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Literature in the Roman Empire - History

Literature in the Roman Empire - History


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Literature in the Roman Empire

Romans first started writing literature in third century B.C.E. One Romes early playwrights was Plautus who borrowed heavily from the Greek comedies. Catullus was one of the best poets of Rome. He wrote on subjects ranging from political and social customs to the death of his brother.

Cicero, Rome leading orator combined his works on Philosophy with politics. His most famous works was On the Laws and On the Republic.

Virgil (70-19 BCE) was the author of the epic poem the Aeneid which told the story of Troy and Rome. Virgils frend Horace (65-8 BCE) wrote extensively on human weakness. Two of his most famous works were Satires and Epistles. Ovid's (43 BCE-18 CE) two most famous workd were a series of love poems called Amores and the mythological tales called Metamorphoses.


The historian Livy (56-120 CE)wrote one of the most famous prose works of the period- a 142 volume HIstory of Rome. Another Roman historian was Tacitas. He wrote Annals and Histories detailing the history of Rome from the period of Tiberius through the assassination of Domitian. Seneca 4 BCE- 65 CE wrote nine tragedies , 124 philosphical letters and seven book of Natural Questions.


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In September 476 AD, the last Roman emperor of the west, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed by a Germanic prince called Odovacar, who had won control of the remnants of the Roman army of Italy. He then sent the western imperial regalia to Constantinople.

The Roman empire in western Europe - a centralised superstate which had been in existence for 500 years - had ceased to exist, its single emperor replaced by upwards of a dozen kings and princes.

The vast majority of these rulers, like Odovacar himself , were non-Roman in origin. Their power was based on the control of military forces which were the direct descendents of recent immigrants into the Roman world, whether Anglo-Saxons in Britain, Goths in southern Gaul and Spain, or Vandals in North Africa.

The end of empire was a major event in human history.

What difference did this political revolution make to real life in the former western Empire?

For many 19th and earler 20th century commentators, the fall of Rome marked the death knell of education and literacy, sophisticated architecture, advanced economic interaction, and, not least, the rule of written law.

The 'dark ages' which followed were dark not only because written sources were few and far between, but because life became nasty, brutish and short.

Other commentators, who were more focused on the slavery and entrenched social hierarchies that were also part of the Roman world, didn't really disagree with these observations.

But they saw the 'dark ages' as a more necessary evil - Rome had to fall to destroy large-scale slavery and make possible, eventually, a world which valued all human beings more equally.

On either view, the end of empire was a major event in human history.


The Great Greek Heroes of Mythology

Painter: Franz Matsch (died 1942)/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 1.0

Heroes in Greek legends usually performed dangerous feats, killed villains and monsters, and won the hearts of local maidens. They may also have been guilty of numerous acts of murder, rape, and sacrilege.

Names like Achilles, Hercules, Odysseus, and Perseus are among the best-known in Greek mythology. Their stories are ones for the ages, but do you remember Cadmus, the founder of Thebes, or Atalanta, one of the few women heroes?


2. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon (1776-1789)

More casual readers might be dismayed to see The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire recommended so highly — the Penguin Classics edition, after all, runs to three volumes, weighing in at more than a thousand pages apiece. But there’s a reason this English classic has had more staying power than Elizabeth II: it’s a monumental work of scholarship — and also a lot more entertaining than even the wittiest of dictionaries.

Gibbon’s first volume might be the same age as the United States, but his style still stands at the pinnacle of genteel, white-gloved irony. He excels at modulating scale — moving from the grand sweep of imperial politics to the petty impulses that animated individual lives. Gibbon doesn’t squander all 3,000 pages on the crises of the third century, or even stop in 1453, when Constantinope fell to the Ottoman Empire: his history stretches all the way to the 16th century, providing plenty of gentle snickers along the way.


Literature and culture in the Roman Empire, 96-235: cross-cultural interactions

The surge of interest in the so-called ‘Second Sophistic’ over the last fifty or so years has doubtless been (in the Anglophone world, at least) one of the most productive revisionist movements in the history of classical scholarship. The veritable tidal wave of work that has appeared since the publication of Glen Bowersock’s Greek Sophists in the Roman Empire (1969) has upended our conceptions of the literary culture of the Roman Empire and given rise to a renaissance of scholarship on a body of texts long consigned to the barren wasteland of gauche postclassical frippery. This paradigm shift has also seen a slow but steady swell of interest in the other ‘literary cultures’ that cohabited the geographical and political space of the Roman Empire (for example, Christians—Brent (2006) Nasrallah (2010) Eshlemann (2012)).

This volume, the second to emerge from the Literary Interactions Project after Alice König and Chris Whitton’s Roman Literature Under Nerva, Trajan, and Hadrian: Literary Interactions 96-138 (2018), aims to complicate elements of this new wave of thinking. It identifies one of the most substantial shortfalls of the Second Sophistic phenomenon as the ‘atomised’ model of imperial literary culture that it has fomented: i.e., one in which Latin-speaking Romans, Greek Pepaideumenoi, Christians, Jews, etc., are thought to have operated within fixed cultural and intellectual parameters in dialogue chiefly (and often exclusively) with people belonging to the same group. The editors rightly observe that this dearth of interest in interaction is a problem yet to be adequately addressed: “there is currently no work that attempts to unite the diverse cultural strands of the empire during this period, and none that explores different methodologies for tracking interaction between distinct linguistic and cultural groups.”[1] They set out to rectify this omission: to show that “the literatures of the second and third centuries are more varied than ever before in the linguistic, geographic, and cultural origins of texts—and yet also more dynamically interconnected in the shared discourses to which they respond.”[2]

The volume opens with an expansive introduction co-authored by all three editors. It first sets the scene by tracing a brief history of the scholarship on both imperial literary culture(s) and the idea of literary interactivity more broadly. By far its most helpful feature is “Cross-Cultural Interactions: A Guide,” which gives a detailed precis of each individual contribution that (somewhat metatextually) stresses the ‘interactions’ with other pieces in the volume. This is a very welcome preface to a work that deals with such an expansive and varied body of material.

Part I (“Refiguring Roman and Greek Interactions”) complicates and reshapes our conception of the relationship between the two historically focalised group identities of the imperial period: Greeks and Romans. Myles Lavan calls into question the universality of the term ‘Roman’ and, in doing so, “destabilize[s] our assumptions about ‘the Romans’ as a self-evident category that denotes a clearly defined dominant group.”[3] James Uden zeroes in on the idea of sound in Tatian (a Syrian Christian writing in Greek) and Fronto (a Roman rhetorician writing in Latin) and uncovers a common self-consciousness about speech that transcends cultural, religious, and linguistic boundaries. Rebecca Langlands looks at the way in which Plutarch’s experience of Roman exemplary ethics refigured his thinking about foundationally Greek concepts like mimesis and zelos. Dana Fields (in a piece that nicely dovetails with her own recent work on ‘frankness’) explores the representation of patronage by Plutarch and Pliny and the way in which the distinct literary traditions to which they belonged shaped their navigation of the realities of the patronal system. Adam Kemezis creatively interrogates the crossover between Florus and Appian (both historians) and Chariton (a novelist) by suggesting that the former borrowed certain narrative techniques from the world of the romance novel and retooled them for the context of ‘Antonine’ historiography. Alice König closes Part I with a comparative reading of two manuals of military strategy (Aelianus Tacticus’ Tactical Theory and Arrian’s Tactics) which focusses on the distinct ways that each author interacts with the ‘authority’ of Latin strategic texts.

Part II (“Imperial Infrastructure: Documents and Monuments”) shows that the themes identified in Part I are not restricted to the high-brow context of ‘literature’ by turning its attention to (broadly defined) ‘documentary’ texts. Kelly Shannon-Henderson typifies this capacious understanding of the ‘document’ by looking at Phlegon of Tralles’ infamously obscure On Marvels which, though ostensibly positioned within the Greek paradoxographical tradition, evinces a plainly Roman interest in human rather than (super)natural paradoxa. Laura Nasrallah gets us closer to an actual ‘document’ by tackling the imperial rescript attached to Justin Martyr’s First Apology, moving beyond humdrum questions of authorship and authenticity towards teasing out what it might tell us about Christian engagement with the bureaucratic machinery of empire. Tom Geue offers a different perspective on similar ground by comparing the distinct ways that documentary evidence is handled by Justin and Suetonius, revealing in the process a second century ‘crisis of faith’ in the reliability of the document as a form of proof. James Harrill—in a bold break with tradition for a secular classical publication—takes on Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians by exploring the way in which motifs picked up from contemporary architectural literature might have informed the metaphor of the church as the ‘body of Christ’. Christopher Siwicki carries on with the theme of the built environment and attempts to explain the paucity of Latin architectural criticism as the product of deliberate Roman avoidance of an ‘alien’ practice. Caillan Davenport rounds off Part II by investigating the various narrative incarnations of the courtroom trial which both draw from a ‘universal’ feature of imperial existence (i.e., real-world legal trials) and are simultaneously influenced by culturally specific story-traditions (e.g., Jewish martyr narratives).

Part III (“Cultural Translation and Transformation”) massively expands the geographical scope of the exploration, taking us away from the centre of Roman power to the far-flung corners of the imperial frontier. Nathanael Andrade explores the way in which Greco-Roman ethnographic (‘orientalising’) tropes were reflected and refracted in contemporary Mesopotamian literature by looking at the two fragments of Bardaisan (both nominally ‘autoptic’ accounts of India and the Brahmans) preserved by Porphyry. Johannes Haubold interrogates the world of Chaldaean literature with a particular focus on its engagement with and adaptation of Platonism as a way of making itself palatable for the philosophical tastes of the Antonine empire. Steven Smith ends Part III (and with it, the body of the collection) by thinking about the way in which Aelian retools the Gilgamos (i.e., Gilgamesh) story in On the Nature of Animals as an ‘Eastern’ incarnation of the myth of Perseus.

The volume ends with an epilogue by Natalie Dohrmann (“Not There: Empire, Intertextuality, and Absence”). This is the only focussed treatment of Jewish material in the volume and explores the range of thorny issues associated with studying the relationship between rabbinic literature and the broader literary context of the second century empire. Though there are indeed several roadblocks to this endeavour (the anonymity of the authors, the conscious recusal of the rabbis from imperial ‘book culture’, etc.), Dohrmann stresses the value of persevering with it, emphasising especially the fruitful comparative analysis of ideas of authorship.

One of the perennial problems with edited volumes is cohesion (or, more to the point, lack thereof). The editors of this collection navigate that hazard expertly—and impressively, given the enormous chronological, geographical, linguistic, cultural, and generic scope of their material. The introduction clearly sets out the organisational rationale and provides a helpful roadmap for engaging with the diverse texts and topics covered by the contributions. The approach taken by the editors therein should serve as a model for others weaving together such ostensibly miscellaneous collections. One minor criticism, however, is the placement of Dohrmann’s epilogue. While this is a clever and considered treatment of Rabbinic literature that blends neatly with the theme(s) of the other chapters, it is an oddly specific way to round off such a broad assemblage and leaves the whole project feeling a touch ‘unfinished’. Moreover, it is not clear to this reader—neither as it is explained in the introduction nor on the basis of the piece itself—precisely why the rabbinic material has been levered out of the main text like this rather than given a canonical place somewhere in the core of the discussion (either Part II or III).

Generally speaking, the volume is handsomely produced and contains very few typographical errors (certainly none of any consequence). My only substantial criticism on this front—which rests squarely with the press, not the editors—is the colour and resolution of the images. All are printed in black-and-white and their quality leaves much to be desired. One particularly irritating offender is the photograph of the inscribed archive wall at Aphrodisias in Nasrallah’s chapter (Fig. 8.2, pg. 191) in which this reader could scarcely discern the presence of an inscription on the blocks, let alone the sense of its scope and organisation that ought to complement the accompanying discussion. This unfortunate sloppiness with visual material is much to the detriment of the otherwise high production standards of CUP and ought to be rectified with due haste.[4]

All in all, this is an innovative and challenging offering that far expands the horizons (intellectual, geographical, cultural, etc.) of an already vast and dynamic area of scholarship. It should now be standard reading for students and scholars of imperial literature – Greek, Latin, and beyond!

Authors and Titles

Introduction. Alice König, Rebecca Langlands, and James Uden.

Part I: Refiguring Roman and Greek Interactions
1. Beyond Romans and Others: Identities in the Long Second Century. Myles Lavan.
2. The Noise-Lovers: Cultures of Speech and Sound in Second-Century Rome. James Uden.
3. Plutarch and Roman Exemplary Ethics: Cultural Interactions. Rebecca Langlands.
4. Patronage, Cultural Difference, and Literary Interactivity: The Case of Pliny and Plutarch. Dana Fields.
5. The Romance of Republican History: Narrative Tension and Resolution in Florus, Appian, and Chariton. Adam M. Kemezis.
6. Tactical Interactions: Dialogues Between Greece and Rome in the Military Manuals of Aelian and Arrian. Alice König.

Part II: Imperial Infrastructure: Documents and Monuments
7. Constructing a New Imperial Paradoxography: Phlegon of Tralles and His Sources. Kelly E. Shannon-Henderson.
8. A Formation of a Christian Archive? The Case of Justin Martyr and an Imperial Rescript. Laura Salah Nasrallah.
9. Keeping/Losing Records, Keeping/Losing Faith: Suetonius and Justin Do the Document. Tom Geue.
10. Shaping Buildings into Stories: Architectural Ekphrasis and the Epistle to the Ephesians in Roman Literary Culture. J. Albert Harrill.
11. Architectural Criticism in the Roman World and the Limits of Literary Interaction. Christopher Siwicki.
12. Dying for Justice: Narratives of Roman Judicial Authority in the High Empire. Caillan Davenport.

Part III: Cultural Translation and Transformation
13. Bardaisan’s Disciples and Ethnographic Knowledge in the Roman Empire. Nathanael Andrade.
14. Chaldaean Interactions. Johannes Haubold.
15. Gilgamos in Rome: Aelian NA 12.21. Steven D. Smith.

Afterword. Not There: Empire, Intertextuality, and Absence. Natalie B. Dohrmann.

Additional Bibliography

Bowersock, G. 1969. Greek Sophists in the Roman Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Brent, A. 2006. Ignatius of Antioch and the Second Sophistic. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.

Eshlemann, K. 2012. The Social World of Intellectuals in the Roman Empire: Sophists, Philosophers, and Christians. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nasrallah, L. 2010. Christian Responses to Roman Art and Architecture: The Second Century Church Amid the Spaces of Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Swain, S., Elsner, J., and Harrison, T. Severan Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[1] König, Langlands, and Uden 2020, 5. Although – and this is flagged by the editors – Swain et al. 2007 is a notable exception.


Roman Literature Under The Empire - A.D. 14-476

Roman literature, which had risen to its highest excellence under Augustus, declined rapidly under his successors, and was finally lost with the fall of the Western empire. The language was no longer pure, and neither prose nor poetry retained the harmony and elegance of the Augustan age. A certain sadness and discontent, which marks all the later literature, forms also a striking contrast with the cheerful tone of the earlier writers. Every part of the empire, however, abounded with men of letters, and a high degree of mental cultivation seems every where to have prevailed.

Epic poetry continued to nourish, and Virgil found many imitators. The best epic writer of this period was M. Annæus Lucanus, who was born at Corduba, in Spain, in the year A.D. 38. Lucan was educated at Rome under the Stoic Cornutus, and was introduced by his uncle Seneca to the Emperor Nero. Having for a time enjoyed the patronage of Nero, he at length became the object of his jealousy and hatred, was accused of having taken part in Piso's conspiracy, and was condemned to death. He was allowed, as a favor, to put an end to his own life, and thus died, A.D. 65. Although so young, for he was scarcely twenty-seven years of age, Lucan, besides several shorter poems, produced the Pharsalia, an epic, of which he finished only ten books: it relates the wars between Cæsar and Pompey, and contains many fine thoughts and striking images. He evidently prefers Pompey to Cæsar, and possessed a strong love for liberty, which lends vigor to his verses. His language is pure, his rhythm often harmonious, but he never attains the singular delicacy and sweetness of his master, Virgil.

C. Silius Italicus, the place of whose birth is unknown, also lived during the reign of Nero, and was Consul in the year A.D. 68. He was a Stoic, and put an end to his own life in the year A.D. 100, when he was about seventy-five years of age. His poem, the Punica, is an account of the second Punic War in verse, and is chiefly valuable to the historical student. He had little inventive power, and takes but a low rank in poetry.

P. Papinius Statius, the son of the teacher of the Emperor Domitian, was carefully educated at Rome, and became renowned at an early age for his poetical talents. He spent the last years of his life at Naples, which was also the place of his birth, and died there in the year A.D. 96. He wrote the Thebais, in twelve parts the Achilleis, in two books the Sylvæ, a collection of poems a tragedy, and other works. He seems to have borrowed much from earlier Greek writers, but was possessed of considerable poetical fervor.

Claudius Claudianus, who lived under Theodosius the Great and his two sons, was probably born and educated at Alexandria, but we know little of his history. He came to Rome about A.D. 395, and, under the patronage of Stilicho, rose to a high position in the state. The time and place of his death are unknown. His chief works were, 1. Raptus Proserpinæ, an unfinished poem in three parts 2. Gigantomachia, another unfinished work 3. De Bello Gildonico, of which we possess only the first book and, 4. De Bello Getico, in which the poet sings the victory of Stilicho over Alaric at Pollentia. His poems have a rude vigor which sometimes strikes the attention, but are chiefly valued for the light they throw upon the Gothic wars. They are marked by many faults of taste.

Lyric poetry was little cultivated at Rome after the death of Horace but satire, which was peculiar to the Romans, reached its highest excellence under the empire. Juvenal is still the master of this kind of writing, although he has been imitated by Boileau, Pope, and Johnson and his contemporary Persius was also a writer of great power.

Aulus Persius Flaccus was born at Volaterræ, in Etruria, in the year A.D. 34, of a distinguished family of the equestrian rank. He was educated at Rome under the best masters, particularly under the Stoic Cornutus, with whom he lived in close friendship, as well as with Lucan, Seneca, and the most distinguished men of his time. He died at the early age of twenty-eight, leaving behind him six satires and a brief preface. Persius possessed a generous, manly character, was the foe of every kind of vice, and formed one of that graceful band of writers who maintained their independence under the terrors of a despotic government.

Decimus Junius Juvenalis, of whose life we have few particulars, was born at Aquinum A.D. 38 or 40, and came up to Rome, where he at first studied eloquence with great ardor, but at length gave himself wholly to satirical writing. He offended Domitian by his satires, it is said, and was sent by that emperor to the extreme boundary of Egypt, where he died of grief and exile but scarcely any fact in the history of this great man has been perfectly ascertained.

We possess sixteen satires of Juvenal, the last of which, however, is of doubtful authenticity. These satires are full of noble appeals to the purest emotions of virtue, and of severe rebukes for triumphant vice. Juvenal's language is often harsh and his taste impure but his ideas are so elevated, his perception of truth, honor, and justice so clear, that he seldom fails to win the attention of his readers.

Epigrams seem to have been a favorite mode of expressing thought at the court of Augustus, and almost every eminent Roman from the time of Cicero has left one or more of these brilliant trifles behind him. M. Valerius Martialis, the chief of the epigrammatists, was born about A.D. 40, at Bibilis, in Spain, from whence he came to Rome, when about twenty, to perfect his education. Here he lived for thirty-five years, engaged in poetical pursuits, and patronized by Titus and Domitian. He seems finally to have returned to his native land, where he was living in the year A.D. 100. His poems are about fifteen hundred in number, divided into fourteen books, and are altogether original in their design. They are always witty, often indecent, and contain many personal allusions which can not now be understood. Martial is one of the most gifted of the Roman writers.

The practice of writing epigrams was preserved until a very late period. Seneca, Pliny the younger, Hadrian, and many others, were fond of composing them and in modern times the epigram has been a favorite kind of poetry with most good writers.

Phædrus, who lived under Augustus and Tiberius, wrote pleasing fables. Calphurnius and Ausonius imitated Virgil's bucolics, and fragments of many other poets are preserved, whom we can not mention here.

Historical writers also abounded under the empire. Velleius Paterculus, an excellent historian descended from a patrician family, was born about B.C. 19. He was the friend and flatterer of Tiberius, and rose, in consequence, to several high offices. He was Quæstor in perhaps A.D. 7, and Prætor in A.D. 15. His Historicæ Romanæ, two books of which remain, is an abridgment of the history of the world, written in a clear and pleasing style, and is, in general, trustworthy. He flatters his benefactors, Augustus and Tiberius, but his fine tribute to the memory of Cicero shows that he felt a strong sympathy with that chief of the Republicans.

Valerius Maximus, who also lived under Tiberius, wrote a considerable work, composed of remarkable examples of virtue, and other anecdotes, collected from Roman or foreign history. He had plainly a just conception of moral purity, although he dedicates his book to Tiberius. His style is inflated and tasteless, but the work is not without interest.

Next after Valerius arose Tacitus, the chief of the imperial prose writers. Tacitus, a plebeian by birth, was born at Interamna. The year of his birth is not known, but must have lain between A.D. 47 and A.D. 61. Tacitus served in the army under Vespasian and Titus. He rose to many honors in the state, but in A.D. 89 left Rome, together with his wife, the daughter of the excellent Agricola. He returned thither in A.D. 97, and was made Consul by the Emperor Nerva. His death took place, no doubt, after A.D. 117. So few are the particulars that remain of the life of this eminent man but the disposition and sentiments of Tacitus may be plainly discovered in his writings. He was honest, candid, a sincere lover of virtue. He lamented incessantly the fall of the old republic, and does not spare Augustus or Tiberius, whom he believed to be its destroyers. Like Juvenal, whom he resembled in the severity of his censure as well as the greatness of his powers, Tacitus wrote in a sad, desponding temper of mind, as if he foresaw the swift decline of his country.

His style is wholly his own - concise, obscure, strong, forever arousing the attention. He could never have attained the easy elegance of Livy, and he never tells a story with the grace of that unequaled narrator, but he has more vigor in his descriptions, more reality in his characters.

The life of his father-in-law Agricola is one of the most delightful of biographies. His account of the Germans was a silent satire upon the corrupt condition of the Roman state. The Historiarum Libri is a history of his own age, from the fall of Galba to the death of Domitian, and was probably designed to embrace the reigns of Nerva and Trajan. A small portion only of this work is preserved. The Annales relate the history of Rome from the death of Augustus to that of Nero, but are also imperfect. A treatise upon the orators is also attributed to the historian. Tacitus and Juvenal are the last great names in Roman literature.

Quintus Curtius Rufus, an interesting writer, who lived perhaps under Claudius or Tiberius, his true period being uncertain, wrote, in ten books, an account of the exploits of Alexander the Great. He was succeeded by C. Suetonius Tranquillus, who came to Rome during the reign of Domitian, and there studied rhetoric and grammar. Under Hadrian he fell into disgrace and went into exile: the period of his death is unknown. Suetonius wrote the lives of the twelve Cæsars, ending with Domitian. His language is good, and he paints with uncommon minuteness the vices as well as the virtues of his subjects he abounds, too, in particulars which throw light upon the manners of the Romans. Suetonius also wrote several short treatises, while various biographies have been attributed to him which probably belong to inferior writers.

L. Annæus Florus, who perhaps lived under Trajan, wrote an epitome of Roman history. Justin, whose period is unknown, wrote or abridged from an earlier author, Trogus, a history of the world. The Scriptores Historiæ Augustæ is a collection of writers of little merit, who flourished in different periods of the empire. Aurelius Victor, who was probably Præfect of Rome under Theodosius, wrote Origo Gentis Romanæ, only a small portion of which has been preserved, and several other historical works. Eutropius, who served under Julian against the Persians, composed a brief history of Rome, written in a pure and natural style.

Ammianus Marcellinus, who lived under Valens, Valentinian, and Theodosius until A.D. 410, and was a Greek by birth, wrote a history of the empire from Nerva to the death of Valens, A.D. 378. A large part of this work is lost. Ammianus abounds in digressions and descriptions, and is, on that account, the more entertaining. His manner can not be praised.

The Spaniard Orosius concludes the list of the Latin historians. Orosius was a Christian presbyter, and, while defending Christianity, paints a lamentable picture of the condition of the pagan world. He borrowed from Justin and other writers, and lived in the fifth century.

Rhetoric continued to be cultivated, but eloquence no longer possessed the power which it held under the Republic. The speeches now delivered were chiefly declamations upon unimportant themes. M. Annæus Seneca, the father of the philosopher, came to Rome from his native city Corduba, in Spain, during the reign of Augustus, and became a famous rhetorician. M. Fabius Quintilianus, a greater name in literature, was born A.D. 42, at Calgurris, in Spain, but, as was customary with men of merit at that period, went up to Rome, and became celebrated as a teacher of rhetoric. He was a person of excellent character, and, besides practicing at the bar, rose to the consulship. Having passed many years in politics or the law, Quintilian at last returned to his old profession, and in the close of his life gave himself wholly to letters. He now wrote his work upon oratory, Libri duodecim Institutionis Oratoriæ. In this valuable work he seeks to restore the purity of the language, inculcates simplicity, and shows an excellent taste. The younger Pliny was also a famous orator or declaimer.

The Romance, or modern novel, is also thought to have begun in the first century with the satirical tale ascribed to Petronius Arbiter, or perhaps with the translation of the Milesian tales of Aristides from the Greek by Sisenna. The Petronii Arbitri Satiricon is a romance in prose and verse, and was probably written in the first century by an author of whom nothing is known. It relates the adventures of a certain Encolopius, and satirizes the vices and follies of the age. The language of this work is pure, the wit lively, but indecent: only a portion, however, of the Satiricon has been preserved. During the age of the Antonines arose Appuleius, the best known of the ancient writers of tales. He was born at Madaura, in Africa, but went to Carthage, and from thence to Athens, where he was initiated into the Grecian mysteries, and studied the Platonic philosophy. Appuleius was an agreeable speaker, and had filled his mind with the learning of his age but his fame with posterity rests upon his novel Metamorphoseon, in which he strives to correct the vices of his contemporaries. In this work a vicious young man is transformed into an ass, under which form he goes through many amusing adventures, but is at last changed to a new man through the influence of the mysteries. The story is full of episodes, the moral good, but the language shows the decline of literary taste.

Philosophy, since the time of Cicero, had become a favorite study with the Romans, although they produced no remarkable philosopher. Seneca, the most eminent of them, was the son of M. Annæus Seneca, the rhetorician. He was probably born at Corduba, in Spain, soon after the Christian era, and was educated by the best masters at Rome. He possessed an active intellect, was early renowned, and held various high offices in the state. Having been the preceptor of Nero, he was finally condemned to death by that monster, and put an end to his life A.D. 65. Seneca was a Stoic, and taught self-control, tranquillity of mind, and contempt for the changes of fortune. His various essays and other writings have always been admired, although he wanted a correct taste, and is often affected and rhetorical. He possessed great wealth, which he either inherited or accumulated. His town house was adorned with marbles and citron-wood, and his country villas, of which he had several, were filled with costly luxuries yet his morals were probably pure, and he was much beloved for his generosity and fidelity to his many friends.

The elder Pliny, Plinius Secundus Major, another famous philosopher, was born in the year A.D. 23, either at Como or Verona. He served with the army in Germany, and rose high in office under Vespasian. Being in command of the fleet at Misenum during the first eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79, in order to gratify his curiosity he remained too long near the burning mountain, and was suffocated by its exhalations. Pliny passed his whole life in study, and was never satisfied unless engaged in acquiring knowledge. His Historia Naturalis resembles the Cosmos of Humboldt, and passes in review over the whole circle of human knowledge. It treats of the heavens, of the earth and its inhabitants, of the various races of man, of animals, trees, flowers, minerals, the contents of the sea and land, of the arts and sciences and shows that the author possessed an intellect of almost unequaled activity. His nephew, the younger Pliny, who lived under Trajan, and was the favorite correspondent of that emperor, is remembered for his agreeable letters, and the purity and dignity of his character.

Grammatical studies and critical writings also afforded employment for many intelligent Romans and every part of the empire seems to have been filled with cultivated men, who, possessing wealth and leisure, gave themselves to literary studies. Aulus Gellius, one of the best known of the grammarians, lived during the period of the Antonines. His Noctes Atticæ is a critical work in twenty books, in which he discusses many questions in language, philosophy, and science. He seems to have passed his life in traveling over Italy and Greece, collecting materials for this work, and, wherever he goes he never fails to meet with agreeable, intelligent friends, who delight, like himself, in improving conversation.

Aurelius Macrobius, another well-known grammarian, lived during the fifth century. His Commentary on the Dream of Scipio is full of the scientific speculations of his age. His Saturnalia contains many extracts from the best Roman writers, with criticisms upon them, in which he detects the plagiarisms of Virgil, and observes the faults as well as the beauties of the orators and poets of Rome. The works of other grammarians have been preserved or are partly known to us, among which are those of Servius, Festus, Priscianus, and Isidorus.

The study of the law, too, flourished in uncommon excellence under the emperors, and nearly two thousand legal works were condensed in the Digests of Justinian, few of which belonged to the Republican period. Under Augustus and Tiberius, Q. Antistius Labeo founded the famous school of the Proculians. He left four hundred volumes upon legal subjects. His rival, C. Ateius Capito, founded the school of the Sabinians, and was also a profuse writer. Under Hadrian, Salvius Julianus prepared the Edictum Perpetuum, about the year A.D. 132, which condensed all the edicts of former magistrates into a convenient code. Papinianus, Ulpianus, and Paulus were also celebrated for their legal writings. The only complete legal work, however, which we possess from this period, is a Commentary by Gaius, who lived probably under Hadrian. This valuable treatise was discovered in the year 1816 by the historian Niebuhr, in the library of Verona. It contains a clear account of the principles of the Roman law, and the Institutes of Justinian are little more than a transcript of those of Gaius.

Various medical writers also belong to the Imperial period, the most important of whom is A. Cornelius Celsus. Works on agriculture were also written by Columella, Palladius, and others, which serve to show the decline of that pursuit among the Romans. Geography, mathematics, and architecture were also cultivated but of most of these scientific authors only the name is preserved.


Main Article

Archaic Literature

The roots of literature lie in oral traditions, which emerged throughout the world long before the development of writing. In addition to pure entertainment, oral stories were often used for instruction (e.g. ethical, religious, historical). Storytelling was sometimes ceremonial, and might be combined with other aesthetic forms (e.g. music, dancing, costumes).

The most influential and highly-regarded works of ancient literature are the narrative poems Iliad and Odyssey. Originally works of oral tradition, these poems were set down in the Archaic period, apparently by a man named Homer. The Iliad recounts the decade-long seige of Troy, while the Odyssey follows the decade-long homeward journey of Odysseus (a Greek king) at war's end.

Primary Ancient Writers
Greek Roman
poetry narrative Homer Virgil
lyric Pindar
drama serious Sophocles
comic Aristophanes
Archaic period (ca. 800-500 BC)
Classical period (ca. 500-330 BC)
golden age of Latin literature (ca. 80 BC-20 AD)

Meanwhile, ancient lyric poetry culminated with Pindar, whose victory odes (which celebrate athletic victories) are considered the pinnacle of his work. 4

Though Western prose and drama were also born in the Archaic period, these genres did not truly flourish until the Classical age.

Classical Literature

As noted earlier, oral legends were a universal feature of early human societies, and were often combined with other aesthetic forms (such as music, dancing, and costumes) to produce compelling reenactments of historical and/or mythical events. Such "story-ceremonies" remained popular long after the development of writing, and continue to flourish among many cultures today. The ancient Greeks invented drama by harnessing (and developing upon) these ceremonies to tell newly-composed stories.

Greek drama was performed by a small number of actors (1 to 3) and a chorus. The chorus was a group of supporting characters (e.g. a crowd of citizens) that presented and commented upon the story (with speech, singing, miming, and/or dancing). Greek tragedy culminated in the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, the second of whom is generally considered the greatest ancient playwright. The two outstanding figures of Greek comedy are Aristophanes and Menander, of whom the former is widely regarded the foremost comic dramatist of antiquity. 3

Primary Ancient Writers
Greek Roman
poetry narrative Homer Virgil
lyric Pindar
drama serious Sophocles
comic Aristophanes
Archaic period (ca. 800-500 BC)
Classical period (ca. 500-330 BC)
golden age of Latin literature (ca. 80 BC-20 AD)

Sophocles' foremost tragedy is Oedipus Rex, in which the titular character tries (and fails) to avoid fulfilling a prophecy that he will murder his father and wed his mother. In The Birds, often hailed as Aristophanes' finest play, two world-weary Athenians sprout wings and move to a city in the sky.

Subsequent Greek Literature

The Archaic and Classical periods witnessed the emergence and flourishing of every major type of literature, as well as the careers of all the foremost Greek authors. During the subsequent Hellenistic (ca. 330 BC-0) and Roman Empire (ca. 0-500) periods, Greek literature continued to thrive, but never again would a Greek author achieve renown comparable to that of the Archaic/Classical titans. Meanwhile, the cultural torch of the West passed to the Romans, who wrote primarily in Latin.

The Five Major Types of Literature
narrative poetry prose serious drama
lyric poetry comic drama

One further Greek author merits mention, however: Aesop, the (probably legendary) master of the fable, a brief story with non-human characters that teaches a lesson. Whether or not Aesop was an actual person (sources claim he lived in the Archaic or Classical period), the ancient body of work known as Aesop's fables became (and remains to this day) the most popular collection of fables ever written. The original Aesop collections have been lost the fables are known only through later versions (sometimes poetry, sometimes prose), which have been produced regularly from antiquity up to the present.

Roman Literature

The Roman Republic can be divided into the Early Republic (ca. 500-250 BC), during which Roman territory expanded gradually across Italy, and the Late Republic (ca. 250 BC-0), during which Roman territory expanded rapidly across the Mediterranean. During the Late Republic, Roman culture (including art and literature) truly began to flourish. Roman culture continued to thrive during the Early Empire (ca. 0-200), then permanently declined in the Late Empire (ca. 200-500).

The Romans adopted Greek culture as the foundation of their civilization, such that Roman literature (like Roman culture generally) continued and developed upon Greek forms. Naturally, these forms were modified to suit Roman tastes, and were injected with native Roman cultural elements most obviously, the chief language of Roman literature was Latin rather than Greek. Though all fields of ancient literature reached their highest level among the Greeks, the Romans produced their own share of titans, notably in epic poetry (led by Virgil), lyric poetry (led by Horace), and comedy (led by Plautus and Terence).

Roman literature is widely considered to have culminated over the century-long period ca. 80 BC-20 AD, known as the golden age of Latin literature. The preeminent figure of this golden age is Virgil, greatest of Roman writers. His masterpiece, the epic poem Aeneid, recounts the adventures of Aeneas, a Trojan prince who (following the destruction of Troy) journeys to Italy and founds Rome.

Primary Ancient Writers
Greek Roman
poetry narrative Homer Virgil
lyric Pindar
drama serious Sophocles
comic Aristophanes
Archaic period (ca. 800-500 BC)
Classical period (ca. 500-330 BC)
golden age of Latin literature (ca. 80 BC-20 AD)

The Bible

The Bible, the scripture (sacred text) of the Christian faith, consists of two main parts: the Old Testament (which is also the Hebrew Bible) and New Testament, which are themselves divided into many distinct works. The Old Testament was written (mainly in Hebrew) over the first millennium BC, while the New Testament was written (in Greek) mainly in the first century AD. 6,7

Ancient Christian Literature
written over the period.
Old Testament ca. 1000-0 BC
New Testament ca. 0-100
early theology ca. 0-500

The Bible contains various elements typical of religious texts across the world, including explanations of supernatural beings and places (and their relevance to humanity), history (ordinary and supernatural), law, ethics, and prophecy. The principal subject of the Old Testament is God's covenant with the Hebrews (the chosen people) and the ensuing formation and history of Israel (the Hebrew kingdom). The New Testament focuses on the life and teachings of Jesus, along with the attendant new covenant between God and Christians. 6,7

Christianity (with the Bible as its core) was the supreme force in medieval culture. Christian stories and themes dominated medieval art and literature. Indeed, the religion's sweeping cultural influence remained strong for centuries after the Middle Ages, though it came to share the stage with classical themes, as well as increasing attention to the immediate human world.

Early Christian Literature

Christianity emerged in 1st-century Palestine (as a splinter sect of Judaism), then spread throughout the Roman Empire. By the early medieval period, Christianity had come to dominate most of Europe consequently, a great portion of Western literature (from the Roman Empire period onward) is Christian in nature.

Theology can be defined as "the study of religious belief and practice". Christian theology, which emerged under the Roman Empire (and subsequently became the primary focus of medieval scholarship), is thus concerned with analyzing biblical truths (e.g. the nature of God and the afterlife, humanity's relationship with God) and their implications for human life (e.g. religous practice, politics, law, ethics).

To modern secular eyes, theological literature may seem an isolated curosity, of concern only to devoted religious intellectuals. Prior to the rise of secular societies, however, theology (along with the scripture it drew upon) was widely and profoundly influential on Western views and values. Indeed, for some Christians (and for millions who follow other faiths), the resounding impact of scripture and theology on everyday life has not dwindled (see Religion).

The theologians of the Roman Empire period laid the groundwork of Christian doctrine. In addition to analysis of the Bible itself, theology often attempted to reconcile scripture with classical philosophy (see History of Western Philosophy). The growth of theological scholarship began in earnest during the Late Empire period (ca. 200-500), especially once the religion was granted official tolerance by Constantine (313). By far the most influential theologian of antiquity was Saint Augustine.


The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

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The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, in full The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, historical work by Edward Gibbon, published in six volumes between 1776 and 1788. A continuous narrative from the 2nd century ce to the fall of Constantinople in 1453, it is distinguished by its rigorous scholarship, its historical perspective, and its incomparable literary style.

The Decline and Fall is divided into two parts, equal in bulk but different in treatment. The first half covers about 300 years to the end of the empire in the West, about 480 ce in the second half nearly 1,000 years are compressed. Gibbon viewed the Roman Empire as a single entity in undeviating decline from the ideals of political and intellectual freedom that characterized the classical literature he had read. For him, the material decay of Rome was the effect and symbol of moral decadence.

This article was most recently revised and updated by Kathleen Kuiper, Senior Editor.


The Low Empire (305 AD – 476 AD)

After the abdication of Diocletian in 305, a series of conflicts took place until 312, when Constantine became the sole emperor of the West. He was to be the last emperor of the unified empire. He instituted Christianity as the official religion of the Empire.

The capital of the Empire is moved to the ancient city of Byzantium, which is reconstructed. Byzantium, from 8 November, 324, is renamed Constantinople or the city of Constantine.

Constantine’s successor, Theodosius, divided the empire between his two sons Arcadius and Honorius, creating the Westen Roman Empire and the Eastern Roman Empire.

The Western Roman Empire falls in 476. Meanwhile, the other half, called the Byzantine Empire, survives until 1453 with the decline of Constantinople, now called Istanbul.

Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius


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