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Index by Period

Classical Roman Literature

To the Roman belongs the second place in the classic literature of antiquity. The original tribes that inhabited Italy, the Etruscans, the Sabines, the Umbrians and the Vituli had no literature, and it was not until the conquest of Tarentum in 272 B.C. that the Greeks began to exercise a strong influence on the Roman mind and taste; but Rome had, properly speaking, no literature until the conclusion of the first Punic war in 241 B.C.

This tendency to imitate the Greek was somewhat modified by Roman national pride. We catch sight of this spirit in Virgil and Horace, in Cicero and Caesar. The graceful softening of language and art among the imaginative Greeks, becomes in the Romans austere power and majesty, with a tendency to express greatness by size. These early indications of race characteristics never died out, as we may see by the contrast between the Apollo Belvidere of the Greeks, and the Moses of Michelangelo. The oldest existing example of Latin or Roman literature is the sacred chant of the Frates Arvales. These latter composed a college of Priests whose prescribed duty was to offer prayers for abundant harvests. This took place in the spring, in solemn dances and processions, not unlike the Bacchic festivals of the Greeks, although the Roman dances took place in the temple with closed doors. The dance was called the tripudium from its having three rhythmical beats. The inscription of this litany of the Frates was discovered in Rome in 1778, and experts have agreed that the monument belongs to the reign of Heliogabalus, 218 A.D. It is said to contain the very words used by the priests in the earliest times.

"Most of the old literary monuments in Rome," says a modern writer, "were written in Saturnian verse, the oldest measure used by the Latin poets. It was probably derived from the Etruscans, and until Ennius introduced the heroic hexameter the strains of the Italian bards flowed in this metre. The structure of the Saturnian is very simple, and its rhythmical arrangement is found in the poetry of every age and country. Macaulay adduces as an example of this measure, the following line from the well-known nursery song:

'The queen was in her parlor, Eating bread and honey.'

From this species of verse, which probably prevailed among the natives of Provence (the Roman Provencia) and into which at a later period, rhyme was introduced as an embellishment, the Troubadours derived the metre of their ballad poetry, and thence introduced it into the rest of Europe."

Literature with the Romans was not of spontaneous growth; it was chiefly due to the influence of the Etruscans, who were their early teachers, they lacked that delicate fancy and imagination that made the Greeks, even before they emerged from a state of barbarism, a poetical people. The first written literature of the Romans was in the form of history, in which they excelled. Like other nations, they had oral compositions in verse long before they possessed any written literature. The exploits of heroes were recited and celebrated by the bards of Rome as they were among the Northern nations. Yet these lays were so despised by the Romans that we can scarcely see any trace of their existence except in certain relics which have been borrowed from true poetry and converted into the half fabulous history of the infant ages of Rome. That the Romans, as a people, had no great national drama, and that their poems never became the groundwork of a later polished literature was due to the incorporation of foreigners into their nation who took little interest in the traditions of their earlier achievements. Father Ennius (239-169 B.C.), as Horace calls him, was the true founder of Latin poetry. He enriched the Latin language, gave it new scope and power; and paid particular attention to its grammatical form. What he has done was so well done, that it has never been undone, although later ages added new improvements to the language. In fable Rome was an imitator of Greece; but nevertheless Phaedrus (16 A.D.) struck out a new line for himself, and became both a moral instructor and a political satirist. Celsus, who lived in the reign of Tiberius, was the author of a work on medicine which is used as a textbook even in the present advanced state of medical science.

The Greek belief in destiny becomes in the Romans stoicism. This doctrine, found in the writings of Seneca, and in the tragedies attributed to him, led to the probability that he was their author. Seneca has had many admirers and imitators in modern times. The French school of tragic poets took him for their model.

Corneille and Racine seem to consider his works real tragedy.

Cicero's philosophical writings are invaluable in order to understand the minds of those who came after him. Not only all Roman philosophy of the time; but a great part of that of the Middle Ages was Greek philosophy filtered through Latin, and mostly founded on that of Cicero. But of all the Roman creations, the most original was jurisprudence. The framework they took from Athens; but the complete fabric was the work of their own hands. It was first developed between the consulate of Cicero and the death of Trajan (180 years), and finally carried to completion under Hadrian. This system was of such a high order that the Romans have handed it down to the whole of modern Europe, and traces of Roman law can be found in the legal formulas of the entire civilized world.

After the fall of the Western Empire these laws had little force until the twelfth century, when Irnerius, a German lawyer, who had lived in Constantinople, opened a school at Bologna, and thus brought about a revival in the West of Roman civil law. Students came to this school from all parts of Europe, and through them Roman jurisprudence was carried into, and took root in foreign countries. By common consent the invention of satire is attributed to the Romans. The originator of the name was Ennius; but the true exponent of Roman satire was Lucilius, who lived 148-102 B.C. His writings mark a distinct era in Roman literature and filled no less than thirty volumes, some fragments of which remain. After his death there was a decline in satire until fifty years later, when Horace and Juvenal gave it a new impetus, although their style was different from that of Lucilius. Doctor Johnson was such an admirer of the two finest of Juvenal's satires that he took pains to imitate them.

Boethius, the last of the Roman philosophers, left a work "on the Consolations of Philosophy," which is known in all modern languages. A translation was made into Anglo-Saxon by King Alfred in 900 A.D. Virgil (70-19 B.C.) has taken Homer as his model in his great national poem of the Aeneid. In many passages it is an imitation of the Iliad and the Odyssey. In his didactic poems, known as the Bucolics, Virgil has made use of Theocritus, while in the Georgics he has chosen Hesiod as his model. The later didactic poets of all ages have imitated Virgil, particularly in England, where Thomson's Seasons is a thoroughly Virgilian poem. It is easy to see in Virgil where borrowed methods end and native strength begins; for, in spite of being close imitators of the Greek, there is a character peculiar to the writers of Rome by means of which they have acquired an appearance of dignity and worthiness all their own.

Lucius Apuleius
Gaius Valerius Catullus
Marcus Tullius Cicero
(Father) Quintus Ennius
Quintus Horatius Flaccus (Horace)
Decimus Junius Juvenalis
Marcus Annaeus Lucanus (Lucan)
Gaius Lucilius
Publius Ovidius Naso (Ovid)
Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Publius Vergilius Maro (Virgil)


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