CHAPTER VII. ROMAN LITERATURE.
If the ancient civilization rivaled the modern in the realm of art, it was equally remarkable in the field of letters. It is not my object to show that it was equal, or superior, or inferior to modern literature, either in original genius or artistic excellence. That point would be difficult to settle, and unprofitable to discuss. There is no doubt as to the superior advantage which the modern world derives in consequence of the invention of printing, and the consequent diffusion of knowledge. But the question is in reference to the height which was attained by the ancient pagan intellect, unaided by Christianity. I simply wish to show that the ancients were distinguished in all departments of literature, and that some of the masterpieces of genius were created by them.
Nor is it my object to write a summary of the literature of antiquity. It would be as dull as a catalogue, or a dictionary, or a compendium of universal history for the use of schools in a single volume. And it would be as profitless. My aim is simply to show that the old civilization can boast of its glories in literature, as well as in art, and that the mind of man never more nobly asserted its power than in Greece and Rome. Our present civilization delights in those philosophers, poets, and historians, who caught their inspiration from the great pagan models which have survived the wreck of material greatness. The human intellect achieved some of its greatest feats before Christianity was born. The inborn dignity of the mind and soul was never more nobly asserted than by Plato and Aristotle, by Thucydides and Tacitus, by Homer and Virgil, by Demosthenes and Cicero. In attestation, therefore, of the glory of the ancient civilization, in the realm of literature, it is quite sufficient for our purpose to point out some of those great lights which, after the lapse of two thousand years or more, still continue to shine, and which are objects of hopeless imitation, even as they are of universal admiration. If we can show that the great heights were reached, even by a few, we prove the extent of civilization. If genius can soar, under Pagan, as well as under Christian influences, it would appear that civilization, in an intellectual point of view, may be the work of man, unaided by inspiration. It is the triumph of the native intellect of man which I wish to show.
[Romans borrow from the Greeks.]
Although it is my chief aim to present the magnificent civilization of the Roman empire under the emperors, I must cite the examples of Grecian as well as Roman genius, since Greece became a part of that grand empire, and since Grecian and Roman culture is mixed up and blended together. Roman youth were trained in the Grecian schools. Young men were sent to Athens and Rhodes after they had finished their education in the capital. Athens continued to be, for several hundred years after her political glory had passed away, the great university city of the world. Educated Romans were as familiar with the Greek classics as they were with those of their own country, and could talk Greek as modern Germans can talk French. The poems which kindled the enthusiasm of Roman youth are as worthy of notice as the statues which the conquerors brought from the Ionian cities, to ornament their palaces and baths. They equally attest the richness of the old civilization. And as it is the triumph of the pagan intellect which I wish to show, it matters but little whether we draw our illustrations from Greece or Rome. Without the aid of Greece, Rome could never have reached the height she attained.
[Richness of Greek Poetry.]
[The Homeric poems.]