Some Roman writers are very well-known, notably Virgil, who wrote the Aeneid; Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher-king who, when not ruling the empire, wrote his Meditations; and Suetonius, the historian who composed biographies of Julius Caesar and the first eleven emperors. You might even recognize the names of Tacitus or Livy, but there are hundreds of Roman authors whose works have survived. Here are ten of the lesser-known Romans whose writings shaped the modern world.
10 Seneca (c. 4 BC–AD 65)
Many have heard of the Roman playwrights Plautus and Terence and certainly the earlier Greek dramatists, Sophocles and Euripides. However, Lucius Annaeus Seneca doesn’t get much attention these days. Seneca (Seneca the Younger) was born around the same time as Jesus Christ and died in AD 65. He was close to those in power in Rome later in his life. He became the leading Stoic philosopher of his generation before annoying Emperor Nero (the one who fiddled while Rome burned) and being forced to commit suicide in AD 65.
Seneca’s main impact on shaping the modern world comes from some of his lesser-known works, specifically his plays, all tragedies. Notable among these are Medea, Phaedra, Oedipus, and Agamemnon. These pieces generally dealt with characters seeking revenge on others for some wrongdoing or another. In early modern Europe, these plays profoundly influenced how revenge plays were written and structured, notably William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. As such, Seneca has left an indelible imprint on modern culture.
9 Boethius (c. AD 477–524)
Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius was the last of Rome’s notable authors. He lived as the Western Roman Empire was being transformed into a number of successor states ruled by Germanic kings. One of these, Theodoric the Great, had Boethius imprisoned around 523, dying shortly afterward.
Boethius is famed for writing The Consolation of Philosophy while in prison. This work takes the shape of a philosophical treatise between him and the female embodiment of philosophy. Here Boethius famously wrote of the nature of life as a wheel of fortune, in which fate can grant men and women success and then, just as quickly, rob them of it. His book also contained numerous reflections on Roman music from which modern musicologists have been able to determine details of Roman culture. The Consolation of Philosophy was one of the most widely read philosophical treatises in Europe during the Middle Ages.
8 Columella (c. AD 4–c. 70)
The Roman Empire, for all its sophistication and achievements, always remained a pre-industrial society (though they did have a working scheme for a steam engine). Consequently, agriculture was central to Roman society and its economy. Yet we very rarely hear about Roman writers who actually put pen to paper, or parchment as the case may be, to write about agricultural methods. One of the few exceptions was Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, a first-century soldier and agriculturalist who composed De Re Rustica or On Rural Affairs.
De Re Rustica consisted of twelve books covering a variety of topics, from how to grow grapes to make wine to raising animals and how to manage your staff on a large farm. When it was rediscovered in a Swiss monastery in the fifteenth century, it went on to influence early modern farming methods around the selective breeding of animals and much more.
7 Marcus Gavius Apicius (c. 10 BC–c. AD 60)
What list of ancient authors would be complete without details of someone who composed a cookbook? Marcus Gavius Apicius is the individual in question, a Roman gourmet. Unfortunately, little is known of his life other than he clearly lived in the first half of the first century AD.
Apicius should be acclaimed today for having written his self-titled work Apicius, also known as De Re Culinaria, meaning On the Subject of Cooking. This ten-book work provides details on how to run a successful kitchen and includes a wide array of recipes and discussions of Roman food. Apicius is not just useful for reconstructing what the Romans ate and how they cooked it, but some of the details provided by Apicius have gone on to influence modern recipes such as stews, ragouts, and salads. Apicius’s work has certainly shaped what the modern world eats.
6 Frontinus (c. AD 40–103)
Sextus Julius Frontinus was a Roman engineer who lived and wrote during the first century AD. He flourished as a government and military engineer during the reigns of the Flavian emperors between AD 69 and 96 and during the reigns of Nerva and Trajan that followed. In AD 97, he was appointed as curator aquarum, the supervisor of the empire’s aqueducts, a highly significant position within Roman society as the aqueducts that delivered public drinking water to Rome and other cities were one of the cornerstones of urban life.
Frontinus is primarily known for having written De Aqueductu or On Aqueducts, an official report in two parts on the state of Rome’s aqueducts. This report provided extensive details on how the aqueduct system worked, the management problems within it, such as trees growing too close to sections of the aqueducts, and various other issues. De Aqueductu proved very influential in shaping modern water systems. When the text was rediscovered at the monastery library of Monte Cassino outside Rome in 1425, Frontinus’s ideas were quickly applied in improving the water supply of Rome in the fifteenth century, and elements of his work were employed elsewhere in Europe until the nineteenth century.
5 Pomponius Mela (c. AD 5–c. 60)
Little is known about the life and work of Pomponius Mela other than that he lived during the first century AD and was a geographer. He may have been present during the invasion of Britain by Emperor Claudius.
Pomponius’s legacy today is primarily found in his short work De Situ Orbis, meaning A Description of the World. This provided a cartographic account of the world as it was known to the Romans in the first century AD, with details of lands as far east as India, south to Ethiopia, and north to Scandinavia. His work remained influential until the development of modern cartographic methods in Europe during the sixteenth century. He not only influenced the development of modern cartography, but the names which he used for many places have also become commonplace in the modern world. For instance, Pomponius recorded a version of the word “Scandinavia” as a Latin rendering of the German word “Skaðinawio” to describe the lands north of the Baltic Sea. Thus, Pomponius’s influence continues even to this day.
4 Marcus Terentius Varro (c. 110 BC–27 BC)
Marcus Terentius Varro isn’t very well known today. However, for most of the last two millennia, he was regarded as one of Rome’s greatest authors, comparable with the epic poet Virgil and the great rhetorician Cicero. Varro’s life was coterminous with the death of the Roman Republic, having been born sometime in the late second century BC and dying in 27 BC, the year Octavian became Emperor Caesar Augustus, and the Roman Empire came into being.
Varro was a brilliant polymath who composed over 70 works throughout his long life. These covered a vast array of topics, from agriculture and architecture to politics, history, and natural philosophy. Unfortunately, of these, only his Rerum Rusticarum Libri Tres, translating to Three Books on Agriculture, has survived fully. However, sections of many other works are still extant. We know of the existence of his other works as a result of the second-hand information provided on them by later Roman writers. Varro’s work foreshadowed the development of many fields of study in modern times, notably microbiology and epidemiology, as he correctly surmised that diseases were caused by bacteria and other entities which could not be seen with the naked eye.
3 Quintilian (c. AD 35–c. 100)
Few people know who Marcus Fabius Quintilianus is today, but he was one of the most brilliant Roman authors. He lived during the first century AD and had a successful political career in Rome, serving as consul, the Empire’s senior magistrate in the 70s (AD 70s, that is).
Quintilian is primarily famed as a rhetorician and educator. His primary work, Institutio Oratoria, or the Institutes of Oratory, provided a major study of the practice of the art of rhetoric. At the same time, it also commented extensively on educational methods and curricula. Quintilian’s work was studied in every European university during the Renaissance, and his views on educational methods shaped the curriculums of western schools and universities profoundly until the Victorian period. And they continue to residually influence educational methods today.
2 Vitruvius (c. 75 BC–c. 10 BC)
Few individuals are as little appreciated today for their influence on the modern world as poor old Vitruvius. He was a military engineer who lived during the first century BC and witnessed the death of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Empire under Caesar Augustus.
Vitruvius made his indelible mark on history by composing De Architectura, meaning On Architecture, sometime between 30 BC and 15 BC. This ten-volume work provides extensive details on the construction of monumental buildings such as giant domes and arches and how geometry and mathematics were used in their design and construction. It also outlined many other elements of domestic and civil buildings during the early imperial period, notably the hypocaust, a type of Roman central heating not unlike the use of radiators.
Vitruvius’s work was considered important enough that many copies of the text were made throughout the Middle Ages. During the Renaissance, there was a revival of his methods to erect huge domes such as the one which Filippo Brunelleschi placed on Florence Cathedral in the fifteenth century. The domes that his work allowed individuals such as Brunelleschi to erect were not exceeded height-wise until the advent of the first skyscrapers in the late nineteenth century. Thus, Vitruvius’s impact on the modern world is visible in the architecture of every major European city today.
1 Galen (AD 129–c. 210)
Surely the most under-appreciated Roman-era author of them all, even more than Vitruvius, is Galen. This physician, surgeon, and philosopher was born at the height of the empire in the reign of Emperor Hadrian in AD 129. He lived until early in the third century. He was born in the Greek city of Pergamum in Asia Minor (Turkey today), but he ended up in Rome in the 160,s where he studied a wide array of fields, including anatomy, pharmacology, and neurology.
Galen’s medical methodology mirrored the prevalent view of Roman physicians in believing that the body was controlled by four humors (fluids) in the body: black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm. This idea was not an entirely unscientific, if unprecise, approach. But his studies went well beyond the prevailing second-century medical knowledge in producing highly detailed studies of human anatomy by dissecting animal torsos and studying the circulatory system and other parts of the body. He also developed a wide array of practical medical procedures, such as removing cataracts in a way that mirrors modern techniques.
Galen recorded his findings in dozens of books—a large proportion of which survive in modern times—and continued to influence medical knowledge as late as the eighteenth century. For that reason, he was undoubtedly one of the most influential Romans in how he shaped the modern world.