The Silver Age 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

After the Golden Age, the next most well-known era of Roman or Latin literature, which is referred to as the Silver Age, thrived for roughly a century following the death of emperor Augustus.

A famous painting by Manuel Domínguez Sánchez called "The Suicide of Seneca."
Manuel Domínguez Sánchez’s The Suicide of Seneca (1871). (Image: Manuel Domínguez Sánchez/Public domain)

Seneca’s Philosophies and Tragedies

One writer of this era, Seneca the Younger, lived through the reigns of Caligula and Claudius. He was also a personal tutor of the emperor Nero. Seneca, in an age when the emperors exemplified excess, advocated for a return to simpler values and lifestyles. Following Pythagorean philosophy, he was a vegetarian, although this earned him a reputation for eccentricity. He was also a philosopher from the Stoic school.

Seneca wrote a number of philosophical dialogues and essays. He also wrote 124 short Moral Letters, in which he outlined his beliefs. The range of the topics covered can be appreciated by looking at the titles of some of these letters: “On Ill Health and Enduring Suffering,” “On Suicide,” “The Joys of Retirement,” “The Uselessness of Doing Anything Half Way,” “On Drunkenness,” “Tips on How to Save Time,” “On Whether It Is Better to Be Smart or Strong,” “On Virtue,” “More on Virtue,” “The True Joy Which Comes from Philosophy,” and “On Asthma and Death.” Seneca’s philosophical works both earned him renown during his lifetime and influenced later generations.

In addition to the philosophical treatises, Seneca wrote a number of tragic plays which were particularly gruesome variants of traditional Greek mythological themes. These plays were very different from his other works: they were melodramatic, sensational, and a bit overwrought. During the Renaissance, they were considered to be terrific, but other periods have found them less admirable.

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

In the end, Seneca could not control his pupil, the emperor Nero, and decided to commit suicide before Nero could have him murdered. Despite of his many works on suicide, Seneca did not seem to manage his own very well. First, he cut his wrists, but when he wasn’t bleeding profusely enough, he also cut the veins in his ankles. This still didn’t kill him, so he cut the arteries behind his knees. Since he was still not dead, he took the opportunity to dictate another essay to his secretaries while waiting to bleed to death. Getting exasperated, he decided to drink some poison, but this didn’t work either. Finally, he was suffocated in the bath.

Learn more about Claudius and Nero.

Fiction, Poetry, and Satire in Roman Literature

John Price's Latin edition of Apuleius' novel Metamorphoses.
The title page of John Price’s Latin edition of Apuleius’ novel Metamorphoses. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Extended prose works of fiction were not thought of as a high form of literature at the time, but one rare surviving novel from this period is the Metamorphoses by Apuleius. More popularly known as The Golden Ass.

It relates the episodic adventures of its protagonist, Lucius, who attempts to copy a witch’s magic but gets the spell wrong. As a result, he transforms himself into a donkey—the ass of the title. This sets Lucius off on a series of comic misadventures in ass-form, during which he changes owners multiple times and suffers many indignities.

The second novel surviving from this time is the Satyricon of Petronius. The Satyricon recounts the comic misadventures of two bumbling and opportunistic men, Encolpius and Ascyltus, who managed to snare an invitation for the extravagant dinner party of a nouveau-riche, former slave Trimalchio.

Unfortunately, the end of the manuscript is lost, so we don’t know the conclusion of the novel. Nevertheless, together with The Golden Ass, these rambunctious novels give insights into the daily life of the ancient world and provide a useful counterpoint to the predominantly upper-class-focused sources.

The Silver Age also featured other poets who addressed similarly humble topics. Martial was the master of the epigram, a short poem that often functions as witty mockery or an insult. Another poet, Juvenal, was the author of 16 Satires. These were scathing poems critiquing aspects of Roman culture. Some of the subjects of his satires were: “Against Mean Patrons and Despicable Clients,” “Against Women,” “Against the City of Rome,” “Against Immoral Aristocrats,” and finally “On Poets and Poverty”.

The most important of these from a historical perspective is probably his third satire, “Against the City of Rome,” because it gives us one of the most candid portraits of what life was like for the poor inhabitants of the city. For instance, in the course of walking down a street, the narrator is elbowed by the crowd, nearly crushed beneath the toppling cargo of an overloaded wagon, and menaced by pots, garbage, and excrement being thrown out of the windows of high-rise apartments.

The Other Genres of Roman Literature

In addition to poems, plays, and novels, Roman authors produced works in a number of other genres. Historical writing is one important example. In his mammoth multi-volume work, the 1st-century writer, Livy traced Roman history from the foundation of the city up until his own time. Polybius recounted Rome’s rapid expansion under the Republic and its stunning conquest of the Greek world. Sallust described the ‘Conspiracy of Catiline’ and wars against the resourceful North African leader Jugurtha. The reigns of the early emperors were chronicled by the historian Tacitus, famous for his terse but forceful prose style.

Later historians, such as Ammianus Marcellinus and Cassius Dio, continued the story, tracing the course of the Roman Empire’s apex and eventual decline. These chronological histories are supplemented by biographies, such as those of Suetonius, who loved to recount sensationalistic details of the emperors’ private lives.

Another prolific category of Roman writing is technical works. Columella, Varro, and Cato all wrote treatises outlining best practices for farming. Pliny the Elder wrote a 37-volume encyclopedia of observations about the natural world entitled Natural History. Examples of other such technical writers and their topics are: Vegetius on the art of war; Frontinus on the aqueducts of Rome; Vitruvius on engineering and architecture; Quintilian on oratory and rhetoric; and Celsus and Galen on medicine.

A bust of Tiberius, the frowning second emperor.
The frowning second emperor, Tiberius, limited free speech, thus precipitating the rise of Silver Latin, with emphasis on mannerism rather than on solid content. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Finally, in the Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages, there is a huge body of texts concerning early Christianity. In addition to the Gospels and Apocrypha, there are copious writings of early Church leaders and intellectuals.

In the late 2nd century AD, Tertullian vigorously attacked pagan ideas while defending and explaining the Christian ones. In the 4th century, the bishop Eusebius wrote a history of the Christian Church up to his own time, as well as an eyewitness account of the emperor Constantine’s pivotal conversion to Christianity.

Learn more about The Early Christianity and the Rise of Constantine

Other especially important early Christian authors include Origen, whose controversial ideas meant that he was never canonized as a saint; Ambrose, an important theological writer whose hymns shaped Christian devotional music; and Jerome, who produced the most influential Latin translation of the Bible. The most prolific early Christian author was Augustine. He is claimed to have written over 1,000 works. Some of his significant works are Confessions, an autobiographical account of his own life, exploring many issues of faith and theology; and The City of God, a work prompted by the sack of Rome through the Visigoths in 410 A.D.

From Livius Andronicus to Augustine, the literature produced in the Roman world spans a wide range of perspectives and subject matter. But all of it was shaped by the culture and context within which it was written. Hence, it can help illuminate the Roman civilization for us today.

Common Questions About the Silver Age of Roman Literature

Q: How did the Golden Age and Silver Age of Roman literature differ?

The Golden Age of Roman literature did not have many differentiating factors such as textbook or encyclopedia. Whereas, Silver Age is marked by different genres such as poetry, satire, history, and Christian writings.

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 works were historical epics telling Rome’s early military history, while the later works were poetry, comedies, histories, and tragedies.

Q: What was the Silver Age of Latin literature?

The Silver Age of Latin literature was the period from approximately A.D. 18 to 133, a time of marked literary achievement, standing second only to the previous Golden Age.

Q: What is Silver Latin?

Silver Latin is marked by exaggerated conciseness and occasional use of archaic words and phrases derived from poetry.

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