By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Rome: a Mediterranean giant, known far and wide for its conquering and warfare… and its strong penchant for proudly displaying spoils all around the city. For hundreds of years Rome’s military prowess led to Triumphs, civil ceremonies and religious rites paraded through her famous streets. Rome was powerful…and she wanted to make sure her control extended not just to the military, but to the artistic endeavors of the empire as well.
After the Roman Empire conquered Greece and found (relative) stability in their position in the Mediterranean, a certain movement swept through the upper level Romans. Philhellenes – literally friends of Greece- were adamant admirers of Greek culture and everything that went with it. This movement, finding its roots in the literate upper class as early as the 3rd century BCE, led to centuries of cultivating Greek art for Roman consumption.
And the Romans absolutely loved it. The sculptures of Greek athletes, the strong and toned depictions of gods and goddesses, the busts of famous philosophers – it all showed beauty and power of a great civilization that was now under the jurisdiction of Rome. The Romans knew that at the height of Greek power architecture, art, theater and philosophy as well as war, politics, and money were valued greatly. They saw the Greek civilization not as defeated or crumpled, but as a narrative of the not so distant past and the potential greatness that they too could achieve.
The Romans respected the Greeks… and that is important to remember.
By the 2nd century CE, the market for Roman copies of Greek sculpture and art was enormous. Casts were made in workshops to “mass produce” pieces of particular interest. Roman artists would morph the two cultures by taking Roman heroes and marrying them with the distinguishable Greek style of athletic sculpture. In the end, wealthy Romans displayed their copies prominently in their homes and decorated their villas, using Greek sculptures as functional and integrated design features of their homes.
Again, the Romans absolutely loved it. The copies insinuated education, class, and privilege, and the Romans capitalized on this prestige.
Of course, this wave of philhellenism is very much in line with the Roman style of expansion. As their grip on the Mediterranean oppressively tightened, as far as art, language, and religion were concerned, conquered territories were allowed to continue practicing whatever it was they wanted… as long as they paid taxes, sent men for war, and made sacrifices to the Roman gods. This was how the Romans maintained control on such a massive scale.
When the Romans spread east over Greece, they recognized and remembered the importance and power of the Greek civilization. Whereas the rest of the empire was expected to learn and speak Latin as a mark of education, the Roman empire allowed Greek to remain the language of distinction in Hellas. The result was: if you were an educated and sophisticated Roman, you knew Greek too.
So, knowing how impressive and respected the Greek civilization was, the fact that the Romans fell absolutely head over heels in love with their art is no surprise. The Roman government effectively used Greek art as political propaganda. They constructed buildings specifically to display imported art and held the Greek spoils a head above the rest. While Rome became a conglomeration of artistic spoils of lands plundered throughout their region, there was just something about Greece that made her stand out. And Rome welcomed it with open arms.