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Roman Literature Under The Empire - A.D. 14-476

Roman literature, which had risen to its highest excellence under Augustus, declined rapidly under his successors, and was finally lost with the fall of the Western empire. The language was no longer pure, and neither prose nor poetry retained the harmony and elegance of the Augustan age. A certain sadness and discontent, which marks all the later literature, forms also a striking contrast with the cheerful tone of the earlier writers. Every part of the empire, however, abounded with men of letters, and a high degree of mental cultivation seems every where to have prevailed.

Epic poetry continued to nourish, and Virgil found many imitators. The best epic writer of this period was M. Annæus Lucanus, who was born at Corduba, in Spain, in the year A.D. 38. Lucan was educated at Rome under the Stoic Cornutus, and was introduced by his uncle Seneca to the Emperor Nero. Having for a time enjoyed the patronage of Nero, he at length became the object of his jealousy and hatred, was accused of having taken part in Piso's conspiracy, and was condemned to death. He was allowed, as a favor, to put an end to his own life, and thus died, A.D. 65. Although so young, for he was scarcely twenty-seven years of age, Lucan, besides several shorter poems, produced the Pharsalia, an epic, of which he finished only ten books: it relates the wars between Cæsar and Pompey, and contains many fine thoughts and striking images. He evidently prefers Pompey to Cæsar, and possessed a strong love for liberty, which lends vigor to his verses. His language is pure, his rhythm often harmonious, but he never attains the singular delicacy and sweetness of his master, Virgil.

C. Silius Italicus, the place of whose birth is unknown, also lived during the reign of Nero, and was Consul in the year A.D. 68. He was a Stoic, and put an end to his own life in the year A.D. 100, when he was about seventy-five years of age. His poem, the Punica, is an account of the second Punic War in verse, and is chiefly valuable to the historical student. He had little inventive power, and takes but a low rank in poetry.

P. Papinius Statius, the son of the teacher of the Emperor Domitian, was carefully educated at Rome, and became renowned at an early age for his poetical talents. He spent the last years of his life at Naples, which was also the place of his birth, and died there in the year A.D. 96. He wrote the Thebais, in twelve parts; the Achilleis, in two books; the Sylvæ, a collection of poems; a tragedy, and other works. He seems to have borrowed much from earlier Greek writers, but was possessed of considerable poetical fervor.

Claudius Claudianus, who lived under Theodosius the Great and his two sons, was probably born and educated at Alexandria, but we know little of his history. He came to Rome about A.D. 395, and, under the patronage of Stilicho, rose to a high position in the state. The time and place of his death are unknown. His chief works were, 1. Raptus Proserpinæ, an unfinished poem in three parts; 2. Gigantomachia, another unfinished work; 3. De Bello Gildonico, of which we possess only the first book; and, 4. De Bello Getico, in which the poet sings the victory of Stilicho over Alaric at Pollentia. His poems have a rude vigor which sometimes strikes the attention, but are chiefly valued for the light they throw upon the Gothic wars. They are marked by many faults of taste.

Lyric poetry was little cultivated at Rome after the death of Horace; but satire, which was peculiar to the Romans, reached its highest excellence under the empire. Juvenal is still the master of this kind of writing, although he has been imitated by Boileau, Pope, and Johnson; and his contemporary Persius was also a writer of great power.

Aulus Persius Flaccus was born at Volaterræ, in Etruria, in the year A.D. 34, of a distinguished family of the equestrian rank. He was educated at Rome under the best masters, particularly under the Stoic Cornutus, with whom he lived in close friendship, as well as with Lucan, Seneca, and the most distinguished men of his time. He died at the early age of twenty-eight, leaving behind him six satires and a brief preface. Persius possessed a generous, manly character, was the foe of every kind of vice, and formed one of that graceful band of writers who maintained their independence under the terrors of a despotic government.

Decimus Junius Juvenalis, of whose life we have few particulars, was born at Aquinum A.D. 38 or 40, and came up to Rome, where he at first studied eloquence with great ardor, but at length gave himself wholly to satirical writing. He offended Domitian by his satires, it is said, and was sent by that emperor to the extreme boundary of Egypt, where he died of grief and exile; but scarcely any fact in the history of this great man has been perfectly ascertained.

We possess sixteen satires of Juvenal, the last of which, however, is of doubtful authenticity. These satires are full of noble appeals to the purest emotions of virtue, and of severe rebukes for triumphant vice. Juvenal's language is often harsh and his taste impure; but his ideas are so elevated, his perception of truth, honor, and justice so clear, that he seldom fails to win the attention of his readers.

Epigrams seem to have been a favorite mode of expressing thought at the court of Augustus, and almost every eminent Roman from the time of Cicero has left one or more of these brilliant trifles behind him. M. Valerius Martialis, the chief of the epigrammatists, was born about A.D. 40, at Bibilis, in Spain, from whence he came to Rome, when about twenty, to perfect his education. Here he lived for thirty-five years, engaged in poetical pursuits, and patronized by Titus and Domitian. He seems finally to have returned to his native land, where he was living in the year A.D. 100. His poems are about fifteen hundred in number, divided into fourteen books, and are altogether original in their design. They are always witty, often indecent, and contain many personal allusions which can not now be understood. Martial is one of the most gifted of the Roman writers.

The practice of writing epigrams was preserved until a very late period. Seneca, Pliny the younger, Hadrian, and many others, were fond of composing them; and in modern times the epigram has been a favorite kind of poetry with most good writers.

Phædrus, who lived under Augustus and Tiberius, wrote pleasing fables. Calphurnius and Ausonius imitated Virgil's bucolics, and fragments of many other poets are preserved, whom we can not mention here.

Historical writers also abounded under the empire. Velleius Paterculus, an excellent historian descended from a patrician family, was born about B.C. 19. He was the friend and flatterer of Tiberius, and rose, in consequence, to several high offices. He was Quæstor in perhaps A.D. 7, and Prætor in A.D. 15. His Historicæ Romanæ, two books of which remain, is an abridgment of the history of the world, written in a clear and pleasing style, and is, in general, trustworthy. He flatters his benefactors, Augustus and Tiberius, but his fine tribute to the memory of Cicero shows that he felt a strong sympathy with that chief of the Republicans.

Valerius Maximus, who also lived under Tiberius, wrote a considerable work, composed of remarkable examples of virtue, and other anecdotes, collected from Roman or foreign history. He had plainly a just conception of moral purity, although he dedicates his book to Tiberius. His style is inflated and tasteless, but the work is not without interest.

Next after Valerius arose Tacitus, the chief of the imperial prose writers. Tacitus, a plebeian by birth, was born at Interamna. The year of his birth is not known, but must have lain between A.D. 47 and A.D. 61. Tacitus served in the army under Vespasian and Titus. He rose to many honors in the state, but in A.D. 89 left Rome, together with his wife, the daughter of the excellent Agricola. He returned thither in A.D. 97, and was made Consul by the Emperor Nerva. His death took place, no doubt, after A.D. 117. So few are the particulars that remain of the life of this eminent man; but the disposition and sentiments of Tacitus may be plainly discovered in his writings. He was honest, candid, a sincere lover of virtue. He lamented incessantly the fall of the old republic, and does not spare Augustus or Tiberius, whom he believed to be its destroyers. Like Juvenal, whom he resembled in the severity of his censure as well as the greatness of his powers, Tacitus wrote in a sad, desponding temper of mind, as if he foresaw the swift decline of his country.

His style is wholly his own - concise, obscure, strong, forever arousing the attention. He could never have attained the easy elegance of Livy, and he never tells a story with the grace of that unequaled narrator, but he has more vigor in his descriptions, more reality in his characters.

The life of his father-in-law Agricola is one of the most delightful of biographies. His account of the Germans was a silent satire upon the corrupt condition of the Roman state. The Historiarum Libri is a history of his own age, from the fall of Galba to the death of Domitian, and was probably designed to embrace the reigns of Nerva and Trajan. A small portion only of this work is preserved. The Annales relate the history of Rome from the death of Augustus to that of Nero, but are also imperfect. A treatise upon the orators is also attributed to the historian. Tacitus and Juvenal are the last great names in Roman literature.

Quintus Curtius Rufus, an interesting writer, who lived perhaps under Claudius or Tiberius, his true period being uncertain, wrote, in ten books, an account of the exploits of Alexander the Great. He was succeeded by C. Suetonius Tranquillus, who came to Rome during the reign of Domitian, and there studied rhetoric and grammar. Under Hadrian he fell into disgrace and went into exile: the period of his death is unknown. Suetonius wrote the lives of the twelve Cæsars, ending with Domitian. His language is good, and he paints with uncommon minuteness the vices as well as the virtues of his subjects; he abounds, too, in particulars which throw light upon the manners of the Romans. Suetonius also wrote several short treatises, while various biographies have been attributed to him which probably belong to inferior writers.

L. Annæus Florus, who perhaps lived under Trajan, wrote an epitome of Roman history. Justin, whose period is unknown, wrote or abridged from an earlier author, Trogus, a history of the world. The Scriptores Historiæ Augustæ is a collection of writers of little merit, who flourished in different periods of the empire. Aurelius Victor, who was probably Præfect of Rome under Theodosius, wrote Origo Gentis Romanæ, only a small portion of which has been preserved, and several other historical works. Eutropius, who served under Julian against the Persians, composed a brief history of Rome, written in a pure and natural style.

Ammianus Marcellinus, who lived under Valens, Valentinian, and Theodosius until A.D. 410, and was a Greek by birth, wrote a history of the empire from Nerva to the death of Valens, A.D. 378. A large part of this work is lost. Ammianus abounds in digressions and descriptions, and is, on that account, the more entertaining. His manner can not be praised.

The Spaniard Orosius concludes the list of the Latin historians. Orosius was a Christian presbyter, and, while defending Christianity, paints a lamentable picture of the condition of the pagan world. He borrowed from Justin and other writers, and lived in the fifth century.

Rhetoric continued to be cultivated, but eloquence no longer possessed the power which it held under the Republic. The speeches now delivered were chiefly declamations upon unimportant themes. M. Annæus Seneca, the father of the philosopher, came to Rome from his native city Corduba, in Spain, during the reign of Augustus, and became a famous rhetorician. M. Fabius Quintilianus, a greater name in literature, was born A.D. 42, at Calgurris, in Spain, but, as was customary with men of merit at that period, went up to Rome, and became celebrated as a teacher of rhetoric. He was a person of excellent character, and, besides practicing at the bar, rose to the consulship. Having passed many years in politics or the law, Quintilian at last returned to his old profession, and in the close of his life gave himself wholly to letters. He now wrote his work upon oratory, Libri duodecim Institutionis Oratoriæ. In this valuable work he seeks to restore the purity of the language, inculcates simplicity, and shows an excellent taste. The younger Pliny was also a famous orator or declaimer.

The Romance, or modern novel, is also thought to have begun in the first century with the satirical tale ascribed to Petronius Arbiter, or perhaps with the translation of the Milesian tales of Aristides from the Greek by Sisenna. The Petronii Arbitri Satiricon is a romance in prose and verse, and was probably written in the first century by an author of whom nothing is known. It relates the adventures of a certain Encolopius, and satirizes the vices and follies of the age. The language of this work is pure, the wit lively, but indecent: only a portion, however, of the Satiricon has been preserved. During the age of the Antonines arose Appuleius, the best known of the ancient writers of tales. He was born at Madaura, in Africa, but went to Carthage, and from thence to Athens, where he was initiated into the Grecian mysteries, and studied the Platonic philosophy. Appuleius was an agreeable speaker, and had filled his mind with the learning of his age; but his fame with posterity rests upon his novel Metamorphoseon, in which he strives to correct the vices of his contemporaries. In this work a vicious young man is transformed into an ass, under which form he goes through many amusing adventures, but is at last changed to a new man through the influence of the mysteries. The story is full of episodes, the moral good, but the language shows the decline of literary taste.

Philosophy, since the time of Cicero, had become a favorite study with the Romans, although they produced no remarkable philosopher. Seneca, the most eminent of them, was the son of M. Annæus Seneca, the rhetorician. He was probably born at Corduba, in Spain, soon after the Christian era, and was educated by the best masters at Rome. He possessed an active intellect, was early renowned, and held various high offices in the state. Having been the preceptor of Nero, he was finally condemned to death by that monster, and put an end to his life A.D. 65. Seneca was a Stoic, and taught self-control, tranquillity of mind, and contempt for the changes of fortune. His various essays and other writings have always been admired, although he wanted a correct taste, and is often affected and rhetorical. He possessed great wealth, which he either inherited or accumulated. His town house was adorned with marbles and citron-wood, and his country villas, of which he had several, were filled with costly luxuries; yet his morals were probably pure, and he was much beloved for his generosity and fidelity to his many friends.

The elder Pliny, Plinius Secundus Major, another famous philosopher, was born in the year A.D. 23, either at Como or Verona. He served with the army in Germany, and rose high in office under Vespasian. Being in command of the fleet at Misenum during the first eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79, in order to gratify his curiosity he remained too long near the burning mountain, and was suffocated by its exhalations. Pliny passed his whole life in study, and was never satisfied unless engaged in acquiring knowledge. His Historia Naturalis resembles the Cosmos of Humboldt, and passes in review over the whole circle of human knowledge. It treats of the heavens, of the earth and its inhabitants, of the various races of man, of animals, trees, flowers, minerals, the contents of the sea and land, of the arts and sciences; and shows that the author possessed an intellect of almost unequaled activity. His nephew, the younger Pliny, who lived under Trajan, and was the favorite correspondent of that emperor, is remembered for his agreeable letters, and the purity and dignity of his character.

Grammatical studies and critical writings also afforded employment for many intelligent Romans; and every part of the empire seems to have been filled with cultivated men, who, possessing wealth and leisure, gave themselves to literary studies. Aulus Gellius, one of the best known of the grammarians, lived during the period of the Antonines. His Noctes Atticæ is a critical work in twenty books, in which he discusses many questions in language, philosophy, and science. He seems to have passed his life in traveling over Italy and Greece, collecting materials for this work, and, wherever he goes he never fails to meet with agreeable, intelligent friends, who delight, like himself, in improving conversation.

Aurelius Macrobius, another well-known grammarian, lived during the fifth century. His Commentary on the Dream of Scipio is full of the scientific speculations of his age. His Saturnalia contains many extracts from the best Roman writers, with criticisms upon them, in which he detects the plagiarisms of Virgil, and observes the faults as well as the beauties of the orators and poets of Rome. The works of other grammarians have been preserved or are partly known to us, among which are those of Servius, Festus, Priscianus, and Isidorus.

The study of the law, too, flourished in uncommon excellence under the emperors, and nearly two thousand legal works were condensed in the Digests of Justinian, few of which belonged to the Republican period. Under Augustus and Tiberius, Q. Antistius Labeo founded the famous school of the Proculians. He left four hundred volumes upon legal subjects. His rival, C. Ateius Capito, founded the school of the Sabinians, and was also a profuse writer. Under Hadrian, Salvius Julianus prepared the Edictum Perpetuum, about the year A.D. 132, which condensed all the edicts of former magistrates into a convenient code. Papinianus, Ulpianus, and Paulus were also celebrated for their legal writings. The only complete legal work, however, which we possess from this period, is a Commentary by Gaius, who lived probably under Hadrian. This valuable treatise was discovered in the year 1816 by the historian Niebuhr, in the library of Verona. It contains a clear account of the principles of the Roman law, and the Institutes of Justinian are little more than a transcript of those of Gaius.

Various medical writers also belong to the Imperial period, the most important of whom is A. Cornelius Celsus. Works on agriculture were also written by Columella, Palladius, and others, which serve to show the decline of that pursuit among the Romans. Geography, mathematics, and architecture were also cultivated; but of most of these scientific authors only the name is preserved.

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