CHAPTER XII, from the third volume of the Story of Civilization: Caesar and Christ, A History of Roman Civilization and of Christianity from their beginnings to A.D. 325. See the book at Amazon
I. THE AUGUSTAN STIMULUS
IF peace and security are more favorable than war to the production of literature and art, yet war and profound social disturbances turn up the earth about the plants of thought and nourish the seeds that mature in peace. A quiet life does not make great ideas or great men; but the compulsions of crisis, the imperatives of survival, weed out dead things by the roots and quicken the growth of new ideas and ways. Peace after successful war has all the stimulus of a rapid convalescence; men then rejoice at mere being, and sometimes break into song.
The Romans were grateful to Augustus because he had cured, even if by a major operation, the cancer of chaos that had been consuming their civic life. They were astonished to find themselves rich so soon after devastation; and they were elated to note that despite their recent defenseless disorder they were still masters of what seemed to them the world. They looked back upon their history, from the first to this second Romulus, from creator to restorer, and judged it epically wonderful; they were hardly surprised when Virgil and Horace put their gratitude, their glory, and their pride into verse, and Livy into prose. Better still, the region they had conquered was only partly barbarous; a large area of it was the realm of Hellenistic culture- of refined speech, subtle literature, enlightening science, mature philosophy, and noble art. This spiritual wealth was now pouring into Rome, stirring imitation and rivalry, compelling language and letters to spruce up and grow. Ten thousand Greek words slipped into the Latin vocabulary, ten thousand Greek statues or paintings entered Roman forums, temples, streets, and homes. Money was passing down, even to poets and artists, from the captors of Egypt’s treasure, the absentee owners of Italy’s soil, and the exploiters of the Empire’s resources and trade. Writers dedicated their works to rich men in the hope of receiving gifts that would finance their further toil; so Horace addressed his odes to Sallust, Aelius Lamia, Manlius Torquatus, and Munatius, Plancus. Messala Corvinus gathered about him a coterie of authors whose star was Tibullus, and Maecenas redeemed his wealth and poetry by presents to Virgil, Horace, and Propertius. Until his final irascible years, Augustus followed a liberal policy toward literature; he was glad to have letters and art take up the energies that had disturbed politics; he would pay men to write books if they would let him govern the state. His generosity to poets became so renowned that a swarm of them buzzed around him wherever he went. When a Greek persisted, day after day, in pressing verses into his hand as he left his palace, Augustus retaliated by stopping, composing some lines of his own, and having an attendant give them to the Greek. The latter offered the Emperor a few denarii and expressed his regret that he could not give more. Augustus rewarded his wit, not his poetry, with 100,000 sesterces.
The stream of books swelled now to proportions unknown before. Everyone from fool to philosopher wrote poetry. Since all poetry, and most literary prose, were designed to be read aloud, gatherings were formed at which authors read their productions to invited or general audiences or, in rare moments of tolerance, to one another. Juvenal thought that a compelling reason for living in the country was to escape the poets who infested Rome. In the bookshops that crowded a district called the Argiletum, writers assembled to compute literary genius, while impecunious bibliophiles furtively read snatches of the books they could not buy. Placards on the walls announced new titles and their cost. Small volumes sold for four or five sesterces, average volumes for ten ($1.50); elegant editions like Martial’s epigrams, usually illustrated with a portrait of the author, brought some five denarii ($3). Books were exported to all parts of the Empire, or were published simultaneously in Rome, Lyons, Athens, and Alexandria; Martial was pleased to learn that he was bought and sold in Britain. Even poets now had private libraries; Ovid affectionately describes his. We gather from Martial that there were already book fanciers who collected de luxe editions, or rare manuscripts. Augustus established two public libraries; Tiberius, Vespasian, Domitian, Trajan, and Hadrian built others; by the fourth century there were twenty-eight in Rome. Foreign students and writers came to study in these libraries and in public archives; so Dionysius came from Halicarnassus, and Diodorus from Sicily. Rome was now the rival of Alexandria as the literary center of the Western world.