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The history of Latin poetry can be understood as the adaptation of Greek models. The verse comedies of Plautus are considered the earliest surviving examples of Latin literature and are estimated to have been composed around 205-184 BC.
The start of Latin literature is conventionally dated to the first performance of a play in verse by a Greek slave, Livius Andronicus, at Rome in 240 BC. Livius translated Greek New Comedy for Roman audiences, using meters that were basically those of Greek drama, modified to the needs of Latin. His successors Plautus and Terence further refined the borrowings from the Greek stage and the prosody of their verse is substantially the same as for classical Latin verse.
The traditional meter of Greek epic, the dactylic hexameter, was introduced into Latin literature by Ennius (239-169 BC), virtually a contemporary of Livius, who substituted it for the jerky Saturnian meter in which Livius had been composing epic verses. Ennius moulded a poetic diction and style suited to the imported hexameter, providing a model for 'classical' poets such as Virgil and Ovid.
The late republic saw the emergence of Neoteric Poets, notably Catullus—rich young men from the Italian provinces, conscious of metropolitan sophistication, and looking to the scholarly Alexandrian poet Callimachus for inspiration. Catullus shared the Alexandrian's preference for short poems and wrote within a variety of meters borrowed from Greece, including Aeolian forms such as hendecasyllabic verse, the Sapphic stanza and Greater Asclepiad, as well as iambic verses such as the choliamb and the iambic tetrameter catalectic (a dialogue meter borrowed from Old Comedy).
Horace, whose career crossed the divide between republic and empire, followed Catullus' lead in employing Greek lyrical forms, identifying with Alcaeus of Mytilene, composing Alcaic stanzas, and also with Archilochus, composing poetic invectives in the Iambus tradition (in which he adopted the metrical form of the Epode or 'Iambic Distich'). Horace was a contemporary of Virgil and, like the epic poet, he wrote verses in dactylic hexameter, but in a conversational and epistolary style. Virgil's hexameters are generally regarded as "the supreme metrical system of Latin literature."
- R.H. Martin, Terence: Adelphoe, Cambridge University Press (1976), pages 1 and 32
- P.G. McBrown, 'The First Roman Literature' in The Oxford History of the Classical World, J. Boardman, J. Griffin and O. Murray (eds), Oxford University Press (1995) page 450-52
- Robin Nisbet, 'The Poets of the Late Republic' in The Oxford History of the Classical World, J. Boardman, J. Griffin and O. Murray (eds), Oxford University Press (1995) page 487-90
- Peter Green, The Poems of Catullus, University of California Press (2005), pages 32-7
- Richard F. Thomas, Virgil: Georgics Vol. I, Cambridge University Press (1988), page 28