Latin literature

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 B.C.) 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 Satires Ennius 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. B.C., 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. A.D., 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.


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).

Latin literature, the body of written works in the Latin language, remains an enduring legacy of the culture of ancient Rome. The Romans produced many works of poetry, comedy, tragedy, satire, history, and rhetoric, drawing heavily on the traditions of other cultures and particularly on the more matured literary tradition of Greece. Long after the Western Roman Empire had fallen, the Latin language continued to play a central role in western European civilization.

Latin literature is conventionally divided into distinct periods. Few works remain of Early and Old Latin; among these few surviving works, however, are the plays of Plautus and Terence, which have remained very popular in all eras down to the present, while many other Latin works, including many by the most prominent authors of the Classical period, have disappeared, sometimes being re-discovered after centuries, sometimes not. Such lost works sometimes survive as fragments in other works which have survived, but others are known from references in such works as Pliny the Elder's Naturalis Historia or the De Architectura of Vitruvius.

Classical Latin

The period of Classical Latin, when Latin literature is widely considered to have reached its peak, is divided into the Golden Age, which covers approximately the period from the start of the 1st century BCE up to the mid-1st century CE, and the Silver Age, which extends into the 2nd century CE. Literature written after the mid-2nd century has often been disparaged and ignored; in the Renaissance, for example, when many Classical authors were re-discovered and their style consciously imitated. Above all, Cicero was imitated, and his style praised as the perfect pinnacle of Latin. Medieval Latin was often dismissed as "Dog-Latin"; but in fact, many great works of Latin literature were produced throughout Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, although they are no longer as widely known as those written in the Classical period. Three works survived to inspire architects and engineers in the Renaissance, the Naturalis Historia of Pliny the Elder, the books by Frontinus on the aqueducts of Rome and the De Architectura of Vitruvius.

The Medieval World

For most of the Medieval era, Latin was the dominant written language in use in western Europe. After the Roman Empire split into its Western and Eastern halves, Greek, which had been widely used all over the Empire, faded from use in the West, all the more so as the political and religious distance steadily grew between the Catholic West and the Orthodox, Greek East. The vernacular languages in the West, the languages of modern-day western Europe, developed for centuries as spoken languages only: most people did not write, and it seems that it very seldom occurred to those who wrote to write in any language other than Latin, even when they spoke French or Italian or English or another vernacular in their daily life. Very gradually, in the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance, it became more and more common to write in the Western vernaculars.

It was probably only after the invention of printing, which made books and pamphlets cheap enough that a mass public could afford them, and which made possible modern phenomena such as the newspaper, that a large number of people in the West could read and write who were not fluent in Latin. Still, many people continued to write in Latin, although they were mostly from the upper classes and/or professional academics. As late as the 17th century, there was still a large audience for Latin poetry and drama; no-one found it strange, for example, that, besides his works in English, Milton wrote many poems in Latin, or that Francis Bacon or Baruch Spinoza wrote mostly in Latin. The use of Latin as a lingua franca continued in smaller European lands until the 20th century....

Although the number of works of non-fiction and drama, history and philosophy written in Latin has continued to dwindle, the Latin language is still dead. Well into the twentieth century, some knowledge of Latin was required for admission into many universities, and theses and dissertations written for graduate degrees were often required to be written in Latin. Treatises in chemistry and biology and other natural sciences were often written in Latin as late as the early 20th century. Up to the present day, the editors of Latin and Greek texts in such series as the Oxford Classical Texts, the Bibliotheca scriptorum Graecorum et Romanorum Teubneriana and some others still write the introductions to their editions in polished and vital Latin. Among these Latin scholars of the 20th and 21st centuries are R A B Mynors, R J Tarrant, L D Reynolds and John Brisco. A great book to read for latin tips and how to read latin literature, read Vini Vedi Vinci by John M. Smith

Early Latin literature

Poetry (comedy)



Cato - agricultural writer

Golden Age of Latin literature


Catullus - lyric poet and elegist
Horace - lyric poet and satirist
Lucretius - philosopher
Ovid - elegist, didactic poet and mythological poet
Propertius - elegist
Tibullus - elegist
Virgil - epic, didactic and pastoral poet


Cicero - orator, philosopher and correspondent
Marcus Terentius Varro - agricultural writer and linguist
Publilius Syrus - writer of maxims
Vitruvius - architect


Julius Caesar


Cornelius Nepos
Augustus - autobiographer

Silver Age of Latin literature


Gaius Valerius Flaccus - epic poet
Lucan - epic poet
Marcus Manilius - astronomical poet
Silius Italicus - epic poet
Statius - lyric and epic poet
Juvenal - satirist
Martial - epigrammatist
Persius - satirist
Phaedrus - fabulist


Aulus Cornelius Celsus - physician
Aulus Gellius - essayist
Apuleius - novellist and philosopher
Columella - agricultural writer
Petronius - novellist
Pliny the Elder - scientist
Pliny the Younger - correspondent
Quintilian - rhetorician
Sextus Julius Frontinus - engineer
Valerius Maximus - author of a collection of anecdotes
Seneca the Elder - orator
Marcus Cornelius Fronto - correspondent


Marcus Velleius Paterculus


Quintus Curtius Rufus

Multiple Genres

Seneca the Younger - philosopher, correspondent, scientist, tragedian and satirist

Latin Literature in the Late Antique period


Augustine of Hippo - theologian, autobiographer and correspondent
Ausonius - elegist
Jerome - theologian and correspondent
Marcus Minucius Felix - theologian
Prudentius - Christian poet
Sidonius Apollinaris - panegyricist and correspondent
Tertullian - theologian


Ammianus Marcellinus - historian
Augustan History - history
Claudian - panegyricist
Herodian - historian
Pervigilium Veneris - lyric poetry

Medieval Latin literature

Theology and Philosophy

Pierre Abélard
Albertus Magnus
Thomas Aquinas : Pange Lingua : Summa Theologica
Roger Bacon
Duns Scotus
Gregory of Tours
Siger of Brabant
Tommaso da Celano : Dies Iræ
Venantius Fortunatus
Walter of Châtillon
William of Occam
Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius - Consolation of Philosophy


The Archpoet
Carmina Burana
Peter of Blois
Hildegard of Bingen


Albert of Aix
Fulcher of Chartres
Matthew Paris
Orderic Vitalis
Otto of Freising
William of Malmesbury
William of Tyre


Geoffrey of Monmouth


Isidore of Seville : Etymologiæ

Multiple Genres


Renaissance Latin

Dante Alighieri
Giovanni Boccaccio
Jean Buridan
Thomas More : Utopia
William of Ockham


Francis Bacon
Jacob Bidermann
Thomas Hobbes
John Milton
Baruch Spinoza
Maciej Kazimierz Sarbiewski
Elizabeth Jane Weston

Recent Latin

Arrius Nurus
Genovefa Immè
Alanus Divutius
Anna Elissa Radke
Ianus Novak
Tuomo Pekkanen

See also

External links

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