CHAPTER VII. ROMAN LITERATURE.
The great creator of the Greek drama was Aeschylus, born at Eleusis, 525 B.C. It was not till the age of forty-one that he gained his first prize. Sixteen years afterwards, defeated by Sophocles, he quitted Athens in disgust, and went to the court of Hiero, king of Syracuse. But he was always held, even at Athens, in the highest honor, and his pieces were frequently reproduced upon the stage. It was not so much his object to amuse an audience, as to instruct and elevate it. He combined religious feeling with lofty moral sentiment. And he had unrivaled power over the realm of astonishment and terror. "At his summons," says Sir Walter Scott, "the mysterious and tremendous volume of destiny, in which is inscribed the doom of gods and men, seemed to display its leaves of iron before the appalled spectators; the more than mortal voices of Deities, Titans, and departed heroes, were heard in awful conference; heaven bowed, and its divinities descended; earth yawned and gave up the pale spectres of the dead, and yet more undefined and ghastly forms of those infernal deities who struck horror into the gods themselves." His imagination dwells in the loftiest regions of the old mythology of Greece; his tone is always pure and moral, though stern and harsh. He appeals to the most violent passions, and he is full of the boldest metaphors. In sublimity he has never been surpassed. He was in poetry, what Pheidias and Michael Angelo were in art. The critics say that his sublimity of diction is sometimes carried to an extreme, so that his language becomes inflated. His characters are sublime, like his sentiments; they were gods and heroes of colossal magnitude. His religious views were Homeric, and he sought to animate his countrymen to deeds of glory, as it became one of the generals who fought at Marathon to do. He was an unconscious genius, and worked, like Homer, without a knowledge of artistical laws. He was proud and impatient, and his poetry was religious rather than moral. He wrote seventy plays, of which only seven are extant; but these are immortal, among the greatest creations of human genius, like the dramas of Shakespeare. He died in Sicily in the sixty-ninth year of his age. The principal English translation of his plays are by Potter, Harford, and Medwin. [Footnote: See Muller and Bode, histories of Greek Literature.]
The fame of Sophocles is scarcely less than that of Aeschylus. He was twenty-seven years of age when he appeared as a rival. He was born in Colonus, in the suburbs of Athens, 495 B.C., and was the contemporary of Herodotus, of Pericles, of Pindar, of Pheidias, of Socrates, of Cimon, of Euripides - the era of great men; the period of the Peloponnesian War, when every thing that was elegant and intellectual culminated at Athens. Sophocles had every element of character and person which fascinated the Greeks: beauty of person, symmetry of form, skill in gymnastics, calmness and dignity of manner, a cheerful and amiable temper, a ready wit, a meditative piety, a spontaneity of genius, an affectionate admiration for talent, and patriotic devotion to his country. His tragedies, by the universal consent of the best critics, are the perfection of the Grecian drama, and they, moreover, maintain that he has no rival, Shakespeare alone excepted, in the whole realm of dramatic poetry, unless it be Aeschylus himself, to whom he bears the same relation in poetry that Raphael does to Michael Angelo in the world of art. It was his peculiarity to excite emotions of sorrow and compassion. He loved to paint forlorn heroes. He was human in all his sympathies, not so religious as his great rival, but as severely ethical; not so sublime, but more perfect in art. His sufferers are not the victims of an inexorable destiny, but of their own follies. Nor does he even excite emotion apart from a moral end. He lived to be ninety years old, and produced the most beautiful of his tragedies in his eightieth year, the "Oedipus at Colonus." He wrote the astonishing number of one hundred and thirty plays, and carried off the first prize twenty-four times. His "Antigone" was written when he was forty-five, and when Euripides had already gained a prize. Only seven of his tragedies have survived, but these are priceless treasures. The fertility of his genius was only equaled by his artistic skill. [Footnote: Schlegel, Lectures on Dramatic Art; Muller, Hist. Lit.; Donaldson's Antigone; Lessing, Leben des Sophokles ; Philip Smith, article in Smith's Dict..]