In this post, I will argue that Graeco-Roman civilization did not really die out as we tend to think, but that it was transformed into what we now call Western Civilization.
Wester culture is a combination Graeco-Roman and Judeo-Christian worldviews. Greek philosophy, Roman law, Judean morality and christian spirituality. Now, recent developments in our culture are questioning the juseo-christian worldview, leaving more space for the Graeco-Roman view of the world.
We no longer worship the Greek gods, but neider did Democritus nor Epicurus. The aim of the Epicureans was to attain peace of mind and one important way of doing this was by exposing fear of divine wrath as irrational.But we still going to the theater, use roman law, greek mythology as metaphors in psychology and philosophy.
Most of Graeco-Roman language, art and culture still framing western culture today. Words and concepts such as politics, democracy, music, theater, mathematics, philosophy, psychology, poetry, gymnasium, physics, heroism or erotism, come from Greek. Latin was de language of learning througout all mieval ages and the renaissanse, and still used in science and medicine. More than half of english words come from latin and greek, and Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Romanian are direct dscendants from that language.
The very word and idea of Democracy is Greek. Our politics, senate, parlament, many public buldings, have their roots in the roman republic. A norwegian politician today has a way of thinking and a worldview much closer to Cicero than to the viking Leif Erikson, even though Ciero lived a thousand years before Erikson, and his language was totally different.
The scintific methot begun the Ionian coast of in ancient greece. Empiricism, skepticism, science are greek words. Atomists such as Democritusattempted to explain the world in a purely materialistic way, without reference to the spiritual or mystical. Heratostenes demosntrated that the earth is round, its circumpherence and its distance from the sun measuring the difference in the shadow of a stick in two diffrent places. A modern scientist thinks more like Pythagoras or Thales, than St. Paul or Jeremiah.
The very idea of theatre is greek. Shakespeare’s theatrical plays were heavely influenced by those of the Stoic philosopher Seneca. Renaissance Art is a continuation of classical greek sensibility and most western philosophy is but a development of the ideas of Plato and Aristotle.
Roman System of Law Rome’s most lasting and widespread contribution was its law. Early Roman law dealt mostly with strengthening the rights of Roman citizens. As the empire grew, however, the Romans came to believe that laws should be fair and apply equally to all people, rich and poor. Slowly, judges began to recognize certain standards of justice. These standards were influenced largely by the teachings of Stoic philosophers and were based on common sense and practical ideas. Some of the most important principles of Roman law were:
All persons had the right to equal treatment under the law.
A person was considered innocent until proven guilty.
The burden of proof rested with the accuser rather than the accused.
A person should be punished only for actions, not thoughts.
Any law that seemed unreasonable or grossly unfair could be set aside. The principles of Roman law endured to form the basis of legal systems in many European countries and of places influenced by Europe, including the United States of America
The fall of classical Greece
I have wondered many times why and how Hellenic culture fell. Some historians such as Spengler, affirmed that cultures die just like any organism does. But I don’t think this has to be the case, since Chinese or Indian cultures are thousands of years old and still alive and well, and were contemporary to classical Greece.
The demise of the city-state at the end of the fourth century BCE followed by the Peloponnesian War weakened the city-state, opening the door for Macedonian conquest. The lost of confidence and self-determination could be one reason, but the inexplicable cultural, material and demographic crisis occurred during the following centuries and at the beginning of the new era needs some more explanation. The decay of a culture tends to begin as an internal process.
After researching for some time I came across this revealing text from ancient greek historian Polybius (200-118 BCE):
“I mean such a thing as the following. In our time all Greece was visited by a dearth of children and generally a decay of population, owing to which the cities were denuded of inhabitants, and a failure of productiveness resulted, though there were no long-continued wars or serious pestilences among us. If, then, any one had advised our sending to ask the gods in regard to this, what we were to do or say in order to become more numerous and better fill our cities,—would he not have seemed a futile person, when the cause was manifest and the cure in our own hands? For this evil grew upon us rapidly, and without attracting attention, by our men becoming perverted to a passion for show and money and the pleasures of an idle life, and accordingly either not marrying at all, or, if they did marry, refusing to rear the children that were born, or at most one or two out of a great number, for the sake of leaving them well off or bringing them up in extravagant luxury. For when there are only one or two sons, it is evident that, if war or pestilence carries off one, the houses must be left heirless: and, like swarms of bees, little by little the cities become sparsely inhabited and weak. On this subject there is no need to ask the gods how we are to be relieved from such a curse: for any one in the world will tell you that it is by the men themselves if possible changing their objects of ambition; or, if that cannot be done, by passing laws for the preservation of infants.” History 37.9
The rise of the Roman republic
Polybius was a first hand witness of one of the most radical changes of history; the rise of the Roman Republic as the hegemonic power in the mediterranean, and the downfall of the Hellenistic period.
After been taken hostage by the Romans, Polybiuss became admitted by the most distinguished Roman houses, who even entrusted him with the education of their sons, due to his excellent education. He remained on cordial terms with his former pupil Scipio Aemilianus and was among the members of the Scipionic Circle, most of them Stoics and philo-hellens. Scipio and his circle was responsable for the growing influence of Hellenic culture in Roman society.
Polybius is considered by some to be the successor of Thucydides in terms of objectivity and critical reasoning. He is important for his analysis of the mixed constitution or the separation of powers in government, which was influential on Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws and the framers of the United States Constitution.
Important themes running through his works are the role of Fortune in the affairs of nations, his insistence that history should be demonstratory, or apodeiktike, providing lessons for statesmen, and that historians should be “men of action” (pragmatikoi).
“From this I conclude that the best education for the situations of actual life consists of the experience we acquire from the study of serious history. For it is history alone which without causing us harm enables us to judge what is the best course in any situation or circumstance.”
Fall of the Roman Empire and rise of Christianity
Christianity: judaism, mystery religions and Platonic Philosophy
The principal conquests of the Romans were achieved under the republic; and the emperors, for the most part, were satisfied with preserving those dominions which had been acquired by the policy of the senate, the active emulation of the consuls, and the martial enthusiasm of the people.
In the monumental The Decline and Fall od the Roman Empire, Gibbons unveals how Platonic philosophy and Christianity merged toghether:
“The genius of Plato, informed by his own meditation or by the traditional knowledge of the priests of Egypt, had ventured to explore the mysterious nature of the Deity. When he had elevated his mind to the sublime contemplation of the first self-existent, necessary cause of the universe, the Athenian sage was incapable of conceiving how the simple unity of his essence could admit the infinite variety of distinct and successive ideas which compose the model of the intellectual world; how a Being purely incorporeal could execute that perfect model, and mould with a plastic hand the rude and independent chaos. The vain hope of extricating himself from these difficulties, which must ever oppress the feeble powers of the human mind, might induce Plato to consider the divine nature under the threefold modification — of the first cause, the reason, or Logos, and the soul or spirit of the universe. His poetical imagination sometimes fixed and animated these metaphysical abstractions; the three archical or original principles were represented in the Platonic system as three Gods, united with each other by a mysterious and ineffable generation; and the Logos was particularly considered under the more accessible character of the Son of an Eternal Father, and the Creator and Governor of the world. Such appear to have been the secret doctrines which were cautiously whispered in the gardens of the Academy; and which, according to the more recent disciples of Plato, could not be perfectly understood till after an assiduous study of thirty years.” Chapter 21
During late antiquity, salvific and gnostic religions appeared in Greece, mystery cults that promised a better afterlife, preparing the way to christianity. After a period of decadence, Emperor Constantine converted to christianity, and later in 529 AD, Justinian closed down the last schools of philosophy in Athens, attempting to Graeco-Roman culture forever. Christianity will dominate western culture for more than a thousand years.
Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, around 1482
It may be inaccurate to say that Hellenic, or that Graeco-Roman culture “died out” after all. A thousand years after the closure of the greek schools of philosophy, their ideas survived in monasteries, and a movement called the Renaissance spread throughout Europe, affecting both artists and their patrons with the development of new art and Humanist philosophy, based on Graeco-Roman period, ant it marks the transition from the medieval period to the Early Modern age.
Perseus with the Head of Medusa by Benvenuto Cellini in 1545
Most of their language, art and culture still framing western culture. Words and concepts such as; democracy, music, theater, mathematics, politics, philosophy, poetry, gymnasium, physics, heroism or erotism, have Greek roots.
It may be the case that Graeco-Roman-Western culture did not die out, but it transforms itself and that requires a cycle of death and rebirth, to be alive and flourishing.