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Graeculus – “little Greek”

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

The ancient Romans had a strange approach to the Greeks. On the one hand, they considered them worse, but on the other hand, due to their culture, they placed them on a higher pedestal, next to the Persians, and lower than the northern peoples: Gauls or Germans.

The Romans used the term Graeculus ironically – which literally meant the phrase “little Greek”. In this way, the “sons of the she-wolf” tried to ridicule and indirectly offend the proud of their own history and culture of Greeks, who called themselves Hellenes. The Romans called them, somewhat scornfully, Greeks, and sometimes even just “little Greeks”. Question from where such a negative approach to culturally rich Greece?

One of the differences was the approach to life. When Rome began to have more frequent relations with the Greek colonies in the south of Italy, many conservative Roman senators were totally opposed to modeling themselves on the Greeks and taking over the Hellenic traditions on the Roman ground. The Romans believed that the Greeks speak a lot and are very crafty when it comes to their own good. Such behavior was in total opposition to the Roman gravitas, meaning a value stronger than contemporary dignity, which assumed seriousness and durability. The Greek attitude to life was too epicurean. The Romans focused on peace, self-control and pragmatism. As you can see, the main reason for the reluctance was the difference in the hierarchy of values. One of the most famous Roman politicians opposed to Greek culture was Cato the Elder.

Naturally, the other side also had a not very positive opinion about the Romans. The Greeks considered the behavior of the Romans strange and, for example, the Greek historian Polybius did not understand the ubiquitous religion and ceremonial in the social and political life of the state. Translating into today’s language, one could say that the Greeks regarded the Romans as “cripples”.

Relations between Greeks and Romans clearly deteriorated at the beginning of the third century, when the residents of Tarentum (Greek colony) fell into conflict with Rome. Greek colonies were concerned about the expansionist-oriented Roman Republic. Fearing for their sovereignty, they sought a strong ally who would defend them. The Tarentum, fearing the expansion of Rome, called for the help of the king of the Pyrrir – Epirus. However, Pyrrus did not defeat Rome and in 270 BCE Tarentum had to give up. The city signed a covenant with Rome, but the Romans have always remembered the conflict with Pyrrus, who plundered their lands, at the request of the Greeks.

Later, the Romans in 168 BCE, after defeating the Greeks at Pydna, took revenge and, according to Plutarch, sold 150,000 Greek citizens. The majority of them were educated domestic service in patrician homes, and the term Graeculus entered permanently into the Roman dictionary. It was to emphasize the dominance of the Romans who conquered Greece.

However, as stated by the eminent Roman poet, Horace:

Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit,  
Intulit agresti Latio… (Epist. II 1, 155-156),  

so

“Greece, the captive, made her savage victor captive,
and brought the arts into rustic Latium”.

Sources
  • Historia Powszechna t. 4. Konsolidacja hellenizmu. Początki Rzymu i przemiany świata klasycznego, kons. prof. dr hab. E. Papuci-Władyka, prof. dr hab. J. Ostrowski
  • Kumaniecki Kazimierz, Historia kultury starożytnej Grecji i Rzymu, Warszawa 1965

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