Romanus Graecisans: How The Emergence of Rome Impacted The Greeks

Romanus Graecisans: How The Emergence of Rome Impacted The Greeks

By Frederick Frostwick

The expansion of the Roman empire into the east under Augustus both represents the largest growth of the city’s power up to that point and reveals the issue of integrating the Greek-speaking colonies freshly under Roman rule. How the newly conquered Greeks identified their sense of ‘self’ and how their Roman overlords maintained rule of law in the region through a new language of diplomacy, appropriation, and critique helped define the empire for the next millennium. By studying Greek literature of the period, we can identify the emergence of a narrative ἦθος (ethos) that goes beyond Aristotle’s strictly functional definition of the word and begins to represent a very personal expression of the speaker’s character.1  Diodorus Siculus’ intensely Greek critique of Rome, the art of epigrams and the dynamics of Greek gift-giving, and Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ narrative of Rome as heir to Greece provide a varied and illuminating window into this very personal literary expression.  Through closer reading of their writing, we might begin to see how Greeks under the early Roman empire viewed their place in the new ‘world order’ and what they envisaged their role to be in Roman imperial aims.

In the immense Bibliotheke of historian Diodorus Siculus, of which just fifteen of the original forty books remain extant, we are given a “world history” whose scope is enabled only by the spread of Roman dominion, but whose narrative voice is nevertheless at times harshly dissenting and critical of the brutal techniques favoured by the Romans. Originally from Sicily, a region long under Roman dominion, Diodorus differs from the historians Polybius and Dionysius of Halicarnassus by treating Rome’s rise to power as secondary to his overall historiographical aims. He offers scant detail of the early Republic, only showing an interest in Rome following the First Punic War, viewing them as an organising force in the Mediterranean.2 At the start of the Bibliotheke he offers his work as a service to man, a κοινὴ ἱστορία (universal history) for τὸν κοινὸν βίον (universal mankind). Moreover, his work is a πεῖρα (endeavour) (1.1.2), achieved by τοῖς ἰδίοις πόνοις (his own labours) (1.1.1), a point which he explains with a quote from the Odyssey 1.3, πολλῶν ἀνθρώπων ἴδεν ἄστεα καὶ νόον ἔγνω (Of many men the city saw and learned their thoughts) (1.1.2). So far, so Greek. And yet, one cannot begin to read Diodorus’ work without associating its scope with the power of the Roman Empire. The κοινός βίος is only enabled through citizen rights established under common rule. His πεῖρα is a testament to the literary resources of Rome, brought under one power only thanks to the Odyssean feats performed by the Roman army. In this way, even though Rome is hardly mentioned for the first twelve books, it is ever present in the wealth and breadth of source material which Diodorus offers us. Diodorus’ ‘new’ genre of history is paradigmatic of Roman imperial rule. Whereas, once Romans would travel to Athens, Alexandria, and Pergamon in pursuit of the wealth of resources kept in their libraries, now Diodorus, a Greek, travels to Rome. Rather than Greece being the centre of knowledge, now Rome is presented as the home of literature and learning.

There does not seem to be, on the surface, a lot for Diodorus to be upset about here. In addition, Diodorus had the Romans to thank for freeing his homeland of Sicily from the rule of its traditional tyrannies that terrorised their inhabitants πρὸ τοῦ Ῥωμαίους κυριεῦσαι ταύτης τῆς νήσου (before the Romans became rulers of that island) (19.1.5). Nevertheless, he chooses Philinus of Agregentum, whom Polybius identifies as strongly anti-Roman, as his source for the First Punic War.3 He then essentially merits Roman victory in the Second Punic War with mere luck in the statement, Ὅτι ὁ Ἀσδρούβας εἰ μὲν καὶ τὴν τύχην ἔσχε συνεπιλαμβανομένην, ὁμολογουμένως οὐκ ἂν ἠδυνήθησαν οἱ Ῥωμαῖοι πρὸς τοῦτον ἅμα καὶ πρὸς Ἀννίβαν διαγωνίσασθαι (If Hasdrubal had enjoyed the assistance of Fortune as well, it is generally agreed that the Romans could not have carried on the struggle simultaneously against both him and Hannibal) (26.24.2). The suggestion that Carthage may have been victorious, whether or not Hasdrubal had survived, appears in no other source, forcing us to assume that Diodorus made it up.4 He further ‘intrudes’ into the text in his description of the Achaean War, supposedly from Polybius, book 38, greatly embellishing the description of Roman brutality. While Polybius describes Greek ἀτυχία (misfortune), laying the blame for their misfortune on the Achaeans themselves, Diodorus transforms it to ἀκλήρημα (loss) so extreme that no man could read about them ἄδακρυς (dry-eyed) (32.26.1), taking pains to lay the blame on the Achaean generals rather than the Greek people. He adds to this with “one of the strongest indictments of Roman warfare and imperial rule found in ancient literature”:5

οἱ δὲ ἐν ὀφθαλμοῖς ἰδόντες συγγενῶν καὶ φίλων σφαγὰς καὶ πελεκισμοὺς καὶ πατρίδων ἁλώσεις καὶ ἁρπαγὰς καὶ πανδήμους μεθ᾿ ὕβρεως ἀνδραποδισμοὺς καὶ τὸ σύνολον τὴν ἐλευθερίαν καὶ τὴν παρρησίαν ἀποβαλόντες, μεγίστων ἀγαθῶν ἠλλάξαντο τὰς ἐσχάτας συμφοράς. (32.26.2)

…after witnessing in person the butchery and beheading of their kinsmen and friends, the capture and looting of their cities, the abusive enslavement of whole populations, after, in a word, losing both their liberty and the right to speak freely, exchanged the height of prosperity for the most extreme misery.

Neither Strabo nor Pausanias, both of whom quote the Polybian source text, confirm the graphic brutality of Diodorus’ account, which is best ascribed to Jewish descriptions of the same event found in the Old Testament book of 1 Maccabees 8: 9-10 and the Third Sibylline Oracle. The latter was at least known to Virgil and therefore could be plausibly accessible in Rome.6 Nevertheless, there clearly existed no precedent or great basis upon which to widen the Greek tragedy by embellishing Polybius’ narrative.

Such examples of intense criticisms towards Rome present contradictions in Diodorus’ narrative. Why would the writer of a history so indebted to Roman imperial gains, so representative of imperial scope and unity, wish to rubbish the achievements of the people his work owes its very inception to? Perhaps it only appears contradictory to us in the form that has been handed down to us. Diodorus’ primary coverage of Rome only exists in fragmentary form; therefore, it is challenging to locate the end of the source opinion and the start of Diodorus’.7 Perhaps where we can find no corroborating sources for Diodorus’ claims, such as that Carthage may have been victorious had Hasdrubal not died, this is a result of losses over the passage of time; such a scenario, no doubt, is quite conceivable when one considers the magnitude of non-extant and missing Classical texts. Another approach is that Diodorus in fact never intended to be anything but fiercely critical of Roman imperial aims. This approach rests on the argument that Diodorus, who lacked the support of a patron, was at pains to be polite about his host city.8 This argument, however, fails to explain why contradictions exist as they do, why he wouldn’t simply be wholly critical or wholly complimentary. It also over-simplifies Diodorus’ writing, ignoring the nuances in his self-presentation of ἦθος. Sacks suggests that it is in the description of Aeneas in Sicily (4.83.1 ff.) that we find a passage that “perhaps best encapsulates Diodorus’ feelings toward Rome”.9 Aeneas’ connection with Sicily, and his founding of the cult to Aphrodite at Eryx, was an important part of Rome’s foundation myth. However, Diodorus radically downplays Aeneas’ connection with his homeland, claiming that the cult was already established before Aeneas came to the island and, furthermore, that once there, he didn’t even stay on the island but remained προσορμισθεὶς τῇ νήσῳ (anchored off the island) (4.83.4). In disputing the Roman narrative, Diodorus follows after Demetrius of Scepsis; Demetrius, however, rebuts the story in its entirety, claiming that Aeneas never even set foot in Latium.10 Diodorus, by questioning a key tenet of the Roman foundation myth, offers a barbed insult to imperial power. But he does so whilst defending his cultural heritage. Woolf argues that when assessing Greek self-identity, we cannot view it through the same prism as Roman self-identity. Whilst it was significant to Rome that the eastern empire adopted Roman material culture, it did not matter to the Greeks, so long as they maintained the same language, the same gods and, crucially, the same descent; the Greeks “could discover the pleasure of enjoying baths and spectacula without feeling any less Greek”.11 For Diodorus, his apparent contradictions are the very character of his self-identity; he can enjoy the library at Rome and the freedom of Sicily but he cannot surrender his ‘Greekness’. Protection of cultural heritage and common descent are the hallmarks of his ἦθος.

The humble epigram, characterised by its curt style and witty, often mundane subject matter, seems an unlikely place to witness imperial power play at work. It is here, however, that we can witness some of the most personal expressions of authorial ἦθος, in the context of the client-patron relationship. The patronage of Greek poets had been widespread since the late Republic, projecting both prestige for the individual patron and the power of Empire; Cicero commented that Greek was the ideal language to transmit Roman imperial aims, since it was read in nearly every nation (Arch. 23).12 Cicero’s imagined system of literary conquest, however, recognises the reciprocity at the heart of the client-patron relationship: whilst Rome benefits the most from the praise of her glorious deeds, the poet has the last say.

Little is known about the epigrammatist Antipater of Thessalonike. Much, by contrast, is known about his patron, L. Calpurnius Piso Frugi, who features heavily in many Hellenistic epigrams of the period.13 In Antipater’s poem to the successful general requesting his patronage, his writing process is depicted as an act of gift giving and supplication (Anth. Pal. 9.428). Antipater is sent to Piso, reflecting his supplicant role in the relationship. The first two words of the poem, Σοί με, similarly underline the power dynamic of the client-patron relationship, with the more important placed first. Later in the poem Antipater describes Piso ὡς θεὸς. But the duality of the relationship is also expressed by the authoritative imperatives ἔσσο and κλῦθι. Piso may dominate the arena of Ἄρης, but Antipater can command the art of the Μοῦσαι. Piso is only made ὡς θεὸς thanks to the immortalising effects of epigram. In another poem by Antipater, addressed to no one in particular, he describes the politics of exchange with a striking animal analogy.

Ἀρκεῖ τέττιγας μεθύσαι δρόσος· ἀλλὰ πιόντες

ἀείδειν κύκνων εἰσὶ γεγωνότεροι.

ὣς καὶ ἀοιδὸς ἀνήρ, ξενίων χάριν, ἀνταποδοῦναι

ὕμνους εὐέρκταις οἶδε, παθὼν ὀλίγα. (9.92.1-4)

A little dew is enough to make the cicadas tipsy, but when they have drunk they sing louder than swans. So can the singer who has received hospitality repay his benefactors with song for their little gifts.

Antipater evokes a sympotic scene to depict an exchange of gifts, but he does not let up the chance to teasingly mock his benefactors for their stinginess, offering a mere six lines in return for his ὀλίγα. The ἦθος found in Antipater’s epigrams is fully aware that Roman prestige relies on Greek artistic flare. For Antipater, Roman power doesn’t present a loss of freedom but a new avenue along which to expand his genre.

Nothing at all is known of the epigrammatist Antiphilus except what lies in his poetry. One fascinating epigram offers a discussion about the great harbour-mole at Puteoli between the sea and the land (7.379). It is striking for its violent imagery and diction and raising of eco-critical issues. The sea compares the Romans to κύκλωπες (Cyclopes) who have βέβληται (thrown) the χῶμα (mole) into the sea, before asking the land, μέχρι πόσου, Γαῖα, βιαζόμεθα(How long, O land, will you do violence to us), the last word especially conveying forcible violence. Land asks Sea in response, εἴσιδε Ῥώμην ἐγγύθεν (Look at Rome hard by), seemingly pointing the finger at Rome for the incursion.Personification is not uncommon in epigram, but it is neither meaningless nor inconsequential. The eco-critical commentary within the epigram is made more pertinent through the use of the voice of the sea and land. There are two possible ways to interpret the poem: as I have been doing, as an eco-critical observation of the speed and magnitude of Roman expansion, or simply as a witty but nevertheless neutral depiction in which the land tells the sea to stop overreacting. Indeed, rather than complain, one ought to marvel at the feat of Roman engineering inherent in the mole.The latter interpretation could be taken as an allegory for Roman rule in Greece, where the voice of the overreacting sea is the voice of those critical of the empire, such as Diodorus. The vagueness of epigram is both its strength and weakness.Wit makes it difficult to identify the sentiment, or ἦθος, of the poet; but it presents him the opportunity to launch veiled criticism of imperial aims. Some scholars dispute this kind of reading, arguing that “there is no passage […] that is not in its primary intent encomiastic.”14 Taking an either wholly laudatory or critical reading, however, seems to be overly black-and-white. There are certainly examples of encomiastic epigram, for instance Antipater’s praise of Piso – the nature of the epigram is very clearly emphasised as a gift but, in contrast to a straight panegyric, the offspring of a relationship that is very much based upon mutual exchange. It is viewed through this medium, that of a gift, that we can fully accept the multiplicity of the ἦθος as a representation of the “psychological and social complexity of gift-giving”.15 The gift must convey gratitude and friendship but by its very nature acknowledges a position of power over the recipient, that the giver possesses a thing that the recipient does not have. Epigram in this way can be viewed as a gift from Greek culture to Roman power, recognising the strength and benefits of empire but all the time reminding the reader that the cultural heritage of Greece is superior.

The superiority of Greek cultural heritage was well understood by the Romans, who embraced the wealth of Greek language and institutions. We are told by Suetonius about Augustus, sed et ceteros continuos dies inter varia munuscula togas insuper ac pallia distribuit, lege proposita ut Romani Graeco, Graeci Romano habitu et sermone uterentur (More than that, for the several remaining days of his stay, among little presents of various kinds, he distributed togas and cloaks as well, stipulating that the Romans should use the Greek dress and language and the Greeks the Roman) (Aug. 98.3). Horace encapsulates the interdependence of the two cultures with the, albeit tongue-in-cheek, observation: Graecia capta ferum cepit victorem (Greece, the captive, captured her savage victor) (Epist. 2.1.156). We are led to understand that vital to the process of ‘romanisation’, was, more importantly, the preceding process of ‘hellenisation’.16 The historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus saw this process as so inherently built into Rome that it was, in fact, from its inception a Greek city. For Dionysius, the Roman empire represented a ‘rebirth’ of Greek learnedness and high culture, what he described as ἀρχαία καὶ φιλόσοφος ῥητορικὴ (the old philosophical rhetoric) (Orat. Vett. 1.1). He assimilated Augustus with Alexander the Great, the latter marking the end of the ‘classical’ past, the former heralding its renaissance. We are told that in the intervening years Greece was ruled by ἡ δὲ ἔκ τινων βαράθρων τῆς Ἀσίας ἐχθὲς καὶ πρῴην ἀφικομένη, Μυσὴ ἢ Φρυγία τις ἢ Καρικόν τι κακόν (an upstart that had arrived only yesterday or the day before from some Asiatic death-hole, a Mysian or Phrygian or Carian creature) (1.1), which made her appear as ταῖς τῶν ἀσώτων καὶ κακοδαιμόνων οἰκίαις (the houses of the profligate and the abandoned). Whilst ἡ μὲν Ἀττικὴ μοῦσα καὶ ἀρχαία καὶ αὐτόχθων (the ancient Attic muse deprived of her possessions) (1.1) sat at home as ἡ μὲν ἐλευθέρα καὶ σώφρων γαμετὴ (freeborn and chaste), the east desecrated her culture, ἑταίρα δέ τις ἄφρων ἐπ᾿ ὀλέθρῳ τοῦ βίου παροῦσα πάσης ἀξιοῖ τῆς οὐσίας ἄρχειν, σκυβαλίζουσα καὶ δεδιττομένη τὴν ἑτέραν (an insensate harlot, bent on destroying her livelihood, claims control of the whole estate, treating the other like dirt and keeping her in a state of terror). The highly wrought and graphic language, depicting the Asianist usurping of φιλόσοφος ῥητορικὴ as a coup d’état, emphasises the strength of feeling between Greeks and their culture, and their passionate defence against any force that threatened it. The Hellene-barbarian antithesis proposed by Dionysius casts Rome as an ally of Greece against the barbarian east rather than colonial invaders. They are πάντων κρατοῦσα (wholly powerful) (1.3), εὐπαίδευτοι πάνυ καὶ γενναῖοι τὰς κρίσεις (thoroughly cultured and in the highest degree discerning) and κοσμούμενον τό τε φρόνιμον (well-ordered and sensible). The purpose of the De antiquis oratoribus is to disseminate the ‘classical’ φιλόσοφος ῥητορικὴ through recording the lessons of past great authors. Dionysius is also, in some ways, partaking in the process of gift-giving, thus highlighting the importance of Greek culture within the Roman empire. Although he praises Augustus, he reverses the Augustan narrative of empire by depicting Rome as the heir to Greece and thus subservient to her.17

The Dionysian model, however, is problematic. Dionysius clearly became carried away in his description of a centuries-old Classical-Asianist struggle, which is grounded far more in “historical imagination” than fact.18 It similarly offers a narrative that seems unlikely; despite the extensive adoption of Greek culture, Metellus still accuses Cicero of an indignum facinus (shameful act) for addressing the Syracusan senate in Greek. The ἦθος found in Dionysius appears to pine after the same acknowledgement of descent as Diodorus Siculus. Meanwhile, far from being a weakness, the Augustus anecdote serves to remind us of the strength in the Romans’ willingness to appropriate the cultures they dominated. It is by donning the palium that the symbolic capital of the toga, and those areas in which its wearing was enforced, was so great. Plutarch tells an anecdote about the young Cicero when he first received tuition from Apollonius. Since the tutor did not speak any Latin, his pupil spoke in perfect Greek to him. Depressed by the incident, Apollonius was driven to exclaim: Σὲ μέν, ὦ Κικέρων, ἐπαινῶ καὶ θαυμάζω, τῆς δὲ Ἑλλάδος οἰκτείρω τὴν τύχην, ὁρῶν, ἃ μόνα τῶν καλῶν ἡμῖν ὑπελείπετο, καὶ ταῦτα Ῥωμαίοις διὰ σοῦ προσγενόμενα, παιδείαν καὶ λόγον (Thee, indeed, O Cicero, I admire and commend; but Greece I pity for her sad fortune, since I see that even the only glories which were left to us, culture and eloquence, are through thee to belong also to the Romans) (Cic. 4.5).

To deduce the way in which the emergence of Rome impacted the Greeks is bound to be a challenging task. The literature available to us depicts a tiny stratum of the Greek population, namely the educated male elite. How much the ἦθος found in their work is representative of larger society is impossible to know. At every avenue, however, we find an intense desire to unswervingly maintain the language and culture that they have inherited, whether by criticising Roman material culture, contributing to it, or refusing to acknowledge the existence of true ‘Roman-ness’. The irony is that by desperately holding onto their inheritance they ended up losing it. Perhaps what Horace should have written was: Graecia potita ferum tradidit victorem (Greece, holding on to herself, surrendered to her savage victor).


Frederick Frostwick is a rising fourth year student at the University of St. Andrews majoring in Classics.



  1. Schmitz and Wiater 2011, 24.
  2. Sacks 2014, 119.
  3. Ibid., 128.
  4. Ibid., 132.
  5. Ibid., 139.
  6. Ibid., 139.
  7. Ibid., 121.
  8. Ibid., 126.
  9. Ibid., 154.
  10. Ibid., 156.
  11. Woolf 1994, 130.
  12. Whitmarsh 2011, 197.
  13. Gow and Page 1968.
  14. Bundy 1962, 1.9.
  15. Whitmarsh 2011, 208.
  16. Wallace-Hadrill 1998, 79.
  17. Wiater 2011, 108.
  18. Rosemeyer 1957, 267.



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