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Rome’s debt to Greece by Alan Wardman

Book Review by Bryaxis Hecatee

When I was offered the chance to review this book I was at first surprised and honored. I thus began my reading immediately upon its arrival at my home, despite quite a busy schedule (moving place and all that). Its 177 pages of text (201 pages when one does include the various index and notes) were written in an easy, rather pleasing way. As for its content, let’s just say for now that it was not up to expectations.

But before delving further into the criticism one has to make we shall describe the content of the various chapters of Wardman’s book, first published in the 1970's.

For Wardman’s is indeed an old book republished without any apparent modification to the original text. Under the general title Rome’s Debt to Greece, it sets out to “offer a brief outline of Roman opinion on the Greeks and Greek thought” (p. VII) or, in other terms, “defining philhellenism in its Roman variant and exploring the nature of Rome’s intellectual debt to Greece” (p. VII). Wardman intends to do this for the period between the time of Cicero and the second century A.D., a period which he recognizes is neither the beginning nor the end of the phenomenon under study.

Six main chapters are presented in attempt to achieve this ambitious goal, the first studying “The Greek Character” as seen by the Romans, looking mainly at the commonplace in the Latin literature. This first chapter is on the common theme of gravitas vs levitas, and various other similar topics.

The study then proceeds further by looking at “Philhellenism” (title of chapter two) through the political relationship between Romans and Greeks, and the Roman view on Greek language and Greek art. As it only looks on things through Roman testimonies found in literature and not, for example, epigraphical testimonies, it does not delve very deeply into the topic, but instead provides a first approach.

The third chapter stays in the realm of art since it is about “Greek Poetry: The Interpretation of Homer.” But since “a detailed account of the relationship between Roman poets and their Greek poetic sources is beyond the scope of this book” (page 61), this chapter is closely followed by another one on “Greek History and Historians,” looking more precisely at the value given by the Romans to Greek history and the specific look given to Athenian, Spartan and Macedonian history. Some pages are also given to the value the Romans gave to specific Greek historians, where we learn that they were not as much judged upon the historical quality of their work as upon other characteristics, such as usefulness for rhetoric (as is shown by Roman reactions to Herodotus, Thucydides and Polybius).

“Rhetoric” is the title and the subject of the fifth chapter of the book, containing twenty-five pages looking at the Roman view on various Greek orators, the values they looked for in ancient speeches by Demosthenes and other great speakers of old, their view on the Atticism versus Asianism debate, and their position on rhetoric as an art.

The last chapter is devoted to “Philosophy,” looking for the Roman approach to philosophical matters, the history of Greek philosophy (or rather how such “history” was written, with one’s own philosophical bias included), and finally how the Roman method was applied to criticize Greek philosophy. A short conclusion is then followed by thirteen pages of notes and the usual bibliographical references and index.

According to L’Année Philologique, the book was reviewed five times between its publication in 1976 and 1979, and I was able to access three of these reviews. The book came out at a time when the subject was a bit of a mode, between N.K. Petrochilos' Roman attitudes to the Greeks (1974) and J.P.V.D. Balsdon's Roman and Aliens (1979), as well as the article of N.K. Petrokilos titled, “Volubilitas, Ineptia and Levitas: Three Main Characteristics Attributed to the Greeks by Latin Writers,” (1974). Wardman’s is, unfortunately, inferior to both books.

Indeed there are many limitations to Rome’s Debt to Greece, and, worse, some rather big mistakes (some of them very early in the book). A first limitation (and mistake, in my opinion) is in the period definition: One cannot define Rome’s debt to Greece without looking at the early contacts between the two cultures and the way they did exchanges -- at least those exchanges taking place since the 4th century BC, when Rome was first called a “Greek polis” by Heraclides Ponticus. Greek culture was everywhere in the Roman world -- on wine cups, in religion (a subject ominous by its absence), in cultural practices, etc. One need only take a look at the consequences of the sack of Tarento and the capture of southern Italy, which brought massive amounts of art treasures to Rome.

Also one may wonder on the evidence used by Wardman. Archeological records are almost completely absent from this book, as are theater, law, sciences, agriculture and warfare. And even on a subject broached by Wardman, such as poetry, the content is very, very thin. Epigraphy is also completely missing, despite the fact that it provides a lot of information on those topics. One commenter (T.J. Cornell, Classical Review, XVIII, 1978, p. 110-112) very aptly said that it lacked the "gravitas” the Romans so liked and was so lacking in the Greek productions. I can only agree with him.

Nicholas Horsfall (whose book, The Culture of the Roman Plebs, was recently reviewed by UNRV member Aurelia) went further in his review published in volume LXVII of The Journal of Roman Studies (1977, p. 179-180), speaking of “a collection of testimonia, a doxography of what Seneca said about Homer, Quintilian about Demosthenes, Cicero about Plato and the like.” He also aptly note that nowhere in the book does Wardman speak of the impact Greek custom might have had on the daily life of the Romans. He also regrets, with good reason, the lack of any words on how Greek was taught at Rome and learned by Romans, which could also have helped us get an insight on the matter of what the Romans thought of the Greeks.

Harry C. Boren’s review (American History Review, LXXXIII, 1978, p. 409-410), while more positive in its general tone, also points to various limitations and mistakes and shows that Wardman failed even as a simple collector of sentences.

It does seem, throughout the entire book, that Wardman kept his reading to some of the most popular ancient authors, completely neglecting sources which could have provided interesting insight. (I’m thinking of Athenaeus of Naucratis’ Deipnosophists, among others.) Overall it also looks as though Wardman made almost no use of the Greeks’ view on how the Romans treated them, despite the fact that we do have some such testimonies.

And then, as I’ve said, there are the mistakes. They begin in the preface where Wardman mentions a Greek origin for the system of transhumance for cattle. Later we notice his remarks on our lack of knowledge on some topics, whereas contemporary books showed just how vast the available knowledge on such topics were. Wardman's bad citation of Sallust's remark on the beginning of the fall of the Roman character (he says it began after the definitive fall of Carthage and not after Sulla's siege of Athens -- a difference of more than 50 years. Which means that the remark was far from being as hellenophobic as Wardman would have us think.) Wardman's reduction of historic events includes the expulsion of the philosophers from Rome in 161 B.C. (indeed for Wardman only the Epicureans were thrown out of the city, whereas the edict was against all philosophical schools).

In conclusion, we will say that this book is lacking both in content and form, and that one might be better off reading other books such as those of Balsdson or, even better, Petrokilos. One may also take great benefits from a reading of Michel Dubuisson’s article on Romans and aliens (pdf format), in which he attempted to rationalize and organize the way the Romans saw other peoples, thus showing well the specificities of the Roman view on the Greeks.

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Book Review of Rome’s debt to Greece - Related Topic: Roman Writers


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