On Roman Imitations in Comparison to Greek Models (Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights II.23)

“I have been reading the comedies by our poets which are based on and translated from Greek poets like Menander, Posidippus, Apollodorus or Alexis (and some comic writers as well). They do not at all displease while I read them—no, they seem written cleverly and attractively to the extent that you might believe that they cannot be made better. But if you take them and compare them to the Greek originals upon which they are based and consider the individual passages both together and separately with clear focus: the Latin texts immediately seem to be vulgar and simple: they are eclipsed by the wit and brilliance of the Greek texts which they are incapable of rivaling.”

Comoedias lectitamus nostrorum poetarum sumptas ac versas de Graecis Menandro aut Posidippo aut Apollodoro aut Alexide et quibusdam item aliis comicis. 2 Neque, cum legimus eas, nimium sane displicent, quin lepide quoque et venuste scriptae videantur, prorsus ut melius posse fieri nihil censeas. 3 Sed enim si conferas et componas Graeca ipsa, unde illa venerunt, ac singula considerate atque apte iunctis et alternis lectionibus committas, oppido quam iacere atque sordere incipiunt, quae Latina sunt; ita Graecarum, quas aemulari nequiverunt, facetiis atque luminibus obsolescunt.

2 thoughts on “On Roman Imitations in Comparison to Greek Models (Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights II.23)

  1. WARNING: CONTROVERSY AHEAD!

    What a bold and preposterous claim! In this particular arena, the imitations of Plautus and Terence don’t at any rate seem inferior to Menander. The superiority of Greek over Latin literature is such an old and well-worn trope, and I will concede the undoubted superiority of Homer over Vergil (though this is true of Homer when opposed to any subsequent epic poet, Greek or Latin), and Herodotus over Livy, but consider the merits of authors in the following genres:

    -In bucolic poetry, Vergil’s Eclogues were far superior to the poems of Theocritus.

    -Too little lyric poetry survives entirely to make a real comparison between Horace and Greek poets like Alcman and Sappho. The lighter flexibility of Greek was undoubtedly better suited to the complexity of lyric meter, but that should perhaps make us admire even more the efforts of Horace in crafting Latin lyric.

    -This is the controversial opinion: Augustan elegy was far superior to Greek elegaic poetry. I realize that there was something of a shift/development in the genre by the time of Gallus, but the Latin authors really refined this one.

    -History is a close one. As I said, Herodotus is better than Livy, but I am inclined to think that Tacitus is better than Thucydides.

    -Oratory is also a close one. The natural comparison is between Demosthenes and Cicero; I am inclined to “give the crown” to Cicero, but I have no strong feelings about it. Greece undoubtedly produced more extant examples of good orators than Rome did.

    -Finally, the Greek novel was charming but effectively worthless. No Greek novel can realistically be compared to the charms of Petronius and Apuleius.

  2. I agree that this is a “bold and preposterous claim”. I think I had to post it, first because it was so anti-Roman (and by a Roman no less!) and second because it seems rather baseless. Why defend Menander when you could sing the praises of Homer or Sophocles?

    We can’t judge it fully since we don’t have all the authors mentioned, but Menander is no match for Terence and Plautus (although, to be fair, I think Aristophanes is superior to all three. But can we get mad at Americans for failing to produce Monty Python?). The Greeks have the edge in philosophy, I think. I have to take Greek oratory first (Demosthenes gets a crown: but what about Isocrates? Even Aeschines is charming). And the competition between Thucydides and Terence is a tight one.

    I’ll give you Vergil’s Eclogues over Theocritus but I prefer Greek lyric. Augustan elegy? It is certainly more literary than oral so by our standards Archaic elegy can’t match. The Greek novel is worthless. And big mark against the Greeks? Galen.

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