The gates of hell are open night and day; smooth the descent, and easy is the way • Aeneid, Virgil
Heroes and legends • 3000BCE–1300CE
Literature of the Roman world
3rd century BCE Gnaeus Naevius writes epic poems and dramas based on Greek models, but in Latin and about Roman mythology and history.
c.200 BCE Quintus Ennius’s epic Annals tells the history of Rome following the fall of Troy.
c.80 BCE Cicero’s oratory as a lawyer marks the beginning of the “Golden Age” of Latin literature, which lasts until the death of Ovid in 17 or 18 CE.
1st century BCE Horace’s poetry includes the Odes, the Satires, and the Epodes.
c.8 CE Ovid’s narrative poem Metamorphoses is published.
2nd century Apuleius writes the irreverent Metamorphoses, also known as The Golden Ass.
Rome began to replace Greece as the dominant Mediterranean power from around the 3rd century BCE, and it is from that time that the first literature in Latin appeared. The influence of Greek culture on ancient Rome was enormous to begin with, and a recognizable Roman literary culture emerged only slowly. Although Roman writers were writing in Latin, they produced poetry, drama, and histories firmly in the Greek mould until around 80 BCE when the statesman, orator, writer, and poet Cicero inspired the beginning of a “Golden Age” of Latin literature, which established the style and forms of a distinct Roman tradition.
Roots of empire
The so-called Golden Age straddled Rome’s evolution from Republic to Empire. This transformation, which involved the turmoil of civil wars, was reflected in a shift from the historical and rhetorical writings of Cicero, Sallust, and Varro, to the poetic works of Horace, Ovid, and Virgil, especially during the reign of Emperor Augustus from 27 BCE.
Acknowledged during his lifetime as Rome’s leading literary figure, Virgil wrote a number of poetic works, but it is for his epic Aeneid that he achieved lasting respect. His story of the ancestry of Rome was possibly commissioned by Emperor Augustus, and the rising tide of pride in the new imperial era no doubt played some part in the patriotic poem’s success.
Despite its nationalistic theme, the Aeneid has its roots in Greek literature, and especially Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, on which it is largely modelled, sharing the same regular poetic metre, or classical “epic metre”. The 12 books of the Aeneid recount the journey of Aeneas from his home in Troy to Italy, and the war in Latium (the land of the Latins), which ultimately led to the foundation of Rome.
"Endure the hardships of your present state, Live, and reserve yourselves for better fate."
A Homeric achievement
Aeneas was already known as a character in the Iliad, but Virgil’s continuation of his story neatly connects the legends of Troy with those of Rome, and in particular the virtues of the hero with traditional Roman values.
Virgil begins the poem “Arma virumque cano …” (“I sing of arms and a man …”), stating his themes in a similar way to the Iliad (“Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles, son of Peleus …”), and takes up Aeneas’s story on his way to Italy as he is forced by a storm to land in Carthage. Here, he tells Queen Dido of the sack of Troy. Feigning retreat, the Greeks had hidden offshore and left behind a vast, wheeled wooden horse. The Trojans were persuaded by a Greek agent that the horse was under Athene’s protection and would make Troy impregnable. At night, after the Trojans had taken it within the walls, a select band of warriors emerged and opened the gates for the returned Greek army. Throughout the epic, Virgil emphasizes Aenas’s pietas, his virtue and duty, which is steered by fate and the intervention of the gods, taking him from his home to his destiny in Latium.
The Aeneid not only secured Virgil’s reputation as a distinctly Roman writer, but went on to become probably the most respected work in Latin. Virgil was revered as a writer throughout the Middle Ages, and appears as the guide in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Stories from the Aeneid have been retold continuously since it first appeared, and the idea of danger represented by the “Trojan horse” — “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts” — has entered popular culture.
Publius Vergilius Maro was born in 70 BCE in Mantua, northern Italy. He spent much of his early life in this part of the Roman Republic, and wrote his poems of rustic life, the Eclogues, there. Virgil’s next major work, the Georgics, was dedicated to his patron, the statesman Gaius Maecenas. Virgil also befriended Octavian, who was to become Emperor Augustus, and established himself in Rome as a poet alongside Horace and Ovid. He began work on his magnum opus, the Aeneid, in around 29 BCE, encouraged by Octavian, and continued writing and revising it until his death from fever in 19 BCE. It is said that on his deathbed Virgil asked that the Aeneid be destroyed, possibly because of his disappointment with Augustus’s reign, but it was published posthumously on the orders of the emperor.
Other key works
c.44—38 BCE Eclogues
29 BCE Georgics
See also: Iliad • Metamorphoses • The Golden Ass • The Divine Comedy • Paradise Lost