My novel Total War Rome: Destroy Carthage begins in 168 BC at the Battle of Pydna, the decisive engagement in which the Roman general Aemilius Paullus defeated a Macedonian army and secured Roman power in northern Greece. The action then moves to Rome for the triumphal procession, a massive haul of works of art and other booty being watched by Aemilius Paullus, his son Scipio Aemilianus and the old senator Marcus Porcius Cato, whose cry ‘Carthage must be destroyed’ resonates through the novel just as it did in real history. Before the prisoners pass by on their way to execution, there’s a lull in the proceedings when Scipio’s friend, the legionary Fabius, sees the weight of history fall on Scipio’s shoulders, as the older generation passes on the responsibility for Rome’s future to the next:
‘While they waited, Cato moved behind Scipio, his face craggy and lined, dressed austerely in the old-style toga of his ancestors, looking disapprovingly at the cluster of bearded Greek teachers below the rostrum who were trying to keep a class of unruly young boys in order. As far as Fabius could tell, the only Greek whom Cato had ever really approved of was Polybius, and only then because Polybius was the foremost military historian of the day and one of Rome’s most vocal proponents, so much so that Cato himself had called for him formally to be released from his status as a captive and made a Roman citizen. Cato spoke close to Scipio’s ear, but Fabius overheard. ‘When I was your age, I stood at this very spot, over fifty years ago when Hannibal had crossed the Alps with his elephants and was threatening Rome. Your father who stands beside us now was like one of those boys below, though back then we used battle-hardened centurions to show our boys how to be men, not these effeminate Greeks.’
My image of Cato was inspired by the ‘veristic’ portrait sculptures of the late Roman Republic, in particular the famous example shown here from the Torlonia Museum in Rome – an image that seems uncompromisingly realistic, of a man showing the wear and tear of life to an almost exaggerated extent. When I first studied classical art we were taught that this exaggerated realism was a distinctive feature of Roman portrait sculpture, in contrast to the idealism of the Greeks, and that this reflected Roman self-perception. I’ve been thinking about this again since seeing the brilliant Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition at the British Museum, where sculpture was presented as if it were in a Roman house, to show art in its original context. This reinforced to me just how much ‘Greek’ art in a Roman setting was essentially decorative; the beautiful bronzes of goddesses and nymphs around the pools and gardens stood in stark contrast to the phallic herm of Caecilius in the centre of the room, the wart on his face almost a provocation and his position showing what would really have been considered important to the Roman owner of the house.
We were taught that verism in Roman portraiture may have derived from the aristocratic tradition of keeping representations of ancestors in the house, in the form of wooden or wax portraits that were presumed to bear a close likeness to the individual. One of the most fascinating artefacts for me in the British Museum exhibition was a small wooden sculpture thought to have been one of those ancestral images, revered in a household shrine. Even taking into account the depredations of time on wood, there seemed to me no way that such a sculpture could bear anything like the detail of the ‘warts and all’ sculptures in bronze or stone, and a moment’s reflection suggests that this must have been the case for wax as well. It struck me that the sheer crudity of these sculptures may have been deliberate, that they must have been fashioned in that way by artisans almost certainly capable of better. The view we were taught could be turned on its head: rather than representing a tradition of realism, ancestor-worship could have involved a simplified depiction of the human form, itself a throwback to a nobler, more austere past – before, some like Cato may have fancied, the Greeks came along and sullied it all – that Romans were beginning to idealise as part of their foundation mythology.
In truth, influence from the Aegean world had reached Rome from the earliest times. To many Romans their primordial warrior was the Trojan prince Aeneas, whose equipment, armour and fighting skills would have been the same as those that provided the antecedent for the military traditions of Greece in the classical age. The story of Aeneas may largely have been a creation of the 1st century BC poet Vergil, but it undoubtedly reflects a historical reality dimly remembered in the Roman annals of the time - that of Bronze Age seafarers who came to Italy in search of iron and other raw materials at the time of the Trojan Wars, setting the stage for Greek and Phoenician colonisation in subsequent centuries. At a time when Rome was little more than a collection of rude huts on the Palatine Hill, their Etruscan neighbours were exchanging iron ingots for finished metalwork from Greece, adopting Corinthian-style helmets and breastplates that continued to be characteristic of Etruscan warriors centuries later. Rome grew as a city in parallel with colonies established by Greek traders at places like Cumae and Neapolis, trading with them and eventually absorbing them into her ever-growing sphere of influence.
It would be wrong therefore to think that the conquest of Greece in the 2nd century BC was the first big exposure of Rome to Greek art and culture. What it did, though, was to bring large numbers of Greeks themselves to the city for the first time, whether as captives or as opportunists, men like Polybius but also artisans who could cater for and encourage a taste in Greek sculpture, painting and other forms as decorative art, something seen so clearly two centuries later in the houses of Pompeii and Herculaneum. At a time when Rome was expanding but not yet an empire, when she was still ruled as a city-state and a republic, the Greek influx not only made intellectual Romans – men like Cato - more self-aware, but also pandered to the strong sense of conservatism in her ruling class, for whom ‘the old ways’ – the mos maiorum – was a clarion-call fuelled by the kind of anti-Greek sentiment I have Cato expressing in my novel.
The ‘warts and all’ sculptures – craggy Cato, warty Caecilius - only possible, of course, through the skill of Greek sculptors, can be seen as a kind of exaggerated defiance, but also as something that was soon to be an immensely powerful image of self-assurance, to the extent that it became the favoured style of portraiture for many of the emperors of the 1st and 2nd century AD. The same sense of self-assurance is seen on the cover of my novel, in the snarling, defiant Roman soldier - a defiance no longer defensive, but aggressive and supremely self-confident – that seems to us a quintessentially Roman image, right down to the Greek-style armour and weapons with which he is set to conquer the world.