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Transformation of Roman Poetry in Colonial Latin America

Erika Valdivieso

Brown University

The Guadalupe, a Latin epic from colonial Mexico, contains a striking ekphrasis of a series of murals depicting the history of the Mexica, or Aztecs, clearly reminiscent of Virgil’s description of the Temple of Juno and the parade of Roman heroes (Aen.1.441-93 and 6.679-83). The Spanish and Portuguese brought Roman literature as well as the Latin language to the New World (Leonard 1992), and that literature soon took on a new life of its own: a vast corpus of Latin poetry was produced in colonial Latin America.  This paper will focus on the three well-known Roman genres employed and canonized by Virgil: pastoral, didactic, and epic.

In Spanish America and Brazil, Latin pastoral poetry was taught and imitated at school. Compositions for special occasions were performed, while students competed to win prizes for the most Virgilian eclogue (Osorio Romero 1983; Hampe Martínez 1999).  A manuscript of Latin eclogues produced in Mexico City during the second half of the sixteenth century shows how conventions of Virgilian pastoral were adapted to provide panegyrics of eminent individuals and new martyrs of the Catholic faith. Poets in the New World excavated the genre’s potential to address current affairs and articulate a sense of identity for a newly formed American or ‘creole’ elite.  

The energetic production of Latin didactic poetry, which enjoyed great popularity in early modern Europe (Haskell 2003), took on new significance in the Americas as a vehicle for writing the natural history of the New World. Creole poets expanded Virgil’s Latin to describe things beyond the ancient poet’s imagination, from passion fruit to boa constrictors. The precision and scientific quality of this poetry demonstrated the importance and significance of the information it conveyed, especially to European readers. 

Finally, Latin narrative epic was renovated to address contemporary political, social, and religious issues that shaped the relationship between the Americas and Europe: the colonies were presented as a new version of Rome in the 1500s (Jímenez del Castillo 2014), but by the mid-eighteenth century Virgilian epic served as a vehicle to demonstrate that the Americas had surpassed both the greatness of Spain and Rome (Laird 2010). 

Roman genres were creatively appropriated to address colonial themes and contemporary contexts.  In Spanish America, classical Latin poets were not merely the objects of passive study, but models for imitation and adaptation. Their innovations offer new perspectives on the role Roman poetry plays beyond classical antiquity.

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Rome and the Americas

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