The development of Roman culture through contact with Greece between

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by James Lloyd
published on 12 January 2013

The 2nd and 1st centuries BCE offer a timeline in which contact with Greece had a noticeably important effect on the cultural development of Rome; directly, and as an indirect spur to differentiate a Roman, and not Greek, Mediterranean ‘culture’. This topic is utterly vast in its scope, and as such this article acts as an introduction to it, for further reading, see the bibliography

The surviving literary sources for this period pose the question as to whether they represent the whole situation or if they are minority views that through the chance of historical preservation (and because of the high status of their writers) have survived. It will be much more difficult to find evidence, archaeological or otherwise, which is applicable to the masses of Rome.

The earliest source we have for the period is Plautus who wrote comedies at the turn of the 2nd century BCE, however, there is no chronology for them. The plays were based on Greek New Comedy but altered so as to appeal to a roman audience. There was perhaps no specific event that caused this cultural and literary cross-over, but events such as the Macedonian War doubtlessly helped with its development, increasing contact between Rome and the Greek east. Plautus, to a certain extent, acts as an outlet for the teaching (albeit in a not-so-serious tone) of Greek literature and language, myths, arts, and ideas to a broad roman public, those who would be in attendance at the theatre. Simple Greek words are interjected into his plays and Plautus also takes the literal assimilation of Greek further, combining Latin words with Greek words as well as using the rather Aristophanic technique of creating exceedingly long compound words. Plautus is of a time when there was no concern with using Greek, unlike later in the republic, when Latin became the diplomatic language, and even Cicero was criticized for speaking in Greek.

Despite the theatre being a stage for the early initial acceptance of linguistic and literary elements of Greek culture in Roman culture, it is important to note that the first permanent theatre in Rome was not until 55 BCE, a late acceptance of that particular aspect of Greek culture. Roman contact with Greece and the eastern provinces had created wealth, which most likely spurred on the growth of southern Italian cities like Pompeii, which were Hellenised due to these new Greek influences, and by a previous exposure to the Greek south. Pompeii in turn added to Rome's Hellenisation, Pompeii acting as the middle-man of Greek cultural interchange. The fact that permanent theatres were built substantially earlier in Pompeii than in Rome suggests a cultural distancing or timorous acceptance of Greek ideals within the eternal city, in opposition to Pompeii, which due to earlier Greek influences in the south of Italy, more warmly accpted certain aspects of her culture.

Slight digression aside, the view of Plautus as a roman teaching things Greek is in direct contrast to the message of Cato a few years later. In private an amateur Hellenist, Cato saw the moral dangers of a publicly promoted acceptance of Greek culture, this view lead to a bolstering of Roman ideals in opposition to Greek ones; “[he] made a point of ridiculing those who admired everything Greek” and Cato's only praise of Socrates, is that he was gentle and considerate to his wife (family values were very important to Romans). There is a clear duality of views on how, and whether at all, Greek culture should be affecting Rome. Tthe duality of Cato is even expressed through the anecdotes about him : Cato addresses the Athenians through an interpreter, mocking Philhellenes; but in an alternative version of the same story he gives a speech in Greek and praises Athens and the Athenians (which admittedly Plutarch points to being incorrect). It has also been argued that Plautus also fits into this duality argument. Despite his comedies being a medium through which a roman audience could learn of Greek culture and language, his attitudes to Greek character, and the moral implications of it, are hardly endearing in places; “Greek perversion” (Bacchides, 812).

Despite these stereotyped views of Greeks, Plutarch expresses that when the Athenian philosophers arrived in Rome,

all the young Romans who had any taste for literature hurried to frequent their company, and listened to them with delight and wonder… [with regards to the storm of interest and praise that Carneades caused] most of the Romans were gratified by this, and were well content to see their sons embrace Greek culture and frequent the society of such estimable men.

Cato “was deeply disturbed” by this and said to the senate, “leave the youth of Rome to give their attention to the laws and the magistrates”. And perhaps Cato's views won through, with this idea being similar to that expressed by Anchises in Aeneid Bk.6, but at the same time, despite Cato’s lament, the young Roman’s actions (almost certainly the majority of whom were the sons of the wealthy) suggests that their is a definite amourous attitude to this aspect of Greek culture.

Cato’s opposite number, whilst not contemporary, was Cicero, and there is a vast array of arguments as to the extent to which he was a philhellene. The main argument against Cicero's philhellenism is the use of derogatory phrases and terms as to Greek character in several of his speeches. I would argue that this is not a duality of public versus private views (as it appears the duality of philhellenism versus anti-Hellenism can often be broken down to; at least this applies to Cato), but rather that he uses public stereotypes of Greek characters to better his arguments when 'on the job', he did not necessarily have to hold these views himself. In contrast to the anti-Hellenism expressed in some of his speeches, Cicero enables us to see just how much the roman elite were willing to pay for works of Greek art “did we not see in a recent auction a bronze of no great size go for 40,000 sesterces?”. However, to what extent did Greek art have an effect on Rome’s cultural development, was it all just art for the sake of art?

Spoilia (war booty), often in the form of works of art, had an unintentional influence on Rome. Spolia was not originally taken specifically for its own beauty or worth, but because of its part in highlighting Rome’s military victory this relationship developed. The spoils of war brought Greek culture back to Rome where it would affect those that hadn’t fought for it; and let us not forgot the roman artists who would have seen it too! It is later on in the republic that we can see a development in Greek art connoisseurship, this can be seen in Cicero and Pliny ; ad Familiares 7,213,1-3, shows that Cicero has developed a refined art selection process, criticizing Gallus for buying art works which can only be described as not in keeping with his ‘interior designs’. To argue against the fact that this was art for the sake of art is Pliny’s account that “the great part of these collectors more often merely pretended to have real knowledge about this [Corinthian] bronze, so that they may stand out from the common run of men” here we see how Greek art came to develop roman culture, it became an outlet through which the elite could define and judge themselves, and could even be an outlet for bantering in the courtroom (Pliny, N.H. XXXIV 48). 

Contact with Greece in the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE created a duality of views which developed roman culture, either by more clearly defining it in contrast to Greek cultural traditions, or by assimilating Greek cultural traditions; creating a bizarre situation in which Rome was culturally Greek, but still culturally unique.

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References

  • Braund & Gill (ed.s). Myth, History and Culture in Republican Rome: studies in honour of T. P. Wiseman. Exeter, 2002. Page(s) "Plato with.
  • Guite. "Cicero's Attitude to the Greeks." Greece and Rome 1962. 142- 159.
  • Pollitt. The Art of Rome, c.753 BC- AD 337, Sources and Documents. Cambridge, 1983.
  • Pollitt. "The Impact of Greek Art on Rome." Transactions of the American Philological association 1978. 155- 174.
  • Rose. "the Greek of Cicero." The Journal of Hellenic Studies 1921. 91- 116.
  • Seaman. "The Understanding of Greek by Plautus' Audience." The Classical Journal 1954. 115- 119.
  • Segal (ed.). Oxford Readings in Menander, Plautus and Terence. OUP, Oxford, 2002. Page(s) "Plautus an.
  • Smith & Yarrow (ed.s). Religion, Art and Plunder in Imperialism, Cultural Politics and Polybius. Oxford, 2012. Page(s) "From Polyb.
  • Wacher (ed.). The Roman World, Vol.1. Routledge, London, 1990. Page(s) "Hellenisti.
  • Wallace-Hadrill. "To Be Roman, Go Greek." Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies Supplement 71 1998. 79, 91.
  • Wardman. Rome's Debt to Greece. London, 1976.

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