Art – Rome And The Romans

THE Italian peninsula, like the Hellenic, is so modelled, so subdivided by natural mountainous barriers that as in Greece there could be, under living conditions in primitive times, no national life in the sense in which we understand that term to-day; nor until late in the nineteenth century when science had conquered these physical barriers did Italy achieve national unity in the modem sense. Separated though they were, the peoples who called themselves Hellenes had a strong sense of racial unity. But the tribes which pursued their rude agriculture and grazed their flocks and herds under Italian skies felt no such bond. The apparent unity under Roman rule was a unity imposed by force upon innumerable tribal communities of alien types and origins welded together by the Roman fist.

Never was a land more fertile or more fair. Magnificent mountain ranges, lakes of incredible loveliness, plains for tillage or for pasture, hillsides for the culture of the olive, the grape, and the most luscious fruits of earth, dowered with a soft and kindly climate, bounded on every side save the north by the amethystine waters of warm inland seas—never has there been a land more loved, more coveted, more drenched with blood, more fertile of beauty. The Apennine chain, running diagonally across the peninsula, sweeps southward to form the precipitous easterly coast which combines with the marshy shores of the Emilia farther north to make the eastern littoral unfriendly and inhospitable. The greater part of Italy therefore faces the west and Mommsen has pointed out that since Greece faces east the two countries turn their backs upon each other, and he ac-counts in this way for the lack of direct relations between Rome and the cities of Greece for many centuries.

At a fordable place on the River Tiber marked by seven low hills the future city of Rome was founded by a band of landless, masterless men, half brigands, half herdsmen or shepherds. To the north and northwest of this place lay Etruria, the seat of a race of uncertain origin and from whom the rude denizens of the huddle of huts by the Tiber learned much of religion, of the art of building, and of the elements of civilized life, and whose civilization, akin in many ways to that of the Greek colonists in Magna Graecia, the Romans later utterly destroyed.

The genius of the race the Romans slowly hammered together was essentially practical, constructive, executive, military. Whereas, Hegel says, the Greeks and the peoples farther east embody the poetry of the human spirit, in the Romans we find its prose. If they had the genius of conquest they possessed also the gift of governing their conquests with a justice harsh and stern but salutary to the semi-barbarous folk they dealt with. In her early days and indeed almost throughout her history, in spite of instances of whole-sale deportations from the provinces beyond Italy, Rome, instead of wiping out conquered peoples and obliterating their places of abode, incorporated them with her body politic, gradually extending Roman citizenship until nearly all the peninsula participated in its rights and benefits. Wherever she went she brought order under the law, instituting public works of utility, water-supply and sewage systems, great roads paved with stone from curb to curb and patrolled, policed, and made safe for men to use.

We must not fail to note that both the Roman and the Greek worlds were, as were all ancient civilizations, stained with what we moderns regard as the crime of slavery. The social fabric of Greece could not have existed in the forms it assumed without it. The Roman cities swarmed with slaves from every corner of the civilized and uncivilized earth. Slave labor gave time and wealth for many things that could not be afforded under a system of paid labor. The conditions varied of course according to the people and the master. Slavery was no respecter of persons; it brought the highest and the lowest born, the savage and the sage, to one level of servitude to alien masters.

It has been the fashion to sneer at the Roman as a vulgarian from whom the things of beauty were sealed away. No doubt the Roman populace had no such appreciation of art as that ascribed to the Athenian. No doubt the Roman architect lacked that exquisite sense of form and the gift for the evocation of beautiful detail possessed by the Greek; but in constructive genius the Roman far surpassed him. Al-though the same sources were open to the Greek as those from which the Roman evolved his stupendous vaults, airy domes, and majestic arches, it never seems to have occurred to the Greek that here were new founts of beauty to be drawn upon—therefore I say that the constructive sense was keener in the Roman. The hypothesis that the Greeks deliberately ignored the arch, the vault, and the dome, in favor of what they deemed a higher beauty is unsound; they merely lacked a broad sense of the possibilities in building construction. The Roman developed the science of plan and found means to cover over vast spaces with imposing majesty; the germ of the whole science of planning as practised to-day may be found in the Baths of Caracalla. He invented and evolved new types of buildings to suit new conditions of public or of private use; he threw huge bridges which endure to this moment over roaring rivers, and brought the pure waters of the hills across great reaches of hill and campagna to refresh his cities and supply the baths and the fountains in the public places. The genius of Rome was for architecture, as the genius of Greece was supremely for sculpture, and as we shall find the genius of the Italians of the Renaissance to be eminently for painting.

From the reputed foundation of the city in 753 B. C., twenty-three years after the first Olympic festival, to the expulsion of the Etruscan Tarquins in 510, Rome was under the rule of kings. Of this period nothing of an artistic nature remains, but we hear of such public works as the Cloaca Maxima, the trunk sewer of Rome, and the city walls and certain temples vanished long ago. Rome became a republic when the last of the Tarquins was cast out; ensued a long period of gradual expansion and of conquest in her immediate neighborhood—a period, too, of civic and indeed of personal virtue, a surrender of self in the service of the state for the good of all, that would be remarkable at any time in the world’s history. During this long tale of years the annals of Rome are chronicles of laws worked out, of civic problems solved, of administrative systems evolved, of military science perfected, punctuated by the appearance of the Northern peoples in 388 B. C. when the Gauls under Brennus over-ran Italy and burned Rome itself, but mute as to public works of art until the Appian Way was built by Claudius Appius and later the Aqueduct known by his name. Sicily with all its heritage of Hellenic culture and tradition fell under her sway in the mid years of the third century before Christ and now began the wars with Carthage which led her beyond the Italian peninsula and to the ultimate domination of the world through the destruction of that old Phoenician stronghold, the extinction of Macedon, and the protectorate of Greece. During the earlier years of the Republic, while this or that head shows occasionally above the crowd, the individual was submerged in the Citizen of Rome; but toward its close, contributing of course to its fall but developing as a natural effect of conditions, personalities are emergent, like the Scipios and the Gracchi; Marius; Julius Caesar and Sulla and Pompey. As the civic virtue of the Roman Republic declined, the Republic decayed with it as an inevitable sequel. The Mediterranean world was in a state of chaos. Without political stability and a state of peace the arts cannot develop. The time was ripe for the strong hands of the Caesars to take the reins and bring order to the world, uniformity of law and of custom.

During all the Alexandrian period the patricians of Rome looked to Greece and particularly to that Athens which was still revered as the authentic fount of culture. They engaged Greek tutors for their sons, if they had not already learned Greek slaves in their households, or sent their youth to Athens or to Alexandria to be instructed. Thus, and by the close contact with the Hellenic civilizations of Magna Graecia and Sicily as well as by wholesale deportations of Hellenes to Rome, Roman society came to be permeated by Greek culture, ameliorating the mental life of the better classes, and preparing the way for the magnificence of the Empire and the consequent employment of great numbers of Greek artists and artisans upon the vast artistic enterprises decreed by the Caesars.

Mahaffy thinks there was an amiable weakness in the policy of Rome toward Greece which arose from the desire to appear cultivated and from the anxiety to rank as descendants of AEneas and colonists from Ilium. This was apparently not incompatible with a rapacity that carried off the gathered artistic treasures of centuries from conquered cities leaving them stripped to the’ bare stones, . nor with the policy which, during the decadent years of the Republic, deprived whole countries of their best blood and brains by the series of wholesale deportations referred to. Nor, such are the contradictions as between personal and national morality, did it affect the fact that the probity of the Roman was far greater than that of the Greek. Hear Polybius, the Greek historian, on this point : “Public men among the Greeks, if they be trusted with but one talent, though you take ten copies of the deed and affix two seals and have twenty witnesses, cannot keep their trust, whereas among the Romans, though handling great sums in their offices and embassies, men hold to their duty under the simple bond of an oath. Elsewhere it is hard to find a man keeping his hands off public money, and pure in this respect ; at Rome it is hard to find a man guilty of such conduct.” Polybius comments also upon the corruption of the Roman patrician society by the license of the Greeks, themselves perverted by contact with the decadent morals of Asia.

It is credible that after the Romans came into close con-tact with Grecian culture, after the problems of consolidating and governing their fast-growing empire had been solved, and particularly after the flood of works of art from all parts of the world had set in, they began to appreciate, at least as intelligently as the average patron of art, the high office of art in the world. I believe it to be most probable, because it is always the way in periods of transition, that the Roman architect designed and planned his structures in their general features and employed the Greek artist or artisan in their embellishment. But after long residence in Italy, after the intermarriages and social adjustments of successive generations, the Greek artist must have been completely absorbed. One thing is certain—the grand traits of Roman work are Roman; it is only in minor details that we encounter the refinements we may ascribe to a Greek hand. I am referring of course to architecture. Painting is the most perishable of the arts and of Roman painting we have few traces and those are of a purely decorative sort. What sculpture there was of an original nature was probably done by resident Greeks; there was a thriving trade in reproductions of famous Greek sculptures, and at a certain period a curious reversion to the archaic type, quite like a similar affectation of the present moment in America; this work is known as archaistic; the whole movement, including the reproduction of antique sculpture is analagous to that rage for antiques which seizes every parvenu and non-creative society.

The several steps by which Julius Caesar rose to prominence, conquered new provinces for Rome, was made Dictator for life and was assassinated by Brutus and Cassius and a band of envious conspirators need not detain us here, nor those by which Octavius Caesar, his nephew, became master of the world and the first Roman Emperor. It is said of this Augustus that he found Rome brick and left her in marble; but the authors of the many vast structures of the Roman Empire are unknown—a significant indication of the probable status of the artist. The list of Roman remains represents not a thousandth part of what was done in the years between the assumption of the purple by Augustus and the removal of the capital of the Empire to Byzantium by Constantine in 330 A. D. There were arches, bridges, aqueducts, vast harbors surrounded by quays and ware-houses of stone, immense public baths, basilicas (law courts which are the prototype of the Christian church), amphitheatres, circuses, theatres, villas, fora, everywhere. A forum was a public square of meeting place for debate on public questions, for voting, and for lounging and loafing; several of the Emperors, Trajan and Vespasian among them, built fora to curry and keep the favor of the populace. There was a forum where cattle was sold. These are not to be confused with the Forum Romanum, the great Forum of Rome, which grew naturally and not as the result of Imperial fiat and which, surrounded by large structures set on inadequate sites at all sorts of angles and crowded with statues, rostral columns and trophies, altars, rostra, and polling places, must have presented an appearance quite at variance with those ideas of classical symmetry which are, with other myths, part of our legacy from that fount of inaccurate impressions, the Victorian era.

Every provincial city strove to be a Rome in miniature. Every Roman official sought to create about him the atmosphere and the material comforts of the metropolis. The Roman organization, the Roman governmental system, resulted in the distribution throughout the world of the Roman type of law, of daily custom, and of the arts of design. On the eve of the fall of the Roman Empire and the Dark Ages that supervened, the work of Roman hands throughout the world was like a cache of precious things buried against impending calamity, to be exhumed in better days ; and it was to this that the later builders were to turn for the inspiration that led them on to the marvels of the Gothic and the splendors of the Renaissance.