The Golden Age of Roman Literature

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome

By Gregory Aldrete, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin

The golden age of Roman Literature corresponded with the reign of the first emperor, Augustus. This short period produced three poets of great talent: Horace, Ovid, and Virgil.

Imperial Forum of Emperor Augustus
The imperial forum of Emperor Augustus, the emperor of the golden age, in Rome, Italy. (Image: Zhukov/Shutterstock)

Emperor Augustus was keenly aware of the value of propaganda as a means to promote himself, and thus he desired to have his achievements memorialized in poetry. Accordingly, Augustus’s henchman and unofficial minister of culture, Maecenas, played an active role in encouraging poets and directing their efforts towards producing such panegyrics. In one way or another, the works of all three of the Golden Age poets were direct reactions to Augustus’s patronage. The most obvious example of this can be seen in the case of the poet Horace.

This is a transcript from the video series The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Horace: First Great Poet of the Golden Age of Roman Literature

The son of a freed slave, Horace rose to become a favorite poet of the emperor. Horace composed patriotic poems praising the reign of Augustus and created poems that celebrated specific events in his life.

A painting of Horace.
A painting of Horace by Giacomo Di Chirico from 1800. (Image: Giacomo Di Chirico/Public domain)

Horace also wrote satires which contrasted with his court poetry. These works were written in a conversational tone using everyday language. These satires poked fun at various human behaviors. Horace produced hundreds of poems in a wide variety of styles, including elegies, love poems, odes, and hymns.

Many Latin phrases from his poetry continue to be repeated even today, such as “carpe diem” or “seize the day”, and “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” or “It is sweet and appropriate to die for your country.” Other often repeated quotes from Horace include “Rule your mind, for unless it obeys, it will rule you,” and “Whatever advice you offer, make it brief,” and finally, “Now is the time to drink!”

Learn more about Augustus, the First Emperor.

Ovid: Second Great Poet of the Golden Age of Roman Literature

Horace did what the emperor Augustus wanted, whereas the next poet, Ovid, created a work that greatly displeased him. This was the Ars Amatoria, which can be translated as The Art of Love. It was basically a manual of advice on how to seduce women. For Ovid, love was a game whose goal was seduction, and he offered numerous tips on how to win this game.

He described good places in Rome to pick up women, and provided practical recommendations for wooing a woman, such as, “Wear clean clothes,” “Don’t have dirty hands,” “Don’t have bad breath,” and “Comb your hair.” 

In this game of love, morality was unimportant, so Ovid suggested that would-be lovers tell every woman they meet that she is the one and the only person that they have ever truly loved. He advised them to compliment a woman constantly on her physical appearance, and to promise her anything, since, as he puts it, “Promises cost you nothing.” He recommended taking a woman to the circus to watch chariot races as a good date. This was because of the crowded benches on which the audience sat afforded opportunities to press up against her. Finally, he advised that one should try to get the woman drunk, as this would make her more susceptible to one’s advances.

Learn more about The Dawn of the Roman Empire.

Statue of Ovid
A statue, built in 1887, commemorating Ovid’s exile in Tomis (present-day Constanța, Romania). (Image: Ettore Ferrari/CC BY-SA 3.0 RO/Public domain)

The emperor Augustus was very concerned with public morality, and hence he was quite offended by Ovid’s Art of Love. In fact, he was so perturbed that he banished Ovid and sent him to live in exile, north of the Black Sea.

For someone who thrived on the sophisticated urban culture of the city of Rome, this amounted to torture. Hence, Ovid responded with some not-very-good poetry, sycophantic, praising Augustus in the hope that he might be allowed to return to Rome. Unfortunately for Ovid, Augustus never did forgive him, and Ovid died alone and miserable, far from the city he loved. 

However, while in exile, Ovid produced some other significant literature, most notably the Metamorphoses. This was a colossal retelling and compilation of Greek and Roman myths which became important in later times as one of our main sources for ancient mythology. Another interesting work of Ovid is the Heroides. Composed earlier in his career, this is a collection of fictional letters in verse written from the perspectives of famous women from myth and history, including Dido, Ariadne, Sappho, and Helen of Troy.

Virgil: Third Great Poet of the Golden Age of Roman Literature

The last of the three great Golden Age poets was Virgil. Augustus wanted Virgil to write an epic poem celebrating his reign. His hope was that Virgil would be the Roman version of Homer and would compose a grand national epic that would be the cornerstone of Roman literature. Augustus got part of what he wanted since Virgil did write the great Roman epic, but not on the subject that Augustus wanted. Rather than writing his epic poem about the current emperor Augustus, Virgil chose to describe Rome’s earliest days, telling the story of the origins of the Latin people.

This epic poem also cleverly created a link between the Greek mythology and Roman legend by centering on the character of Aeneas, who is mentioned in Homer’s Iliad as being the only Trojan to escape the destruction of his city.

Page from the beginning of the Eclogues Vergilius Romanus .
A page from the beginning of the Eclogues, written by Virgil. (Image: Unknown /Public Domain)

Virgil’s poem, called the Aeneid, contains one of the most famous opening lines in all of Latin literature: “Arma virumque cano,” “I sing of arms and a man.” The poem imagined the further adventures of the refugee Aeneas as he traveled across the Mediterranean, undergoing many travails in a tale that self-consciously recalled the wanderings of the Greek hero Odysseus.

In the end, Aeneas landed in Italy, where he married and fathered children whose descendants would one day found the city of Rome. Virgil deliberately imitated Homer’s works in Aeneid, as his hero experienced many of the same adventures as Homer’s heroes.

Despite the superficial plot similarities with Homer, the Aeneid has a distinctly Roman flavor. It praises quintessentially Roman virtues. Two of its main messages are that Rome’s rise to power is the will of the gods and that Aeneas embodies the supposedly defining core Roman virtues of determination, obedience, piety, and, above all, self-sacrifice for the good of the state. Such selflessness is a far cry from the qualities of Homeric heroes like Achilles, who are mainly motivated by the quest for personal glory. Ultimately, the poem does extol Augustus, since the emperor’s family traced its lineage directly back to Aeneas.

Learn more about The Roman Values and Heroes.

This not only linked Augustus to the legendary founders of Rome, but it also bestowed divine ancestry upon him since Aeneas’s mother was said to be the goddess Venus.

There is an interesting debate over whether the Aeneid, despite being overtly praiseful of Augustus, contains subtle criticisms of him since there are some intriguing ambiguities in Aeneas’s character and actions. But at least officially, Augustus got his great Roman epic. Virgil died before finishing the poem. And since he did not want it published in less than the perfect form, according to his will, it was to be burned. Augustus, however, personally intervened to save the manuscript and had it published in its current form.

Common Questions About the Golden Age of Roman Literature

Q: Why was the reign of Augustus known as the Golden Age of Roman literature?

The period of Augustus’ reign was known as the golden age because Augustus started to put a significant amount of money and effort into building the Roman literature and culture by concentrating on the arts.

Q: Which period is called the Golden Age of Latin literature?

The Golden Age of Latin literature began in the last years of the Republic and carried on with the virtual establishment of the Roman Empire under the reign of Augustus, from 27 B.C. to A.D. 14. 

Q: Why was Roman literature important?

Roman literature was important because the ability to speak in public and persuade others or the art of rhetoric was considered as a significant skill in Rome. The writing of the rhetorical ideas and speeches of many Roman statesmen had a major impact on the use of the Latin language and Roman literature.

Q: Who was considered to be Rome’s greatest scholar during its golden age of literature?

Virgil is considered as Rome’s greatest scholar during the golden age of literature. His work Aeneid is considered as one of the greatest works of Roman literature’s golden age.

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