Any attempt at defining popular literature with some precision is fraught with difficulties. A flexible and pragmatic approach is the most rewarding, since it allows one to look at the subject from a few different viewpoints: “popular” can be understood as referring to the Roman people as a whole, or only to its lower social strata; a text can be defined as popular because it has been composed in a popular milieu, and/or because it addresses a popular audience. A mode of reception of literature can also be labelled “popular.” The traditional Roman elite only conceived literature as something useful, which could and should contribute to the instruction of its readers and to the well-being of the State. However, gradually a different attitude emerged: one that appreciated literature, and especially narrative, mostly or even only for its pleasurable and escapist qualities, sometimes even without any concern for its cultural sophistication.
This rather loose definition allows us to discern a popular streak in many literary forms. For example, it is often surmised that ancient drama addressed the Roman people as a whole, without distinction of social class or cultural level. Other forms of theatre, such as Atellanae, mime, and pantomime, had a more farcical nature and were especially favoured by a less sophisticated public, but at least on some occasions they made some demands on the education of their audiences and contributed to the diffusion of traditional Roman culture. Non-elite social classes had literary activities of their own, especially during the Empire, when literacy increased. These texts are extant especially thanks to epigraphical sources, and are often written in an unsophisticated and colloquial language. Narrative in its various forms could address very different audiences, but the possibility of reading a good tale for entertainment more than for instruction was always open, for sophisticated novels such as Apuleius’s Metamorphoses as well as for simpler tales and collections of mirabilia. Edifying Christian narratives were programmatically written in order to be understandable to and appreciated by a large and not necessarily cultured public, whose faith they intended to strengthen and promote. Playful poetry and didactic literature also had a space among midlevel literary activities.