Friday, 13 September 2013

Greeks under the rule of barbarian Rome

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.’


Hermes said...

I have not watched Episode 3 yet but I actually do not mind this series; simply, because of its scope. Rarely, do Western commentators go much past Alexander the Great. Not only that, the doco discusses other Tragedians and Comedians other than the usual four or five. A lot of people do not know that there were actually five canonical Tragedians including Ion of Chios and Archaeus of Eretria. But, there were many others. Also, if one is to discuss theatre, then we should also include mimes and pantomines and we have several from Herodas's hand.

In terms of Greek literature after the rise of Rome, there are many excellent examples which in some cases equal the Classical era. Bien fails to mention several notable examples, Galen, Damascius, Plotinus, Philostratus, Lucian, the Greek novelists Longus and Xenophon of Ephesus, historians such as Arrian, rhetors such as Dio of Prusa and Libanius and the late Epic Dionysiaca by Nonnos. Greek Christian must also be included such as Gregory of Nyssa and Dionysios Areopagite.

Lastly, commentators often use the term "the loss of Greek freedom" after the rise of Macedon. I think people are often projecting back contemporary obsessions about democracy into ancient scholarship. A merchant from Smyrni or Apamea or Aphrodisias would have welcomed the era of the Greek kingdoms because it would have meant ridding themselves of Persian domination and the creation of a Greek oecumene. And many of those freedoms, were only seriously curtailed after 300 AD. The Romans allowed many of the Greek city states a lot of freedom except foreign policy.

Hermes said...

Apart from the intrinsic quality of the writing of Greeks of the Hellenistic and Roman era, another reason why this era is interesting is because if gives us clues how Greeks orientated themselves in a world which somewhat resembles our own. For example, Galen reached the uppermost strata of Roman society, like many Greeks travel to America for study or work reasons; however, he remained uncertain about Rome but he did admit that they were onto something. But he maintained a sense of Greek superiority. Philostratus was even less circumspect, and outright claimed that any good came from Hellenic culture.

As for Jesus being a Greek literary hero, I think Bien is sort of wrong here. Only a relatively small strata of Greek society would have considered Jesus a hero until about 350 AD. Thereafter, things began to change.

John Akritas said...

It is a failing in the series – which as you say is a reflection of typical Western approaches to Greece, which tend to see it as finishing after Alexander died –that we get no idea of Greek cultural production in the Hellenistic kingdoms. Their output was for more interesting than what the Romans came out with. For sure, this is a reflection of Western bias, which favours the Romans over the Greeks in the east.

(However, it's also possible that we Greeks are a little biased against the Romans. I was reading something by Xenakis regarding the music he wrote for Seneca's Medea that hints at this. I'll post it later this week).

Is it Galen and Philostratus you think Bien is referring to when he talks of 'sarcastic Greeks'? (To be fair to Bien, he does mention the full range of Hellenistic writers in his piece – of which I posted only a couple of excerpts).

Hermes said...

John, I think it is readily admitted that despite a few highlights, Greek literary production outshone Roman throughout the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Interestingly, most of what we know about Republican and Imperial Rome came from Greek writers reporting back to Greeks.

Regarding 'sarcastic Greeks' Simon Swain's brilliant book details Greek attitudes to Rome, showing some Greeks praised Rome, others were more cagey and others were somewhat hostile.