BMCR 1994.02.11

1994.02.11, Gruen, Culture and National Identity in Republican Rome.

, Culture and National Identity in Republican Rome. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992. Pp. xiii + 347. ISBN 0-8014-2759-2.

The seven chapters in this volume were presented as the Townsend Lectures at Cornell University during the spring of 1991. Although each chapter can be read as an individual essay, they all fit together in a much larger pattern concerning how the Romans of the third and second centuries B.C. adopted and adapted various aspects of Hellenic culture. The book ranges widely over numerous long-standing historical and literary questions of republican Rome and displays Gruen’s firm command of modern bibliography of the subjects discussed. In fact, even those who find themselves disagreeing with G. on various points may nevertheless benefit from his bibliographical references. The principal thesis which runs throughout the seven chapters is perhaps most succinctly stated by G. on 269-70 as follows:

The response of Roman nobiles to Hellenism exhibits a surprising consistency through the third and second centuries. The supposed ambiguities and inconsistencies turn out upon scrutiny to form a discernible pattern. One need not resort to hypotheses about political divisions or national schizophrenia. The leadership of Rome found Greek culture both welcome and servicable. The attraction of Hellas lay deep and started early…. The attitude, however, was not simply one of respectful awe. Romans took care from the outset to project the primacy of their own interests and the subordination of Hellenism to national goals…. There was no “philhellenic party” or “philhellenic movement” in Rome, for there was no need for one. A widespread consensus held that command of Greek learning was not only respectable but fundamental in projecting Rome’s own cultural ascendancy.

Even though the present reviewer is in agreement with G. on numerous points, the arguments throughout are uneven on both major and minor issues. In asserting Roman aristocrats’ completely amicable receptivity to things Greek, G. must ignore or try to argue away many data that point to Roman ambivalence toward certain aspects of Hellenism. In doing so, he reduces a complex cultural phenomenon spanning several generations and involving many individual Romans to a single simplistic solution, which all too often includes a claim of conscious or calculated posturing or manipulation of a situation by a Roman official—an unfortunate trait which has characterized much of G.’s other work on Roman political behavior and motivation. One need only think of modern analogies, such as the complex and long-standing interplay between French and English-speaking cultures, to realize that such cultural interaction and interchange between two great peoples is never a simple or totally amicable process. G.’s overarching thesis is therefore to be counterbalanced with other modern studies that stress Roman ambivalence. 1

In chapter 1, “The Making of the Trojan Legend” (6-51), G. surveys in meticulous detail the numerous variant accounts of Rome’s mythical origin recorded by Greek writers of the fourth and third centuries B.C., and he cogently concludes that Rome’s adoption of a Trojan origin gave it entry into the Greek world with some distance and distinctiveness from the Greeks themselves. G. also makes the important observation that Greeks who wrote after the establishment of Roman Mediterranean rule, and who recounted Rome’s foundation in a manner divergent from Rome’s own canonical account should not be viewed ipso facto as having written in order to denigrate the ruling power, but they were simply employing the traditional poetic license of a mythographer. This chapter is perhaps the best one in the book. The reviewer differs only with respect to G.’s unhesitating acceptance of N. Horsfall’s cautiously expressed doubt that Hellanicus of Lesbos already in the fifth century connected Trojan Aeneas with Rome’s foundation. G. is certainly correct in maintaining that Rome had little practical need of a mythical Trojan ancestry before the second half of the fourth century, but this fact does not constitute a valid objection to the clear testimony of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Ant. Rom. I.72.2 (not at all incompatible with I.46.1-48.1). Early Greek speculation concerning the mythical origin of the peoples of central Italy is demonstrated by the closing lines of the Theogony, according to which the three sons of Odysseus and Circe, Telegonos, Latinos, and Agrios (= Silvius), ruled over the distant Etruscans. As shown by Beloch’s estimates, Rome was by far the largest state in Latium already in the fifth century. 2 Why then should it be hard to believe that Hellanicus took notice of Rome’s existence and concocted for it a Trojan origin, which the Romans eventually accepted and incorporated into their native lore?

Chapter 2 (52-83) discusses many of the numerous Catonian sayings and anecdotes which pertain to Cato the Elder’s views on things Greek. Kienast and Astin have already demonstrated that Cato’s attitudes toward Hellenism were not untypical but were widely shared by many other contemporary Roman nobles. G., however, has pressed this thesis even further by interpreting Cato’s criticisms of certain aspects of Greek culture as a means of defining and advocating Roman values. This approach is certainly valid and is convincingly argued in general, but G.’s application of this thesis to two Catonian data strikes this reviewer as Procrustean. He denies that Cato regarded Greek philosophy as a danger to Roman morals, and he interprets Cato’s virulent statements against Greek literature and physicians, quoted by Pliny in NH XXIX.14, as mere rhetorical hyperbole and deliberate posturing. Plutarch’s description of Cato’s reaction to the sophistic antics of Carneades in Rome in 155 B.C. persuades me that Cato did in fact believe the tenets or methods of at least some philosophers to be socially deleterious, and the fact that the Roman senate in the following year expelled two Epicurean philosophers from the city suggests that Cato’s opinion was widely shared (see Athenaeus XII. 547A). On the other hand, modern scholars seem to overlook the important fact that antipathy to iconoclastic philosophers was widespread among the Greeks themselves. Thus, the attitude of the Roman senate and Cato in 155-4 can be seen as an understandable reaction, given their self-imposed political responsibility to maintain good public order.

Having eliminated Cato as an opponent to Hellenism, G. proceeds in the following chapter (84-130) to apply his philhellenic thesis more widely to numerous incidents and individuals of the middle republic. The chapter is a mixture of some points convincingly argued and others misinterpreted to fit the overall thesis. On the plus side G. dispels the notion that Roman public consumption of Greek art had its beginning with Marcellus’ sack of Syracuse. He also argues persuasively that the later literary depiction of L. Mummius as an artistic Philistine is entirely wrong. He is correct to see luxuria as a historiographical topos (to be sure, all too commonly employed with rhetorical hyperbole by imperial authors), but G. goes too far in asserting that it was utterly devoid of meaning for Romans of the second century B.C. As I will be argue in my forthcoming book on the historian L. Calpurnius Piso Frugi, Piso’s portrayal of Manlius Vulso’s triumph in 186 and his remark on the subversion of chastity in 154 (contra G.) involved the belief that the Greek East contributed to immoral behavior in Rome.

Chapters 4-5 (131-222) analyze the Roman upper class’s consumption and appreciation of Greek art and theater. G.’s central theme is that Roman nobles of the middle republic were appreciative consumers of Greek art and often used it deliberately to make public statements to serve their own goals and to demonstrate their control over Greeks and their appropriation of Greek culture. Although the latter notion contains much merit, its use in G.’s hands on occasion depicts Roman nobles as too Machiavellian. See, for example, his interpretation of the public games given by L. Anicius Gallus in 167 (215-6). The author has interesting things to say about the so-called altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus, and he sees Roman veristic portraiture as resulting from Roman nobles’ conscious decision to have themselves represented in art as men whose features clearly bear the signs of their weighty public responsibilities and service to the state. He concludes that aediles did not spend any of their own money in giving public games, and their careers were not noticably advanced by such entertainments. The Roman nobility is depicted as integral to the production and consumption of Roman drama, and Terentian comedy is interpreted as having been a failed attempt to elevate the taste of the Roman public to that of the aristocracy.

The senate’s decision in 151 B.C. to halt the construction of a permanent stone theater is also made to serve G.’s philhellenic thesis. He denies that the issue of public mores played any role in the senate’s deliberations. In his view the intention was to prevent the relaxation of the nobility’s monopolistic control and patronage of drama. G. fails to explain how a stone theater would undermine aristocratic control, but his interpretation views the Roman aristocracy as thoroughly engaged promoters of Hellenism and zealous defenders of their cultural aspirations. Yet, despite the muddled nature of the few ancient moralizing references to this event, a careful reading of these accounts suggests that the senatorial debate centered on the following distinction: the well-established Roman tradition of comitial gatherings, always conducted by a lawful supervisor ( legitimus rector), in which the citizens remained standing throughout the entire proceedings vs. the use of temporary seating in viewing public performances. A majority of senators in 151 were persuaded by Nasica Corculum that a stone theater in the city could eventually result in Roman citizens assembling on their own to conduct public business without the guidance of a magistrate from the ruling elite. The distinction reveals the senate’s determination to avoid supposed Greek ochlocracy facilitated by a permanent theater (see Plut. Timoleon 34.4-7, Diod. XXXIV-XXXV.2.14, and Orosius IV.1.1). This interpretation casts a very different light on the senatorial order’s assessment of one aspect of Greek public life. It is reinforced by the fact that in 59 B.C. when defending L. Valerius Flaccus against charges of extortion while governor of Asia, Cicero skillfully played upon Roman views of Greek political practices by depicting much of the prosecution’s written testimony as public resolutions ratified by disorderly assemblies.

In chapter 6, “The Appeal of Hellas” (223-71), G. sorts through much of the ambiguous and conflicting ancient testimonia on Roman attitudes toward Hellenism during the last two centuries B.C. and attempts to make it all fit into his thesis. He correctly asserts that the existing data cannot be explained by viewing Roman factional politics in terms of nobles’ sympathy or antipathy to Hellenism. He uses Cicero’s characterization of L. Crassus and M. Antonius in the De Oratore to show that a Roman noble’s claim to be unfamiliar with things Greek was a well recognized form of disingenuous posturing. Consequently, in G.’s opinion Cicero’s avowed ignorance of Greek art before an all-senatorial jury in the Verrines is of no account. The senate’s periodic expulsion of Greek philosophers, rhetoricians, and diviners in G.’s view had only symbolic significance. He regards as evidence of Roman aristocratic philhellenism the introduction of Greek cults into the state religion, but since the Romans were in the habit of placating foreign divinities of any alien people or nation in order to obtain some supposed advantage or benefit, this argument hardly corroborates G.’s thesis. In this regard the author mistakenly classifies Venus Erycina as Greek, whereas she was a Punicized native Sicilian deity, and the introduction of her cult to Rome during the early years of the Hannibalic War should be seen as a Roman effort to appropriate the divine favor of a Carthaginian divinity. G. likewise misinterprets Polybius XXXIX.1.1-3, which clearly indicates that many older senators were ill disposed to things Greek due to A. Postumius Albinus’ excessive devotion to the Greek language and learning, because they considered his vanity and verbosity to be the product of his philhellenism.

In chapter 7 (272-316) G. attempts to use the fragments of Lucilius’Satires as a window onto the cultural pretentions of the Roman upper class, but given the problematic nature of this material, his endeavor appears to be a case of obscurum per obscurius. Nevertheless, in view of the lacunose nature of our knowledge of Roman social and political history of the late second century B.C., G. is suitably cautious in refusing to play the scholarly game of assigning the enigmatic fragments to the all too few events recorded in the sources. He regards the fragments’ failure to satirize Hellenism as proof of its complete acceptance in Roman society. Apart from this being a questionable argumentum e silentio, it could be argued that the fragments reflect Lucilius’ own views, not those of Roman society as a whole, and the poet’s failure to lampoon Greek culture is what we might expect of a singularly cultured Roman.

In conclusion, G. is right in asserting that Roman aristocrats of the middle and late republic were generally receptive to Greek culture, but he has gone too far in denying that there was any ambivalence felt toward aspects of Hellenism. The reader should be aware that G. has approached his subject in the manner of a trial lawyer who feels obligated to get his client acquitted on all counts rather than in that of an objective historian whose analysis is sensitive to complexity and does not seek to reduce it to simplicity. G. wishes to see the subject as totally painted over in white, whereas the reviewer would judge it to be 75% white with a 20% admixture of gray areas and the remaining 5% being a smattering of black dots and lines.

  • [1] See, for example, H. D. Jocelyn, “The Ruling Class of the Roman Republic and Greek Philosophers,”Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 59 (1977) 323-66; A. E. Astin, Cato the Censor (Oxford, 1978) 157-81; and R. MacMullen, “Hellenizing the Romans (2nd Century B.C.),”Historia 40 (1991) 419-38. [2] K. J. Beloch, Römische Geschichte bis zum Beginn der Punischen Kriege (Leipzig, 1926) 178. The figures are reproduced in CAH second edition VII.2 246.