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7-10-2015, 09:37


Greek nevertheless remained a potent force in literature as in life: even Cicero would eventually write his consular memoir in Greek. Its use, however, came increasingly to suggest affectation rather than necessity. When A. Postumius Albinus, consul in 151, wrote a history in Greek and apologized in his preface for any stylistic inadequacies, Cato mocked the insincerity of this gesture (ap. Gell. 11.8) and Polybius, who had lodged no such complaint against Fabius Pictor, endorsed Cato’s opinion (Polyb. 39.1). Postumius had had a choice of languages, and he chose the wrong one. Too much Greek in conversation also sounded affected, as the satirist Lucilius would declare:

Porro ‘clinopodas’ ‘lychnos’ que ut diximus semnos anti ‘pedes lecti’ atque ‘lucernas’

Furthermore, we said ‘clinopods’ and ‘lychnos’ pompously instead of ‘couch legs’ and ‘lamps’


Nevertheless, his choice of adverb (we should probably print semnos in Greek script), whether ironic or not, reflects the striking permeation of Greek ideas and tacit acceptance of Greek models increasingly characteristic of the second century. When the Scipios, early on, declared the moral qualities of their ancestor Barbatus to be the equal of his appearance (quoius forma virtutei parisuma fuit), the odd Latin phrase probably reflects the Greek idea of kalokagathia. A few generations later, Q. Lutatius Catulus, who became consul in 102, welcomed the poets Archias and Antipater of Sidon to his company and wrote Latin erotic epigrams in the Greek style. These instances are all well known and much discussed. Less fully acknowledged is how the Romans’ way of thinking about texts was also shaped by the Greek example.

This should be no surprise. It took Crates to show Romans that they already possessed the elements of a national literature, and however impressive the epics of Naevius and Ennius were to their original audiences, it required editors working after Crates’ example to edit and preserve their books for posterity. Porcius Licinus, the first historian of Roman literature, therefore traced its origin to epic, probably with Naevius’ Bellum Punicum in mind:

Poenico bello secundo Musa pinnato gradu intulit se bellicosam in Romuli gentem feram.

At the time of the Second Punic War, the warlike Muse with winged step introduced herself to Romulus’ savage race.

(ap. Gell. 17.21.44)

The literary potential of drama was only acknowledged later, in the generation of Aelius Stilo and his son-in-law Servius Clodius (in the last part of the second century bc). In gathering texts, settling questions of authorship, and assembling the details of a theatre history, these first students of drama drew on the scholarly traditions of both Alexandria and Pergamum: the Terentian didascaliae suggest Callimachus’ Pinakes, while Servius Clodius’ use of sound to proclaim, ‘This verse is not Plautine; this one is’ (ap. Cic. Fam. 9.16.4) recalls the doctrine of poetic euphony for which Crates was famous. The process of reception that ‘made’ Roman literature was itself shaped by the Greek experience of texts, and the genres initially marked for canonical status all had Greek precedents: tragedy and comedy, epic, history and oratory. A negative example proves the point.

The fabula praetexta (see also Fantham, Chapter 8 below) was a genre that put the deeds of great Romans on the stage. It was said to be Naevius’ invention: plays celebrating the founding of Rome (Romulus or Lupus) and a victory of Claudius Marcellus in 234 (Clastidium) are attributed to him. Ennius also wrote praetextae, as did the tragic poets Pacuvius and Accius. The plays were performed at festivals and triumphs and may have played a significant role in disseminating the facts of Roman history and developing a sense of Roman identity among the populus. Despite distinguished practitioners, however, and a well-defined role on the cultural scene, praetextae never became ‘literature’. Accius’ Brutus, a play about the last Tarquin that enjoyed a pointedly topical revival at the Floralia of 57, is cited once for content, but that exception only proves the rule (Cic. Sest. 123; cf. Div. 1.43-5). Fragments of praetextae are otherwise known only from the lexical oddities they supplied for ancient grammarians. Their lack of Greek origin denied them the cultural authority of tragedy and comedy. They were also too closely tied to the politics of praise, as some famous testimony of Cato confirms.

At the beginning of the Tusculan Disputations, Cicero supports his claim that Romans have equalled the achievements of Greek culture by pointing to the success of Latin poetry, which rivals the Greek despite its late start:

Sero igitur a nostris poetae vel cogniti vel recepti. quamquam est in Originibus solitos esse in epulis canere convivas ad tibicinem de clarorum hominum virtutibus, honorem tamen huic generi non fuisse declarat oratio Catonis, in qua obiecit ut probrum M. Nobiliori, quod is in provinciam poetas duxisset; duxerat autem consul ike in Aetoliam, ut scimus, Ennium.

Poets received late recognition or reception from our ancestors. Although he wrote in his Origines that guests around the table were accustomed to sing to the pipe about the deeds of famous men, Cato nevertheless declared in a speech that there was no honour in this sort of thing. That was the speech in which he criticized M. Nobilior for taking poets to his province; the consul had in fact, as we know, taken Ennius to Aetolia. (Tusc 1.3)

Cicero elsewhere treated these banquet songs, which modern scholars call car-mina convivalia, as forerunners of epic (Brut. 75), and he may have assumed here that the object of Cato’s displeasure was the description of Fulvius’ Aetolian campaign in Book 15 of Ennius’ Annales. This was not, however, the case. Cato’s speech is dated to within a year of Fulvius’ censorship in 179. What aroused Cato’s scorn was therefore not Annales 15, a book not written until the late 170s, but Ennius’ praetexta drama Ambracia, which was staged either at Fulvius’ controversial triumph in 187 or at the votive games he held the following year. Cato was not attacking poetry in general or Ennius in particular but Fulvius’ appropriation of poetry for political advantage in the highly charged atmosphere of the late 180s (cf. Liv. 38.44, 39.4-6).

The banquet songs also had a contemporary resonance for Cato, though Cicero’s late Republican perspective again obscures the nature of Cato’s concern a century or more earlier. The issue for him was the course of Roman Helleniza-tion. Greek influences flooded Rome after the conquest of Macedonia in 168. The impact could be enlightening. Aemilius Paulus, the victor at Pydna, brought the royal Macedonian library to Rome, and Greek teachers and rhetoricians followed the books in such numbers that by 161 the Senate tried to curb their impact. Other developments were from the outset less benign. Drinking parties, for example, and musical entertainments in a Greek style grew increasingly lavish. Cato complained publicly about boys being sold for more than fields and preserved fish for more than plowmen. He railed at statues erected to honour Greek cooks and trumpeted the austerity of his own household (Polyb. 31.25.5; cf. ORF 96, 174). He figured prominently in the sumptuary debates of the late 160s, and this struggle over contemporary mores provides the likely context for a famous passage known to Aulus Gellius from an anthology of Cato’s pronouncements under the title Carmen de moribus (Gell 11.2):

Vestiri in foro honeste mos erat, domi quod satis erat. equos carius quam coquos emebant. poeticae artis honos non erat. siquis in ea re studebat aut sese ad convivia adplicabat, grassator vocabatur.

It used to be the custom to dress becomingly in public, modestly at home. They paid more for horses than for cooks. Poetic art was not respected. Anyone who applied himself to that activity or devoted himself to parties was called a flatterer.

His target is the contemporary party scene, where people dress up, eat elaborate foods, and hear themselves praised by their hangers-on. Cato’s complaint, not to mention the sumptuary legislation of the time, reminds us, however, that another element in Roman society was losing its taste for the poetry of praise, and their reaction may explain how even Ennius’ Annaleslost its appeal by mid-century and had to be rescued by that later generation of readers, who created Roman literature in the study (Suet. Gram. 2.2).