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Literature and Writing

Latin Literature

Greek models, civilizing mission, Saturnalia, Golden Ass, Roman writers

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>  The Golden Age: Poetry

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>  Latin Literature of the Renaissance

Latin Literature, literature of ancient Rome, and of much of western Europe through the Middle Ages (5th century to 15th century) and into the Renaissance (14th century to 17th century), written in the Latin language.

The Latin Tradition

Latin literature first appeared in the 3rd century bc, and its tradition has continued, in various forms, to the present. The disintegration of the Roman Empire between the 2nd and 5th century and the gradual development of the Romance languages out of Vulgar Latin (the nonliterary language of the general populace) did not for centuries affect the position of Latin as the preeminent literary language of western Europe. Latin literature, in a Christianized form, continued to develop during the Middle Ages, when Latin served as the official language of the Roman Catholic church. With the rise of Renaissance humanism in the 14th century and its emphasis on reviving the classical forms of the ancient world came a new burst of creativity in Latin, which lasted into the 17th century. Until recent times, in Western culture, an acquaintance with classical Latin (as well as Greek) literature was basic to a liberal education.

Characteristics of Latin Literature

The literature of Rome was itself modeled on Greek literature and served in turn as the basic model, especially in the Renaissance during the 14th and 15th centuries, for the development of later European literatures. Perhaps because of their close formal dependence on Greek models, many Roman writers were concerned with emphasizing the specifically Roman quality of their experience. Perhaps most important, almost all Roman writers had to come to terms with Rome’s civilizing mission in the world. The greatest accomplishments of Roman literature are found in epic and lyric poetry, rhetoric, history, comic drama, and satire—the last genre being the only literary form the Romans invented.

Late Period

During the subsequent centuries of the Roman Empire, literature declined along with the political fortunes of the empire, but a few important figures emerged. The Metamorphoses (often called in translation The Golden Ass) of Lucius Apuleius is an entertaining prose narrative that includes the elegantly recounted story of Cupid and Psyche. A final burst of pagan literary energy occurred in the 4th century, with the learned and discerning Ambrosius Theodosius Macrobius producing a sort of summary of ancient culture in his Saturnalia near the end of the century.


Nichols, Fred J., M.A., Ph.D.

Professor of Comparative Literature, French, German, and Classics, Graduate Center, City University of New York. Editor, "An Anthology of Neo-Latin Poetry".

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