Chapter 5 Summary
The classical civilizations that sprang up on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea from about 800 B.C.E. until the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 C.E. rivaled their counterparts in India and China in richness and impact. Centered first in the peninsula of Greece, then in Rome, the new Mediterranean culture did not merely constitute a westward push of civilization from its earlier bases in the Middle East and along the Nile. They also represented the formation of new institutions and values that would reverberate in the later history of the Middle East and Europe alike. For most Americans, classical Mediterranean culture constitutes “our own” classical past. We can clearly recognize the connections and our own debt without adhering to the notion that the Mediterranean world somehow dominated the classical period. Greco-Roman history is one of the three major classical civilizations, more dynamic than its Chinese and Indian counterparts in some respects, but noticeably less successful in others. Classical Mediterranean civilization is complicated by the fact that it passed through two centers of influence during its centuries of vigor. Roman interests were not identical to those of Greece, although the Romans carefully preserved most Greek achievements. For several centuries, the Persian Empire far surpassed Greece in significance, certainly in the Middle East but also in the eastern Mediterranean more generally. The Empire established significant traditions still visible in present day Iran and generated one of the significant religions in world history, in Zoroastrianism.
The Persian Tradition. The Persians developed different political and cultural values than the Greeks. They influenced many historical currents, including modern Iran. About 550 B.C.E., Cyrus the Great established a Persian empire as successor to the Mesopotamian states of the past. The Persians allowed traditional cultures to continue, and advanced iron technology. Persian politics featured several emphases. The first was wide tolerance. The Persian Empire embraced a host of languages and cultures, and the early Persian rulers were careful to grant considerable latitude for this diversity. Second, however, was a strong authoritarian streak aimed at centralizing law and tax collection. Third, Persian rulers invested in infrastructure to facilitate communication, commerce, and the movement of troops. They built expansive roads dotted with inns, and established the first postal system. These achievements would help connect the Middle East to trade routes coming from central and eastern Asia, a vital step in the growth of new trans-regional commercial connections. The religious leader Zoroaster introduced a religion emphasizing the importance of choosing between the divine forces of good and evil; a last judgment decided whether one deserved eternal heaven or eternal pain. The religion retained a wide hold for a considerable period of time and its ideas and beliefs strongly affected Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Persian rulers expanded the empire and provided much of the Middle East with a long period of peace and prosperity. Although ultimately conquered by Alexander, Persian language and culture remained influential. After the Hellenistic period, a series of Persian empires arose in the northeastern part of the Middle East, competing with Roman holdings and later states. Persian art would affect not only the region, but also India and the wider Middle East.
Patterns of Greek History. Even as Persia developed, a new civilization took shape to the west, building on a number of earlier precedents. The island of Crete showed the results of Egyptian influence by 2000 B.C.E. An early kingdom in southern Greece, strongly influenced by Crete, developed by 1400 B.C.E. around the city of Mycenae. This was the kingdom later memorialized in Homer’s epics about the Trojan War. Mycenae was then toppled by a subsequent wave of Indo-European invaders, whose incursions destroyed civilization on the peninsula until about 800 B.C.E. The rapid rise of civilization in Greece was based on the creation of strong city-states ruled by either a tyranny of one ruler or an aristocratic council. Trade developed rapidly, as did common cultural forms, shared festivals such as the Olympic Games, and a written language derived from the Phoenician alphabet. Sparta and Athens came to be the two leading city-states. The first represented a strong military aristocracy; the other was a more diverse commercial state, justly proud of its artistic and intellectual leadership. Between 500 and 449 B.C.E., the two states
cooperated, along with smaller states, to defeat the huge Persian invasion. It was during and immediately after this period that Greek and particularly Athenian culture reached its highest point. The addition of colonies in the eastern Mediterranean and southern Italy, created a larger zone of Greek civilization. Political decline soon set in, as Athens and Sparta vied for control of Greece during the bitter Peloponnesian Wars (431–404 B.C.E.). Ambitious kings from Macedonia soon conquered the cities. Philip II of Macedon and then his son Alexander extended the Macedonian Empire through the Middle East, across Persia to the border of India, and southward through Egypt. Although Alexander the Great’s empire was short-lived, successor regional kingdoms oversaw the consolidation of Greek civilization over much of the eastern Mediterranean in what became known as the Hellenistic period, named as such because of the influence of the Hellenes, as the Greeks were known.
Patterns of Roman History. The rise of Rome formed the final phase of classical Mediterranean civilization, for by the first century B.C.E. Rome had subjugated Greece and the Hellenistic kingdoms alike. Originating in central Italy around 800 B.C.E., Roman aristocrats drove out the monarchy around 509 B.C.E., and established a republic. Gradually the republic extended its influence. During the three Punic Wars, from 264 to 146 B.C.E., Rome defeated Hannibal and destroyed the Phoenician city of Carthage. The Romans proceeded to seize the entire western Mediterranean along with Greece and Egypt. The politics of the Roman republic grew increasingly unstable. Civil wars between two generals led to a victory by Julius Caesar, in 45 B.C.E., and the effective end of the traditional institutions of the Roman state. Augustus Caesar seized power in 27 B.C.E. and established the basic structures of the Roman Empire. For 200 years, the empire brought peace and prosperity to virtually the entire Mediterranean world. The emperors also moved northward, conquering France and southern Britain and pushing into Germany. Then the empire suffered a slow but decisive fall that lasted over 250 years, until invading peoples from the north finally overturned the government in Rome in 476 C.E. Economic deterioration, population loss, the need for non-Roman troops, less effective emperors, and the inability of the state to provide protection and justice all contributed to Rome’s decline. Some strong later emperors, particularly Diocletian andConstantine, attempted to reverse the tide. Constantine, in 313, adopted Christianity in an attempt to unite the empire in new ways. However, particularly in the west, the most effective government became local. The invasion of nomadic peoples from the north marked the end of the classical period of Mediterranean civilization—a civilization that, like its counterparts in Gupta India and Han China during the same approximate period, could no longer defend itself.
In sum, the Mediterranean civilization was built on earlier cultures along the eastern Mediterranean and within the Greek islands, taking firm shape with the rise of the Greek city-states after 800 B.C.E. These states began as monarchies but then evolved into more complex and diverse political forms. They also developed a more varied commercial economy, moving away from a purely grain-growing agriculture; this spurred the formation of a number of colonial outposts around the eastern Mediterranean and in Italy. The decline of the city-states ushered in the Macedonian conquest and the formation of a wider Hellenistic culture that established deep roots in the Middle East and Egypt. Then Rome, initially a minor regional state distinguished by political virtue and stability, embarked on its great conquests, which would bring it control of the Mediterranean with important extensions into western and southeastern Europe plus the whole of north Africa. Rome’s expansion ultimately overwhelmed its own republic, but the successor empire developed important political institutions of its own and resulted in two centuries of peace and glory.
Greek and Roman Political Institutions. Politics were very important from the Greek city-states through the early part of the Roman Empire. Indeed, our word politics comes from the Greek word for city-state, polis. Mediterranean civilization developed a distinctive concept of active citizenship. Even under the Roman Empire, political engagement remained strong, whether expressed in local city-states or as Roman citizens. While Confucian China shared an intense interest in politics, Greece and Rome did not develop a cohesive set of political institutions like China’s. The great diversity of political forms in Mediterranean civilization is more in keeping with India, where various political forms—including
participation in governing councils—ran strong. Later societies, in reflecting on classical Mediterranean civilization, selected from a number of political precedents. Monarchy was not a preferred form; rule by individual strongmen advocating public benefits was more common. Our word tyranny comes from this experience in classical Greece. Some of the Roman generals who seized power in the later days of the republic had similar characteristics, as did the Hellenistic kings who succeeded Alexander.
Greece. Democracy (the word is derived from the Greek demos, “the people”) was another important political alternative in classical Mediterranean society. Athens took the lead in democratic development, depending upon a popular assembly of citizens as sovereign authority. The assembly met every 10 days and, those who showed up, voted on important matters of state. Most officials were chosen by lot and were responsible to the assembly. Athenian direct democracy was both more extensive and less inclusive by modern standards. Many adults—women, slaves, and foreigners—were excluded from political rights. One drawback to direct democracy became evident during the Peloponnesian Wars: lower-class citizens, eager for government jobs and the spoils of war, often encouraged actions that weakened the state. The most widely preferred political framework centered on the existence of aristocratic assemblies. Even in Athens, aristocrats like Pericles had excessive importance. The wordaristocracy, which comes from Greek terms meaning “rule of the best,” suggests where many Greeks—particularly, of course, aristocrats themselves—thought real political virtue lay.
Rome. The constitution of the Roman republic tried to reconcile the various elements suggested by the Greek political experience, with primary reliance on the principle of aristocracy. Citizen assemblies elected magistrates to represent the interests of the common people. Aristocrats held most executive offices and comprised the Senate, Rome’s primary legislative body. Two consuls shared primary executive power; and in times of crisis, the Senate could choose a dictator to hold temporary emergency powers. The Roman Senate came closest to realizing the aristocratic ideal of public service. Classical Mediterranean political theorists examined various political forms as well as public virtues. Some of this political writing resembled Confucianism, although there was less emphasis on hierarchy and obedience or bureaucratic virtues, and more on participation in deliberative bodies that would make laws and judge the actions of executive officers. The Roman Empire developed organizational capacities to scale, including its vast hierarchy of the Roman army. That said, considerable local autonomy of custom, authority, and religion prevailed in many regions. Only in rare cases, such as the forced dissolution of the independent Jewish state in 63 C.E. after a major local rebellion, did the Romans take over distant areas completely. Greek and Roman republican leaders had already developed an understanding of the importance of codified, equitable law, however, the idea of fair and reasoned law, to which officers of the state should themselves be subject, was a key political achievement of the Roman Empire. Greeks and Romans were less innovative in the functions they ascribed to government, concentrating primarily on their law courts and military forces. The Roman Empire also pursued a policy of “bread and circuses” designed to prevent popular disorder. They secured vital supplies of grain and undertook vast public works to make cities livable. Even Roman colonies were given theaters, public baths, and stadiums, providing solace in strange lands like England or Palestine. Rome had an official religion and festivals, but other religious practices were tolerated so long as they did not conflict with loyalty to the state. Even the later Roman emperors only attacked Christianity, and then irregularly, because of the Christians’ refusal to place the state first in their devotion. It is true that the emphasis on duties to the state could, as with Sparta, lead to a totalitarian framework, and that, with the exception of the first 200 years of the Roman Empire, warfare was more the rule than the exception. Neither the Greek nor the Roman concept of citizenship involved a clear definition of individual rights. The chief political legacies of the classical Mediterranean world include: localism, fervent political interests, an intense loyalty to the state, a diversity of political systems, a preference for aristocratic rule, and the importance of
law. The sheer accomplishment of the Roman Empire, which united a region never before or since brought together, still stands as one of the great political monuments of world history.
Religion and Culture. The Greeks and Romans did not create a significant, world-class religion; in this they differed from India and Persia and to some extent from China. Christianity, which was to become one of the major world religions, arose during—but was not the product of—the Roman Empire. The characteristic Greco-Roman religion was 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. Regular ceremonies to the gods had real political importance, and many individuals sought the gods’ aid in foretelling the future or in ensuring a good harvest or good health.
The classical Mediterranean religion of human-like gods engendered an important literary tradition, as was the case in India. Tales of the gods’ foibles and passions provoked a serious inquiry into human nature. Unlike the Indians, the Greeks and Romans were less interested in how their gods could elevate them toward higher planes of spirituality. Lacking spiritual passion, the dominant religion failed to satisfy many ordinary workers and peasants, who gravitated to “mystery” religions, often imported from the Middle East. The lack of ethical content in the Greco-Roman religion left many upper-class people dissatisfied, too. Thinkers, such as Aristotle and Cicero, developed independent moral philosophies stressing moderation and balance in human behavior. Other ethical systems were devised, particularly during the Hellenistic period. Stoics emphasized an inner moral independence. These ethical systems were major contributions in their own right; they would also be blended with later religious thought, under Christianity.
Mediterranean philosophy emphasized the powers of human thought. In Athens, Socrates (born in 469 B.C.E.) encouraged his pupils to question conventional wisdom; the Athenian government, thinking that he was undermining political loyalty, gave him the choice of suicide or exile; Socrates chose the former. The Socratic principle of rational inquiry by means of skeptical questioning became a recurrent strand in classical Greek thinking and in its heritage to later societies. The Greeks were not outstanding empirical scientists, but their interest in rationality carried over to an inquiry into the underlying order of physical nature. Pythagoras and Euclid contributed major achievements to geometry, while Galen’s contributions to anatomy were a standard for centuries. Less fortunately, Ptolemy, contradicting much earlier Middle Eastern astronomy, produced an elaborate theory of the sun’s motion around a stationary earth that was long taken as fixed wisdom in Western thought. Roman intellectuals added little to Greek and Hellenistic science, preferring to preserve it as school curriculum. The Romans expressed their genius in their engineering achievements such as great roads, harbors, aqueducts, and elaborate arches.
The gods and goddesses of Greece and Rome inspired all manner of artistic expression, but drama had a central role in Greek culture. The Greek division of drama into comedy and tragedy remains a Western tradition. The Athenian dramatist Sophocles used tragedy to demonstrate the fragility of human virtues. Greek literature included a strong epic tradition, beginning with the Iliad and the Odyssey, attributed to Homer. Roman authors, particularly the poet Virgil, also worked in the epic form, seeking to link Roman history and mythology with the Greek forerunner. Roman definitions of the poetic form would long be used in Western literature. In the visual arts, the emphasis of classical Mediterranean civilization was sculpture and architecture. The Greeks also excelled at ceramics, whereas the Romans were skilled painters. Greek sculptors like Phidias developed unprecedented skill rendering simultaneously realistic yet beautiful images of the human form; Roman sculptors continued the Greek heroic-realistic tradition. Greek and Roman architects emphasized monumental construction of public buildings—temples, baths, marketplaces, theaters—in three building styles devised by the Greeks: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. Roman engineering allowed greater size, as well as new forms such as the free-standing stadium. Under the empire, the Romans learned how to add domes. All art was public: temples and markets were for daily use; dramas were public rituals for all citizens; Romans enjoyed monumental athletic performances such as chariot races. The elements of classical art—the great monuments if
nothing more—were part of daily urban life and the pursuit of pleasure. Roman styles were also blended with Christianity during the later empire, providing another lasting expression.
Economy and Society in the Mediterranean. Politics and formal culture in Greece and Rome were mainly affairs of the cities—meaning that they were of intense concern only to a minority of the population. Most people were farmers, tied to the soil and often to local rituals and festivals that were different from urban forms. Political tensions between tyrants and aristocrats or democrats and aristocrats in Greece were largely due to the conflicts between large estate holders and debt-ridden small free farmers trying to maintain their independence. The Roman republic declined, in part, because too many farmers became dependent on the protection of large landlords, and so no longer could vote freely.
Agriculture and Trade. Both Greece and Rome suffered from the fact that their soil was poor for grain cultivation. The turn to commercial farming of olives and grapes led to a substantial market basis and territorial expansion. Both developments exacerbated the tensions at home between landowners and small farmers. The estate holders were better equipped to invest the capital needed for production and distribution to grain-growing areas. In both cases, empire became the obvious answer to feeding a growing population. Roman heavy cultivation of grain in north Africa resulted in a soil depletion that helps account for the region’s reduced agricultural fertility in later centuries. Extensive trade developed, with the state supervising grain trade. There was some trade also beyond the borders of Mediterranean civilization itself, for goods from India and China. In this trade, the Mediterranean peoples found themselves at some disadvantage as they did not produce goods of equal value. Merchants remained in an ambiguous position; their status was higher than in Confucian China, but less firm than in India.
Slavery. Slavery was of major importance. Aristotle justified it; Greeks depended on it in their silver mines, commercial operations, and households. Spartans used slave labor for agricultural production. The need for slaves was intimately connected with imperial pursuits, as slaves were among the spoils of war. The spread of slavery in the Roman Empire contributed to the decline of free farmers and to Roman militarism. Commercialized agriculture required the influx of labor, and independent farmers could not compete with free labor. For both Greece and Rome, the dominance of slavery led to stagnant technology in manufacturing and agriculture. Upper-class intellectual and political pursuits further dissuaded attention to technology. The Greeks did, however, advance shipbuilding and navigation, and the Romans were consummate engineers.
Tight patriarchal families were the norm in both cultures. However, women had a vital function in farming and artisan economies and, among the upper classes in Rome, women could command considerable authority in their households. Legally, women were held inferior. This was mitigated somewhat by the developments of Roman law under the Empire. If divorced because of adultery, a Roman woman lost a third of her property and had to wear a special garment that set her apart like a prostitute. On the other hand, the oppression of women was probably less severe in this civilization than in China. Many Greek and Roman women were active in business and controlled a portion, even if only the minority, of all urban property.
Most people in Greece and Rome continued to work largely as their ancestors had done, untouched by the doings of the great or the bustle of the cities, except when wars engulfed their lands. We are tempted to remember the urban achievements exclusively, for they exerted the greatest influence on later ages that recalled the glories of Greece and Rome. However, the habits and attitudes of ordinary farmers and artisans developed during the great days of the Greek and Roman empires should not be overlooked; their separation from much of the official culture posed both a challenge and opportunity for new cultural movements such as Christianity.
Pressing the Environment. Rome’s economy had serious environmental consequences. Pollution, garbage, and toxic materials made the city of Rome an unhealthy place. The push for
ever greater agricultural production led to deforestation. Deforestation, in turn, led to erosion and the loss of topsoil, developments that greatly reduced the productivity of Roman land.
Toward the Fall of Rome. The fragmentary collapse of Rome left its own impact on world civilization. Unlike China, classical civilization in the Mediterranean region was not simply disrupted only to revive. Unlike India, there was no central religion to serve as a link between the classical period and what followed. The fall of Rome was not uniform and no single civilization ultimately rose to claim the mantle of Greece and Rome. At the same time, there was no across-the-board maintenance of the classical Mediterranean institutions and values in any of the civilizations that later claimed a relationship to the Greek and Roman past. Greece and Rome would live on, in more than idle memory, but their heritage was unquestionably more complex and more selective than proved to be the case for India or China.
A Complex Legacy. The classical Greek and Hellenistic political legacy was in the form of ideas; unlike the Chinese, they did not develop enduring political institutions, although Rome copied some Greek structures. The most enduring legacy came in art and philosophy. Partly because they did not generate a major religion, Greek and Roman contributions to a durable popular culture were more limited than was true in China or India. Although the Western educational tradition long focused on the legacy of Greco-Roman civilization, they were inferior to China and India in many political and scientific achievements. Their legacy is not only a result of their achievement, but also because the West consciously adopted many of its features. Moreover, Alexander’s conquest of Persia brought a complex mixture of reciprocal influences, blurring the line between Greek and Middle Eastern culture. Hellenistic kings imitated Persian centralization and bureaucracy. Cultural exchange also gave Zoroastrian influences a wider range. This furthered the influence these religious ideas would have on Mediterranean religions, including Judaism, and later, Christianity and Islam. Later, more purely Persian kingdoms arose as the Hellenistic states declined. Under Hellenism and Persia alike, the Middle East enhanced its role as a point of exchange among many different merchants and cultures.