There was still prevailing in Rome at this time a strong feeling that a growing taste for these ornamental luxuries was injurious to the Republic, undermining its simplicity and weakening its stability. We are well aware that its simplicity was a thing of the past, and its stability gone The existence of a Verres is proof that it was so; but still the feeling remained — and did remain long after the time of Cicero — that these beautiful things were a sign of decay. We know how conquering Rome caught the taste for them from conquered Greece. “Græcia capta ferum victorem cepit, et artes intulit agresti Latio.”1 Cicero submitted himself to this new captivity readily, but with apologies, as shown in his pretended abnegation of all knowledge of art. Two years afterward, in a letter to Atticus, giving him instructions as to the purchase of statues, he declares that he is altogether carried away by his longing for such things, but not without a feeling of shame. “Nam in eo genere sic studio efferimur ut abs te adjuvandi, ab aliis propre reprehendi simus”2—“Though you will help me, others I know will blame me.” The same feeling is expressed beautifully, but no doubt falsely, by Horace when he declares, as Cicero had done, his own indifference to such delicacies:
“Gems, marbles, ivory, Tuscan statuettes,
Pictures, gold plate, Gætulian coverlets,
There are who have not. One there is, I trow,
Who cares not greatly if he has or no.”3
Many years afterward, in the time of Tiberius, Velleius Paterculus says the same when he is telling how ignorant Mummius was of sculpture, who, when he had taken Corinth, threatened those who had to carry away the statues from their places, that if they broke any they should be made to replace them. “You will not doubt, however,” the historian says, “that it would have been better for the Republic to remain ignorant of these Corinthian gems than to understand them as well as it does now. That rudeness befitted the public honor better than our present taste.”4 Cicero understood well enough, with one side of his intelligence, that as the longing for these things grew in the minds of rich men, as the leading Romans of the day became devoted to luxury rather than to work, the ground on which the Republic stood must be sapped. A Marcellus or a Scipio had taken glory in ornamenting the city. A Verres or even an Hortensius — even a Cicero — was desirous of beautiful things for his own house. But still, with the other side of his intelligence, he saw that a perfect citizen might appreciate art, and yet do his duty, might appreciate art, and yet save his country. What he did not see was, that the temptations of luxury, though compatible with virtue, are antagonistic to it. The camel may be made to go through the eye of the needle — but it is difficult.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01