The Lives of the Twelve Caesars

Musa dedit fidibus Divos, puerosque Deorum,
Et pugilem victorem, et equum certamine primnm,
Et juvenum curas, et libera vina referre.–Hor. De Arte Poet.

The Muse to nobler subjects tunes her lyre;
Gods, and the sons of Gods, her song inspire;
Wrestler and steed, who gained the Olympic prize,
Love’s pleasing cares, and wine’s unbounded joys.–Francis.

Misenum Aeoliden, quo non praestantior alter
Aere ciere viros, Martemque accendere cnatu. [275] Virgil, Aeneid, vi.
. . . . . . . . . . . .

Sed tum forte cava dum personat aequora concha
Demens, et canto vocat in certamina Divos.–Ibid.

Misenus, son of Oeolus, renowned
The warrior trumpet in the field to sound;
With breathing brass to kindle fierce alarms,
And rouse to dare their fate in honourable arms.

. . . . . . . . . . . .

(175) Swollen with applause, and aiming still at more,
He now provokes the sea-gods from the shore.–Dryden

There arose in this department, among the Greeks, nine eminent poets,
viz. Alcaeus, Alcman, Anacreon, Bacchylides, Ibicus, Sappho, Stesichorus,
Simonides, and Pindar. The greater number of this distinguished class
are now known only by name. They seem all to have differed from one
another, no less in the kind of measure which they chiefly or solely
employed, than in the strength or softness, the beauty or grandeur, the
animated rapidity or the graceful ease of their various compositions. Of
the amorous effusions of the lyre, we yet have examples in the odes of
Anacreon, and the incomparable ode of Sappho: the lyric strains which
animated to battle, have sunk into oblivion; but the victors in the
public games of Greece have their fame perpetuated in the admirable
productions of Pindar.

Horace, by adopting, in the multiplicity of his subjects, almost all the
various measures of the different Greek poets, and frequently combining
different measures in the same composition, has compensated for the
dialects of that tongue, so happily suited to poetry, and given to a
language less distinguished for soft inflexions, all the tender and
delicate modulations of the Eastern song. While he moves in the measures
of the Greeks with an ease and gracefulness which rivals their own
acknowledged excellence, he has enriched the fund of lyric harmony with a
stanza peculiar to himself. In the artificial construction of the Ode,
he may justly be regarded as the first of lyric poets. In beautiful
imagery, he is inferior to none: in variety of sentiment and felicity of
expression, superior to every existing competitor in Greek or Roman
poetry. He is elegant without affectation; and what is more remarkable,
in the midst of gaiety he is moral. We seldom meet in his Odes with the
abrupt apostrophes of passionate excursion; but his transitions are
conducted with ease, and every subject introduced with propriety.

The Carmen Seculare was written at the express desire of Augustus, for
the celebration of the Secular Games, performed once in a hundred years,
and which continued during three days and three nights, whilst all Rome
resounded with the mingled effusions of choral addresses to gods and
goddesses, and of festive joy. An occasion which so much interested the
ambition of the poet, called into exertion the most vigorous efforts of
his genius. More concise in mythological attributes than the hymns
ascribed to Homer, this beautiful production, in variety and grandeur of
invocation, and in pomp of numbers, surpasses all that Greece, (176)
melodious but simple in the service of the altar, ever poured forth from
her vocal groves in solemn adoration. By the force of native genius, the
ancients elevated their heroes to a pitch of sublimity that excites
admiration, but to soar beyond which they could derive no aid from
mythology; and it was reserved for a bard, inspired with nobler
sentiments than the Muses could supply, to sing the praises of that Being
whose ineffable perfections transcend all human imagination. Of the
praises of gods and heroes, there is not now extant a more beautiful
composition, than the 12th Ode of the first book of Horace:

Quem virum aut heroa lyra vel acri
Tibia sumes celebrare, Clio?
Quem Deum? cujus recinet jocosa
Nomen imago,
Aut in umbrosis Heliconis oris, etc.

What man, what hero, on the tuneful lyre,
Or sharp-toned flute, will Clio choose to raise,
Deathless, to fame? What God? whose hallowed name
The sportive image of the voice
Shall in the shades of Helicon repeat, etc.

The Satires of Horace are far from being remarkable for poetical harmony,
as he himself acknowledges. Indeed, according to the plan upon which
several of them are written, it could scarcely be otherwise. They are
frequently colloquial, sometimes interrogatory, the transitions quick,
and the apostrophes abrupt. It was not his object in those compositions,
to soothe the ear with the melody of polished numbers, but to rally the
frailties of the heart, to convince the understanding by argument, and
thence to put to shame both the vices and follies of mankind. Satire is
a species of composition, of which the Greeks furnished no model; and the
preceding Roman writers of this class, though they had much improved it
from its original rudeness and licentiousness, had still not brought it
to that degree of perfection which might answer the purpose of moral
reform in a polished state of society. It received the most essential
improvement from Horace, who has dexterously combined wit and argument,
raillery and sarcasm, on the side of morality and virtue, of happiness
and truth.

The Epistles of this author may be reckoned amongst the most valuable
productions of antiquity. Except those of the second book, and one or
two in the first, they are in general of the familiar kind; abounding in
moral sentiments, and judicious observations on life and manners.

The poem De Arte Poetica comprises a system of criticism, in justness of
principle and extent of application, correspondent to the various
exertions of genius on subjects of invention and taste. (177) That in
composing this excellent production, he availed himself of the most
approved works of Grecian original, we may conclude from the advice which
he there recommends:

————Vos exemplaria Graeca
Nocturna versate manu, versate diurna.

Make the Greek authors your supreme delight;
Read them by day, and study them by night.–Francis.

In the writings of Horace there appears a fund of good sense, enlivened
with pleasantry, and refined by philosophical reflection. He had
cultivated his judgment with great application, and his taste was guided
by intuitive perception of moral beauty, aptitude, and propriety. The
few instances of indelicacy which occur in his compositions, we may
ascribe rather to the manners of the times, than to any blameable
propensity in the author. Horace died in the fifty-seventh year of his
age, surviving his beloved Mecaenas only three weeks; a circumstance
which, added to the declaration in an ode [276] to that personage,
supposed to have been written in Mecaenas’s last illness, has given rise
to a conjecture, that Horace ended his days by a violent death, to
accompany his friend. But it is more natural to conclude that he died of
excessive grief, as, had he literally adhered to the affirmation
contained in the ode, he would have followed his patron more closely.
This seems to be confirmed by a fact immediately preceding his death; for
though he declared Augustus heir to his whole estate, he was not able, on
account of weakness, to put his signature to the will; a failure which it
is probable that he would have taken care to obviate, had his death been
premeditated. He was interred, at his own desire, near the tomb of
Mecaenas.—-

OVID was born of an equestrian family, at Sulmo, a town of the Peligni,
on the 21st of March, in the consulship of Hirtius and Pansa. His father
intended him for the bar; and after passing him through the usual course
of instruction at Rome, he was sent to Athens, the emporium of learning,
to complete his education. On his return to Rome, in obedience to the
desire of his father, he entered upon the offices of public life in the
forum, and declaimed with great applause. But this was the effect of
paternal authority, not of choice: for, from his earliest years, he
discovered an extreme attachment to poetry; and no sooner was his father
dead, than, renouncing the bar, he devoted himself entirely to the
cultivation of that fascinating art, his propensity to which was
invincible. His productions, all written either in heroic or pentameter
verse, are numerous, and on various subjects. It will be sufficient to
mention them briefly.

(178) The Heroides consist of twenty-one Epistles, all which, except
three, are feigned to be written from celebrated women of antiquity, to
their husbands or lovers, such as Penelope to Ulysses, Dido to Aeneas,
Sappho to Phaon, etc. These compositions are nervous, animated and
elegant: they discover a high degree of poetic enthusiasm, but blended
with that lascivious turn of thought, which pervades all the amorous
productions of this celebrated author.

The elegies on subjects of love, particularly the Ars Amandi, or Ars
Amatoria, though not all uniform in versification, possess the same
general character, of warmth of passion, and luscious description, as the
epistles.

The Fasti were divided into twelve books, of which only the first six now
remain. The design of them was to deliver an account of the Roman
festivals in every month of the year, with a description of the rites and
ceremonies, as well as the sacrifices on those occasions. It is to be
regretted, that, on a subject so interesting, this valuable work should
not have been transmitted entire: but in the part which remains, we are
furnished with a beautiful description of the ceremonial transactions in
the Roman calendar, from the first of January to the end of June. The
versification, as in all the compositions of this author, is easy and
harmonious.

The most popular production of this poet is his Metamorphoses, not less
extraordinary for the nature of the subject, than for the admirable art
with which the whole is conducted. The work is founded upon the
traditions and theogony of the ancients, which consisted of various
detached fables. Those Ovid has not only so happily arranged, that they
form a coherent series of narratives, one rising out of another; but he
describes the different changes with such an imposing plausibility, as to
give a natural appearance to the most incredible fictions. This
ingenious production, however perfect it may appear, we are told by
himself, had not received his last corrections when he was ordered into
banishment.

In the Ibis, the author imitates a poem of the same name, written by
Callimachus. It is an invective against some person who publicly
traduced his character at Rome, after his banishment. A strong
sensibility, indignation, and implacable resentment, are conspicuous
through the whole.

The Tristia were composed in his exile, in which, though his vivacity
forsook him, he still retained a genius prolific in versification. In
these poems, as well as in many epistles to different persons, he bewails
his unhappy situation, and deprecates in the strongest terms the
inexorable displeasure of Augustus.

Several other productions written by Ovid are now lost, and (179) amongst
them a tragedy called Medea, of which Quintilian expresses a high
opinion. Ovidii Medea videtur mihi ostendere quantum vir ille praestare
potuerit, si ingenio suo temperare quam indulgere maluisset [277]. Lib.
x. c. 1.

It is a peculiarity in the productions of this author, that, on whatever
he employs his pen, he exhausts the subject; not with any prolixity that
fatigues the attention, but by a quick succession of new ideas, equally
brilliant and apposite, often expressed in antitheses. Void of obscenity
in expression, but lascivious in sentiment, he may be said rather to
stimulate immorally the natural passions, than to corrupt the
imagination. No poet is more guided in versification by the nature of
his subject than Ovid. In common narrative, his ideas are expressed with
almost colloquial simplicity; but when his fancy glows with sentiment, or
is animated by objects of grandeur, his style is proportionably elevated,
and he rises to a pitch of sublimity.

No point in ancient history has excited more variety of conjectures than
the banishment of Ovid; but after all the efforts of different writers to
elucidate the subject, the cause of this extraordinary transaction
remains involved in obscurity. It may therefore not be improper, in this
place, to examine the foundation of the several conjectures which have
been formed, and if they appear to be utterly imadmissible, to attempt a
solution of the question upon principles more conformable to probability,
and countenanced by historical evidence.

The ostensible reason assigned by Augustus for banishing Ovid, was his
corrupting the Roman youth by lascivious publications; but it is evident,
from various passages in the poet’s productions after this period, that
there was, besides, some secret reason, which would not admit of being
divulged. He says in his Tristia, Lib. ii. 1–

Perdiderent cum me duo crimina, carmen et errors. [278]

It appears from another passage in the same work, that this inviolable
arcanum was something which Ovid had seen, and, as he insinuates, through
his own ignorance and mistake.

Cur aliquid vidi? cur conscia lumina feci?
Cur imprudenti cognita culpa mihi est?–Ibid.
* * * * * *
(180) Inscia quod crimen viderunt lumina, plector:
Peccatumque oculos est habuisse meum. [279] De Trist. iii. 5.

It seems, therefore, to be a fact sufficiently established, that Ovid had
seen something of a very indecent nature, in which Augustus was
concerned. What this was, is the question. Some authors, conceiving it
to have been of a kind extremely atrocious, have gone so far as to
suppose, that it must have been an act of criminality between Augustus
and his own daughter Julia, who, notwithstanding the strict attention
paid to her education by her father, became a woman of the most infamous
character; suspected of incontinence during her marriage with Agrippa,
and openly profligate after her union with her next husband, Tiberius.
This supposition, however, rests entirely upon conjecture, and is not
only discredited by its own improbability, but by a yet more forcible
argument. It is certain that Julia was at this time in banishment for
her scandalous life. She was about the same age with Tiberius, who was
now forty seven, and they had not cohabited for many years. We know not
exactly the year in which Augustus sent her into exile, but we may
conclude with confidence, that it happened soon after her separation from
Tiberius; whose own interest with the emperor, as well as that of his
mother Livia, could not fail of being exerted, if any such application
was necessary, towards removing from the capital a woman, who, by the
notoriety of her prostitution, reflected disgrace upon all with whom she
was connected, either by blood or alliance. But no application from
Tiberius or his mother could be necessary, when we are assured that
Augustus even presented to the senate a narrative respecting the infamous
behaviour of his daughter, which was read by the quaestor. He was so
much ashamed of her profligacy, that he for a long time declined all
company, and had thoughts of putting her to death. She was banished to
an island on the coast of Campania for five years; at the expiration of
which period, she was removed to the continent, and the severity of her
treatment a little mitigated; but though frequent applications were made
in her behalf by the people, Augustus never could be prevailed upon to
permit her return.

«- Previous | 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72 73 74 75 76 77 78 79 80 81 82 83 84 85 86 | View All | Next -»

Be the first to comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.