Rome (part II)

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From her beginnings Rome is herself. She diverts to her profit the moral sources of the old world as she diverts the waters of the mountains to bring them inside her walls. The source once captured, her avidity exhausts it, and she goes on farther to capture another. At the beginning of the third century Etruria has been crushed by Rome, and her blood and nerves have been mingled with those of the Latins and the Sabines. And this is the cement which holds together the block on which Rome is to support herself, to spread over the world the concentric circles of her vital effort. All the resistance she encounters. Pyrrhus, Carthage, and Hannibal, will be to her only so many instruments for cultivating her will and for increasing it. The legions progress like the regular deposit of a river.

If Roman positivism had not pressed the Latin and Etruscan together, one asks, as one reads Plautus, Lucretius, Vergil, and Juvenal, what art could have realized this rough synthesis of the Italic peoples, with their love of woods and gardens, their genius, as bitter as the leaves of their trees, and as rich as their plow-lands? But the Roman was bent too much on external conquests to conquer all his own vigor and harshness. As long as war continued methodically—five or six centuries—he had not the time to express himself. As soon as the springs relaxed, the mind of conquered Greece upset the whole mechanism. Mummius, after the sack of Corinth, said to the contractors charged with getting the spoil to Rome: "I warn you that if you break those statues you will have to make new ones to replace them."

Such a misunderstanding of the higher role of the work of art has about it something sacred. A candor is revealed therein from which a people may expect everything, if it is also the characteristic of that people's viewing of life. For Rome it would have been salvation, if she had refused the masterpieces which the Consul sent to her. But she accepted them eagerly, she had others sent, and still others; she devastated Greece, and her hard spirit wore itself down on that diamond.

We have, in this, one of the fatalities of history, and the proof of the tendency in the ensemble of human societies to seek its equilibrium. Subjected materially, a people of superior culture morally subjects the people that conquered it. Chaldea imposed its mind on Assyria, Assyria and Ionian Greece did the same with Persia, Greece transforms the Dorian. Rome wants to please Greece as the parvenu does the aristocrat, Greece wants to please Rome as the weak does the strong. In this contact Greece can no longer prostitute a genius which had long since escaped from her; but Rome loses part of her own genius.

The Roman, in his manners, his temperament, his religion, his whole moral substance, differed totally from the Greek. In the case of the latter we have a simple, free, investigating life, given over completely to realizing the inner harmony which a charming imagination pursues along every path. In the case of the Roman, life is disciplined, egoistic, hard, and firm: it seeks its nutriment outside of itself. The Greek makes the city in the image of the world. The Roman wants to make the world in the image of the city. The true religion of the Roman is the hearth, and the chief of the hearth is the father. The official cult is purely decorative. The divinities are concrete things, fixed, positive, without connection, without harmonious envelope, one personified fact beside another personified fact. They belong to a domain apart and, in reality, quite secondary. On one side divine right and religion, on the other human right and jurisprudence. It is the contrary of Greece where the passage is an insensible one from man to god, from the real to the possible. The Greek ideal is diversity and continuity in the vast harmonic ensemble of actions and reactions. The Roman ideal is the artificial union of these isolated elements in a stiff and hard ensemble. If the art of this people is not utilitarian, it is certain to be conventional.

Why should Rome take the elements of these formal conventions from others than Greece, who offered them to her? There are to be, indeed, attempts at transformation, and even her instinct is to rebel confusedly. In spite of itself, against itself, a people is itself. The Greek temple cannot be transported to Rome, like the statues and the paintings, and when the Roman architect returns from Athens, from Sicily, or from Paestum, he has had the time on his journey unconsciously to transform the science he has brought back from those places. The column becomes thick and smooth, often useless, placed against the wall in the guise of an ornament. If the Corinthian order dominates, the Doric and Ionic transformed, make frequent appearances, often mingling or superposing themselves in the same monument. The temple, almost always larger than in Greece, loses its animation. It is voluntarily symmetrical, massive, heavy, positive. Outside of Rome—in Gaul, in Greece, in Asia especially, Rome constructs formidable temples, resplendent with force and sunlight, on which the high plant growth of the Corinthian looks like living trees cemented into the wall. But buildings like these are rare on Italian soil. In then, doubtless, Rome only played her habitual part of severe administrator. The temples of Hellenic Gaul are Greek, the temples of Asia have the sumptuousness and the redoubtable grandeur of everything that rises above this mystic, feverish soil, saturated with rottenness and heat, and for which time does not count. Everywhere, for the utilitarian monuments even—for the arenas of Provence (to cite no more than these) present themselves with a discretion, a grace, an unstudied elegance which one does not find in those of Italy—everywhere the native soil imposes on Rome its collaboration and, sometimes, its domination. In ornament, for example, we find among the Greeks, the Asiatics, the Africans, or the Spaniards working under the Roman constructor, the silent insurrection of personal sentiment. Certain Gallo-Roman bas-reliefs, by their savor and their verve, by the blithe vigor with which the stone is attacked, by the concrete and perhaps slightly bantering tenderness of their accent, immediately make one think of the leaves, the fruits, the garlands, and the figures which, ten centuries later, are to adorn the capitals, the porches, and the façades of the French cathedrals. It is only in the general ordonnance of the edifice that the Roman retains his rights.

The Greeks variegated their monuments with ocher and vermilion, blue, green, and gold; the building shone in the light. How should the Roman understand polychromy? Painting has something mobile and fugitive about it, something almost aerial, which is repellent to his genius. He sees it already paling and wearing off from the marbles of the Acropolis. Therefore, he incorporates it in the material, he makes a temple wherein multicolored marbles, simple or veined, alternate with granites, porphyries, and basalts. Harmony scarcely counts; the color is to change no more.

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