The Silver Age of Latin Literature: Quintilian, Pliny & Statius
The Silver Age of Latin Literature : The Silver Age of the rhetoricians succeeded the age of the scholars. Quintilian, Pliny and Statius, the three foremost authors of the Flavian dynasty, have common qualities of great learning and sober judgment which give them a certain mutual affinity, and divide them sharply from their immediate predecessors. The effort to outdo the Augustan writers had exhausted itself; the new school rather aimed at reproducing their manner. In the hands of inferior writers this attempt only issued in tame imitations; but with those of really original power it carried the Latin of the Silver Age to a point higher in quality than it ever reached, except in the single case of Tacitus, a writer of unique genius who stands in a class of his own.
The Silver Age of Latin Literature
The reigns of the three Flavian emperors nearly occupy the last thirty years of the first century after Christ. The “year of four Emperors” which passed between the downfall of Nero and the accession of Vespasian had shaken the whole Empire to its foundations. The recovery from that shock left the Roman world established on a new footing. In literature, no less than in government and finance, a feverish period of inflated credit had brought it to the verge of ruin. At the beginning of his reign Vespasian announced a deficit of four hundred million pounds (a sum the like of which had never been heard of before) in the public exchequer; some similar estimate might have been formed by a fanciful analogy of the collapse that had to be made good in literature, when style could no longer bear the tremendous overdrafts made on it by Seneca and Lucan. And in the literary as in the political world there was no complete recovery: throughout the second century we have to trace the gradual decline of letters going on alongside of that mysterious decay of the Empire itself before which a continuously admirable government was all but helpless.
Publius Papinius Statius
Publius Papinius Statius, the most eminent of the poets of this age, was born towards the end of the reign of Tiberius, and seems to have died before the accession of Nerva. His poetry can all be assigned to the reign of Domitian, or the few years immediately preceding it. As to his life little is known, probably because it passed without much incident. He was born at Naples, and returned to it in advanced age after the completion of his Thebaid; but the greater part of his life was spent at Rome, where his father was a grammarian of some distinction who had acted for a time as tutor to Domitian. He had thus access to the court, where he improved his opportunities by unstinted adulation of the Emperor and his favourite eunuch Earinus. The curious mediaeval tradition of his conversion to Christianity, which is so finely used by Dante in the Purgatorio, cannot be traced to its origin, and does not appear to have any historical foundation.
Twelve years were spent by Statius over his epic poem on the War of Thebes, which was published about the year 92, with a florid dedication to Domitian. After its completion he began another epic, on an even more imposing scale, on the life of Achilles and the whole of the Trojan war. Of this Achilleid only the first and part of the second book were ever completed; had it continued on the same scale it would have been the longest of Greek or Latin epics. At various times after the publication of the Thebaid appeared the five books of Silvae, miscellaneous and occasional poems on different subjects, often of a personal nature. Another epic, on the campaign of Domitian in Germany, has not been preserved.
The Silver Age of Latin Literature
The Thebaid became very famous; later poets, like Ausonius or Claudian, constantly imitate it. Its smooth versification, copious diction, and sustained elegance made it a sort of canon of poetical technique. But, itself, it rises beyond the merely mechanical level. Without any quality that can quite be called genius, Statius had real poetical feeling. His taste preserves him from any great extravagances; and among much tedious rhetoric and cumbrous mythology, there is enough of imagination and pathos to make the poem interesting and even charming. At a time when Guercino and the Caracci were counted great masters in the sister art, the Thebaid was also held to be a masterpiece. Besides complete versions by inferior hands, both Pope and Gray took the pains to translate portions of it into English verse, and it is perpetually quoted in the literature of the eighteenth century. It is, indeed, perhaps its severest condemnation that it reads best in quotations. Not only the more highly elaborated passages, but almost any passage taken at random, may be read with pleasure and admiration; those who have had the patience to read it through, however much they may respect the continuous excellence of its workmanship, will (as with the Gierusalemme Liberata of Tasso) feel nearly as much respect for their own achievement as for that of the poet.
The Silvae, consisting as they do of comparatively short pieces, display the excellences of Statius to greater advantage. Of the thirty- two poems, six are in lyric metres, the rest being all written in the smooth graceful hexameters of which the author of the Thebaid was so accomplished a master. The subjects, for the most part of a familiar nature, are very various. A touching and affectionate poem to his wife Claudia is one of the best known. Several are on the death of friends; one of very great beauty is on the marriage of his brother poet, Arruntius Stella, to a lady with the charming name of Violantilla. The descriptive pieces on the villas of acquaintances at Tivoli and Sorrento, and on the garden of another in Rome, are full of a genuine feeling for natural beauty.
The poem on the death of his father, though it has passages of romantic fancy, is deformed by an excess of literary allusions; but that on the death of his adopted son (he had no children of his own), which ends the collection, is very touching in the sincerity of its grief and its reminiscences of the dead boy’s infancy. Perhaps the finest, certainly the most remarkable of all these pieces is the short poem (one might almost call it a sonnet) addressed to Sleep. This, though included in the last book of the Silvae, must have been written in earlier life; it shows that had Statius not been entangled in the composition of epics by the conventional taste of his age, he might have struck out a new manner in ancient poetry.
Were the three lines beginning Unde ego sufficiam struck out—and one might almost fancy them to have been inserted later by an unhappy second thought—the remainder of this poem would be as perfect as it is unique. The famous sonnet of Wordsworth on the same subject must at once occur to an English reader; but the poem in its manner, especially in the dying cadence of the last two lines, recalls even more strongly some of the finest sonnets of Keats. “Had Statius written often thus,” in the words Johnson uses of Gray, “it had been vain to blame, and useless to praise him.”
The two other epic poets contemporary with Statius whose works are extant, Valerius Flaccus and Silius Italicus, belong generally to the same school, but stand on a much lower level of excellence. The former is only known as the author of the Argonautica. An allusion in the proem of his epic to the recent destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in the year 70, and another in a later book to the great eruption of Vesuvius in 79, fix the date of the poem; and Quintilian, writing in the later years of Domitian, refers to the poet’s recent death. From another passage in the Argonautica it has been inferred that Flaccus was one of the college of quindecemvirs, and therefore of high family. The Argonautica follows the well-known poem of Apollonius Rhodius, but by his diffuse rhetorical treatment the author expands the story to such a length that in between five and six thousand lines he has only got as far as the escape of Jason and Medea from Colchos.
Here the poem breaks off abruptly in the eighth book; it was probably meant to consist of twelve, and to end with the return of the Argonauts to Greece. In all respects, except the choice of subject, Valerius Flaccus is far inferior to Statius. He cannot indeed wholly destroy the perennial charm of the story of the Golden Fleece, but he comes as near doing so as is reasonably possible. His versification is correct, but without freedom or variety; and incidents and persons are alike presented through a cloud of monotonous and mechanical rhetoric.
If Valerius Flaccus to some degree redeemed his imaginative poverty by the choice of his subject, the other epic poet of the Flavian era, Tiberius Catius Silius Italicus, chose a subject which no ingenuity could have adapted to epic treatment. His Punic War may fairly contend for the distinction of being the worst epic ever written; and its author is the most striking example in Latin literature of the incorrigible amateur. He had, in earlier life, passed through a distinguished official career; he was consul the year before the fall of Nero, and in the political revolutions which followed conducted himself with such prudence that, though an intimate friend of Vitellius, he remained in favour under Vespasian.
After a term of further service as proconsul of Asia, he retired to a dignified and easy leisure. His love of literature was sincere; he prided himself on owning one of Cicero’s villas, and the land which held Virgil’s grave, and he was a generous patron to men of letters. The fulsome compliments paid to him by Martial (who has the effrontery to speak of him as a combined Virgil and Cicero) are, no doubt, only an average specimen of the atmosphere which surrounded so munificent a patron; but the admiration which he openly expressed for the slave Epictetus does him a truer honour.
The Bellum Punicum, in seventeen books, is longer than the Odyssey. It closely follows the history as told by Livy; but the elements of almost epic grandeur in the contest between Rome and Hannibal all disappear amid masses of tedious machinery. Without any invention or constructive power of his own, Silius copies with tasteless pedantry all the outworn traditions of the heroic epic. What Homer or Virgil has done, he must needs do too. The Romans are the Dardanians or the Aeneadae: Juno interferes in Hannibal’s favour, and Venus, hidden in a cloud, watches the battle of the Trebia from a hill. Hannibal is urged to war by a dream like that of Agamemnon in the Iliad; he is equipped with a spear “fatal to many thousands” of the enemy, and a shield, like that of Aeneas, embossed with subjects from Carthaginian history, and with the river Ebro flowing round the edge as an ingenious variant of the Ocean-river on the shield of Achilles.
A Carthaginian fleet cruising off the coast of Italy falls in with Proteus, who takes the opportunity of prophesying the course of the war. Hannibal at Zama pursues a phantom of Scipio, which flies before him and disappears like that of Aeneas before Turnus. Such was the degradation to which the noble epic machinery had now sunk. Soon after the death of Silius the poem seems to have fallen into merited oblivion; there is a single reference to it in a poet of the fifth century, and thereafter it remained unknown or unheard of until a manuscript discovered by Poggio Bracciolini brought it to light again early in the fifteenth century.
The Silver Age of Latin Literature
The works of the other Flavian poets, Curiatius Maternus, Saleius Bassus, Arruntius Stella, and the poetess Sulpicia, are lost; all else that survives of the verse of the period is the work of a writer of a different order, but of considerable importance and value, the epigrammatist Martial. By no means a poet of the first rank, hardly perhaps a poet at all according to any strict definition, he has yet a genius of his own which for many ages made him the chief and almost the sole model for a particular kind of literature.
Marcus Valerius Martialis was born at Augusta Bilbilis in Central Spain towards the end of the reign of Tiberius. He came to Rome as a young man during the reign of Nero, when his countrymen, Seneca and Lucan, were at the height of their reputation. Through their patronage he obtained a footing, if not at court, yet among the wealthy amateurs who extended a less dangerous protection to men of letters. For some thirty-five years he led the life of a dependant; under Domitian his assiduous flattery gained for him the honorary tribunate which conferred equestrian rank, though not the rewards of hard cash which he would probably have appreciated more. The younger Pliny, who speaks of him with a slightly supercilious approval, repaid with a more substantial gratification a poem comparing him to Cicero.
Martial’s gift for occasional verse just enabled him to live up three pair of stairs in the city; in later years, when he had an income from booksellers as well as from private patrons, he could afford a tiny country house among the Sabine hills. Early in the reign of Domitian he began to publish regularly, bringing out a volume of epigrams every year. After the accession of Trajan he returned to his native town, from which, however, he sent a final volume three years afterwards to his Roman publishers. There his talent for flattery at last bore substantial fruit; a rich lady of the neighbourhood presented him with a little estate, and though the longing for the country, which had grown on him in Rome, was soon replaced by a stronger feeling of regret for the excitement of the capital, he spent the remainder of his life in material comfort.
The collected works of Martial, as published after his death, which probably took place about the year 102, consist of twelve books of miscellaneous Epigrams, which are prefaced by a book of pieces called Liber Spectaculorum, upon the performances given by Titus and Domitian in the capital, especially in the vast amphitheatre erected by the former. At the end are added two books of Xenia and Apophoreta, distichs written to go with the Christmas presents of all sorts which were interchanged at the festival of the Saturnalia. These last are, of course, not “distinguished for a strong poetic feeling,” any more than the cracker mottoes of modern times. But the twelve books of Epigrams, while they include work of all degrees of goodness and badness, are invaluable from the vivid picture which they give of actual daily life at Rome in the first century.
Few writers of equal ability show in their work such a total absence of character, such indifference to all ideas or enthusiasms; yet this very quality makes the verse of Martial a more perfect mirror of the external aspects of Roman life. A certain intolerance of hypocrisy is the nearest approach Martial ever makes to moral feeling. His perpetual flattery of Domitian, though gross as a mountain—it generally takes the form of comparing him with the Supreme Being, to the disadvantage of the latter—has no more serious political import than there is serious moral import in the almost unexampled indecency of a large proportion of the epigrams. The “candour” noted in him by Pliny is simply that of a sheet of paper which is indifferent to what is written upon it, fair or foul. He may claim the merit—nor is it an inconsiderable one—of being totally free from pretence. In one of the most graceful of his poems, he enumerates to a friend the things which make up a happy life: “Be yourself, and do not wish to be something else,” is the line which sums up his counsel. To his own work he extends the same easy tolerance with which he views the follies and vices of society. “A few good, some indifferent, the greater number bad”—so he describes his epigrams; what opening is left after this for hostile criticism? If elsewhere he hints that only indolence prevented him from producing more important work, so harmless an affectation may be passed over in a writer whose clearness of observation and mastery of slight but lifelike portraiture are really of a high order.
By one of the curious accidents of literary history Martial, as the only Latin epigrammatist who left a large mass of work, gave a meaning to the word epigram from which it is only now beginning to recover. The art, practised with such infinite grace by Greek artists of almost every age between Solon and Justinian, was just at this period sunk to a low ebb. The contemporary Greek epigrammatists whose work is preserved in the Palatine Anthology, from Nicarchus and Lucilius to Strato, all show the same heaviness of handling and the same tiresome insistence on making a point, which prevent Martial’s epigrams from being placed in the first rank. But while in any collection of Greek epigrammatic poetry these authors naturally sink to their own place, Martial, as well by the mere mass of his work—some twelve hundred pieces in all, exclusive of the cracker mottoes—as by his animation and pungent wit, set a narrow and rather disastrous type for later literature.
He appealed strongly to all that was worst in Roman taste—its heavy-handedness, its admiration of verbal cleverness, its tendency towards brutality. Half a century later, Verus Caesar, that wretched creature whom Hadrian had adopted as his successor, and whose fortunate death left the Empire to the noble rule of Antoninus Pius, called Martial “his Virgil:” the incident is highly significant of the corruption of taste which in the course of the second century concurred with other causes to bring Latin literature to decay and almost to extinction.
Among the learned Romans of this age of great learning, the elder Pliny, aetatis suae doctissimus, easily took the first place. Born in the middle of the reign of Tiberius, Gaius Plinius Secundus of Comum passed his life in high public employments, both military and civil, which took him successively over nearly all the provinces of the Empire. He served in Germany, in the Danubian provinces, in Spain, in Gaul, in Africa, and probably also in Syria, on the staff of Titus, during the Jewish war. In August of the year 79 he was in command of the fleet stationed at Misenum when the memorable eruption of Vesuvius took place. In his zeal for scientific investigation he set sail for the spot in a man-of-war, and, lingering too near the zone of the eruption, was suffocated by the rain of hot ashes. The account of his death, given by his nephew in a letter to the historian Tacitus, is one of the best known passages in the classics.
The Silver Age of Latin Literature
By amazing industry and a most rigid economy of time, Pliny combined with his continuous official duties an immense reading and a literary production of great scope and value. A hundred and sixty volumes of his extracts from writers of all kinds, written, we are told, on both sides of the paper in an extremely small hand, were bequeathed by him to his nephew. Besides works on grammar, rhetoric, military tactics, and other subjects, he wrote two important histories—one, in twenty books, on the wars on the German frontier, the other a general history of Rome in thirty-one books, from the accession of Nero to the joint triumph of Vespasian and Titus after the subjugation of the Jewish revolt. Both these valuable works are completely lost, nor is it possible to determine how far their substance reappears in Tacitus and Suetonius; the former, however, in both Annals and Histories, repeatedly cites him as an authority. But we fortunately possess the most important of his works, the thirty-seven books of his Natural History.
This is not, indeed, a great work of literature, though its style, while sometimes heavy and sometimes mannered, is on the whole plain, straightforward, and unpretentious; but it is a priceless storehouse of information on every branch of natural science as known to the ancient world. It was published with a dedication to Titus two years before Pliny’s death, but continued during the rest of his life to receive his additions and corrections. It was compiled from a vast reading. Nearly five hundred authors (about a hundred and fifty Roman, the rest foreign) are cited in his catalogue of authorities. The plan of this great encyclopedia was carefully thought out before its composition was begun. It opens with a general system of physiography, and then passes successively to geography, anthropology, human physiology, zoology and comparative physiology, botany, including agriculture and horticulture, medicine, mineralogy, and the fine arts.
After being long held as an almost infallible authority, Pliny, in more recent times, fell under the reproach of credulity and want of sufficient discrimination in the value of his sources. Further research has gone some way to reinstate his reputation. Without having any profound original knowledge of the particular sciences, he had a naturally scientific mind. His tendency to give what is merely curious the same attention as what is essentially important, has incidentally preserved much valuable detail, especially as regards the arts; and modern research often tends to confirm the anecdotes which were once condemned as plainly erroneous and even absurd. Pliny has, further, the great advantage of being shut up in no philosophical system. His philosophy of life, and his religion so far as it appears, is that of his age, a moderate and rational Stoicism. Like his contemporaries, he complains of the modern falling away from nature and the decay of morals. But it is as the conscientious student and the unbiassed observer that he habitually appears. In diligence, accuracy, and freedom from preconception or prejudice, he represents the highest level reached by ancient science after Aristotle and his immediate successors.
Of the more specialised scientific treatises belonging to this period, only two are extant, the three books on Strategy by Sextus Julius Frontinus, and a treatise by the same author on the public water-supply of Rome; both belong to strict science, rather than to literature. The schools of rhetoric and grammar continued to flourish: among many unimportant names that of Quintilian stands eminent, as not only a grammarian and rhetorician, but a fine critic and a writer of high substantive value.
Marcus Fabius Quintilianus
Marcus Fabius Quintilianus of Calagurris, a small town on the Upper Ebro, is the last, and perhaps the most distinguished of that school of Spanish writers which bulks so largely in the history of the first century. He was educated at Rome, and afterwards returned to his native town as a teacher of rhetoric. There he made, or improved, the acquaintance of Servius Sulpicius Galba, proconsul of Tarraconensian Spain in the later years of Nero. When Galba was declared Emperor by the senate, he took Quintilian with him to Rome, where he was appointed a public teacher of rhetoric, with a salary from the privy purse. He retained his fame and his favour through the succeeding reigns.
Domitian made him tutor to the two grand-nephews whom he destined for his own successors, and raised him to consular rank. For about twenty years he remained the most celebrated teacher in the capital, combining his professorship with a large amount of actual pleading in the law-courts. His published works belong to the later years of his life, when he had retired from the bar and from public teaching. His first important treatise, on the decay of oratory, De Causis Corruptae Eloquentiae, is not extant. It was followed, a few years later, in or about the year 93, by his great work, the Institutio Oratoria, which sums up the teaching and criticism of his life.
The contents of this work, which at once became the final and standard treatise on the theory and practice of Latin oratory, are very elaborate and complete. In the first book, Quintilian discusses the preliminary training required before the pupil is ready to enter on the study of his art, beginning with a sketch of the elementary education of the child from the time he leaves the nursery, which is even now of remarkable interest. The second book deals with the general principles and scope of the art of oratory, and continues the discussion of the aims and methods of education in its later stages. The five books from the third to the seventh are occupied with an exhaustive treatment of the matter of oratory, under the heads of what were known to the Roman schools by the names of invention and disposition. The greater part of these books is, of course, highly technical.
The next four books, from the eighth to the eleventh, treat of the manner of oratory, or all that is included in the word style in its widest signification. It is in this part of the treatise that Quintilian, in relation to the course of general reading both in Greek and Latin that should be pursued by the young orator, gives the masterly sketch of Latin literature which is the most famous portion of the whole work. The twelfth book, which concludes the work, reverts to education in the highest and most extended sense, that of the moral qualifications of the great orator, and the exhaustive discipline of the whole nature throughout life which must be continued unfalteringly to the end.
Now that the formal study of rhetoric has ceased to be a part of the higher education, the more strictly technical parts of Quintilian’s work, like those of the Rhetoric of Aristotle, have, in a great measure, lost their relevance to actual life, and with it their general interest to the world at large. Both the Greek and the Roman masterpiece are read now rather for their incidental observations upon human nature and the fundamental principles of art, than for instruction in a particular form of art which, in the course of time, has become obsolete. These observations, in Quintilian no less than in Aristotle, are often both luminous and profound, A collection of the memorable sentences of Quintilian, such as has been made by his modern editors, is full of sayings of deep wisdom and enduring value.
Nulla mansit ars qualis inventa est, nec intra initium stetit; Plerumque facilius est plus facere, quam idem; Nihil in studiis parvum est; Cito scribendo non fit ut bene scribatur, bene scribendo fit ut cito; Omnia nostra dum nascuntur placent, alioqui nec scriberentur;—such sayings as these, expressed with admirable terseness and lucidity, are scattered all over the work, and have a value far beyond the limits of any single study. If they do not drop from Quintilian with the same curious negligence as they do from Aristotle (whose best things are nearly always said in a parenthesis), the advantage is not wholly with the Greek author; the more orderly and finished method of the Roman teacher marks a higher constructive literary power than that of Aristotle, whose singular genius made him indeed the prince of lecturers, but did not place him in the first rank of writers.
Beyond these incidental touches of wisdom and insight, which give an enduring value to the whole substance of the work, the chief interest for modern readers in the Institution Oratoria, lies in three portions which are, more or less, episodic to the strict purpose of the book, though they sum up the spirit in which it is written. These are the discussions on the education of children in the first, and on the larger education of mature life in the last book, and the critical sketch of ancient literature up to his own time, which occupies the first chapter of the tenth. Almost for the first time in history—for the ideal system of Plato, however brilliant and suggestive, stands on quite a different footing—the theory of education was, in this age, made a subject of profound thought and study.
The precepts of Quintilian, if taken in detail, address themselves to the formation of a Roman of the Empire, and not a citizen of modern Europe. But their main spirit is independent of the accidents of any age or country. In the breadth of his ideas, and in the wisdom of much of his detailed advice, Quintilian takes a place in the foremost rank of educational writers. The dialogue on oratory written a few years earlier by Tacitus names, as the main cause of the decay of the liberal arts, not any lack of substantial encouragement, but the negligence of parents and the want of skill in teachers. To leave off vague and easy declamations against luxury and the decay of morals, and to fix on the great truth that bad education is responsible for bad life, was the first step towards a real reform. This Quintilian insists upon with admirable clearness.
Nor has any writer on education grasped more firmly or expressed more lucidly the complementary truth that education, from the cradle upwards, is something which acts on the whole intellectual and moral nature, and whose object is the production of what the Romans called, in a simple form of words which was full of meaning, “the good man.” It would pass beyond the province of literary criticism to discuss the reasons why that reform never took place, or, if it did, was confined to a circle too small to influence the downward movement of the Empire at large. They belong to a subject which is among the most interesting of all studies, and which has hardly yet been studied with adequate fulness or insight, the social history of the Roman world in the second century.
The Silver Age of Latin Literature
One necessary part of the education of the orator was a course of wide and careful reading in the best literature; and it is in this special connection that Quintilian devotes part of his elaborate discussion on style to a brief critical summary of the literature of Greece and that of his own country. The frequent citations which have already been made from this part of the work may indicate the very great ability with which it is executed. Though his special purpose as a professor of rhetoric is always kept in view, his criticism passes beyond this formal limit. He expresses, no doubt, what was the general opinion of the educated world of his own time; but the form of his criticism is so careful and so choice, that many of his brief phrases have remained the final word on the authors, both in prose and verse, whom he mentions in his rapid survey.
His catalogue is far from being, as it has been disparagingly called, a mere “list of the best hundred books.” It is the deliberate judgment of the best Roman scholarship, in an age of wide reading and great learning, upon the masterpieces of their own literature. His own preference for certain periods and certain manners is well marked. But he never forgets that the object of criticism is to disengage excellences rather than to censure faults: even his pronounced aversion from the style of Seneca and the authors of the Neronian age does not prevent him from seeing their merits, and giving these ungrudging praise.
It is, indeed, in Quintilian that the reaction from the early imperial manner comes to its climax. Statius had, to a certain degree, gone back to Virgil; Quintilian goes back to Cicero without hesitation or reserve. He is the first of the Ciceronians; Lactantius in the fourth century, John of Salisbury in the twelfth, Petrarch in the fourteenth, Erasmus in the sixteenth, all in a way continue the tradition which he founded; nor is it surprising that the discovery of a complete manuscript of the Institutio Oratoria, early in the fifteenth century was hailed by scholars as one of the most important events of the Renaissance. He is not, however, a mere imitator of his master’s style; indeed, his style is, in some features and for some purposes, a better one than his master’s. It is as clear and fluent, and not so verbose. He cannot rise to the great heights of Cicero; but for ordinary use it would be difficult to name a manner that combines so well the Ciceronian dignity with the rich colour and high finish added to Latin prose by the writers of the earlier empire.
The body of criticism left by Quintilian in this remarkable chapter is the more valuable because it includes nearly all the great Latin writers. Classical literature, little as it may have seemed so at the time, was already nearing its end. With the generation which immediately followed, that of his younger contemporaries, the Silver Age closes, and a new age begins, which, though full of interest in many ways, is no longer classical. After Tacitus and the younger Pliny, the main stream dwindles and loses itself among quicksands. The writers who continue the pure classical tradition are few, and of inferior power; and the chief interest of Latin literature becomes turned in other directions, to the Christian writers on the one hand, and on the other to those authors in whom we may trace the beginning of new styles and methods, some of which bore fruit at the time, while others remained undeveloped till the later Middle Ages.
Why this final effort of purely Roman culture, made in the Flavian era with such sustained energy and ability, on the whole scarcely survived a single generation, is a question to which no simple answer can be given. It brings us once more face to face with the other question, which, indeed, haunts Latin literature from the outset, whether the conquest and absorption of Greece by Rome did not carry with it the seeds of a fatal weakness in the victorious literature. Up to the end of the Golden Age fresh waves of Greek influence had again and again given new vitality and enlarged power to the Latin language. That influence had now exhausted itself; for the Latin world Greece had no further message. That Latin literature began to decline so soon after the stimulating Greek influence ceased to operate, was partly due to external causes; the empire began to fight for its existence before the end of the second century, and never afterwards gained a pause in the continuous drain of its vital force.
But there was another reason more intimate and inherent; a literature formed so completely on that of Greece paid the penalty in a certain loss of independent vitality. The gap between the literary Latin and the actual speech of the mass of Latin-speaking people became too great to bridge over. Classical Latin poetry was, as we have seen, written throughout in alien metres, to which indeed the language was adapted with immense dexterity, but which still remained foreign to its natural structure.
To a certain degree the same was even true of prose, at least of the more imaginative prose which was developed through a study of the great Greek masters of history, oratory, and philosophy. In the Silver Age Latin literature, feeling a great past behind it, definitely tried to cut itself away from Greece and stand on its own feet. Quintilian’s criticism implies throughout that the two literatures were on a footing of substantial equality; Cicero is sufficient for him, as Virgil is for Statius. Even Martial, it has been noted, hardly ever alludes to Greek authors, while he is full of references to those of his own country. The eminent grammarians of the age, Aemilius Asper, Marcus Valerius Probus, Quintus Asconius Pedianus, show the same tendency; their main work was in commenting on the great Latin writers.
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