The Hungry Greeklings
A GREAT lawyer once acted as counsel to a learned man of letters, who had been drawn from the shelter of his library by an annoying bit of litigation. In his defense, the lawyer first disposed of the legal question in his usual neat and convincing way, and then went on to argue to a wondering jury that his client, as poet and scholar, was a public benefactor. Since the lawyer’s eloquence was well known, this rather irrelevant defense was permitted, and became famous as literary criticism. But before he had fairly embarked in his panegyric it seems to have occurred to him that his enthusiasm for letters, including, as it happened, the study of Greek, might be the saving of his client, but could hardly fail to damage himself in the eyes of the practical business men who formed his audience ; and he accordingly inserted a statement that he, personally, by no means went the length that he applauded in his client. “For my own part,” said he, “ I am fond of reading, but not to such an extent that it has ever interfered with my professional duties. I have given to it only the time that other men devote to athletics or gambling or dining out.”
This famous confession of a taste for letters by a professional man, prefaced by a disclaimer of any intemperate use of the delightful stimulant, might have come from Rufus Choate before a Court of Common Pleas in Massachusetts, or from Thomas Erskine before King’s Bench, so adequately does it express the attitude of a cultivated man of our era, to whom literature is much, but business is business. It was not spoken in English, however, but in one of the languages that we associate nowadays with useless knowledge and an unpractical education, by a man whose works are set before schoolboys as the ideal after which they must strive in acquiring the vain accomplishment of writing Latin prose. It was Cicero who spoke his appreciation of Archias, Greek poet and Roman citizen, but hedged with characteristic caution to save his own reputation as a man of affairs.
Now, the fact that the Romans themselves were by no means wholly in favor of a classical education, that a speaker on any purely literary or æsthetic topic, before an audience of unaffected Romans, would have to begin by apologizing for his own existence, precisely as he does among us to-day, ought to relieve ancient Rome of half its gloomy prestige. But the Greeks, as we know, have no extenuations to plead; they are wholly for the useless; and the divergence in temperament of the two nations, Greece and Rome, is so great that no amount of linguistic agreement quite reconciles the mind to their eternal pairing. We hear them spoken of as Saul and Jonathan by those who declare that lovely they were in life, and in death they should not be divided ; but they seem rather like two noble rivals enslaved by a common foe, and walking in the triumphal march of our civilization handcuffed together by the bonds of philology.
Their acquaintance began in the Greek cities of Italy and Sicily, when circumstances were all in favor of the Greeks. These towns, with a native literature and imposing works of art, especially architectural, produced a great effect on the Roman imagination, and it is interesting to see a strong nation thus worked on by a superiority that it cannot even analyze. These Romans were of the early republican days, unconscious as yet of their high destiny, and these Greeks were still of the great time, still the most important people in the world. There is a tolerably clear notion in most people’s minds of what a typical Greek and a typical Roman of this time would be like. We think of the Greek as so endowed by nature that not only the Romans, but all races of men, must forever regard him with envy. He was, perhaps, not so beautiful as we used rather naïvely to infer from the Vatican marbles, but he certainly was gifted in that way beyond the common lot; and not by accident, but by the laws of physiology, because his ancestors had loved beauty and discouraged ugliness. And to the charm of form and color he added what counts for almost more in producing the effect of personal beauty, an accurate muscular adjustment, insuring precision of movement and easy attitudes, and a certain refinement in the commonest acts. The body was not the servant, but the friend and comrade, of that wonderful Greek mind on whose achievements we still live, dragging ideas from the débris of its literature as the later Romans carried off statues from the towns they sacked. But, beyond his body and his mind, he had, like every other man, his character; and here our ideas become confused, and we feel that he is different from us not only in degree, but in kind. Strange sins, and virtues almost as strange ; a god who is at once the Zeus of Homer, the Zeus of Æschylus, and the Zeus of Euripides; a delicate perception of the joys of living, in which he surpassed other men ; and an undercurrent of pessimism more unrelieved than the melancholy in which we moderns take so much comfort, — these things make us feel as though more than time and climate separated us from him. Between Helen of Troy and Tess of the D’Urbervilles there is a great gulf fixed.
But when we call up the popular notion of the ancient Roman we are troubled with no such unintelligible facts. Here is a person whom we perfectly understand, in whose place we should, very likely, have acted just as he did. He had the same ideals of courage and truthfulness that obtain among gentlemen to-day. He had no great turn for originating ideas, and he did not always go to the bottom of those he borrowed. He had the personal dignity which is the safeguard to this day of persons who feel it among the possibilities that they may become ridiculous. He substituted this irreproachable demeanor for the spontaneous grace of the Greek, and it wore better in the end. We know the simplicity of his dress, the aristocratic shape of his nose, and that unyielding pride of his, which, among the pagans, had to do the work of the Christian graces. And so we can see him quite vividly as he visited the Greek towns in Italy, saw the beauty of their buildings, and heard with imperfect comprehension the winged speech of the people.
It would make a moralist, for the moment, of the least imaginative, to think of the intercourse between the nations at this period, — all condescension on the part of the Greeks, and imitative admiration on the part of the Romans ; to think of it in the light of their later history, when Rome had found her strength and mastered the world, and in the light, too, of their strange relation to-day, when Cæsar and Xenophon stand each at a gate of the classical paradise, brandish ing the fiery blade of grammar against the schoolboy.
But it is the later stage of their active intercourse, the period when the genius of Rome prevailed, when her actions, her practical achievements, became as interesting and tremendous and quickening to the human mind as had been the ideas with which Greece fed the world, that is most suggestive to the student of national character. The Greeks could not attribute their fall to the mere numbers and strength of their enemy. It was also a fault of the intellect, a failure to keep pace with the political ideas of the world, a stupidity; and there lay the incurable chagrin.
In the first days after the conquest of Greece, the Romans still preserved an admiring attitude, not altogether condescending. We all know so well the spirit of the great literary Hellenists at Rome — Cicero, Virgil, Horace—that it is hardly worth stopping to say that style, subject matter, inspiration, and, to an appreciable extent, vocabulary were furnished by the vanquished to the victor. But the Romans knew well enough, even if Virgil had not told them, that their function was to govern the world. A great army, good roads, a higher degree of personal security than other races had effected,—these were the works that Romans thought of when their patriotism was stirred ; and their enormous success brought to pass as complete a reign of the practical as the Anglo-Saxon world is enjoying at present.
At this time every educated Roman learned Greek, native masters being plenty. But we must remember that Greek was not only the German of the world, the language of learning, of specialists in all subjects, but also the French, as French stood to the world twenty years ago, the universal medium of commerce and polite society as well as the vehicle of a piquant contemporary literature. A man of business to-day may find it convenient to be able to write a letter in French, and still more convenient to skim a French novel with some approximation to the author’s meaning, or to laugh at the right time when he goes to see Coquelin, without any idea of attempting Descartes or Voltaire or Racine. To a much greater degree was it necessary for a Roman to understand contemporary Greek. Not only the Greeks spoke it, but the races that had come under their influence. The Latin language imposed itself only upon the barbarous tribes who had no Greek, and it commanded so small and inferior an audience that Cicero declared Greek the more appropriate tongue for celebrating Roman achievements of which the whole world ought to know. The Greeks, who were henceforth condemned to get their living from the Romans by their wits, would have found it to their advantage, we should think, to learn their masters’ tongue, but they did not do so in any numbers. It was then a matter of everyday convenience that a Roman boy should study Greek; but he learned it as we do modern languages, not necessarily with any literary aim.
The character of both Greek and Roman had, of course, been considerably modified by the surprising change in their fortunes. Matthew Arnold has pointed out to us how little provision Hellenic ways of thought made for being sick or sorry. Greece, at this time, was both. If the gracious youth of the earlier day had hardened into tragic mood when misfortune fell, if he had veiled his face and fallen on his sword as the Roman would have done, we could have forgiven his blunders and admired him without pause. But, with a levity which makes us impatient and ashamed, he pulled his tattered cloak about him, and made himself as comfortable as the circumstances would permit. Then, when his poverty and misery at home became intolerable, when one or two hysterical outbreaks had made him feel the iron hand that held him, he shrugged his shoulders, turned his back upon Greece and the past, and set out for Rome, to make his living out of the stupid race who had unaccountably become lords of the earth.
The Roman, on the other hand, had grown to be a splendid and impressive person, who was not so sensitive about flaws in his culture as he had been earlier. Like the people of a nation of our own day, which shall be nameless, he could fall back on the enormous number of square miles under his control and the unheard-of material prosperity of his race, when his taste in æsthetic matters was questioned. He was a liberal if indiscriminating patron of the arts, and loved to have scholars about him to carry his learning for him, as a slave might carry his cloak. Still holding to the traditional admiration of the Greek intellect, he appropriated its works wherever he found them. His view of the Greek at this time is as famous as Juvenal’s genius could make it. The Greek was, to begin with, a political and financial failure, and we know what a great and successful nation thinks of such a being. And the Greek was not only poor, but venal, whereas a rich man respects only what he cannot buy. He could do a hundred things with cleverness which the Roman could not do at all, but his very ability was the badge of his profession. Lastly, he was undoubtedly a rather untrustworthy and disreputable person, and here the Roman took a high moral stand and castigated him. We all know what Juvenal has to say about him ; and if we fail to catch his tone of contempt for even the graces of the weaker race, Dr. Johnson has translated it into words that bring it home at once to our Anglo-Saxon imaginations. With all his cleverness, the Greek could not in the long run hoodwink his shrewd, contemptuous patron. The descendants of Æneas knew all about the wooden horse. Not even a gift-bearing Greek could have won a welcome from them, still less a whining beggar with a greedy eye. This aspect of the matter has been dwelt on by historians and essayists until we are almost driven to side with these unhappy Greeks, as a right-minded schoolboy sides with Catiline after he has read two or three orations against him. It is true that we are told how the Roman of this age was none too upright a person himself. His cruelty, avarice, and brutal excesses are pictured as colossal, to match his empire and his wealth. But after all he is the strong man, the Atlas who steadies the world on his broad shoulders, and he rules Greece better than she could rule herself.
This is Juvenal’s idea of the situation, and his scourge falls on Roman backs as well as Greek, with an impartial thoroughness often engendered by the handling of a scourge. But Juvenal is preoccupied with the moral aspect of things. He is an artist only as the headsman is an artist who scorns to lift his axe twice for the same victim. His coarse, downright, thoroughly Roman pen is not the one to state truly the delicate case between Greece and Rome. It is from Greek writers themselves that we must learn not only how complete was their spiritual collapse, but also how they ventured, in spite of their low estate, to form an opinion of Rome in her splendor, in her wealth, strength, inventive energy, and success.
Halicarnassus was a Greek town of Asia Minor, and rich in literary associations. Here Herodotus was born, and here reigned the King Mausolus whose obituary was written by the foremost authors of his time. From this far-away town Dionysius came to Rome just after the accession of Augustus, and took advantage of the quiet time to write a history of Rome, and a number of essays in criticism and rhetoric. He was a scholar, pure and simple, with a patriotism of so bloodless and literary a quality that we find him acquiescing in Roman supremacy because it offered opportunity for a revival of letters. In the preface to one of his books, he describes with delight the amendment he observes in general literary style, and especially in oratory, and he goes on to say : “ The cause and mainspring of this change I believe to be the universal dominion of Rome, who compels all nations to look to her as their model. Her rulers, too, are men of culture and just judges, administering affairs with a strong hand and an upright purpose, so that intelligence grows in the state under their governance, and the unintelligent are constrained to good sense.”
So speaks the successful Roman Greek in a work dedicated to a Roman friend, and it would be unfair to imagine that his sentiments were conceived to suit his public. In the first place, being a Greek, he had no scruples of sentimentality to hamper his opinions ; and if he found no solid reason for regretting the supremacy of Rome, it would not have occurred to him to pretend that he did. This disinterested candor of statement strikes coldly on Anglo-Saxons, whose feelings ever lag behind their reason; in whose eyes a thing is “ none the worse for being an anomaly.” But, in the second place, Dionysius’ allegiance was to Greek letters, not to the soil of Greece, and we are ready to admit to-day that he was right. At all events, we find no bitterness in him ; only a philosophical admiration for the genius of the Romans, and a feeling of pleasure that he was there to see. But his easy, unquestioning acquiescence in the situation, merely expressed en passant as he writes of weightier matters, marks for us more sharply than any repining could do the change that has come over the Greek spirit. Here is Phœbus Apollo turned pedant and quietist, at peace with all the world except those who write bad Greek.
But his case is worse than this, for we presently find that his inspiration is so unfettered that it condescends to the use of works analogous to a product of our own age, the Polite Letter-Writer. In the textbook of rhetoric formerly attributed to Dionysius, and certainly the work of Greek hands at about the opening of our era, a book which is one of a large class, rules are laid down for the composition of orations on various occasions, among them the arrival of an official in his province, and it is hard to say whether it is comic or pathetic reading. “ If it is necessary,” says the author, “ to use courtesy in greeting all we meet, even private persons, so as to get their good will, how much more needful is it when we have to salute men in authority, and particularly those who are sent by the Emperor to our various nations and states, so that we may win them to a kindly feeling for us and our country ! Doubtless this ceremony has now come into use with all nations, and a sort of fixed form has been adopted, by which a city gives official greeting to such persons at the moment of their entry through her gates, so to speak, using as a mouthpiece one of her most scholarly citizens. Let us then consider the best and easiest way to compose speeches of this character.”
We are told that the orator must begin without fail by speaking of himself, telling how he came to be chosen. And here he will insert some flattery of the great man, praising his condescension in permitting this function and meeting the people halfway, and saying that while his reputation for kindliness is heard on all sides, his nature can also be seen in his face, whose brightness cheers the heart, and where his upright soul is seen as in a mirror. “ This,” says the wily author, “ will make him more attentive.” Next should come a compliment to the Emperor ; but this, we are told, may be briefly dismissed by saying that all time would be too short to tell his merits, which must therefore be postponed to another occasion. But it is essential to say that this, too, is one of his gracious acts, to send to the nation the very man they would have chosen. At this point must begin the real encomium of the official. He must be praised for his birth, his natural endowments, his culture, if these are conspicuous. The orator must go into detail about obvious circumstances. If, for instance, the official is young, the orator must ask, “ What are we to expect from his full powers?” If old, he should say that such an office is rightly bestowed upon one who has shown his metal in so many trials. If his personal appearance is impressive, the orator must not fail to comment on that; “and if his reading is in the Roman tongue,” goes on this unscrupulous document, “ then compare him with the great Romans ; if in the Greek, with the great Greeks. By this means show him to be just and prudent and a careful judge. Compare him with Aristides and Themistocles, and show him to be a better man than they.
We can imagine this little ceremony without much trouble, whether it took place at the actual moment of arrival, or on a later day, fixed to suit the convenience of the honored object. At all events, some
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,”
pours all its folk, on that momentous morn, forth to the gates or into the market-place to see the great man from Rome. He comes at the head of his suite and body-guard, a bewildering vision of magnificence. His proud, self-contained demeanor has its full effect on the impressionable people, and inspires a certain sincerity of admiration. And then the proud spokesman of the favored town stands forth and delivers his spontaneous compliment, garnished, we may be sure, with the utmost propriety of gesture. We have no rules in this treatise to show us how the grandee returns thanks. Perhaps his eye has wandered over the roofs before him during the address, seeking out what loot his predecessors may have left, and perhaps his mind has wandered to the bright-eyed, admiring crowd, wondering how such people live. But there is no doubt that his dignified mien is unaltered, and that when he speaks it will be with decorum.
But what are we to make of such a Greece as this, of this orator who has been selected as the flower of local culture? Let us assume that the book was never used, or was intended only for school exercises. At all events, let us not be so heartless as to apply the author’s own maxim and compare him with Aristides and Themistocles. We can only moralize about him, and wish that Greece in captivity had played Prometheus. Then failure and imprisonment might have become the fashion. But she showed instead the temper of Picciola’s master, and was not unhappy.
Here, then, we see the inspiration of Greece dried up, her special glory gone. The next two centuries saw her become the vagabond that Juvenal knew, and her degradation was complete. Let us take this moment, then, to see what she thought of the Romans.
In the same textbook of rhetoric of which I have spoken we have a recipe for a funeral oration, in which we are told to speak of the ancestors of the deceased ; and if they were not immigrants, we are to praise them for belonging to the soil; but if they were immigrants, we are to point out that they became citizens of the best country in the world by choice, and not by accident. It was in this way that Lucian of Samosata, born of Syrian parents, was a Greek; for as soon as he was old enough to choose for himself he left his Syrian birthplace, and lived in one Greek town after another, acquiring a culture altogether Hellenic. It was an age of travel, and he fell in with the current, making his living as he went by public recitations of his rhetorical works. We may imagine him, after his reputation was made and the tumult of his personal battle with the world was over, looking calmly at the show of life. He found his happiness, as did Dionysius, in the complete detachment which the Greek achieved so easily, and in the belief that life cannot be so bad while men can write and read. Indeed, viewed as material for literature, the world was never more entertaining than when he entered it, and he mastered it from end to end, so that, while Dionysius wrote about books, Lucian wrote about men.
“ For my part,” says one of his characters, “ when I was approaching Rome again after my first journey to Greece, I came to a halt, and asked myself what motive I had for coming hither, and I quoted the words of Homer: ‘ Why, wretched man, have you left the sunlight ’ (meaning Greece and the happy, unconventional life there), ‘and come hither to behold ’ this noisy town, the blackmailing and the riotous living, the dishonesty and the feigned friendship ? ” Now, part of this, of course, expresses the natural jar of a great town on nerves soothed by provincial quiet, and part of it is merely rhetoric, for blackmailing and hypocrisy were never exotic at Athens; but let us hear the same man after he is once more orientirt. “ I plucked myself from the fight,” he says, “and now I live in quiet with philosophy. I feel as though I had taken my seat in a great theatre, and were watching events from a coign of vantage: some of them highly diverting, so that I laugh, and some such as to try a man’s metal. For if we must give even the devil his due, you can hardly conceive a more crucial test of character than life in this city.” We may believe that here we have the real impression that Rome made on a man of sensitive temperament, the seduction of her luxurious ease, and the antidote furnished by her sordid ways and the stupidity of her excesses. Perhaps nothing shows a man’s gifts in the matter of taste so plainly as his choice of bad habits.
We remember what Lord Chesterfield, himself no precisian, said of a man who would boast of drinking six or eight bottles of wine at a sitting,—“Out of charity I will believe him a liar.” Morally we may question this dictum, but æsthetically it is beyond dispute. So a Greek, with no moral superiority to back him, might yet take exception to the doings he saw at Rome. When, with all his own fastidious follies in the matter, for instance, of eating and drinking, he found that, at Rome, quantity was the thing, we may fancy that he had one temptation the less. As Pepys said of the bull-ring, “ it is a very rude and nasty pleasure.” Another notion the Romans had with regard to food and its accessories scandalized these Greeks of the lowest period. “ They buy only the most costly provender,” says Lucian; “they serve their wine at table mixed with spices, and they fill their houses with roses in winter, taking pleasure in them because they are scarce and unseasonable; but when a thing is in season and natural, they turn up their noses at it because it is cheap. They do not understand the laws of pleasure, but transgress even here. It is a solecism to take one’s pleasures in that fashion.”
In this phrase, we may believe, the Greek lays down his canon of social criticism. Juvenal has plenty to say on similar themes, and says it with splendid invective and crucifying wit. But his eye is ever on the ethics of the matter. These dinners are bad for the people who eat them, and they come out of the mouths of the poor. They help to build false social ideals and form a plutocracy. This is what the practical Roman critic has against them. But the Greek does not concern himself with all this. It was an age when there was no outward stimulus to virtue worth mentioning. A man might be born with a taste for right living, as Juvenal was and Marcus Aurelius, but he got little encouragement, and found himself an anachronism ; and in default of this innate bent he was beyond the reach of argument. But the Greek had something in him not unlike a conscience, though its domain was different, and it was only accidental that it sometimes decided questions which we should call conscientious. But when this inner standard, this absolute court of appeal, was violated, the Greek said, “ This is a solecism.”
Lucian, as a celebrity, saw society from above, and did not feel its slights. That he never ranged himself on its side, but stood obstinately on his own merits, and encouraged other Greeks to imitate him, we learn in plain terms from his advice to a young man who was thinking of becoming private secretary to a great Roman. He tells him that it is a mistake to suppose that living in a rich man’s house, sitting at a luxurious table, driving out in a smart carriage, and drawing his salary will constitute his duties. Juvenal has his sneer for these hungry Greeklings who will do anything for a living. We all scorn their want of spirit as we read the hard, strong lines. There is another light on them, the light in which Lucian looked at the crowd of his young acquaintance, sometimes gifted, always hopeful, streaming up to the capital laden with that manuscript which is ever so pathetic, whether it distends the breast of Chatterton’s frock coat or protrudes from the fold of a chiton.
The comedy of jarring national temperaments which we watch so eagerly to-day was daily played in Rome, as the Greeks, after failure had robbed them of their easy serenity, struggled vainly to impress on the Romans their traditions of art. The Romans listened to them, stole or bought their works, and hired philosophers to attend their persons, but the rest was froth and foam. “ It is for your beard and your scholar’s gown that they hire you.” said Lucian, “not for your philosophy.” Juvenal says that a Greek will turn his hand to anything. Lucian says that a Roman master will use his dependents like dogs, treat them to all sorts of hardships and humiliations, and haggle with them about their pay. He tells the candidate for such an office that attendance on a great Roman is slavery, — and that word brought a hotter flush to a man’s face then, for it was not safely laid away among the figures of speech for any but a Roman citizen, — but that its yoke is light compared with the service of a great lady. For a woman of fashion “ reckons it among her ornaments,” says he, “ if it be said of her that she is well read and a thinker, and writes lyrics almost worthy of Sappho ; and so she too must have her hired escort of rhetors and teachers and philosophers, and listen to them now and then, while she is having her hair dressed or at table. At other times she is too busy. And often while the philosopher is discussing high ethical themes her maid comes in with a love letter, and the argument must wait till it is answered.”
This wretched life is bad enough while it lasts, but the end is worse. The tutor is superseded by a new - comer, and dismissed on some frivolous charge. His accuser, being a Roman, is believed without saying a word in proof. “ But you,” says Lucian bitterly, “ you are a Greek. You have the facile Greek temperament and readiness for every crime. That is the character they give us all, and it is natural they should ; for numbers make their way into Roman houses with no real knowledge, but professing magic and witchcraft, charms for lovers and lures for enemies, although they claim to be scholars, and wear the gown and beard of the profession.”
This has the air of being a fair statement of the case. Not all monks of the Middle Ages were profligate, not all American Indians are treacherous, nor were all the Roman Greeks impostors. But the popular mind has not time to make these fine distinctions.
Juvenal was given to saying that Greeks did not tell the truth, and I am afraid no one would be willing to contradict him ; but let us hear the Greek’s retort in this interesting controversy between pot and kettle. “ The Romans,” says Lucian, “ tell the truth just once in their lives, namely, in their wills, for there they are safe from the consequences.”
The whole matter of will-making, and the Roman preoccupation with this and with matters concerning burial, diverted the Greeks excessively. “ They like to have their want of taste set down in writing,” says their critic, “ for they order their clothes to be burnt with them, or anything else that they valued in life, and flowers to be placed on their tombstones, — carrying their stupidity with them to the grave.”
This stupidity of the Romans was what confounded and bewildered the unhappy Greekling. He broke and spent himself like a wave of the sea against its unyielding granite. But, baffling as it was, it left him a pride of his own to stand upon ; and while man can criticise, he is not wholly lost. It is satisfactory to see that these Greeks were not so cowed by failure that they could not enjoy that sense of innate superiority which is ever the dearest pleasure of sojourn in a strange land. Although Rome drew them and held them, they lived to remember that life was simpler at Athens, and conversation better. We have a traveler’s story that shows how well that quiet town held to its traditions. A rich foreigner, presumably from Rome, came to Athens with the intention of impressing the simple provincials with the splendor of his clothes and the number of his servants. He appeared to an astonished public at the gymnasium with a certain solemnity, followed by a little army of slaves, and blooming in costume like a brilliant flower. The Greek youths paused, and looked in silence on the bright apparition, and then one whispered — but audibly — to his fellow, “ Spring has come.” “ Hush,” said the other in reproof ; " perhaps it is his mother’s.”
Emily James Smith.