Classical Past

The classical past

Cillian O’Hogan offers an introduction to the range of classical works that shaped medieval thought on literature and scientific learning.

Although the works of major authors of ancient Greece and Rome were read throughout the Middle Ages, they were not grouped under the heading of ‘classical literature’ or ‘classics’, the terms we use today. Instead, authors we now think of as ‘classical’, such as Virgil (b. 70 BC, d. 19 BC) and Cicero (b. 106 BC, d. 44 BC), were grouped alongside late antique Christian authors, such as Saints Augustine of Hippo (b. 354, d. 430), Jerome (b. c. 347, d. 420), and Prudentius (b. 348, d. after 405). Together, these authors were referred to as the auctores (a word that simply means ‘authors’, but carries with it the additional sense of ‘authorities’, i.e., models of style and form to be followed).  

Judging from the numbers of surviving manuscripts, the classical authors were never as popular as biblical or theological texts, yet they never fell out of fashion completely, and their influence can be traced both in the surviving medieval copies of their works and in quotations and allusions in other works.

Classical learning and erudition in the classroom

In the early Middle Ages, the major authors of antiquity continued to be central to the school curriculum, as they had been in antiquity. Latin continued to be the common language of Western Europe, and mastery of learned literary Latin required extensive study of classical authors such as Virgil as well as late antique authors.

Many of the surviving Latin grammatical and metrical treatises of the early Middle Ages draw heavily on late antique texts, which themselves quote extensively from major authors (especially Virgil and Cicero) in an effort to establish literary standards.

Aldhelm and classicising authors

In 7th-century England, the establishment of a school in Canterbury by Theodore of Tarsus (b. 602, d. 690) and Hadrian (d. 710) marked the beginning of a remarkable golden age of Anglo-Saxon learning and letters. Somewhat unusually for the early medieval West, Greek was taught at this school alongside Latin.

The outstanding classicising figure of this period is Aldhelm (b. c. 639, d. 709), who proudly (and correctly) claims to be the first Anglo-Saxon writer of Latin verse. In his poetry, Aldhelm was influenced above all by two ancient authors: Virgil and Prudentius. The latter author was extremely popular in early medieval England, as the numerous heavily-glossed manuscripts surviving from the Anglo-Saxon era attest. One fine example is an illuminated copy of Prudentius’ Psychomachia (now British Library, Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII), a short allegorical epic poem on the battle of virtues and vices.

Prudentius, Psychomachia (War of the Soul)

Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII, f. 15v

Pride and her fall illustrated in Prudentius’ Psychomachia, British Library (Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII, f. 15v)

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Aldhelm’s writings, in both prose and verse, are filled with echoes of a wide range of ancient authors, and on several occasions he explicitly compares himself to Virgil. Aldhelm demonstrates mastery of the dactylic hexameter, the metre of classical Latin epic, and sets the standard for later classicising poets. 

It is not only in poetry, however, that we find evidence of the classical past. In prose, too, Latin authors of the Middle Ages frequently quoted and alluded to their ancient predecessors. One example can be seen in the Encomium Emmae Reginae, a work written in praise of Emma of Normandy (b. c. 985, d. 1052) in 1041 or 1042, and preserved in a copy perhaps presented to Emma herself (now British Library, Add MS 33241). 

In the prologue to this work, the anonymous author cites Virgil’s Aeneid as an earlier example of a panegyric. Further allusions to Virgil and to other Latin poets pattern the work throughout, an indication of the level of erudition expected of occasional literature written for the English court of Harthacnut (b. c. 1018, d. 1042).

Encomium Emmae reginae

Add MS 33241, f. 1v

Emma and her sons Harthacnut and Edward depicted in the Encomium Emmae Reginae (British Library, Add MS 33241, f. 1v)

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Classical science and learning

Technical and scholarly works from antiquity were especially popular in the Middle Ages. Particularly prized were works dealing with astronomy, the natural world, and grammar. In classical antiquity, a number of Latin translations were made of the Greek work Phaenomena by Aratus (b. c. 315 BC, d. before 240 BC). These translations are all called Aratea, and several lavishly-illuminated copies of these texts survive from between the 9th and 12th centuries. 

One such example can be found in the 12th-century portion of a manuscript containing Cicero’s Aratea along with miniatures of the constellations (now British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius C I). The manuscript also includes brief astronomical extracts from other ancient authors.

Cicero, Aratea with scholia

Cotton MS Tiberius C I, f. 28r

The text-picture illustration of the Canis major (Sirius constellation) in Cicero’s Aratea, British Library (Cotton MS Tiberius C I, f. 28r)

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Greek literature and its influence

Classical Greek literature continued to be read and studied extensively in Byzantium. In the Latin West, however, only a small number of scholars ever learned Greek well enough to be able to read Homer or Plato in the original. But if they did not know the language, it is clear that medieval writers and scholars were always aware of the significance of Greek literature, which was circulated through translations, paraphrases, and summaries in classical Latin authors.

Greek myths were known above all from the Metamorphoses of Ovid (b. 43 BC, d. 17/18), an epic poem dealing with the theme of transformation in mythology, which was especially popular in the 11th and 12th centuries. The stories of the cursed royal house of Thebes, which included figures such as Oedipus and Antigone, were also known from the widely-circulated epic poem, the Thebaid of Statius (b. c. 45, d. c. 96). 

For tales of Troy, those who could not read Homer had to make do with the Ilias Latina, an abridged Latin version of the Iliad about one-sixth as long as the original. In addition to this, the key sources were two late antique Latin works purporting to be much earlier accounts of the Trojan War: the de Excidio Troiae, supposedly by Dares Phrygius, a Trojan priest who predated Homer, and the Ephemeris, attributed to Dictys of Crete, the companion of the Homeric hero Idomeneus. These three texts form the basis for knowledge about the Trojan War in the medieval Latin West.

Flavius Josephus, Antiquities and The Jewish Wars

Latin 16730, f. 3r

Creation scenes feature in this copy of Josephus’s Antiquitates (BnF, Latin 16730, f. 3r)

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A select few Greek authors were translated into Latin more completely (if not always accurately). The author Josephus (b. 37, d. c. 100) is a prominent example. His works on Jewish history, the Antiquitates (Antiquities) and de Bello Judaico (The Jewish Wars), were translated into Latin in late antiquity, and were read and copied widely in the medieval West. One fine example is a manuscript of both works possibly produced at Corbie, in North-East France, towards the end of the 12th century (now BnF, Latin 16730).

A glance at the list of manuscripts digitised as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project will indicate the ongoing popularity of classical Latin authors between 700 and 1200. Over the centuries, tastes changed: for example, a preference for Virgil in the early Middle Ages was replaced by a mania for all things written by Ovid by the 12th century. It is clear, though, that the classical past continued to shape and influence readers throughout the Middle Ages.

  • Cillian O’Hogan
  • Dr Cillian O’Hogan is Assistant Professor of Medieval Latin at the University of Toronto, where he specialises in the Latin poetry of Late Antiquity and the transmission and transformation of classical literature in the early Middle Ages. He has published on the late Latin poets Prudentius and Claudian and on the medieval Irish translation of the Latin epic poet Lucan. He is writing a book on the history of reading in the Late Antique Latin west. Previously, he was Curator of Classical and Byzantine Studies at the British Library.