Classical civilization in the mediterranean Greece and Rome

Classical civilization in the mediterranean Greece and Rome



Classical civilization in the mediterranean Greece and Rome

The Persian Tradition:

  • Classical civilization developed in two centers; in the Mediterranean (Greece and Rome) and in the Middle East  (Persia)
  • 550 BCE-Cyrus the Great established a massive Persian empire across the northern Middle East and northwestern India
  • Persians had advanced iron technology, developed religion of Zoroastrianism, and a lively artistic style.
  • Eventually toppled by Alexander the Great, but Persian language continued to influence the northwestern Middle East even into the 21st century
  • A separate empire in the area, Sassanid, emerged again during Rome’s imperial centuries

Patterns of Greek and Roman History:

  • Greek culture reached its height during the 5th century BCE; its influence spread through the empire of Alexander the Great. 
  • Rome was deeply influenced by Greek tradition as it developed its Republic and its Empire.


  • The Greeks were an Indo-European people, like the Aryan conquerors of India, took over peninsula by 1700 BCE, early kingdom in southern Greece around the center of Mycenae developed by 1400 BCE but was toppled by a wave of Indo-European invaders who destroyed civilization on the peninsula until about 800 BCE
  • Rapid rise of Greek civilization between 800 and 600 BCE; based on strong city-states ruled by a tyranny or an aristocratic council rather than a single political unit (peninsula so divided by mountains that unified government would have been difficult to establish
  • Individual governments became unified by trade (spread a rich written language with letters derived from the Phoenician alphabet) and regular celebrations (competitions of the Olympic Games
  • Sparta and Athens became the two leading city-states
  • Sparta-had a strong military aristocracy dominating the slave population; Athens a more diverse commercial state, artistic and intellectual leadership, also extensive use of slaves
  • 500-449 BCE-Sparta and Athens  plus smaller states cooperated to defeat Persian invasion (after=highest point of culture in classical)
  • Pericles was a Greek political figure that dominated Athenian politics, an aristocrat but part of a democratic political structure, ruled not through official position but through influence and negotiation, helped restrain some of the more aggressive views of the Athenian democrats who urged expansion to create more wealth
  • The Peloponnesian Wars-occurred in political decline , Athens and Sparta vied for control of Greece , ambitious kings from Macedonia (northern part of peninsula) soon conquered the cities , Philip II of Macedon won the crucial battle in 338 BCE (conquered all of Greece), then son Alexander extended the border of the Macedonian empire across the Middle East to border of India, empire short-lived, successor regional kingdoms  ruled much of the eastern Mediterranean for several centuries
  • Greek art and culture merged with other Middle Eastern forms during the Hellenistic period (influence of the Hellenes, as the Greeks were known),  during this period trade flourished and important science centers were established in cities such as Alexandria  in Egypt


  • Rise of Rome= final phase of classical Mediterranean civilization, by 1st century BCE Rome conquered Greece and the Hellenistic kingdoms
  • Roman state began as a local monarchy in central Italy around 800 BCE
  • Roman aristocrats drove out the monarchy around 509 BCE , the new Roman republic gradually extended its influence over the rest of the Italian  peninsula  (acquires strong military orientation, conquers Greek colonies to the south)
  • Roman conquest spread more widely during the three Punic Wars (264- 146 BCE),  Rome fought the Phoenician city of Carthage on the northern coast of Africa
  • Bloody defeat  of invaders by Carthaginian military leader Hannibal, Romans eventually destroyed Carthage (war so bitter they had to cover the ground with salt so agriculture would not grow there ), Roman proceeded to seize the entire western  Mediterranean along with Greece and Egypt 
  • Politics grew unstable as generals sought for more power but the poor rebelled, , civil wars between two generals led to a victory of Julius Caesar  in 45 BCE, and the effective end of the traditional institutions of the Roman state
  • Augustus Caesar seized power in 27 BCE, established basic structures of the Roman Empire
  • The empire maintained vigor bringing peace and prosperity to the entire Mediterranean for 200 years through the reign of Marcus Aurelius in 180 BCE
  • Empire’s fall lasted over 250 years, invading peoples from the north finally overturned the government in Rome in 476 BCE, economic deterioration and population loss
  • Some of the strong later emperors particularly Diocletian and Constantine, attempted to reverse the tide
  • Constantine adopted Christianity in 313 in attempt to unite the empire in new ways
  • Reasons for the collapse of the western half of the Roman Empire: most effective government became local, as the imperial administration could no longer guarantee order to provide a system of justice, Roman empires depended on increasingly non-Roman recruits of questionable loyalty, invasion of nomadic peoples from the north. 

Greek and Roman Political Institutions:

  • Greece and Rome were ruled by aristocrats but also introduced some democratic  elements
  • The Roman empire encompassed a huge territory and population
  • The word politics comes from the Greek word for city-state “polis” 
  • Strong political ideals and interests created some similarities between the Greco-Roman society and the Confucian values if classical China, although the concept of active citizenship was distinctive in the Mediterranean cultures; Greece and Rome did not develop a single cohesive set of political institutions
  • Main political characteristics: political intensity and localism, great diversity of political forms
  • Similar to India by various political forms-such as participation in governing councils-ran strong
  • Rule by individual strongmen (tyrants) was more common than monarchies


  • Democracy-demos=the people
  • The government in Athens used direct democracy
  • Women had no rights of political participation
  • Athens experience of drawbacks of democracy: lower-class citizens, eager for government jobs and spoils of war, often encouraged reckless military actions that weakened the state in its central dispute with Sparta
  • Most common form of government in Greece was aristocratic assemblies who established guidelines for state policy and served as a check on executive power
  • Aristocracy-“rule of the best” suggest where many Greeks thought real political virtue lay


  • Most important Roman legislative body was the Senate; two consults shared primary executive power, but in a time of crisis the Senate could choose a dictator to hold emergency authority 
  • Political theory in classical Mediterranean civilization-aristocratic tradition, appropriate ethics, duties of citizens, importance of incorruptible service, key political skills such as oratory (Roman writers like Cicero wrote in great detail on these subjects)
  • The Assembly’s main purpose was to elect magistrates to represent the common people
  • Roman 1st code of law-Twelve Tables 450 BCE
  • Unlike Chinese Confucianism, there was less emphasis on hierarchy and obedience or bureaucratic virtues-focus on participation in deliberative bodies to make laws and judge action of executive officers
  • Idea of fair and reasoned law- as important of  Roman achievement  as the Chinese elaboration of a complex bureaucratic structure
  • Religious practices tolerated as long as they did not interfere with loyalty to the state, only attacked Christianity, because of Christianity’s refusal to place the state first in their devotion

Religion and Culture

  • Greece and Rome did not generate a major religion –in this they differed from India and from China to some extent
  • Philosophy, science, and art were the most durable elements of classical Mediterranean culture
  • Christianity  arose with the Roman Empire spread, although it was not really a product of Greek or Roman culture, took on serious historical importance only as the Roman empire began to decline
  • Characteristic Greco-Roman religion was a much  more primitive, affair, derived from a belief in the spirits of nature elevated into a complex set of gods and goddesses who were seen as regulating human life
  • Greeks  and Romans had different names for their pantheon, but the objects of worship were essentially the same: 
    • Zeus  or Jupiter: a creator of father god
      • Apollo: daily passage of the sun 
      • Neptune: oceans
      • Mars: war
      • Venus: human love and beauty
  • Regular ceremonies to the gods had real political importance, individuals sought the gods aid in fortune telling and ensuring good harvest or health
  • Tended to have rather human, of-this-world approach, doings of the gods were like soap operas on a superhuman scale, thus made for good storytelling, classical Mediterranean religion developed an important literary tradition as also was the case in India (reflected common heritage of Indo-European invaders), unlike Indians the Greeks and Romans became interested in their gods more in terms of what they could do  on earth, rather than could do to elevate people to higher planes of spirituality
  • Limitations of this dominant religion: lack of spiritual passion failed to satisfy ordinary peasants and workers (failed to satisfy some upper class people also-little basis for systematic inquiry into nature or human society); “mystery” religions often imported from the Middle East occasionally swept through Greece and Rome providing secret rituals and fellowship
  • Division between upper class and popular belief was even greater than in China
  • Religion promoted political loyalty not ethical behavior,  separate model of moral philosophy created by thinkers like Aristotle and Cicero, stressed moderation and balance as opposed to instability of political life/ gods
  • Other ethical systems were devised, esp. in Hellenistic; these systems later blended with religious thought under Christianity
  • Stoics emphasized an inner moral independence cultivated by discipline of the body and personal bravery
  • Idea of philosophy separate from official religion, emphasized the powers of human thought
  • In Athens, the philosopher  Socrates  (born 469 BCE) encouraged his pupils to question conventional wisdom, “improvement of the human soul”, developed the Socratic  principle of rational inquiry by the means of skeptical questioning
  • Socrates’ great pupil Plato was more positive, suggested that human reason could lead to understanding of the three perfect forms, the absolutely True, Good, and Beautiful-which he believed characterized nature
  • Some similarities  to Chinese Confucianism-but with greater emphasis on skeptical questioning and abstract speculations of the universe
  • Greek interest lay in speculations about nature’s order, little scientific finding but considerable interest in mathematics as a way to understand nature’s patterns (geometry-invention of the basic theorems by Pythagoras)
  • Important contributions of the Hellenistic society include anatomy; medical treatises by Galen were not improved on in the Western world for many centuries; mathematician Euclid what was for a long time the world’s most widely used compendium  of geometry
  • Less fortunately, the Hellenistic astronomer Ptolemy produced an elaborate theory of the   sun’s motion around a stationary earth
  • Roman intellectuals had nothing to add to Greek and Hellenistic science, examined ethical and political theory; textbooks to upper class children; engineering achievements such as great roads and aqueducts; elaborate arches
  • Artists emphasized the beauty of realistic portrayals, poets used the gods as foils for inquiries into the human condition, early Greek poet included a woman author-Sappho (600 BCE)
  • Greek dramatists produced both comedy and tragedy ; in contrast with Indian greatest emphasis was on tragedy 
  • Athens dramatist Sophocles insightfully portrayed the physiological flaws of the hero Oedipus that modern psychology long used the term Oedipus complex to refer t an unhealthy relationship between an man and his mother 
  • Strong epic tradition (Iliad and Odyssey by poet Holmer in 8th cent. BCE); Roman authors i.e. poet Vergil linked Roman history and mythology with Greek forerunner
  • Visual arts emphasis on sculpture and architecture, ceramics (Greek) and realistic images (Romans)
  • Athens 5th century- (creative thinkers Pericles, Socrates, Sophocles) Phidias developed unrecorded skill in realistic  yet beautiful human form
  • Roman sculptors-conquests, Augustus Caesar
  • Greek architecture-monumental construction, square or rectangular shape, columned porticoes
  • Three embellishments for tops of columns each more ornate than the next: Doric, Ionic, Corinthian; influenced by Egyptians
  • Romans adopted Greek architecture, added domes to rectangular buildings, massive monuments to show power
  • Roman Empire known for chariot racers and gladiators vs. theater

Economy and Society in the Mediterranean

  • Greek and Roman economies were based on commercial agriculture, trade, and slavery
  • The two societies developed somewhat different versions of the patriarchal family
  • A substantial population of free farmers who owned their land, flourished in the early days of the Greek city-states and later around Rome, Large landlords tried to force them to become tenants or laborers or to join the urban lower class, tensions between tyrants and aristocrats often over heavy debt of free farmers
  • Soil conditions were not ideal for grain-growing, shift to grapes and olives first in Greece then central Italy; planting olive trees/ grape vines took substantial capital and yield took 5 years, many farmers went in debt landlords gained  advantage
  • Greeks and Romans needed to expand to create empires for access to grain production granary for manufacture products and silver; rise of commercial agriculture drove this effort
  • Disadvantage to people of the Mediterranean  in trade: their manufactured products were less sophisticated than those of eastern Asia
  • Overall, merchants fared better in the Mediterranean than i n China in terms of official recognition, but worse than in India (Mediterranean did not set in motion a culture that distinctly  valued capitalist moneymaking)  
  • Need for slaves was a key element in military expansion, slaves came from conquered territories
  • Roman slaves performed household tasks like tutoring, mines, agricultural work
  • Abundant slave labor discouraged concern for more efficient agricultural production methods, true goals were artistic and political
  • Both Greeks and Romans emphasized the importance of a tight family structure, patriarchal , women had vital economics functions in farming and artisan families, household influence but I law and culture held as inferior (female infants sometimes put to death) 
  • Customs later held in check by family courts of members of both families (Roman law modifies traditional family controls 
  • Many Greek and roman women were active in business and controlled a small portion of all urban property

Toward the Fall of Rome

  • Rome began to decline after about 180 CE ,losing territory and suffering economic reversals 
  • The later Roman Empire was periodically invaded and finally collapsed
  • Unlike in China, civ. not simply disrupted to later survive,  unlike India there was no central religion


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Classical civilization in the mediterranean Greece and Rome


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Classical civilization in the mediterranean Greece and Rome