Friday, September 5, 2014

Book Write-Up: The Roman Way, by Edith Hamilton

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.

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