Ancient Roman Literature


Roman Poets




Formal Latin literature began in 240 BC, when a Roman audience saw a Latin version of a Greek play. The adaptor was Livius Andronicus, a Greek who had been brought to Rome as a prisoner of war in 272 BC. Andronicus also translated Homer's Greek epic the Odyssey into an old type of Latin verse called Saturnian. The first Latin poet to write on a Roman theme was Gnaeus Naevius during the 200s BC. He composed an epic poem about the first Punic War, in which he had fought. Naevius's dramas were mainly reworkings of Greek originals, but he also created tragedies based on Roman myths and history.

Other epic poets followed Naevius. Quintus Ennius wrote a historical epic, the Annals (soon after 200 BC), describing Roman history from the founding of Rome to his own time. He adopted Greek dactylic hexameter, which became the standard verse form for Roman epics. He also became famous for his tragic dramas. In this field, his most distinguished successors were Marcus Pacuvius and Lucius Accius. These three writers rarely used episodes from Roman history. Instead, they wrote Latin versions of tragic themes that the Greeks had already handled. But even when they copied the Greeks, they did not translate slavishly. Only fragments of their plays have survived.

Latin literature was at its height from 81 BC to AD 17. This period began with the first known speech of Cicero and ended with the death of Ovid.

We know much more about early Latin comedy, because we have 20 complete plays by Plautus and 6 by Terence.These men modeled their comedies on Greek plays known as New Comedy. But they treated the plots and wording of the originals freely. Plautus scattered songs through his plays and increased the humor with puns and wisecracks, plus comic actions by the actors. Terence's plays were more polite in tone, dealing with domestic situations. His works provided the chief inspiration for French and English comedies of the 1600s, and even for modern American comedy.

The prose of the period is best known through On Agriculture (160 BC) by Cato the Elder. Cato also wrote the first Latin history of Rome and of other Italian cities. He was the first Roman statesman to put his political speeches in writing as a means of influencing public opinion.

Early Latin literature ended with Gaius Lucilius, who created a new kind of poetry in his 30 books of Satires (100s BC). He wrote in an easy, conversational tone about books, food, friends, and current events. In the early AD 100s, Juvenal perfected the biting form of satire that has influenced many later writers.

Ancient thinkers wrote verse about what they observed in nature. They are generally referred to as Presocratic Philosophers. Many aspects of culture were still without distinct form then, during the Archaic Age of Ancient Greece. The origin of drama is mired in legend, but to the best of our information, drama seems to have arisen as part of religious worship and the word tragedy appears to come from the word goat song.

The first element in Greek tragedy was the chorus, which danced and sang poetry created by the dramatist at the religious festivals. Actors came later, with the great tragedians. The man credited with creating the epics we know of as the Iliad and Odyssey, (whom we refer to as Homer) was a rhapsode, a person who accompanied his improvised performances with a musical instrument.




Oral Epics or World Folk Epics

Epic poetry came to be distinguished by its distinct (epic) meter. Lyric poetry, developed according to legend, by Terpander, was poetry accompanied by a lyre. Epigrams were composed for funerals. It was an epigrammatist, Mimnermus of Smyrna, who is credited with developing the elegiac meter that was used for love poetry (elegies).

The epic is a broadly defined genre of poetry, and one of the major forms of narrative literature. It retells in a continuous narrative the life and works of a heroic or mythological person or group of persons. In the West, the Iliad, Odyssey, and the Nibelungenlied; and in the East, the Mahabharata, Ramayana, and Shahnama are often cited as examples of the epic genre.

The first epics are associated strongly with preliterate societies and oral poetic traditions. In these traditions, poetry is transmitted to the audience and from performer to performer by purely oral means. World folk epics are those epics which are not just literary masterpieces but also an integral part of the world view of a people. They were originally oral literatures, which were later written down by either single author or several writers.

Studies of living oral epic traditions in the Balkans by Milman Parry and Albert Lord demonstrated the paratactic model used for composing these poems. What they demonstrated was that oral epics tend to be constructed in short episodes, each of equal status, interest and importance. This facilitates memorization, as the poet is recalling each episode and using them to recreate the entire epic as they perform it. Parry and Lord also showed that the most likely source for written texts of the epics of Homer was dictation from an oral performance.




Epics in Literate Societies

Literate societies have often copied the epic format, and the earliest known European example is Virgil's Aeneid, which follows both the style and subject matter of Homer. Other obvious examples are Tulsidas' Sri Ramacharit Manas, following the style and subject matter of Valmiki's Ramayana,. and the Persian epic Shahnama by Ferdowsi.




Epigrams

An epigram is a short poem with a clever twist at the end or a concise and witty statement. They are among the best examples of the power of poetry to compress insight and wit.

Roman epigrams owe much to their Greek predecessors and contemporaries. Roman epigrams, however, were more often satirical than Greek ones, and at times used obscene language for effect. Latin epigrams could be composed as inscriptions or graffiti, such as this one from Pompeii, which exists in several versions and seems from its inexact meter to have been composed by a less educated person. Its content, of course, makes it clear how popular such poems were:

However, in the literary world, epigrams were most often gifts to patrons or entertaining verse to be published, not inscriptions. Many Roman writers seem to have composed epigrams, including Domitius Marsus, whose collection 'Cicuta' (now lost) was named after the poisonous hemlock tree for its biting wit, and Lucan, more famous for his epic Pharsalia. Authors whose epigrams survive include Catullus, who wrote both invectives and love epigrams -- his poem 85 is one of the latter.

The master of the Latin epigram, however, is Martial. His technique relies heavily on the satirical poem with a joke in the last line, thus drawing him closer to the modern idea of epigram as a genre. Here he defines his genre against a (probably fictional) critic (in the latter half of 2.77):




Prose

History, as developed by Herodotus, was a (prose) story about whatever Herodotus set his inquiring mind to. In ancient Rome, satire was a recognized and somewhat defined literary verse genre. It was the only genre the Romans claimed as their own invention. Some early novels fell within the genre of (Menippean) satire.

During the reign of Augustus many commentators proclaimed the arrival of a new Golden Age as Romans returned to traditional values. These values included religion, family, and an appreciation of the Italian countryside and its agrarian roots. Writers and artists from all parts of Italy came to Rome, where generous patronage helped to encourage extraordinary achievements. The Augustan peace and the prosperity that accompanied it brought about the revival of patriotic literature that hailed the triumphs of Rome, its people, and its new leader.




Golden Age


The Golden Age of Roman Drama dates to B.C. 240 when Livius Andronicus - Titus Livy - adapted a Greek comedy and tragedy for performance on a Roman stage. This was not only the beginning of Greek drama in Rome, but of formal Latin literature. This coincides with the end of the first Punic War (264-241) which is relevant because with the Punic War, Romans came into contact with the Greeks of Southern Italy and Sicily. Instead of being concerned entirely with mastering their physical world, the Romans were now becoming a world power. In addition to adapting Greek drama, Livy also translated the Odyssey into Latin.


Titus Livy




Gnaeus Naevius

Gnaeus Naevius was the first native Roman dramatist. He had served in the first Punic War and wrote a Bellum Punicum (Punic War). He was interested in the Trojan cycle. He also wrote plays on Roman themes and is thus the inventor of the fabula praetexta - Roman historical play. He also wrote comedies (fabulae palliatae). Naevius was imprisoned for being outspoken, wrote two plays while confined, apologized, was released, did it again, and went into exile in Utica where he died.

Gnaeus Naevius (c. 264 - 194 BC), was a Latin epic poet and dramatist. There is great uncertainty in regard to his life. From the expression of Gellius (1. 24. I) characterizing his epitaph as written in a vein of Campanian arrogance it has been inferred that he was born in one of the Latin communities settled in Campania. But the phrase Campanian arrogance seems to have been used proverbially for gasconade; and, as there was a plebeian gens Naevia in Rome, it is quite as probable that he was by birth a Roman citizen. He served either in the Roman army or among the socii in the first Punic War, and thus must have reached manhood before 241.

His career as a dramatic author began with the exhibition of a drama in or about the year 235, and continued for thirty years. Towards the close he incurred the hostility of some of the nobility, especially, it is said, of the Metelli, by the attacks which he made upon them on the stage, and at their instance he was imprisoned (Plautus, Mu. Glor. 211). After writing two plays during his imprisonment, in which he is said to have apologized for his former rudeness (Gellius iii. 3. 15), he was liberated through the interference of the tribunes of the commons; but he had shortly afterwards to retire from Rome (in or about 204) to Utica. It may have been during his exile, when withdrawn from his active career as a dramatist, that he composed or completed his poem on the first Punic war. Probably his latest composition was the epitaph already referred to, written like the epic in saturnalian verse.

As distinguished from Livius Andronicus, Naevius was a native Italian, not a Greek; he was also an original writer, not a mere adapter or translator. If it was due to Livius that the forms of Latin literature were, from the first, moulded on those of Greek literature, it was due to Naevius that much of its spirit and substance was of native growth.

Like Livius, Naevius professed to adapt Greek tragedies and comedies to the Roman stage. Among the titles of his tragedies are Aegisthus, Lycurgus, Andromache or Hector Proficiscens, Equus Trojanus, the last named being performed at the opening of Pompey's theatre (55). The national cast of his genius and temper was shown by his deviating from his Greek originals, and producing at least two specimens of the fabula praetexta (national drama) one founded on the childhood of Romulus and Remus (Lupus or Alimonium Romuli et Remi), the other called Clastidium, which celebrated the victory of Marcus Claudius Marcellus over the Celts (222).

But it was as a writer of comedy that he was most famous, most productive and most original. While he is never ranked as a writer of tragedy with Ennius, Pacuvius or Accius, he is placed in the canon of the grammarian Volcacius Sedigitus third (immediately after Caecilius and Plautus) in the rank of Roman comic authors. He is there characterized as ardent and impetuous in character and style.

He is also appealed to, with Plautus and Ennius, as a master of his art in one of the prologues of Terence. His comedy, like that of Plautus, seems to have been rather a free adaptation of his originals than a rude copy of them, as those of Livius probably were, or an artistic copy like those of Terence. The titles of most of them, like those of Plautus, and unlike those of Caecilius and Terence, are Latin, not Greek.

He drew from the writers of the old political comedy of Athens, as well as from the new comedy of manners, and he attempted to make the stage at Rome, as it had been at Athens, an arer, a of political and personal warfare. A strong spirit of partisanship is recognized in more than one of the fragments; and this spirit is thoroughly popular and adverse to the senatorial ascendancy which became more and more confirmed with the progress of the second Punic war.

Besides his attack on the Metelli and other nembers of the aristocracy, the great Scipio is the object of a censorious criticism on account of a youthful escapade attributed to him. Among the few lines still remaining from his lost comedies, we seem to recognize the idiomatic force and rapidity of movement characteristic of the style of Plautus. There is also found that love of alliteration which is a marked feature in all the older Latin poets down even to Lucretius.

In one considerable comic fragment attributed to himthe description of a coquettethere is great truth and shrewdness of observation. But we find no trace of the exuberant comic power and geniality of his great contemporary.

He was not only the oldest native dramatist, but the first author of an epic poem (Bellum Punicum) which, by combining the representation of actual contemporary history, with a mythical background, may be said to have created the Roman type of epic poetry. The poem was one continuous work, but was divided into seven books by a grammarian of a later age.

The earlier part of it treated of the mythical adventures of Aeneas in Sicily, Carthage and Italy, and borrowed from the interview of Zeus and Thetis in the first book of the Iliad the idea of the interview of Jupiter and Venus; which Virgil has made one of the cardinal passages in the Aeneid.

The later part treated of the events of the first Punic war in the style of a metrical chronicle. An important influence in Roman literature and belief, which had its origin in Sicily, first appeared in this poem the recognition of the mythical connection of Aeneas and his Trojans with the foundation of Rome. The few, remaining fragments produce the impression of vivid and rapid narrative, to which the flow of the native Saturnian verse, in contradistinction to the weighty and complex structure of the hexameter, was naturally adapted.

The impression we get of the man is that, whether or not he actually enjoyed the full rights of Roman citizenship, he was a vigorous representative of the bold combative spirit of the ancient Roman commons. He was one of those who made the Latin language into a great organ of literature.

The phrases still quoted from him have nothing of an antiquated sound, while they have a genuinely idiomatic ring. As a dramatist he worked more in the spirit of Plautus than of Ennius, Pacuvius, Accius or Terence; but the great Umbrian humorist is separated from his older contemporary, not only by his breadth of comic power, but by his general attitude of moral and political indifference.

The power of Naevius was the more genuine Italian gift the power of satiric criticism which was employed in making men ridiculous, not, like that of Plautus, in extracting amusement from the humours, follies and eccentricities of life.

Although our means of forming a fair estimate of Naevius are scanty, all that we do know of him leads to the conclusion that he was far from being the least among the makers of Roman literature, and that with the loss of his writings there was lost a vein of national feeling and genius which rarely reappears.




Mime

We don't know when mime first came to Rome, but by 211, the Romans were watching mimic actors. Mimes were normal parts of the Floralia (an annual festival from 173) which was first celebrated in 238. The word mime is from the Greek mimeisthai (to imitate). Romans often called mimic actors planipes (with bare feet) (Duckworth p. 14). The bare feet let the mimic actors, male and female, move around better than actors wearing tragedy's cothurnus (buskin) or comedy's soccus (slipper).

In ancient Greece and ancient Rome, a mime is a farcical drama characterized by mimicry and ludicrous representations of characters, or the script for such a performance.




In 204 Cato brought Ennius to Rome, where he he worked as a teacher and writer. He wrote poems called Saturae and an epic, the Annales. Ennius replaced the dactylic hexameter of Greek epic with the Saturnian Latin meter. He wrote comedies, and fabulae praetextae, and most of all, tragedy.

Plautus (T. Maccius Plautus [254-184]) was an Umbrian. At Rome he acted as a clown in Atellan farces. His name Maccius may come from this occupation. Plautus may also be a stage name and a variation on the word planipes. Plautus worked in the theater in some capacity and may hace been a stage hand or carpenter. Duckworth provides a rough chronology of his comedies: Asinaria, Mercator, Miles Gloriosus around 205 B.C., Cistellaria, before 201. Stichus (200 B.C.) Aulularia and Curculio before 191. Pseudolus (191) and then Bacchides, followed by Casina in 185 or 184.

An Insubrian Gaul, Caecilius Statius was a friend of Ennius and according to Volcacius Sedigitus, was the best of the Roman comic poets. Caecilius stuck close to Greek originals, but was not a literal translator. Horace praised Caecilius for his gravitas. Varro praised him plot construction. Although an argument from silence, Caecilius may have introduced the idea of avoiding contamination -- meaning following only one Greek original (Duckworth, p.48).




Marcus Pacuvius

Pacuvius was the nephew of Ennius. We know of thirteen of his tragedies. His ancient reputation was "learned." Cicero considered Pacuvius the greates tragic poet of Rome.

Marcus Pacuvius (c. 220-130 BC) was the greatest of the tragic poets of ancient Rome prior to Accius. He was the nephew and pupil of Ennius, by whom Roman tragedy was first raised to a position of influence and dignity. In the interval between the death of Ennius (169) and the advent of Accius, the youngest and most productive of the tragic poets, Pacuvius alone maintained the continuity of the serious drama, and perpetuated the character first imparted to it by Ennius.

Like Ennius he probably belonged to an Oscan stock, and was born at Brundisium, which had become a Roman colony in 244. Hence he never attained to that perfect idiomatic purity of style, which was the special glory of the early writers of comedy, Naevius and Plautus.

Pacuvius obtained distinction also as a painter; and Pliny the Elder (Nat. Hist. xxxv) mentions a work of his in the temple of Hercules in the Forum Boarium. He was less productive as a poet than either Ennius or Accius; and we hear of only about twelve of his plays, founded on Greek subjects (among them the Antiope, Teucer, Armorum Judicium, Dulorestes, Chryses, Niptra, &c., most of them on subjects connected with the Trojan cycle), and one praetexta (Paulus) written in connexion with the victory of Lucius Aemilius Paulus at the battle of Pydna (168), as the Clastidium of Naevius and the Ambracia of Ennius were written in commemoration of great military successes.

He continued to write tragedies till the age of eighty, when he exhibited a play in the same year as Accius, who was then thirty years of age. He retired to Tarentum for the last years of his life, and a story is told by Aulus Gellius (xiii. 2) of his being visited there by Accius on his way to Asia, who read his Atreus to him.

The story is probably, like that of the visit of the young Terence to the veteran Caecilius, due to the invention of later grammarians; but it is invented in accordance with the traditionary criticism (Horace, Epp. ii. 1. 5455) of the distinction between the two poets, the older being characterized rather by cultivated accomplishment (doctus), the younger by vigour and animation (altus).

Pacuvius's epitaph, said to have been composed by himself, is quoted by Aulus Gellius (i. 24), with a tribute of admiration to its "modesty, simplicity and fine serious spirit": Adulescens, tam etsi properas, to hoc saxum rogat Ut sese aspicias, deinde quod scriptum 'st legas Hic Bunt poetae Pacuvi Marci sita Ossa. Hoc volebam nescius ne esses. Vale.

Cicero, who frequently quotes from him with great admiration, appears (De optimo genere oratorum, i.) to rank him first among the Roman tragic poets, as Ennius among the epic, and Caecilius among the comic poets. The fragments of Pacuvius quoted by Cicero in illustration or enforcement of his own ethical teaching appeal, by the fortitude, dignity, and magnanimity of the sentiment expressed in them, to what was noblest in the Roman temperament.

They are inspired also by a fervid and steadfast glow of spirit and reveal a gentleness and humanity of sentiment blended with the severe gravity of the original Roman character. So far too as the Romans were capable of taking interest in speculative questions, the tragic poets contributed to stimulate curiosity on such subjects, and they anticipated Lucretius in using the conclusions of speculative philosophy as well as of common sense to assail some of the prevailing forms of superstition.

Among the passages quoted from Pacuvius are several which indicate a taste both for physical and ethical speculation, and others which expose the pretensions of religious imposture. These poets aided also in developing that capacity which the Roman language subsequently displayed of being an organ of oratory, history and moral disquisition.

The literary language of Rome was in process of formation during the 2nd century B.C., and it was in the latter part of this century that the series of great Roman orators, with whose spirit Roman tragedy has a strong affinity, begins. But the new creative effort in language was accompanied by considerable crudeness of execution, and the novel word-formations and varieties of inflexion introduced by Pacuvius exposed him to the ridicule of the satirist Lucilius, and, long afterwards, to that of his imitator Persius.

But, notwithstanding the attempt to introduce an alien element into the Roman language, which proved incompatible with its natural genius, and his own failure to attain the idiomatic purity of Naevius, Plautus or Terence, the fragments of his dramas are sufficient to prove the service which he rendered to the formation of the literary language of Rome as well as to the culture and character of his contemporaries.

Fragments in O. Ribbeck, Fragmenta scaenicae romanorum poesis (1897), vol. i. ; see also his Remische Tragodie (1875) ; L. Muller, De Pacuvii fabulis (188) ; W. S. Teuffel, Caecilius Statius, Pacuvius, Attius, Afranius (1858); and Mommsen, History of Rome, bk. iv. ch. 13.




Lucius Accius

Lucius Accius, a Roman tragic poet, the son of a freedman, was born at Pisaurum in Umbria, in 170 BC. The year of his death is unknown, but he must have lived to a great age, since Cicero (Brutus, 28) speaks of having conversed with him on literary matters.

He was a prolific writer and enjoyed a very high reputation (Horace, Epistles, ii. i, 56; Cicero, Pro Plancio, 24). The titles and considerable fragments (about 700 lines) of some fifty plays have been preserved. Most of these were free translations from the Greek, his favorite subjects being the legends of the Trojan war and the house of Pelops. The national history, however, furnished the theme of the Brutus and Decius--the expulsion of the Tarquins and the self-sacrifice of Publius Decius Mus the younger. The fragments are written in vigorous language and show a lively power of description.

Accius wrote other works of a literary character: Didascalicon and Pragmaticon libri, treatises in verse on the history of Greek and Roman poetry, and dramatic art in particular; Parerga and Praxidica (perhaps identical) on agriculture; and an Annales. He also introduced innovations in orthography and grammar.

A saying attributed to Accius was oderint dum metuant ("let them hate, as long as they fear"), later a famous motto of Caligula.




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