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Bill Thayer

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An excerpt from
A History of Roman Literature
from the Earliest Period
to the Death of Marcus Aurelius
Charles Thomas Cruttwell, M.A.

published by Charles Scribner's Sons, New York 1895

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

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Seneca the Elder


Appendix (pp335‑337)

NOTE I. A fragment translated from Seneca's Suasoriae, showing the style of expression cultivated in the schools.

The subject (Suas. 2)a debated is whether the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, seeing themselves deserted by the army, shall remain or flee. The different rhetors declaim as follows, making Leonidas the speaker: —

Arellius Fuscus — What! are our picked ranks made up of raw recruits, or spirits likely to be cowed, or hands likely to shrink from the unaccustomed steel, or bodies enfeebled by wounds or decay? How shall I speak of us as the flower of Greece? Shall I bestow that name on Spartans or Eleans? or shall I rehearse the countless battles of our ancestors, the cities they sacked, the nations they spoiled? and do men now dare to boast that our temples need no walls to guard them? Ashamed am I of our conduct; ashamed to have entertained even the idea of flight. But then, you say, Xerxes comes with an innumerable host. O Spartans! and Spartans matched against barbarians, have you no reverence for your deeds, your grandsires, your sires, from whose example your souls from infancy gather lofty thoughts? I scorn to offer Spartans such exhortations as these. Look! we are protected by our position. Though he bring with him the whole East, and parade his useless numbers before our craven eyes, this sea which spreads its vast expanse before us is pressed into a narrow compass, is beset by treacherous straits which scarce admit the passage of a single row-boat, and then by their chopping swell make rowing impossible; it is beset by unseen shallows, wedged between deeper bottoms, rough with sharp rocks, and everything that mocks the sailor's prayer. I am ashamed (I repeat it) that Spartans, and Spartans armed, should even stop to ask how it is they are safe. Shall I not carry home the spoil of the Persians? Then at least I will fall naked upon it. They shall know that we have yet three hundred men who thus scorn to flee, who thus mean to fall. Think of this: we can perhaps conquer; with all our effort we cannot be conquered. I do not say you are doomed to death — you to whom I address these words; but if you are, and yet think that death is toº be feared, you greatly err. To no living thing has nature given unending life; on the day of birth the day of death is fixed. For heaven has wrought us out of a weak material; our bodies yield to the slightest stroke, we are snatched away unwarned by fate. Childhood and  p336 youth lie beneath the same inexorable law. Most of us even long for death, so perfect a rest does it offer from the struggle of life. But glory has no limits, and they who fall like us rise nearest to the gods. Even women often choose the path of death which leads to glory. What need to mention Lycurgus, those heroes handed down by history, whom no peril could appal? to awake the spirit of Othryadesb alone, would be to give example enough, and more than enough, for us three hundred men!

Triarius — Are not Spartans ashamed to be conquered, not by blows but by rumours? 'Tis a great thing to be born a scion of valour and a Spartan. For certain victory all would wait; for certain death none but Spartans. Sparta is girt with no walls, her walls are where her men are. Better to call back the army than to follow them. What if the Persian bores through mountains, makes the sea invisible?c Such proud felicity never yet stood sure; the loftiest exaltation is struck to earth through its forgetfulness of the instability of all things human. You may be sure that power which has given rise to envy has not seen its last phase. It has changed seas, lands, nature itself; let us three hundred die, if only that it may here find something it cannot change. If such madmen's counsel was to be accepted, why did we not flee with the crowd?

Porcius Latro — This then is what we have waited for, to collect a band of runaways. You flee from a rumour; let us at least know of what sort it is. Our dishonour can hardly be wiped out even by victory; bravely as we may fight, successful as we may be, much of our renown is already lost; for Spartans have debated whether or not to flee. O that we may die! For myself, after this discussion, the only thing I fear is to return home. Old women's tales have shaken the arms out of our hands. Now, now, let us fight, among the thirty thousand our valour might have lain hid. The rest have fled. If you ask my opinion, which I utter for the honour of ourselves and Greece, I say they have not deserted us, they have chosen us as their champions.

Marullus — This was our reason for remaining, that we might not be hidden among the crowd of fugitives. The army has a good excuse to offer for its conduct: "We knew Thermopylae would be safe since we left the Spartans to guard it."

Cestius Pius — You have shown, Spartans, how base it were to fly by so long remaining still. All have their privilege. The glory of Athens is speech, of Thebes religion, of Sparta arms. 'Tis for this Eurotas flows round our state that its stream may inure our boys to the hardships of future war; 'tis for this we have our peaks of Taygetus inaccessible but to Spartans; 'tis for this we boast of a Hercules who has won heaven by merit; 'tis for this that arms are our only walls. O deep disgrace to our ancestral valour! Spartans are counting their numbers, not their manhood. Let us see how long the list is, that Sparta may have, if not brave soldiers, at least true messengers. Can it be that we are vanquished, not by war, but by reports? that man, in faith, has a right to despise everything at whose very name Spartans are afraid. If we may not conquer Xerxes, let us at least be allowed to see him; I would know what it is I flee from. As yet I am in no way like an Athenian, either in seeking culture, or in dwelling behind a wall; the last Athenian quality that I shall imitate will be cowardice.

Pompeius Silo — Xerxes leads many with him, Thermopylae can hold but few. We shall be the most timid of the brave, the slowest of cowards. No matter how manyº nations the East has poured into our hemisphere, how many peoples Xerxes brings with him; as many as this place will hold; with those is our concern.

 p337  Cornelius Hispanus — We have come for Sparta; let us stay for Greece; let us vanquish the foe as we have already vanquished our friends; let this arrogant barbarian learn that nothing is so difficult as to cut an armed Spartan down. For my part, I am glad the rest have gone; they have left Thermopylae for us; there will now be nothing to mingle or compare itself with our valour; no Spartan will be hidden in the crowd; wherever Xerxes looks he will see none but Spartans.

Blandus — Shall I remind you of your mother's command — "Either with your shield or on it?" and yet to return without arms is far less base than to flee under arms. Shall I remind you of the words of the captive? — "Kill me, I am no slave!" To such a man to escape would not have been to avoid capture. Describe the Persian terrors! We heard all that when we were first sent out. Let Xerxes see the three hundred, and learn at what rate the war is valued, what number of men the place is calculated to hold. We will not return even as messengers except after the fight is over. Who has fled I know not; these men Sparta has given me for comrades. I am thankful that the host has fled; they had made the pass of Thermopylae too narrow for me to move in.

§ On the other side.

Cornelius Hispanus — I hold it a great disgrace to our state if Xerxes see no Greeks before he sees the Spartans. We shall not even have a witness of our valour; the enemy's account of us will be believed. You have my counsel, it is the same as that of all Greece. If any one advise differently, he wishes you to be not brave men but ruined men.

Claudius Marcellus — They will not conquer us; they will overwhelm us. We have been true to our renown. We have waited till the last. Nature herself has yielded before we.

The above Suasoria is by no means one of the most brilliant; on the contrary, it is a decidedly tameº one, but it is a good instance of an ordinary declamation of the better sort, and gives passages from most of the rhetoricians to whom reference is made in the text.

Thayer's Notes:

a Suasoriae, 2: One of quite a number of rhetorical declamations that have come down to us from Seneca the Elder, and, as our 19c author says, neither better nor worse than the others; see the complete Latin text of them.

b the spirit of Othryades: for the dramatic story of this Spartan general, see Ps.‑Plut., Parallela Minora 3 (and the further passages linked there, in note 13).

c What if the Persian bores through mountains, makes the sea invisible: Xerxes cut a ship canal thru Mt. Athos, and his fleet was said to have been so large as to obscure all view of the water.

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Page updated: 19 Mar 05