1997-09-26: The Roman Way

The Roman Way (1932)

by Edith Hamilton (1867-1963)

Hamilton’s approach is to develop a view of the nature of the people of Rome through the literature that has survived (as opposed to archeology or the opinions of later writers). She begins with the oldest, the playwrights Plautus (before 4525 J) and Terence (4529-4555), and ends with Juvenal, around 4848. This span of about 300 years is shorter than most attention to Roman history, but is sufficient to establish the nature of the Roman citizen’s outlook, how it changed over the critical part of Rome’s history, and how it influenced subsequent European worldviews. In this restricted view of the subject, Hamilton has focused on the key issues.

In Plautus and Terence’s time, the Roman character was still the same as it had been for centuries (though presumably more confident). Romans had battled all over Italy and nearby lands, and had come out on top. This race of winners had the character that made them winners: discipline, a sense of duty and honor, pride in their city, a feeling that every citizen needed to be involved with policy and politics, disdain for the pursuit of beauty and the arts in favor of practical engineering. This character was suited for a Republic such as Rome was in those days.

As Rome’s influence expanded, the difficulty of governing distant subservient peoples by a Senate threatened the continued success of the city. Caesar and Augustus (4656 to 4700) destroyed the Republic, and began the process of changing the Romans’ character. It was no longer prudent to take too much interest in the policy and politics of the state. Power devolved from the Senate to the army, and the Emperor became the creature of the army, representing raw force. The quest for influence moved into the economic realm, and the old signs of status (lists of offices held) were replaced by outward signs of opulence (grand houses and excessive consumption).

Once the character of the mainstream Roman lost its focus on the public good and turned to private concerns, the relative strength of Rome in the empire waned. Though a powerful symbol to the provinces, the real strength of the empire was no longer in the city or in Italy.

Hamilton dwells on the distinction between classic and romantic, and brings in realistic and sentimental in the chapter discussing Virgil, Livy and Seneca. Some of her comments:

A gossip … Aulus Gellius has recorded a comparison … between Pindar’s and Virgil’s description of Aetna in eruption. The Greek poet writes: “In the darkness of the night the red flame whirls rocks with a roar far down to the sea. And high aloft are sent fearful fountains of fire.” Virgil says: “Skyward are sent balls of flame that lick the stars and ever and again rocks are spewed forth, the torn entails of the mountain, and molten crags are hurled groaning to heaven.” “Pindar … describes what actually happened and what he saw with his own eyes, but Virgil’s ‘balls of flame that lick the stars’ is a useless and foolish elaboration, and when he says crags are molten and groan and are hurled to heaven, this is such an account as Pindar never wrote and is monstrous.” …. Pindar was using his eyes, and Virgil his imagination. The man who compared them was a classicist who, of course, detested romantic exaggeration ….

The romantic artist must not be judged by the canon of strict accuracy. He will not be bound by fact, “the world being inferior to the soul,” as Bacon says, “by reason whereof there is a more ample greatness, a more exact goodness, and a more absolute variety, than can be found in the nature of things.” To the classicist the nature of things is truth and he desires only to see clearly what it is. The romanticist is the adventurer drawn on by the new and the strange where to him truth is to be found. The classic writer depends upon reason no less than upon imagination. To the romantic writer imagination can transcend the narrow limits of experience and move on unhampered by it to what eye hath not seen nor ear heard.

Hamilton describes Virgil’s subsequent and lasting influence.

… From this point of view he is more important than the poets of Greece. For seventeen or eighteen hundred years, he was the master of literature to all the western nations.

The romantic spirit took root and spread through Europe; the classic spirit departed. So much is fact. How far the great Latin romantics were responsible for the change is one of the matters not susceptible of proof. It is impossible to say what would have happened if Virgil or Livy and their greatly inferior, but very influential follower, Seneca, had not lived. In the immense German forests, in the soft sea-airs of Ireland, there were no sharp, clear outlines as in Greece. Luminous mists made dim distances where the imagination was free to see what it chose. Also as the church grew in power, side by side with the intellectualizing effort of dogmatic theology, eastern mysticism worked, with its absolute conviction of “a more ample greatness, a more exact goodness than can be found in the nature of things.” There was much apart from Roman literature that pointed to romanticism. But, at the least, it may be said with certainty that Virgil and Livy inaugurated the new movement the world was ready for. Classicism had grown thinner and dryer from the beginning of the fourth century B.C. on. It became precious, pedantic, all polished surface. Learning and style were the combination out of which to make poetry. This tendency is the evil genius of the classic spirit and has killed it many a time since the polite and erudite and cultivated society of Alexandria dealt it the blow which by the time Virgil appeared had been fatal to it.

“A talent is formed in stillness,” said Goethe, “a character in the stream of the world.” That is the romantic view; the Greeks of the great age would have violently disagreed. The stream of the world was to them precisely the place to develop the artist, the classical artist, whose eyes are ever turned upon life. But it is not the place to develop the imagination. The romantic artist withdraws from the busy haunts of men to some fair and tranquil retreat, in Sicilian meadows, or by the deep blue sea of the south, or on the hillslope of an English lake, where he may see and tell of things invisible to mortal sight. Alone of the Augustan poets Virgil had no love for life in Rome. During all the years that he wrote he lived in the country, near the Bay of Naples.

Hamilton discusses the role of exaggeration in romantic art, which she says was utterly foreign to the classic Greek artists.

A romantic subject can be treated classically and a classic subject romantically. The beauty of a Greek god is human, realized by the artist from the living men he had seen; it is what a romantic subject will become under classic treatment. The romance has suffered: the statue is a god merely because it is so labelled. The strange beauty of a Hindu god, like nothing ever seen on earth, is completely romantic. The Hindu artist’s imagination has conceived something beyond or, at the least, apart from, humanity. The same distinction emerges from a comparison between the romantic Aeneid and the classic Iliad. The Iliad has as romantic a subject as the Aeneid, as romantic, indeed, as there could be: battles where heroes and gods fight for a marvelously beautiful woman, and conclaves held in silver Olympus where deities watch the contest and give vctory to this side or that. But when Homer’s method of treatment is compared with Virgil’s the difference between classic romanticism and the purely romantic is instantly perceived.

In the Iliad, Achilles has lost his armor, and his goddess-mother goes to the fire-god to beg a new set from him. She finds him “in his halls wrought of brass by his own hand, sweating and toiling and with busy hand plying the bellows. He was fashioning a score of tripods, all placed on wheels of gold that they might roll in and back, a marvel to behold. Not yet was added the neat handles, for which the god was forging rivets busily.” This description of a god, like the Greek statue, is a classic treatment of a romantic theme which does damage to the romance. The classic artist’s home is the earth; if he ascends to heaven, heaven takes on the look of earth. But when Aeneas loses his armor and his mother goes to Vulcan for the same purpose there is nothing of earth in the scene: “An island towering with fiery mountains; beneath thunders a cavern blasted out by the Cyclops’ forges; the sound of might blows echo on anvils; molten brass hisses; fires dart from the great jaws of the furnace. Hither the lord of fire descends from heaven’s height. There in the mighty cave the Cyclops were forging” – not smoothly rolling tripods fitted with neat handles, but “the thunderbolt, one of those many which the great Father showers down on earth. Three spokes of frozen rain, three of watery cloud, had they put together, three of ruddy flame and the winged wind of the south; and now they blend the awful flash and the noise and the terror and the fury of the untiring lightning flame.” That is what your true romantic can do with the fearful fire-god and the forges of the Cyclops. Thunderbolts, every reader must feel, are what must be produced by such means.

She goes on, and it is all fascinating. The impression her distinction leaves in me is that the classic dwells on the reality of the physical, biological, and social realms, whereas the romantic dwells on the reality of the reflective realm. Certainly the creations of the imagination, reflecting on the differences between what objectively is and what might be, are real products of the human mind. The study of this form of the real was apparently rejected, or not yet appreciated, by the classic Greeks. It is not that the Greeks were incapable of reflection. After all Socrates, as portrayd by Plato, is essentially reflective. But the appreciation of the implications of reflection and the creative mechanism behind all imagination was not recognized as a fit subject for investigation.

Reading Hamilton on the writers of Rome makes me want to read Latin to see for myself, directly, the character of these writers.


Hamilton includes a chronology (I have converted dates to Julian Years):

3961 J

Traditional date of founding of Rome


Conquest of Italy to the Rubicon completed


First Punic war


Second Punic war


Plautus died


Traditional birth and death of Terence


Polybius brought to Rome


Third Punic war and destruction of Carthage


Tiberius and Caius Gracchus agitate reforms


Cicero born

4612 or 4614

Caesar born


Catullus born (uncertain)


Sulla dictator


Sulla died


Virgil born


Horace born


Conspiracy of Catiline


First Triumvirate: Caesar, Pompey, Crassus


Livy born


Conquest of Gaul by Caesar


Catullus died (uncertain)


War between Caesar and Pompey


Pompey defeated at Pharsalus, flees to Egypt, murdered


Assassination of Caesar


Second Triumvirate: Octavius (Augustus), Antony, Lepidus. Cicero killed


Battle of Phillipi. Death of Brutus and Cassius


Defeat of Antony in battle of Actium. Augustus sole ruler of empire


Death of Antony and Cleopatra


Virgil died


Horace died


Seneca born (uncertain)


Death of Augustus


Livy died


Reign of Tiberius – extended law against high treason to include most trivial matters. Rewards given to informers.


Caius (Caligula). At least half crazy, murdered by soldiers


Claudius, married Messalina, then Agrippina, who poisoned him after he adopted her son, Nero.


Tacitus born


Nero. Fled uprising against him, and committed suicide. End of house of Caesar.


Seneca died by order of Nero


“Year of Three Emperors”: Galba, killed by uprising of soldiers; Otho, killed himself after defeat by Vitellius, who was killed by uprising of soldiers


Vespasian. Good administrator. Capture of Jerusalem. Coliseum built. Succeeded by his son.


Titus. Destruction of Herculaneum and Pompeii (by Vesuvius). Succeeded by his brother.


Domitian. Murdered by his freedman and his wife


“Five Good Emperors”: Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, each, from Nerva on, adopted by his predecessor


Tacitus died during Trajan’s reign


Juvenal known to be writing during Domitian’s reign and probably died during Hadrian’s reign

early 4800’s

Epictetus died (born around 4760)

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