The Roman Search for Wisdom

The Roman Search for Wisdom

by Michael K. Kellogg

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The Roman "philosophy of life" as mirrored in the literature of ten outstanding representative authors

Though Rome conquered much of the world and established an empire that lasted more than a millennium, its citizens sometimes expressed a sense of inferiority to the intellectual accomplishments of ancient Greece. The notion that Roman philosophers,

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The Roman "philosophy of life" as mirrored in the literature of ten outstanding representative authors

Though Rome conquered much of the world and established an empire that lasted more than a millennium, its citizens sometimes expressed a sense of inferiority to the intellectual accomplishments of ancient Greece. The notion that Roman philosophers, thinkers, and writers were just pale imitations of Greek originals has persisted to this day. Even the great Roman poet Horace wrote, "Captive Greece took its Roman captor captive,/ Invading uncouth Latium with its arts."

Michael K. Kellogg puts this notion to rest in this lively, very readable overview of Roman literature. The author uncovers many examples of Roman wisdom, showing that the Roman contribution to intellectual history is considerable and need not take second place to ancient Greek literature.

Kellogg offers fresh and engaging portraits of poets (Lucretius, Virgil, Horace, Ovid); dramatists (Plautus, Terence, Seneca); biographers (Plutarch, Suetonius); historians (Livy, Tacitus); and philosophers (Cicero, Marcus Aurelius), against the background of Roman history.  

The contemporary reader will come away from this excellent survey with the realization that even today our culture still bears the lasting imprint of ancient Rome.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 02/24/2014
Kellogg reprises the digest format of The Greek Search for Wisdom in reintroducing the most impactful ancient Roman authors to popular audiences. Profiling 10 writers in detail and many others in passing, Kellogg vividly represents the Roman corpus through poets Lucretius, Virgil, Horace, and Ovid; playwrights Plautus, Terence, and Seneca; biographers Plutarch and Suetonius; historians Livy, Tacitus, and Sallust; and philosophers Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Readers encounter Horace’s lovely dictum to “scatter roses” and moderate commitment to a “middle way”; Ovid’s love-affirming tale of “halcyon days” and hopeful insight that “every moment’s occasion is a renewal”; Tacitus’s moral purpose and “special duty... to see that virtues are not left unrecorded”; Sallust’s insightful suggestion that words outdo deeds by preserving them for posterity; and the Stoic prescriptions of slave-turned-philosopher Epictetus, for whom “the arena of freedom is within our own souls.” To orient readers, Kellogg provides a chronology of his subjects and reviews the mythology of Rome’s founding and the history of the Republic and Empire. Towards his aim of countering the conventional belief that Roman intellectual thought pales in comparison to that of the Greeks, Kellogg makes substantial progress; it’s a well-organized, accessible work that will serve as both introduction and lodestar to these elements of classical wisdom, philosophy, and history. (May)
From the Publisher
“Michael Kellogg’s abundantly informative new book fills in a great gap in most educated people’s historical and cultural knowledge—ancient Rome. For the past 150 years, the intellectual passion for classical Greek civilization led to a marginalization of the vast contributions of Rome, which not only served as the filter for Greek wisdom to later generations but also transformed and expanded it to create what we now call Western civilization. Kellogg introduces us to the immortals of Roman culture—Virgil, Cicero, Lucretius, Seneca, Horace, Plutarch, and others. The Roman Search for Wisdom is a superb introduction to ‘the grandeur that was Rome.’”
—DANA GIOIA, poet and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts

"The Roman Search for Wisdom offers the general reader an ambitious survey of the richness of Roman thought. Ranging from the slapstick comedies of Plautus to the acerbic irony of Tacitus’s political history to the intensely introspective reflections of Marcus Aurelius, Kellogg mines the greatest works of Roman literature, philosophy, and history to draw lessons about the deep and enduring challenges of human existence. This book will engage readers at a very personal level about the ends of their own lives.”

—RICHARD SALLER, professor of Roman history, Stanford University

“Kellogg’s book offers a marvelously clear and accessible account of the intellectual life of ancient Rome. He guides the reader to a deep appreciation of the many ways our own ideas are indebted to what was thought and written two thousand years ago.”

—JOHN LACHS, Centennial Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University

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Prometheus Books
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Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2014 Michael K. Kellogg
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61614-926-0



The first known literary work in Latin was a translation of the Odyssey by the Greek-born tragedian Livius Andronicus (ca. 284–ca. 204). At the time, translation was itself a new art form. Before Andronicus, Latin readers either learned Greek or went without; after Andronicus, Roman schoolboys could read Homer in their native language. Thus began a tradition of the translation, adaptation, and gradual transformation of Greek originals into the foundations of a distinctly Roman literature. Rome absorbed Greek culture as aggressively and systematically as it conquered the Mediterranean world.

For us, Roman literature begins with Titus Maccius Plautus (ca. 254–184). The tragedies of Andronicus and Quintus Ennius (239–169), based on Greek models, were more highly regarded and praised in antiquity than Plautus's comedies. So, too, was Ennius's epic poem of Rome's founding, the Annales. Yet Plautus is the first Roman author whose writings have survived. We possess twenty complete or nearly complete comedies by Plautus and six by his successor, Publius Terentius Afer (ca. 195–159), known to us as Terence.

It is ironic, and yet somehow fitting, that Roman literature begins with comedy. When we think of Rome, we think of brutal conquests abroad and ruthless power struggles at home. During the era of Plautus and Terence, Rome was fighting for its very existence in the Punic Wars that ultimately resulted in the complete destruction of Carthage, Rome's rival for hegemony in the Mediterranean. The Roman Republic was dominated by aristocratic senators, most particularly Marcus Porcius Cato (ca. 234–149), known as Cato the Censor, who enforced the principal Roman virtues—valor (virtus), dutifulness (pietas), industry (industria), and frugality (frugalitas)—within a strict and repressive social hierarchy that was heavily dependent upon slave labor and that treated women and children as just another form of property.

The military and political spheres are wholly absent from the plays of Plautus and Terence. They wrote domestic comedies modeled on the "new comedies" of Menander and his Hellenistic contemporaries. Plautus and Terence, too, set their plays in Greece, mostly at Athens. Romans viewed the Greeks then rather as the Germans view contemporary Greeks today—as querulous, duplicitous, pleasure-loving, profligate, and lazy—and Plautus in particular capitalizes on those stereotypes. And yet his characters regularly remind the audience that the Athenian setting is just a pretense. What we are seeing is a portrait of contemporary Romans at home; not the official, stern portrait of the Roman military republic, but a funhouse mirror in which everyday life is distorted and turned topsy-turvy.

Plautus caricatured and subverted the standard roles in Roman society (fathers and mothers, sons and lovers, soldiers and slaves). He presented these types in their most ridiculous aspect, and through the catharsis of laughter, the rigors of Roman life became more palatable. Plautus humanized the Romans and in doing so brings us closer to them. Just beneath their serious and pompous exteriors lie the endless possibilities of farce. Indeed, it is precisely the serious, pompous exteriors that so readily lend themselves to farce. Without Plautus, ancient Rome would be intolerable. His comedies make clear that the order, hierarchy, and strict obedience touted by Rome could not have been so absolute. After Plautus, it is impossible to take the Romans as seriously as we might otherwise have done. In the process, we find that we cannot take ourselves quite as seriously either.

Plato argued in the Laws that it will be "impossible to understand the serious side of things in isolation from their ridiculous aspect." Plautus helps us to understand the full complexity of Roman life and how ridiculous each of us becomes when we attempt to squeeze ourselves into an established mold. Like the Romans, we play various parts in the world, but we have little self-knowledge. We publicly tout the virtues of courage, piety, industry, and frugality, but our behavior reveals a wide gap between what we say and what we do. We propose to control ourselves and our fate. But in his comedies of mistaken identity—of children lost at birth and identical twins: real, imagined, and divine—Plautus shows that error, deception, and chance are the gods that truly rule our existence. Plautus used farce to illuminate the underlying human condition. He found wisdom in laughter.


The first dramatic performance in Rome took place in 240, one year after the end of the First Punic War (264–241). It was a tragedy written by Livius Andronicus, based on a Greek model. Andronicus was considered the father of Roman literature by Cicero, Horace, and others, and the period from 240 to the death of Terence in 159 was by common consent the golden age of Roman drama. Yet only the merest fragments of Andronicus's many plays survive. Equally unavailable to us are the plays of Gnaeus Naevius (ca. 270–ca. 201), who tested the bounds of censorship with a comedy that mocked one of the aristocratic families in Rome. Rome was not Greece, and Naevius did not enjoy the immunity of Aristophanes. Personal criticism of the powerful was forbidden, and he was thrown into prison. Naevius wrote two more plays in prison and was then released after apologizing for his indiscretion, but a second episode led to his banishment and eventual suicide. Quintus Ennius had a more successful and discreet career, but no greater luck with the survival of his plays. Even his great epic poem on the founding of Rome, which was mandatory reading for all Roman schoolboys, survives only in fragmentary lines.

Thus, Roman drama, as we know it, consists of the plays of Plautus and Terence. Plautus was born in Umbria circa 254. He was a free citizen and moved to Rome as a young man, where he started working in the theater. He is said to have lost an early fortune in a shipping venture, and he began writing plays himself at the age of forty-five, during the Second Punic War (218–201). He was both prolific and wildly successful, writing, by one account, as many as 130 plays before his death in 184. It is difficult to determine the precise number, however, because revivals were common after his death, and many plays were falsely attributed to him in order to attract a larger audience. The scholar Marcus Varro (116–27) made a definitive list of twenty-one plays in the first century BCE, which became the standard edition of Plautus into the Middle Ages. One of those plays—Vidularia, alphabetically the last and hence the most exposed in the manuscript—survives only in fragments, but the others are all or mostly intact.

Plautus's successor, Terence, was born in Carthage circa 195 (though possibly as much as ten years later) and brought to Rome as a slave at a young age. Showing early promise, he was educated and later freed, ultimately finding acceptance among the aristocratic circles of Rome. He wrote only six plays before his untimely death in 159, but all have survived. Terence was better appreciated after his death than during his lifetime. As the prologue to his Hecyra plaintively explains, his audiroman ence—used to the raucous fun and verbal pyrotechnics of Plautus—was inclined to drift off to watch boxers, gladiators, and tightrope walkers, rather than enjoy his more intricate plots, more subtle characters, and more complex moral dilemmas. Although Terence's plays are perhaps better read than performed, they have been justly praised for their realism, their elegance, and the sympathy displayed throughout. A famous line from The Self-Tormentor has often been applied to Terence himself: homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto ("I am a man: nothing that is human is foreign to my interests.").

Together, the twenty-six plays of Plautus and Terence provide the foundations of modern comedy. Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Congreve, Molière, and innumerable others modeled plays on Roman originals. Even the television situation comedy, with its domestic setting and constant puncturing of pretensions, is a direct descendant of Roman comedy.

Roman comedy itself, of course, drew upon the increasing knowledge of Greek culture that came with Rome's expanding influence over the Mediterranean world. But it combined those Greek sources with more native forms of farce, music, and jesting that were already common in Rome. And it adapted its blend of comic elements to the domestic concerns of contemporary Romans. Social and political criticisms were never explicit. And, as Naevius discovered to his sorrow, personal attacks would not be tolerated. But otherwise, there was extraordinary license—enabled by the distancing convention of setting the plays in Athens—to mock and subvert what was otherwise held inviolate.

Four festivals each year were devoted to theater, though athletic contests, gladiatorial shows, and circus acts were also part of the mix. The plays—both tragedies and comedies—were commissioned by public officials. Small troupes of five or six actors, run by a producer/lead actor, would purchase the play from its author and then perform it, with individual actors (always men) playing more than one part. The troupes were paid out of public funds, and no charge was made for admission. Performances might be repeated, but without further remuneration for the author. The stages in this era were temporary wooden structures, open to the air, with limited seating. We know little of early staging beyond what we can imaginatively reconstruct from the words themselves. For Plautus in particular, much depended on the actors, and there was clearly ample leeway for stage business. The costumes were Greek, and the players likely wore masks (which would have helped with the doubling of parts and were undoubtedly crucial to portraying the identical "twins" in plays such as Amphitryo and The Brothers Menaechmus).

The stage was very large, as wide as sixty yards. Overhearings, asides, and soliloquies were common. Every thought was spoken aloud, and eavesdropping by others on stage was crucial to several plays. The action was continuous. The plays were not divided into acts and scenes by their authors; such notations are the product of later editors such as Varro. As a result, there were no changes in scenery. The standard setting was a street in front of two or three houses, and players would either emerge from one of the houses or from the wings: by convention, stage left (to the spectators' right) led to the town and stage right to the country. Occasionally, "indoor" scenes would be enacted by bringing furniture out of one of the houses. But, for the most part, any offstage action was simply described by the characters through monologue or dialogue.

There are three distinctive features of Plautus's plays that warrant mention. First, the plays usually contain prologues to request the audience's attention and to set the stage for the action to follow. Since Plautus's plots are full of errors, deceptions, and mistaken identities, the comedy frequently depends on the audience knowing in advance what the characters will discover only during the course of the play, such as that the young maiden whom Daemones will protect in the course of Rudens (The Rope) is his own lost daughter, captured by pirates and sold to a pimp; or that the gods Jupiter and Mercury have taken the visage of Amphitryo and his slave, Sosia, so that Jupiter can sleep with Amphitryo's wife. The element of surprise is not lost, for the audience doesn't know exactly how the plot will unfold. But the prologues allow for irony without spoiling the fun.

Second, Plautus's characters sing. Indeed, as much as 15 percent of the lines in Plautus are from songs, which makes his plays forerunners of modern musical comedies. Thus, the modern musical adaptation of Plautus, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, with Stephen Sondheim's brilliant lyrics, is very much in keeping with the original.

Third, Plautian characters, often the slaves, do not hesitate to remind the audience members that they are watching a play. In monologues, they will report the course of events offstage; in soliloquies, they will reveal their emotional states. In Amphitryo, when the god Mercury, disguised as the slave Sosia, rushes on stage, ordering everyone to stand aside, he stops to explain to the audience:

Well, I suppose a god can order people about if a slave can; you know—those slaves in a comedy, who rush in to announce that the ship has just come in or the angry old man is on his way. I'm here on Jupiter's orders and business, so I can surely expect people to get out of my way and let me pass.

In Casina, Cleostrata decides to forgive her husband "to keep a long play from running any longer." Plautian characters will even enlist the audience's assistance, as when Euclio pleads with his audience to reveal who has stolen his gold, and suggests that someone from the audience may have done so. This shattering of the dramatic illusion, so carefully cultivated by other playwrights, hearkens back to Aristophanes and underscores Plautus's point that we are always performing, in life as well as on the stage, insofar as we try to fulfill the roles in society to which we are born or bred or into which we have somehow drifted.


Plautus died in 184, the same year that Cato became censor. As Plutarch explains,

Ten years after his consulship, Cato stood for the office of censor, which was indeed the summit of all honour, and in a manner the highest step in civil affairs; for besides all other power, it had also that of an inquisition into every one's life and manners. For the Romans thought that no marriage, or rearing of children, nay, no feast or drinking-bout, ought to be permitted according to every one's appetite or fancy, without being examined and inquired into; being indeed of opinion that a man's character was much sooner perceived in things of this sort than in what is done publicly and in open day.

Cato sought to inquire into and regulate precisely those domestic affairs that were the province of comedy. The censor had many fine qualities—he was austere, exacting, uncompromising, parsimonious, and litigious—but humor does not appear to have been among them. He despised the growing influence of Greek culture, which he considered effeminate and luxury-loving. He sought to reverse the decline of traditional Roman morality through sumptuary laws that limited expenditures on dress, the numbers of guests at dinner parties, and other signs of personal indulgence. As the first writer of Latin prose, his history of Rome expunged all references to prominent individuals in order to celebrate the collective triumph.

Given that Rome was constantly at war during his lifetime—the Punic Wars were only the most prominent—Cato's severity is perhaps understandable. But so too—and certainly more appealing—is Plautus's countervailing levity. Plautus mocks narrow, simplistic moralizing of the sort at which Cato excelled. Yet his plays have a moral force of their own. Indeed, several are deliberately structured to explore traditional Roman virtues, albeit with a twist. We will briefly discuss four of these "edifying" plays.

A Three-Dollar Day is full of Catonian moralizing. The elderly Megaronides opens the action with a dire warning: "There is a plague of wickedness rife in this city, destroying all the laws of morality; indeed most of them are by now a dead letter, and while morality withers wickedness flourishes like a well-watered plant." Another old gentleman, Philto, offers a series of Polonius-style nostrums to his son, prefacing them with the injunction, "Oh, it makes me weep to think I should have lived to see such a generation.... Stick to the good old ways, my boy, and do as I tell you." Even the slave Stasimus laments, "Law has about as much control over morals as parents have over their children!"

The occasion for such pronouncements is the profligate, luxury-loving, foolishly generous Lesbonicus, who has squandered the family fortune in the absence of his father, Charmides. Lesbonicus has even sold his family's house to fund his riotous living. The new owner, Callicles, was charged by his friend Charmides with watching over the young Lesbonicus. Megaronides accordingly reproaches Callicles not only for letting Lesbonicus go to ruin but also for hastening the process by giving him ready money for the house and then profiting from the exchange. Yet Megaronides, despite his moral certainty, is completely mistaken.

When Charmides left Athens to secure his fortune overseas, he told Callicles that he was leaving a treasure of gold in the house, but charged him to keep the secret from his son, Lesbonicus, lest the son spend the gold. Accordingly, when Lesbonicus decided to sell the house, Callicles stepped in to buy it in order to preserve the gold and the house for the family. Challenged by Megaronides, Callicles explains that he could not both do the right thing and avoid public suspicion. "My conscience is in my own keeping; but as for suspicion, that's something in another man's mind." Callicles prefers to take the right action even if it brings social condemnation.


Excerpted from THE ROMAN SEARCH FOR WISDOM by MICHAEL K. KELLOGG. Copyright © 2014 Michael K. Kellogg. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Michael K. Kellogg is the author of The Greek Search for Wisdom and Three Questions We Never Stop Asking. Educated at Stanford and Oxford in philosophy and at Harvard Law School, he is a founding and managing partner at Kellogg, Huber, Hansen, Todd, Evans & Figel, PLLC.

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