Immigrants and Foreigners in the City of Rome

18 Greeks in Rome

Learning Objectives

  • To be able to define perceptions of Greek people in Rome;
  • To be able to define to what extent contemporary Greeks were accepted and respected by the Romans;
  • To learn about positions close to the Roman elite that Greeks might hold (and regret)

What the Romans thought about the Greeks and the Greek ‘East’ is complicated. They had a great deal of respect for some ancient cultures, especially (but not limited to) Greece. They also based almost all of their literature on Greek models,[1] and some elite Romans became enthusiastic followers of Greek philosophy. However, the Romans often thought far more highly of dead Greeks than they did actual living ones, and Greece was eventually made a Roman colony. Many Greeks came to Rome as slaves, often in great numbers in the and the 100s BCE, when Rome was conquering Greece and Greek kingdoms in Asia Minor. Although many Greeks had Roman citizenship, there were relatively few Greeks in the Senate for a long time.

In the following speech from 62 BCE defends a Greek poet, Aulus Licinius Archias, who was tried on charges of claiming Roman citizenship falsely. He was being tried as a way to get at his powerful patrons (sponsors), because there was certainly no real evidence against him, and plenty of evidence, as Cicero points out, in favour of him being a citizen. He and Cicero were friends as well, and he was a man Cicero respected as an individual and intellectual; here, Cicero takes a very different tone about living Greeks than he does elsewhere, and also celebrates the value of Greeks and Greek literature for Rome:

…I will soon make you think that the man in front of you, Aulus Licinius,[2] is someone not only, now that he is a citizen, does not deserve to be cut from the list of citizens, but is worthy, even if he were not now one, of being now made a citizen. When Archias first left childhood, out of all the studies of those arts by which young boys are gradually trained and refined, he devoted himself to the study of writing. This was first of all at Antioch, for he was born and was a noble there, previously an illustrious and wealthy city, and still full of learned men and of scholarship; there it was his fate to speedily show himself superior to all in ability and by how his talents were recognized. Afterwards, in other parts of Asia and over all Greece, his arrival was so talked of wherever he came, that the anxiety with which he was expected was even greater than the fame of his genius;–but the admiration which he received when he had arrived, exceeded even the anxiety with which he was expected! 5 Italy was at that time full of Greek science and of Greek systems, and these studies were at that time cultivated in Latium[3] with greater zeal than they now are in the same places; here too at Rome, on account of the then tranquil state of the Republic, they were far from neglected. Therefore, the people of Tarento, Rhegium, and Naple[4]s presented him with their citizenship and with other gifts; and all men who were capable of judging talent thought him deserving of their friendship and hospitality. When, because of his great fame he became known to us in absentia he came to Rome, in the consulship of Marius and Catulus [102 BCE]. It was his fate to have those men as his first consuls, the former who could provide him with the most illustrious achievements to write about, the other could give him, not only exploits to celebrate, but his ears and judicious attention. Immediately the Luculli,[5] though Archias was still a young man, received him in their house. But we should attribute not only his genius and his learning, but also his natural disposition and virtue, that the house which was the first to be opened to him in his youth, is also the one in which he lives most familiarly in his old age.

6 He at that time became a friend of Quintus Metellus, the great man who was the conqueror of Numidia, and his son Pius. He was eagerly listened to by Marcus Aemilius; he associated with Quintus Catulus (the father and the sons). He was highly respected by Lucius Crassus; and as for the Luculli, and Drusus, and the Octavii, and Cato, and the whole family of the Hortensii,[6] he was on terms of the greatest possible intimacy with all of them, and was held by them in the greatest honour. For, not only did every one cultivate his acquaintance who wished to learn or to hear anything, but they pretended to want to do so. In the meantime, after a sufficiently long interval, having gone with Lucius Lucullus to Sicily, and afterwards departed from that province in the company of the same Lucullus, he came to Heraclea. And as that city was one which enjoyed all the rights of an allied city to their full extent, he became eager to become a citizen of that town. And, since they thought him worthy of such a favour for his own sake, when aided by the influence and authority of Lucullus, he easily obtained it from the Heracleans. 7 He was given their citizenship in accordance with the provisions of the law of Silvanus and Carbo: “If any men had been enrolled as citizens of the allied cities, and if, at the time that the law was passed, they had a residence in Italy, and if within sixty days they had made a return or themselves to the praetor.” As he had now had a residence at Rome for many years, he registered himself as a citizen to the praetor, Quintus Metellus, his most intimate friend. 8 If we have nothing else to speak about except the rights of citizenship and the law, I need say no more. The cause is over. For which of all these statements, O Gratius, can be invalidated? Will you deny that he was enrolled, at the time I speak of, as a citizen of Heraclea? There is a man present of the very highest authority, a most scrupulous and truthful man, Lucius Lucullus, who will tell you not that he thinks it, but that he knows it; not that he has heard of it, but that he saw it; not even that he was present when it was done, but that he actually did it himself…

9 “But he had no residence at Rome.” What, a man who  had moved all his property and fortunes to Rome many years before he became a citizen? “But he did not report for the census.”[7] Indeed he did, and in that return which alone has the authority of a public document with the college of praetors..In these documents, therefore, you will see no erasure affecting the name of Aulus Licinius. 10 And as this is the case, what reason have you for doubting his citizenship, especially as he was enrolled as a citizen of other cities also? In truth, as men in Greece were in the habit of giving rights of citizenship to many men of very ordinary qualifications, and endowed with no talents at all, or with very moderate ones, without any payment, it is likely, I suppose, that the Rhegians, and Locrians, and Neapolitans, and Tarentines[8] should have been unwilling to give to this man, enjoying the highest possible reputation for genius, what they were in the habit of giving even to actors!…

Cicero continues on with his enthusiastic praise of Archias before pointing out that his poetry in praise of famous Romans was useful for Rome because Greek was known far wider than Latin:

23 For if any one thinks that people get less glory from Greek verses than from Latin ones, he is greatly mistaken, because Greek poetry is read among all nations, while Latin is confined to the limits of our territory, which are narrow enough. And so if the achievements which we have performed are limited only by the bounds of the whole world, we ought to desire that, wherever our energy and our arms have penetrated, our glory and our fame should likewise reach. Because, as this is always an ample reward for those people whose achievements are the subject of writings, so especially is it the greatest inducement to encounter labours and dangers to all men who fight for themselves for the sake of glory… 25 Therefore, I suppose, if Archias were not a Roman citizen according to the laws, he could not have contrived to get presented with citizenship by some general!…

26 What more need I say? Could he not have obtained citizenship from Quintus Metellus Pius, his own most intimate friend, who gave it to many men, either by his own request, or by the intervention of the Luculli? especially when Metellus was so anxious to have his own deeds celebrated in writing, that he gave his attention willingly to poets born even at Cordova, whose poetry had a very heavy and foreign flavour. For this should not be concerned, which cannot possibly be kept in the dark, but it might be avowed openly: we are all influenced by a desire of praise, and the best men are the most especially attracted by glory. Those very philosophers even in the books which they write about despising glory, put their own names on the title-page. In the very act of recording their contempt for renown and notoriety, they desire to have their own names known and talked of. 27 Decimus Brutus, that most excellent citizen and consummate general, adorned the approaches to his temples and monuments with the verses of Attius. And lately that great man Fulvius, who fought with the Aetolians, having Ennius for his companion, did not hesitate to devote the spoils of Mars to the Muses. Wherefore, in a city in which generals, almost in arms, have paid respect to the name of poets and to the temples of the Muses, these judges in the dress of peace ought not to act in a manner inconsistent with the honour of the Muses and the safety of poets…

But even people like Cicero, who were enthusiastic supporters of (some) Greek intellectuals and the role of Greek philosophy and literature in Roman life often did not think much of many actual Greeks he met and knew (a bias still common today with xenophobes). The following is much more scathing of Greeks than his defence speech for Archias. In the following letter to his brother Quintus in 49 BCE, who was governor of the Province of Asia (roughly covering much of modern Turkey) he suggests distrusting Greeks and that the locals were the way to go. It is important to remember that Cicero himself had been a Roman governor in the province of Cilicia in 51 BCE, and this letter was probably intended for publication and the advice to reach far more than his brother, so this is what Romans felt comfortable saying openly about Greeks:

If, however, you have found in the province itself anyone, previously unknown to me, who has made his way into intimacy with you, take care how much confidence you place in him. There may, for sure, be many good provincials, but, though we may hope so, it is risky to be certain about it. For everyone’s real character is covered by many layers of pretence and is concealed by a kind of veil: the face, eyes, and expression very often lie, and speech most often of all. And so how can you expect to find in that class any who, while enduring for the sake of money all from which we can scarcely tear ourselves away, will yet love you sincerely and not merely pretend to do so from interested motives? I think, indeed, it is a hard task to find such men, especially if we notice that the same persons care nothing for almost any man out of office, yet always with one consent show affection for the praetors.[9] But of this group, if by chance you have discovered any one to be fonder of you–for it may so happen–than of your position, you should be happy to add such a person to your list of friends: but if you fail to perceive that, there is no group of people you must be more on your guard against admitting to intimacy, just because they are acquainted with all the ways of making money, do everything for the sake of cash, and have no consideration for the reputation of a man with whom they are not destined to pass their lives. And even among the Greeks themselves you must wary about allowing them to be close friends, except in the case of the very few – if they can be found – who are worthy of ancient Greece. As things now stand, indeed, too many of them are untrustworthy, false, and schooled by long servitude in the arts of extravagant flattery. My advice is to entertain these men with courtesy, but only form close ties of hospitality or friendship with the best of them: excessive intimacies with them are not very trustworthy, for they do not dare oppose our desires, and they are not only jealous of the Romans but of fellow Greeks as well.

Cicero, Letters to his Brother Quintus 1.1

The following letter was obviously not intended for publication. Cicero had received what was clearly an outraged letter from his brother, who was furious that Cicero had recommended to him a man who had killed his mother, and had forgotten to mention that fact. In answering Cicero tries to defend himself by basically saying the Greeks are all pretty shifty, and using the ‘I am sorry you are upset’ non-apology strategy.

Now I will answer the letters delivered to me by L. Caesius, whom, as I see you wish it, I will help in every way I can. One of them is about Zeuxis of Blaundus, whom you say was warmly recommended to you by me though a most notorious matricide. In this matter, and on this subject generally, please listen to a short statement, in case you should by chance be surprised at my having become so conciliatory towards Greeks. Seeing, as I did, that the complaints of Greeks, because they have a genius for deceit, were allowed an excessive weight, whenever I was told of any of them making complaints about you, I appeased them by every means in my power. First, I pacified the Dionysopolitans, who were very bitter, whose leader, Hermippus, I got on side not just by how I talked, but by treating him as a friend. I did the same to Hephaestus of Apameia; the same to that most untrustworthy fellow, Megaristus of Antandrus; the same to Nicias of Smyrna; I also embraced with all the courtesy I possessed the most worthless men, even Nymphon of Colophon. And all this I did from no liking for these particular people, or the nation as a whole: I was heartily sick of their fickleness and obsequiousness, of feelings that are not affected by our kindness, but by our position.

But to return to Zeuxis. When he was telling me the same story as you mention in your letter about what M. Cascellius had said to him in conversation, I stopped him from farther talk, and admitted him to my society. I cannot, however, understand your virulence when you say that, having sewn up in the parricide’s-sack[10] two Mysians at Smyrna, you desired to display a similar example of your severity in the upper part of your province, and that, therefore, you had wished to lure Zeuxis into your hands by every possible means. For if he had been brought into court, he ought perhaps not to have been allowed to escape: but there was no necessity for his being hunted out and lured by soft words to stand a trial, as you say in your letter–especially as he is one whom I learn daily, both from his fellow citizens and from many others, to be a man of higher character than you would expect from such an obscure town as his. But, you will say, it is only Greeks to whom I am indulgent. What! Did not I do everything to appease L. Caecilius? What a man! So irritable! So violent! In fact, who is there except Tuscenius, whose case no one can help, have I not softened?

Letters to his Brother Quintus 1.2


Looking at the three documents above, what do you think that Cicero’s attitude towards Greeks was? How do you account for the different way he presents Greeks and talks about them?


Greeks, like other provincial people, became Roman citizens by a variety of means. Some might be given citizenship as an honour for serving the Romans or a Roman well. Others might become citizens when they were freed from slavery by a Roman master (Greek slaves were quite popular in Rome, especially to teach children of the elite Greeks), or if they had served an appropriate amount of time in the auxiliary forces for Rome. Others living in Greece might be the children of Roman citizens living overseas, as the Romans did not tie citizenship into birth in the city of Rome or even Italy. If you were the child of two free Roman citizens then you were a citizen, wherever you were born.

Despite the sneers of many Romans, Rome was where fortunes and reputations were made. Some Greeks might strike it out for Rome for potential monetary rewards tutoring Romans in philosophy. However, if the second century CE writer, On the Dependent Philosopher’ is right, that could be a terrible job. He starts with describing how the philosopher is first lured in by being invited by a Roman to a fancy dinner where he will be treated like a king, and how things go downhill from there:

On the whole, your feelings are mixed, your spirit perturbed and stricken with awe. One moment you are envying your host his gold, his ivory, and all his magnificence; the next, you are pitying yourself as a miserable nonentity which calls its existence life. At intervals you think, ‘how happy shall I be, sharing in this splendour, enjoying it as if it were my own!’ For you dream of your future life as one continual feast…Presently toasts to health are drunk. The host calls for a large goblet, and drinks to ‘the Professor,’ or whatever your title is to be. You, in your innocence, do not know that you ought to say something in reply; you receive the cup in silence, and are thought rude. 17 In addition to this, your host’s pledge has secured you the hatred of many of his old friends, with some of whom it was already a grievance that an acquaintance of a few hours’ standing should sit above men who have been drinking the cup of slavery for years.[11]

Tongues are busy about you at once. Listen to some of them. ‘So! We are to give place to newcomers! It wanted only this. The gates of Rome are open to none but these Greeks. Now what is their claim to be placed over us? I suppose they think they are doing us a favour with their babble?’ ‘How he drank, to be sure!’ says another. ‘And did you see how he shovelled his food down, hand over hand? Mannerless starving pauper! He has never so much as dreamed of white bread before. It was the same with the capon and pheasant; much if he left us the bones to pick!’ ‘My dear sirs’ (cries number three), ‘I give him five days at the outside; after which you will see him at our end of the table, moaning with ourselves. He is a new pair of shoes just now, and is treated with all ceremony. Wait till he has been worn a few times, and the mud has done its work; he will be flung under the bed, poor wretch, like the rest of us, to be a receptacle for bugs.’ Such are some among the many comments you excite; and, for all we know, mischief may be brewing at this moment…

… Such, my friend, is your first dinner, the best you will ever get. For my part, give me a dinner of herbs, with liberty to eat when I will and as much as I will. I shall spare you the recital of the nocturnal woes that follow your excess. The next morning, you have to come to terms as to the amount of your salary, and the times of payment. Appearing in answer to his summons, you find two or three friends with him. He bids you be seated, and begins to speak. ‘You have now seen the sort of way in which we live–no ostentation, no fuss; everything quite plain and ordinary. Now you will consider everything here as your own. It would be a strange thing, indeed, were I to entrust you with the highest responsibility of all, the moral guidance of myself and my children’–if there are children to be taught–‘and yet hesitate to place the rest at your disposal. Something, however, must be settled. I know your moderate, independent spirit. I quite realize that you come to us from no mercenary motive, that you are influenced only by the regard and uniform respect which will be assured to you in this house. Still, as I say, something must be settled. Now, my dear sir, tell me yourself, what you think right; remembering that there is something to be expected at the great festivals; for you will not find me remiss in that respect, though I say nothing definite at present; and these occasions, as you know, come pretty frequently in the course of the year. This consideration will no doubt influence you in settling the amount of your salary; and apart from that, it sits well on men of culture like yourself, to be above the thought of money.’ Your hopes are blasted at the words, and your proud spirit is tamed. The dream of the millionaire and landed proprietor fades away, as you gradually catch his parsimonious drift. Yet you smirk appreciation of the promise. You are to ‘consider everything as your own’; there, surely, is something solid? ‘It is a draught (did you but know it)

That wets the lips, but leaves the palate dry.

After an interval of embarrassment, you leave the matter to his decision. He declines the responsibility, and calls for the intervention of one of the company: let him name a figure, at once worthy of your acceptance and not hard for him to pay, which has so many more urgent calls upon it. ‘Sir,’ says this officious old gentleman, who has been a toady from his youth, ‘Sir, you are the luckiest man in Rome. Deny it if you can! You have gained a privilege which many a man has longed for, and is not like to obtain at Fortune’s hands. You have been admitted to enjoy the company and share the hearth and home of the first citizen of our empire. Used aright, such a privilege will be more to you than the wealth of a Croesus or a Midas. Knowing as I do how many there are–persons of high standing–who would be glad to pay money down, merely for the honour and glory of the acquaintanceship, of being seen in his company, and ranking as his friends and intimates,–knowing this, I am at a loss for words in which to express my sense of your good fortune. You are not only to enjoy this happiness, but to be paid for enjoying it! Under the circumstances, I think we shall satisfy your most extravagant expectations, if we say’–and he names a sum which in itself is of the smallest, quite apart from all reference to your brilliant hopes. However, there is nothing21 for it but to submit with a good grace. It is too late now for escape; you are in the toils. So you open your mouth for the bit, and are very manageable from the first. You give your rider no occasion to keep a tight rein, or to use the spur; and at last by imperceptible degrees you are quite broken in to him….

To save you I have cut some of the various horrible things you start to endure as a house-philosopher, most of which require you to realize your new job is going to be not just humiliating, but underpaid. Lucian continues…

…No, your employer has no need of your services in this direction. On the other hand, you have a long beard and a venerable countenance; the Greek cloak hangs admirably upon your shoulders, and you are known to be a professor of rhetoric, or literature, or philosophy; it will not be amiss, he thinks, to have such pursuits represented in the numerous retinue that proceeds him. It will give him an air of Grecian culture, of liberal curiosity in fact. Friend, friend! your stock-in-trade would seem to be not words of wisdom, but a cloak and a beard. If you would do your duty, therefore, be always well in evidence; begin your unfailing attendance from the early hours of the morning, and never quit his side. Now and again he places a hand upon your shoulder, and mutters some nonsense for the benefit of the passers-by, who are to understand that though he walk abroad the Muses are not forgotten, that in all his comings and goings he can find elegant employment for his 26mind. Breathless and perspiring, you trot, a pitiable spectacle, at the litter’s side; or if he walks–you know what Rome is–, up hill and down dale after him you tramp. While he is paying a call on a friend, you are left outside, where, for lack of a seat, you are fain to take out your book and read standing.

Night finds you hungry and thirsty. You snatch an apology for a bath; and it is midnight or near it before you get to dinner. You are no longer an honoured guest; no longer do you engage the attention of the company. You have retired to make room for some newer capture. Thrust into the most obscure corner, you sit watching the progress of dinner, gnawing in canine sort any bones that come down to you and regaling yourself with hungry zest on such tough mallow-leaves–the wrappers of daintier fare–as may escape the vigilance of those who sit above you. No slight is wanting. You have not so much as an egg to call your own; for there is no reason why you should expect to be treated in the same way as a stranger; that would be absurd. The birds that fall to your lot are not like other birds. Your neighbour gets some plump, luscious affair; you, a poor half-chicken, or lean pigeon, an insult, a positive outrage in poultry. As often as not, an extra guest appears unexpectedly, and the waiter solves the difficulty by removing your share (with the whispered consolation that you are ‘one of the family’), and placing it before the new-comer.

More indignities about food and being served at table have been cut…

Many are your grievances; all is one huge grievance. 27 And the climax is reached when you find yourself eclipsed by some minion, some dancing-master, some vile Alexandrian rapper of Ionic songs. How should you hope to compare with the minister of Love’s pleasures, with the stealthy conveyer of sexy letters? You cower shamefaced in your corner, and bewail your hard lot, as well you may; cursing your luck that you have never a smattering of such graceful accomplishments yourself. I believe you wish that you could write love-songs, or sing other men’s with a good grace; perceiving as you do what a thing it is to be in demand. No, you could find it in you to play the wizard’s, the fortune-teller’s part, and to talk of thrones and in millions of money. For these, too, you observe, make their way in the world, and are high in favour. Gladly would you enter on any one of these vocations, rather than be a useless castaway. Alas, even these are beyond you; you lack plausibility. It remains for you to give place to others; to endure neglect, and keep your complaints to yourself…

Lucian, On the Dependent Philosopher 16-27

Lucian continues with more insults dealt out to the unfortunate philosopher, including the horrors of a trip to the countryside and being saddled with looking after the dog, as well as the difficulty of getting one’s promised pay after suffering all of this. This cold sholder from Romans is a common theme in the literature of the time:

6. Nothing can be more conscientious than the man [a friend he has just referred to], nothing more reasonable, nothing more unassuming; generous also, if I am any authority, and considering the slenderness of his resources as open-handed as his means permit. His characteristics, simplicity, self-control truthfulness, an honour plainly Roman, – and a warmth of affection, however, possibly not Roman, for there is nothing of which my whole life through I have seen less at Rome than a man unfeignedly φιλόστοργος. The reason why there is not even a word for this virtue in our language must, I imagine, be, that in reality no one at Rome has any warm affection.

Fronto to Lucius Verus 163 CE


  1. All genres except satire, in fact.
  2. This was his legal, Roman name.
  3. The region around Rome, now called Lazio
  4. All originally Greek towns in the South of Italy.
  5. A very famous and distinguished Roman family.
  6. Cicero is name dropping the names of famous Romans and distinguished families like mad here. It is not important that you know all their names, but you should know this was the cream of Roman society that Archias counted as his friends.
  7. Whenever the census was taken all Romans had to turn up in Rome to register themselves and their property and children. This was supposed to occur every 5 years, but during the Late Republic political chaos often meant it was impossible to hold the census.
  8. All were Greek cities in the South of Italy.
  9. Praetors, like consuls, were of a rank to be able to be appointed governor.
  10. Those convicted in Rome of killing their fathers were sewn into a sack with some live animals, and then thrown into water.
  11. Where you were positioned at a Roman feast indicated your status. The most honoured guests got to lie on couches.


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UnRoman Romans by Siobhán McElduff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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