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Greece and Rome

Located as they were in near proximity, separated only by the Ionian arm of the Mediterranean Sea, it is not surprising that Greeks and Romans were well aware of each other. Their societies evolved in a similar fashion. According to tradition, Rome was founded in 753 B.C. (either by Aeneas, a Trojan prince who had fled burning Troy or by Romulus and Remus, twin orphans who had been nursed by a she-wolf). At the same time, ancient Greece had completed its transition from the Mycenaean palace kingdoms to the small city-states (poleis) that would characterize Greek political organization throughout the Archaic and Classical periods. Both Athens and Rome changed their governance methods in the early sixth century, the Romans abolishing their monarchy and setting up a republic, the Athens driving out their tyrant and establishing a democracy.

Conflict between the two powers arose in the 3 rd century as Roman expansion in South Italy and Sicily encroached on Greek colonies located there. Greeks were well-accustomed to hostilities and as Thucydides’ account of the siege of Melos indicates, they could be brutal in war although that was not the norm. After defeating an enemy the losers were often allowed to flee the battleground without pursuit. That was not the Roman methodology. They could be savage beyond belief. One historian of the period noted that they even butchered the dogs. Corinth they razed so thoroughly that it took 100 years to partially restore the city; others were never able to be rebuilt. In any event, over the course of a couple of centuries Rome swallowed up the Greek world- behaving generously to those that yielded graciously to her advances and ruthlessly to those that didn’t.

Although Rome won the battles, it can be said with some validity that Greece won the war. The Roman poet Horace characterized the relationship between Greece and Rome in a line for which he is best remembered…Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit et artis intulit agresti Latio ( Greece, the captive, took her savage victor captive and brought the arts into rustic Latium). Part of the way in which the arts came into Rome was via booty seized from defeated Greek states. Triumphant commanders would parade the plunder through the streets of Rome to the cheers and applause of the crowd. The general Fulvius Nobilior brought back more than a thousand bronze and marble statues and showed them to the admiring throng. One such victory parade lasted from dawn to dusk. Soon every wealthy Roman wanted this kind of art in his villa and if originals couldn’t be found, Greek and Roman artisans were more than willing to make copies.

Educated Romans who had admired Greek language and culture now recruited Greek tutors and many became proficient in reading and writing Greek. Greek drama came to Rome and Greek epics and dramas served as models for Roman writers. Greek texts were translated into Latin for the benefit of those who weren’t proficient in the new language. Greeks who had long ago mastered the art of rhetoric were eagerly sought out by members of the Roman nobility, anxious to move up the social and political ladder. (Both Cicero and Julius Caesar had already gone to Greece prior to 50 B.C. to study rhetoric there.)

The Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius wrote De Architectura, a comprehensive analysis of ancient architecture which featured Greek models and orders. It was widely read and inspired many young architects who also now had access to major Greek libraries seized by Roman military commanders such as Sulla, Paullus and Lucullus. Pompey had appropriated a significant collection of medical books. It was not just the books of knowledge that were included in the plunder; it was also some of the practitioners. Some wealthy households acquired their own Greek doctor, in addition to teachers and artisans.

Over time, the gods of Rome and those of the conquered Greeks were blended. Greek temples and theatres were adapted to Roman tastes. Athletic events, modeled on those of Greece, became the fashion. The Roman emperors Nero, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius were avid philhellenes and fostered a variety of Greek-inspired initiatives. The Roman ruling class proved susceptible to the merits of Greek arts and ideas.