BMCR 2023.12.07

Comparing Roman Hellenisms in Italy

, , Comparing Roman Hellenisms in Italy. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2023. Pp. xii, 379. ISBN 9780472133406.


[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]


Stemming from a conference held at the University of Michigan in 2018, this volume sets out to challenge what the editors identify as the commonplace narrative that Rome’s adaptation of Greek culture was continuous and increasingly sophisticated, steadily ‘improving’ in step with the wealth and power of Rome itself. By comparing different instances of Roman Hellenism in Italy, the contributions both individually and collectively demonstrate that any given iteration of the phenomenon is “situated and specific, and has its own life, trajectory, circumstances, and afterlife” (p. 2). This emphasis on the local and contingent aligns with recent work on Hellenism/Hellenization around the Mediterranean world,[1] and the volume offers further evidence against the well-worn Graecia capta narrative.

After an introduction by Dufallo and Faber, the volume contains ten chapters, paired off into five parts, and an epilogue. Each chapter features an internal comparison of Roman Hellenisms — whether synchronic, diachronic, or even within a single text — and each part juxtaposes two chapters on related themes. Thus, for example, Part I, on Greek philosophers in and around Rome, pairs Roman Roth’s re-evaluation of sculptural representations of Greek subjects in the Roman Forum, including a statue of Pythagoras dedicated in the Comitium, with Alison Keith’s delineation of the pervasive but overlooked presence of Epicureanism in Latin poetry. Overall, the volume achieves a good balance between chapters on literary and visual/material subjects, as well as setting in dialogue case studies from the 4th century BCE to the 3rd century CE.

The broad chronological coverage is a particular strength and advances the volume’s goal of countering misconceptions about Rome’s linear progress from rusticity to sophistication vis-à-vis Greek culture. Chapters by Roman Roth, Riemer Faber, and Marcello Mogetta highlight the sophistication of early adoptions of Greek culture in monuments and literary texts; Alison Keith demonstrates continuity in Roman poetic Epicureanism from the Republican through to the Flavian period; and Luca Graverini suggests that Vergil’s first-century BCE Bucolics constitutes a more successful attempt at introducing a new Greek genre than Apuleius’ second-century CE Metamorphoses. Nathaniel Jones also makes an important intervention, proposing that Roman artworks representing Greek myth themselves call into question the importance of priority and linearity, whether in a mythological narrative or the genealogy of an image or style.

Along with challenging the ‘continuous improvement’ model of Roman Hellenism, the editors also promise that the volume’s focus on wide-ranging, interdisciplinary comparison will yield new and compelling answers to the very question ‘What is a Roman Hellenism?’ In fact, they define it at the outset as “an imitation or adoption of something Greek by those subject to or operating under Roman power” (p. 2), so what the contributions actually deliver is new, overlooked, or misunderstood examples of Roman Hellenism so defined. Given the theoretical depth and range of prior grapplings with Hellenism/Hellenization in Rome, Italy, and indeed the Mediterranean world, there is a surprising lack of reflection here on the proposed definition or the significance of the phenomenon for how we understand either Romanness or Hellenism.[2] This is a missed opportunity, for the discussions gathered in the volume in fact offer fertile ground for rethinking what it means to call an imitation ‘Roman’ and an imitated thing ‘Greek’.

To begin with, a number of contributions reveal the fractures within Greeknesss and its own formation in and through the imitation and adoption of external cultural elements. Through detailed historical contextualization, Roman Roth convincingly argues that the Senate’s decision to honour Pythagoras and Alcibiades as the wisest and bravest of the Greeks was a strategic statement of alignment with the poleis of Magna Graecia opposed, like Rome, to the expansion of Syracusan hegemony in the western Mediterranean. The specificity of Magna Graecia arises again in Riemer Faber’s chapter on the Hellenistic aesthetics of Ennius, which he ties to the unique intercultural matrix of second-century BCE Southern Italy, with its mélange of Greek, local Italic, and Roman factors. Faber proposes that Ennius’ Hellenism goes beyond the Greek poetic tradition of epic to encompass literary, philosophical, religious, and material trends specific to this intercultural milieu, and the evidence he presents is compelling — so much so that one begins to wonder whether Hellenism is still the appropriate term for Ennius’ literary project. Similar questions arise from Darja Šterbenc Erker’s discussion of literary responses to Augustus’ self-fashioning as a Hellenistic divine king. As Šterbenc Erker acknowledges, the Hellenistic dynasts were themselves adopting Ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian traditions of divine kingship as a legitimizing mechanism for their rule; she also notes that some Romans were aware of the beyond-Greek roots of the practice. Augustus’ self-fashioning was thus more culturally complex than the imitation of ‘something Greek’, and it is once again unclear that Hellenism is the most productive framework with which to be working.

Neither the editors nor the contributors define or address what is meant by ‘something Greek’; instead, the Greekness of each imitated cultural element is taken as self-evident. The Roman, by contrast, does receive some definition, insofar as Roman Hellenism is defined as an imitation of something Greek by those operating under or subject to Roman power — an elastic definition that accommodates the agency of those acting outside of Rome and/or without the clout of the senatorial and imperial elite. This includes Latin authors from Italy and further afield (in Keith, Šterbenc Erker, Dufallo, Faber, and Graverini), artists and viewers in Campania (in Jones and Gazda), and the craftspeople and commissioners of monuments and statues in Asia Minor and Athens (in Mogetta and Dillon). The editors present this expanded and decentralized perspective on Roman Hellenism as another of the volume’s signal contributions, and indeed it might be, if attention were paid to the various actors’ varying degrees of access to, complicity in, and identification with Roman power. Since these factors are rarely taken up, however, it becomes increasingly difficult to see the heuristic value of identifying everything discussed in the volume as ‘Roman’.

Indeed, in some chapters, the author’s argument seems to be precisely that thinking of a given text or object as Roman has hindered our apprehension of its cultural dynamics. To return to Riemer Faber’s chapter on Ennius, he successfully dislocates the Annales from the linear narrative of Latin literature constructed by the Augustans and resituates it as a “genuine product of Magna Graecia in the 2nd century BCE” (223). So too, in her chapter on Roman-period portraiture from the Athenian Agora, Sheila Dillon convincingly argues that local traditions of visual representation and commemoration shaped Roman-era statues and funerary reliefs of Athenians, which very seldom adopt Roman styles or symbols of Roman citizenship like the toga. In essence, where prior scholars had argued for the growing influence of Roman imperial portraiture and a kind of Greek Romanism, Dillon shows that Roman-era Athenian portraiture is primarily a Greek Hellenism, or even an Athenian Athenianism. And yet, according to the definition advanced by the editors, this too is a ‘Roman Hellenism’, because Athens in this period was subject to Roman power. The question Dillon raises at the beginning of her chapter, quoting R. R. R. Smith, might usefully have been posed by all the contributors to this volume: “In what senses, if any, can [a given text, object, or historical agent] be called ‘Roman’ — without qualification, perhaps only in the sense of belonging to the Roman period?” (p. 278, citing Smith 2015, 656).[3]

The chapter that confronts this terminological and conceptual difficulty most directly is Marcello Mogetta’s investigation into the origins of the Roman Corinthian order in the second century BCE. Arguing against the narrative that sees Hellenizing developments in Roman architecture as intentional expressions of ascendency masterminded by Rome’s military and political elite, Mogetta traces the agency and influence of local patrons and mobile architects and craftspeople operating independently of Roman hegemony and in some instances outside of Italy. Mogetta concludes that “the distinction between Greek and Roman proves … somewhat artificial, since second-century BCE Rome was one of the important capitals where Greek art and architecture was being produced” and “Roman architects and related attendants [were able] to drive or participate in developments on the global scale by taking advantage of the opportunities that Roman expansion opened up to private entrepreneurs” (p. 276).

Fascinating and valuable in themselves, the complex cultural dynamics that emerge throughout the volume are at odds with the editors’ unelaborated definition of Roman Hellenism and a general absence of theoretically-grounded reflection. Rather than offer new answers to the question of what constitutes a Roman Hellenism, then, this volume ultimately raises questions about its own central terms. Picking up on Mogetta’s telling use of the word global, it is tempting to suggest that the phenomenon at issue here is not in fact Roman Hellenism(s) but local particularizations of the globalized culture of the ancient Mediterranean as Rome rose to and held power. The volume thus falls short of its considerable potential to explicitly interrogate ‘Roman Hellenism’ itself, while nonetheless offering much that is worthwhile to readers with interests in specific chapters.


Authors and Titles

Introduction (Basil Dufallo and Riemer A. Faber)


  1. Pythagoras and Alcibiades in the Comitium, or: The Sculptural Representation of Greek Subjects in the Forum, ca. 320-220 BCE (Roman Roth)
  2. Roman Epicureanism (Alison Keith)


  1. Augustus’ Hellenistic Divinization in Ovid’s Fasti and Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars (Darja Šterbenc Erker)
  2. Hellenic Horses: Domitianic vs. Augustan Hellenism in Statius, Silvae1 (Basil Dufallo)


  1. Space and Time, from Greek Myth to Roman Art (Nathaniel Jones)
  2. The Statues of Nike from Oplontis: Decor et Duplicatio Revisited (Elaine K. Gazda)


  1. Revisionist Representations of Early Latin Poetry: Horace and the “Hellenistic” Aesthetic of Ennius (Riemer A. Faber)
  2. Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, Vergil’s Eclogues, and the Varying Challenges of Greek Genres (Luca Graverini)


  1. Roman Hellenism and Republican Architecture: The Genesis of the Corinthian Order (Marcello Mogetta)
  2. Portraiture in the Greek East in the Roman Period: The View from the Athenian Agora (Sheila Dillon)

Epilogue: Cultural Dynamics and Influences (Martin Hose)



[1] See e.g. Curti, Dench, and Patterson, “The Archaeology of Central and Southern Roman Italy: Recent Trends and Approaches (Journal of Roman Studies 8, 1996, 170-189); Whitmarsh, Local Knowledge and Microidentities in the Imperial Greek World (Cambridge 2010); Prag and Quinn, The Hellenistic West: Rethinking the Ancient Mediterranean (Cambridge 2013); Loar, MacDonald, and Padilla Peralta, Rome, Empire of Plunder: The Dynamics of Cultural Appropriation (Cambridge 2018).

[2] Models of cultural interaction put forward to nuance the phenomenon here called Hellenism include inter alia bilingualism and code-switching, a dialectic of mimesis and alterity, hybridization, constructivism, and globalization. See e.g. Wallace-Hadrill, Rome’s Cultural Revolution (Cambridge 2008); Pitts and Versluys, Globalisation and the Roman World (Cambridge 2015), and Feeney, Beyond Greek: The Beginnings of Latin Literature (Cambridge 2016),

[3] Smith, “The Greek East under Rome,” in Borg, A Companion to Roman Art (Wiley-Blackwell 2015).