Anno Urbis - The Roman Empire Online

The Story of Rome From the Earliest Times to the End of the Republic

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In the earliest times the education of young Romans was probably confined to instruction in dancing and music, though they became acquainted with the processes of agriculture by being called upon to practise them in company with their elders. It was not long before the elementary attainments of reading, writing, and counting were brought within their reach, even among the lower orders and the slaves, and we know that it was thought important to make the latter class proficient in many departments of scholarship.

The advance in the direction of real mental culture was, however, not great until after the contact with Greece. So long as the Romans remained a strong and self-centred people, deriving little but tribute from peoples beyond the Italian peninsula, and looking with disdain upon all outside that limit, there was not much to stimulate their mental progress; but when contrast with another civilization showed that there was much power to be gained by knowledge, it was naturally more eagerly sought. The slaves and other foreigners, to whom the instruction of the children was assigned, were familiar with the Greek language, and it had the great advantage over Latin of being the casket in which an illustrious literature was preserved. For this reason Roman progress in letters was founded upon that of Greece.

The Roman parent for a long time made the Twelve Tables the text-book from which his children were taught, thus giving them a smattering of reading, of writing, and of the laws of the land at once. Roman authorship and the study of grammar, however, were about coincident in their beginnings with the temporary cessation of war and the second closing of the temple of Janus. Cato the elder prepared manuals for the instruction of youth (or, perhaps, one manual in several parts), which gave his views on morals, oratory, medicine, war, and agriculture (a sort of encyclopædia), and a history entitled Origines, which recounted the traditions of the kings, told the story of the origin of the Italian towns, of the Punic wars, and of other events down to the time of his own death. [Footnote: See page 153. "Cato's encyclopædia... was little more than an embodiment of the old Roman household knowledge, and truly when compared with the Hellenic culture of the period, was scanty enough."--MOMMSEN, bk. IV., ch. 12.] This seems to have originated in the author's natural interest in the education of his son, a stimulating cause of much literature of the same kind since.

The Roman knowledge of medicine came first from the Etruscans, to whom they are said to have owed so much other culture, and subsequently from the Greeks. The first person to make a distinct profession of medicine at Rome, however, was not an Etruscan, but a Greek, named Archagathus, who settled there in the year 219, just before the second Punic war broke out. He was received with great respect, and a shop was bought for him at the public expense; but his practice, which was largely surgical, proved too severe to be popular. In earlier days the father had been the family physician, and Cato vigorously reviled the foreign doctors, and like the true conservative that he was, strove to bring back the good old times that his memory painted; but his efforts did not avail, and the professional practice of the healing art not only became one of the most lucrative in Rome, but remained for a long period almost a monopoly in the hands of foreigners. Science, among the latest branches of knowledge to be freed from the swaddling-clothes of empiricism, received, in its applied form, some attention, though mathematics and physics were not specially favored as subjects of investigation.

The progress of Roman culture is distinctly shown by a comparison of the curriculum of Cato with that of Marcus Terentius Varro, a long-time friend of Cicero, though ten years his senior. [Footnote: Varro is said to have written of his youth. "For me when a boy there sufficed a single rough coat and a single undergarment, shoes without stockings, a horse without a saddle. I had no daily warm bath, and but seldom a river bath." Still, he utters warnings against over-feeding and over- sleeping, as well as against cakes and high living, pointing to his own youthful training, and says that dogs were in his later years more judiciously cared for than children.] Varro obtained from Quintilian the title "the most learned of the Romans," and St. Augustine said that it was astonishing that he could write so much, and that one could scarcely believe that anybody could find time even to read all that he wrote. He was proscribed by the triumvirs at the same time that Cicero was, but was fortunate enough to escape and subsequently to be placed under the protection of Augustus. Cato thought that a proper man ought to study oratory, medicine, husbandry, war, and law, and was at liberty to look into Greek literature a little, that he might cull from the mass of chaff and rubbish, as he affected to deem it, some serviceable maxims of practical experience, but he might not study it thoroughly. Varro extended the limit of allowed and fitting studies to grammar, logic, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, music, medicine, and architecture.

Young children were led to their first studies by the kindergarten path of amusement, learning their letters as we learned them ourselves by means of blocks, and spelling by repeating the letters and words in unison after the instructor. Dictation exercises were turned to account in the study of grammar and orthography, and writing was taught by imitation, though the "copy-book" was not paper, but a tablet covered with a thin coating of wax, and the pen a stylus, pencil-shaped, sharp at one end and flat at the other, so that the mark made by the point might be smoothed out by reversing the instrument. Thus vertere stilum, to turn the stylus, meant to correct or to erase. [Footnote: See illustrations on pages 23 and 219.] The first school-book seems to have been an Odyssey, by one Livius Andronicus, probably a Tarentine, who was captured during the wars in Southern Italy. He became a slave, of course, and was made instructor of his master's children. He familiarized himself with the Latin language, and wrote dramas in it. Thus though he was a native of Magna Græcia, he is usually mentioned as the first Roman poet. It is not known whether his Odyssey and other writings were imitations of the Greek or translations, but it matters little; they were immediately appreciated and held their own so well that they were read in schools as late as the time of Horace. This first awakener of Roman literary effort was born at the time of Pyrrhus and died before the battle of Zama.

A few other Roman writers of prominence claim our attention. With some reason the Romans looked upon Ennius as the father of their literature. He, like Andronicus, was a native of Magna Græcia, claiming lordly ancestors, and boasting that the spirit of Homer, after passing through many mortal bodies, had entered his own. His works remain only in fragments gathered from others who had quoted them, and we cannot form any accurate opinion of his rank as a poet; but we know that his success was so great that Cicero considered him the prince of Roman song, that Virgil was indebted to him for many thoughts and expressions, and that even the brilliance of the Augustan poets did not lessen his reputation. His utterances were vigorous, bold, fresh, and full of the spirit of the brave old days. He found the language rough, uncultivated, and unformed, and left it softer, more harmonious, and possessed of a system of versification. He was born in 239 B.C., the year after the first plays of Andronicus had been exhibited on the Roman stage, and died just before the complete establishment of the universal empire of Rome as a consequence of the battle of Pydna. [Footnote: See Page 164.]

At the head of the list of Roman prose annalists stands the name of Quintus Fabius Pictor, at one time a senator, who wrote a history of his nation beginning, probably, like other Roman works of its class, with the coming of Æneas, and narrating later events, to the end of the second Punic war, with some degree of minuteness. He wrote in Greek, and made the usual effort to preserve and transmit a sufficiently good impression of the greatness of his own people. That Pictor was a senator proves his social importance, which is still further exemplified by the fact that after the carnage of Cannæ, he was sent to Delphi to learn for his distressed countrymen how they might appease the angry gods. We only know that his history was of great value from the frequent use that was made of it by subsequent investigators in the antiquities of the Roman people, because no manuscript of it has been preserved.

Titus Maccius, surnamed, from the flatness of his feet, Plautus, was the greatest among the comic poets of Rome. Of humble origin, he was driven to literature by his necessities, and it was while turning the crank of a baker's hand-mill that he began the work by which he is now known. He wrote three plays which were accepted by the managers of the public games, and he was thus able to turn his back upon menial drudgery. Born at an Umbrian village during the first Punic war, not far from the year when Regulus was taken, [Footnote: See page 133.] he came to Rome at an early age, and after he began to write, produced a score or more of plays which captivated both the learned and the uneducated by their truth to the life that they depicted, and they held their high reputation long after the death of the author. Moderns have also attested their merit, and our great dramatist in his amusing Comedy of Errors imitated the Menoechmi of this early play-wright. [Footnote: Rude farces, known as Atellanæ Fabula, were introduced into Rome after the contact with the Campanians, from one of whose towns, Atella, they received their name. Though they were at a later time divided into acts, they seem to have been at first simply improvised raillery and satire without dramatic connection. The Atellan plays were later than the imitations of Etruscan acting mentioned on page 110.]

Publius Terentius Afer, commonly known as Terrence, the second and last of the comic poets, was of no higher social position than Plautus, and was no more a Roman than the other writers we have referred to, for he was a native of Carthage, Rome's great rival, where he was born at the time that Hannibal was a refugee at the court of Antiochus at Ephesus. In spite of his foreign origin, Terence was of sufficient ability to exchange the slave-pen of Carthage for the society of the best circles in Rome, and he attained to such purity and ease in the use of his adopted tongue that Cicero and Cæsar scarcely surpass him in those respects. His first play, the Andria (the Woman of Andros), was produced in 166 B.C., the year before Polybius and the other Achæans were transported to Rome. [Footnote: See page 164; and portrait, page 141] It has been imitated and copied in modern times, and notably by Sir Richard Steele in his Conscious Lovers. Andria was followed by Hecyra (the Stepmother), Heautontimoroumenos, (the Self- Tormentor), Eunuchus (the Eunuch), Phormio (named from a parasite who is an active agent in the plot), and Adelphi (the Brothers), the plot of which was mainly derived from a Greek play of the same title. This foreign influence is further shown in the names of these plays, which are Greek.

Cato, the Censor, found time among his varied public labors to contribute to the literature of his language. His Origines and other works have already been mentioned. [Footnote: See pages 153 and 239.] The varied literary productions of Cicero have also come under our notice, [Footnote: See page 202] but they deserve more attention, though they are too many to be enumerated. Surpassing all others in the art of public speaking, he was evidently well prepared to write on rhetoric and oratory as he did; but his general information and scholarly taste led him to go far beyond this limit, and he made considerable investigations in the domains of politics, history, and philosophy, law, theology, and morals, besides practising his hand in his earlier years on the manufacture of verses that have not added to his reputation. The writings of Cicero of greatest interest to us now are his orations and correspondence, both of which give us intimate information concerning life and events that is of inestimable value, and it is conveyed in a literary style at once so appropriate and attractive that it is itself forgotten in the impressive interest of the narrative. The period covered by the eight hundred letters of Cicero that have been preserved is one of the utmost importance in Roman history, and the author and his correspondents were in the hottest of the exciting movements of the time.

When he writes without reserve, he gives his modern readers confidential revelations of the utmost piquancy; and when he words his epistles with diplomatic care, he displays with equal acuteness, to the student familiar with the intrigues of public life at Rome at the time, the sinuosities of contemporary statesmanship and the wiles of the wary politician, and the revelation is all the more entertaining and important because it is an unintentional exhibition. The orations of Cicero are likewise storehouses of details connected with public and private life, gathered with the minute care of an advocate persistently in earnest and determined not to allow any item to pass unnoticed that might affect the decision of his cause.

The learned Varro, already mentioned, deserves far more attention than we can afford him. He had the advantage at an early age of the acquaintance of a scholar of high attainments in Greek and Latin literature, who was well acquainted also with the history of his own country, from whom he imbibed a love of intellectual pursuits. During the wars with the pirates (in which he obtained the naval crown) and with Mithridates, he held a high command, and after supporting Pompey and the senate during the civil struggles, he was compelled to surrender to Cæsar (though he was not changed in his opinions), and passed over to Greece, where he was finally overcome by the dictator, and owed his subsequent opportunities for study to the clemency of his conqueror, who gave him pardon after the battle of Pharsalia. All the rest of his life was passed aloof from the storm that raged around him, the circumstances of his proscription and pardon being the only indication of his personal connection with it. He died in the year 28 B.C., after the temple of Janus had been closed the third time, when Augustus had entered upon the enjoyment of his absolute power.

Of nearly five hundred works that Varro is said to have written, one only has come down to our time complete, though some portions of another are also preserved. The first is a laboriously methodical and thorough treatise on agriculture. The other work (a treatise on Latin grammar) is of value in its mutilated and imperfect state (it seems never to have received its author's final revision), because it preserves many terms and forms that would otherwise have been lost, besides much curious information concerning ancient civil and religious usages. In regard to the derivation of words, his principles are sound, but his practice is often amusingly absurd. We must remember, however, that the science of language did not advance beyond infancy until after our own century had opened. The great reputation of Varro was founded upon a work now lost, entitled "Book of Antiquities," in the first part of which he discussed the creation and history of man, especially of man in Italy from the foundation of the city in 753 B.C. (which date he established), not omitting reference to Æneas, of course, and presenting details of the manners and social customs of the people during all their career. In a second part Varro gave his attention to Divine Antiquities, and as St. Augustine drew largely from it in his "City of God," we may be said to be familiar with it at second hand. It was a complete mythology of Italy, minutely describing every thing relating to the services of religion, the festivals, temples, offerings, priests, and so on. Probably the loss of the works of Varro may be accounted for by their lack of popular interest, or by their infelicities of style, which rendered them little attractive to readers.

Julius Cæsar must be included among the authors of Rome, though most of his works are lost, his Commentaries (mentioned on p. 226) being the only one remaining. This book is written in Latin of great purity, and shows that the author was master of a clear style, though the nature of the work did not admit him to exhibit many of the graces of diction. The Commentaries seem to have been put into form in winter quarters, though roughly written during the actual campaigns. Cæsar always took pleasure in literary pursuits and in the society of men of letters.

Valerius Catullus, a contemporary of the writers just named, was born when Cinna was Consul (B.C. 87), and died at the age of thirty or forty, for the dates given as that of his death are quite doubtful. His father was a man of means and a friend of Cæsar, whom he frequently entertained. Catullus owned a villa near Tibur, but he took up his abode at Rome when very young, and mingled freely in the gayest society, the expensive pleasures of which made great inroads upon his moderate wealth. Like other Romans, he looked to a career in the provinces for means of improving his fortune, but was disappointed, and like our own Chaucer, but more frequently, he pours forth lamentations to his empty purse. He was evidently a friend of most of the prominent men of letters of his time, and he entered freely into the debauchery of the period. Thus his verse gives a representation of the debased manners of the day in gay society. His style was remarkably felicitous, and it is said that he adorned all that he touched. Most of his poems are quite short, and their subjects range from a touching outburst of genuine grief for a brother's death to a fugitive epigram of the most voluptuous triviality. His verses display ease and impetuosity, tumultuous merriment and wild passion, playful grace and slashing invective, vigorous simplicity and ingenious imitation of the learned stiffness and affectation of the Alexandrian school. They are strongly national, despite the author's use of foreign materials, and made Catullus exceedingly popular among his countrymen.

Lucretius (Titus Lucretius Carus) was a native of Italy, whose birth is said to have occurred B.C. 95, His death was caused by his own hand, or by a philtre administered by another, about 50 B.C., and very little is known about his life. His great work, entitled About the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura), is a long poem, in which an attempt is made to present in clear terms the leading principles of the philosophy of Epicurus, and it is acknowledged to be one of the greatest of the world's didactic poems. He undertakes to demonstrate that the miseries of men may be traced to a slavish dread of the gods; and in order to remove such apprehensions, he would prove that no divinity ever interposed in the affairs of the earth, either as creator or director. The Romans were not, as we have had occasion to observe, inclined to philosophic pursuits, and Lucretius certainly labored with all the force of an extraordinary genius to lead them into such studies. He brought to bear upon his task the power of sublime and graceful verse, and it has been said that but for him "we could never have formed an adequate idea of the strength of the Latin language. We might have dwelt with pleasure upon the softness, flexibility, richness, and musical tone of that vehicle of thought which could represent with full effect the melancholy tenderness of Tibullus, [Footnote: Albius Tibullus was a poet of singular gentleness and amiability, who wrote verses of exquisite finish, gracefully telling the story of his worldly misfortunes and expressing the fluctuations that marked his indulgence in the tender passion, in which his experience was extensive and his record real. He was a warm friend of Horace.] the exquisite ingenuity of Ovid, [Footnote: Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso) was born March 20, B.C. 43, and did not compose his first work, The Art of Love (Ars Amatoria), until he was more than fifty years of age. He wrote subsequently The Metamorphoses, in fifteen books; The Fasti, containing accounts of the Roman festivals; and the Elegies, composed during his banishment to a town on the Euxine, near the mouth of the Danube, where he died, A.D.

  1. Niebuhr places him after Catullus the most poetical among the Roman poets, and ranks him first for facility. He did not direct his genius by a sound judgment, and has the unenviable fame of having been the first to depart from the canons of correct Greek taste.] the inimitable felicity and taste of Horace, the gentleness and high spirit of Virgil, and the vehement declamation of Juvenal, but, had the verses of Lucretius perished, we should never have known that it could give utterance to the grandest conceptions with all that sustained majesty and harmonious swell in which the Grecian Muse rolls forth her loftiest outpourings."

Caius Sallustius Crispus (Sallust) was born the year that Marius died (B.C. 86) of a plebeian family, and during the civil wars was a partisan of Cæsar, whom he accompanied to Africa, after having brought to him the news of the mutiny of his troops in Campania (B.C.

  1. . [Footnote: See page 245.] Left as governor, Sallust seems to have pursued the methods common to that class, for he became immensely rich. Upon his return from Africa, he retired to an extensive estate on the Quirinal Hill, and lived through the direful days which followed the death of Cæsar. He died in the year 34 B.C., his last years being devoted to diligent pursuits of literature. His two works are Catilina, a history of the suppression of the conspiracy of Catiline, and Jugurtha, a history of the war against Jugurtha, in both of which he took great pains with his style. As he witnessed many of the events he described, his books have a great value to the student of the periods. Roman writers asserted that he imitated the style of Thucydides, but there is an air of artificiality about his work which he did not have the skill to conceal. He has the honor of being the first Roman to write history, as distinguished from mere annals.

Livy (Titus Livius) was born in the year of Cæsar's first consulship (B.C. 59), at Patavium (Padua), and died A.D. 17. His writings, like those of Ovid, come therefore rather into the period of the empire. His great work is the History of Rome, which he modestly called simply Annales. Little is known of his life, but he was of very high repute as a writer in his own day, for it is said by Pliny that a Spaniard travelled all the way from his distant home merely to see him, and as soon as his desire had been accomplished, returned. Livy's history comprised one hundred and forty-two books, of which thirty-five only are extant, though with the exception of two of the missing books valuable epitomes are preserved. Though wanting many of the traits of the historian, and though he was of course incapable of looking at history with the modern philosophic spirit, Livy was honest and candid, and possessed a wonderful command of his native language. His work enjoyed an unbounded popularity, not entirely to be accounted for by the fascinations of his theme, He realized his desire to present a clear and probable narrative, and no history of Rome can now be written without constant reference to his pages.

Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus) was born on the river Aufidus, in the year 65 B.C., and was son of a freeman who seems to have been a publican or collector of taxes. At about the age of twelve, after having attended the local school at Venusia, to which the children of the rural aristocracy resorted, he was taken to Rome, where he enjoyed the advantages of the best means of education. He studied Livius Andronicus, and Homer, and was flogged with care by at least one of his masters. He was accompanied at the capital by his father, of whom he always speaks with great respect, and because he mingled with boys of high rank, was well dressed and attended by slaves. The gentle watchfulness of the father guarded Horace from all the temptations of city life, and at the age of eighteen he went to Athens, as most well- educated Romans were obliged to, and studied in the academic groves, though for a while he was swept away by the youthful desire to acquire military renown under Brutus, who came there after the murder of Cæsar. Like the others of the republican army, he fled from the field of Philippi, and found his military ardor thoroughly cooled. He thenceforth devoted himself to letters. Returning to Rome, he attracted notice by his verses, and became a friend of Mæcenas and Virgil, the former of whom bestowed upon him a farm sufficient to sustain him. His life thereafter was passed in frequent interchange of town and country residence, a circumstance which is reflected with charming grace in his verses. His rural home is described in his epistles. It was not extensive, but was pleasant, and he enjoyed it to the utmost. His poetry is deficient in the highest properties of verse, but as the fresh utterances of a man of the world who was possessed of quick observation and strong common-sense, and who was honest and bold, they have always charmed their readers. The Odes of Horace are unrivalled for their grace and felicitous language, but express no great depth of feeling. His Satires do not originate from moral indignation, but the writer playfully shoots folly as it flies, and exhibits a wonderful keenness of observation of the ways of men in the world. His Epistles are his most perfect work, and are, indeed, among the most original and polished forms of Roman verse. His Art of Poetry is not a complete theory of poetic art, and is supposed to have been written simply to suggest the difficulties to be met on the way to perfection by a versifier destitute of the poetic genius. The works of Horace were immediately popular, and in the next generation became text-books in the schools.

Cornelius Nepos was a historical writer of whose life almost no particulars have come down to us, except that he was a friend of Cicero, Catullus, and probably of other men of letters who lived at the end of the republic. The works that he is known to have written are all lost, and that which goes under his name, The Biographies of Distinguished Commanders (Excellentium Imperatorum Vitæ), seems to be an abridgment made some centuries after his death, and tedious discussions have been had regarding its authorship. The lives are, however, valuable for their pure Latinity, and interesting for the lofty tone in which the greatness of the Roman people is celebrated. The life of Atticus, the friend and correspondent of Cicero, is the one of the biographies regarding which the doubts have been least. The work is still a favorite school-book and has been published in innumerable editions.

This brief list of celebrated writers whose works were in the hands of the reading public of Rome during the time of the republic, must be closed with reference to Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro), the writer who stands at the head of the literature of Rome, sharing his pre- eminence only with his younger friend, Horace. Born on his father's small estate near Mantua, Virgil studied Greek at Naples, and other branches, probably, at Rome, where in time he became the friend of the munificent patron of letters, Mæcenas, with whom we have already seen him on the noted journey to Brundusium. It was at the instigation of Mæcenas that Virgil wrote his most finished work, the agricultural poem entitled Georgica, which was completed after the battle of Actium (B.C. 31), when Augustus was in the East. It had been preceded by ten brief poems called Bucolics (Bucolica, Greek, boukolos, a cowherd), noteworthy for their smooth versification and many natural touches, though they have only the form and coloring of the true pastoral poem. The Æneid, which was begun about 30 B.C., occupied eleven years in composition, and yet lacked the finishing touches when the poet was on his death-bed. His death occurred September 22, B.C. 19, at Brundusium, to which place he had come from Greece, where he had been in company with Augustus, and he was buried between the first and second milestones on the road from Naples to Puteoli, where a monument is still shown as his.

Though always a sufferer from poor health, and therefore debarred from entering upon an oratorical or a military career, Virgil was exceptionally fortunate in his friendships and enjoyed extraordinary patronage which enabled him to cultivate literature to the greatest advantage. He was fortunate, too, in his fame, for he was a favorite when he lived no less than after his death. Before the end of his own generation his works were introduced as text-books into Roman schools; during the Middle Age he was the great poet whom it was heresy not to admire; Dante owned him as a master and a model; and the people finally embalmed him in their folk-lore as a mysterious conjurer and necromancer. His Æneid, written in imitation of the great Greek poem on the fall of Troy, is a patriotic epic, tracing the wanderings, the struggles, and the death of Æneas, and vaunting the glories of Rome and the greatness of the royal house of the emperor.

Thus, through long ages the Roman wrote, and thus he was furnished with books to read. For centuries he had no literature excepting those rude ballads in which the books of all countries have begun, and all trace of them has passed away. When at last, after the conquest of the Greek cities in Southern Italy, the Tarentine Andronicus began to imitate the epics of his native language in that of his adoption, the progress was still quite slow among a people who argued with the sword and saw little to interest them in the fruit of the brain. As the republic totters to its fall, however, the cultivators of this field increase, and we must suppose that readers also were multiplied. At that time and during the early years of the empire, a Mæcenas surrounded himself with authors and stimulated them to put forth all their vigor in the effort to create a native literature.

On the Esquiline Hill there was a spot of ground that had been a place of burial for the lower orders. This the hypochondriacal invalid Mæcenas bought, and there he laid out a garden and erected a lofty house surmounted by a tower commanding a view of the city and vicinity. Effeminate and addicted to every sort of luxury, Mæcenas calmed his sometimes excited nerves by the sweet sound of distant symphonies, gratified himself by comforting baths, adorned his clothing with expensive gems, tickled his palate with dainty confections of the cook, and regaled himself with the loftier delights afforded by the companionship of the wits and virtuosi of the capital. Magnificent was the patronage that he dispensed among the men of letters; and that he was no mean critic, his choice of authors seems to prove. They were the greatest geniuses and most learned men of the day. At his table sat Virgil, Horace, and Propertius, besides many others, and his name has ever since been proverbial for the patron of letters. No wealthy public man has since arisen who could rival him in this respect.

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