The Augustan Atticism.
IN the reign of Augustus, when Rome had become the intellectual no less than the political centre of the earth, a controversy was drawing to a close for which the legionaries cared less than their master, but which for at least fifty years had been of some practical interest for the Forum and the Senate, and which for nearly three centuries had divided the schools of Athens, of Pergamos, of Antioch, of Alexandria, of all places where men spoke and wrote a language which, though changed from the glory of its prime, was still the idiom of philosophy and of art. This controversy involved principles by which every artistic creation must be judged; but, as it then came forward, it referred to the standard of merit in prose literature, and, first of all, in oratory. Are the true models those Attic writers of the fifth and fourth centuries, from Thucydides to Demosthenes, whose most general characteristics are, the subordination of the form to the thought, and the avoidance of such faults as come from a misuse of ornament? Or have these been surpassed in brilliancy, in freshness of fancy, in effective force by those writers,
belonging sometimes to the schools or cities of Asia Minor, sometimes to Athens itself or to Sicily, but collectively called ‘Asiatics,’ who flourished between Demosthenes and Cicero? This was the question of Atticism against Asianism. For a long time Asianism had been predominant. But, in the last century of the Republic, the contest had centred at Rome, at Rome it was fought out, and the voice that decided the strife of the schools was the same that commanded the nations. If the Roman genius for art had little in common with the Greek, if it was ill-fitted to apprehend the Greek subtleties, it had preeminently that sound instinct in large art-questions which goes with directness of character, with the faculty of creating and maintaining order and with reverence for the majesty of law. A ruling race may not always produce the greatest artists or the finest critics. But in a broad issue between a pure and a false taste its collective opinion is almost sure to be found on the right side. Rome pronounced for Atticism.