Short URL for this page:
The first century A.D. was not a period of great literary production. It would perhaps be unsafe to assume in general that political tyranny is destructive of artistic forces, but at Rome, where intellectual life had so largely drawn its inspiration from the activities of the Forum and Curia, this assumption seems to be correct. To be specific, prose suffered directly by the suppression of liberty, because Roman prose had dealt so largely with oratory and history. The time had now come when the whole literary course of study was upset. The public career, for which in particular it had prepared the student, had now practically vanished; and as for prose history few men cared to write the story of what was being done, and some of those who tried it suffered for telling disagreeable truths. Under Tiberius, Cremutius Cordus, the historian, had to endure the disgrace of seeing his books burned because he had spoken highly of Cato and Brutus. Under Domitian, Senecio and Rusticus were put to death for their biographies of martyred Stoics.
But one need not confine one's inquiry to such specific cases. It requires but little exercise of the imagination to comprehend how oppressive to the free spirit of genius must have been the constant dull hatred and fear, the pall of disappointment and disgrace, that rested over all of Rome during a large part of the century. The members of the better classes, who had always contributed generously to Rome's literature, would especially feel this. On the other hand, if there were by chance men of small means who felt inclined to resort to literary work they would have to face p463 the fact that the emperor must be accepted as patron and that his patronage could be gained only at the cost of menial flattery. What that cost was we can see in the works of men like Martial and Statius. How many poets determined to burn their work rather than pay the price we shall never know.
But the ultimate cause of the literary decay may lie even deeper — in the dangerously extensive uprooting of the Roman and Italian people that had taken place. When one remembers how slave-culture had pushed out Italians for two centuries before Augustus, how the Social and Sullan wars had destroyed some 300,000 men, how the triumvirs had driven out whole communities to make place for 200,000 soldiers, how Augustus and Tiberius had withdrawn from the young manhood of Italy most of the recruits that made their 30 frontier legions, how Romans and Italians, disgusted with tyranny, refused to bring up children and themselves emigrated to the provinces to escape to a cleaner atmosphere — and these are but a few of the significant facts — one wonders that Latin literature survived at all.
The old noble families had almost completely disappeared. The proscriptions of Sulla and Marius had begun the work. Three hundred senators, according to Appian, lost their lives in the awful proscriptions of the triumvirs, and in the thirty years of tyranny that began in the latter days of Tiberius one noble family after another was uprooted. But that was not all. Life became such a series of suffering and dread in the circles of the proscribed that men refused to marry and bring children into such distress. Of the forty-five patricians that are known in Caesar's day only one is represented by known posterity in Hadrian's time. Of all these the Cornelian family alone seems to have survived. The Aemilii, Fabii, Claudii, Manlii, Valerii, and all the rest have disappeared. Augustus and Claudius raised twenty-five families to the patriciate, and all but six of these disappeared before Nerva's reign. We have the record p464 of some 400 senators, many of them of recent elevation, in the year 65 A.D. A generation later every trace of half of these is gone. In fact, old Rome is no more. If Scipio could have risen in Domitian's day to see his native city, he would have found stately marble temples and palaces in the place of huts, but the features of the new Romans would have amazed him. The crowd of the Forum would have resembled the populace he once saw at Pergamum and the senators would have differed little from the people on the streets. One has but to imagine the shade of Washington parading the Bowery.
Do these facts account for a diminution in literary production and a change in the tone of what was produced? A definite answer can hardly be given. But it seems significant that no great writer of the Empire, so far as we can ascertain, was born at Rome. A few, Petronius, Persius, Juvenal, Tacitus, may be credited with more or less certainty to central Italy. But it is noteworthy that these men are one and all essentially satirists. The springs of inspiration that had not dried up had at least been embittered. Indeed, during the first century of the Empire Spain produced many of the best literary men for Rome: the Senecas, Lucan, Columella, Martial, and Quintilian came from Spain. They were doubtless the scions of the Romans and Italians who settled Spain in great numbers after the Hannibalic war. These men were in a sense belated Italians, brought up far from harm's way in the ideals, manners, and literary traditions of Republican Rome, to be given back when the mother city needed a reminder of her former self. On the whole, however, their work was retrogressive. Seneca, to be sure, returned to Rome in his childhood and quickly fell under the spell of imperial fashions, but Lucan became the rhapsodist of the dead Republic, Columella harked back to Vergil's youthful work, Martial owed allegiance to Catullus, and Quintilian spent his life in a hopeless attempt at rehabilitating Ciceronian style and thought. p465 This, in fact, was not the way of progress. These men probably would not have composed had they not been permitted to live in the atmosphere of the past, but after all they were all a generation or two behind their time.
The new stock of Rome failed also. For reasons that elude analysis, the motley multitude which had poured over Italy produced no great writers. The natives of the provinces did somewhat better, but they either responded to influences wholly native and spread the stream of production into diverging deltas, or, to prove their orthodoxy, imitated the earlier Romans. To the first group belong particularly a number of Africans who began to write in the second century. Apuleius, for instance, with his extravagant mysticism and disheveled temperament, had to create a new conglomeration of styles in order to use the Latin language at all, and the fiery enthusiasm of the African Christians, like Tertullian and Cyprian, is more nearly akin to the Hebraic spirit than to that of Caesar and Cicero. In the second group we may place such later writers as the Alexandrian Claudian, and the Gaul Ausonius, who carried coals to Newcastle by bringing old Roman classicism back to Rome as proof that they, though foreigners, had imbibed the spirit of Rome. That, too, was mistaken art.
It seems significant then that imaginative literature fails to appear in Italy when the Italian stock fails, and that it does in some measure spring up anew in the areas to which the Italian colonists had gone in a former day. The colonists of Cisalpine Gaul had similarly brought in their harvest in the Augustan day. Had Rome lived longer, perhaps the mixed stock of the Empire might have fused into a new people, conscious of spiritual powers of its own, and daring enough to sever itself from the Latin literature of the Republic, and to give its own ideals expression; but about that it is useless to conjecture. Evident it is beyond a peradventure that the Latin stock that had made Rome what it was had scattered and lost itself long before Rome p466 fell, and that with the disappearance of that stock went very much of Rome's power to think and act in Rome's characteristic manner.
In turning to actual works we may mention along with those surviving a few that have been lost, in order to give an idea of the scope of literary interests during this period. In the late Augustan and early Tiberian day Pompeius Trogus wrote a universal history in forty-four books that has been lost, though it was once widely read. Fenestella's lost annals of Rome gave some attention to social history. Vitruvius wrote an interesting book on architecture, which we are fortunate in possessing. Julius Hyginus, the director of the great library of the Apollo temple, wrote learned books on everything from literature to agriculture; while Verrius Flaccus was perhaps Rome's best lexicographer. Several generals, like Corbulo, Paulinus, and Vetus, wrote commentaries upon their wars including ethnological notes about the peoples they conquered. Few of these books could, however, be called literature.
The first piece of purely imaginative literature is a small fragment of a very long novel, the Cena Trimalchionis, which has been mentioned above. The author was evidently the Petronius who met death in so picturesque a manner when ordered by Nero to slay himself.a The novel seems to have been a string of adventures shaped in the form of a burlesque Odyssey, but the portion that we have gives the dining-room scene in the home of a millionaire Syrian freedman who had been Maecenas' slave when a boy, and had amassed his fortune in trade, cattle-raising, and banking. The guests are men of the same type, men who had made their wealth as rag dealers, undertakers and pettifoggers. Petronius has the rare gift of knowing how to let his characters betray themselves. There could be little doubt that his readers saw in the picture the unforgettable scenes enacted any evening in the ex‑slave millionaire society of Claudius' entourage, for the book was written during p467 that reign. If by some good fortune the excavations of Herculaneum should ever restore the book, we should no doubt place it among the most important works of fiction.
The most voluminous writer of Nero's age was Seneca, the tutor of Nero, and thereafter for several years his chief adviser and minister. He was from Spain, in fact from Cordova, which had been founded two hundred years before his birth as a village of Roman citizens. His forebears were therefore in all probability Roman colonists. Beginning life as a teacher he was implicated by the disreputable Messalina in some scandal intended to serve as an excuse for getting rid of a rival, and was banished to Corsica. While there he wrote several tragedies to while away the time. The plots were judiciously composed, but the characters are in no case convincing. The plays could not possibly have been staged, and yet such was Seneca's fame in the middle ages that they alone of Roman tragedies have survived. We have also from his pen a volume of twelve "dialogues," mostly ethical treatises, a large volume of moral letters, and a volume on "Problems of Nature," in which he betrays more ignorance than knowledge of science. Some of his essays, especially the brief ones which he includes among his letters, are worthy of a place among the best of ethical writings. There is, for instance, a modern spirit in much that he says on such subjects as slavery, the duties of government, the "brotherhood of man," the necessity for wisdom in charity. Unfortunately he was also a thorough-going advocate of the ultra-modern doctrine that all education, in fact all scientific training, should be confined to immediately practical ends.
His style is particularly interesting in revealing the extreme consequences to which the anti-Ciceronian revolt had led. Caesar's democratic victory, which had brought senatorial discussion to an end, had given the death blow to Cicero's influence in prose style. In the period that followed p468 few speeches were made except to the populace in Forum or the conglomerate of peoples that constituted the army. Before such people, many of whom could not comprehend any but the simplest colloquial Latin, elaborate periods would have been wasted. Spoken prose consequently broke into fragments. Each sentence must be short and pointed when delivered before hearers who had not the wits to retain more than a few simple words at a time. Even in the schools brevity became the first essential of every sentence; but as the professor must have something to teach, he trained his pupils to make the most of each short fragment, to tesselate their words effectively, to strive for epigrammatic effects and antitheses. Each brief sentence must hit a mark, and a discourse is like the discharge of a machine‑gun. All this was, in a word, the result of an artistic treatment of a Latin shaped for democratic immigrant ears. The evolution of Latin style was not unlike that which English has had to endure in some of our larger cities, where popular newspapers have for a generation debased prose into a smartly simple jargon to catch the attention of semi-literate immigrants, and where teachers of English, in order to be considered "progressive," have accepted such journalistic usage as the foundation for a new literary style.
Seneca had two brothers who had also reached high positions. One was Gallio, the governor of Achaia, before whom St. Paul was made to appear at Corinth. The Acts relate that "he cared for none of these things" that Paul preached.b Yet the incident helped to connect St. Paul with Seneca in legend, and that was enough to induce medieval monks to save Seneca's writings. The other brother was Mela, who held high offices of state, but is perhaps best known as the father of Lucan, the epic poet. Lucan's Pharsalia, which tells the story of the last days of the Republic, was widely read at a time when men were fighting their last losing battles for political liberty, for it is inspired with p469 a deep love of freedom. Indeed it is apparent that Lucan himself, in the composition of the book, wrote with such fervor for the cause of Cato and Pompey, that he preached himself into a revolutionist and hence joined Piso's conspiracy against Nero. However, apart from the fact that the poem was unfinished when Lucan was put to death, it has serious flaws that make it difficult to read. Intended for oral recitation in fragments, it falls apart into scenes, and the lines are loud and sonorous, rather than beautiful. Indeed, there are hardly half a dozen brief passages that can truly be considered inspired poetry.
Persius was another youthful rebel against the sins of the Neronian age, but his inspiration was also due to indignation rather than to imaginative vision. We have from him only a brief volume of satires, in which the lines are intentionally obscure and the subject matter the commonplaces of Stoic tirade. It is written, however, with a deep sincerity and the righteous wrath that all men of conscience must have felt in that day of decadence.
Under Vespasian the world recovered its poise somewhat and at least found an interest in life if not yet the enthusiasm that makes for great literature. Pliny the Elder, an admiral under Vespasian, deserves mention for his encyclopaedic work in 37 books called the Historia Naturalis, to which we owe many of our facts about ancient arts, crafts, and sciences. Quintilian was born in a Spanish garrison town which was a Roman municipality in the days of Augustus. His grandfather had been a teacher among the natives, and was doubtless devoted to Ciceronian Latin, which his descendant tried all his life long to rehabilitate at Rome. He furnishes a good example of that literary conservatism that is usually found in a colonial stock. The book that has survived from his hand is the Institutio Oratoria, "The Training of the Orator," which is our best guide to the Roman pedagogical methods as well as to the Roman literary criticism of the time. His enthusiasm for the best p470 literature, his sound judgment in literary matters, his high pedagogical ideals, and his versatility as a practical teacher, combine to give the book a high rank among its kind. Many of our rules of composition go back to Quintilian, and many a recent book on pedagogy has only brought forth methods that this man was advocating in his day. Frontinus may be mentioned for his technical description of Rome's water system, written when he was at the head of the water department in 97 A.D., and for his book on strategy inspired by his experiences as a general in Britain.
Among poets Valerius Flaccus wrote the Argonautica, Silius Italicus the Punica, and Statius various epics as well as some minor lyrics, but all of these works are imitative of the greater poets of an earlier day, and hardly repay the reader. Martial, on the other hand, is one of the few poets whose work has been of such marked individuality as to give for all time its own impress to the form it adopted. He chose to write epigrams, but after he had written them the reader necessarily thought of "epigrams" as being the witty, pointed lampoons that he produced, not the inscriptional poems called epigrams by his predecessors. He came from a Roman municipality of Spain, as did so many other writers of this period, but he was more successful than some of his fellows in entering into the gay, nervous life of the metropolis. His love of the sardonic and satiric and his unmoral cynicism make him kin to Plautus on the one hand and to Catullus on the other, rather than to the Stoic-minded satirists and preachers of his own day. There is consequently apparent in his work a general suppression of poetic sentiment. But he has both imaginative vision and a deep love of beauty which he betrays when, at rare moments, he forgets Rome to think of his old home and his boyhood friends. And even when he prefers to play at his favorite game of lampooning he reveals a sure taste for rhythm, sound, and word. To the student of civilization he is, quite apart from his intrinsic worth, indispensable because of his p471 frank pictures of everyday Rome. It is he, more than any other writer, who makes it possible for us to feel that we are quite thoroughly familiar with the Rome of 100 A.D.
Art. The vast building programs of Nero and Vespasian could hardly have been carried out without gathering to Rome the best architects and artists of the whole empire, and testing their ingenuity to the utmost. New problems were proposed and solved in many directions, and yet such was the petty ambition of most of these emperors to have the credit upon inscriptions for everything done under them that art remained anonymous and subsidiary, as it were. The stimulus of personal fame which creative art must have in order to prosper, a Nero or a Domitian would not think of providing. This is one of the ugliest sides of that tyranny.
Yet some exceedingly fine work was done. The Arch of Titus, completed, it seems, under Domitian, still remains, and though the two largest designs have been badly marred they afford excellent examples of Flavian sculpture. One represents the beginning of a triumphal procession with the emperor and a figure of victory in a chariot; the other shows the part of the procession which carried the implements of the captured temple of Jerusalem, especially the great candlestick, the table of the shew-bread, and the trumpets. The artist has here attempted much more than was ever proposed in the static bas‑relief processions of the Augustan dayc and hence he has betrayed to the first glance the inability of his art to treat perspective in stone. But, except for this, the work is the best plastic representation of bodies in vigorous movement that ancient art has yielded. Not only does the whole column of soldiers plunge forward with irresistible motion, but one feels for the first time in ancient relief work that, by a daring use of backgrounds, the procession is free from the block, as it were, and moving where it will. There is something of the same quality to be seen in the panels representing hunting scenes on Constantine's p472 arch, for these were also made originally for some Flavian arch.
Of portraiture in sculpture we have not many good examples from the Flavian period, but the bust of Vespasian, now in the National Museum at Rome, reveals an art that adequately conveys the spirit of the subject through means chiefly naturalistic. Decorative painters were also experimenting, as we can see in the so‑called fourth-style work at Pompeii. There was now less of a tendency to cover large spaces of wall with copies of famous paintings of the past. The delight in new open air architectural designs, especially in those of seaside villas, had caught the imagination. Painters sought for the effects of space by opening the wall, as it were, by fanciful architectural representations of porticoes and pergolas, and by throwing into the center of such spaces a garden or villa scene. The colors were artistically chosen and the illusion pleasing, if at times fantastic. Of this post-Neronian art one critic1 has said: "Never again has European painting attained in decorative creations such freedom in the choice of colors, and in the extreme refinement of their color-sense the artists of this style have never been rivalled except by the Japanese, just as their contemporaneous sculpture can only be compared with the most delicate nature studies of Eastern Asia." And yet one feels that the imagination was rather fantastic than creative, and that these paintings at their best are only superficially decorative, suited to please the jaded taste of wealthy and luxurious spendthrifts. There is little real content in any of them. The spirit that called them forth was that which inspired the art of Fragonard.
1 Wickoff, Roman Art.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
A History of Rome
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY if its URL has a total of one *asterisk. If the URL has two **asterisks, the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use. If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 10 Dec 20