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of the statues of Sophocles and Demosthenes, which last are of Greek origin, what was the strength of the imitative and historical tone of sculpture at Rome, or by comparing
the Medici Venus with the Venus of Melos, what was the sensual feeling encouraged by wealth in a great imperial nation; or, by comparing the Laocoon with the fighting
Greeks and Centaurs in Greek metopes, how technical finish alone was encouraged by patronage, while beauty of ideal motive underlying was neglected. By comparing the
statue of Augustus from prima porta with those of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, we shall see how realism was encouraged; by comparing the Roman carved caryatid figures (see p. 16) with the straightness of the Greek ones, how the Roman threw away the strictly architectural character of the sculptures, and yielded to his fondness for sensual gratification.
It is often hastily concluded that Roman literature and Roman art are not worth our attention. The Romans, it is said, were evidently a nation devoid of the spiritual grace and noble power wherewith the Greeks earned the admiration of the world, by having produced everlasting types of beauty in poetry and in art. And it must be acknowledged that, from a strictly accurate artistic point of view, this is in a great measure true. But to those who inquire not only into the productive character of the people whose life they wish to understand, but also into the effects which national character and external circumstances had in altering and moulding their productions, a study of Roman literature and art as the results of Roman character and Roman circumstances is very valuable. They can thus ascertain the modes in which human nature is affected in similar cases, and can give warnings, or make predictions, or shew what is hazardous in national art.
The more lofty spirits among the Romans no doubt
lifted themselves above the atmosphere in which they were compelled to live, because they had studied the great writers of Greek philosophy and poetry. Hence, Cicero says, as before mentioned, that more beautiful images can be conceived in the mind than seen by the eye:
Sed ego sic statuo nihil esse in ullo genere tam pulchrum quo non pulchrius id sit unde illud ut ex ore aliquo quasi imago, exprimatur quod neque oculis neque auribus neque ullo sensu percipi potest cogitatione tantum et mente complectimur.-Orat. ii. 8.
And he goes on in a passage which is often quoted to say that even more beautiful statues or pictures than the best which we know can be imagined in the mind. We must therefore except such men as Cicero from our general criticism of the Romans.
Nor must we deny lofty aspirations to Roman poets. Horace in his Ars Poetica strikes this principal chord at once when he calls on the poet to avoid selfish pride in his own powers and to aim higher :
Nec sic incipies ut scriptor cyclicus olim :
Quanto rectius hic, qui nil molitur inepte!
“Dic mihi, Musa, virum,..." &c., &c.—Ars Poet. 136.
This was always done by the artists who raised Greek art to its highest level. They began with an appeal to
their gods, and by their brilliant powers of generalisation and idealisation soared above into a supernatural region. We have elsewhere remarked that the Iliad begins, as Horace advises, with a prayer to the Muse, while the Eneid breaks this rule and throws all the weight on the poet's shoulders, as if he were competent to bear it, and could ascend into a spiritual atmosphere without looking beyond himself. Spiritual thought as one of the highest attributes of man is mentioned in one of Sophocles' most beautiful choruses
ἐδιδάξατο ἀνεμόεν φρόνημα ἄνθρωπος. Αntig. 353.
And in the majestic odes of Eschylus we have the same superhuman feeling as in the Zeus of Phidias, which inspired awe, and did not profess to do more than to lead the minds of men in an ascent towards the unattainable in might and grandeur.
Who can read some of the lines of Eschylus in the Agamemnon
Ζῆνα δέ τις προφρόνως ἐπινίκια κλάζων
τεύξεται φρενῶν τὸ πᾶν
τὸν φρονεῖν βροτοὺς ὁδώσαντα τὸν πάθει μάθος
θέντα κυρίως ἔχειν. -Αg. 172.
without feeling how the poet is humbling himself
before one who is far above and superior to the children of men?