At Rome, as elsewhere, prose developed more slowly than poetry. It served law and government, legal and annalistic purposes, but it was long before history was written in Latin. The first Roman historian, Fabius Pictor, wrote an account of Rome from its origins in Greek, partly because his own language had not become flexible and partly as propaganda to impress the Greek world with the growing importance of the Roman people. His example was followed by Cincius Alimentus, who had been captured by Hannibal, by the son of Scipio Africanus, by Albinus the consul of 151, and by Acilius. Some of these works were later translated into Latin. Poetry might be left to freedmen, but those who had contributed to the making of Roman history naturally wished to leave some record of Rome’s struggles.
The father of Latin prose was Cato the Censor. He wrote a history in Latin, thereby setting an example which was followed by the annalists of the Gracchan era. This account of Rome’s development from early times down to Cato’s own time was called theOrigines (see p. 370). Cato wrote other books, including an encyclopaedia which contained treatises on rhetoric, medicine and agriculture, and probably also on military affairs and law. His only surviving work is the De agri cultura, a practical manual of household economy and estate management; its style, modernized by later copyists, was prosaic, terse and simple. Of his speeches about 150 were known to Cicero; the style is blunt, vigorous and vivid, and Cato followed the advice which he gave to his son: ‘rem tene, verba sequentur.’ We hear of orators who preceded him: for instance, the stirring speech in which Appius Claudius denounced treating with Pyrrhus remained a Roman classic. Appius’ other literary activities included the authorship of Sayings inspired by Pythagorean doctrine, and a reform of Roman writing. Reference is made to the funeral speeches delivered by Fabius Cunctator for his son and by Q. Caecilius Metellus for his father. Ennius hailed Cethegus, the consul of 204, as ‘the very heart of persuasion’ (suadae medulla), while the elder Scipio, Sempronius Gracchus and Aemilius Paullus had good reputations as orators. Sextus Aelius Paetus, consul of 198, composed a legal handbook named Tripertita, which contained the text of the Twelve Tables, their interpretation, and forms of lawsuits. The work was regarded as the ‘cradle of the law’ (cunabula iuris).
That early Roman prose was as formless as the English prose of Chaucer is shown by early inscriptions, the rambling Duilian inscription or a passage from Ennius’ Euhemerus quoted by Lactantius. But the necessity of public debate in the Senate-house, Forum and law courts forced men to argue lucidly and to dignify their expressions in accord with the gravity of their themes. Cato might care little for the sound or rhythm of his words, but his earnestness to drive home his points must have shaped his words more keenly than a mere academic study of Greek rhetoric would have done. It was Roman public life, more than the inspiration of Greek models, that moulded the early prose into a language which under Cicero’s genius became ‘the prose of the human race’.