What is more important, the utilitarian oratory or spiritual poetry?
Yesterday, the same as today, the “word” is an honourable activity of men, in some cases that activity produces huge profits while in other cases barely allows a simple life.
Cornelius Tacitus (c. 55-120) was a senator, consul and Roman governor, but mostly he was a famous historian who told us in two works (The Histories, The Annals) the History of Rome from Augustus to Domitian.
But also wrote three minor works, one about Germania, another with the biography of his father Julius Agricola and a third entitled " Dialogue on Oratory” which is about the decline of oratory in his time and the causes of corrupt eloquence.
In this third in a simulated dialogue between the poet Curiatius Maternus and the orator Marcus Aper, discuss what art has to have primacy, what should be most important, poetry or oratory.
The orator’s or speaker's job is to defend or accuse a citizen in court, a city or a province which requires their services. For his work he receives good and large emoluments, besides a great reputation and social standing. The oratory, conceived as a weapon, strives for profit.
The poet, intent on his solitude and peace of mind, on expressing their feelings or singing in musical verses notable actions of men, can hardly aspire to a reading from the circle of his friends and a difficult and costly edition of his works. Although he may claim the support and protection of some powerful, the poet does not earn much money nor live in opulence.
Everyone values these two activities as he deems appropriate, as it was in antiquity. But in this work and in this dialogue Tacitus reminds us what happened to the great national poet Latin Virgil, the author of the Aeneid dedicated to the family of Emperor Augustus, the Eclogues, the Georgics. Tacitus says by the mouth of Maternus in Dialogue on oratory, I, 13:
Look again at the poet's lot, with its delightful companionships. I should not be afraid of comparing it with the harassing and anxious life of the orator. Orators, it is true, have been raised to consulships by their contests and perils, but I prefer Virgil's serene, calm, and peaceful retirement, in which after all he was not without the favour of the di-vine Augustus, and fame among the people of Rome. We have the testimony of the letters of Augustus, the testimony too of the people themselves, who, on hearing in the theatre some of Virgil's verses, rose in a body and did homage to the poet, who happened to be present as a spectator, just as to Augustus himself. (tr. by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb)
Ac ne fortunam quidem vatum et illud felix contubernium comparare timuerim cum inquieta et anxia oratorum vita. licet illos certamina et pericula sua ad consulatus evexerint, malo securum et quietum Virgilii secessum, in quo tamen neque apud divum Augustum gratia caruit neque apud populum Romanum notitia. Testes Augusti epistulae, testis ipse populus, qui auditis in theatro Virgilii versibus surrexit universus et forte praesentem spectantemque Virgilium veneratus est sic quasi Augustum.
(Note: the letters from Augustus are not preserved.)
Good, this was the public of a play, not people attending horse races or gladiatorial combat. Well, the stage, the situation, does not seem to have changed much in these two thousand years until today. And yet still fortunately are poets.
The rural delight of Virgil is described so by himself in Georgicae, lib. ii. ver. 485:
Me may the lowly vales and woodland please,
And winding rivers, and inglorious ease;
O that I wander'd by Sperchius' flood,
Or on Taygetus' sacred top I stood!
Who in cool Hæmus' vales my limbs will lay,
And in the darkest thicket hide from day?
(Tr. Wharton’s Virgil)
Rura mihi et rigui placeant in vallibus amnes;
Flumina amem, sylvasque inglorius. O ubi campi,
Sperchiusque, et virginibus bacchata Lacænis
Taygeta! O quis me gelidis sub montibus Hæmi
Sistat, et ingenti ramorum protegat umbrâ?
Note: Virgil had a real villa near Naples, where he wrote his Georgics and great part of the Aeneid.