There’s an old line that one studies Greek history to understand Greek
literature and Roman literature to understand Roman history.
There’s a great deal of truth to this. While I certainly want my
students to know the important themes of Greek history, my main goal is
to have them understand and appreciate the works of Greek literature:
Homer’s poems, the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, the
works of the Greek philosophers, etc. When it comes to
Roman history, I want my students to have some familiarity with
playwrights like Plautus and poets like Virgil, but it’s more important
to me that they understand the themes of Roman political history.
Roman literature is often simply an imitation of Greek
literature. Plautus stole right and left from Greek playwrights
like Menander. Seneca stole right and left from Aeschylus,
Sophocles and Euripides. The Roman philosophers imitated the
Greeks—as did Roman architects, sculptures, and other visual artists,
by the way.
Roman poetry too is largely an imitation of that of the Greeks.
Nevertheless, the best of the Roman poets are strikingly original, not
so much in the forms they employ, but in their insights into the human
An example of both the debt of Roman poets to the Greeks and the
originality of Roman poetry at its best, the work of Catullus.
Catullus was born in 84 BC and died 30 years later. His poems
were written during the period in which the 1st Triumvirate figures
(Crassus, Pompey, and Caesar) came to dominate Rome. He came from
a wealthy family, but, like so many young men, he spent too lavishly
and was constantly in financial difficulties. He hoped to restore
his fortunes by a career in government service, spending some time in
Bithynia (part of present-day Turkey).
We have today over 100 of Catullus’ poems, all of which reflect a great
deal of Greek influence. But, rather than imitating Greek epic,
Catullus imitates Greek lyric poetry, the poems of writers like Sappho.
Sometimes, Catullus’ poems are basically translations of Sappho’s poems
from Greek into Latin. Catullus also uses Greek metrical patterns
even when it’s rather difficult to do in Latin. In Greek, a word may
have an accent on the last syllable. This isn’t so in Latin.
Another connection, the name Catullus uses for Clodia, the girl he
writes about in his poems. He calls her “Lesbia,” a name that
connects her with Sappho’s island home, Lesbos.
Clodia, by the way, was a sister of Clodius, the man who made so much
trouble for Cicero and Pompey and was, for a time, almost the king of
Rome. She was married into the Metelli family. She was apparently
beautiful, but not at all an example of traditional Roman virtus.
Her husband dies under mysterious circumstances, and she seems to have
had many lovers beside Catullus—much to his dismay.
Some Catullus poems here:
Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love,
and let us judge all the rumors of the old men
to be worth just one penny!
The suns are able to fall and rise:
When that brief light has fallen for us,
we must sleep a never ending night.
Give me a thousand kisses, then another hundred,
then another thousand, then a second hundred,
then yet another thousand more, then another hundred.
Then, when we have made many thousands,
we will mix them all up so that we don't know,
and so that no one can be jealous of us when he finds out
how many kisses we have shared.
You ask, my Lesbia, how many of your kisses
are enough and more than enough for me.
As big a number as the Libyan grains of sand
that lie at silphium producing Cyrene
between the oracle of Sultry Jupiter
and the sacred tomb of old Battus;
Or as many stars that see the secret love affairs of men,
when the night is silent.
So many kisses are enough
and more than enough for mad Catullus to kiss you,
these kisses which neither the inquisitive are able to count
nor an evil tongue bewitch.
Poor Catullus, you must stop being silly,
and count as lost what you see is lost.
Once the sun shone bright for you,
when you would go whither your sweetheart led,
she who was loved by me as none will ever be loved.
Then there took place those many jolly scenes
which you desired nor did your sweetheart not desire.
Truly the sun shone bright for you.
Now she desires no more: do you too, weakling, not desire;
and do not chase her who flees, nor live in unhappiness,
but harden your heart, endure and stand fast.
Goodbye, sweetheart. Catullus now stands fast:
he will not look for you or court you against your will.
But you will be sorry when you are not courted at all.
Wretch, pity on you! What life lies in store for you!
Who will come to you now? Who will think you pretty?
Whom will you love now? Who will people say you are?
Whom will you kiss? Whose lips will you bite?
But you, Catullus, be resolute and stand fast.
That man seems to me to be equal to a god,
That man, if it is right to say, seems to surpass the gods,
who sitting opposite to you repeatedly looks at you
and hearsyour sweet laughter, something which robs miserable me
of all feelings: for as soon as I look
at you, Lesbia, no voice remains in my mouth.
But the tongue is paralyzed, a fine fire
spreads down through my limbs, the ears ring with their
very own sound, my eyes veiled in a double darkness.
Idleness, Catullus, is your trouble;
idleness is what delights you and moves you to passion;
idleness has proved ere now the ruin of kings
and prosperous cities.
that same Lesbia, whom Catullus loved
more than himself and more than all his own,
now loiters at the cross-roads and in the backstreets
ready to toss-off the grandsons of the brave Remus
I hate and I love. Wherefore would I do this, perhaps you ask?
I do not know. But I feel that it happens and I am tortured.
Lesbia always talks bad to me nor is she ever silent
about me: Lesbia is loving me, if not, I may be destroyed.
By what sign? Because they are the same signs: I am showing her
disapproval constantly, I am lost if I do not love.
Veranius, being superior to all
300,000 of my friends in my eyes
Have you come home to your household gods
and loving brothers and old mother?
Youve come back! o happy news for me!
I will see you unharmed and i will hear
you telling about places of the spaniards, the deeds, the tribes
as it is your custom, and drawing your neck close
will I kiss the delightful eyes and lips?
O how many happy men there are,
who is happier and more blessed than I am?
Of the peninsula of the almost island, Sirmio,
the jewel of the islands and the almost islands,
whatever island either Neptune
carries on lakes or on the vast sea,
how willingly and with what happiness I look upon
hardly myself believing that I have abandonded Thynia
and the Bithyninan fields, and that I see you in one piece
O what is a greater source of happiness, worries having been
when the mind puts aside its burden and when we come
tired by foreign work to our household gods
we rest in our having been longed for bed?
This is the one thing that is worth so much work
Hello, o charming Sirmio, and rejoice with the
rejoicing master; and you, O lydian waves of the lake
laugh whatever of laughter is at home.
Through many nations and many seas have I come
To carry out these wretched funeral rites, brother,
That at last I may give you this final gift in death
And that I might speak in vain to silent ashes.
Since fortune has borne you, yourself, away from me.
Oh, poor brother, snatched unfairly away from me,
Now, though, even these, which from antiquity and in the custom
of our parents,
have been handed down, a gift of sadness in the rites,
accept them, flowing with many brotherly tears,
And for eternity, my brother, hail and farewell.
Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus
advenio has miseras, frater, ad inferias,
ut te postremo donarem munere mortis
et mutam nequiquam alloquerer cinerem.
Quandoquidem fortuna mihi tete abstulit ipsum.
Heu miser indigne frater adempte mihi,
nunc tamen interea haec, prisco quae more parentum
tradita sunt tristi munere ad inferias,
accipe fraterno multum manantia fletu,
atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.
The “Lesbia” poems aren’t the world’s first love poems by any
means. The Egyptians were writing beautiful love poems many
centuries before this. But, as far as I know, Catullus is the
first poet to give us a series of poems describing the course of his
whole relationship with Clodia/Lesbia. We get everything from his
first infatuation, to his jealousy of the other men in her life, to his
admonition to himself to forget and move on, to his later love/hate
Note also that Catullus takes time out from his Clodia poems to write
poems for other occasions, to honor a friend’s homecoming, to express
his joy at returning home, to express his regrets at his brother’s
death. Other poems express his embarrassment at being caught in
an untruthful boast—a feeling, I think, most people can relate to.
Another good example of Greek influence on Roman poetry, Catullus’
comtemporary Virgil (70-19 BC).
Virgil came from a solid if not wealthy farm family. The family
estates were confiscated in 41 BC by Octavian and triumvirs. Virgil
went to Rome to plead for their return—got something even better
perhaps: patronage from one of Octavian’s close associates and
eventually friendship with Augustus himself.
Virgil’s earlier poems include his Eclogues (written from 42-37 BC) and
his Georgics (37-30). These two sets of poems are
influenced by the Greek poet Hesiod’s “Works and Days” and by
Theocritus “Idyls.” The Eclogues are pastoral poems, focusing on
the life of the shepherds. The Georgics are farm poems,
focusing on different aspects of farm life. Both sets of poems
are quite good at describing the joys and hardships of both kinds of
life, but, in this, they aren’t completely original: the Greek poets
had done this before. But in some of the Eclogues especially, we
see something more.
Eclogue IV, for instance, talks about the joy surrounding the birth of
a new baby. Virgil says directly at the beginning of the poem
that he is going to go beyond the usual love of nature poetry.
The poem is rather cryptic: we aren’t really sure who the baby
is. But, along with the birth of the child, Virgil celebrates the
coming of a new age of peace and prosperity. Perhaps Virgil
anticipates a child of Antony and Octavia as a coming savior.
Perhaps he anticipates the work Octavian himself will do when he
becomes Augustus. Christians later viewed this as prophetic: a
prediction of what Christ would do. Pretty impressive poem in the
way it expresses hope for a better future.
Far more ambitious and even more influential, Virgil’s greatest work,
the Aeneid (composed 30-19 BC). For many, many years, the Aeneid was
considered the greatest epic poem ever written.
Note that, in the beginning of his Inferno, Dante describes an
encounter with the spirit of Virgil who becomes his guide through both
hell and purgatory.
"Now, art thou that Virgilius and that
Which spreads abroad so wide a river of speech?
I made response to him with bashful forehead.
"O, of the other poets honour and light,
Avail me the long study and great love
That have impelled me to explore thy volume!
Thou art my master, and my author thou,
Thou art alone the one from whom I took
The beautiful style that has done honour to me.
More recently, people tend to give Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey first
place as good translations have made those poems more accessible.
In the days when all educated people read Latin but relatively few
could handle Homeric Greek, it’s easy to see why Virgil had a higher
reputation than Homer—which, great as he was, he didn’t really deserve.
Virgil borrows from Homer right and left, mixing scenes from the Iliad
and the Odyssey. The central character (Aeneas) is fairly
prominent in the Iliad already, so, like Homer, Virgil chooses a Trojan
War hero for his hero. Like Odysseus, Aeneas his hindered by the
enmity of one of the gods (in this case, Juno) and assisted by the love
of another (in this case, Venus). Like Odysseus, Aeneas makes a
perilous sea journey, losing men to a storm. Like Odysseus,
Aeneas is delayed by a woman who loves him. Like Odysseus, Aeneas
makes a voyage to the underworld. Like Achilles, Aeneas gets
heaven-forged armor. Like Achilles, Aeneas has a great rival
(Turnus). Like Odysseus, Aeneas must leave a place where he’s
very comfortable to pursue his destiny. We’ve got god intervening
in battle in Homer and Virgil, elaborate funeral games in both—and a
long list of other similarities.
Nevertheless, while Virgil takes many, many of his story elements from
Homer, and while he addresses many of the same themes as Homer, there
are lots of original insights here too.
“I sing of arms and a man,” begins Virgil—and that’s what we have
here. The story of war and how it affects those who have to
fight: a pretty universal theme!
Lots of good insights here. Very early in the poem, we have
Aeneas telling Dido the story of the fall of Troy, done as a
flashback. Hard to imagine a better treatment of what it means
for a fighting man to find himself on the losing side as his hometown
is captured. There’s a great description of a Trojan prince
throwing his life away in a hopeless attempt to save Cassandra from
being carried off by the Greeks. There’s the old man Priam who
watches one of his sons slaughtered in front of him and, though to weak
and old to do anything really useful, still makes one last attempt to
take on the enemy.
And then there’s Aeneas himself, struggling to save what he can—and
suddenly finding he hasn’t been able to save his wife. Where is
she? Well, her shade appears: forget me, I am beyond your
help. Take care of our boy.
Also very important, Virgil’s refusal to demonize and enemy. One
may find oneself fighting people who are admirable in many ways—and yet
one must fight them nonetheless.
As we leave the turmoil of the 2nd triumvirate era and move on to the
great age of Augustus, we get a couple more important poets including,
first of all Ovid (43 BC-AD 17). We’ve got quite a few Ovid
poems, two of which I emphasize in class:
• Art of Love
Ovid, like the other poets, draws extensively on Greek sources.
His Metamorphoses is a retelling of stories from Greek mythology,
similar to Hesiod’s Theogony. But what he does with these myths
is very creative. He strings them all together as a series of
changes beginning with primordial chaos and (ultimately) concluding the
Julius Caesar’s transformation into a god! Obvious political
propaganda there, but very useful in reinforcing a theme Augustus very
much wanted emphasized: the new order emerging from the chaos of the
Art of Love is a very different kind of work. It’s a kind of love
poetry, and Ovid uses a metrical pattern the Greeks had though
particularly appropriate to love poems: elegiac couplets, alternate
hexameter and pentameter lines.
But, as far as I know, this is the first to take the love poem format
and turn it into an instruction manual: how to find, win, and keep the
girl or guy of your dreams.
First, advice for the guys. How do you find a girl?
1. Open your eyes. You don’t have to go to India or
Greece. Plenty of great women right here in Rome. But where
2. Pompey’s colonnade would be a good place. Law courts are
good too. But maybe best, theater and sporting events: gives you
the chance to sit close! And (here’s a tip) just figure out who
she’s rooting for, and root for the same team. Parties are also
great: when people are drinking, it’s easier to pick up girls.
Well, that’s the where. What about the how?
1. Be confident. All women can be won.
Don’t be discouraged. Women want to be pursued.
2. Be good to those around her, particularly her
3. Write love letters.
4. Go where she’s likely to be.
5. Don’t use cosmetics.
6. Praise her looks.
7. Don’t drink too much (it can lead to quarrels) but
it’s useful to pretend to be drunk: gives you an excuse for boldness.
8. Make lots of promises, and, if you add to your
promise and oath, swear by Jupiter.
9. Tears are helpful.
10. Be physically aggressive: it’s force women want.
11. Realize that women aren’t all the same. “A
thousand minds demand a thousand arts.” “Not every crop is grown
on every soil.”
Ovid adds to this advice on staying in love:
1. Realize that beauty passes, and that mind
endures. Conversation is important—and you better have something
to talk about. Yeah for the liberal arts!
2. Speak gently.
3. Continue as in courtship: agreeing with her on
4. If you play games, let her win.
5. Sacrifice to see her.
6. Tend to her when she’s ill.
7. Don’t leave her alone: absence makes the heart
grow fonder—for someone else.
8. Don’t bring up other lovers.
9. Don’t talk about your love to others; no kiss and
tell stuff. “Babbling secrets is the worst of sins.”
10. Don’t talk about flows: turn the flaws into
Ovid offers advice to women too:
1. Use your time wisely. Your looks are going
to fade, so make use of them while you can.
2. Don’t neglect your looks.
3. Don’t overdo it either. Too much fancy
jewelry, overly expensive clothing can be a turnoff.
4. Know what works best with your beauty type: black
for blonds, white for brunettes.
5. Wash you face every day, make sure your armpits
don’t smell, shave your legs and take care of your teeth.
6. Use makeup, but make it subtle. Don’t let
your lover see you at your paint brushes.
7. Don’t clean your teeth in public.
8. Laugh with charm.
11. Play games.
12. Watch out for the perfectly groomed, handsome
men. They’re the type that bounce from woman to woman.
13. Don’t be an angry type. Softness and
gentleness are the way to keep a man.
14. Watch out for alcohol.
Horace story is similar to Virgil’s. He was on the losing side of
the battle of Philippi (the battle lost by Brutus and Cassius) and,
while his life was spared, he lost his estates. Eventually, he
found a patron among Augustus’s friend and was able to make a living
through his poetry.
As with the other poets, Greek influence played a huge role. Horace
studied at Plato’s Academy (still an important institution more than
300 years after Plato’s death), and he was well trained both in the
techniques of the Greek poets and the ideas of the Greek
philosophers. His takes what he had learned from the Greeks to
create works useful to Rome at the time of Augustus—works which often
reflects great universal themes.
Among Horace’s works, the Carmen Saeculare, (hymn of the age),
performed by 27 maidens and 27 youths at the Secular games established
by Augustus, a great public celebration. It’s written in Saphic
meter (Greek influence), but for a specifically Roman purpose.
[We perform this poem in class generally]
Horace wrote odes, epodes, satires, letters—lots of different kinds of
works. He’s an immensely quotable writer. Some selections
below, and, here and there, you should be able to see an original
insight or two into the human situation.
In Rome you long for the country; in the country -- oh so
inconstant! -- you praise the distant city to the stars.
He possesses dominion over himself, and is happy, who can every
day say, "I have lived." Tomorrow the heavenly Father may either
involve the world in dark clouds, or cheer it with clear sunshine; he
will not, however, render ineffectual things which have already taken
It is not the rich man you should properly call happy, but
him who knows how to use with wisdom and the blessings of the gods, to
endure hard poverty, and who fears dishonor worse than death, and is
not afraid to die for cherished friends or fatherland.
He is armed without who is innocent within, be this thy screen,
and this thy wall of brass.
It is when I struggle to be brief that I become obscure.
It is your business, when the wall next door catches fire.
It is your concern when the wall next door is on fire.
Lawyers are men who hire out their words and anger.
Let him who has enough wish for nothing more.
Life grants nothing to us mortals without hard work.
Lovely and honorable is to die for one’s country.
Make money, money by fair means if you can, if not, but any means
Many brave men lived before Agamemnon; but all are overwhelmed in
eternal night, unwept, unknown, because they lack a sacred poet.
No one is content with his own lot.
It is courage, courage, courage, that raises the blood of life to
crimson splendor. Live bravely and present a brave front to adversity.
Avoid inquisitive persons, for they are sure to be gossips, their
ears are open to hear, but they will not keep what is entrusted to
Pale death knocks with impartial foot at poor men's hovels and
To save a man's life against his will is the same as killing him.
He's happy who, far away from business, like the races of men of
old, tills his ancestral fields with his own oxen, unbound by any
interest to pay.