Greek Gifts and Roman Suspicion

Andrew Erskine

University College

In preparation for his return to public life after the death of Sulla Cicero took lessons in oratory from some of the most distinguished rhetoricians in the Greek world. He visited Rhodes where he was taught rhetoric by Apollonius, son of Molon, but, because Apollonius knew no Latin, he asked Cicero to declaim in Greek. After the declamation everyone crowded around Cicero to congratulate him with the exception of Apollonius who sat silent and glum. Cicero was perturbed by this lack of enthusiasm on the part of his teacher, but eventually Apollonius spoke: 'I congratulate you, Cicero, and I am most impressed by you, but I feel sorry for the fate of Greece, when I consider that the only glories that were left for us are, thanks to you, being transferred to the Romans, by this I mean, our culture and our eloquence.' (Plut. Cicero 4). So Rome, not content with conquering Greece, takes its culture as well.

This story, which Plutarch records in his Life of Cicero, may not be true but it reflects a view that it was Cicero who personified Greek culture in Roman dress. Cicero's energetic involvement in many areas of Greek culture makes it easy to see why this view should have arisen. Not only was he Rome's most accomplished orator, but he also wrote several works on oratory and rhetoric. He studied Greek philosophy and, going further than that, he also wrote philosophical treatises of his own. With works such as the De Finibus (On Ends) and De Officiis (On Duties) he made Greek philosophy accessible to a Latin-speaking audience. Before Cicero there had been no Latin philosophical tradition so he had had to develop a new philosophical vocabulary in order to convey these ideas.

His defence of the Greek poet Archias in 62 B.C. was in many respects a eulogy of Greek literature. Nor did he restrict himself to mere praise: he also wrote his own poetry, which included translations of Homer and Aratos, though little survives (for examples, de Div. 1.11.17ff, 2.30.63f). Plutarch tells us that he was considered by his contemporaries to be the best poet in Rome (Cic. 2). Not only could he read Greek he could also write it; thus his celebrated consulship of 63 B.C. was the subject of a short work in Greek which he sent to Stoic philosopher Posidonius (ad Att. 2.1.1-2). In consequence of all this Cicero came to embody Greek intellectual culture in Rome.

But a different selection of evidence could reveal Cicero as a man hostile to the Greeks. Cicero's speech in defence of L. Valerius Flaccus, known as the pro Flacco, contains a searing attack on the moral integrity of the Greeks. Flaccus had been governor of Asia and in 59 B.C. he was on trial charged with corruption during his term of office. Complaints of corruption would have emanated from the exploited provincials and so after some perfunctory praise of the Greeks Cicero launches a determined assault on the character and credibility of these Greek defence witnesses. Like so many of their compatriots they are 'shameless, uneducated and shifty'. The Greek people may have a reputation for learning, but 'when it comes to giving evidence, they have never shown any concern for scruples or good faith and they are completely ignorant of the meaning, the importance or the value of any of this' (9). Greek dishonesty in the witness box was proverbial, he claims; they are concerned not for the truth but for themselves; they may reply to the prosecutor at length, but 'they never answer the question' (10). Such dishonesty would be bad enough, but the Greeks combine dishonesty with malice:

When a Greek has come forward to give evidence with the object of inflicting harm on someone, he thinks not of the words of his oath but of words that can harm. To be worsted, to be refuted, to be proved wrong, these are the things that are most shameful to him; he prepares himself against this and nothing else bothers him. (11)

How could Flaccus get a fair trial with witnesses like this? After rubbishing the defence witnesses, Cicero turns his attention to the local civic authorities responsible for making the complaints against Flaccus. The Roman jury is presented with a vivid picture of the chaos of Greek politics, past and present:

All the public business of the Greeks [in contrast to the Romans] is carried out by the mindlessness of the public meeting sitting in session. I'll say nothing of present-day Greece which for a long time now has been battered and ruined by its own assemblies, but concern myself with Greece of old. Ancient Greece which was so notable for its wealth, power and glory collapsed because of this one evil, the excessive freedom and licence of its public assemblies. When inexperienced men, simple and ignorant about everything, sat down in the theatre, they used to embark on unprofitable wars, put seditious men in charge of public affairs and throw the most worthy citizens out of the state. (16)

In the speech Cicero does acknowledge some of the intellectual virtues of the Greeks, but the overall effect is fairly damning. Contemporary Greeks are criticised for their lack of moral integrity and for their political irresponsibility; the Greeks of the past fare better - it is only their political practices which Cicero scorns. Since this is a court case it does not provide reliable evidence for Cicero's real opinions. Cicero is not trying to tell the court what he himself thinks about Greeks but rather he is seeking to convince the jury of the truth of his case by exploiting their assumptions and prejudices. Thus the speech is very revealing about the attitudes of the Roman upper classes to their Greek subjects. They are sly, lying, malicious and self-interested, even if they do know a bit of philosophy (or perhaps because of it).

Nevertheless, I think that the picture which Cicero presents in this defence of Flaccus is one with which he would largely agree. Roughly contemporary with this defence speech is a letter which Cicero wrote to his brother Quintus, at that time governor of Asia. In this lengthy letter of advice on how to be a provincial governor Cicero expresses ideas about the Greeks very similar to those which he delivered in public to a Roman jury:

Intimate friendships with those from among the Greek population should be guarded against carefully, with the exception of those very few men who are worthy of the Greece of old. But nowadays very many are deceitful and unreliable and long servitude has given them an over-developed desire to please. My view is that you should put on generous entertainment for them as a group and be on terms of hospitality and friendship with the best of them. But too much intimacy with them is neither respectable nor trustworthy. (ad Q. 1.1.16)

Yet in this letter Cicero is also fairly free with his praise of the Greeks; they are, for instance, the source of civilisation (humanitas). It is, however, interesting to note that too much involvement with things Greek could be construed as frivolity. Cicero can praise the Greeks and their culture without incriminating himself because, given his life and achievements, 'no suspicion of indolence or frivolity is possible' (ad Q. 1.1.28).

So despite Cicero's apparent affinity with the Greek world we find in him a mixture of attitudes to the Greeks, attitudes that combine both respect and contempt. There is a clear preference for the Greek past over the Greek present and for Greek intellectual culture over Greek politics. The Greeks of the present are the objects of contempt, dishonest, manipulative, unworthy of their ancestors, whereas, if the Greeks of the past had a fault, it was their political institutions, in other words their democracy, something which was anathema to Cicero.

Such ambivalence is not confined to supposed hellenophiles like Cicero. At the other extreme is the conservative Roman senator Cato the Elder who professed hostility to all things Greek, yet on inspection appears surprisingly well-acquainted with Greek culture. Active in the first half of the second century B.C. he was notorious for his antagonism to Greeks and their culture, which he believed was having a damaging effect on the Roman way of life. Plutarch says that 'out of a patriotism he mocked all Greek culture and learning' (Cato the Elder 23.1). Plutarch is supported by the elder Pliny (NH 29.7.14) who claims to reproduce a letter of Cato to his son:

I shall speak about those Greeks in their proper place, son Marcus. I will show you the results of my own investigation at Athens and persuade you of the benefit of dipping into their literature but not learning it thoroughly. I shall convince you that they are a depraved and intractable people, and you must consider that I have spoken this as a prophet: whenever that nation gives us its literature, it will corrupt everything, and all the more so if it sends its doctors here. They have conspired together to murder all barbarians with their medicine, and they even charge for it so that they may win our confidence and destroy us more easily. And they regularly call us barbarians and hurl more filth at us than at others by calling us Opici [an Oscan tribe]. I forbid you to have any dealings with their doctors.

Cato appears uncompromisingly hostile to Greeks; he is an upholder of Roman tradition and Roman virtues. Yet, while he may have been an advocate of the old Rome, he was not himself ignorant of Greek culture and learning or even uninfluenced by it. As he says, he had visited Athens and knew something of Greek literature. He was familiar with Homer's Odyssey and even quotes it on several occasions. His history of Rome, the Origins, was one of the first to be written in Latin but in writing a history at all he was emulating the Greeks. In this work he showed knowledge of Greek thought and history and even accepted the traditions that gave Italian peoples Greek roots.

This ambivalence to the Greeks and things Greek is present not only in Cicero and Cato, it is also a feature of Roman upper class society in general in the late Republic. From the time of the Roman conquest of the Greek world in the second century B.C. the Romans combined emulation of the Greeks with rejection of them.

The Romans decorated their houses with Greek sculpture, some plundered from Greek cities in war, some purchased and some made by Greek craftsmen in Rome. The Greek practice of writing history was taken up; Fabius Pictor, the first Roman to do so, actually wrote his history of Rome in Greek. They began to learn rhetoric and have their sons tutored by Greeks. They patronised Greek intellectuals and artists; in the second century B.C. Scipio Aemilianus was friendly with the historian Polybius and the Stoic Panaetius, in the following century Cicero had the philosopher Diodotus living in his house, while the poet Archias benefited from his association with Lucullus. By the time of Augustus wealthy Romans were sending their sons to finish their education in Athens and Vergil was using Homer's Iliad and Odyssey to produce an Italian epic, the Aeneid.

But, as the examples of Cicero and Cato indicate, Roman acceptance of Greek culture was not without reservation in the Republic. Cicero could assume that a Roman jury would be prejudiced against Greeks and exploit this prejudice accordingly. From the second century B.C. onwards philosophers and foreign teachers could find themselves expelled from Rome, a practice that even occurred as late as the reign of Vespasian (cf. Dio 65.11). Greeks were perceived as an immoral people who spent their lives in luxury and decadence. Roman writers such as Cato, Sallust and Livy blamed the decline of the Republic on the moral decline of Rome and this moral decline was often explained by reference to the corrupting influence of Greece.

The sly and dishonest Greek which Cicero had presented in his defence of Flaccus continued as a popular stereotype in Rome. Vergil may have been heavily influenced by Greek literature but the Greeks that populate his Aeneid conform to this stereotype. The deception of the Trojan horse is typical of Greek behaviour. Laocoon warns against Greek deceit, 'Do not trust the horse, Trojans; whatever it is, I fear Greeks, even when they come with gifts' (2.48-9). But it is the Greek deserter Sinon who convinces (2.57-198); loquacious, deceitful and plausible in the manner of Cicero's witnesses, he persuades the Trojans that the Greeks have abandoned the siege. He is skilled in the Greek art of deceit ('ille dolis instructus et arte Pelasga', 2.152) and uses all the tricks: lengthy stories, fake tears and false oaths. This image of the Greek continues into the second century A.D.; Juvenal in his Third Satire savaged the Greeks who now filled the city of Rome. Cicero and his audience would have recognised the Greek who is so duplicitous and ready to please that if someone comments on the heat he starts to sweat (Juv. Sat. 3.103). Like Sinon such men could weep at will (3.101-2).

Anti-Greek prejudices were fully exploited by Octavian in the civil war against Antony in the 30s B.C. Octavian was based in Italy while Antony was in the Greek east and allied to the Greek queen of Egypt, Cleopatra. In Octavian's propaganda Antony was characterised as an drunken Graeco-oriental despot in the clutches of a decadent Greek queen; it was no civil war but a war between hardy moral Italians and weak self-indulgent Greeks. Octavian knew his audience and this was effective propaganda and has since permeated the whole historical tradition.

This ambivalence was in some ways a product of Roman success. Already in the fourth century B.C. when the Greek influence was more limited, there were Romans who thought that Greek culture was something to aspire to. This at least would appear to be the implication of the Greek cognomina of Romans such as Q. Publilius Philo, consul of 339 B.C., or P. Sempronius Sophus, the consul of 304 B.C. At this time Rome's contact with Greeks would have been largely through the Greek cities of southern Italy. But it was only with the conquest of the Greek world from the late third century onwards that Greek culture really made a significant impact on Rome. Up until then Rome had been a community on the periphery of the Greek world and like many other Italian cities it was gradually absorbing Greek culture.

Military success, however, led to political domination of the Greeks and this brought Rome firmly from the periphery into the centre, accelerating the Greek influence on Rome. Thus no longer was Greek culture seeping into Rome, a slow and steady process of acculturation; instead, a culture produced in one context was grafted onto another, producing tensions in Roman society between incompatible values. Yet, circumstances did not give Roman traditions and values the option of gradual change. The resulting tensions do not mean that the Romans were particularly conservative, merely that their society was different from Greek society. It was the speed with which Greek culture was adopted in Rome which caused the tension, rather than the fact of its adoption. In consequence Greek culture, although it was desirable, was not absolutely welcome. By criticising the Greeks the Romans sought to re-affirm their own sense of cultural identity which they felt was being lost in this rapid conversion to Hellenic culture.

Rome was an intensely militaristic society, in which the nobility was trained from youth to command armies and to serve the state. A common criticism of Greek culture in Rome was that it was distracting and prevented men devoting themselves to the state. When three philosophers came to Rome from Athens in 155 B.C. on an embassy, Cato was worried that young men, after listening to them, might start to value eloquence above military achievements. He wanted the philosophers to leave Rome as soon as possible to allow the young men of Rome to pay attention to their laws and magistrates again (Plut. Cat. 22).

Similarly, Cicero was aware that over-interest in Greek culture could be construed as frivolity. This is a view that persists into the first century A.D., when Tacitus can say of his father-in-law, Agricola, who had been educated in the Greek city of Marseilles, 'I remember that he used to tell us how in his early youth he would have drunk more deeply of philosophy than was allowable for a Roman and a future senator, if the wisdom of his mother had not restrained his inflamed and passionate soul' (Tac. Agric. 4.4). We can compare Cato's advice to his son, a couple of centuries earlier, to dip into the literature of the Greeks but no more. Yet, it is one of the ironies that this threat to Roman militarism was, in part at least, one of the spoils of war. Much of the art and sculpture was brought back to Italy as a result of conquest and even the architects, sculptors and intellectuals could be considered the human spoils of war.

The subject status of the Greeks would have been a further reason for Roman ambivalence. As Horace wrote, 'captive Greece took her fierce victor hostage and brought the arts to rustic Latium' (Epistles 2.1.156-57). Even though the Romans could select what they wanted from the Greek world and its ways, they may have resented this implicit recognition of Greek cultural superiority. Marius, for instance, rejected Greek literature on the grounds that it was taught by subjects, nor would he condescend to speak their language (Plut. Mar. 2, cf. Val. Max. 2.2.2). By maligning the Greeks, the Romans could make their adoption of Greek practices more acceptable to themselves.

When they do praise the Greeks, the focus tends to be on the Greeks of the past and not those of the present. It would be undesirable to praise their own subjects. Instead contemporary Greeks are presented as having lost their way. When Caesar pardons the Athenians for supporting Pompey, he tells them that they have been saved by the glory of their ancestors (Appian, BC 2.88, Dio 42.14). The Athenians and Spartans had been the cultural and political leaders of their time, but now that role belonged to the Romans. Excelling in both oratory and war, it was the Romans who were the true heirs of the Classical Greeks. Nor was this sufficient. Philosophy, says Cicero, should be snatched from a now enfeebled Greece and transferred to Rome (Tusc. Disp. 2.2.5). If the contemporary Greeks had foolishly given away their inheritance, then they were justly maligned.

For centuries, then, the Romans had a decidedly ambivalent attitude to the Greek world. Although the Romans absorbed many elements of Greek culture, both intellectual and material, they also had a common contempt for the Greeks. This is apparent both in philhellenes like Cicero and in celebrated critics of the Greeks such as Cato. These two represent in miniature the complex and often contradictory responses to the Greeks which are visible in Roman society at large. Surrounded by Greek culture, the Romans sought both to embrace it and yet to define their own cultural identity as something distinct. Laocoon warned the Trojans to be wary of the horse. Was Greek culture proving to be a newer and more insidious Trojan horse for the descendants of Aeneas?


This article is based on a lecture originally given to the Classical Association of Ireland Summer School in its former incarnation as the Association of Classical Teachers. In my eagerness to please the editor I have taken the unscholarly step of including only this solitary footnote, but further reading can be found in the following: A.E. Astin, Cato the Censor (Oxford 1978), E. Gruen, Culture and National Identity in Republican Rome (London 1992), especially chap. 2 on Cato, N. Petrochilos, Roman Attitudes to the Greeks (Athens 1974), which is particularly important for Cicero, as is E. Rawson, Cicero (London 1975), and A. Wardman, Rome's Debt to Greece (London 1976). My thanks to Llewelyn Morgan and Theresa Urbainczyk for reading and discussing the article with me.

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