Roman Poetry and Literature: A Lasting Legacy
What is life without art? Is it even imaginable? Art has come to take on countless forms, always changing, ever shifting, infinitely present. Poetry and literature are art forms that are often overlooked and under appreciated, especially by those who would not consider themselves patrons of the arts. I suppose this is understandable, to a certain extent. For some reason, some people simply do not enjoy reading; However, that is not to say that this form of artistic expression is not something that is still consumed and appreciated by many. In the United States, the average individual spends just over twenty minutes per day reading, which, given the economic structure of our society, is a considerable amount (1). Much like many other aspects of our society, many works of English/American poetry and literature can be traced back to Ancient Roman society, drawing inspiration from both the stories and the style.
“As wave is driven by wave
And each, pursued, pursues the wave ahead,
So time flies on and follows, flies, and follows,
Always, for ever and new. What was before
Is left behind; what never was is now;
And every passing moment is renewed.”Ovid, Metamorphoses
Although ancient Roman society is to thank for many aspects of modern American society, it is important to note that the Romans were not completely original with their early strides in poetry and literature. Many early works of Roman poetry and literature drew inspiration from that of the Greeks, who were recognized by the Romans as being more literarily advanced in comparison (2). Because of this, the Greeks and their literary works became the foundation of Roman textual art. This began as a process of translation of Greek literature into Latin, the language of ancient Rome. An early instance of was the translation of the Odyssey from Greek to Latin, done by Lucius Livius Andronicus, a Greek slave that went on to become the founder of ancient Roman epic poetry and drama (3).
Roman literature originated formally towards the end of the third century BCE, with the works of the playwright Plautus being some of the earliest recorded within this civilization (2). Despite ancient Roman literature being founded in the works of the Greeks, the Romans would soon develop a rich culture of poetry and literature of their own. Not only did they develop their own particular style of textual art, but they did so successfully enough that their works would come to influence later works within the romantic languages throughout history.
No man is wise enough by himself.Plautus
The time period between 70 BCE and 14 CE is coined as The Golden Age of Roman poetry. Latin literature flourished during this time, producing many prominent Roman writers such as Virgil, Propertius, and Ovid (2).
Publius Vergilius Maro or Virgil was a Roman poet who was best known for his work titled The Aeneid, despite it being unfinished. During his lifetime, he was renowned as the Romans greatest poet. His work depicts an image of a romanticized version of ancient Rome, detailing the ideal of civilizing the rest of the world alongside the Romans (4).
Sextus Propertius, regarded as ancient Rome’s greatest elegiac poet, is most widely known for his book of poems titled Elegies. Thematically, his works mainly centered around love, the inspiration being drawn from his experiences with his lovers. However, later in life, he also explored philosophical and religious themes in his works (5).
Publius Ovidius Naro or Ovid is perhaps the most famous Roman poet to be produced during this era, having made major technical accomplishments in his lyrical poetry. He was met with major success with his first work, titled Amores, which was composed of elegiac couplets and detailed a love affair. However, he was later exiled by Augustus, who was not a fan of his work, particularly his final project, Metamorphoses (6).
Roman poetry and literature has come to be embedded in Western culture. Today, you could walk into nearly any bookstore or library and find both the works of Roman poets and works that have drawn inspiration from Roman poets. History has shown that the Roman poets have been a major influence to other historical writers, one of which is William Shakespeare. His plays Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra drew inspiration from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (7). Both of these plays are common required readings within the American education system and have received on screen adaptations.
“In the make-up of human beings, intelligence counts for more than our hands, and that is our true strength.”Ovid, Metamorphoses
Shakespeare is not the only major literary figure that came to be inspired by the life and the works of ancient Rome. Dante Alighieri was also majorly inspired by this era of Roman history, with his works consistently referencing its past. Paradise Lost by John Milton was also inspired by Roman poetry, particularly The Aeneid by Virgil, for which he refers to as a “father work”. This epic poem is also a common required reading within the American education system.
If there is one thing I have learned by studying the Romans, it is that by examining the past, we can understand the present and move forward to shape the future. It is my own personal belief that art, particularly poetry and literature, can ignite something in all of us. The Romans knew this and now their words are stamped into history, and they continue to resonate through the words of others, mine included.
“Do the gods light this fire in our hearts or does each man’s mad desire become his god?”Virgil, The Aeneid
- Statista. Reading habits in the U.S. – statistics & facts. Retrieved from: https://www.statista.com/topics/3928/reading-habits-in-the-us/#dossierKeyfigures
- L. Wasson, Donald. “Roman Literature”. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from: https://www.worldhistory.org/Roman_Literature/
- Britannica. Lucius Livius Andronicus. Retrieved from: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Lucius-Livius-Andronicus
- Britannica. Virgil. Retrieved from: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Virgil
- Britannica. Sextus Propertius. Retrieved from: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Sextus-Propertius
- Britannica. Ovid. Retrieved from: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ovid-Roman-poet/Works
- Marrison, Richard. “Roman literature and how does it influence today?”. Retrieved from: https://www.kspatriot.org/index.php/articles/60-guest-authors/702-roman-literature-and-how-does-it-influence-today.html