Literature in Ancient Rome

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A brief account of Literature in ancient Rome

Literature in Ancient Rome

Giving a brief account of ancient Roman literature is no easy thing, particularly when we realise we are referring to many hundreds of years of literary production.

The impact of Ancient Roman literature is immense not only because of their own production but also because of its assimilation of the literature of many other civilisations and writers of the time, hence ensuring them for posterity, to a degree: The decline and fall of the ancient Roman empire was in some ways softened from a cultural point of view by:

Having said that, much was lost, not least because the church itself undertook at various times a degree of censorship and destruction of texts which might be held to be excessively pagan. An example of this was with the library at Alexandria. The flip side is that many latin texts were copied and preserved thanks to the monks working in monasteries: as the modern world professor Harold Innis would have it: written information and learning was a means of creating and maintaining earthly power.

Roman literature was written on scrolls and the physical length and manageability of such scrolls meant that longer works would be broken down into many books (scrolls). A good example of this is Pliny's Natural History. Roman practicality brought about the (late) invention of the codex around the 2nd or 3rd century AD - what we would nowadays refer to as a properly bound book.

The producers of ancient Roman literature were not all Romans nor were they all free citizens: Rome provided the ideal sink of demand and the consumers of literature attached little if any stigma to the provenance of the work. So, for example many plays enacted in Roman theatres were actually written by people coming from the provinces, Greek or foreign slaves, some born or fallen into slavery may even attain a degree of wealth and freedom.

If the ever pragmatic Roman proverb "primum vivere et deinde filosofare" (first live then philosophise) tells us anything it's that the rise of Roman went hand in hand with the rise in wealth and increased personal liberty of those who lived in Ancient Rome. However this doesn't mean that there wasn't any literature in the epochs of Roman civilisation before and during the First century BC when times were hard and restless. An interesting early example is Cato's book "De Agricultura" written in the 2nd century BC. It is interesting because Cato lived the period of transition from the more ancient stern farmer-warrior Italic people to that of citisens of a growing empire. This transition was in many ways sealed by the win over Carthage and it is from the spoils of Carthage that a famed book about agriculture by Mago made its way into the foundations of later Roman agriculture (we are told by the writer Columella some 200 years later). A great example of how the victors were at once absorbing and learning from the cultures they dominated whilst at the same time undergoing their own transformation.

A second, lighter example is to be had from the plays of Plautus, for example "Miles Gloriosus" > well worth a read! Many if not all are remakes of earlier Greek versions, re-written for a Latin public. The interesting point here is the transformation and assimilation of Greek culture for Roman tastes.

Perhaps most notable of this period is the advent of Roman Satire which the Romans ascribed to Lucilius, a man of Campanian origin (yes the region around Pompeii). The subject of Satire will be expanded below in conjunction with a look at sensorship.

Peak and decline of Ancient Roman Literature

It is not surprising that the "golden age" of ancient Roman literature corresponds with the Augustan age and the beginning of the pax romana, followed by a period know as the "silver age" in the subsequent period and a general decline thereafter (bronze age?): a time of relative peace, stability and wealth after a long period of civil strife, a fostering of the arts and plenty of commissions to sustain the political agenda.

During the golden and successive ages of Roman literature varied forms of literature grew and took their place in Ancient Roman libraries: scientific investigation such as Pliny's natural history or Vitruvius' De Architectura, Galen's medical works and herbals, novels such as Petronius' "Satyricon" or Apuleius' "Golden Ass", history, political speeches, rhetoric and poetry such as Vergil's Aenid. Elegies were a very Roman favourite, particularly with erotic or mythological themes such as written by the likes of Ovid and Propertius. Horace was a great favourite, the classic example of a man come from the provinces who had taken the wrong side (against Caesar's camp) but in the end taken in by Augustus' great patron of the arts Maecenas. He is not only famed for his "Odes and Epodes" but also for a series of fascinating Satires which give us ample view of daily life during the golden age of ancient Roman literature. The strong print of greek and Homeric influence persisted in poetry but the Romans did manage to bring their own ingredients to the table.

Cicero was clearly a great landmark in the development of the art of Rhetoric, of the Latin language and of Roman literature. At this time there was a clear distinction of "good latin" (sermo latinus) from the "vulgar latin" (sermo vulgaris) spoken daily by the masses and so too the literature could be written in various forms, according to the intended message, circumstance or intended audience. More modern interpretations of events might suggest that the divorce between the natural language and the official language of the erudite elite was a good way of quenching spontaneity and creativity, perhaps in much the same way that the Library at Alexandria had been a couldron of knowledge and information but by the very spirit of Ptolemaic dynasty and state patronage was doomed to fail in terms of inventiveness and creativity.

More insidious was the growth of sensorship, famously suffered by Ovid who was driven away from Rome by Augustus, reputedly because of the indecency of some of his poetry - likely an excuse to get rid of him because of some sort of embarassing mischief with his daughter. Many other writers such as Seneca and Juvenal bemoaned the increasingly difficult situation. The increasing concentration of power on the emperor clearly made it harder and harder for writers to have freedom of speech, hence giving further energy to the satirical approach as a means of writing indirect criticisms. It is perhaps due to this reason that poetry about love and mythology abounded at this time. We need but imagine Nero's love for music and poetry coupled with his narcisistic nature to imagine what might have happened to any who had not towed the artistic line and opinions dictated by the emperor.

An interesting example of this may be had from Petronius' "Satiricon", reputedly written by Petronius Arbiter who entered court as Nero's master of ceremonies (or rather as a "fashionista") when Seneca had made his exit to private life. Power around Nero was being increasingly taken over by people with no scruples, such as a Pretorian guard named Tigellinus who was wicked, resentful and of course avaricious. Many of the passages within the book have extremely enticing parallel with the court of Nero.

Leaving examples from Satiricon to the reader, I prefer to relate the following quote from Juvenal's satires:

"Where find the talent to match the theme? Where find that freedom of our forefathers to write whatever the burning soul desired? What man is there that I dare not name? What matters it whether Mucius forgives my words or no?  But just describe Tigellinus and you will blaze amid those faggots in which men, with their throats tightly gripped, stand and burn and smoke, and you trace a broad furrow through the middle of the arena."

Clearly this was quite far from the end of Roman literature, and plenty more was produced, but the difficulties encountered and the ebbs and flows have been well described.


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This page about Roman Literature was written by Giovanni Milani-Santarpia for - Rome apartments