“And what he greatly thought, he nobly dared.”
“Wherever the fates lead us let us follow.”
Not all roads lead to it and it most definitely was not built in a day, but Rome stands out in our modern western culture as the grandest of all ancient civilizations. We see evidence of the Roman world all around us; in such things as our architecture, art and government. But despite its dominance in ancient world history and modern day culture, Rome is often judged in relation to that of its Greek predecessors.
Like Virgil’s Aeneid, which attempted to outdo the colossus of Homers Odyssey, the Romans hoped to surpass the Greeks while at the same time borrowing from them heavily.
Both civilizations, in the end and like the characters in their most celebrated poets best works, share a tone of ironic tragedy as each state makes poor political choices, submits its citizens lives to fate through weakened leadership and splintered government and are eventually subsumed in the rushing historical tides of dislocation and war.
In the following pages I will attempt to compare/contrast the religious, cultural, economic and political systems of ancient Greece and Rome.
The pantheon of Greek gods and goddesses in enormously complex as religious myths created by many communities over a long period of time and space is difficult to summarize in a paragraph. Generally, we can be comfortable in saying the Greeks were a polytheistic society with gods made in human form. In a way the Greeks ushered in a revolution in religion by believing gods could be like mortals. The world of Greek mythology, with Zeus at its head, and its PanHellenic deities shared the religious world with the occult and mysteries of omens and oracles. There were shrines for the oracles of Apollo at Delphi and there were ritual cults which re-enacted the processes of the passing of the seasons. The Roman practice of religious myth and cults derived from the eastern Greek tradition and were heavily influenced by the Greek gods and agricultural preoccupations. But as the republic matured and moved away from republicanism its religion became more eclectic and cosmopolitan. Each household was free to have a shine for its own god and each street corner its own idol. Of course this all changed as the emperor cults of Augustus and “mystery” religions floated through the empire, like Zoroastrianism and eventually Christianity, and proved to move the empire toward a monotheist religious order by the 4th century CE.
Culture and Language
Culture and language go together for both the Greeks and the Romans. A shared and common language developed around the Aegean sometime in the 8th century BCE. The peoples of the area we now call Greece, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Turkey and Crete, spoke the same language and this, together with a shared heritage of religion and myth made them Greek and created a common culture. This does not mean the people in the region were politically homogenous, at least in the early days.
The Roman republic did not begin to take shape and form until the 6th century BCE after the Latin speaking peoples of Latium (with Rome as its largest Etruscan city located on the south bank of the Tiber River) successfully revolted against the Etruscan monarchy. Romans were heavily influenced by Etruscan and Greek culture.
Economics and Politics
The economy and politics of Greece were extremely complex. Most importantly Greek commercial expansion through new trade markets around the Mediterranean with the non-Greek world made it possible for more men to purchase land and power. At the same time the concept of a polis (city) and demos (common people) and the idea of discussion of public choices and possible outcomes with collective concern were born in the city-state. Two of the most well-known to us today are Athens and Sparta, but there were many more. The mountainous terrain as well as a deeply entrenched sense of independence probably allowed the system to remain more of a loose confederation than a central republic, like that of Rome. The early Roman republic probably began around the year 509 BCE and lasted for more than 450 years before the gradual decay of its republican institutions. The Senate, which concentrated political leadership, had come in place by 300 BCE or so to represent the ruling class of patricians and wealthier members of the plebs. The typical Roman citizen lived in the country and the bulk of the Roman economy was based on agriculture and land ownership. But as the empire grew and expanded through wars of conquest, wealth grew at a disproportionate rate for the elite and their growing power came to count for heavier representation politically.
The early Greeks struggled with the Persian Empire encroaching on Greek trading partners in the east and south. Famously, Athens and Sparta went into an alliance to defeat the Persians and the Greek victory in the Persian War offered a chance for all Greeks to unite into a great and powerful nation but the moment was squandered and by the middle of the 5th century the two great Greek city-states were at war with each other. Military and naval defeat undermined morale in Athens and the Peloponnesian War ended as Athens surrendered to a group led by Sparta. The Romans used war and conquest to its benefit as well especially in the great Punic Wars fought against the North African power Carthage. After defeating Carthage in the third and final Punic War, Rome became the dominant power in the Mediterranean.
The splintered and weakened Greek city-states to the East and South of Rome were absorbed into the empire and much of the Hellenistic world, Greek drama, art and architecture began to flow into and greatly influence the Romans. In the end, it is safe to say the ancient Romans, from the early republic through the Pax Romana and well into the final stages of empire in the West (as well as a great Hellenic influence on the Eastern, Byzantine empire that lasted well into the late 11th century) was greatly influenced by the Greeks. The great advancement of Greek philosophy, politics, arithmetic, and art had a considerable effect on Roman culture and, like the Hellenistic world of Alexander that followed the great Greek city-state era, can be seen and felt in our modern world even today.
Durant, Will. Heroes of History: A Brief History of Civilization from Ancient Times to the Dawn of the Modern Age. New York, New York. Simon & Schuster 2001 Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Samuel Butler. New York, New York. Barnes & Noble Inc. 2008 Price, Simon & Kearns, Emily. The Oxford Dictionary of Classical Myth and Religion. Oxford, England. Oxford University Press. 2003 Madden, Thomas F. Empire of Trust: How Rome Built and America is Building a New World. New York, New York. Penguin Group 2008
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