Origins of Latin Literature: Early Epic and Tragedy

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      To the Romans themselves, as they looked back two hundred years later, the beginnings of a real literature seemed definitely fixed in the generation which passed between the first and second Punic Wars. The peace of B.C. 241 closed an epoch throughout which the Roman Republic had been fighting for an assured place in the group of powers which controlled the Mediterranean world. This was now gained; and the pressure of Carthage once removed, Rome was left free to follow the natural expansion of her colonies and her commerce. Wealth and peace are comparative terms; it was in such wealth and peace as the cessation of the long and exhausting war with Carthage brought, that a leisured class began to form itself at Rome, which not only could take a certain interest in Greek literature, but felt in an indistinct way that it was their duty, as representing one of the great civilised powers, to have a substantial national culture of their own.

       That this new Latin literature must be based on that of Greece, went without saying; it was almost equally inevitable that its earliest forms should be in the shape of translations from that body of Greek poetry, epic and dramatic, which had for long established itself through all the Greek-speaking world as a common basis of culture. Latin literature, though artificial in a fuller sense than that of some other nations, did not escape the general law of all literatures, that they must begin by verse before they can go on to prose.

That this new Latin literature must be based on that of Greece, went without saying; it was almost equally inevitable that its earliest forms should be in the shape of translations from that body of Greek poetry, epic and dramatic, which had for long established itself through all the Greek-speaking world as a common basis of culture. Latin literature, though artificial in a fuller sense than that of some other nations, did not escape the general law of all literatures, that they must begin by verse before they can go on to prose.
Origins of Latin Literature

      Up to this date, native Latin poetry had been confined, so far as we can judge, to hymns and ballads, both of a rude nature. Alongside of these were the popular festival-performances, containing the germs of a drama. If the words of these performances were ever written down (which is rather more than doubtful), they would help to make the notion of translating a regular Greek play come more easily. But the first certain Latin translation was a piece of work which showed a much greater audacity, and which in fact, though this did not appear till long afterwards, was much more far-reaching in its consequences. This was a translation of the Odyssey into Saturnian verse by one Andronicus, a Greek prisoner of war from Tarentum, who lived at Rome as a tutor to children of the governing class during the first Punic War. At the capture of his city, he had become the slave of one of the distinguished family of the Livii, and after his manumission was known, according to Roman custom, under the name of Lucius Livius Andronicus.

      The few fragments of his Odyssey which survive do not show any high level of attainment; and it is interesting to note that this first attempt to create a mould for Latin poetry went on wrong, or, perhaps it would be truer to say, on premature lines. From this time henceforth the whole serious production of Latin poetry for centuries was a continuous effort to master and adapt Greek structure and versification; the Odyssey of Livius was the first and, with one notable exception, almost the last sustained attempt to use the native forms of Italian rhythm towards any large achievement; this current thereafter sets underground, and only emerges again at the end of the classical period. It is a curious and significant fact that the attempt such as it was, was made not by a native, but by a naturalised foreigner.

      The heroic hexameter was, of course, a metre much harder to reproduce in Latin than the trochaic and iambic metres of the Greek drama, the former of which especially accommodated itself without difficulty to Italian speech. In his dramatic pieces, which included both tragedies and comedies, Andronicus seems to have kept to the Greek measures, and in this his example was followed by his successors. Throughout the next two generations the production of dramatic literature was steady and continuous. Gnaeus Naevius, the first native Latin poet of consequence, beginning to produce plays a few years later than Andronicus, continued to write busily till after the end of the second Punic War, and left the Latin drama thoroughly established. Only inconsiderable fragments of his writings survive; but it is certain that he was a figure of really great distinction. Though not a man of birth himself, he had the skill and courage to match himself against the great house of the Metelli. The Metelli, it is true, won the battle; Naevius was imprisoned, and finally died in exile; but he had established literature as a real force in Rome. Aulus Gellius has preserved the haughty verses which he wrote to be engraved on his own tomb—

 Immortelles mortales si foret fas flere
 Flerent divae Camenae Naevium poetam;
 Itaque postquam est Orci traditus thesauro
 Obliti sunt Romai loquier lingua Latina.

       The Latin Muses were, indeed, then in the full pride and hope of a vigorous and daring youth. The greater part of Naevius' plays, both in tragedy and comedy, were, it is true, translated or adapted from Greek originals; but alongside of these—the Danae, the Iphigenia, the Andromache, which even his masculine genius can hardly have made more than pale reflexes of Euripides—were new creations, "plays of the purple stripe," as they came to be called, where he wakened a tragic note from the legendary or actual history of the Roman race. His Alimonium Romuli et Remi, though it may have borrowed much from the kindred Greek legends of Danae or Melanippe, was one of the foundation-stones of a new national literature; in the tragedy of Clastidium, the scene was laid in his own days, and the action turned on an incident at once of national importance and of romantic personal heroism—a great victory won over the Gallic tribes of Northern Italy, and the death of the Gallic chief in single combat at the hand of the Roman consul.

      In his advanced years, Naevius took a step of even greater consequence. Turning from tragedy to epic, he did not now, like Andronicus, translate from the Greek, but launched out on the new venture of a Roman epic. The Latin language was not yet ductile enough to catch the cadences of the noble Greek hexameter; and the native Latin Saturnian was the only possible alternative. How far he was successful in giving modulation or harmony to this rather cumbrous and monotonous verse, the few extant fragments of the Bellum Punicum hardly enable us to determine; it is certain that it met with a great and continued success, and that, even in Horace's time, it was universally read. The subject was not unhappily chosen: the long struggle between Rome and Carthage had, in the great issues involved, as well as in its abounding dramatic incidents and thrilling fluctuations of fortune, many elements of the heroic, and almost of the superhuman; and in his interweaving of this great pageant of history with the ancient legends of both cities, and his connecting it, through the story of Aeneas, with the war of Troy itself, Naevius showed a constructive power of a very high order. It is, doubtless, possible to make too much of the sweeping statements made in the comments of Macrobius and Servius on the earlier parts of the Aeneid—"this passage is all taken from Naevius;" "all this passage is simply conveyed from Naevius' Punic War." Yet there is no doubt that Virgil owed him immense obligations; though in the details of the war itself we can recognise little in the fragments beyond the dry and disconnected narrative of the rhyming chronicler. Naevius laid the foundation of the Roman epic; he left it at his death—in spite of the despondent and perhaps jealous criticism which he left as his epitaph—in the hands of an abler and more illustrious successor.

      Quintus Ennius, the first of the great Roman poets, and a figure of prodigious literary fecundity and versatility, was born at a small town of Calabria about thirty years later than Naevius, and, though he served as a young man in the Roman army, did not obtain the full citizenship till fifteen years after Naevius' death. For some years previously he had lived at Rome, under the patronage of the great Scipio Africanus, busily occupied in keeping up a supply of translations from the Greek for use on the Roman stage. Up to his death, at the age of seventy, he continued to write with undiminished fertility and unflagging care. He was the first instance in the Western world of the pure man of letters. Alongside of his strictly literary production, he occupied himself diligently with the technique of composition—grammar, spelling, pronunciation, metre, even an elementary system of shorthand. Four books of miscellaneous translations from popular Greek authors familiarised the reading public at Rome with several branches of general literature hitherto only known to scholars. Following the demand of the market, he translated comedies, seemingly with indifferent success. But his permanent fame rested on two great bodies of work, tragic and epic, in both of which he far eclipsed his predecessors.

      We possess the names, and a considerable body of fragments, of upwards of twenty of his tragedies; the greater number of the fragments being preserved in the works of Cicero, who was never tired of reading and quoting him. As is usual with such quotations, they throw light more on his mastery of phrase and power of presenting detached thoughts, than on his more strictly dramatic qualities. That mastery of phrase is astonishing. From the silver beauty of the moonlit line from his Melanippe—

      Lumine sic tremulo terra et cava caerula candent, to the thunderous oath of Achilles—

 Per ego deum sublimas subices
 Umidas, unde oritur imber
 sonitu saevo et spiritu

      They give examples of almost the whole range of beauty of which the Latin language is capable. Two quotations may show his manner as a translator. The first is a fragment of question and reply from the prologue to the Iphigenia at Aulis, one of the most thrilling and romantic passages in Attic poetry—

      Agam. Quid nocti videtur in altisono Caeli clupeo?

 Senex. Temo superat
 Cogens sublime etiam atque etiam
 Noctis iter.

      What is singular here is not that the mere words are wholly different from those of the original, but that in the apparently random variation Ennius produces exactly the same rich and strange effect. This is no accident: it is genius. Again, as a specimen of his manner in more ordinary narrative speeches, we may take the prologue to his Medea, where the well-known Greek is pretty closely followed—

 Utinam ne in nemore Pelio securibus
 Caesa cecidisset abiegna ad terram trabes,
 Neve inde navis inchoandae exordium
 Coepisset, quae nunc nominatur nomine
 Argo, quia Argivi in ea dilecti viri
 Vecti petebant pellem inauratam arietis
 Colchis, imperio regis Peliae, per dolum:
 Nam nunquam era errans mea domo ecferret pedem
 Medea, animo aegra, amore saevo saucia.

      At first reading these lines may seem rather stiff and ungraceful to ears familiar with the liquid lapse of the Euripidean iambics; but it is not till after the second or even the third reading that one becomes aware in them of a strange and austere beauty of rhythm which is distinctively Italian. Specially curious and admirable is the use of elision (in the eighth, for instance, and even more so in the fifth line), so characteristic alike of ancient and modern Italy. In Latin poetry Virgil was its last and greatest master; its gradual disuse in post-Virgilian poetry, like its absence in some of the earliest hexameters, was fatal to the music of the verse, and with its reappearance in the early Italian poetry of the Middle Ages that music once more returns.

      It was in his later years, and after long practice in many literary forms, that Ennius wrote his great historical epic, the eighteen books of Annales, in which he recorded the legendary and actual history of the Roman State from the arrival of Aeneas in Italy down to the events of his own day. The way here had been shown him by Naevius; but in the interval, chiefly owing to Ennius' own genius and industry, the literary capabilities of the language had made a very great advance. It is uncertain whether Ennius made any attempt to develop the native metres, which in his predecessor's work were still rude and harsh; if he did, he must soon have abandoned it. Instead, he threw himself on the task of moulding the Latin language to the movement of the Greek hexameter; and his success in the enterprise was so conclusive that the question between the two forms was never again raised. The Annales at once became a classic; until dislodged by the Aeneid, they remained the foremost and representative Roman poem, and even in the centuries which followed, they continued to be read and admired, and their claim to the first eminence was still supported by many partisans. The sane and lucid judgment of Quintilian recalls them to their true place; in a felicitous simile he compares them to some sacred grove of aged oaks, which strikes the senses with a solemn awe rather than with the charm of beauty. Cicero, who again and again speaks of Ennius in terms of the highest praise, admits that defect of finish on which the Augustan poets lay strong but not unjustified stress. The noble tribute of Lucretius, "as our Ennius sang in immortal verse, he who first brought down from lovely Helicon a garland of evergreen leaf to sound and shine throughout the nations of Italy," was no less than due from a poet who owed so much to Ennius in manner and versification.

      It is not known when the Annales were lost; there are doubtful indications of their existence in the earlier Middle Ages. The extant fragments, though they amount only to a few hundred lines, are sufficient to give a clear idea of the poet's style and versification, and of the remarkable breadth and sagacity which made the poem a storehouse of civil wisdom for the more cultured members of the ruling classes at Rome, no less than a treasury of rhythm and phrase for the poets. In the famous single lines like—

 Non cauponantes bellum sed belligerantes, or—
 Quem nemo ferro potuit superare me auro, or—
 Ille vir haud magna cum re sed plenu' fidei, or the great—
 Moribus antiquis res stat Romana virisque

      Ennius expressed, with even greater point and weight than Virgil himself, the haughty virtue, the keen and narrow political instinct, by which the small and struggling mid-Italian town grew to be arbitress of the world; not Lucretius with his vast and melancholy outlook over a world where patriotism did not exist for the philosopher, not Virgil with his deep and charmed breedings over the mystery and beauty of life and death, struck the Roman note so exclusively and so certainly.

      The success of the Latin epic in Ennius' hands was indeed for the period so complete that it left no room for further development; for the next hundred years the Annales remained not only the unique, but the satisfying achievement in this kind of poetry, and it was only when a new wave of Greek influence had brought with it a higher and more refined standard of literary culture, that fresh progress could be attained or desired. It was not so with tragedy. So long as the stage demanded fresh material, it continued to be supplied, and the supply only ceased when, as had happened even in Greece, the acted drama dwindled away before the gaudier methods of the music-hall. Marcus Pacuvius, the nephew of Ennius, wrote plays for the thirty years after his uncle's death, which had an even greater vogue; he is placed by Cicero at the head of Roman tragedians. The plays have all perished, and even the fragments are lamentably few; we can still trace in them, however, that copiousness of fancy and richness of phrase which was marked as his distinctive quality by the great critic Varro. Only one Roman play (on Lucius Aemilius Paulus, the conqueror of Pydna) is mentioned among his pieces; and this, though perhaps accidental, may indicate that tragedy had not really pushed its roots deep enough at Rome, and was destined to an early decay. Inexhaustible as is the life and beauty of the old Greek mythology, it was impossible that a Roman audience should be content to listen for age after age to the stories of Atalanta and Antiope, Pentheus and Orestes, while they had a new national life and overwhelming native interests of their own. The Greek tragedy tended more and more to become the merely literary survival that it was in France under Louis Quatorze, that it has been in our own day in the hands of Mr. Arnold or Mr. Swinburne. But one more poet of remarkable genius carries on its history into the next age.

      Lucius Accius of Pisaurum produced one of his early plays in the year 140 B.C., on the same occasion when one of his latest was produced by Pacuvius, then an old man of eighty. Accius reached a like age himself; Cicero as a young man knew him well, and used to relate incidents of the aged poet's earlier life which he had heard from his own lips. For the greater part of the fifty years which include Sulla and the Gracchi, Accius was the recognised literary master at Rome, president of the college of poets which held its meetings in the temple of Minerva on the Aventine, and associating on terms of full equality with the most distinguished statesmen. A doubtful tradition mentions him as having also written an epic, or at least a narrative poem, called Annales, like that of Ennius; but this in all likelihood is a distorted reflection of the fact that he handed down and developed the great literary tradition left by his predecessor. The volume of his dramatic work was very great; the titles are preserved of no less than forty-five tragedies. In general estimation he brought Roman tragedy to its highest point. The fragments show a grace and fancy which we can hardly trace in the earlier tragedians.

      Accius was the last, as he seems to have been the greatest, of his race. Tragedy indeed continued, as we shall see, to be written and even to be acted. The literary men of the Ciceronian and Augustan age published their plays as a matter of course; Varius was coupled by his contemporaries with Virgil and Horace; and the lost Medea of Ovid, like the never-finished Ajax of Augustus, would be at the least a highly interesting literary document. But the new age found fresh poetical forms into which it could put its best thought and art; while a blow was struck directly at the roots of tragedy by the new invention, in the hands of Cicero and his contemporaries, of a grave, impassioned, and stately prose.

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