THE “PAGAN” LITERARY REVIVAL
There is no question that the fourth century saw a revival of Latin literature. It could hardly be otherwise. After the nadir of the third century there was only one way to go. But in much of the modern literature it has been widely characterized as a pagan revival and associated with the aristocracy of late fourth-century Rome, reacting to the threat of Christianity. This is perhaps the single most serious obstacle to a true understanding of this important development.
Early in the second century the direction of Latin letters began to change sharply, to move away from the rhetoric and point and polish of the so-called “Silver Age” toward archaism. The term “Silver Age” is modern, and many no longer consider it a helpful label, attributing as it does a greater homogeneity to the literature of the first century A.D. than it actually possessed. But we are not here concerned to do justice to the variety of firstcentury literature, but rather to trace the fortune of a few of its most conspicuous representatives, mainly poets, who share an artificiality, a striving for effect, a taste for exotic learning, bravura descriptions, and impassioned speeches that does set them apart.
There had always been a strain of archaism in Latin literature.1 It is enough to mention Sallust, Vergil, and Tacitus. Old and even obsolete words were thought to convey the appropriate degree of dignity for a history of Rome’s past or an epic poem. But what had formerly been no more than one prominent element in the style of historiography and epic became the all-pervading goal of writers in every genre in the age of Fronto and Aulus Gellius. Some have thought that the second-century archaizing movement could be explained solely in terms of an internal development within Latin literature, as the gradual victory of this archaizing tendency over all others.
This explanation is surely inadequate. An affectation for linguistic archaisms is one thing, the utter rejection of the literature of the preceding century quite another. And yet this is just what some Latin writers of the second century did. It cannot be a coincidence that Greek literature was undergoing a similar change of direction at this time: the movement we know as the Second Sophistic. The archaizing movement is best explained as a combination of both these factors. On the one hand, Latin writers of
1. Marache 1952; Lebek 1970; Holford-Strevens 2003.