5 Key Works of Roman Literature

5 Key Works of Roman Literature


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Rome had a vibrant and accomplished literary culture, born from the established traditions of Ancient Greece. Livius Andronicus, a Greek prisoner of war, translated the first play into Latin in 230 BC and soon Roman authors were creating their own dramas, histories and epic poetry.

Here are five classics of Roman Literature.

1. The anthology of Catullus

A bust of Catullus.

Gaius Valerius Catullus (84 – 54 BC) was an aristocrat who moved in powerful circles, dining with Julius Caesar even after he’d mocked the great leader in verse.

His abiding love for a woman he called Lesbia (probably Clodia Metelli, a powerful woman herself) inspired much of his poetry, which survived in a single manuscript of 116 verses.

Catullus was important as he discarded epic themes and wrote deeply personal poetry. He wrote to his friends and his lovers, attacked his enemies (and his lovers’ lovers) in often obscene language.

His poems on death, including that of his brother, are deeply moving.

“Let us live and love, nor give a damn what sour old men say. The sun that sets may rise again, but when our light has sunk into the earth it is gone forever.”

2. Ovid’s Metamorphoses

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Ovid (43 BC – 18 AD) was an aristocrat, holding minor public offices before devoting most of his time to writing poetry. In 8 AD, the Emperor Augustus sidestepped all established legal authority to personally banish Ovid, apparently over a poem.

The Metamorphoses is a massive collection of nearly 12,000 verses in 15 books telling 250 myths that claim to tell the history of world from creation to Julius Caesar’s death.

Using Greek sources, Ovid wrote the Metamorphoses in the same meter as the Iliad and Odyssey, taking transformation – literal and metaphorical – and the power of love as his theme. Many of the ancient myths children learn today have been transmitted via Ovid. The poems are packed with proverbial wisdom and life lessons.

Shakespeare, Chaucer and Dante all referred to the Metamorphoses and it was one of the first books William Caxton produced on his pioneering 15th century printing press.

“I am dragged along by a strange new force. Desire and reason are pulling in different directions. I see the right way and approve it, but follow the wrong.”

3 – Horace’s Odes

Horace by Quinto Orazio Flacco.

Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65 – 8 BC), is still admired for his technical skill and wisdom. His father was a freed slave, and Horace was educated for the bureaucracy, but served as a soldier, before buying a civil service role.

His satires are personal and approachable, and were the works that brought him to literary fame, praising a simple life of moderation in a much gentler tone than other Roman writers.

Horace’s odes were written in imitation of Greek writers like Sappho. Published in two collections in 23 BC and 13 BC, the odes tackle friendship, love, alcohol, Roman politics and poetry itself.

We owe to Horace the phrases, “carpe diem” or “seize the day” and the “golden mean” for his beloved moderation. Victorian poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, of Ancient Mariner fame, praised the odes in verse and Wilfred Owen’s great World War I poem, Dulce et Decorum est, is a response to Horace’s oft-quoted belief that it is “sweet and fitting” to die for one’s country.

“We are but dust and shadow.”

4. Virgil’s Aeneid

Aeneas leaves Troy for his epic journey to Rome.

Publius Vergilius Maro (70 BC – 19 BC) wrote the great epic poem of Rome in the shape of the Aeneid, the story of Aeneas, a Trojan refugee who according to myth arrived in Italy to found the city.

His biography is full of uncertainties. He was probably born near Mantua in northern Italy and may have been of Umbrian, Etruscan or Celtic heritage. He worked as a lawyer before turning full time to poetry. Shyness and ill health seem to have been with him throughout his life.

The Aeneid is considered his greatest work and its 12 books took 11 years to complete, possibly at the commission of Emperor Augustus. Homer’s great epics of the Trojan War are an obvious influence.

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Virgil describes the journeys of Aeneas, who finally arrives in Italy, defeating a local warlord called Turnus to found the city that would become Rome. Virgil died before it could be completed, but Augustus ordered it to be published unedited, after the poet read parts of it to him.

Virgil was enormously popular in Ancient Rome. Ovid referred to the Aenied in the Metamorphoses. The works were school set texts, and were treated as almost holy texts by later readers.

“If I cannot move heaven, I will raise hell.”

5. Seneca’s Thyestes

Seneca’s long, painful suicide.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD) moved in the murky waters of Roman politics, fatally. He was ordered to kill himself by Nero, the emperor who he served as tutor and adviser, who believed he had plotted against him.

His father (they are often called Seneca the Older and Seneca the Younger) was a writer and statesman, whose work is also still well regarded.

Surprisingly little is known of Seneca’s early life. He was born in Spain, his father’s homeland, and may have spent some time in Egypt, before a stormy career in the highest levels of the Roman court, culminating in his appointment as the 12-year-old Nero’s tutor in 49 AD.

He had been retired from Nero’s service for some time when the unstable emperor accused him of involvement in an assassination plot. Seneca bled slowly and painfully to death in a suicide Nero ordered.

Seneca’s tragic plays are the only such works to survive from Roman times and were hugely influential, particularly on Shakespeare.

Thyestes is considered his masterpiece, and like most of his plays it is bloody and melodramatic – Thyestes eats his own children. It’s a story of warring twins in the household of Tantalus, a household beset by sin of every colourful variety.

“Tis the upright mind that holds true sovereignty.”


Classical Antiquity

Scholars and artists of the Renaissance were fascinated by the great cultures of ancient Greece and Rome. They believed that studying the achievements of the past was the key to creating a glorious future. They pored over ancient texts and sifted through ruins to unearth objects such as monuments, coins, and statues. Growing awareness of this era known as classical antiquity influenced Renaissance architecture, art, and city planning. It also transformed the study of history and formed the basis of the cultural movement called humanism*.


Quintilian

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Quintilian, Latin in full Marcus Fabius Quintilianus, (born ad 35, Calagurris Nassica, Hispania Tarraconensis—died after 96, Rome), Latin teacher and writer whose work on rhetoric, Institutio oratoria, is a major contribution to educational theory and literary criticism.

Quintilian was born in northern Spain, but he was probably educated in Rome, where he afterward received some practical training from the leading orator of the day, Domitius Afer. He then practiced for a time as an advocate in the law courts. He left for his native Spain sometime after 57 but returned to Rome in 68 and began to teach rhetoric, combining this with advocacy in the law courts. Under the emperor Vespasian (ruled 69–79) he became the first teacher to receive a state salary for teaching Latin rhetoric, and he also held his position as Rome’s leading teacher under the emperors Titus and Domitian, retiring probably in 88. Toward the end of Domitian’s reign (81–96) he was entrusted with the education of the Emperor’s two heirs (his grandnephews), and through the good agency of the boys’ father, Flavius Clemens, he was given the honorary title of consul (ornamenta consularia). His own death, which probably took place soon after Domitian’s assassination, was preceded by that of his young wife and two sons.

Quintilian’s great work, the Institutio oratoria, in 12 books, was published shortly before the end of his life. He believed that the entire educational process, from infancy onward, was relevant to his major theme of training an orator. In Book I he therefore dealt with the stages of education before a boy entered the school of rhetoric itself, to which he came in Book II. These first two books contain his general observations on educational principles and are notable for their good sense and insight into human nature. Books III to XI are basically concerned with the five traditional “departments” of rhetoric: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. He also deals with the nature, value, origin, and function of rhetoric and with the different types of oratory, giving far more attention to forensic oratory (that used in legal proceedings) than to other types. During his general discussion of invention he also considers the successive, formal parts of a speech, including a lively chapter on the art of arousing laughter. Book X contains a well-known and much-praised survey of Greek and Latin authors, recommended to the young orator for study. Sometimes Quintilian agrees with the generally held estimate of a writer, but he is often independent in his judgments, especially when discussing Latin authors. Book XII deals with the ideal orator in action, after his training is completed: his character, the rules that he must follow in pleading a case, the style of his eloquence, and when he should retire.

The Institutio was the fruit of Quintilian’s wide practical experience as a teacher. His purpose, he wrote, was not to invent new theories of rhetoric but to judge between existing ones, and this he did with great thoroughness and discrimination, rejecting anything he considered absurd and always remaining conscious of the fact that theoretical knowledge alone is of little use without experience and good judgment. The Institutio is further distinguished by its emphasis on morality, for Quintilian’s aim was to mold the student’s character as well as to develop his mind. His central idea was that a good orator must first and foremost be a good citizen eloquence serves the public good and must therefore be fused with virtuous living. At the same time, he wished to produce a thoroughly professional, competent, and successful public speaker. His own experience of the law courts gave him a practical outlook that many other teachers lacked, and indeed he found much to criticize in contemporary teaching, which encouraged a superficial cleverness of style (in this connection he particularly regretted the influence of the early 1st-century writer and statesman Seneca the Younger). While admitting that stylish tricks gave an immediate effect, he felt they were of no great help to the orator in the realities of public advocacy at law. He attacked the “corrupt style,” as he called it, and advocated a return to the more severe standards and older traditions upheld by Cicero (106–43 bc ). Although he praised Cicero highly, he did not recommend students to slavishly imitate his style, recognizing that the needs of his own day were quite different. He did, however, appear to see a bright future for oratory, oblivious to the fact that his ideal—the orator-statesman of old who had influenced for good the policies of states and cities—was no longer relevant with the demise of the old republican form of Roman government.

Two collections of declamations attributed to Quintilian have also survived: the Declamationes majores (longer declamations) are generally considered to be spurious the Declamationes minores (shorter declamations) may possibly be a version of Quintilian’s oral teaching, recorded by one of his pupils. The text of his Institutio was rediscovered by a Florentine, Poggio Bracciolini, who, in 1416, came across a filthy but complete copy of it in an old tower at St. Gall, Switz., while he was on a diplomatic mission there. Its emphasis on the dual importance of moral and intellectual training was very appealing to the 15th and 16th centuries’ humanist conception of education. Although its direct influence diminished after the 17th century, along with a general decline in respect for the authority of classical antiquity, the modern view of education as all-around character training to equip a student for life follows in a direct line from the theories of this 1st-century Roman.

Quintilian advises the teacher to apply different teaching methods according to the different characters and abilities of his pupils he believes that the young should enjoy their studies and knows the value of play and recreation he warns against the danger of discouraging a pupil by undue severity he makes an effective criticism of the practice of corporal punishment he depicts the schoolmaster as taking the place of a parent. “Pupils,” he writes, “if rightly instructed regard their teacher with affection and respect. And it is scarcely possible to say how much more willingly we imitate those we like.”


Main Article

Archaic Literature

The roots of literature lie in oral traditions, which emerged throughout the world long before the development of writing. In addition to pure entertainment, oral stories were often used for instruction (e.g. ethical, religious, historical). Storytelling was sometimes ceremonial, and might be combined with other aesthetic forms (e.g. music, dancing, costumes).

The most influential and highly-regarded works of ancient literature are the narrative poems Iliad and Odyssey. Originally works of oral tradition, these poems were set down in the Archaic period, apparently by a man named Homer. The Iliad recounts the decade-long seige of Troy, while the Odyssey follows the decade-long homeward journey of Odysseus (a Greek king) at war's end.

Primary Ancient Writers
Greek Roman
poetry narrative Homer Virgil
lyric Pindar
drama serious Sophocles
comic Aristophanes
Archaic period (ca. 800-500 BC)
Classical period (ca. 500-330 BC)
golden age of Latin literature (ca. 80 BC-20 AD)

Meanwhile, ancient lyric poetry culminated with Pindar, whose victory odes (which celebrate athletic victories) are considered the pinnacle of his work. 4

Though Western prose and drama were also born in the Archaic period, these genres did not truly flourish until the Classical age.

Classical Literature

As noted earlier, oral legends were a universal feature of early human societies, and were often combined with other aesthetic forms (such as music, dancing, and costumes) to produce compelling reenactments of historical and/or mythical events. Such "story-ceremonies" remained popular long after the development of writing, and continue to flourish among many cultures today. The ancient Greeks invented drama by harnessing (and developing upon) these ceremonies to tell newly-composed stories.

Greek drama was performed by a small number of actors (1 to 3) and a chorus. The chorus was a group of supporting characters (e.g. a crowd of citizens) that presented and commented upon the story (with speech, singing, miming, and/or dancing). Greek tragedy culminated in the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, the second of whom is generally considered the greatest ancient playwright. The two outstanding figures of Greek comedy are Aristophanes and Menander, of whom the former is widely regarded the foremost comic dramatist of antiquity. 3

Primary Ancient Writers
Greek Roman
poetry narrative Homer Virgil
lyric Pindar
drama serious Sophocles
comic Aristophanes
Archaic period (ca. 800-500 BC)
Classical period (ca. 500-330 BC)
golden age of Latin literature (ca. 80 BC-20 AD)

Sophocles' foremost tragedy is Oedipus Rex, in which the titular character tries (and fails) to avoid fulfilling a prophecy that he will murder his father and wed his mother. In The Birds, often hailed as Aristophanes' finest play, two world-weary Athenians sprout wings and move to a city in the sky.

Subsequent Greek Literature

The Archaic and Classical periods witnessed the emergence and flourishing of every major type of literature, as well as the careers of all the foremost Greek authors. During the subsequent Hellenistic (ca. 330 BC-0) and Roman Empire (ca. 0-500) periods, Greek literature continued to thrive, but never again would a Greek author achieve renown comparable to that of the Archaic/Classical titans. Meanwhile, the cultural torch of the West passed to the Romans, who wrote primarily in Latin.

The Five Major Types of Literature
narrative poetry prose serious drama
lyric poetry comic drama

One further Greek author merits mention, however: Aesop, the (probably legendary) master of the fable, a brief story with non-human characters that teaches a lesson. Whether or not Aesop was an actual person (sources claim he lived in the Archaic or Classical period), the ancient body of work known as Aesop's fables became (and remains to this day) the most popular collection of fables ever written. The original Aesop collections have been lost the fables are known only through later versions (sometimes poetry, sometimes prose), which have been produced regularly from antiquity up to the present.

Roman Literature

The Roman Republic can be divided into the Early Republic (ca. 500-250 BC), during which Roman territory expanded gradually across Italy, and the Late Republic (ca. 250 BC-0), during which Roman territory expanded rapidly across the Mediterranean. During the Late Republic, Roman culture (including art and literature) truly began to flourish. Roman culture continued to thrive during the Early Empire (ca. 0-200), then permanently declined in the Late Empire (ca. 200-500).

The Romans adopted Greek culture as the foundation of their civilization, such that Roman literature (like Roman culture generally) continued and developed upon Greek forms. Naturally, these forms were modified to suit Roman tastes, and were injected with native Roman cultural elements most obviously, the chief language of Roman literature was Latin rather than Greek. Though all fields of ancient literature reached their highest level among the Greeks, the Romans produced their own share of titans, notably in epic poetry (led by Virgil), lyric poetry (led by Horace), and comedy (led by Plautus and Terence).

Roman literature is widely considered to have culminated over the century-long period ca. 80 BC-20 AD, known as the golden age of Latin literature. The preeminent figure of this golden age is Virgil, greatest of Roman writers. His masterpiece, the epic poem Aeneid, recounts the adventures of Aeneas, a Trojan prince who (following the destruction of Troy) journeys to Italy and founds Rome.

Primary Ancient Writers
Greek Roman
poetry narrative Homer Virgil
lyric Pindar
drama serious Sophocles
comic Aristophanes
Archaic period (ca. 800-500 BC)
Classical period (ca. 500-330 BC)
golden age of Latin literature (ca. 80 BC-20 AD)

The Bible

The Bible, the scripture (sacred text) of the Christian faith, consists of two main parts: the Old Testament (which is also the Hebrew Bible) and New Testament, which are themselves divided into many distinct works. The Old Testament was written (mainly in Hebrew) over the first millennium BC, while the New Testament was written (in Greek) mainly in the first century AD. 6,7

Ancient Christian Literature
written over the period.
Old Testament ca. 1000-0 BC
New Testament ca. 0-100
early theology ca. 0-500

The Bible contains various elements typical of religious texts across the world, including explanations of supernatural beings and places (and their relevance to humanity), history (ordinary and supernatural), law, ethics, and prophecy. The principal subject of the Old Testament is God's covenant with the Hebrews (the chosen people) and the ensuing formation and history of Israel (the Hebrew kingdom). The New Testament focuses on the life and teachings of Jesus, along with the attendant new covenant between God and Christians. 6,7

Christianity (with the Bible as its core) was the supreme force in medieval culture. Christian stories and themes dominated medieval art and literature. Indeed, the religion's sweeping cultural influence remained strong for centuries after the Middle Ages, though it came to share the stage with classical themes, as well as increasing attention to the immediate human world.

Early Christian Literature

Christianity emerged in 1st-century Palestine (as a splinter sect of Judaism), then spread throughout the Roman Empire. By the early medieval period, Christianity had come to dominate most of Europe consequently, a great portion of Western literature (from the Roman Empire period onward) is Christian in nature.

Theology can be defined as "the study of religious belief and practice". Christian theology, which emerged under the Roman Empire (and subsequently became the primary focus of medieval scholarship), is thus concerned with analyzing biblical truths (e.g. the nature of God and the afterlife, humanity's relationship with God) and their implications for human life (e.g. religous practice, politics, law, ethics).

To modern secular eyes, theological literature may seem an isolated curosity, of concern only to devoted religious intellectuals. Prior to the rise of secular societies, however, theology (along with the scripture it drew upon) was widely and profoundly influential on Western views and values. Indeed, for some Christians (and for millions who follow other faiths), the resounding impact of scripture and theology on everyday life has not dwindled (see Religion).

The theologians of the Roman Empire period laid the groundwork of Christian doctrine. In addition to analysis of the Bible itself, theology often attempted to reconcile scripture with classical philosophy (see History of Western Philosophy). The growth of theological scholarship began in earnest during the Late Empire period (ca. 200-500), especially once the religion was granted official tolerance by Constantine (313). By far the most influential theologian of antiquity was Saint Augustine.


Synopsis – Aeneid Summary​

In keeping with the style of the epics of Homer, the poem begins with an invocation to the poet’s Muse, and an explanation of the principal conflict of the early part of plot, which stems from the resentment held by the goddess Juno against the Trojan people.

The action begins with the Trojan fleet, led by Aeneas, in the eastern Mediterranean, heading towards Italy on a voyage to find a second home, in accordance with the prophecy that Aeneas will give rise to a noble and courageous race in Italy, which is destined to become known throughout the world.

The goddess Juno, however, is still wrathful at being overlooked by the judgment of Paris in favour of Aeneas‘s mother, Venus, and also because her favourite city, Carthage, is destined to be destroyed by Aeneas‘ descendants, and because the Trojan prince Ganymede was chosen to be the cup-bearer to the gods, replacing Juno’s own daughter, Hebe. For all these reasons, Juno bribes Aeolus, god of the winds, with the offer of Deiopea (the loveliest of all the sea nymphs) as a wife, and Aeolus releases the winds to stir up a huge storm, which devastates Aeneas’ fleet.

Although himself no friend of the Trojans, Neptune is infuriated by Juno’s intrusion into his domain, and stills the winds and calms the waters, allowing the fleet to take shelter on the coast of Africa, near Carthage, a city recently founded by Phoenician refugees from Tyre. Aeneas, after encouragement from his mother, Venus, soon gains the favour of Dido, Queen of Carthage.

At a banquet in honour of the Trojans, Aeneas recounts the events which led upto their arrival, beginning shortly after the events described in “The Iliad”. He tells of how the crafty Ulysses (Odysseus in Greek) devised a plan for Greek warriors to gain entry into Troy by hiding in a large wooden horse. The Greeks then pretended to sail away, leaving Sinon to tell the Trojans that the horse was an offering and that if it were taken into the city, the Trojans would be able to conquer Greece. The Trojan priest, Laocoön, saw through the Greek plot and urged the horse’s destruction, but he and both his sons were attacked and eaten by two giant sea snakes in an apparently divine intervention.

The Trojans brought the wooden horse inside the city walls, and after nightfall the armed Greeks emerged and began to slaughter the city’s inhabitants. Aeneas valiantly tried to fight off the enemy, but he soon lost his comrades and was was advised by his mother, Venus, to flee with his family. Although his wife, Creusa, was killed in the melée, Aeneas managed to escape with his son, Ascanius, and his father, Anchises. Rallying the other Trojan survivors, he built a fleet of ships, making landfall at various locations in the Mediterranean, notably Aenea in Thrace, Pergamea in Crete and Buthrotum in Epirus. Twice they attempted to build a new city, only to be driven away by bad omens and plagues. They were cursed by the Harpies (mythical creatures that are part woman and part bird), but they also unexpectedly encountered friendly countrymen.

In Buthrotum, Aeneas met Hector’s widow, Andromache, as well as Hector‘s brother, Helenus, who had the gift of prophecy. Helenus prophesied that Aeneas should seek out the land of Italy (also known as Ausonia or Hesperia), where his descendants would not only prosper, but in time would come to rule the entire known world. Helenus also advised him to visit the Sibyl in Cumae, and Aeneas and his fleet set off towards Italy, making first landfall in Italy at Castrum Minervae. However, on rounding Sicily and making for the mainland, Juno raised up a storm which drove the fleet back across the sea to Carthage in North Africa, thus bringing Aeneas’ story up to date.

Through the machinations of Aeneas’ mother Venus, and her son, Cupid, Queen Dido of Carthage falls madly in love with Aeneas, even though she had previously sworn fidelity to her late husband, Sychaeus (who had been murdered by her brother Pygmalion). Aeneas is inclined to return Dido‘s love, and they do become lovers for a time. But, when Jupiter sends Mercury to remind Aeneas of his duty and his destiny, he has no choice but to leave Carthage. Heart-broken, Dido commits suicide by stabbing herself on a funeral pyre with Aeneas’ own sword, predicting in her death throes eternal strife between Aeneas’ people and hers. Looking back from the deck of his ship, Aeneas sees the smoke of Dido‘s funeral pyre and knows its meaning only too clearly. However, destiny calls him, and the Trojan fleet sails on towards Italy.

They return to Sicily to hold funeral games in honour of Aeneas’ father, Anchises, who had died before Juno’s storm blew them off course. Some of the Trojan women, tired of the seemingly endless voyage, begin to burn the ships, but a downpour puts the fires out. Aeneas is sympathetic, though, and some of the travel-weary are allowed to stay behind in Sicily.

Eventually, the fleet lands on the mainland of Italy, and Aeneas, with the guidance of the Sibyl of Cumae, descends into the underworld to speak with the spirit of his father, Anchises. He is given a prophetic vision of the destiny of Rome, which helps him to better understand the importance of his mission. On returning to the land of the living, at the end of Book VI, Aeneas leads the Trojans to settle in the land of Latium, where he is welcomed and begins to court Lavinia, the daughter of King Latinus.

The second half of the poem begins with the break out of war between the Trojans and the Latins. Although Aeneas has tried to avoid war, Juno had stirred up trouble by convincing Queen Amata of the Latins that her daughter Lavinia should be married to a local suitor, Turnus, the king of the Rutuli, and not Aeneas, thus effectively ensuring war. Aeneas goes to seek military support among the neighbouring tribes who are also enemies of Turnus, and Pallas, son of King Evander of Arcadia, agrees to lead troops against the other Italians. However, while the Trojan leader is away, Turnus sees his opportunity to attack, and Aeneas returns to find his countrymen embroiled in battle. A midnight raid leads to the tragic deaths of Nisus and his companion Euryalus, in one of the most emotional passages in the book.

In the battle that follows, many heroes are killed, notably Pallas, who is killed by Turnus Mezentius (Turnus’ friend, who had inadvertently allowed his son to be killed while he himself fled), who is killed by Aeneas in single combat and Camilla, a sort of Amazon character devoted to the goddess Diana, who fights bravely but is eventually killed, which leads to the man who killed her being struck dead by Diana’s sentinel, Opis.

A short-lived truce is called and a hand-to-hand duel is proposed between Aeneas and Turnus in order to spare any further unnecessary carnage. Aeneas would have easily won, but the truce is broken first and full-scale battle resumes. Aeneas is injured in the thigh during the fighting, but he returns to the battle shortly afterwards.

When Aeneas makes a daring attack on the city of Latium itself (causing Queen Amata to hang herself in despair), he forces Turnus into single combat once more. In a dramatic scene, Turnus’ strength deserts him as he tries to hurl a rock, and he is struck by Aeneas‘ spear in the leg. Turnus begs on his knees for his life, and Aeneas is tempted to spare him until he sees that Turnus is wearing the belt of his friend Pallas as a trophy. The poem ends with Aeneas, now in a towering rage, killing Turnus.


What Is Classic Literature?

Classic literature is a term most readers are probably familiar with. The term covers a much wider array of works than classical literature. Older books that retain their popularity are almost always considered to be among the classics. This means that the ancient Greek and Roman authors of classical literature fall into this category as well. It's not just age that makes a book a classic, however. Books that have a timeless quality are considered to be in this category. While determining if a book is well-written or not is a subjective endeavor, it is generally agreed that classics have high-quality prose.


Roman Art (c.500 BCE - 500 CE) Origins, History, Types, Characteristics

Note: For later artists and styles inspired by the arts of ancient Rome, see: Classicism in Art (800 onwards).


The Severan Tondo: panel painting
of the Imperial Family (c.200 CE)


Marcus Aurelius' Column (193 CE)
Erected in the Piazza Colonna, Rome.
Depicts the "rain miracle of Quadi".
God rescues the Roman Legion from
destruction by barberians by
creating a terrible storm.

For several centuries Ancient Rome was the most powerful nation on earth, excelling all others at military organization and warfare, engineering, and architecture. Its unique cultural achievements include the invention of the dome and the groin vault, the development of concrete and a European-wide network of roads and bridges. Despite this, Roman sculptors and painters produced only a limited amount of outstanding original fine art, preferring instead to recycle designs from Greek art, which they revered as far superior to their own. Indeed, many types of art practised by the Romans - including, sculpture (bronze and marble statuary, sarcophagi), fine art painting (murals, portraiture, vase-painting), and decorative art (including metalwork, mosaics, jewellery, ivory carving) had already been fully mastered by Ancient Greek artists. Not surprisingly, therefore, while numerous Greek sculptors (like Phidias, Kresilas, Myron, Polykleitos, Callimachus, Skopas, Lysippos, Praxiteles, and Leochares, Phyromachos) and painters (like Apollodorus, Zeuxis of Heraclea, Agatharchos, Parrhasius, Apelles of Kos, Antiphilus, Euphranor of Corinth) were accorded great respect throughout the Hellenistic world, most Roman artists were regarded as no more than skilled tradesmen and have remained anonymous.

Of course it is wrong to say that Roman art was devoid of innovation: its urban architecture was ground-breaking, as was its landscape painting and portrait busts. Nor is it true that Roman artists produced no great masterpieces - witness the extraordinary relief sculpture on monuments like Ara Pacis Augustae and Trajan's Column. But on the whole, we can say that Roman art was predominantly derivative and, above all, utilitarian. It served a purpose, a higher good: the dissemination of Roman values along with a respect for Roman power. As it transpired, classical Roman art has been immensely influential on many subsequent cultures, through revivalist movements like Neoclassical architecture, which have shaped much European and American architecture, as exemplified by the US Capitol Building The lesser-known Classical Revival in modern art (1900-30) led to a return to figure painting as well as new abstract movements like Cubism.

PAINT PIGMENTS
For details of colours and
pigments used by painters
in Ancient Rome, see:
Classical Colour Palette.

Although Rome was founded as far back as 750 BCE, it led a precarious existence for several centuries. Initially, it was ruled by Etruscan kings who commissioned a variety of Etruscan art (murals, sculptures and metalwork) for their tombs as well as their palaces, and to celebrate their military victories. After the founding of the Roman Republic in 500 BCE, Etruscan influence waned and, from 300 BCE, as the Romans started coming into contact with the flourishing Greek cities of southern Italy and the eastern Mediterranean, they fell under the influence of Greek art - a process known as Hellenization. Soon many Greek works of art were being taken to Rome as booty, and many Greek artists followed to pursue their careers under Roman patronage.

However, the arts were still not a priority for Roman leaders who were more concerned about survival and military affairs. It wasn't until about 200 BCE after it won the first Punic War against Hannibal and the Carthaginians, that Rome felt secure enough to develop its culture. Even then, the absence of an independent cultural tradition of its own meant that most ancient art of Rome imitated Greek works. Rome was unique among the powers of the ancient world in developing only a limited artistic language of its own.

Cultural Inferiority Complex

Roman architecture and engineering was never less than bold, but its painting and sculpture was based on Greek traditions and also on art forms developed in its vassal states like Egypt and Ancient Persia. To put it another way, despite their spectacular military triumphs, the Romans had an inferiority complex in the face of Greek artistic achievement. Their ultra-pragmatic response was to recycle Greek sculpture at every opportunity. Greek poses, reworked with Roman clothes and accessories, were pressed into service to reinforce Roman power. Heroic Greek statues were even supplied headless, to enable the buyer to fit his own portrait head.

An example is the equestrian bronze statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (c.175 CE), whose stance is reworked from the Greek statue "Doryphorus" (440 BCE). See: Greek Sculpture Made Simple.

The reason for Rome's cultural inferiority complex remains unclear. Some Classical scholars have pointed to the pragmatic Roman temperament others, to the overriding Roman need for territorial security against the waves of marauding tribes from eastern and central Europe and the consequent low priority accorded to art and culture. To which we might add that - judging by the narrowness of Celtic art (c.500 BCE - 100 CE) - Roman artists weren't doing too badly. Moreover, we should note that cities in Ancient Rome were less provincial and far more powerful than Greek city-states, so that its art invariably played a more functional role - not least because Roman culture was actually a melange of different beliefs and customs, all of which had to be accomodated. Thus, for example, art quickly became something of a status symbol: something to enhance the buyer's home and social position. And since most Romans recognized the intrinsic value of Greek artistry, buyers wanted Greek-style works.

Like the Romans themselves, early Roman art (c.510 BCE to 27 BCE) tended to be realistic and direct. Portraits, both two-dimensional and three-dimensional, were typically detailed and unidealized, although later during the age of Hellenistic-Roman art (c.27 BCE - 200 CE), the Romans became aware of the propaganda value of busts and statuary, and sought to convey political messages through poses and accessories. The same PR value was accorded to relief sculpture (see, for instance, the Column of Marcus Aurelius), and to history painting (see, Triumphal Paintings, below). Thus when commemorating a battle, for example, the artwork used would be executed in a realistic - almost "documentary" style. This realistic down-to-earth Roman style is in vivid contrast to Hellenistic art which illustrated military achievements with mythological imagery. Paradoxically, one reason for the ultimate fall of Rome was because it became too attached to the propagandist value of its art, and squandered huge resources on grandiose building projects purely to impress the people. Construction of the Baths of Diocletian (298-306), for instance, monopolised the entire brick industry of Rome, for several years.

Rome's greatest contribution to the history of art is undoubtedly to be found in the field of architectural design. Roman architecture during the age of the Republic (knowledge of which derives largely from the 1st-century Roman architect Vitruvius) discovered the round temple and the curved arch but, after the turn of the Millennium, Roman architects and engineers developed techniques for urban building on a massive scale. The erection of monumental structures like the Pantheon and the Colosseum, would have been impossible without Rome's development of the arch and the dome, as well as its mastery of strong and low-cost materials like concrete and bricks.

For a comparison with building design in Ancient Egypt, please see: Egyptian Architecture (c.3000 BCE - 160 CE). In particular, please see: Late Egyptian Architecture (1069 BCE - 200 CE).

The Romans didn't invent the arch - it was known but not much used in Greek architecture - but they were the first to master the use of multiple arches, or vaults. From this, they invented the Roman groin vault - two barrel vaults set at right-angles - which represented a revolutionary improvement on the old Greek post-and-lintel method, as it enabled architects to support far heavier loads and to span much wider openings. The Romans also made frequent use of the semicircular arch, typically without resorting to mortar: relying instead on the precision of their stonework.

Arches and vaults played a critical role in the erection of buildings like the Baths of Diocletian and the Baths of Caracalla, the Basilica of Maxentius and the Colosseum. The arch was also an essential component in the building of bridges, exemplified by the Pont du Gard and the bridge at Merida, and aqueducts, exemplified by the one at Segovia, and also the Aqua Claudia and Anio Novus in Rome itself.

A further architectural development was the dome (vaulted ceiling), which made possible the construction and roofing of large open areas inside buildings, like Hadrian's Pantheon, the Basilica of Constantine, as well as numerous other temples and basilicas, since far fewer columns were needed to support the weight of the domed roof. The use of domes went hand in hand with the extensive use of concrete - a combination sometimes referred to as the "Roman Architectural Revolution". But flagship buildings with domes were far from being the only architectural masterpieces built by Ancient Rome. Just as important was the five-storey apartment building known as an insula, which accomodated thousands of citizens.

It was during the age of Emperor Trajan (98-117 CE) and Emperor Hadrian (117-138 CE) that Rome reached the zenith of its architectural glory, attained through numerous building programs of monuments, baths, aqueducts, palaces, temples and mausoleums. Many of the buildings from this era and later, served as models for architects of the Italian Renaissance, such as Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) designer of the iconic dome of the cathedral in Florence, and both Donato Bramante (1444-1514) and Michelangelo (1475-1564), designers of St Peter's Basilica. The time of Constantine (306-337 CE) witnessed the last great building programs in the city of Rome, including the completion of the Baths of Diocletian and the erection of the Basilica of Maxentius and the Arch of Constantine.

Famous Roman Buildings

Circus Maximus (6th century BCE - 4th century CE)

Dating back to Etruscan times, and located in the valley between the Aventine and Palatine hills, this was the main Roman chariot racing venue in Rome, Italy. Measuring roughly 2,000 feet in length (610 metres) and 400 feet in width (120 metres), it was rebuilt in the age of Julius Caesar to seat an estimated 150,000 spectators, and again during the reign of Constantine to seat about 250,000. It is now a park.

Built in the centre of Rome by Vespasian to appease the masses, this elliptical amphitheatre was named after a colossal statue of Nero that stood nearby. Built to seat some 50,000 spectators, its intricate design, along with its model system of tiered seating and spacious passageways, makes it one of the greatest works of Roman architecture. The Colosseum was one of the key sights on the Grand Tour of the 18th century.

The Arch of Titus (c.81 CE)

The oldest surviving Roman triumphal arch, it was built after the young Emperor's death to celebrate his suppression of the Jewish uprising in Judea, in 70 CE. Standing on the Via Sacra, south-east of the Roman Forum, the Arch of Titus was the model for Napoleon's Arc de Triomphe in Paris (1806-36).

Baths of Trajan (104-9 CE)

A huge bathing and leisure complex on the south side of the Oppian Hill, designed by Apollodorus of Damascus, it continued to be used up until the early fifth century, or possibly later, until the destruction of the Roman aqueducts compelled its abandonment.

Built by Marcus Agrippa as a temple dedicated to the seven gods of Ancient Rome, and rebuilt by Hadrian in 126 CE, the Pantheon is a daring early instance of concrete construction. The interior space is based on a perfect sphere, and its coffered ceiling remains the largest non-reinforced concrete dome in the world. In the middle of its dome an oculus lets in a beam of light.

Baths of Caracalla (212-16 CE)

Capable of holding up to 16,000 people, the building was roofed by a series of groin vaults and included shops, two gymnasiums (palaestras) and two public libraries. The baths proper consisted of a central 185 x 80 feet cold room (frigidarium) a room of medium temperature (tepidarium) with two pools, and a 115-foot diameter hot room (caldarium), as well as two palaestras. The entire structure was built on a 20-foot high base containing storage areas and furnaces. The baths were supplied with water from the Marcian Aqueduct.

Baths of Diocletian (298-306)

These baths (thermae) were probably the most grandiose of all Rome's public baths. Standing on high ground on the northeast part of the Viminal, the smallest of the Seven hills of Rome, the baths occupied an area well in excess of 1 million square feet and was supposedly capable of holding up to 3,000 people at one time. The complex used water supplied by the Aqua Marcia and Aqua Antoniniana aqueducts.

Basilica of Maxentius (308-12 CE)

The largest building in the Roman Forum, it featured a full complement of arches and barrel vaults and a folded roof. It had a central nave overlooked by three groin vaults suspended 120 feet above the floor on four piers. There was a massive open space in the central nave, but unlike other basilicas it didn't need the usual complement of columns to support the ceiling, because the entire building was supported on arches. Moreover, its folded roof reduced the total weight of the structure thus minimizing the horizontal force on the outer arches.

Sculpture: Types and Characteristics

Roman sculpture may be divided into four main categories: historical reliefs portrait busts and statues, including equestrian statues funerary reliefs, sarcophagi or tomb sculpture and copies of ancient Greek works. Like architecture, a good deal of Roman sculpture was created to serve a purpose: namely, to impress the public - be they Roman citizens or 'barbarians' - and communicate the power and majesty of Rome. In its important works, at least, there was a constant expression of seriousness, with none of the Greek conceptualism or introspection. The mood, pose and facial features of the Roman statue of an Emperor, for instance, was typically solemn and unsmiling. As Rome grew more confident from the reign of Augustus (31 BCE - 14 CE), its leaders might appear in more magnanimous poses, but gravitas and an underlying sense of Roman greatness was never far from the surface. Another important characteristic of Rome's plastic art was its realism. The highly detailed reliefs on Trajan's Column and the Column of Marcus Aurelius, for instance, are perfect illustrations of this focus on accurate representation, and have been important sources of information for scholars on many aspects of the Roman Legion, its equipment and battle tactics.

Nonetheless, as we have seen, Roman sculptors borrowed heavily from the sculpture of Ancient Greece, and - aside from the sheer numbers of portrait busts, and the quality of its historical reliefs - Roman sculpture was dominated by High Classical Greek sculpture as well as by Hellenistic Greek sculpture. What's more, with the expansion of Rome's empire and the huge rise in demand for statuary, sculptors churned out endless copies of Greek statues.

For the effect of Roman sculpture on later styles of plastic art, please see: Neoclassical Sculpture (1750-1850).

Rome didn't invent relief sculpture - Stone Age man did. Nor was there any particular genius in the skill of its carvers and stone masons: both the reliefs of the Parthenon (447-422 BCE) and the frieze of the Pergamon Altar of Zeus (c.166-154 BCE) outshone anything created in Italy. See also: Pergamene School of Hellenistic Sculpture (241-133 BCE). What Rome did was to inject the genre with a new set of aesthetics, a new purpose: namely, to make history. After all, if an event or campaign is "carved in stone", it must be true, right? The Greeks adopted the more "cultured" approach of recording their history more obliquely, using scenes from mythology. The Romans were far more down to earth: they sculpted their history as it happened, warts and all.

Trajan's Column (106-113 CE)

The greatest relief sculpture of Ancient Rome, Trajan's Column is a 125-foot Doric-style monument, designed by the architect Apollodorus of Damascus. It has a spiral frieze that winds 23 times around its shaft, commemorating the Dacian triumphs of Emperor Trajan (98-117 CE). Sculpted in the cool, balanced style of the 2nd century, its composition and extraordinarily meticulous detail makes it one of the finest reliefs in the history of sculpture. A full-size cast of Trajan's Column is on show at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and the National History Museum of Romania, Bucharest.

Marcus Aurelius' Column (c.180-193 CE)

Second only to Trajan's monument, this 100-foot Doric column in the Piazza Colonna also features a winding ribbon of marble sculpture carved in low relief, which illustrates the story of the Emperor's Danubian or Marcomannic wars, waged by him during the period 166-180 CE. It includes the controversial "rain miracle", in which a colossal thunderstorm saves the Roman army from death at the hands of the barbarian Quadi tribes. The sculptural style of the column differs significantly from that of Trajan's Column, as it introduces the more expressive style of the 3rd century, seen also in the triumphal arch of Septimius Severus (199-203 CE) by the foot of the Capitoline Hill. The heads of the Marcus Aurelius figures are larger than normal, to show off their facial expressions. A higher relief is used, permitting greater contrast between light and shadow. Overall, much more dramatic - a style which clearly reflected the uncertain state of the Roman Empire.

Other famous relief works of stone sculpture carved by Roman artists include: the processional marble frieze on the Ara Pacis Augustae (13-9 BCE) in the Campus Martius, and the architectural relief sculpture on the Arch of Titus (c.85-90 CE) and the Arch of Constantine (312-15 CE).

Portrait Busts and Statues

These works of marble and (occasionally) bronze sculpture were another important Roman contribution to the art of Antiquity. Effigies of Roman leaders had been displayed in public places for centuries, but with the onset of Empire in the late 1st-century BCE, marble portrait busts and statues of the Emperor - which were copied en masse and sent to all parts of the Roman world - served an important function in reminding people of Rome's reach. They also served an important unifying force. Roman administrators had them placed or erected in squares or public buildings throughout the empire, and affluent citizens bought them for their reception rooms and gardens to demonstrate loyalty. The traditional head-and-shoulders bust was probably borrowed from Etruscan art, since Greek busts were usually made without shoulders.

Roman statues and portrait busts are in many of the best art museums around the world, notably the Louvre (Paris), the Vatican Museums (Rome), the British Museum (London), the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York) the Getty Museum (Los Angeles).

Famous Portraits of Roman Emperors

Famous busts and statues of Roman leaders include:

- Statue of Augustus (Ruled 27-14 CE) (Livia's Villa, Prima Porta)
- Statue of Tiberius in Old Age (14-37) (Capitoline Museum)
- Bust of Caligula (37-41) (Louvre)
- Statue of Claudius as the God Jupiter (41-54) (Vatican Museum)
- Head of Nero (54-68) (British Museum)
- Bust of Galba (68-69) (Capitoline Museum)
- Statue of Titus (79-81) (Vatican Museum)
- Bust of Trajan (98-117) (British Museum)
- Bronze Statue of Hadrian (117-138) (Israel Museum)
- Bronze Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius (180) (Piazza del Campidoglio)
- Statue of Commodus as Hercules (180-192) (Capitoline Museum)
- Bust of Gordian II (238) (Capitoline Museum)
- Bust of Pupienus (238) (Capitoline Museum)
- Bust of Balbinus (238) (Capitoline Museum)
- Bust of Maxentius (306-312) (Museo Torlonia)
- Colossal Head of Constantine (307-337) (Basilica Nova)

Religious and Funerary Sculpture

Religious art was also a popular if less unique form of Roman sculpture. An important feature of a Roman temple was the statue of the deity to whom it was dedicated. Such statues were also erected in public parks and private gardens. Small devotional statuettes of varying quality were also popular for personal and family shrines. These smaller works, when commissioned for the wealthier upper classes, might involve ivory carving and chyselephantine works, wood-carving, and terracotta sculpture, sometimes glazed for colour.

As Rome turned from cremation to burial at the end of the 1st century CE, stone coffins, known as sarcophagi, were much in demand: the three most common types being Metropolitan Roman (made in Rome), Attic-style (made in Athens) and Asiatic (made in Dokimeion, Phrygia). All were carved and usually decorated with sculpture - in this case reliefs. The most expensive sarcophagi were carved from marble, though other stone was also used, as was wood and even lead. In addition to a range of different depictions of the deceased - such as Etruscan-style full-length sculptural portraits of the person reclining on a sofa - popular motifs used by sculptors included episodes from Roman (or Greek) mythology, as well as genre and hunting scenes, and garlands of fruit and leaves. Towards the end of the Roman Empire, sarcophagi became an important medium for Christian-Roman Art (313 onwards).

Copies of Ancient Greek Sculpture

Although the wholesale replication of Greek statues indicated a hesitancy and lack of creativity on the part of Roman artists, the history of art could not be more grateful to them, for their efforts. Indeed, it is fair to say that one of the greatest contributions of Rome to the history of art, lies in its replication of original Greek statues, 99 percent of which have disappeared. Without Roman copies of the originals, Greek art would never have received the appreciation it deserves, and Renaissance art (and thus Western Art in general) might have taken a very different course.

The greatest innovation of Roman painters was the development of landscape painting, a genre in which the Greeks showed little interest. Also noteworthy was their development of a very crude form of linear perspective. In their effort to satisfy the huge demand for paintings throughout the empire, from officials, senior army officers, householders and the general public, Roman artists produced panel paintings (in encaustic and tempera), large and small-scale murals (in fresco), and mastered all the painting genres, including their own brand of "triumphal" history painting. Most surviving Roman paintings are from Pompeii and Herculanum, as the erruption of Vesuvius in 79 helped to preserve them. Most of them are decorative murals, featuring seascapes and landscapes, and were painted by skilled 'interior decorators' rather than virtuoso artists - a clue to the function of art in Roman society.

In Rome, as in Greece, the highest form of painting was panel painting. Executed using the encaustic or tempera methods, panel paintings were mass-produced in their thousands for display in offices and public buildings throughout the empire. Unfortunately, almost all painted panels have been lost. The best surviving example from the art of Classical Antiquity is probably the "Severan Tondo" (c.200 CE, Antikensammlung Berlin), a portrait of Roman Emperor Septimus Severus with his family, painted in tempera on a circular wood panel. The best example from the Roman Empire is the astonishing series of Fayum Mummy portraits painted in Egypt during the period 50 BCE to 250 CE.

Roman artists were also frequently commissioned to produce pictures highlighting military successes - a form known as Triumphal Painting. This type of history painting - usually executed as a mural painting in fresco - would depict the battle or campaign in meticulous detail, and might incorporate mixed-media adornments and map designs to inform and impress the public. Since they were quick to produce, many of these triumphal works would have influenced the composition of historical reliefs like the Column of Marcus Aurelius.

Roman murals - executed either "al fresco" with paint being applied to wet plaster, or "al secco" using paint on dry walls - are usually classified into four periods, as set out by the German archaeologist August Mau following his excavations at Pompeii.

The First Style (c.200-80 BCE)
Also known as incrustation or masonry style, it derived from Hellenistic palaces in the Middle East. Useing vivid colours it simulates the appearance of marble.
The Second Style (c.80 BCE - 100 CE)
This aimed to create the illusion of extra space by painting pictures with significant depth, such as views overlooking a garden or other landscape. In time, the style developed to cover the entire wall, creating the impression that one was looking out of a room onto a real scene.
The Third Style (c.100-200)
This was more ornamental with less illusion of depth. The wall was divided into precise zones, using pictures of columns or foliage. Scenes painted in the zones were typically either exotic representations of real or imaginery animals, or merely monochromatic linear drawings.
The Fourth Style (c.200-400)
This was a mixture of the previous two styles. Depth returned to the mural but it was executed more decoratively, with greater use of ornamentation. For example, the artist might paint several windows which, instead of looking out onto a landscape or cityscape, showed scenes from Greek myths or other fantasy scenes, including still lifes.

Art Styles From the Roman Empire

The Roman Empire incorporated a host of different nationalities, religious groups and associated styles of art. Chief among them, in addition to earlier Etruscan art of the Italian mainland, were forms of Celtic culture - namely the Iron Age La Tene style (c.450-50 BCE) - which was accomodated within the Empire in an idiom known as Roman-Celtic art, and the hieratic style of Egyptian art, which was absorbed into the Hellenistic-Roman idiom.

Late Roman Art (c.350-500)

During the Christian epoch, the division of the Roman Empire into a weak Western Roman Empire (based in Ravenna and Rome) and a strong Eastern Roman Empire (based in Constantinople), led to changes in Late Roman art. While wall painting, mosaic art, and funerary sculpture thrived, life-size statues and panel painting dwindled. In Constantinople, Roman art absorbed Eastern influences to produce the Byzantine art of the late empire, and well before Rome was overrun by Visigoths under Alaric (410) and sacked by Vandals under Gaiseric, Roman artists, master-craftsmen and artisans moved to the Eastern capital to continue their trade. (See Christian-Byzantine Art.) The Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, for instance, one of the most famous examples of Roman dome architecture, provided employment for some 10,000 of these specialists and other workmen. Commissioned by Emperor Justinian (527-565), the Hagia Sophia, together with the shimmering mosaics of Ravenna, represented the final gasp of Roman art.

To find out more about painting and sculpture from Classical Antiquity, see the following resources:

• For more about painting and sculpture in Ancient Rome, see: Homepage.


Roman

Trade could move through all the Roman territories because of the security it offered.

Recently, he and other scientists calculated how many floating planets the Roman telescope might find.

“We weren’t surprised there were microearthquakes,” says Roman , considering one of the volcanoes, Mount Cleveland, is one of the most active volcanoes in the Aleutians.

In either 196 or 199, the Roman emperor Septimus Severus visited the site and heard nothing.

Truth is my kids are as much Irish-American as they are Roman .

His words apply not only to the Roman Curia at the Vatican but to the entire Church throughout the world.

In a tiny, remote Chinese village, an ancient Roman bloodline may live on.

One green-eyed man, nicknamed “Cai the Roman ,” became an instant celebrity due to his decidedly Roman physical characteristics.

The story (and some DNA evidence) goes, the locals are the descendants of a band of Roman soldiers from 36 B.C.

But so far, the lack of proven Roman artifacts or ruins in the town has raised suspicions.

Roman Pane who accompanied Columbus on his second voyage alludes to another method of using the herb.

The last-named building remained in the possession of the Unitarians until 1861, when it was sold to the Roman Catholics.

You will not soon be called upon to act a Roman part between your father and your friend!

There are very few foreign journals taken or read in the Roman States.

Our voluntary service regulars are the last descendants of those rulers of the ancient world, the Roman Legionaries.


7. Legendary Woman Cloelia

Cloelia is considered as the bravest of all women and belonged to the earliest of Roman history. After the war between Clusium and Rome came to an end because of a peace treaty in 508 BC, the Etruscan king, Lars Porsena, took Roman hostages. One of them was young Cloelia who fled the hostage camps leading a group of Roman virgins. She escaped on a horse and swam across the River Tiber. Lars Porsena then made a condition for her return. On her return, Porsena was so impressed by her courage that he granted her wish to take half of the hostages. She chose the young Roman men so that the war could be continued. Her wit and bravery was invaluable to the Romans and in her honor, an equestrian statue was built at Via Sacra.


Illustrated Books in the Early Middle Ages

Insular art is often characterized by detailed geometric designs, interlace, and stylized animal decorations in illuminated manuscripts.

Learning Objectives

Describe the history and characteristics of illuminated manuscripts in Insular art

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • An illuminated manuscript features text supplemented by elaborate decoration. The term is mostly used to refer to any decorated or illustrated manuscript from the Western tradition. Illuminated manuscripts were written on vellum , and some feature the use of precious metals and pigments that were imported to northern Europe.
  • Insular art is characterized by detailed geometric designs, interlace,
    and stylized animal decoration spread boldly across illuminated
    manuscripts. Insular manuscripts sometimes take a whole page for a
    single initial or the first few words at beginnings of gospels.
  • TheBook of Kells is considered a masterwork of Western calligraphy , with its illustrations and ornamentation surpassing that of other Insular Gospel books in complexity. The Kells manuscript’s decoration combines traditional Christian iconography with the ornate swirling Insular motifs .
  • Anglo-Saxon illuminated manuscripts, such as the StockholmCodexAureus, combine Insular art with Italian styles such as classicism.
  • Mozarabic art refers to art of Mozarabs, Iberian Christians living in Al-Andalus who adopted Arab customs without converting to Islam during the Islamic invasion of the Iberian peninsula. It features a combination of (Hispano) Visigothic, and Islamic art styles, as in the Beatus manuscripts , which combine Insular art illumination forms with Arabic-influenced geometric designs.

Key Terms

  • parchment: A material made from the polished skin of a calf, sheep, goat or other animal, used as writing paper.
  • Mozarabic: Art of Iberian Christians living in Al-Andalus, the Muslim-conquered territories, after the Arab invasion of the Iberian Peninsula (711 CE) to the end of the 11th century. These people adopted some Arab customs without converting to Islam, preserving their religion and some ecclesiastical and judicial autonomy.
  • Book of Kells: An illuminated manuscript in Latin containing the four Gospels of the New Testament together with various prefatory texts and tables. It was created by Celtic monks circa 800 or slightly earlier.
  • Insular Art: Art produced in the post-Roman history of the British Isles, also known as Hiberno-Saxon art. The term derives from the Latin term for island. Britain and Ireland shared a common style that differed from that of the rest of Europe.
  • illuminated manuscript: A book in which the text is supplemented by decoration, such as initials, borders (marginalia), and miniature illustrations.

Background

An illuminated manuscript contains text supplemented by the addition of decoration, such as decorated initials, borders (marginalia), and miniature illustrations. In the strict definition of the term, an illuminated manuscript indicates only those manuscripts decorated with gold or silver. However, the term is now used to refer to any decorated manuscript from the Western tradition. The earliest surviving substantive illuminated manuscripts are from the period 400 to 600 CE and were initially produced in Italy and the Eastern Roman Empire. The significance of these works lies not only in their inherent art historical value , but also in the maintenance of literacy offered by non-illuminated texts as well. Had it not been for the monastic scribes of Late Antiquity who produced both illuminated and non-illuminated manuscripts, most literature of ancient Greece and Rome would have perished in Europe.

The majority of surviving illuminated manuscripts are from the Middle Ages , and hence most are of a religious nature. Illuminated manuscripts were written on the best quality of parchment , called vellum. By the sixteenth century, the introduction of printing and paper rapidly led to the decline of illumination, although illuminated manuscripts continued to be produced in much smaller numbers for the very wealthy. Early medieval illuminated manuscripts are the best examples of medieval painting, and indeed, for many areas and time periods, they are the only surviving examples of pre-Renaissance painting.

Insular Art in Illustrated Books

Deriving from the Latin word for island (insula), Insular art is characterized by detailed geometric designs, interlace, and stylized animal decoration spread boldly across illuminated manuscripts. Insular manuscripts sometimes take a whole page for a single initial or the first few words at beginnings of gospels. The technique of allowing decoration the right to roam was later influential on Romanesque and Gothic art. From the seventh through ninth centuries, Celtic missionaries traveled to Britain and brought the Irish tradition of manuscript illumination, which came into contact with Anglo-Saxon metalworking. New techniques employed were filigree and chip-carving, while new motifs included interlace patterns and animal ornamentation.

The Book of Kells (Irish: Leabhar Cheanannais), created by Celtic monks in 800, is an illustrated manuscript considered the pinnacle of Insular art. Also known as the Book of Columba, The Book of Kells is considered a masterwork of Western calligraphy, with its illustrations and ornamentation surpassing that of other Insular Gospel books in extravagance and complexity. The Book of Kells‘s decoration combines traditional Christian iconography with the ornate swirling motifs typical of Insular art. Figures of humans, animals, and mythical beasts, together with Celtic knots and interlacing patterns in vibrant colors, enliven the manuscript’s pages. Many of these minor decorative elements are imbued with Christian symbolism . The manuscript comprises 340 folios made of high-quality vellum and unprecedentedly elaborate ornamentation including 10 full-page illustrations and text pages vibrant with decorated initials and interlinear miniatures. These mark the furthest extension of the anti- classical and energetic qualities of Insular art.

Book of Kells: Folio 27v: Folio 27v contains the symbols of the Four Evangelists (clockwise from top left): a man (Matthew), a lion (Mark), an eagle (John), and an ox (Luke). The Evangelists are placed in a grid and enclosed in an arcade, as is common in the Mediterranean tradition. However, notice the elaborate geometric and stylized ornamentation in the arcade that highlights the Insular aesthetic.

The Insular majuscule script of the text itself in the Book of Kells appears to be the work of at least three different scribes. The lettering is in iron gall ink with colors derived from a wide range of substances, many of which were imported from distant lands. The text is accompanied by many full-page miniatures, while smaller painted decorations appear throughout the text in unprecedented quantities. The decoration of the book is famous for combining intricate detail with bold and energetic compositions . The illustrations feature a broad range of colors, most often purple, lilac, red, pink, green, and yellow. As typical with Insular work, there was neither gold nor silver leaf in the manuscript. However, the pigments for the illustrations, which included red and yellow ochre , green copper pigment (sometimes called verdigris), indigo , and lapis lazuli , were very costly and precious. They were imported from the Mediterranean region and, in the case of the lapis lazuli, from northeast Afghanistan.

The decoration of the first eight pages of the canon tables is heavily influenced by early Gospel Books from the Mediterranean, where it was traditional to enclose the tables within an arcade . Although influenced by this Mediterranean tradition, the Kells manuscript presents this motif in an Insular spirit, where the arcades are not seen as architectural elements but rather become stylized geometric patterns with Insular ornamentation. Further, the complicated knot work and interweaving found in the Kells manuscript echo the metalwork and stone carving works that characterized the artistic legacy of the Insular period.

The Book of Kells: This example from the manuscript (folio 292r) shows the lavishly decorated section that opens the Gospel of John.

Anglo-Saxon illuminated manuscripts form a significant part of Insular art and reflect a combination of influences from the Celtic styles that arose when the Anglo-Saxons encountered Irish missionary activity. A different mixture is seen in the opening from the Stockholm Codex Aureus, where the evangelist portrait reflects an adaptation of classical Italian style, while the text page is mainly in Insular style, especially the first line with its vigorous Celtic spirals and interlace. This is one of the so-called “Tiberius Group” of manuscripts with influence from the Italian style. It is the last English manuscript in which trumpet spiral patterns are found.

The Stockholm Codex Aureus: The evangelist portrait from the Stockholm Codex Aureus, one of the “Tiberius Group,” that shows the Insular style and classicizing continental styles that combined and competed in early Anglo-Saxon manuscripts.

The Beatus Manuscripts

The Commentary on the Apocalypse was originally a Mozabaric eighth-century work by the Spanish monk and theologian Beatus of Liébana. Often referred to simply as the Beatus, it is used today to reference any of the extant manuscript copies of this work, especially any of the 26 illuminated copies that have survived. The historical significance of the Commentary is even more pronounced since it included a world map, offering a rare insight into the geographical understanding of the post-Roman world. Considered together, the Beatus codices are among the most important Spanish and Mozarabic medieval manuscripts and have been the subject of extensive scholarly and antiquarian inquiry.

Beatus World Map: The world map from the Saint-Sever Beatus, measuring 37 x 57 cm. This was painted c. 1050 as an illustration to Beatus’s work at the Abbey of Saint-Sever in Aquitaine, on the order of Gregori de Montaner, Abbot from 1028 to 1072.

Though Beatus might have written these commentaries as a response to Adoptionism in the Hispania of the late 700s, many scholars believe that the book’s popularity in monasteries stemmed from the Arabic-Islamic conquest of the Iberian peninsula, which some Iberian Christians took as a sign of the Antichrist. Not all of the Beatus manuscripts are complete, and some exist only in fragmentary form. However, the surviving manuscripts are lavishly decorated in the Mozarabic, Romanesque, or Gothic style of illumination.

Mozarabic art refers to art of Mozarabs, Iberian Christians living in Al-Andalus who adopted Arab customs without converting to Islam during the Islamic invasion of the Iberian peninsula (from the eighth through the 11th centuries). Mozarabic art features a combination of (Hispano) Visigothic and Islamic art styles, as in the Beatus manuscripts, which combine Insular art illumination forms with Arabic-influenced geometric designs.

Beatus of Liébana. Judgement of Babylon.: From Beatus Apocalypse. Depicts Babylon on fire using Insular art illumination forms, influenced by Arabic geometric designs.


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