15 Roman Classics for the Ides of March

From architecture to history to science and mathematics to politics and legal systems, literature written during the Roman times has become the basis for much of Western society and continues to influence how people think and how the world operates today. Roman gave the world writers like Cicero, Virgil, Ovid, and Horace whose works were the basis for much of education and thought in Europe well into the Renaissance. These works of literature have become the foundation of our modern literary canon.

While it might not seem like texts written more than two thousand years ago have anything to say to modern readers, there is important information that can be gleaned from these texts. The tell us a lot about Roman history as well as ancient understandings of the modern world. They also provide us source material for numerous references that appear in later works of literature as they were the primary study material for many Western writers. They give us insights into philosophical schools and show us the sense of humor of this historic civilization. Most of all, the tell us about humanity.

The Aeneid by Virgil

The ancient Romans connected their lineage to Aeneas, a legendary hero from the city of Troy who allegedly fled the city after its fall, sailing to Carthage in Africa before settling in present-day Italy, serving as an ancestor for Rome’s founders Romulus and Remus. This combination of Greek mythology with Roman culture is best told by the Latin epic poem The Aeneid, written by Virgil sometime between 29 and 19 BCE. Virgil took both the story of Aeneas from Homer’s Iliad as well as local tales of Aeneas’ post Troy wanderings and created a tale that became part of Rome’s founding mythology and one of the first national epics. The story also connected Aeneas to historical events such as the Punic Wars and gave further legitimacy to the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

Aeneas Flees Burning Troy, by Federico Barocci (1598). Galleria Borghese, Rome, Italy

The Aeneid depicts how the titular hero survives the siege of Troy and navigates himself toward Rome in an epic tale not unlike Homer’s own follow up to his Iliad, the Odyssey, which depicts the adventures of Greek hero Odysseus trying to find his way home after the same war. Just like the Iliad and Odyssey were the pinnacle of literature in ancient Greece, ancient Rome also needed a text that could serve as a foundation for its literary traditions.

In both tales, the hero ventures eastward and finds his journey taking him around notable landmarks in the Mediterranean. Aeneas' journey takes him eastward toward Crete, the Greek colony of Cumae in Italy, and toward Sicily before they are spun off course to Carthage, today the city of Tunis in Tunisian. Much like Circe in the Odyssey, Carthage’s queen Dido decides she wants Aeneas for herself and attempts to trap him in her kingdom. He escapes and finally arrives in Italy, where he fights to gain control of the area. This part of the story might be based in the historical defeat of cultures like the Etruscans.

Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus and Octavia, by Jean-Joseph Taillasson, 1787, an early neoclassical painting

Virgil was writing the text at the time of Caesar Augustus and uses many symbols and allegories that would have been well-known at the time. There are many who felt the Aeneid was intended to draw a comparison between Aeneas for conquering Italy and Augustus, who was creating a new imperial dynasty to rule Rome. The text itself features Aeneas receiving “prophecies” of events happening at the time the story was written, including the deeds of Augustus and famous Romans of the period. Virgil didn’t finish the text before his death in 19 BCE while traveling to collect material for the remainder of the text.

As a result, there is some scholarly debate over what he might have edited out of the text had he the time. By 200 CE, the Aeneid had become a literary classic and an important part of an education offered in Latin. Even well after the decline of the Roman empire it was common for students to be able to recite entire chunks of the text. Even after the Christianization of Rome it was preserved for study and considered the supreme text of Latin literature. Its influence can also be seen in some of Europe’s earliest texts written in non-Latin or vernacular languages such as Beowulf, The Faerie Queene, Paradise Lost and Dante’s Divine Comedy. It also became a reference point for numerous national epics created throughout Europe.

Annals and Histories by Tacitus

While written and published separately at the time, the Annals and Histories written by Roman historian and senator Tacitus are often combined today. Tacitus used these major works to examine the reigns of Roman emperors Tiberius, Claudius, Nero, and the Year of Four Emperors - one of the most tumultuous times in Roman history. His works begin their chronicle from the death of Caesar Augustus in 14 CE and go toward the First Jewish-Roman War in 70 CE. While not all of the texts survive into the modern day, there is a large chunk of material that gives great insight into Rome during this period.

Histories is actually the earlier work written between 100 and 110 CE covering the Year of Four Emperors, the rise of the Flavian Dynasty and the Great Jewish Revolt. The time span covered ranges from about 69 CE to 96 CE. The more famous is Annals, Tacitus’ last work that spans the earlier time period from 14 CE to 68 CE, covering the reigns of Tiberius, Claudius, and Nero. One of the unique things about these histories is that Tacitus was a Roman senator and therefore had access to Senate records and others texts that many other authors at the time would not have had. As a result, his work gives us insights some in ancient Rome themselves wouldn’t have had.

Together, the two texts contained about 30 books each, but only about half of them have survived into the modern day. Presently, about 14 of these books are assigned to Histories while 16 to Annals. His works were not well read during the later days of the Roman empire nor were they of particular study in the Middle Ages, but the rediscovery of his works during the Renaissance impressed scholars of the period and raised him to the level of one of the greatest known historians. Despite the fact that his work is the most reliable and in tact source for what happened during this period, it is important to remember that Tacitus’ works may not be completely factually correct and he could have written with some prejudice based on his own experiences. Of the two, Histories is often considered the more accurate text as he had more primary sources to work from.

Asnis Aureus by Apuleius

Originally titled Metamorphoses, the text by Apuleius would never eclipse the title of the same name written by Ovid. As a result, it was largely known as Apuleius’ Metamorphoses to distinguish it from the former until St. Augustine of Hippo gave it a new name: Asnis Aureus. Literally translated from Latin, this means The Golden Ass. Probably not a name Apuleius himself would consider, the book remains one of the only proto-novel from Roman times to survive in its entirety. And, like a lot of Roman works of literature, there is evidence that Apuleius didn’t originally write this story but rather adapted an older Greek version into Latin and then put his name on it.

The book follows protagonist Lucius of Madaurus who wants to see and learn the practice of magic. While trying to transform himself into a bird, he turns himself into a donkey - the ass of the title - and then finds himself on a long journey before supplicating himself before the goddess Isis and joining her cult. In a format at the same time, the story itself is a frame story for numerous other tales that are told to the protagonist by those he meets on his journey. Some of these tales could stand on their own while others interlock with Lucius’ overall journey.

Apuleius himself shared the same hometown of his main character, now known as M'Daourouch, Algeria. He traveled extensively through Greece, Italy, Asia Minor, and Egypt and was initiated into several religious societies known as mysteries. He himself was accused of using magic to gain the attentions of a wealthy widow and used his wit to get himself out of the situation. His second most famous work is The Apologia, a version of his defense presented at this trial that is both historical but also pokes fun at religious superstitions of the time period. It is uncertain if The Apologia was written before or after The Golden Ass, but they can be read as companion pieces.

One of the major influences of the story is that it is among the first picaresque works, a genre that would later be taken up by writers like Quevedo, Rabelais, Boccaccio, Cervantes, Voltaire, Daniel Defoe, and Henry Fielding. The concept of stories within stories can also be seen in later works like The Canterbury Tales and may have also inspired Shakespeare’s transformation of a character into a literal ass in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The novel is considered one of the more bawdy and sexually risque works from Roman history, and there is a reason why there wasn’t much study of it during the Middle Ages. However, it became more popular during the Renaissance both as purity standards were relaxing and as it was being translated into modern European languages.

The Comedies by Terence

While ancient Greece is more known for its plays than ancient Rome, the Romans wrote their own plays in addition to adapting Greek versions. One of the most famous playwrights of ancient Rome was Publius Terentius After, better known as Terence, who came to Rome a slave and authored six comedies adapted from Greek originals in the latest phase of Greek literature. All of them survive today and are usually put together as his Comedies.

Alleged portrait of Terence, from Codex Vaticanus Latinus 3868. Possibly copied from 3rd-century original. Many scholars believe that Terence had similar ancestors to those of modern Berber tribes

The plays were written between 166 BCE and 160 BCE. Andria, or the Girl from Andros is the earliest and was adapted from a play by Meander. Later, it would also be the first of his plays presented during the Renaissance when it was adapted by Niccolo Machiavelli. The story features star-crossed lovers who go through a strange series of events to be properly united with their true love. Terence’s second play is Hecyra, or The Mother-in-Law, which failed at its first two stagings. Heauton Timorumenos, or the Self-Tormentor was the third play and was another based on the work of Meander. Perhaps because of the failure of the previous play, this one contains a prologue in which Terence asks audiences to judge the play for themselves and not on the opinions of critics.

Terence’s fourth play was Phormio and is based on an older work by Apollodorus of Carystus. This play follows the life of the eponymous character who is a parasite - a term for a person that makes a living performing services and menial tasks for ricehr people. Another rewrite of Meander was Eunuchus, or The Eunuch that also follows a plot of familial misunderstandings and various interconnecting plot. His final play was Adelphoe, or The Brothers, which is pulled from plays from Meander and Diphilus. The play explores childrearing techniques and was later the basis for Moliere’s The School for Husbands. It is often considered Terence’s best work.

1496 edition of Terence's Works

Terence himself is a mysterious figure, possibly because his career as a writer was cut short due to his early death but also because much of his life was spent in slavery. The date of his birth is uncertain and it is believed he was either born in Carthage - modern-day Tunisia - or in Italian-controlled Greece. However, his cognomen suggests he was Libyan. At some point, he was enslaved and sold to Roman senator P. Terentius Lucanus who was impressed by his intellect and freed him. Terence took the nomen Terentius in this man’s honor. Terence died young, having set sail for Greece at the age of 25. There is no reference to his actual death, so it is possible he just went to Greece though others maintain he died at sea based on rumors of the time.

Whatever his fate, Terence’s work became some of the most widely copied texts by nuns and monks in monasteries during the Middle Ages who used them to learn Latin. His works were also some of the first that were printed following the advent of the printing press in Europe. John Adams used Terence to educate his own children on Latin and the neoclassical period. His works have been referenced by writers ranging from Moliere to Thornton Wilder. His possible birthplace in Africa also makes him one of the first poets associated with the African diaspora.

The Complete Works by Catullus

Gaius Valerius Gatullus isn’t the typical Latin poet. He lived from 84 to 54 BCE during the waning days of the Roman Republic and was one of few poets who focused on personal life rather than classical stories. His works were not necessarily critical successes in his own time and their controversial topics often preclude them from modern studies. However, he gained numerous fans among the lives of Ovid, Horace, and Virgil and was rediscovered in the Late Middle Ages to great acclaim. While his poetry was never taught in schools during this period - mainly because of its shocking sexual content - it still remains important in that it tells us about everyday life in Rome and continues to influence poetry today.

Catullus was born to a leading family of Verona and spent most of his youth in Rome where he met fellow poets Licinius Calvus and Helvius Cinna. It was also here that he met Coldia Metelli, the woman who is believed to be the fictional Lesbia to whom many of his poems are addressed. He may have chosen the name Lesbia for this because he was a self-proclaimed fan of the poet Sappho, who hailed from Lesbos. He describes several stages of their relationship from his initial euphoria to his crushing loss when she moved on to other lovers. Other than that, little is known of Catalllus’ life as he wasn’t a figure considered worthy of a major biography in his own time.

Catullus at Lesbia's by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

What is known that his body of work consists of about 116 carmina, usually divided into sixty short poems, eight longer poems, and 48 epigrams. There is no sense of how Catullus himself organized these poems but they are sometimes divided by theme. The first is poems to and about his friends, the second are the erotic poems, the third are the invectives or obscene poems targeted at those he hated, and the final are the condolences or more solemn poems.

While not considered high art at the time, they give us remarkable insight into Roman life, morality, and culture. he often railed against what he felt was corruption in the Roman Republic and how Rome tended to base its concept of virtue on military might. Most of his recovered works date from a manuscript rediscovered around the year 1300 in a monastery. As a result, his work became popular among Renaissance figures such as Petrarch as well as numerous English writers including John Milton, Ben Johnson, and Christopher Marlowe.

Confessions by St. Augustine

The earliest known picture of St. Augustine

We tend to think of St. Augustine as a medieval saint or figure from the Middle Ages, but actually his works were written during the final days of ancient Rome, classifying him as a Roman author. He was known as St. Augustine of Hippo after Hippo Regius, the Roman city in present-day Algeria where he lived most of his life and was also born in present-day Algeria, in the city now known as Souk Ahras. One of the most important fathers of the early Christian church and a Patristic writer, Augustine’s work shows how the gap between ancient Rome and the new kingdoms of Europe was bridged.

Augustine wrote numerous works during his life, but the most famous was his autobiographical Confessions, written between 397 and 400. It outlines his misspent youth and conversation to Christianity. In addition to being one of the earliest known autobiographies authored in the West, it became a model for later Christian texts about conversion and reflection. Of course, the work was written when he was still middle-aged and doesn’t cover the second part of his life, but it does provide important theological discussion and insights as well as information about life in the final days of ancient Rome.

A medieval copy of the Confessions

The text is largely about Augustine’s personal journey of faith and to some is a sort of literary pilgrimage through his own soul. In a way, he was writing to the faithful about how they should live their lives post-conversion. Of course, the text also is very vocal about its attempts to sway converts to the faith, including conversion prayers and advice throughout. By showing how his own deeds were forgiven, he aims to persuade others to follow his path. He reflects on his misdeeds and asks forgiveness for them, setting up a model for others to follow in their own quests for absolution. The book was also one of the first Christian texts written after the religion was made legal in Rome and therefore Augustine was under no threat of martyrdom for writing it. Instead, this reflects a shift in Christianity from external struggles against religious oppression to inward struggles about faith and spirituality.

Now often known as The Confessions of Saint Augustine to separate it out from the many similarly titled books that have appeared since, the book has become a cornerstone of Christianity in various sects and denominations. The text was integral to literature throughout the Middle Ages when it was copied and aped by various authors. In the modern era, it not only serves as an important Christian text but also a historical insight into the early Christian church and early Christians themselves.

Letters from a Stoic by Seneca

Bust of Seneca

Lucius Annaeus Seneca was born in Cordoba, Spain when it was then Roman Hispania around 4 BCE and was known early on as Seneca the Younger as he had been named after his father Seneca, a well-known Roman rhetorician. Eventually, the younger Seneca would eclipse his father’s fame so totally he would often just become known as Seneca. Raised in Rome and serving as an advisor and tutor to the ill-fated emperor Nero, he was forced to take his own life as punishment for his alleged involvement in a plot to kill his imperial student - a crime he was likely innocent in. Between his childhood in Rome and his famous death, he also became an important Roman philosopher and a figure today widely admired by secular humanists.

One of his most famous literary works was Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium or Moral Letters to Lucilius, often titled today as Letters from a Stoic. The text is a collection of nearly 125 letters he wrote during his retirement after working for Nero and addressed to Lucilius, a procurator of Sicily. Most likely written in the last three years of his life, the works often begin with some commentary on what is happening in his life and Rome before going into major philosophical discussions based in Stoic philosophy. Recurring themes include virtue, wisdom, and a contempt of death. He raises moral and ethical questions about life in ancient Rome including debates on the morality of gladiatorial combat and the sway popular opinion holds in politics.

French translation of the letters

While the letters may have been written to Lucilius - a figure who is never found in the historical record outside Seneca’s writing - they may have also been intended for a larger, public audience to read and meditate like Seneca on life, death, and the pursuit of knowledge. The letters frequently conclude with an overall thesis or maxim to meditate on and often quote major Roman writers. He also uses a large range of rhetorical devices showing his skill as an orator and writer. The book is also one of the founders of the epistolary genre where the narrative is told through a series of letters. The fact that the book contemplates death as well as Seneca's contempt of it might be made more poetic by the fact that he died less than a year after the final few letters were written.

About a hundred years after his death, the letters and stoic philosophy made a comeback among young Roman thinkers and he also found fans among a surprising group - early Christians. While the manuscript of the letters is one of the oldest surviving, the letters were often printed as their own manuscripts rather than together. The first collected edition to be published was made in 1475, though it wasn’t until a translation by the scholar Erasmus appeared in 1529 that the letters were more accurately preserved. Renaissance philosophers such as Michel de Montaigne brought the letters back into philosophical debate during the Renaissance and the more widely available and complete texts even created a Neostoicism movement toward the end of the 1500s.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Nicknamed “the Philosopher” for his work, Marcus Aurelius was the last of the Roman emperors known as the Five Good Emperors and is largely seen as the last emperor of the Pax Romana, the period of stability and peace in The Roman empire. Like Seneca, he was a student of Greek stoicism, and became a figure of critical acclaim long after his death. One of his most well-known works is his Meditations, detailing his private philosophical notes about Stoic philosophy. The texts were actually not written in Latin but rather in Koine Greek, the same language known as Biblical Greek. While not written in Latin, it is an essential piece of Roman empire and captures one of the last periods before the empire began its descent.

Written while he was in campaign, held captive, and fighting against the Germanic peoples in present-day Austria, the text both chronicles different periods of his life and offers as a self-analyzation of his actions. In a way, it is almost more like a diary than a philosophical text. It is unlikely he ever intended the Meditations to be published and the first reference to them in the historical record doesn’t appear until around the year 900 when the manuscript is first mentioned being in the possession of a religious house.

Ruins of the ancient city of Aquincum, in modern Hungary. The city is one of three major locations where Marcus Aurelius wrote his "Meditations" while battling with the Germanic peoples that held much of Northern Europe at the time.

The book does give great insight to the life and reign of one of the last powerful Roman emperors straight from the horse’s mouth. Born in Rome, his father died at an early age and he was largely raised by his grandfather. Training in oratory and the Roman legal system, he soon became disaffected by the country’s system of jurisprudence and, despite familial warnings it would make him unhappy, began devoting himself to the study of philosophy, particularly stoicism. His cousin adopted him as heir to the throne and he ascended it around the age of 40.

Much of his reign was consumed with wars against the Germanic peoples and Parthians as well as a major plague that swept Rome. However, there were some bright spots. He was considered the emperor most knowledgeable in Roman law and was the first to begin trade with East Asia, sending ambassador’s to Han China and helping facilitate the Silk Road. Coins depicting his image have been found as far east as Vietnam and China’s Guangzhou province. In the modern day, his Meditations are considered important texts about both philosophy and the principle of service and duty in government. Monarchs like Christina of Sweden and Frederick the Great applied its philosophies as did writers and thinkers like John Stuart Mill, Matthew Arnold, and von Goethe.

Metamorphoses by Ovid

Considered the magnum opus of the famed Roman writer, Metamorphoses is comprised of 11,995 lines of poetry that covers 15 books and 250 myths. The book shows the “transformation” of the world from the creation of it under the Roman (read: Greek) gods and the ascension of Julius Caesar to emperor-god status following his murder. This poetic epic is one of the founding documents of the Western literary canon and inspired writers such as Dante Alighieri, Giovanni Boccaccio, Geoffrey Chaucer, and William Shakespeare as well as artists, musicians, and others.

First published around 8 CE, Metamorphoses takes some inspiration from the Alexandrian and Hellenistic poetry traditions. The first three books detail the creation of the universe, the great flood, and the birth of various gods and nymphs. The fourth through fourteenth books largely deal in the acts of fictional or semi-fictional heroes and demigods, such as Rome’s founder Aeneas and the early legends of Romulus. The final book details more historically accurate but also partially legendary figures such as Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome and king of the Sabines, the acts of Roman heroes rather than those borrowed from Greek traditions, and finally the apotheosis of Julius Caesar, linking him with these legendary heroes.

An illumination of the story of Pyramus and Thisbe from a manuscript of William Caxton's translation of the Metamorphoses

Born Publius Ovidius Naso in Sulmo, Italy, around 43 BCE, Ovid trained as a lawyer but eventually traveled much of the Roman world and began a career as a writer. Married three times and divorced twice by the time he was 30, the first part of his literary career often had erotic themes and heavily featured poetry about women. Around the time he published the Metamorphoses, he had been banished to the isle of Tomis on the Black Sea by the Emperor Augustus for poetry that was felt to be against the empire and promoted the newly illegal crime of adultery, but also because he may have known of a conspiracy against Augustus Caesar that he failed to disclose. It was while in exile that he also wrote some of his greatest works.Despite the fact that he was exiled, Metamorphoses became extremely popular in Rome both at the time of publication and afterward.

The text's popularity is why it is surprising that no copies of the text from antiquity survive with the earliest surviving manuscript dating to the 1000s. The poem also gained popularity in the Middle Ages even though it was declared a “dangerously pagan work” by some members of the Catholic Church. As a result of its enduring popularity, the text was one of the first printed after the advent of the printing press in the Western world with its earliest English translation coming from William Caxton in 1480. However, it was the 1567 edition by Arthur Golding that was read by Shakespeare and Sir Edmund Spencer, influencing their work. Later on, Samuel Garth’s translation would provide inspiration for writers like John Dryden, Alexander Pope, and William Congreve.

Odes by Horace

Known as Carmina in their original Latin, the Odes are a collection of four books of Latin lyric poems. The first three books were originally published together in 23 BCE while the fourth was published in 13 BCE, perhaps because of the great success of the first group. Horace was imitating the Greek poetry of figures like Sappho, Pindar, and Alcaeus but was able to take this older Greek versions and fit them into the social life and more strict social mores of Roman life under the reign of Caesar Augustus.

Many of these odes are dedicated to well-known figures of the Roman world at the time of Horace’s life including Caesar Augustus, Virgil, Horace’s literary patron Maecenas, the poet Tibullus, and celebrating the death of Cleopatra. Others deal with topics like life, death, immortality, simplicity in life, fidelity, integrity, and being content rather than greedy. While Horace had written earlier erotic poetry and had made a name for himself writing “shame poetry” or “blame poetry” meant to chastise his fellow Romans into fulfilling societal obligations, the poems of his odes reflected the social change taking place in Rome at the time.

A medieval translation of Horace's "Odes" now kept in the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford

Augustus Caesar felt that the moral decay of Roman society was weakening the empire and sought to bring back traditional values like monogamy, chastity, and piety or virtue. He restored public monuments to the gods and created important artworks depicting the ideal Roman family. He also enacted social reforms such as making adultery illegal to encourage more Roman children to be born in wedlock and financially rewarded families with three or more children with more money for the more sons they had.

He taxed men over the age of 38 who were unmarried and barred them from receiving inheritances and attending public games. Divorce laws also became much more strict as well as enforced laws that prevented marriage between those of unequal social classes. Much of Horace’s poetry in Odes reflects these new values of returning to piety to the gods, being content rather than greedy, and poems in which he encourages people to remain faithful to distant lovers. Of course, Augustus’ reforms were not necessarily popular with everyone and while Horace claimed the original publication fell flat because of literary cliques at the Roman court, it might have also had something to do with the social changes at the time. Much more popular in the period were his Epistles, letters written to other courtly figures and published including one to Augustus himself. It was this connection that made his fourth book of Odes a success after it received approval from the emperor. Horace’s work went on to be influential both during the Carolingian Age during the Middle Ages as well as during the Age of Enlightenment.

On the Nature of the Things by Lucretius

While not all of his theories on physics, astronomy, and disease might not be accurate, Titus Lucretius Carus’s most famous work De rerum natura or On the Nature of Things has become an important philosophical text for its discussion of things like the concept of free will, the nature of the mind and soul, and Epicurean philosophy. Lucretius’ text is often cited by secular humanists as he is among the first to assert that the creation of the universe was the result of science and the creation of atoms rather than the intervention of a Divine Being and that, while there is no afterlife, human beings still face moral quandaries.

The text attempts to explain both the natural and supernatural world - supernatural events at the time including weather phenomena such as thunderstorms, floods, and snow. In the first book, Lucretius rails against superstition and spends the first two books laying out a theory that the universe is comprised by an infinite number of atoms that follow certain laws regarding their nature, movement, and properties. The third book disucsses the nature of the human bodya nd soul while the fourth explores human senses and sensations like sleep, dreams, love and sex. The fifth book suggests some primitive scientific explanations for seasons, day, night, the rise and progress of human beings, and the creation of political institutions, arts, sciences, and society at large. The sixth and final book delves into the nature of animals, weather, and diseases. All are presented in poetical form.

A manuscript of De Rerum Natura in the Cambridge University Library collection

The epic poem was written to Gaius Memmius, a praetor and judicial official who often oversaw cases of Roman citizens against the government. Some believe the work was intended to satirize or disprove his superstitious beliefs. Some believe Memmius was the patron of the work while others believe Memmius is just a rhetorical device, sort of a reader-insert character. The work itself is unfinished with many believing the abrupt ending of the final book showing that Lucretius died before he finished it.

There are also some who believe the work known today is also an unedited version that Lucretius never had the time to go back and cleanup.The work was later made famous by Cicero, though most of it didn’t survive the fall of Rome. Copies were preserved in a number of medieval libraries, though the oldest texts only date back to around the year 900, most likely made for the court of Charlemagne. The assertion that there is no god nor an afterlife probably didn’t sit well with the Catholic Church, and so it wasn’t until the more modern times the work began to regain attention. Niccolo Machiavelli translated his own copy as did Moliere. Ben Jonson and Thomas Jefferson both owned multiple copies of the work and it is believed that the combination of this work and the emerging age of Enlightenment may have altered both science and politics in the modern period.

Orations by Cicero

Statesman, orator, lawyer, philosopher, and Roman consul Marcus Tullius Cicero is considered one of the greatest Roman orators and prose writers, introducing Roman to the schools of Greek philosophy and creating the Latin philosophical vocabulary as well as championing republic governments. These beliefs became more important than ever when the Roman Republic gave way to the empire of the Caesar's during Cicero's lifetime. In his own time and in the Renaissance, his work influenced public affairs, humanism, politics, and law. Theorists ranging from Petrarch to John Locke, David Hume, Edmund Burke, and Montesquieu. Beyond the great influence he had on both Roman and modern life, he also provides one of the most important documentations of Roman life, history, politics, and government.

Many of Cicero’s writings including both his treatises on the philosophy of rhetoric as well as copies of speeches he made while serving in the Roman government. An estimated 52 of his 88 speeches survive today as well as discussions of rhetoric and politics including how to compose politics, techniques for good public speaking, argument topics, and the Roman law. His speeches include both those he did as what would be considered a prosecutor and defense lawyer today as well political speeches on issues in the Roman government including opinions on laws, political candidates, and his famous Catiline Orations.

Cicero Denounces Catiline, fresco by Cesare Maccari, 1882–88

Born southeast of Rome to a well-to-do family, he was semi-invalid as a child and studied extensively since he couldn’t go out in public. He learned to speak both Latin and Greek, learning Greek philosophy, poetry, and history as well as Greek rhetoric. He began to study law under some of Rome’s most famous lawyers, though throughout his career he managed to make enemies of many of the most powerful men in Rome.

His successful defense of a man accused of murder was made infamous by the fact that the people he accused of really doing the deed were favorites of Sulla, the most powerful man in Rome. After the case, he toured Greece, Asia Minor, and Rhodes as perhaps a self-exile to protect himself but also to study philosophy, history, and oration. He rose through the ranks of Roman political society during a time of civil unrest and war, helping forge a new constitutional framework and eventually being elected a consul.

Henry VIII's childhood copy of Cicero's "De Officiis," bearing the inscription in his hand, "Thys boke is myne Prynce Henry"

His reputation was so immense that Julius Caesar invited him to join the triumvirate of Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus, but Cicero declined feeling such a thing would undermine his republican ideals. He initially sided with Pompey in the civil war between the two men but eventually came to Caesar’s side. When Caesar was assassinated, Cicero was completely taken by surprise and the conspirators found he was not as sympathetic to their cause as believed. However, he also wasn’t in favor of Mark Antony’s rule of Rome. Instead, he negotiated a peace that gave the assassins amnesty while preserving Julius Caesar’s reputation. Cicero was now one of Rome’s leading men, which brought him into conflict with Antony. This conflict resulted in Cicero being declared an enemy of the state and spending his last days on the run, hoping to reach Macedonia. He was slain by soldiers on Antony’s instructions.

While his reputation in Rome after his death changed based on the area’s political climate, Cicero’s orations and writings later became the basis for much of Western government and politics. The early Church Fathers like St. Augustine and St. Jerome considered him a noble pagan whose influence had important secular purposes. Petrarch’s rediscovery of his work prompted a mass search for copies existing in monasteries throughout Europe. He soon found admirers among the likes of Erasmus, Martin Luther, John Locke, Henry VIII, and was a favorite of readers who later became the Founding Fathers of the U.S. and the leaders of the French Revolution. He is still studied by political scientists and his works are often important parts of those pursuing political and legal degrees.

The Rise of Rome by Livy

Born in Padua, Titus Livius was born about 20 years after the death of Cicero and grew up during numerous civil wars taking place in the Roman world, coming of age around the same time. By the time he went to Rome in 30 BCE, the wars were drawing to a close and by the end of the year the forces of Cleopatra and Mark Antony would be defeated, giving rise to the reign of the emperor Augustus. Livy would become familiar with the emperor and his family and it was during the reign of Augustus that he began writing his most famous and only surviving work.

Ab Urbe Condita Libri, usually translated as The History of Rome was written between 27 and 9 BCE following the history of the city of Rome from its foundations until the death of Drusus. Only about a quarter of the original work survives to this day, but there are secondary sources that given information about some of the missing parts of the text. The original text had 142 books only about 35 of which exist in nearly complete form with damaged versions of other chapters having been found. Based on the surviving preface, it is also known what the missing books contained.

The first five deal with the legendary founding including the legends of Aeneas and Romulus as well as the early tyrant kings and the early republic. The sixth through tenth book deal with wars to suppress other groups living on the Italian peninsula such as the Etruscans. Books 11 through 20 detail the First Punic War while 21 through 30 detail the Second Punic War. Books 31 through 45 detail eastern wars in Macedonia and other countries. The remaining books are all lost but detail events like the Social wars, the civil wars between Marius and Sulla, the Gallic War, the death of Caesar, the war between Antony and Augustus, and the rule of Augustus.

Just as only a portion of Livy's work survives into the modern day, not much information about the writer's life is available. The years of his birth and death are uncertain, though it is believed he came to Rome sometime in his late 20s or early 30s, but he never held a government position like most men of his social class. He also most likely never served in the Roman army or any military faction. It is suggested that his family was wealthy enough that he could pursue his interests like writing and rhetoric without the need from an income from the government or military. He also became an early Roman celebrity with figures like Pliny the Younger traveling great distances to meet him.

Livy was close to Augustus Caesar and also knew the future emperor Claudius when the later was a boy. Sometime around the death of Augustus, he returned back to his native Padua where he lived the rest of his life. Some speculate this is because Livy knew he would not enjoy as much favor among Augustus' successor as he had under the former emperor. The fact that Tiberius was considered very much the opposite to Augustus in terms of how he governed and how he lived may have had something to do with Livy's removal from court as well.

A woodcut of Livy and Sallust from one of the earliest editions of the Encylopedia Britannica. Livy looks at a book while Sallust looks on.

Because Livy's works were so long, many monasteries did not copy and reproduce them as they did other texts from the time period, despite the fact that this Roman history wasn't exactly a controversial subject to early church founders. The manuscript was how time-consuming it was to reproduce the book in its entirety. For example, the first English printing of the surviving 35 texts - only accounting for a quarter of the whole - came in at nearly 1,500 pages. Tolstoy's War and Peace usually comes in at around 1,225.

There is still much debate over how much of Livy’s sources are based in legend and how much of them are based on sources he would have had access to, such as historical documents and works by annalists. It is known that Livy also incorporated some Greek sources into his work outside the traditional Roman ones. Niccolo Machiavelli later wrote his own commentary on Livy’s work titled Discourses on Livy that also incorporated discussion of republicanism. The first version of the work translated into and printed in English was dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I, becoming a text of great importance among the English court.

The Satires by Juvenal

The comedic works of Decimus Iunius Iuvenalis, better known as Juvenal, have helped contribute to the reason why the modern word juvenile means young or inexperienced. A poet active between the late 100s and early 200s CE, little of his life is known though there are some that believe his works could have been published as early as the year 100 or 101 based on when later references to it start to appear. His final works are believed to date from no later than 127 by many scholars. The 16 poems he wrote are based on the originator of Roman satire Lucilius but also fit in with the literary tradition of Horace. His Satires have become a major source for life in ancient Rome and may have survived only because early Christians misinterpret them as an attack on paganism.

Unlike what we think of today, Roman satire was a formal literary genre with various rules and often set a tone somewhere between irony and all out rage. Satire was then, as often now, used to question morality and societal value systems though it also draws from history and mythology to make its point. Most of all, the Satires outlined what Juvenal thought were threats to the continuity of Roman society and were intended for Rome’s elite, particularly as a warning against class mixing and social climbing. Others believe that Juvenal’s seemingly overhanded admonishment against these issues was in fact a rhetorical persona or mask intended to critique the very values he claims to believe in.

The Satires aren’t a literal account of normal Roman life but more importantly survive as example of how Roman society was critiqued from within. Juvenal makes claims that Rome is being invaded by Greek immigrants who take the best jobs. He says that honest men cannot make their way in the city and that only the rich can survive living in the crime-filled, degraded streets. He satirizes social gatherings in Roman society as well as the patron-client relationship often displayed here. He also decries the “decay of feminine virtue” and points out that many nobles have done nothing to merit the title. He also points out that Roman soldiers are in many cases above the law and get rights beyond those of ordinary citizens. Some of these arguments can be read as tongue-in-cheek.

Juvenal’s influence led to Samuel Johnson producing his own similar satire about the city of London during his time as well as the works of known satirists like Cervantes, Moliere, Voltaire, and Jonathan Swift. Juvenal also gave us phrases still used today such as “bread and circuses,” “sound in mind and sound in body,” “a rare bird in the earth,” and “who will watch the watchers?”

The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius

Suetonius may not have a name as famous as Ovid, Virgil, or Cicero, but his history of the twelve rulers ranging from Julius Caesar to Domitian gives scholars important information about the early days of the Roman under the Imperial era. Born Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus around 69 CE, he was possibly born in modern-day Algeria and became a close friend of Pliny the Younger. He became the personal secretary to the emperor Hadrian but was later fired because it was thought he was excessively close to the empress. It was perhaps his work at court that provided him with the information for his only major surviving work De Vita Caesarum or The Twelve Caesars.

The book is largely intact though some chapters about the life of Julius Caesar are mentioned. Notably, he is the first author to suggest that Julius Caesar suffered from epilepsy, a disease many Romans often took as a sign of favor from the gods. The book provides a rather favorable account of the rise of Augustus and then goes into great detail of the preversions of figures like Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, and the reigns in the Year of Four Emperors. He has a more mixed opinion of Vespasian, a positive one of Vespasian’s son Titus, and a negative one of Domitian, the last ruler before the so-called Five Good Emperors took the throne.

Portraits of the Caesars in a later British edition of the text

There is some doubt as to the historical veracity of some of the stories in the book as history is written by the victors. Some scholars wonder if his depictions of various emperors were in some way influenced by popular opinion about them at the time. Some believe that later deeds by emperors like Caligula may have influenced the stories told about the emperor in his youth when he was better behaved while others believe that emperors like Nero were not as villainous as they were later characterized by political rivals who needed to ensure their own position. Whether or not his history is accurate or influenced by politics, his biography became the model for many future entries into the genre, ranging from Marius Maximus’s Historia Augusta to Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne to Robert Graves historical novel I, Claudius. Graves based his novel on his own translation of Suetonius’ original text.

Other than this history, few works of Suetonius’ remain. Portions of his biographies of famous Roman writers, grammarians, and rhetoricians survive as do some parts of biographies he wrote of Virgil, Terence, and Horace. Lost works attributed to him include biographies of other royal Roman figures, a biography of famous Roman prostitutes, a chronicle of a year in the city of Roman, a guide to Roman festivals, a guide to Roman dress, a guide to Greek-style games, a commentary of Cicero’s Republic, and texts on natural phenomena.

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