Princeton professor speaks on history of Latin literature

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

A crowd of over 40 filled Bond yesterday afternoon to hear Princeton professor Denis Feeney’s lecture “Why is there a Latin literature? Greeks, Romans, and Italians in middle-Republican Italy.”

Feeney, who spoke as a part of the Helen F. North lecture series, was first introduced by Swarthmore Professor of Classics William Turpin, who listed off Feeney’s background: a B.A and M.A from the University of Auckland, followed by a Ph.D from Oxford, and teaching stints at various Oxford colleges and the University of Wisconsin-Madison before landing at his current position. He is also the author of the popular text “The Gods in Epic: Poets and Critics of the Classical Tradition.”

Feeney opened his lecture by arguing that the creation of a Latin literature was not an inevitable occurrence-in fact, he sees it as a rather surprising event. He pointed out that other large groups near Rome, such as the Oscans and the Carthaginians, had their own languages and vibrant cultures, but didn’t possess their own literature.

He then went on to argue that literacy was not a problem in Latin society, and could not be used to explain the length of time before the creation of Latin literature. On the contrary, Latin had been read and spoken for centuries, and most educated Romans were also well-versed in Greek. They also produced numerous legal and religious texts.

Feeney traced the first piece of work that can be called “Latin literature” back to 240 B.C., when Lucius Livius Andronius-a former Greek who learned Latin as a Roman slave-adapted Greek drama into Latin for a celebration known as the Roman Games.

This was a practice that continued for some time: the first examples of drama, epic, or theology written in Latin were all done by native Greek speakers. Feeney goes on to explain this: “He could be the second guy to write a Latin drama, or the 250th guy to do it in Greek.” He also pointed out that when the Romans did begin writing history, they chose to do so in Greek, most likely because it was the lingua franca at the time.

Feeney closed his lecture by noting that the writing of Latin literature began to pick up by the middle of the 2nd century B.C., as Marcus Porcius Cato wrote the first prose in Latin in 160 B.C., with Lucius Accius following by writing Latin verse in 130 B.C. An enthusiastic question-and-answer session followed afterward.


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