The Roman Way – Review

Edith Hamilton. The Roman Way. 1932; New York: Norton, 1993. Print.

Best known today for her Mythology, Edith Hamilton wrote a number of books on ancient Greece and Rome. The Roman Way attempts to look at ancient Rome from the perspective of everyday Roman life. That, she discovers, is a challenge. Nearly all writing from Rome is military. Even though Julius Caesar wrote two books, he reveals virtually nothing about himself in them.

Hamilton takes a look at the few writings that perhaps reveal something of everyday life in Rome. She begins with Plautus, the oldest Roman whose non-military writings still exist. He lived in the republic during the Second Punic War, but his comedies tell us of a society in which slaves are considered human beings and husbands are not expected to be faithful to their wives. Terence notes that families are really ruled by a matriarch—something still part of the Italian way of life today. (N.B.: The linked article originally appeared elsewhere, in the Wall Street Journal, I believe.)

She notes that although European theater may have begun in Greece, its conventions begin with the Romans. Plautus’s plays, unlike the comedies of Aristophanes, are situational comedies based on dramatic irony. His Menaechmi is the source for Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors. Terence lived shortly after Plautus died. His comedies were more plot-driven and based on social relationships. Whether sitcoms or comedies of manners, these are the roots of our theater today.

The last days of the republic and beginning of the empire are noted by Cicero and Horace. While Cicero was a politician and a general, his letters and other writings give us a sense of life in the Rome of his day. Horace wrote of the simple country life, a theme of European poetry ever since. Horace’s poems about women seemed detached, but his descriptions of rural Italy are something else. His goal was to create an inner peace regardless of circumstances.

Catullus’s short life as portrayed in his poems was anything but detached. His poems plus what Cicero tells us, makes us understand that aristocratic Roman women were as free to be unfaithful as their husbands were. (So-called feminism is an upper class phenomenon.) Catullus became the model romantic (the root of the word is Rome, after all) who was all emotion, died young, and left a beautiful memory. His emotions appeared to rule him; peace depended on his lover’s favors.

Hamilton proves that the best writers of the early empire were romantic. Theater audiences were drawn more and more to spectacle rather than story or poetry. She compares Euripides’ detached Helen with Vergil’s lovestruck Dido. She notes that Rome was famous for two things: its law with greater emphasis on fairness and its engineering feats like roads, bridges, aqueducts, and coliseums. Its philosophies and religions were largely imported. “They were not interested in why, only in how.” (159)

Juvenal, a little later than Vergil, wrote bitter, sardonic satires. The Stoic Tacitus was a contemporary but wrote of noble virtues. Hamilton notes that it is hard to imagine Juvenal and Tacitus were describing the same place and time. Seneca and Livy were also “all emotion.” But Seneca’s best work is far more moving in its language.

Hamilton, writing in 1932, sounds a bit like a fascist or communist of that era. She says that “history repeats itself” and that Rome disintegrated because the old virtues of the republic were inadequate for a world-wide empire, though Augustus tried.

Our mechanical and industrial age is the only material achievement that can be compared to Rome’s during the two thousand years in between. It is worth our while to perceive that the final reason for Rome’s defeat was the failure of mind and spirit to rise to a new and great opportunity, to meet the challenge of new and great events. (203)

Perhaps the classical ended, but the Byzantine empire kept things going until the rise of Islam, which has mostly been derivative. How “dark” were the Dark Ages, after all? It is still the West that the rest of the world is trying to keep up with or to destroy out of jealousy.

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