Monday, March 29, 2010

Review: The Roman Way, by Edith Hamilton

The Roman Way My rating: 4 of 5 stars
What does it mean to be an American? Despite living smack dab in the middle of the U.S. my entire life, despite being surrounded by other so-called Americans, despite all my obvious expertise, of course I can't answer that question. It is ridiculous, of course, to even consider that one worldview or way of thinking surrounds everyone in a particular country, from the homeless black man to the millionaire heiress. Hit the streets with intentions of gathering opinions and then draw a general consensus, and I doubt you will hold in the end little more than vague generalizations.

The Roman Way attempts something of the sort with Ancient Rome, and the prospect seems even more absurd. Hamilton asserts, simply by writing this book, that there is some kind of "Roman Way," a peculiarly Roman way of thinking. To support these claims she goes to the Romans themselves, or what's left of them; that is, she relies only on the literary remains. In a way this approach makes sense: "The writings of the day show the quality of the people as no historical reconstruction can." But there are some obvious caveats: the "Roman Way" gleaned from these writings, of course, will not be that of women, slaves, free men of the lower classes, etc. --in short, 90-something percent of the population. These people are mentioned in the works of the privileged, and consequently in The Roman Way, but always through the very partial lenses of those writers. So this book is not the evaluation of how some 50 million people from two millennia ago thought about the world, but how a few dozen men wrote about it, in a perspective representative of a few thousand.

This much narrower scope makes the subject much more manageable, and there is still much room for discussion. Edith Hamilton does an admiral job, running through Roman literature, from Plautus and Terrence to Juvenal and the Stoics, discussing each author's unique spot in literature as well their commonality with other Roman authors. Homogeneous bunch, they may seem to some -- yet Catullus, Cicero, and Horace, three rich white men of approximately the same era, were each of vastly different stuff. To support her thesis, Edith Hamilton must somehow bring these people together, threading together their common thought.

Just what did bind these people together? Maybe it is Nationalism, sometimes manifested as simple pride in one's country, sometimes shaped into an almost fanatical devotion to Queen Roma. It is a good first guess: the sentiment seems to pervade every inch of some authors' works, especially the political authors. The poems fit in, too, to some extent --The Aeneid was one large advertisement for Rome, after all-- but just how much did the dreamy and intense Catullus care for such things?

Then there is Romanticism -- a tough sell when talking of such a common sense, seemingly unimaginative group as the Romans, but Hamilton convinced me. She drove home her point especially through comparing the Roman works with Greek counterparts. For example, in the Aeneid, when Vulcan forges a shield for the hero, "flames lick the sky." In the Illiad, when Hephaestus fulfills a similar request for Achilles he simply makes the darn thing -- it is loud, fiery, and perhaps even divine, but it lacks that sky-licking flare. I have not read the Illiad, but Hamilton asserts that, though it has a thoroughly romantic subject, it never strays far from what she calls classicism. Those day-dreaming Greeks, it seemed, preferred to keep their daydreaming within the realm of possibility, while many of the normally practical Romans let their minds soar when putting words on paper.

For further analysis of the differences between the Greek and Roman minds we have very convenient sources, namely the Latin plays of Terence, Plautus, and Seneca, and those of their Greek counterparts, on which they were based. Some are intended as direct copies, yet somehow turned out different, probably the influence of that mysterious force again. Then there are the plays of Seneca, which he intended from the beginning to be different, maybe romantic, and even distinctly Roman. Now there's some food for Common Sense: why would Seneca set out to create something so different from the Greek original if he didn't sense another, more home-spun style and sentiment?

It is an interesting theory, but it does require some squeezing and pushing, and I am still not sure what common feelings bound these men together --yet I am sure there was something of that sort, some kind of "Roman Way." Ultimately, it is one of those classic questions of the liberal arts: "you will never be able to answer it, but you will learn a lot by asking it." In this Edith Hamilton does an admirable job, a goddess of classical literature, laying out the facts for us mere mortals --and not shying away from liberal amounts of conjecture and digression.

Hamilton was a "popularizer" --because she dumbed things down, says the cynic -- because she made things interesting and fun, says the enthusiast. I am obviously a fan: Hamilton herself is classy and classic, and this is the kind of book that will always have a place. The question is one many will never grow tired of asking, the answer one that will eternally remain elusive, and, even though originally published in the '30s, "The Roman Way" has not lost its relevance in the discussion. It is one of the lucky few nonfiction books that will surely grace the shelves of public and school libraries for years to come.

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