Before Augustus

Roman comedy: 3rd - 2nd century BC

In most cultural matters Rome is greatly influenced by Greece, and this is particularly true of theatre. Two Roman writers of comedy, Plautus and Terence, achieve lasting fame in the decades before and after 200 BC - Plautus for a robust form of entertainment close to farce, Terence for a more subtle comedy of manners. But neither writer invents a single plot. All are borrowed from Greek drama, and every play of Terence's is set in Athens.

The misfortune of Plautus and Terence is that their audience is very much less attentive than in Athens. And the reason is that Roman plays are presented as part of a broader event, the Roman games.

The games, held every September, are originally a harvest festival. Taking place between the Palatine and Aventine hills in Rome, in an area known as the Circus Maximus, the main events are sporting contests - chariot races or boxing matches. Clowns soon become one of the side shows, to be joined from 240 BC by plays - enjoying much the same status. A play of Terence's, in 165, fails to attract much attention because it is going on at the same time as a rope dancer and a boxing match.

Since 264 BC gladiatorial contests have also been part of Rome's entertainments. In popular terms make-believe drama proves no match for the excitement of real death. The Roman circus is more famous than Roman theatre (see the Roman circus and gladiators).

Cato and Caesar: 2nd - 1st century BC

The first man to attempt a Latin history of Rome is Cato, a statesman and orator famous for his implacable opposition to Carthage. He writes his Origines ('Origins', from the founding of Rome to his own time) in about 160 BC. But only a few fragments remain.

The earliest surviving work of Roman history is therefore from the next century. A short volume, and one of the most famous in its field, it can lay no claim to historical objectivity. It is written for a specific and polemical purpose. It is Julius Caesar's own account of his greatest military campaign.

The Gallic War: 52 BC

It is probably in the autumn of 52 BC, after his defeat of Vercingetorix, that Caesar settles down in his winter quarters at Bibracte (to the northwest of modern Lyons) to record for posterity his successes in Gaul over the past six years.

The title he writes at the head of his Papyrus is 'Gaius Julius Caesar's Notes on his Achievements' - though historians will come to know his book simply as The Gallic War. When the work is finished a copy goes off to Rome, where it is probably published during 51. Caesar has been assiduously cultivating support back in the capital, for political struggles to come. The book of his achievements is an important shot in this other campaign (see Caesar and his book).

Cicero orator and correspondent: 81-43 BC

As in many other areas, Rome follows the example of Greece in the importance accorded to oratory. Indeed ambitious young Romans tend to go to Greece to study this important skill. The school of rhetoric in Rhodes is particularly popular; in about 78 BC both Julius caesar and Cicero attend lectures there.

Cicero is already a practitioner of the art. His first appearance in a Roman court has been in 81 BC, and he has made his name a year later with a brilliant defence of Sextus Roscius. He will come to be considered Rome's leading orator (the equivalent of Demosthenes for Athens) and his fifty-seven published speeches will be much studied in subsequent ages.

Rhetoric requires the skills of both actor and author. The manuals emphasize the importance of voice control, gesture and even the ability to produce tears at the effective moment. But Cicero is also fascinated by the cadences and rhythms of speech which are most likely to sway an audience.

These almost poetic talents, combined with the power and clarity of his prose, give his speeches the status of literature. They are also of importance as the raw material of history, for Cicero is deeply involved in the upheavals of the last decades of the Roman republic - as a supporter of Pompey, and later a passionate opponent of Mark antony (in a feud which eventually causes Cicero to be outlawed and then murdered).

In another context Cicero is again a primary source of historical evidence. An untiring correspondent, he is unique for his period in that more than 900 of his letters survive. He communicates with Pompey, Julius caesar, Brutus and Mark antony; the man he writes to most often is his friend and financial adviser, Pomponius Atticus.

Cicero considers publishing his correspondence, but the first preliminary selection is issued only after his death by his freedman and assistant, Tiro. The entire group of letters, not widely known until the next century, provides an unparalleled picture of a distinguished Roman citizen going about his business.

Augustus and patronage

Literature in the Augustan Age: 42 BC - AD 17

The golden age of Latin literature coincides with the peace and prosperity of Italy in the early decades of the empire. The link is more than coincidence. In the intimate circle of the emperor Augustus is the immensely rich Maecenas, whose name has become synonymous with patronage of the arts; and the writers encouraged by Maecenas share the widespread enthusiasm for the peace brought to Rome by Augustus.

So the Augustan age, in literary terms, is a circle of mutual benefit and esteem. It can be extended to either side of the reign of Augustus himself (27 BC - AD 14). The span from 42 BC (when Virgil begins writing) to AD 17 (the death of Livy) includes also the careers of Horace and Ovid.

Virgiw's Eclogues and Georgics: 42 - 29 BC

Born in 70 BC in a farming community near Mantua, Rome's greatest poet finds his inspiration in the traditions and history of the Italian countryside. As a young adult Virgil lives under the shadow of the Civil wars which convulse Italy during the 40s (one of his earliest poems, the first Eclogue, concerns the confiscation of Virgil's family farm to settle veteran soldiers after the battle of Philippi). In his work he celebrates the subsequent peace.

Virgil's reputation is established with the publication of the ten short Eclogues, written between 42 and 37 BC (see Publishing in Rome). Their success brings him to the notice of his future patron, Maecenas.

The Eclogues, also known as Bucolics, are delicately artificial poems, closely based on Greek originals in a pastoral tradition which uses an idealized world of shepherds in Arcadia as a vehicle for a wide range of speculation and fantasy.

Virgil turns next to a more robust treatment of nature in the four longer poems which make up the Georgics, written between 36 and 29 BC and dedicated to Maecenas.

Ostensibly each of the four books of the Georgics sets out to give practical instruction on one aspect of husbandry: the first deals with preparing the land, the second with the cultivation of olives and vines, the third with the care of horses and cattle, the fourth with beekeeping.

This practical basis is treated seriously, but it also provides Virgil with a perfect framework in which to celebrate the strength and traditions of Italian rural culture. Octavian (the future Augustus) controls Italy when the poem is started. He is ruler of the entire Roman world by the time it is complete. Octavian believes profoundly in the traditional moral values, and the Georgics hail him as the man who will restore them.

The Aeneid: 29 - 19 BC

Virgil's greatest work, on which he spends the rest of his life, is written when Octavian has been named Augustus Caesar and is in fact (though not in theory) a Roman emperor. Where the Georgics gently celebrate Italy and its countryside, the Aeneid is an epic in praise of Rome - the power which will liberate the genius of the Italian people. The reign of Augustus, and the recently achieved Pax romana, is implicit as the natural finale of the story.(see The Aeneid).

By a quirk of fate Augustus himself, praised for saving Rome, also saves the poem. It is in his interest to do so. The Aeneid traces his own descent back to Aeneas himself, the founder of Rome.

In 19 BC, when the Aeneid is complete but awaiting revision, Virgil goes on a journey to the Aegean - to visit the homeland of Aeneas, his fictional hero. On his way home he falls ill and dies.

The instruction left by Virgil with his literary executor has been, in the event of his death, to burn the unpublished poem. Augustus intervenes, ordering the executor to publish. He authorizes cuts, where necessary, but no additions. The resulting text, containing only a few inconsistencies which Virgil might have removed, becomes rapidly and widely accepted as Rome's national epic.

Horace: 39-8 BC

Horace represents a new idea of the poet, similar to one later developed in another culture - China in the T'ang dynasty. In this tradition the poet is someone distanced from the immediate business of public life, free to concentrate on capturing, in the difficult craft of poetry, more lasting perceptions of the human condition.

The subjects of Horace's short but tightly packed Odes (called Carmina or 'songs' in their Latin title) are friendship, love, wry amusement at the passing scene - anything which might occur to a man living a quiet country existence but in touch with a wide circle of sophisticated acquaintances. The setting for this existence is his famous Sabine farm.

The Sabine farm is the best known of the many acts of patronage of Maecenas. Horace, the son of a freed slave, arrives in Rome with little hope of advancement in about 39 BC. By the following year his poems have brought him to the attention of Virgil, who introduces him to Maecenas. The patron and the provincial poet become firm friends; and in about 34 BC Maecenas makes him a present of the Sabine farm, a little to the northeast of Tivoli. Horace lives here for the rest of his life.

More than a farm, it is a small estate run for Horace by a foreman and eight slaves, with five tenanted properties attached. And more than that, it is security.

Horace's early poems are grander in theme and less compressed than his Odes. Known as the Satires, they are poetic essays full of sharp comment on themes of philosophy, literary criticism, morality or contemporary manners. Later he writes similar long pieces, lighter in tone, which he calls his Epistles.

But his central achievement is the Odes, dating mainly from the 20s. Three books of them are published together in 23 BC; a fourth follows in about 13 BC.

Livy and the Augustan Age: 27 BC - AD 17

When Rome settles down at the end of the 1st century BC, after the civil wars provoked by Julius Caesar, the mood of consolidation brings with it a wish to celebrate Rome's past.

This need is met in legendary form and epic verse in Virgil's aeneid. Meanwhile a related appetite, for slightly more sober facts, is satisfied in ample measure by Livy. His History of Rome, from the supposed arrival of Aeneas down to the Augustan Age, runs to 142 books of which 32 survive (each filling at least 50 pages in a modern paperback). In the next century the poet Martial complains that in his entire library there is not room for the works of Livy.

Livy is on the whole uncritical of his sources (and anyway there are no sources to be critical of for the early centuries). His main interest, apart from the underlying one of glorifying Rome, lies in telling a dramatic story. The great work is published as he writes it, over a period of more than forty years from 27 BC to his death in AD 17.

Fortunately the surviving sections include the Second punic war. The popular memory today of Hannibal's difficulties in getting his elephants across the Rhône, and then over the Alps, derives largely from Livy's brilliance in narrating a good story.

Ovid: c.23 BC - AD 18

The fourth great author writing in Latin during the Augustan Age is not so much a celebrant of the emperor's achievements as a victim of his autocracy.

Ovid is a generation younger than Virgil, horace and livy. By the time he is an adult, from about 23 BC, the civil wars are over; the stability and prosperity of the new Roman empire are established facts. High life, rather than a quiet life, is what appeals to Ovid and his contemporaries. And his poetic talents are well suited to amuse a society devoted to pleasure.

An early work brings Ovid success while he is young. Entitled Amores, it is a collection of love poems offering a witty account of an affair with an imaginary courtesan, Corinna. The poet goes much further in the same vein in Ars Amatoria ('Art of Love'), a manual on the techniques of seduction published in about 1 BC.

Soon after Ars Amatoria, Ovid begins work on his most successful book - the Metamorphoses, a collection of mainly Greek stories involving a wide range of transformations. The wit and skill of the narrative ensure immense popularity for these tales, which will be regularly quarried by later writers and painters.

The Metamorphoses are not quite complete when disaster strikes. In AD 8 Augustus exiles Ovid to a remote shore of the Black Sea. There could hardly be a more exquisite punishment for a man so involved in cosmopolitan delights, but the reason for it has never been discovered. Ovid hints that the causes were two, a poem and an indiscretion; and these have been taken to be Ars Amatoria (well calculated to offend the puritanical emperor) and perhaps a link of some sort with a sexual scandal involving Augustus' granddaughter Julia, who is banished at the same time.

A stream of petitions and complaints about the Black Sea make their way back to Rome. But the poet dies, ten years later, still in exile.

1st - 5th century AD

Josephus and The Jewish War: AD c.77

Josephus is exceptionally interesting among early historians, as a writer in a neglected field who has first-hand experience of his subject - the Jews in Judaea and their struggle against Rome.

A member of an aristocratic priestly family, Josephus is in Jerusalem when the Jewish rebellion against Roman rule breaks out in AD 66. He is sent to command the Jewish forces in Galilee, but the advance of the Roman army soon results in Josephus and his men being besieged in the town of Jotapata. His escape from this predicament (by proposing to his followers a suicide pact from which he contrives his own survival) is told with the shameless self-exposure which gives his writing an added interest.

Josephus is now a prisoner of the Romans. He compounds his betrayal of the Jewish cause by changing sides, justifying himself on the grounds that the Zealots (whom he describes as bandits) are leading the Jews to disaster by their policy of confrontation with all-powerful Rome.

Josephus soon finds himself in a position which follows logically from this viewpoint. As Titus's spokesman during the siege of Jerusalem, he revels in his own eloquence - yelling up at the defenders on the walls, urging them to capitulate. It is a shameful position for a leading Pharisee, but an excellent one for a historian. He is perfectly placed to record the events leading up to the destruction of the Temple.

Josephus claims that Titus, no doubt aware of the Temple's contents, attempts to save it from harm. He says that Jewish partisans first set fire to the Temple colonnade after enticing Roman soldiers into a trap. Whatever the truth, the great building with its golden trimmings is soon destroyed by fire and by looting Romans. The best loot, taken by Titus himself, later features prominently on Titus's triumphal arch in Rome.

So ends the central shrine of Judaism. In the words of Josephus, 'neither its long history, nor its vast wealth, nor its people dispersed through the whole world, nor the unparalleled renown of its worship could avert its ruin'. The destruction of the Temple is another turning point in Jewish history (see the Temple in Jerusalem).

In the bitter aftermath of the disaster, Judaea is no place for a man regarded with some justification as a traitor. Josephus returns with Titus to Rome, becoming a Roman citizen and receiving a pension.

He immediately sets to work on his history, writing it in Aramaic - the lingua franca at this time of the Middle East, where he hopes that his account will discourage further uprisings against Rome. The book is ready for publication by about AD 77 (see publishing in Rome), and Josephus later provides a Greek version for an educated readership elsewhere in the empire. Late in his life he publishes another major work in Greek. Known now as Jewish Antiquities, it attempts to explain the Jews and their history to outsiders.

Tacitus and the empire: AD 98-c.115

The wayward and tyrannical behaviour of Roman emperors during the 1st century AD provides a lively subject for historians. Two seize the opportunity - Tacitus, who views the scene with the analytical eye of the historian, and Suetonius, whose interests are those of a biographer.

The earliest works of Tacitus are on specialized topics. They are both published in the same year, AD 98. One, Agricola, describes in eulogistic vein the career of his father-in-law, the governor of Britain. The other, Germania, is an attempt to understand the barbarian German tribes, pressing on the Rhine frontier who, as Tacitus foresees, will soon prove a threat to the empire.

The major works of Tacitus are the Histories, appearing in about 109, and the Annals, published around the time of the death of Trajan in 117 (see publishing in Rome). They cover the period from the accession of Tiberius in AD 14 to the death of Domitian in 96 (though several sections are now lost).

With an incisive style, and a talent for the barbed epigram, Tacitus emphasizes the damage done to the social fabric by tyrannical rulers. It is a theme on which he writes with painful knowledge. His own career as a public figure has flourished under the oppressive Domitian. The appalled and perhaps guilty fascination of an insider seems to have been part of the original impulse behind his great historical undertaking.

Suetonius and the emperors: AD c.120-c.130

The racy Lives of the Caesars, by Suetonius, deals with the ten emperors who feature in the Annals and Histories of Tacitus and adds the two founders of the empire, Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar.

Suetonius moves in royal circles. Under Trajan he is director of the imperial libraries; he later becomes personal secretary to Hadrian, in charge of all the emperor's correspondence. These appointments give him access to archive material and to the lively gossip about the past which is current in court circles. Suetonius makes vivid use of both - often on the principle of the more scurrilous the better.

Many of the details which make the lives of the Caesars so vivid derive from Suetonius: Julius caesar, silent as the assassins stab him until the blow from Brutus prompts the single question used by Shakespeare as Et tu Brute?'; or Claudius, hiding in terror in the palace when a Roman soldier discovers him and hails him as emperor.

In touches such as these Suetonius demonstrates the value of one lasting element of the biographer's repertoire. A telling anecdote, even if unsubstantiated, is always worth slipping in. The detail of Caesar's question to Brutus is introduced by Suetonius with the cautionary phrase 'Some say that..'. Such words are soon forgotten.

St Augustine: AD 387-430

The first Christian writer since St paul to reach a wide readership is also the last great figure in the story of Latin literature. Confessions, his account of his early life and conversion to Christianity, is the world's first autobiography, introducing the genre with a masterpiece. And the massive city of god is one of the most influential works of Christian philosophy.

The author of these very different but seminal works is the bishop of Hippo in north Africa, St Augustine.

Confessions: AD c.400

Augustine's famous Confessions is essentially a spiritual autobiography, written from the viewpoint of a Christian bishop describing how he came to the truth. It provides a rare and fascinating glimpse of the prevailing influences on an intelligent young man in the declining years of the Roman empire and the early centuries of established Christianity.

Augustine's mother, Monica, is a Christian; his father is a pagan; but their main concern is that their brilliant son shall thrive in the world, probably as a civil servant. Instead, as a student at Carthage, he becomes interested in philosophy and launches into a precarious existence as a freelance teacher.

The first prevailing fashion to take his fancy is Manichaeism, to which he subscribes for some nine years. This religion, devised by Mani in Persia in the 3rd century AD, attempts a synthesis of Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and Christianity. The resulting truth, enlivened by a colourful theology invented by Mani, is that life is an eternal struggle between two irreconcilable opposites - Good and Evil, which can be seen also as light and darkness.

Jesus plays a large part in Mani's theology, and Augustine's account reveals how easily the Manichees find followers within an ostensibly Christian community. But the next stage of his own development derives from a more central influence on early Christianity, that of Neo-Platonism.

Formulated by Plotinus (a 3rd-century philosopher teaching in Rome), Neo-Platonism is less literal than Manichaeism but deals with the same contrast at the heart of all religious thought - between the pure and the impure, or the spiritual and the material.

The ideas of Plotinus derive at several removes from Plato's theory of Forms, but they add a more religious element. The ultimate reality, called the One or the Good, is at the far extreme of a hierarchy; everyday material existence is at our end. In between are successive spheres of higher experience ('soul' nearest to us, then 'mind'). Each individual, by looking inward to these more refined realities, may approach the One.

This Neo-Platonic scheme allows more scope for God than Manichaeism, and it brings Augustine an intense mystical experience. The disappointing brevity of this experience convinces him that he is still too bound up in the flesh, prompting the most famous confession of his Confessions - that on many occasions in his amorous youth, knowing his duty, he has prayed to God with the words 'Give me chastity and continence, but not yet'.

Augustine is finally brought to Christianity after hearing the sermons of Ambrose in Milan, where he has taken a post as professor of rhetoric. Baptized by Ambrose in AD 387, he returns to Africa - where he is ordained a priest in 391 and becomes bishop of Hippo in 396.
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