Stephen Harrison looks at research into Neo-Latin Poetry.This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 1.-pope.png

George Buchanan in old age, 1581, by Arnold Bronckorst.

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Maffeo Barberini as a young Cardinal, 1598, by Caravaggio.


Neo-Latin is one of the most active and interesting areas of current classical research. The term usually refers to literary texts in Latin written between the time of Petrarch in the mid-fourteenth century and 1800, the period in which Latin, revived in its classicising form through the Renaissance, still operated as the international literary language in Europe. Until recently texts and research tools have been relatively hard to find, but in the twenty-first century both conventional and digital publications have fundamentally changed this picture.

Since 2001 Harvard University Press’s I Tatti Renaissance Library series, presenting Loeb-style parallel texts and English translations of neo-Latin literary works by Italian authors with basic notes, has published 92 volumes with many more in the pipeline, and on the continent a range of texts has been made available in the Olms series Noctes Neolatinae (2001-) and the Brepols Officina Neolatina (2007-); Bloomsbury’s new UK neo-Latin series is mentioned at the end of this piece. A vast cornucopia  of neo-Latin texts is also now available through online databases such as the Venice-based Poeti d’Italia in lingua Latina , Dana Sutton’s huge repository at, or the Mannheim-based CAMENA project at Further WWW resources can be found at the gateway of the Society for Neo-Latin Studies Three key multi-author overviews of modern research have also been published, which have greatly helped to map and open up the field for Anglophone readers: Victoria Moul’s A Guide to Neo-Latin Literature (Cambridge, 2017), Sarah Knight and Stefan Tilg’s The Oxford Handbook of Neo-Latin (2015) and the mighty Brill’s Encyclopaedia of the Neo-Latin World in two volumes, edited by the late Philip Ford, Jan Bloemendal, and Charles E. Fantazzi (2014).  

For a classical Latinist like myself who has spent many years writing on well-researched authors such as Vergil, Horace and Apuleius, neo-Latin is a new and exciting world with myriad undiscovered countries, many times the size of the corpus of classical Latin: multiple important texts and authors need fundamental editions, commentaries, and monographs. For me, too, the study of neo-Latin also connects fundamentally and creatively with another lively branch of modern classical research, classical reception, since (especially in poetry) these works are generally written by authors of high classical learning and embody fascinating receptions, reworkings and appropriations of classical texts, authors and genres. I have two ongoing research projects in this area.


The first is an edition of the Silvae of George Buchanan (1506-82) for an international collaboration which seeks to present Buchanan’s collected works with Latin text, translation and basic commentary. Buchanan (a true Renaissance man) was a scholar, teacher, historian, controversialist and politician as well as one of the leading Latin poets of his times.  After studies at St Andrews and Paris, where he also taught (1523-34), he worked as a private tutor to noble families in Scotland and wrote fierce Latin satires against monks (1534-9). The latter offended the authorities, especially Cardinal Beaton, the Archbishop of St Andrews, and Buchanan fled back to France via England (1539), where he wrote laudatory Horatian odes to Henry VIII and his minister Thomas Cromwell.

In late 1539 Buchanan arrived in Bordeaux to serve as a Latin teacher at the prestigious Collège de Guyenne, and was immediately asked to write a poem for a public ceremony of welcome to the city for the visiting Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. This was an interesting occasion: Charles had spent much of the last twenty years fighting wars against France, but in 1538-42 there was a period of truce, which the emperor was exploiting in order to go north from Spain through France to put down a rebellion in his native city of Ghent. The resulting poem, published much later in Buchanan’s Silvae, his collection of occasional poetry (1567; see further below), shows some of the tensions of the moment: Charles is praised as a military champion of Christendom, but the poem also refers to the Italian river Tiber surrendering to him. This is a clear allusion to his army’s notorious sack of Rome in 1527, and a reminder to the French audience of the their own country’s Italian humiliation at the Battle of Pavia (1525), in which Charles’s forces had defeated and captured the French king Francis I.

Buchanan spent two periods in Bordeaux (c.1539-43, c.1545-7) where he wrote (in addition to further occasional poems) his Latin translations of Euripides’ Medea and Alcestis, and his dramas Jephthes and Baptistes for his pupils (who included Michel de Montaigne); these last two works are interesting adaptations of biblical plots to the framework of Senecan tragedy. A 1547 move to teach at the University of Coimbra in Portugal ended unfortunately with a year’s imprisonment by the Inquisition on grounds of heresy (1551-2): in the 1550s Buchanan was moving from liberal Erasmian Catholicism to Calvinism.

When he finally returned to a newly Protestant Scotland in 1560 after an absence of more than twenty years, he had a remarkable further career. He was tutor to both Mary Queen of Scots and her son James VI, principal of St Leonard’s College in St Andrews (1566–70), (lay) Moderator of the Church of Scotland (1567) and Keeper of the Privy Seal (de facto prime minister, 1570-78); in this last period of his life he also wrote major Latin prose works – a Cicero-style dialogue on constitutional monarchy (De Iure Regni, 1579), a hot contemporary issue, and a twenty-book Livy-style history of Scotland (1582) from its mythical beginnings until 1572.

But his literary fame is securely based on his poems from his earlier and middle years. Perhaps best known is his celebrated complete paraphrase of the Psalms in the lyric metres of Horace, but there were satirical poems against monks (Somnium, Franciscanus, Fratres Fraterrimi), erotic Elegiae, invective Iambi, Martial-style Epigrammata, Catullus-style Hendecasyllabi, and Horace-style lyric odes, as well as his unfinished five-book astronomical De Sphaera, in the style of Manilius; he was a determined geocentrist and opponent of Tycho Brahe, with whom he corresponded (in Latin of course).

This rich output, and its high quality, led to his being regarded as one of the greatest neo-Latin poets of his time. The Psalm paraphrases have been edited by Roger Green with translation and notes (2014), and there have been one or two useful anthologies of his work, but much of his poetry still awaits modern editions. The seven-poem hexameter book of Silvae on which I am working evokes the  books of Silvae of the Flavian poet Statius, a Renaissance favourite: the poem to the emperor Charles V heads Buchanan’s collection (Silvae 1), just as Statius’ Silvae Books 1 and 4 both begin with poems to the emperor Domitian, and Buchanan’s lament for a friend (Silvae 2) parallels Statius’ lament for his father (Silvae 5.3), while his praise of the horse (Silvae 6) recalls Statius’ poems on a dead parrot (Silvae 2.4, ancestor of the Pythons’ sketch) and on a tame lion who died in the arena (Silvae 2.5). Buchanan’s work more than merits close attention: he is a brilliant Latin stylist who cleverly reworks ancient models and adapts them ingeniously to contemporary contexts.


Maffeo Barberini (1568-1644, Cardinal 1606, Pope as Urban VIII 1623-44) was a talented Latin poet whose collected poems were widely published and read during his papacy. He was not the only Pope to be a talented neo-Latin writer. Pius II (Aenea Silvio Piccolomini (1405-54), Pope 1458-64) was an outstanding humanist, and the author (before he became a priest) of the Ovidianising romantic and erotic epistolary novel The Tale of Two Lovers (Historia de duobus amantibus, 1444) alongside a range of lay and religious poems, including a long Sapphic ode on the passion of Christ, while Alexander VII (Fabio Chigi (1599-1667), Pope 1655-67) wrote a range of interesting Latin poems including a long hexameter piece on the Roman plague of 1630 (cf. Vergil Georgics 3, the Noric plague) and another on a journey from Rome to Ferrara (cf. Horace Satires 1.5). Most recently Leo XIII (Vincenzo Pecci (1810-1903), Pope 1878-1903), was the author of Horatian odes on the 1400th anniversary of the conversion of Clovis in 1896 and on the advent of the new millennium in 1900 (looking back to the Carmen Saeculare). Another project I am working on is an anthology of neo-Latin poems by Popes which will include several of these, amongst whom Barberini is the most poetically distinguished.          

His neo-Latin poems divide into sacred and profane. The collections published during his papacy naturally emphasise the former, highlighting his biblical paraphrases: these include versions of the two Songs of Moses (Exodus 15 and 32) in Horatian Sapphics and Vergilian hexameters respectively, as well as a Nunc Dimittis in Sapphics and Horatian psalm paraphrases in the manner of Buchanan. Most ambitious are his ‘Pindaric’ odes in complex triadic structures (metrically matching strophe, antistrophe, and epode) on John the Baptist, Mary Magdalen and St Laurence; the last (celebrating a Spanish martyr) begins with fulsome compliments to the achievements of Spain under Charles V and Philip II, neatly combining diplomacy with poetry. He also added some new hymns to the Roman Breviary in his revision of 1632, at the same time controversially rewriting a number of its older hymns in a more classicising form.

His non-religious poetry is especially interesting in its manipulation of classical models, for example in two poetic letters written while he was already Cardinal but not yet Pope. The first of these, from the period 1609-11, is a 147-hexameter epistle to Barberini’s friend and relative Lorenzo Magalotti (1584–1637), who was then serving in the papal Curia as a canon lawyer and was later appointed as Urban’s own Cardinal Secretary of State. The poem is framed as an invitation to leave behind the business of the Curia in Rome and come for relaxation to the papal estate at Castel Gandolfo in the Alban Hills 25 km south-east of the city, the site of the ancient settlement of Alba Longa. This estate had been acquired by Clement VIII in 1596; Urban himself as Pope was later to convert the castle there into the extant papal palace, until recently a summer retreat for Popes and now a museum, with magnificent gardens and spectacular views over Rome and Lazio. 

The poem combines a number of recognisably Horatian features; apart from the hexameter epistle form which echoes that of Horace’s Epistles, the invitation to a busy friend in the city to relax in the country recalls Horace’s odes to Maecenas, and there are also links with Statius and Vergil. These classical resonances are combined with more contemporary elements: the theme of the panoramic views of Rome from Castel Gandolfo is artfully made to lead to praise of the current building programme in the city of Pope Paul V, master of both writer and addressee (Camillo Borghese, 1550-1621, Pope 1605-21). These include his additions to the papal basilicas of St Peter’s and Santa Maria Maggiore and to the Palazzo Quirinale, now the official residence of the Italian President, all of which still bear his prominent building inscriptions.

The second poem is one of 45 hendecasyllables addressed c. 1615 to the young poet Virginio Cesarini (1595-1624), an aristocratic intellectual who suffered from serious ill-health and was to die before the age of 30; the older Barberini writes to him with avuncular affection like Horace to younger literary friends in the Epistles, uses the metre and lexicon of Catullus, and a topic from the epigrams of Martial.  The poem imagines Cesarini at the seaside resort of Anzio, pursuing the health-giving activities of sailing and fishing, and hopes to see him returned to Rome in better health. It begins with Horatian and Catullan enquiries about how his friend is doing, but the main body of the poem draws on a satirical poem of Martial (10.30), which sets out the pleasures of a villa at Formiae (another seaside resort in the same area south of Rome), which its owner never gets to enjoy since he is too busy at Rome. This is a rich and creative melding of classical models.

Wider links

Neo-Latin is strongly interdisciplinary in flavour: not only does its literature cover a vast range from every kind of poetry to prose letters, novels, philosophy, theology and science, but it is also closely connected with vernacular writing and other major developments of early modern culture. In English, for example, the young Milton’s Latin poem on the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot (a whole sub-genre in English neo-Latin verse) shows interesting anticipations of Paradise Lost in its presentation of Satan and an infernal council. Europe-wide, the emergence of the Jesuit Order as the new intellectual and educative force in the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century led to outstanding Horatianising Jesuit neo-Latin poets in the seventeenth such as Maciej Kazimierz Sarbiewski in Poland/Lithuania and Jakob Balde in Germany, both of whom enjoyed extensive fame, to multiple didactic dramas for schools based on the comedies of Terence, and to many poems written in exile by Jesuits driven from their missionary stations after the suppressions of the Order in the later eighteenth century; the last include the splendid Rusticatio Mexicana (1782) of Rafael Landivar which describes the people and geography of Mexico after the model of Vergil’s Georgics, one of many neo-Latin works on the lands of America; we also have early Jesuit accounts of sixteenth-century missions to Japan, for example the letters of St Francis Xavier.

Some of this diversity and interest can be picked up from two recently-published anthologies in the new Bloomsbury Neo-Latin Series (full disclosure: I am a co-editor of the series and a contributor to both volumes): An Anthology of British Neo-Latin Literature and An Anthology of European Neo-Latin Literature (both 2020). These present short passages of poetry and prose with facing translation and helpful notes, directed towards students and the general interested reader, set in the framework of current scholarship. Items vary from the Latin speeches delivered by Elizabeth I to the University of Oxford (not ghostwritten!) to verses on the London Frost Fair on the iced-over Thames of 1634 and Thomas Gray’s poetic prophecy of space travel in the British volume, and Cardinal Bembo’s contemporary account of Columbus’ first American voyage, Luther’s sinewy Latin invective against his theological opponents, and Girolamo Fracastoro’s 1530 didactic poem on the new disease syphilis in the European volume; Buchanan’s poem to Charles V and Milton’s Gunpowder plot poem (mentioned above) appear in the European and British volumes respectively. These anthologies give some idea of the riches of neo-Latin literature in a highly approachable form, whether for private reading or enterprising class consumption.

Stephen Harrison is Professor of Latin Literature at the University of Oxford and Senior Research Fellow of Corpus Christi College. His most recent book is published in a series by Princeton University Press for the general reader and focuses on what modern life can learn from the poetry and wisdom of Horace: How to Be Content: An Ancient Poet’s Guide for an Age of Excess (2020); for some covid-relevant topical reflections on it see