Denis Feeney on 'The beginnings of Latin literature'
In cooperation with the department of GLTC (UvA) and the National Research School OIKOS
In the modern world we tend to take the existence of national literatures for granted, but they are in fact a relatively recent development in most cases. In the ancient world, it was rare for a people to have anything resembling a 'literature'. Why did the Romans develop a literature in their own language of Latin, when they shouldn’t really have done so?
In the ancient Mediterranean, around 250 BC, there were very few societies that had anything resembling a 'literature' in the modern sense. So far as we can tell, only the Greeks had a large archive of canonical texts in different genres, texts that were preserved and transmitted and that were the basis of the educational curriculum. Around 250 BC, starting with Latin translations of Greek drama and epic, the Romans began a process that ended up with them having an equivalent in their own language to this Greek institution, which is why we now have Virgil, Cicero and Ovid. Although it is easy to think that this development was natural or inevitable, it is in fact one of the strangest events in ancient history. Arguably, it shouldn’t really have happened. What is so odd about what the Romans did? And why might this strange development have taken place?
About the speaker
Denis Feeney grew up in New Zealand, went to Oxford University for his doctorate, and has been Giger Professor of Latin at Princeton University since 2000. He is the author of four books and numerous articles on Roman literature, history, and religion.
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