Above is the final episode in Michael Scott’s BBC series Ancient Greece: the Greatest Show on Earth. (Watch part one here and part two here). Episode three looks at how Greek theatre fared as Rome emerged as a dominant military and political power and Greece and Greek cities and kingdoms lost their independence. It’s not a bad programme, but I find the Romans to be insufferable barbarians, on about the same level as the Seljuks and Ottomans.
Regarding what happened to Greek literature under the Romans, I was reading an essay by Peter Bien from The Greek World: Classic, Byzantine and Modern, in which Bien says the following:
‘It would be a mistake to think that Greek literature died with Greek liberty. Menander’s marvellous comedies of manners, the plays that, by way of Plautus and Terence, set the first theatrical example for the Renaissance, for Shakespeare and for Moliere, were… the growth of an age politically hopeless. Polybius, through whose history we know that Scipio wept over Carthage destroyed, was a Greek hostage. The historical analysis of Tacitus and of Livy depend on history written by losers, by generations of sarcastic Greeks. Machiavelli rediscovered and transfigured their style, mostly through Tacitus and Livy, and Marx read Machiavelli. Clarendon in his History of the Great Rebellion goes back for this style to the same ancient historians. Shakespeare transcribes Plutuarch’s Lives at times almost word for word.’I’m curious as to which ‘sarcastic Greeks’ Bien is referring to.
Regarding Plutarch, Bien adds:
‘Plutarch’s drawing of Romans is much more effective than his gallery of Greeks. The Greeks lived longer ago, and he knows less about them. The death of Cicero, the suicide of Cato, and the story of Antony and Cleopatra are written in brilliant dryness. It was Plutarch’s sense of tragedy, not that of the tragic poets, that Shakespeare drank in.’Bien also has this to say:
‘The greatest hero of late Greek literature is Jesus Christ. The gospels are in Greek because the entire eastern Mediterranean world in their time had been Hellenized since before Christ, and one of the thrills and shocks of the gospels is that mixture of cultures. In spite of their linguistic awkwardness, or because of it, they are powerful pieces of simple writing such as Greek had never encompassed before.’