Here are very brief sketches of the twelve authors represented in the Readings, and a few other persons of major importance. They are arranged in chronological order, and divided between those belonging to the Republic and those who had their careers under the Empire. For the larger context, see the Chronology page. A zero in front of a date means "BC," and a little c means "circa" (which is Latin for "about" or "approximately"); "fl" means "flourished in."
- The Twelve Tables (c0450?)
- These are the lost law code of the early Republic, and are now known only from quotes by the later jurists, which have been reassembled by scholars; we use the edition of Warmington. Scrappy as they are, they give a vivid picture of the early Roman state. For an analysis and retranslation, see Twelve Tables, elsewhere on this site.
- Cato (0234-0149)
- Marcus Porcius Cato was born in Tusculum of peasant stock, and rapidly made a name for himself as a military leader. In 0198 he became Praetor in Sardinia, and the Leges Porciae (expelling usurers) were probably passed at this time. He held the post of Censor in 0184, and pursued a policy of rebuilding at Rome. He was a Roman cultural conservative: he opposed Greek influence and the eastern extension of Roman power, and was alarmed at the resurgence of Carthage in the west. His De Agri Cultura (c0160) is a handbook of farming in all its aspects, and reflects his interest in building and maintaining a traditional base for a tenable Roman power. His histories, the Origines, belong to his old age, and though criticized by such successors as Cornelius Nepos, marked the beginning of history writing in Rome. He himself defined their prose style by the maxim "rem tene, verba sequentur."
- Julius Caesar (0100-044)
- Gaius Julius Caesar's early history in Rome is one of intrigue and maneuver, and personal enrichment while in charge of the province of Spain. In 058 he was assigned the provinces of Gaul both within and beyond the Alps, and for ten years he conducted campaigns of pacification; his own rewritten Commentaries on those wars are still often assigned in first year Latin classes, taught by teachers of the old school who enormously admire Caesar and despise his assassin Brutus as a miserable wretch. Having distinguished himself in Gaul (now France), though less so in Britain (now Britain), he returned in defiance of a Senate order to disarm, and on 10 January 049 crossed the river Rubicon and began the civil war which defined the next few years. In 046 he was made Dictator for ten years. His final battle, in 045, was to subdue his rival Pompey's sons in Spain. He was made Dictator for life in 044. He reorganized the Roman state and its public services, founded colonies, and reformed time keeping (whence the "Julian" calendar). He was assassinated by those who objected to his aspiration to the status of an Emperor. In politics he lacked finesse, and did not understand the exertion of power by indirect means. His great qualities as a leader are strategic vision (seeing the point of the situation) and rapidity of movement, and for these qualities he has been continuously studied by military thinkers of all later ages. He was posthumously deified, and his successor, the more politically astute Augustus, inaugurated the era of divine kingship at Rome.
- Cornelius Nepos (c099-c024)
- Nepos was born in Gaul, but lived most of his life in Rome. He seems to have possessed a private fortune, and so was able to devote himself to literature. He took no part in politics, but was acquainted with the major figures of his time, among them Cicero, the elder Pliny, and Catullus, who dedicated a book of poems to him. Most of his works are lost; they included a universal history (the Chronica) and collections of poems and anecdotes, and many biographical writings, including lives of Cato and Cicero. His extensive work De Viris Illustribus was in at least sixteen books, and followed the model of Plutarch in paired distinguished men of Greece and Rome. It was published in 034, and a revised edition was issued sometime before 027. Of this work we now possess only the section on great generals. Nepos criticized Cato for the plainness of his historical writing, but Nepos's own prose is simple, and his few rhetorical ornaments (such as alliteration and antithesis) are sometimes used to excess. He wrote for the public, and like many of the authors of his period, for their edification.
- Sallust (086-035)
- Horace (065-08)
- Quintus Horatius Flaccus is the best, and the best loved, of Roman poets. He carries to an extreme the Latin freedom to separate a subject and its verb, or a noun and its adjective. But one can get used to that, and the grace of the result answers all. Horace himself gathered his songs (Carmina) for publication. Books 1-3 appeared in 023, after which Horace, as he thought, retired from poetry. He was however called back by the Emperor Augustus. Horace's Book 4 appeared in 013. It is a very mixed bag. Some poems are perfuctory praises of the war exploits of Augustus's nephews, which were more or less required by the situation. There are also some pieces more his own, which display a mastery like that of the last works of Mozart.
- Livy (059-17)
- Marcus Titus Livius
- Phaedrus (c015-c50)
- Seneca (04-65)
- Lucius Annaeus Seneca was born in Spain into a wealthy family, one of three talented brothers. He studied in Rome, first with disciples of Sextius Quintus. He spent time in Egypt and (in banishment) in Corsica. He became tutor to Nero in 49, and continued as minister after Nero became Emperor in 54, pursuing a successful policy of modesty and compromise. As Nero became ungovernable, Seneca asked leave to retire and donate his wealth to the state in 62. He was forced to commit suicide in 65 for alleged participation in the Pisonian Conspiracy. His philosophical works were written between 40 and his death in 65, and embody a humanistic Stoicism that was an important influence at the time; his most popular works are his 124 surviving Letters (Epistulae Morales), an artificial form (they are only pseudo-letters), but an effective one. He also wrote a now lost geographical treatise on India.
- Quintus Curtius (fl 60)
- Quintilian (c30-c100)
- Marcus Fabius Quintilianus was born in Spain, but was educated at Rome and there became a famous teacher of rhetoric. His Institutio Oratoria, a complete manual for the training of the forensic speaker, was written over a two-year period before the death of Emperor Domitian (96). It includes, in Book 10, criticisms of the work of previous authors, including Sallust and Livy. It was profoundly influential in mediaeval and early modern times.
- Tacitus (c56-c115)
- Cornelius Tacitus came from Gallic or north Italian stock; little is known of his early years. He married the daughter of Agricola, the conqueror of Britain, whose life he wrote in 98; this work still survives. From the same year is his description of the German tribes. His two larger historical works, the Histories and the Annals, occupied his last years; both are only partially preserved. He shows a nostalgia for the simpler days of the Republic, and criticizes those who failed to oppose Imperial corruption and misrule. The conspicuously literary style of these works is much admired. Tacitus believed in the moral effect of history, and for this reason also, he has remained influential among historians.
See also the Reading Suggestions page.
30 Jan 2007 / Contact The Project / Exit to Latin Index Page