“Roman art and culture are late and debased forms of Hellenistic art.” Discuss this statement.  

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We need to begin by defining our terms. "Hellenistic" refers to an era ushered in by the conquests of Alexander of Macedon (336–323 BCE), also known as Alexander the Great. This historical era lasted for about three hundred years, from the conquests of Alexander to the reign of Roman emperor Augustus (27 BCE–14 CE). During this period, Greek, or Hellenic, culture was carried far and wide across many of the territories conquered by Alexander. Romans adopted and assimilated much of that culture. That said, Roman civilization dates back to the 700s BCE, and the origins of Roman art, therefore, predate the Hellenistic period. One can then infer that this question refers only to late Roman art and culture. The very fact that Roman culture predated the Hellenistic period suggests that Roman art could not have just been a derivative of Hellenistic art. Not only was there already a blend of influences on Roman art and culture prior to the Hellenistic period (e.g., native Roman, Etruscan, and Egyptian)—the Greek influence on Rome also predated the Hellenistic period. Put simply, Roman art, whether "debased" or not, which in itself implies a subjective judgment, was not and, indeed, could not have been just another form of Hellenistic art.

In short, a consideration of the terms and the chronology of events provides sufficient reason to question the above assertion that "Roman art and culture are late and debased forms of Hellenistic art.”

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The Hellenic influence over the broader Mediterranean world, from Spain to Syria, was so great by about 300 BCE that it touched all cultures, Rome included. Just as American culture today is so powerful that you can find McDonald's restaurants and Hollywood movies in almost every country, Hellenic culture dominated in its time. As such, to say that Roman art is late Hellenistic is not inaccurate. Roman copies of many Hellenistic works have survived, such as the Farnese Hercules or the Diana of Versailles, both based on a Greek sculpture made several centuries earlier. Much of the art found in the remains of Pompeii (including the famously erotic pieces) also demonstrates continuity with earlier Hellenic art.

Whether Roman art is debased Hellenic art, however, is largely a matter of perspective. Hellenic art emphasized the purity and greatness of individuals: look at the Alexander the Great Sculpture of about 320 BCE, showing the famous king with clear face, flowing hair, strong physique, and thoughtful expression. Then look at the famous bust of Scipio, Rome's greatest general: he is bald, the wrinkles on his face show, and his expression is stern. This contrast reflects the Roman artistic desire to express people as they were, rather than how they might want to be idealized. Does this make it "debased"? To the Greek artists, perhaps. No matter your opinion, everyone can agree that the Romans created their own type of art from the inspiration of the Hellenic movement, just as the ancient Carthaginians and Seleucids did, transforming it according to their own customs.

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In the early to middle part of the twentieth century, it was common for critics to regard Roman art and culture as second-rate versions of Greek originals. More recent scholarly emphasis, though, has revised these opinions.

First, on a theoretical level, postmodernism has problematized the notion that value can be measured in terms of originality, and even interrogated the notion of originality per se. Thus, just because a Roman work imitates an earlier Greek sculpture does not make it inherently mediocre; creativity can be expressed, as in epos, in well chosen or executed variation.

Next, there are certain areas, such as fresco painting, personal poetry, forensic oratory, didactic poetry, and glassware where Romans did innovate. Christian art of the 3rd to 6th centuries has a spiritual quality not found in Greek religious art. Juvenal and Martial take satire in directions not found in earlier Greek models. Rome also made many innovations in law and political and economic thinking.

Also, lack of generic innovation does not imply debasement; it can imply progress. Virgil is not necessarily worse than Homer, just different. Much of Roman portraiture is striking in portrayal of individual people as opposed to the more idealized typology of Greek art.

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