CHAPTER XVI, from the third volume of the Story of Civilization: Caesar and Christ, A History of Roman Civilization and of Christianity from their beginnings to A.D. 325
Copyright by Will Durant. See the book at Amazon
I. THE DEBT TO GREECE
THE Romans were not of themselves an artistic people. Before Augustus they were warriors, after him they were rulers; they counted the establishment of order and security through government a greater good and nobler task than the creation or enjoyment of beauty. They paid great sums for the works of dead masters, but looked down upon living artists as menials. “While we adore images,” said the kindly Seneca, “we despise those who fashion them.” Only law and politics, and, of manual arts, only agriculture (by proxy), seemed honorable ways of life. Barring the architects, most artists in Rome were Greek slaves or freedmen or hirelings; nearly all worked with their hands and were classed as artisans; Latin authors seldom thought of recording their lives or their names. Hence Roman art is almost wholly anonymous; no vivid personalities humanize its history as Myron, Pheidias, Praxiteles, and Protogenes light up the aesthetic story of Greece. Here the historian is constrained to speak of things, not men, to catalogue coins, vases, statues, reliefs, pictures, and buildings in the desperate hope that their accumulation may laboriously convey the crowded majesty of Rome. The products of art appeal to the soul through eye or ear or hand rather than through the intellect; their beauty fades when it is diluted into ideas and words. The universe of thought is only one of many worlds; each sense has its own; each art has therefore its characteristic medium, which cannot be translated into speech. Even an artist writes about art in vain.