ANCIENT ROMAN CULTURE

ANCIENT ROMAN CULTURE

20120227-Fresco PompeiiAffreschi_romani_-_Pompei_-_Frisso_ed_Elle.JPG
Pompeii fresco
Ancient Rome was a cosmopolitan society that absorbed some of the traits of the people it conquered-particularly the Etruscans, Greeks and Egyptians. In the early years of the Roman period the Greeks maintained a strong presence in Roman culture and education and Greek scholars and arts flourished throughout the empire.

Romans were fascinated with wild beasts, temples and mystical religious cults from Egypt. The were particularly attracted to the cult that worshiped Isis, the Egyptian goddess of fertility, with its secret rites and promises of salvation.

Art and culture was associated with the upper classes. The elite were the were the ones with money to patronize the arts and pay sculptors and craftsmen to decorate their homes.

Dr Peter Heather wrote for the BBC: “It is important to recognise two separate dimensions of 'Roman-ness' - 'Roman' in the sense of the central state, and 'Roman' in the sense of characteristic patterns of life prevailing within its borders. The characteristic patterns of local Roman life were in fact intimately linked to the existence of the central Roman state, and, as the nature of state. Roman elites learned to read and write classical Latin to highly-advanced levels through a lengthy and expensive private education, because it qualified them for careers in the extensive Roman bureaucracy.” [Source: Dr Peter Heather, BBC, February 17, 2011]

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” forumromanum.org; “The Private Life of the Romans” forumromanum.org|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; Lacus Curtius penelope.uchicago.edu; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org The Roman Empire in the 1st Century pbs.org/empires/romans; The Internet Classics Archive classics.mit.edu ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review bmcr.brynmawr.edu; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors roman-emperors.org; British Museum ancientgreece.co.uk; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive beazley.ox.ac.uk ; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/about-the-met/curatorial-departments/greek-and-roman-art; The Internet Classics Archive kchanson.com ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources web.archive.org/web; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy plato.stanford.edu; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library web.archive.org ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame /web.archive.org ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History unrv.com

Roman Versus Greek Culture

Despite their great achievements in painting, sculpture, mosaic making, poetry, prose and drama, the Romans always had a kind of inferiority complex in the arts when compared to the Greeks. The Romans also saw the as bread and circuses to the pacify people.

The Greeks have been described as idealistic, imaginative and spiritual while the Romans were slighted for being too closely bound to the world they saw in front of them. The Greeks produced the Olympics and great works of art while the Romans devised gladiator contests and copied Greek art. In Ode on a Grecian Urn , John Keats wrote: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, “that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

Art from ancient Greece and Rome is often called classical art. This is a reference to the fact that the art was not only beautiful and of high quality but that it came from a Golden Age in the past and was passed down to us today. Greek art influenced Roman art and both of them were an inspiration for the Renaissance


Greek mystery cult were popular with Greels

In the Aeneid Virgil, a Roman, wrote:
The Greeks shape bronze statues so real they
they seem to breathe.
And craft cold marble until it almost
comes to life.
The Greeks compose great orations.
and measure
The heavens so well they can predict
the rising of the stars.
But you, Romans, remember your
great arts;
To govern the peoples with authority.
To establish peace under the rule of law.
To conquer the mighty, and show them
mercy once they are conquered.

Foreign Influences on Rome

When we think of the conquests of Rome, we usually think of the armies which she defeated, and the lands which she subdued. But these were not the only conquests which she made. She appropriated not only foreign lands, but also foreign ideas. While she was plundering foreign temples, she was obtaining new ideas of religion and art. The educated and civilized people whom she captured in war and of whom she made slaves, often became the teachers of her children and the writers of her books. In such ways as these Rome came under the influence of foreign ideas. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~\]


Iran-rooted Mithraism was popular in the Roman Empire

As Rome came into contact with other people, we can see how her religion was affected by foreign influences. The worship of the family remained much the same; but the religion of the state became considerably changed. In terms of art, as the Romans were a practical people, their earliest art was shown in their buildings. From the Etruscans they had learned to use the arch and to build strong and massive structures. But the more refined features of art they obtained from the Greeks.

It is difficult for us to think of a nation of warriors as a nation of refined people. The brutalities of war seem inconsistent with the finer arts of living. But as the Romans obtained wealth from their wars, they affected the refinement of their more cultivated neighbors. Some men, like Scipio Africanus, looked with favor upon the introduction of Greek ideas and manners; but others, like Cato the Censor, were bitterly opposed to it. When the Romans lost the simplicity of the earlier times, they came to indulge in luxuries and to be lovers of pomp and show. They loaded their tables with rich services of plate; they ransacked the land and the sea for delicacies with which to please their palates. Roman culture was often more artificial than real. The survival of the barbarous spirit of the Romans in the midst of their professed refinement is seen in their amusements, especially the gladiatorial shows, in which men were forced to fight with wild beasts and with one another to entertain the people. \~\

Dr Neil Faulkner wrote for the BBC: “Sometimes, of course, it was outsiders who introduced the trappings of Roman life to the provinces. This was especially true in frontier areas occupied by the army. In northern Britain, for example, there were few towns or villas. But there were many forts, especially along the line of Hadrian's Wall, and it is here that we see rich residences, luxury bath-houses, and communities of artisans and traders dealing in Romanised commodities for the military market. “Even here, though, because army recruitment was increasingly local, it was often a case of Britons becoming Romans. [Source: Dr Neil Faulkner, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“Foreign soldiers settled down and had families with local women. Grown-up sons followed their fathers into the army. The local regiment became more 'British'. The new recruits became more 'Roman'. We see evidence in the extraordinary diversity of cults represented by religious inscriptions on the frontier. Alongside traditional Roman gods like Jupiter, Mars, and the Spirit of the Emperor, there are local Celtic gods like Belatucadrus, Cocidius, and Coventina, and foreign gods from other provinces like the Germanic Thincsus, the Egyptian Isis, and the Persian Mithras. Beyond the frontier zone, on the other hand, in the heartlands of the empire where civilian politicians rather than army officers were in charge, native aristocrats had driven the Romanisation process from the beginning.” |::|

Greek Influences on Rome

The most powerful of these foreign influences was that of Greece. We might say that when Greece was conquered by Rome, Rome was civilized by Greece. These foreign influences were seen in her new ideas of religion and philosophy, in her literature, her art, and her manners. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~\]

It is said that the entire Greek Olympus was introduced into Italy. The Romans adopted the Greek ideas and stories regarding the gods; and their worship became more showy and elaborate. Even some of the superstitious and fantastic rites of Asia found their way into Rome. These changes did not improve the religion. On the contrary, they made it more corrupt. The Roman religion, by absorbing the various ideas of other people, became a world-wide and composite form of paganism. One of the redeeming features of the Roman religion was the worship of exalted qualities, like Honor and Virtue; for example, alongside of the temple to Juno, temples were also erected to Loyalty and Hope. \~\


the design and god for this Apollo Temple in Pompeii came from Greece

Roman Philosophy: The more educated Romans lost their interest in religion, and betook themselves to the study of Greek philosophy. They studied the nature of the gods and the moral duties of men. In this way the Greek ideas of philosophy found their way into Rome. Some of these ideas, like those of the Stoics, were elevating, and tended to preserve the simplicity and strength of the old Roman character. But other ideas, like those of the Epicureans, seemed to justify a life of pleasure and luxury. \~\

Roman Literature: Before the Romans came into contact with the Greeks, they cannot be said to have had anything which can properly be called a literature. They had certain crude verses and ballads; but it was the Greeks who first taught them how to write. It was not until the close of the first Punic war, when the Greek influence became strong, that we begin to find the names of any Latin authors. The first author, Andronicus, who is said to have been a Greek slave, wrote a Latin poem in imitation of Homer. Then came Naevius, who combined a Greek taste with a Roman spirit, and who wrote a poem on the first Punic war; and after him, Ennius, who taught Greek to the Romans, and wrote a great poem on the history of Rome, called the “Annals.” The Greek influence is also seen in Plautus and Terence, the greatest writers of Roman comedy; and in Fabius Pictor, who wrote a history of Rome, in the Greek language. \~\

As for art, while the Romans could never hope to acquire the pure aesthetic spirit of the Greeks, they were inspired with a passion for collecting Greek works of art, and for adorning their buildings with Greek ornaments. They imitated the Greek models and professed to admire the Greek taste; so that they came to be, in fact, the preservers of Greek art. \~\

Arts and Culture Under Augustus

Augustus promoted learning and patronized the arts. Virgil, Horace, Livy and Ovid wrote during the “Augustan Age," Augustus also established what has been described as the first paleontology museum on Capri. It contained the bones of extinct creatures. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “During the reign of Augustus, Rome was transformed into a truly imperial city. By the first century B.C., Rome was already the largest, richest, and most powerful city in the Mediterranean world. During the reign of Augustus, however, it was transformed into a truly imperial city. Writers were encouraged to compose works that proclaimed its imperial destiny: the Histories of Livy, no less than the Aeneid of Virgil, were intended to demonstrate that the gods had ordained Rome "mistress of the world." A social and cultural program enlisting literature and the other arts revived time-honored values and customs, and promoted allegiance to Augustus and his family. [Source: Department of Greek and Roman Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2000, metmuseum.org \^/]


writers and historians like Livy pictured here thrived in Augustan Rome

The emperor was recognized as chief state priest, and many statues depicted him in the act of prayer or sacrifice. Sculpted monuments, such as the Ara Pacis Augustae built between 14 and 9 B.C., testify to the high artistic achievements of imperial sculptors under Augustus and a keen awareness of the potency of political symbolism. Religious cults were revived, temples rebuilt, and a number of public ceremonies and customs reinstated. Craftsmen from all around the Mediterranean established workshops that were soon producing a range of objects—silverware, gems, glass—of the highest quality and originality. Great advances were made in architecture and civil engineering through the innovative use of space and materials. By 1 A.D., Rome was transformed from a city of modest brick and local stone into a metropolis of marble with an improved water and food supply system, more public amenities such as baths, and other public buildings and monuments worthy of an imperial capital.” \^/

“Encouragement to Architecture: It is said that Augustus boasted that he “found Rome of brick and left it of marble.” He restored many of the temples and other buildings which had either fallen into decay or been destroyed during the riots of the civil war. On the Palatine hill he began the construction of the great imperial palace, which became the magnificent home of the Caesars. He built a new temple of Vesta, where the sacred fire of the city was kept burning. He erected a new temple to Apollo, to which was attached a library of Greek and Latin authors; also temples to Jupiter Tonans and to the Divine Julius. One of the noblest and most useful of the public works of the emperor was the new Forum of Augustus, near the old Roman Forum and the Forum of Julius. In this new Forum was erected the temple of Mars the Avenger (Mars Ultor), which Augustus built to commemorate the war by which he had avenged the death of Caesar. We must not forget to notice the massive Pantheon, the temple of all the gods, which is to-day the best preserved monument of the Augustan period. This was built by Agrippa, in the early part of Augustus’s reign (27 B.C.), but was altered to the form shown above by the emperor Hadrian (p. 267). [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~\]

“Patronage of Literature: But more splendid and enduring than these temples of marble were the works of literature which this age produced. At this time was written Vergil’s “Aeneid,” which is one of the greatest epic poems of the world. It was then that the “Odes” of Horace were composed, the race and rhythm of which are unsurpassed. Then, too, were written the elegies of Tibullus, Propertius, and Ovid. Greatest among the prose writers of this time was Livy, whose “pictured pages” tell of the miraculous origin of Rome, and her great achievements in war and in peace. During this time also flourished certain Greek writers whose works are famous. Dionysius of Halicarnassus wrote a book on the antiquities of Rome, and tried to reconcile his countrymen to the Roman sway. Strabo, the geographer, described the subject lands of Rome in the Augustan age. The whole literature of this period was inspired with a growing spirit of patriotism, and an appreciation of Rome as the great ruler of the world.

Art and Architecture Under Trajan

Roman Art: During this period Roman art reached its highest development. The art of the Romans, as we have before noticed, was modeled in great part after that of the Greeks. While lacking the fine sense of beauty which the Greeks possessed, the Romans yet expressed in a remarkable degree the ideas of massive strength and of imposing dignity. In their sculpture and painting they were least original, reproducing the figures of Greek deities, like those of Venus and Apollo, and Greek mythological scenes, as shown in the wall paintings at Pompeii. Roman sculpture is seen to good advantage in the statues and busts of the emperors, and in such reliefs as those on the arch of Titus and the column of Trajan. \~\

But it was in architecture that the Romans excelled; and by their splendid works they have taken rank among the world’s greatest builders. We have already seen the progress made during the later Republic and under Augustus. With Trajan, Rome became a city of magnificent public buildings. The architectural center of the city was the Roman Forum (see frontispiece), with the additional Forums of Julius, Augustus, Vespasian, Nerva, and Trajan. Surrounding these were the temples, the basilicas or halls of justice, porticoes, and other public buildings. The most conspicuous buildings which would attract the eyes of one standing in the Forum were the splendid temples of Jupiter and Juno upon the Capitoline hill. While it is true that the Romans obtained their chief ideas of architectural beauty from the Greeks, it is a question whether Athens, even in the time of Pericles, could have presented such a scene of imposing grandeur as did Rome in the time of Trajan and Hadrian, with its forums, temples, aqueducts, basilicas, palaces, porticoes, amphitheaters, theaters, circuses, baths, columns, triumphal arches, and tombs. \~\

Graffiti and Scribbled Messages: Media in Ancient Rome

An exhaustive amount of graffiti, messages and other kinds of announcements were written on buildings or any space available. Sometimes inscribed on stone with chisels but mostly written on plaster with sharp styli used for writing on wax tablets, the writings included advertisements, gambling forms, official proclamations, marriage announcements, magical spells, declarations of love, dedications to the gods, obituaries, playbills, complaints and epigrams. “Oh wall,” one citizen of Pompeii wrote, “I am surprised that you have not collapsed and fallen seeing that you support the loathsome scribblings of so many writers.” [Source: Heather Pringle, Discover magazine, June 2006]

More than 180,000 inscription have been catalogued in the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarium , a mammoth scientific database maintained by the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Science and Humanities. If nothing else they offer a great window into ordinary life in ancient Rome with message on everything from the price of prostitutes to expressions of grief by parents over lost children, The inscriptions run the 1000-year span of the Roman empire and come from everywhere from Britain to Spain and Italy to Egypt.

The Corpus was conceived in 1853 by Theodor Mommsen, a German historian who dispatched a small army of epigraphists to peruse Roman ruins, inspect museum collections and ferret out slabs of marble or limestone whenever the had been recycled or turned up at construction sites. These days new ones come from construction sites for hotels and resorts.

20120227-Graffiti CIL10237.jpg
Pompeii graffiti about gladiators

To make a paper replica of the inscriptions, the stone or plaster is cleaned and then a wet sheet of paper is laid over the lettering and beaten with a brush to push the paper fibers evenly into all the indentations and contours. The paper is then allowed to dry and later peeled off, revealing a mirror image of the original. Such “squeezes” require less technical skill to make than archival photographs, and reveal more detail, especially with weathered, hard-to-read inscriptions. Corpus director Manfred Schmidt told Discover magazine, “Photos can be misleading. But with the squeezes you can always put them out in the sun and look for the right light.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history/ ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, oll.libertyfund.org ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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