Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

The Second Fall of Rome

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

The Second Fall of Rome

Article excerpt

Have the past two centuries of Western culture been one long saga of lionizing Greece while disparaging the cultural prestige and classical values of ancient Rome?

The reputation of Roman civilization in the Western world has never been lower than it is today. To a remarkable degree, the cultural and political legacies of both the Roman republic and the Roman Empire have been edited out of the collective memory of the United States and other Western nations not only by multiculturalists attacking the Western canon but by would-be traditionalists purporting to defend it.

The loss of the ancient Romans has been the gain of the ancient Greeks. Today, Western democracy is usually traced back to Athens rather than the Roman republic, something that would have astonished the American Founding Fathers and the French Jacobins. The Roman philosopher-statesman Cicero--perhaps the most important historical model in the minds of early modern European and American republicans--has been replaced by the Athenian leader Pericles as the beau ideal of a Western statesman. The art of rhetoric, once thought to be central to republican culture, has come to be associated with pompous politicians and dishonest media consultants. As for the Roman Empire, it is often thought of as an early version of 20th-century Fascist Italy or Nazi Germany, or, if the emphasis is on decadence, as a rehearsal for the Weimar Republic.

The reputation of Roman literature has fared no better than that of Roman government. Roman authors such as Virgil and Horace and Seneca and Plautus are often dismissed as second-rate imitators of the Greeks. By common consent, the three greatest epic poets of the West are identified as Homer, Dante, and Milton. Even though the epic was a Roman specialty, Virgil, Statius, and Lucan are demoted to a second tier or ignored altogether. In two and a half centuries, Virgil has gone from being the greatest poet of all time to a feeble imitator of Homer and, finally, a paid propagandist comparable to a hack writer in a 20th-century totalitarian state. The Roman playwright Seneca, once revered as a tragedian and a philosopher, is no longer taken seriously by students of literature or philosophy.

The denigration of the Romans and the promotion of the Greeks has not been the product of increased knowledge or refinement in taste. Rather, it is the result of an anti-Roman and anti-Latin bias that has warped Western European and American culture since the late 18th century--a bias that 20th-century modernism inherited from 19th-century romanticism and 18th-century neoclassicism. An unbiased re-examination of the Roman legacy reveals that the ancient Latin traditions in art and philosophy, if not in foreign policy or government, contain much of value to the contemporary world.

Rome's low reputation today seems astonishing when one considers how central the legacy of Roman civilization was to Western identity only a few centuries ago. From the Middle Ages to the late 18th century, the Roman classics dominated the Western literary curriculum. Before the Renaissance, many Greek classics, preserved by the Byzantines and Arabs, were unknown in the West. Dante, for example, knew Homer only by reputation. Even when more Greek classics became available, few members of the Latin-educated Western elite studied Greek. An English translation of Aeschylus did not appear until 1777.

Renaissance humanists, despite their eclectic interest in Greek as well as Egyptian and Jewish traditions, were chiefly concerned with reviving the culture of Roman antiquity. The architect Palladio combined Roman motifs with vernacular Italian architecture to create a style that replaced Gothic throughout Italy and western and northern Europe. Literary scholars devised "Ciceronian Latin," an artificial dialect using only words Cicero used. Seneca inspired Renaissance tragedy, and his fellow Romans Plautus and Terence provided the models for Renaissance comedy. …

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