Rome had a vibrant and accomplished literary culture, born from the established traditions of Ancient Greece. Livius Andronicus, a Greek prisoner of war, translated the first play into Latin in 230 BC and soon Roman authors were creating their own dramas, histories and epic poetry.
Here are five classics of Roman Literature.
1. The anthology of Catullus
Gaius Valerius Catullus (84 – 54 BC) was an aristocrat who moved in powerful circles, dining with Julius Caesar even after he’d mocked the great leader in verse.
His abiding love for a woman he called Lesbia (probably Clodia Metelli, a powerful woman herself) inspired much of his poetry, which survived in a single manuscript of 116 verses.
Catullus was important as he discarded epic themes and wrote deeply personal poetry. He wrote to his friends and his lovers, attacked his enemies (and his lovers’ lovers) in often obscene language.
His poems on death, including that of his brother, are deeply moving.
“Let us live and love, nor give a damn what sour old men say. The sun that sets may rise again, but when our light has sunk into the earth it is gone forever.”
2. Ovid’s Metamorphoses
Ovid (43 BC – 18 AD) was an aristocrat, holding minor public offices before devoting most of his time to writing poetry. In 8 AD, the Emperor Augustus sidestepped all established legal authority to personally banish Ovid, apparently over a poem.
The Metamorphoses is a massive collection of nearly 12,000 verses in 15 books telling 250 myths that claim to tell the history of world from creation to Julius Caesar’s death.
Using Greek sources, Ovid wrote the Metamorphoses in the same meter as the Iliad and Odyssey, taking transformation – literal and metaphorical – and the power of love as his theme. Many of the ancient myths children learn today have been transmitted via Ovid. The poems are packed with proverbial wisdom and life lessons.
Shakespeare, Chaucer and Dante all referred to the Metamorphoses and it was one of the first books William Caxton produced on his pioneering 15th century printing press.
“I am dragged along by a strange new force. Desire and reason are pulling in different directions. I see the right way and approve it, but follow the wrong.”
3 – Horace’s Odes
Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65 – 8 BC), is still admired for his technical skill and wisdom. His father was a freed slave, and Horace was educated for the bureaucracy, but served as a soldier, before buying a civil service role.
His satires are personal and approachable, and were the works that brought him to literary fame, praising a simple life of moderation in a much gentler tone than other Roman writers.
Horace’s odes were written in imitation of Greek writers like Sappho. Published in two collections in 23 BC and 13 BC, the odes tackle friendship, love, alcohol, Roman politics and poetry itself.
We owe to Horace the phrases, “carpe diem” or “seize the day” and the “golden mean” for his beloved moderation. Victorian poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, of Ancient Mariner fame, praised the odes in verse and Wilfred Owen’s great World War I poem, Dulce et Decorum est, is a response to Horace’s oft-quoted belief that it is “sweet and fitting” to die for one’s country.
“We are but dust and shadow.”
4. Virgil’s Aeneid
Publius Vergilius Maro (70 BC – 19 BC) wrote the great epic poem of Rome in the shape of the Aeneid, the story of Aeneas, a Trojan refugee who according to myth arrived in Italy to found the city.
His biography is full of uncertainties. He was probably born near Mantua in northern Italy and may have been of Umbrian, Etruscan or Celtic heritage. He worked as a lawyer before turning full time to poetry. Shyness and ill health seem to have been with him throughout his life.
The Aeneid is considered his greatest work and its 12 books took 11 years to complete, possibly at the commission of Emperor Augustus. Homer’s great epics of the Trojan War are an obvious influence.
Virgil describes the journeys of Aeneas, who finally arrives in Italy, defeating a local warlord called Turnus to found the city that would become Rome. Virgil died before it could be completed, but Augustus ordered it to be published unedited, after the poet read parts of it to him.
Virgil was enormously popular in Ancient Rome. Ovid referred to the Aenied in the Metamorphoses. The works were school set texts, and were treated as almost holy texts by later readers.
“If I cannot move heaven, I will raise hell.”
5. Seneca’s Thyestes
Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD) moved in the murky waters of Roman politics, fatally. He was ordered to kill himself by Nero, the emperor who he served as tutor and adviser, who believed he had plotted against him.
His father (they are often called Seneca the Older and Seneca the Younger) was a writer and statesman, whose work is also still well regarded.
Surprisingly little is known of Seneca’s early life. He was born in Spain, his father’s homeland, and may have spent some time in Egypt, before a stormy career in the highest levels of the Roman court, culminating in his appointment as the 12-year-old Nero’s tutor in 49 AD.
He had been retired from Nero’s service for some time when the unstable emperor accused him of involvement in an assassination plot. Seneca bled slowly and painfully to death in a suicide Nero ordered.
Seneca’s tragic plays are the only such works to survive from Roman times and were hugely influential, particularly on Shakespeare.
Thyestes is considered his masterpiece, and like most of his plays it is bloody and melodramatic – Thyestes eats his own children. It’s a story of warring twins in the household of Tantalus, a household beset by sin of every colourful variety.
“Tis the upright mind that holds true sovereignty.”