Classical Latin

Any classification of Latin (or any language!) into periods is arbitrary, but it is especially so in defining Classical Latin (Latina classica). The term originally was coined to refer to those authors deemed excellent (scriptores classici), though sometimes it refers, by virtue of selective survival, to all extant Latin literature up to the early Middle Ages.

The shift from Old Latin to Latin of the Late Republic was small and incremental. Authors such as Lucretius and Sallust show tendencies and styles closer to the decades (or more) prior than the decades that follow. However, the two biggest literary figures of the era, Cicero and Caesar, represent a style so popular and so polished that a sharp division between the second and first centuries came to be recognized. For this site, Classical Latin begins with the death of Sulla, the emergence of the First Triumvirate, and—most of all—the career of Cicero.

Determining the end of this period is more difficult. Because of the quality of Latin during the Augustan period, older scholars dubbed both periods the “Golden Age of Latin,” and contrasted it with the period immediately after, the “Silver Age.” It was a period of intense poetical activity, with Vergil, Horace, and Ovid writing masterpieces and redefining the limits of their genres. In prose, less lauded during those years, saw the career of Livy, who collected together the entire history of Rome in a 142 books from the founding of Rome until his present day. The career of Seneca saw a sharp break from the old Ciceronian model of oratory, and thus also provide a convenient stopping point.

The close connections between the late Republic and the Augustan era persuades this site to classify them together under the convenient label of “Classical Latin,” while still following old, established divisions. The period thereafter is labeled “Imperial Latin,” since the years following Augustus’ death in 14 CE eroded any hope of a return to Republican rule.

Further Reading

  • Sander M. Goldberg. Constructing Literature in the Roman Republic: Poetry and Its Reception. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  • D. S. Levene, “The Late Republican/Triumviral Period: 90-40 BC,” in Stephen Harrison ed. A Companion to Latin Literature. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008.
  • T. P. Wiseman. Remembering the Roman People: Essays on Late-Republican Politics and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Joseph Farrell & Damien P. Nelis eds. Augustan Poetry and the Roman Republic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
  • Elaine Fantham. “Literature in the Roman Republic,” in Harriet I. Fowler ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Republic. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Leave a Reply