Roman poetry and poems of Rome
Roman poetry, whilst heavily driven by Greek influence managed to derive some very specific characteristics and innovations of its own, possibly more so than the other arts, and particularly within the golden age of Roman literature during the reign of Emperor Augustus. This advance wasn’t only the result of Imperial patronage (which would eventually be a negative effect on the overall production of Roman poets) but also of the essential fact that poetry is based on language and the sounds within Latin are very different from those of Greek. A point which is of particular importance is that very frequently Roman literature was written with the oral tradition in mind: literature written with the idea of being read out loud to others.
We therefore have clear Greek cornerstones which are directly borrowed by Roman poets, eg the Dactylic Hexameter of “heroic” poetry or the Elegiac Couplet – but increasingly bent to the expression of themes dictated by a very particular Roman social environment.
However, not all poetry produced in Rome was of “Greek” influence as such: As in Roman painting the Romans infused their own particular subject matters, such as bucolic landscape scenes; in poetry we find the Roman poets infusing conventions and themes of their own. A first example of this being perhaps the poetical Satire of Lucilius around 100BC. Another example is Roman elegy, which is sometimes erotic or mythological in nature other times sombre, mournful and even romantic as written by the likes of Ovid and Propertius during the age of augustus.
The themes chosen could at times be considered extreme and amoral by the elite of the time, for example Cicero regarded Catullus negatively, and later Ovid was banished by Augustus. At later periods the censorship of amorality became tough censorship of the regime…..
The Roman poet was by no means restricted to coming from a given social class: there are many examples of poetry and indeed great Roman poets from the higher orders of society, for example Catullus who’s father regularly dealt with the likes of Julius Caesar and Pompey was himself wealthy and of the Roman Equestrian order.
The Roman poet would at times place himself within the poem, as in the example by Propertius below and frequently use pseudonyms for the loved one he is referring to. So for example, we have the “Lesbia” of Catullus thought to have been “Clodia Metelli”, wife of Metellus, third daughter of the patrician Appius Claudius Pulcher. Whilst Propertius’ “Cynthia” might be interpreted in a number of ways, either as a high ranking courtesan or indeed matron, possibly a reference to Juno Cinxia for example; “she who loses the bride’s girdle”! What is certain is that, in a manner similar to Roman satire during Rome’s imperial age there was a growing use of double or hidden meaning. Within poetry this found great expression, not only as a means of escaping potential censorship but also in terms of conveying various dimensions of meaning and expressive depth to the poem.
Later sociologists such as Harold Innis would have suggested this was an effect common to Empires and states where power is concentrated on a few who therefore hold control over information, written communication and propaganda. As such a parallel might be drawn with Victorian Britain where poetry and indeed “Romanticism” (!) saw a great resurgence, very frequently with themes of classical grandeur or romantic and bucolic sentiment.
Roman poets of Rome’s golden age, the silver age which followed it and later, were at the same time fostered for the public good, as were the other arts and architecture, whilst at the same time “encouraged” to write nationalistically appropriate themes with evident benefits in terms of propaganda – or as an alternative were limited to writing about politically harmless subject themes, such as love and emotions. Even then, they still had to watch their step or find themselves, as Ovid did, banished on “moral” accounts or indeed charged with treason as Petronius was by Nero.
Roman Poetry in the hands of the Emperors
It is probably appropriate to start with a few lines of poetry written by Emperor Hadrian in the second century AD. They tell us much of the Emperor’s character and perhaps of the depth of feeling even the Emperors might indulge in:
Animula vagula blandula,
hospes comesque corporis,
quae nunc abibis in loca
pallidula rigida nudula
nex ut soles dabis iocos
which translates into something like:
Small soul, vagabond and sweet,
guest and companion of the body,
where will you go now
pallid cold and naked,
no longer will you play as is your habit
Like Hadrian, numerous other Roman Emperors took some interest in Poetry to greater or lesser extents. Suetonius in his account of emperor Augustus (ch.85) tells us he was mildly interested in poetry and that a book of Augustus’ poetry had been preserved, written in hexameter verse and dedicated to Sicily. A second shorter one was also known of, consisting of epigrams composed whilst sitting in the bath. Last but not least he’d started, with great enthusiasm, to write a poetic tragedy which displeasure in his own style caused him to abandon. Using Augustus’ and Suetonius’ words:
…Nam tragoediam magno impetu exorsus, non succedenti stilo, aboleuit quaerentibusque amicis, quidnam Aiax ageret, respondit “Aiacem suum in spongiam incubuisse.”
Furthermore he had begun to write, with great enthusiasm, a tragedy, but seeing that the (his) style wasn’t up to the task, he destroyed it and, when his friends asked what his Ajax was up to, replied “his Ajax had cast himself on a sponge”
(understanding this statement requires us to remember Ajax died by casting himself on his own sword)
Given Augustus’ sense of personal inadequacy in terms of poetical style he was undoubtedly convinced of the benefits of poetry as an art, both in terms of consolidating imperial power over the people but also as a means of rendering such rule over them more acceptable and edifying. In much the same way he rebuilt a rome of marble he provided the people with arts to render their existence more noble.
Augustus’ successor Tiberius was also a lover of poetry, Suetonius’s book on Tiberius ch70 gives us an idea of his extreme, possibly excessive, love of mythology.
“He also composed a lyric poem, entitled “A Lament for the Death of Lucius Caesar,” and made Greek verses in imitation of Euphorion, Rhianus, and Parthenius, poets of whom he was very fond”
Clearly if we dig about one thing becomes extremely clear to us: Ancient Roman Leaders saw poetry both as a pleasurable passtime as well as a powerful means of propagandistic politics.
Poems about Rome
Given it’s unique past it is not surprising that Rome has been the subject of much literature through the ages, particularly during the Romanticism of the late 18th Century which included poets such as Keats, Shelley, Byron and Goethe amongst many others.
John Keats wrote his very last poem in Rome in 1821 with a line of verse that reads:
In what I liken to my grave that is Rome.
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