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The Grandeur of Rome--World Poetry Project
A bit on education
The two great touchstones of classical antiquity and education in the West have long been Greece, with its fractured polities, and Rome, mistress of the world. Before education was made truly public, available to citizens throughout the nation supported by the community, and so nominally divorced from questions of status and class, the educated elite enjoyed a jargon of its own based on quotations, allusions to these two distinct historical entities and their mythologies, and spiced by foreign phrases. The use of these structures, the ease with which this idiom was employed, marked one as educated, and formed a basis for communication and identification across national boundaries. There did exist then, as there exists today using a separate, largely scientific jargon and idiomatic base, an intellectual elite.
Public education brought to education different goals. No longer would education be esoteric and removed from the imperatives of daily existence. Instead, it would prepare citizens to join in the work of culture themselves. Often this was cynically done, as in Belgium's education of the native population of the Congo, providing a minimal level of education to create a technical workforce required by the state, but by no means intending the creation of anything more liberally educated than that. The purpose of education for blacks in the United States, once removed from the hands of the black community into the intentions and control of the white community, largely suffered from the same low aim. However, at its best public education strove in the United States to produce citizens, men and women capable of participating meaningfully in elections, informing themselves in the issues of the day, and of full employment in the changing economies of the twentieth century. Yes, the esoteric allusions of the elite educational institution were not, by and large, retained in the public institutions of education, but the base level of literacy and communication rose.
In writing of the poetry of ancient Greece and now of Rome we are treading into the territory of elites. We are reading in translation works that formed the texts for translation and history of Thomas Jefferson, Winston Churchill (although he was a poor performer in such tasks), and John C. Calhoun. We are entering the world of classical allusions and models that informed poets, orators, and politicians. We are gaining tools to help us understand the men of a past far removed from Greece and Rome, but also far removed from ourselves. For example, the Founding Fathers feared the rise of another Julius Caesar. They discussed the danger of this, the terrible damage such a man could do to the infant republic the survival of which so concerned them, but what did they mean? Who was this Julius Caesar that they feared? To puzzle this out we have to know who Caesar was, what his rise meant to the Roman Republic, and the associated nature of the demagogue in politics. They were expressing a fear of something they knew from books, from the texts of Rome and the Renaissance, with its scholastic return to Rome. On the other hand, the Founding Fathers celebrated Cincinnatus, another figure of Roman history. But who was Cincinnatus, and what in his character and story did they celebrate? What were the Founding Father's praising, to what were they ascribing a positive value, when they praised him? The men of the French Revolution praised other Roman characters, and the difference in the French and American revolutions may be exposed partly by looking at the men they celebrated and the terms in which they celebrated them. When we praise great men we are pointing to behaviors and elements of character we believe to be virtues. We are saying a lot about ourselves in our descriptions of men far from us.
Rome, a long evolution
Nadine Gordimer writes of the novels of Joseph Roth that she believes she has understood him according to her time and place. This is the aim of the reader in encountering the culturally and temporally distant author: to understand within limits, and to understand what an author did not know they were saying, because the issue to which the author's words form a partial solution did not exist at the time or in the place in which the text was originally produced. This accounts for the varying reception of texts over time, and the shifting interpretations of a text over time. Moby Dick is widely regarded as a classic novel, more than a simple maritime adventure, although it is also that. It remains a classic novel, in part, from what the modern reader can find in it that its initial readers could not. Moby Dick is a whale, but he is a whale who has borne a burden of meanings through time--God, Satan, environmental apocalypse. Only where I can understand a text according to my time and my place, given my background and present, will I speak of a text at all. Where I cannot, the work to me is dead, and there is no joy in speaking of dead literatures, at least not for me. Where I can, I will speak, following the work of my perceptions and the texts instructions where they take me.
Lesson one of how to insult a Roman: Call him a Greek. We are leaving the levity and play of Greece for the more consciously solemn and hard Romans. In Greece, it was pushing the boundaries of social propriety to write of willingly leaving your shield behind to flee battle; in Rome, it is more than improper, it is evidence of a fundamental lack of character, virility, and gravitas . Gravitas is a very important word in Roman public, and private, life. It is a word of public and private content, for it expresses the public honor of the Roman man, affected by his private as well as his public actions. It is both how a Roman is seen by his fellow citizens, and how he desires to be seen by those citizens. In its service, Roman soldiers will vie with one another to perform well in combat before officers, publicly reject honors that are sure to be pressed upon them once more so that they may accept them with grace, and advertise their private virtues as husbands and fathers to a censorious public. Honor is not a private virtue, but one created in public by the cooperation of a person and the crowd. Dishonor is similarly constructed. Ambition is a Roman virtue, not a mere quality, and a Roman of standing who lacked ambition was a man not to be trusted. Roman society was highly competitive, and part of its competition was centered on questions of dignity, honor, gravitas. It was in terms of these qualities that winners and losers, the pure and the corrupt, were described and ascribed value in its histories and polemics. The levity of Greeks, their lack of seriousness and the pettiness of their squabbles, were frowned upon by the Romans, and taken as evidence of the unsuitability of Greeks and their offspring, the Hellenic kings and patriarchs of the East, to domination. Romans took Greeks as their educators, as tutors and scribes, but held them in contempt as lacking in the manly virtues that composed Roman virtue and the Roman claim to authority and leadership in the world.
It takes an inordinate sense of superiority to rule an Empire; the British had it in the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth, and the Romans had it before them. In both peoples, this sense of superiority, this conviction that they were bearers of civilization into savage realms, masked cynical profiteering, brutal treatment of inferiors, and corrupt practices at the center and periphery of empire. This, too, is in the nature of empires, whosoever fashions them and in whatever time they arise. Nero fiddles while Rome burns. Pontius Pilate washes his hands. Boudiccea rises against tyranny and occupation and is slaughtered. Greedy military commanders raise old men on their shields, sure of the pay-off that will come to them when he is acclaimed emperor at the center of the world. In the provinces, military commanders hatch plots against the center and against each other to gain the prize of empire, ready to distribute gifts among their families and followers should they win. Sometimes it is quite clear that the Romans are not so far away from us as we would like to think, and barbarity and civilization are, after all, near cousins, not distant relations.
We must be cautious in our address of Rome. It began as a monarchy, passed into a Republic, although a Republic dominated by an aristocracy, and then into a long-enduring empire, that itself initially wore a republican mask. Rome lasted 1,000 years, longer if we allow that the Byzantine Empire of the Middle Ages was a continuation of the original empire with a new geographical center after the fall of the West in approximately 476 CE. As any entity of long duration, it evolved during this time, so that in speaking of the Rome of the 5th century CE we are certainly not speaking of the Rome Julius Caesar knew, nor that reformed by the will and political acumen of Augustus. The content of being Roman changed, as did the way in which Romans viewed the world and themselves. Some of these changes are clearly linked to particular events, like the Punic Wars which brought to the fore Roman fears of alien powers and Roman greatness. Other changes were more subtle and slow in development, as the changes wrought in the Roman citizen under the emperors. What happens to a warrior culture that no longer sends its youths to war? The Roman military began as a citizen army, but ended as one of foreigners and mercenaries, however, the Roman sense of what it meant to be a Roman continued to include virtues associated with the early days when a Roman was, first of all, a warrior, a soldier conquering the world for his city. Culture is conservative and retains self-definitions and an attachment to virtues it no longer exercises and that have become divorced from its mundane realities.
Reading the poets of Rome we must resist another problem of our historiography. We tend to telescope a history of over 1,000 years into a single image of Roman domination and success, making its fall seem precipitous and sudden. We also tend to view it through Christian perceptions, making of it the backdrop of a miracle play or an example of pagan excess to which Christian virtue was the answer. This does not honor the Romans, nor does it honor the early Christians, as it so simplifies the situation as to render the wonder of Christian success, a truly remarkable development whether you are a believer in the religion or not, a success without context, a historical revolution in which there were no other real participants, only ghosts and the occasional monster. HBO's Rome participates in this, entertaining a portion of the public with a soft pornographer's view of pagan Rome with some threads of politics and war to fill the time between naked bodies and market scenes. Spartacus , the modern series not the older movie, makes the ancient world a graphic novel of blood and pectoral muscles, much as 300 did with Leonidas and the Spartans.
Poetry was not the Romans forte. They had other things to do, and their authorial virtues lay in the worlds of public oratory, as in the compositions and performances of Cicero, and in history as both nationalist exercise and plea for a special interest, as in Livy and Julius Caesar. Suetonius's vicious history of the early emperors informed Robert Graves twentieth century classics, I, Claudius and Claudius the God , which themselves became the basis for a brilliant BBC mini-series. It was this mini-series that formed my introduction to the Romans, beginning with an obsession with the title sequences serpent. My parents were very proud of my youthful fascination with the mini-series, after all, it was so very mature and clearly meant for another audience, not their young son still hard at work playing with G.I. Joe. Their pride was misplaced, for the plot and substance of the series did not capture me until much later, when I re-watched the series on PBS at age twelve or thirteen. When I was a child, it was all about the snake, the music, that scratch and pulse of the reptile on a mosaic.
The review of Roman poetry that will follow this introduction will take us from Lucretius' De Rerum Natura , a celebration of Epicureanism in the first century BCE, to the third century CE's The Vigil of Venus. Along the way we will encounter Romans in erotic adventures, Romans ripping one another part for gain and for sport, and Romans retreating into peace and beauty, away from the strife of the urban battlefield for prestige and recognition. We will find plentiful evidence of Roman borrowings from the Greeks, whose mastery as artists they recognized, ascribing beauty to them as a lesser virtue in comparison with their own manly spirit of command and conquest. As Monty Python said, A wonderful people, the Romans.Let's have fun with them.