A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology

Smith, William

A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology. William Smith, LLD, ed. 1890

who, as a forensic speaker, was considered by his countrymen generally as not unworthy of being ranked with Caesar, Brutus, Pollio, and Messalla, while by some he was thought to rival even Cicero himself, and who as a poet is commonly placed side by side with Catullus, was born on the 28th of May, B. C. 82, on the same day with M. Coelius Rufus. (Plin. Nat. 7.50.) He was the son of C. Licinius Macer, a man of praetorian dignity, who, when impeached (B. C. 66) of extortion by Cicero, finding that the verdict was against him, forthwith committed suicide before the formalities of the trial

were fully completed, and thus averted the dishonour and ruin which would have been entailed upon his family by a public condemnation and by the confiscation of property which it involved. (V. Max. 9.12.7; Plut. Cic. 9; Cic. Att. 1.4.) This Licinius Macer was very probably the same person with the annalist of that name so frequently quoted by Livy and others, and with the orator mentioned in the Brutus (cc. 64, 67, comp. de Leg. 1.2.3), although there is not sufficient evidence to justify us in pronouncing with confidence on their identity. Young Calvus being thus at the age of sixteen bereft of his father, devoted himself to study with singular zeal, and submitted to extraordinary discipline, in order that the whole of his bodily strength might be concentrated upon intellectual pursuits. (Plin. Nat. 34.50.) But this excessive application seems to have enfeebled and exhausted his constitution, for he died in his early prime, certainly not later than in his 35th or 36th year (Cic. Brut. 82, ad Fam. 15.21), leaving behind him twenty-one orations. The names of five only of these have been preserved : against Asitius; against Drusus; for Messius; for C. Cato, the prosecution against whom was conducted by Asinius Pollio; and against Vatinius, who was defended by Cicero. This last, which was divided into several parts, was his first effort at the bar, and was delivered when he had attained the age of 27. It is very frequently referred to by ancient writers in terms of strong commendation (e.g. Dial. de Orat. 34); and from Seneca (Controv. 3.19) we learn, that so skilfully were the charges developed, so energetically were they urged upon the jury, and so powerful was the effect evidently produced, that the accused, unable to restrain his feelings, started up in the midst of the pleading, and passionately exclaimed, "Rogo vos, judices num, si iste disertus est, ideo me damnari oporteat?"

The inconsiderable fragments which have been preserved of the above speeches are not of such a description as to enable us to form any estimate of the powers of Calvus; but we gather from the testimony of Cicero, Quintilian, and the author of the dialogue on the decline of eloquence, that his compositions were carefully moulded after the models of the Attic school, and were remarkable for the accuracy, tact, and deep research which they displayed, but were so elaborately polished as to appear deficient in ease, vigour, and freshness; and thus, while they were listened to with delight and admiration by men of education, they fell comparatively dead and cold upon an uncultivated audience. (Cic. Fam. 15.21; Quint. Inst. 10.1.111. 10.2.25, 12.10.11.; Dial. de Orat. 17, 21, 25 ; Senec. Controv. 1. c.)

As a poet, he was the author of many short fugitive pieces, which, although of a light and sportive character (jcca) and somewhat loose in tone, still bore the stamp of high genius--of elegies whose beauty and tenderness, especially of that on the untimely death of his mistress Quintilia, have been warmly extolled by Catullus, Propertius, and Ovid --and of fierce lampoons (famosa epigrammata) upon Pompey, Caesar, and their satellites, the bitterness of which has been commemorated by Suetonius. We have reason to believe, from the criticisms of Pliny (Plin. Ep. 1.16) and Aulus Gellius (19.9), that the poems of Calvus, like the lighter effusions of Catullus with which they are so often classed, were full of wit and grace, but were nevertheless marked by a certain harshness of expression and versification which offended the fastidious ears of those habituated to the unbroken smoothness of the poets of the Augustan court. They were undoubtedly much read, so that even Horace, whose contemptuous sneer (Sat. 1.10. 16) was probably in some degree prompted by jealousy, cannot avoid indirectly acknowledging and paying tribute to their popularity. As to their real merits, we must depend entirely upon the judgment of others, for the scraps transmitted to us are so few and trifling, none extending beyond two lines, that they do not enable us to form any opinion for ourselves. We hear of an Epithalamium (Priscian, 5.8. p. 196, ed. Krehl); of an Io, in hexameter verse (Serv. ad Virg. Ecl. 6.47, 8.4); and of a Hipponacteum praeconium, levelled against the notorious Hermogenes Tigellius (Schol. Cruq. ad Hor. Sat. 1.3. 3 ; Cic. Fam. 7.24); but with these exceptions, the very names of his pieces are lost. (Plin. Ep. 4.14.9, 4.27.3, 5.3; Catull. xcvi.; Propert. 2.19, 40, 2.25, 89; Ov. Am. 3.9. 61 ; Senec. Controv. l.c.; Sueton. Jul. Caes. 49, 73.)

Calvus was remarkable for the shortness of his stature, and hence the vehement action in which he indulged while at the bar, leaping over the benches, and rushing violently towards the seats of his opponents, was in such ludicrous contrast with his stunted and insignificant person, that even his friend Catullus has not been able to resist a joke, and has presented him to us as the " Salaputium disertum," "the eloquent Tom Thumb." (Catull. liv.; Senec. Controv. l.c.)

With regard to his name, he is usually styled C. Licinius Calvus; but we find him called by Cicero (ad Q. Fr. 2.4) Macer Licinius, probably after his father; and hence his full designation would be that which we have placed at the head of this article.

The most complete account of Licinius Calvus is given in the essay of Weichert "De C. Licinio-Calvo poeta" (Fragm. Poet. Latin. Lips. 1830) ; but it is so full of digressions that it is not very readable. See also Levesque de Burigny in the Memoirs of the Academy of Inscriptions and Belles Lettres, vol. xxxi.