There was an amazing period of eighty years or so between about 60 BCE and 20 CE, while the Roman Republic was coming to an end and the imperial system was being created, when truly outstanding Roman poets kept appearing one after another. These poets, including my Big Four – Catullus, Virgil, Horace and Ovid – account for much of the poetry on this site.
What these poets wrote was deeply influenced by earlier Greek literature that an educated Roman audience would have known and loved – sophisticated references to events and characters taken from the vast quarry of Greek mythology were one feature of this, the use of Greek poetic styles and metres was another.
They set out to work within the established conventions of this Greek tradition, while creating from it something new, topical and elegant for their own times.
Rome in the first century BCE
Years of imperial expansion and competition for supremacy at home in Rome itself were coming to a head in the 50s BCE, with Caesar marching on Rome and exerting supreme authority there in 49 BCE. Civil war continued, but with the death of Caesar’s rival, Pompey, in 48 BCE, it looked as though an end might be in sight. Then, in 44 BCE, Caesar was assassinated by an alliance of Romans from the ruling class, some of whom were motivated by personal antagonism, some by fears that the republican institutions through which their forebears had governed Rome collectively for centuries would be replaced by dictatorship or monarchy, and some by both.
Caesar’s death was followed by renewed civil war between republicans led by Brutus and Cassius, and Caesar’s supporters, including his top Generals, Mark Antony and Marcus Lepidus, and his young and relatively inexperienced great-nephew and adoptive son and heir, Octavian. Caesar’s party finally defeated the republican alliance at Philippi in Greece in 42 BCE, and Brutus and the other leading conspirators against Caesar lost their lives.
The victory brought no more than a short relief from civil war, as the alliance between the winners soon broke down into conflict again. On one side was Antony, whose power base was in the East, and who had succeeded Caesar as the lover and political and military ally of Cleopatra, ruler of Egypt, who belonged to a dynasty founded by one of Alexander the Great’s Greek generals three centuries before. On the other was Octavian, who had been consolidating power in Rome itself. The conflict came to an end in 31 BCE with the great naval battle of Actium in the Ionian Sea to the East of mainland Greece, followed by the deaths of Cleopatra and Antony.
Romans must have wondered what the next chapter would be. What they had been through must have been comparable in its impact to the Wars of the Roses on 15th century England or the World Wars on the twentieth century. For a hundred years, Rome’s traditional politics had been unable to sustain peace and orderly government. Previous decades had seen constant struggles for dominance between military heavy-hitters – Caesar, Pompey, Antony and their predecessors. Octavian might have been playing his hand successfully so far, but he wasn’t yet in that league: Romans must have been doubtful about how long he could last, wondering where the next conflict was going to come from and worrying about what further collateral damage there was going to be.
Against the odds, as it turned out Octavian had the staying power to break the cycle of civil conflict. Political skills of the very highest order were one factor: another must have been the sufferings of the Roman élite over many years of war, reprisal, banishment, death and confiscation, and the longing it must have left them with for a leader who could finally bring the vicious circle to an end. Octavian succeeded, not only in matching the temporary dominance of Caesar and others of his kind, but, as the Emperor Augustus, in creating and maintaining a position of moral and political authority over Rome which lasted for forty years. He achieved a complete and permanent change from government based on traditional republican models to a new brand of empire.
He did not set out to smash the old republican traditions, but to be seen to pay the greatest respect to them, and to preserve the appearance of operating within them. In his personal life, he could not have been more different from later, more capricious and extravagant figures like Nero or Caligula. He adopted and promoted sober and conservative social values, and downplayed, rather than overindulged, the immense personal power and authority that he increasingly acquired between the battle of Actium in 31 BCE and his death in 14 CE.
The first of the Big Four to write was Catullus. He was reportedly born in 84 BCE in Verona, but spent much of his adult life in Rome, and died young in about 54 BCE, ten years before the death of Julius Caesar. References in the poems suggest that he spent a year abroad at some point on the staff of the Governor of the Province of Bithynia, near the Bosphorus and Black Sea in modern Turkey.continue reading
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Virgil was born in 70 BCE. Like Catullus, according to ancient commentators, he came from the North, near Mantua. His was a family of farmers, reasonably prosperous, to judge from his upbringing, but lower in the scale of wealth and social position than Catullus. He had a thorough education, reportedly studying Greek, Epicurean philosophy and rhetoric at Cremona, Milan and Naples.continue reading
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Horace, with Virgil, is one of the twin giants of poetry in the time of Augustus. While Virgil was taking the Greek tradition of epic poetry and giving it a new set of completely Roman clothes with the Aeneid, Horace was taking the Greek tradition of lyric poetry that was the established stock-in-trade for much non-epic Roman poetry, and giving it a new and distinctly Roman character. Also like Virgil in his separate style, Horace used his talent to reference and support the programme of political and social renewal and change that Augustus pursued throughout his long period of supremacy.continue reading
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The youngest of the Big Four, Ovid was born in 43 BCE about 90 miles from Rome to a family which belonged to the class of equites, or Knights. This meant that he was well-born, if not quite out of the very top drawer: had he been willing and able to follow a conventional career of successively more senior public offices, he could well have wound up as a senator. In practice, he held some junior elected posts, but gave up official life in favour of a career in poetry. Some of his poetry is autobiographical, so we know quite a lot about him but need to bear in mind that he had reasons to put his own spin on what he tells us.continue reading
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Roman lyric poetry
Lyric poetry can mean poetry recited or sung to the lyre: that may have been true for some Greek models that Roman poets like Horace revered, and from whom he took the intricate and demanding metrical patterns within which such poetry operated. Alcaeus and Sappho, for example, were operating as lyric poets as far back as the late seventh and the sixth centuries BCE, and for them poetry was probably incidental to a broader way of life. After the conquests of Alexander the Great in the fourth century, a different tradition developed in which writing and studying poetry was a much more professional and academic occupation, especially centred on the great library established in Alexandria by Egypt’s new, Greek ruling dynasty.
The influence of these long centuries of tradition was so strong that, for us, it is very difficult to be certain, when reading Roman poetry of the first century BCE, how much is an expression of the poet’s personal experience, how much is a skilled variation on a Greek theme, and how much lies somewhere in the middle. For example, in one poem (Odes 2.7) Horace welcomes a colleague who (like him) fought on the wrong side at Philippi but (unlike him) has only just been allowed to return from banishment. You, says Horace, stuck it out: I threw away my shield and, at the price of that humiliation, saved my skin. It sounds like a self-deprecating touch from personal experience: in fact, throwing your shield away so that you can take to your heels is a literary motif that goes back in Greek literature at least as far as a warrior-poet, Archilochus, five hundred years before Horace’s time.
This complicates things for modern specialists: time and again, when something in a Roman poem seems fresh and original, someone points out that the motif is one that writers had already been using for hundreds of years. For non-specialists, the details don’t matter, but it is as well to remember that, in lyric poetry, the Roman writer may always be making something up for literary effect, rather than sharing personal experience.back to top
There are two main Homeric poems, the Iliad (meaning the story of Troy) and the Odyssey (meaning the story of Odysseus).
The Iliad takes place over about three weeks towards the end of the Trojan War. The Greek commander-in-chief, Agamemnon, quarrels with Achilles, the Greeks’ best fighter. Angry because he has to return a captive girl to her father, who is the priest of the God Apollo, Agamemnon takes another girl from Achilles, who then withdraws from the fighting. That fighting, which includes many single combats between bronze-age heroes, and a number of interventions by the gods on the Greek or Trojan side, turns in favour of the Trojans. Led by Hector, a son of the King of Troy, Priam, the Trojans reach the Greek ships and begin to burn them.
Still Achilles will not fight, but he allows his friend Patroclus to borrow his armour and take the field. Hector kills Patroclus: Achilles returns, kills Hector and dishonours his corpse. In grief, Priam visits Achilles in the Greek camp and persuades him to release Hector’s body. Hector’s funeral takes place and the poem ends. The poem does not describe the abduction of Helen of Troy from her husband Menelaus or other major parts of the traditional story – the death of Achilles, the Trojan horse and the sack of Troy – but the poem’s audience would have been well aware of them all.
If the Iliad is about brawn, the Odyssey is about brain, and how it can be used to survive and prevail. The Trojan War has been over for ten years, but Odysseus, King of Ithaca, has still not found his way back home to Greece. His palace has been taken over by intruders from well-born families, who live luxuriously at his expense and try to persuade Penelope his queen to accept that he is dead and marry one of them instead: she finds ways to fob them off. Odysseus’s now grown-up son, Telemachus, is helped to make a journey to the courts of other Greek hero-kings looking unsuccessfully for news of his father, helped by the goddess Athena, who protects him from plots against his life by his mother’s suitors.
Meanwhile, Odysseus is alive, but in luxurious captivity as the toy-boy of a sea-nymph, Calypso. The Gods decide, though by no means unanimously, that it is time to let him go home. He builds a raft, is shipwrecked and is rescued from the beach by Nausicaa, the daughter of the King of the Phaeacians. At first, no-one realises who he is, but he is kindly entertained in keeping with the ancient Greek code of courtesy to strangers. He tells his story, including encounters with Circe, who turns men into animals; the lotus-eaters, whose diet causes men to forget their homes; Polyphemus, the one-eyed giant cannibal, son of the sea-god Poseidon, whom Odysseus blinds; the sirens, who try to lure sailors to their deaths; and the inhabitants of the underworld, which he visits as a living man. He tells how all his men lost their lives for killing the cattle of Helios, the sun-God.
In the second half of the poem, Odysseus gets home to Ithaca with the help of the Phaeacians. In disguise, he plans and carries out the killing of the suitors with the help of his son, and retakes possession of his kingdom and Penelope. He is told that he must atone for killing the suitors by making a ritual journey: the souls of the suitors are conducted to the underworld by Hermes, the messenger-God, and the poem ends.
Arguments about whether the Homeric poems originated as the work of a single poet and when they were composed and written down will go on for ever, though most experts now accept that they existed in some sort of oral tradition before they were standardised in writing. In standard, written form, they probably predate Virgil by at least five or six hundred years: in outline and inspiration, they could go back in an oral tradition as far as the latter part of the second millennium. In spite of their age, the poems remain genuinely exciting: reading them, you feel the breath of the bronze age on your cheek. Their metre – Hexameters – is a defining feature, giving them a vivid rhythmicality and a powerful narrative flow which are impossible to convey in translation. To give an impression, there is a sound file and close translation of the opening lines of the Iliad and the Odyssey on Homer’s page in the poets section.continue reading
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