The Humble Beginnings of Roman Literature

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome

By Gregory Aldrete, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin

Let’s take a walk through the humble beginnings and the first blossoming of Roman literature, which traversed a journey from imitating Greek literature for relevance to finally discovering a voice of its own.

Roman Forum - The center of ancient Rome.
Roman Forum, the center of ancient Rome, and the Arch of Septimius Severus in modern day Rome, Italy. (Image: Bahdanovich Alena /Shutterstock)

If one were to ask a Roman about the beginnings of Latin literature, he or she would likely cite the year 240 B.C., when the first recorded play written in Latin was staged in Rome. The author of that play was a man named Livius Andronicus. He was not a Roman by birth but a Greek from the city of Tarentum in southern Italy, which had been conquered recently by Rome.

Andronicus had been enslaved by the Romans only to be later freed by his master. He eventually made a living in Rome as a teacher, instructing young Romans in both Greek and Latin grammar, exposing them to the rich heritage of Greek literature, while also writing plays in his adopted language on the side.

This is a transcript from the video series The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Imitating Greek Literature

Its mixed origins are appropriate, because Latin literature was deeply influenced by its Greek predecessor. The first wave of literature written in Latin seems to have consisted predominantly of imitations of Greek works, especially plays. These works drew its subject matter mainly from Greek mythology, such as the stories found in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

The Romans were certainly composing many types of writings prior to 240 B.C. They were writing complex formal law codes, contracts, and treaties. They were also composing more personal and quotidian writings, such as calendars, graffiti, tombstone inscriptions, and songs. There were also some written works that recorded Italic stories and histories. However, all the way up until the last couple of centuries of the Roman Republic, such indigenous literary productions were not regarded very highly. They remained very much in the shadow of the brilliant corpus of Greek literature.

Perhaps the area in which Roman authors were most successful in imitating the Greeks was theater and, in particular, comedic plays. The Romans produced several great comedic playwrights, the most prolific of whom was Plautus.

Portrait of Roman playwright Plautus.
Comedic playwright Plautus wrote over 130 plays. (Image: Mscottknight/Public domain)

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Plautus wrote over 130 plays, most of which directly mimicked the style and form of Hellenistic New Comedy, such as the plays of Menander. Plautus’s comedies were intended as purely escapist entertainment, and were filled with jokes, slapstick, buffoonery, and featured formulaic and predictable plots involving frustrated love affairs, mistaken identities (usually involving twins), and disputes over property or money. Several of his plays dealt with the problems ensuing when two men, sometimes even a father and son, fell in love with the same woman.

The characters in his plays were easily recognizable stereotypes, such as the naïve youth, scheming slave, good-natured prostitute, unfaithful wife, humorous sidekick, and dirty old man. His plays were often named after these characters, as in the case of one called The Braggart Soldier. Coincidence and chance occupied prominent roles in Plautus’s plays, and there seemed to have been an inordinate number of shipwrecks and abductions by pirates or bandits.

A generation later, the playwright Terence would continue reworking the Greek comedic inheritance of Plautus with great success.

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The First Blossoming of Roman Literature

By the time of the late Roman Republic, some distinctive and original literary voices had emerged in several different genres. An interesting example of this is the poet Catullus. Although the topic of his poetry was love, his troubled attitude towards it reflects the turmoil of the time he lived in.

His viewpoint was that of a decadent, pleasure-seeking young nobleman. Catullus fell in love with a married woman whom he called Lesbia in his poems. Although, a later author identified Lesbia as the infamous noblewoman Clodia, who was connected to many of the most powerful politicians of the time.

Catullus’s most famous poems record the entire course of this affair: from celebrations of passion and the giddy euphoria produced by love, to intensely bitter and angry poems expressing his hatred when she rejects him. Catullus’s poetry is all about the extremes of emotion, from exuberant joy to virulent jealousy. Appropriately, one of his most famous lines, addressed to Lesbia was, “I hate you and I love you. I love you and I hate you.

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Catullus’s intense feelings, particularly when he was ultimately rebuffed, seemed to have worn him out. His lifestyle caused him to go bankrupt before his death. He died around the age of 30, leaving behind a small but powerful body of work filled with raw emotion.

Cover art of one of Marcus Tullius Cicero's publications.
Marcus Tullius Cicero was the most prolific author of the era. Seen here is the cover art of Marci Tullii Ciceronis Opera Omnia (1566). (Image: Cicero, Marcus Tullius/Public domain)

The most prolific author of the era was the orator, statesman, and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero. In addition to composing multiple manuals on rhetoric, and recording the many speeches he delivered in the law courts, to the senate and people of Rome, Cicero wrote numerous works of philosophy and political theory. He even published seven books consisting of collections of letters he sent to other people, along with their replies.

More writings survive from Cicero than from any other author in the ancient world. It’s because of him that the late Republic is considered as one of the best understood periods in Roman history. 

A famous contemporary of Cicero was Julius Caesar. Cicero, the master of Latin prose, himself spoke very highly of Caesar’s rhetoric and style. Julius Caesar’s autobiographical narratives, The Gallic Wars and The Civil Wars, give insight into his military genius. It also provides generations of students with models of clear Latin prose style.

Common Questions About the Humble Beginnings of Ancient Roman Literature

Q: What is ancient Roman Literature?

The ancient Roman literature was written in the Latin language. It maintains an enduring legacy of ancient Rome, its culture, and its people. The earliest Roman literary works were historical epics retelling Rome’s early military history, while the later works were poetry, comedies, histories, and tragedies.

Q: When did Roman Literature start?

The origins of Roman literature can be traced back to around 3rd Century B.C. The rule of Augustus and the early part of the Roman Empire is considered as the golden age of Roman Literature.

Q: How did Greek literature influence Roman literature?

Greek literature was a major influence on ancient Roman literature, ever since Aeneid tells the story of Aeneas’s flight from Troy, and his settling into a city that would later become Rome.

Q: What are the qualities of Roman literature?

The qualities of Roman literature include dignity, gravity, and poignancy, aimed at strengthening and elevating the characters adapted for all classes of people.

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