Classical Latin

This article is about written Classical Latin. For spoken language, see Latin.
Classical Latin
Lingva (Lingua) Latina

Latin inscription in the Colosseum
Pronunciation [laˈtiːnɪtaːs]
Native to Roman Republic, Roman Empire
Region Mare Nostrum region
Era 75 BC to AD 3rd century, when it developed into Late Latin
Early forms
Old Latin
  • Classical Latin
Classical Latin alphabet 
Official status
Official language in
Roman Republic, Roman Empire
Regulated by Schools of grammar and rhetoric
Language codes
ISO 639-3
Linguist list
Glottolog None
Linguasphere 51-AAB-aaa

The range of Latin, AD 60

Classical Latin is the modern term used to describe the form of the Latin language recognized as standard by writers of the late Roman Republic and the Roman Empire. In some later periods, it was regarded as "good" Latin, with later versions being viewed as debased or corrupt. The word Latin is now taken by default as meaning "Classical Latin", so that, for example, modern Latin textbooks describe classical Latin. Marcus Tullius Cicero and his contemporaries of the late republic, while using lingua Latina and sermo Latinus to mean the Latin language as opposed to the Greek or other languages, and sermo vulgaris or sermo vulgi to refer to the vernacular, regarded the speech they valued most and in which they wrote as Latinitas, "Latinity", with the implication of good. Sometimes it is called sermo familiaris, "speech of the good families", sermo urbanus, "speech of the city" or rarely sermo nobilis, "noble speech", but mainly besides Latinitas it was Latine (adverb), "in good Latin", or Latinius (comparative degree of adjective), "good Latin".

Latinitas was spoken as well as written. Moreover, it was the language taught by the schools. Prescriptive rules therefore applied to it, and where a special subject was concerned, such as poetry or rhetoric, additional rules applied. Now that the spoken Latinitas has become extinct (in favor of various other registers later in date) the rules of the, for the most part, polished (politus) texts may give the appearance of an artificial language, but Latinitas was a form of sermo, or spoken language and as such retains a spontaneity. No authors are noted for the type of rigidity evidenced by stylized art, except possibly the repetitious abbreviations and stock phrases of inscriptions.

Philological constructs


Good Latin in philology is "classical" Latin literature. The term refers to the canonicity of works of literature written in Latin in the late Roman Republic and the early to middle Roman Empire: "that is to say, that of belonging to an exclusive group of authors (or works) that were considered to be emblematic of a certain genre."[1] The term classicus (masculine plural classici) was devised by the Romans themselves to translate Greek ἐγκριθέντες (enkrithentes), "select", referring to authors who wrote in Greek that were considered model. Before then, classis, in addition to being a naval fleet, was a social class in one of the diachronic divisions of Roman society according to property ownership by the Roman constitution.[2] The word is a transliteration of Greek κλῆσις (klēsis) "calling", used to rank army draftees by property from first to fifth class.

Classicus is anything primae classis, "first class", such as the authors of the polished works of Latinitas, or sermo urbanus. It had nuances of the certified and the authentic: testis classicus, "reliable witness." It was in this sense that Marcus Cornelius Fronto (an African-Roman lawyer and language teacher) in the 2nd century AD used scriptores classici, "first-class" or "reliable authors" whose works could be relied upon as model of good Latin.[3] This is the first known reference, possibly innovated at this time, to classical applied to authors by virtue of the authentic language of their works.[4]


David Ruhnken

In imitation of the Greek grammarians, the Roman ones, such as Quintilian, drew up lists termed indices or ordines on the model of the Greek lists, termed pinakes, considered classical: the recepti scriptores, "select writers." Aulus Gellius includes many authors, such as Plautus, who are currently considered writers of Old Latin and not strictly in the period of classical Latin. The classical Romans distinguished Old Latin as prisca Latinitas and not sermo vulgaris. Each author (and work) in the Roman lists was considered equivalent to one in the Greek; for example Ennius was the Latin Homer, the Aeneid was a new Iliad, and so on. The lists of classical authors were as far as the Roman grammarians went in developing a philology. The topic remained at that point while interest in the classici scriptores declined in the medieval period as the best Latin yielded to medieval Latin, somewhat less than the best by classical standards.

The Renaissance brought a revival of interest in restoring as much of Roman culture as could be restored and with it the return of the concept of classic, "the best." Thomas Sébillet in 1548 (Art Poétique) referred to "les bons et classiques poètes françois", meaning Jean de Meun and Alain Chartier, which was the first modern application of the word. According to Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, the term classical, from classicus, entered modern English in 1599, some 50 years after its re-introduction on the continent. Governor William Bradford in 1648 referred to synods of a separatist church as "classical meetings" in his Dialogue, a report of a meeting between New-England-born "young men" and "ancient men" from Holland and England.[5] In 1715 Laurence Echard's Classical Geographical Dictionary was published.[6] In 1736 Robert Ainsworth's Thesaurus Linguae Latinae Compendarius turned English words and expressions into "proper and classical Latin."[7] In 1768 David Ruhnken (Critical History of the Greek Orators) recast the mold of the view of the classical by applying the word canon to the pinakes of orators, after the Biblical canon or list of authentic books of the Bible. Ruhnken had a kind of secular catechism in mind.[8]

Ages of Latin

Wilhelm Sigismund Teuffel

In 1870 Wilhelm Sigismund Teuffel in Geschichte der Römischen Literatur (A History of Roman Literature) innovated the definitive philological classification of classical Latin based on the metaphoric uses of the ancient myth of the Ages of Man, a practice then universally current: a Golden Age and a Silver Age of classical Latin were to be presumed. The practice and Teuffel's classification, with modifications, are still in use. His work was translated into English as soon as published in German by Wilhelm Wagner, who corresponded with Teuffel. Wagner published the English translation in 1873. Teuffel divides the chronology of classical Latin authors into several periods according to political events, rather than by style. Regarding the style of the literary Latin of those periods he had but few comments.

Teuffel was to go on with other editions of his history, but meanwhile it had come out in English almost as soon as it did in German and found immediate favorable reception. In 1877 Charles Thomas Cruttwell produced the first English work along the same lines. In his Preface he refers to "Teuffel's admirable history, without which many chapters in the present work could not have attained completeness" and also gives credit to Wagner.

Cruttwell adopts the same periods with minor differences; however, where Teuffel's work is mainly historical, Cruttwell's work contains detailed analyses of style. Nevertheless, like Teuffel he encounters the same problem of trying to summarize the voluminous detail in a way that captures in brief the gist of a few phases of writing styles. Like Teuffel, he has trouble finding a name for the first of the three periods (the current Old Latin phase), calling it mainly "from Livius to Sulla." The language, he says, is "…marked by immaturity of art and language, by a vigorous but ill-disciplined imitation of Greek poetical models, and in prose by a dry sententiousness of style, gradually giving way to a clear and fluent strength…" These abstracts have little meaning to those not well-versed in Latin literature. In fact, Cruttwell admits "The ancients, indeed, saw a difference between Ennius, Pacuvius, and Accius, but it may be questioned whether the advance would be perceptible by us."

Some of Cruttwell's ideas have become established in Latin philology. While praising the application of rules to classical Latin, most intensely in the Golden Age, he says "In gaining accuracy, however, classical Latin suffered a grievous loss. It became cultivated as distinct from a natural language… Spontaneity, therefore, became impossible and soon invention also ceased… In a certain sense, therefore, Latin was studied as a dead language, while it was still a living."[9]

A second problem is the appropriateness of Teuffel's scheme to the concept of classical Latin, which Teuffel does not discuss. Cruttwell addresses the problem, however, altering the concept of the classical. As the best Latin is defined as golden Latin, the second of the three periods, the other two periods considered classical are left hanging. While on the one hand assigning to Old Latin the term pre-classical and by implication the term post-classical (or post-Augustan) to silver Latin Cruttwell realizes that this construct is not according to ancient usage and asserts "…the epithet classical is by many restricted to the authors who wrote in it [golden Latin]. It is best, however, not to narrow unnecessarily the sphere of classicity; to exclude Terence on the one hand or Tacitus and Pliny on the other, would savour of artificial restriction rather than that of a natural classification." (This from a scholar who had just been complaining that golden Latin was not a natural language.) The contradiction remains; Terence is and is not a classical author depending on context.[10]

Authors of the Golden Age

At Maecenas' Reception, oil, Stepan Bakalovich, 1890. An artist's view of the classical. Maecenas knew and entertained everyone literary in the Golden Age, especially Augustus.

After defining a "First Period" of inscriptional Latin and the literature of the earliest known authors and fragments, to which he assigns no definitive name (he does use the term "Old Roman" at one point), Teuffel presents "the second period", his major, "das goldene Zeitalter der römischen Literatur", the Golden Age of Roman Literature, dated 671–767 AUC or 83 BC – 14 AD according to his time reckoning, between the dictatorship of Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix and the death of the emperor Augustus.[11][12] Of it Wagner translating Teuffel writes

The golden age of the Roman literature is that period in which the climax was reached in the perfection of form, and in most respects also in the methodical treatment of the subject-matters. It may be subdivided between the generations, in the first of which (the Ciceronian Age) prose culminated, while poetry was principally developed in the Augustan Age.

The Ciceronian Age was dated 671–711 AUC (83 BC – 43 BC), ending just after the death of M. Tullius Cicero, and the Augustan 711–67 AUC (43 BC – 14 AD), ending with the death of Augustus. The Ciceronian Age is further divided by the consulship of Cicero in 691 AUC or 63 BC into a first and second half. Authors are assigned to these periods by years of principal achievements.

The Golden Age had already made an appearance in German philology but in a less systematic way. In Bielfeld's 1770 Elements of universal erudition the author says (in translation): "The Second Age of Latin began about the time of Caesar [his ages are different from Teuffel's], and ended with Tiberius. This is what is called the Augustan Age, which was perhaps of all others the most brilliant, a period at which it should seem as if the greatest men, and the immortal authors, had met together upon the earth, in order to write the Latin language in its utmost purity and perfection."[13] and of Tacitus "…his conceits and sententious style is not that of the golden age…".[14] Teuffel evidently received the ideas of a golden and silver Latin from an existing tradition and embedded them in a new system, transforming them as he thought best.

In Cruttwell's introduction, the Golden Age is dated 80 BC – 14 AD ("from Cicero to Ovid"), which is about the same as Teuffel's. Of this "Second Period" Cruttwell says that it "represents the highest excellence in prose and poetry," paraphrasing Teuffel. The Ciceronian Age is now "the Republican Period" and is dated 80–42 BC through the Battle of Philippi. Later in the book Cruttwell omits Teuffel's first half of the Ciceronian and starts the Golden Age at Cicero's consulship of 63 BC, an error perpetuated into Cruttwell's second edition as well. He must mean 80 BC as he includes Varro in Golden Latin. Teuffel's Augustan Age is Cruttwell's Augustan Epoch, 42 BC – 14 AD.


Marcus Tullius Cicero, after whom Teuffel named his Ciceronian period of the Golden Age
Julius Caesar

The literary histories list all authors canonical to the Ciceronian Age even though their works may be fragmentary or may not have survived at all. With the exception of a few major writers, such as Cicero, Caesar, Virgil and Catullus, ancient accounts of Republican literature are glowing accounts of jurists and orators who wrote prolifically but who now can't be read because their works have been lost, or analyses of language and style that appear insightful but can't be verified because there are no surviving instances. In that sense the pages of literary history are peopled with shadows: Aquilius Gallus, Quintus Hortensius Hortalus, Lucius Licinius Lucullus and many others who left a reputation but no readable works; they are to be presumed in the Golden Age by their associations. A list of some canonical authors of the period, whose works have survived in whole or in part (typically in part, some only short fragments) is as follows:


Virgil's bust, on his tomb in Naples

The Golden Age is divided by the assassination of Julius Caesar. In the wars that followed the Republican generation of literary men was lost, as most of them had taken the losing side; Marcus Tullius Cicero was beheaded in the street as he enquired from his litter what the disturbance was. They were replaced by a new generation that had grown up and been educated under the old and were now to make their mark under the watchful eye of the new emperor. As the demand for great orators was more or less over,[15] the talent shifted emphasis to poetry. Other than the historian Livy, the most remarkable writers of the period were the poets Virgil, Horace, and Ovid. Although Augustus evidenced some toleration to republican sympathizers, he exiled Ovid, and imperial tolerance ended with the continuance of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty.

Augustan writers include:

Authors of the Silver Age

The frowning second emperor, Tiberius, limited free speech, precipitating the rise of Silver Latin, with its emphasis on mannerism rather than on solid content, according to Teuffel's model

In his second volume, on the Imperial Period, Teuffel initiated a slight alteration in approach, making it clearer that his terms applied to the Latin and not just to the age, and also changing his dating scheme from years AUC to modern. Although he introduces das silberne Zeitalter der römischen Literatur, "the Silver Age of Roman Literature", 14–117 AD,[16] from the death of Augustus to the death of Trajan, he also mentions regarding a section of a work by Seneca the Elder a wenig Einfluss der silbernen Latinität, a "slight influence of silver Latin." It is clear that he had shifted in thought from golden and silver ages to golden and silver Latin, and not just Latin, but Latinitas, which must at this point be interpreted as classical Latin. He may have been influenced in that regard by one of his sources, E. Opitz, who in 1852 had published a title specimen lexilogiae argenteae latinitatis, mentioning silver Latinity.[17] Although Teuffel's First Period was equivalent to Old Latin and his Second Period was equal to the Golden Age, his Third Period, die römische Kaiserheit, encompasses both the Silver Age and the centuries now termed Late Latin, in which the forms seemed to break loose from their foundation and float freely; that is, literary men appeared uncertain as to what "good Latin" should mean. The last of the Classical Latin is the Silver Latin. The Silver Age is the first of the Imperial Period and is divided into die Zeit der julischen Dynastie, 14–68; die Zeit der flavischen Dynastie, 69–96; and die Zeit des Nerva und Trajan, 96–117. Subsequently Teuffel goes over to a century scheme: 2nd, 3rd, etc., through 6th. His later editions (which came out in the rest of the late 19th century) divide the Imperial Age into parts: the 1st century (Silver Age), the 2nd century: Hadrian and the Antonines and the 3rd through the 6th Centuries. Of the Silver Age proper, pointing out that anything like freedom of speech had vanished with Tiberius, Teuffel says[18]

…the continual apprehension in which men lived caused a restless versatility… Simple or natural composition was considered insipid; the aim of language was to be brilliant… Hence it was dressed up with abundant tinsel of epigrams, rhetorical figures and poetical terms… Mannerism supplanted style, and bombastic pathos took the place of quiet power.

The content of new literary works was continually proscribed by the emperor (by executing or exiling the author), who also played the role of literary man (typically badly). The talent therefore went into a repertory of new and dazzling mannerisms, which Teuffel calls "utter unreality." Crutwell picks up this theme:[19]

The foremost of these [characteristics] is unreality, arising from the extinction of freedom… Hence arose a declamatory tone, which strove by frigid and almost hysterical exaggeration to make up for the healthy stimulus afforded by daily contact with affairs. The vein of artificial rhetoric, antithesis and epigram… owes its origin to this forced contentment with an uncongenial sphere. With the decay of freedom, taste sank…
Marcus Aurelius, emperor over the last generation of classicists and himself a classicist.

In Crutwell's view (which had not been expressed by Teuffel), Silver Latin was a "rank, weed-grown garden", a "decline."[20] Cruttwell had already decried what he saw as a loss of spontaneity in Golden Latin. That Teuffel should regard the Silver Age as a loss of natural language and therefore of spontaneity, implying that the Golden Age had it, is passed without comment. Instead, Tiberius brought about a "sudden collapse of letters." The idea of a decline had been dominant in English society since Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Once again, Cruttwell evidences some unease with his stock pronouncements: "The Natural History of Pliny shows how much remained to be done in fields of great interest." The idea of Pliny as a model is not consistent with any sort of decline; moreover, Pliny did his best work under emperors at least as tolerant as Augustus had been. To include some of the best writings of the Silver Age, Cruttwell found he had to extend the period through the death of Marcus Aurelius, 180 AD. The philosophic prose of that good emperor was in no way compatible with either Teuffel's view of unnatural language or Cruttwell's depiction of a decline. Having created these constructs, the two philologists found they could not entirely justify them; apparently, in the worst implications of their views, there was no classical Latin by the ancient definition at all and some of the very best writing of any period in world history was a stilted and degenerate unnatural language.

The Silver Age also furnishes the only two extant Latin novels: Apuleius's The Golden Ass and Petronius's Satyricon.

Writers of the Silver Age include:

Through the death of Trajan, 117 AD

Germanicus Caesar
Ancient bust of Seneca, part of a double herm (Antikensammlung Berlin)

Through the death of Marcus Aurelius, 180 AD

Of the additional century granted by Cruttwell and others of his point of view to Silver Latin but not by Teuffel the latter says "The second century was a happy period for the Roman State, the happiest indeed during the whole Empire… But in the world of letters the lassitude and enervation, which told of Rome's decline, became unmistakeable… its forte is in imitation."[21] Teuffel, however, excepts the jurists; others find other "exceptions," recasting Teuffels's view.

Sketch of Apuleius

Stylistic shifts

The style of language refers to repeatable features of speech that are somewhat less general than the fundamental characteristics of the language. The latter give it a unity allowing it to be referenced under a single name. Thus Old Latin, Classical Latin, Vulgar Latin, etc., are not considered different languages, but are all referenced under the name of Latin. This is an ancient practice continued by moderns rather than a philological innovation of recent times. That Latin had case endings is a fundamental feature of the language. Whether a given form of speech prefers to use prepositions such as ad, ex, de for "to", "from" and "of" rather than simple case endings is a matter of style. Latin has a large number of styles. Each and every author has a style, which typically allows his prose or poetry to be identified by experienced Latinists. The problem of comparative literature has been to group styles finding similarities by period, in which case one may speak of Old Latin, Silver Latin, Late Latin as styles or a phase of styles.

The ancient authors themselves first defined style by recognizing different kinds of sermo, or "speech." In making the value judgement that classical Latin was "first class" and that it was better to write with Latinitas they were themselves selecting the literary and upper-class language of the city as a standard style and all sermo that differed from it was a different style; thus in rhetoric Cicero was able to define sublime, intermediate and low styles (within classical Latin) and St. Augustine to recommend the low style for sermons (from sermo).[22] Style, therefore, is to be defined by differences in speech from a standard. Teuffel defined that standard as Golden Latin.

John Edwin Sandys, for many decades an authority on Latin style, summarizes the differences between Golden and Silver Latin as follows.[23] Silver Latin is to be distinguished by

See also


  1. Citroni 2006, p. 204.
  2. Citroni 2006, p. 205.
  3. Citroni 2006, p. 206, reported in Aulus Gellius, 9.8.15.
  4. Citroni 2006, p. 207.
  5. Bradford, William (1855) [1648]. "Gov. Bradford's Dialogue". In Morton, Nathaniel. New England's Memorial. Boston: Congregational Board of Publication. p. 330.
  6. Littlefield 1904, p. 301.
  7. Ainsworth, Robert (January 1736). "Article XXX: Thesaurus Linguae Latinae Compendarius". The Present State of the Republic of Letters. London: W. Innys and R. Manby. XVII.
  8. Gorak, Jan (1991). The making of the modern canon: genesis and crisis of a literary idea. London: Athlone. p. 51.
  9. Cruttwell 1877, p. 3.
  10. Cruttwell 1877, p. 142.
  11. Teuffel 1870, p. 216.
  12. Teuffel 1873, p. 226.
  13. Bielfeld & Hooper 1770, p. 244.
  14. Bielfeld & Hooper 1770, p. 345.
  15. Teuffel 1873, p. 385, "Public life became extinct, all political business passed into the hands of the monarch..."
  16. Teuffel (1870) p. 526.
  17. Teuffel 1870, p. 530.
  18. Teuffel & Schwabe 1892, pp. 4–5.
  19. Cruttwell 1877, p. 6.
  20. Cruttwell 1877, p. 341.
  21. Teuffel & Schwabe 1892, p. 192.
  22. Auerbach, Erich; Mannheim, Ralph (Translator) (1965) [1958]. Literary Language and its Public in Late Latin Antiquity and in the Middle Ages. Bollingen Series LXXIV. Pantheon Books. p. 33.
  23. Sandys, John Edwin (1921). A Companion to Latin Studies Edited for the Syndics of the University Press (3rd ed.). Cambridge: University Press. pp. 824–26.
  24. Suetonius, Claudius, 24.1.


External links

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