Latin Literature of the Silver Age

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Latin Literature of the Silver Age

Writers Before the Death of Nero.

The name "Silver Age Latin" as applied to the literature that follows the "Golden Age" under Augustus reflects the judgement of generations of scholars. Writers of the Silver Age valued rhetorical skill and literary ornaments, and produced a style that was quite unlike ordinary human speech. Contemporary writers in Greek moved in the other direction; they were Atticists, that is, they revived the style and even the dialect of the best classical authors of Greece. Their example did not rub off on their Latin counterparts. Still, the sheer bulk of their writing is impressive. One poet, Marcus Manilius, wrote a didactic poem in five books on astrology. Calpurnius Siculus wrote pastoral poetry that was heavily dependent on Vergil's Eclogues. An ex-soldier, Velleius Paterculus, who served under the future emperor Tiberius, wrote a history of Rome in two books, and when he comes to his own period, he is a good historical source. Valerius Maximus collected nine books of sayings and anecdotes under the title Notable Doings and Sayings, and Phaedrus versified Aesop's fable.


Lucius Annaeus Seneca's family came from Roman Spain, and his father was a rhetorician known as Seneca the Elder to distinguish him from his son. The reputation of the elder Seneca stems from a collection written in his old age of anecdotes about rhetoricians he had known. The younger Seneca is known for his philosophic treatises—he was a Stoic who failed to practice what he preached—four prose works—one of which is a funny but cruel essay on the distaste with which the gods received the dead emperor Claudius when he entered their company after being decreed divine by the Roman senate—and nine tragedies. The tragedies were based on Greek originals except for the Thyestes, which told how the father of Agamemnon and Menelaus, Atreus, fed Thyestes his own children. The work allowed Seneca to give free rein to his love for blood and gore. He reworked Euripides' Medea and made Medea into a bloodthirsty witch. His Phaedra reworks Euripides' Hippolytus and gives Phaedra nymphomanic tendencies and makes Hippolytus a woman-hater. It is generally agreed that these plays were intended for public readings before select audiences, not for production in large theaters for the masses, whose taste was for interpretative dancing and mimes. Seneca's plays appealed only to the educated elite who were familiar with the Golden Age of tragedy in Athens of the fifth century b.c.e.


Lucius Junius Columella, like Seneca, came from Spain, but his interests were very different. After a career in the Roman army, he acquired an estate in Latium outside Rome, and devoted himself to agriculture. His De Re Rustica (On Husbandry) is a treatise on scientific farming. It gives a picture of the countryside of central Italy in his own day, with its growing number of country houses for wealthy Romans, and its absentee landowners. His cure for the decline of farming in Italy was hard work, personal supervision, and mastery of the science of agriculture.

Gaius Petronius.

The novel as a literary form was becoming popular in Greece in the early imperial period, and Petronius chose to use it for what he called the Saturae—the "Mixed Bag" of writing. It is now known as the Satyricon. It is picaresque novel (relating to the adventures of rovers) but instead of the hero and heroine of the Greek novels who have a series of wild adventures as they roved from place to place, Petronius has a rascal named Encolpius and a cheeky boy named Giton. Only fragments remain, but one sizeable portion, describing a banquet given by a wealthy ex-slave named Trimalchio, is a masterpiece. The banquet was an orgy of feeding, and Trimalchio takes vulgarity to astonishing heights. Petronius was a favorite of the emperor Nero and invented revels for that pleasure-loving emperor until court intrigue destroyed him and he committed suicide with elegance and irony, as befitted a man of his talents.

Marcus Annaeus Lucanus.

The fame of Lucan, who was Seneca the Younger's nephew, rests on one work: his epic poem on the civil war between Caesar and the senatorial party led by Pompey. Its name, the Pharsalia, comes from the decisive battle fought in Greece at Pharsalus, modern Farsala in Thessaly, where Pompey's army was defeated. Lucan's style is somewhat artificial but he is a smooth versifier. His sympathies were with Pompey and the republican form of government that Pompey defended. All of this fitted the popularized Stoic philosopher of the day that looked back with nostalgia at the republic which died in the civil war. Lucan died young. He was implicated in a plot against Nero, and died by bleeding to death, reciting some of his own verses on death by bleeding as he breathed his last.


Little is known about Aulus Persius Flaccus, except that he left a collection of six satires and died young. The first was on the decay of literary taste, the second on the vanity of riches, the third on idleness, the fourth on self-knowledge, the fifth on true liberty, and the sixth on how to use wealth properly. His poetry is crammed with allusions to contemporary life. His fourth satire, for instance, urges a popular statesman named Alcibiades to examine his soul and pay no attention to public adulation. There was an Alcibiades who was an Athenian politician of the fifth century b.c.e., but perhaps the "Alcibiades" whom Persius has in mind is the emperor Nero. Persius' style is not easy to read. He is not for the beginning Latin student. But his small output reveals an interesting talent.

The Silver Age After the Emperor Nero.

Whatever the emperor Nero's faults may have been, he was an aesthete who was sensitive to culture, and his death in 68 c.e. did not improve the lot of the literary artist. The Flavian dynasty—the emperors Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian who replaced the Julio-Claudian clan to which the emperors from Augustus to Nero belonged—was from Sabine peasant stock. The Flavians were sensitive about their lack of background, and Domitian in particular was a menacing presence who inspired fear. With Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius (who died in 180 b.c.e.) there was greater freedom, but there was a comfortable mediocrity about the age, and it was not until the fourth century c.e. that there was a renewed outburst of literary talent. Still, the period did not lack for writers. Silius Italicus was one such figure; his primary position was as an informer under Nero, passing on information about potential enemies of the regime, although he later cleaned up his reputation by earning praise for his administration of the province of Asia. He wrote an epic titled the Punica on Rome's wars with Carthage, which were called the "Punic Wars" after the Latin word for Carthaginian: Poenus. The meters are correct but as poetry it is second-rate. He likes to put his learning on display, and the result is more tiresome than impressive. Papinius Statius who wrote under Domitian whom he was careful to flatter, left five books of Silvae—miscellaneous poems on various subjects—and two epics, the second unfinished. The first epic was Thebaid and covered the legends of Thebes: how Oedipus killed his father, how his sons fought over the throne and killed each other, and how Creon succeeded to the throne. The poem reflects the taste of the day for romanticism through the inclusion of slaughter, exaggerated passions, and high-flown sentiment. The second epic, the Achilleis retells the myth of how Achilles' mother Thetis tried to save her son from being conscripted to fight in the Trojan War by dressing him as a woman and hiding him among girls at the court of the king of Scyrus. Statius wrote 1127 lines on this subject, but he died before he could write more. Valerius Flaccus wrote an epic on the legend of Jason and the Golden Fleece, taking as his model the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes. Quintilian, the son and grandson of rhetoricians, is known for his Education of an Orator. His perfect orator was Cicero, and he concluded that all developments since Cicero's day had brought oratory downhill. Martial was a master of the epigram: the short poem that ends with a sharp, stinging quip. He took his subjects from contemporary life, throwing an interesting sidelight on it. Suetonius, secretary to the emperor Hadrian, wrote biographies in straightforward Latin, and one collection has survived entire: his Lives of the Twelve Caesars from Julius Caesar to Domitian. A little later than Suetonius, another author wrote the only novel in either Greek or Latin worthy of comparison with Petronius' Satyricon: Apuleius, whose tale, Metamorphosis, better known as The Golden Ass, tells how the hero Lucius dabbled in magic and managed to transform himself into a donkey. We have another work of Apuleius, too, for he married a wealthy widow and her relatives brought him to trial on a charge of winning her affections by magic. Apuleius' Apology is the speech he gave in his own defense before a court in Sabratha, in modern Libya. Of all the authors belonging to these somewhat tarnished last years of the Silver Age, there are three that should detain us: Juvenal, Pliny the Younger, and the historian Tacitus, for they were first-rate practitioners of their genre of literature.


Juvenal was a bitter man. Life in Rome had not treated him well, to judge from his poetry, and after the emperor Domitian died and the pall of fear lifted, Juvenal wrote satires—sixteen of them—attacking the wickedness of contemporary life. He disliked women, all immigrants from the east—especially Jews, with Greeks a close second—avarice, the miserly rich, and the horrors of living in the shoddily built apartment houses of Rome. He attacked scoundrels by name, though he only picked on already-dead scoundrels to avoid retribution. He is the source of the aphorism that the Roman mob cared only about bread and circuses. He accepted the dictum of the Stoic philosophers that all transgressions were equal and hence he indicted the emperor Nero both for murdering his mother and for writing bad poetry as if they were sins of equal magnitude. He was himself a good poet who wrote vigorous hexameter lines.

Pliny the Younger.

The reputation of Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus—the full name of Pliny the Younger—might have been overwhelmed by that of his uncle, Pliny the Elder, an encyclopedia writer who died in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 c.e., except that the only surviving work of the elder Pliny is his Natural History, which is a mine of information but not casual reading. Pliny the Younger is known for his collection of pleasant letters written, ostensibly, to various contemporaries, including the historian Tacitus to whom he addressed an eyewitness account of the eruption of Vesuvius. The last book of his collected letters is correspondence between him and the emperor Trajan, for Trajan sent Pliny to the province of Bithynia in Asia Minor about 110 c.e. to correct maladministration there. Among the matters for consultation with Trajan was a cell of Christians whom he found. Pliny wanted to know the legal status of Christianity and Trajan replied that it was outlawed, though he warned against any witch hunt. For historians of Christianity, this is an important morsel of evidence; it defines the attitude of the Roman state towards Christianity in the second century c.e.


Cornelius Tacitus wrote five works: a dialogue on orators, evidently his first; a biography of his father-in-law, Agricola; an essay on Germany, the Germania; and his two greatest works, his Histories and his Annals. The first is a discussion of orators of the past, giving top marks to Cicero. Agricola governed Roman Britain under Domitian and hence Tacitus' biography adds significantly to knowledge about Britain in the years after its conquest under the emperor Claudius. The Histories begin with the turbulence after Nero's death when there were four emperors in the year 68 c.e., and it breaks off two years later. The rest is lost. The Annals also survives in mutilated condition; Tacitus begins with the emperor Tiberius, but the reign of Caligula is lost. Even so, Tacitus' account of Claudius and Nero is splendid. Tacitus knew firsthand the misery of Rome under the tyrant Domitian and when he describes these early emperors, he sees them as forerunners of Domitian. His powers of description were superb, and he is the last great Latin historian until the fourth century c.e. when Ammianus Marcellinus takes Tacitus as his model and produces a history which compares well with any other in Latin, though Ammianus was a Greek and presumably Latin was his second language.


Frederick Abel, Lucan (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1976).

Philip B. Corbett, Petronius (New York: Twayne, 1970).

M. D. Grant, "Plautus and Seneca. Acting in Nero's Rome," Greece and Rome 46 (1999): 27–53.

G. O. Hutchinson, Latin Literature from Seneca to Juvenal (Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1993).

Ronald Mellor, Tacitus (London, England: Routledge, 1993).

Anna Lydia Motto, Seneca (New York: Twayne, 1973).

Victoria Rimell, Petronius and the Anatomy of Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

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Latin Literature of the Silver Age

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