The Early Development of Rome

Author: Christopher Dawson


By Christopher Dawson

I. The Latin City

The 5th and 4th centuries B.C., the period between the expulsion of the Etruscans and the wars which marked the entry of Rome into world politics, are the great formative period of Roman history. It is the age that forged the political and military organization that was to prove the strongest thing in the ancient world, that was to break Carthage and the East and to realize at last the Hellenistic ideal of a world kingdom. Yet no ideal could have been less sympathetic to the mind of the early Latins. They were pre-eminently a peasant people with all the narrow regionalism of the peasant outlook. All their energies were concentrated on the two essential problems of their land, its tillage and its defence. They had no thought to spare, like their Hellenic contemporaries, for the understanding and interpretation of the world around them, but they grew deep- rooted and persistent as their own oaks, from which they took their expressive name, for that quality that they valued most-- Robur. Hence their history is hard to write, for they have left no material evidence of their culture, like the Etruscans, nor written records like their Hellenised descendants, who polished and rationalized and moralized the Roman historical tradition till it was transformed into literature. Only with the entry of Rome into the international society of the Hellenistic world does she emerge from the twilight of legend, only then too does she acquire that covering of Hellenistic culture without which posterity can never see her, and of which all Latin literature forms a part.

Indeed the Latin city is something of a misnomer. There was an Etruscan city and there was an Hellenistic city, but never a Latin one. The temple and the private house, the forum and the basilica, the city wall and the aqueduct all came to the Latins from outside, either directly from the Greeks or through the Etruscans. Yet there was a Latin society and a Latin state, as original and far stronger than anything Etruscan and Greek, and the Latin spirit that created these was powerful enough to manifest itself also at a later period through the borrowed forms of Hellenistic civilization. Nor should the incomparably greater spiritual achievement of the Hellenes blind us to the fact that the Latins were the greatest free people of the ancient world. The Greek cities, and especially Athens, however extensive was their power, were never anything more than free communes. Sparta remained a narrow tribal aristocracy, and Macedonia, though a nation, was not free. It was the essential achievement of Rome that she learnt how to combine the intensive culture of the city state, as created by Hellenic genius, with the solid foundations of a free peasant state. At a later period, it is true, the selfish particularism of the Greek city-state tradition reasserted itself at Rome with disastrous results, but during the first centuries of the republic she was indeed a Latin city, a partner in a larger semi- national unity, which she eventually organized and extended until it came to embrace the whole of peninsular Italy.

II. The Culture of The latin City

Yet the creativeness of the Roman people in that age [from 330 B.C. onwards] both in politics and war was strangely anonymous. With the exception of Appius Claudius Cæcus, we have no impression of the personality of the men who led the Roman state to greatness, and the appearance in Roman history of Pyrrhus, with his strongly marked and romantic character, only serves to make us realize more strongly how shadowy and illusive is our knowledge of early Roman history. Only as Roman society gradually becomes penetrated by Hellenic influence, or is reflected for us from the minds of men of Hellenic culture, like Polybius, does it become really visible and intelligible. And just in the measure that it becomes visible, it becomes changed, so that by the time that the individual Roman has become a living personality, he is, like Scipio Emilianus and the Gracchi, more than half a Hellenistic Greek. Even at the period with which we have been dealing, the current of Hellenistic influence was beginning to grow strong. In 273 Rome entered into relations with the Court of Alexandria....

Earlier, the rise of the Latin league and the expulsion of Etruscan power from the greater part of Latium corresponds with a new wave of Hellenic influence--a movement which has left far less artistic and monumental evidence than the earlier contact of the Hellenic world with Etruria, but which is important as the first step in the direct cultural intercourse between Latins and Greeks which was eventually to create a new civilization....

A most important part in the development of a Roman culture at this period was undoubtedly played by Appius Claudius Cæcus, the Censor, a member of the most enlightened and original of the patrician gentes. To his initiative was due the building of the first aqueduct, the Aqua Appia, and the first military road, the Via Appia leading from Rome to Campania, and thus he may, in a sense, be looked upon as the father of that great engineering tradition which is one of the most characteristic and imperishable works of the Roman genius.

He may also claim to be regarded as the founder of Latin literature, both in prose and verse, for he was the author off a series of proverbs in Saturnian verse, and his famous speech against Pyrrhus in the senate was said to have been preserved in writing--the earliest monument of Roman oratory. He was the earliest example of that patrician Roman culture, which has such famous representatives a century and a half later in the Scipionic circle, and which shows the enduring presence of a receptive and intellectually active element amidst the stern militarism and peasant simplicity of the early Roman state. Fabius Pictor at once a painter and a historian, is another example from this period, and the fact that he wrote in Greek shows how close was the connection between Hellenism and literary culture at Rome from the very beginning, and how great was the danger that Greek would become established as the literary language of italy. Everywhere else in the Mediterranean the native languages were giving way before the one language of cosmopolitan culture. Famous languages of ancient peoples, like Egyptian and Aramaic, were sinking into the position of vulgar patois. Yet it was the destiny of an Italic dialect spoken by a peasant people without culture or traditions to become a world speech, side by side with Greek, and one of the formative elements in European civilization. And the foundations of this development were laid in the period of which we have written. Each advance in the Roman power was an advance of the Latin speech, and amidst the confusion of tongues--Etruscan, Greek, Sabellian, Ligurian, Illyrian, Gallic--that reigned in ancient Italy, the Latin citizen colonies introduced centers of uniform Latin speech from one end of the land to the other.

From (London), October 1923.

This article was taken from "The Dawson Newsletter," Spring 1994, P.O. Box 332, Fayetteville, AR 72702, $8.00 per year.