Edith Hamilton’s “The Roman Way”: Terence, Plautus, and The Rome of Cicero – William Lonn

In The Roman Way, Edith Hamilton sets out to portray what life, in general, was like within the Roman civilization and, furthermore, the impact Rome has had on the modern Western world.  As you recall, the first two chapters cover how much information about everyday Roman life can be gained from reading the comedies of Plautus and Terence. In the next two chapters Hamilton contrasts the lives and approaches to comedy of Plautus and Terence and begins to explain the fall of the republic. The thread from modern literature to Roman comedy is extremely clear, and if we are able to benefit from their artistic successes perhaps we should also be able to prevent ourselves from succumbing to a similar political fate.

Alleged depiction of Terence from Codex Vaticanus Latinus 3868, possibly a copy of a third century CE original.

Alleged depiction of Terence from Codex Vaticanus Latinus 3868, possibly a copy of a third century CE original.

Hamilton perceives two types of comedy as generating with Plautus and Terence, ironic comedy from Plautus and a more serious, plot-based comedy from Terence. Plautus’s brand of comedy is an extension of ironic Greek tragedies in that the comedic effect is derived from the audience possessing knowledge that characters do not. Plautus’s is the first recorded use of irony in comedy and the common people of Rome loved him for it. With lengthy introductions and a string of humorous, yet tenuous related, scenes, his work achieves little merit other than being funny.

In contrast with Plautus, attempting almost solely to amuse, Terence appears to be striving towards art, even at the cost of success. Hamilton reports that Terence’s pieces were not as well received by the public as Plautus’s had been a generation before. However, she praises Terence as having merit outside of the comedic elements of his plays. Terence depended on building suspension and intricate dialogue that required active participation of the audience to understand his plays. Indicative of this mystery of the events, one play ended with a character saying, “Don’t let’s have it like the comedies where everyone knows everything,” as the curtain fell.

Hamilton claims that the novel could not exist without the story structure found in Terence’s plays, which elucidates something about the audience both he and Plautus wrote for. Terence, after being born a slave, propelled himself into a circle of the intellectually elite in Rome by his shear genius. Once he was a member of this cultural elite, he scorned the vulgar opinion of his viewing audience by insulting his critics in the prologues of his plays. Terence wrote to be understood and appreciated by his friends, by the highbrow socialites of the city. If the novel is truly derivative of Terence’s comedies, then this elitism is comprehensible. Consider the Honors College’s own reading groups and other “Great Books” series in which the novel is lauded as the culmination of intellectual expression. Not much, it seems, has transpired between the Roman Republic and the twenty-first century in terms of what is considered the most artistic mode of storytelling. We truly are the children of Rome.

The Stele of Polybius. Polybius lived 200 BCE  - 118 BCE and wrote mainly on the rise of Rome.

The Stele of Polybius. Polybius lived 200 BCE – 118 BCE and wrote mainly on the rise of Rome.

Roman society benefitted from having periods of relative peace in that wonderful art, such as the plays of Plautus and Terence, were created; however, the lengthy peace, according to Hamilton, made them increasingly passive in all areas of life. Hamilton presents Cicero’s Rome as one newly rife with corruption, noting that only a century earlier Polybius, a Greek historian who lived in Rome for a time, made no mention of corruption. Given that he openly critiqued Rome and praised Hannibal, it seems unlikely that Polybius would not mention such a great fault in his lengthy report of the Republic. A hundred years later, on the precipice of tyranny, Rome became a “city in which everything is for sale” according to a contemporary foreign diplomat.

Cicero, by nature a peaceful intellectual, would become one of the last honest politicians in the Roman Republic. Public office in Rome was tied directly to military service in that a politician could be called to war at any time. The people of Rome, however, were under no such danger. The city was safe; in fact the entire Italian peninsula was safe. Rome was still at war but the battles were waged far from the city and this had made the people complacent. Hamilton credits this period of safety for turning the Romans from a pragmatic utilitarianism to an obsession more with opulence than with proper governance.

The main concern for the people of Rome became their comfort, cheap bread, and free entertainment (panem et circenses has come to refer to a comfort or distraction given in order to appease discontent). Cicero reports the case of Clodius, a glaring example of the general apathy to corruption. Clodius infiltrated a ritual meant only for women, in order to pursue another man’s wife, and was caught. Cicero admonishes Clodius publically for buying votes from the jury, which was apparently the same as buying a house to Clodius, given his ineffective rebuttal to Cicero. Although the gathered audience celebrated Cicero’s rebuke, Clodius was shortly thereafter elected to high office.

Mid-1st Century CE bust: Marcus Tulius Cicero, 106 BCE – 43 BCE.

Mid-1st Century CE bust: Marcus Tulius Cicero, 106 BCE – 43 BCE.

Hamilton claims that within this luxury, Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus were able to use their wealth to rule the Republic. So long as they did so without explicitly breaking the law, the people were content to remain well fed and entertained. These three gained more and more power until their control was totally irrefutable, politics had become a business and these men had bought the right people at the right time. Realizing the futility of combating corruption in Rome, Cicero retires to a life of letters but is nevertheless beheaded when the Republic falls. Cicero, perhaps the most intelligent, truly patriotic man of his time had come to the seemingly accurate conclusion that it was “easy to know how to pull the ropes in a bad cause, but hard in a good cause.”

The warning of Cicero’s Republic is more appropriate than ever. We can enjoy the artistic aesthetics and methods derived from Roman culture in abundance but our complacency stands a chance of ruining even that. Conspiracy theories aside, it has become increasingly clear that the impact of money in politics often outweighs the interests and the voice of common people. It is only in the recent economic crisis that people have begun to recognize and speaking out against big-money interests en masse. On a larger scale, much greater atrocities are happening around the world, including genocide, abject poverty, human rights violations, etc. Hamilton’s account of the fall of the Republic implores us to remove the veil of our comfort in order to address the mounting problems we as a country, and as humans, face.

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One comment

  1. […] Yet Hamilton definitely stakes her understanding of art on the idea that Western art is a process built on the foundation provided by Greek and Roman artists. Art, as a medium through which an artist connects to an audience, has folded in upon itself: […]

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