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Parting Thought on Ancient Roman Busts

Immediately after declaring in his 1857 lecture “Statues in Rome” that “the component parts of human character are the same now as then,” Melville went on to declare, “And yet there was about all the Romans a heroic tone peculiar to ancient life. Their virtues were great and noble, and these virtues made them great and noble. They possessed a natural majesty that was not put on and taken off at pleasure, as was that of certain eastern monarchs when they put on or took off their garments of Tyrian dye. It is to be hoped that this is not wholly lost from the world, although the sense of earthly vanity inculcated by Christianity may have swallowed it up in humility” (NN PTO 402). 

Near the end of “Statues in Rome” Melville expressed the lasting value of his subject in these words: “Governments have changed; empires have fallen; nations have passed away; but these mute marbles remain—the oracles of time, the perfection of art.” To him, as to the editors of the Historic Gallery in London fifty years earlier, “the deeds of the ancients were noble, and so are their arts; and as the one is kept in the memory of man by the glowing words of their own historians and poets, so should the memory of the other be kept green in the minds of men by the careful preservation of their noble statuary. These ancients live while these statues endure, and seem to breathe inspiration through the world, giving purpose, shape, and impetus to what was created high, or grand, or beautiful” (NN PTO 408-09).

The engravings that Melville acquired of the Roman busts in this section not only reminded him of the antique busts he had actually seen in Rome and of the noble Roman history that had been brought to life in the words of Virgil, Plutarch, and Gibbon; these silent busts also spoke to Melville’s own unending internal conversation about the relative value of competing religious, political, and social systems over the face of the earth over the course of centuries. That Melville acquired an engraving of Julian, for example, and showed a Gibbonesque appreciation for the “pagan” mind and “civilizing” achievements of this so-called “Apostate” in his own novels and poems, underscores an ecumenical appreciation of contrasting cultural traditions comparable to the mixture of Greek, Persian, and Christian subjects and sites in chapter 1.