III. From the Union of Italy to the Subjugation of Carthage and the Greek States

Chapter XIV – Literature and Art

The influences which stimulated the growth of Roman literature were of a character altogether peculiar and hardly paralleled in any other nation. To estimate them correctly, it is necessary in the first place that we should glance at the instruction of the people and its recreations during this period. 

Knowledge of Languages

Language lies at the root of all mental culture; and this was especially the case in Rome. In a community where so much importance was attached to speeches and documents, and where the burgess, at an age which is still according to modern ideas regarded as boyhood, was already entrusted with the uncontrolled management of his property and might perhaps find it necessary to make formal speeches to the assembled community, not only was great value set all along on the fluent and polished use of the mother-tongue, but efforts were early made to acquire a command of it in the years of boyhood. 

The Greek language also was already generally diffused in Italy in the time of Hannibal. In the higher circles a knowledge of that language, which was the general medium of intercourse for ancient civilization, had long been a far from uncommon accomplishment; and now, when the change of Rome’s position in the world had so enormously increased the intercourse with foreigners and the foreign traffic, such a knowledge was, if not necessary, yet presumably of very material importance to the merchant as well as the statesman. 

By means of the Italian slaves and freedmen, a very large portion of whom were Greek or half-Greek by birth the Greek language and Greek knowledge to a certain extent reached even the lower ranks of the population, especially in the capital. The comedies of this period may convince us that even the humbler classes of the capital were familiar with a sort of Latin, which could no more be properly understood without a knowledge of Greek than the English of Sterne or the German of Wieland without a knowledge of French.(1) 

1. A distinct set of Greek expressions, such as -stratioticus-, -machaera-, -nauclerus-, -trapezita-, -danista-, -drapeta-, – oenopolium-, -bolus-, -malacus-, -morus-, -graphicus-, -logus-, – apologus-, -techna-, -schema-, forms quite a special feature in the language of Plautus. Translations are seldom attached, and that only in the case of words not embraced in the circle of ideas to which those which we have cited belong; for instance, in the -Truculentus- –in a verse, however, that is perhaps a later addition (i. 1, 60) –we find the explanation: –phronesis– -est sapientia-. Fragments of Greek also are common, as in the -Casina-, (iii. 6, 9): 

–Pragmata moi parecheis– — -Dabo- –mega kakon–, -ut opinor-. 

Greek puns likewise occur, as in the -Bacchides- (240): 

-opus est chryso Chrysalo-. 

Ennius in the same way takes for granted that the etymological meaning of Alexandros and Andromache is known to the spectators (Varro, de L. L. vii. 82). Most characteristic of all are the half-Greek formations, such as -ferritribax-, -plagipatida-, -pugilice-, or in the -Miles Gloriosus- (213): 

-Fuge! euscheme hercle astitit sic dulice et comoedice!- 

Men of senatorial families, however, not only addressed a Greek audience in Greek, but even published their speeches–Tiberius Gracchus (consul in 577 and 591) so published a speech which he had given at Rhodes–and in the time of Hannibal wrote their chronicles in Greek, as we shall have occasion to mention more particularly in the sequel. Individuals went still farther. The Greeks honoured Flamininus by complimentary demonstrations in the Roman language,(2) and he returned the compliment; the “great general of the Aeneiades” dedicated his votive gifts to the Greek gods after the Greek fashion in Greek distichs.(3) 

2. Cf. III. VIII. Greece Free

3. One of these epigrams composed in the name of Flamininus runs thus: 

–Zenos io kraipnaisi gegathotes ipposunaisi
Kouroi, io Spartas Tundaridai basileis,
Aineadas Titos ummin upertatos opase doron
Ellenon teuxas paisin eleutherian.– 

Cato reproached another senator with the fact, that he had the effrontery to deliver Greek recitations with the due modulation at Greek revels. 

Under the influence of such circumstances Roman instruction developed itself. It is a mistaken opinion, that antiquity was materially inferior to our own times in the general diffusion of elementary attainments. Even among the lower classes and slaves there was much reading, writing, and counting: in the case of a slave steward, for instance, Cato, following the example of Mago, takes for granted the ability to read and write. Elementary instruction, as well as instruction in Greek, must have been long before this period imparted to a very considerable extent in Rome. But the epoch now before us initiated an education, the aim of which was to communicate not merely an outward expertness, but a real mental culture. 

Hitherto in Rome a knowledge of Greek had conferred on its possessor as little superiority in civil or social life, as a knowledge of French perhaps confers at the present day in a hamlet of German Switzerland; and the earliest writers of Greek chronicles may have held a position among the other senators similar to that of the farmer in the fens of Holstein who has been a student and in the evening, when he comes home from the plough, takes down his Virgil from the shelf. 

A man who assumed airs of greater importance by reason of his Greek, was reckoned a bad patriot and a fool; and certainly even in Cato’s time one who spoke Greek ill or not at all might still be a man of rank and become senator and consul. But a change was already taking place. 

The internal decomposition of Italian nationality had already, particularly in the aristocracy, advanced so far as to render the substitution of a general humane culture for that nationality inevitable: and the craving after a more advanced civilization was already powerfully stirring the minds of men. Instruction in the Greek language as it were spontaneously met this craving. 

The classical literature of Greece, the Iliad and still more the Odyssey, had all along formed the basis of that instruction; the overflowing treasures of Greek art and science were already by this means spread before the eyes of the Italians. Without any outward revolution, strictly speaking, in the character of the instruction the natural result was, that the empirical study of the language became converted into a higher study of the literature; that the general culture connected with such literary studies was communicated in increased measure to the scholars; and that these availed themselves of the knowledge thus acquired to dive into that Greek literature which most powerfully influenced the spirit of the age –the tragedies of Euripides and the comedies of Menander. 

In a similar way greater importance came to be attached to instruction in Latin. The higher society of Rome began to feel the need, if not of exchanging their mother-tongue for Greek, at least of refining it and adapting it to the changed state of culture; and for this purpose too they found themselves in every respect dependent on the Greeks. The economic arrangements of the Romans placed the work of elementary instruction in the mother-tongue–like every other work held in little estimation and performed for hire–chiefly in the hands of slaves, freedmen, or foreigners, or in other words chiefly in the hands of Greeks or half-Greeks;(4) which was attended with the less difficulty, because the Latin alphabet was almost identical with the Greek and the two languages possessed a close and striking affinity. 

4. Such, e. g, was Chilo, the slave of Cato the Elder, who earned money en bis master’s behalf as a teacher of children (Plutarch, Cato Mai. 20). 

But this was the least part of the matter; the importance of the study of Greek in a formal point of view exercised a far deeper influence over the study of Latin. 

Any one who knows how singularly difficult it is to find suitable matter and suitable forms for the higher intellectual culture of youth, and how much more difficult it is to set aside the matter and forms once found, will understand how it was that the Romans knew no mode of supplying the desideratum of a more advanced Latin instruction except that of simply transferring the solution of this problem, which instruction in the Greek language and literature furnished, to instruction in Latin. 

In the present day a process entirely analogous goes on under our own eyes in the transference of the methods of instruction from the dead to the living languages. 

But unfortunately the chief requisite for such a transference was wanting. The Romans could, no doubt, learn to read and write Latin by means of the Twelve Tables; but a Latin culture presupposed a literature, and no such literature existed in Rome.

The Stage under Greek Influence

To this defect was added a second. We have already described the multiplication of the amusements of the Roman people. The stage had long played an important part in these recreations; the chariot-races formed strictly the principal amusement in all of them, but these races uniformly took place only on one, viz. the concluding, day, while the earlier days were substantially devoted to stage- entertainments. But for long these stage-representations consisted chiefly of dances and jugglers’ feats; the improvised chants, which were produced on these occasions, had neither dialogue nor plot.(5) It was only now that the Romans looked around them for a real drama. 

5. Cf. II. IX. Ballad-Singers

The Roman popular festivals were throughout under the influence of the Greeks, whose talent for amusing and for killing time naturally rendered them purveyors of pleasure for the Romans. Now no national amusement was a greater favourite in Greece, and none was more varied, than the theatre; it could not but speedily attract the attention of those who provided the Roman festivals and their staff of assistants. 

The earlier Roman stage-chant contained within it a dramatic germ capable perhaps of development; but to develop the drama from that germ required on the part of the poet and the public a genial power of giving and receiving, such as was not to be found among the Romans at all, and least of all at this period; and, had it been possible to find it, the impatience of those entrusted with the amusement of the multitude would hardly have allowed to the noble fruit peace and leisure to ripen. In this case too there was an outward want, which the nation was unable to satisfy; the Romans desired a theatre, but the pieces were wanting. 

Rise of a Roman Literature

On these elements Roman literature was based; and its defective character was from the first and necessarily the result of such an origin. All real art has its root in individual freedom and a cheerful enjoyment of life, and the germs of such an art were not wanting in Italy; but, when Roman training substituted for freedom and joyousness the sense of belonging to the community and the consciousness of duty, art was stifled and, instead of growing, could not but pine away. The culminating point of Roman development was the period which had no literature. 

It was not till Roman nationality began to give way and Hellenico-cosmopolite tendencies began to prevail, that literature made its appearance at Rome in their train. Accordingly from the beginning, and by stringent internal necessity, it took its stand on Greek ground and in broad antagonism to the distinctively Roman national spirit. Roman poetry above all had its immediate origin not from the inward impulse of the poets, but from the outward demands of the school, which needed Latin manuals, and of the stage, which needed Latin dramas. 

Now both institutions–the school and the stage–were thoroughly anti-Roman and revolutionary. The gaping and staring idleness of the theatre was an abomination to the sober earnestness and the spirit of activity which animated the Roman of the olden type; and–inasmuch as it was the deepest and noblest conception lying at the root of the Roman commonwealth, that within the circle of Roman burgesses there should be neither master nor slave, neither millionnaire nor beggar, but that above all a like faith and a like culture should characterize all Romans–the school and the necessarily exclusive school-culture were far more dangerous still, and were in fact utterly destructive of the sense of equality. 

The school and the theatre became the most effective levers in the hands of the new spirit of the age, and all the more so that they used the Latin tongue. Men might perhaps speak and write Greek and yet not cease to be Romans; but in this case they accustomed themselves to speak in the Roman language, while the whole inward being and life were Greek. It is not one of the most pleasing, but it is one of the most remarkable and in a historical point of view most instructive, facts in this brilliant era of Roman conservatism, that during its course Hellenism struck root in the whole field of intellect not immediately political, and that the -maitre de plaisir- of the great public and the schoolmaster in close alliance created a Roman literature. 

Livius Andronicus

In the very earliest Roman author the later development appears, as it were, in embryo. The Greek Andronikos (from before 482, till after 547), afterwards as a Roman burgess called Lucius(6) Livius Andronicus, came to Rome at an early age in 482 among the other captives taken at Tarentum(7) and passed into the possession of the conqueror of Sena(8) Marcus Livius Salinator (consul 535, 547). 

6. The later rule, by which the freedman necessarily bore the -praenomen- of his patron, was not yet applied in republican Rome. 

7. Cf. II. VII. Capture of Tarentum

8. Cf. III. VI. Battle of Sena

He was employed as a slave, partly in acting and copying texts, partly in giving instruction in the Latin and Greek languages, which he taught both to the children of his master and to other boys of wealthy parents in and out of the house. He distinguished himself so much in this way that his master gave him freedom, and even the authorities, who not unfrequently availed themselves of his services–commissioning him, for instance, to prepare a thanksgiving-chant after the fortunate turn taken by the Hannibalic war in 547–out of regard for him conceded to the guild of poets and actors a place for their common worship in the temple of Minerva on the Aventine. 

His authorship arose out of his double occupation. As schoolmaster he translated the Odyssey into Latin, in order that the Latin text might form the basis of his Latin, as the Greek text was the basis of his Greek, instruction; and this earliest of Roman school-books maintained its place in education for centuries. As an actor, he not only like every other wrote for himself the texts themselves, but he also published them as books, that is, he read them in public and diffused them by copies. What was still more important, he substituted the Greek drama for the old essentially lyrical stage poetry. It was in 514, a year after the close of the first Punic war, that the first play was exhibited on the Roman stage. 

This creation of an epos, a tragedy, and a comedy in the Roman language, and that by a man who was more Roman than Greek, was historically an event; but we cannot speak of his labours as having any artistic value. They make no sort of claim to originality; viewed as translations, they are characterized by a barbarism which is only the more perceptible, that this poetry does not naively display its own native simplicity, but strives, after a pedantic and stammering fashion, to imitate the high artistic culture of the neighbouring people.

The wide deviations from the original have arisen not from the freedom, but from the rudeness of the imitation; the treatment is sometimes insipid, sometimes turgid, the language harsh and quaint.(9) 

9. One of the tragedies of Livius presented the line– 

-Quem ego nefrendem alui Iacteam immulgens opem.- 

The verses of Homer (Odyssey, xii. 16): 

–oud ara Kirken
ex Aideo elthontes elethomen, alla mal oka
elth entunamene ama d amphipoloi pheron aute
siton kai krea polla kai aithopa oinon eruthron.–

are thus interpreted: 

-Topper citi ad aedis–venimus Circae
Simul duona coram(?)–portant ad navis,
Milia dlia in isdem–inserinuntur.-

The most remarkable feature is not so much the barbarism as the thoughtlessness of the translator, who, instead of sending Circe to Ulysses, sends Ulysses to Circe. Another still more ridiculous mistake is the translation of –aidoioisin edoka– (Odyss. xv. 373) by -lusi- (Festus, Ep. v. affatim, p. ii, Muller). Such traits are not in a historical point of view matters of difference; we recognize in them the stage of intellectual culture which irked these earliest Roman verse-making schoolmasters, and we at the same time perceive that, although Andronicus was born in Tarentum, Greek cannot have been properly his mother-tongue. 

We have no difficulty in believing the statement of the old critics of art, that, apart from the compulsory reading at school, none of the poems of Livius were taken up a second time. Yet these labours were in various respects norms for succeeding times. 

They began the Roman translated literature, and naturalized the Greek metres in Latium. The reason why these were adopted only in the dramas, while the Odyssey of Livius was written in the national Saturnian measure, evidently was that the iambuses and trochees of tragedy and comedy far more easily admitted of imitation in Latin than the epic dactyls. 

But this preliminary stage of literary development was soon passed. The epics and dramas of Livius were regarded by posterity, and undoubtedly with perfect justice, as resembling the rigid statues of Daedalus destitute of emotion or expression–curiosities rather than works of art. 

But in the following generation, now that the foundations were once laid, there arose a lyric, epic, and dramatic art; and it is of great importance, even in a historical point of view, to trace this poetical development.


From: The History of Rome, by Theodor Mommsen
Translated with the sanction of the author by William Purdie Dickson


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