The ancient Romans wrote little, if any, poetry before about 250 B.C., and another hundred years passed before poetry was an acceptable literary form for people of high social standing. Like much of their culture and learning, Roman poetry arose from its Greek counterpart, and most Roman poets were greatly influenced by their Greek predecessors. Roman poetry also took the same general forms as Greek poetry. These forms included the epic*, the elegiac*, and the lyric*. In addition, the Romans established satire* as a literary form.
The earliest Roman poems were epics patterned after the works of the Greek poet Homer, who composed the Iliad and the Odyssey in the 700s B.C. Like Homer’s epics, the early Roman epics are long narratives* about heroes* and gods that retell important events of the past. Although epics continued to be written in Rome until about A.D. 100, the form underwent many changes. While some of these changes were the result of Greek influences, others were a reaction to political events that occurred in Rome.
Early Roman Epic. The first Roman epic was a Latin translation of the Odyssey in about 250 B.C.—the work of a slave named Livius Andronicus. Around the same time, the poet Naevius wrote an epic about the first Punic War. The best-known early Roman epic poet, however, was Quintus Ennius.
Most Romans considered Ennius the greatest of all Roman poets, and he was called the “father of Latin literature.” The Annales, written around 170 B.C., retold the story of the founding of Rome and its subsequent history. Ennius adapted the Latin language to dactylic hexameter*—the same meter* that Homer had used in his Greek epics. Ennius’s work was greatly admired, in part because it was so heavily influenced by the highly respected Greek poetry. Ennius had many imitators, including the statesman Cicero, who himself wrote three epics. However, Ennius had many critics as well, some of whom considered his verses very clumsy.
* epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style
* elegiac sad and mournful poem
* 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
* narrative a descriptive account of events; a story
* hero in mythology, a person of great strength or ability, often descended from a god
* dactylic hexameter line of verse that consists of a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables (such as in the word passageway), repeated six times
* meter in poetry, a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables
Around 60 B.C., the Neoterics, or “new poets,” dominated the literary scene. The Neoterics, who included the poets Catullus, Calvus, and Cinna, were influenced primarily by the Greek poet Callimachus, who had criticized the epic almost 200 years earlier. Like Callimachus, the Neoterics believed that learning, sophistication, and conciseness were more important to good poetry than a lengthy narrative. Because of their influence, no respectable poet wrote an epic for another generation or more, and the best poets completely rejected the form. Instead, they wrote epyllia, or short epic fragments, a poetic form that had been introduced by the Hellenistic* poets.
Augustan Epic. The end of the Roman Republic* and the rise to power of the Roman emperor Augustus led to a return of the epic. Augustus considered himself the new founder of Rome, and he encouraged Roman poets to celebrate his life and achievements in epic poetry. Some poets, including Horace, refused to write epics for Augustus, claiming that their talent and skill were no match for such a grand and important theme.
The poet Vergil undertook the challenge, and he wrote the greatest of all Roman epics, the Aeneid. Like earlier Roman epics, the Aeneid was heavily influenced by Homer. Vergil not only used Homer’s poetic form and techniques but also many of the same themes. The Aeneid was so good that no other Roman poet of Vergil’s time tried to match it, although many lesser epics were written by later poets.
Vergil quickly achieved the same status in Rome that Homer had held in Greece. He was considered to be the greatest Latin epic poet and a genius of literature. In addition to the Aeneid, Vergil wrote ten poems called the Bucolics, or Eclogues. Like other bucolic poetry, Vergil’s work is set in the countryside and the main characters are common folk. In this work, Vergil expressed the conflict between his private world of creativity and his public involvement in the outside world. The Eclogues was very popular and influenced many later poets. Vergil also wrote the Georgies, an instructional as well as philosophical poem about man’s relationship with the land. Georgies is divided into four books, each on a specific topic: grain production, tending vines and orchards, raising livestock, and keeping bees.
Another important poet of this time was Ovid, who is best known for his Metamorphoses. This work is epic in length (the poem begins with the world’s creation and comes down to Ovid’s day) but otherwise resembles the epic very little. Instead, it is a collection of short narrative poems about myths and legends of the ancient world. Many of the stories involve a character undergoing a change, or metamorphosis—such as going from human to animal form. Ovid was more influenced by Callimachus than by Homer.
* Hellenistic referring to the Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the three centuries after Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.
* Roman Republic Rome during the period from 509 B.C. to 31 B.C., when popular assemblies annually elected their governmental officials
Rhetorical Epic. Beginning in the 30s B.C., Roman poets recited their work in public. Public recitals of poetry became widespread, and by the end of the A.D. 100s, literature and public speaking had become closely linked. As a result, poets adopted a style of writing that appealed to the public, and what most appealed to the public was concise, clever writing.
POETRY AND SOCIAL CLASS
For about the first 100 years after poetry was introduced in Rome, writing poetry was considered an activity for the lower social classes. Upper-class Romans wrote only prose. All this changed when an aristocrat named Gaius Lucilius wrote poetry about his own life. Because Lucilius was so admired by his peers, this autobiographical work elevated the status of poetry.
The best-known epic poet of this time period was Lucan, who wrote his major work, the Civil War, around A.D. 62. Lucan’s epic describes the conflict between Julius Caesar and Pompey, which had occurred about 100 years earlier. The work is full of vivid descriptions, memorable phrases, and many direct speeches, yet it falls short of the Aeneid as a poem. However, Lucan introduced one important innovation to the epic—there are no gods to intervene in the action of Civil War.
When the emperor Vespasian came to power around A.D. 70, he encouraged the writing of epics that were based on myth. Two epics from this period survive, the Argonautica of Valerius Flaccus and the Thebaid of Statius. Statius is often considered to have been the more influential poet of the two. His epic, which is about the quarrel between Eteocles and Polynices, sons of the Greek mythical character Oedipus, was well written and was still highly respected centuries later.
ELEGIAC AND LYRIC POETRY
During the first century B.C., many Roman poets wrote elegies and lyrics. The Greeks first developed elegiac and lyric poetry, but the Roman versions were quite different from the Greek. Many outstanding poems were written during the 75 years that these two forms of poetry flourished in Rome.
Elegiac Poetry. Elegiac poetry is written in elegiac couplets—two successive lines of verse that form a unit—with the first line written in a meter of dactylic hexameter and the second line in pentameter*. Roman elegiac poetry is almost totally confined to the love elegy, a form created by Catullus around 60 B.C. In his love elegies, Catullus wrote about his own experiences with love and the problems that may arise when two people fall in love. Catullus’s poetry inspired many later poets, who further explored love and relationships from their own perspective.
About a generation after Catullus, the poets Propertius and Tibullus wrote their love elegies. Although greatly influenced by Catullus, Propertius wrote poems that were longer and more worldly. He introduced the ideas of love as slavery and love as war, which appeared in European poetry for centuries afterward. These comparisons were an attempt to explain a sensation—love—in terms of things that were concrete and factual—and both slavery and war were facts of life in ancient Rome. Although Tibullus’s poetic output was small, he is noted for his creation of the “stream of consciousness” technique. In this technique, the poet seems to describe his own thoughts and feelings as they occur.
Influenced by the increasing importance of public recitation of poetry, the love elegies of Ovid are witty and sophisticated. Ovid’s works were so successful that all later elegists adopted his techniques. Ovid’s later works, in particular his Art of Love, offended the moral ideals of the emperor Augustus. Partly because of this, Augustus banished Ovid from Rome. Because of Augustus’s repressive actions and because this form of poetry was difficult to improve on after Ovid’s witty treatment of it, the love elegy was abandoned by Roman poets.
* pentameter line of verse consisting of a specific pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables that together comprise five divisions, or "feet”
Lyric Poetry. Roman lyric poetry was characterized by the direct expression of emotions in a sophisticated style. The first Roman lyric poetry was written by Catullus, who was influenced by the great Greek lyric poet Sappho. The poet Horace carried on the lyric tradition in his Odes, but his poems differ from Catullus’s in several ways. Whereas Catullus’s poems are intensely personal, Horace’s are cheerful and even humorous.
The Romans developed satire as a literary form. The great orator* Quinitilian boasted: “Satire at least is a wholly Roman achievement.” Gaius Lucilius became the first important figure in the development of verse satire. He made biting personal attacks on prominent people of his time, as well as attacks on the vices of Roman society as a whole. Lucilius successfully used the hexameter for his work, and this became the meter of choice for later satirists. His style—conversational and down-to-earth—was also copied by later satirists.
Horace modestly claimed second place in the development of satire. In his Satires and Epistles, Horace provided a new standard of artistry for hexametric satire in language, rhythm, and tone. Unlike his predecessor Lucilius, Horace rarely singled out for criticism living people or individuals who could be identified.
Persius was strongly influenced by the philosophy of Stoicism, which stressed self-knowledge and a freedom from base passions. Persius wrote satire of uncompromising harshness, often in a hostile and sometimes grossly obscene manner. His use of striking combinations of images gave his poetry a unique style that was very popular with Roman audiences of his day.
Juvenal’s poetry represented the culmination of the Roman satiric tradition. Juvenal wrote 16 satires, which differed from previous satires in one important respect: He adopted the voice of the indignant and disgusted observer who cannot help attacking, although sometimes with caution, the evils of the Roman world he lived in. Juvenal was the poet who most affected the prestige of satire in the eyes of later generations. (See also Education and Rhetoric, Roman; Epigrams; Literature, Roman; Love; Martial; Oratory; Poetry, Greek and Hellenistic; Satire.)
* orator public speaker of great skill