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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical Introduction by Harriet Waters Preston (1836–1911)

By Roman Poets of the Later Empire

EARLY in the second century A.D. the sweet but slender aftermath of Latin pagan poetry began to ripen upon the sunny hillside where it had pleased the Emperor Hadrian to fix his most magnificent abode. That many-sided and enigmatical being, whom the ancient writers can only attempt to describe by accumulating pairs of contradictory adjectives—“grave and gay, cordial and reserved, impulsive and cautious, niggardly and lavish, crafty and ingenuous,”—had certainly both a refined taste in poetry and a delicate poetical talent of his own. The ghosts of the light and languid men of letters whom he rather disdainfully patronized—“with an air,” goes on Spartianus, the author quoted above, “of knowing much more than they”—seem always to haunt the beautiful oval gymnasium of Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli, upon whose original marble seats one may still dream away an idle hour. Here Annius Floras chanted the brief glories of the rose, or engaged in merry metrical duels with his imperial master; and the Etruscan Annianus sang in tripping measure the song of the Falernian vine (“I am the one grape—I am the grape of Falernum”), or sought to bring again into vogue, by slightly adapting to the superficial squeamishness of a sophisticated time, the naïve indecencies of the Fescennine harvest-home and marriage hymns. The taste of the clique, as often happens in a period of decadence, was for the far-sought and archaic, the curious and the daintily sensuous, for tender sentimentalism and aromatic pains. These artificial folk doted upon nature; and the fragments of their verse which we possess reveal an altogether new sensitiveness to her beauties, and sympathy with her moods. Whatever they knew of aspiration or regret seems to have been gathered into one wistful sigh, and to exhale in the forever inimitable farewell of the Emperor himself to his own departing soul,—“Animula, blandula, vagula.”

It is difficult also, upon internal evidence, not to refer to the same period, and to some member or members of the same circle, the one fragment of highly impassioned and melodious Latin verse which has survived the wreckage of a couple of centuries,—the ‘Pervigilium Veneris.’ We know that Hadrian restored with great pomp the worship of Alma Venus; and it seemed as if this dulcet song for the vigil of her festa must have been inspired by that circumstance. The connection of ideas is loose, the imagery as vaporous, fluctuating, and insaissisable as in a Troubadour love-song; but here too the atmosphere is voluptuous and the emotion strong. The German critic who “proves all things,” without always holding fast to that which is good, has both shown conclusively that the ‘Pervigilium’ does belong to the time of Hadrian, and that it does not. The fact that the strongly accented septennarian verse in which it is written, constantly recalls the long surge of certain Augustinian hymns, may only mean that the tonic accent really went for more in the delivery of native Latin verse than is commonly supposed.

A similar uncertainty with regard to its date involves the work of the best Latin bucolic poet after Virgil; the only one, in fact, whose compositions will stand any kind of comparison with those of the master. Calpurnius Siculus wrote eclogues of indisputable though unequal beauty. He offered the incense of extravagant praise to a youthful emperor who had lately acceded, whose advent had been heralded by the appearance of a wonderful comet; whose personal and mental gifts excited ardent hopes; who built a huge amphitheatre of wood on or near the Campus Martius, and ransacked the earth for curious beasts to exhibit therein. All these things have commonly been thought to refer to Nero, and to the first five years of his reign (54–59 A.D.), during which he gave no sign of the vicious and insane propensities which afterwards made his name a synonym of horror. It appears, however, by the precise testimony of astronomy, that the comet of 54 cannot be identified with the one which is described so very vividly by Calpurnius; while a comet meeting the requirements fairly well did appear early in the third century A.D. Of the eleven eclogues long attributed to the Sicilian, four are now almost universally assigned to the African, Olympius Aurelius Nemesianus, who also wrote a poem upon hunting, and who certainly flourished during the brief reign of the Emperor Carus and his sons—282–284 A.D. On the other hand, the recurring refrain of the last of these Nemesianian eclogues bears a strong resemblance to that of the ‘Pervigilium Veneris,’ and may perhaps be considered an argument for the advanced date of the latter.

Nearly a century more was to pass before the last ardent revival of Roman patriotism found expression in a poetic revival, during which the venerable forms of classic Latin verse were once again handled for a moment with something like the old mastery and grace. It was the flare of a forlorn hope. The cloud of barbarian invasion already hung low upon the horizon; and the end of the Golden City of the past was as plainly announced as is that of the “golden autumn woodland” on the last still day of October. Meanwhile Roma Aurea had lost but little as yet of her unparalleled outward magnificence; and it seems to have been more that visionary and bewildering beauty of aspect which fired the imaginations of her latest pagan devotees, than any deep reverence for her hoary traditions, or reasoned attachment to her political code and forms. The three poets of the fourth and early fifth centuries whose names we instinctively associate—Ausonius, Claudian, and Rutilius—were all of them, like nearly every other late writer whose name has survived, of provincial extraction. Two were professed pagan believers, and eager pagan apologists. The third, who as the tutor of a nominally Christian prince was himself of necessity a nominal Christian, was the most deeply imbued with pagan feeling, and debauched by pagan sensualism, of them all.

Decimus Magnus Ausonius—“proud,” as he used to say, “of preserving even in his name a reminiscence of Italy”—was born in Burdigala, now Bordeaux, in 309. He saw the conversion of Constantine, the apostasy and death of Julian, the restoration of so-called Christian rule in the person of the blunt soldier Jovian. In 369, being already well advanced in years, he was appointed tutor to Gratian, then a boy of eight, son of the Pannonian general Valentinian I., who had been proclaimed Roman Emperor three years before. Valentinian had divided the empire with his brother Valens; sending the latter to the city of Constantine in the East, while he himself assumed the sovereignty of the West and fixed his court at Augusta Trevirorum (Trier or Trèves). Ausonius was educated at Toulouse, and returned at about the age of twenty-eight to Bordeaux, where he had been known as a teacher of rhetoric and literature for nearly thirty years before he received his court appointment. In 375 Valentinian I. went back to his own native province, to subdue a revolt which had broken out among the Quadi; and died there suddenly in the month of November of the same year.

After the accession of his royal pupil at the age of sixteen, Ausonius was made prefect of Italy and Africa. Three years later, in 378, he and his son Hesperius were joint prefects of Gaul; and we find him consul-designate for 379. Four years later Gratian was murdered by the revolting Briton Maximus, but not before he had associated with himself in the empire a Spanish general who was none other than Theodosius the Great. Maximus managed to hold his own for four years; and while he reigned at Trèves, Ausonius was in disgrace. Theodosius restored him to favor; but he was now past seventy, and soon retired to a fine estate near his native town of Bordeaux, where he seems to have lived to extreme old age, corresponding with friends all over the Roman world, and polishing for publication his early poetical writings.

The most noteworthy of these, the ‘Idyll of the Moselle,’ is a description of the poet’s journey upon that river from the port of Tabernæ (now Bern-Castel) to the Augustan capital. It is full of keen observation and picturesque description, affording by far the clearest picture we possess of Roman civilization in the north of Europe, and enabling us—along with the highly impressive Roman remains yet existing in and about Trèves—to reconstruct with very tolerable success the outward features of that civilization.

Ausonius also sketched a certain number of human figures typical of his time, in the series of epigrams and epitaphs upon his own kindred which he entitled ‘Parentalia’; and in his ‘Ordo Nobilium Orbium’ he described, seemingly from personal observation, the sixteen greatest cities of Europe in his day, beginning with Rome and ending with Bordeaux. “Her I love,” he says of his native place; “but Rome I worship.”

Officially—as a laureate produces a birthday ode—Ausonius composed, soon after his arrival at Valentinian’s court, an Easter hymn. But in his graceful ‘Dream of Cupid Crucified’ he travesties, apparently with no thought of blasphemy, and in singularly light and charming verse, the awful central scene of Christian history; and in his ‘Griphus,’ or riddling disquisition on the properties of the number three, he points out that there are “three Graces, three Harpies, three Furies, three prophesying Sibyls, three drinks to a toast, and three persons in the Trinity.” Ausonius also perpetrated many epigrams, most of them insufferably coarse, and a few tame and tasteless eclogues; and he wrote other idyls besides that of the ‘Moselle.’ In the best of these he essays, as Omar Khayyám and Ronsard, Waller and Herrick, and a hundred more have done since his day, the everlasting theme of the evanescent rose; adorning it lavishly with “pathetic fallacies,” and giving it a wealth of sentimental development which contrasts curiously with the perfectly simple transcription of the elementary melody by Florus, two hundred years before.

A far more virile minstrel, many of whose compact and ringing hexameters need have been disdained neither by Lucretius nor Virgil, was Claudius Claudianus. He was born and brought up at Alexandria; and his father, who seems to have lectured on philosophy in the city of Hypatia something like a generation before her day, was a native of Asia Minor. But though born to speak Greek, Claudian wrote, by preference if not always, in Latin. His mature years were passed in Rome, and he was passionately identified with the last struggle of the Roman patriciate against the official establishment of Christianity by Theodosius.

When the great Spaniard died, in 395, each of his two sons, between whom the kingdom of the world was divided, fell under the dominion of a powerful prime minister. Arcadius, in the East, became the tool of the infamous Rufinus; Honorius, in the West, was more happily controlled by his father-in-law, the brilliant Vandal warrior Stilicho, who was able so long as he lived to hold the other barbarians at bay. It was the signal deliverance, under his generalship, of the Golden City from its first threatened sack by Alaric the Visigoth, which rendered Stilicho the hero par excellence of the poet Claudian. He wrote among other things an epithalamium and four short Fescennine lays on the marriage of Honorius to Stilicho’s daughter Maria; the praises of the great Vandal leader in two books; of his consulate in another; of his wife Serena in a fourth; a brilliant poem on the Getic war and the defeat of Alaric; invectives against Rufinus and Eutropius; and three books of a mythological poem on the rape of Proserpine, parts of which are exceedingly fine. The literary merits of Claudian were acknowledged by those who had least sympathy with him in opinion: by Sidonius Apollinaris in an ode; in the ‘Civitas Dei’ by St. Augustine, who mourns that so noble a writer should have been “hostile to the name of Christ”; and by Orosius, who says that though a superlatively good poet, he was a most stubborn (pervicacissimus) pagan. After the fall of Stilicho in 403, there is no further mention of Claudian in history; and it seems natural to conclude that his fate was involved in that of the man whom he so admired and exalted. The emperors Honorius and Arcadius, on petition of the Roman Senate, erected in the Forum of Trajan a statue, of which the inscription, discovered in the fifteenth century, describes “Claudian the Tribune” as uniting in one person “the mind of Virgil and the muse of Homer.”

It is a singular fact that the one other militant pagan of this tragic period whose poetical work has endured should have been as vehemently hostile to Stilicho as Claudian was eloquent in his praise. Rutilius Claudius Numatianus was born in Toulouse, but like Claudian, he lived long in Rome, was at one time prefect of the city, and was undoubtedly residing there at the time of Stilicho’s disgrace and Claudian’s disappearance. He bitterly charges the great Vandal himself with contempt of the elder gods, in ordering the destruction of the Sibylline Books; and though this particular accusation has never been substantiated, it is apparently true that Stilicho did strip the doors of the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus of their golden plating, and steal from the neck of a venerable statue of Cybele—a horrified Vestal protesting the while—a most ancient and precious necklace, which he bestowed upon his wife Serena. When in 410 Rome had finally succumbed to the second assault of Alaric, and the barbarian hordes had overflowed into Gaul, breaking up the Aurelian Way as they went,—destroying bridges and plundering and laying waste the country,—Rutilius followed them by sea, to save what he might of his patrimony. It was with heartsick reluctance that he forsook the city of his impassioned predilection; endeavoring to silence, by yearning promises of a speedy return, the ominous voice within which told him that his farewell was a final one.

Seven years later, in 417, we find him beguiling his lingering exile in Gaul by the composition in sweetly flowing elegiacs of an ‘Itinerarium,’ or narrative of his homeward journey. The poem was to have been a long one, to judge by the first and fragment of a second book, which are all that we possess; and its easy graphic style enables one to follow the poet, mile by mile and day by day, from the port of Ostia, where he embarked, to a point on the eastern Riviera of the Mediterranean somewhere between Pisa and Genoa. All the incidents of the voyage are recalled and revivified. All the objects descried in passing, upon mainland or island,—cities, villas, fortifications, fishing and salt-making stations; immemorial ruins, like those of the Etruscan Populonia, whose aspect is almost the same to-day as when Rutilius beheld it; incipient convents which excite him to explosions of scorn and wrath at the senseless fanaticism of the monks; mines of Elba divined rather than seen,—pass before him in review; and when the white city of Luna, on a spur of the Carrara Mountains, fades from view, and this fascinating guide-book of the fifth century comes to an untimely end, we regret its fragmentary nature, for the moment, almost more than the mutilation of some of the greater works of antiquity.

One more name remains to be added to the list of Roman poets whose hearts were irrevocably set upon the past, and who caught such inspiration as they had from the expiring glories of the pre-Christian order. Claudian had once said, in his carelessly hyperbolical way, that every individual of the renowned Anician stock would be found to have sprung from a consul; and Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, born in 480, or about seventy-five years after Claudian ceased to be, was certainly himself a consul, the son of a consul, and the father of two boys who were named honorary consuls in their mere infancy by Theodoric, on his visit to Rome in 522. The Anicii, like the remnant in general of the old Roman patriciate, were now Christian in name, as their sovereigns had long been; but their feeling of race, their habits of mind, their code of conduct,—all their civic and social traditions, in a word,—were still intensely and impenitently pagan. With great wealth, commanding position, and the broadest culture of his day, Boethius passed the years of his early manhood chiefly in his own beautiful library, “ceiled with ivory and decorated with crystal,” now writing a philosophical essay on the Trinity or a tract against Nestorius, now translating Plato, Aristotle, or Euclid. But when the hour came suddenly upon him, of cruel calamity and uttermost reverse, it was in the innate pride and power of a long-descended and indomitable Roman that he rose to meet his fate. It was philosophy, not religion, that he summoned to his aid; and in her mystic sign, rather than that of the Labarum of Constantine, he conquered. A monotheist Boethius undoubtedly was, and a devout one; but not, if we are to judge him by his own clear and candid testimony, a practical follower of the sect of the Nazarenes. He was a Roman citizen first; a deist afterward; an orthodox Christian last and least of all: and the book by which he still holds the memory and affections of men, and still, out of the solitude and squalor of his dim prison chamber, affords help in trouble to a certain order of minds among them, is a dialogue, partly in prose, but interrupted by pieces of noble verse, with a visible embodiment of the philosophic spirit.

Jealousy of the splendid fortune and exclusive national prejudices of Boethius would seem to have been the sole source of the baseless and malign accusation of treason which poisoned against him the mind of Theodoric. He was arrested in the sacristy of a church near Ticinum,—the modern Pavia,—imprisoned for a year in a strong tower, never examined or allowed a hearing, finally tortured and slain in prison. The ‘Consolation of Philosophy,’ beloved of Dante and many another undaunted sufferer, was written there; and the simplicity and sincerity of expression born of the writer’s own desperate condition invest its thrilling pages with unique and enduring power.