His readers did not mind his inaccuracies or his bias. They liked his style and story, and gloried in the vivid picture that he had drawn of their past. They took the Ab urbe condita as a prose epic, one of the noblest monuments of the Augustan age and mood. From that time onward it was Livy’s book that would color for eighteen centuries men’s conception of Rome’s history and character. Even readers in subject lands were impressed by this massive record of unprecedented conquests and titanic deeds. The younger Pliny tells of a Spaniard who was so moved by Livy’s work that he traveled from far Cadiz to Rome in the hope of seeing him. Having accomplished his purpose and tendered his worship, he neglected other sights and returned content to his Atlantic home.
VI. THE AMOROUS REVOLT
Meanwhile poetry continued to flourish, but not quite on the lines of Augustus’ desire. Only supreme artists like Virgil or Horace can produce good verse to governmental specifications; greater men would refuse, lesser men are unable to comply. Of the three major sources of poetry- religion, nature, love- two had been brought under imperial sway; the third remained lawless, even in Horace’s Odes. Now, mildly in Tibullus and Propertius, recklessly in Ovid, poetry escaped from the bureau of propaganda and staged a rebellion that proceeded with mounting gaiety to a tragic end.
Albius Tibullus (54-19), like Virgil, lost his ancestral lands when the Civil War reached the little town of Pedum- near Tibur- that had seen his birth. Messala rescued him from poverty and took him in his train to the East, but Tibullus fell ill on the way and returned to Rome. He was happy to be free from war and politics; now he could give himself to genderless love and the polishing of elegiac verse in the manner of the Alexandrian Greeks. To Delia (otherwise unknown, and perhaps one name for many) he addressed the usual supplications, “sitting like a gatekeeper [ ianitor ] before her stubborn doors” and reminding her, as so many maids have been reminded, that youth comes but once and soon steals away. It did not disturb him that Delia was married; he put the husband to sleep with undiluted wine- but fumed when her new lover played the same trick upon him. These ancient themes might not have harassed Augustus; what made Tibullus, Propertius, and Ovid really disagreeable to a government that was finding it hard to enlist recruits for the army was the persuasive antimilitarism of this love-loose set. Tibullus laughs at warriors who forage for death when they might have been seducing women. He mourns for the age of Saturn, when, he imagines,
there were no armies, no hatred, and no war…. There was no war when men drank from wooden cups…. Give me but love, and let others go to war…. The hero is he whom, when his children have been begotten, old age overtakes in his humble cottage. He follows his sheep, his son follows the lambs, while the good wife heats the water for his weary limbs. So let me live till the white hairs glisten on my head, and I tell in my old man’s fashion of the days gone by.
Sextus Propertius (49-15) sang less simply and tenderly, and with more learned ornaments, the same idyl of peaceful lechery. Born in Umbria, educated in Rome, he soon lapsed into verse; and though few readers could fetch his thoughts from the wells of his pedantry, Maecenas took him into his circle on the Esquiline. He describes with pride and pleasure the dinners there on the banks of the Tiber, when he would drink the wine of Lesbos in cups chiseled by great artists, and, “seated as on a throne amid merry women,” would watch the vessels gliding by on the river below. To please his patron and his prince Propertius now and then plucked his lyre in praise of war; but to his mistress Cynthia he sang another tune: “Why should I raise sons for Parthian triumphs? No child of ours shall be a soldier.” Not all the martial glory in the world, he assured her, could equal one night with Cynthia. Of all these epicureans, light of heart and head, who spent their lives climbing and descending the mount of Venus, Publius Ovidius Naso was the happy model and poet laureate. Sulmo (Soloma) saw his birth (43 B.C.) in a pleasant valley of the Apennines some ninety miles east of Rome; how beautiful, from the cold exile of his later years, would seem Sulmo’s vineyards, olive groves, cornfields, and streams! His rich middle-class father sent him to Rome to study law, and was shocked to hear that the boy wished to be a poet; he held up to the lad the awful fate of Homer, who, according to the best authorities, had died blind and poor. So warned, Ovid managed to rise to the post of a judge in the praetorial courts. Then, to his father’s dismay, he refused to run for the quaestorship (from which he would have emerged a senator), and retired to the cultivation of literature and love. He pleaded that he could not help being a poet; “I lisped in numbers and the numbers came.” Ovid traveled leisurely to Athens, the Near East, and Sicily, and, returning, joined the loosest circles in the capital. Possessed of charm, wit, education, and money, he was able to open all doors. He married twice in early manhood, was twice divorced, and then grazed for a time in public pastures. “Let the past please others,” he sang; “I congratulate myself on being born into this age, whose morals are so congenial to my own.” He laughed at the Aeneid, and merely concluded from it that since the son of Venus had founded Rome, it should, if only out of piety, become the city of love. He lost his head to a pretty courtesan, whose anonymity or multiplicity he hides under the name of Corinna. His racy couplets about her had no trouble in finding a publisher; under the title of Amores they were soon (14 B.C.) on the lips and lyres of youthful Rome. “On every hand people want to know who is this Corinna that I sing about.” He mystified them, in a second series of Amores, by writing a pronunciamento of promiscuity: