Whom Do You Prefer? The Greeks or the Romans?

It is a bore to hear aficionados of Greek in translation denigrate Roman literature, particularly when the fans read neither language in the original.  I try to explain that the literature is brilliant in the original Latin.  “It’s a translation problem,” I say.  And so it is.

The comical thing about it is that most Romans would have agreed with the modern Hellenists.

The Romans revered Greek literature.  The focus of their education was Greek grammar, literature, and rhetoric.   Rome conquered Greece, but the Romans modeled their poetry and prose on Greek forms. Latin did not mature as a written language and literature until the first century B.C.

Did Romans care that the Greeks were deemed superior?  The historian Sallust (86-35 B.C.) was indignant about the inferior status of Roman res gestae (achievements).  He insisted that the accomplishments of the Athenians “were sufficiently great and illustrious, but somewhat less than tradition would have it.”

His theory of their different reputations is based on the difference between deeds and narrative.

Because of the genius of their writers, the deeds of the Athenians are celebrated throughout the world as the most splendid….

But among the Roman people there never was such an abundance of writers, because the most skilled among them were men of action; no one exercised the intellect separately from the body; and they preferred action to narration;  they wanted their own deeds to be praised rather than to praise the deeds of others.

Sallust is blunt in his views. His monographs chart the decline of Rome from an idealized legendary Golden Age.

I have a soft spot for Sallust.  He is far from the best writer, but I like his style– in Latin.  And Latin literature improved after his death.

The translation of Sallust above is my own.

2 thoughts on “Whom Do You Prefer? The Greeks or the Romans?

  1. ellenandjim – Ellen Moody holds a Ph.D in British Literature and taught in American senior colleges for more than 40 years. Since 2013 she has been teaching older retired people at two Oscher Institutes of Lifelong Learning, one attached to American University (Washington, DC) and other to George Mason University (in Fairfax, Va). She is also a literary scholar with specialties in 18th century literature, translation, early modern and women's studies, film, nineteenth and 20th century literature and of course Trollope. For Trollope she wrote a book on her experiences of reading Trollope on the Internet with others, some more academic style essays, two on film adaptations, the most recent on Trollope's depiction of settler colonialism: "On Inventing a New Country." Here is her website: http://www.jimandellen.org/ellen/ No part of this blog may be reproduced without express permission from the author/blog owner. Linking, on the other hand, is highly encouraged!

    I’m a lover of Mary Beard and want to recommend her four part- Ultimate Rome (on Amazon Prime called Rome without Limit with a ferocious picture on the cover image, but click on). Probably I have enjoyed masterpieces from both Greek and Roman literature. I do love the Aeneid, at least the first six books but also the Greek plays and poetry and later romances. Horace — I’ve never got a good translation, but Izzy tells me he is very good. Ellen

    1. Kat – I am an avid reader. The book blog is the perfect forum for bookish musings. Enjoy!

      I love the Greeks, too, yet it’s a pity the Roman poets are neglected. There are so many new and newish translations of Virgil, but we could use a new Horace.

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