Introduction to Longinus

Little is known about Longinus (pronounced “londjainus”), the author of the treatise On the Sublime. For a long time the text was attributed to Cassius Longinus (3rd century). However, most critics now accept that Longinus wrote his work in the first century AD.

The text itself provides few clues about its author’s life. The text is addressed to Postumius Terentianus, about whom all we know is that he was some Roman public figure. Longinus himself was Greek (he’ll sometimes talk about “our author”), and his reference to the Book of Genesis suggests that he was at least familiar with Judaism, if he was not a Hellenized Jew. Longinus concludes the treatise with some reflections on the merits of tyranny and democracy, though it is difficult to glean his exact political views.

Longinus’ On the Sublime attracted little attention during Roman times. However, it was rediscovered in the Renaissance, with printings in the 16th century. It achieved widespread notice after Nicolas Boileau translated it into French in 1674. Later writers, like Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant, developed their theories of the sublime in response to Longinus, and the sublime became perhaps the most important aesthetic concept of the Romantic period.