CHAPTER XIV, 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

Copyright by Will Durant. See the book at Amazon


TRADITION has given to Latin letters from A.D. 14 to 117 the name of Silver Age, implying a fall from the cultural excellence of the Augustan Age. Tradition is the voice of time, and time is the medium of selection; a cautious mind will respect their verdict, for only youth knows better than twenty centuries. We may be permitted, however, to suspend judgment, to give Lucan, Petronius, Seneca, the elder Pliny, Celsus, Statius, Martial, Quintilian- and, in later chapters, Tacitus, Juvenal, Pliny the Younger, and Epictetus- an unbiased hearing, and enjoy them as if we had never heard that they belonged to a decadent period. In every epoch something is decaying and something is growing. In epigram, satire, the novel, history, and philosophy the Silver Age marks the zenith of Roman literature, as it represents in realistic sculpture and mass architecture the climax of Roman art.

The speech of the common man re-entered literature, diminishing inflections, relaxing syntax, and dropping final consonants with Gallic impertinence. About the middle of the first century the Latin V (which had been pronounced like our W ) and B (between vowels) were both softened into a sound like the English V; so habere, to have, became in sound havere, and prepared for Italian avere and French avoir; while vinum, wine, began to approximate, by lazy slurring of the changing final consonant, the Italian vino and the French vin. The Latin language was preparing to mother Italian, Spanish, and French. It must be admitted that rhetoric had now grown at the expense of eloquence, grammar at the expense of poetry. Able men devoted themselves beyond precedent to studying the form, evolution, and niceties of the language, editing already “classical” texts, formulating the august rules of literary composition, forensic oratory, poetic meter, and prose rhythm. Claudius tried to reform the alphabet; Nero made poetry fashionable by his almost Japanese example; and the elder Seneca wrote manuals of rhetoric on the ground that eloquence gives to every power a double power. Without eloquence only generals could rise in Rome; and even generals had to be orators. The mania for rhetoric seized all forms of literature: poetry became rhetorical, prose became poetical, and Pliny himself wrote an eloquent page in the six volumes of his Natural History. Men began to worry about the balance of their phrases and the melody of their clauses; historians wrote declamations, philosophers itched for epigrams, and every one wrote sententiae – concentrated pills of wisdom. All the polite world was writing poetry, and reading it to friends in hired halls or theaters, at table, even (Martial complained) in the bath. Poets engaged in public competitions, won prizes, were feted by municipalities and crowned by emperors; aristocrats and princes welcomed dedications or tributes and paid for them with dinners or denarii. The passion for poetry gave a pleasant aspect of amateur authorship to an age and city darkened with sexual license and periodic terror.