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Silver Latin is the name given to the 100 years or so after the Golden Age of Latin
As its name implies, it’s often deemed slightly ‘less’ than the Golden Age. The
Republican climax of oratory in Cicero’s speeches and the unbeatable Virgil’s Aeneid,
Ovid’s Metamorphoses and lyric poetry of the Golden Age were tough acts to follow.
So the Romans didn’t try to follow them. They admired them and then wrote totally
different literature. Some of it is truly remarkable. The emperors who ruled in
this time (including Nero) stifled freedom of speech ...
The philosopher Seneca (who had been Nero’s tutor), epic poet Lucan and satirical
novelist, Petronius, all wrote during Nero’s reign. Seneca’s writing ranged from
letters to moral treatises and to the only 9 Roman tragedies that have survived;
in all of them he focussed on coping with life and loss in a difficult time under
the emperor Nero.
Lucan wrote of anti-heroes, Pompey and Caesar in the civil war and it is far from
the tale of destiny and grandeur that Virgil’s Aeneid presented.
Petronius penned his Satyricon, a fictional satire on life and status in Rome and
it includes the farcical Trimalchio’s dinner. All three writers were close to the
emperor at some time but all were forced to kill themselves after the conspiracy
of Piso in AD 65.
The Flavian emperors were Vespasian (AD 69-79) and his son Titus (who had been ruling
for only 2 months when Vesuvius erupted) and then his Vespasian’s younger son Domitian
(AD 81-96). They built the Colosseum. During their era, writers focussed on being
scholarly (and safe). The only great literary names are;
Pliny the Elder who wrote his vast 39-book naturalis historia (Natural History) to
record everything that was known at the time. His nephew, Pliny the Younger, would
write letters telling of his uncle’s obsession with work, and of how his uncle died
while taking a fatal closer look at the erupting volcano.
Statius wrote great epics (Thebaid and he began but never finished his Achilleid)
but his silvae poems are tender and personal. His flattery of Domitian is gushing
in the extreme - a necessity of the time as Domitian turned into a paranoid emperor
whose last years of his reign were known as a time of terror.
Martial, born in Spain, came to Rome and wrote his short epigrams. His sincerity
and simplicity are refreshing although ‘selected works’ used to be/are often published
as his bluntness of a rough and bawdy Rome were graphic and crude.
Quintilian was, like Martial, born in Spain – the empire had become a truly cosmopolitan
place, although Rome remained the only real centre for a writer to be in. Quintilian
spent a 20 year career teaching rhetoric and speaking in the law courts before retiring
to write his great work, the institutio oratoria, on the education of an orator.
Book 10 contains his comments on the wide reading a student of oratory should read,
and it provides a vital insight into Rome’s views of Greek literature and of their
own Roman literature. His hope for his contemporary writers and the up and coming
youth of his day contrasts with the downward turn of the mass of literature of the
Satire, as Quintilian wrote, was ‘wholly’ Roman – there were no Greek precedents.
Juvenal was the greatest satirist, providing vignettes of everyday life in the city
of Rome. Very much a ‘Victor Meldrew’ figure, complaining about anything and everything
(women, money …), his persona is fired by indignatio (indignation), complaining
that things are so bad who could NOT write … yet there he is in the heart of it
all, as much a part of Roman life as the figures he satirises.
During the rules of Nerva (AD 96-98), Trajan (AD 98-117) and Hadrian (AD 117-138),
the Empire was consolidated and well administered. Pliny the Younger wrote letters,
including a book of correspondence to the Emperor Trajan from his governorship in
Bithynia. These letters are very subservient to the emperor and ask for advice on
virtually everything – including what to do with this new awkward cult of Christians
who won’t sacrifice to the cult of the Emperor even though failure to do so is treason.
Trajan advises not to hunt them out but to give them all a chance to recant and
to punish only if they persist.
Tacitus, relieved to be able to write history once Domitian had been killed (AD 96),
wrote his Agricola, Germania and annals. They are the history of powerful people,
their triumphs and ambitions, but he also give us much information about local customs
in Britain and Germany, and insider knowledge at the corrupt and oppressive imperial
court in Rome.
Plutarch wrote his Greek essays on ethics and topics such as ’curiosity’, ‘table
talk’ and ‘bashfulness’ – so very abstract compared to Seneca’s Stoic practicality
on how to mentally survive tough times. Plutarch’s main work was his ‘Parallel Lives’,
comparing and contrasting a great Greek with a corresponding great Roman. This was
biography, following lives, fortunes and deaths of great men.
Suetonius wrote more biography, but in Latin. His lives of the Caesars gave insights
into appearances and habits of the emperors and, combined with Tacitus’ Annals, would
provide the meat for Robert Graves’ I, Claudius.
This Silver Age provided a wide range of impressive literature, even though free
speech was largely suppressed and dangerous, and even though they were working in
the shadow of the great works of the Golden Age. A cosmopolitan mix stirred up the
literary circles creating the Silver Age’s burst of quality literature but this was
the swan song for great Roman writing; Classical Literature itself was from now on,
strictly speaking, over.
However, after this, novels would be written and Christian writers would flourish
and multiply …