What Effect Did the Romans Have on English Literature?

The culture and history of the Roman Empire continually recycle through Western literature. A number of Shakespeare's plays, for example, were borrowed from Roman history, including "Julius Caesar" and "Antony and Cleopatra." Even "The Comedy of Errors" has roots in "The Twin Brothers," a now-obscure comedy by Plautus. Classical history offers writers such powerful and dramatic material that Dante and English writers Dryden, Pope, Milton and Samuel Johnson used classical stories and themes in exciting and elastic ways.

Warriors and Adventurers

After Roman armies conquered what remained of Alexander's empire in 168 B.C., the Romans recognized the power of Greek literature, art and philosophy, and began imitating the Greeks. Among the Roman writers who adapted Greek literary works was the talented poet Virgil. Virgil undertook a Roman equivalent of Homer's "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey," titling it "The Aeneid" for the Trojan War hero Aeneas. Using Homer's work as an outline, Virgil adapted and developed his equivalent of "The Iliad" in innovative new ways. Virgil has had an enormous impact on English literature. "The Aeneid" inspired Edmund Spenser's "The Faerie Queene" and John Milton's "Paradise Lost."


Many of Shakespeare's plays are based on classical history, while others are based on myth. It's clear to scholars that Shakespeare used the Roman poet Ovid's work as a source for his own narrative poem "The Rape of Lucretia" in 1594. Shakespeare's poem is inspired by the story of Venus and Adonis in Ovid's "The Metamorphoses." The English writer Edmund Spenser references the Roman god of the sea, Neptune, in his epic 1590s poem "The Faerie Queen." Elizabethan-era dramatist and poet Christopher Marlowe incorporated the story of Diana and Actaeon into his masterpiece "Doctor Faustus."

Leaders Great and Weak

Shakespeare studied Plutarch and heavily used his "Plutarch's Lives" for insight into what motivated powerful men such as Julius Caesar, Antony and Seneca. Shakespeare owes a debt to Plutarch and to the Roman dramatist and philosopher Seneca for his "Titus Andronicus," a tragedy rooted in the life of a Roman army general. By the 19th century, Roman philosopher and orator Cicero was viewed on both sides of the Atlantic as the most eloquent of all writers. Robert Graves' "I, Claudius" is a novel in the form of the stammering, awkward Emperor Claudius' autobiography. Published in 1934, it became a best-seller and a hit again as a BBC television production in 1976.

The Romans in Today's Literature

Classical Rome continued to influence what we read throughout the 20th century, and the influence is still strong today. English writer P.G. Wodehouse filled his books with Latin references in the early 20th century. Ovid's influence is strong in T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," and bits of Latin are present in Eliot's epic poem. Even J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels feature an abundance of Latin names and Roman mythological references, including the werewolf Remus Lupin, whose alias is Romulus, Fawkes the phoenix and the names Minerva, Luna and Bellatrix.

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