Ancient History & Civilisation


For centuries the Romans had no literature, philosophy or history, and the achievements of Hellenistic science were unknown. During the regal period they saw something of Greek art through contact with Etruria and Campania, but afterwards they relapsed into a parochial state. The conquest of southern Italy gave them a glimpse of the Greek world, and a Greek playwright, Andronicus, was taken from Tarentum to Rome where he translated the Odyssey and Greek plays. Then the First Punic War opened the floodgates of Greek culture. Roman soldiers campaigned for years in Sicily where they saw the luxurious court life of Hiero and the amenities of the Greek cities. They watched Greek plays in the theatres and picked up so much of the language that later their own writers, Naevius and Plautus, could venture to introduce Greek puns and colloquialisms in their plays for popular consumption. Duilius not only received the honour of a column and a laudatory rhetorical inscription in the Forum, but also was thenceforth escorted home at night through the streets of Rome with torches and music, as if returning from a revel in a Greek city. In the Hannibalic War Roman soldiers crossed to Greece itself, while others campaigned again in Sicily. The nobility and to some extent the people were waking up to the glory that had been Greece. A new world was swimming into their ken and they became self-conscious. They realized that they counted in a larger world, where they were still regarded as barbarians, and they hastened to imbibe some of the culture of their neighbours. Greek literature and thought captivated the imagination of many: Marcellus transported to Italy works of art from captured Syracuse, and Scipio Africanus excited the anger of the old-fashioned Fabius because of the enthusiasm with which he threw himself into the cultural pleasures offered by that city. A group of philhellenic nobles was formed of whom the chief were Scipio and Flamininus.

But Greece displayed not only the greatness of her past but also the decadence of her present. In the second century more Roman soldiers and businessmen met the Greeks at home and familiarity bred contempt. The idealism of any philhellenists appeared impracticable, Roman policy became more realistic, and Greek independence was finally extinguished. But Rome not only gave, whether freedom or peace; she also received. Throughout the century Greeks poured into Italy: statesmen, traders, craftsmen, artists, and above all teachers and slaves. Cato, who with narrow nationalism had withstood the liberal policy of the Scipios, now set himself to stem the tide that threatened to sweep away the simplicity of Roman life. Greek men of culture aroused his puritanical suspicions; the corruption of others was only too patent; and all were tarred with the same brush since they threatened to undermine the mos maiorum. In every field a bitter struggle was waged between the nationalists and the Hellenists, each of whom saw only one side of Greek culture. But Cato fought a losing battle; despite his fulminations a younger generation of enthusiasts received the torch of Hellenism unquenched. Around Scipio Aemilianus there gathered a number of friends, including the historian Polybius, Panaetius the Stoic philosopher, Laelius the ‘Wise’, the dramatists Terence and Pacuvius and the satirist Lucilius. This ‘Scipionic circle’ formed a centre of the new enlightenment and a brilliant social coterie; amid great freedom of thought and discussion an attempt was made to blend the best elements of Greek and Roman life.

The direct influence of Greek culture on Roman literature and art, philosophy and religion is discussed elsewhere. It remains to refer to its less beneficent effect on society and life. Not all the ills of the second century can be laid at the door of the Greeks, but most are due indirectly to Rome’s conquest of the Hellenistic world and the lowering of her moral standards. Whether Greece was the cause or the first victim of Rome’s corruption can scarcely be decided: the two cultures reacted on one another with some good results, such as peace for Greece and culture for Rome, but the last state of both nations was worse than the first.15

During the second century family life declined. The census statistics show an unhealthily small increase. Female and infant mortality was doubtless high. As early as 234 BC complaints were heard that celibacy was increasing. The number of children in the great families declined, so that recourse was often had to adoption, to prevent their extinction. Divorce became more common. Girls married young, often at the age of twelve; old men sometimes married young girls, and it was not unknown for father and son to marry two sisters. The emancipation of women proceeded apace. Instead of reverting to the control of their own families on the death of their husbands, they had often persuaded their husbands to decree by will that they should be allowed to nominate their own guardians. An attempt was made to check their extravagance and to prevent their gaining control of large amounts of capital by passing a law (Lex Voconia) in 169 forbidding a testator of the highest property class to make a woman his heir and limiting legacies to a sum less than that received by the heir. This attempt to secure a male succession and to preserve the large estates in the hands of the nobles was easily thwarted by the invention of legal fictions. An earlier bill, the Lex Furia Testamentaria, probably of 183, had limited bequests to 1,000 asses in cases where the legatee was outside a certain degree of affinity. This also could be obviated, as numerous bequests might exhaust the estate and leave the heir penniless.

Changes in family life inevitably affected education which remained a domestic matter, though Polybius censured the state for not assuming control. The father was often less able or willing to train his children to meet the needs of the day. Consequently Greek slaves were employed as tutors in large houses, as were private chaplains by noblemen in Elizabethan England; and the number of schools increased. The influence of a slave on a growing boy was a poor substitute for a father’s instruction in the mos maiorum, and character necessarily suffered. But the change was not entirely bad, for the curriculum was widened and the father often chose the teachers with great care. Aemilius Paullus, the victor of Pydna, devoted especial care to the education of his children, and Cornelia, the daughter of Scipio Africanus, trained her sons, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, with a wise intermingling of Roman virtues and Greek enlightenment. Even Cato in his old age was forced to realize that the coming generation must be trained to meet a larger world than that faced by their fathers. Greek language, literature and thought were studied; public speaking was practised and rhetoric began to get its fatal hold on Roman life.

Educated Romans learnt to speak Greek in quite early times. Thus in 282 BC L. Postumius Megellus, an ambassador to Tarentum, addressed the council in Greek; true, his audience laughed at his faults in language, but perhaps it was not too bad since they went on to insult him in other ways and were obviously out to be obstreperous. A century later Flamininus and the father of the Gracchi were excellent Greek speakers, and Aemilius Paullus in his diplomatic interviews with Perseus switched easily from Latin to Greek, while P. Licinius Crassus, consul in 131, in dispensing justice in Asia Minor could even reply to Greek petitioners in five different dialects. Further, as we shall see (p. 346), Roman writers were composing histories in Greek before the end of the third century, and so by the next century probably most Roman nobles were becoming bilingual. This gave them an advantage in their diplomatic dealings with the Greeks, who by contrast appear to have failed to learn Latin.16

Life became more luxurious as money poured in from foreign conquests and contact with the east awoke fresh needs. It is easy to exaggerate the extent of this change in the first half of the second century: the pictures drawn by Plautus reflect Athens of the New Comedy period, not Rome; Roman conservatism acted as a brake and luxury remained rather primitive. Though Cato could complain that Rome was the only city in the world where a jar of preserved fish cost more than a yoke of oxen, his strictures on Roman customs were doubtless exaggerated by his moralizing zeal. But changes were taking place. The growth of town at the expense of country life involved a rise in the price of property and rents in the city. Domestic architecture was adapted to fresh needs and theatrium became a hall rather than the centre of the house. Works of art were collected to adorn the dwellings of the rich. Manlius Vulso brought back from Asia bronze couches, costly coverlets, tapestry and other fabrics, pedestal tables and silver salvers. The Greek bathroom (balneum) began to supersede the old washroom (lavatrina), and public baths existed at Capua during the Hannibalic War. Banquets became more luxurious, and cookery an art. Baking became a trade instead of the housewife’s task, and bakers’ shops are heard of in 171. Ennius wrote on the Art of Pleasant Eating (ńδυϕαγητικά) and drunkenness increased. In vain Cato opposed the repeal in 195 of the Oppian law, a wartime measure of 215 which had limited the amount of jewellery and plate that could be used by individuals. As censor in 184 he laid heavy taxes on luxuries, especially women’s ornaments and dress, vehicles and slaves. In 181 a Lex Orchia limited the number of guests that might be invited to entertainments, and in 161 a Lex Fannia fixed the maximum expenditure on banquets at the Megalesian Games. The very frequency of such sumptuary legislation points to its ineffectiveness. The nobility indulged their wealth and leisure, but their luxury only seemed excessive in contrast with their earlier austerity. (Less than a hundred years earlier, in 275, P. Cornelius Rufinus, who had twice been consul and had celebrated a triumph, was expelled from the Senate for possessing 10 lb of silver vessels!) Two pictures of the wife and daughter of Scipio Africanus give us an intimate glimpse of social life. Aemilia, his wife, ‘used to display great magnificence, whenever she took part in the religious ceremonies of the women. For apart from the richness of her own dress and the decorations of her carriage, all the baskets, cups, and other utensils of the sacrifice were of gold or silver and were borne in her train on such solemn occasions, while the number of maids and servants in attendance was correspondingly large’ (Polybius, xxxi, 26). Of the salon of his daughter Cornelia, Plutarch writes, ‘She had many friends, and kept a good table that she might show hospitality, for she always had Greeks and other literary men about her, and all the reigning kings interchanged gifts with her’ (c. Gracchus, 19). Among these the King of Egypt in vain sought her hand and offered her the crown.

The urban mob, which was growing in Rome as slave labour drove free off the large plantations, had to be amused. There were six regular festivals; the duration and richness of these were increased. Horse and chariot races had formed the main item; scenic displays were staged in 364 and became regular features after 240. But in 186 Greek athletes and wild beasts were introduced into the Circus, though attempts to build a permanent theatre were fruitless and one which was commenced was pulled down in 154. Still more degrading was the introduction of gladiatorial contests in 264. These were private displays, staged in the Forum to adorn a funeral. For instance, at the funeral of Flamininus in 174 thirty-seven pairs of swordsmen fought. Though such displays were regarded as examples of courage, they soon had a brutalizing effect. Schools of gladiators were established, though no amphitheatres yet existed in Rome. Terence’s Hecyra could not hold an audience when rumours of gladiators were heard; and the Romans turned a concert given by some famous Greek artists into a coarse burlesque (167): they did not accept the best that Greece offered. In the race for wealth and popularity the nobles lavished more and more on public games, and an aedile might well waste his fortune and have to recoup himself later when he served abroad. Italian allies and provincials sometimes made ‘voluntary’ contributions to amuse the mob at Rome.

Such were some of the symptoms of the changing spirit of Rome. Below there was a deep spiritual unrest. Cato complained that the Greek spirit questioned everything and settled nothing. Old landmarks were being overthrown. Nobler minds sought refuge in Greek culture and philosophy. Others, recoiling from the formalism of the state religion, fled to the enthusiastic eastern cults. Some made ambition, wealth and power the end of life; some turned to self-indulgence, with or without a Greek cloak of hedonistic theory. Though the sturdy common sense and conservatism of the Romans withstood many temptations, contact with the Greek spirit brought one revolutionary change. In earlier days the individual had worked only to take his proper place in the community; few men of brilliance or creative genius emerged; the portraits of Rome’s early heroes seem painted with the same brush. Ennius could truly write: ‘Moribus antiquis res stat Romana virisque.’ But later individuals arose, conscious of their own rights and potentialities. Scipio Africanus was one of the earliest leaders who did not quite conform to type; and it was the outstanding individual who at the head of a devoted army threatened and finally overthrew Republican Rome. But as yet the individual hesitated to hurl himself against the rock of the senatorial oligarchy, which did not totter till many had dashed themselves to pieces against its strength.

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