Roman Poetry


The Greeks had a strong belief in the importance of poetry, and the Romans continued this with a large number of poets, some of whom wrote short poems and others, like Virgil, composed massive epics such as the Aeneid.

Other famous Roman poets include Lucretius, Catullus, Horace, Ovid, Martial, and Juvenal. Roman poetry borrowed the style of the Greeks; however, it surpassed that style. A significant number of the poets were actually Greek, and many were influenced by visits to Greece.

In addition to Greek mythological themes, Roman poets used poetry to express their love and anxieties, philosophical positions, and the telling or retelling of historical epics, especially the early years of Rome, with the story of Aeneas a recurring theme.

There were some very early Roman poets, but few details survive except that they recorded the early history of Rome, later used by historians and poets. After the victory of Rome in the First Punic War in 241 b.c.e., there was considerable interest in Roman history, encouraging many to write about the early triumphs and disasters that Rome had faced. The first to make use of this enthusiasm was Lucius Livius Andronicus from Taranto, in southern Italy.

Taranto was a largely Greek city, and it sided with Hannibal for four years during the Second Punic War. One of the tasks Andronicus undertook was the translation of the Odyssey into Latin. From the fragments that have survived, scholars believe that the translation was not accurate with some parts of the text expanded.

The next poet was Cornelius Naevius (c. 270–c. 199 b.c.e.), who wrote epic poems and plays, although only fragments have survived. He started the trend of linking Rome with Troy through Aeneas, and therefore contrasting it with Carthage, established by Queen Dido, who met Aeneas on his way from Troy to Italy. This interest was to reach a peak with Virgil.

The next well-known Roman poets were Ennius and Lucilius. The former was born in Calabria in 239 b.c.e. and although Greek by birth became a Roman subject, serving in the Roman army. In 204 b.c.e. he came to the attention of the quaestor Cato who invited him to Rome.

There he started writing poetry, continuing his military career. In 189 b.c.e. he accompanied Marcus Fulvius Nobilior in his campaign in Greece. When Nobilior returned to Rome in triumph, Ennius took part in the parade through the city.

Nobilor’s son then ensured that Ennius became a Roman citizen. Before his death in 169 b.c.e. Ennius composed an epic poem called the Annales which told the history of Rome from its founding by Aeneas through its creation until the second century b.c.e.

It was well known during the "golden age" of Roman literature, ensuring that Ennius would become known as the Father of Roman poetry. Only a few fragments of the poems by Ennius have survived to the present day.

Lucilius, the second early Roman poet, was a satirist who lived from 180 b.c.e. until 102 when he died at Naples. As with Ennius, he was a great influence on later poets such as Horace, Persius, and Juvenal, and as with Ennius, only a few of his poems survive.

In the age of Cicero, in the mid-first century b.c.e., Titus Lucretius Carus (94-55 b.c.e.) was a major poet who wrote De Rerum Natura, a philosophical poem in hexameters. The poem, written to Gaius Memmius, a politician, who was subsequently persecuted for corruption and forced to flee to Athens, consisted of about 7,400 lines.

Unlike his predecessors, Lucretius, in his poem, deals with the metaphysical premise of being an Epicurean and that nothing comes out of nothing. Gradually his other poems define the nature of motion, atoms, the human soul, and the system of belief in gods. His own life was subject to some accounts by fellow Epicureans who allege that Lucretius was driven mad by a love potion resulting in his suicide.

Living at the same time as Lucretius, although about 10 years younger, Gaius Valerius Catullus was from Verona and spent most of his life in Rome. He served under Gaius Memmius, the man who inspired Lucretius, but for most of his life with no direct involvement in politics.

Catullus died at about the age of 30, and some 114 of his poems survive. Some are general but others describe Catullus and his falling in love with a married woman he called Lesbia.

As many of his poems are autobiographical, it has been possible to deduce much about his life, and the Greek Hellenistic infl uences on it and his literature. The theme of love is explored in a later Roman poet, Sextus Aurelius Propertius, who was born in Assisi in about 51 b.c.e. He gave up a promising legal career to become an important elegiac poet, becoming a friend of both Virgil and Ovid.

Probably the most famous Roman poet was Publius Vergilius Maro, better known as Virgil. Born in 70 b.c.e., he lived until 19 b.c.e., during which time he wrote a number of poems, the best known being the Aeneid. Virgil was immensely infl uenced by the political events of his teenage years, which saw the rise of Caesar, the war with Mark Antony, and the emergence of Octavian.

It was the dispute between Mark Antony and Octavian that influenced Virgil’s Eclogues, which were written c. 39–38 b.c.e. Virgil followed with his Georgics, which are dated at 29 b.c.e., partly as they mention the Battle of Actium that had taken place two years earlier.

Virgil’s Aeneid, in the tradition of Ennius, gave a historical account, in verse form, of Aeneas and the founding of what became the Roman Empire. The Aeneid is of epic length and, as with his other poems, written in hexameters. Virgil finished the poem in 19 b.c.e., planning to travel for three years in Greece and Turkey, during which time he would revise it.

When in Athens, at the start of his trip, obvious connection between the burials and the remains of the huts. Nearby, in ancient Rome, the Lapis Niger, made from black marble, is said to have been the sanctuary marking the place where the Romulus was buried, although some scholars express doubts.

If the "house of Romulus" was possibly the oldest building, some of the decorations in the temple of Vesta are said to trace their origins back even further, to Aeneas. It has been claimed that some of the "pledges" displayed at the temple had been brought by Aeneas from Troy.

The "cradle of Rome" is also said to have dated from before the time of Aeneas, with the Roman poet Virgil writing that the Arcadians met both Hercules and Aeneas at the site that was to become the main residential area during the Roman Republic.

The second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius (r. 717–673 b.c.e), constructed the Regia during his reign. This "royal house" was his residence, which included the House of the Vestal Virgins, later becoming the residence of the pontifex maximus but was twice damaged by fire during the Roman Republic. During the reign of the third king, Tullus Hostilius (r. 673–641 b.c.e.), there is a reference to a temple of Jupiter on the summit of Mount Alba.

It was probably during his reign or that of the next king, Ancus Marcius (r. 641–616 b.c.e), that the Temple of Vesta was built, with the vestal virgins moving from the Regia to this purpose-built temple that incorporated pieces brought from Troy by Aeneas. He was also involved in fortifying the Janiculum, the bridge over the river Tiber.

Tarquinius Priscus (r. 616–579 b.c.e.), the fifth king, was the first to hold the Roman Games. To this end he had cleared a patch of ground that became the venue for sporting events. Many years later it was expanded but had to move to make way for the construction of the famous Circus Maximus. The new fields were more formally laid out in the second century b.c.e., showing the influence of the Greeks, and they were subsequently enlarged by Julius Caesar.

Tarquinius Priscus also drained some ground that was to become the location of the Roman Forum, which rapidly developed into the focal point in Rome for politics and business. It stretched from the Capitoline Hill to the Palatine Hill and became known as the Forum Romanum. Within it were many temples, and several basilicas were later added.

The sixth king, Tullus Servius (r. 579–534 b.c.e.), was responsible for expanding the size of the city to include the Quirinal, Viminal and Esquiline Hills. This saw an enlargement of the city walls and further building work. During this period it has been estimated that the population of Rome was about 80,000.

The overthrow of the last king of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus (534–510 b.c.e.), involved the battle at a bridge over the river Tiber with Horatius and two companions holding off the Etruscans, while Romans were able to destroy the bridge.

In 509 b.c.e. the Roman Republic came into being, and a number of early buildings date from soon after the establishment of the Republic. The population at that time is estimated at 120,000–130,000. The most important of these was the Capitol, or Capitolium. It was the main temple to the God Jupiter, gaining its name from its location at the summit of the Mons Capitolinus.

Over time the building was richly decorated and served as a central location in Rome that could be defended in time of invasion. Indeed in 390 b.c.e. when the Gauls sacked the rest of the city of Rome, Romans managed to hold out in the Capitol.

The other important project from the early years of the Republic was the Temple of the Dioscuri. At the Battle of the Lake Regillus in 499 b.c.e., during which the Romans defeated the Latins, two mysterious horsemen appeared and were said to have been responsible for the Roman victory.

These became associated, in the public imagination, with the legendary Pollux and Castor, known as the Dioscuri, and a temple to them was built soon afterward. It was restored during the reign of the emperor Tiberius, and three Corinthian pillars of the temple still survive. In about 497 b.c.e. the temple of Saturn was built to serve as the state treasury and records office for the Roman Republic.

Rome had always had problems with water, and there were a number of wells throughout the city and, later, fountains, such as the Fountain of Juturna. The water in the Fountain of Juturna was said to have medicinal properties. It was named after Juturna, the sister of the Dioscuri.

Many Romans received their water from this fountain before the construction of Aqua Appia, the first aqueduct into Rome, built in 312 b.c.e. After the Roman victory at Antium in 338 b.c.e., the Comitium, a circular area with stepped-seats for people to sit and listen, was built and served as a center for political discussions during much of the Roman Republic.

Bronze figureheads from ships captured at the battle were used to decorate some of the structure. With Rome’s growing population, a second aqueduct, Aqua Anio Vetus, was built in 272–269 b. c. e. At this time the population of Rome was said to be between 290,000 and 380,000.

In 204 b.c.e., the Temple of Magna Mater was built in part in celebration for the victory of Rome over Carthage in the Second Punic War. The temple was finally completed in 191 b.c.e. and provided a place to worship Cybele, the "Great Mother".

Soon afterward, in 170 b.c.e., work began on the Basilica Julia, which was organized by Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, the father of the Gracchi brothers. It was restored by the emperor Diocletian but was destroyed in subsequent sackings of Rome.

In 144–140 b. c. e. the praetor Quintus Marcius Rex built a third aqueduct, Aqua Marcia, bringing more water into Rome. Soon afterward, in 125 b. c. e., the Aqua Tepula was built. By this time the population of Rome was estimated at 400,000 people.

Although the period of the Roman revolution saw big changes in the use of buildings in Rome, there were not many new building projects within the city, although the Gracchi did attempt major civil engineering projects, including roads and the provision of freshwater into Rome.

When the Comitium in central Rome was demolished, the Imperial Rostra was built on the site and was inaugurated by Mark Antony in either 45 or early 44 b.c.e., just prior to the assassination of Julius Caesar.

It was later modified by Augustus Caesar, possibly to remove parts of the design credited to Mark Antony. Julius Caesar felt the existing forum was too small and had the Forum Julium (also known as the Forum Caesaris) built, providing more room for the conduct of public business.

However, it was in the old forum that the body of Julius Caesar himself was cremated, prior to being interred in what became the Temple of the Divine Julius. Augustus was also involved in the construction of the Temple of Apollo and the paving of the Forum in about 9 b.c.e.

The population of Rome during the reign of Augustus has been estimated as being more than 4 million persons. Of these, a relatively high proportion would have been slaves. However, the figure shows the dramatic increase in the population during the Roman revolution and the period that immediately followed it.

The Romans were well known for their road building skills, and the roads into and from Rome were heavily used, with many having roadside graves alongside them. Most roads were made from cobblestones, but there were often stones cut to allow the easy use of carts and wagons.

There were five more aqueducts built to bring freshwater to Rome: the Aqua Julia (built in 33 b.c.e), the Aqua Virgo (19 b.c.e), the Aqua Alsietina (2 b.c.e), the Aqua Claudia (52 c.e.), and the Aqua Anio Novus (52 c.e.).

The great fire of Rome, which broke out on July 18, 64 c.e., during the reign of the emperor Nero destroyed many buildings in Rome, and Christians became the scapegoats for the disaster. However, Nero was able to rebuild, making the new structures better able to withstand fires. He also had a massive Domus Aurea (Golden House) built in an extravagant fashion, which caused much consternation.

A massive bronze statue of Nero, 120 feet high, was placed in the atrium of the Domus Aurea, which dominated the site of what became the Temple of Venus. The next major works constructed were the Temple of Vespasian and, subsequently, the Arch of Titus, dedicated to the emperor, Vespasian and his son Titus.

The major civil-engineering project during this period was undoubtedly the Colosseum, built in the 70s c.e., with work starting in 72 c.e. when Vespasian initiated the project. It occupied some of the site of Nero’s Domus Aurea and was completed in 80 c.e. during the reign of Titus and then enlarged during the reign of the next emperor, Domitian.

It remains one of the marvels of civil engineering and one of the most recognizable images of ancient Rome. The Colosseum was 510 feet in diameter, and 157 feet high, with 80 arches on three levels. The arena was 280 feet by 175 feet and covered in sand to allow for naval combat reenactments.

The emperor Domitian started work on yet another forum, but it was not completed and dedicated until the reign of the emperor Nerva and as a result is known as the Forum Nervae. The fifth and last of the forums in Rome was the Forum Trajani, built by the emperor Trajan.

Within it Trajan’s Column (98 feet high), finished in 113 c.e. and topped by a statue of a bird, later replaced by a statue of Trajan and many years later by a statue of St. Peter. On the column there are friezes showing Trajan’s victories against the Dacians.

The next large temple construction was that of the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, erected in 141 c.e. by the Senate of Emperor Antoninus Pius in memory of his late wife, Faustina. Twenty years later when the emperor died, his name was added to the dedication.

In the eighth century it was transformed into the Church of San Lorenzo in Miranda. After a long period of steady construction work in Rome Septimus Severus became emperor in 193 c.e. In 203 c.e. he began work on a massive stone structure that became known as the Arch of Septimus Severus, dedicated to his memory after his death in 211 c.e.

It was completed by Caracalla who is best remembered for the massive baths structures he built for Roman citizens. These baths cover 33 acres, with the main building being 750 feet long and 380 feet wide and could accommodate approximately 1,600 bathers at a time.

In 308 c.e. the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine was built, and work began on the Temple of Romulus in the following year. Mention should also be made of the Church of St. Croce built by Helena, the mother of the emperor Constantine the Great.

It was to house many holy relics that Helena brought back from the Holy Land including the True Cross, a piece of wood that was believed to have been part of the cross used to crucify Jesus (Christ) of Nazareth. As more Romans embraced Christianity, a number of temples were converted into churches, and others were destroyed.

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