It’s breadth can be understood not only in terms of the great variety of production which surely existed at the time a minor fragment of which has made it down to us through the ages but also of the vast time period and geography included within the term “ancient Rome”.
The Positive View of Roman Literature
Taking a positive view of ancient Roman literature we can say that certainly a great quality underlying ancient Roman culture was the ability to appreciate, accommodate and assimilate the best of what could be gained from the conquered and allied territories. This is not a negative aspect as such and in fact came through in many aspects of Roman society, all the way through to the openness to different cultures and ideas, religions: for example, numerous emperors and leaders being born of foreign stock, some never having even been to Rome except a few times.
Roman pax Romana: The stable environment provided by Roman hegemony and the “pax Romana” enabled a great variety of arts and literature to be both created and enjoyed by the broader population. A proverb taken from Aristotle lent itself well to Roman pragmatism:
“Primum vivere, deinde philosophari” – first live then make philosophy. An alternative being “Primum panem, deinde philosophari” – first bread then philosophy.
Roman Literacy: Of course there can be no literature if there aren’t literate people to create and consume it. Rome’s success and wealth created an increasingly literate population, even amongst the lower ranks, so much so that we find grafiti written all over Pompeian walls or in the public tabernae. Roman schools gave the bare essentials and elitist Roman schooling frequently implied travel to foreign lands such as Greece or Crete where the techniques of oratorial and literary tradition could be perfected.
The spread of literacy in Rome civilisation was supported by all those aspects which one might expect in a modern society:
stable law and economics,
stable social context to permit the individual to study,
a need by society for people with higher education
benefit to the individual in pursuing higher levels of education and knowledge
writing/reproduction facilities eg availability of papyrus scrolls and binding facilities
cultural background which gives value to the production and consumption of literature
Access to the centres of elitist thinking and literature: The access to increasingly broad sources of knowledge and thinkers was also a fundamental part of the jigsaw: the creation of literature, art and progress is as much a result of the individual as it is of the environment to which he/she has access: the access to Greek work was clearly a huge effect, in many ways a dominating effect, but not the only one.
Creation of cultural centres which could be consulted: Last but not least the wealth of rome, its reach and focus on public works further underpinned the above through the widespread construction of Roman libraries and the great focus placed on stocking them with the works which could be found across the empire, in all languages and covering all themes.
The Negative view of Roman Literature
Two generaly disparaging generalisations can be made of Roman literature:
First and foremost that Roman literature was essentially a copy of that of Greece.
Imperial and political propagandistic influence which stifled creativity.
Certainly both of the above are to a great extent true although the resulting body of Roman literature is proof that on the whole the net effects of the positive and negative influences was a net positive. The short list of roman writers below is proof enough.
Greek influence on Roman literature:
The influence of Greece on Roman literature is undeniable, particularly so during the republican period when the Romans were an essentially agricultural and military society and hence had a language which likely lacked the flexibility of expression required of high literature. The factors already listed above which underpin literacy within society had been weak but were continuously strengthening, just as Roman dominion enabled control first of the Greek colonies in southern Italy and later on of the Greek city-states themselves.
The influence of Greece was to last throughout the growth of the Roman empire in many shapes and forms, not least because Greeks themselves were the holders of such knowledge. An examplar evidence of this is that Emperor Vespasian encouraged the foreign elite thinkers to move to Rome so that the Roman scholars might stay and learn at home rather than spending their money abroad. Sculpture and visual arts were often performed by Greeks or by Romans copying Greek originals all over the empire. However, poetry, by virtue of the very material (language) and driven by very Roman social characteristics did form connotations of its own in parallel with those of Greece.
Political influence and censorship on Roman literature:
The influence of political “supervision” of literary produce went hand in hand with the concentration of power around the single figure of the Emperor. Observing this phenomenon therefore rightly starts with Caesar and Augustus. Catullus was an established and recognised poet of the time, not well regarded by some: Caesar was clearly stung by his verses and Cicero didn’t appreciate the lack of morality in his poetry, yet he certainly didn’t suffer censorship or public humiliation.
Caesar’s “de Bello Gallico” (not a poem!) evidently holds good doses of propaganda to win support from home during his campaigns in Gaul. By the time he had lain the foundations of the future empire and hence Augustus’ absolute hold on power, we have the first real notions of censorship with shades of it’s darker aspects beyond simple moralisation. However it is to be noted that in spite of events such as Ovid’s banishment on moral account, that period of time is commonly regarded as “the Golden age” of Roman literature.
However, political control of literature would inevitably carry its cost and prove detrimental in the long run: Similar examples might be had in Ptolemaic Alexandria with its world famous library which was a centre of knowledge but not necessarily a centre of innovation and creativity because of the continued controlling influence of politics. An example closer to our own times might be communist Russia or other totalitarian regimes in general.
This process of increased censorship went in parallel with an increasing attention to the language itself: classical latin became increasingly nurtured, precise yet less natural. This is particularly noticeable if we compare the latin of say Cicero or Horace to that of Plautus.
By the time of Emperor Nero the situation was becoming rather more dramatic and by then Roman literature was entering a long period of relative “flatness” and mediocre produce though clearly not without merit in all respects. We still find many notable works such a Petronius’ “Satyricon” and from relatively later periods such as Apuleius’ “Golden Ass”.
We take the opportunity to provide a simple short list of interesting Roman writers, short notes about them and a mention of the works they are known for:
Approx time of activity
Notes about the Roman writers
150AD 125-180AD. Came to Rome from the North African provinces. His book “Metamorphoses” also known as “The Golden Ass” is the only complete Roman novel to have reached us in which a man dabbles with magic and is turned into an Ass. He receives salvation from the goddess Isis. A book in the tradition of Don Quixote and Decameron. Interestingly Apuleius himself had to defend himself from public accusations of dabbling in magic.
250BC 234-149BC. A statesman of the old tradition, devoted to parsimony and austerity and farming. He wrote a variety of works amongst which De Agricultura – the earliest surviving piece of Latin prose. It is said to have been influence also by what was learned of books surviving the destruction of Carthage, in particular one written by Mago – supposedly brother of Hannibal. It inspired many writers (and farmers!) after him such as Pliny the Elder.
50BC 84-54BC. A poet of Equestrian class. Still widely read. In spite of having some political roles his poetry was largely about his personal lifestyle and love. There are many surviving examples of his works arranged into a cohesive body of work.
50BC A new man – made a great political career and was recognised as “father of the nation” for his role against the Catiline conspiracy. He wrote a great body of work, and given the generally positive view of him taken by the later Christians a good volumes of his work have made it down to us (for example some 800 letters, not to mention books and speaches): Letters and Prose work about rhetoric, philosophy and public speeches covering themes such oratory, friendship, religion, constitutionalism. His speaches against Mark Anthony known as the “Philippics” have gathered considerable fame.
Q. Horatius Flaccus aka “Horace”
40BC 65BC-27BC Poet and Satirist. Initially in the faction against Augustus but eventually reconciled and befriended by the rich patron Maecenas. Wrote the “Carmen Saeculare” (essentially a hymn or song) for Augustus’ games of 17BC. His letters and satires hold great information about daily life. His “Odes and Epodes” are more high-brow propaganda but great writing nonetheless. Perhaps a little contrived.
60BC 100BC-44BC. Wrote very lucid, factual accounts of his Gallic wars in simple direct prose – “Commentarii de Bello Gallico”. Unlikely to have been written with an impartial view, and in fact a good piece of political propaganda to maintain support from home. Some parts were completed by his aides de camp.
Decimus Iunius Iuvenalis aka “Juvenal”
1st century AD Witty satirist in the sharp tongued tradition of Lucilius. 16 poems subdivided in 5 books have made it down to us, covering a broad variety of everyday themes from Roman life.
250BC Generally recognised as the first Latin author, actually a Greek who translated Greek works into Latin language, amongst which the first latin translation of Homer’s epics Iliad and Odyssey.
Titus Livius aka “Livy”
Year 0. 59BC-17AD One of the most important sources of ancient Roman history through his enormous work “Ad Urbe Condita” which recounted the history of Rome from before its founding in 753BC through to the reign of Augustus.
100BC approx 150-100BC. A Roman citizen of Equestrian class. Credited by Quintilian and others to have “invented” the genre of the poetical Roman satire, quite distinct from that of Greece and in fact ridiculing the language of epic poetry (parody wasn’t new to Greek literature). He was highly regarded by Cicero and Horace.
50BC Lived around 99-55BC. Wrote “De Rerum Natura”. A poem describing epicurean philosophy of atomism to convince the readers of the foolishness behind superstition and fear of death. Read and admired by Cicero and Virgil.
Marcus Valerius Martial aka “Martial”
75AD Approx 40AD-103AD. Very witty satirist from Hispania (Iberian peninsula). Wrote twelve books of “Epigrams” containing plenty of witty satire of the world he lived in.
Publius Ovidius Naso aka “Ovid”
Year 0 43BC – 17AD. Great poet, wrote much about love. Hovered in high circles until he got himself sent away from Rome on charges of immorality – immoral literature seems to have been only half of the story, the other half probably being an affair with one of Emperor Augustus’ own family. Also well known for his book “Metamorphoses” which inspired much Renaissance mythological painting.
50AD 27-66AD. Thought to be Petronius Arbiter – a sort of master of good taste in Nero’s court. Wrote the unforgettable “Satyricon” with its famous dinner feast by the host “Trimalchio” – possibly a witty jab at Nero himself. Attracted a good number of enemies and detractors such as the truculent tigellinus, comander of Nero’s guar and possibly also Seneca who had wisely retreated from public life. He had to treat carefully and was eventually caught out with an accusation of treason and committed suicide, related to us by Tacitus.
Pliny the Younger
Pliny the Elder
250BC Inspired by Greek works, wrote in the “vulgar”-common form of latin, ie not the higher latin that the likes of Cicero wrote in. Translated many humorous works from Greek, often for theatrical plays. Great reading for both humour and an insight into everyday language.
Greek captive, great historian to whom we owe some great insights into Roman society and the roman army.
75AD 35-100AD. Opened a school or rhetoric, probably taught Pliny the younger and possibly Tacitus. Reached the high position of Consul under Emperor Vespasian. The only surviving work is a book in 12 parts about oratory called “Institutio Oratoria” which in terms of the field of rhetoric places him on a level with Cicero and Aristotle.
A good factual historian who recorded many events, including the masterly suicide of Petronius in the 16th book of his Annals. A later ancestor of Tacitus was made emperor and ensured that the works of Tacitus be stocked into public libraries.