Ancient Roman literature, written in Latin, continues to be a significant part of Roman culture. Early surviving works include epic poems about Rome’s early military history, as well as poetry, comedies, histories and tragedies from the Republic period.
Ancient Roman literature, written in Latin, heavily borrowed from other cultures, particularly from the more developed literary tradition of Greece. The influence of Greek authors is clearly visible in Roman literature. However, not many works remain from the Early and Old Latin period, but some plays by Plautus and Terence have been preserved.
Of Caesar’s literary works the most important are his Commentarii (The Gallic Wars), containing the history of the first seven years of the Gallic war, and the history of the civil strife down to the Alexandrine war. The account of his last year in Gaul was written probably by Aulus Hirtius; that of the The Alexandrian War (48 BC), The African War (46 BC), and The Spanish War (45 BC), by some unknown hand. As an orator, Caesar ranks next to Cicero.
Cato the Elder (234–149 B.C.)
Cato Maior, also known as Cato the Elder was born as Marcus Porcius Priscus. Cato was a Roman military, legal advisor, consul, and censor, but was also a noted writer from Tusculum, Italy. He became famous for ending his speeches with, “Moreover, I advise that Carthage must be destroyed.”
Marcus Tullius Cicero, a native of Arpínum, ranks as the first prose writer in Roman literature. As an orator Cicero had a very happy natural talent. The extreme versatility of his mind, his lively imagination, his great sensitiveness, his inexhaustible richness of expression, which was never at a loss for a word or tone to suit any circumstances or mood, his felicitous memory, his splendid voice and impressive figure, all contributed to render him a powerful speaker. He himself left nothing undone to attain perfection. Not until he had spent a long time in laborious study and preparation did he make his début as an orator; nor did he ever rest and think himself perfect, but, always working, made the most careful preparation for every case. Each success was to him only a step to another still higher achievement; and by continual meditation and study he kept himself fully equipped for his task. Hence he succeeded, as is universally admitted, in gaining a place beside Demosthenes, or at all events second only to him. There are extant fifty-seven orations of Cicero, and fragments of twenty more. His famous Philippics against Antony caused his proscription by the Second Triumvirate, and his murder near his villa at Formiae, in December, 43.
His chief writings on rhetoric were De Oratore; Brutus de Claris Oratoribus; and Orator ad M. Brutum. Cicero was a lover of philosophy, and his writings on the subject were numerous. Those most read are De Senectute, De Amicitia, and De Officiis.
Eight hundred and sixty-four of Cicero’s letters are extant, and they furnish an inexhaustible treasure of contemporaneous history.
Curtius Quintus Curtius Rufus
Curtius Quintus Curtius Rufus Was a historian who lived in the reign of Claudius (50 A.D.). He wrote a history of the exploits of Alexander the Great. PERSIUS (34-62) PERSIUS, a poet of the reign of Nero, was a native of Volaterrae. He wrote six satires, which are obscure and hard to understand.
Quintus Ennius, a native of Rudiae, was taken to Rome by Cato the Younger. Here he supported himself by teaching Greek. His epic poem, the Annàles, relates the traditional Roman history, from the arrival of Aenéas to the poet’s own day.
Horace is known as the best Roman lyric poet of his time. His contemporary Quintilian discussed Horace’s The Complete Odes and Epodes, saying, “He can be lofty sometimes, yet he is also full of charm and grace, versatile in his figures, and felicitously daring in his choice of words.”
After growing up in Rome, Horace moved to Athens and enrolled in The Academy, which Plato founded. While at The Academy, Horace became deeply familiar with the ancient tradition of lyrical poetry popular at the time.
Juvenal Statius (45-96)
Juvenal Statius was a native of Naples, had considerable poetical talent. He wrote the Thebaid, the Achilleis (unfinished), and the Silvae.
Juvenal of Aquínum, was a great satirist, who described and attacked bitterly the vices of Roman society. Sixteen of his satires are still in existence. The author is known for 16 poems known as The Satires (the 16th poem is not complete). Juvenal was Jewish, and many historians believe that the author’s poems give accurate accounts of what early Judaism entailed.
Juvenal expressed many ideas on society throughout The Satires, including that most people care more about entertainment and food than about freedom, that it’s rare to have a perfect spouse, and that it’s difficult to trust people with unchecked power.
Gaius Valerius Catullus (c. 84 – c. 54 BC)
Gaius Valerius Catullus was born into a high-class family in Rome, and his social standing allowed him to rub elbows with prominent members of society, including Julius Caesar. It’s believed that the author spent most of his younger years in Rome, but historians are unsure of exactly where he spent his later years, as there is no surviving biography of Catullus.
Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (c. 69 – c. 130/140 CE)
Suetonius (c. 69 – c. 130/140 CE) was a Roman historian and writer, known for his biographies of the first 12 Roman emperors. He had a close relationship with the imperial court which allowed him access to private sources for his work. Suetonius is well known for including scandalous and salacious details about the private lives of the emperors in his biographies.
- The Life of Julius Caesar
- The Life of Augustus
- The Life of Tiberius
- The Life of Caligula
- The Life of Claudius
- The Life of Nero
- The Life of Galba
- The Life of Otho
- The Life of Vitellius
- The Life of Vespasian
- The Life of Titus
- The Life of Domitian
Livy (59 B.C.—17 A.D.)
Titus Livius left a History of Rome, of which thirty-five books have been preserved.
Lucan, a nephew of Seneca, wrote an epic poem (not finished) called Pharsalia, upon the civil war between Caesar and Pompey.
Lucius Apuleius (c. 124 – after 170)
Lucius Apuleius was from Numidia, a Roman province, and spent time studying in Athens, Egypt, and Asia Minor. The prose writer and rhetorician was also initiated into many cults and secret societies.
The author was best known for his work The Golden Ass, which, to this day, is the only wholly preserved Latin novel. The book offered exciting perspectives on society and culture in Rome. The book provides a humorous perspective and interjects serious topics with adventure—the fairy-tale-style book details what Apuleius likely experienced in some of his cult initiations in Ancient Rome.
Titus Lucretius Carus has left a didactic poem, De Rerum Natura. The tone of the work is sad, and in many places bitter. CATULLUS (87-47) GAIUS VALERIUS CATULLUS, of Veróna, is the greatest lyric poet of Roman literature. One hundred and sixteen of his poems are extant.
Martial wrote sharp and witty epigrams, of which fifteen books are extant. He was a native of Spain.
Cornelius Nepos, a native of Northern Italy, was a friend of both Cicero and Atticus. He was a prolific writer, but only his De Viris Illustribus is preserved. It shows neither historical accuracy nor good style.
Ovid (43 B.C.—18 A.D.)
Ovid is a widely read ancient Roman author best known for his 15-volume narrative Metamorphoses, a mythological tale. To the present day, Metamorphoses provides scholars and researchers with much of their understanding of Ancient Roman mythology. Unlike most Roman poets, Ovid regularly wrote about his own life, providing valuable insight into what it was like to live during Ancient Roman times.
Phaedrus, a writer of fables, flourished in the reign of Tiberius (14- 37). He was originally a slave. His fables are ninetyseven in number, and are written in iambic verse.
Plautus, the comic poet, was one of the earliest of Roman writers. Born at Sarsina in Umbria, of free parentage, he at first worked on the stage at Rome, but lost his savings in speculation. Then for some time he worked in a treadmill, but finally gained a living by translating Greek comedies into Latin. Twenty of his plays have come down to us. They are lively, graphic, and full of fun, depicting a mixture of Greek and Roman life.
Pliny The Younger (62-113)
Pliny the Younger was the adopted son of Pliny the Elder. He was a voluminous correspondent. We have nine books of his letters, relating to a
large number of subjects, and presenting vivid pictures of the times in which he lived. Their diction is fluent and smooth.
Pliny the Elder
Naturalist, philosopher, and military commander Pliny the Elder’s most well-known work was Naturalis Historia (Natural History), which provided the framework for modern encyclopedias. In addition to studying nature, Pliny the Elder studied geography.
Sadly, Pliny the Elder perished during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, as described by Pliny the Younger.
Sextus Propertius, a native of Umbria, was also an elegiac poet, and wrote mostly on love.
Quintilian was also a native of Spain. He was a teacher of eloquence for many years in Rome. His work On the Training of an Orator, is preserved.
Seneca (8 B.C.—65 A.D.)
Seneca as born at Corduba in Spain, of a Spanish Roman family, and was educated at Rome. His father was a teacher of rhetoric, a man of wealth and literary attainments. Seneca began to practise at the bar at Rome, and was gaining considerable reputation, when in 41 he was banished to Corsica. Eight years later he was recalled to be tutor of the young Nero, then eleven years old. He was Consul in 57, and during the first years of Nero’s reign he shared the administration of affairs with the worthy Burrhus. His influence over Nero, while it lasted, was salutary, though often maintained by doubtful means. In course of time Nero began to dislike him, and when Burrhus died his fate was sealed. By the Emperor’s command he committed suicide. Opening the veins in his feet and arms, he discoursed with his friends on the brevity of life until death ensued.
Seneca is the most eminent of the writers of his age. He wrote moral essays, philosophical letters, physical treatises, and tragedies. Of the last, the best are Hercules Furens, Phaedra, and Medea.
Cornelius Tacitus was the great historian of his age. His birthplace is unknown. His writings are interesting and of a high tone, but often tinged with prejudice, and hence unfair. He wrote:
- A dialogue on orators.
- A biography of his father-in-law, Agricola.
- 3. A description of the habits of the people of Germany.
- The Histories detailing the reigns of Galba, Otho, Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian (Historiae).
- Cornelius Tacitus – The AnnalsThe Annals of Imperial Rome[/link_post, a narrative of the events of the reigns of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero.
Terence was a native of Carthage. He was brought to Rome at an early age as a slave of the Senator Terentius, by whom he was educated and liberated. Six of his comedies are preserved. Like the plays of Plautus, they are free translations from the Greek, and of the same general character.
Albius Tibullus, an elegiac poet, celebrated in exquisitely fine poems the beauty and cruelty of his mistresses.
Titus Maccius Plautus (c.254–184 B.C.)
Plautus was a playwright from Sarsina in northern Italy. He wrote about 130 plays, out of which 20 have survived. These plays are the earliest Latin literary works to have survived history in their entirety.
Titus Livius (59 BC – AD 17)
Also known as Livy, Titus Livius was a well-known Roman historian. He wrote a detailed history of Rome entitled The Early History of Rome. Livius held conservative values and preferred to spend time by himself.
During his teenage years, Livy experienced civil wars throughout Rome. Livy gained widespread acclaim for his historical work, inspiring people to travel from afar to talk with him about his knowledge of Rome’s beginnings.
The great epic Roman poet was Virgil. His Aenéis, in twelve books, gives an account of the wanderings and adventures of Aenéas, and his struggles to found a city in Italy. The poem was not revised when Virgil died, and it was published contrary to his wishes. Besides the Aenéis, Virgil wrote the Bucolica, ten Eclogues imitated and partially translated from the Greek poet Theocritus. The Georgica, a poem of four books on agriculture in its different branches, is considered his most finished work, and the most perfect production of Roman art-poetry.
FAQs about Roman Authors
Ovid is typically regarded as the most widely read Ancient Roman author.
Virgil has been traditionally ranked as one of Rome’s greatest poets. His Aeneid is also considered a national epic of ancient Rome, a title held since composition.
The majority of the lands conquered by the Romans spoke Greek. Many educated Romans also spoke Greek, which became the second official language of the Roman Empire, alongside Latin. A strong Greek influence is evident in the works of Roman playwrights such as Plautus and Terence.
The Romans used a variety of tools for writing. Everyday writing could be done on wax tablets or thin leaves of wood. Documents, like legal contracts, were usually written in pen and ink on papyrus. Books were also written in pen and ink on papyrus or sometimes on parchment.