Prima urbes inter, divum domus, aurea Roma
(Golden Rome, first among cities, home of the gods)
Ausonius, fourth century AD.

By the time Ausonius wrote, Rome had already become more a transcendant idea than merely the onetime capital of the Mediterranean world. It had not always been that way, however. Rome, oddly, has two foundation myths, stories which reflected different sides of her character. There is the Rome founded by Romulus and Remus, marked on the very day of her foundation, 21 April 753 BC, by Romulus’ killing of his brother in a quarrel over the new city.

For later Romans, beset so often by civil war which half-wrecked the state, there was a special resonance in this fratricidal myth. But at the same time, there was the Rome founded after the harrowing travails of the great Trojan hero Aeneas, a myth best known from Vergil’s quite late version in the Aeneid. This Rome is of more interest to us here, because it is the Rome which her citizens desired above all to connect to Greece and the great heroic world embodied in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

Rome was probably fated to grow great, thanks to her congenial situation on easily defensible hills and at a crucial ford of the Tiber River, making Rome master of two vital trade routes in Italy. One of those trade routes, however, could not but daily remind her of her position between two more developed cultures: the Hellenizing Etruscan peoples north of the city and the Greek colonies clustered in southern Italy and Sicily—there were so many of them, in fact, that this region has been known ever since as Magna Graecia, “great Greece”.

The Romans thus came into close contact with Greek culture as early as the sixth century BC, and were, to varying degrees, under the latter’s thrall ever after. In the beginning, Rome’s appetite for Greek culture was seemingly satisfied by the importation of Greek myths to vary her own fairly backward, rustic religious cosmos, and by the importation of Greek luxury goods. The Romans acquired the Greek alphabet in modified form from the Etruscans, but there is little evidence of a widespread interest in, or importation of, Greek ideas or literature.

It was not until the Romans entered into their long, successful career of conquest (c. 340-146 BC), partly pushed by events, and partly motivated by greed for war spoils, that Roman aristocrats came into immediate, prolonged contact with Greek culture in the Greek world. The result was fundamental and transformative; suddenly seeing their own culture as backwards, ambitious nobles made instant use of the highly developed Greek material culture in their internal competition while importing Greek literature and learning Greek themselves (the wars brought many educated Greek slaves to Rome as potential teachers).

This impulse literally served as the midwife to the birth of a true Latin literature at Rome at the time of the First Punic War, about 250 BC: the first literary work was an adapted translation of Homer’s Odyssey by a Greek captive named Livius Andronicus. Once this genie was out of the bottle, there was no putting it back, despite continual opposition from strict conservatives who objected to concomitant cultural baggage like Greek homosexuality, Greek “licentiousness”, and that pesky but effective Greek rhetoric, which they were not alone in viewing as enabling a morally weaker argument to appear the more persuasive one: Greek philosophers and rhetoricians were spasmodically expelled from the city down through the late period of the Roman Republic (which lasted in all from 509-30 BC). In the end, the famous poet Horace could characterize the relationship as “captive Greece captivating her fierce captor”.

The history of Latin literature is one of emulation, as the Romans made themselves masters of one after another of the great Greek genres while priding themselves as being the originators of just one: satire. The great Juvenal asks himself if he is destined forever to be a listener, complaining of the multitude of public recitations to which he was daily subjected. Juvenal, of course, meant bad recitations; but his point is well taken: before the romantic conception of the artist-as-hero, talent tended to be underappreciated and follow the money patrons could bestow, and that meant a raft of talented Greeks washed up onto Roman shores, not just as slaves, as in the great age of Roman imperial expansion, but as hopeful philosopher-lettré parasites (the term was not pejorative in antiquity, meaning only “one who eats alongside”). The Greek rhetorician-cum-satirist Lucian paints a dismal picture of the lonely and unappreciated Greek philosopher forced to amuse an obtuse, ungrateful Roman patron, a situation immortalized by Fellini in his Satyricon.

It is natural that there should have been tensions between Greeks and Romans when they came into close contact, because their cultural values were at root so different, even though there were broad areas of agreement. In the end, however, the Greeks were the utter victors, just as Horace foresaw. As early as the 50s BC the great epicist Lucretius was mediating Epicureanism, with its rationalist rejection of religiously-inspired terrors to a Roman audience; Horace set himself the task of paralleling the Greek achievement in the realm of lyric poetry; Vergil’s Aeneid competes on every level—while differing by being thoroughly Roman—with its Homeric predecessors; and historians such as Sallust and Tacitus took up the mantle of the incomparable Thucydides. By the latter half of the second century AD Roman Emperors consciously emulated the bearded countenances of the stereotypical Greek philosopher, and one of them, Marcus Aurelius, was talented enough to have written a philosophically-respectable stoic treatise called the Meditations.

Indeed, despite all of the tensions; despite all of the expulsions of philosophers and rhetoricians, it was Rome, and the Roman-mediated Latin of philosophical discourse which gave form to the Christian thought of the West (Augustine, for example, knew no Greek and used a Ciceronian vocabulary to express his ideas), and, with the Bible of Jerome, formed the basis of religious thought until the rediscovery of Greek in the aftermath of the sack of Constantinople and then the fall of the Byzantine Empire in the 13th and 15th centuries, respectively. Aristotle, Plato, all of the great Greek intellects survived in the West because of the Literary Latin translations that had been made before the fall of the Empire. Rome may thus—despite many other claims that may be made for her greatness—be fairly viewed as the first beneficiary, and unwitting vehicle of transmission of the world-shaking ideas of the Greeks as she became, even in the process of her destruction in late antiquity, the womb from which the modern world was born.