Roman civilization is one of the foundation stones of our own western culture, and we are often exposed in newspaper and magazine articles, books, and even TV documentaries to the glories of Roman art, architecture, literature (the chances are you’ve read Virgil’s Aeneid), rhetoric (we’ve all heard of Cicero), even philosophy. Yet in the late first century BC the Roman poet Horace wrote: “Captive Greece captured her rude conqueror and introduced her arts to the crude Latin lands” (Epistle 2.1.156). Did he really mean that Rome owed its cultural and intellectual heritage to the Greeks?
The answer is yes, as I discuss in my Athens after Empire. The Romans did have their own culture, but largely derived from the peoples they defeated (such as the Etruscans) as they expanded in Italy and the contacts they had with the Greek cities of southern Italy (so many that the area was nicknamed Magna Graceia) and Sicily. Once they became involved in mainland Greece in the second century BC their eyes were really opened to Greek, especially Athenian, civilization.
A turning point came in 155 BC when the Athenians sent a delegation to Rome to protest a fine imposed by another Greek state. Instead of diplomats, as might be expected on such a mission, the people sent the leaders of the three main philosophical schools in the city—Carneades of Cyrene (Academy), Critolaus of Phaselis in Lycia (Lyceum), and Diogenes from Seleuceia on the Tigris (Stoicism). All three are evidence of how multicultural a society Athens had become by then as not one of them was a native Athenian! Although these philosophers had limited diplomatic success, they all gave talks about their different philosophical systems, each one speaking in a different rhetorical manner—Carneades, it was said, with force and speed, Critolaus with skill and smoothness, and Diogenes with modesty and sobriety.
Although the elderly senator Cato accused them of sophistic trickeries, his conservatism put him in a minority of one; from then on, the Romans were bewitched by the “allure” of Hellenism. The Athenians therefore cannily began to promote their culture and learning, especially in two areas that had most captivated the Romans thanks to the “philosophers’ embassy”: philosophy and rhetoric.
In the first century prominent Romans and their sons went to visit and study in Athens, with the city being seen as a finishing school of sorts. Cicero visited the city twice; Titus Pomponius, better known as Cicero’s famous friend and correspondent Atticus, moved there and joined the Epicurean school; the poets Horace and Ovid praised their time in Athens; also attending philosophers’ classes and staying in the city were Brutus (after Caesar’s assassination) and Mark Antony; and the emperor Augustus and his successors went even further by consciously appropriating aspects of Hellenism that appealed to them (such as architecture or oratory) for Roman cultural and political ends.
When we turn to works of Roman literature their Greek predecessors, so to speak, burst forth all the more. Take Virgil’s Aeneid (recounting Aeneas’ wanderings after the fall of Troy to Italy and the eventual foundation of Rome). Virgil was so influenced by the Homeric poems that his is a hybrid of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Of the Aeneid’s twelve books, the first six (Aeneas’ travels to Italy) mirror the Odyssey (Odysseus’ wanderings) and the second six (the struggles of the Trojans) mirror the Iliad (the last year of the Trojan War).
The Romans’ expansion in the eastern Mediterranean tends to focus on how they did it—the campaigns, the battles, the treaties, the diplomacy, the looting, the impact on the vanquished. Yet often overlooked is the impact of the conquered, in this case the Greeks, on the conquerors. I address this aspect in my book, introducing a new dynamic between Rome and Greece, especially Athens, in Rome’s climb to dominance in the east. Athens in the Hellenistic and Roman periods is often seen as a shadow of its Classical predecessor, politically, militarily, socially, and culturally. It lived under Macedonian hegemony thanks to Philip II and his son Alexander the Great until Rome imposed its mastery over Greece.
I show in my book that nothing could be further from the truth: the city in this later period is still a vibrant one, the people always ready to resist foreign domination when they could, no matter the odds, and with a lively cultural, religious, and intellectual life. It was that culture and history that seduced the Romans in a way they could never have imagined until confronted by three philosophers in their city one day.
Rome may have conquered the lands and imposed its rule, but as Horace knowingly points out, it was the Greeks who ended up capturing and imposing their culture on Rome. That Rome acknowledged this may be seen in AD 132, when the emperor Hadrian founded a new league of cities in the east and he needed at its center a city that was steeped in history, tradition, and culture. For him, there was only one: Athens.
And so the city enjoyed a renaissance and a new life in the Greek world, a fitting end to its fall centuries earlier to Macedonia and then to Rome, and a tribute to its status as a cultural and intellectual juggernaut through the ages.