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II. - THE DRAMATIC STRUCTURE OF THE DIALOGUS, AND
The scenery of the Dialogue is laid in the house of the poet Curiatius Maternus. One afternoon 128 of the year 74/75 A. D., presumably in the winter, as the conversation takes place in-doors, Marcus Aper and Julius Secundus, two intimate friends, accompanied by a devoted disciple, the youthful Tacitus, call upon their mutual friend and to their surprise find him reading the very tragedy which he had the day previous recited and which had, as we are told, given offence to the 'powers that be,' because of some pronounced liberal sentiments put into the mouth of Cato Uticensis, the hero of the play. Secundus deprecates the outspokenness which the poet has injudiciously thought fit to display, and Aper endeavors to impress upon him the necessity as well as the expediency of entirely abandoning so precarious and useless a pursuit, particularly as it must seriously interfere with his forensic duties. Maternus in reply, to the evident astonishment of his visitors, expresses his unalterable determination to withdraw entirely from the forum and the law-courts, and to devote himself henceforth exclusively to the cultivation of the Muses.
This announcement naturally leads to a discussion between Maternus and Aper, touching the intrinsic value and respective superiority of oratory over poetry, Secundus having politely but firmly declined to act as umpire, because of ineradicable prejudices for one side of the question. The ensuing debate, conducted in set speeches, which admirably portray the character and convictions of the two contestants, is made to end in a draw, for reasons to be pointed out below, a turn in the conversation being brought about by a not uncommon dramatic device, borrowed in this instance directly from Cicero, namely, the introduction of a new speaker, in the person of Vipstanus Messalla.
The new-comer observing from the countenances of those present, that the discussion, interrupted by his entrance, had been unusually warm and animated, it naturally fell to the lot of Secundus, as the only passive listener, 129 to acquaint Messalla with the subject of
128 The time of day may be inferred from c. 42 ext. nisi iam dies esset exactus, for the entire dialogue is of comparatively very short duration.
129 The youthful author being a persona muta throughout, keeps himself studiously in the background and is, dramatically considered, non-existent.
the previous conversation. Messalla expresses his sincere delight on learning that his friends, as indeed befits men of true culture, employ their leisure hours in discussing subjects not directly connected with their profession, and compliments the eminent lawyer Secundus for his historical researches, while Aper, no less illustrious as an advocate, is ironically praised for not allowing his forensic duties to alienate him from the theoretical and scholastic exercises of modern rhetoricians.150 This last utterance (otium suum mavult novorum rhetorum more quam veterum oratorum consumere), though apparently nothing more than a harmless, ironical fling at Aper's fondness for the rhetorical practices of his time, which Messalla held in very low estimation (see c. 35), is of paramount importance in the dramatic development of the Dialogue. For, by calling forth Aper's rejoinder: Non desinis, Messalla, vetera tantum et antiqua mirari, nostrorum autem studia inridere atque contemnere. . . cum neminem hoc tempore oratorem esse contenderes, the question which is to form the main theme of discussion is with wonderfully artless art brought upon the tapis. It in turn naturally leads to the desire of learning the reasons for this vast difference between the oratory of the past and the present (c. 15 11 f.), a difference which, in Messalla's opinion, was not brought about by any healthy progress, but by the gradual abandonment of loftier standards. The conflict having thus been prepared, and a distribution of the contesting speakers arranged, the debate begins. Aper, who has to stand up single-handed against a united opposition, opens the discussion (c. 16 14) by a casuistical argument concerning the relative meaning of the term 'antiqui' and its proper applicability to the orators of the Roman republic, and then passes on to a scathing indictment of its greatest representatives and a glowing eulogy of the characteristic features of modern eloquence.
Messalla thereupon takes up the cudgels for his beloved 'ancients,' so disparagingly criticised by Aper, but, being recalled to the main theme at issue, gives, what he regards as the principal reason for the decline of eloquence. The close of his argument is lost. The next speaker, who, as we shall show below, is Secundus, supplements, according to the agreement made in c.
180 Maternus is not likewise commended for the versatility of his interests, because, though he too was an advocate by profession, his poetical predilections were too well known to have special attention drawn to them.
On the dramatic relevancy of c. 1-13.
16 8, the reasons for the decadence in question, by pointing out that it is in a measure due to the lack of opportunity for the display of eloquence, unsettled political conditions, such as existed in democratic Athens and republican Rome, affording a more favorable soil for the growth of oratory, than the regulated order of things found under a monarchical government.
Maternus, in summing up the debate, brings about a reconciliation by observing that the differences between the ancient and modern types of eloquence are indeed historically conditioned on the one hand, but on the other not due to any intellectual inferiority of contemporary speakers, for which reason we should take things as we find them and make the most of the opportunities which one's own age unquestionably offers in satisfactory abundance.
The foregoing outline will have made it clear that the Dialogue develops naturally and consistently from c. 14 to the end. But this manifest unity of plan will seem to have been very seriously destroyed, if it be true that the first thirteen chapters, dealing with the respective superiority of poetry and oratory, are a mere introductory episode, without any organic connection with the enquiry into the causes of the decline of eloquence, which Tacitus himself repeatedly affirms to be the main theme at issue. 181 This seeming flaw in dramatic construction has actually led one scholar to assert, in the face of the author's own unequivocal testimony to the contrary, that "Die Frage, ob die Beredsamkeit vor der Poesie (und vielleicht der übrigen Thätigkeiten eines otium litteratum!?) den Vorzug verdiene, diese Frage, die den Gegenstand des ersten Theiles des Dialogs bildet und die Maternus am Schlusse entscheidend löst (??), sie ist der eigentliche Gegenstand der gesammten Schrift!" " 132
181 Cf. besides the prooemium, c. 15 10 ff. ac velim impetratum ab aliquo vestrum ut causas huius infinitae differentiae scrutetur ac reddat . . . quia video etiam Graecis accidisse ut longius absit ab Aeschine et Demosthene Sacerdos iste Nicetes. . . quam Afer aut Africanus aut vos ipsi a Cicerone aut Asinio recessistis 24 11 ff. exprome nobis... causas cur in tantum ab eloquentia eorum recesserimus 27 3 ff. sed causas exquirimus quas te solitum tractare paulo ante dixisti (viz. c. 15) 32 22 ff. hanc ego primam et praecipuam causam arbitror cur in tantum ab eloquentia antiquorum oratorum recesserimus.
132 W. Gilbert, Die Einheitlichkeit des Taciteischen Dialogs (Fleck. Jahrb. CXXXIII p. 211). Cp. also p. 212: "Tacitus verschleiert absichtlich (?!) das Endziel seiner Schrift, bezeichnet als Thema eine häufig erörterte Frage und
This amusing paradox must, of course, be rejected, but does the alleged incongruity of c. 1-13 and 14-42, which gave rise to it, really exist? Is the first part of our treatise, as scholars have hitherto either tacitly or expressly assumed, nothing more than a kind of dramatic setting or frame-work, designed primarily to bring out some of the interlocutors into strong relief? I am disinclined to rest satisfied with this explanation, for I regard it as an unjustifiable and unmethodical proceeding to stamp one third of an entire work as virtually irrelevant and external to the principal theme, which in the remaining portions exhibits an undeniable unity and consistency of plan. We must therefore look for some closer interdependence between these parts, and perhaps the following considerations may go to prove that such a link does indeed exist.
It has often been observed that Latin literature of the first century bears an unmistakable poetical coloring, and that poetical effusions greatly preponderate over prose productions. Scribimus indocti doctique poemata passim' might well serve as the motto of this period. Even prose, in order to please, had to clothe itself in poetical raiment, and so Aper, the passionate advocate of the eloquence of his time, continually insists that a speech must, above all, possess rhythm and poetical imagery. Cf. e. g. c. 20 18 exigitur iam ab oratore etiam poeticus decor 22 13 sensus apte cadunt et quodam lumine terminantur 20 26 marmore nitent et auro radiantur. Eloquence, in the beautiful peroration of Messalla (c. 32), once the queen of all the arts, who held sovereign sway over the souls of men, is now banished from her proper realm; she is stripped of her retinue, without honor, without freedom. But, so we may add, keeping up the personification, her life was not. extinguished, but she passed as a slave into the hands of poetry. Hence it is that the poetry of the age is saturated throughout with oratorical elements; it had become declamatory, as prose had become poetical, making free use of the poet's vocabulary and con
stellt sich betreffs derselben mit der angegebenen Alternative einstweilen (!) auf den Standtpunkt seiner Zeitgenossen, er verschmäht (?) es bereits jetzt anzudeuten, dass er sie auf eine der üblichen Auffassung nicht entsprechenden Weise zu lösen und mit ihr zugleich eine tiefere, ihm mehr am Herzen liegende (?) und zugleich im Anfang der Schrift zu stellende Frage, die Frage nach dem Werth der Beredsamkeit zu entscheiden gedenke. Und der Spannung der Leser hat er damit einen guten Dienst gethan (?!)." How gratuitous and absurd this all is!
structions. Facundus,' in the period under notice, is significantly enough one of the highest attributes of the poet, while the very term 'eloquentia' is made to include all species of poetical composition (see c. 10 13). This being so, the question must have presented itself to so analytic an observer as Tacitus admittedly was, which of these two species of literary composition, poetry or oratory, was the more important, and hence, before entering upon a detailed discussion of the causes of the decline of eloquence, he very appropriately introduces the orator Aper and the poet Maternus in a preliminary debate concerning the relative superiority of poetry and eloquence. The problem is purposely left unsolved. Why? Because it did not admit of a solution, the author clearly perceiving that in the literature of his day, oratory, so far as it still flourished, did so only by paying heavy tribute to poetry, while the latter in its turn was distinguished by its oratorical character. In other words, neither seemed complete without the other; each was regarded as essential to the other. Viewed in this light, the introductory chapters become, in my judgment, an integral and organic part of the dramatic plan of the Dialogue.
Of the four interlocutors, but little in the way of concrete biographical information is known to us beyond what Tacitus has thought it sufficient to tell us about them.
The host CURIATIUS MATERNUS is introduced to us in the double capacity of a renowned advocate and a tragic poet of great repute. He seems to have been a native of Gaul, although this is not certain. He was undoubtedly the oldest in the company, having scored a pronounced success as the author of a fabula praetextata in the reign of Nero (c. 119). The time when the dialogue is supposed to have taken place marks a turning point in his career, as he announces his intention to retire permanently from the forum and the bar, in order to devote the rest of his days 'far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife' to the peaceful cultivation of the Muses.133
He was very probably no longer living when the Dialogue was written, for the opinion universally entertained down to very recent times, that he is identical with a sophist of that name executed in
183 There is possibly some truth in Baehrens' remark (Comm. Crit. p. 99): ad versus faciendos eum traxit animi mentisque indoles, in foro ut versaretur causasque susciperet coegerunt rerum angustiae paupertasque.