T.S. Eliot, contemplating in lordly style the whole of Western literature, found only one author who fully deserved the title of classic: the Roman poet Virgil. His poems, written in the generation immediately before the birth of Christ, were fully mature in style; they were also central in position, poised at the unique and crucial moment between the great works of the pagan classical world and the revelation of the new, all-conquering Christian religion.
Dante had already shown Virgil as a prophet of the coming of Christ and, crucially, as his own guide through the next world for two thirds of The Divine Comedy. He claimed Virgil as his master and teacher, and he gave him a political aspect, too: Virgil became the prophet of the Christian empire which meant so much to Dante, both personally and politically, and which he hoped that his own time would see fully reestablished.
Not everyone, of course, was so intelligent or so high-minded. We learn from The Virgilian Tradition: The First Fifteen Hundred Years that other traditions, in the largely illiterate Europe of the early Middle Ages, naturally made Virgil, who had been “a great clerk,” into a magician. He balanced the city of Naples on an egg; he devised impregnable fortifications; he delivered the city from a plague of leeches by creating a golden leech; he made a bronze fly, which kept all other flies away. And so on. His poems, too, were no merely mortal productions. They could be consulted, choosing a line or a passage at random, for practical advice in the taking of important decisions.
Latin literature, it was hard to deny, cut a modest figure in comparison with the vast wealth and protean variety of Greek. It was much smaller in bulk and range. It contained few undeniable masterpieces—and they, of course, were themselves created and appreciated in the context, and in the tradition, of the mighty literature of Hellas. It was a fearful struggle to drag up the Latin language, and Roman readers, to a level which could stand any comparison with those classic works. Many educated Romans simply despaired of the possibility and stuck to reading, and even writing, in Greek. There might easily not have been a Latin literature at all.
But gradually, with great and rather touchingly visible efforts, a high literature in Latin came to birth. It had to be recognizably in the Greek tradition. Works in the established Greek literary forms, but written in Latin— tragedy and comedy, history and philosophy and lyric poetry—all struggled into existence. They were always looking over their shoulder at the classic Greek models. By the first century BCE, Rome could boast writers of greater stature and higher interest than any contemporary Greek: Catullus, Cicero, Horace, Virgil. Rome had now, after two hundred years of effort, fully assimilated the lessons of the Greek masters.
The Greeks, of course, simply refused to notice. It was bad enough to have been conquered, looted, and exploited by these Roman barbarians:…
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