The Arc of Empire

By Ruden, Sarah | New Criterion, June 2014 | Go to article overview

The Arc of Empire


Ruden, Sarah, New Criterion


Wendell Clausen, who belonged to the last generation of great Latin philologists, once gave us graduate students an indignant speech about the status of Roman civilization. Yes, it could be harsh, he said, but why did no one ever cite the Athenian atrocities of the Peloponnesian War to claim that they throw a shadow over Classical tragedy, when the same people assert that the Romans' brutal reduction of Carthage in the mid-second century B.C. throws a shadow over even the greatest Roman literature?

Professor Clausen also could have taken on ably those who scoff at Roman literature as derivative, and painted the Romans as beefy jocks, grunting over the imported glories of Homer and allowing only a jingoistic, contrived imitation of him in Vergil's Arneid. One of the outrages of this characterization is the denigration of twentieth-century Modernism it entails. The Romans brilliantly adapted, elaborated, deepened, and individualized--they thought their way through books, in an age less dependent on public performance and alive to the possibilities urged by the Alexandrian Library in Egypt and the scholarly post-Classical Greek literature that had risen around it.

Professor Clausen also might have noted that the much-sneered-at Roman narrow-eyedness and hard-nosedness created for writers a more stable, continuous, and unified culture in which to develop their various arts. We can more confidently speak here of a single literature and trace intricate developments from generation to generation, instead of having to make abrupt jumps between cities, islands, and even continents that had much less in common. Students of Ancient Greek may delight in the variety of dialects and the only jaggedly related genres, but the benefits of rock-solid centralization gleam in--as a particularly precious example--the works of the late-first-century-B.C. Roman poet Horace.

This son of a freedman, working obscurely in the central Roman bureaucracy, came to the attention of the first Emperor Augustus through the latter's meticulous system of conscription for literary patronage. Horace (after relatively mediocre early efforts) found, through Augustus's cultural collaborator Maecenas, personal, material, and political support for perhaps the most sublime lyric poetry in history, which drew on Greek lyric traditions that differed greatly in quality as well as in form and subject matter. At the same time, it drew on a previous Roman generation's sometimes awkward, sometimes touching experiments on the basis of these foreign works. Horace also evolved native Italian satirical and epistolary traditions to almost queasy aesthetic heights. Horace could exist as Horace because of that quintessential Roman skill: management.

Yet Horace, like most other Roman authors, is comparatively seldom read, studied, and taught in English. This new Oxford collection ought to help. (1) The book gives a carefully presented selection of great Roman authors, stretching from Plautus, active in the late third and early second centuries B.C., to Marcus Aurelius, who lived through most of the second century A.D. The collection includes useful introductions to each author, maps, black-and-white illustrations, and even informative headings for excerpts; its afterwords deal with the writings' later reception. With these insights, it becomes clear that one of the greatest shortcomings tied to the neglect of Roman literature is the gap it creates in the later history of literature, which in Western Europe evolved in reverence for the Roman classics until the Renaissance, when Greek, it should be recalled, was only added in lofty circles, hardly crowding out Latin and its masterpieces as influences during the centuries immediately following.

When stating that the quality of the translations is the most important factor in an anthology like this one, I have to stipulate that I'm a translator of ancient literature myself, and that I'm appalled by the failure of any of the translators in this volume to be me. …

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