Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Rude and rowdy Roman poets


Guest reviewer Colin Fisher has been reading Roman poetry …. 

We all, I am sure, have images of Ancient Rome – the Empire and the city. Mine are probably a mixture of childhood memories of watching I, Claudius on television, listening to Radio 4’s adaptations of Lindsey Davis’ Falco novels and watching too many fly-throughs of Ancient Rome on YouTube. These experiences may score high as entertainment but perhaps lack insight into life in an epoch characterised by the extremes of cruelty and high learning. What, I ask myself, did it feel like to live as a Roman?

To my surprise I have found that some of the answers to that question have come not from experimental archaeology. I have not scrawled political graffiti on walls nor made my own garum, the Spanish fish sauce produced from mackerel and valued highly by Romans. Instead, I have been reading Roman Poets of the Early Empire.  Some of the names of the poets are familiar: Ovid, Seneca, Lucan and Martial. Others, such as Calpurnus Siccus and Statius, are less so. Their biographies range from the detailed chronicles on the life of Seneca (tutor to Nero, he was ordered by him to commit suicide) to the sole comment on Valerius Flaccus, by the rhetorician Quintilian: “We have lost a great deal recently in Valerius Flaccus.” Each poet in this edition comes with detailed notes, placing him and his work in their historical, cultural and political contexts.

What have I learned about being a literate, well-read Roman of the Early Empire? Like the empire itself, it’s a strange mixture of the tender and loving and the vulgar and violent. Many of the poets in the anthology had come of age during or lived through the civil wars that started with Caesar’s confrontation with the Senate in 49 B.C., and ended with the suicide of Cleopatra in 30 B.C.. To be a successful poet during this period meant having important friends: the closer to the centre of power the better your sales. Their work thus reflects what they experienced in that tumultuous time.

Ovid, best known for his collection of poems called the Metamorphoses, was exiled by Augustus for reasons that are still disputed by scholars. Lucky to have escaped execution, he found himself in the Black Sea city of Tomis. He was far from his beloved Rome and his powerful friends. From his disgrace he wrote letters in the form of couplets, the Tristia. In them he lamented his destiny, pleaded for his return and worried if the boat he was on would sink:

Here surges a huge wave, overtopping all the waves before it,

the proverbial tenth. It’s not

death as such that I fear, but this wretched way of dying –

only spare me shipwreck, and death will come

as a blessing.

Yes, he still boasts of his accomplishments, praises the Emperor Augustus (what else could he have done?) and compares his fortune with that of Ulysses. But something of the man comes through and it is hard not to sympathise with him.

On the other hand, the poet Statius makes it all too clear in his account of the mythical civil war between the sons of Oedipus, the Thebaid, that it is the Gods that hold our lives in their hands. They do not seem to care too much if we live or die. In the poem the Goddess Valour convinces the Theban warrior Menoeceus, son of the King of Thebes, that his own death will save his city. He throws himself from the city walls. The goddess, of course, was lying. The city is captured and Jupiter, laughing, strikes down Capaneus, victorious leader of the opposing Argives, with a thunderbolt. Did the original readers of the poem, who, like the poet, would have lived through the civil wars of A.D. 68/69, ponder on this metaphor that no-one wins when a society turns on itself?

Between these two extremes, the human and the divine, is a gamut of poetic form and expression. Martial, by his own admission, wrote verses (his Epigrams) that sometimes “gambol with Priapic verve”. I shall quote no more as they really are quite rude. But he is also capable of writing with great tenderness about the death of six-year old Erotion, who may have been his daughter by a slave. He entreats the buyers of the land which holds her grave to continue to care for it:

Thou, whoever thou mayst be,

That hast this small field after me,

Let the yearly rites be paid

To her little slender shade;

Lucan as writer of the Civil War, a multi-book chronicle of the civil war that set Julius Caesar against his one-time friend Pompey, necessarily dealt with history on an epic level. But, unlike the respect shown by poets such as Virgil to the Gods, this did not stop him rebuking the god Apollo. He did not tell the Delphic Oracle the details of the terrible consequences that would arise from the conflict, and Lucan asks him:


do you fear to disclose the final throes of the Empire’s collapse,

leaders slain and the deaths of kings, all nations drowned

in Hesperia’s blood?

A brave man, Lucan too was forced to commit suicide, aged 26,  after the discovery of the plot against the Emperor Nero.

I have enjoyed spending time with this somewhat rum bunch of poets. I admire their honesty. They looked unflinchingly at all aspects of human behaviour. They did so with no expectation that everything would work out in the end. Vain, tetchy, easily-bored, cynical and, at times, plain nasty they may have been. But they seemed to pour into their work a love for the written word and a belief that the genres in which they were working were flexible and thus capable of experiment and improvement.

Roman Poets of the Early Empire, eds A. J. Boyle and J. P. Sullivan (Penguin  1991), ISBN 978-0140445442, £7.99.

Colin teaches English in Spain, and posts wine reviews regularly. His first novel is  A Republic of Wolves, A City of Ghosts.




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This entry was posted on August 28, 2015 by in Poetry, Poetry: lyric, Poetry:literary and tagged .



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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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