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Classical Criticism – A Peek into Roman Criticism

April 15, 2016 | By and

Roman criticism and poetry influenced great writers like James Joyce and Ezra Pound and although not as reputed as the critiques of Plato and Aristotle, continues to be a beacon for most masters of literature who look up to these critics for their precision of thought.

The pen is the tongue of the mind. – Horace

Roman literature and criticism was largely influenced by the views of Aristotle, particularly his views on the unities of time, place, and action. Roman writers agreed with the Aristotelian view that the epic should be characterised by a lofty theme and epic poems like The Aeneid are illustrations of the extent to which Roman writers adhered to the tenets of the Greek masterminds. This is why it is called the Augustan age of neo-clasicism, as Virgil wrote during the time of Augustus Caesar and produced his masterpiece epic. Its influence was not only on Dante but even in the twentieth century on a writer like Broch from Germany.

Regarding the use of dramatic devices like the deux ex machina (using a crane or propeller to lower gods or supernatural elements onto the stage), there were mixed views. While Greek playwrights like Aeschylus and Euripides used this device in their tragedies and Aristophanes (considered the father of comedy) used it in his comedies, Aristotle disapproved of this device stating that it displays a certain lack of creativity on the part of the dramatist. There is less evidence regarding the use of this device by Roman playwrights like Seneca, Plautus, or Terence. This apparently shows the effect of criticism on literature.

These busts of the Ancient Greek theatrical writers Euripides, Aeschylus and Sophocles are in front of the National Garden and were moved from Kotzia square in Athens. (Pic: Wikimedia CC0)

These busts of the Ancient Greek theatrical writers Euripides, Aeschylus and Sophocles are in front of the National Garden and were moved from Kotzia square in Athens.
(Pic: Wikimedia CC0)

Another significant aspect of Roman drama that owes its influence to the views of Aristotle is the role of the chorus. The use of masks and the ritualistic movement from right to left (strophe), left to right (antistrophe), and standing still in the centre (epode) have their roots in the ideas expressed in Poetics. Like Greek comedies, Roman comedies also satirised the follies and foibles prevalent in society. There was no mixing of the tragic and the comic and the tragic-comedy made its entry into the world of drama quite late.

Greek Tragedy by Aeschylus and Euripides

Greek Tragedy by Aeschylus and Euripides

Drama, in short, had its golden age in Greece. But in Rome, playwrights like Seneca were believed to have experimented with the form of drama. For instance, the five-act division, which most playwrights including the Bard of Avon adopted, is attributed to Seneca. It is also believed that Seneca wrote plays that were believed to be for recitation more than performance (the beginnings of closet drama), but there seem to be mixed opinions about this. Some critics say that his plays were performed and even the emperor Nero had performed in some of his plays.

In short, drama did have its popularity in Rome, but poetry ultimately proved the most popular and predominant genre. The two renowned Roman critics whose critical works are based on poetic creation are Horace and Longinus. Horace is known for his Ars Poetica (The Art of Poetry) and Longinus is known for his work On the Sublime.

The Roman literary period was also the age of patronage where patrons or rich and affluent people gave money to poets to write about them. So, being a poet not only meant literary prosperity but also material prosperity. Nature poems and poems dealing with love and sex were much sought after.

Longinus stated that poetry should instil in the reader a sense of awe –the sublime -, which leads the reader to ecstasy and creates a feeling of exultation. He felt that one can achieve a sense of sublimity while reading poetry mainly due to the language and the thought it conveys. By language, he refers to diction, imagery, and figures of speech.

According to Horace, poetry is an art that needs to be perfected or rather a subject that needs to be learned. In Ars Poetica, he lifts poetry to a higher realm. According to him, the aim of the poet is not to do what was done before but to experiment on something new. He emphasised on consistency in metre. What is interesting to note is that while Plato focused more on literature as a medium of instruction that appeals socially, and Aristotle focused on literature as a medium of delight that appeals psychologically, Horace brought about a harmony of the two by affirming that the aim of poetry is to teach and delight.

Roman criticism and poetry influenced great writers like James Joyce and Ezra Pound and although not as reputed as the critiques of Plato and Aristotle, continues to be a beacon for most masters of literature who look up to these critics for their precision of thought.

While talking of Roman literature one also has to mention Ovid and his Metamorphosis as a seminal work as the idea of metamorphosis haunted even writers like Beckett and Kafka.

More to read

Notes On Literary Criticism by Dr A V Koshy

Notes on Literary Criticism – Part II

Notes on Literary Criticism – Part III

Writing, Theory and the Making of Verse

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Dr Koshy A. V. is an Assistant Professor at the Department of English at the College for Arts and Humanities for Girls, Jazan University, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He has written, co-written or co-edited eight books of criticism and poetry to his credit with authors like A.V. Varghese, Gorakhnath Gangane, Angel Meredith, Madhumita Ghosh, Zeenath Ibrahim, Rukhaya MK and Bina Biswas and one of them 'A Treatise on Poetry for Beginners' was reprinted once as 'Art of Poetry.' He is a Pushcart Poetry Prize nominee (2012) and twice Highly Commended Poet in Destiny Poets UK ICOP (2013, 2014) and he was thrice featured in Camel Saloon’s The Hump for best poem/editor’s pick and once for best poem in Destiny Poets UK Website. Even as a child he won the Shankar's international award for writing. He is a reputed critic and expert on Samuel Beckett besides being a fiction writer and theoretician. His last books were Wake Up, India: Essays for Our Times, co-authored with Dr Bina Biswas and Mahesh Dattani's Plays: Staging the Invisibles co-edited with Bina Biswas. Three more are on the way, namely The Significant Anthology he is editing with Reena Prasad, a collection of stories to be published by Lifi and a collection of poetry with Bina Biswas and Pramila Khadun. He has edited or co-edited many books including A Man Outside History by Naseer Ahmed Nasir and Inklinks: An Anthology by Poets Corner and a novel for Lifi. He instituted the Reuel International Literary Prize in 2014 and runs an autism NPO with his wife Anna Gabriel. The first prize was given to Dr Santosh Bakaya. He administers with the help of others the literary group Rejected Stuff on Facebook. His poems have been studied in a research paper by Dr Zeenath Ibrahim and Kiriti Sengupta in Dazzling Bards and also translated into Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati,German and Malayalam. He won World Bank’s Urgent Evoke and participated in European Union’s Edgeryders. He has been interviewed extensively. He has other degrees, diplomas and certificates to his credit besides his doctorate on Beckett. He attributes everything to God’s grace and the prayers and good wishes of his loved ones.
All Posts of Dr Ampat Varghese Koshy
Suja Menon has been teaching for the past two decades. She is a storyteller and a 'myth freak.' Her chief interests include literary theory, mythic feminism, narratology, and traumatives (rape narratives), and drama and narrative in language teaching on which her doctoral research was based.. She has published over 12 articles in various journal and anthologies.At present, she is a Language Instructor in Jazan University.
All Posts of Dr Suja Menon

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