the beginnings of that translation into the language of common life of the precepts of the Greek schools, which was consummated for the world by the poets and prose-writers of the following century. But, above all, the Satires of Lucilius were in the fullest sense of the word an autobiography. The famous description of Horace, made yet more famous for English readers by the exquisite aptness with which Boswell placed it on the title-page of his Life of Johnson—

 Quo fit ut omnis
 Votiva pateat veluti
 descripta tabella
 Vita senis—

      Expresses the true greatness of Lucilius. He invented a literary method which, without being great, yields to no other in interest and even in charm, and which, for its perfection, requires a rare and refined genius. Not Horace only, nor all the satirists after Horace, but Montaigne and Pepys also, belong to the school of Lucilius.

      Such was the circle of the younger Scipio, formed in the happy years—as they seemed to the backward gaze of the succeeding generation—between the establishment of Roman supremacy at the battle of Pydna, and the revolutionary movement of Tiberius Gracchus. Fifty years of stormy turbulence followed, culminating in the Social War and the reign of terror under Marius and Cinna, and finally stilled in seas of blood by the counter-revolution of Sulla. This is the period which separates the Scipionic from the Ciceronian age. It was naturally, except in the single province of political oratory, not one of great literary fertility; and a brief indication of the most notable authors of the period, and of the lines on which Roman literature mainly continued to advance during it, is all that is demanded or possible here.

      In oratory, this period by general consent represented the golden age of Latin achievement. The eloquence of both the Gracchi was their great political weapon; that of Gaius was the most powerful in exciting feeling that had ever been known; and his death was mourned, even by fierce political opponents, as a heavy loss to Latin literature. But in the next generation, the literary perfection of oratory was carried to an even higher point by Marcus Antonius and Lucius Licinius Crassus. Both attained the highest honours that the Republic had to bestow. By a happy chance, their styles were exactly complementary to one another; to hear both in one day was the highest intellectual entertainment which Rome afforded. By this time the rules of oratory were carefully studied and reduced to scientific treatises. One of these, the Rhetorica ad Herennium, is still extant. It was almost certainly written by one Quintus Cornificius, an older contemporary of Cicero, to whom the work was long ascribed. It, no doubt, owes its preservation to this erroneous tradition. The first two books were largely used by Cicero in his own treatise De Inventione, part of a work on the principles of rhetoric which he began in early youth.

      Latin history during this period made considerable progress. It was a common practice among statesmen to write memoirs of their own life and times; among others of less note, Sulla the dictator left at his death twenty-two books of Commentarii Rerum Gestarum, which were afterwards published by his secretary. In regular history the most important name is that of Quintus Claudius Quadrigarius. His work differed from those of the earlier annalists in passing over the legendary period, and beginning with the earliest authentic documents; in research and critical judgment it reached a point only excelled by Sallust. His style was formed on that of older annalists, and is therefore somewhat archaic for the period, Considerable fragments, including the well-known description of the single combat in 361 B.C. between Titus Manlius Torquatus and the Gallic chief, survive in quotations by Aulus Gellius and the archaists of the later Empire. More voluminous but less valuable than the Annals of Claudius were those of his contemporary, Valerius Antias, which formed the main groundwork for the earlier books of Livy, and were largely used by him even for later periods, when more trustworthy authorities were available. Other historians of this period, Sisenna and Macer, soon fell into neglect—the former as too archaic, the latter as too diffuse and rhetorical, for literary permanence.

      Somewhat apart from the historical writers stand the antiquarians, who wrote during this period in large numbers, and whose treatises filled the library from which, in the age of Cicero, Varro compiled his monumental works. As numerous probably were the writers of the school of Cato, on husbandry, domestic economy, and other practical subjects, and the grammarians and philologists, whose works formed two other large sections in Varro's library. On all sides prose was full of life and growth; the complete literary perfection of the age of Cicero, Caesar, and Sallust might already be foreseen as within the grasp of the near future.

      Latin poetry, meanwhile, hung in the balance. The first great wave of the Greek impulse had exhausted itself in Ennius and the later tragedians. Prose had so developed that the poetical form was no longer a necessity for the expression of ideas, as it had been in the palmy days of Latin tragedy. The poetry of the future must be, so to speak, poetry for its own sake, until some new tradition were formed which should make certain metrical forms once more the recognised and traditional vehicle for certain kinds of literary expression. In the blank of poetry we may note a translation of the Iliad into hexameters by one Gnaeus Matius, and the earliest known attempts at imitation of the forms of Greek lyrical verse by an equally obscure Laevius Melissus, as dim premonitions of the new growth which Latin poetry was feeling after; but neither these, nor the literary tragedies which still were occasionally produced by a survival of the fashions of an earlier age, are of any account for their own sake. Prose and poetry stood at the two opposite poles of their cycle; and thus it is that, while the poets and prose-writers of the Ciceronian age are equally imperishable in fame, the latter but represent the culmination of a broad and harmonious development, while of the former, amidst but apart from the beginnings of a new literary era, there shine, splendid like stars out of the darkness, the two immortal lights of Lucretius and Catullus.

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