CHAPTER VII. ROMAN LITERATURE.
Euripides, the last of the great triumvirate of the Greek tragic poets, was born at Athens, B.C. 485. He had not the sublimity of Aeschylus, nor the touching pathos of Sophocles, but, in seductive beauty and successful appeal to passion, was superior to both. Nor had he their stern simplicity. In his tragedies the passion of love predominates, nor does it breathe the purity of sentiment. It approaches rather to the tone of the modern drama. He paints the weakness and corruptions of society, and brings his subjects to the level of common life. He was the pet of the Sophists, and was pantheistic in his views. He does not paint ideal excellence, and his characters are not as men ought to be, but as they are, especially in corrupt states of society. He wrote ninety-five plays, of which eighteen are extant. Whatever objection may be urged in reference to his dramas on the score of morality, nobody can question their transcendent art, or his great originality. With the exception of Shakespeare, all succeeding dramatists have copied these three great poets, especially Racine, who took Sophocles for his model. [Footnote: Muller, Schlegel. Sir Walter Scott on the Drama; Gote, vol. viii. p. 442, Thorne, Mag. Via. Eurip. Potter has made a translation of all his plays.]
The Greeks were no less distinguished for comedy. Both tragedy and comedy sprung from feasts in honor of Bacchus; and as the jests and frolics were found misplaced when introduced into grave scenes, a separate province of the drama was formed, and comedy arose. At first it did not derogate from the religious purposes which were at the foundation of the Greek drama. It turned upon parodies, in which the adventures of the gods are introduced by way of sport, like the appetite of Hercules, or the cowardice of Bacchus. Then the comic authors entertained spectators by fantastic and gross displays; by the exhibition of buffoons and pantomimes. But the taste of the Athenians was too severe to relish such entertainments, and comedy passed into ridicule of public men and measures, and of the fashions of the day. The people loved to see their great men brought down to their own level. Nor did comedy flourish until the morals of society were degenerated, and ridicule had become the most effective weapon to assail prevailing follies. Comedy reached its culminating point when society was both the most corrupt and the most intellectual, as in France, when Moliere pointed his envenomed shafts against popular vices. It pertained to the age of Socrates and the Sophists, when there was great bitterness in political parties, and an irrepressible desire for novelties. In Cratinus, comedy first made herself felt as a great power, who espoused the side of Cimon against Pericles, with great bitterness and vehemence. Many were the comic writers of that age of wickedness and genius, but all yielded precedence to Aristophanes, whose plays only have reached us. Never were libels on persons of authority and influence uttered with such terrible license. He attacked the gods, the politicians, the philosophers, and the poets of Athens; even private citizens did not escape from his shafts, and women were subjects of his irony. Socrates was made the butt of his ridicule, when most revered, and Cleon in the height of his power, and Euripides when he had gained the highest prizes. He has furnished jests for Rabelais, and hints to Swift, and humor for MoliEre. In satire, in derision, in invective, and bitter scorn, he has never been surpassed. No modern capital would tolerate such unbounded license. Yet no plays were ever more popular, or more fully exposed follies which could not otherwise be reached. He is called the Father of Comedy, and his comedies are of great historical importance, although his descriptions are doubtless caricatures. He was patriotic in his intentions, and set up for a reformer. His peculiar genius shines out in his "Clouds," the greatest of his pieces, in which he attacks the Sophists. He wrote fifty-four plays. He was born B.C. 444, and died B.C. 380. His best comedies are translated by Mitchell.
Thus it would appear that in the three great departments of poetry, - the epic, the lyric, and the dramatic, - the old Greeks were great masters, and have been the teachers of all subsequent nations and ages.
The Romans, in these departments, were not their equals, but they were very successful copyists, and will bear competition with modern nations. If the Romans did not produce a Homer, they can boast of a Virgil; if they had no Pindar, they furnished a Horace, while in satire they transcended the Greeks.