CHAPTER VII. ROMAN LITERATURE.
[Greatness of the ancient historians.]
Thus the great historians whom I have alluded to, both Greek and Latin, have few equals and no superiors, in our own times, in those things which are most to be admired. They were not pedants, but men of immense genius and learning, who blended the profoundest principles of moral wisdom with the most fascinating narratives, men universally popular among learned and unlearned, and men who were great artists in style, and masters of the language in which they wrote. We claim a superiority to them, because we are more recondite and critical; but the decline of Roman literature can be dated to times when commentaries became the fashion. We improve on commentaries. They are chiefly confined to biblical questions. We write dictionaries and encyclopedias. In this respect we are superior to the ancients. Our latest fashion of histories makes them very long, and very uncertain, containing much irrelevant matter, and more remarkable for learning than for genius, or elegance of diction. Yet Macaulay, Prescott, and Motley have few equals among the ancients in interest or artistic beauty.
Rome can boast of no great historian after Tacitus, who should have belonged to the Ciceronian epoch. Suetonius, born about the year A.D. 70, shortly after Nero's death, was rather a biographer than historian. Nor as a biographer does he take a high rank. His "Lives of the Caesars," like Diogenes Laertius' "Lives of the Philosophers," are rather anecdotical than historical. L. A. Florus, who flourished during the reign of Trajan, has left a series of sketches of the different wars from the days of Romulus to those of Augustus. Frontinus epitomized the large histories of Pompeius. Marcellinus wrote a history from Nerva to Valens, and is often quoted by Gibbon. But none wrote who should be adduced as examples of the triumph of genius, except Sallust, Caesar, Livy, and Tacitus.
There is another field of prose compositions in which the Greeks and Romans gained great distinction, and proved themselves equal to any nation of modern times, and this was that of eloquence. It is true we have not a rich collection of ancient speeches. But we have every reason to believe that both Greeks and Romans were most severely trained in the art of public speaking, and that forensic eloquence was highly prized and munificently rewarded. It commenced with democratic institutions, and flourished as long as the people were a great power in the state. It declined whenever and as soon as tyrants bore rule. Eloquence and liberty flourished together; nor can there be eloquence when there is not freedom of debate. In the fifth century before Christ - the first century of democracy - great orators arose, for without the power and the opportunity of defending himself against accusation, no man could hold an ascendent position. Socrates insisted upon the gift of oratory to a general in the army, [Footnote: Xen. Mem., iii. 3, 11.] as well as to a leader in political life. In Athens the courts of justice were numerous, and those who could not defend themselves were obliged to secure the services of those who were trained in the use of public speaking. Thus the lawyers arose, among whom eloquence has been more in demand, and more richly paid than in any other class, certainly of ancient times. Rhetoric became connected with dialectics, and in Greece, Sicily, and Italy, both were most extensively cultivated. Empedocles was distinguished as much for rhetoric as for philosophy. It was not, however, in the courts of law that eloquence displayed the greatest fire and passion, but in political assemblies. These could only coexist with liberty; and a democracy was more favorable than an aristocracy to a large concourse of citizens. In the Grecian republics, eloquence as an art, may be said to have been born. It was nursed and fed by political agitations; by the strife of parties. It arose from appeals to the people as a source of power; and, when the people were not cultivated, it appealed chiefly to popular passions and prejudices. When they were enlightened, it appealed to interests.