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Expansion and Hellenization of city of Rome

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Macedonian Perseus surrenders to Paulus
Jean-François Pierre Peyron, Macedonian Perseus surrenders to Paulus

The city of Rome, despite great military successes in the republican times, could not be compared to the powerful and beautiful metropolises of the Mediterranean world, such as Alexandria. To this end, in the 2nd century BCE Intensive construction and modernization works began in the Eternal City. The conquered Greek world had a great influence on these transformations.

Taking advantage of the enormous wealth that Rome “gained” during numerous wars in the third and second centuries BCE, new construction projects were initiated. In 184 BCE thanks to Cato the Elder the first basilica in Rome was built – Basilica Porcia, where merchants operated, court hearings and political assemblies were held. In 178 BCE censors Marcus Aemilius Lepidus and Marcus Fulvius Nobilor built Basilica Aemilia; eight years later, on the initiative of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus in the southern part of Forum Romanum Basilica Sempronia was created.

The aforementioned Forum Romanum gradually became the real center of the city’s social and political life. This place consisted of a square square (comitium) and a curia (curia) in the northern part.

At the beginning of the 3rd century BCE In Rome, houses made of wooden tiles (shingles) or straw are no longer being built. In the city, pavement begins to be used, and in the construction of public buildings, limestone was used instead of tufa, the so-called travertine. Marble is also starting to appear.


The private villas of wealthy aristocrats are also transforming. Following the Greek example, apart from the sleeping room (tablinum), the houses feature peristyles (peristilium) surrounded by colonnades, which become the focal points of family life. There are numerous apartments around the peristyle. The existing atrium with refreshing water, in turn, is a place where guests are received.

There is also a library or a great hall in the villa, which clearly proves how much the Greeks had an influence on Roman civilization. The Romans, becoming owners of valuable works of art from Greece or the East, want to prove that their sanctuaries are really worthy and properly prepared to receive looted statues and figures. According to ancient sources, there were really a lot of them to the Eternal City. For example, Marcus Fulwius Nobilior, after completing the Aetolian expedition, brought with him about 280 bronze figures and 230 marble statues. Emilius Paulus in turn, after defeating Macedonia, delivered 250 carts filled with paintings and statues to Rome.

Noble villas also change in terms of decoration. The walls begin to be decorated with frescoes, marble, beautiful and decorative stucco or Attali carpets; ceilings are covered with gold or ivory panels; on the floor, lime mortar and clay crusts have been abandoned in favour of marble and porphyry cubes.

Suburban villas, which were once built mainly for agricultural purposes, are also changing. As nobilitas get richer, they become extremely luxurious, surrounded by lush gardens and exercise areas. The Roman begins to pay attention to his body and mind instead of the “clunky” and monotonous hard work in the field.

Furniture is also transformed: the oak is becoming passé; in its place, sophisticated wood is used, mainly imported from the east. There are beautiful sofas in the banquet halls, where the wealthy feast abundantly. Romans are no longer relying on a two-course main meal (price) in the evening; massively employed Greek chefs prepare numerous meals for their masters, which are full of exotic delicacies. Cato the Elder, the great opponent of the Hellenization of Rome, laments in his writings that a good cook is more expensive than a healthy horse and that a ton of imported fish is worth more than a piece of land “in the good old days”.

Feasts are held (in the Greek example) in triclinium lying down on sofas. Three people are sitting on sofas located around the table. Among them, a person is appointed who decides how much and when to drink. Following the Greek example, the Romans also began to pay attention to being clean-shaven and paying attention to their appearance. In the early days of the Roman republic, the Romans preferred stubble.

Reconstruction of triclinium.

Interestingly, the influence of the Greek world does not remain unchanged on the emancipation of Roman women. A Roman woman, who has a much better position than a Greek one, gains new rights with the increasing influence of Greek culture. The Hellenization of Rome’s social life caused (surprisingly) that a woman in Rome did not always fall under the authority of her husband and could demand a divorce. Divorce in the early days of Roman statehood was not allowed. With time, however, a law appeared that allowed divorce only on the initiative of a man. Apparently, the first divorce in the history of Rome and the world (divorce is an invention of the Romans) was initiated by a certain Carvilius Ruga, who was disappointed with the infertility of his wife. Despite this amendment, divorces were rare. However, with the emancipation of women, the number of divorces increased – especially in the 2nd century BCE, when the right to petition was just extended to women.

Ancient Rome, which conquered the Hellenic world, de facto itself became a victim of its culture and fashion. For centuries, Greek was considered an honourable language and enjoyed only by educated people. The Greek language was used in official diplomatic journals and was used in the creation of literary works, incl. Scipio Nazyka, the son-in-law of Scipio the Elder described his war expedition in Greek; his son, in turn, wrote a historical work. Scipio the Elder himself was so fluent in Greek that he wrote to the Macedonian king Philip V without any problems and described the expedition in Spain and Africa in his letter. The father of the famous Gracchus – Tiberius Gracchus, delivered a speech in Greek to the inhabitants of Rhodes.

Roman high society began to recognize the cultural richness of the Greeks. Fashionable Greek, philosophy and works from the Peloponnesian Peninsula began to tempt. Fathers sent their sons for lessons to prominent Greeks (who immigrated to Italy in large numbers, usually as a result of captivity) and for scholarships to Athens. The victorious Roman commander himself from Pydna – Lucius Aemilius Paulus – asked the Athenians to give him a philosopher who would educate his sons.

Hellenism, carrying a higher culture, reached mainly the young generation of Romans, who had the opportunity to see the cultural richness of Greece during their military expeditions in the East. The Romans started wearing Greek clothes and shoes. Gradually, people began to pay more attention to themselves. Individualism began to spread in the higher spheres. Historical works began to glorify individual leaders rather than to describe “Roman victories”. Marcus Fulwius Nobilior, for example, like the Eastern rulers, took the poet Ennius with him to describe his victories. Old Rome, where people went from farm to office and back, was passing away.

Attempts to stop Hellenization

The first enemy of Hellenization was the aforementioned Marcus Porcius Cato. During his censor’s office (184 BCE), he imposed high tariffs on imported luxury goods. In his work to his sone he wrote:

The Greeks are a quite worthless and unteachable race. When they bestow their literature on us, they will destroy our whole existence. They will do this all the sooner if they end us their doctors. They have conspired to murder all non-Greeks with their medicine. They make us pay for treatment, so we will have the more confidence in them and they can ruin us the more easily.

Pliny the Elder, Natural history, 29.14

In 161 BCE the Roman Senate passed a resolution that allowed praetor Pomponius to remove any Greek philosopher and rhetorician if his reason of state required it. In 186 BCE the senate banned Bacchanalia, a festival originating in Great Greece, which was dominated by frantic fun and orgiastic rituals performed in honour of Bacchus. The pretext was a concern for the morality of citizens and for public religion.

The efforts of the Roman authorities to contain the Hellenic influence ultimately ended in failure, and Rome took a permanent interest in the Greek world.

  • Historia Powszechna t. 4. Konsolidacja hellenizmu. Początki Rzymu i przemiany świata klasycznego, kons. prof. dr hab. E. Papuci-Władyka, prof. dr hab. J. Ostrowski
  • Jaczynowska Maria, Historia starożytnego Rzymu, Warszawa 1983
  • Kęciek Krzysztof, Krwawe bachanalia. Dlaczego w Rzymie zabito tysiące czcicieli Bachusa?, "Historia Focus", 18 sierpnia 2014
  • Kumaniecki Kazimierz, Historia kultury starożytnej Grecji i Rzymu, Warszawa 1965

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