One of the great unifying forces of the Roman Empire was its language; Latin slowly became the lingua franca, the universal language of the Roman world. Latin became both the most widespread language of its time and the most influential language of all time, for it formed the basis of the great Romance languages of western Europe, Romania, and Latin America, and it was the language of universal scholarship until the nineteenth century. Until displaced by French, it was the language of diplomacy, and until displaced in the twentieth century by English, it was the language of technology.
To the Romans, as to the Greeks, to speak and write well and to recognize these qualities in others were significant indications of the civilized mind. Their frequent and shared reference to the people beyond their borders as “barbarians” was more a statement about the language those people spoke than about their customs. For the Romans, their literature was an indication of both their unity and their sense of a separate identity. For us, therefore, Latin literature takes on a dual significance; first it tells us about the Romans themselves and, second, it shows how the Romans used language to incorporate other cultures, chiefly Greek, into their own.
The figure known to us as the “father of Latin poetry,” Quintus Ennius (239-169 B.c.), was born and brought up in Magna Graecia and therefore naturally turned to Homer for inspiration. Although only frag¬ments of the Annales are preserved, we have enough to appreciate Ennius’s admiration for military virtues. And as Ennius used Homeric verse to celebrate Roman toughness and resilience, Plautus (254-184 B.c.). and Terence (190-159) took their inspiration from the Greek New Comedy of Menander.
Plautus was the more raucous and knockabout. Many of his characters—the two sets of twins, masters and servants, who are always being taken for each other; the rich but stupid young gentleman with an immensely clever and resourceful valet; the money-grubbing miser recur throughout European literature. Gentler and milder in every sense, Terence remained closer to the Greek originals. After Plautus and Terence, various Roman authors tried to write comedies with a native Italian inspiration, but none of their work survives.
During the late Republic appeared two of Rome’s greatest poets—Lucretius (96-55 B.c.) and Catullus (84-54 B.c.). Lucretius, a disciple of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, wrote a long poem. De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), putting into moving verse his master’s beliefs that there is no human survival after death and that the gods, far from governing human affairs, do not intervene at all. He wrote that the universe is made up of atoms, whose motions and behavior are governed by fixed laws though human beings control their own actions.
Catullus wrote passionate love lyrics recording his feelings for his mistress. Sometimes playful and charming, as in poems addressed to her pet sparrow or celebrating the first days of spring, sometimes bitter and obscene (she was unfaithful and made Catullus miserable), these brief poems seem to some readers the highest achievement of Roman literature.
In Cicero (106-43 B.c.) the late Republic produced its greatest writer of prose, who adjusted the ideas of Greek philosophy to distinctive Roman values. His oratorical skill furthered his career as a successful lawyer and politician; he won his listeners with an occasional injection of wit or irony into an otherwise somber and stately passage. He carefully studied not only what he wanted to say, but also how to choose the most effective—sometimes the most unexpected—words in which to say it, and how to combine them into a rhythmical and pleasing pattern, so that the sound and the sense would combine to make his point irresistibly. As the recognized supreme master of oratory, he wrote treatises on the art.
Philosophically, Cicero largely agreed with the Stoics, as modified by Greek teachers who had adapted the concepts of Stoicism to Roman taste by allowing for the exercise in ordinary life of the Stoic virtues. Cicero helped popularize these ideas in his essays on Old Age, on Friendship, on The Nature of the Gods, and on other political and social subjects.
Cicero tutored his fellow Romans about the concepts of “natural law” that existed independently of all human legislation and a “law of nations” that should regulate the relationships of different people with each other. Cicero believed that law, custom, and tradition led to stability, which was essential to liberty, from which sprang a person’s true security. The influence of these Ciceronian works radiated far into human history: the early Christian fathers studied Cicero, as did the humanists of the Italian Renaissance and the men who made the eighteenth century revolutions in America and France and who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.
It was the writers who came after Cicero who gave Rome its literary Golden Age. Vergil (70-19 B.c.), in his Georgics and Ecologues, which followed the models of Greek pastoral poetry, praised the pleasures and satisfactions of rural life. Written before Augustus reached political supremacy, these poems helped him advance his later program of propaganda to get workers back to the farms. He persuaded Vergil to write the Aeneid, the great national epic of Rome’s beginnings, in which the poet could “predict” the future glories that Augustus’s rule would bring. Vergil often reflected upon the sacrifices that necessarily accompany a rise to greatness, on sorrow, and on death. In the sweep of his interests, Vergil also reflected on the brotherhood of man.
Vergil’s fellow poet Horace (65-8 B.C.) showed more humor and expressed a greater range of feelings in a greater variety of meters. He, too, praised the joys of rural life and the virtues of moderation, but in more solemn terms celebrated the Roman qualities of quiet toughness, love of the simple life, the traditional religious attitudes, while glorifying the Augustan order. Ovid (43 B.C.—A.D. 17) gave worldly, often cynical, advice on the art of love. In the Metamorphoses he also told of the mythical transformations reported in Greek stories in which various divinities became birds, animals, or plants.
The historian Livy (59 B.C.—A.D. 17) set out to write a prose history of the city from the moment of its founding. Only 35 of the 142 books into which he divided his work have come down to us complete, but we have summaries of the missing portions. Though Livv could use as his sources many Roman writers now lost, for the earliest periods he had to fall back on legend. While he knew the difference between reliable and unreliable accounts, he often used the latter because they were the only sources available.
Insistence on the great Roman virtues reflected the uneasy sense that they were declining. As the government after Augustus became more arbitrary and autocratic, writers began to fear the consequences of expressing themselves too freely, and disillusionment set in.
The greatest Roman historian, Tacitus (c. A.D. 55–c. 115), was convinced that the Romans had degenerated. His Germania, an essay ostensibly in praise of the rugged and still primitive German barbarians, was in fact an acid commentary on the Romans’ descent into the love of luxury for its own sake. Similar disillusionment pervades his history of the period from Tiberius to Domitian. Brilliant and prejudiced, he was the greatest writer of the period between Tiberius and Hadrian, known as the Silver Age.
Silver Age poets included Seneca (c. 5 B.C.—A.D. 65), Nero’s tutor, a Stoic philosopher and author of nine sensational tragedies imitating Greek originals. Seneca committed suicide at Nero’s order. Seneca’s nephew, Lucan (39-65), wrote an epic poem (The Pharsalia) about the struggle between Caesar and Pompey. Persius (34-62) and Juvenal (c. 60–c. 140) satirized contemporary society, and Juvenal enjoyed painting the vulgarities and wretchedness, the cruelties and greed of Rome in the harshest colors.