THE MAJOR PERIODS OF LATIN LITERATURE


The main body of Latin Literature lies in the period between Plautus and the 2 nd c. A.D,outlined in very brief overview.


Roman Comedy, dating from the third and second centuries B.C., is well worth reading, although difficult because of the large vocabulary and some archaic peculiarities in the diction. It is interesting as revealing the Roman character and basic trends of humor, but also as the literary source of literally hundreds of comedies in the European languages since the Renaissance. We think of English Restoration Comedy as being based in Roman Comedy, but this is also true of every nation of Europe as well. (In a now rare l875 study, the German scholar Reinhardstoettner documented this in painstaking detail, listing hundred of Plautine copies and reworks.)

The main body of what we call Classical Latin Literature lies in the 1 st c. B.C. The great writers of Rome worked in the later part of this period, and their books are what we normally refer to as the Latin Classics. The canon of major Classical works was established already in the Roman education system of the 1-4 c., and we have followed their list implicitly, partly because of the loss of works which the Roman critics did not prize.

(This material from the "Augustan Age" is so well commented and known that it hardly seems necessary to give a list of the main authors here. Let me proceed to other areas which you might not find well documented in the literary manuals.)

Christian writings are valuable not only to students of the history of the church and to theologians, but to people interested in the development of Western thought. Classicists often neglect these materials, which have much intellectual worth, probably because the subject and the style of writing are so different from the norms of the Classical period. Christian Latinity employs a sentence structure much more similar to that of Medieval Latin and the modern languages, that is, the techniques of a free or artistic word order, and the periodic structure are largely de-emphasized. The sociology of Christianity is only now becoming a serious subject for study, and we can expect more attention to be paid to the Christian authors in a social setting.

There is a good amount of what might be called Technical Writing, which is generally not given its proper place in the canon of Latin Literature, so I will try to survey in brief some of the books in this area.

The earliest prose writing is the little book by Cato On Farming, a simply written and practical essay on how to run a farm profitably, written by a pinch-penny authority who was bent on extracting the maximum profit from the least cost. m His view had even excited a certain admiration nowadays among hard-nosed conservatives who agree with his methods.

Columella's book on farming is later, more reasonable, and of course all this information on farms bears directly on Vergil's remarkable Georgics, a wonderful treatise in poetry by a man who was brought up in the country and knew farming life well from his family background.

Lucretius might be considered fine poetry rather than scientific philosophy by many Classicists, but he is the end of a long tradition of Greek scientists and the best summary of what Greeks science was about. His first two books are on Atoms or really molecules, be understand the laws of conservation of energy and mass, knows Brownian motion in a gas, and many more things in amazing detail. The fifth book is a clear treatise on Evolution, which Darwin said he had never read (sic), but with all the premises of mass mutations, great differentiation of species, and survival of the fittest. There is much here which literary Classicists ignore, their loss to be sure.

Vitruvius' manual De Architectura from the end of the 1 c B.C. is a remarkable treatise, replete with detailed information about design, construction, acoustics.....everything a contractor-architect could be concerned with. This book has great influence in the Renaissance.

The writings of the later Empire can best be passed over in graceful silence, although advanced students from time to time will find something literarily interesting, or historically significant in them. The few fine poems of Statius are worth reading, Claudian has some interest, and Ausonius' Mosella might even be seen as paving the way for Finnegan's Wake. But the short and anonymous Pervigilium Veneris is the jewel in this otherwise starless night.

The medical manual of Celsus is a good surbey of what ROman doctors knew and did. The sections on surgery show a great deal of proficiency, after the Renaissance discovery of Celsus his manual was of immediate practical use, in fact until the l9th c. parts were still in daily medical use. THe manual of Scribonius Largus is shorter, more concise.

Pliny the Elder wrote a monumental Natural History, into which he poured data gleaned from hundreds of Greek manuals which are lost but for hsi summaries. He is un=critical to a fault, a gullible collector of fact as he saw it, but in the thousand tightly printed pages of a modern edition there is a great deal of information which we are glad to have. Through the middle ages he was considered an abolute authority, now he seems more a colelction of the odd and curious, a Guiness book from Antiquity.......

Astrology was really the religion of the masses until Christianity began to grow, and even then it never died out, as astrological charts in modern newpapers show. The names of the days of our week are from ancient astrology, among authors Manilius' large poetic treatment is the main Latin document, Censorinus De Die Natali abridges this down to a short handbook for the busy. This is not Ptolemy with a real interest in scientific observation of the celestial universe, but a practical Roman setting forth what the people really wanted, and he even does it in fairly decent verse.

Inscriptions represent a vast array of data, from laws and prayers, to obituaries, curses, proverbial reminders and bits of homely philosophy. They are valuable as primary historical record for every period from early to quite late, and often show the private side of what the "little people" of the Roman world thought and felt. Unfortunately inscriptional Latin is difficult and generally only accessible to advanced students as a graduate-school specialty, dubbed Epigraphy. There are however some new collections of the most interesting inscriptions suitable for general use. If one wanted to do a serious study in Roman "social history" and the life of the ordinary citizens, his materials after Plautus and Petronius would be entirely inscriptional. The vast resources of the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum in huge folio volumes filling shelf after shelf of library space, are generally used by research oriented PhD candidates, the the selections in Warmington's Loeb Library volume give a good idea of the range --- and they have translations as well, so this makes a good introduction..

Return to Latin Background index

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris