Edith Hamilton. The Roman Way. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1932, 1960.
Edith Hamilton wrote about the Greeks, the Romans, the Hebrew Bible,
and Christianity during her retirement. I recently read her first book,
The Greek Way, and I promised in my write-up about that book that I would write about another book that she wrote, The Roman Way. Here is my write-up of that!
Edith Hamilton covers a number of significant figures in ancient
Roman history: Plautus, Terence, Cicero, Julius Caesar, Catullus,
Horace, Virgil, Livy, Seneca, and Juvenal. She contrasts the Romans
with the Greeks. The Greeks, according to her depiction, were
fun-loving, philosophical and curious about the world, hateful of death,
and loving of beauty. The Romans, by contrast, enjoyed bloody sports,
glorified death, were not particularly philosophical or curious (unless
philosophy served to bolster a particular worldview), and were highly
practical. Whereas the Greeks were not explicitly moralistic in their
works, preferring to show rather than tell (as one anti-war Greek simply
presented the horrors of war, without saying it was wrong), the Roman
writers were didactic and preachy. You would think that Hamilton
regards the Greeks as fun and interesting, whereas the Romans were dry,
but that is not entirely true. Not only does Hamilton respect the
Romans’ practicality (which contributed to the development of Roman
law), but she also argues that they were more romantic than the Greeks.
Hamilton honestly interacts with the works of the figures whom she
discusses. In discussing Juvenal, she acknowledges that he has a valid
point in criticizing the rampant immorality in Rome, but she also
contends that his misogyny clouds his judgment. I particularly enjoyed
Hamilton’s discussion of Stoicism. According to Hamilton, the Stoics
believed that God dwelt in every person and that all men were equal.
They were critical of the bloody games and of slavery. They also
focused on this life rather than an afterlife, and they encouraged
people to cope with whatever lot befell them. I was initially skeptical
of Hamilton’s depiction of the Stoics as democratic (if that is the
right word), for I have read about some of the authoritarian (even
brutal) acts of Marcus Aurelius, a Stoic. Whatever his flaws were,
however, some have depicted him as rather progressive, and some have
puzzled over his tolerance of slavery, notwithstanding his Stoic beliefs
(see here and here). Maybe Hamilton is simplistic in her characterization of Stoicism, but it may still have truth in it.