Prose Writings of The Ciceronian Age in Latin Literature

Also Read

      Fertile as the Ciceronian age was in authorship of many kinds, there was only one person in it whose claim to be placed in an equal rank with Cicero could ever be seriously entertained; and this was, strangely enough, one who was as it were only a man of letters by accident, and whose literary work is but among the least of his titles to fame—Julius Caesar himself. That anything written by that remarkable man must be interesting and valuable in a high degree is obvious; but the combination of literary power of the very first order with his unparallelled military and political genius is perhaps unique in history.

      It is one of the most regrettable losses in Latin literature that Caesar's speeches and letters have almost completely perished. Of the latter several collections were made after his death, and were extant in the second century; but none are now preserved, except a few brief notes to Cicero, of which copies were sent by him at the time to Atticus. The fragments of his speeches are even less considerable; yet, according to the unanimous testimony both of contemporary and of later critics, they were unexcelled in that age of great oratory. He used the Latin language with a purity and distinction that no one else could equal. And along with this quality, the mira elegantia of Quintilian, his oratory had some kind of severe magnificence which we can partly guess at from his extant writings—magnifica et generosa, says Cicero; facultas dicendi imperatoria is the phrase of a later and able critic.

Of Caesar's other lost writings little need be said. In youth, like most of his contemporaries, he wrote poems, including a tragedy, of which Tacitus drily observes that they were not better than those of Cicero. A grammatical treatise, De Analogia, was composed by him during one of his long journeys between Northern Italy and the headquarters of his army in Gaul during his proconsulate. A work on astronomy, apparently written in connection with his reform of the calendar, two pamphlets attacking Cato, and a collection of apophthegms, have also disappeared. But we possess what were by far the most important of his writings, his famous memoirs of the Gallic and Civil Wars.
Prose Writings of The Ciceronian Age

      Of Caesar's other lost writings little need be said. In youth, like most of his contemporaries, he wrote poems, including a tragedy, of which Tacitus drily observes that they were not better than those of Cicero. A grammatical treatise, De Analogia, was composed by him during one of his long journeys between Northern Italy and the headquarters of his army in Gaul during his proconsulate. A work on astronomy, apparently written in connection with his reform of the calendar, two pamphlets attacking Cato, and a collection of apophthegms, have also disappeared. But we possess what were by far the most important of his writings, his famous memoirs of the Gallic and Civil Wars.

      The seven books of Commentaries on the Gallic War were written in Caesar's winter quarters in Gaul, after the capture of Alesia and the final suppression of the Arvernian revolt. They were primarily intended to serve an immediate political purpose, and are indeed a defence, framed with the most consummate skill, of the author's whole Gallic policy and of his constitutional position. That Caesar was able to do this without, so far as can be judged, violating, or even to any large degree suppressing facts, does equal credit to the clear-sightedness of his policy and to his extraordinary literary power. From first to last there is not a word either of self-laudation or of innuendo; yet at the end we find that, by the use of the simplest and most lucid narration, in which hardly a fact or a detail can be controverted, Caesar has cleared his motives and justified his conduct with a success the more complete because his tone is so temperate and seemingly so impartial. An officer of his staff who was with him during that winter, and who afterwards added an eighth book to the Commentaries to complete the history of the Gallic proconsulate, has recorded the ease and swiftness with which the work was written. Caesar issued it under the unpretending name of Commentarii—"notes"—on the events of his campaigns, which might be useful as materials for history; but there was no exaggeration in the splendid compliment paid it a few years later by Cicero, that no one in his senses would think of recasting a work whose succinct, perspicuous, and brilliant style—pura et inlustris brevitas—has been the model and the despair of later historians.

      The three books of Commentaries on the Civil War show the same merits in a much less marked degree. They were not published in Caesar's lifetime, and do not seem to have received from him any close or careful revision. The literary incompetence of the Caesarian officers into whose hands they fell after his death, and one or more of whom must be responsible for their publication, is sufficiently evident from their own awkward attempts at continuing them in narratives of the Alexandrine, African, and Spanish campaigns; and whether from the carelessness of the original editors or from other reasons, the text is in a most deplorable condition. Yet this is not in itself sufficient to account for many positive misstatements. Either the editors used a very free hand in altering the rough manuscript, or—which is not in itself unlikely, and is borne out by other facts—Caesar's own prodigious memory and incomparable perspicuity became impaired in those five years of all but superhuman achievement, when, with the whole weight of the civilised world on his shoulders, feebly served by second-rate lieutenants and hampered at every turn by the open or passive opposition of nearly the whole of the trained governing classes, he conquered four great Roman armies, secured Egypt and Upper Asia and annexed Numidia to the Republic, carried out the unification of Italy, reestablished public order and public credit, and left at his death the foundations of the Empire securely laid for his successor.

      The loyal and capable officer, Aulus Hirtius (who afterwards became consul, and was killed in battle before Mutina a year after Caesar's murder), did his best to supplement his master's narrative. He seems to have been a well-educated man, but without any particular literary capacity. It was uncertain, even to the careful research of Suetonius, whether the narrative of the campaigns in Egypt and Pontus, known as the Bellum Alexandrinum, was written by him or by another officer of Caesar's, Gaius Oppius. The books on the campaigns of Africa and Spain which follow are by different hands: the former evidently by some subaltern officer who took part in the war, and very interesting as showing the average level of intelligence and culture among Roman officers of the period; the latter by another author and in very inferior Latin, full of grammatical solecisms and popular idioms oddly mixed up with epic phrases from Ennius, who was still, it must be remembered, the great Latin school-book. It is these curious fragments of history which more than anything else help us to understand the rapid decay of Latin prose after the golden period. Under the later Republic the educated class and the governing class had, broadly speaking, been the same. The Civil wars, in effect, took administration away from their hands, transferring it to the new official class, of which these subalterns of Caesar's represent the type; and this change was confirmed by the Empire. The result was a sudden and long-continued divorce between political activity on the one hand and the profession of letters on the other. For a century after the establishment of the Empire the aristocracy, which had produced the great literature of the Republic, remained forcibly or sullenly silent; and the new hierarchy was still at the best only half educated. The professional man of letters was at first fostered and subsidised; but even before the death of Augustus State patronage of literature had fallen into abeyance, while the cultured classes fell more and more back on the use of Greek. The varying fortunes of this struggle between Greek and literary Latin as it had been formed under the Republic, belong to a later period: at present we must return to complete a general survey of the prose of the Ciceronian age.

      Historical writing at Rome, as we have seen, had hitherto been in the form either of annals or memoirs. The latter were, of course, rather materials for history than history itself, even when they were not excluded from Quintilian's famous definition of history by being composed primarily as political pamphlets. The former had so far been attempted on too large a scale, and with insufficient equipment either of research or style, to attain any permanent merit. In the ten years after Caesar's death Latin history was raised to a higher level by the works of Sallust, the first scientific historian whom Italy had produced.

      Gaius Sallustius Crispus of Amiternum in Central Italy belonged to that younger generation of which Marcus Antonius and Marcus Caelius Rufus were eminent examples. Clever and dissipated, they revolted alike from the severe traditions and the narrow class prejudices of the constitutional party, and Caesar found in them enthusiastic, if somewhat imprudent and untrustworthy, supporters. Sallust was expelled from the senate just before the outbreak of the Civil war; was reinstated by Caesar, and entrusted with high posts in Illyria and Italy; and was afterwards sent by him to administer Africa with the rank of proconsul. There he accumulated a large fortune, and, after Caesar's death, retired to private life in his beautiful gardens on the Quirinal, and devoted himself to historical study. The largest and most important of his works, the five books of Historiae, covering a period of about ten years from the death of Sulla, is only extant in inconsiderable fragments; but his two monographs on the Jugurthine war and the Catilinarian conspiracy, which have been preserved, place him beyond doubt in the first rank of Roman historians.

      Sallust took Thucydides as his principal literary model. His reputation has no doubt suffered by the comparison which this choice makes inevitable; and though Quintilian did not hesitate to claim for him a substantial equality with the great Athenian, no one would now press the parallel, except in so far as Sallust's formal treatment of his subject affords interesting likenesses or contrasts with the Thucydidean manner. In his prefatory remarks, his elaborately conceived and executed speeches, his reflections on character, and his terse method of narration, Sallust closely follows the manner of his master. He even copies his faults in a sort of dryness of style and an excessive use of antithesis. But we cannot feel, in reading the Catiline or the Jugurtha, that it is the work of a writer of the very first intellectual power. Yet the two historians have this in common, which is not borrowed by the later from the earlier—that they approach and handle their subject with the mature mind, the insight and common sense of the grown man, where their predecessors had been comparatively like children. Both are totally free from superstition; neither allows his own political views to obscure his vision of facts, of men as they were and events as they happened. The respect for truth, which is the first virtue of the historian, is stronger in Sallust than in any of his more brilliant successors. His ideal in the matter of research and documentary evidence was, for that age, singularly high. In the Catiline he writes very largely from direct personal knowledge of men and events; but the Jugurtha, which deals with a time two generations earlier than the date of its composition, involved wide inquiry and much preparation. He had translations made from original documents in the Carthaginian language; and a complete synopsis of Roman history, for reference during the progress of his work, was compiled for him by a Greek secretary. Such pains were seldom taken by a Latin historian.

      The last of the Ciceronians, Sallust is also in a sense the first of the imperial prose-writers. His style, compressed, rhetorical, and very highly polished, is in strong contrast to the graceful and fluid periods which were then, and for some time later continued to be, the predominant fashion, and foreshadows the manner of Seneca or Tacitus. His archaism in the use of pure Latin, and, alongside of it, his free adoption of Grecisms, are the first open sign of two movements which profoundly affected the prose of the earlier and later empire. The acrid critic of the Augustan age, Asinius Pollio, accused him of having had collections of obsolete words and phrases made for his use out of Cato and the older Roman writers. For a short time he was eclipsed by the glowing and opulent style of Livy; but Livy formed no school, and Sallust on the whole remained in the first place. The line of Martial, primus Romana Crispus in historia, expresses the settled opinion held of him down to the final decay of letters; and even in the Middle Ages he remained widely read and highly esteemed.

      Contemporary with Sallust in this period of transition between the Ciceronian and the Augustan age is Cornelius Nepos (circ. 99–24 B.C.). In earlier life he was one of the circle of Catullus, and after Cicero's death was one of the chief friends of Atticus, of whom a brief biography, which he wrote after Atticus' death, is still extant. Unlike Sallust, Nepos never took part in public affairs, but carried on throughout a long life the part of a man of letters, honest and kindly, but without any striking originality or ability. In him we are on the outer fringe of pure literature; and it is no doubt purposely that Quintilian wholly omits him from the list of Roman historians. Of his numerous writings on history, chronology, and grammar, we only possess a fragment of one, his collection of Roman and foreign biographies, entitled De Viris Illustribus. Of this work there is extant one complete section, De Excellentibus Ducibus Exterarum Gentium, and two lives from another section, those of Atticus and the younger Cato. The accident of their convenient length and the simplicity of their language has made them for generations a common school-book for beginners in Latin; were it not for this, there can be little doubt that Nepos, like the later epitomators, Eutropius or Aurelius Victor, would be hardly known except to professional scholars, and perhaps only to be read in the pages of some Corpus Sciptorum Romanorum. The style of these little biographies is unpretentious, and the language fairly pure, though without any great command of phrase. A theory was once held that what we possess is merely a later epitome from the lost original. But for this there is no rational support. The language and treatment, such as they are (and they do not sink to the level of the histories of the African and Spanish wars), are of this, and not of a later age, and quite consonant with the good- natured contempt which Nepos met at the hands of later Roman critics. The chief interest of the work is perhaps the clearness with which it enforces the truth we are too apt to forget, that the great writers were in their own age, as now, unique, and that there is no such thing as a widely diffused level of high literary excellence.

      As remote from literature in the higher sense were the innumerable writings of the Ciceronian age on science, art, antiquities, grammar, rhetoric, and a hundred miscellaneous subjects, which are, for the most part, known only from notices in the writings of later commentators and encyclopedists. Foremost among the voluminous authors of this class was the celebrated antiquarian, Marcus Terentius Varro, whose long and laborious life, reaching from two years after the death of the elder Cato till the final establishment of the Empire, covers and overlaps the entire Ciceronian age. Of the six or seven hundred volumes which issued from his pen, and which formed an inexhaustible quarry for his successors, nearly all are lost. The most important of them were the one hundred and fifty books of Saturae Menippeae, miscellanies in prose and verse in the manner which had been originated by Menippus of Gadara, the master of the poet Meleager, and which had at once obtained an enormous popularity throughout the whole of the Greek-speaking world; the forty- one books of Antiquitates Rerum Humanarum et Divinarum, the standard work on the religious and secular antiquities of Rome down to the time of Augustine; the fifteen books of Imagines, biographical sketches, with portraits, of celebrated Greeks and Romans, the first certain instance in history of the publication of an illustrated book; the twenty-five books De Lingua Latina, of which six are extant in an imperfect condition; and the treatise De Re Rustica, which we possess in an almost complete state. This last work was written by him at the age of eighty. It is in the form of a dialogue, and is not without descriptive and dramatic power. The tediousness which characterised all Varro's writing is less felt where the subject is one of which he had a thorough practical knowledge, and which gave ample scope for the vein of rough but not ungenial humour which he inherited from Cato.

      Other names of this epoch have left no permanent mark on literature. The precursors of Sallust in history seem, like the precursors of Cicero in philosophy, to have approached their task with little more equipment than that of the ordinary amateur. The great orator Hortensius wrote Annals (probably in the form of memoirs of his own time), which are only known from a reference to them in a later history written in the reign of Tiberius. Atticus, who had an interest in literature beyond that of the mere publisher, drew up a sort of handbook of Roman history, which is repeatedly mentioned by Cicero. Cicero's own brother Quintus, who passed for a man of letters, composed a work of the same kind; the tragedies with which he relieved the tedium of winter-quarters in Gaul were, however, translations from the Greek, not originals. Cicero's private secretary, Marcus Tullius Tiro, best known by the system of shorthand which he invented or improved, and which for long remained the basis of a standard code, is also mentioned as the author of works on grammar, and, as has already been noticed, edited a collection of his master's letters after his death. Decimus Laberius, a Roman of equestrian family, and Publilius Syrus, a naturalised native of Antioch, wrote mimes, which were performed with great applause, and gave a fugitive literary importance to this trivial form of dramatic entertainment. A collection of sentences which passes under the name of the latter was formed out of his works under the Empire, and enlarged from other sources in the Middle Ages. It supplies many admirable instances of the terse vigour of the Roman popular philosophy; some of these lines, like the famous—

 Bene vixit is qui potuit cum voluit mori, or—
 Index damnatur ubi nocens absolvitur, or—
 O vitam misero longam, felici brevem! or the perpetually misquoted—
 Stultum facit fortuna, quem vult perdere,

      Have sunk deeper and been more widely known than almost anything else written in Latin. Among the few poets who succeeded the circle of Catullus, the only one of interest is Publius Terentius Varro, known as Varro Atacinus from his birthplace on the banks of the Aude in Provence, the first of the long list of Transalpine writers who filled Rome at a later period. Besides the usual translations and adaptations from Alexandrian originals, and an elaborate cosmography, he practised his considerable talent in hexameter verse both in epic and satiric poetry, and did something to clear the way in metrical technique for both Horace and Virgil. With these names, among a crowd of others even more vague and shadowy, the literature of the Roman Republic closes. A new generation was already at the doors.

Previous Post Next Post

Search Your Questions