Latin literature V: Historians Posted by on Mar 22, 2012 in Latin Language, Roman culture


The first Latin historians we know began to write some History in the form of Annals in the last third of the 3rd century BC.

In the 1st century B.C. in time of Sulla,  the first great authors that changed the course of Latin historiography were born: Caesar and Sallust. With these two authors begins historiography of the classical period, which in addition to seeking the truth telling, the goal was to give aesthetic value to the historiographical work.

Caesar (100 – 44 BC.) wrote two history books about two of his most important military campaigns: Commentaries on The Gallic War, which occurred between 58 and 52 BC.; and Commentaries on the Civil War (48 to 49 BC.). His figure and value is nowadays much greater as a politician and military than as a writer, but he was also a great stylist of Latin. His works are seen as field notes, in Latin they are called in commentarii, i.e. annotations, commentaries.

Sallust was born in year 86 BC. in Sabina and died a few years after Caesar, retired from public life. He devoted himself to politics siding with Caesar’s camp. He wrote three works: Historiae (we retain only in fragments), and two monographs, The Jugurthine War and The Conspiracy of Catiline. Sallust choose the historical events that best suited his political ideology. The first monograph tells of the revolt against Rome in Numidia Jugurtha. The second work is about Lucius Catiline’s conspiracy against the state prepared in 63 BC.

Nepos (100 – 25 BC.) had an almost unknown life. His work focuses on historical biographies. The most important book, De Viris Illustribus, or Lives of the Illustrious Romans separates roman citizens from foreigners, it has been preserved only in part, almost all foreigners. Historical data are not always correct, and he tried to give a certain biography profile as in the life of Hannibal.

Livy (59 BC. – 17 AD.) was born in Capua where he was educated in rhetoric and philosophy. Around the year 30 BC, at the same time of the proclamation of Octavian as Augustus, he arrived in Rome where he dedicated his life to the publication of their History since the founding of the city, ab urbe condita, until the death of Drusus.

Livy’s influence was very great and it would take nearly a hundred years to find again historians of his prestige. This change happened in the next century with two authors somewhat opposed, but who told the same historical events of the first decades of the Empire.

Tacitus (56 – 117 AD.) was born around the year 56 AD. in Narbonne in Gaul. His works are divided into two groups, minor works: Agricola, Germania and Dialogus de Oratoribus. And major works: Historiae and Ab Excessu Divi Augusti (The Annals). In Agricola he made a laudatory biography of his father-in-law, Gnaeus Julius Agricola. It is a blend of biography, historical essay and laudatio or eulogistic funeral speech. The second work, Germania,  is a monograph about geography, history and ethnography of the Germans. Dialogus de Oratoribus is a different work from the rest. It takes over three dialogues between speakers that discuss aspects of oratory. His influence was particularly notorious in authors of the Enlightenment such as Montesquieu and Rousseau.

Suetonius was one of the last great historians. We know very little about his life. He was born around year 69 AD. in Africa. He must have died between 130 and 140 AD. Not all his works were preserved, but we retain the life of the Twelve Caesars and only partly Lives of the Grammarians and Rhetoricians. His major work, De Vita Caesarum, is about the lives of the early emperors from Julius Caesar to Domitian at the end of 1st century AD. The stories of the lives of the emperors are peppered with anecdotes relating to private life mixed with public appearances, but define a different personality for each emperor. Suetonius’ biography is in some extetn a contrast to Tacitus’ life.



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