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The World of Otium and the Gentleman Scholar

Portraits of well-known Greeks have been found almost exclusively in lavish villas and private houses. Very rarely were they set up in public buildings, even theatres, as had been the case in the Greek cities.[5] This is in keeping with the almost exclusively private nature of the Roman experience of Greek culture at the beginning, and with the peculiar separation of the two spheres, otium and negotium, that resulted from the dramatic process of acculturation of Roman society after the incorporation of the Greek city-states into the Empire. The feeling that the Roman senator could abandon himself to the pursuit of Greek culture only while on vacation, and preferably outside the city of Rome, was directly related to the senatorial aristocracy's concern for the preservation of its own traditions. Again and again it passed largely symbolic legislation, such as sumptuary laws, the banning of private cults of Dionysus, or the persecution of Greek intellectuals, in an attempt to define a Roman "national identity" in the face of the Hellenistic world. What passed for Roman traditions were of course recognized as such only in the process of defending them from any intrusions from the Hellenistic culture of the Greek cities.[6]

The reality was naturally often very different from what the ideology of the mores maiorum would lead one to expect. The great Roman families had long been "Hellenized," both in the conduct of their daily lives and in their interest in Greek literature and art. By the second half of the second century B.C. parts of Rome already looked like a Hellenistic city, and Rome was unquestionably one of the centers of the Hellenistic world. This transformation necessarily included an intellectual life played out in public, though within definite limits. Theatrical productions at the great festivals of the gods were copied from Greek models, and Greek rhetoricians and philosophers gave public lectures. The latter phenomenon must have gotten so out of hand after


the Third Macedonian War (171–168 B.C. ) that the Senate felt compelled to set an example by imposing a general ban on the itinerant Greek intellectuals. When. a few years later in 156 B.C. , the jeunesse dorée of Rome came to hear Carneades' lectures in droves, Cato saw to it that the philosophers beat a hasty, retreat from the city "so that such men go back to their own schools and debate with Greek boys, while the Roman youth turn their attention to their laws and their leaders" (Plut. Cat. mai. 22).

The Senate's conservatism and resistance to the public display of Greek luxuria continued for another hundred years after the first wave of Attic philosophers and was so strong that these same senators, in many respects already men of the Hellenistic world, had to construct their own private world in which they could unabashedly and without regard for public opinion in Rome act the part of Greeks, that is, of sophisticated men of the world. The large country estates of the nobility and of local aristocracies were transformed into islands of Greek culture, complete with smaller-scale and compact versions of the public cultural institutions of Hellenistic cities. This phenomenon is reflected not only in the architectural forms employed but in the vocabulary used to designate them. Thus particular residential areas of the villa might be given names like gymnasium, palaestra, and xystus, or, even more specifically academia, lyceum, and biblioteca, pinacoteca, or mouseion. The decoration of such rooms was intended as an invitation to the world of Greek culture. Against this stage set, which could include real Greek philosophers, teachers, scholars, or poets as part of the "props," were played out carefully contrived rituals of high culture that ranged from readings of ancient authors to literary and philosophical discourse, to creative literary endeavors. The need to inhabit fully this world of Greek paideia seems to have been so great that its devotees even dressed the part, exchanging their toga for the Greek himation and sandals (e.g., Cic. Rab. post. 26).[7] In this way, while still Romans, they assumed a secondary identity as cultivated Greeks, much as they might build a large Greek peristyle onto their Roman atrium-style houses, a phenomenon we encounter from the second century B.C.

In the Hellenistic world, most intellectual activity had been an in-


tegral part of the public life of the city, conducted in such places as the stoas in the agora, the gymnasia, and the bouleuterion. But the Roman aristocrat at first could experience the life of the intellectual only in an exclusive and private world of leisure removed from public space. It is particularly revealing, as well as appropriate, that all the forms of Greek culture being adopted in Rome were regularly lumped together under the heading luxuria, not only in sumptuary legislation, but in contemporary social criticism. The notion that arose out of this, of culture as an appealing but not strictly necessary embellishment of real life, is one that clearly to this day shapes the popular understanding of high culture.

At the beginning of the Brutus, Cicero invites his friends Atticus, then living privately in Athens, and Brutus, the future assassin of Julius Caesar, to gather at his villa and, seated on the lawn around a statue of Plato, to engage in learned conversation (Brut. 24). The three probably wore the Greek himation on such occasions. The scenario presents us with two images of the intellectual at once: the statue of Plato in the garden and the staged gathering of Cicero and his friends around it. Two centuries later the Platonic philosopher Nigrinus would receive his friend Lucian "with a book in his hand and surrounded by many busts of ancient philosophers standing in a circle" (Lucian Nigr. 2).

The portrait of Plato takes on particular significance in Cicero's villa, for we know that Cicero revered Plato above all others as the intellectual authority.[8] In Atticus' villa this position was occupied by Aristotle. Beside his portrait stood a bench that Cicero remembered fondly as the spot where the two men had philosophized together (Att. 4.10.1). For Brutus, whose passion was public speaking, it was Demosthenes, and he even set up a portrait "among his ancestors" (inter imagines: Cic. Orat. 110).

"One must acknowledge one's spiritual ancestors and honor them as gods. Why should I not possess the images of great men to inspire my mind and celebrate their birthdays? I worship them and model myself after these great names," remarked Seneca (Ep. 64.9–10). Brutus and Seneca are not isolated instances. "Spiritual ancestors" often


played the role of personal protectors and patrons. A number of bronze statuettes survive from the Early Empire, such as that of the reader (fig. 71), which stood in a domestic shrine of the Lares, as did Brutus' portrait of Demosthenes.[9] Lucian mentions a physician who particularly treasured a small bronze bust of Hippocrates (Philops. 21), and the fine bust of Hippocrates discussed earlier (fig. 83) was found in the grave of another physician in Ostia.[10] The many rings that were worn and used as seals, bearing portraits of Greek poets and philosophers, may also perhaps be seen as less demonstrative means of acknowledging a particular intellectual "patron saint" (Cic. Fin. 5.3; Pliny HN 35.2).[11]

Richard Neudecker has drawn a fundamental distinction between portraits of intellectuals that were objects of reverence or even cult worship and those that were purely decorative elements in the furnishing of a villa. In practice, however, there was probably considerable overlap between the two functions, since intellectual pursuits were not as a rule restricted to special rooms within the house. One might study and converse in a small room for relaxation (cubiculum ) or at meals, just as well as in the portico or garden. Thus portraits of famous Greeks could be found in all these places, in the widest variety of materials and sizes, from over-life-size statues to herms to little statuettes and busts in marble, bronze, silver, or plaster. There were also images painted on wood (often attested in libraries), in wall paintings, and in floor mosaics, as well as on drinking vessels and expensive furniture.

But the primary purpose of the portrait galleries of celebrated Greeks in Roman houses and villas was undoubtedly to conjure up an impression of learning. In the overly competitive climate of the Late Republic and Early Imperial period, cultural pretensions quickly became a vehicle for winning distinction. Soon Juvenal would complain that you could not go to the home of the most uneducated man without seeing plaster casts of the great philosophers and wise men (2.1–7). Trimalchio boasts of never having heard a single philosopher, even though he owned two libraries, one Greek and one Latin (Petron. Sat. 48.4), and Seneca complains that the uneducated nouveaux riches mis-use the most precious books as bits of decoration (Dial. 9.9.4).[12]

Particularly effective were the "galleries" of numerous herms,


Fig. 108
View of the Stanza dei Filosofi. Rome, Capitoline Museum.

which usually stood in a portico or the park, lining the paths or beside fountains. It is easy to picture the heads of great men lined up in long rows when we recall the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century galleries of busts in the Vatican or Capitoline Museum (fig. 108). As a rule, however, these rows of busts in the villa gardens did not embody any artfully conceived program, as we might be led to expect from modern experience. Rather, the same types are repeated countless times, in constantly changing but mostly random combinations. Representatives of the different philosophical schools could stand alongside one another as cordially as statesmen who had been mortal enemies in life.

Most villa owners will not have given a great deal of serious thought to the choice of decorative sculpture they bought (or had bought for them), or have paid much attention to it later on. Cicero's worrying about just the right selection for the gymnasium in his Tusculan villa is rather the exception.[13] The point was to evoke the leading lights of Hellenic history and culture in all their rich variety, though, interest-


ingly, the intellectuals account for at least three quarters of all the portraits found in Roman villas and thus must have largely determined their character. The man who purchased these statues and busts wanted in the first instance to show that he belonged to the educated class and therefore to the upper ranks of society.[14]

Yet there is more to this practice than just the element of display. The imagery of the Roman house is permeated by a fundamental need to recall to mind and conjure up earlier Greek culture. Indeed, the Roman villa of the Late Republic may be considered the origin of the cult of learning that would come to characterize the Principate. Like the many mythological scenes on walls, ceilings, and floors, the portraits of famous Greeks were meant to evoke in encyclopedic fashion all of classical Greek learning.

For the same reason, catch phrases or brief quotations attributed to the subject were sometimes carved on the shafts of herm portraits. The intellectual level of these texts is as a rule rather modest. So, for example, the herm of Bias carried a saying that may be authentic but is still not particularly edifying: "All men are evil." Other patrons, however, were more ambitious. Thus one portrait of Socrates has beneath it a quote from Plato's Crito, and a particularly zealous proprietor might have a brief biography of each subject added to the stone, or even a catalogue of a poet's works. Neudecker has been able to demonstrate that second-century A.C. galleries of herms were sometimes arranged in alphabetical order, marble encyclopedias of classical learning that the viewer could commit to memory as he strolled back and forth.[15]

All this is, of course, reminiscent of the decoration by the cultivated bourgeoisie of houses and other dwellings in the nineteenth century with countless heads of Laokoon, contorted with pain, and stately heads of Zeus on heavy oak furniture. But then, the presence of such cultural icons in the Roman house signified not only self-conscious pride in a hard-earned humanistic education and social standing, but also a kind of voluntary obligation on the part of the owner of such treasures, a reminder, amid the fashionable trends, of a commitment to a certain system of values.[16]


Fig. 109
Silver cup from a villa at Boscoreale. First century B.C. H: 10.4 cm. Paris, Louvre.

Amid the ubiquitous presence of so many serious portrait heads of long-dead Greeks, surely some comic relief was needed. Two silver cups were found in the treasury of the villa at Boscoreale depicting a whole series of well-known Greek poets and philosophers—only as skeletons (fig. 109).[17] No amount of wisdom can ward off death. Yet the skeletons of the great still continue their debate on the Boscoreale cups. Epicurus reaches greedily for a large cake that the proverbial pig beside him has also been sniffing. To telos hedone ("Pleasure is the highest goal") is inscribed above the cake. On the other side, the skeleton of Zeno, with hand upraised, argues passionately against this view. Other sayings written in Greek, as well as the pictures on the second


cup, all come down to the same basic message: Enjoy life while you can. Yet the image of the ancient poets and philosophers as skeletons also reminded the contemporary viewer of how Greek philosophers had long been made fun of because of their apparent preoccupation with death. If this seems banal, the iconography nevertheless implies a certain level of education and suggests that making fun of philosophers was a standard part of the cultivated banter at the symposium. The skeletons on the Boscoreale cups are not the only images of this type. The gluttony of ancient wise men was also a popular subject (cf. fig. 70). In the Terme del Sapienti in Ostia, the Seven Wise Men are shown magisterially giving instruction, including advice on digestion and bowel movement.[18]

In order to evaluate the role and significance of Greek intellectual portraiture within the context of the whole pictorial vocabulary of Roman Imperial art, we must bear in mind this ubiquity in every conceivable size and medium. Hardly a single Roman who lived in one of the larger cities could have failed to have these portraits firmly fixed in his mind. And this situation obtained equally in the Greek East of the Empire and in the Latin West, for the classicizing aspect of Roman civilization became one of the important cornerstones of the uniform culture that permeated the whole Empire.

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