oman literature is the work of the authors of the Roman Republic* and the Roman Empire, most of whom wrote in Latin. The literature of the Romans included poetry, plays, and prose* works, such as novels, essays, oratory*, histories, and collections of letters. Although Roman literature began with translations and imitations of Greek works, it developed an identity of its own. Vergil, Horace, Ovid, and Cicero are among the Roman writers who contributed to the world’s literary heritage.

The Romans acquired the alphabet of the Greeks, probably through the Etruscans, in the 600s B.C. and adapted it to their own language. Although for the next four centuries they wrote law codes and inscriptions on tombstones, there is no surviving evidence of literary writing in this period. When the Romans did begin writing literature in the 200s B.C., they mainly translated Greek works. Greek literature became the model of excellence. The Romans took over the major genres of literature from the Greeks, such as the epic*, lyric* poetry, comedy and tragedy, history, and oratory. Comedy particularly appealed to Roman audiences, especially the works of the early Roman comic playwrights Plautus and Terence. The Romans also perfected the art of satire*, and verse satire is considered original to Rome.

One important development in Roman literature was a gradual division of the Latin language into two different styles. The first was used in higher forms of poetry and prose, such as epic and lyric poetry, history, and oratory. The second style was more natural and more closely related to the everyday speech of ordinary people. The authors of handbooks used this second style, as did the writers of satire and comedy. Some authors, such as Cicero, moved back and forth between styles, depending on the subject and the intended audience for his work.

* Roman Republic Rome during the period 509 B.C. to 31 B.C., when popular assemblies annually elected their governmental officials

* prose writing without meter or rhyme, as distinguished from poetry

* oratory art of public speaking

* epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style

* lyric poem expressing personal feelings, often similar in form to a song

* satire literary technique that uses wit and sarcasm to expose or ridicule vice and folly

Aeneas was one of the great heroes of Roman literature. This fresco from Pompeii illustrates a scene from Vergil’s acclaimed epic the Aeneid, in which the wounded Aeneas is cared for after battle.

Literary historians refer to the years from 70 B.C. to A.D. 18 as the Golden Age of Roman literature. During this period, Cicero developed his brilliant oratorical style, combining the clear organization of complex thoughts with elegant prose. All later Roman writers of prose either modeled their writing style on Cicero’s or rebelled against it. The many significant poets of the Golden Age include Horace, Catullus, and Ovid. Vergil wrote the Aeneid, the national epic of Rome, during the Golden Age, and Livy produced a monumental history of Rome. Outstanding historical writers of the time also included Julius Caesar and Sallust.

The Golden Age of literature was followed by the Silver Age, which lasted until A.D. 133. The literature of this period shines less brilliantly than that of the preceding hundred years. Rome was controlled by an emperor, and the imperial* state restricted many freedoms, including the freedom of writers to express themselves without fear of censorship. Ovid was just one of many Roman writers whom the state exiled or prevented from publishing their views. Yet the Silver Age produced important works of literature-angry satires by Juvenal; history by Tacitus; the philosophy of Seneca; and Petronius’s Satyricon, a racy and satirical novel of which only fragments remain. Some years later, Apuleius wrote a novel called The Golden Ass, which survived in its entirety. Like many other Greek and Roman prose fictions of the time, it combined comic incidents with an interest in mysticism* and magic.

* imperial pertaining to an emperor or empire

One of the best-known works of Roman literature in the years immediately following the Silver Age is the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, who was emperor from A.D. 161 to A.D. 180. Possibly never intended to be read by anyone other than himself, this work shows the emperor applying the philosophy of Stoicism to the task of governing the empire. Although Marcus Aurelius was the Roman emperor, he wrote in Greek, which shows how closely connected were the cultures of Greece and Rome.

As the people of the Roman Empire converted to Christianity, Christian literature overshadowed the works of pagan* writers. The towering literary figures of this era were Tertullian and St. Augustine. Boethius, a Christian philosopher of the early A.D. 500s, was a bridge between the Roman era and the Middle Ages. Christianity kept Roman culture at least partly alive in western Europe. The influence of the Roman Catholic Church made Latin the language not only of religion but of instruction, and monks and scholars pursuing religious studies saved many manuscripts of Roman literature from destruction. (See also Alphabets and Writing; Drama, Roman; Epic, Roman; Letter Writing; Literature, Greek; Novel, Greek and Roman; Poetry, Roman.)

* mysticism belief that divine truths or direct knowledge of God can be experienced through faith, spiritual insight, and intuition

* pagan referring to a belief in more than one god; non-Christian


Roman literature started with an act of war. In 272 b.c, the Romans captured Tarentum, a southern Italian city that was a colony of the Greek city-state Sparta. The Romans enslaved the captured Greeks, some of whom became tutors to young Roman noblemen. One of these learned slaves—later freed—was Livius Andnonicus, who wrote a play in the style of a Greek tragedy for the Roman games in 240 B.C. Livius also translated Homer's Odyssey into Latin, and two centuries later, Roman schools still used Livius's version of the Greek epic. Livius Andnonicus awakened the Romans' interest in literature and established Greek works as the model for Roman writers who followed.

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