All information about Roman literature during the monarchy and the early republic is very scarce. It is known that during this period Rome was subjected to intense influence of neighboring Etruscans. Unfortunately, however, we do not have Etruscan literature, which apparently the Romans read before they began to read Greek.
Focused on achieving material goals and occupied with constant wars, the Romans did not attach much importance to writing. Initially, songs were written in a heavy Saturnian poem (carmina), created for cult purposes, such as Commentari and a kind of litany (indigitamenta), praising the gods. Over time, however, the Greeks began to mark their influence in Rome. The Romans remained in a great complex towards the Hellenic culture. Contact with Greek cities in southern Italy gave rise to their fascination with this culture, which they quickly succumbed to. The first creators were not native Romans. Livius Andronicus translated “Odyssey” into Latin and several comedies and Greek tragedies in the 3rd century BCE. The Greek creator brought more, but this time the Romans. In the second half of the 3rd century BCE a poem about the First Punic War of Gnaeus Nevius of Campania was created. His example was followed by Ennius, who at the turn of the third and second century BCE created the national epic Annales, depicting the history of the Roman state. During this period, the first historical work of a certain Quintus Fabius Pictor was also written, which was written in Greek, but it has been preserved only in fragments. The oldest Roman writer is considered Appius Claudius Caecus, a censor in 312 BCE, who was the author of the first published speech and a collection of sentences. On his initiative the first Roman book was created around 304 BCE, a pontifical calendar, written by Gnaeus Flavius.
During this period, he also created the famous Titus Maccius Plautus, in other words Plautus. He became famous as the creator of Newattatian comedies. However, he introduced the world of the Roman drama to change. Instead of long and tiring Roman viewers, he introduced chants. Sublime jokes are common in his comedies. Often there are also scenes of quarrels and fights in which it is not difficult to find comical situations. Publius Terentius Afer, whose plays were second to the works of Plautus, was also famous as playwright. Lucius, in turn, was the creator of the satire, which he separated into a separate genre.
In the mature Republic, a conflict began over the shape of Roman literature. The first camp assumed a return to ancient Roman customs, and its representative was the Marcus Porcius Cato (Cato the Elder). According to them, Rome towering over Greece militarily is not inferior to it in the field of culture. Katon turned out to be an outstanding Roman writer. His work De agri cultura is the oldest, preserved to our times in its entirety, written in Latin prose. This is a manual for the management of land and slaves. We should also mention the “Beginnings”, in which Cato presented the foundation and history of the cities of Italy. The other party, in turn, supported Greek culture penetrating Italy (so-called filhellenism).
A certain stimulus and example for the development of Roman literature were the libraries imported to Rome by the victorious chiefs as part of the war gains: Lucius Emiliusz Paulus after the battle of Pydna in 168 BCE brought the library of the Macedonian king Perseus to Rome, and in 84 BCE Sulla brought from Athens part of the book collection of Aristotle that was once owned by Apellicon of Teos.
The first and only newspaper of the ancient world was founded by Julius Caesar in 59 BCE It was called Acta Diurna, or “Events of the Day”, and unfortunately no copy has survived so far, we also do not know the amount of its circulation.
The information was extremely similar to what we can read in modern newspapers. They concerned news about the deliberations of the Senate, people’s assemblies, lawsuits, executions, sea and military news, and even weddings, births and obituaries. In the “sports” part, the Romans could learn about the results of gladiator fights or chariot races in Circus Maximus. The newspaper was published until 330 CE (moving the capital to Constantinople), i.e. for nearly 400 years. It is also worth saying that the Romans called their Acta Diurna diminutive Diurnalis, meaning “Everyday.” The Italian and French name of the newspaper comes from this word: “giournale” and “journal” and hence our journalist.
From 330 CE until the 16th century, nothing appeared that could resemble a newspaper. This is another example of the extremely high culture of ancient Rome, a culture that beat our Middle Ages.
The turn of the second and first century BCE was a period of rhetoric development in Rome. The art of praising has become an inseparable element of cases considered in the Senate, in the forum or in the courts. Many times the matter was decided by eminent speakers who were able to prove their arguments in a beautiful way. Quintus Hortensius Hortalus took to the heights of craftsmanship, especially Marcus Tulius Cicero. The numerous speeches of the latter are a model of oratorical art. 14 philippines directed against Marek Antony have gone down in history. He perfected Latin prose, which he mastered. Many of his republican works shaped the minds of the Romans, who during the principate period still believed in the fall of the empire and the restoration of the power of the people.
The increasing power of the Roman state prompted the Romans to begin historiography. The mentioned “Annals” of Enniusza survived only in fragments, but in the first century BCE the Romans began to write more about the history of their nation. It is worth mentioning the Quintus of Claudius Kwadrigarius and Quintus of Valerius Antiah, who initiated a new field of literature. We must not forget about Julius Caesar, who created his great works during this period. We are talking about “Gallic War” (Commentarii de bello Gallico) and “Civil War” (Commentarii de bello civili). It was a unique case that the outstanding Roman commander and politician also turned out to be a brilliant writer. These works are saturated with exaggerations of the author’s successes and elements of bias are clearly outlined. Another representative of the popular camp who also enrolled in the historiography of this period was Gaius Salustius Krispus.
During the Augustów period, i.e. from 30 to 14 BC, the greatest Roman epic was Virgil, author of two great works: “Georgiki” and “Eneidy”. During this period, he also created an excellent lyricist, Horacy, who introduced many new metric forms, modeled on Greek songs classical era.
During the early Empire, i.e. the first century CE, historiography and all literature were slightly blocked. The republican tendencies that would violate the emperor and the system were still alive. Therefore, at that time, they were mainly created on side topics. For example, Lucius Junius Columella wrote about agriculture in his work “De re rustica”. Pliny the Elder compiled an encyclopedia of all contemporary knowledge in “Naturalis historia”. Quintus Curtius Rufus, in turn faithful to historical ideals, described the expedition of Alexander of Macedonia. It is also worth mentioning the Plutarch of Cheronei and his work “Lives in parallel” dealing with outstanding Romans and Greeks. Pausanias created the “Guide to Greece”, and Claudius Ptolemy of Alexandria became famous as an outstanding astronomer and geographer creating a work proposing a geocentric system in space that survived until Copernicus.
The second half of the first century CE and the beginning of the second century were the times of eminent Roman historians, especially Tacitus and Suetonius. Flavius Arrian and Appian from Alexandria also deserve mention. However, this period marked the fall of Roman poetry. There were many great artists, but their works were saturated with rhetoric. The works of this period include: “Farsalia” of Lucan, “Tebaida” and “Achilleis” of Statius, and “Argonautic” of Valerius Flakkus. Many distinguished satirists were born then. I am talking about Decimus Junius Juwenalis and Marcus Valerius Martialis, whose works were directed mainly against aristocracy. Love works were also created. The most perfect example of these were the works of Petronius, called Arbiter Elegantiae, especially “Satiricon”.
Oldest Roman letters
The oldest correspondence in Latin comes from Egypt. In 30 BCE, Egypt became part of the Roman Empire, and thus a difficult province to control. In 22 BCE, the prefect of Egypt, Publius Petronius, in response to the invasions of Upper Egypt, sent a Roman garrison to the south of the country, which settled in Primis (today’s Qasr Ibrim). Soldiers of vexillationes of the 3rd Legion of Augustus served there for a year or two.
At that time they were leaving for the place where their main camp was located (probably Koptos on the Red Sea), and even to distant Alexandria. Koptos was a place of very important strategic importance – on the Nile (middle course of this river) and relatively close to the Red Sea. Earlier, legionaries camped in Luxor, where the trade route from Asia followed. Soldiers outside the garrison wrote letters to their comrades. Papyrus notes were not of any great value at that time. A large collection of papyrus has been discovered on the outside of the ancient wall. Papyri contain texts in Greek and Latin. The latter are fewer, but they are the oldest known handwritten texts in this language known to science. Most of the papyri are documentary: the abovementioned private letters to the soldiers of the Qasr Ibrim garrison dominate, there are also lists (supply of goods, legionaries present in the garrison). We also come across ordinary legionnaire lists, certainly written out of boredom.
One of the letters was written by a trumpeter soldier named Kajsios, who left a remote Egyptian post and went to Alexandria (about 1200 km). From the capital he wrote to a man named Likinios. From the letter we learn, among others, that the reason for the long journey was to bring the mouthpiece to the trumpet.
With the transformation of the empire into a true absolute monarchy, culture has degraded compared to previous centuries. In historiography he became famous Cassius Dion Kokecjan, who wrote at the turn of the 2nd and 3rd century CE. In turn, in the 4th century CE he created the last outstanding Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus. They stopped with the repeated motive of writing the biographies of subsequent emperors, and focused on the values professed by Tacitus. The decrease in culture also affected poetry. Only Decimus Magnus Auzonius, the author of the poem “Mosella” and Klaudiusz Klaudianus went down in memory. The gradual expansion of Christianity and its domination in the Roman world led to the development of Christian literature. In the 4th century AD, the largest number of representatives of Christian motifs in literature was in the East. A famous Christian historian, Eusebius of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Jan Chrysostom, called Goldoust and Augustine. Instead of original work, compendia, textbooks and encyclopedias appeared. The last great work of Roman science was the codification of Roman law made in the years 528-534 CE by the order of emperor Justinian the Great.
It was generally accepted to divide ancient Rome literature into four periods:
- Archaic period (240 – 80 BCE)
- Cicero period (80-30 BCE)
- Augustów period (30-14 BCE)
- Imperial period (I – V century CE)
About Ovidius, having received from his lover the cancellation of the meeting, he wrote: “Weep for my falls: the sad tablets have returned. The unlucky letter denies that she is able to today. […] Go away from here, difficult tablets, funereal wood. And you, wax having been brought back with notes about to deny”. Writing entered the Romans and connected them with all areas of their lives. Merchants concluded contracts, which the scribe wrote down. On the streets, the walls of buildings were decorated with inscriptions of various content. Letters were made at home and household expenses were calculated. The Romans used various writing instruments, including tablets which Ovidus had offended so badly. The writer marked the letters on the surface of the wax with a stylus blade usually made of ivory, erasing the errors with the end. The letter or report was often written on papyrus using a cane or metal pen dipped in sepia. The reader may have had a lot of trouble deciphering the text. Usually there were no spaces between words, and punctuation was rarely used.
The Romans also often wrote daily letters on wax. Beeswax was melted and poured into shallow wells on wooden tablets. When hardened, they could scratch messages in it with a sharp stylus. Generally, the Romans used cane feathers with a split tip, bronze feathers, bronze stylus or bronze coated iron.