Ancient History & Civilisation

2. THE POETS

Horace considered that Roman literature began with Livius Andronicus, that is at the time when Rome had conquered Italy and was asserting her supremacy throughout the Mediterranean.5 National victory stimulated artistic production. The Romans, suddenly brought face to face with the literature of Greece, became conscious of the crudeness of their own early efforts. True, they tended to regard literature rather as an extra than a fundamental part of life and were slow in losing the suspicion that thought delayed action. Further, the perfection of Greek literature in all genres might have deterred a less practical people. But when the Romans conceived a desire for literature they determined to get it quickly, starting with pure translation from the Greek and adapting their language to this end. Increasing contact with the Greek world stimulated their desire to accept the legacy of Greece and to shape it to their national needs.

Livius Andronicus (c. 284–204), though cavalierly dismissed by Cicero and Horace, was a great pioneer if not a great poet. He was a Greek from Tarentum who served in the household of Livius Salinator. Traditionally a slave freed by Salinator, he more probably gained citizenship through Salinator’s patronage. He taught Latin and Greek and translated the Odyssey into Latin Saturnians. In 240 he was chosen by the aediles to translate in varied metres a comedy and a tragedy for performance at the Ludi Romani that year. In 207 he was entrusted with the composition of a Processional Ode for a ceremony of purification of the state. This success resulted in the establishment by the government of a club or academy for literary men on the Aventine. Livius might be called the father of epic and lyric poetry, of tragedy and comedy at Rome, if the outstanding genius of Ennius had not a greater claim. His translation of the Odyssey became a Schoolbook, which the youthful Horace had occasion to connect with the cane of his master Orbilius, yet it must have opened up a wonderland of romance and adventure for boys who had been accustomed only to learning by heart the Twelve Tables. It is easy to blame the translator for defective renderings and for falling far short of the noble hexameters of his original; it is less easy perhaps to envisage the greatness of his contribution. The titles of eight of his tragedies have survived; they point to the three great tragedians, especially Sophocles, as the source, and show a preference for stories from the Trojan cycle, which had interest for the Romans who had a natural concern about the background to the story of their own Trojan origin. A Roman dramatist could not reproduce the Greek chorus (which indeed had gradually dropped out of Greek tragedy after Euripides’ day) since he could not provide a trained chorus of twelve singers and dancers; so Livius (and later Naevius) increased the number of monodies and thus made Roman tragedy more like modern opera than Greek tragedy had been. He acted in his own plays. His comedies are based on the New Comedy, not on Aristophanes. Examples of his rugged vividness may be taken from the Aegisthus:

Tum autem lascivom Nerei sumum pecus
Ludens ad cantum classem lustratur (? choro);

(Then Nereus’ wanton snub-nosed flock in fun
Frolic to music choir-like round the fleet.)

or from his Andromeda: ‘Confluges ubi conventu campum totum inumigant’. (When the waters in their concourse congregate to flood the plain) (J. Wight Duff).

More has survived of the work of Naevius (c. 270–199), an Italian whose outspoken comments on the nobility, especially the Metelli, led to his imprisonment towards the end of the Hannibalic War. He wrote two plays in prison retracting his remarks, and so was released, but he later died in exile at Utica. His first plays were produced in 235. Titles of seven of his tragedies from Greek mythology survive. He first ‘contaminated’ plays by adopting features from two originals,6 and he set a new fashion by writing historical plays (fabulae praetextae): an Alimonia Romuli et Remi and Clastidium, celebrating the exploits of Marcellus in 222. His comedies and epic poetry, however, achieved greater fame. We have the titles of thirty-four comedies, which were apparently amusing, mordant and outspoken. Some were based on Greek New Comedy (palliatae), others on native life (togatae): from The Girl from Tarentum (Tarentilla) there survives a vivacious description of the wiles of a flirt. Even more important was his epic in Saturnians, the Bellum Punicum, describing the first war in which Naevius himself fought; the earlier part recounts the legendary origin of Rome and Carthage by way of introduction. This work had considerable influence on Ennius and Virgil. Naevius’ style is sometimes rigorous, sometimes bald (cf. his famous ‘noble Duke of York’ lines: Marcus Valerius consul|Partem exerciti in expeditionem|Ducit). But his fondness for compound words (as arquitenens, frundiferos) shows that a poetic diction was being created. His genius was essentially Latin; ‘full of Campanian (or as we should say “Castilian”) pride,’ he composed his epitaph which claimed that after his death men forgot to speak the Latin tongue at Rome: ‘Oblitei sunt Romai loquier lingua Latina’. At any rate he had laid the foundation of the national epic.

Q. Ennius (239–169), Rome’s soldier-poet who more truly than Livius can claim the title of father of Latin poetry, was born in Calabria and was brought to Rome from military service in Sardinia by Cato in 204. There he taught and wrote, winning the friendship of Scipio and Fulvius, and ultimately attaining full citizenship. He spoke Greek, Mesopic and Latin and showed great versatility of gifts. He took a large part in introducing Greek thought to Rome; in southern Italy he had absorbed much of the thought of Pythagoreanism, Epicharmus, Euhemerus and Epicurus. It is a paradox of fate that this Hellenist should have been brought to Rome by Cato. His comedies were slight, but he adapted at least twenty Greek tragedies, especially plays of Euripides whose critical spirit thus spoke from the Roman stage; he perhaps reintroduced the chorus into tragedy. He excelled in presenting moving situations, such as Alcmaeon hounded by the Furies, Cassandra’s sorrows, or the emotional farewell of captive Andromache:

O pater, O patria, O Priami domus,
Saeptum altisono cardine templum.

In his Saturne Ennius developed a new type of literature, a general commentary on life in the form of narrative, anecdote, fable or dialogue. To the satura may belong his Euhemerus and Epicharmus, his Scipio which honoured his patron Africanus, and perhaps hisAmbracia which celebrated the exploits of Fulvius Nobilior. Ennius’ greatest contribution was the eighteen books of his Annals, an epic account of Rome from earliest times down to 172 BC, written in hexameters. His description of the First Punic War was slight, as Naevius had already covered the ground in Saturnians. Whether the mixing of epic poetry and contemporary history was successful or not, Ennius provided Rome with a national epic which found its unity, not in its form, but in its conception of the grandeur of Rome’s expanding greatness. The attempt by one who claimed to be the Roman Homer to adapt the Latin language to a Greek dactylic metre was bound to result in a certain roughness of form (e.g. the famous tmesis ‘Saxo cere comminuit brum’ for ‘Saxo cerebrum comminuit’); but there were flashes of real beauty and impressive sonority: ingenio maximus, arte rudis. Many lines epitomize the spirit of early Rome: ‘qui vincit non est victor nisi victu’ fatetur’; ‘moribus antiquis res stat Romana virisque’; Curius ‘quem nemo ferro potuit superare neque auro’; and Fabius, ‘unus homo nobis cunctando restituit rem’. The measure of Ennius’ success is the measure of the debt that Lucretius, Virgil and other poets owed him:

Ennius ut noster cecinit qui primus amoeno
detulit ex Helicone perenni fronde coronam.

Later generations could with truth repeat the epitaph of such a poet:

Nemo me dacrumis decoret nec funera fletu
Faxit. Cur? Volito vivu’ per ora virum.

And Quintilian could say: ‘Let us worship Ennius like groves hallowed by age, where the great old oaks are not so much beautiful as awe-inspiring.’7

M. Pacuvius (c. 220–130), the nephew of Ennius, was a painter and writer. Beside saturae and a praetexta, named Paullus, he composed tragedies based on the Greek tragedians. His language was at times stilted and quaint, as in his description of dolphins as ‘Nerei repandirostrum incurvicervicum pecus’, but he had a vivid pen and was regarded in the Ciceronian age as Rome’s tragic poet. The other claimant to this title was his junior L. Accius (170– c. 86), after whom the writing of tragedy declined.

T. Maccius Plautus (c. 254–184) specialized in comedy. His early hardships in Rome, where at one time he worked as an actor or stage carpenter, at another in a flour mill, have been questioned, but his later popularity doubtless stabilized his position. One hundred and thirty plays masqueraded under his name, until Varro drew up a canonical list of twenty-one, of which all survive, though one only in fragments. A few were written towards the close of the Hannibalic War, the majority in the second century. Plautus drew on Philemon, Diphilus, Menander and other writers of Greek New Comedy, but he did not reproduce them in detail. New Comedy of Athens was a comedy of manners far removed from the vigorous Aristophanic caricature of individuals. A certain variety was displayed in this social satire, but the characters and plots tended to conform to type: the young lover, the confidential slave, the parasite, the courtesan, the pander and the braggart soldier. To transpose this immoral world on to the Roman stage would have shocked some and bored others, but Plautus wrote for his audience with great skill. By retaining the Greek background he was able to convince his hearers that they were witnessing life in a foreign land; and many would enjoy a display of the weakness of human nature or the antics of an impudent Greek slave, if they thought it would not corrupt their own national life: ‘Licet haec Athenis nobis’ (Plaut., Stich., 448). By imposing a Roman touch here and there Plautus interested his audience, who heard Roman characters generally referred to as ‘barbarians’, but who also saw Roman military and legal customs prevailing in a Greek setting and heard Latin puns as well as occasional references to contemporary events. Plautus cared nothing for consistency, just as Shakespeare when following Plutarch did not hesitate to let Theseus appear in English court dress. He played to his gallery still further by replacing the polish of his models with a coarse and boisterous Roman humour of a knockabout type: the banging of doors, the beating of slaves, scenes of rioting, eating and drinking, or the elephantine tread of a man disguised as a bride would appeal more to a Roman than to a Greek playgoer. Finally, Plautus, perhaps developing a movement introduced by Livius and Naevius, changed his models into something approaching a modern comic opera. Menander’s plays were written mainly in iambic senarii which were spoken by the actor, but Plautus retained this metre only for about one quarter of each play; the rest was brisker, either delivered as a recitative accompanied by a flute or else pure lyrics which were sung. A Greek visiting a Roman theatre would have found the Plautine version of a play that he knew very different from the original.

Of the plays themselves little can be said here. Apart from the Amphitruo (imitated by Molière and Dryden) which is a tragicomedy influenced by South Italian humour rather than a fabula palliata, they fall into various types as well as into ‘plays pleasant and unpleasant’. Many are comedies of intrigue, others are character plays (as the Miles Gloriosus), some are based on cases of mistaken identity (e.g. the Menaechmi, imitated in Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors), others on the motive of recognition (ἀναγνώϱισιç); theCaptivi is unique in containing no female characters. The appeal of Plautus lies primarily in his vis comica expressed in racy language. As in the New Comedy there was an underlying element of universal appeal, so Plautus strikes a semi-serious note at times, as in the treatment of his central theme of love. Though he lacks the lyrical sweetness of Aristophanes, he has something of the great master’s joy in living; his exuberant fun is not far removed from the full-blooded energy of the Elizabethans. Here lies his wide appeal to which even St Jerome and Luther responded.

Among other composers of palliatae was Caecilius Statius (c. 219–168), an Insubrian war captive who became the first Celtic author in Rome. In language he naturally fell short of the Latinity of Plautus or Terence, but his plots were considered first-class, either because he indulged in ‘contamination’ less than his contemporaries or perhaps because, like Terence later, he created an element of surprise by not disclosing the outline of the plot in his prologues. Better known through the survival of six plays, written between 166 and 160, is the younger poet whose work Caecilius encouraged: P. Terentius Afer (c. 195–159), an emancipated slave from Africa who became an intimate member of the Scipionic circle. By Terence’s day the attitude of Roman society to things Greek was changing, so that he found it possible to hellenize the palliatae still further. His plays are more homogeneous and lack the Roman element introduced by Plautus; the lyric parts are reduced in favour of spoken iambic parts; his interweaving of two plots is more skilful, so that Julius Caesar could call him ‘Menander halved’. The society and morality which he depicts is the same as in Plautus, but the tone is more refined; there is less coarseness and less comedy. The plots tend towards monotony; the reader never laughs and sometimes forgets to smile. But Terence shows a greater human interest and kindliness than his predecessor. His language is not an echo from the street, but from a cultured society. His neatness of expression has enshrined many a famous thought, as ‘fortes fortuna adiuvat’, ‘modo liceat vivere, est spes’, ‘quot homines, tot sententiae’, or ‘homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto’. ‘A lover of pure Latin’ (puri sermonis amator), Terence clothed Latin comedy most nearly in its original Attic grace. But in doing this he nearly killed Graeco-Latin comedy: Plautus had made it popular by partial nationalization, but Terence destroyed any chance of it becoming a popular national growth. The refinement and charm of his language and the dexterity of his plots might appeal to the educated Hellenists, but the common people, for whom the plays were really staged at the festivals, soon grew tired and found rope-dancers and gladiators more attractive than The Mother-in-Law (Hecyra).

This reaction against palliatae favoured the production of togatae. Titinius, a late rival of Plautus, solved the difficult problem of presenting the love story of Greek comedy in a Roman setting without offending Roman taste by choosing for his scene the free society of Italian village communities. The recovery of his lost plays, such as The Lady of the Dye Shop or The Dancing Girl of Ferentinum, would throw a welcome light on social conditions on which we have little contemporary evidence.

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