Classical Latin Literature
Lucretius (ca. 98–55 B.
C.E.). Lucretius is best known for his lengthy poem, De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of Things”), which is nothing short of an explanation of the whole universe. Though Lucretius's Latin is pretty challenging (even for experienced readers), his views, known as epicureanism, form an important philosophical tradition.
Catullus (84–54 B.
C.E.). A lyric poet whose works are in sharp contrast to those of Lucretius. Because of his frank erotic references, many of Catullus's 100 poems remained censored or untranslated until the twentieth century. Only with the advent of modern writers, such as Henry Miller and Allen Ginsberg, did Catullus seem tame by comparison.
Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 B.
C.E.). Trained in rhetoric and Roman law, Cicero was an eloquent orator and advocate who championed republican government. His many essays, letters, and speeches (in written form, the latter were often highly polished versions of what Cicero had actually said) set a prose standard that is still emulated. The reason that so much of Cicero's writings survives is because he was among the few “pagan” writers that leaders of the medieval Christian Church did not condemn (his works were therefore preserved by the original photocopiers, monastic scribes).
Julius Caesar (100–44 B.
C.E.). Caesar was a famous general. You probably didn't know that he was also a major literary figure who wrote detailed accounts of his many campaigns (Bellum Gallicum and Bellum Civile). In reading Caesar, you will likely run into more military terms than you ever thought existed, but his prose is straightforward and logically organized. More than one contemporary writer could learn a lesson or two from Caesar's clear writing.
Vergil (70–19 B.
C.E.). Vergil is, by most accounts, the greatest poet of ancient Rome. As with Cicero's writings, medieval prelates exempted the works of Vergil from their bonfires (in Vergil's case, it was due to his supposed foreshadowing of Jesus). Many of Vergil's poems extol the virtues of nature (the Ecologues) and farm life (the Georgics), though we remember him better for his epic poem, the Aeneid. The Aeneid's twelve books recount the human and mythological origins of Rome; in Western literature, only the Iliad and the Odyssey surpass its sweep, imagery, and universal themes. If you can't see yourself reading the entire work, at least read Books I–IV.
Horace (65–8 B.
C.E.). A writer of great skill, Horace eventually became poet laureate of Rome. His satires did much to create that genre, while his lyric poetry — though often difficult — illustrates enormous range and versatility. Don't try reading Horace unless you have sufficient time to ponder his choices of vocabulary and grammar.
Livy (59 B.
C.E.–17 C.E.). Livy is the best-known and most widely read Roman historian. His mammoth history of Rome ran more than a hundred volumes, but only a small number of them survive. Though not exactly page-turners, Livy's works can give you a sense of the challenges that ancient historians faced. Nevertheless, it helps to know a little about Roman history before plunging into Livy's accounts.
Ovid (43 B.
C.E.–17 C.E.). As a poet, Ovid's reputation is second only to that of Vergil's. Readers then and since have found his long poem The Metamorphoses compelling. In fifteen books, Ovid supplied a veritable encyclopedia of mythology, much of which was structured around various transformations or metamorphoses. Pyramus and Thisbe, Narcissus and Echo, Jason and Medea, and Daedalus and Icarus are just a few of the familiar characters that populate Ovid's superbly crafted poem.
Seneca (4 B.
C.E.–65 C.E.). A stoic philosopher and the Emperor Nero's tutor, Seneca is the point at which scholars mark the beginning of Silver Age Latin. Seneca wrote widely circulated moral essays and tragedies, as well as a biting satire, “Apocolocyntosis” (“Gourdification”), about the death and deification of Emperor Claudius.
C.E.). Petronius was a courtier whose major work was the Satyricon, a satire that, among other things, pokes fun at the newly rich and their pompous attitudes. One of the only large sections of the Satyricon that survives (often referred to as the Cena Trimalchionis [“Trimalchio's Dinner Party”]) is often read in intermediate-level Latin classes.
C.E.–95 C.E.). Frequently considered the first pedagogue (one who studies and teaches how to teach), he covered a broad set of Roman educational concerns in his Institutio Oratoria. The advice found in that work still rings true to many contemporary teachers.
C.E.). Martial was similar to what we would call a bestselling author. No, he really didn't sell much of what he wrote, but the public did enjoy his epigrams. And with more than 1,500 to his credit, Martial certainly gave ancient Romans a large number of these short, often satirical poems to choose from. As with Catullus, some of Martial's poems were considered obscene by many later generations.
C.E.). An earnest public servant who lived through a tumultuous period in Roman history, Pliny wrote the Epistulae (letters), which offers some of the most revealing first-person accounts that still survive about life in the ancient world. Pliny is often called Pliny the Younger to distinguish him from his uncle, Pliny the Elder. Both the Elder and the Younger witnessed the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius (the one that buried Pompeii) in 79 C.E.; the latter lived to tell about it, the former did not.
Tacitus (c. 55–115?
C.E.). Tacitus was a relatively reliable, if sometimes cynical, historian. Only fragments of some of his major works (Histories and Annals) exist, though his biography of his father-in-law (Agricola) and description of Germany (Germā nia) are mostly complete. Tacitus's writing style is very succinct — he's well named (“taci-turn”) — but he is among the hardest Roman prose authors you will read.
Juvenal (c. 50–c. 130
C.E.). Perhaps the most gifted satirist who wrote in Latin. His sixteen satires heaped scorn on the vices he perceived in imperial Rome. Regrettably, his gifts for satire were not matched by simplicity in his prose style. In short, save Juvenal for last, as he is among the hardest of all authors to read in the original Latin.