Special Collections at UWM Libraries Special Collections Home Page
Aristophanes image

Perhaps no other body of Western literature brings to mind the concept of the classic text more readily than the vast corpus of Greek and Roman works, composed over a period of nearly one-thousand years, referred to collectively as "classical literature." If a classic text is defined as one of enduring tenure, widely read throughout history, then the surviving literature of the Greek and Roman civilizations hold a secure position in the Western literary canon--venerated in their own time, and continually and broadly read over millennia to the present day.

The classical authors who have come down to us today enjoyed a considerable reputation among their contemporaries and throughout the classical period, with manuscripts in wide circulation. Interest in classical literature did not wane entirely during the Middle Ages. In the Eastern Empire the venerable Greek authors were kept alive, and in the West and particularly in Italy, the great Latin classics never ceased to be studied and cherished among the educated. It is true that some writers, for example Tacitus, Lucretius, Propertius, and Catullus, fell into oblivion after the Carolingian age, only to reappear again with the rise of humanism. But Virgil, Cicero, Ovid, Lucan, Juvenal, Horace, Terence, Seneca, and Livy, to name a few, were always read. Some even became the object of cult veneration, such as Virgil at Mantua and Naples, Ovid at Sulmona, and Livy at Padua, or were transposed into the mainstream of Christian myth and morality: Virgil became a prophet of Christianity by the fourth century, and a sorcerer in the twelfth; Ovid's poems were given a Christian interpretation; Seneca, hailed as the traditional exponent of ancient morality, was also esteemed, erroneously, as a correspondent of St. Paul.

With the advent of the Renaissance and the rise of printing technology, a greater interest in the ancient classics was kindled and the literature circulated more widely than ever before. Along with the Bible, classical texts were among the first to see print. For example, first editions of Cicero, Pliny, and Virgil were first printed in the 1460s, Aristotle, Homer, Lucretius, Plutarch, Ptolemy, and Tacitus in the 1470s, and Euclid and Plato in the 1480s. Virgil alone had a hundred separate editions of his works printed before the end of the fifteenth century. Classical literature was the impetus that led Aldus Manutius into printing, and was the principal object of his scholarly and innovative publishing agenda. Ever since the fifteenth century, the classics of the Greek and Roman world have remained revered texts that have served for generations as venues for printing tradition and interpretation, from Fust and Schoeffer's handsome Cicero (1465) through Aldus's introduction of italic type in his 1501 Virgil, Benjamin Franklin's rustic-American Cicero (1744), John Baskerville's distinguished edition of Virgil (1757), and the Limited Editions Club productions of Aristophanes's Lysistrata with original etchings by Picasso (1934) and Homer's Odyssey designed and illustrated with original wood engravings by Barry Moser (1981).


Back - Next

Return to top


©2001 University of Wisconsin--Milwaukee -- All Rights Reserved.
Prepared by Christopher Barth, Virginia Haas, and Sarah McDaniel