Latin Poetry before the Augustan Age

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Latin Poetry Before the Augustan Age

Latin Epic Poetry.

The Latin epic begins in 240 b.c.e. with Livius Andronicus, a Greek from Tarentum, modern Taranto on the south coast of Italy, which had been founded as the Greek colony of Taras and fell into Roman hands after Rome's war with Pyrrhus. Andronicus was brought to Rome as a slave and was acquired by a member of one of Rome's great Roman families, the Livii, who freed him because he tutored his owner's children so well. He continued to teach once he was a freedman and desired to develop a teaching model similar to that of the Greeks. Greek children learned from the Greek epic poet Homer, but Rome had nothing similar and so Andronicus translated one of Homer's most famous works, the Odyssey, into Latin, using the only rhythm native to Rome, the Saturnian verse. He became a professional poet and playwright, writing a hymn to the gods to win their favor during Rome's war with Hannibal. In recognition of his craft, Rome allowed him to found a guild of writers and actors with its headquarters in the temple of Minerva on the Aventime Hill. But he was best remembered for his translation of the Odyssey which was still a vital part of Roman education when the Augustan poet Horace was a boy in the mid-first century b.c.e.

Naevius and Ennius.

The next step in the development of the Latin epic was taken by Gnaeus Naevius. He fought in Rome's first war against Carthage, which ended in 241 b.c.e., and he wrote a history of it in poetry. Like Andronicus, he used the Saturnian meter. His work is lost, but we do know that he traced the enmity of Rome and Carthage to their foundations, and brought in the story of Dido and Aeneas, as Vergil was to do later in his epic, the Aeneid. With Quintus Ennius, (239–169 b.c.e.) the Latin epic took a giant step forward. He came from a town in Calabria, and he knew Oscan, the language of the Samnites, as well as Latin and Greek, and he produced adaptations of Greek dramas for the Roman stage. His great work was his Annales, a poem on the history of Rome from the beginning. Unlike Naevius, he adapted the meter of Homer, the dactylic hexameter, to his verse. It was an important step as all later writers of Latin epic would follow his example and use hexameter verse.

Titus Lucretius Carus.

Lucretius (94–55 b.c.e.) stands apart as one of the finest didactic (from the Greek didaskein, "to teach") poets who ever wrote in any language. The early Greek Presocratic (before Socrates) philosophers had written in poetry, but poetry had given way to prose as a medium for philosophy even before Plato popularized the dialogue form. Didactic poetry was revived in Alexandria, but none of the poets working in the cultural hothouse surrounding the Alexandrian Library ever reached the height that Lucretius did. He was a convert to Epicureanism, which taught that all things are made up of atoms and void and that when human beings die, their atoms dissolve and there is no afterlife. Epicureanism did not deny that the gods existed, but it relegated them to a region far removed from life on earth. The advantage of Epicureanism was that it removed all fear of death, or so Lucretius believed. Lucretius deserves honorable mention among the philosophers, but he also should be recognized as a great poet, for he wrote with verve and skill, and great passion for his subject. He describes matter and void, and the shapes and movements of the atoms in void, he explains how life and sensation came to exist and plants and animals evolved more or less by chance and then reproduced, and what the gods were, for they were also atoms and void, and he ends with a powerful description of a plague epidemic which breaks off suddenly; clearly the poem is unfinished and must have been published after Lucretius' death.


Thanks to the fortunate discovery of a manuscript in the early fourteenth century, we have 116 poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus of varying lengths, and they reveal a poet of genius. He belonged to a new wave of poets in the first half of the first century b.c.e. who looked to writers in Alexandria for their inspiration. They followed in the footsteps of an unconventional poet named Laevius who, in the 90s b.c.e., wrote love poetry expressing personal feelings. The orator Cicero, who disdained them, called them the neoteroi (the newer writers or "the new wave"), and the name has stuck; modern critics call them the "neoterics." Catullus is the only one whose work has survived. His poems express his passionate love for a woman he called Lesbia and the emotional rollercoaster he endured as his love turned bitter. Shed of her alias, Lesbia was actually Clodia, a brilliant woman who was the sister of a political firebrand in Rome, Publius Clodius, and Catullus can only have been a minor figure in the group of influential powerbrokers she gathered about her. But Catullus wrote more than love poetry. Taking his cues from Callimachus and the Alexandrians, he tried his hand at an epyllion, or short epic, and he translated one of Callimachus' most famous poems, the Lock of Berenice. Sappho also influenced him; he translated a poem of hers imitating the Sapphic stanza. But it is his lyrics expressing his ill-fated love for Lesbia that have made him famous.


introduction: Lucretius (c. 94–55 b.c.e.), a Roman poet, attempted to explain the atomic theory of the universe expounded by the Greek philosophers Democritus and Leucippus in his great poem De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things). The theory argued that since all matter is made of atoms and void, death is simply a dissolution of atoms, and no one need fear it. In the following passage he begins his explanation of creation with the principle that nothing can be created out of nothing. The translation into prose gives little hint of Lucretius' poetic genius, but it is a clear exposition of his ideas.

This dread and darkness of the mind cannot be dispelled by the sunbeams, the shining shafts of day, but only by an understanding of the outward form and inner workings of nature. In tackling this theme, our starting-point will be this principle: Nothing can ever be created by divine power out of nothing. The reason why all mortals are so gripped by fear is that they see all sorts of things happening on the earth and in the sky with no discernible cause, and these they attribute to the will of a god. Accordingly, when we have seen that nothing can be created out of nothing, we shall then have a clearer picture of the path ahead, the problem of how things are created and occasioned without the aid of the gods.

First then, if things were made out of nothing, any species could spring from any source and nothing would require seed. Men could arise from the sea and scaly fish from the earth, and birds could be hatched out of the sky. Cattle and other domestic animals and every kind of wild beast, multiplying indiscriminately, would occupy cultivated and wastelands alike. The same fruits would not grow constantly on the same trees, but they would keep changing: any tree might bear any fruit. If each species were not composed of its own generative bodies, why should each be born always of the same kind of mother?

source: Lucretius, "Matter and Space," in On the Nature of the Universe. Trans. R. E. Latham (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Classics, 1951): 31–32.


Cyril Bailey, "Lucretius," Proceedings of the British Academy 33 (1949): 143–160.

W. R. Johnson, Lucretius and the Modern World (London, England: Duckworth, 2000).

Duncan F. Kennedy, Rethinking Reality: Lucretius and the Textualization of Nature (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002).

Kenneth Quinn, Catullus: An Interpretation (London, England: Batsford, 1972).

T. P. Wiseman, Catullus and His World: A Reappraisal (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

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Latin Poetry before the Augustan Age

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