Classical Latin  

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This page Classical Latin is part of the Ancient Rome series.  Illustration: Antichita Romanae (1748) by Piranesi
This page Classical Latin is part of the Ancient Rome series.
Illustration: Antichita Romanae (1748) by Piranesi

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Classical Latin is the form of the Latin language used by the ancient Romans in what is usually regarded as "classical" Latin literature. Its use spanned the Golden Age of Latin literature—broadly the 1st century BC and the early 1st century AD—possibly extending to the Silver Age—broadly the 1st and 2nd centuries.

What is now called "Classical Latin" was, in fact, a highly stylized and polished written literary language selectively constructed from early Latin.

The spoken Latin of the common people of the Roman Empire, especially from the 2nd century onward, is generally called Vulgar Latin. Vulgar Latin differed from Classical Latin in its vocabulary and grammar, and as time passed, it came to differ in pronunciation as well.

Classical Latin also furnishes the only two extant Latin novels: Apuleius's The Golden Ass and Petronius's Satyricon.


Philological constructs

The classical

Good Latin in philology is "classical" Latin literature. The term refers to the canonicity of works of literature written in Latin in the late Roman republic and the early to middle Roman empire: "that is to say, that of belonging to an exclusive group of authors (or works) that were considered to be emblematic of a certain genre." (Citroni (2006), p.204.) The term classicus (masculine plural classici) was devised by the Romans themselves to translate Greek ἐγκριθέντες (egkrithentes), "select", referring to authors who wrote in Greek that was considered model. Prior to then classis, in addition to being a naval fleet, was a social class in one of the diachronic divisions of Roman society according to property ownership by the Roman constitution. The word is a transliteration into the Latin alphabet of Greek κλῆσις (klēsis), a "calling" of draftees for the army by property: first class, second class, etc., down to fifth class.

Classicus is anything primae classis, "first class", such as the authors of the polished works of Latinitas, or sermo urbanus. It had nuances of the certified and the authentic: testis classicus, "reliable witness." It was in this sense that Marcus Cornelius Fronto (an African-Roman lawyer and language teacher) in the 2nd century AD used scriptores classici, "first-class" or "reliable authors" whose works could be relied upon as model of good Latin. This is the first known reference, possibly innovated at this time, to classical applied to authors by virtue of the authentic language of their works.

The canonical

In imitation of the Greek grammarians, the Roman ones, such as Quintilian, drew up lists termed indices or ordines on the model of the Greek lists, termed pinakes, considered classical: the recepti scriptores, "select writers." Aulus Gellius includes many authors, such as Plautus, who are currently considered writers of Old Latin and not strictly in the period of classical Latin. The classical Romans distinguished Old Latin as prisca Latinitas and not sermo vulgaris. Each author (and work) in the Roman lists was considered equivalent to one in the Greek; for example Ennius was the Latin Homer, the Aeneid was a new Iliad, and so on. The lists of classical authors were as far as the Roman grammarians went in developing a philology. The topic remained at that point while interest in the classici scriptores declined in the medieval period as the best Latin yielded to medieval Latin, somewhat less than the best by classical standards.

The Renaissance brought a revival of interest in restoring as much of Roman culture as could be restored and with it the return of the concept of classic, "the best." Thomas Sebillet in 1548 (Art Poétique) referred to "les bons et classiques poètes françois", meaning Jean de Meun and Alain Chartier, which was the first modern application of the word. According to Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, the term classical, from classicus, entered modern English in 1599, some 50 years after its re-introduction on the continent. Governor William Bradford in 1648 referred to synods of a separatist church as "classical meetings" in his Dialogue, a report of a meeting between New-England-born "young men" and "ancient men" from Holland and England. In 1715 Laurence Echard's Classical Geographical Dictionary was published. In 1736 Robert Ainsworth's Thesaurus Linguae Latinae Compendarius turned English words and expressions into "proper and classical Latin." In 1768 David Ruhnken (Critical History of the Greek Orators) recast the mold of the view of the classical by applying the word canon to the pinakes of orators, after the Biblical canon or list of authentic books of the Bible. Ruhnken had a kind of secular catechism in mind.

The ages of Latin

thumb|left|Wilhelm Sigismund Teuffel In 1870 Wilhelm Sigismund Teuffel in Geschichte der Römischen Literatur (A History of Roman Literature) innovated the definitive philological classification of classical Latin based on the metaphoric uses of the ancient myth of the Ages of Man, a practice then universally current: a Golden Age and a Silver Age of classical Latin were to be presumed. The practice and Teuffel's classification, with modifications, are still in use. His work was translated into English as soon as published in German by Wilhelm Wagner, who corresponded with Teuffel. Wagner published the English translation in 1873. Teuffel divides the chronology of classical Latin authors into several periods according to political events, rather than by style. Regarding the style of the literary Latin of those periods he had but few comments.

Teuffel was to go on with other editions of his history, but meanwhile it had come out in English almost as soon as it did in German and found immediate favorable reception. In 1877 Charles Thomas Cruttwell produced the first English work along the same lines. In his Preface he refers to "Teuffel's admirable history, without which many chapters in the present work could not have attained completeness" and also gives credit to Wagner.

Cruttwell adopts the same periods with minor differences; however, where Teuffel's work is mainly historical, Cruttwell's work contains detailed analyses of style. Nevertheless like Teuffel he encounters the same problem of trying to summarize the voluminous detail in a way that captures in brief the gist of a few phases of writing styles. Like Teuffel, he has trouble finding a name for the first of the three periods (the current Old Latin phase), calling it mainly "from Livius to Sulla." The language, he says, is ..."marked by immaturity of art and language, by a vigorous but ill-disciplined imitation of Greek poetical models, and in prose by a dry sententiousness of style, gradually giving way to a clear and fluent strength...." These abstracts have little meaning to those not well-versed in Latin literature. In fact, Cruttwell admits "The ancients, indeed, saw a difference between Ennius, Pacuvius, and Accius, but it may be questioned whether the advance would be perceptible by us."

Some of Cruttwell's ideas have become stock in Latin philology for better or for worse. While praising the application of rules to classical Latin, most intensely in the Golden Age, he says "In gaining accuracy, however, classical Latin suffered a grievous loss. It became cultivated as distinct from a natural language .... Spontaneity, therefore, became impossible and soon invention also ceased.... In a certain sense, therefore, Latin was studied as a dead language, while it was still a living." These views are certainly debatable; one might ask how the upper classes of late 16th century Britain, who shared the Renaissance zealousness for the classics, managed to speak spontaneous Latin to each other officially and unofficially after being taught classical Latin by tutors hired for the purpose. Latinitas in the Golden Age was in fact sermo familiaris, the spoken Latin of the Roman upper classes, who sent their children to school to learn it. The debate continues.

A second problem is the appropriateness of Teuffel's scheme to the concept of classical Latin, which Teuffel does not discuss. Cruttwell addresses the problem, however, altering the concept of the classical. As the best Latin is defined as golden Latin, the second of the three periods, the other two periods considered classical are left hanging. While on the one hand assigning to Old Latin the term pre-classical and by implication the term post-classical (or post-Augustan) to silver Latin Cruttwell realizes that this construct is not according to ancient usage and asserts "... the epithet classical is by many restricted to the authors who wrote in it [golden Latin]. It is best, however, not to narrow unnecessarily the sphere of classicity; to exclude Terence on the one hand or Tacitus and Pliny on the other, would savour of artificial restriction rather than that of a natural classification." (This from a scholar who had just been complaining that golden Latin was not a natural language.) The contradiction remains; Terence is and is not a classical author depending on context.

Authors of the Golden Age


The earliest poet of the Golden Age is considered to be Lucretius, who wrote a long philosophical poem expounding Epicureanism, On the Nature of Things.

Catullus wrote at a slightly later date. He pioneered the naturalization of Greek lyric verse forms in Latin. The poetry of Catullus was personal, sometimes erotic, sometimes playful, and frequently abusive. He wrote exclusively in Greek metres. The heavy hand of Greek prosody would continue to have a pronounced influence on the style and syntax of Latin poetry until the rise of Christianity necessitated a different sort of hymnody.

The Hellenizing tendencies of Golden Age Latin reached their apex in Virgil, whose Aeneid was an epic poem after the manner of Homer. Similar tendencies are noted in Horace, whose odes and satires were after the manner of the Greek anthology, and who used almost all of the fixed forms of Greek prosody in Latin. Ovid likewise wrote long and learned poems on mythological subjects, as well as such semi-satirical pieces as the Art of Love (Ars Amatoria). Tibullus and Propertius also wrote poems that were modelled after Greek antecedents.


In prose, Golden Age Latin is exemplified by Julius Caesar, whose Commentaries on the Gallic War display a laconic, precise, military style; and by Marcus Tullius Cicero, a practicing lawyer and politician, whose judicial arguments and political speeches, most notably the Catiline Orations, were considered for centuries to be the best models for Latin prose. Cicero also wrote many letters which have survived, and a few philosophical tracts in which he gives his version of Stoicism.

Historiography was an important genre of classical Latin prose; it includes Sallust, who wrote of the Conspiracy of Catiline and the War Against Jugurtha, his only works that have been preserved complete. Another historian, Livy, wrote the Ab Urbe Condita, a history of Rome "from the Founding of the City." Though originally composed of 142 books, only 35 books of this history have been preserved.

The foremost technical work which survives is the De Architectura of Vitruvius, a compilation of building construction methods, design and layout of all public and domestic buildings as well as descriptions of the machines which aided construction. He also gives a detailed description of many other machines, such as the ballista used in war, surveying instruments, water mills and dewatering devices such as the reverse overshot water-wheel.

Silver Age Latin

Classical Latin continued to be used into the "Silver Age" of Latin literature, which spans the 1st and 2nd centuries, and directly follows the Golden Age. Literature from the Silver Age has traditionally, perhaps unfairly, been considered inferior to that of the Golden Age, although contemporary historians have voiced legitimate criticisms concerning perhaps a too great a reliance on trying to emulate the Golden Age and a 'messy' style of teaching rhetoric as possible causes for this alleged decline in quality. Silver Age Latinity is sometimes called "Post-Augustan". Among the works which survive, those of Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger inspired later generations, especially during the Renaissance.

Writers of the silver age include:

The Silver Age also furnishes the only two extant Latin novels: Apuleius's The Golden Ass and Petronius's Satyricon.

Stylistic shifts

Silver Age Latin itself may be subdivided further into two periods: a period of radical experimentation in the latter half of the first century AD, and a renewed Neoclassicism in the second century AD.

Under the reigns of Nero and Domitian, poets like Seneca the Younger, Lucan and Statius pioneered a unique style that has alternately delighted, disgusted and puzzled later critics. Stylistically, Neronian and Flavian literature shows the ascendance of rhetorical training in late Roman education. The style of these authors is unfailingly declamatory — at times eloquent, at times bombastic. Exotic vocabulary and sharply-polished aphorisms glimmer everywhere, though at times to the detriment of thematic coherence.

Thematically, late 1st century literature is marked by an interest in terrible violence, witchcraft, and extreme passions. Under the influence of Stoicism, the gods recede in importance, while the physiology of emotions looms large. Passions like anger, pride and envy are painted in almost anatomical terms of inflammation, swelling, upsurges of blood or bile. For Statius, even the inspiration of the Muses is described as a calor ("fever").

While their extremity in both theme and diction has earned these poets the disapproval of Neoclassicists both ancient and modern, they were favorites during the European Renaissance, and underwent a revival of interest among the English Modernist poets.

By the end of the 1st century, a reaction against this form of poetry had set in, and Tacitus, Quintilian and Juvenal all testify to the resurgence of a more restrained, classicizing style under Trajan and the Antonine emperors.

See also

Mentioned in

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