THE ROLE OF GREEK IN LATIN LITERATURE


Greek Literature, which dates from the early 5th c. B.C. and continues in a traceable tradition to the end of the 4th c. B.C. (after which it becomes what we call Hellenistic, with far greater output apparently based on decreasing talent), was known to the Romans as early as the 3 rd. c. B.C., when they began to read, translate and imitate the works of the established and famous Greek literary masters. Greek literature in every period is a dominating force for the Roman writers, the mark of Hellenic thought and myth is ever-present in the Roman mind, and in many ways it is suitable to speak of the "Greco-Roman experience" in literature and the arts, since the Romans fused everything they did with what the Greeks had done centuries before.

The advantage of such a cultural fusion is the availability of ready-made notions and artistic forms, which can be changed, re-proportioned and developed at will. This offers a rich diet for the vigorous, for weaker minds it inspires slavish imitations, which the less gifted Romans were certainly capable of producing. The net result of generations of Romans, schooled in Greek thinking and writing in their formative years, is a gradual process of deferring to the Greeks, and ultimately denying their own cultural birthright. But this is something we cannot lament, since what a genuine and totally Roman art and literature would be like, cannot be known.

A possible parallel might be found in the period of the Renaissance, when the combined Greco-Roman heritage dominated most of the then "modern" avenues of thought, damping the individuality of the evolving European nations for a time. By the 18th c. the European identities surfaced, as separate from the Classical tradition, and gave a new, non-Classical face to a revived Modern Western world. The dead hand of the moribund "Classical tradition" to a certain extent ruled painting, architecture and literature well into the l9th c., and only after the turn of the last century did the word "modern" establish an identity of its own. This kind of option was never open to the Romans.

A university town, probably resembling Heidelberg or Ann Arbor, was established in Hellenistic Egypt at Alexandria by the 3 rd c. B.C.. Much literary activity, of which we have only a few texts and some short samples, fermented there, and a century later reached the economically important but still provincial city of Rome. In the 2 nd. c. B.C. a Cato could still declaim against the influx of debilitating Greek thought, but the arrival of hundreds of Greek schoolmasters hired to teach the tongue of high culture to the youth, made Greek a familiar part of Roman education. French had the same role in Czarist Russia, while Latin and French assumed similar positions in l9th and 20th c. America, respectively. By the 1st c. B.C. no educated person could afford to be without a good knowledge of Greek. Caesar and Cicero were among the flood of aspirants to knowledge who rushed to Athens to become educated and cultured. Caesar, stabbed to death in 44 B.C. did not say the famous phrase "et tu, Brute", but gasped out in informal Greek "kai su ei ekeinon, o pai" ("you are one of them, man"?). The Roman society had become bi-cultural by the middle of the 1 st c. B.C., and, reinforced by huge immigration from Greece and the Near East under the Empire, never lost this trait.

Yet the Romans managed to preserve something of their own identity. Catullus is obviously indebted to Alexandrian poets, those we know and those we merely know of, yet his slim volume is no recap of Greek motifs, but the outpouring of the emotions, some noble and many ignoble, of a high-strung, headstrong, gifted young Roman aristocrat. Horace is the first to admit his (obvious) debt to the Greeks, saying "I was the first to transfer (= translate) Greek metrics to Roman poetry... ", and his verse shows a profusion of forms and thoughts which could never have existed without the Greek background. Yet there is something Roman strung through all the Hellenic syllabification, the self-conscious musings of a freedman's son who by a mixture of luck and talent, with the help of important friends, made a success of himself in an unstable and uneasy world. The quiet wittiness which invades the Sermones is Roman in essence, the Odes have a characteristically Roman slyness of expression, which is quite different from the Greek spirit. Propertius has been accused of relying overly on Greek myths, and worse still on obscure versions of Greek myths. But behind the mythic decoration is the psychological diary of a lone Roman who had on obsession for looking into himself, something which not to become part of the popular culture until RImbaud, Proust and Freud. Many readers who have glanced over Propertius have missed this inner-view of the self entirely, which is not in the standard "Handbuch literature".

One difference between the development of Greek literature and the writings of the Romans is the very different role of heritage and inheritance. It is safe to say that the Greeks (until we know more about their possible Near Eastern predecessors) made up everything out of the whole cloth. Freshness of view and newness of expression is a mark of Hellenic creativity. On the other hand the Romans, inheriting a ready-made fabric of great value from the Greeks, developed the art of embroidering new designs on an ancient pattern. The ever-present sense of inheritance and development, done at best with new spirit and wit, is their hallmark.

The last century just tolerated the erratic Hellenes, but felt more comfortable with the traditionalist, American-style Romans. But as this 20 th. century concludes, the best critical credits seem to be going to the side of the Greeks. This brings up again the notion of the fused Greco-Roman society, in which Greek culture reaches our times by parasitically attaching itself to the administratively vigorous Roman world, while the Roman, knowing that he lacks something vital which the Greek world had, symbiotically draws from the Greek the artistic nourishment which he needs but cannot manufacture on his own.

Who is to say that the complex flower of the family of the Compositae is more intuitive or creative than the clever if somewhat unimaginative tribe of the honeybees? Who can imagine the one without the other?

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William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris