Tacitus /

edited by Cynthia Damon

The Development of Silver Latin

From Pearce, J. W. E. 1901. The Agricola of Tacitus. London: George Bell and Sons. Pp. xvi-xvii.

When we come to Tacitus from the great writers of the Golden Age of Latin prose, we are struck at once by important differences both of language and style. In Cicero the language was distinguished by extreme purity, obtained by the strict avoidance of poetical and colloquial elements. The form in which this language was presented was the period — the logical grouping of accessory ideas as clauses round the main idea conveyed in the principal sentence. Order, symmetry, and a sonorous rhythm were characteristics of ' golden 'Latin Prose, and in the hands of a master like Cicero it possessed a flexibility which fitted it for all the uses of oratorical and philosophical prose.

To adapt this language to history was the work of Livy. His History of Rome — a great prose epic, as Livy treated it — dealing with the whole play of human action and motive, had much of the picturesqueness and emotional quality of poetry, and Livy, while adhering in the main to the Ciceronian standard of syntax and style, allowed himself a greater freedom of construction when his artistic sense demanded it. Now and then the purity of the language is sacrificed, but in general Livy gains force and conciseness from his innovations.

In the hundred years that elapsed between Livy and Tacitus the older ideal of a pure prose diction and a stately periodic form had disappeared, except with a few writers like Pliny the Younger, Quintilian, and Tacitus himself in his earliest work, the Dialogus. But fortunately Tacitus saw in time that the attempt to resuscitate the Ciceronian period only resulted in more or less frigid imitation, and in his succeeding works we see him gradually perfecting his own style in accordance with the tendencies of the age — tendencies as old as Sallust, but now having a much wider scope, owing in the main to two causes.

      (I) The popularity of Vergil's poems caused them to have a great influence upon prose. The Vergilian form of sen- (xvii) tence, enlarged by apposition or by participles instead of by clauses, sent the period out of fashion; while poetical words and constructions were borrowed or imitated in the alien sphere of prose.

      (2) The cramping conditions of the Empire, which re pressed originality of action and the free expression of thought, led to an exaggerated rivalry in language. Every trick of style that might score a point — antithesis, conciseness, both excellent in their place, but not always in place — was employed with wearisome persistency. Cleverness in detail instead of artistic proportion in the whole marks the prose of the Silver Age — the age not of law, like the Golden Age, but of lawlessness.

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