This section discussed the development of Roman literature and its influence on European culture.
Roman literature was limited to a few writings for about five centuries after the founding of Rome. It may be said that the "Law of the Twelve Tables," prepared about 450 B. c. and hung up in the Forum, was the first prose composition of importance. The earliest writings were fashioned almost exclusively after Greek models and their lyric, heroic, and dramatic meters came from the Greeks.
Rome had elementary schools as early as 450 B.C., where reading, arithmetic, writing, and music were taught. Many of the teachers were Greeks and the children of wealthy families were sent to Greece to complete their education, but excellent higher schools and colleges were later established in all the Roman cities.
Roman literature owed much to Greek civilization. When the Romans became rulers of Greece they recognized the superiority of Greek literature and learning, and sought to emulate it. The first translation of Greek classics into Roman was made by a Grecian slave who came to Rome about 250 B.C.. He also wrote and acted plays inspired by Greek writings, and so at first Roman literature consisted merely of works copied or transkated from the Greek.In time, however, Roman writers began to produce original works in their own language, though Greek literature was still used as the model of what constituted good writing. One of the first works of Roman literature was "The Origines," a work written by Marcus Portius Cato in the 2d century. It consists principally of a history of the origin of Rome and several other cities of Italy.
Ennius, a Roman of the same period, introduced a new style of literature, somewhat resembling the Grecian. His writings are largely poetical history and his "Annals," a poetical history of Rome, was for two centuries the national poem. He was honored by having his bust placed in the tomb of Scipio. The writings of Plautus belong to the early part of the 2d century, and are noted for their vigorous and brilliant wit. Terence, a learned and graceful humorist, who flourished about the middle of the 2d century, turned attention to greater refinement and more cultured forms of expression.
The Latin tragedies of the early Roman period were copied from the masterpieces of Sophocles and Euripides. Their comedies were translated from Aristophanes and other writers, their philosophy was borrowed from the Portico and the Academy, and their orators, even in the palmiest days, proposed to pattern after the speeches of Demosthenes and Lysias. To the 1st century B. C. belong the illustrious names of Varro, Cicero, Virgil, Horace, Livy, and Sallust. Varro founded large libraries and a museum of sculpture, cultivated the fine arts; and sought to awaken literary tastes among his countrymen. He wrote on history, theology, philosophy, and agriculture.
Cicero is the most eloquent of all the Romans. He ranked high as an essayist, orator, and letter writer; his principal productions include his four orations on the "Conspiracy of Cataline." The Roman schools used his orations for lessons and many of his essays still are familiar Latin text-books. Virgil and Horace are known as poets of the Augustan age. Virgil's "Aeneid" is modeled after the Homeric poems. Livy write 42 volumes of Roman history, beginning with the fabulous landing of Aeneas in Italy (also the subject of the Aenid by Virgil), and closing with the death of Drusus in the year 8 B. c. Sallus is another historian of eminence, his most noted writings embracing the "Conspiracy of Cataline" and the "Jugurthine War."
The noted writers of the 1st century A. D. include Seneca, Juvenal, Tacitus, and the two Plinys. Seneca was a brilliant orator, poet, and Stoic philosopher. His writings are remarkable for their moral purity. They include "Ethical Essays," "Tragedies," and "Instructive Letters." Juvenal produced works remarkable for their satire and eloquence. Tacitus wrote in a grave and stately, though sometimes sarcastic, style. His writings include "History of Rome," "Life of Agricola," and a treatise on Germany.
Pliny the Elder is the author of "Natural History," a work of 37 volumes, covering the whole range of scientific knowledge of his time. Pliny the Younger was a charming letter writer; his writings extant include the "Epistles" and the "Eulogium upon Trajan." Quintilian was the most eminent rhetorician and literary critic of Rome.
As Roman power declined so did its civilization, and towards the end of the Empire, there were fewer literary works of note produced. As well, many works were lost completely during the destruction that befall the Roman cities at the hands of the barbarians. Some Latin books survived but they were hidden for centuries, the only surviving copies held in Constantinople. When that city fell to the moslems, many of the inhabitants fled as refugees to western Europe and some brought books with them. As a result, many books from the Roman period were reintroduced into western Europe after 1453 A.D. sparking renewed interest in ancient learning and Roman philosophy by European intellectuals. This rediscovery of ancient learning contributed to the Renaissance, that rebirth of the arts and learning which followed the dark centuries of semi-barbarism which followed the end of the The Roman Empire.