Classical Latin

Classical Latin

Classical Latin is the form of the Latin language used by the ancient Romans in what is usually regarded as "classical" Latin literature. Its use spanned the Golden Age of Latin literature—broadly the 1st century BC and the early 1st century AD—possibly extending to the Silver Age—broadly the 1st and 2nd centuries.

What is now called "Classical Latin" was, in fact, a highly stylized and polished written literary language selectively constructed from early Latin, of which far fewer works remain. Classical Latin is the product of the reconstruction of early Latin in the prototype of Attic Greek. Classical Latin differs from the earliest Latin literature, such as that of Cato the Elder, Plautus, and to some extent Lucretius, in a number of ways. It diverged from Old Latin in that the early -om and (nominative singular) -os endings of the 2nd declension shifted into -um and -us ones, and some semantic shifts also occurred in the lexicon (e.g., forte meant not only "surprisingly" but also "hard").

The spoken Latin of the common people of the Roman Empire, especially from the 2nd century onward, is generally called Vulgar Latin. Vulgar Latin differed from Classical Latin in its vocabulary and grammar, and as time passed, it came to differ in pronunciation as well.

Authors of the Golden Age


The earliest poet of the Golden Age is considered to be Lucretius, who wrote a long philosophical poem expounding Epicureanism, On the Nature of Things.

Catullus wrote at a slightly later date. He pioneered the naturalization of Greek lyric verse forms in Latin. The poetry of Catullus was personal, sometimes erotic, sometimes playful, and frequently abusive. He wrote exclusively in Greek metres. The heavy hand of Greek prosody would continue to have a pronounced influence on the style and syntax of Latin poetry until the rise of Christianity necessitated a different sort of hymnody.

The Hellenizing tendencies of Golden Age Latin reached their apex in Virgil, whose Aeneid was an epic poem after the manner of Homer. Similar tendencies are noted in Horace, whose odes and satires were after the manner of the Greek anthology, and who used almost all of the fixed forms of Greek prosody in Latin. Ovid likewise wrote long and learned poems on mythological subjects, as well as such semi-satirical pieces as the Art of Love (Ars Amatoria). Tibullus and Propertius also wrote poems that were modelled after Greek antecedents.


In prose, Golden Age Latin is exemplified by Julius Caesar, whose Commentaries on the Gallic Wars display a laconic, precise, military style; and by Marcus Tullius Cicero, a practicing lawyer and politician, whose judicial arguments and political speeches, most notably the Catiline Orations, were considered for centuries to be the best models for Latin prose. Cicero also wrote many letters which have survived, and a few philosophical tracts in which he gives his version of Stoicism.

Historiography was an important genre of classical Latin prose; it includes Sallust, who wrote of the Conspiracy of Catiline and the War Against Jugurtha, his only works that have been preserved complete. Another historian, Livy, wrote the Ab Urbe Condita, a history of Rome "from the Founding of the City." Though originally composed of 142 books, only 35 books of this history have been preserved.

The foremost technical work which survives is the De Architectura of Vitruvius, a compilation of building construction methods, design and layout of all public and domestic buildings as well as descriptions of the machines which aided construction. He also gives a detailed description of many other machines, such as the ballista used in war, surveying instruments, water mills and dewatering devices such as the reverse overshot water-wheel.

Silver Age Latin

Classical Latin continued to be used into the "Silver Age" of Latin literature, which spans the 1st and 2nd centuries, and directly follows the Golden Age. Literature from the Silver Age has traditionally, perhaps unfairly, been considered inferior to that of the Golden Age, although contemporary historians have voiced legitimate criticisms concerning perhaps a too great a reliance on trying to emulate the Golden Age and a 'messy' style of teaching rhetoric as possible causes for this alleged decline in quality. Silver Age Latinity is sometimes called "Post-Augustan". Among the works which survive, those of Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger inspired later generations, especially during the Renaissance.

Writers of the silver age include:

The Silver Age also furnishes the only two extant Latin novels: Apuleius's The Golden Ass and Petronius's Satyricon.

Stylistic shifts

Silver Age Latin itself may be subdivided further into two periods: a period of radical experimentation in the latter half of the first century AD, and a renewed Neoclassicism in the second century AD.

Under the reigns of Nero and Domitian, poets like Seneca the Younger, Lucan and Statius pioneered a unique style that has alternately delighted, disgusted and puzzled later critics. Stylistically, Neronian and Flavian literature shows the ascendence of rhetorical training in late Roman education. The style of these authors is unfailingly declamatory — at times eloquent, at times bombastic. Exotic vocabulary and sharply-polished aphorisms glimmer everywhere, though at times to the detriment of thematic coherence.

Thematically, late 1st century literature is marked by an interest in terrible violence, witchcraft, and extreme passions. Under the influence of Stoicism, the gods recede in importance, while the physiology of emotions looms large. Passions like anger, pride and envy are painted in almost anatomical terms of inflammation, swelling, upsurges of blood or bile. For Statius, even the inspiration of the Muses is described as a calor ("fever").

While their extremity in both theme and diction has earned these poets the disapproval of Neoclassicists both ancient and modern, they were favorites during the European Renaissance, and underwent a revival of interest among the English Modernist poets.

By the end of the 1st century, a reaction against this form of poetry had set in, and Tacitus, Quintilian and Juvenal all testify to the resurgence of a more restrained, classicizing style under Trajan and the Antonine emperors.

See also

Search another word or see Classical Latinon Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2015, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature