Most of the men whom Pliny describes were members of the new aristocracy stemming from the provinces; they were not idlers, for nearly every one of them held public office and shared in the admirable administration of the Empire under Trajan. Pliny himself was sent as propraetor to Bithynia to restore the solvency of some cities there. His letters include some inquiries addressed to the Prince, and Trajan’s pithy replies; they show Pliny accomplishing his mission with ability and honor, though with a strangely detailed dependence upon the Emperor’s advice. His final letter begs forgiveness for sending his sick wife home by the coaches of the imperial post. Thereafter Pliny disappears from literature and history, leaving behind him a redeeming picture of a Roman gentleman, and of Italy in her happiest age.
IV. THE CULTURAL DECLINE
We should obscure these outstanding figures if we were to surround them with lesser lights. After them there were no giants in pagan Latin letters. Reason had made its great effort from Ennius to Tacitus and had spent itself. It is a shock to pass from the grandeur of the Histories and the Annals to the scandalous chronicle of Suetonius’ Lives of Illustrious Men (110); history is here degenerating into biography, and biography into anecdote; portents and miracles and superstitions crowd the pages, and only the Elizabethan English of Philemon Holland’s translation (1606) has raised the book to the level of literature. Less disturbing is the descent from Pliny to the letters of Fronto. Perhaps these were not meant for publication, and cannot be fairly compared with Pliny’s; some were spoiled by a search for archaic phraseology, but many are touched by real affection of the teacher for his pupil. Aulus Gellius supported the archaizing movement in his Attic Nights (169)- the largest collection of worthless trifles in ancient literature; and Apuleius brought it to a climax in The Golden Ass. Apuleius and Fronto came from Africa, and the fad may have had partial source in the fact that written Latin there had departed less than in Rome from the language of the people and the Republic. Fronto rightly believed in strengthening literature with popular speech, as one freshens a plant by turning over the earth at its roots. But youth does not come twice to a man, a nation, a literature, or a language. Orientalization had set in and could not be stopped. The common Greek tongue of the Hellenistic East and Oriental Rome was becoming the language of literature as well as of life; Fronto’s pupil chose it for his Meditations. Appian, an Alexandrian Greek living at Rome, chose Greek for his vivid Histories of Rome’s wars (ca. 160); so did Claudius Aelian, a Roman by birth and blood; a half century later Dio Cassius, a Roman senator, would write his history of Rome in Greek. Leadership in literature was passing back from Rome to the Greek East; not to the Greek spirit, but to the Oriental soul using Hellenic speech. There would be giants again in Latin; but they would be Christian saints. Roman art declined more slowly than Roman letters. Technical ability lingered on and produced good architecture, sculpture, painting, and mosaic. The head of Nerva, in the Vatican, carries on the vivid realism of Flavian portraits, and the Column of Trajan is an impressive relief despite much crudity. Hadrian labored to revive Hellenic classicism, but found no one to play Pheidias to his Pericles; the inspiration that had stirred Greece after Marathon, and Rome after Actium, was missing in an age of self-limitation, contentment, and peace. The busts of Hadrian lose character by their smooth Hellenistic lines; the heads of Plotina and Sabina are pretty; but the portraits of Antinous repel us by their sleek effeminate insipidity. Probably Hadrian’s classical reaction was a mistake: it ended the forceful naturalism and individuation of Flavian and Trajanic sculpture, which had had indigenous roots in Italian tradition and character. Nothing reaches maturity except through the fulfillment of its own nature.
Under the Antonines Roman sculpture had its penultimate fling. Once at least it achieved perfection, in the figure of a young woman whose veiled head and modest robes are molded with a bewitching delicacy and firmness of line. Almost as good is the portrait of Marcus’ Faustina, aristocratically refined, and sensuous enough to accord with the innuendoes of history. Aurelius himself was carved or cast in a thousand forms, from the meditative and guileless yet eagerly sensitive youth of the Capitoline bust to the curly-headed professor in armor of that same collection. Every tourist knows the stately bronze of Aurelius Imperator on horseback, which, since Michelangelo restored it, has dominated the piazza of Rome’s Capitol.