he Greeks and Romans are, at least since the Renaissance, inevitably associated with one another and clearly differentiated from the Near Eastern societies that preceded them and the barbarian societies that succeeded the collapse of the Roman Empire. They constitute Classical history/antiquity/society, their architecture, arts and languages are Classical and their literature constitutes the Classics; the two millennia of urban civilization before them are pre-Classical. And in many ways Roman civilization appears to be simply Greek society translated into Latin. The two societies do indeed constitute a recognizable and unique period of history, easily distinguished from what came before and what came after, yet the two peoples were very different in character, which accounts for the obvious differences in their histories. The Greeks were the Beatles of antiquity, dabbling in everything and pumping their genius into almost every aspect of culture and politics; the Romans were the Rolling Stones, incredibly good at one thing, the hard-driving rock and blues of the maintenance and expansion of power.
Originally barbarian cousins in the extensive Indo-European migrations of the second millennium, both peoples began with roughly the same social and political institutions, common, it seems, to all the Indo-Europeans, at least while they are still on the move. Most critically, this included a weak kinship and the tradition of an informal assembly of warriors that heard and advised the king and was theoretically the source of his authority, an idea radically different from the sophisticated kingships of Egypt and Asia, which derived their authority from heaven. The Greeks and Latins would be the only groups that developed agriculturally based urban societies without losing these core political institutions characteristic of their hunting and gathering past and would consequently be the only ones to evolve actual constitutional polities in which the power exercised by the state was considered to derived from the people, at least in theory.
This accounts for the remarkably parallel political development of the Greek and Latin city-states from petty tribal kingships to sophisticated democratic republics. The driving engines behind this were the changing economic environment, as growing wealth produced new economic elites that challenged the traditional arrangements, and the emergence of the citizen army, which gave increasing reality to the old notion that the people were at the root of political power. Thus the Latin and Greek proto-cities eliminated their kings and established the basic mechanisms of the constitutional state: precisely defined law, citizen assemblies and elective limited term magistracies. With as many as a thousand independent city-states the Greeks had a larger social laboratory and produced in some cases the most complete democracies the world has ever seen, whereas in Italy the dominance of Rome over the other Latin towns resulted in a single powerful city-state, Rome.
But there were differences, some of them profound. The Greek kingship apparently withered away over a period of centuries during the Greek Dark Age, while the Romans clearly overthrew their last king in historic times. The Greek transition from aristocracies of birth to oligarchies of wealth took a generation or two (the Age of Tyrants) and in many cases involved violence, whereas in Rome the transition required two centuries (the Struggle of the Orders) and was remarkably free of political violence. The Greeks produced radical democracies, but Rome, though technically democratic, never went beyond an oligarchy of wealth. The Greeks excelled in the arts and affairs of the mind; the Romans were great administrators and engineers. Despite a common language and culture the Greeks remained fragmented, and the empires of the fifth and fourth centuries were short-lived; even the huge Macedonian controlled empires of Alexander and his successors were relatively fragile. The Romans of course steadily expanded their power, conquering Italy and the Mediterranean world over a period of little more than three centuries and establishing an immense empire that would endure for almost another five hundred years. This power thing in particular baffled the Greeks, who could not understand why the Romans, who began with the same political, social and military equipment as themselves, could so easily become the stable imperial power that always eluded them. And being almost effortlessly conquered by a people they considered in so many ways intellectually inferior did not help.
Greek thinkers, like the historian Polybius, had trouble seeing beyond the institutions that made the two societies appear so similar. What apparently escaped them, at least in trying to understand Roman history, was something relatively simple: national character. The most important facet of the Greek character, affecting everything they engaged in, was agōn, the need to compete and struggle, which consequently enhanced the importance of both the individual and his city. The Greeks were most definitely not team players. The Romans were. Their prime character directive was pietas, duty, the compulsion to fulfill ones obligations to the family, the gods and the community, which ultimately meant the state. They were incredibly conservative, which slowed their evolution, but at the same time they were also eminently practical, which saved them from that conservatism. While the Greeks theorized, the Romans just did it – and did it differently if the traditional way no longer worked.
Consider the national heroes of the two cultures. For the Greeks it was the Homeric warriors, especially Achilles, extreme and narcissistic individuals who ultimately cared for only one thing – themselves. For them the major importance of the group was simply defining their individual honor, in defense of which they would gladly sacrifice their lives. The Roman heroes, on the other hand, were all men whose defining quality was the willingness to sacrifice for the group. Aeneas, the premier Roman hero, abandons Dido and the kingship of Carthage in order to fulfill his destiny as the ultimate founder of Rome. At great cost to himself he honors his duty to a state that will not even exist for another four hundred years. Incidentally, Aeneas, though technically a Trojan, is a figure out of Greek literature, a Greek creation, yet the Romans came to believe that he was the ultimate founder of Rome.
Why these character differences? It probably had much to do with their respective environments. The Balkan Peninsula, especially in the south, is a land of limited resources, notably arable land, and scarcity inevitably encourages competition. In contrast Italy possesses a great deal of good farmland, and Latium, the coastal area where Rome is situated, is particularly bountiful. This is not to say that the early Romans were devoid of any competitive spirit, but rather that survival in the relative economy of scarcity that was Greece instilled in the Greek psyche a far larger measure of competitiveness and aggressiveness. This is hardly a completely satisfactory explanation, but then, I am not a cultural anthropologist.
The Greeks competed in everything (even sex was seen as a kind of competition), which goes a long way in explaining their history and society. They competed in athletics, music and drama; trierarchs competed in equipping the fastest trireme. The incredible cultural explosion of the sixth and fifth centuries clearly has its roots in agōn; societies that are comfortable simply have less motivation to ask questions, to think new thoughts, to create new things. Archaic and Classical Age Greece (8th – 4th centuries) was, like the Renaissance, filled with struggle, and the result was the perhaps the most important intellectual discoveries in history. By way of contrast Old and Middle Kingdom Egypt (27th – 18th centuries) was the most materially and spiritually comfortable society in antiquity, and in the course of a millennium virtually not a single new idea was produced.
But the drive to compete had a down side. City-state governments were very unstable, and political violence was always just outside the door. More devastating of course was the seemingly endless warfare, as each city competed with its neighbors, not just for resources but also status. The city-state was a narcissistic entity, a polity with attitude, and warfare was the ultimate expression of superiority – at least if you won. So deeply ingrained by constant competition was the idea of autonomy that inter-city structures were inevitably based on force or the threat of force, as with the Athenian Empire or the Peloponnesian League, and unity eluded the Greeks until it was imposed from without. Common efforts, such as the defense against the Persian Empire, were extremely difficult, and Greece’s ultimate downfall emerged from her inability to cooperate for the common Hellenic good. It was left to the Macedonians monarchy, the most backward of Greek states, to dominate the Balkan Peninsula and conquer Persia.
The Romans of course also enjoyed a powerful sense of superiority – what successful culture does not – but it was not so all-consuming as with the individual Greek cities. In establishing control over the other Latin towns Rome was able to some extent to share authority and even her citizenship, something unthinkable for the Greeks. Roman arrogance took a back seat to practicality in dealing with defeated non-Latin peoples in Italy, and the Romans were able to create alliance structures that left them stronger and in complete control but offered sufficient mutual benefit to provide for long-term stability. The so-called Italian allies were thoroughly subordinate to Rome yet came to regard themselves as actual allies and ultimately as Romans, thus providing the manpower base that would allow the conquest of the Mediterranean world.
The Roman saw the world around him as a network of obligations, and honor was rooted in fulfilling those obligations. This makes for a very well-knit community, and the political factionalism that plagued the Greeks remained well leashed until the last century of the Republic. The Roman was inclined to accept rather than challenge authority, at least if he considered it legitimate, and as a result, the Senatorial elite smoothly governed Rome for four hundred years, even though for most of that period the Senate possessed no actual constitutional powers but was simply an advisory body. Once again, unthinkable for the Greeks. The system only broke down when the Senate was corrupted by power and wealth, and serving oneself edged out serving the state.
Ironically, but not surprisingly, both peoples initially considered the other barbarians. The Greeks clung to this notion well into their role as provincials in the Roman Empire, an idea perhaps sustained in the face of overwhelming Roman success by the fact that the new masters were so clearly impressed by the Greek cultural achievement. The Romans could hardly deny that achievement, as they learned Greek, imitated Greek arts and looted the statuary of the Hellenic world. So, the Greeks were not barbarians, like the Gauls and Germans; they were just effete.
The Hellenizing of Rome began long before Roman legionaries were traipsing about the Balkan Peninsula, and “captive Greece” captured Rome centuries before it actually became captive. The Greek Age of Colonization (late 8th – 6th centuries) saw Sicily and the coastal areas of southern Italy so thickly settled with Greek cities that the area became known as Great Greece, and young Rome could hardly resist the influence. Cumae, the northernmost and possibly earliest Greek establishment in Italy, was barely a hundred miles southeast of Rome, and the tendrils of Hellenism were already caressing the city on the Tiber while it was still being rules by kings. Roman culture was not quite a blank slate, but a couple of centuries behind the Greeks in their development, the Romans were simply overwhelmed.
The Latin alphabet is derived from the Greek, and the more defined and sophisticated Greek gods had such an impact that native Italic deities gradually disappeared, supplanted by the Greek pantheon with Latin names. Greek literature was so far advanced that the earliest examples of serious Latin literature are written in Greek. The Romans copied the hoplite phalanx, the more efficient heavy infantry formation invented by the Greeks, though characteristically, when it ran into trouble operating in the central highlands, they seriously modified it, copying weapons used by their opponents. Greek heavy infantry ended in the dead end of the Macedonian phalanx, while the Roman version grew into the legions.
In a very real sense Rome’s major legacy was preserving virtually intact the Greek achievement. The Greeks simply could not create stable long-term imperial structures, and while the discoveries of the Greeks would not have simply vanished without the Roman Empire, they would have suffered. Hellenized at such an early stage, Rome and her empire embraced Greek culture, and the extent and incredible duration of that empire insured that the grand ideas of the Greeks would be fixed at the heart of European civilization.