After the death of Socrates, the greatness of Athens was no more. Sparta ruled for a time, and then came the turn of Thebes. Subsequently the Macedonians invaded the country, and governed it till the year 196 B.C., when the Romans conquered both Macedonia and Greece, and completely destroyed Corinth, but spared Athens, which was deprived of its fortifications under Sulla, on account of the great memories which gathered round it.
Now, in Julius Caesar’s time, it had become the fashion to send youths to Athens to study Grammar, Rhetoric, and Philosophy there. There was no great philosopher there, but they studied the history of philosophy. There was also no religion, for no one believed on the gods of the State, although, from old habit, they celebrated the sacrificial feasts.
Athens was dead, and so was the whole of the ancient world–Egypt, Syria, Asia Minor. In Rome they lived on the memories of the past of Greece, and the greatest Roman, Cicero, when he wished to discuss some philosophic theme, always commenced by citing the opinions of the ancient Greeks on the subject; he also closed in the same way, for he had no original opinion of his own on any subject, such as the nature of the gods, etc.
One early spring day, during the last years of Julius Caesar, two students sat in an arbour below Lykabettos, opposite the college of Kynosarges. Wine was on the table, but they did not seem very devoted to their yellow “Chios.” They sat there with an air of indifference, as though they were waiting for something. The same atmosphere of lethargy seemed to pervade their surroundings. The innkeeper sat and dozed; the youths in the college opposite lounged at the door; pedestrians on the high road went by without greeting anyone; the peasant in the field sat on his plough, and wiped the sweat from his forehead.
The elder of the two students fingered his glass, and at last opened his mouth.
“I have nothing to say, for I know nothing.”
“Have you already learnt everything?”
“Yes.” “I came yesterday from Rome with great hopes of being able to learn something new and of hearing something remarkable, but I hear only silence.”
“My dear Maro, I have been here for years, and I have listened, but heard nothing new. I have heard in the Poikile that Thales maintained that there were no gods, but that everything had been produced from moisture. I have further heard Anaximines’ doctrine that air was the source of all things; Pherecydes’ doctrine of ether as the original principle; Heraclitus’ doctrine of fire. Anaximander has taught me that the universe came from some primitive substance; Leucippus and Democritus spoke to me of empty space with primitive corpuscles or atoms. Anaxagoras made believe that the atom had reason. Xenophanes wished to persuade me that God and the Universe were one. Empedocles, the wisest of the whole company, despaired at the imperfection of reason, and went in despair and flung himself head foremost into Etna’s burning mountain.”
“Do you believe that?”
“No! it may well be a lie like everything else. Then I learnt a number of interesting doctrines from Plato which were subsequently all confuted by Aristotle. At last I took up my position with the wisest of the wise–Socrates, who openly declared, as you know, that he knew nothing.”
“That is the same as the Sophists said,–that one knew nothing, and hardly so much.”
“You are right, and our good Socrates was a Sophist, without wishing to be one. But there is one, a single one, who…. Yes, I mean Pythagoras. He has proclaimed this and that doctrine in the East and the West, but I have found one anchor in his philosophy, and I have gripped firm ground with it. I certainly swing in the wind, but I do not drift away from it.”
“Do what you think right at the risk of being banished from your country; the mob cannot judge what is right. Therefore you should think little of their praise, and despise their blame. Cultivate the friendship of kindred spirits, but regard the rest of mankind as a worthless mass. Always be at war with ‘the beans’ (he means the democrats). ‘Odi profanum vulgus et arceo!’”
“You ought to live at home in Rome, Flaccus, where….”
“Yes, what are you doing now in Rome?”
“Caesar is Caesar; he conquers the world, and unites all the highest functions, even the priestly, in his own person. I have nothing against it, but they say he is aiming at his own deification.”
“Why not? All gods have first been heroes, and many gods have not been so great as Caesar. Romulus was certainly no giant, though he had the luck to come first, as someone must. Now he is a god, has a temple, and they sacrifice to him.”
“It is probably a lie, like everything else.”
“Probably.” “Yes, I have heard another legend of the founding of Rome by Aeneas’ son Ascanius, who fled from Troy; and I intend to take it as the starting-point of my great poem….”
“You mean the Aeneid, of which I have heard mention.”
“Yes, the Aeneid.”
“Is it difficult to write poetry?”
“No; one follows good patterns. Hitherto Theocritus has been mine, but now I shall go to Father Homer himself.”
“By Heracles! Now there you will be undisturbed–so long, that is, as Maecenas sends you the sesterces regularly.”
“Yes, he does! But how do you get along?”
“My father, a freedman, toils as quaestor, and will find me a place.”
“Have you no interests, no passions, no ambitions?” “No; what should I do with them? ‘Nihil admirari.’ That is my motto. If there are gods who guide the destinies of men and nations, why should I interfere and wear myself out in a useless struggle? Think of Demosthenes, who for thirty years delivered speeches against the Macedonian, and warned his countrymen, who would not listen to him! The gods were with the Macedonian, and condemned Hellas to be overthrown. Demosthenes was imprisoned. Comically enough, he was accused of having been bribed by the same Macedonian. That was, of course, a lie. This patriot who sacrificed himself for the salvation of his fatherland, who believed he was fighting on the gods’ side, had to take poison, and fell, fighting against the gods! Vestigia terrent!”
During their conversation, the sun had gone down, and now in the twilight beacons were visible flaming on Aegina, on Salamis, by Phaleros, in the Piraeus, and finally on the Acropolis. The murmurs from the city became louder till they rose to one immense paean of joy. Men came down the streets, and brought their wives and children with them, some on foot, others riding and driving. The worthy innkeeper Agathon was aroused, and went out into the highway to learn the cause of the confusion. The two students had gone on the inn roof to look out. But they surmised danger for foreigners like themselves, and, alarmed by the ever louder shouting, descended again, and concealed themselves in the wine-press. At last Agathon’s voice was heard: “Caesar is assassinated! Death to the Romans! Freedom for Hellas!”
Such was the news. The garden of the inn filled with people, wine flowed, and shouts of joy resounded, varied by sarcastic remarks on the passing Romans who were fleeing northwards from the town in order to reach the Macedonian frontier.
Maro and Flaccus underwent great anxiety, hidden as they were in the vat of the wine-press, from which hiding-place they heard the whole news, with its accompanying details. Caesar had been assassinated by Cassius and Brutus in the Capitol.
“Brutus?” whispered Maro. “Then it is certainly over with the Caesars, just as the old Brutus made an end of the Kings!”
And Brutus was flying to Hellas to rouse the Greeks against the Romans. “Long live Brutus!” they cried in the garden.
“Then we shall live also!” said the pliant Flaccus. “Caesar is dead; let us do homage to Brutus for the present.”
* * * * *
Many years had passed when the former student of Athens, Quintus Horatius Flaccus, was walking one day in the garden of his villa on the Sabine Hills. This villa he had received as a gift from his friend Maecenas, who possessed a splendid country-house close by in Tibur itself.
Horace was now a very famous poet, but still essentially the same as he had been when a student in Athens. Destiny or the gods had played with him, but the poet had taken it as a good joke on the part of the Higher Powers, and answered it with a satire. After the murder of Caesar, Brutus had fled to Greece, and been so well received there, that the Athenians had erected a statue to him, and raised troops for him against Antonius and the other generals, among whom was the invalid Octavianus (afterwards Augustus).
Horace was compelled to serve as a soldier, and actually commanded a legion at Philippi, where Brutus fell. The poet, who was no warrior, fled from the superior force of the enemy, and came to Rome, where, after the amnesty had been proclaimed, he became a clerk in a public office. At the same time he had begun to write verses, was discovered by Maecenas, and received his reward in the form of an estate.
The Emperor Augustus admired him, and offered him a position as secretary, but Horace refused, partly because he could never see anything else but an usurper in this Emperor, partly because he loved freedom and independence above all things.
Just now he was walking in his garden, whose fruit-trees he had himself cultivated. He plucked roses and hyacinths, for he awaited the visit of a favourite guest, his old friend and fellow-student of Athens, Publius Virgilius Maro, as well known as Horace himself, although he had not yet allowed his Aeneid to appear in manuscript.
A table was laid in a vine-arbour; flagons of old Massisian and Falernian lay already on ice, oysters and eels were there; a kid and some quails were roasting on the spit in the kitchen; fruit had been plucked in the garden; and the only thing wanting on the table, which had been laid for two persons, were flowers.
A little slave, who was able to write, ran to and fro between the garden-gate and the dove-tower, in order to look out for the expected guest. The poet was standing at the water-barrel and washing his hands, after he had finished plucking flowers, when someone clapped him on the shoulder.
“Virgil! Which way have you come, then?”
“Over the hills of Tibur from Maecenas.”
“Welcome, wanderer, whichever way you have come! Sit down–you must be tired–in my hemicyklion, under the olives I planted myself, while the spits turn, and they ply the chopping-knife. Here you see my plot of land which represents the world to me.”
Their first greetings and questions were over, and the two friends sat down to the table. The host was certainly an Epicurean or votary of pleasure; but in order to be able to enjoy, one must be moderate, and the meal, judging by Roman customs, was quite a frugal one, but simple and brilliant. Then the cups were passed round, and the wine awoke memories in spite of its supposed lethal capacity of quenching them.
“Well, you were in the war, friend?” began Virgil.
“Yes, and I fled disgracefully, as you know.”
“I have read so in one of your poems, but it is said not to be true, and you have slandered yourself.”
“Have I? Perhaps! One talks nonsense when one writes.”
“You poet, do you remember how you asked me in Athens whether it were difficult? How did you come to write?”
“I needed money!”
“Now you slander yourself again! If all clients who needed money could write, the world would be full of poets.”
“Well, perhaps it was not so. But speak of yourself–of your Aeneid.”
Virgil looked gloomy: “Of that I will not speak.”
“Is it finished?”
“More than that! It is done with!”
“Yes! When I read it, I found it a failure! It was not Homer; it was nothing. It was a punishment, because I wished to outshine my father.”
“Have you destroyed it?”
“Not yet; but it is sealed up, in order to be destroyed after my death.”
“Now you are slandering yourself, and you are depressed, Maro, not by years, not by work, but by something else.”
“Yes, by something else. The future disturbs me!”
Horace shook his cup and recited: [Footnote: Hor. Od. I. ii.] “Do not go to the astrologers, Leuconoe. Better bear life as it comes. Be wise, clear your wine! While we speak, envious life is flying. Enjoy the present, and think as little as possible about the future.”
“That I cannot!” broke in Virgil. “I cannot drown myself in my cups, when I see my fatherland perishing.”
“Has Rome ever been so powerful as it is now? Do we not possess the whole known world–Egypt, Syria, Greece, Italy, Spain, Germany, Gaul, Britain? And yet we live in a time of peace: the Temple of Janus is closed; the earth rejoices; the arts flourish; and commerce was never so active as at present.”
“Yes, the peace that precedes a war. For all these conquered nations are awake, and have an eye on Rome. Not on Greece as before, for Greece is barren and laid waste, and passes into the great silence. Do you know that Sulla and Mithridates have gone slaying and pillaging over Hellas, so that science and art have fled to the Egyptian Alexandria or the growing Byzantium? Do you know that pirates, whose origin is unknown, from the East, have recently plundered every temple in Hellas, so that hardly any religious service can be held there? The oracles are dumb, the poets are silent like song-birds in a storm, the great tragedies are no longer performed; people rather go to see farces and gladiatorial shows. Hellas is a ruin, and Rome will soon be one.”
“Times are bad, I grant, but every time has been one of decay, and has, however, prepared the way for a new epoch. The fallen leaves of autumn form a forcing-bed for the coming spring; Nature, life, and history ever renew themselves through death. Therefore death is to me only a renewal, a change, and whenever I meet a funeral, I always say to myself, ‘O how pleasant it is to live!’”
“My dear Flaccus, you live with your dreams in the Golden Age, while we others only drag ourselves through this life of the Iron Age. Do you remember how Hesiod complains already of his own time?”
“No, I have forgotten that, but in order to oblige you I will listen.”
“‘The people of to-day are an iron race, and never rest from the burden of work, neither by day nor by night. They are a sinful folk, and the gods send them heavy troubles. But even when they send joy, this turns to their misfortune. Some day Zeus will destroy them, these many-tongued people, when they are born with grey locks on their temples. Yes, our children are born old men already, toothless, wrinkled and with bald heads. The father is not gracious to the child, nor the child to the father, nor the guest to his host, nor servant to fellow-servant, nor brother to brother. Children dishonour their old parents, revile them and speak unfriendly words–these young scoundrels who know nothing of divine vengeance, and never thank their ageing parents for their fostering care of them as children. Might is right, and one city destroys another. Honesty and faithfulness in keeping vows are never rewarded, as little as kindness or justice. Oh no, they who practise sin and break the law, demand honour. Scoundrels betray noble men, and commit perjury without scruple. Envy follows men, these unhappy ones with their harsh voices and dreadful faces, who rejoice over the evil and the mischief which they do.’”
“Yes, so Hesiod spoke a thousand years ago, and I must confess his words are well deserved, but what can one do?”
“Yes, they are. Cicero was murdered, and I feel inclined to follow the example of Cato, who died in order to escape sin. I sink, Flaccus, in lies and hypocrisy. But I will not sink … I will mount. I have praised Augustus and his son Marcellus in my verses, but I believe no more in them, for they are not the future. Therefore the Aeneid shall be burnt!”
“You disquiet me, Maro. But what do you believe in?”
“I believe in the Sibyl, who has prophesied that the Iron Age will end, and the Golden Age return.”
“You have sung of that in the Fourth Eclogue, I remember…. Have you fever?”
“I believe I have. Do you remember–no! our fathers remember when the Capitol was burnt, and the Sibylline books destroyed. But now new books have come from Alexandria, and in them they have read that a new era will begin; that Rome will be destroyed but built up again, and that a Golden Age….”
Here the seer was silent. Then he continued: “Pardon me, Flaccus, but I am poorly, and must ride home before the mists rise from the Campagna.”
“Eheu fugaces, Postume, Postume! Labuntur anni! I will follow you, friend, on my ass, for you are sick. But ‘the man of righteous heart and rock-like purpose will not be shaken nor terrified by the blind zeal of the citizens commanding evil, nor the glance of the threatening tyrant…. If the walls of the world fall in, they will bury him unterrified beneath their ruin.’”
* * * * *
Some days later Virgil died in Naples. His will was opened, and actually found to contain a request that his Aeneid should be burnt. But it was not carried out. Posterity has passed various judgments on this ignoring of a dead man’s wish–some think it was a pity; others that it was a good thing.
When Christianity arrived, Virgil was enrolled among the prophets. The Aeneid was regarded as a Sibylline book and included in the liturgy. Pilgrimages were made to the poet’s tomb. And later on he was raised to the rank of a saint by Dante.