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has been paid to the history of its literature, than to that of any other country, possessed of equal pretensions to learning and refinement; and, in the English language at least, no connected view of its Rise, its Progress, and Decline, has been as yet presented to us. When the battles of Rome have been accurately described, and all her political intrigues minutely developed when so much inquiry and thought have been bestowed, not only on the wars, conquests, and civil institutions of the Romans, but on their most trivial customs, it is wonderful that so little has been done to exhibit the intellectual exertions of the fancy and the reason, of their most refined and exalted spirits.
It cannot, indeed, be denied, that the civil history of Rome, and her military operations, present our species in a lofty aspect of power, magnanimity, and courage-that they exhibit the widest range and utmost extent of the human powers in enterprize and resources-and that statesmen or philosophers may derive from them topics to illustrate almost every political speculation. Yet, however vast and instructive may be the page which unfolds the eventful history of the foreign hostilities and internal commotions of the Roman people, it can hardly be more interesting than the analogies between their literary attainments and the other circumstances of their condition;the peculiarities of their literature, its peculiar origination, and the peculiar effects which it produced. The literature of a people may indeed, in one sense, be regarded as the most attractive feature of its history. It is at once the effect of leisure and refinement, and the means of increasing and perpetuating the civilization from which it springs. Literature, as a late writer has powerfully and eloquently demonstrated, pos
sesses an extensive moral agency, and a close connection with glory, liberty, and happiness*; and hence the history of literature becomes associated with all that concerns the fame, the freedom, and the felicity of nations. "There is no part of history," says Dr Johnson, "so generally useful, as that which relates the progress of the human mind—the gradual improvement of reason-the successive advances of science-the vicissitudes of learning and ignorance, which are the light and darkness of thinking beings-the extinction and resuscitation of arts, and the revolutions of the intellectual world. If accounts of battles and invasions are peculiarly the business of princes, the useful or elegant arts are not to be neglectedf." If, then, in the literary history of Rome, we do not meet with those dazzling events, and stupendous results, which, from their lustre and magnitude, still seem, as it were, placed at the summit of human affairs, we shall find in it more intelligence and order, in consequence of its progress being less dependent on passion and interest. The trophies, too, of the most absolute power, and the most unlimited empire, seem destined, as if by a moral necessity, to pass away: But the dominion which the writers of Rome exercise over the human mind, will last as long as the world, or at least as long as its civilization
"Alas, for Tully's voice, and Virgil's lay,
And Livy's pictured page!-But these shall be
Her resurrection; all beside-decay‡."
There are chiefly two points of view, in which literary history may be regarded as of high utility and importance. The
* Mad. de Staël, De la Litterature, Tom. I.
Childe Harolde, c. IV.
first is the consideration of the powerful effect of literature on the manners and habits of the people among whom it flourishes. It is noble, indeed, in itself, and its productions are glorious, without any relative considerations. An ingenious literary performance has it intrinsic merits, and would delight an enthusiastic scholar, or contemplative philosopher, in perfect solitude, even though he himself were the only reader, and the work the production of a Being of a different order from himself. But what renders literature chiefly interesting, is the influence which it exercises on the dignity and happiness of human nature, by improving the character, and enlarging the capacity, of our species. A stream, however grand or beautiful in itself, derives its chief interest from a consideration of its influence on the landscape it adorns; and, in this point of view, literature has been well likened to "a noble lake or majestic river, which imposes on the imagination by every impression of dignity and sublimity. But it is the moisture that insensibly arises from them, which, gradually mingling with the soil, nourishes all the luxuriance of vegetation, and fructifies and adorns the surface of the earth*."
Literature, however, has not in all ages denoted, with equal accuracy, the condition of mankind, or been equally efficacious in impelling their progress, and contributing to their improvement. In the ancient empires of the East, where monarchies were despotic, and priests the only scholars, learning was regarded by those who were possessed of it rather as a means of confirming an ascendancy over the vulgar, than of improving their condition; and they were more desirous to perpetuate the subjection, than contribute to the melioration of mankind. Ac
* Vindicia Gallica.
cordingly, almost every trace of this confined and perverted learning has vanished from the world. In the freer states of antiquity, as the republics of Greece and Rome, letters found various outlets, by which their improving influence was imparted, more or less extensively, to the bulk of the citizens. Dramatic representations were among the most favourite amusements, and oratorical displays excited among all classes the most lively interest. Such public exhibitions established points of contact, from which light was elicited. The mind of the multitude was enriched by the contemplation of superior intellect, and mankind were, to a certain extent, united by the reception of similar impressions, and the excitement of similar emotions.
Still, however, the history of any part of ancient literature is, in respect of its influence on the condition of states, far less important than that of modern nations. From the high price and scarcity of books, a restriction was imposed on the diffusion of knowledge. "A bulwark existed between the body of mankind and the reflecting few. They were distinct nations inhabiting the same country; and the opinions of the one, speaking comparatively with modern times, had little influence on the other*." The learned, in those days, wrote only or chiefly for the learned and the great. They neither expected nor cultivated the approbation of the mass of mankind. An extensive and noisy celebrity was interdicted. It was only with the more estimable part of his species that the author was united by that sympathy which we term the Love of Fame. He was the head, not of a numerous, but of a select community. By
nothing short of the highest excellence could he hope for the approbation of judges so skilful, or expect an immortality so difficult to be preserved. While this may, perhaps, have contributed to the polish and perfection of literary works, it is obvious that the general influence of letters must have been less humanizing, and must have had less tendency to unite and assimilate mankind. Even philosophers, whose peculiar business was the instruction of their species, had no mode of disseminating or perpetuating their opinions, except by the formation of sects and schools, which created for the masters, pupils who were the followers of his creed, and the depositaries of his claims to immortality.
It is the invention of the art of printing which has at length secured the widest diffusion, and an unlimited endurance, to learning and civilization. As a stone thrown into the sea agitates (it has been said) more or less every drop in the expanse of ocean, so every thought that is now cast into the fluctuating but ceaseless tide of letters, will more or less affect the human mind, and influence the human condition, throughout all the habitable globe, and " to the last syllable of time.”
It is this, and not the height to which individual genius has soared, that forms the grand distinction between ancient and modern literature. The triumph of modern literature consists not in the point of elevation to which it has attained, but in the extent of its conquests-the extent to which it has refined and quickened the mass of mankind. It would be difficult to adjust the intellectual precedence of Newton and Archimedes-of Bacon and Aristotle of Shakspeare and Homer-of Thucydides and Hume: But it may be declared with certainty, that the people of modern nations, in consequence of literature be