CHAPTER VII. ROMAN LITERATURE.
Caesar was born B.C. 100, and while I admire his genius and his generosity, I hold in detestation the ambition which led him to overturn the constitution of his country on the plea of revolutionary necessity. It is true that there was the strife of parties and factions, greedy of revenge, and still more of spoils. It was a period of "great offenses," but it was also the brightest period in Roman history, so far as pertains to the development of genius. It was more favorable to literature than the lauded "Augustan era." It was an age of free opinions, in which liberty gave her last sigh, and when heroic efforts were made to bring back the ancient virtue, and to save the state from despotism. The lives of Piso, of Milo, of Cinna, of Lepidus, of Cotta, of Dolabella, of Crassus, of Quintus Maximus, of Aquila, of Pompey, of Brutus, of Cassius, of Antony, show what extraordinary men of action were then upon the stage, both good and evil, while Varro, Cicero, Catullus, Lucretius, and Sallust gave glory to the world of letters. It may have resulted favorably to the peace of society that the imperial rule supplanted the aristocratic regime, but it was a change fatal to liberty of speech and all independent action - a change, the good of which was on the outside, and in favor of material interests, but the evil of which was internal, and consumed secretly, but surely, the real greatness of the empire.
[High social position of historians.]
The Augustan age, though it produced a constellation of poets who shed glory upon the throne before which they prostrated themselves in abject homage, like the courtiers of Louis XIV., still was unfavorable to prose composition, - to history as well as eloquence. Of the historians, Livy is the only one whose writings are known to us, and only fragments of his history. [Footnote: Born B.C. 59.] He was a man of distinction at court, and had a great literary reputation - so great that a Spaniard traveled from Cadiz on purpose to see him. Most of the great historians of the world have occupied places of honor and rank, which were given to them not as prizes for literary successes, but for the experience, knowledge, and culture which high social position and ample means secured. Herodotus lived in courts; Thucydides was a great general, also Xenophon; Caesar wrote his own exploits; Sallust was praetor and governor; Livy was tutor to Claudius; Tacitus was praetor and consul suffectus; Eusebius was bishop and favorite of Constantine; Ammianus was the friend of the Emperor Julian; Gregory of Tours was one of the leading prelates of the West; Froissart attended in person, as a man of rank, the military expeditions of his day; Clarendon was Lord Chancellor; Burnet was a bishop and favorite of William III.; Thiers and Guizot both were prime ministers; while Gibbon, Hume, Robertson, Macaulay, Grote, Milman, Neander, Niebuhr, Muller, Dahlman, Buckle, Prescott, Irving, Bancroft, Motley, have all been men of wealth or position. Nor do I remember a single illustrious historian who has been poor and neglected.
The ancients regarded Livy as the greatest of historians, - an opinion not indorsed by modern critics, on account of his inaccuracies. But his narrative is always interesting, and his language pure. He did not sift evidence like Grote, nor generalize like Gibbon; but he was, like Voltaire and Macaulay, an artist in style, and possessed undoubted genius. His annals are comprised in one hundred and forty-two books, extending from the foundation of the city to the death of Drusus, B.C. 9, of which only thirty-five have come down to us - an impressive commentary on the vandalism of the Middle Ages, and the ignorance of the monks who could not preserve so great a treasure. "His story flows in a calm, clear, sparkling current, with every charm which simplicity and ease can give." He delineates character with great clearness and power; his speeches are noble rhetorical compositions; his sentences are rhythmical cadences. He was not a critical historian, like Herodotus, for he took his materials secondhand, and he was ignorant of geography; nor did he write with the exalted ideal of Thucydides, but as a painter of beautiful forms, which only a rich imagination could conjure, he is unrivaled in the history of literature. Moreover, he was honest and sound in heart, and was just and impartial in reference to those facts with which he was conversant.
In the estimation of modern critics, the highest rank, as an historian, is assigned to Tacitus, and it would be difficult to find his rival in any age or country. He was born A.D. 57, about forty-three years after the death of Augustus. He belonged to the equestrian rank, and was a man of consular dignity. He had every facility for literary labors that leisure, wealth, friends, and social position could give, and he lived under a reign when truth could be told.
The extant works of this great writer are the "Life of Agricola," his father-in-law; his "Annales," which commence with the death of Augustus, A.D. 14, and close with the death of Nero, A.D. 68; the "Historiae," which comprise the period from the second consulate of Galba, A.D. 68, to the death of Domitian; and a treatise on the Germans.
[Histories of Tacitus.]