CHAPTER VII. ROMAN LITERATURE.
The earliest great prose writer among the Greeks was Herodotus, [Footnote: Born B.C. 484.] from which we may infer that History was the first form of prose composition which attained development. But Herodotus was not born until Aeschylus had gained a prize for tragedy, more than two hundred years after Simonides, the lyric poet, flourished, and probably six hundred years after Homer sung his immortal epics. After more than two thousand years the style of this great "Father of History" is admired by every critic; while his history, as a work of art, is still a study and a marvel. It is difficult to understand why no anterior work in prose is worthy of note, since the Greeks had attained a high civilization two hundred years before he appeared, and the language had reached a high point of development under Homer for more than five hundred years. The history of Herodotus was probably written in the decline of life, when his mind was enriched with great attainments in all the varied learning of his age, and when he had conversed with most of the celebrated men of the various countries which he visited. It pertains chiefly to the wars of the Greeks with the Persians; but, in his frequent episodes, which do not impair the unity of the work, he is led to speak of the manners and customs of the oriental nations. It was once the fashion to speak of Herodotus as a credulous man, who embodied the most improbable, though interesting stories. But now it is believed that no historian was ever more profound, conscientious, and careful; and all modern investigations confirm his sagacity and impartiality. He was one of the most accomplished men of antiquity, or of any age, - an enlightened and curious traveler, a profound thinker, a man of universal knowledge, familiar with the whole range of literature, art, and science in his day, acquainted with all the great men of Greece and at the courts of Asiatic princes, the friend of Sophocles, of Pericles, of Thucydides, of Aspasia, of Socrates, of Damon, of Zeno, of Pheidias, of Protagoras, of Euripides, of Polygnotus, of Anaxagoras, of Xenophon, of Alcibiades, of Lysias, of Aristophanes, - the most brilliant constellation of men of genius who were ever found together within the walls of a Grecian city, respected and admired by these great lights, all of whom he transcended in knowledge. Thus was he fitted for his task by travel, by study, and by intercourse with the great, to say nothing of his original genius, and the greatest prose work which had yet appeared in Greece was produced, - a prose epic, severe in taste, perfect in unity, rich in moral wisdom, charming in style, religious in spirit, grand in subject, without a coarse passage; simple, unaffected, and beautiful, like the narratives of the Bible; amusing, yet instructive, easy to understand, yet extending to the utmost boundaries of human research - a model for all subsequent historians. So highly was it valued by the Athenians, when their city was at the height of its splendor, that they decreed to its author ten talents, about twelve thousand dollars, for reciting it. He even went from city to city, a sort of prose rhapsodist, or like a modern lecturer, reciting his history - an honored and extraordinary man, a sort of Humboldt, having mastered every thing. And he wrote, not for fame, but to communicate the results of his inquiries, from the pure love of truth which he learned by personal investigation at Dodona, at Delphi, at Samos, at Athens, at Corinth, at Thebes, at Tyre; yea, he traveled into Egypt, Scythia, Asia Minor, Palestine, Babylonia, Italy, and the islands of the sea. His episode in Egypt is worth more, in an historical point of view, than every thing combined which has descended to us from antiquity. Herodotus was the first to give dignity to history; nor, in truthfulness, candor, and impartiality, has he ever been surpassed. His very simplicity of style is a proof of his transcendent art, even as it is the evidence of his severity of taste. [Footnote: Dahlman has written an admirable life of Herodotus; but Rawlinson's translation, with his notes, is invaluable.]
To Thucydides, as an historian, the modern world also assigns a proud preeminence. He treated only of a short period, during the Peloponnesian War; but the various facts connected with that great event could only be known by the most minute and careful inquiries. He devoted twenty-seven years to the composition of his narration, and he weighed his testimony with the most scrupulous care. His style has not the fascination of Herodotus, but it is more concise. In a single volume he relates what could scarcely be compressed into eight volumes of a modern history. As a work of art, of its kind, it is unrivaled. In his description of the plague of Athens he is minute as he is simple. He abounds with rich moral reflections, and has a keen perception of human character. His pictures are striking and tragic. He is vigorous and intense, and every word he uses has a meaning. But some of his sentences are not always easily understood. One of the greatest tributes which can be paid to him is, that, according to the estimate of an able critic, [Footnote: George Long, Oxford.] we have a more exact history of a long and eventful period by Thucydides than we have of any period in modern history, equally long and eventful; and all this is compressed into a volume. [Footnote: Born 471 B.C.; lived twenty years in exile on account of a military failure.]