Early Lyric Poetry at Rome.
1. The beginnings of lyric poetry among the Romans reach back to the prehistoric period of the city, and were as rude and shapeless as was the life of her people. Amid the rough farmer-populace of the turf-walled village by the Tiber the Arval Brethren and the Salii chanted their rude litanies to the rustic deities, - for even then religion was a prime cause in moving men toward poetry. In roughly balanced Saturnian verses men spoke regret and panegyric for the dead and praises for the valorous deeds of the living. The mimetic passion and rude wit of the Roman led him also into boisterous personal satire and into epigram more pungent than polished. But until the last few decades of the Republic these products of the Muse are either anonymous or connected with names well-nigh forgotten, and the remnants that have come down to us display no striking poetic excellence.
2. The progress of a national literature is perhaps rarely by fits and starts, even though it appears so to be. But the front advances in such a uniform line, that only now and then, when one wave sweeps out far beyond the rest, is the general advance of the tide remarked. So it would probably be unjust to the unknown poets of the Roman Republic to believe that their work did not mark a continual advance from period to period in lyric feeling and expression. Yet only in the first half of the last century before Christ did Latin poetry enter upon its first period of brilliancy. Amid the hot passions, the vigorous hatreds, the feasts and brawls, the beauty and the coarseness of life in the capital during this most active period in the history of Rome, there arose a school of writers who, though often conservatives in politics, were radicals in poetry. The tendencies of the traditional Roman past were by them utterly disregarded. Inspiration was drawn from the stirring life into which they were plunged, as well as from the sympathetic study of the sources of poetic art among both the earlier Greeks and the Alexandrians. As was to be expected, their models of rhythm were not the rude hexameters and ruder Saturnians of their Roman predecessors, but the more polished versification of the Greeks; and their subjects were sometimes their own personal experiences and emotions, and sometimes themes suggested by their Greek prototypes. So a new school of Roman poetry arose and flourished, to be superseded in turn by the polished Augustans, who cultivated the niceties of elegance, but at the expense of verve.