CHAPTER VII. ROMAN LITERATURE.
Critics have uniformly admired his style as peculiarly suited to the Latin language, which, being scanty and unmusical, requires more redundancy than the Greek. The simplicity of the Attic writers would make Latin composition bold and tame. To be perspicuous, the Latin must be full. Thus Arnold thinks that what Tacitus gained in energy he lost in elegance and perspicuity. But Cicero, dealing with a barren and unphilosophical language, enriched it with circumlocutions and metaphors, while he formed it of harsh and uncouth expressions, and thus became the greatest master of composition the world has seen. He was a great artist, making use of his scanty materials to the best effect; and since he could not attain the elegance of the Greeks, he sought to excel them in vigor. He had absolute control over the resources of his vernacular tongue, and not only unrivaled skill in composition, but tact and judgment. Thus he was generally successful, in spite of the venality and corruption of the times. The courts of justice were the scene of his earliest triumphs; nor did he speak from the rostra until he was praetor on mere political questions, as in reference to the Manilian and Agrarian laws. It is in his political discourses that he rises to the highest ranks. In his speeches against Verres, Catiline, and Antony, he kindles in his countrymen lofty feelings for the honor of his country, and abhorrence of tyranny and corruption. Indeed, he hated bloodshed, injustice, and strife, and beheld the downfall of liberty with indescribable sorrow.
Cicero held a very exalted position as a philosophical writer and critic; but we defer what we have to say on this point until we speak of the philosophy of the ancients. Upon eloquence his main efforts were, however, directed, and eloquence was the most perfect fruit of his talents. Nor can we here speak of Cicero as a man. He has his admirers and detractors. He had great faults and weaknesses as well as virtues. He was egotistical, vain, and vacillating. But he was industrious, amiable, witty, and public spirited. In his official position he was incorruptible. He was no soldier, but he had a greater than a warrior's excellence. In spite of his faults, his name is one of the brightest of the ancients. His integrity was never impeached, even in an age of unparalleled corruption, and he was pure in morals. He was free from rancor and jealousy, was true in his friendships, and indulgent to his dependents. [Footnote: Professor Ramsay, of Glasgow, has written a most admirable article on Cicero in Smith's Dictionary. It is very full and impartial. Cicero's own writings are the best commentary on his life. Plutarch has afforded much anecdote. Forsythe is the last work of erudition. The critics sneer at Middleton's Life of Cicero; but it has lasted one hundred years. It is, perhaps, too eulogistic. Drumann is said to have most completely exhausted his subject in his Geschichte Roms.]
Thus in oratory, as in history, the ancients can boast of most illustrious examples, never even equaled. Still, we cannot tell the comparative merits of the great classical orators of antiquity, with the more distinguished of our times. Only Mirabeau, Pitt, Fox, Burke, Brougham, Webster, and Clay, can even be compared with them. In power of moving the people, some of our modern reformers and agitators may be mentioned favorably; but their harangues are comparatively tame when read.
In philosophy, the Greeks and Romans distinguished themselves more than even in poetry, or history, or eloquence. Their speculations pertained to the loftiest subjects which ever tasked the intellect of man. But this great department deserves a separate chapter. There were respectable writers, too, in various other departments of literature, but no very great names whose writings have descended to us. Contemporaries had an exalted opinion of Varro, who was considered the most learned of the Romans, as well as their most voluminous author. He was born ten years before Cicero, and he is highly commended by Augustine. [Footnote: Born B.C. 116; Civ. Dei., vi. 2.] He was entirely devoted to literature, took no interest in passing events, and lived to a good old age. St. Augustine says of him, "that he wrote so much that one wonders how he had time to read; and that he read so much, we are astonished how he found time to write." He composed four hundred and ninety books. Of these only one has descended to us entire - "De Re Rustica" - written at the age of eighty; but it is the best treatise which has come down from antiquity on ancient agriculture. We have parts of his other books, and we know of books which have entirely perished which, for their information, would be invaluable; especially his "Divine Antiquities," in sixteen books - his great work, from which St. Augustine drew his materials for his "City of God." He wrote treatises on language, on the poets, on philosophy, on geography, and various other subjects. He wrote satire and criticism. But although his writings were learned, his style was so bad that the ages have failed to preserve him. It is singular that the truly immortal books are most valued for their artistic excellences. No man, however great his genius, can afford to be dull. Style is to written composition, what delivery is to a public speaker. John Foster, one of the finest intellects of the last generation, preached to a "handful" of hearers, while "Satan" Montgomery drew ecstatic crowds. Nobody goes to hear the man of thoughts, every body to hear the man of words, being repelled or attracted by manner.