Latin literature IV: Lyric Posted by on Mar 20, 2012 in Latin Language, Roman culture


This poetic genre includes diverse forms and themes. Most of the times the common subjects are about the private sphere of human beings, in contrast to the epic in which the subject is marked by a public or social man. Lyric was the poetry played on the lyre, hence its name, and it was born in the Archaic period in Greece. Treated subjects are usually intimate and personal. One can distinguish subgenres like monodic lyric performed by a soloist and the chorus performed by a choir.

In Rome existed from the beginning religious songs and rituals known as carmina. All Roman poetry is inspired by the Greek. In Rome poetry was composed to be recited, not sung as in archaic Greece.

The lyric in Rome followed since the beginning Hellenic models. We do not have many exemples of lyric preserved from the Archaic period, only some bits and pieces. In classical times one of the most important figures was Catullus, who wrote a book of poems. He was the renovator of Latin poetry and imitated Alexandrian models and Aeolian lyric. Virgil, in his first work the Bucolics or Eclogues, imitated Theocritus and got an overwhelming success in Augustus’ Rome. Horace, who introduced the measure in Latin, followed Aeolian Greek models. With his Odes and Epodes he reached the highest levels of lyric poetry of all time.

Within the lyric should be noted a subgenre that had a special significance in Rome: the elegy. You can differ it by the subjects it talked about: usually the expression of pain and deep human feeling. But also it’s form was characteristic: the elegiac couplet is the typical verse of this genre. Both Tibullus and Propertius wrote elegy during the time of Augustus. Ovid, in his vast poetic work among others we can find the genre of elegy in his Tristia and Pontics. The Metamorphoses and Fasti of mythological content on the one hand and Amores, The Art of Loving and The Heroides make the most important work of this author who was punished by Augustus into exile and died far from Rome in the time of Tiberius.

Another subgenre that was encouraged in Rome was  the satire, genuinely Roman, whose most influent representatives were Persius and Juvenal (1st century AD). It is a mixed genre which employs the dactylic hexameter with criticism purposes, often harsh. Although we mentioned the two best-known representatives, Horace in his Sermones also wrote satiric poems.

During the post-classical period we could highlight Martial, a Hispanic Roman writer from Bílbilis, famous for his satirical epigrams. Juvenal also excelled during the 1st century AD. He created the famous sentence: mens sana in corpore sano.
The classical lyric invented many of the topics that used literary poets of later times, to name a few: Catullus’ Odi et amo, the Beatus Ille, the Carpe diem of Horace…
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