Julius Pomponius Laetus and the Medieval Revival of Classical Rome
Curated/Reviewed by Matthew A. McIntosh
Julius Pomponius Laetus, also known as Giulio Pomponio Leto, (1425 – 1498) was an Italian humanist, archaeologist, and Latinist who promoted the revival of ancient Roman classics and the traditions they represented. From his youth, he devoted himself to the study of Roman antiquity, and refused to learn Greek because he feared it would adversely influence his Latin style. He was a popular teacher and educated many of the great scholars of his period. He wrote treatises on archeology, the Roman magistrates, priests, and lawyers, a compendium of Roman history, and commentaries on classical authors, as well as producing numerous translations.
Laetus tried to emulate the lives of the ancient Romans, and around 1457, established the Academia Romana, a semi-secret academy dedicated to the study of antiquities and to promoting the adoption of ancient customs into modern life. Its members adopted Greek and Latin names, met on the Quirinal to discuss classical questions and celebrated ancient Roman rites and festivals. In 1468, Laetus and twenty of the academicians were arrested, imprisoned and tortured by the order of Pope Paul II, who viewed the academy with suspicion, as promoting paganism, heresy, and republicanism. The following year, the members of the Academia were acquitted for lack of evidence and Laetus was allowed to resume his teaching duties; after the accession of Pope Sixtus IV, who also admired ancient Rome, the Academia Romana was allowed to resume its activities, which continued until 1572.
Laetus was born at Calabria, Italy, in 1425, an illegitimate son of the House of the Sanseverino of Naples, Princes of Salerno. As a youth, he decided to dedicate his life to the study of ancient Rome. He went to Rome around 1450 and studied under Laurentius Valla. As was common in Italy at that time, he adopted the Latin name of Julius Pompanus Laetus. It is said that he refused to learn Greek because he felt doing so would detract from his Latin style, and that he read only classical authors and disdained the Bible and works of the Church Fathers. When he became famous and the Sanseverino family sought his friendship, he replied, “Pomponius Laetus to his kinsmen and relatives, greetings. What you ask cannot be. Farewell.”
Laetus emulated the life of the ancient Romans, living in a modest house on the Esquiline. His vineyard on the Quirinal was cultivated in accordance with the precepts of Varro and of Columella, and his friends regarded him as a “second Cato” because of his sobriety of conduct, frugal diet and rural industry. On holidays he went fishing or caught birds in his lime-twigs; sometimes he would simply spend the day in the open air, refreshing himself at a spring or by the banks of the Tiber. A complete manuscript of Plautus (that of Cardinal Orsini, now Vaticanus 3870), had been brought to Rome in the year 1428 or 1429, and when the plays it contained were performed in the palaces of the prelates, Laetus became the stage director. In 1457, Laetus succeeded Valla as professor of eloquence in the Gymnasium Romanum.
Around this time he founded the Academia Romana, a semi-pagan academy dedicated to the study of antiquities and to promoting the adoption of ancient customs into modern life. Its members included Platina, the future librarian of the Vatican, and Sabellicus, afterward prefect of the Library of San Marco of Venice. The members adopted Greek and Latin names, met on the Quirinal to discuss classical questions and celebrated the birthday of Romulus and the festival of the Palilia (anniversary of the foundation of Rome). Its constitution resembled that of an ancient priestly college, and Laetus was titled pontifex maximus. When they met to commemorate a deceased member, Mass was celebrated by a prelate and Laetus delivered the eulogy. Latin recitations and a banquet closed each of their meetings. Occasionally, the members gave Latin farces much like the Atellanae.
Pope Paul II viewed Laetus’s academy with suspicion, as promoting paganism, heresy, and republicanism. In 1468, 20 of the academicians were arrested during the carnival. Laetus, who had taken refuge in Venice, was sent back to Rome, imprisoned in the Castle of Sant’ Angelo and tortured, but refused to plead guilty to the charges of infidelity and immorality. In May, 1469, the members of the Academy were acquitted for lack of evidence and Laetus was allowed to resume his professorial duties; but it was forbidden to utter the name of the Academy even in jest. Pope Sixtus IV, who himself admired ancient Roman culture, permitted the resumption of its meetings, which continued to be held till the sack of Rome in 1527 by Constable Bourbon during the papacy of Clement VII.
After his release from prison, Laetus pursued his scholastic studies with enthusiasm, interrupted only by two visits to northern Europe (1472–73, 1479–83). He could often be seen at daybreak with a lantern in his hand, descending from his home on the Esquiline, on his way to deliver his lectures at the Roman University. He wrote treatises on Roman antiquities, commentaries on Latin authors, and some important translations of Curtius and Varro, Pliny’s Letters, and Sallust. Laetus continued to teach in Rome until his death on June 9, 1498. Until the last year of his life, Laetus had desired to be buried in an ancient sarcophagus on the Appian Way, but he died a Christian. Pope Alexander VI requested a magnificent funeral for him at the church of Aracoeli. More than 40 bishops attended, and his corpse was crowned with a laurel wreath before being buried at San Salvatore in Lauro.
Thought and Works
Laetus, who has been called the first head of a philological school, was unusually successful as a teacher; he said that he expected, like Socrates and Christ, to live on through his pupils, some of whom were the most famous scholars of the period. He had a vast knowledge of ancient Rome. As a teacher he greatly influenced Alessandro Farnese, who became Pope Paul III.
His works, written in pure and simple Latin, were published in a collected form (Opera Pomponii Laeti varia, 1521). They contain treatises on the Roman magistrates, priests and lawyers (“De magistratibus, sacerdotiis et legibus Romanorum“), and a compendium of Roman history from the death of the younger Gordian to the time of Justin III (“Compendium historiae romanae ab interitu Gordiani usque ad Justinum III“). Laetus also wrote commentaries on classical authors, and produced a publication of the editio princeps of Virgil at Rome in 1469, under the name of Julius Sabinus or Pomponius Sabinus. He edited the first edition of Quintus Curtius (about 1470), of Varro’s “De lingua latina” (Rome, 1471), and of Nonius Marcellus (Rome, about 1470), and published the letters of the younger Pliny (Rome, 1490). He also preserved a part of the work of Festus. His manuscripts, which were first in the library of Fulvio Orsino, and later at the Vatican, show the extent of his erudition and his conscientious work in collating Latin authors. He owned one of the most precious manuscripts of the poet, the “Mediceus,” and collected ancient sculptures and inscriptions in his home.
Laetus is one of the best representatives of Italian humanism, the movement which revived an interest in the cultures of ancient Rome and Greece and gave rise to the secular appreciation of the beauty of man and the glory of art and literature which characterized the Renaissance.
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Originally published by New World Encyclopedia, 06.14.2018, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.