's Ancient Civilizations of the World/Roman Literature


"If the Romans had been obliged to learn Latin, they would never have found time to conquer the world."---Heinrich Heine, 19th Century German poet

The language the Romans spoke and wrote was known as Latin. The importance of the Latin language in the modern world is immense. Mainly because of the territorial size of the Roman Empire, the Latin alphabet as well as vocabulary and grammar spread throughout the entirety of Western Europe. Although not all Western European languages are "Romantic" or Latin-based (Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese), even modern Germanic languages (German, English, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian) use the Latin alphabet.

Because Latin remained the base for so many European languages, as well as the fact that Latin continued to thrive during the Middle Ages as the language of the Roman Catholic Church, the ability to read and understand pieces of Roman literature was not lost during the millennium between the fall of Rome and the rekindled interest in classical texts during the Renaissance. The Renaissance of Western Civilization owes much to the preservation of both Latin and many pieces of ancient Roman literature.

Characteristics of Latin Literature Latin literature typically reflects the Roman interest in rhetoric, the art of speaking and persuading. The art of rhetoric was a vital skill during the Republican era when votes often hinged on the case made for or against a candidate or proposition. In the Empire, the need for rhetorical skill diminished in value in the civic arena, however the art form retained a place in literature.

Due to Latin's highly inflected nature, with multiple forms of the same word, Latin sentences can be remarkably brief and pithy in comparison to, say, English. On the other hand, long and elaborate sentences in Latin can still make sense, thanks to the tight grammatical and syntactical rules of the language.


Following the expansion of the Roman Republic (509–27 BCE) into several Greek territories between 270–240 BCE, Rome encountered Greek drama. From the later years of the republic and by means of the Roman Empire (27 BCE-476 CE), theatre spread west across Europe, around the Mediterranean and reached England; Roman theatre was more varied, extensive and sophisticated than that of any culture before it. While Greek drama continued to be performed throughout the Roman period, the year 240 BCE marks the beginning of regular Roman drama. From the beginning of the empire, however, interest in full-length drama declined in favour of a broader variety of theatrical entertainments.

The first important works of Roman literature were the tragedies and comedies that Livius Andronicus wrote from 240 BCE. Five years later, Gnaeus Naevius also began to write drama. No plays from either writer have survived. While both dramatists composed in both genres, Andronicus was most appreciated for his tragedies and Naevius for his comedies; their successors tended to specialise in one or the other, which led to a separation of the subsequent development of each type of drama. By the beginning of the 2nd century BCE, drama was firmly established in Rome and a guild of writers (collegium poetarum) had been formed.

The Roman comedies that have survived are all fabula palliata (comedies based on Greek subjects) and come from two dramatists: Titus Maccius Plautus (Plautus) and Publius Terentius Afer (Terence). In re-working the Greek originals, the Roman comic dramatists abolished the role of the chorus in dividing the drama into episodes and introduced musical accompaniment to its dialogue (between one-third of the dialogue in the comedies of Plautus and two-thirds in those of Terence). The action of all scenes is set in the exterior location of a street and its complications often follow from eavesdropping. Plautus, the more popular of the two, wrote between 205 and 184 BCE and twenty of his comedies survive, of which his farces are best known; he was admired for the wit of his dialogue and his use of a variety of poetic meters. All of the six comedies that Terence wrote between 166 and 160 BCE have survived; the complexity of his plots, in which he often combined several Greek originals, was sometimes denounced, but his double-plots enabled a sophisticated presentation of contrasting human behaviour.

No early Roman tragedy survives, though it was highly regarded in its day; historians know of three early tragedians—Quintus Ennius, Marcus Pacuvius and Lucius Accius. From the time of the empire, the work of two tragedians survives—one is an unknown author, while the other is the Stoic philosopher Seneca. Nine of Seneca's tragedies survive, all of which are fabula crepidata (tragedies adapted from Greek originals); his Phaedra, for example, was based on Euripides' Hippolytus. Historians do not know who wrote the only extant example of the fabula praetexta (tragedies based on Roman subjects), Octavia, but in former times it was mistakenly attributed to Seneca due to his appearance as a character in the tragedy.


Title page from a 1650 CE printing of Apuleius' The Golden Ass

The sole ancient Roman novel to survive in its entirety is The Metamorphoses or The Golden Ass (Asinus aureus) by Apuleius. Written sometime in the late Second Century CE, The Golden Ass tells the story of Lucius who is driven by an insatiable desire to see and practice magic. When Lucius attempts to use a spell to turn into a bird, he is actually turned into a jackass. The novel shares many traits with the Picaresque genre which would emerge in the 16th century. Hallmarks of the Picaresque include an episodic structure with the protagonist moving from amusing scenario to amusing scenario. The writing is satirical, imaginative and irrevrent and features many side stories within the main narrative drawn from Roman folklore and mythology, most notably that of Cupid and Psyche. The myth tells of how the goddess Venus grew jealous of the beauty of the mortal woman Pysche and sent her son, Cupid, to destroy Pysche. However, when Cupid sees her, he immediately falls in love and the rest of the story concerns the drama of their romance. The tale of Cupid and Pysche is the best known of the stories in The Golden Ass and became a popular subject for post-Renaissance art and literature.

Not to be confused with Apuleius' Metamorphoses, is The Metamorphoses by Ovid. Ovid's work is a narrative poem in fifteen books that describes the history of the world from its creation to the deification of Julius Caesar within a loose mythico-historical framework. Completed in 8 CE, it is recognized as a masterpiece of Golden Age Latin literature. One of the most-read of all classical works during the Middle Ages, the Metamorphoses continues to exert a profound influence on Western culture.

Historical WritingEdit

Although historical records from the Roman Kingdom and early Republic years are scarce, several Roman historians from the late Republic and Imperial eras wrote historical works which have provided modern historians with the foundation of much of what we now know about the Roman world. Roman historians, although indebted to the Greek form of historiography, are richer in detail and reveal much more Roman concerns than their Greek predecessors. Famous Roman historians and their works include:

Titus Livius

Livy: Perhaps the most famous of the Roman historians, Titus Livius (Livy) wrote Ab Urbe Condita ("From the Founding of the City") remaining one of the best sources about early Roman history. This massive work, written between 27 and 25 BCE, tells the narrative of Roman history in its entirety from 753 BCE to the era in which Livy lived. Unfortunately, of the 142 books which made up Livy's history, only books 1-10 and 21-45 survived. Thus what remains in Livy's work pertains to the earliest years of the Roman Kingdom and Republic, the era most prone to myth and legend (Livy turns to both the Aeneas and Romulus and Remus versions of the city's founding).

Livy crafted his his history with many rhetorical and factual embellishments. While these embellishments were not always inaccurate, Livy had an agenda in writing Ab Urbe Condita. Living in the opening years of the Roman Empire, Livy saw a decline in moral values as a decline in the greatness of Rome. He intended that his history would rekindle the morality of his countrymen, thus making Rome great again.

Julius Caesar: The De Bello Gallico is Caesar’s account of the Gallic Wars. As the Wars were raging on, Caesar fell victim to a great deal of criticisms from Rome. De Bello Gallico is a response to these criticisms, and a way for Caesar to justify these Wars. His argument is that the Wars were both just and pious, and that he and his army attacked Gaul in self-defense. The Helvetians were forming a massive migration straight through the provinces. When a group of neighboring allies came to Caesar himself asking for help against these invading Helvetians, that was all the justification Caesar needed to gather his army. By creating an account that portrays himself as a superb military hero, Caesar was able to clear all doubts in Rome about his abilities as a leader.

While it is obvious that Caesar used this account for his own gain, it is not to say that the De Bello Gallico is at all unreliable. Many of the victories that Caesar has written about did, in fact, occur. Smaller details, however, may have been altered, and the word choice makes the reader more sympathetic to Caesar’s cause. De Bello Gallico is an excellent example of the ways in which retellings of actual events can be spun to a person’s advantage. For this reason, De Bello Gallico is often looked at as a commentary, rather than a piece of actual historiography.


Tacitus: Tacitus was born c. 56 AD in, most likely, either Cisalpine or Narbonese Gaul. Upon arriving in Rome, which would have happened by 75, he quickly began to lay down the tracks for his political career. By 88, he was made praetor under Domitian, and he was also a member of the quindecimviri sacris faciundis. From 89 to 93, Tacitus was away from Rome with his newly married wife, the daughter of the general Agricola. 97 saw Tacitus being named the consul suffectus under Nerva. It is likely that Tacitus held a proconsulship in Asia. His death is datable to c. 118.

There is much scholarly debate concerning the order of publication of Tacitus’ works; traditional dates are given here.

  • 98 – Agricola (De vita Iulii Agricolae). This was a laudation of the author’s father-in-law, the aforementioned general Cn. Iulius Agricola. More than a biography, however, can be garnered from the Agricola: Tacitus includes sharp words and poignant phrases aimed at the emperor Domitian.
  • 98 – Germania (De origine et situ Germanorum). "belongs to a literary genre, describing the country, peoples and customs of a race".
  • c. 101/102– Dialogus (Dialogus de oratoribus). This is a commentary on the state of oratory as Tacitus sees it.
  • c. 109 – Histories. This work spanned the end of the reign of Nero to the death of Domitian. Unfortunately, the only extant books of this 12-14 volume work are 1-4 and a quarter of book 5.
  • Unknown – Annales (Ab excessu divi Augusti). This is Tacitus’ largest and final work. Some scholars also regard this as his most impressive work. The date of publication and whether it was completed at all are unknown. The Annales covered the reigns of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. Like the Histories, parts of the Annales are lost: most of book 5, books 7-10, part of book 11, and everything after the middle of 16. Tacitus’ familiar invective is also present in this work.

Tacitus’ style is very much like that of Sallust. Short, sharp phrases cut right to the point, and Tacitus makes no bones about conveying his point. His claim that he writes history "sine ira et studio" (“without anger and partiality”) (Annales I.1) is not exactly one that is true. Many of his passages ooze with hatred towards the emperors. Despite this seemingly obvious partisan style of writing, much of what is said can go under the radar, which is as Tacitus wanted things to be. His skill as an orator, which was praised by his good friend Pliny, no doubt contributes to his supreme mastery of the Latin language. Not one to mince words, Tacitus does not waste time with a history of Rome ab urbe condita. Rather, he gives a brief synopsis of the key points before he begins a lengthier summary of the reign of Augustus. From there, he launches into his scathing account of history from where Livy would have left off.

Sallust:C. Sallustius Crispus, more commonly known as Sallust, was a Roman historian of the 1st century BCE, born c. 86 BCE in the Sabine community of Amiternum. There is some evidence that Sallust’s family belonged to a local aristocracy, but we do know that he did not belong to Rome’s ruling class. Thus he embarked on a political career as a “novus homo,” serving as a military tribune in the 60s BCE, quaestor from 55 to 54 BCE, and tribune of the plebs in 52 BCE. Sallust was expelled from the senate in 50 BCE on moral grounds, but quickly revived his career by attaching himself to Julius Caesar. He served as quaestor again in 48 BCE, as praetor in 46 BCE, and governed the new province in the former Numidian territory until 44 BCE. Sallust’s political career ended upon his return to Rome and Caesar’s assassination in 44 BCE.

We possess in full two of the historical works that have been convincingly ascribed to Sallust, the monographs, Bellum Catilinae and Bellum Jugurthinum. We have only fragments of the third work, the Historiae. There is less agreement about the authorship of some other works that have, at times, been attributed to him. In Bellum Catilinae, Sallust outlines the conspiracy of Catiline, a brash and ambitious patrician who tried to seize power in Rome in 63 BCE. In his other monograph, Sallust used the Jugurthine War as a backdrop for his examination of the development of party struggles in Rome in the 1st century BCE. The Historiae describe in general the history of the years 78-67 BCE.

Although Sallust’s purposes in writing have been debated over the years, it seems logical to classify him as a senatorial historian who adopted the attitude of a censor. The historical details outlined in his monographs serve as paradigms for Sallust. In Bellum Catilinae, Sallust uses the figure of Catiline as a symbol of the corrupt Roman nobility. Indeed, much of what Sallust writes in this work does not even concern Catiline. The content of Bellum Jugurthinum also suggests that Sallust was more interested in character studies (e.g. Marius) than the details of the war itself. With respect to writing style, the main influences on Sallust’s work were Thucydides and Cato the Elder. Evidence of the former’s influence includes emphasis on politics, use of archaisms, character analysis, and selective omission of details. The use of such devices as asyndeton, anaphora, and chiasmus reflect preference for the old-fashioned Latin style of Cato to the Ciceronian periodic structure of his own era.

Whether Sallust is considered a reliable source or not, he is largely responsible for our current image of Rome in the late republic. He doubtless incorporates elements of exaggeration in his works and has at times been described as more of an artist or politician than historian. But our understanding of the moral and ethical realities of Rome in the 1st century BCE would be much weaker if Sallust’s works did not survive.

Suetonius:Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (Suetonius) is most famous for his biographies of the Julio-Claudian and Flavian emperors and other notable historical figures. He was born around 70 to an equestrian family. Living during the times of the Emperor Trajan and having a connection to Pliny the Younger, Suetonius was able to begin a rise in rank in the imperial administration. In c. 102, he was appointed to a military tribune position in Britain, which he did not actually accept. He was, though, among the staff for Pliny’s command in Bithynia. During the late period of Trajan’s rule and under Hadrian, he held various positions, until he was discharged. He had a close proximity to the government as well as access to the imperial archives, which can be seen in his historical biographies.

Suetonius wrote a large number of biographies on important literary figures of the past (De Viris Illustribus). Included in the collection were notable poets, grammarians, orators, historians, and philosophers. This collection, like his other works, was not organized chronologically. Not all of it has survived to the present day, but there are a number of references in other sources to attribute fragments to this collection.

His most famous work, though, is the De Vita Caesarum. This collection of twelve biographies tells the lives of the Julio-Claudian and Flavian Emperors, spanning from Julius Caesar to Domitian. Other than an introduction genealogy and a short summary of the subject’s youth and death, the biographies do not follow a chronological pattern. Rather than chronicling events as they happened in time, Suetonius presents them thematically. This style allowed him to compare the achievements and downfalls of each emperor using various examples of imperial responsibilities, such as building projects and public entertainment. However, it makes dating aspects of each emperor’s life and the events of the early Roman Empire difficult. It also completely removes the ability to extrapolate a causal sequence from the works. Suetonius’s purpose was not a historical recount of events, though, but rather an evaluation of the emperors themselves.

Suetonius’s style is simple; he often quotes directly from sources that were used, and artistic organization and language does not seem to exist. He addresses points directly, without flowery or misleading language, and quotes from his sources often. However, he is often criticized that he was more interested in the interesting stories about the emperors and not about the actual occurrences of their reigns. The style, with which he writes, primarily stems from his overarching purpose, to catalogue the lives of his subjects. He was not writing an annalistic history, nor was he even trying to create a narrative. His goal was the evaluation of the emperors, portraying the events and actions of the person while they were in office. He focuses on the fulfillment of duties, criticizing those that did not live up to expectations, and praising bad emperors for times when they did fulfill their duties.

There are a variety of other lost or incomplete works by Suetonius, many of which describe areas of culture and society, like the Roman Year or the names of seas. However, what we know about these is only through references outside the works themselves.


"Roman Historiography" (Wikipedia)