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The Impact of Hellenism On Rome

by Myrle Winn

"Graecia capta ferum victorum capit et artes/intulit agresti Latio"

Hellenism's greatest prize in Italy was Rome

Horace, Epist. II, I, Lines 156-7

 

The name Greek is no longer a mark of a race, but of an outlook, and is accorded to those who share our culture rather than our blood," said the Athenian orator Isokrates in 380 BCE.

By this time the Greek city-states no longer held political and military dominance in the Hellenic world of the eastern Mediterreanean. Greek culture however, continued to spread throughout the Mediterranean into Egypt and the vast Persian empire.

By the middle of the fourth centry, King Philip of Macedonia began to move toward an empire that united all of Greece. Upon his assasination in 336 BCE, his son Alexander (the Greek), became king. In one continuous campaign Alexander brought together the Greek and Eastern empires. The spread of Greek culture from the Himalayas to the Nile, blending the arts, cultures and institutions of Anatolia, Egypt, Syria and Iran producing multitude of ideals and behaviours that constituted what the heirs of the Athenians poleis and the remainder of the western world would come to know as Hellenism.

With the conquests of Alexander, the political horizon of these societies were extended over an immense area embracing diverse peoples and civilizations who knew little of each other, and far less of the ideals of Pericles, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles and Demosthenes until many years after their deaths.

Rome came under Greek influence very early in the eight century BCE, when Greek colonies were established in southern Italy and Sicily. For generations Roman people were surrounded by Hellenized Etruscans in the north, and in Naples and Sicily in the south. Though Hellenism was to leave its unmistakable mark on almost every aspect of Roman life and thought, they were originally very ambivalent about the Greeks. Though Hellenism was to leave its unmistakable mark on almost every aspect of Roman life and thought, they were originally very ambivalent about the Greeks. On one hand they were in awe of an obviously superior civilization, and yet there was hostility, for Greek culture amounted to a reversal of Roman values. The Greeks were literate, artistic, intellectual, sophisticated, delighting always in the pleasures of life, while the Romans were hard-working, boorish farmers with superstition ruling their lives and very often harsh words for the 'decadent' Greeks.

After the expulsion of the Roman kings(509 BCE) the influence of the Greeks on Italian convention began to increase. Just as Greece was reaching its climax of culture with regard to political, military, and artistic phases of development, the Roman farmers began to open their eyes and realize how very much the Greeks had to offer. The whole Italian peninsula came alive with a new civilization, similar to the Greek model, and fashioned after it. As time went on this new society began to gain more and more strength. Etruria began to abound with Greek works of art, and in Lucania and Campania Greek language and writing prevailed to a great extant.

The Greeks proved to be as gifted as a people as mankind has ever produced, achieving supreme heights in thought and letters. They absorbed the knowledge of the knowledge of the mysterious East, the lore of the ancient Caldeans, the arts and crafts they found in Asia Minor and the wonders of Egypt all to their liking. They added immediately to everything that they learned. It was the Greeks of the fifth and fourth centuries BCE who first became fully conscious of the power of the human wind, who formulated what the Western world long meant by the beautiful, and who first speculated on political freedom. Herodotus, 'the father of history,' travelled throughout the Greek world and far beyond, learning of the past. Thucydides, in his account of the wars between Athens and Sparta presented history as a guide to an enlightened citizenship and statecraft of the two great nations.

The most famous "Greeks" after the fourth century BCE usually did not come from Greece but from the Hellenized Near East, and especially from Alexandria in Egypt. In later years the cities of Alexandria and Antioch would play out a role possibly as large as Athens in the spread of Hellenism. These two cities in particular guaranteed the survival of the Hellenistic ideals and were the foundation of much of the brilliance and prosperity enjoyed by the Roman Empire at the height of its glory in the East.

Both, the Latin and the Greek branches of Hellenism came under the political domain of the Roman Empire, and thusly Hellenism was gradually transformed from the original Greek influence to the Roman state and finally to the society of Europe. But even before Hellenism came into contact with the budding Roman civilization, it had met and interacted with the rich and ancient societies of the Near East, and it was from this union rather than from an immediate contact with the fifth century Greece that Roman Hellenism was born. Rome herself became gradually Hellenized over the centuries of the Republic, absorbing the new culture at increasing speed as her power and wealth grew.

The greatest unifying effect of Hellenism; specifically between Rome and Greece; was communication. The spoken word, and the language of printing, sculpture, mosaics and architecture all of which they, and the various provinces shared. As the provinces absorbed the culture at a constant downhill rater, they also managed to keep their own unique local characteristics and incorporated them when exploring the arts themselves.

When the conquest of Magna Graecia and Sicily in the third century BCE, and the expansion of Roman power into the eastern Mediterranean in the second century, exposed the Romans to the cultural influences of the brilliant Hellenistic world, the ultra-conservatives among the Roman nobility recognized that Hellenism, with its emphasis on intellectualism and individual happiness, represented a threat to their traditional doctrine of subordination of self to family, class, state, and the gods, and was thus a threat to the stability of their rule. Accordingly, they launched a vigorous but futile campaign to eradicate these "dangerous new ideas" from Roman life. "For indeed it was not a little rivulet that flowed from Greece into our city, but a mightly river of culture and learning."(1)

The anti-Hellenic movement, of which Cato the Elder (234-149 BCE), was for a time the leader completely failed; eventually every branch of Roman learning; philosophy, oratory, science, art, religion, morals, manners, and dress surrenedered to Greek influence. By the end of the second century the ancestral Roman way of life had been transformed into a Greco-Roman culture that survived until the decline of the Roman empire.

As the cultural 'decadence' of Greece and the joining of the noble families took place, luxury in Rome was commented on through the Roman historian Livy(59 BCE- 17 CE). He spoke of how the army returned with military prizes of "bronze couches, costly coverlets...banquets were made more attractive by the presence of girls who played the lute and harp by other forms of entertainment..."(2), cooking became a fine art, and the cook who was once looked down as the lowest type of slave, was now considered to be the practitioner of a fine art.

As Rome grew and expanded, the wall of hypocrisy grew ever higher. Those who pointed their fingers of scorn at Greek "decadence," were themselves products of Hellenic education; Greek "decadence," were themselves products of Hellenic education; Greek was their second language and Athens or Rhodes the goal of their studies. No more perfect example could compete with Marcus Tullio Cicero (106-43 BCE) as a Roman intellectual schooled in Hellenism. The translator of Plato, Xenophon, Demosthemes, Homer and the tradgedians, he wrote a history of his own consulate in Greek, and tradgedians, and even his Latin writings, particularly the philosophical works, bear the stamp of their Greek models. And yet Cicero's speeches and letters are filled with unbelievably harsh judgments about the degeneracy of the contemporary Greek.

The affects of Greek life and its culture on Rome was to last forever. Commerce, war, and finally occupation and administration of new territories transported the Romans throughout the Mediterranean. Soldiers returning from eastern campaigns, and Greeks coming to Rome as hostages, envoys, traders, professional men and educated slaves familiarized the Romans with the Greek language and Greek ways. Doctors and philosophers brought Greek skills. The plunder of cities such as Syracuse and Corinth brought Greek works of art, great libraries and learned men to Rome and teased the appetites of Roman nobles for more. Few well-off Romans could resist the attractions of civilized Greek life. Roman children were now taught in both Greek and Latin, and it was now impossible to deny the benefits Rome was acquiring.

Roman philosophy was a part of Greek philosophy, Roman art was developed from Greek models. Roman gods were taken from the Greek world of religion, and in the second century the forerunner of the imperial cult began to take shape, paving the way for the divinity of Roman emperors. In the third century BCE came the first plays of the Greek model in Latin. The Romans even defined their early history to fit precisely into the Trojan cycle and Rome itself. As Rome grew so too did its magnetism for Greek artists and intellectuals, and she suddenly found herself equal to Alexandria.

In the third century the beginnings of Roman literature appeared, and a great deal of its form and content was modeled after the Greeks. However, though the words of Homer and Sophocles were within reach and would forever be considered golden, the writers of Rome such as Horace, Sallust, and Ovid all developed their own brilliant and unmistakable Latin flavor.

Actual works of Greek art came into Roman hands as booty from military campaigns. There are frequent references to the Roman borrowing of Greek forms and styles. The divisions between Greek and Roman art at times are difficult to determine. These difficulties arise because the Romans appropriated Greek forms but then frequently used them for different purposes, the result is superficially close but essentially different from the Greek.

The 1st century BCE, witnessed a belated artistic impact of Greece upon the aristocratic and family traditions of Rome, and this influence caused remarkable developments in portraiture. The affluent of Rome were among the world's great art patrons. Surviving passages in Latin literature often refer to the decoration of their palaces and villas with Greek reliefs, decorated urns, sarcophagi, statues and portraits busts. Wealthy Romans commissioned copies of Greek works of all epochs ranging from sixth to the second century BCE.

Most Roman patrons knew very little of art, but they knew what they liked. Portraits were what they wanted above all. The mentality of upper-class Romans contained an ingrained sense of history and of facturalism and was deeply attracted by portraits which would record and analyze the features and expressions of the individual in his own social and historical setting and without sparing his physical oddities. They wanted a sculptural biography chronicling and summing up a man's achievement and experiences. They endowed the art not only with an incentive and with funds but with a Roman definiteness, purpose, and dignity and with an inspiring, challenging new range of subjects-namely their own resolute, tough, square faces, vigorously displaying every blend between northern endurance and southern exuberance.

At Rome there was an increasing demand for realistic portraits of the living as well as the dead, and in the final century of the Republic the Greek custom of erecting statues in honour of famous men was extended to Rome, where senior officials became entitled to set up portrait statues of themselves in public places.

The sculptors of the Roman portrait gallery that now began, and became one of the chief glories of Roman civilization, were only very infrequently Romans or Italians; They were very nearly all Greeks or Orientals of Greek culture and training. In common with artists, they had gained in esteem under the monarchies which followed Alexander. In this most Roman of all achievements it was Greek-speaking non-Romans and easterners who were the experts. In particular, the employment of marble, used for sculpture and wall decoration in Roman homes from the first century BCE onward, involved techniques with which only those brought up in Near Eastern traditions were familar.

In the sculptural reliefs which decorate their monuments, the Romans, and their Greek or eastern artists, achieved undeniable originality. Scenic reliefs had many centuries earlier been a conspicuous feature of Assyrian, Babylonian, and Egyptian art, and in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE the Greeks began experimenting with figures placed at different levels in battle scenes and other elaborate low-relief compositions reminiscent of paintings. Then in the official sculpture; and painting of the monarchs who succeeded to Alexander's heritage, attention was increasingly devoted to narrating past and present events of national significance.

Many of the ingredients in this past history of the sculptural relief were utilized, in original fashion, by the Greek sculptors of the Altar of Peace(Ara Pacis) erected by Augustus at Rome. Consecrated in 13 BCE the Ara Pacis is adorned with rich and luscious floral decoration; the designs engraved upon the Augustan Altar include set pieces of legendary patriotic scenes.

Architecture also was but another facet of Greek life that the Romans borrowed various aspects of. The simple but exquisitedly executed Hellenic style had captivated the Romans as much as other perspectives of Greece had. From the Greeks they took the three basic orders of architecture; Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian, based on different forms of column and foundation, and added to them a hybrid of their own, known as Composite.

Architecture became a common denominator in the religious lives of Rome and Greece. During the last century of the Republic the attachment of the old indigenous form of worship was more and more supplanted by the influence of modern Greek civilization. This admixture of Greek mythology and Greek scepticism soon tended to abolish the deep religious feeling characteristic of the old Romans. The religious indifference of the upper classes grew into a decided aversion to religion itslef, and many of the old temples fell into disarray. When finally repaired, the old Roman temples took on a decidedly Greek flavor.

With the influence of the Sibylline books, a great influx of Greek gods and Greek rites took place in the early centuries of the Republic. In the fifth century BCE the practice developed of consulting the Greek oracle of the Sibyl at Cumae. The first Greek gods had entered the Roman pantheon in the fifth century, but with the entry of Aesculapius, the Greek god of medicine in 293 BCE, many more were imported, until by the end of the third century the amalgamation of Greek and Roman religion was completed.

Within the scope of religion, and as Rome became the dominant factor in Hellenistic politics, the Greek cities began to transfer to her the phenomenon of king-worship. With the expansion of the Empire, Rome came to rule eastern nations that were accustomed to worshipping their kings as gods and readily transferred their worship to Roman rulers.

Augustus and his successor, Tiberius, allowed the habit to continue in the eastern provinces during their reigns, however in the west it was discouraged. Rather than fostering the idea of divinity upon himself, Augustus encouraged the worship of Roma , the divine spirit of Rome. In the east teh emperor himself was a god, but his cult had less personal character than that of the Hellenistic monarchs. He was a god so long as he governed the State and because he governed the State. The sanctity of the State was embodied in the Emperor's person.

Religious belief once revered in Rome was shattered by the economic and social unrest of the second and first centuries BCE. The seemingly unlimited population of landless masses in Rome and the rapid individualization of Roman society under the impact of Hellenism, created an emptiness that the educated tried to fill through Greek philosophy, and the lower classes in Hellenic and Oriental mystery cults.

In 155 BCE the Athenian government send the heads of the three great philosophical schools; as a political embassy to the impressionable Romans: Carneades the Academic, Diogenes the Stocia and Critolaus the Peripatetic. In the course of their extended visit Carneades treated his Roman hosts to a spectacular display of "arguing both sides."

Carneades created a sensation at Rome, particularly among the young who came flocking to hear Hellenism's premier intellectual perform. Hellenism took Rome by storm once again, but this time it was not literature, art or myth that came garbed in Greek attire, but philosophy. It was Rome's first real encounter with that aspect of Hellenism, and it was to be a momentous one. Not all the Romans were happy with the learned ambassadors. Cato the Censor was determined to have all Greek philosophers banned from Rome. He publicly expressed his disgust at what he construed to be revolutionary notions, and exhorted the Senate to ride Rome of these troubles. His success was minimal and short-lived.

The Romans viewed Hellenistic intellectuals with suspicion, and the only Stoics; who believed in an uncomplaining performance of duty and paramount virtue; were really welcome in Rome.

A Greek Stoic, Panaetius, lived for many years in the home of P. Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus, the son of a noble Roman family. Panaetius taught Scipio and many others of nobility the principles of Stoicism. In a book "On Duties" Panaetius laid down the central ideas of Stoicism; that man is a part of a whole, that he is here not to enjoy the pleasures of the sense, but to do his duty without complaint. Educated Romans grasped at this philosophy as dignified and presentable. They found in its ethics a moral code completely congenial to their ancient traditions and ideals. Stoicism became the inspiration of Scipio, the consolation of Marcus Aurelius, and the conscience of Rome.

The period which followed the end of the third Macedonian War was one of great significant in the histyory of education in Rome. Thousands of prisoners were brought across the Adriatic, many of whom found employment as 'pedagogues' or tutors in Roman families. Greek slaves tutored Roman children in the Greek language and the classics: Homer, Hesiod, and the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Cleander. In the third and second centuries BCE, education was gradually institutionalized and merged with Greek intellectualism. Despite conservative opposition schools were introduced; these were largely in the hands of Greek slaves and freedmen. Literature, both Greek and Latin, philosophy, rhetoric, and other aspects of the liberal arts became part of the formal curriculum. For increasing numbers, formal education culminated in a trip to the "university centers" of the Greek East. Rome learned from Greek humanism.

It is clear that the Imperium Romanum was founded on the polis. Cities provided Rome with a convenient channel for her commands and her demnads for resources through taxation. The Romans themselves had neither the manpower nor the funds to staff the lower levels of provincial administration.

The situation was nothing new in the ancient world. The empires of classical Greece, those of Sparta and Athens, subordinated other cities without necessarily subjecting them to direct rule by imperial power. Their principle was inherited by the Macedonian monarchs: Alexander the Great, who took over and used the old organization of the Persian empire in Asia, created new cities and his successors, especially the Seleucides, added more, either re-enforcing old communities or creating them from their demobilized soldiers.

In the Hellenized provinces, Rome based her arrangements on their own cities from the time she first organized Siciliy onwards. In provinces, where there was an existing network of villages, she used these as a basis, until the majority of them became municipia under the Principate.

No Roman magistrates were regularly installed in the Eastern Mediterranean until 148-7 BCE. Instead commanders were sent, when and where necessary, to fight wars and to organize peoples who had voluntarily became allies or succumbed to Roman power.

Such indirect control was possible because the Romans were dealing with monarchs or with well-established local institutions in the form of a city or a non-urban political community, which they could on the whole manipulate to achieve stability in their own interests.

Roman citizenship was a unifying factor but a distinct privelege. Although Roman law was entreched inside colonies and municipia, elsewhere it co-existed with local law. Laws varied from province to province and even from city to city.

The term that the Romans came to use for the areas directly administered by their officials was provincia, (appointment, task). Provincia was first used with the creation of the province of Macedonia in 148-7, and its Greek annexes in 146-145.

Rome, however, was cautious about direct intervention in Greek affairs. The designation of "free city" was given to many cities now in Roman control. They were allowed to be free, in possession of their own laws, free from garrisons and from paying tribute.(4)

Rome had been learning from her Greek mentors. Such declarations had been formally made about individual cities by Antiochus II and III and by Philip V; even Ptolmy II and Alexander had made similar statements.(5)

The freedom was conditional on the Greeks' continued friendship with Rome, but the Greeks had little doubt that they were still subject to a dominant power.

The cities in Africa were again treated differently. After the destruction of Carthage, Rome acknowledged the freedom of those cities which had supported her in the war against Carthage, and granted them their own land.

In the Hellenized provinces of the Greek east the existing Greek cities there provided the Roman empire with ready-made urban centers, but some sort of compromise was required between the Roman expectations and the long tradition of Greek city politics.

From the time the Romans began to exercise power in Greece, they had tended to favor oligarchic constitutions, without trying to eliminate entirely any of the three many elements, which were the foundation not only of the Greek constitution but of their own republican system.

During the late Republic some Romans became citizens of Athens and actually were elected to various governmental councils - something which Cicero showed strong disapproval in 65 BCE.(6) It is believed that these actions were taken in order to ensure that the wealthier and more aristocratic section of society dominated politics and the judiciary.

This example of Athens shows the impact that Roman power could have on a Greek city, but also how this was mediated by the use of Greek institutions.

In the provinces of Asia Minor Rome established colonies of veterans at Antioch and Seleucia and founded Cremna, Parlais and Olbasa. Baths, theatres, temples, basilicas, markets, and a system of roads was begun, all adorning the new towns and cities. Here Rome seriously undertook the task of spreading Hellenism. She did not acquire any new methods, but rather followed in the foosteps of previous conquerors. Like the Hellenistic soveriegns, they founded new cities by bringing together isolated groups under common ground, worked for the development of a better municipal system and encouraged inter-provincial trade.

With the battle of Actium (31 BCE) Augustus ruled alone. "Magis alii homines alii mores."(7) There was peace after many years and Rome was grateful. Much of the land captured was filled with barbarians, but much of the realm of Hellenistic culture. It was the Greeks who made the Romans conscious of their own individual character and while Rome assimilated the culture of the Greeks, and all they had to offer they also shaped their history, traditions and what it meant to be a Roman.


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Toynbee, Arnold. The Greeks and Their Heritages. Oxford University Press. Oxford, UK. 1981.

 


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