Calling Roman texts ‘derivative’ makes me cringe

There’s no shortage of memes that poke fun at Roman texts for being derivative. As is often the case when one thing is either elevated or mocked at the expense of another, it’s an oversimplification. A case of extrapolating a kernel of truth to a degree that misleadingly glosses over a more complex dynamic that existed between the Greeks and Romans before the rise of the Roman Empire. But obviously, memes were not made to express complex dynamics. They’re meant to make you laugh. And I do, just a little, even as I acknowledge that my preference for Homer over Virgil and Ovid as well as the Hellenistic poet Apollonius of Rhodes lies in personal interests and values not poetic or cultural creativity and quality.

Hellenistic and Roman poets do not appeal to me as much as archaic and classical Greek poets because I find man-made power structures less interesting to contemplate and wrestle with than forces that are beyond human control. Weather. Emotions. Other people’s thoughts. We can accommodate them. With the latter two, we can influence and to a degree shape them. But no matter what we do, we cannot exert total control over them. As long as humans exist on this spinning orb, we will always have to contend with this truth: no human on earth is or ever will be either omniscient or omnipotent. It’s thrilling and terrifying, as many tyrants (in the modern sense) have perhaps discovered, if they have self-awareness.

Still, I have great admiration and respect for the Hellenistic and Roman poets, Apollonius, Virgil, and Ovid in particular. I don’t necessarily always “like” what each of these poets does with epic. They have not, to date, inspired in me the kind of profound compassion for human nature and experience that I feel reading Homer. But I admire their talent and respect the genius of their literary works. They are entertaining and clever, and I enjoy reading, thinking with, and debating them. In part because doing so has inspired deeper knowledge and understanding of the things I value and why I value them.

What’s a text that you don’t necessarily “like” but that you derive value from?

2 thoughts on “Calling Roman texts ‘derivative’ makes me cringe

  1. Whoa, I did not know that “Roman literature is derivative” memes were a thing! This opens up a whole new world…

    I laughed at some of these, but it also struck me that there’s that thing about Italians being known for adapting knowledge, maybe, some would say, improving it in some cases. Notably, of course, Renaissance Italians were inspired by ancient cultures (including the Romans, who in turn were inspired by the Greeks and other cultures) for their art and architecture, among other things. And the generally held belief is that even pasta came to them from China, although I’ve read different theories on this. But the point is, that seems to be an Italian trait.

    And yet, I don’t know that this is an entirely bad thing. Even today, some derivative art can still be incredibly entertaining, moving, and smart. For instance, one of my favorite Netflix series, “The Umbrella Academy” often has characters, themes, and situations that I’ve seen before in some way, and yet it’s still delightful and exciting and moving.

    As you know, I personally relate to the Ancient Romans more than the Ancient Greeks. Although I don’t agree with all of their values, many of them do strike a chord with me. In terms of literature, I haven’t read enough Ancient Roman texts to make a valid point, but my husband and I do find a lot to relate to, a lot of humanity, in many of the non-fiction accounts of theirs that we’ve read, not to mention Ancient Roman grafiti. I think it’s interesting that you say that you’re inspired more by non-man-made issues and themes. I think that’s exactly why I relate to the Romans more. I’m a city person through and through and tend to be drawn to issues involving people and society, rather than nature and outside forces.

    But I do need to read more Ancient Roman texts. I just keep getting distracted! I have read Ovid’s Metamorphses and I loved that – but then, what’s not to love about mythology?

    As for a work that I don’t like but I derive value from, wow, that is a great question. One that I have to admit comes to mind at the very least because I read it fairly recently 🙂 is “The Iliad”. I very much respect the poem and am amazed that it’s survived. I was surprised that it is actually a war poem that’s ANTI-war. And yet, I didn’t enjoy reading it. I’m glad I did, and the world would be poorer if it didn’t exist, but it’s not a piece that I feel like I want to revisit or that makes me dream or reflect a lot. And yet, whenever I pass by the new World War I memorial on the walls of Père Lachaise Cemetery (a list of names of all of the soldiers from Paris who died), that poem comes to mind, and some of its important themes: that soldiers have names and identities, that war is loss.

    1. I love the memes too 🙂 My main issue is the negative association with derivative. I prefer the word you use—“adapt.” We take inspiration from what we come into contact with, and that doesn’t necessarily detract from the creativity of the result. I don’t know who came up with pasta, but I sure am glad the Italians adapted it! 😉

      One thing I want to clarify is that it’s not non-man-made issues and themes that I’m more inspired by. I would choose to visit a museum over a woodland or beach any day of the week (though I do love the sea). I do, however, find man-made power structures less interesting to think about than forces of human nature and the natural world. Like, “how do we prepare for an impending natural disaster that we can’t stop” is of more interest and concern to me than “how can I ingratiate myself with the current government/monarch/emperor, etc.”

      I’m so happy and honored that you derived value from your experience reading the Iliad. 🧡

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