ANCIENT ROMAN LITERATURE AND POETRY

ANCIENT ROMAN LITERATURE

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Favourite Poet by Lawrence Tadema-Jones
The Romans produced great poetry and prose. We know more about them than any other ancient civilization because they left behind a vast amount of literary and historical works. However they did not have the same impact on literature as the Greeks. In fact a lot of their literature, like their art, is ignored today.

The Romans built great libraries with books they took from conquered territory and works they added themselves. By A.D. 350 there were 29 libraries in Rome. Literacy spread. The English historian Peter Salway has noted that England under Roman rule had a higher rate of literacy than any period until the 19th century.

Latin was less expressive and more difficult to play with than Greek. With its long monotonous syllables it required a special skill to produce poetry with life. Latin was better for expressing clear, precise thoughts rather than shades of meaning.

Reading Scrolls

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inscriptions from Pompeii
Mary Beard, a professor of classics at Cambridge University, wrote in the New York Times: The books Greeks and Romans read “were not “books” in our sense but, at least up to the second century. The “book rolls”---long strips of papyrus, rolled up on two wooden rods at either end. To read the work in question, you unrolled the papyrus from the left-hand rod, to the right, leaving a “page” stretched between the two. It was considered the height of bad manners to leave the text on the right hand rod when you had finished reading, so that the next reader had to rewind back to the beginning to find the title page, bad manners---but a common fault, no doubt, Some scribes helpfully repeated the title of the books a the very end, with just this problem in mind.”

“These cumbersome rolls made reading a very different experience than it is with the modern book,” Beard wrote. “Skimming, for example, was much more difficult, as looking back a few pages to check out the name you had forgotten (as it is on Kindle). Not to mention the fact that at some periods of Roman history, it was fashionable to copy a the text with no breaks between words, but as a river of letters. In comparison, deciphering the most challenging postmodern text (or “Finnegan’s Wake,” for that matter) looks easy.”

Ancient Roman Book Market

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Julius Caesar was a writer...
Beard wrote in the New York Times: “All reading material was laboriously copied by hand. The ancient equivalent of the printing press was a battalion of slaves whose job it was to transcribe one by one as many copies of Virgil. Horace or Ovid as the Roman market would buy.”

“Bookstores in Rome clustered in particular streets . One was she Vicus Sandalarius, or Shoemaker’s Row, not far from the Colosseum (convenient for post-gladiatorial browsing). Here you would find the outsides of the stores plastered with advertisements and puffs for titles in stock, often adorned with some choice quotes from the books of the moment. Martial, in fact, once told a friend not to bother to venture inside, since you could “read all the poets” on their door posts.

For those who did go in, there was usually a place to sit and read. With slaves on hand to summon up refreshments, it would have been not unlike the coffee shop in a modern Borders. For collectors there were occasionally secondhand treasures to be picked dup at a price. One Roman academic reported finding an old copy of the second book of Virgil’s “Aeneid”---not just any old copy but, the bookseller assured him, Virgil’s very own.”

A new book could cost as much as two years of salary for a professional soldier, “The risks on cheaper purchases were different.” Beard wrote, “A cut price book roll would presumably have fallen to pieces as quickly as a modern mass-market paperback. But worse, the pressure to get copies made quickly meant they were loaded with errors and sometimes uncomfortably different from the authentic words of the author, One list of prices from the third century A.D. implies that the money needed to buy a top-quality copy of 500 lines would be enough to feed a family for four (admittedly on very basic ration) for a whole year.

See Language and Writing

Ancient Roman Writers

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...So was Emperor
Marcus Aurelius
The late 1st century B.C. and the first century A.D. was the Golden Age of Roman literature. Great Roman famous poets included the naughty Catuluus, the romantics Tibullus and Propertius, the epic-maker Virgil and the love scribe Ovid. The great historians and rhetoricians include Horace, Livy, Cicero and Caesar from the later Republican period and Petronius and Seneca from the early Imperial period.

Writers were not very well paid and had a hard time making money from their work. Casson wrote that one dramatist “made his living by selling scripts, and they did not make him rich; indeed at times he was penniless. It was written that three plays of his were written in his spare time from a job turning a millstone.”

Writers received a lump sum from a book seller for the rights to copy his works. Once a text hit the streets there was no way to prevent pirated copies. One writer lamented, “My book is thumbed by our soldiers posted overseas, and even in Britain people quote my words. What’s the point? I don’t make a penny from it.” Other writers compared their job to that of prostitutes and called their publishers pimps. The Emperor Augustus once referred to a slim book of poetry he wrote as being “on the game, all tarted up with the cosmetics of Sosius & Co.”

Writers like Horace that seemed to have done well for themselves did so because they were taken under the wing of a patron. Horace was put up in a house by Maecenas, Augustus’s unofficial minister of culture. Others had to work hard to plug their work. In the early 2nd century A.D. Pliny complained that in Rome, “There was scarcely a day in April when someone wasn’t giving a reading.” And the poor authors had to put up with small audiences, most of whom slipped out before the reading was over.

Virgil

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Virgil
The poet Virgil (70-19 B.C.) is regarded as the greatest Roman writer. He is credited with transforming myth into literature. He wrote the epic the Aeneid , which appeared after his death and is regarded as a model of writing in the Latin style.

Virgil saw himself as an outsider in Rome. He was born Publius Vergilius Maro in the village of Andes near Venice. His father was a farmer wealthy enough to pay for an education for his son. Virgil studied at Cremona and Milan before moving at the age of 17 to Rome, where he studied rhetoric and philosophy but didn’t stay all that long.

After the Roman civil war between Caesar and Pompey, Virgil’s father’s farm was seized. The loss meant that he could no longer pay for Virgil’s education. Some powerful people in Rome sympathized with Virgil’s plight and helped his father obtain a new farm. These friends also introduced Virgil to Octavian, the future Emperor Augustus. One of Augustus’s ministers became one of Virgil’s best friends. He was also the writer’s benefactor, freeing Virgil from worries about money

According to one old story Virgil held a funeral for a common housefly which he claimed was his favorite pet. Mourners and an orchestra were hired; celebrities and statesmen were on hand; special eulogies were read by prominent citizens; and finally the fly was buried in special mausoleum. The cost of the funeral? About 800,000 sesterces (around $200,000 in today's money). [People's Almanac]

Virgil’s Life as a Writer and Death

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Virgil
Using the Greek poet Theocritus as his model, Virgil wrote Eclogues , pastoral poems describing the beauty of Italy. He followed that with Geogics , more serious and original poems about farming and the Italian countryside. This work established Virgil as a famous poet.

Virgil’s life was devoted to writing. He never married and few events of his life seemed worth recording. He lived in Naples during the 12 years it took to write the Aeneid . Emperor Augustus took an interest in Virgil’s work and asked that parts of be read to him as it was being written. Virgil was still working on the text when he died. The Aeneid wasn’t published until after his death.

Virgil becme ill and died while taking a trip to Greece and Asia Minor to verify facts for his book. In his will he bequeathed one quarter of his property to the Emperor Augustus. Virgil asked that the Aeneid be burned after his death because it wasn’t perfect. This request on the orders of Augustus was denied.

The Aeneid had a big impact on Latin literature and Virgil’s legacy. It became the standard by which all other Latin literature was measured and lived on well past the Roman age. The Christian church called Virgil divinely inspired. Dante chose Virgil to be his guide in Hell and Purgatory in the Divine Comedy . Virgil’s work also had a big influence on Chaucer, Milton, Tennyson and others. In the Middle ages, his tomb in Naples became a religious shrine believed to be endowed with magical powers.

Example of Virgil’s Writing

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The Lacoon. a Greek work
In the Aeneid Virgil, a Roman, wrote:
The Greeks shape bronze statues so real they
they seem to breathe.
And craft cold marble until it almost
comes to life.
The Greeks compose great orations.
and measure
The heavens so well they can predict
the rising of the stars.
But you, Romans, remember your
great arts;
To govern the peoples with authority.
To establish peace under the rule of law.
To conquer the mighty, and show them
mercy once they are conquered.

Aeneid

Drawn from Homer's Iliad , the Aeneid attributes the origin of the Roman people to Aeneas, a hero of the Trojan War. Although it is set in the distant past it has many features of A.D. first century Rome. Homeric themes are presented in a Roman way and battles are fought like Roman battles. Some key facts are different. Virgil records the events of the Odyssey as occurring before those in the Iliad (the contrary is true in Homer’s books). Many of the details from events in the Iliad , particularly the Trojan horse story, come to us from the Aeneid not the Iliad

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Trojan Horse by Giovanni Domenico Tipeolo
In the Aeneid the Trojans have been kicked out of the their homeland because of the war and the end up in Italy, which is caste as a kind of Promised land. There, Aeneas marries an Italian princess and their descendants founded Rome. The Roman emperors embraced the story and used the links to the Trojans to legitimize their rule.

Virgil selected Aeneas, a grandson of Aphrodite and a member of the Trojan royal family, because he seemed to be the only Trojan in the Iliad who had a future. He kept Aeneas true to his character in the Iliad and made him one of the founders of the Roman race by incorporating an existing Roman tale about him.

The basic theme in the Aeneid is that duty, honor and country have precedence above everything else. The work also has some pretty graphic language. Describing the death of Euryalus, Virgil wrote, “He writhes in death/ as blood flows over shapely limbs, his neck droops,/ sinking over his shoulder, limp as a crimson flower/ cut off by a passing plow.”

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Death of Dido
Michael Elliot wrote in Time a common complaint of the generation that was required to study the classic in school: “At school, I loathed Latin, in general, but I detested Virgil in particular, After you’d spent hours wading through conjugations and declensions and ablative absolutes and gerund and parts perfect, imperfect and pluperfect, there was the pointless torture of learning and then reciting lines of dactylic hexameter about this bloke wandering aimlessly around the Mediterranean at the whim of a perpetually pissed off goddess. I mean, even Milton was more fun.”

The translation of the The Aeneid by Robert Fagles is considered first rate. Aeneid (Yale University Press) is translated in verse by Sarah Rudmen, a poet.

Story of the Aeneid

After the fall of Troy, the Trojan hero Aeneas sets sail in search of a new home. After a fierce storm he becomes separated from his crew and ends up at Carthage in North Africa, made invisible by magic, in a land ruled by Queen Dido. Dido falls in love with Aeneas. He helps her build a royal city. Jupiter’s gets angry about this as Aeneas has become side sidetracked from his duty to found the Roman Empire. He tells Aeneas to quit dawdling and get over to Italy.

Dido ultimately feels betrayed by Aeneas. When Aeneas leaves Dido flies into flurry of rage and grief and kills herself. Aeneas and his companions settle briefly in Thrace, Crete and Italy before finally choosing Rome as their home.

Aeneas helps King Latinus of Rome fight against outsiders, marries the king’s daughter Lavinia and inherits his kingdom when Latinus dies, ruling over a kingdom of united Trojans and Latins. After this Aeneas visits the underworld and sees the heroes of Rome’s future. He returns with knowledge of magic and shamanism. Aeneas’s story ends when he is killed in a battle with Etruscans.

When Aeneas catches a glimpse of Dido in the underworld he explains: “Oh dear god, was it I who caused your death?/ I swear by the stars, by the Powers in high...I left your shores, my Queen, against my will...Stay a moment. Don’t withdraw from my sight.”

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Another view of Dido's death

Cicero

Cicero (106-43 B.C.) was a famous Roman statesman, orator and writer known for his rhetorical style and eloquence. The scholar Micheal Lind wrote in the Washington Post, “No great mind in Western history “not Socrates, Plato or Aristotle---has influenced so many other great minds, Ciceronian eloquence was incorporated into Christianity by St. Augustine and St. Jerome...Machiavelli sought to revive the the republican political tradition of Cicero...The United States---more than even France---is a Ciceronian state.”

Cicero’s ideas were important in the development of American democracy. For a long time schoolchildren were required to memorize his speeches. Many that had to do this recall Cicero as a pompous, long-winded bore. Now he is all but forgotten.

Cicero was born in 106 B.C. in a small town, and through his powers of persuasion and without much money, he rose to the highest echelons of Roman government. By the age of 35 Cicero had established himself as the premier courtroom orator of his time.

Cicero was tall and thin. He was a devoted father and enjoyed collecting books and paintings. He was committed to restoring traditional political values but was not great purveyor of the values he extolled. He once was charged with rigging a provincial lottery and other times was accused of hiring street toughs to settle matters. He divorced the woman who bore his children so he could marry a teenager from a wealthy, influential family.

Book: Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician by Anthony Everitt (Random House, 2002)

Cicero’s Writings and Thoughts

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Cicero
More writings of Cicero survive than of any other Latin author. These include around 900 letters. Among them are letters to almost every famous person in Rome who lived during his time. They also provided an invaluable look at everyday life in Rome.

Cicero is famous for his speeches. About 60 of Cicero’s speeches remain. They are regarded as some of the most eloquent speeches ever written. Numerous philosophical and rhetorical treatises and poetry have also survived,

Cicero’s made Latin into an art form. His speeches and prose were so eloquent and stirring that “Ciceronian” became synonymous with “classically perfect,” “persuasive” and “polished.” The Oxford classic professor J.W. Mackail wrote: “Cicero’s unique and imperishable glory is that he created the language of the civilized world, and used that language to create a style which 19 centuries have not replaced, and in some respects have hardly altered.”

Cicero is credited with introducing Greek philosophy to Rome and originating the idea of checks and balances. Cicero once said, "Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain always a child."

Horace

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Horace
Quintus Horatius Flaccus (Horace, 65-8 B.C.) was one of the Roman Empire's greatest poets and the founder of a philosophy he called “idealized common sense.” He is the source of many proverbs and quoted phrases such as "Carpe diem" ("Seize the day")...”put no trust in the morrow.”

Horace was bald, fat, and "touched with cowardice and torn between the pleasures of the country and need crawl at court." He was a failed soldier who once took off running in the opposite direction when his commander ordered him to charge. He later became a petty bureaucrat which gave him enough time to write poetry. His Satires and Epistles were classic commentaries on the Augustan Age.

Horace’s Poems

Describing his life's work in his third book of Odes , Horace wrote: I have erected a monument more lasting than bronze And taller than the regal peak of the pyramids... I shall never completely die.

In another ode, Horace wrote:
Happy the man, and happy he alone.
He, who can call today his own;
He who, secures within, can say.
Tomorrow do they worst, for I have
lived today
.

Ovid

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Ask Me No More by
Lawrence Alma-Tadema -
Ovid is regarded as the premier Roman love poet. Brought up in the province to an equestrian family, he moved to Rome as a teenager and wrote about the sensuous life he enjoyed in upper class Roman society. Famed as a kind of Roman Casanova, he married three times, had a great many lovers and was involved in a highly-publicized sex scandal.

Ovid once wrote, "Offered a sexless heaven, I'd say no thank you, women are such sweet hell." He wrote that he learned about love from the mysterious Corinna who he rhapsodized about in his early Loves . As a teenager he wrote they were "two adolescents, exploring a booby-trapped world of adult passions and temptations, and playing private games, first with their society, then--- liaisons dangeruses “with one another."

Ovid was also a great storyteller. His Metamorphosis told the story of the Greek gods in a Roman context. He also poked fun of them. His irreverence helped led to the tossing of the Greek gods and replacing them with Roman ones. Ovid originated many versions of the myth stories we know today such as the King Midas, golden touch tale.

Ovid's Love Poetry

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Alma Tadema's Silver Favourites
In the Art of Love , a carefully crafted "seducer's manual," Ovid wrote:

Love is a kind of war, and no assignment for cowards.
Where those banners fly, heroes are always on guard.
Soft, those barracks? They know long marches, terrible weather.
Night and winter and storm, grief and excessive fatigue.
Often the rain pelts down from the drenching cloudbursts of heaven.
Often you lie on the ground, wrapped in a mantle of cold.
If you are ever caught, no matter how well you've concealed it.
Though it is clear as the day, swear up and down it's a lie.
Don't be too abject, and don't be too unduly attentive.
That would establish your guilt far beyond anything else.
Wear yourself out if you must, and prove, in her bed, that you could not
Possibly be that good, coming from some other girl.

Martial and His Sexually-Explicit Epigrams

On Marcus Valerius Martialis, Steve Coates wrote in the New York Times, “You have to be impressed by a plucky Spanish provincial, in the dangerous days of Nero and Domitian, who could manage to earn a handsome living writing dirty poems for the urban sophisticates of ancient Rome. [Source: Steve Coates, December 12, 2008]

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sex with a goose
Arriving in Rome around A.D. 64, Martial spent much of the next four decades composing short topical verse about life in the big city, an urban panorama as broad, as varied and as full of depraved humanity as any to have survived from classical times. In conventional but nimble Latin meters, he wrote gory epigrams about the Colosseum, sycophantic ones to flatter the ruler of the day, tender ones about such topics as a slave girl’s early death and, above all, comic ones aimed squarely at Roman society’s foibles. Preoccupations including comb-overs, stingy hosts, medical quacks, the poetry racket, the futility of cosmetics, consumptive heiresses and one-eyed women lend his books the ambience of a front-row seat at the Roman carnival.

Modern readers, however, are drawn to Martial mostly for his scorpion-tailed epigrams of sexual invective, written, limerick- and graffiti-like, as raunchy entertainment. Even by today’s standards, many are grotesquely obscene; Martial takes us down some of Rome’s sleaziest streets (“I write, I must confess, for dirtier readers, / My verse does not attract the nation’s leaders”).


If Martial’s poems weren’t saintly, though, they were all in good fun (“My poetry is filthy---but not I,” he insisted). His targets were types, not real people, and many of his outrageous sketches, it has been rightly said, “come no closer to plausible reality than a Victorian Punch cartoon.” In this spirit, Martial riffs endlessly on prostitution, marital infidelity, oral sex, pederasty, exhibitionism, unapproved modes of homosexuality, and incest (“Of course we know he’ll never wed. / What? Put his sister out of bed?”). Roman sexual humor, it seems, when not simply gross-out comic description of intimate body parts---Martial wrote a notorious poem involving a loquacious vagina---hinged largely on the question of who might be on the passive end of any copulatory squirming (“I thought “twas you that played the man / But find receive is all you can”).

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In a review of Martial’s Epigrams translated by Garry Wills, Coats wrote in the New York Times, “In the case of lines far more lubriciously explicit than these, Wills embraces the Roman poet’s copious Latin obscenities in tumescent Anglo-Saxon translations, and in this sense certainly conveys the authentic Martial. He suggests that his happy-go-lucky rhyming verse and dogged meters work toward the same end, preserving some of the strict formality of Martial’s elegiacs and hendecasyllables. But in fact, Wills’s commitment to rhyme, not a significant concern for Latin poets, forces his syntactical hand and allows much of the real Martial to fall between the cracks. One neat example is a two-line poem that Wills translates: “Her teeth look whiter than they ought. / Of course they should---the teeth were bought.” A prose version reveals that Martial was able to insult not one woman but two in the same space: “Thais’s teeth are black, Laecania’s snow-white. The reason? The latter has ones she bought, the former her own.”

Book: Martial’s Epigrams translated and with an introduction by Garry Wills (Viking, 2008)

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Most of the information about Greco-Roman science, geography, medicine, time, sculpture and drama was taken from "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. Most of the information about Greek everyday life was taken from a book entitled "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum [||].

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

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