Longinus Essay - Critical Essays



Longinus fl. c. First Century

Roman critic. Also known as Dionysius Longinus, Cassius Longinus, and pseudo-Longinus.

Despite its relative anonymity prior to its rediscovery in 1554, Longinus' treatise Peri Hypsos [On the Sublime] strongly influenced the English and European literary landscape from John Dryden onwards. It served as a touchstone for English Neoclassical critics, and its emphasis on the emotive element of poetry and on the author as the focus of poetical meaning resonated with such Romantic writers as Samuel Taylor Coleridge. On the Sublime is now considered one of the most important works of ancient literary theory.

Biographical Information

When On the Sublime was first published in its original Greek by Franciscus Robortello in 1554, the volume-previously unknown to modern scholars-was attributed to Dionysius Longinus, a prolific rhetorician and critic of the third century. Longinus served as prime minister to Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, and was put to death after a failed insurrection against Aurelian. The attribution of the manuscript held until 1808, when a version of the treatise at the Vatican was shown to refer to the author as 'Dionysius or Longinus.' On the Sublime was later attributed to Cassius Longinus, a third-century critic; however, because the treatise was not listed among his accredited writings, and because the treatise differs fundamentally from his other writings with regard to style, terminology, and literary judgment, this attribution seems likewise without basis. Literary historians now believe that textual evidence-the lack of references to writers later than the early part of the first century, and the treatment of contemporary authors and schools that flourished during that time-supports the attribution of the text to a first-century Roman critic whose name cannot be determined. Most translators and commentators, then, have adhered to the convention of referring to the unknown author of On the Sublime simply as "Longinus."

Major Works

The only work attributed to Longinus is On the Sublime, a treatise designed as a pedagogical corrective to a (now lost) essay by Caecilius. Longinus confronts a pupil named Postumius with a treatment of the role of emotion, which, he claims, Caecilius had omitted from his study. Longinus thus focuses on the human condition generally rather than merely on literary genres and explores the worth of writing in terms of its elevating the soul of the audience-that is, its sublimity. According to Longinus, the sublime issues from five sources: grandeur of thought, inspired passion, effective use of stylistic figures, noble diction and phrasing, and elevated composition. For Longinus, rhetorical techniques become instruments for the author to convey his own sublimity, so that great writing results not only from honed skill but from a cultivated sublimity of the soul attending the innate ability to have elevated ideas and strong passions.

Textual History

Eleven manuscripts of On the Sublime are extant, all of which are imperfect tenth-, fifteenth-, and sixteenth-century copies that contain lacunae, or gaps, amounting to approximately one-third of the original text. The oldest and most complete manuscript, known as Paris MS 2036, has traditionally been considered the authoritative (though incomplete) version, and was used for the first modern publication of the Greek treatise by Robortello. Two other versions of the Greek text were published in Italy before Pagano published its first translation into Latin in 1572. A Latin edition also appeared at Oxford in 1636, marking the text's introduction in England, followed by its first English translation by John Hall in 1652. However, not until Nicolas Boileau's translation of On the Sublime into French in 1674, and the subsequent non-literal translation of his edition into English by John Pulteney (1680) and Leonard Welsted (1712), did Longinus gain widespread acceptance by the larger literary community.

Critical Reception

There is no mention of On the Sublime in any ancient text still extant, and it was largely unknown prior to its rediscovery during the Italian Renaissance. Following Boileau's popular translation of 1674, however, the treatise became a standard object of study for literary critics from Dryden onwards. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Neoclassical critics, primarily in England, frequently cited the text. Its influence is evident in such works as Edmund Burke's Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, and extends to such critics as Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Burke, Joseph Addison, Coleridge, and Alexander Pope. Despite its relative anonymity prior to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, modern critics have found On the Sublime to prefigure their own literary perspectives and to be as relevant and insightful as other standard ancient texts by Aristotle, Horace, and Quintilian.

Principal Works

Peri Hypsos [On the Sublime] (criticism) first century A.D.

Principal English Translations

Dionysius Longinus on the Sublime [translated by William Smith] 1739

Longinus on the Sublime [translated by W. Rhys Roberts] 1899

Longinus on the Sublime [translated by A. O. Prickard] 1906

"Longinus" on Sublimity [translated by D. A. Russell] 1965


George Saintsbury (essay date 1900)

SOURCE: "Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Plutarch, Lucian, Longinus," in A History of Criticism and Literary Taste in Europe: From the Earliest Texts to the Present Day, William Blackwood and Sons, 1900, pp. 152-72.

[In the following excerpt, Saintsbury discusses elements of the sublime and comments on Longinus's literary and historico-critical importance.]

… It does not fall within the plan of this work to examine at any length the recently much-debated question whether the treatise Peri Hypsos is, as after its first publication by Robortello in 1554 it was for nearly three centuries unquestioningly taken to be, the work of the rhetorician Longinus, who was Queen...

(The entire section is 8346 words.)

W. Rhys Roberts (essay date 1928)

SOURCE: "Longinus on the Sublime: Some Historical and Literary Problems," in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 7, No. 3, July, 1928, pp. 209-19.

[In the following essay, Roberts uses linguistic evidence to argue that, contrary to the claims of many scholars, De Sublimitate was written in the first rather than the third century A.D.]

As long ago as the year 1899 the Cambridge University Press published for me an edition of "Longinus."1 At the moment I am correcting the proof-sheets of a small volume on Greek Rhetoric and Literary Criticism for an American Series. It would be a great help if you would allow me to confer with you on some of the many problems...

(The entire section is 4438 words.)

J. W. H. Atkins (essay date 1934)

SOURCE: "The New Critical Outlook and Methods: 'Longinus'," in Literary Criticism in Antiquity: A Sketch of Its Development, Peter Smith, 1961, pp. 210-53.

[In the essay that follows, originally written in 1934, Atkins considers the question of the authorship of On the Sublime and its immediate instructive purpose, evaluating its achievement in terms of its "definite and practical effort to grapple with those excesses of style which were notoriously prevalent among first-century orators and writers."]

With the revived interest in critical matters which had become evident during the latter half of the first century A.D., yet another and an important work must...

(The entire section is 16937 words.)

Samuel H. Monk (essay date 1935)

SOURCE: "Longinus and the Longinian Tradition in England," in The Sublime: A Study of Critical Theories in XVIII-Century England, The University of Michigan Press, 1960, pp. 10-28.

[In this essay, originally written in 1935, Monk discusses the rhetorical style and aesthetic claims of On the Sublime and briefly discusses its influence on the writings of eighteenth-century English authors.]

Any historical discussion of the sublime must take into account the fountain-head of all ideas on that subject—the pseudo-Longinian treatise, Peri Hupsous, known for over two centuries as Longinus, On the Sublime. In a sense, the study of the eighteenth-century...

(The entire section is 8685 words.)

Elder Olson (essay date 1942)

SOURCE: "The Argument of Longinus on the Sublime," in Modern Philology, Vol. XXXIX, No. 3, February, 1942, pp. 225-58.

[In this essay, Olson analyzes the structures of the various arguments that lead up to On the Sublime's conclusions and, from this, concludes that Longinus intended sublimity to be bound up with the communication of spiritual nobility rather than with mere stylistic manipulation.]

The brief and fragmentary treatise [Peri Hypsous] presents the spectacle, not too uncommon in literature, of a major critical document which has gained assent—in this case almost universal assent—to its statements while the arguments which developed and...

(The entire section is 13677 words.)

Paul H. Fry (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Longinus at Colonus: The Grounding of Sublimity," in The Reach of Criticism: Method and Perception in Literary Theory, Yale University Press, 1983, pp. 47-80.

[Below, Fry uses Sophocles's Oedipus as a touchstone to compare Longinus and Aristotle. He concludes that the former discards fundamental distinctionse.g., language and spirit—that are fundamental and problematic in the Poetics of the latter.]

The capacity to be able to act theoretically is defined for us by the fact that in attending to something it is possible to forget one's own purposes.… Theoria is a true sharing, not something active, but something passive...

(The entire section is 21590 words.)

Further Reading


Weinberg, Bernard. "Translations and Commentaries of Longinus, On the Sublime, to 1600: A Bibliography." Modern Philology 47, No. 3 (Feb. 1950): 145-51.

Chronological list (through 1600) of Latin commentaries and translations and Greek texts and vernacular translations.


Abrams, M. H. "Longinus and the Longinians." In The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition, pp. 72-78. New York: Oxford University Press, 1953.

Considers Longinus's On the Sublime as an influential precursor to nineteenth-century romantic theory.


(The entire section is 428 words.)