It thus appears that, in addition to the impulses imparted by the Hellenes in music and poetry, the Romans were indebted to them for the fruitful idea of gymnastic competitions.

Character Of Poetry And Of Education In Latium

Thus there not only existed in Latium the same fundamental elements out of which Hellenic culture and art grew, but Hellenic culture and art themselves exercised a powerful influence over Latium in very early times. Not only did the Latins possess the elements of gymnastic training, in so far as the Roman boy learned like every farmer's son to manage horses and waggon and to handle the hunting-spear, and as in Rome every burgess was at the same time a soldier; but the art of dancing was from the first an object of public care, and a powerful impulse was further given to such culture at an early period by the introduction of the Hellenic games. The lyrical poetry and tragedy of Hellas grew out of songs similar to the festal lays of Rome; the ancestral lay contained the germs of epos, the masked farce the germs of comedy; and in this field also Grecian influences were not wanting.

In such circumstances it is the more remarkable that these germs either did not spring up at all, or were soon arrested in their growth. The bodily training of the Latin youth continued to be solid and substantial, but far removed from the idea of artistic culture for the body, such as was the aim of Hellenic gymnastics. The public games of the Hellenes when introduced into Italy, changed not so much their formal rules as their essential character. While they were intended to be competitions of burgesses and beyond doubt were so at first in Rome, they became contests of professional riders and professional boxers, and, while the proof of free and Hellenic descent formed the first condition for participating in the Greek festal games, those of Rome soon passed into the hands of freedmen and foreigners and even of persons not free at all. Consequently the circle of fellow-competitors became converted into a public of spectators, and the chaplet of the victorious champion, which has been with justice called the badge of Hellas, was afterwards hardly ever mentioned in Latium.

A similar fate befel poetry and her sisters. The Greeks and Germans alone possess a fountain of song that wells up spontaneously; from the golden vase of the Muses only a few drops have fallen on the green soil of Italy. There was no formation of legend in the strict sense there. The Italian gods were abstractions and remained such; they never became elevated into or, as some may prefer to say, obscured under, a true personal shape. In like manner men, even the greatest and noblest, remained in the view of the Italian without exception mortal, and were not, as in the longing recollection and affectionately cherished tradition of Greece, elevated in the conception of the multitude into god-like heroes. But above all no development of national poetry took place in Latium. It is the deepest and noblest effect of the fine arts and above all of poetry, that they break down the barriers of civil communities and create out of tribes a nation and out of the nations a world. As in the present day by means of our cosmopolitan literature the distinctions of civilized nations are done away, so Greek poetic art transformed the narrow and egoistic sense of tribal relationship into the consciousness of Hellenic nationality, and this again into the consciousness of a common humanity. But in Latium nothing similar occurred. There might be poets in Alba and in Rome, but there arose no Latin epos, nor even--what were still more conceivable--a catechism for the Latin farmer of a kind similar to the "Works and Days" of Hesiod. The Latin federal festival might well have become a national festival of the fine arts, like the Olympian and Isthmian games of the Greeks. A cycle of legends might well have gathered around the fall of Alba, such as was woven around the conquest of Ilion, and every community and every noble clan of Latium might have discovered in it, or imported into it, the story of its own origin. But neither of these results took place, and Italy remained without national poetry or art.

The inference which of necessity follows from these facts, that the development of the fine arts in Latium was rather a shrivelling up than an expanding into bloom, is confirmed in a manner even now not to be mistaken by tradition. The beginnings of poetry everywhere, perhaps, belong rather to women than to men; the spell of incantation and the chant for the dead pertain pre-eminently to the former, and not without reason the spirits of song, the Casmenae or Camenae and the Carmentis of Latium, like the Muses of Hellas, were conceived as feminine. But the time came in Hellas, when the poet relieved the songstress and Apollo took his place at the head of the Muses. In Latium there was no national god of song, and the older Latin language had no designation for the poet.(15) The power of song emerging there was out of all proportion weaker, and was rapidly arrested in its growth. The exercise of the fine arts was there early restricted, partly to women and children, partly to incorporated or unincorporated tradesmen. We have already mentioned that funeral chants were sung by women and banquet-lays by boys; the religious litanies also were chiefly executed by children. The musicians formed an incorporated, the dancers and the wailing women (-praeficae-) unincorporated, trades. While dancing, music, and singing remained constantly in Greece--as they were originally also in Latium--reputable employments redounding to the honour of the burgess and of the community to which he belonged, in Latium the better portion of the burgesses drew more and more aloof from these vain arts, and that the more decidedly, in proportion as art came to be more publicly exhibited and more thoroughly penetrated by the quickening impulses derived from other lands. The use of the native pipe was sanctioned, but the lyre remained despised; and while the national amusement of masks was allowed, the foreign amusements of the -palaestra- were not only regarded with indifference, but esteemed disgraceful.

Italian Books
Theodor Mommsen
Classic Literature Library

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