Captive Greece has conquered her rude conqueror,” wrote Horace, the assumption here being that, through Greece’s vastly richer culture, adopted over time by the Romans, Greece ultimately defeated Rome. Philosopher for philosopher, historian for historian, playwright and poet for playwright and poet, there is little doubt that Greek culture was deeper than, and in almost every way superior to, that of the Romans. No Roman philosopher was anywhere near the equal of Plato and Aristotle. Nor could Rome produce playwrights of the quality of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Juvenal couldn’t lay a glove on Aristophanes. Livy was nowhere near Thucydides, Herodotus, and Xenophon, though Tacitus, true enough, was of their company. The Aeneid was no Iliad, and Horace not quite the poet Pindar was. Romans with the wherewithal repaired to Athens to put the polish on their own education.

Yet the Romans were distinctive in having an upper class, their senatorial class, that not only had a serious interest in culture but found the time, alongside its political duties, to produce it, especially in the last years of the Roman Republic. (While the Roman senate was in session, it was said, Cato read from a book hidden under his toga.) This Roman cultural efflorescence is the subject of Katharina Volk’s The Roman Republic of Letters: Scholarship, Philosophy,

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