June 15, 2021
“Re: Rome Wasn’t Murdered in a Day” By Joseph Epstein
As usual I found a Commentary piece by Joseph Epstein to be stimulating and very interesting.
When he quoted Mary Beard to say “I no longer think, as I once naively did, that have much to learn directly from the Roman or for that matter from the ancient Greeks…” my first response is only a contemporary Englishwoman could have written that. I cannot imagine Edith Hamilton, Gilbert Highet, Moses Hades, or Thomas Cahill would have said anything remotely like it.
Epstein certainly recognizes that much of the greatness of the Roman world (or I would say Greco-Roman world) was their very great literature of prose and poetry rich in imagination and subtle in expression in almost every conceivable genre.
But literature and art were not the supreme gifts of the Romans.
Among these were:
- The Romans preserved the best of Greek civilization and literature (virtually every Greek book we have is derived from a Roman copy)
- The Romans were great organizers and administrators, builders of public buildings, ports, aqueducts and roads unequaled until the mid-19th century. The Pax Romana is an incredible achievement.
- Much of our thinking about the rights and duties of citizens derives directly from Greco-Roman thought and law. We think of Rome as an Empire but for centuries the Romans preferred a free republican government over a monarchy.
Epstein says “I am glad not to have been a Roman” but one of the remarkable things about Roman society is that he COULD HAVE BECOME a ROMAN with all the rights of a Roman citizen just like the Jews Josephus or St. Paul and countless Illyrians, Gauls, Spaniards, Germans, Africans, Syrians, Egyptians and Britons.
However, as a Christian and a Gael I am deeply aware the greatest of the gifts of the Romans was their translation of the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into Latin and hence their inestimable gift of ethical monotheism. Rome to me is Cicero, Vergil, Horace, Pliny, Seneca, Epictetus and Aurelius but also St. Patrick, St. Augustine, St. Gregory and is inseparable from the 12 Apostles of Ireland (including St. Columba of Iona).
The Greeks studied no literature but their own but the Romans were great interpreters, international merchants, missionaries and translators. The Odyssey was translated into Latin and the Aeneid was translated into Gaelic.
The Romans began a tradition of bilingualism and multilingualism where monks, priests and scholars understood not only Old German or Anglo-Saxon or Old Irish but Latin also (and sometimes Greek). St. Patrick, a Roman, was probably fluent in three languages (Old Welsh, Old Irish and Latin). His tremendous success at spreading Christianity as well as literacy among the Gaels was a great feat of education and organization that only a cosmopolitan Christian Roman could have achieved.
We remember Patrick as one of the great educators of history and a towering figure in the history of human rights as his was one of the first unequivocal denunciations of slavery (in his Letter to Coroticus).
We remember Rome, not for her darker side of violence, ruthlessness and cruelty but for her gentle scholars and saints who taught a love of art and learning with a gospel of love and universal brotherhood.
Richard K. Munro