Seneca, Lucan & Petronius: Neronian Literary Contribution

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      The later years of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, while they brought about the complete transformation of the government into an absolute monarchy, also laid the foundations for that reign of the philosophers which had been dreamed of by Plato, and which has never been so nearly realised as it was in Rome during the second century after Christ. The Stoical philosophy, passing beyond the limits of the schools to become at once a religious creed and a practical code of morals for everyday use, penetrated deeply into the life of Rome. At first associated with the aristocratic opposition to the imperial government, it passed through a period of persecution which only strengthened and consolidated its growth. The final struggle took place under Domitian, whose edict of the year 94, expelling all philosophers from Rome, was followed two years afterwards by his assassination and the establishment, for upwards of eighty years, of a government deeply imbued with the principles of Stoicism.

      Of the men who set this revolution in motion by their writings, the earliest and the most distinguished was Lucius Annaeus Seneca, the son of the rhetorician. Though only of the second rank as a classic, he is a figure of very great importance in the history of human thought from the work he did in the exposition of the new creed. As a practical exponent of morals, he stands, with Plutarch, at the head of all Greek and Roman writers.

The life of Seneca was one of singularly dramatic contrasts and vicissitudes. He was born in the year 4 B.C., at Cordova, where, at a somewhat advanced age, his father had married Helvia, a lady of high birth, and brought up in the strictest family traditions. Through the influence of his mother's family (her sister had married Vitrasius Pollio, who for sixteen years was viceroy of Egypt), the way was easy to him for advancement in the public service. But delicate health, which continued throughout his life, kept him as a young man from taking more than a nominal share in administrative work.
Seneca, Lucan & Petronius

      The life of Seneca was one of singularly dramatic contrasts and vicissitudes. He was born in the year 4 B.C., at Cordova, where, at a somewhat advanced age, his father had married Helvia, a lady of high birth, and brought up in the strictest family traditions. Through the influence of his mother's family (her sister had married Vitrasius Pollio, who for sixteen years was viceroy of Egypt), the way was easy to him for advancement in the public service. But delicate health, which continued throughout his life, kept him as a young man from taking more than a nominal share in administrative work. He passed into the senate through the quaestorship, and became a well-known figure at court during the reign of Caligula. On the accession of Claudius, he was banished to Corsica at the instance of the Empress Messalina, on the charge of being the favoured lover of Julia Livilla, Caligula's youngest sister. Whether the scandal which connected his name with hers, or with that of her sister Agrippina, had any other foundation than the prurient gossip which raged round all the members of the imperial family, may well be doubted; but when Agrippina married Claudius, after the downfall and execution of Messalina seven years later, she recalled him from exile, obtained his nomination to the quaestorship, and appointed him tutor to her son Domitius Nero, then a boy of ten. The influence gained by Seneca, an accomplished courtier and a clever man of the world, as well as a brilliant scholar, over his young pupil was for a long time almost unbounded; and when Nero became Emperor at the age of seventeen, Seneca, in conjunction with his close friend, Afranius Burrus, commander of the imperial guards, became practically the administrator of the Empire. His philosophy was not one which rejected wealth or power; a fortune of three million pounds may have been amassed without absolute dishonesty, or even forced upon him, as he pleads himself, by the lavish generosity of his pupil; but there can be no doubt that in indulging the weaknesses and passions of Nero, Seneca went far beyond the limits, not only of honour, but of ordinary prudence. The mild and enlightened administration of the earlier years of the new reign, the famous quinquennium Neronis, which was looked back to afterwards as a sort of brief golden age, may indeed be ascribed largely to Seneca's influence; but this influence was based on an excessive indulgence of Nero's caprices, which soon worked out its own punishment. His consent to the murder of Agrippina was the death-blow to his influence for good, or to any self-respect that he may till then have retained; the death of Burrus left him without support; and, by retiring into private life and formally offering to make over his whole fortune to the Emperor, he did not long delay his fate. In the year 65, on the pretext of complicity in the conspiracy of Piso, he was commanded to commit suicide, and obeyed with that strange mixture of helplessness and heroism with which the orders of the master of the world were then accepted as a sort of inevitable law of nature.

      The philosophical writings of Seneca were extremely voluminous; and though a large number of them are lost, he is still one of the bulkiest of ancient authors. They fall into three main groups: formal treatises on ethics; moral letters (epistolae morales), dealing in a less continuous way with the same general range of subjects; and writings on natural philosophy, from the point of view of the Stoical system. The whole of these are, however, animated by the same spirit; to the Stoical philosophy, physics were merely a branch of ethics, and a study to be pursued for the sake of moral edification, not of reaching truth by accurate observation or research. The discussions of natural phenomena are mere texts for religious meditations; and though the eight books of Naturales Quaestiones were used as a text-book of physical science in the Middle Ages, they are totally without any scientific value. So, too, the twenty books of moral letters, nominally addressed to Lucilius, the procurator of Sicily, merely represent a slight variation of method from the more formal treatises, On Anger, On Clemency, On Consolation, On Peace of Mind, On the Shortness of Life, On Giving and Receiving Favours, which are the main substance of Seneca's writings.

      As a moral writer, Seneca stands deservedly high. Though infected with the rhetorical vices of the age, his treatises are full of striking and often gorgeous eloquence, and in their combination of high thought with deep feeling, have rarely, if at all, been surpassed. The rhetorical manner was so essentially part of Seneca's nature, that the warm colouring and perpetual mannerism of his language does not imply any insincerity or want of earnestness. In spite of the laboured style, there is no failure either in lucidity or in force, and even where the rhetoric is most profuse, it seldom is without a solid basis of thought. "It would not be easy," says a modern scholar, who was himself averse to all ornament of diction, and deeply penetrated with the spirit of Stoicism, "to name any modern writer who has treated on morality and has said so much that is practically good and true, or has treated the matter in so attractive a way."

      In the moral writings we have the picture of Seneca the philosopher; Seneca the courtier is less attractively presented in the curious pamphlet called the Apocolocyntosis, a silly and spiteful attack on the memory of the Emperor Claudius, written to make the laughter of an afternoon at the court of Nero. The gross bad taste of this satire is hardly relieved by any great wit in the treatment, and the reputation of the author would stand higher if it had not survived the occasion for which it was written.

      Among Seneca's extant works are also included nine tragedies, composed in imitation of the Greek, upon the well-worn subjects of the epic cycle. At what period of his life they were written cannot be ascertained. As a rule, only young authors had courage enough to attempt the discredited task of flogging this dead horse; but it is not improbable that these dramas were written by Seneca in mature life, in deference to his imperial pupil's craze for the stage. All the rhetorical vices of his prose are here exaggerated. The tragedies are totally without dramatic life, consisting merely of a series of declamatory speeches, in correct but monotonous versification, interspersed with choruses, which only differ from the speeches by being written in lyric metres instead of the iambic. To say that the tragedies are without merit would be an overstatement, for Seneca, though no poet, remained even in his poetry an extremely able man of letters and an accomplished rhetorician. His declamation comes in the same tones from all his puppets; but it is often grandiose, and sometimes really fine. The lines with which the curtain falls in his Medea remind one, by their startling audacity, of Victor Hugo in his most Titanic vein. As the only extant Latin tragedies, these pieces had a great effect upon the early drama of the sixteenth century in England and elsewhere. In the well-known verses prefixed to the first folio Shakespeare, Jonson calls on "him of Cordova dead," in the same breath with Aeschylus and Euripides; and long after the Jacobean period the false tradition remained which, by putting these lifeless copies on the same footing as their great originals, perplexed and stultified literary criticism, much as the criticism of classical art was confused by an age which drew no distinction between late Graeco-Roman sculpture and the finest work of Praxiteles or Pheidias.

      By far the most brilliant poet of the Neronian age was Seneca's nephew, Marcus Annaeus Lucanus. His father, Annaeus Mela, the younger brother of the philosopher, is known chiefly through his more distinguished son; an interesting but puzzling notice in a life of Lucan speaks of him as famous at Rome "from his pursuit of the quiet life." This may imply refusal of some great office when his elder brother was practically ruler of the Empire; whatever stirrings of ambition he suppressed broke out with accumulated force in his son. Lucan's short life was one of feverish activity. At twenty-one he made his first public sensation by the recitation, in the theatre of Pompeius, of a panegyric on Nero, who had already murdered his own mother, but had not yet broken with the poet's uncle. Soon afterwards, he was advanced to the quaestorship, and a seat in the college of Augurs: but his brilliant poetical reputation seems to have excited the jealousy of the artist-emperor; a violent quarrel broke out between them, and Lucan, already in theory an ardent republican, became one of the principal movers in the conspiracy of Piso. The plan discussed among the conspirators of assassinating Nero while in the act of singing on the stage would, no doubt, commend itself specially to the young poet whom the Emperor had forbidden to recite in public. When the conspiracy was detected, Lucan's fortitude soon gave way; he betrayed one accomplice after another, one of the first names he surrendered being that of his mother, Acilia. The promise of pardon, under which his confessions were obtained, was not kept after they were completed; and the execution of Lucan, at the age of twenty-six, while it cut short a remarkable poetical career, rid the world of a very poor creature. Yet the final spasm of courage with which he died, declaiming a passage from his own epic, has gained him, in the noblest of English elegies, a place in the same verse with Sidney and Chatterton.

      But the Pharsalia, the only large work which Lucan left complete, or all but complete, among a number of essays in different styles of poetry, and the only work of his which has been preserved, is a poem which, in spite of its immaturity and bad taste, compels admiration by its elevation of thought and sustained brilliance of execution. Pure rhetoric has, perhaps, never come quite so near being poetry; and if the perpetual overstraining of both thought and expression inevitably ends by fatiguing the reader, there are at least few instances of a large work throughout which so lofty and grandiose a style is carried with such elasticity and force. The Pharsalia is full of quotations, and this itself is no small praise. Lines like Nil actum credens dum quid superesset agendum, or Nec sibi, sed toti gentium se credere mundo, or Iupiter est quodcunque vides quocunque moveris, or the sad and noble

 Victurosque dei celant, ut vivere durent, Felix esse mori—

      Are as well known and have sunk as deep as the great lines of Virgil himself; and not only in single lines, but in longer passages of lofty thought or sustained imagination, as in his description of the dream of Pompeius, at the beginning of the seventh book; or the passage on the extension of the Roman Empire, later in the same book; or the magnificent speech of Cato when he refuses to seek counsel of the oracle of Ammon, Lucan sometimes touches a point where he challenges comparison with his master. In these passages, without any delicacy of modulation, with a limited range of rhythm, his verse has a metallic clangour that stirs the blood like a trumpet-note. But his range of ideas is as limited as that of his rhythms; and the thought is not sustained by any basis of character. His fierce republicanism sits side by side with flattery of the reigning Emperor more gross and servile than had till then been known at Rome. He makes no attempt to realise his persons or to grasp the significance of events. Caesar, Pompeius, Cato himself—the hero of the epic—are not human beings, but mere lay-figures round which he drapes his gorgeous rhetoric. The Civil wars are alternately regarded as the death-agony of freedom and as the destined channel through which the world was led to the blessings of an uncontrolled despotism. His ideas are borrowed indifferently from the Epicurean and Stoical philosophies according to the convenience of the moment. Great events and actions do not kindle in him any imaginative sympathy; they are greedily seized as opportunities for more and more immoderate flights of extravagant embellishment. He "prates of mountains;" his "phrase conjures the wandering stars, and makes them stand like wonder-wounded hearers;" freedom, virtue, fate, the sea and the sun, gods and men before whom the gods themselves stand abased, hurtle through the poem in a confused thunder of sonorous phrase. Such brilliance, in the exact manner that was then most admired, dazzled his contemporaries and retained a permanent influence over later poets. Statius, himself an author of far higher poetical gifts, speaks of him in terms of almost extravagant admiration; with a more balanced judgment Quintilian sums him up in words which may be taken as on the whole the final criticism adopted by the world; ardens et concitatus et sententiis clarissimus, et, ut dicam quod sentio, magis oratoribus quam poetis imitandus.

      One of Lucan's intimate friends was a young man of high family, Aulus Persius Flaccus of Volaterrae in Etruria, a near relation of the celebrated Arria, wife of Paetus. Through his kinswoman he was early introduced to the circle of earnest thinkers and moralists among whom the higher life was kept up at Rome amid the corruption of the Neronian age. The gentle and delicate boy won the hearts of all who knew him. When he died, at the age of twenty-eight, a little book of six satires, which he had written with much effort and at long intervals, was retouched by his master, the Stoic philosopher Cornutus, and published by another friend, Caesius Bassus, himself a poet of some reputation. Several other writings which Persius left were destroyed by the advice of Cornutus. The six pieces—only between six and seven hundred lines in all—were at once recognised as showing a refined and uncommon literary gift. Persius, we are informed, had no admiration for the genius of Seneca; and, indeed, no two styles, though both are deeply artificial, could be more unlike one another. With all his moral elevation, Seneca was a courtier, an opportunist, a man of the world: Stoicism took a very different colour in the boy "of maidenly modesty," as his biographer tells us, who lived in a household of devoted female relations, and only knew the world as a remote spectator. Though within the narrow field of his own experience he shows keen observation and delicate power of portraiture, the world that he knows is mainly one of books; his perpetual imitations of Horace are not so much plagiarisms as the unaffected outcome of the mind of a very young student, to whom the Satires of Horace were more familiar than the Rome of his own day. So, too, the involved and obscure style which has made him the paradise of commentators is less a deliberate literary artifice than the natural effect of looking at everything through a literary medium, and choosing phrases, not for their own fitness, but for the associations they recall. His deep moral earnestness, his gentleness of nature, and, it must be added, his want of humour, made him a favourite author beyond the circles which were merely attracted by his verbal obscurities and the way in which he locks up his meaning in hints and allusions. His unquestionable dramatic power might, in later life, have ripened into higher achievement; as it is, he lives to us chiefly in the few beautiful passages where he slips into being natural, and draws, with a grace and charm that are strikingly absent from the rest of his writing, the picture of his own quiet life as a student, and of the awakening of his moral and intellectual nature at the touch of philosophy.

      Lucan and Persius represent the effect which Roman Stoicism had on two natures of equal sensibility but widely different quality and taste. Among the many other professors or adherents of the Stoic school in the age of Nero, a considerable number were also authors, but the habit of writing in Greek, which a hundred years later grew to such proportions as to threaten the continued existence of Latin literature, had already taken root. The three most distinguished representatives of the stricter Stoicism, Cornutus, Quintus Sextius, and Gaius Musonius Rufus (the first and last of whom were exiled by Nero), wrote on philosophy in Greek, though they seem to have written in Latin on other subjects. Musonius was, indeed, hardly more Roman than his own most illustrious pupil, the Phrygian Epictetus. Stoicism, as they understood it, left no room for nationality, and little for writing as a fine art.

      This growing prevalence of Greek at Rome combined with political reasons to check the production of important prose works. History more especially languished under the jealous censorship of the government. The only important historical work of the period is one of which the subject could hardly excite suspicion, the Life of Alexander the Great, by Quintus Curtius Rufus. The precise date is uncertain, and different theories have assigned it to an earlier or later period in the reign of Augustus or of Vespasian. The subject is one which hardly any degree of dulness in the writer could make wholly uninteresting. But the clear and orderly narrative of Curtius, written in a style studied from that of Livy, but kept within simpler limits, has real merit of its own; and against his imperfect technical knowledge of strategy and tactics must be set the pains he took to consult the best Greek authorities.

      Memoirs were written in the Neronian age by numbers both of men and women. Those of the Empress Agrippina were used by Tacitus; and we have references to others by the two great Roman generals of the period, Suetonius Paulinus and Domitius Corbulo. The production of scientific or technical treatises, which had been so profuse in the preceding generation, still went on. Only two of any importance are extant; one of these, the Chorographia of Pomponius Mela, a geographical manual based on the best authorities and embellished with descriptions of places, peoples, and customs, is valuable as the earliest and one of the most complete systems of ancient geography which we possess; but in literary merit it falls far short of the other, the elaborate work on agriculture by Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella. Both Mela and Columella were natives of Spain, and thus belong to the Spanish school of Latin authors, which begins with the Senecas and is continued later by Martial and Quintilian. But while Mela, in his style, followed the new fashion, Columella, an enthusiast for antiquity and a warm admirer of the Augustan writers, reverts to the more classical manner, which a little later became once more predominant in the writers of the Flavian period. His simple and dignified style is much above the level of a mere technical treatise. His prose, indeed, may be read with more pleasure than the verse in which, by a singular caprice, one of the twelve books is composed. In one of the most beautiful episodes of the Georgics, Virgil had briefly touched on the subject of gardening, and left it to be treated by others who might come after him: praetereo atque aliis post me memoranda relinquo. At the instance, he says, of friends, Columella attempts to fill up the gap by a fifth Georgic on horticulture. He approaches the task so modestly, and carries it out so simply, that critics are not inclined to be very severe; but he was no poet, and the book is little more than a cento from Virgil, carefully and smoothly written, and hardly if at all disfigured by pretentiousness or rhetorical conceits.

      The same return upon the Virgilian manner is shown in the seven Eclogues, composed in the early years of Nero's reign, by Titus Calpurnius Siculus. These are remarkable rather as the only specimens for nearly three hundred years of a direct attempt to continue the manner of Virgil's Bucolics than for any substantive merit of their own. That manner, indeed, is so exceptionally unmanageable that it is hardly surprising that it should have been passed over by later poets of high original gift; but that even poets of the second and third rate should hardly ever have attempted to imitate poems which stood in the very first rank of fame bears striking testimony to Virgil's singular quality of unapproachableness. The Eclogues of Calpurnius (six of them are Eclogues within the ordinary meaning, the seventh rather a brief Georgic on the care of sheep and goats, made formally a pastoral by being put into the mouth of an old shepherd sitting in the shade at midday) are, notwithstanding their almost servile imitation of Virgil, written in such graceful verse, and with so few serious lapses of taste, that they may be read with considerable pleasure. The picture, in the sixth Eclogue, of the fawn lying among the white lilies, will recall to English readers one of the prettiest fancies of Marvell; that in the second, of Flora scattering her tresses over the spring meadow, and Pomona playing under the orchard boughs, is at least a vivid pictorial presentment of a sufficiently well-worn theme. A more normal specimen of Calpurnius's manner may be instanced in the lines (v. 52–62) where one of the most beautiful passages in the third Georgic, the description of a long summer day among the Italian hill-pastures, is simply copied in different words.

      The didactic poem on volcanoes, called Aetna, probably written by the Lucilius to whom Seneca addressed his writings on natural philosophy, belongs to the same period and shows the same influences. Of the other minor poetical works of the time the only one which requires special mention is the tragedy of Octavia, which is written in the same style as those of Seneca, and was long included among his works. Its only interest is as the single extant specimen of the fabula praetexta, or drama with a Roman subject and characters. The characters here include Nero and Seneca himself. But the treatment is as conventional and declamatory as that of the mythological tragedies among which it has been preserved, and the result, if possible, even flatter and more tedious.

      One other work of extreme and unique interest survives from the reign of Nero, the fragments of a novel by Petronius Arbiter, one of the Emperor's intimate circle in the excesses of his later years. In the year 66 he fell a victim to the jealousy of the infamous and all but omnipotent Tigellinus; and on this occasion Tacitus sketches his life and character in a few of his strong masterly touches. "His days were passed," says Tacitus, "in sleep, his nights in the duties or pleasures of life; where others toiled for fame he had lounged into it, and he had the reputation not, like most members of that profligate society, of a dissolute wanton, but of a trained master in luxury. A sort of careless ease, an entire absence of self-consciousness, added the charm of complete simplicity to all he said and did. Yet, as governor of Bithynia, and afterwards as consul, he showed himself a vigorous and capable administrator; then relapsing into the habit or assuming the mask of vice, he was adopted as Arbiter of Elegance into the small circle of Nero's intimate companions; no luxury was charming or refined till Petronius had given it his approval, and the jealousy of Tigellinus was roused against a rival and master in the science of debauchery."

      The novel written by this remarkable man was in the form of an autobiography narrating the adventures, in various Italian towns, of a Greek freedman. The fragments hardly enable us to trace any regular plot; its interest probably lay chiefly in the series of vivid pictures which it presented of life among all orders of society from the highest to the lowest, and its accurate reproduction of popular language and manners. The hero of the story uses the ordinary Latin speech of educated persons, though, from the nature of the work, the style is much more colloquial than that of the formal prose used for serious writing. But the conversation of many of the characters is in the plebeius sermo, the actual speech of the lower orders, of which so little survives in literature. It is full of solecisms and popular slang; and where the scene lies, as it mostly does in the extant fragments, in the semi-Greek seaports of Southern Italy, it passes into what was almost a dialect of its own, the lingua franca of the Mediterranean under the Empire, a dialect of mixed Latin and Greek. The longest and most important fragment is the well-known Supper of Trimalchio. It is the description of a Christmas dinner-party given by a sort of Golden Dustman and his wife, people of low birth and little education, who had come into an enormous fortune. Trimalchio, a figure drawn with extraordinary life, is constantly making himself ridiculous by his blunders and affectations, while he almost wins our liking by his childlike simplicity and good nature. The dinner itself, and the conversation on literature and art that goes on at the dinner-table, are conceived in a spirit of the wildest humour. Trimalchio, who has two libraries, besides everything else handsome about him, is anxious to air his erudition. "Can you tell us a story," he asks a guest, "of the twelve sorrows of Hercules, or how the Cyclops pulled Ulysses' leg? I used to read them in Homer when I was a boy." After an interruption, caused by the entrance of a boar, roasted whole and stuffed with sausages, he goes on to talk of his collection of plate; his unique cups of Corinthian bronze (so called from a dealer named Corinthus; the metal was invented by Hannibal at the capture of Troy), and his huge silver vases, "a hundred of them, more or less," chased with the story of Daedalus shutting Niobe into the Trojan horse, and Cassandra killing her sons—"the dead children so good, you would think they were alive; for I sell my knowledge in matters of art for no money." Presently there follow the two wonderful ghost stories—that of the wer-wolf, told by one of the guests, and that of the witches by Trimalchio himself in return—both masterpieces of vivid realism. As the evening advances the fun becomes more fast and furious. The cook, who had excelled himself in the ingenuity of his dishes, is called up to take a seat at table, and after favouring the company with an imitation of a popular tragedian, begins to make a book with Trimalchio over the next chariot races. Fortunata, Trimalchio's wife, is a little in liquor, and gets up to dance. Just at this point Trimalchio suddenly turns sentimental, and, after giving elaborate directions for his own obsequies, begins to cry. The whole company are in tears round him when he suddenly rallies, and proposes that, as death is certain, they shall all go and have a hot bath. In the little confusion that follows, the narrator and his friend slip quietly away. This scene of exquisite fooling is quite unique in Greek or Latin literature: the breadth and sureness of touch are almost Shakespearian. Another fragment relates the famous story of the Matron of Ephesus, one of the popular tales which can be traced back to India, but which appears here for the first time in the Western world. Others deal with literary criticism, and include passages in verse; the longest of these, part of an epic on the civil wars in the manner of Lucan, is recited by one of the principal characters, the professional poet Eumolpus, to exemplify the rules he has laid down for epic poetry in a most curious discussion that precedes it. That so small a part of the novel has been preserved is most annoying; it must have been comparable, in dramatic power and (notwithstanding the gross indecency of many passages) in a certain large sanity, to the great work of Fielding. In all the refined writing of the next age we never again come on anything at once so masterly and so human.

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