Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Roman Way

The Roman Way
© 1932 Edith Hamilton
281 pages


                                        Slave: He saw the girl.
                                        Master: Oh, hell! How could he?!
                                        Slave: ...with his eyes.
                                        Master: But how, you fool?
                                        Slave: By openin' 'em! ("Merchant", Plautus)

The Roman Way follows up on the success of Edith Hamilton's The Greek Way, and models itself after that first work of Hamilton's, in which she used Greece literature to evaluate it. In Roman Way, she draws on the comedic plays of Terence and Plautus, the histories of Caesar, the letters of Cicero, and the poetry of Catullus and Horace among other authors.  The book's greatest virtue is that Hamilton's choice to reproduce pages from plays and longer passages from letters allows students of Roman history to connect with that history more directly -- to test the waters of literature from another time while protected from confusion by the presence of the author's commentary. Hamilton's writing is strong and flourished, conveying a clear affection for the subject: she reads plays originally written in Latin for pleasure.

When generalizing, Hamilton is golden for the lay reader, though the more focused analyses of poetry and literature are likely to find their best audiences in serious students of literature and Roman history. Being a somewhat serious student myself, I found a lot of value here. I enjoyed reading Roman plays and realizing that for all the centuries that have passed, it's still possible to get a laugh out of them. I found Cicero's  humility (!) in his letters especially endearing:  sensitive about his constant bragging and the disconnect between his political values and the political choices he made, he frets to his brother:  "What will history be saying of me six hundred years hence?"  I also enjoyed the chapters on Roman romanticism and aesthetic values. Broader narratives forget to see the Romans as people at times, and Roman Way makes good on that. Times pass and values change, and the literature reflects it.

Good follow-up to Caesar and Christ;  Romanophiles and those interested in literary history should find it engaging.

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