Classics Latin Poetry: Imperial
by
Charles McNelis
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0055

Introduction

“Imperial” Rome is an arbitrary—but useful—designation that may take as its starting point the years 30–27 BCE, the years following the important (if symbolic) battle of Actium and during which Octavian was conferred the title “Augustus”; however, the transition from “Republic” to “Empire” had started in preceding years when Octavian had gained special rights, and the political transformation would continue for some time. Moreover, artists such as Horace and Virgil had produced literary masterpieces in the politically tumultuous 30s BCE, but, because they added to their output once Augustus's position was solidified, they are commonly regarded as “Augustan” poets. Precise dating for “imperial” poetry would thus ignore both a complex political process and the actualities of artistic careers. This gradual but sweeping political change from a republican form of government to one that was dominated by a single man was matched by the production of culturally (re)defining literature. The Augustan age (c. 27 BCE–14 CE) was a foundational, new beginning for Latin literature, and the intensely intertextual nature of Latin poetry reveals that the Augustan poets maintained a central place in virtually all subsequent literary production. Indeed, for generations critics have derided this intense artistic engagement with Augustan predecessors because imperial authors often reworked established conventions, diction, or both. Whereas this later work was often evaluated from the perspective of whether a poem lived up to the standards of its predecessors (and the later poems were typically thought not to), recent criticism on Lucan, Statius, and others has focused on ways in which meaning, both artistic and cultural, is created from variations on the Augustans. Whole works survive of every genre except comedy (of which we know something from its closely related but still fragmentary form of mime; also of note are the fables of Phaedrus, which employ the traditional meters and diction of Roman comedy), and some poets, such as Juvenal, strikingly innovate within the tradition.

General Overviews

Most are essentially reference works that have self-contained essays; Hutchinson 1993, Fantham 1996, and Braund 2002 are written so that they can easily be read from cover to cover.

  • Braund, Susanna Morton. 2002. Latin literature. London and New York: Routledge.

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    Offers suggestive readings of central themes and ideas in Roman literature rather than an author or chronologically based account of Latin literature.

  • Cavallo, Guglielmo, Paolo Fedeli, and Andrea Giardina, eds. 1991. Lo spazio letterario di Roma antica. V: Cronologia e bibliografia della letteratura latina. Rome: Salerno.

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    Biographical outlines of most ancient Roman authors, with bibliography.

  • Conte, Gian Biagio. 1994. Latin literature: A history. Translated by J. B. Solodow; revised by D. Fowler and G. W. Most. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

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    Translation of Letteratura latina: Manuale storico dalle origine alla fine dell'impero romano. (Florence, 1987). Sensitive discussion of major authors and/or genres within their historical and cultural contexts.

  • Fantham, Elaine. 1996. Roman literary culture: From Cicero to Apuleius. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

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    Situates the work of many authors within the larger cultural context of Roman society (e.g. book production, patronage), but helpfully focuses on some of these cultural phenomena within a specific period.

  • Harrison, Stephen, ed. 2005. A companion to Latin literature. Malden, MA and Oxford: Blackwell.

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    Collection of essays organized by period (pp. 44–80), genre (pp. 81–212) and theme.

  • Herzog, Rinhart, and P. L. Schmidt. 1997. Handbuch der lateinischen Literatur der Antike: Die Literatur des Umbruchs. Von der römischen zur christlichen Literatur 117–283 n. Chr. Handbuch der Altertumswissenschaft 4. Munich: Beck.

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    Authoritative German work that covers some of the period encompassed by this bibliography.

  • Hutchinson, Gregory D. 1993. Latin literature from Seneca to Juvenal: A critical study. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    Unique offering of interpretive essays on themes (e.g. death, humor, the gods) in the hope of demonstrating artistic motivations and ideals of a number of authors.

  • Kenney, E. J., and Wendell V. Clausen, eds. 1982. The Cambridge history of classical literature. II: Latin literature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    Standard literary history in English, organized by time period and author.

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