Ancient Roman Existentialism?

Jean-Paul Sartre, I think, would have like this. It’s from Carlin Barton’s Roman Honor: The Fire in the Bones (pg. 32, UC Press 2001):

As the art historian Bettina Bergmann points out, the Romans had a taste for moments of high tension, frozen instants of “explosive emotions,” “excruciating suspended animation,” “moments of decision”: Medea contemplating her children with a dagger in her lap; the sacrificial bull poised to receive the blow of the ax; the wounded gladiator anticipating the death blow; Phaedra clasping her letter to Hippolytus; Helen resisting the blandishments of Paris. Because of their desire to find and express the “truth” of their being in action, the Romans were eager to interpret any and every confrontation as an ordeal, an opportunity for the exercise of will. But there were, in the Roman mind, good contests and bad ones. A good contest obeyed restrictions: it needed to be a) framed and circumscribed within implicit or explicit boundaries accepted by the competitors, b) between relative equals, c) witnessed, and d) strenuous. The context between Mucius and Porsena was a hard but good one. Porsena was the enemy, but, in Livy’s mind, he and Mucius were playing by the same rules. The Etruscan chieftain could recognize Mucius’s gesture and appreciate the courage that it took. Overwhelmed with admiration for Mucius’s act, and for what it told of the Roman spirit, King Porsena freed his mutilated captive, raised the siege, and sought an alliance with the Romans.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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1 Response to Ancient Roman Existentialism?

  1. waterfriend says:

    man is cruel by nature. he is a sadist

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