The Lives of the Twelve Caesars

After his retirement from the situation of a teacher, Quintilian devoted
his attention to the study of literature, and composed a treatise on the
Causes of the Corruption of Eloquence. At the earnest solicitation of
his friends, he was afterwards induced to undertake his Institutiones
Oratoriae, the most elaborate system of oratory extant in any language.
This work is divided into twelve books, in which the author treats with
great precision of the qualities of a perfect orator; explaining not only
the fundamental principles of eloquence, as connected with the
constitution of the human mind, but pointing out, both by argument and
observation, the most successful method of exercising that admirable art,
for the accomplishment of its purpose. So minutely, and upon so
extensive a plan, has he prosecuted the subject, that he delineates the
education suitable to a perfect orator, from the stage of infancy in the
cradle, to the consummation of rhetorical fame, in the pursuits of the
bar, or those, in general, of any public assembly. It is sufficient to
say, that in the execution of this elaborate work, Quintilian has called
to the assistance of his own acute and comprehensive understanding, the
profound penetration of Aristotle, the exquisite graces of Cicero; all
the stores of observation, experience, and practice; and in a word, the
whole accumulated exertions of ancient genius on the subject of oratory.

It may justly be regarded as an extraordinary circumstance in the
progress of scientific improvement, that the endowments of a perfect
orator were never fully exhibited to the world, until it had become
dangerous to exercise them for the important purposes for which they were
originally cultivated. And it is no less remarkable, that, under all the
violence and caprice of imperial despotism which the Romans had now
experienced, their sensibility to the enjoyment of poetical compositions
remained still unabated; as if it served to console the nation for the
irretrievable loss of public liberty. From this source of entertainment,
they reaped more pleasure during the present reign, than they had done
since the time of Augustus. The poets of this period were Juvenal,
Statius, and Martial.

JUVENAL was born at Aquinum, but in what year is uncertain; though, from
some circumstances, it seems to have been in the reign of Augustus. Some
say that he was the son of a freedman, (500) while others, without
specifying the condition of his father, relate only that he was brought
up by a freedman. He came at an early age to Rome, where he declaimed
for many years, and, pleaded causes in the forum with great applause; but
at last he betook himself to the writing of satires, in which he acquired
great fame. One of the first, and the most constant object of is satire,
was the pantomime Paris, the great favourite of the emperor Nero, and
afterwards of Domitian. During the reign of the former of these
emperors, no resentment was shown towards the poet; but he experienced
not the same impunity after the accession of the latter; when, to remove
him from the capital, he was sent as governor to the frontiers of Egypt,
but in reality, into an honourable exile. According to some authors, he
died of chagrin in that province: but this is not authenticated, and
seems to be a mistake: for in some of Martial’s epigrams, which appear to
have been written after the death of Domitian, Juvenal is spoken of as
residing at Rome. It is said that he lived to upwards of eighty years of
age.

The remaining compositions of this author are sixteen satires, all
written against the dissipation and enormous vices which prevailed at
Rome in his time. The various objects of animadversion are painted in
the strongest colours, and placed in the most conspicuous points of view.
Giving loose reins to just and moral indignation, Juvenal is every where
animated, vehement, petulant, and incessantly acrimonious. Disdaining
the more lenient modes of correction, or despairing of their success, he
neither adopts the raillery of Horace, nor the derision of Persius, but
prosecutes vice and folly with all the severity of sentiment, passion,
and expression. He sometimes exhibits a mixture of humour with his
invectives; but it is a humour which partakes more of virulent rage than
of pleasantry; broad, hostile, but coarse, and rivalling in indelicacy
the profligate manners which it assails. The satires of Juvenal abound
in philosophical apophthegms; and, where they are not sullied by obscene
description, are supported with a uniform air of virtuous elevation.
Amidst all the intemperance of sarcasm, his numbers are harmonious. Had
his zeal permitted him to direct the current of his impetuous genius into
the channel of ridicule, and endeavour to put to shame the vices and
follies of those licentious times, as much as he perhaps exasperated
conviction rather than excited contrition, he would have carried satire
to the highest possible pitch, both of literary excellence and moral
utility. With every abatement of attainable perfection, we hesitate not
to place him at the head of this arduous department of poetry.

Of STATIUS no farther particulars are preserved than that he (501) was
born at Naples; that his father’s name was Statius of Epirus, and his
mother’s Agelina, and that he died about the end of the first century of
the Christian era. Some have conjectured that he maintained himself by
writing for the stage, but of this there is no sufficient evidence; and
if ever he composed dramatic productions, they have perished. The works
of Statius now extant, are two poems, viz. the Thebais and the Achilleis,
besides a collection, named Silvae.

The Thebais consists of twelve books, and the subject of it is the Theban
war, which happened 1236 years before the Christian era, in consequence
of a dispute between Eteocles and Polynices, the sons of Oedipus and
Jocasta. These brothers had entered into an agreement with each other to
reign alternately for a year at a time; and Eteocles being the elder, got
first possession of the throne. This prince refusing to abdicate at the
expiration of the year, Polynices fled to Argos, where marrying Argia,
the daughter of Adrastus, king of that country, he procured the
assistance of his father-in-law, to enforce the engagement stipulated
with his brother Eteocles. The Argives marched under the command of
seven able generals, who were to attack separately the seven gates of
Thebes. After much blood had been spilt without any effect, it was at
last agreed between the two parties, that the brothers should determine
the dispute by single combat. In the desperate engagement which ensued,
they both fell; and being burnt together upon the funeral pile, it is
said that their ashes separated, as if actuated by the implacable
resentment which they had borne to each other.

If we except the Aeneid, this is the only Latin production extant which
is epic in its form; and it likewise approaches nearest in merit to that
celebrated poem, which Statius appears to have been ambitious of
emulating. In unity and greatness of action, the Thebais corresponds to
the laws of the Epopea; but the fable may be regarded as defective in
some particulars, which, however, arise more from the nature of the
subject, than from any fault of the poet. The distinction of the hero is
not sufficiently prominent; and the poem possesses not those
circumstances which are requisite towards interesting the reader’s
affections in the issue of the contest. To this it may be added, that
the unnatural complexion of the incestuous progeny diffuses a kind of
gloom which obscures the splendour of thought, and restrains the
sympathetic indulgence of fancy to some of the boldest excursions of the
poet. For grandeur, however, and animation of sentiment and description,
as well as for harmony of numbers, the Thebais is eminently conspicuous,
and deserves to be held in a much higher degree of estimation than it has
(502) generally obtained. In the contrivance of some of the episodes,
and frequently in the modes of expression, Statius keeps an attentive eye
to the style of Virgil. It is said that he was twelve years employed in
the composition of this poem; and we have his own authority for
affirming, that he polished it with all the care and assiduity practised
by the poets in the Augustan age:

Quippe, te fido monitore, nostra
Thebais, multa cruciata lima,
Tentat audaci fide Mantuanae
Gaudia famae.–Silvae, lib. iv. 7.

For, taught by you, with steadfast care
I trim my “Song of Thebes,” and dare
With generous rivalry to share
The glories of the Mantuan bard.

The Achilleis relates to the same hero who is celebrated by Homer in the
Iliad; but it is the previous history of Achilles, not his conduct in the
Trojan war, which forms the subject of the poem of Statius. While the
young hero is under the care of the Centaur Chiron, Thetis makes a visit
to the preceptor’s sequestered habitation, where, to save her son from
the fate which, it was predicted, would befall him at Troy, if he should
go to the siege of that place, she orders him to be dressed in the
disguise of a girl, and sent to live in the family of Lycomedes, king of
Scyros. But as Troy could not be taken without the aid of Achilles,
Ulysses, accompanied by Diomede, is deputed by the Greeks to go to
Scyros, and bring him thence to the Grecian camp. The artifice by which
the sagacious ambassador detected Achilles amongst his female companions,
was by placing before them various articles of merchandise, amongst which
was some armour. Achilles no sooner perceived the latter, than he
eagerly seized a sword and shield, and manifesting the strongest emotions
of heroic enthusiasm, discovered his sex. After an affectionate parting
with Lycomedes’ daughter, Deidamia, whom he left pregnant of a son, he
set sail with the Grecian chiefs, and, during the voyage, gives them an
account of the manner of his education with Chiron.

This poem consists of two books, in heroic measure, and is written with
taste and fancy. Commentators are of opinion, that the Achilleis was
left incomplete by the death of the author; but this is extremely
improbable, from various circumstances, and appears to be founded only
upon the word Hactenus, in the conclusion of the poem:

(503) Hactenus annorum, comites, elementa meorum
Et memini, et meminisse juvat: scit caetera mater.

Thus far, companions dear, with mindful joy I’ve told
My youthful deeds; the rest my mother can unfold.

That any consequential reference was intended by hactenus, seems to me
plainly contradicted by the words which immediately follow, scit caetera
mater. Statius could not propose the giving any further account of
Achilles’s life, because a general narrative of it had been given in the
first book. The voyage from Scyros to the Trojan coast, conducted with
the celerity which suited the purpose of the poet, admitted of no
incidents which required description or recital: and after the voyagers
had reached the Grecian camp, it is reasonable to suppose, that the
action of the Iliad immediately commenced. But that Statius had no
design of extending the plan of the Achilleis beyond this period, is
expressly declared in the exordium of the poem:

Magnanimum Aeaciden, formidatamque Tonanti
Progeniem, et patrio vetitam succedere coelo,
Diva, refer; quanquam acta viri multum inclyta cantu
Maeonio; sed plura vacant. Nos ire per omnem
(Sic amor est) heroa velis, Scyroque latentem
Dulichia proferre tuba: nec in Hectore tracto
Sistere, sed tota juvenem deducere Troja.

Aid me, O goddess! while I sing of him,
Who shook the Thunderer’s throne, and, for his crime,
Was doomed to lose his birthright in the skies;
The great Aeacides. Maeonian strains
Have made his mighty deeds their glorious theme;
Still much remains: be mine the pleasing task
To trace the future hero’s young career,
Not dragging Hector at his chariot wheels,
But while disguised in Scyros yet he lurked,
Till trumpet-stirred, he sprung to manly arms,
And sage Ulysses led him to the Trojan coast.

The Silvae is a collection of poems almost entirely in heroic verse,
divided into five books, and for the most part written extempore.
Statius himself affirms, in his Dedication to Stella, that the production
of none of them employed him more than two days; yet many of them consist
of between one hundred and two hundred hexameter lines. We meet with one
of two hundred and sixteen lines; one, of two hundred and thirty-four;
one, of two hundred and sixty-two; and one of two hundred and seventy-
seven; a rapidity of composition approaching to what Horace mentions of
the poet Lucilius. It is no small encomium to observe, that, considered
as extemporaneous productions, (504) the meanest in the collection is far
from meriting censure, either in point of sentiment or expression; and
many of them contain passages which command our applause.

The poet MARTIAL, surnamed likewise Coquus, was born at Bilbilis, in
Spain, of obscure parents. At the age of twenty-one, he came to Rome,
where he lived during five-and-thirty years under the emperors Galba,
Otho, Vitellius, the two Vespasians, Domitian, Nerva, and the beginning
of the reign of Trajan. He was the panegyrist of several of those
emperors, by whom he was liberally rewarded, raised to the Equestrian
order, and promoted by Domitian to the tribuneship; but being treated
with coldness and neglect by Trajan, he returned to his native country,
and, a few years after, ended his days, at the age of seventy-five.

He had lived at Rome in great splendour and affluence, as well as in high
esteem for his poetical talents; but upon his return to Bilbilis, it is
said that he experienced a great reverse of fortune, and was chiefly
indebted for his support to the gratuitous benefactions of Pliny the
Younger, whom he had extolled in some epigrams.

The poems of Martial consist of fourteen books, all written in the
epigrammatic form, to which species of composition, introduced by the
Greeks, he had a peculiar propensity. Amidst such a multitude of verses,
on a variety of subjects, often composed extempore, and many of them,
probably, in the moments of fashionable dissipation, it is not surprising
that we find a large number unworthy the genius of the author. Delicacy,
and even decency, is often violated in the productions of Martial.
Grasping at every thought which afforded even the shadow of ingenuity, he
gave unlimited scope to the exercise of an active and fruitful
imagination. In respect to composition, he is likewise liable to
censure. At one time he wearies, and at another tantalises the reader,
with the prolixity or ambiguity of his preambles. His prelusive
sentiments are sometimes far-fetched, and converge not with a natural
declination into the focus of epigram. In dispensing praise and censure,
he often seems to be governed more by prejudice or policy, than by
justice and truth; and he is more constantly attentive to the production
of wit, than to the improvement of morality.

But while we remark the blemishes and imperfections of this poet, we must
acknowledge his extraordinary merits. In composition he is, in general,
elegant and correct; and where the subject is capable of connection with
sentiment, his inventive ingenuity never fails to extract from it the
essence of delight and surprise. His fancy is prolific of beautiful
images, and his (505) judgment expert in arranging them to the greatest
advantage. He bestows panegyric with inimitable grace, and satirises
with equal dexterity. In a fund of Attic salt, he surpasses every other
writer; and though he seems to have at command all the varied stores of
gall, he is not destitute of candour. With almost every kind of
versification he appears to be familiar; and notwithstanding a facility
of temper, too accommodating, perhaps, on many occasions, to the
licentiousness of the times, we may venture from strong indications to
pronounce, that, as a moralist, his principles were virtuous. It is
observed of this author, by Pliny the Younger, that, though his
compositions might, perhaps, not obtain immortality, he wrote as if they
would. [Aeterna, quae scripsit, non erunt fortasse: ille tamen scripsit
tanquam futura.] The character which Martial gives of his epigrams, is
just and comprehensive:

«- 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.