The Roman golden and silver ages represent the periods of Latin literature from the career of Cicero (106–43 b.c.e.) to the death of Augustus Caesar (14 c.e.) and from the beginning of Tiberius’s reign as Roman emperor (14 c.e.) to the close of Hadrian’s reign (138 c.e.), respectively.
The golden age has been so named by classical scholars because the greatest authors of the Roman Empire, including Lucretius (99–55 b.c.e.), Catullus (84–54 b.c.e.), Julius Caesar (100–44 b.c.e.), Cicero, Virgil (70–19 b.c.e.), Horace (65– 8 b.c.e.), Livy (59 b.c.e.–17 c.e.), and Ovid (43 b.c.e.–18 c.e.), flourished during this time. Politically, the golden age saw the final overthrow of the senatorial Republic (Latin: res publica) and the inauguration of a single monarch over the Roman state.
Depending on the date of composition, therefore, its literature reflects one of three distinct themes: public oratory, characteristic of the speeches of Roman senators; an uncontrollable anxiety stemming from the political unrest and civil wars between the assassination of Julius Caesar (44 b.c.e.) and the Battle of Actium (31 b.c.e); or the peace indicative of the reign of Augustus, which was undergirded by Epicureanism.
While the silver age was surpassed by the magnificence of the preceding century, a considerable corpus of masterpieces were generated during this era by such authors as Seneca (4 b.c.e.–65 c.e.), Lucan (39–65 c.e.), Pliny the Elder (23–79 c.e.), Quintilian (35–95 c.e.), Statius (45–96 c.e.), Martial (40–104 c.e.), Tacitus (55–120 c.e.), Juvenal (60–130 c.e.), and Suetonius (69–140 c.e.).
Exerting a powerful inﬂ uence on this age was the contemporary educational system based on letters and rhetoric, which inspired prospective writers with the treasures of Greek and Latin literature and systematically trained them in the art of declamation, influencing their proficiency in figures of speech, exclamations, apostrophes, interrogations, and an assortment of other literary devices.
Golden Age Authors
Little is known about Lucretius besides the years when he lived. His purpose of his didactic poem De Rerum Natura (On the nature of things) was to convert the Roman aristocrat Memmius to Epicureanism. According to Lucretius’s interpretation, the aim of this philosophy was to reveal how to obtain peace of mind (Greek: ajtaraxiva) in difficult times.
Based on his conviction that the world is made up of random combinations of atoms moving in a void, which yield all physical objects and (via the motions of the finer atoms of the soul) all mental processes and emotions, Lucretius argued that such combinations eventually separate, spelling the mortality of the material world and the soul. Consequently, De Rerum maintains that only the atoms and the void in which they move are eternal.
This worldview led Lucretius to the anti-supernatural results that the gods either do not exist or take no interest in human affairs and that religion is a malicious facade. The poem concludes with two practical applications—"live in secret" and "keep out of politics"—which purportedly point the way to true pleasure and the coveted "peace of mind".
In contrast to Lucretius, a great deal is known about Catullus from the many autobiographical passages in his poetry. Spending much of his life in Rome, Catullus thrived in a sophisticated literary circle that admired and imitated the Greek poetry of Alexandria .
He then fell in love with a woman he styled as "Lesbia", who was almost certainly Clodia, the wife of a Roman aristocrat and sister of Julius Caesar’s supporter and agent. She became the protagonist in Catullus’s personal lyric poetry of the heart, which borrowed and modified Greek meters.
Catullus took the epigram, typically used for tombstone and monument inscription and trivial brief poetry, and transformed it into a vehicle for the expression of deep personal meaning.
Upon being spurned by Lesbia, Catullus left Rome and took a junior staff position under the governor of Bithynia, where he abandoned love poetry in favor of poems that clandestinely slung invective at his political adversaries. Classical scholars regard these complex and learned works as treasures of taste and scholarship.
Corresponding to the brilliance of Roman poetry during the golden age was comparable achievement in prose. Julius Caesar’s lucid and powerful commentaries on the Gallic and civil wars, De Bello Gallico and De Bello Civili, serve as benchmarks for their genre. The era’s leading prose writer was Cicero, a prolific orator, who, after amassing a reputation as a bold and highly competent lawyer by successfully defending Sextus Roscius from murder charges, embarked on a political career in Rome.
Beginning with his election to the quaestorship in 75 b.c.e., Cicero rose through the ranks to the office of praetor in 66 b.c.e. and, despite his status as a novus homo (a "new man", or a candidate whose family had no precedent in holding office), to the highest position of consul in 63 b.c.e.
In the decade following his consulship Cicero played a less active role in politics and fashioned prose writings of a peaceful style, including treatises on rhetoric and philosophical discourses on friendship and old age.
However, Cicero returned briefly to the political scene after Caesar’s assassination in 44 b.c.e., vehemently attacking Caesar’s would-be successor, Mark Antony, in a series of speeches known as the "Philippics". This would ultimately lead to Cicero’s demise, as Antony quickly joined ranks in the Second Triumvirate with Lepidus and Octavian and decreed the statesman’s beheading, carried out on December 7, 43 b.c.e.
Virgil, recognized as the foremost of all Latin poets both during his lifetime and by modern scholarly assessment, split most of his time between Rome and Naples, in the latter of which he served as charter member of a literary circle under the patronage of Maecenas, the adviser of Augustus. Virgil’s first work, the Bucolics, or Eclogues, consists of 10 short poems in a pastoral style, emulating the third-century b.c.e.
Greek poet Theocritus, which depict both imaginary country scenes and contemporary events such as the loss and restoration of his own farm at Andes. Their charm and elegance immediately established Virgil as a poetic genius, and Maecenas encouraged Virgil to compose something more worthy of his talent.
In response he wrote his most artistic work, the Georgics, a poem in four books pertaining to the growing and nurturing of trees, vines, and olives, the breeding of cattle and horses, and bee-keeping. Classical scholars regard its grammar and style as the optimal use of the Latin language and its meter as the perfection of Latin hexameter.
Augustus then suggested that Virgil create a national epic linking Troy and the heroic age with the foundation of Rome and the family to which Julius Caesar and Augustus belonged. This 12-volume work, the Aeneid, stands as Virgil’s most enduring masterpiece and recounts the exploits of a Trojan prince named Aeneas, the son of Venus and Anchises, who was destined to be the ancestor of Romulus, the legendary ancestor of Caesar and first founder of the Roman race.
A paradigm of balance, this epic harmonized the desire for peace with traditional respect for military honor. Virgil’s compatriot Horace continued in this lyric tradition through his mastery of the ode, ingeniously converting Greek meters into Latin and choosing his words with great precision and care.
Mirroring Virgil’s grand poetic success in prose was Livy, reputed as one of Rome’s most eminent historians. Raised in the north Italian region of Patavium, known for its strict ethical conservatism, Livy shared Augustus’s concern over the moral decline that plagued Roman society.
Aiming to remedy this problem, Livy composed his monumental 142-volume history of Rome, Ab Urbe Condita (From the founding of the city, or History of Rome), the narratives of which were intended to depict the glory days of a virtuous past as a model for present and future generations. Livy’s work furnished an accurate account of what his fellow Romans believed about the moral standards, faith, and virtue of their predecessors.
Through a dynamic blend of myth and fact, Ab Urbe Condita displays Livy’s consummate narrative ability and his staunchly patriotic goal of authenticating the courage and high ethical character of the Roman people and their heroes even in the midst of catastrophe.
A seemingly conflicting purpose was pursued by Ovid, whose elegies on love were thought to be so counterproductive to Augustus’s reform of Roman morals that the emperor exiled him to Tomis on the Black Sea, where he remained until his death.
Among his most renowned poems are the Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love), a handbook on seduction and sexual pleasure, and the Heroides (Heroines), imaginary letters from heroines of Greek legend to lovers or husbands who had abandoned them.
His greatest work, the 15-volume Metamorphoses, lay in the domain of religion and depicted the miraculous transformations in Greek mythology. Ovid is remembered not only as a graceful poetical craftsman but also as the master of the elegiac couplet, a form that he perfected beyond the scope of any other Roman poet.
Silver Age Authors
An eminent neo-Stoic philosopher, Seneca earned fame as an author of philosophical treatises and as tutor to the infamous Roman emperor Nero (r. 54–68 c.e.). Seneca attempted to impart his conviction that the neo-Stoic worldview provided the best practical guide to conduct and filled the void of the soul.
He contended that spiritual satisfaction came through turning away from the world, through contempt for worldly goods, the duty of self-examination, the joys of conversion (which he defined as the sign of grace to see one’s faults), and the call to enlighten others.
Seneca’s corpus includes at least 152 treatises on subjects as varied as geography, physics, natural history, biography, and ethics. His nephew Lucan was a celebrated poet in Nero’s court who, in his Pharsalia, drew upon the epic tradition in his vivid depiction of major battles in the Roman civil war.
Lucan’s animated style featured drama and rhetoric often at the expense of historical accuracy. In 62 c.e. Nero began to be inﬂ uenced by younger, power-hungry advisers, who exhorted him to shake off his mentor, Seneca.
Cognizant that he might be slain, Seneca made an impassioned speech before Nero, where he defended his loyalty and contribution to the emperor’s education and submitted his request to retire.
Nero denied the request and, three years later, discovered that Lucan was part of Piso’s conspiracy to overthrow him, which provided him a convenient excuse to eliminate his teacher. Nero charged Seneca with complicity in the plot and ordered the suicide of both Seneca and Lucan.
The prose of the first century c.e. encompasses a number of significant didactic authors. Pliny the Elder was an indefatigable scholar who composed the monumental 37-volume encyclopedia on the physical and social sciences, the Naturalis Historia (Natural history).
Sponsored by the emperor Titus, its subjects ranged from ancient physics, Pliny’s cosmography in relation to God, geography, human physiology, zoology, and botany to mineralogy and metallurgy in the fine arts. An invaluable source, the Naturalis Historia stands as the fullest application of Aristotelian categories to the sphere of scientific knowledge.
Equally prominent in the literary domain was the educator Quintilian; his Institutio Oratoria (Institute of oratory) constitutes an authoritative manual to the theory and practice of rhetoric.
Believing that to educate a speaker was to mold a Roman lady or gentleman, Quintilian emphasized the importance of character building in the pedagogical process, centered on plato’s four cardinal virtues of justice, wisdom, courage, and moderation.
Following in the tradition of Virgil, Statius is famous for his Thebiad, an epic that pushes each feature of his forerunner’s style to the extreme. This tribute to Thebian mythology, recounting the story of Oedipus and the legends of Amphion, Cadmus, and Dirce, relies upon the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Antimachus as primary sources.
Perhaps Statius’s paramount contribution to the silver age was his approach to literature as performance, or exhibition of talent, where each work would comprise a series of virtuoso pieces intended to evoke admiration from its audience. Such a tendency moves toward the independence of the parts of a work and away from the concord of the whole.
Harkening back to the golden age in the manner of Statius, Martial enhanced the epigram style from its previous development under Catullus by overlaying it with a polished and multifaceted verse in which he conveyed sharp wit toward current events.
He crafted poems of genuine feeling, in which he discusses his poverty, social endeavors, the true enjoyment of life, and the positive relations that could exist between humane masters and their slaves. With his brief tales in verse Martial paints a stirring portrait of ancient Rome in dazzling tones that make the ancient city seem near the modern world.
Writers of the silver age, notwithstanding their biases, penned largely accurate reports of their time and followed standards of veriﬁ cation that would not be bettered until the critical biographies of seventh-century c.e.
Irish monastic scholars. The leader of this movement was Tacitus, acknowledged by classical scholars as the greatest historian of ancient Rome, who lived through the reigns of more than a half-dozen Roman emperors and preserved many of their memoirs.
He is best known for two works, the Annals and the Histories, the former covering the period from Augustus’s death to that of Nero (14–68 c.e.), and the latter beginning after Nero’s death and proceeding to that of Domitian in 96 c.e.
The Annals are best remembered for accounts of Tiberius’s closed and suspicious character in the capital, and the control of the weak emperor Claudius by the powerful freedman Narcissus, causing Nero to be placed on the throne and the fire of Rome.
This work also contains a reference to the crucifixion of Jesus (Christ) of Nazareth in Judaea under Pontius Pilate and the origin and imperial persecution of the early Christian movement. The most memorable scenes in the Histories revolve around the years 69–70 c.e., from the reign of Galba to the close of the Jewish War.
Tacitus provides striking insight on the struggle between Otho, who murdered Galba, and Vitellius for the title of emperor and on the military campaigns waged by Vespasian against Vitellius in Rome and Titus against the Pharisaic, Essene, and Zealot forces in Jerusalem. Tacitus’s mastery of the Latin language can be summarized in terms of brevity, variety, and poetic color.
His repertoire contains modified meanings to terms, neologisms (new words which he invented from previously existing ones), innovative extensions of idiom, and asymmetry of expression. Less prominent but also distinguished among Roman historians is Suetonius, who oversaw the imperial archives and public libraries as secretary under Trajan.
He carefully integrated the sources under his disposal in his De Vita Caesarum (On the life of the Caesars), a collection of 12 biographies on the emperors from Julius Caesar to Domitian. This work is remarkable for its rejection of a strict chronological ordering in favor of a loose one, only concerned that each successive Caesar follows one another.
Juvenal was one of the world’s greatest satirists. His disillusionment stemmed largely from his failure to procure a political appointment after completing the requisite military training.
When he saw foreigners succeeding through corruption where he was ignored, he published a lampoon attacking the influence of court favorites in making promotions. Outraged at being convicted by the truth, in 96 c.e. Domitian confiscated his property and banished him to a remote frontier in Egypt.
After living for a brief spell in poverty, he launched himself in writing the Satires, his most popular poems, out of infuriation from his maltreatment and the injustices prevalent to Roman politics. His satirical pieces are matchless for his synthesis of journalistic precision, descriptive clarity, oratorical persuasion, dramatic characterization, and linguistic command into a multifaceted poetic unity.
Parallel with the administrative triumphs of imperial Rome and its services to Western civilization, the Roman golden and silver ages fostered artistic production of enduring quality, thought commensurate to the achievement of the times, and a captivating depiction of life.
Their authors’ practical interest in learning of an encyclopedic sort showed the academic discontent with social amenities and empty rhetoric and consequent quest for an all-encompassing and systematic worldview.
Displaying mastery of virtually every literary genre, the classics created during these periods disclose a full spectrum of emotion and an engaging reflection with political, legal, and academic institutions. These works bear a universal relevance to all times and places and have offered renewed pleasure and fascination throughout the ages.