Imperialism by any Name

Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit et artis
intulit agresti Latio.

Greece, captured, captured its savage conqueror
and brought its culture to uncultured Italy.

Horace Epistulae 2.1.156-157

This famous observation from 2,000 years ago by Rome’s greatest lyric poet addresses the entire problem of what some today call cultural imperialism.

The political and military species of the genus ‘imperialism’ is approaching extinction in the wake of wars of liberation spawned by Word War II, and the inevitable collapse of communism as a viable method for societies to conduct their business;  hence an international intelligentsia intensely hostile to all things American now attempts to rechannel its animus against our popular culture – which, of course, is a meretricious harlot done up in the sleazy if alluring drag of all such tantalizers.

How, I wonder, can the entire world be so entirely without capacity for purposeful choice, so endlessly a victim of American guile, so easily seduced by our country’s dark plottings in the culture wars?  Well, this is not really a new story at all.

The ancient Romans had a ‘tude about the Greeks that was nothing if not ambivalent.  On the one hand, we find the virtual abandonment of native literary forms in favor of adapting and accommodating Greek ones to the Latin climate.  The Romans were, furthermore, quite aware of how different the Greek language (which educated Romans knew better than educated Westerners used to know Latin) was from Latin, and although not all the literati went to the graecizing extremes of the outrageous Albucius whom Lucilius mocks (2.84-93), many (including Quintilian) had some fair sense of what they felt to be an enviable gap between the two.  Now were powerful Romans loath to loot Greek statuary to grace Italian gardens and villas, and not a few Greeks were enslaved to serve at all levels of Roman private and public life.

But this “good side” of the Greek invasion had a gloomier obverse in the Roman consciousness.  It is perhaps best summed up in the insensitive remark about Greek foreigners that Vergil – that most Greek of Latin writers – put in the mouth of the Trojan (proto-Roman) priest Laocoön.  The latter warned his countrymen about this wonderful gift (sic notus Ulixes? [44: Is that what Odysseus is know for?]) of the great horse that the wily arch-scoundrel had persuaded his compatriots to leave for the Trojans:  quidquid id est timeo Danaos et dona ferentes (Aeneid 2.49) “whatever it is, I fear the Greeks even when they bring gifts.”

Of course Laocoön’s urgings fell on ears eager to be deceived, and the rest is a phrase in the language.  Vergil’s multicultural musing were in no way original, for the earlier period (by almost two centuries) of Roman comedy had offered pleasurable scope for Latin playwrights to mock and insult Greek customs and practices.

My own sense is that while one can certainly find individual instances of close friendship and mutual admiration between Greeks and Romans, in general there was from the earliest times a kind of brittleness in the Roman mind about Greeks and matters Greek.  I can’t think of any Roman writer who comes straight out and admits feeling envy towards the Greeks and their achievements on so many fronts, but I do have the feeling that some of the rancor derives from a needless sense of inferiority.

And this brings me back to Horace’s astute encapsulation and an article I read in the Jan. 29 [1994] edition of The New York Times.  Its argument, briefly, is that American culture is somehow corrupting of foreign cultures, which are somehow tragic and helpless victims of American aggression.  Only in the Times, with its reflex pessimism!  I suppose the ineffable thrill of a state-run TV channel and an official newspaper is the answer – at least that would put the Times out of its inveterate misery.

Did the defeated Greeks hold a spear to the heads of the victorious Romans and force them into a wholesale grafting and even reseeding of Greekness on Italian soil?  I think not.  Presumably the Romans were taken in by it because they liked it better than what they had and saw ways to make it their own.

And what about the alleged imperialism of American culture?  True, all the people in the world who seem to have an insatiable appetite for Americana express their huffy disapprobation as self-styled guardians of ‘autochthonous purity’ on, I would guess, a PC or a Mac or an iPad or a rip-off thereof – and who pray tell held that Smith & Wesson 9VE 9 mm from Springfield MA to their heads?

Is it possible that they just simply like a lot of American institutions, ideas, artifacts, ways of doing things – even if many (and I am surely not without culpability) who live here too often whine about a putative shallowness of its culture?  Vergil may or may not have had a thing about Greeks, but he certainly had no problem plundering Homer for his own spin.  Maybe a lot of people all over the world think America has a really great thing or two going (as did Greece).

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One Response to Imperialism by any Name

  1. heather says:

    This goes in a different direction; your article reminded me of something I read recently in Empires of the World. The author writes that even though the Greek language and culture exerted tremendous influence over the Romans, and others in the vicinity, even in antiquity many felt that the Greeks were riding on their glory days, not really producing anything new. Is America in danger of doing and being the same?

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