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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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