Latin literature

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.
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Latin literature

Latin literature, the literature of ancient Rome and of that written in Latin in later eras.

Very little remains of the ritualistic songs and the native poetry of the Romans and Latins before the rise of a literature. The history of the Roman Empire is fundamental to the fabric of this literature: in the first three centuries of its development, the influence of captive Greece was all-pervasive.

The Development of a Classical Style

The close of the First Punic War (c.240 BC) marks the beginning of literary work in Rome with the plays of the slave Livius Andronicus, adapted from the Greek. The epic poet Gnaeus Naevius also wrote dramas, but he was far surpassed by the greatest of Roman dramatists, Plautus, a master of comedy. In his SatiresEnnius introduced the hexameter into Latin; Cato the Elder opposed the hellenizing group, to which Ennius belonged, and wrote his works in as rude a Latin as possible. However, his efforts had little effect and the works of Terence, Greek in scene and origin, manifest the tremendous interchange of Greek and Latin writing.

The 1st cent. BC, the last era of the Roman republic, produced some of the greatest figures in Latin literature—the encyclopedist Varro, the statesmen and prose masters Cicero and Julius Caesar, the poets Lucretius and Catullus, and the historian Sallust. Vergil, the greatest of Latin epic poets, exemplifies a new atmosphere in the Augustan age, with his celebration—and somber questioning—of the new empire. In his epodes, odes, and satires, the poet Horace brought the Latin lyric to perfection, while the elegy was cultivated by Tibullus, Propertius, and Ovid. The notable historian of the age was Livy.

Post-classical Literature

During the first half of the 1st cent. AD, Latin literature in its classical form was in decline. The works of Seneca, Lucan, Persius, and Statius typify a period in which the masters, both Latin and Greek, were imitated. Among the most original poets were Martial and Juvenal, celebrated for their satiric writings. Petronius, Frontinus, Pliny the Elder, Pliny the Younger (see under Pliny the Elder), and Tacitus were the chief writers of prose; Suetonius exemplified the richness of historical and biographical writing under the Principate, while Quintilian brought classical literary criticism to its greatest development.

In the 2d cent. Marcus Fronto distinguished himself as an orator; his pupil Marcus Aurelius gained fame both as a ruler and as one of the masters of the Latin essay. In the 3d and 4th cent. the writings of Ausonius and Avienus extended beyond classical studies, developing traditional themes to deal with everyday life and the world of nature. Claudian is considered the best of the late poets. Ammianus Marcellinus was a noted historian. The philological scholars of the empire were numerous. These included Aulus Gellius, Terentianus, Macrobius, Martianus Capella, and Priscian.

As the classical inspiration died, the tradition of Latin literature was borrowed from and carried forward in Christian writing. Prudentius attempted to build a Christian style on classical models, but failed. The Latin language became the standard language of the West and by far the greater bulk of medieval literature as well as records, documents, and letters was written in Latin (see patristic literature; Medieval Latin literature; Roman law).

The Renaissance

The literature of the Renaissance represents a conscious attempt to recapture the classical spirit. Most learned people cultivated Latin, and many of them succeeded in writing a Latin style that stands comparison with classical Latin models. Petrarch, Boccaccio, Poggio Bracciolini, Poliziano, Pontano, and Pius II were accomplished Latin writers. Erasmus violently attacked the ubiquitous Ciceronianism of the time.

Later Latin Literature

Good Latin poets have been fewer since the Renaissance, but George Buchanan and John Milton are among the exceptions. Among the great scholars whose major works were written in Latin were Thomas More, Baruch Spinoza, Francis Bacon, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, and Isaac Newton. Latin literature, as such, is nearly dead, for its cultivation is limited to the ever-narrowing circles of classicists and to the Roman Catholic Church, which adds new matter to the liturgy only rarely and confines use of extraliturgical Latin to official, nonliterary documents.

Bibliography

See J. W. Duff, A Literary History of Rome (3d ed., repr. 1979); E. J. Kenney, ed., Cambridge History of Classical Literature, Vol. II (1982); J. Sullivan, Literature and Politics in the Age of Nero (1985); B. Baldwin, ed., An Anthology of Later Latin Literature (1987).

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