Roman literature is a greatly varied subject matter, nonetheleast because it is such a broad and varied theme which forces us into making a vast number of simplistic generalisations. This article considers the progress and achievements of ancient Roman literature, as well as listing its greatest writers and their works, like Vergil’s Aenid, Cicero, Catullus and many others.
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 and learn,
- a need by society for people with higher education and job specialisation
- benefit to the individual in pursuing higher levels of education and knowledge
- writing/reproduction facilities eg availability of papyrus scrolls and binding facilities
- bookshops and libraries
- 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”.
List of Roman writers
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:
125-180AD (unclear date of death). Born in Algeria, studied in Carthage and Athens and later spent some years in Rome, probably working as a lawyer.
He returned to Africa around 155AD and married a wealthy Libyan woman – who’s family tried to sue Apuleius for having supposedly used magic to bewitch her. He was presumably found innocent. His name Lucius is probably derived from the character’s name in his novel “Metamorphoses” – aka “The golden ass”.
He wrote a number of books which combine his lively spirit for religion with his learned understanding of philosophy and law.
- His book “Metamorphoses” also known as “The Golden Ass” is the only complete Roman novel to have reached us, split into 11 books (chapters). It tells the story of a man who dabbles with magic and is turned into an Ass. He receives salvation from the goddess Isis (often also associated with Venus through religious synchretism). A book in the tradition of Don Quixote and Decameron. It contained a variety of sub-stories, including that of Cupid and Psyche which is said to have inspired the painter Raphael in the Renaissance.
- “De Magia” was his account of the legal proceedings against him for magic and of his defence.
- A small collection of his orations.
- A series of philosophical works which have a religious element to them, including “De deo Socratis”, “De mundo”, “De Platone et eius dogmate”
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. Given his social class it would have been expected of him to follow a public career but in spite of having some political roles his poetry was largely about his personal lifestyle and love. For this reason he was ill regarded by persons such as Cicero who followed the traditional “cursus honorum”.There are many surviving examples of his works arranged into a cohesive body of work. He was at odds with Julius Caesar and wrote some unsavory poems about him and his relationship with Mamurra, his chief engineer. Julius Caesar reputedly forgave him and invited him to dinner.
50BC A new man – made a great political career and was recognised as “father of the nation” for his role against the Catiline conspiracy, although it later earned him banishment from the city. Cicero 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 speeches against Mark Anthony known as the “Philippics” have gathered considerable fame. He was put to death at Marc Anthony’s bidding, when Octavian (later Emperor Augustus) and Marc Anthony came to a truce.
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.
Gaius Sallustius Crispus was born at Amiternum on the east coast of Italy in the year 86BC and died around 34 or 35BC. He led an energetic youth, was a supporter of Caesar, became Tribune in 53, Quaestor in 52BC and was expelled from the Senate ca.50BC for immoral behaviour. He became immensely rich through his period as proconsul of Numidia. After Julius Caesar’s death Sallust used his wealth to build the famed Gardens of Sallust in Rome. Excavation of that area during the Renaissance brought to light a large number of high quality ancient Greek sculpture.
Unlike Caesar who used literature as a tool for public life, Sallust used literature as a substitute for it. Following the model of Thucidides, Sallust used literature and historical writing as a means of structuring and philosophizing on historical events. He drew parallels between the events of his modern age of political and civil strife to those of the more ancient Rome. He was also excellent at describing the character and motivations of the persons he described. His style preceded that of the Empire under Augustus.
- the “Bellum Catilinarum”, regarding the Catilinarian conspiracy to bring down Cicero, which includes a profound description of Rome in that period, with its political upheaval and moral corruption.
- the Jugurthine wars “Bellum Iugurthinum” telling of how the brave king of Numidia had held Roman intrusion for over 30 years until the war concluded by Marius.
- “Historiae” – of which only 5 books remain – Roman history during 12 years after the death of General Silla
Seneca the Younger
Lucius Antaeus Seneca was born around 4-5 BC at Cordova in Spain and died in AD65. He was son of Seneca the Elder who was of the Equestrian class and well a known rhetorician who wrote a collection of famous rhetorical speeches “Controversiae”.
Seneca the younger came to Rome at a young age and studied Stoic philosophy with Attalus. Unfortunately he had a tendency for ill health and consequently moved to the warmer climate of Egypt. On returning to Rome his family connections helped him become Quaestor and gain a place in the Senate. Seneca worked under the reign of three emperors: Caligula, Claudius and Nero. During his career it happened that all three emperors ordered his death though in the first two cases he narrowly avoided the sentence (obviously!).
- With Caligula he was saved by advisors and friends on account of his ill health
- Under Claudius his fortunes were tied to the emperor’s wives: Claudius’ earlier wife Messalina had him charged with adultery and rather than death he was banished to Corsica. Claudius’ later wife Agrippina had him brought back as tutor to her son Nero
- Under Nero, with Seneca had a number of highly successful years but was eventually ordered to commit suicide – unjustly involved in a conspiracy by political opponents. He died by letting his own blood.
Seneca was a very prolific writer of many types including science, orations, letters, philosophy. Whilst much of his work has been lost a substantial portion of his moralising philosophical work known as “dialogues ” survives. Whilst there is often no interlocutor the dialogues are structured as a two way flow of proposition and answers to objections. There is some stoic content though also a frequent reference to Epicirus.
His style was akin to modern prose.
- philosophy: “de beneficiis “ , “Consolationes” and “de brevitate vitae” and letters to Lucilius.
- “Quaestiones naturales” in 7 books written in his later years regards science and matters such as comets and earthquakes.
- Poetry – some epigrams survive
- Theatrical drama more for reading than actually performed – 9 in particular also including Medea, Fedora, Aedipus amongst others. Inspired by Greek plays they follow the standard form of 3 actors and 5 acts.
- “Apocolocyntosis Divi Claudii ” (turning into a pumpkin – ‘the pumpkinification of Claudius ’.) is worthy of particular note as Menippean Satire with a mix of prose and verses. It described the misadventures of emperor Claudius once he had ascended to heaven.
Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, was born in the year 75 AD – he may have died around 161 AD. Of unknown provenance/nationality – possibly born in Rome, he was in the city at least from the time of Domitian. He was a great friend of Pliny. He worked as a lawyer and also taught rhetoric during the reign of Emperor Trajan. He is known to have been private secretary to Emperor Hadrian though he lost his job for excessive friendship with the Emperor’s wife.
- Possibly wrote a book entitled “De Viris Illustribus” about Latin authors of which we have some fragments. Divided into separate books according to types of literature we have portions relating to Latin poets ‘De poetis’ such as Virgil. ‘De historicis’ including Pliny the elder and “De Grammaticis et Rhetoribus”.
- “De Vita Caesarum” in 8 books spanning the lives of leaders from Julius Caesar to Domitian. Biographical/anecdotal with a greater leaning towards events than descriptions of character.
- Particularly famous for his historical treatises “Life of the 12 Caesars”. From him we learn of Nero’s death, stabbing himself in the throat.
- Suetonius wrote various other books in both Latin and Greek, of which we only have small fragments or titles.
Publius or Gaius Cornelius Tacitus born around 55AD and died around 116AD. Its uncertain where he was born though it may have been Terni to the north of Rome because Emperor Tacitus around the 3rd century who was from that region sustained he was an ancestor of his. The emperor ensured that the works of Tacitus be stocked in Roman public libraries. He was likely of noble family, he followed the “cursus honorum” of public office all the way to becoming Consul in 97AD – the highest rung of political positions It is probable that he was a student of Quintilian.
A good factual historian who recorded many events, including the masterly suicide of Petronius in the 16th book of his Annals. His historical treatises have been of great importance to modern times in our understanding of the period. The depth of his political-moral analysis of the various characters and the motivations of their actions. To a degree, his moralistic approach detracts from the historical information, particularly when combined with touches of pessimism. The coverage of the Empire itself is limited and more focused on the behaviour and actions of the individuals. Nevertheless there is great power and interest to be had from the colour and psychological description. The style is concise and incisive with little to betray rhetoric.
- Initially he focused on oratory and the history of eloquence as written in the “Dialogus de Oratoribus” written in his youth – he outlines the downfall of eloquence with the change of political regime from Republican system to Empire.
- “Agricola” was a biography of Iulius Agricola who took Britannia under the reign of Emperor Domitian.
- “Germanica” was a compendium of Germanic peoples and customs.
- This was followed by his 14books of “Historiae” from the death of Nero to that of Domitian. We only have the first 4 and part of the 5th book.
- His “Annales” or “libri ab excessu divi Augusti” – 16 books written during the final years of Emperor Trajan covering the period from the Death of Augustus to the death of Nero. This series is also lost in part, especially the years from the death of Tiberius to the middle of Claudius‘ empire.
Publius Vergilius Maro aka Virgil or Vergil
Lived 70-19BC – he was of northern Italian provenance, born near Mantua of a wealthy middle class family. He finished his studies in Rome, combining literature with philosophy. On returning homeward his property/land was confiscated during the civil wars though his later friendship with Augustus and Maecenas amply covered his financial needs. He lived between Rome and Naples and died at the port of Brindisi whilst returning from a trip to Greece. He was buried in Naples.
Virgil was active during the golden age of Roman literature. Amongst the most famous and remembered of Roman writers, with a strong subsequent influence on western literature. For example he holds a significant reference as being the guide of the poet Dante in the ‘Divine Comedy’.
- His earliest works included the “Bucolics” – pastoral works with touches of love, emotions and nature, modeled on Alexandrine poetry, coupled with elements of everyday life and characters.
- The “Georgics” are closer to agricultural themes such as tending after the fields, trees and cattle. Written from 37-30BC, suggested to him by Maecenas and in line with Augustus’ drive for a return to early Roman values. It is a good blend of poetry, agricultural values and a degree of patriotic nostalgia.
- Virgil’s “Aeneid” or was an epic poem started in 29BC and left incomplete by his death. It was inspired to the early founding of Rome, linking it to the fall of Troy, the earliest heroic beginnings of Rome as it defeated and conquered the neighbouring tribes such as the Rutuli. It created a strong linkage between the earliest foundation of Roman civilisation and the rulers of Rome – the Giulian line and Julius Caesar.