Rome’s Cultural Revolution

Emma Dench writes:

We used to be told that Rome rose to imperial greatness through the native wit and lean frames of its farmer soldiers. And that if it wasn’t lead poisoning, orgies and overindulgence of every kind, it was race-mixing that brought about its fall, the descendants of Oriental slaves having weakened the native stock. As for Roman culture, that was a contradiction in terms: Roman art consisted almost entirely of thefts or copies of Greek masterpieces, while Roman literature was translated, generally rather badly, from Greek classics. The Romans were a capable people, there was no doubt about that, but their capabilities lay in more practical pursuits: conquest, engineering – roads, aqueducts and drains – and getting the barbarians to take a bath and appreciate a little solid urban architecture. For all the snobbery of Cicero, with his habit of dropping the Greek equivalent of le mot juste into his correspondence or of writing conceitedly about his art collection, to attribute creativity, originality or sophisticated ideas to the Romans would have been laughable.

(LRB 25 February 2010)