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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 3 - Classical Drama  


The age of classicism in the Western world culminates in the almost thousand years of Roman supremacy. Like classical Athens, classical Rome is simultaneously a city, a specific political unit, and an idea of civilization that transcends a time and a place. Even in its own time and place, Rome outdid the Athenian and the Hellenistic empires, lasting far longer and bringing a wider area under its control.

In proportion to this greater extension of power, the literature of Rome concerns itself with self-justification, in a sense trying to vindicate Rome's exalted place. One might say that Roman writers look back over their shoulders at their own past and at the Greek classical tradition which they aspired to equal and despaired of surpassing. Their literature polishes an image of Rome to transmit to future generations. In this effort they were aided by their language, Latin, a precise and economical instrument, capable of expressing complex interrelationships in very few words.

The Emergence of Rome: Myth, Literature, and History

Rome's ambivalence toward Greece lies at the core of Virgil's epic poem, the Aeneid. Aeneas, whose son Ascanius (or Iulus) founded a town called Alba Longa, the forerunner of Rome, was a Trojan hero, and Virgil's treatment of the fall of Troy casts the Greeks as villains. Yet the anti-Greek content of the Aeneid belies its profoundly Greek model. Virgil's imitation of Homeric structures and themes exemplifies the debt Rome owed to Greece as well as the national self-consciousness of Latin literature.

The myth of the founding of Rome itself takes up the story where Virgil left it. Supposedly, the Alban kings ruled in hereditary sequence for hundreds of years until one member of the Iulan dynasty usurped his brother's rule, killed his nephew, and forced his niece, Rhea Silva, to join the Vestal Virgins, the celibate priestesses of Rome, to keep her from bearing an heir to the throne. When Rhea Silva gave birth to a set of twins, Romulus and Remus, and insisted that their father was the god Mars, the infants were cast into the river Tiber. Instead of drowning, however, they were swept up from the river onto land where a she-wolf discovered them and nursed them as her own. Raised by the king's herdsman, Romulus and Remus eventually founded a city at the point where the Tiber had deposited them on the shore. In an argument over what to name this city, Romulus killed Remus and thus a city called Rome emerged on the banks of the river. The date traditionally assigned to this happening is 753 B.C., a date which recent archeological excavations tend to confirm.

This myth about the building of a city, so different from the nature myths of ancient Greece, is a carefully manipulated narrative artfully designed to convey a certain set of meanings. Rather than explore the nature of the universe, as the Greek myths tend to do, the story of Romulus and Remus presents a code for Romans to live by. Through Romulus, like so many other ancient heroes reputed to be the son of one human and one divine parent, Rome bore its destiny in its bloodlines, and the myth specifically relates the nature of this Roman inheritance.

On the maternal side, through Rhea Silva's descent from Aeneas, Rome renewed the glory of Troy, the archetypal city; on the paternal side, through the god Mars, Rome embodied the spirit of martial valor. Moreover, Mars himself had a dual nature: in the Roman pantheon he is a more powerful god than his Greek counterpart Ares, because he is an Italian fertility god as well as the patron of war. Thus the fatherhood (paternitas) of Mars blessed the Romans with a fatherland (patria) of abundance, in contrast to the Greeks who had to struggle to cultivate their rocky islands. The Romans responded to this blessing by becoming the great patriots of antiquity, venerators of their river Tiber, a symbol of salvation, and of their paternal city.

The genesis of this myth apparently justified the facts of Roman history; through martial valor, one small city brought the Italian civilizations that predated the legendary arrival of Aeneas under its control, and subsequently conquered the Hellenistic world to the east and Europe to the west. As Romulus and Remus were not content simply to settle in Alba Longa, but decided to found a new city, the Romans excelled in winning wars and even more in developing civic institutions and building the physical fabric to house them. Wherever the Romans went, they exercised these skills, and like the Greeks, spread their language and culture. But they also left a more permanent mark on the territories they claimed. Throughout Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa, viaducts and bridges, city walls and baths, arches and temples still stand, after two millennia eloquent witnesses to the enduring impact of Roman occupation.

Republican Rome

In 509 B.C., the last of the Roman kings believed to be descended from Romulus was unseated for abusing his power, and the Roman Republic was born. In the subsequent four hundred years of republican rule, a flexible class structure developed to accommodate both the aristocrats (or patricians) and the commoners (or plebeians) who wanted some share in self-rule. In contrast to the limited but direct democracy of fifth-century Athens, the Roman Republic perfected representative institutions, provided for the orderly election of executives (consuls) who served for fixed terms and then left office, and adhered to a systematic legal code. Allowing for a degree of social mobility and power sharing unique in the ancient world, Rome continually enlarged the privileges of those who were not high born, even to the extent of making freed slaves and conquered peoples citizens of Rome, a notion that shocked Greek observers who watched Roman power grow as theirs dwindled.

In the third and second centuries, a series of military crises tested the stability of the Republic. A war was fought over Sicily, as Rome expanded its control over the Italian peninsula southward, and another was fought over Spain, as Rome expanded to the west. The enemy in both cases was Carthage, on the North coast of Africa. Known as the Punic Wars (from the Latin word for Phoenician), these military actions vented an obsessive rivalry over control of the Mediterranean; Virgil 's treatment of Dido, Queen of Carthage and a refugee from ancient Phoenicia as Aeneas is a refugee from ancient Troy, provides a mythic context for the mutual hatred of Rome and Carthage. In 146 B.C., shortly after wresting control of the Hellenistic world from Syria and Macedonia, the Romans destroyed Carthage and made Africa a colonial province.

In the first century B.C., having defeated its foreign enemies, Rome almost consumed itself in a long civil war among competing generals and consuls. At last it seemed necessary to turn rule over to one man who ruled for life. Thus Rome became an empire, and like the Hellenistic empire founded by Alexander the Great, ultimately proved too diverse for a single ruler to control. In A.D.395, the empire split into two parts, one ruled from Rome, the other from Byzantium (or Constantinpole). Important consequences resulted for the development of Christianity, by then the state religion of Rome. Traditionally, the year A.D. 476 marks the end of the Western Empire; the Eastern Empire continued until 1453, when the Turks sacked Constantinople.


(1) Today, many business corporations function as patrons of the arts, underwriting artistic projects not likely to return a profit; almost every major museum exhibit or opera production, for example, receives funding from some conglomerate seeking to enhance its public image and to promote a social climate likely to favor its business goals.

(2) "Augustus" who received that cognomen -- the special Roman name that described one's accomplishments -- when he eliminated all his rivals in 27 B.C.