February 2019

Love in History: The Expression of Love in Ancient Classical Rome

     One of the most interesting ways to understand how love in the past was perceived is to take a look at trendy movements and translate them into modern ones. The best example of such a trend was the development of the theme of friendship and love in Roman literature and theatre. A popular activity for educators would be to look at the poetry of Classical men and compare it to today's catchy ad jingles, for instance, or even the romantic lyrics of rap stars. With respect to the Classical artists, however, studies on the expression of love in ancient history prove that past leaders have had a tremendous impact on the form of its representation and delivery of message. This is especially true of the literary trends that existed in Classical Rome; in fact, themes of love and friendship mirrored the everchanging status of state politics and art patronage throughout those centuries. Interestingly, some of the most persuasive advocates for love and goodwill toward fellow mankind were actually very influential and learned humanists who continuously and unflinchingly strove to achieve the near impossible ideal of universal peace.

     The statesmanship of the Roman humanist, Marcus Tullius Cicero, 106 BC – 43 BC, is a perfect example of a writer who promoted intense and compassionate ideas on friendship and love in the Golden Latin Age of literature. Cicero lived in a tense period, where greed and deception apparently ruled private and political relationships, as stressed throughout the Catilinarian conspiracy trials, for instance. It is no wonder that, for Cicero, such conspiracies led to a deep cynicism of any actual existence of love and friendship. Where the most dynamic alliances had previously been based on a blind drive for wealth and political power, Cicero instead strove to praise and accentuate the sincerest aspects of friendship in the private sector.

     Furthermore, Cicero was the first humanist to reject the concept of militant power by passing laws against violent pagan rites initiated by immigrants and refugees, for example. Cicero believed in the defense of the innocent and vehemently rejected Sulla’s severest reforms. His first legal case directly opposed Sulla, who had seized the land of Marcellus, an innocent Roman who lawfully inherited his own father’s estate. In context of the Triumvirate, (43-33 BC) however, Cicero’s work on the Catiline trials happened to spark Caesar’s opposition on the grounds that Catiline had not been proven guilty of terrorist related charges beyond a reasonable doubt. Even Cicero's letters against Marc Antony revealed a similar, obsessive struggle to end corruption and establish a global order of peace. Cicero's treatise, de Amicitia, was written after the sudden suspicious death of Scipio Africanus the Younger. In it, Cicero addressed Atticus in a eulogy which summarized the definition of true friendship.

     On the other hand, many people questioned the validity of Cicero's stance, for it was asserted in a period after Rome had amassed a great wealth through relentless war: it was a period after which Rome's political relationships with allies indicated dominance rather than equality and friendship throughout the Mediterranean, Africa, and Asia Minor. Nevertheless, Cicero thought war was needlessly cruel and staunchly denounced it in very public pleas to end war.

     As for the form of formal oratory, Cicero invented the five famous Canons of Rhetoric, which have been repeatedly used by public speakers ever since. These include inventio, a process of developing and refining arguments; dispositio, an arranging and organizing arguments for maximum impact; elocutio, a presentation of arguments using figures of speech and other rhetorical techniques; memoria, a memorizing of speech; actio, a skill of speech delivery using gesture, pronunciation, and expressive tone.

     Cicero also united the artistic Peripatetic, Sophistic, Stoic, and Cynic schools. These schools featured various perspectives of Aristotelianism, Pythagoreanism, metaphysical philosophy and science, excellence, virtue, formal logic, monistic physics, naturalistic ethics, self-control, fortitude, excellence, and rejection of wealth and fame. Consequently, Cicero's notions of artistic expression forever changed perspectives in creativity, as he thought that different art styles should be combined into one synchronous style. Many artists who had later discovered and studied Cicero's writings tried to follow his pattern; eclecticism in art became widespread in Renaissance Italy. One example of eclecticism was the unification of pagan with Christian values in Renaissance Neoplatonism, which asserted a humanist quest for peace. Zeno’s Hellenistic Stoicism was central to Cicero’s ideas because it balanced the gap between fatalistic determinism and free will.

     It is not surprising that Cicero rose to great power within the context of the Triumvirate dictatorship of Pompey, (106-48 BC) Julius Caesar (100-44 BC), and Crassus (115-53 BC). In fact, it was under that Triumvirate that the very direction of artistic expression underwent radical change with respect to human relationships. It also happened that one of Rome's first feminists, Julius Caesar, became a great patron of the arts, along with Pompey the Great.

     As Cicero began and led this revolutionary humanistic movement in literature, it followed that later writers of the Augustan Age also emphasized the importance of love in human relationships, while moving away from the militant spirit of earlier writers such as Homer, for example. In the epic poem, Aenid, Vergil, (70-19 BCE) personifies war and Rage as "grim with iron and close-fitting bars ... sitting on savage arms, his hands fast bound behind with a hundred brazen knots, shall roar in the ghastliness of blood-stained lips.” Clearly, Cicero's influence on Roman culture lingered long after his death.

     Other humanist advocates for love and peace were writers of the Silver Latin Age, an era which existed during the early Imperial Period up to the Trajan period (14-117 AD). Such a literary culture still focused on formal rhetoric and essays in Classical Latin and introduced new forms of satire and tragedy. Examples of such literature were the stoic works of Seneca the Younger that were based on the logical ideas of third century BC Greek philosophers like Socrates and Zeno. Having lived in Rome’s most violent context, Seneca's plays adopted a ribald, hypocritical dramatic tone, and therefore deviated from the essential format of the Greek tragedy. Despite his harsh crudeness, Seneca's most outstanding message was that virtue was the only good.

     Within time, speech became the official language of love, and poetry, a universal venue of its expression, particularly after the highly publicized political alliance of Cleopatra Philopater VII and Julius Caesar. Therefore, in addition to the emphasis poets and writers placed on human friendships, the subject of romantic love became widely appreciated and a heavily emphasized topic in poetry, literature, and theatre. For example, Ovid (43 BCE-17 AD) wrote a lengthy didactic poetic elegy, Ars Amatoria, which taught men how to meet women, how to maintain love relationships, and reviewed several approaches to love. This work bore the hallmark scientific trait of the Augustan period. Consequently, the art of loving mannerisms and expressive gestures became a viral trend in Augustan Roman literature.

     For instance, the historian Plutarch claims of Cleopatra's allure, "There was sweetness also in the tones of her voice; and her tongue, like an instrument of many strings, she could readily turn to whatever language she pleased ..." [Plutarch, Antony 27.2-4] Plutarch was keen to describe Cleopatra and her aura through rose a colored lens: "She herself reclined beneath a canopy spangled with gold, adorned like Venus in a painting, while boys like Loves in paintings stood on either side and fanned her." [Plutarch, Antony 26.1-3]

     Therefore, despite the political connotations implied through the turbulence of his historical Roman context, Cicero still remains a widely loved and accepted humanist writer who began a cultural tradition in Rome that can be described as viral for the future leaders and artists of Italy. It is still going strong.