10 Ancient Roman Writers You Should Know
When we think of ancient writers, we often think of the Greeks. But the Romans also made significant contributions to writings of history and legend, poetry, philosophy, and politics. Not only do many of their works survive today, but some are still just as influential, and it is largely due to these records that the memory of Rome has been preserved. That, and the Romans just liked to brag. (Especially you, Cesear. You boasted about yourself in the third person.)
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Ovid was a Roman poet who wrote poems that parodied relationships, and many other works, the most famous of which is the epic poem, the Metamorphoses. Fifteen books long, the Metamorphoses chronicles many classical Greek myths, including the creation and flood stories, the stories of Orpheus and Eurydice, Jason and Medea, Daedalus and Icarus, the Minotaur, Hercules, stories from Troy, and many others; he also tells a handful of Roman myths, including the the Apotheosis of Julius Caesar.
Ovid is also known for his banishment; in 8 BCE, Augustus exiled him to Tomis, presumably because Ovid was involved in the adultery of Augustus's daughter, Julia the Younger, for which she was also banished.
Sallust was a Roman historian who recorded monographs of the events of the Catiline Conspiracy and the Jugurthine War. At one point he served in the military under Caesar, and as a governor in Africa, but he was eventually exiled from the Senate because he was considered immoral and corrupt. Ironically, he recognized the immorality and lust for power in Rome, so his works are also a commentary on the corruption of Rome; in The War With Catiline, he remarks, “when you apply your intellect, it prevails; if passion possesses you, it holds sway, and the mind is impotent.”
Another historian who comments on the declining morality of Rome, Livy’s histories, The History of Rome, trace Rome back to its “sacred origins”—meaning the founders of Rome had godly parentage. He starts with the story of the Trojan War in 1180 BCE and the story of Aeneas, then catalogues the story of Romulus and Remus and the founding of Rome, as well as other influential stories at the beginning of the monarchy, such as that of the Sabine women, Lucretia, Cincinnatus, Tarquin Superbus, and Brutus (sorry, no, not Caesar’s Brutus). He purposefully and effectively used these stories as examples of people who were good and moral, and those who were immoral, sometimes giving multiple versions of the same story to compare.
Virgil, another Roman poet, wrote three major works: The Eclogues, The Georgics, and the epic poem The Aeneid. The Eclogues are poems of idyllic landscapes, and The Georgics is a four-book poem about agriculture. The Aenid is his best known and most influential work; it follows the journey of Aeneas, a Trojan demigod who escapes Troy during the sack of the city, and after many years, goes on to settle in Italy, destined to found Lavinium, a “New Troy,” on land that will eventually become Rome. Though some had told the story of Aeneas before, Virgil was the only one to do it extensively, and in the epic format.
While there was an emperor Tacitus, this Tacitus was a historian. He wrote three major works; the first of these is The Annals, which mourns the loss of the republic and describes the beginnings of the empire, as well as the death of Germanicus and the trial of Piso. Tacitus also makes his disdain for the new emperor Augustus clear in this work (he calls him a despot, and insinuates that the citizens of Rome might as well be slaves). In The Histories, he records the events of the empire from 69-96 AD, and in The Germania, he describes the land and customs of the Germanic tribes, which he admires.
Claudius of the Julio-Claudian dynasty was emperor from 41-54 AD; he was of a sickly constitution, feeble and awkward in manner, and often stammered. However, he was an effective emperor, and an accomplished academic. He was tutored by Livy, who inspired him to write his own histories, none of which, unfortunately, have survived. But, if you are looking for an idea of what Claudius’s life was like, English novelist Robert Graves wrote a novel called I, Claudius in the form of an autobiography, and in 1976, BBC adapted the story as a television miniseries. Claudius eventually died from poison, most likely given to him by his scheming wife, Agrippina the Younger, who wanted her son Nero to be emperor.
Josephus was actually a Jewish priest and historian who believed God turned away from the Jews in favor of the Romans, but still wrote of the Jews with honor. He moved to Rome and became a historian for them, describing the organization, discipline, and brutality of the Roman army, and recording the events of the Jewish Wars first hand; he describes the brutality of the Sicarii—the Jewish resistance, and also tells the story of the siege of Masada. This includes the speech of Eleazar, whose eloquence convinced nearly 1,000 people to kill themselves rather than be taken by the Romans (only two women and five children survived.)
8. Pliny the Younger
Nephew of the scholar Pliny the Elder (who wrote an encyclopedia of Natural History), Pliny the Younger had a successful government career in the Senate, and as Consul. He wrote some speeches, but most of his writings are actually letters. He was good friends with the emperor Trajan, and much of their correspondence survives; they often discuss changing the law against persecuting Christians (but Trajan never does because the Senate would oppose it.) Also significant are Pliny's letters to the historian Tacitus, to whom he gives an eyewitness account of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Pompeii, which is a key testimony of that event.
Appian was born in Alexandria, but later became a Roman citizen and served in the court of Antoninus Pius. As a historian, he wrote many histories of Rome’s various wars, including the Hannibalic Wars, Macedonian Wars, and Civil Wars; his Civil Wars are made up of five books, but a sixth book about Octavian versus Marc Antony and Cleopatra is missing. He also wrote a summary of what happened between the timeframes of Tiberius Gracchus and Octavian, and Sulla's term in office; this included the first political assassination (of Tiberius). He later describes the election of Gaius, and the assassination of Gaius and Fulvius Flaccus. And—fun fact—he wrote all of his histories in Greek.
Cicero is best known for his compelling and eloquent speeches during the Roman Republic, and to this day remains one of the greatest orators of all time. Though he was mostly considered a scholar and politician, and was elected Consul in 63 BCE, he also wrote books of rhetoric and treatises of philosophy. His speeches still survive, as do over 800 of his personal letters, half of which were to his friend Atticus. A handful of these letters contain primary information about the Catiline Conspiracy, which was a plot by Catiline and his followers to kill Cicero and take over the Roman Republic. Spies warned Cicero of the plot, which he exposed in one of his speeches, forcing Catiline into exile. It was because of this that Cicero was later called the father of the country.