History of Literature





The Beginnings of Literature. Myths and Legends

Classical Myth

Myth and Mystery


Hebrew literature

Ancient Greek literature

Ancient Greek literature. Greek theatre

Ancient Greek literature. Philosophical prose

Latin (Roman) literature

Latin (Roman) Literature. The Silver Age

Latin (Roman) Literature. Renaissance

Modern Italian Literature

The Middle Ages Literature

The Middle Ages. Elizabethan England

The Restoration

The Rise of the Novel

Cervantes and Spanish literature

The Enlightenment


Classicism and Naturalism

The 19th century - Prose

The 20th century - Modernism

The 20th century - The Political Novel

Latin (Roman) literature

Latin (Roman) literature
Marcus Aurelius


Horace "Ars Poetica"



Livius Andronicus
Gnaeus Naevius

Virgil "Aeneid"

"Metamorphoses"  illustrations by Francois Chauveau and Noel Le Mire
"The Art of Love" illustrations by Salvador Dali


Lawrence Alma-Tadema
Tibullus at Delia's

Latin (Roman) literature




At the Roman Games in 240 B.C., Livius Andronicus presented two plays, a tragedy and a comedy. This event is sometimes seen as marking the formal beginning of Latin (Roman) literature. Significantly, the plays were adaptations of Greek originals, and Andronicus was probably a Greek himself. From the beginning, Roman culture was permeated by Greek influence. The literary genres of the Romans, like other arts, were derived from the Greeks, and Roman writers habitually compared themselves with the Greeks, if only to demonstrate how they differed from them. The "golden age" of classical Latin literature was comparatively short, roughly a century, covering the last years of the Republic and the reign of the Emperor Augustus, who died in A.D. 14.




From the earlier Republican period, we have some good epic poetry and plays by two great playwrights, Plautus (W.I84 B.C.) and Terence (J.159 B.C.). The surviving plays of Plautus, which influenced Shakespeare and his contemporaries, were adapted from earlier Athenian comedies by writers such as Menander, although Plautus, a labourer by trade, displayed wide knowledge and sympathy with the Roman lower classes. Terence was a former slave and apparently an African (born in Carthage). He died young, though six plays survive. They too were mostly based on Menander, but Terence, though less original than Plautus, surpassed him in characterization. His humour was less broad, pitched at a more cultivated audience. His plays, surprisingly acted by nuns in medieval England, influenced Restoration comedy, as well as the Elizabethans.




Plautus, (b. c. 254 bc , Sarsina, Umbria? [Italy]—d. 184), great Roman comic dramatist, whose works, loosely adapted from Greek plays, established a truly Roman drama in the Latin language.

Little is known for certain about the life and personality of Plautus, who ranks with Terence as one of the two great Roman comic dramatists. His work, moreover, presents scholars with a variety of textual problems, since the manuscripts by which his plays survive are corrupt and sometimes incomplete. Nevertheless, his literary and dramatic skills make his plays enjoyable in their own right, while the achievement of his comic genius has had lasting significance in the history of Western literature and drama.

According to the grammarian Festus (2nd or 3rd century ad), Plautus was born in northeastern central Italy. His customarily assigned birth and death dates are largely based on statements made by later Latin writers, notably Cicero in the 1st century bc. Even the three names usually given to him—Titus Maccius Plautus—are of questionable historical authenticity. Internal evidence in some of the plays does, it is true, suggest that these were the names of their author, but it is possible that they are stage names, even theatrical jokes or allusions. (“Maccus,” for example, was the traditional name of the clown in the “Atellan farces,” a long-established popular burlesque, native to the Neapolitan region of southern Italy; “Plautus,” according to Festus, derives from planis pedibus, planipes [flat-footed] being a pantomime dancer.) There are further difficulties: the poet Lucius Accius (170–c. 86 bc), who made a study of his fellow Umbrian, seems to have distinguished between one Plautus and one Titus Maccius. Tradition has it that Plautus was associated with the theatre from a young age. An early story says that he lost the profits made from his early success as a playwright in an unsuccessful business venture, and that for a while afterward he was obliged to earn a living by working in a grain mill.

Approach to drama
The Roman predecessors of Plautus in both tragedy and comedy borrowed most of their plots and all of their dramatic techniques from Greece. Even when handling themes taken from Roman life or legend, they presented these in Greek forms, setting, and dress. Plautus, like them, took the bulk of his plots, if not all of them, from plays written by Greek authors of the late 4th and early 3rd centuries bc (who represented the “New Comedy,” as it was called), notably by Menander and Philemon. Plautus did not, however, borrow slavishly; although the life represented in his plays is superficially Greek, the flavour is Roman, and Plautus incorporated into his adaptations Roman concepts, terms, and usages. He referred to towns in Italy; to the gates, streets, and markets of Rome; to Roman laws and the business of the Roman law courts; to Roman magistrates and their duties; and to such Roman institutions as the Senate.

Not all references, however, were Romanized: Plautus apparently set little store by consistency, despite the fact that some of the Greek allusions that were left may have been unintelligible to his audiences. Terence, the more studied and polished playwright, mentions Plautus’ carelessness as a translator and upbraids him for omitting an entire scene from one of his adaptations from the Greek (though there is no criticism of him for borrowing material, such plagiarism being then regarded as wholly commendable). Plautus allowed himself many other liberties in adapting his material, even combining scenes from two Greek originals into one Latin play (a procedure known as contaminatio).

Even more important was Plautus’ approach to the language in which he wrote. His action was lively and slapstick, and he was able to marry the action to the word. In his hands, Latin became racy and colloquial, verse varied and choral.

Whether these new characteristics derived from now lost Greek originals—more vigorous than those of Menander—or whether they stemmed from the established forms and tastes of burlesque traditions native to Italy, cannot be determined with any certainty. The latter is the more likely. The result, at any rate, is that Plautus’ plays read like originals rather than adaptations, such is his witty command of the Latin tongue—a gift admired by Cicero himself. It has often been said that Plautus’ Latin is crude and “vulgar,” but it is in fact a literary idiom based upon the language of the Romans in his day.

The plots of Plautus’ plays are sometimes well organized and interestingly developed, but more often they simply provide a frame for scenes of pure farce, relying heavily on intrigue, mistaken identity, and similar devices. Plautus is a truly popular dramatist, whose comic effect springs from exaggeration, burlesque and often coarse humour, rapid action, and a deliberately upside-down portrayal of life, in which slaves give orders to their masters, parents are hoodwinked to the advantage of sons who need money for girls, and the procurer or braggart soldier is outwitted and fails to secure the seduction or possession of the desired girls. Plautus, however, did also recognize the virtue of honesty (as in Bacchides), of loyalty (as in Captivi), and of nobility of character (as in the heroine of Amphitruo).

Plautus’ plays, almost the earliest literary works in Latin that have survived, are written in verse, as were the Greek originals. The metres he used included the iambic six foot line (senarius) and the trochaic seven foot line (septenarius), which Menander had also employed. But Plautus varied these with longer iambic and trochaic lines and more elaborate rhythms. The metres are skillfully chosen and handled to emphasize the mood of the speaker or the action. Again, it is possible that now lost Greek plays inspired this metrical variety and inventiveness, but it is much more likely that Plautus was responding to features already existing in popular Italian dramatic traditions. The Senarii (conversational lines) were spoken, but the rest was sung or chanted to the accompaniment of double and fingered reed pipes (see aulos). It could indeed be said that, in their metrical and musical liveliness, performances of Plautus’ plays somewhat resembled musicals of the mid-20th century.

Although Plautus’ original texts did not survive, some version of 21 of them did. Even by the time that Roman scholars such as Varro, a contemporary of Cicero, became interested in the playwright, only acting editions of his plays remained. These had been adapted, modified, cut, expanded, and generally brought up-to-date for production purposes. Critics and scholars have ever since attempted to establish a “Plautine” text, but 20th- and 21st-century editors have admitted the impossibility of successfully accomplishing such a task. The plays had an active stage life at least until the time of Cicero and were occasionally performed afterward. Whereas Cicero had praised their language, the poet Horace was a more severe critic and considered the plays to lack polish. There was renewed scholarly and literary interest in Plautus during the 2nd century ad, but it is unlikely that this was accompanied by a stage revival, though a performance of Casina is reported to have been given in the early 4th century. St. Jerome, toward the end of that century, says that after a night of excessive penance he would read Plautus as a relaxation; in the mid-5th century, Sidonius Apollinaris, a Gallic bishop who was also a poet, found time to read the plays and praise the playwright amid the alarms of the barbarian invasions.

During the Middle Ages, Plautus was little read—if at all—in contrast to the popular Terence. By the mid-14th century, however, the Humanist scholar and poet Petrarch knew eight of the comedies. As the remainder came to light, Plautus began to influence European domestic comedy after the Renaissance poet Ariosto had made the first imitations of Plautine comedy in the Italian vernacular. His influence was perhaps to be seen at its most sophisticated in the comedies of Molière (whose play L’Avare, for instance, was based on Aulularia), and it can be traced up to the present day in such adaptations as Jean Giraudoux’s Amphitryon 38 (1929), Cole Porter’s musical Out of This World (1950), and the musical and motion picture A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1963). Plautus’ stock character “types” have similarly had a long line of successors: the braggart soldier of Miles Gloriosus, for example, became the “Capitano” of the Italian commedia dell’arte, is recognizable in Nicholas Udall’s Ralph Roister Doister (16th century), in Shakespeare’s Pistol, and even in his Falstaff, in Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac (1897), and in Bernard Shaw’s Sergius in Arms and the Man (1894), while a trace of the character perhaps remains in Bertolt Brecht’s Eilif in Mother Courage and Her Children (1941). Thus, Plautus, in adapting Greek “New Comedy” to Roman conditions and taste, also significantly affected the course of the European theatre.




Terence, Latin in full Publius Terentius Afer (b. c. 195 bc, Carthage, North Africa [now in Tunisia]—d. 159? bc, in Greece or at sea), after Plautus the greatest Roman comic dramatist, the author of six verse comedies that were long regarded as models of pure Latin. Terence’s plays form the basis of the modern comedy of manners.

Terence was taken to Rome as a slave by Terentius Lucanus, an otherwise unknown Roman senator who was impressed by his ability and gave him a liberal education and, subsequently, his freedom.

Reliable information about the life and dramatic career of Terence is defective. There are four sources of biographical information on him: a short, gossipy life by the Roman biographer Suetonius, written nearly three centuries later; a garbled version of a commentary on the plays by the 4th-century grammarian Aelius Donatus; production notices prefixed to the play texts recording details of first (and occasionally also of later) performances; and Terence’s own prologues to the plays, which, despite polemic and distortion, reveal something of his literary career. Most of the available information about Terence relates to his career as a dramatist. During his short life he produced six plays, to which the production notices assign the following dates: Andria (The Andrian Girl), 166 bc; Hecyra (The Mother-in-Law), 165 bc; Heauton timoroumenos (The Self-Tormentor), 163 bc; Eunuchus (The Eunuch), 161 bc; Phormio, 161 bc; Adelphi (or Adelphoe; The Brothers), 160 bc; Hecyra, second production, 160 bc; Hecyra, third production, 160 bc. These dates, however, pose several problems. The Eunuchus, for example, was so successful that it achieved a repeat performance and record earnings for Terence, but the prologue that Terence wrote, presumably a year later, for the Hecyra’s third production gives the impression that he had not yet achieved any major success. Yet alternative date schemes are even less satisfactory.

From the beginning of his career, Terence was lucky to have the services of Lucius Ambivius Turpio, a leading actor who had promoted the career of Caecilius, the major comic playwright of the preceding generation. Now in old age, the actor did the same for Terence. Yet not all of Terence’s productions enjoyed success. The Hecyra failed twice: its first production broke up in an uproar when rumours were circulated among its audience of alternative entertainment by a tightrope walker and some boxers; and the audience deserted its second production for a gladiatorial performance nearby.

Terence faced the hostility of jealous rivals, particularly one older playwright, Luscius Lanuvinus, who launched a series of accusations against the newcomer. The main source of contention was Terence’s dramatic method. It was the custom for these Roman dramatists to draw their material from earlier Greek comedies about rich young men and the difficulties that attended their amours. The adaptations varied greatly in fidelity, ranging from the creative freedom of Plautus to the literal rendering of Luscius. Although Terence was apparently fairly faithful to his Greek models, Luscius alleged that Terence was guilty of “contamination”—i.e., that he had incorporated material from secondary Greek sources into his plots, to their detriment. Terence sometimes did add extraneous material. In the Andria, which, like the Eunuchus, Heauton timoroumenos, and Adelphi, was adapted from a Greek play of the same title by Menander, he added material from another Menandrean play, the Perinthia (The Perinthian Girl). In the Eunuchus he added to Menander’s Eunouchos two characters, a soldier and his “parasite”—a hanger-on whose flattery of and services to his patron were rewarded with free dinners—both of them from another play by Menander, the Kolax (The Parasite). In the Adelphi, he added an exciting scene from a play by Diphilus, a contemporary of Menander. Such conservative writers as Luscius objected to the freedom with which Terence used his models.

A further allegation was that Terence’s plays were not his own work but were composed with the help of unnamed nobles. This malicious and implausible charge is left unanswered by Terence. Romans of a later period assumed that Terence must have collaborated with the Scipionic circle, a coterie of admirers of Greek literature, named after its guiding spirit, the military commander and politician Scipio Africanus the Younger.

Terence died young. When he was 35, he visited Greece and never returned from the journey. He died either in Greece from illness or at sea by shipwreck on the return voyage. Of his family life, nothing is known, except that he left a daughter and a small but valuable estate just outside Rome on the Appian Way.

Modern scholars have been preoccupied with the question of the extent to which Terence was an original writer, as opposed to a mere translator of his Greek models. Positions on both sides have been vigorously maintained, but recent critical opinion seems to accept that, in the main, Terence was faithful to the plots, ethos, and characterization of his Greek originals: thus, his humanity, his individualized characters, and his sensitive approach to relationships and personal problems all may be traced to Menander, and his obsessive attention to detail in the plots of Hecyra and Phormio derives from the Greek models of those plays by Apollodorus of Carystus of the 3rd century bc. Nevertheless, in some important particulars he reveals himself as something more than a translator. First, he shows both originality and skill in the incorporation of material from secondary models, as well as occasionally perhaps in material of his own invention; he sews this material in with unobtrusive seams. Second, his Greek models probably had expository prologues, informing their audiences of vital facts, but Terence cut them out, leaving his audiences in the same ignorance as his characters. This omission increases the element of suspense, though the plot may become too difficult for an audience to follow, as in the Hecyra.

Striving for a refined but conventional realism, Terence eliminated or reduced such unrealistic devices as the actor’s direct address to the audience. He preserved the atmosphere of his models with a nice appreciation of how much Greekness would be tolerated in Rome, omitting the unintelligible and clarifying the difficult. His language is a purer version of contemporary colloquial Latin, at times shaded subtly to emphasize a character’s individual speech patterns. Because they are more realistic, his characters lack some of the vitality and panache of Plautus’ adaptations (Phormio here is a notable exception); but they are often developed in depth and with subtle psychology. Individual scenes retain their power today, especially those presenting brilliant narratives (e.g., Chaerea’s report of his rape of the girl in the Eunuchus), civilized emotion (e.g., Micio’s forgiveness of Aeschinus in the Adelphi, Bacchis’ renunciation of Pamphilus in the Hecyra), or clever theatrical strokes (e.g., the double disclosure of Chremes’ bigamy in the Phormio).

The influence of Terence on Roman education and on the later European theatre was very great. His language was accepted as a norm of pure Latin, and his work was studied and discussed throughout antiquity.

Recommended English translations include the work of Betty Radice, The Brothers and Other Plays (1965), and Phormio and Other Plays (1967), both “Penguin Classics,” combined in one volume in 1976. Another useful English translation is The Complete Comedies of Terence: Modern Verse Translations (1974), translated by Palmer Bovie, Constance Carrier, and Douglass Parker and edited by Palmer Bovie. Frank O. Copley’s translations were published as Roman Drama: The Plays of Plautus and Terence (1985).

W. Geoffrey Arnott



Marcus Aurelius

emperor of Rome
in full Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, original name (until ad 161) Marcus Annius Verus

born April 26, ad 121, Rome
died March 17, 180, Vindobona [Vienna], or Sirmium, Pannonia

Roman emperor (ad 161–180), best known for his Meditations on Stoic philosophy. Marcus Aurelius has symbolized for many generations in the West the Golden Age of the Roman Empire.

Youth and apprenticeship
When he was born, his paternal grandfather was already consul for the second time and prefect of Rome, which was the crown of prestige in a senatorial career; his father’s sister was married to the man who was destined to become the next emperor and whom he himself would in due time succeed; and his maternal grandmother was heiress to one of the most massive of Roman fortunes. Marcus thus was related to several of the most prominent families of the new Roman establishment, which had consolidated its social and political power under the Flavian emperors (69–96), and, indeed, the ethos of that establishment is relevant to his own actions and attitudes. The governing class of the first age of the Roman Empire, the Julio-Claudian, had been little different from that of the late Republic—it was urban Roman (despising outsiders), extravagant, cynical, and amoral; the new establishment, however, was largely of municipal and provincial origin—as were its emperors—cultivating sobriety and good works and turning more and more to piety and religiosity.

The child Marcus was, thus, clearly destined for social distinction. How he came to the throne, however, remains a mystery. In 136 the emperor Hadrian inexplicably announced as his eventual successor a certain Lucius Ceionius Commodus (henceforth L. Aelius Caesar), and in that same year young Marcus was engaged to Ceionia Fabia, the daughter of Commodus. Early in 138, however, Commodus died and later, after the death of Hadrian, the engagement was annulled. Hadrian then adopted Titus Aurelius Antoninus (the husband of Marcus’ aunt) to succeed him as the emperor Antoninus Pius, arranging that Antoninus should adopt as his sons two young men, one the son of Commodus and the other Marcus, whose name was then changed to Marcus Aelius Aurelius Verus. Marcus thus was marked out as a future joint emperor at the age of just under 17, though as it turned out he was not to succeed until his 40th year. It is sometimes assumed that in Hadrian’s mind both Commodus and Antoninus Pius were merely to be “place warmers” for one or both of these youths.

The long years of Marcus’ apprenticeship under Antoninus are illuminated by the correspondence between him and his teacher Fronto. Though the main society literary figure of the age, Fronto was a dreary pedant whose blood ran rhetoric, but he must have been less lifeless than he now appears, for there is genuine feeling and real communication in the letters between him and both of the young men. It was to the credit of Marcus, who was intelligent as well as hardworking and serious-minded, that he grew impatient with the unending regime of advanced exercises in Greek and Latin declamation and eagerly embraced the Diatribai (“Discourses”) of a religious former slave, Epictetus, an important moral philosopher of the Stoic school. Henceforth, it was in philosophy that Marcus was to find his chief intellectual interest as well as his spiritual nourishment.

Meanwhile, there was work enough to do at the side of the untiring Antoninus, with learning the business of government and assuming public roles. Marcus was consul in 140, 145, and 161. In 145 he married his cousin, the Emperor’s daughter Annia Galeria Faustina, and in 147 the imperium and tribunicia potestas, the main formal powers of emperorship, were conferred upon him; henceforth, he was a kind of junior co-emperor, sharing the intimate counsels and crucial decisions of Antoninus. (His adoptive brother, nearly 10 years his junior, was brought into official prominence in due time.) On March 7, 161, at a time when the brothers were jointly consuls (for the third and the second time, respectively), their father died.

Roman emperor
The transition was smooth as far as Marcus was concerned; already possessing the essential constitutional powers, he stepped automatically into the role of full emperor (and his name henceforth was Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus). At his own insistence, however, his adoptive brother was made co-emperor with him (and bore henceforth the name Imperator Caesar Lucius Aurelius Verus Augustus). There is no evidence that Lucius Verus had much of a following, so that a ruthless rival could have easily disposed of him, though to leave him in being as anything less than emperor might have created a focus for disaffection. It is most probable, however, that Marcus’ conscience impelled him to carry out loyally what he believed to have been the plan by which alone he himself had eventually reached the purple. For the first time in history the Roman Empire had two joint emperors of formally equal constitutional status and powers, but, although the achievement of Lucius Verus has suffered by comparison with the paragon Marcus, it seems probable that the serious work of government was done throughout by Marcus and was the more arduous in that it was done during most of his reign in the midst of fighting frontier wars and combatting the effects of plague and demoralization.

For constructive statesmanship or the initiation of original trends in civil policy, Marcus had little time or energy to spare. The field most congenial to him seems to have been the law. Numerous measures were promulgated and judicial decisions made, clearing away harshnesses and anomalies in the civil law, improving in detail the lot of the less-favoured—slaves, widows, minors—and giving recognition to claims of blood relationship in the field of succession. Marcus’ personal contribution, however, must not be overstated. The pattern of ameliorating legislation was inherited rather than novel, and the measures were refinements rather than radical changes in the structure of law or society; Marcus was not a great legislator, but he was a devoted practitioner of the role of ombudsman. Moreover, there was nothing specifically Stoic about this legal activity, and in one respect the age of Antoninus Pius and Marcus signalizes a retrogression in the relationship of law to society, for under them there either began, or was made more explicit, a distinction of classes in the criminal law—honestiores and humiliores, with two separate scales of punishments for crime, harsher and more degrading for the humiliores at every point.

Marcus’ claim to statesmanship has come under critical attack in numerous other ways; for example, in the matter of Christian persecution. Though Marcus disliked the Christians, there was no systematic persecution of them during his reign. Their legal status remained as it had been under Trajan and Hadrian: Christians were ipso facto punishable but not to be sought out. This incongruous position did little harm in times of general security and prosperity, but when either of these were threatened, the local population might denounce Christians, a governor might be forced to act, and the law, as the central authority saw it, must then run its course. The martyrdoms at Lyon in 177 were of this nature, and, though it appears that Christian blood flowed more profusely in the reign of Marcus the philosopher than it had before, he was not an initiator of persecution.

In 161 Syria was invaded by the Parthians, a major power to the East. The war that followed (162–166) was nominally under the command of Verus, though its successful conclusion, with the overrunning of Armenia and Mesopotamia, was the work of subordinate generals, notably Gaius Avidius Cassius. The returning armies brought back with them a plague, which raged throughout the empire for many years and—together with the German invasion—fostered a weakening of morale in minds accustomed to the stability and apparent immutability of Rome and its empire.

In 167 or 168 Marcus and Verus together set out on a punitive expedition across the Danube, and behind their backs a horde of German tribes invaded Italy in massive strength and besieged Aquileia, on the crossroads at the head of the Adriatic. The military precariousness of the empire and the inflexibility of its financial structure in the face of emergencies now stood revealed; desperate measures were adopted to fill the depleted legions, and imperial property was auctioned to provide funds. Marcus and Verus fought the Germans off with success, but in 169 Verus died suddenly, and doubtless naturally, of a stroke. Three years of fighting were still needed, with Marcus in the thick of it, to restore the Danubian frontier, and three more years of campaigning in Bohemia were enough to bring the tribes beyond the Danube to peace, at least for a time.

The Meditations
A more intimate contact with the thoughts pursued by Marcus during the troubling involvements of his reign, though not what would have been historically most valuable, his day-to-day political thoughts, can be acquired by reading the Meditations. To what extent he intended them for eyes other than his own is uncertain; they are fragmentary notes, discursive and epigrammatic by turn, of his reflections in the midst of campaigning and administration. In a way, it seems, he wrote them to nerve himself for his daunting responsibilities. Strikingly, though they comprise the innermost thoughts of a Roman, the Meditations were written in Greek—to such an extent had the union of cultures become a reality. In many ages these thoughts have been admired; the modern age, however, is more likely to be struck by the pathology of them, their mixture of priggishness and hysteria. Marcus was forever proposing to himself unattainable goals of conduct, forever contemplating the triviality, brutishness, and transience of the physical world and of man in general and himself in particular; otherworldly, yet believing in no other world, he was therefore tied to duty and service with no hope, even of everlasting fame, to sustain him. Sickly all through his life and probably plagued with a chronic ulcer, he took daily doses of a drug; the suggestion has been made that the apocalyptic imagery of passages in the Meditations betrays the addict. More certain and more important is the point that Marcus’ anxieties reflect, in an exaggerated manner, the ethos of his age.

The Meditations, the thoughts of a philosopher-king, have been considered by many generations one of the great books of all times. Though they were Marcus’ own thoughts, they were not original. They are basically the moral tenets of Stoicism, learned from Epictetus: the cosmos is a unity governed by an intelligence, and the human soul is a part of that divine intelligence and can therefore stand, if naked and alone, at least pure and undefiled, amidst chaos and futility. One or two of Marcus’ ideas, perhaps more through lack of rigorous understanding than anything else, diverged from Stoic philosophy and approached that Platonism that was itself then turning into the Neoplatonism into which all pagan philosophies, except Epicureanism, were destined to merge. But he did not deviate so far as to accept the comfort of any kind of survival after death.

At the same time that Marcus was securing his trans-Danubian frontiers, Egypt, Spain, and Britain were troubled by rebellions or invasions. By 175, the general Avidius Cassius, who earlier had served under Verus, had virtually become a prefect of all of the eastern provinces, including control of the important province of Egypt. In that year, Avidius Cassius took the occasion of a rumour of Marcus’ death to proclaim himself emperor. Marcus made peace in the north with those tribes not already subjugated and prepared to march against Avidius, but the rebel general was assassinated by his own soldiers. Marcus used the opportunity to make a tour of pacification and inspection in the East, visiting Antioch, Alexandria, and Athens—where, like Hadrian, he was initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries (though that esoteric religious cult does not seem to have impinged at all upon his philosophical views). During the journey the empress Faustina, who had been with her husband in the Danubian wars as well, died. Great public honours were bestowed upon her in life and in death, and in his Meditations Marcus spoke of her with love and admiration. The ancient sources accuse her of infidelity and disloyalty (complicity, in fact, with Avidius Cassius), but the charges are implausible.

In 177 Marcus proclaimed his 16-year-old son, Commodus, joint emperor. Together they resumed the Danubian wars. Marcus was determined to pass from defense to offense and to an expansionist redrawing of Rome’s northern boundaries. His determination seemed to be winning success when, in 180, he died at his military headquarters, having just had time to commend Commodus to the chief advisers of the regime.

Marcus’ choice of his only surviving son as his successor has always been viewed as a tragic paradox. Commodus turned out badly, though two things must be borne in mind: emperors are good and bad in the ancient sources according as they did or did not satisfy the senatorial governing class, and Commodus’ rapid calling off of the northern campaigns may well have been wiser than his father’s obsessive and costly expansionism. But those who criticize Marcus for ensuring the accession of Commodus are usually under the misapprehension that Marcus was reverting to crude dynasticism after a long and successful period of “philosophic” succession by the best available man. This is historically untenable. Marcus had no choice in the matter: if he had not made Commodus his successor, he would have had to order him to be put to death.

Marcus was a statesman, perhaps, but one of no great calibre; nor was he really a sage. In general, he is a historically overrated figure, presiding in a bewildered way over an empire beneath the gilt of which there already lay many a decaying patch. But his personal nobility and dedication survive the most remorseless scrutiny; he counted the cost obsessively, but he did not shrink from paying it.

John Anthony Crook



The first great figure of the golden age is that exemple of Roman virtue, Cicero (106-43 B.C.). Primarily a statesman and orator, he turned to literature and philosophy in later life, but is chiefly remembered for his published speeches, models of Latin prose, and his remarkable letters. They cover almost every conceivable subject though the most interesting, especially in the candid and intimate letters to Atticus, is Cicero himself. Cicero's contemporaries included Lucretius, the philosophical poet whose De Rerum Natura ("On the Nature of Things") advanced that the universe was a combination of atoms, and the lyric poet Catullus whose work, immensely varied in mood, was published posthumously.







Catullus had a profound influence on his contemporaries, including Horace (65—8 B.C.), the finest poet of his day after Virgil who, besides his Odes and Satires, wrote an influential book on poetry, Ars Poetica. Horace had a pervasive influence on English poetry: he was translated by Milton, adapted by Pope and Shelley among others, and anthologies of literary quotations find Horace a fruitful source of apt phrases. His genial temperament and good sense contributed to his popularity among contemporaries. Among lesser poets of the golden age were the elegists Tibullus, a friend of Horace and the subject of one of Horace's most charming Epistles, and Propertius, who was inspired, like so many, by his love for a woman, Cynthia.




("Ars Poetica")

Horace, as imagined by Anton von WernerQuintus Horatius Flaccus, (Venosa, December 8, 65 BC - Rome, November 27, 8 BC), known in the English-speaking world as Horace, was the leading Roman lyric poet during the time of Augustus.

Born in Venosa or Venusia, as it was called in his day, a small town in the border region between Apulia and Lucania, Horace was the son of a freedman, but he himself was born free. His father owned a small farm at Venusia, and later moved to Rome and worked as a coactor, a kind of middleman at auctions who would pay the purchase price to the seller and collect it later from the buyer and receive 1% of the purchase price from each of them for his services. The elder Horace was able to spend considerable money on his son's education, accompanying him first to Rome for his primary education, and then sending him to Athens to study Greek and philosophy. The poet later expressed his gratitude in a tribute to his father; in his own words:

If my character is flawed by a few minor faults, but is otherwise decent and moral, if you can point out only a few scattered blemishes on an otherwise immaculate surface, if no one can accuse me of greed, or of prurience, or of profligacy, if I live a virtuous life, free of defilement (pardon, for a moment, my self-praise), and if I am to my friends a good friend, my father deserves all the credit... As it is now, he deserves from me unstinting gratitude and praise. I could never be ashamed of such a father, nor do I feel any need, as many people do, to apologize for being a freedman's son. Satires 1.6.65-92

After the assassination of Julius Caesar, Horace joined the army, serving under the generalship of Brutus. He fought as a staff officer (tribunus militum) in the Battle of Philippi. Alluding to famous literary models, he later claimed that he saved himself by throwing away his shield and fleeing. When an amnesty was declared for those who had fought against the victorious Octavian (later Augustus), Horace returned to Italy, only to find his estate confiscated; his father had probably died by then. Horace claims that he was reduced to poverty. Nevertheless, he had the means to purchase a profitable life-time appointment as a scriba quaestorius, an official of the Treasury, which allowed him to get by comfortably and practice his poetic art.

Horace was a member of a literary circle that included Virgil and Lucius Varius Rufus, who introduced him to Maecenas, friend and confidant of Augustus. Maecenas became his patron and close friend, and presented Horace with an estate near Tibur in the Sabine Hills, contemporary Tivoli. He died in Rome a few months after the death of Maecenas, in 8 BC at age 57. Upon his death bed, having no heirs, Horace relinquished his farm to his friend and emperor, Augustus, to be used for imperial needs. His farm is there today and is a spot of pilgrimage for the literary elite.

Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Catullus at Lesbia's




Gaius Valerius Catullus, (b. c. 84 bc, Verona, Cisalpine Gaul—d. c. 54 bc, Rome), Roman poet whose expressions of love and hatred are generally considered the finest lyric poetry of ancient Rome. In 25 of his poems he speaks of his love for a woman he calls Lesbia, whose identity is uncertain. Other poems by Catullus are scurrilous outbursts of contempt or hatred for Julius Caesar and lesser personages.

No ancient biography of Catullus survives. A few facts can be pieced together from external sources, in the works of his contemporaries or of later writers, supplemented by inferences drawn from his poems, some of which are certain, some only possible. The unembroidered, certain facts are scanty. Catullus was alive 55–54 bc on the evidence of four of his poems and died young according to the poet Ovid—at the age of 30 as stated by St. Jerome (writing about the end of the 4th century), who nevertheless dated his life erroneously 87–57 bc. Catullus was thus a contemporary of the statesmen Cicero, Pompey, and Caesar, who are variously addressed by him in his poems. He preceded the poets of the immediately succeeding age of the emperor Augustus, among whom Horace, Sextus Propertius, Tibullus, and Ovid name him as a poet whose work is familiar to them. On his own evidence and that of Jerome, he was born at Verona in northern Italy and was therefore a native of Cisalpine Gaul (Gaul This Side of the Alps); he owned property at Sirmio, the modern Sirmione, on Lake Garda, though he preferred to live in Rome and owned a villa near the Roman suburb of Tibur, in an unfashionable neighbourhood. According to an anecdote in the Roman biographer Suetonius’ Life of Julius Caesar, Catullus’ father was Caesar’s friend and host, but the son nevertheless lampooned not only the future dictator but also his son-in-law Pompey and his agent and military engineer Mamurra with a scurrility that Caesar admitted was personally damaging and would leave its mark on history; the receipt of an apology was followed by an invitation to dinner “the same day,” and Caesar’s relations with the father continued uninterrupted. (Suetonius cites the episode as an example of Caesar’s clemency.)

Catullus’ poetry reports one event, externally datable to c. 57–56 bc, a journey to Bithynia in Asia Minor in the retinue of Gaius Memmius, the Roman governor of the province, from which he returned to Sirmio. It also records two emotional crises, the death of a brother whose grave he visited in the Troad, also in Asia Minor, and an intense and unhappy love affair, portrayed variously in 25 poems, with a woman who was married and whom he names Lesbia, a pseudonym (Ovid states) for Clodia, according to the 2nd-century writer Apuleius. His poems also record, directly or indirectly, a homosexual affair with a youth named Juventius.

Such are the stated facts. The conjectural possibilities to be gleaned mostly from the internal evidence of Catullus’ poetry extend a little further. It is accepted that Catullus was born c. 84 bc and that he died c. 54 bc. His father’s hospitality to Caesar may have been exercised in Cisalpine Gaul when Caesar was governor of the province, but equally well at Rome—Suetonius does not indicate time or place. Catullus’ Roman villa may have been heavily mortgaged (depending on the choice of manuscript reading of one poem). A yacht retired from active service and celebrated in an iambic poem may have been his own, built in Bithynia, in northwestern Asia Minor, and therefore available to convey him on his way home to Sirmio after his tour of duty. His fellow poet Cinna may have accompanied him to Bithynia. For the governor Memmius, himself a litterateur (to whom the Roman philosophic poet Lucretius dedicated his poem on the nature of things, De rerum natura), such company might be congenial, and it is possible to speculate that Cinna was on board the yacht. The brother’s grave could have been visited en route to or from Bithynia.

The poet’s Clodia may have been a patrician, one of the three Clodia sisters of Cicero’s foe Publius Clodius Pulcher, all three the subject of scandalous rumour, according to Plutarch. If so, she was most probably the one who married the aristocrat Metellus Celer (consul 60 bc, died 59 bc), who in 62 bc was governor of Cisalpine Gaul. It may have been at that time that the youthful poet first met her and possibly fell under her spell. She is accorded a vivid if unflattering portrait in Cicero’s Pro Caelio, in which the orator had occasion to blacken her character in order to defend his client against Clodia’s charge that as her lover after her husband’s death he had tried to poison her. The client was Marcus Caelius Rufus, conceivably the Rufus reproached by Catullus in poem LXXVII as a trusted friend who had destroyed his happiness (but if so, the Caelius of poem C is a different person). This identification of Clodia, suggested by an Italian scholar of the 16th century, has found support in some uncertain inferences from the Lesbia poems: the poet’s mistress besides being married perhaps moved in society, enjoyed fashionable amusements, was cultivated and witty, and was licentious enough to justify Cicero’s attack. On the other hand, the poet twice appears to have included the protection of his own rank among the gifts he had laid at her feet.

The poetry
A consideration of the text of Catullus’ poems and of its arrangement is of unusual interest. Its survival has been as precarious as his biography is brief. Not being part of the school syllabus, from roughly the end of the 2nd century to the end of the 12th century, it passed out of circulation. Knowledge of it depends on a single manuscript discovered c. 1300, copied twice, and then lost. Of the two copies, one in turn was copied twice, and then it was lost. From the three survivors—in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, and the Vatican Library in Rome—scholars have been able to reconstruct the lost “archetype.” Incorrect transcription in the preceding centuries (some 14 instances are beyond repair), however, has invited frequent and often uncertain emendation. Depending on whether one poem is divided or not, 113 or 114 poems survive. In the printed total of 116, numbers XVIII to XX were inserted by early editors without proof that they were written by Catullus. In 14 instances gaps are visible (eight of these of one or more lines), and in possibly six poems fragments of lost poems have been left attached to existing ones. Ancient citations indicate the existence of at least five more poems. The surviving body of work is therefore mutilated and incomplete and (in contrast to the Odes of Horace) cannot in its present published form represent the intentions of either author or executors, despite the elegant dedication to the historian Cornelius Nepos that heads it. With these qualifications, it permits the reconstruction of a poetic personality and art unique in Latin letters.

The collection is headed by 57 “short poems,” ranging in length between 5 and 25 lines (number X, an exception, has 34) in assorted metres, of which, however, 51 are either hendecasyllabic—that is, having a verse line of 11 syllables (40 such)—or iambic—basically of alternate short and long syllables (11). These rhythms, though tightly structured, can be characterized as occasional or conversational. There follow eight “longer poems,” ranging from 48 lines to 408 (number LXV, of 24 lines, is prefatory to number LXVI) in four different metres. The collection is completed by 48 “epigrams” written in the elegiac distich, or pair of verse lines, and extending between 2 and 12 lines, a limit exceeded only by two poems, one of 26 lines and the other of 16.

This mechanical arrangement, by indirectly recognizing the poet’s metrical virtuosity and proposing three kinds of composition, justly calls attention to a versatility disproportionate to the slim size of the extant work. The occasional-verse metres and the elegiac distich had been introduced into Latin before his day. Traditionally both forms, as practiced by Greek writers after the 4th century bc and their Roman imitators, had served for inscriptions and dedications and as verse of light occasions, satirical comment, and elegant sentiment. Catullus and his contemporaries continued this tradition; but in some 37 instances the poet uniquely converts these verse forms to serve as vehicles of feelings and observations expressed with such beauty and wit, on the one hand, or such passion, on the other, as to rank him, in modern terms, among the masters of the European lyric—the peer of Sappho and Shelley, of Burns and Heine—but exhibiting a degree of complexity and contradiction that the centuries-later Romantic temperament would scarcely have understood. The conversational rhythms in particular, as he managed them for lyric purposes, achieved an immediacy that no other classic poet can rival.

In his longer poems Catullus produced studies that deeply influenced the writers and poets of the Augustan Age: two charming marriage hymns; one frenzied cult hymn of emasculation; one romantic narrative in hexameters (lines of six feet) on the marriage of Peleus with the sea goddess Thetis; and four elegiac pieces, consisting of an epistle introducing a translation of an elegant conceit by the Alexandrian poet Callimachus, followed by a pasquinade, or scurrilous conversation, between the poet and a door (of poor quality, perhaps a youthful effort), and lastly a soliloquy (unless indeed this be two poems) addressed to a friend and cast in the form of an encomium, or poem of praise. The Augustan poet Virgil is content to imitate Catullus without naming him, even going so far, in the Aeneid, as thrice to borrow whole lines from him. Horace both imitated Catullus and criticized him. Tibullus, Propertius, Ovid, and later Martial both imitate and affectionately commemorate him.

In his lifetime, Catullus was a poet’s poet, addressing himself to fellow craftsmen (docti, or scholarly poets), especially to his friend Licinius Calvus, who is often posthumously commemorated along with him. It is now fashionable to identify this coterie as the poetae novi, or “Neoterics” (the modern term for these new poets), who preferred the learned allusiveness and mannered and meticulous art of the Alexandrian poets to the grander but archaic fashion of Ennius, the father of Roman poetry. The school was criticized by Cicero and by Horace, who names Calvus and Catullus. To the degree that Catullus shared such conceptions of what might be called poetic scholarship, he is to be numbered in the company of Gerard Manley Hopkins, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound rather than with the Romantics.

For the general reader, the 25 Lesbia poems are likely to remain the most memorable, recording as they do a love that could register ecstasy and despair and all the divided emotions that intervene. Two of them with unusual metre recall Sappho, the poetess of the Aegean island of Lesbos, as also does his use of the pseudonym Lesbia. As read today, these two seem to evoke the first moment of adoring love (number LI, a poem that actually paraphrases its Sapphic model) and the last bitterness of disillusionment (number XI). On the other hand, the poems of invective, which spare neither Julius Caesar nor otherwise unknown personalities, male and female, may not have received the critical attention some of them deserve. Their quality is uneven, ranging from the high-spirited to the tedious, from the lapidary to the laboured, but their satiric humour is often effective, and their obscenity reflects a serious literary convention that the poet himself defends. Between these two poles of private feeling lie a handful of transcendent and unforgettable compositions: the lament at his brother’s grave; the salute to Sirmio his beloved retreat; the exchange of vows between Acme and Septimius; his elegy for the wife of Calvus; and even that vivid mime of a moment’s conversation in a leisured day, in which the gay insouciance of a few young persons of fashion, the poet included, going about their affairs in the last days of the Roman Republic, is caught and preserved for posterity.

Eric Alfred Havelock



Albius Tibullus

born c. 55 bc
died c. 19 bc

Roman poet, the second in the classical sequence of great Latin writers of elegiacs that begins with Cornelius Gallus and continues through Tibullus and Sextus Propertius to Ovid. Quintilian considered Tibullus to be the finest of them all.

Apart from his own poems, the only sources for the life of Tibullus are a few references in ancient writers and an extremely short Vita of doubtful authority. He was of equestrian rank (according to the Vita) and inherited an estate but seems to have lost most of it in 41 bc, when Mark Antony and Octavian confiscated land for their soldiers. As a young man, however, Tibullus won the friendship and patronage of Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus, the statesman, soldier, and man of letters, and became a prominent member of Messalla’s literary circle. This circle, unlike that of Gaius Maecenas, kept itself aloof from the court of Augustus, whom Tibullus does not even mention in his poems. Tibullus seems to have divided his time between Rome and his country estate, strongly preferring the latter. The Albius addressed by Horace in Odes, i, 33, and Epistles, i, 4, is generally identified with Tibullus.

Tibullus’ first important love affair, the main subject of Book i of his poems, was with the woman whom he calls Delia. Sometimes he presents her as unmarried, sometimes as having a husband (unless the term conjunx is meant to mean “protector”). It is clear, however, that Tibullus took advantage of the “husband’s” absence on military service in Cilicia to establish his relationship with Delia and that this relationship was carried on clandestinely after the soldier’s return. Tibullus ultimately discovered that Delia was receiving other lovers as well as himself; then, after fruitless protests, he ceased to pursue her.

In Book ii of his poems, Delia’s place is taken by Nemesis (also a fictitious name), who was a courtesan of the higher class, with several lovers. Though he complains bitterly of her rapacity and hardheartedness, Tibullus seems to have remained subjugated to her for the rest of his life. He is known to have died young, very shortly after Virgil (19 bc). Ovid commemorated his death in his Amores (iii, 9).

The character of Tibullus, as reflected in his poems, is an amiable one. He was a man of generous impulses and a gentle, unselfish disposition. He was not attracted to an active life; his ideal was a quiet retirement in the countryside with a loved one by him. Tibullus was loyal to his friends and more constant to his mistresses than they would seem to have deserved. His tenderness toward women is enhanced by a refinement and delicacy rare among the ancients.

For idyllic simplicity, grace, tenderness, and exquisiteness of feeling and expression, Tibullus stands alone among the Roman elegists. In many of his poems, moreover, a symmetry of composition can be discerned, though they are never forced into any fixed or inelastic scheme. His clear and unaffected style, which made him a great favourite among Roman readers, is far more polished than that of his rival Propertius and far less loaded with Alexandrian learning, but in range of imagination and in richness and variety of poetical treatment, Propertius is the superior. In his handling of metre, Tibullus is likewise smooth and musical, whereas Propertius, with occasional harshness, is vigorous and varied.

The works of Tibullus, as they have survived, form part of what is generally known as the Corpus Tibullianum, a collection of poetry that seems most probably to have been deliberately put together to represent the work of Messalla’s circle. The first two of the four books in the Corpus are undoubtedly by Tibullus. In its entirety the collection forms a unique and charming document for the literary life of Augustan Rome.



Sextus Propertius

born 55, –43 bc, Assisi, Umbria [Italy]
died after 16, bc, Rome

greatest elegiac poet of ancient Rome. The first of his four books of elegies, published in 29 bc, is called Cynthia after its heroine (his mistress, whose real name was Hostia); it gained him entry into the literary circle centring on Maecenas.

Very few details of the life of Sextus Propertius are known. His father died when he was still a boy, but he was given a good education by his mother. Part of the family estate was confiscated (c. 40 bc) to satisfy the resettlement needs of the veteran troops of Octavian, later the emperor Augustus, after the civil wars. Propertius’ income was thus severely diminished, though he was never really poor. With his mother, he left Umbria for Rome, and there (c. 34 bc) he assumed the dress of manhood. Some of his friends were poets (including Ovid and Bassus), and he had no interest in politics, the law, or army life. His first love affair was with an older woman, Lycinna, but this was only a passing fancy when set beside his subsequent serious attachment to the famous “Cynthia” of his poems.

The first of Propertius’ four books of elegies (the second of which is divided by some editors into two) was published in 29 bc, the year in which he first met “Cynthia,” its heroine. It was known as the Cynthia and also as the Monobiblos because it was for a long time afterward sold separately from his other three books. Complete editions of all four books were also available. Cynthia seems to have had an immediate success, for the influential literary patron Maecenas invited Propertius to his house, where he doubtless met the other prominent literary figures who formed Maecenas’ circle. These included the poets Virgil (whom Propertius admired) and Horace (whom he never mentions). The influence of both, especially that of Horace in Book III, is manifest in his work.

Cynthia’s real name, according to the 2nd-century writer Apuleius, was Hostia. It is often said that she was a courtesan, but elegy 16 in Book I seems to suggest that she belonged to a distinguished family. It is likely that she was married, though Propertius only mentions her other lovers, never her husband. From the poems she emerges as beautiful, passionate, and uninhibited. She was intensely jealous of Propertius’ own infidelities and is painted as a woman terrible in her fury, irresistible in her gentler moods. Propertius makes it clear that, even when seeking pleasures apart from his mistress, he still loved her deeply, returning to her full of remorse, and happy when she reasserted her dominion over him.

After many violent scenes, it appears that Propertius finally broke off his tempestuous affair with her in 24 bc, though inferring dates from the poems’ internal evidence cannot be undertaken with real confidence, as this kind of personal poetry often interweaves fact with fancy. He was to look back on his liaison with her as a period of disgrace and humiliation. This may be more than a mere literary pose, although after Cynthia’s death (she does not seem to have lived for long after their break) he regretted the brusqueness of their separation and was ashamed that he had not even attended her funeral. In a most beautiful and moving elegy (IV:7), he conjures up her ghost and with it re-creates the whole glamour and shabbiness of the affair. While he makes no attempt to brush over the disagreeable side of her nature, he also makes it clear that he loves her beyond the grave.

Propertius’ poetic powers matured with experience. The poetry of Book II is far more ambitious in scope than that of Book I and shows a richer orchestration. His reputation grew, and the emperor Augustus himself seems to have taken notice of him, for, in Books III and IV, the poet laments the premature death of Marcellus, Augustus’ nephew and heir apparent (III:18), and he composed a magnificent funeral elegy (IV:11) in praise of Cornelia, Augustus’ stepdaughter—the “Queen of Elegies” as it is sometimes called.

As his poetic powers developed, so also did Propertius’ character and interests. In his earliest elegies, love is not only his main theme but is almost his religion and philosophy. It is still the principal theme of Book II, but he now seems a little embarrassed by the popular success of Book I and is anxious not to be thought of simply as a gifted scoundrel who is constantly in love and can write of nothing else. In Book II he considers writing an epic, is preoccupied with the thought of death, and attacks (in the manner of later satirists, such as Juvenal) the coarse materialism of his time. He still loves to go to parties and feels perfectly at ease in the big city with its crowded streets, its temples, theatres, and porticoes, and its disreputable quarters. In a way, he is a conservative snob, in general sympathy with Roman imperialism and Augustan rule; but he is open to the beauties of nature and is genuinely interested in works of art. Though he disapproves of ostentatious luxury, he also appreciates contemporary fashions.

Some of his contemporaries accused him of leading a life of idleness and complained that he contributed nothing to society. But Propertius felt it his duty to support the right of the artist to lead his own life, and he demanded that poetry, and art in general, should not be regarded simply as a civilized way of passing the time. In elegy 3 of Book III he gives deep meaning to the process of artistic creation and emphasizes the importance of the creative artist.

In Books III and IV Propertius demonstrates his command over various literary forms, including the diatribe and the hymn. Many of his poems show the influence of such Alexandrian poets as Callimachus and Philetas. Propertius acknowledges this debt, and his claim to be the “Roman Callimachus,” treating Italian themes in the baroque Alexandrian manner, is perhaps best shown in a series of elegies in Book IV that deal with aspects of Roman mythology and history and were to inspire Ovid to write his Fasti, a calendar of the Roman religious year. These poems are a compromise between the elegy and the epic. Book IV also contains some grotesque, realistic pieces, two unusual funeral elegies, and a poetic letter.

Two of the lasting merits of Propertius seem to have impressed the ancients themselves. The first they called blanditia, a vague but expressive word by which they meant softness of outline, warmth of colouring, a fine and almost voluptuous feeling for beauty of every kind, and a pleading and melancholy tenderness; this is most obvious in his descriptive passages and in his portrayal of emotion. His second and even more remarkable quality is poetic facundia, or command of striking and appropriate language. Not only is his vocabulary extensive but his employment of it is extraordinarily bold and unconventional: poetic and colloquial Latinity alternate abruptly, and in his quest for the striking expression he frequently seems to strain the language to the breaking point.

Propertius’ handling of the elegiac couplet, and particularly of the pentameter, deserves especial recognition. It is vigorous, varied, and picturesque. In the matter of the rhythms, caesuras, and elisions that it allows, the metrical treatment is more severe than that of Catullus but noticeably freer than that of Ovid, to whose stricter usage, however, Propertius increasingly tended (particularly in his preference for a disyllabic word at the end of the pentameter). An elaborate symmetry is observable in the construction of many of his elegies, and this has tempted critics to divide a number of them into strophes.

As Propertius had borrowed from his predecessors, so his successors, Ovid above all, borrowed from him; and graffiti on the walls of Pompeii attest his popularity in the 1st century ad. In the European Middle Ages he was virtually forgotten, and since the Renaissance he has been studied by professional scholars more than he has been enjoyed by the general public. To the modern reader acquainted with the psychological discoveries of the 20th century, the self-revelations of his passionate, fitful, brooding spirit are of peculiar interest.

Almost nothing is known about Propertius’ life after his love affair with Cynthia was over. It is possible that he married her successor in his affections (perhaps in order to qualify for the financial benefits offered to married men by the leges Juliae of 18 bc) and had a child, for an inscription in Assisi and two passages in the letters of the younger Pliny (ad 61/62–c. 113) indicate that Propertius had a descendant called Gaius Passennus Paulus Propertius, who was also a poet. During his later years he lived in an elegant residential area in Rome on the Esquiline Hill. The date of his death is not certain, though he was still alive in 16 bc, for two events of that year are mentioned in his fourth book, which was perhaps edited posthumously.

Georg Hans Luck




The great historians of republican Rome were Sallust (86-35 B.C.), who made a fortune as a provincial governor under Julius Caesar, retiring to become a historian in the tradition of
Thucydides, and Livy (59 B.C.-A.D. 17). Livy came from north Italy and, unusually, seems never to have held political office. In spite of favouring the Republic, he found favour with Augustus and began publishing his great history of Rome (142 books, of which many are lost) in about 25 B.C. Though not always totally reliable, and heavily biased by his patriotic sympathies, Livy presents the finest account of ancient Rome from mythological times. Livy was highly regarded by Tacitus, the great historian of the Silver Age. Tacitus (died c. 116), son-in-law of the famous Roman governor of Britain, Agricola, had the benefit of wider political and military experience, and was a famous orator. What survives of his work demonstrates extraordinary perception of character and motivation, and a crisp, vivid style. He was deeply affected by the brutal rule of Domitian (reigned A.D. 81—96) and became strongly anti-imperialist, imparting a hostile bias to his account of imperial government.


Latin literature

the body of writings in Latin, primarily produced during the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, when Latin was a spoken language. When Rome fell, Latin remained the literary language of the Western medieval world until it was superseded by the Romance languages it had generated and by other modern languages. After the Renaissance the writing of Latin was increasingly confined to the narrow limits of certain ecclesiastical and academic publications. This article focuses primarily on ancient Latin literature. It does, however, provide a broad overview of the literary works produced in Latin by European writers during the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

Ancient Latin literature

Literature in Latin began as translation from the Greek, a fact that conditioned its development. Latin authors used earlier writers as sources of stock themes and motifs, at their best using their relationship to tradition to produce a new species of originality. They were more distinguished as verbal artists than as thinkers; the finest of them have a superb command of concrete detail and vivid illustration. Their noblest ideal was humanitas, a blend of culture and kindliness, approximating the quality of being “civilized.”

Little need be said of the preliterary period. Hellenistic influence came from the south, Etrusco-Hellenic from the north. Improvised farce, with stock characters in masks, may have been a native invention from the Campania region (the countryside of modern Naples). The historian Livy traced quasi-dramatic satura (medley) to the Etruscans. The statesman-writer Cato and the scholar Varro said that in former times the praises of heroes were sung after feasts, sometimes to the accompaniment of the flute, which was perhaps an Etruscan custom. If they existed, these carmina convivalia, or festal songs, would be behind some of the legends that came down to Livy. There were also the rude verses improvised at harvest festivals and weddings and liturgical formulas, whose scanty remains show alliteration and assonance. The nearest approach to literature must have been in public and private records and in recorded speeches.


Stylistic periods

Ancient Latin literature may be divided into four periods:

1.Early writers, to 70 bc

2.Golden Age, 70 bc–ad 18

3.Silver Age, ad 18–133

4 Later writers

Early writers

The ground for Roman literature was prepared by an influx from the early 3rd century bc onward of Greek slaves, some of whom were put to tutoring young Roman nobles. Among them was Livius Andronicus, who was later freed and who is considered to be the first Latin writer. In 240 bc, to celebrate Rome’s victory over Carthage, he composed a genuine drama adapted from the Greek. His success established a tradition of performing such plays alongside the cruder native entertainments. He also made a translation of the Odyssey. For his plays Livius adapted the Greek metres to suit the Latin tongue; but for his Odyssey he retained a traditional Italian measure, as did Gnaeus Naevius for his epic on the First Punic War against Carthage. Scholars are uncertain as to how much this metre depended on quantity or stress. A half-Greek Calabrian called Quintus Ennius adopted and Latinized the Greek hexameter for his epic Annales, thus further acquainting Rome with the Hellenistic world. Unfortunately his work survives only in fragments.

The Greek character thus imposed on literature made it more a preserve of the educated elite. In Rome, coteries emerged such as that formed around the Roman consul and general Scipio Aemilianus. This circle included the statesman-orator Gaius Laelius, the Greek Stoic philosopher Panaetius, the Greek historian Polybius, the satirist Lucilius, and an African-born slave of genius, the comic playwright Terence. Soon after Rome absorbed Greece as a Roman province, Greek became a second language to educated Romans. Early in the 1st century bc, however, Latin declamation established itself, and, borrowing from Greek, it attained polish and artistry.

Plautus, the leading poet of comedy, is one of the chief sources for colloquial Latin. Ennius sought to heighten epic and tragic diction, and from his time onward, with a few exceptions, literary language became ever more divorced from that of the people, until the 2nd century ad.


Livius Andronicus


born c. 284 bc, Tarentum, Magna Graecia [now Taranto, Italy]
died c. 204 bc, Rome?

founder of Roman epic poetry and drama.

He was a Greek slave, freed by a member of the Livian family; he may have been captured as a boy when Tarentum surrendered to Rome in 272 bc. A freedman, he earned his living teaching Latin and Greek in Rome.

His main work, the Odyssia, a translation of Homer’s Odyssey, was possibly done for use as a schoolbook. Written in rude Italian Saturnian metre, it had little poetic merit, to judge from the less than 50 surviving lines and from the comments of Cicero (Brutus) and Horace (Epistles); according to Horace, 1st-century-bc schoolboys studied the work. It was, however, the first major poem in Latin, the first example of artistic translation, and the subject matter happily chosen for introducing Roman youth to the Greek world. Livius was the first literary figure to give Odysseus his Latin name, Ulysses (or Ulixes).

In 240, as part of the Ludi Romani (the annual games honouring Jupiter), Livius produced a translation of a Greek play, probably a tragedy, and perhaps also a comedy. After this, the first dramatic performance ever given in Rome, he continued to write, stage, and sometimes perform in both tragedies and comedies, after 235 in rivalry with Gnaeus Naevius. Only one fragment is known from each of his three remaining comedies; fewer than 40 lines of the 10 tragedies have survived. Their titles show that he translated mainly the three great tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

In 207, to ward off menacing omens, he was commissioned to compose an intercessory hymn to be sung, in procession, to Aventine Juno. As a reward for the success of this intervention, a guild of poets and actors, of which he became president, was granted permission to hold religious services in the temple of Minerva on the Aventine.


Gnaeus Naevius


born c. 270 bc, Capua, Campania [Italy]
died c. 200 bc, Utica [now in Tunisia]

second of a triad of early Latin epic poets and dramatists, between Livius Andronicus and Ennius. He was the originator of historical plays (fabulae praetextae) that were based on Roman historical or legendary figures and events. The titles of two praetextae are known, Romulus and Clastidium, the latter celebrating the victory of Marcus Claudius Marcellus in 222 and probably produced at his funeral games in 208.

During 30 years of competition with Livius, Naevius produced half a dozen tragedies and more than 30 comedies, many of which are known only by their titles. Some were translated from Greek plays, and, in adapting them, he created the Latin fabula palliata (from pallium, a type of Greek cloak), perhaps being the first to introduce song and recitative, transferring elements from one play into another, and adding variety to the metre. He incorporated his own critical remarks on Roman daily life and politics, the latter leading to his imprisonment and perhaps exile. Many of the comedies used the stereotypes of character and plot and the apt and colourful language that would later be characteristic of Plautus. Tarentilla, one of his most famous plays, clearly foreshadows the Plautine formula with its vivid portrayal of Roman lowlife, intrigue, and love relationships.

Naevius chronicled the events of the First Punic War (264–261) in his Bellum Poenicum, relying for facts upon his own experience in the war and on oral tradition at Rome. The scope of the tale and the forceful diction qualify it as an epic, showing a marked advance in originality beyond the Odusia of Livius and making it a probable influence upon the Annales of Ennius and on Virgil’s Aeneid.

Golden Age

70 bc–ad 18

The Golden Age of Latin literature spanned the last years of the republic and the virtual establishment of the Roman Empire under the reign of Augustus (27 bc–ad 14). The first part of this period, from 70 to 42 bc, is justly called the Ciceronian. It produced writers of distinction, most of them also men of action, among whom Julius Caesar stands out. The most prolific was Varro, “most learned of the Romans,” but it was Cicero, a statesman, orator, poet, critic, and philosopher, who developed the Latin language to express abstract and complicated thought with clarity. Subsequently, prose style was either a reaction against, or a return to, Cicero’s. As a poet, although uninspired, he was technically skillful. He edited the De rerum natura of the philosophical poet Lucretius. Like Lucretius, he admired Ennius and the old Roman poetry and, though apparently interested in Hellenistic work, spoke ironically of its extreme champions, the neōteroi (“newer poets”).

After the destruction of Carthage and Corinth in 146 bc, prosperity and external security had allowed the cultivation of a literature of self-expression and entertainment. In this climate flourished the neōteroi, largely non-Roman Italians from the north, who introduced the mentality of “art for art’s sake.” None is known at first hand except Catullus, who was from Verona. These poets reacted against the grandiose—the Ennian tradition of “gravity”—and their complicated allusive poetry consciously emulated the Callimacheans of 3rd-century Alexandria. The Neoteric influence persisted into the next generation through Cornelius Gallus to Virgil.

Virgil, born near Mantua and schooled at Cremona and Milan, chose Theocritus as his first model. The self-consciously beautiful cadences of the Eclogues depict shepherds living in a landscape half real, half fantastic; these allusive poems hover between the actual and the artificial. They are shot through with topical allusions, and in the fourth he already appears as a national prophet. Virgil was drawn into the circle being formed by Maecenas, Augustus’ chief minister. In 38 bc he and Varius introduced the young poet Horace to Maecenas; and by the final victory of Augustus in 30 bc, the circle was consolidated.





The poet Virgil (70-19 B.C.) was overall the most widely read - by generations of schoolboys not always willingly - poet in the Western world up to the 19th century. He was of Celtic origin, a farmer's son and himself owner of a farm in Mantua, where he wrote most of the pastoral Eclogues, which established his popularity, and the Georgics, influenced by Hesiod and certain-v the finest poem on farming ever written. Reclusive and inclined to self-doubt, Virgil spent the last decade of his life writing the
Aeneid, the work on which his reputation as "the Latin Homer" rests.

The subject of this epic is the greatness of Rome, and
Virgil can be regarded as the first "national" poet. Aeneas was a Trojan prince, whom legend recorded as the founder of Rome, and the theme recalls both the Odyssey and the Iliad. The first six books recount the hero's search for a home, while the last six deal with war and reconciliation between Trojans and Latins. For some readers, Virgil's imagery, especially in the Georgics, is supreme, while the music of his elegant hexameters is universally admired: "the stateliest measure", said Tennyson, "ever moulded by the lips of man".

Virgil died with the Aeneid unfinished. His express wish that it be destroyed was fortunately vetoed by the Emperor Augustus.


  "Arms, and the man I sing, who, forc'd by fate,
  And haughty Juno's unrelenting hate,
  Expell'd and exil'd, left the Trojan shore.
  Long labors, both by sea and land, he bore,
  And in the doubtful war, before he won
  The Latian realm, and built the destin'd town;
  His banish'd gods restor'd to rites divine,
  And settled sure succession in his line,
  From whence the race of Alban fathers come,
  And the long glories of majestic Rome.
  O Muse! the causes and the crimes relate;
  What goddess was provok'd, and whence her hate;
  For what offense the Queen of Heav'n began
  To persecute so brave, so just a man;
  Involv'd his anxious life in endless cares,
  Expos'd to wants, and hurried into wars!
  Can heav'nly minds such high resentment show,
  Or exercise their spite in human woe?"


With the reign of Augustus began the second phase of the Golden Age, known as the Augustan Age. It gave encouragement to the classical notion that a writer should not so much try to say new things as to say old things better. The rhetorical figures of thought and speech were mastered until they became instinctive. Alliteration and onomatopoeia (accommodation of sound and rhythm to sense), previously overdone by the Ennians and therefore eschewed by the neōteroi, were now used effectively with due discretion. Perfection of form characterizes the odes of Horace; elegy, too, became more polished.

The decade of the first impetus of Augustanism, 29–19 bc, saw the publication of
Virgil’s Georgics and the composition of the whole Aeneid by his death in 19 bc; Horace’s Odes, books I–III, and Epistles, book I; in elegy, books I–III of Propertius (also of Maecenas’ circle) and books I–II of Tibullus, with others from the circle of Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus, and doubtless the first recitations by a still younger member of his circle, Ovid. About 28 or 27 bc Livy began his monumental history.

Maecenas’ circle was not a propaganda bureau; his talent for tactful pressure guided his poets toward praise of Augustus and the regime without excessively cramping their freedom. Propertius, when admitted to the circle, was simply a youth with an anti-Caesarian background who had gained favour with passionate love elegies. He and
Horace quarreled, and after Virgil’s death the group broke up. Would-be poets now abounded, such as Horace’s protégés, who occur in the Epistles; Ovid’s friends, whom he remembers wistfully in exile; and Manilius, whom no one mentions at all. Poems were recited in literary circles and in public, hence the importance attached to euphony, smoothness, and artistic structure. They thus became known piecemeal and might be improved by friendly suggestions. When finally they were assembled in books, great care was taken over arrangement, which was artistic or significant (but not chronological).

Meanwhile, in prose the Ciceronian climax had been followed by a reaction led by Sallust. In 43 bc he began to publish a series of historical works in a terse, epigrammatic style studded with archaisms and avoiding the copiousness of Cicero. Later, eloquence, deprived of political influence, migrated from the forum to the schools, where cleverness and point counted rather than rolling periods. Thus developed the epigrammatic style of the younger Seneca and, ultimately, of Tacitus. Spreading to verse, it conditioned the witty couplets of Ovid, the tragedies of Seneca, and the satire of Juvenal "Satires" . Though Livy stood out, Ciceronianism only found a real champion again in the rhetorician Quintilian.



"Metamorphoses"  illustrations by Francois Chauveau and Noel Le Mire)

"The Art of Love" illustrations by Salvador Dali


  "Metamorphoses"  contents:
1 The Creation of the World
2 The Story of Phaeton
3 The Story of of Cadmus
4 The Story of Alcithoe and her Sisters
5 The Story of Perseus continu'd
6 The Transformation of Arachne into a Spider
7 The Story of Medea and Jason
8 The Story of Nisus and Scylla
9 The Story of Achelous and Hercules
10 The Story of Orpheus and Eurydice
11 The Death of Orpheus
12 The Trojan War
13 The Speeches of Ajax and Ulysses

The most felicitous of poets, Ovid (43 B.C.—A.D. 17) was a sophisticated social creature, the toast of fashionable Rome until, after antagonizing Augustus (partly by his manual of courtship and sex The Art of Love), he was banished to the Black Sea and died in exile. Of his surviving works, the best known is Metamorphoses, brilliant reworkings of the old myths in a more sceptical era, in which love, Ovid's greatest subject, is seen as the great agent of change. It was extremely popular in the Middle Ages and, it is said, was read more than any other book except the Bible.


Ovid "Metamorphoses"
illustrations by Francois Chauveau and Noel Le Mire



Why, I ask, does the bed seem so hard? I keep throwing off the bedclothes, and I'm sleepless through nights that seem interminable. I toss and turn till my tired bones ache. I might feel this way if I were being tried by Love. Has the clever god slipped in and made a secret attack on me?

Aye, so it is! Love's slender shafts feather my heart, and he twists my emotions in a savage gyre. Shall I surrender, or shall I fan the unexpected fire brighter by struggling against it? Ah, I'll surrender; for a burden feels lighter if borne willingly.

"I've seen flames leap higher as a torch is whipped through the air, and I've seen them die when no one stirs them. Oxen who've learned to like the plow aren't beaten like the animals who jerk away from the first touch of the yoke. The skittish horse is broken with a toothed bit, but the veteran warhorse doesn't feel the reins.

Love goads the unwilling more sharply and viciously than it does those who admit they are enslaved. All right, then--I admit I'm your latest conquest, Cupid. I raise my conquered hands to accept your will. There's no point in fighting: I only ask your mercy and your peace. You would gain little honor from destroying an unarmed victim like me.

Bind myrtle in your hair, yoke the doves of your mother Venus, and borrow a chariot from your stepfather Mars. Let the yoked birds draw you in that chariot past the crowd cheering your triumph. Captive youths and maids will follow you; such will be the pomp of your splendid triumph. Because I am newly captured, I still show my wounds and bear the marks of recent fetters on my mind.

You drag along Good Sense with her hands tied behind her back, and with her goes Shame and anyone else who dares oppose the forces of Love. All peoples fear you; the mob raises its hands to you and cries, "Hail, Thou Triumphant!" to you. "

Ovid  Amores
(translated by D. Drake)



born 59/64 bc, Patavium, Venetia, Italy
died ad 17, Patavium

with Sallust and Tacitus, one of the three great Roman historians. His history of Rome became a classic in his own lifetime and exercised a profound influence on the style and philosophy of historical writing down to the 18th century.

Early life and career
Little is known about Livy’s life and nothing about his family background. Patavium, a rich city, famous for its strict morals, suffered severely in the Civil Wars of the 40s. The wars and the unsettled condition of the Roman world after the death of Caesar in 44 bc probably prevented Livy from studying in Greece, as most educated Romans did. Although widely read in Greek literature, he made mistakes of translation that would be unnatural if he had spent any length of time in Greece and had acquired the command of Greek normal among his contemporaries. His education was based on the study of rhetoric and philosophy, and he wrote some philosophical dialogues that do not survive. There is no evidence about early career. His family apparently did not belong to the senatorial class, however distinguished it may have been in Patavium itself, and Livy does not seem to have embarked on a political or forensic profession. He is first heard of in Rome after Octavian (later known as the emperor Augustus) had restored stability and peace to the empire by his decisive naval victory at Actium in 31 bc. Internal evidence from the work itself shows that Livy had conceived the plan of writing the history of Rome in or shortly before 29 bc, and for this purpose he must have already moved to Rome, because only there were the records and information available. It is significant that another historian, the Greek Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who was to cover much the same ground as Livy, settled in Rome in 30 bc. A more secure age had dawned.

Most of his life must have been spent at Rome, and at an early stage he attracted the interest of Augustus and was even invited to supervise the literary activities of the young Claudius (the future emperor), presumably about ad 8. But he never became closely involved with the literary world of Rome—the poets Horace, Virgil, and Ovid, as well as the patron of the arts, Maecenas, and others. He is never referred to in connection with these men. He must have possessed sufficient private means not to be dependent on official patronage. Indeed, in one of the few recorded anecdotes about him, Augustus called him a “Pompeian,” implying an outspoken and independent turn of mind. His lifework was the composition of his history.

Livy’s history of Rome
Livy began by composing and publishing in units of five books, the length of which was determined by the size of the ancient papyrus roll. As his material became more complex, however, he abandoned this symmetrical pattern and wrote 142 books. So far as it can be reconstructed, the shape of the history is as follows (books 11–20 and 46–142 have been lost):

1–5 From the foundation of the city until the sack of Rome by the Gauls (386 bc)
6–10 The Samnite wars
11–15 The conquest of Italy
16–20 The First Punic (Carthaginian) War
21–30 The Second Punic War (until 201 bc)
31–45 Events until the end of the war with Perseus (167 bc)
46–70 Events until the Social War (91 bc)
71–80 Civil wars until the death of Marius (86bc)
81–90 Civil wars until the death of Sulla (78 bc)
91–103 Events until the triumph of Pompey in 62 bc
104–108 The last years of the Republic
109–116 The Civil War until the murder of Caesar (44 bc)
117–133 From the death of Caesar to the Battle of Actium
134–142 From 29 to 9 bc

Apart from fragments, quoted by grammarians and others, and a short section dealing with the death of the orator and politician Cicero from Book 120, the later books after Book 45 are known only from summaries. These were made from the 1st century ad onward, because the size of the complete work made it unmanageable. There were anthologies of the speeches and also concise summaries, two of which survive in part, a 3rd-century papyrus from Egypt (containing summaries of Books 37–40 and 48–55) and a 4th-century summary of contents (known as the Periochae) of the whole work. A note in the Periochae of Book 121 records that that book (and presumably those that followed) was published after Augustus’ death in ad 14. The implication is that the last 20 books dealing with the events from the Battle of Actium until 9 bc were an afterthought to the original plan and were also too politically explosive to be published with impunity in Augustus’ lifetime.

The sheer scope of the undertaking was formidable. It presupposed the composition of three books a year on average. Two stories reflect the magnitude of the task. In his letters the statesman Pliny the Younger records that Livy was tempted to abandon the enterprise but found that the task had become too fascinating to give it up; he also mentions a citizen of Cádiz who came all the way to Rome for the sole satisfaction of gazing at the great historian.

Livy’s historical approach
The project of writing the history of Rome down to the present day was not a new one. Historical research and writing had flourished at Rome for 200 years, since the first Roman historian Quintus Fabius Pictor. There had been two main inspirations behind it—antiquarian interest and political motivation. Particularly after 100 bc, there developed a widespread interest in ancient ceremonies, family genealogies, religious customs, and the like. This interest found expression in a number of scholarly works: Titus Pomponius Atticus, Cicero’s friend and correspondent, wrote on chronology and on Trojan families; others compiled lengthy volumes on Etruscan religion; Marcus Terentius Varro, the greatest scholar of his age, published the encyclopaedic work Divine and Human Antiquities. The standard of scholarship was not always high, and there could be political pressures, as in the attempt to derive the Julian family to which Julius Caesar belonged from the legendary Aeneas and the Trojans; but the Romans were very conscious and proud of their past, and an enthusiasm for antiquities was widespread.

Previous historians had been public figures and men of affairs. Fabius Pictor had been a praetor, the elder Cato had been consul and censor, and Sallust was a praetor. So, too, many prominent statesmen such as Sulla and Caesar occupied their leisure with writing history. For some it was an exercise in political self-justification (hence, Caesar’s Gallic War and Civil War); for others it was a civilized pastime. But all shared a common outlook and background. History was a political study through which one might hope to explain or excuse the present.

Livy was unique among Roman historians in that he played no part in politics. This was a disadvantage in that his exclusion from the Senate and the magistracies meant that he had no personal experience of how the Roman government worked, and this ignorance shows itself from time to time in his work. It also deprived him of firsthand access to much material (minutes of Senate meetings, texts of treaties, laws, etc.) that was preserved in official quarters. So, too, if he had been a priest or an augur, he would have acquired inside information of great historical value and been able to consult the copious documents and records of the priestly colleges. But the chief effect is that Livy did not seek historical explanations in political terms. The novelty and impact of his history lay in the fact that he saw history in personal and moral terms. The purpose is clearly set out in his preface:

I invite the reader’s attention to the much more serious consideration of the kind of lives our ancestors lived, of who were the men and what the means, both in politics and war, by which Rome’s power was first acquired and subsequently expanded, I would then have him trace the process of our moral decline, to watch first the sinking of the foundations of morality as the old teaching was allowed to lapse, then the final collapse of the whole edifice, and the dark dawning of our modern day when we can neither endure our vices nor face the remedies needed to cure them.

What chiefly makes the study of history wholesome and profitable is this, that in history you have a record of the infinite variety of human experience plainly set out for all to see, and in that record you can find for yourself and your country both examples and warnings.

Although Sallust and earlier historians had also adopted the outlook that morality was in steady decline and had argued that people do the sort of things they do because they are the sort of people they are, for Livy these beliefs were a matter of passionate concern. He saw history in terms of human personalities and representative individuals rather than of partisan politics. And his own experience, going back perhaps to his youth in Patavium, made him feel the moral evils of his time with peculiar intensity. He punctuates his history with revealing comments:

Fortunately in those days authority, both religious and secular, was still a guide to conduct and there was as yet no sign of our modern scepticism which interprets solemn compacts to suit its own convenience (3.20.5). Where would you find nowadays in a single individual that modesty, fairness and nobility of mind which in those days belonged to a whole people? (4.6.12).

In looking at history from a moral standpoint, Livy was at one with other thinking Romans of his day. Augustus attempted by legislation and propaganda to inculcate moral ideals. Horace and Virgil in their poetry stressed the same message—that it was moral qualities that had made and could keep Rome great.

The preoccupation with character and the desire to write history that would reveal the effects of character outweighed for Livy the need for scholarly accuracy. He showed little if any awareness of the antiquarian research of his own and earlier generations; nor did he seriously compare and criticize the different histories and their discrepancies that were available to him. For the most part he is content to take an earlier version (from Polybius or a similar author) and to reshape it so as to construct moral episodes that bring out the character of the leading figures. Livy’s descriptions of the capture of Veii and the expulsion of the Gauls from Rome in the 4th century bc by Marcus Furius Camillus are designed to illustrate his piety; the crossing of the Alps shows up the resourceful intrepidity of Hannibal. Unfortunately, it is not known how Livy dealt with the much greater complexity of contemporary history, but the account of Cicero’s death contains the same emphasis on character displayed by surviving books.

It would be misplaced criticism to draw attention to his technical shortcomings, his credulity, or his lack of antiquarian curiosity. He reshaped history for his generation so that it was alive and meaningful. It is recorded that the audiences who went to his recitations were impressed by his nobility of character and his eloquence. It is this eloquence that is Livy’s second claim to distinction.

Together with Cicero and Tacitus, Livy set new standards of literary style. The earliest Roman historians had written in Greek, the language of culture. Their successors had felt that their own history should be written in Latin, but Latin possessed no ready-made style that could be used for the purpose: for Latin prose had to develop artificial styles to suit the different genres. Sallust had attempted to reproduce the Greek style of Thucydides in Latin by a tortured use of syntax and a vocabulary incorporating a number of archaic and unusual words, but the result, although effective, was harsh and unsuitable for a work of any size. Livy evolved a varied and flexible style that the ancient critic Quintilian characterized as a “milky richness.” At one moment he will set the scene in long, periodic clauses; at another a few terse, abrupt sentences will mirror the rapidity of the action. Bare notices of archival fact will be reported in correspondingly dry and formal language, whereas a battle will evoke poetical and dramatic vocabulary, and a speech will be constructed either in the spirit of a contemporary orator such as Cicero or in dramatically realistic tones, designed to recapture the atmosphere of antiquity. “When I write of ancient deeds my mind somehow becomes antique,” he wrote.

The work of a candid man and an individualistic thinker, Livy’s history was deeply rooted in the Augustan revival and owed its success in large measure to its moral seriousness. But the detached attempt to understand the course of history through character (which was to influence later historians from Tacitus to Lord Clarendon) represents Livy’s great achievement.

Robert Maxwell Ogilvie



Roman historian
in full Publius Cornelius Tacitus, or Gaius Cornelius Tacitus

born ad 56
died c. 120

Roman orator and public official, probably the greatest historian and one of the greatest prose stylists who wrote in the Latin language. Among his works are the Germania, describing the Germanic tribes, the Historiae (Histories), concerning the Roman Empire from ad 69 to 96, and the later Annals, dealing with the empire in the period from ad 14 to 68.

Early life and career
Tacitus was born perhaps in northern Italy (Cisalpine Gaul) or, more probably, in southern Gaul (Gallia Narbonensis, or present southeastern France). Nothing is known of his parentage. Though Cornelius was the name of a noble Roman family, there is no proof that he was descended from the Roman aristocracy; provincial families often took the name of the governor who had given them Roman citizenship. In any event he grew up in comfortable circumstances, enjoyed a good education, and found the way open to a public career.

Tacitus studied rhetoric, which provided a general literary education including the practice of prose composition. This training was a systematic preparation for administrative office. Tacitus studied to be an advocate at law under two leading orators, Marcus Aper and Julius Secundus; then he began his career with a “vigintivirate” (one of 20 appointments to minor magistracies) and a military tribunate (on the staff of a legion).

In 77 Tacitus married the daughter of Gnaeus Julius Agricola. Agricola had risen in the imperial service to the consulship, in 77 or 78, and he would later enhance his reputation as governor of Britain. Tacitus appears to have made his own mark socially and was making much progress toward public distinction; he would obviously benefit from Agricola’s political connections. Moving through the regular stages, he gained the quaestorship (often a responsible provincial post), probably in 81; then in 88 he attained a praetorship (a post with legal jurisdiction) and became a member of the priestly college that kept the Sibylline Books of prophecy and supervised foreign-cult practice. After this it may be assumed that he held a senior provincial post, normally in command of a legion, for four years.

When he returned to Rome, he observed firsthand the last years of the emperor Domitian’s oppression of the Roman aristocracy. By 93 Agricola was dead, but by this time Tacitus had achieved distinction on his own. In 97, under the emperor Nerva, he rose to the consulship and delivered the funeral oration for Verginius Rufus, a famous soldier who had refused to compete for power in 68/69 after Nero’s death. This distinction not only reflected his reputation as an orator but his moral authority and official dignity as well.

First literary works
In 98 Tacitus wrote two works: De vita Julii Agricolae and De origine et situ Germanorum (the Germania), both reflecting his personal interests. The Agricola is a biographical account of his father-in-law’s career, with special reference to the governorship of Britain (78–84) and the later years under Domitian. It is laudatory yet circumstantial in its description, and it gives a balanced political judgment. The Germania is another descriptive piece, this time of the Roman frontier on the Rhine. Tacitus emphasizes the simple virtue as well as the primitive vices of the Germanic tribes, in contrast to the moral laxity of contemporary Rome, and the threat that these tribes, if they acted together, could present to Roman Gaul. Here his writing goes beyond geography to political ethnography. The work gives an administrator’s appreciation of the German situation, and to this extent the work serves as a historical introduction to the Germans.

Tacitus still practiced advocacy at law—in 100 he, along with Pliny the Younger, successfully prosecuted Marius Priscus, a proconsul in Africa, for extortion—but he felt that oratory had lost much of its political spirit and its practitioners were deficient in skill. This decline of oratory seems to provide the setting for his Dialogus de oratoribus. The work refers back to his youth, introducing his teachers Aper and Secundus. It has been dated as early as about 80, chiefly because it is more Ciceronian in style than his other writing. But its style arises from its form and subject matter and does not point to an early stage of stylistic development. The date lies between 98 and 102; the theme fits this period. Tacitus compares oratory with poetry as a way of literary life, marking the decline of oratory in public affairs: the Roman Republic had given scope for true eloquence; the empire limited its inspiration. The work reflects his mood at the time he turned from oratory to history.

There were historians of imperial Rome before Tacitus, notably Aufidius Bassus, who recorded events from the rise of Augustus to the reign of Claudius, and Pliny the Elder, who continued this work (a fine Aufidii Bassi) to the time of Vespasian. In taking up history Tacitus joined the line of succession of those who described and interpreted their own period, and he took up the story from the political situation that followed Nero’s death to the close of the Flavian dynasty.

The Histories and the Annals
The Historiae began at January 1, 69, with Galba in power and proceeded to the death of Domitian, in 96. The work contained 12 or 14 books (it is known only that the Histories and Annals, both now incomplete, totaled 30 books). To judge from the younger Pliny’s references, several books were ready by 105, the writing well advanced by 107, and the work finished by 109. Only books i–iv and part of book v, for the years 69–70, are extant. They cover the fall of Galba and Piso before Otho (book i); Vespasian’s position in the East and Otho’s suicide, making way for Vitellius (book ii); the defeat of Vitellius by the Danubian legions on Vespasian’s side (book iii); and the opening of Vespasian’s reign (books iv–v).

This text represents a small part of what must have been a brilliant as well as systematic account of the critical Flavian period in Roman history, especially where Tacitus wrote with firsthand knowledge of provincial conditions in the West and of Domitian’s last years in Rome. The narrative as it now exists, with its magnificent introduction, is a powerfully sustained piece of writing that, for all the emphasis and colour of its prose, is perfectly appropriate for describing the closely knit set of events during the civil war of 69.

This was only the first stage of Tacitus’ historical work. As he approached the reign of Domitian, he faced a Roman policy that, except in provincial and frontier affairs, was less coherent and predictable. It called for sharper analysis, which he often met with bitterness, anger, and pointed irony. Domitian’s later despotism outraged the aristocratic tradition. It is not known, and it is the most serious gap, how Tacitus finally handled in detail Domitian’s reputation. Perhaps his picture of the emperor Tiberius in the Annals owed something to his exercise on Domitian.

It is necessary to keep the dating of Tacitus’ work in mind. He had won distinction under Nerva and enjoyed the effects of liberal policy; at the same time, he had lived through the crisis of imperial policy that occurred when Nerva and Trajan came to the succession. Under Trajan he retained his place in public affairs, and in 112–113 he crowned his administrative career with the proconsulate of Asia, the top provincial governorship. His personal career had revealed to him, at court and in administration, the play of power that lay behind the imperial facade of rule. He was especially familiar with the effect of dynastic control, which tended to corrupt the rulers, as it had in the period from Vespasian to Domitian, and to reduce the supporting nobles to servility, while only military revolt within Rome or from the frontier legions could change the situation—as it had done at the end of Nero’s reign.

From what can be reconstructed from his personal career along with the implications of his subsequent historical thought, it is possible to mark an intellectual turning point in his life after which he began to probe deeper into the nature of the Roman Empire. Although in the Agricola he had lightly promised to continue his writing from the Flavian years into the new regime, he now moved not forward but backward. He was no longer content to record the present but felt compelled to interpret the political burden of the past from the time when Tiberius consolidated Augustus’ policy of imperial government.

The Annals (Cornelii Tacti ab excessu divi Augusti), following the traditional form of yearly narrative with literary elaboration on the significant events, covered the period of the Julio-Claudian dynasty from the death of Augustus and the accession of Tiberius, in 14, to the end of Nero’s reign, in 68. The work contained 18 or 16 books and was probably begun during Trajan’s reign and completed early in Hadrian’s reign. Only books i–iv, part of book v, most of book vi (treating the years 14–29 and 31–37 under Tiberius), and books xi–xvi, incomplete (on Claudius from 47 to 51 and Nero from 51 to 66), are extant.

In casting back to the early empire Tacitus did not wish necessarily to supersede his predecessors in the field, whose systematic recording he seemed to respect, judging from the use he made of their subject matter. His prime purpose was to reinterpret critically the Julio-Claudian dynasty, when imperial rule developed a central control that, even after the complex military coup d’état in 68–69, would continue under the Flavians. In effect, the Annals represents a diagnosis in narrative form of the decline of Roman political freedom, written to explain the condition of the empire he had already described in the Histories. Tacitus viewed the first imperial century as an entity. There was (in his eyes) a comparison to be made, for example, between the personal conduct of Tiberius and that of Domitian, not that they were the same kind of men but that they were corrupted by similar conditions of dynastic power. Yet he did not begin with Augustus, except by cold reference to his memory. The modern world tends to think of Augustus as the founder of the empire. The Romans—one may cite Appian of Alexandria and Publius Annius Florus alongside Tacitus—regarded him, at least during the first part of his career, as the last of the warlords who had dominated the republic.

In opening the Annals, Tacitus accepts the necessity of strong, periodic power in Roman government, providing it allowed the rise of fresh talent to take over control. That was the aristocratic attitude toward political freedom, but to secure the continuity of personal authority by dynastic convention, regardless of the qualifications for rule, was to subvert the Roman tradition and corrupt public morality. If Augustus began as a warlord, he ended by establishing a dynasty, but the decisive point toward continuing a tyrannical dynasty was Tiberius’ accession.

One may, indeed, believe that Tiberius was prompted to assume imperial power because he was anxious about the military situation on the Roman frontier; but Tacitus had no doubts about the security of the Roman position, and he considered the hesitation that Tiberius displayed on taking power to be hypocritical; hence, the historical irony, in interpretation and style, of his first six books. Here, perhaps, Tacitus had some support for his interpretation. A strong, dour soldier and a suspicious man, Tiberius had little to say in his court circle about public affairs. On his death he was blamed for never saying what he thought nor meaning what he said, and Tacitus elaborated this impression. His criticism of dynastic power also stressed the effect of personality: if Tiberius was false, Claudius was weak, Nero was not only unstable but evil, and the imperial wives were dangerous. With regard to provincial administration, he knew that he could take its regular character for granted, in the earlier period as well as his own.

For the period from Augustus to Vespasian, Tacitus was able to draw upon earlier histories that contained material from the public records, official reports, and contemporary comment. It has been noted that the work of Aufidius Bassus and its continuation by Pliny the Elder covered these years; both historians also treated the German wars. Among other sources Tacitus consulted Servilius Nonianus (on Tiberius), Cluvius Rufus and Fabius Rusticus (on Nero), and Vipstanus Messalla (on the year 69). He also turned, as far as he felt necessary, to the Senate’s records, the official journal, and such firsthand information as a speech of Claudius, the personal memoirs of Agrippina the Younger, and the military memoirs of the general Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo. For Vespasian’s later years and the reigns of Titus and Domitian, he must have worked more closely from official records and reports.

In the light of his administrative and political experience, Tacitus in the Histories was able to interpret the historical evidence for the Flavian period more or less directly. Yet contemporary writing may lack perspective. He recognized this problem when, in the Annals, he revived the study of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. But to go back a century raises additional problems of historical method. Tacitus first had to determine the factual reliability and political attitude of his authorities and then to adjust his own general conception of the empire, in case it was anachronistic, to the earlier conditions. The strength of his conviction limited his judgment at both points. He underplayed the effect of immediate circumstances and overplayed the personal factor, a tendency that influenced his use of the historical sources. In particular Tiberius, who in spite of his political ineptness struggled with real difficulties, suffered in reputation from this treatment. But Tacitus did not spare any man in power. He controls the performance of his characters; it is magnificent writing, but it is not necessarily strict history.

Style and importance
Because he was a conscious literary stylist, both his thought and his manner of expression gave life to his work. Greek historiography had defined ways of depicting history: one could analyze events in plain terms, set the scene with personalities, or heighten the dramatic appeal of human action. Each method had its technique, and the greater writer could combine elements from all three. The Roman “annalistic” form, after years of development, allowed this varied play of style in significant episodes. Tacitus knew the techniques and controlled them for his political interpretations; as a model he had studied the early Roman historiographer Sallust.

It is finally his masterly handling of literary Latin that impresses the reader. He wrote in the grand style, helped by the solemn and poetic usage of the Roman tradition, and he exploited the Latin qualities of strength, rhythm, and colour. His style, like his thought, avoids artificial smoothness. His writing is concise, breaking any easy balance of sentences, depending for emphasis on word order and syntactical variation and striking hard where the subject matter calls for a formidable impact. He is most pointed on the theme of Tiberius, but his technique here is only a concentrated form of the stylistic force that can be found throughout his narrative.

Tacitus’ work did not provide an easy source for summaries of early imperial history, nor (one may guess) was his political attitude popular in the ruling circles; but he was read and his text copied until in the 4th century Ammianus Marcellinus continued his work and followed his style. In modern scholarship Tacitus’ writings are studied seriously—with critical reservation—to reconstruct the early history of the Roman Empire. On the literary side they are appreciated as stylistic masterpieces.

Alexander Hugh McDonald



Discuss Art

Please note: site admin does not answer any questions. This is our readers discussion only.

| privacy