I am a “Man of the West”. I live in a Western country and speak a Western language. So this week I chose to address the following question: What are the Greeks and Romans relationship to our civilization? I am trying to illustrate that our current Western civilization has a direct and close relationship with the Greeks and Romans. You can’t swing a metaphorical cat without hitting some idea, concept or paradigm that came from the Greco-Roman world. In many ways large and small, obvious and subtle we live in a world that grew from these ancient cultures. I have selected to highlight, admittedly superficial, examples of how the Greco-Roman world affected our current world in politics, the military, the arts and religion. I have also selected sources outside of the Roberts’ text, in support of the theme and also to demonstrate that Roberts’ shows no obvious bias and fits in the major historical stream regarding this question.
In the political realm the language and many of the ideas of government and politics came from Greece and Rome. The concepts of democracy, oligarchy, tyranny, even the very word “politics” (derived from the polis, or the city-state), all come from Greece. (Roberts, 104) A further example is that the American Founding Fathers consciously copied the Roman Republic during the founding of America (Schlesinger, 5). It is no accident the upper house of Congress is called the Senate.
Militarily, the Western idea of a trained and disciplined military, while rediscovered by the Dutch Counts of Nassau in the 1500’s are based on writings of Roman military authors like Aelians and Vegetius (Parker, 20-21) Further, the paradigm of a relatively small, professional, long-service, government supported and equipped military, which most Western countries follow, comes from the reforms in the Roman Army of the counsel, Gaius Marius. (Cowley and Parker, 89).
Linking the two aforementioned concepts of democratic-republicanism is civic militarism, in that the citizenry, not a ruling elite or a tyrant, both governs and defends the state. Civic militarism was ‘invented’ by Athens and Sparta (Porter, 17). While this ideal faded in the 20th century, (Black, 12), echoes of it continue on into the 21st century; for example the American military expedites citizenship for resident aliens serving as members (Lee). And as we are continually reminded by TV and radio ads, the law still requires eighteen-year old men to register for the draft. It is no accident that registering for the draft, reaching voting age and becoming a fully legal adult all take place at age eighteen. Adulthood confers not just the right to vote, but the potential obligation to fight for the state. The ancient Greeks hoplites would have understood this relationship very well (Roberts, 104).
In cultural areas: the Greeks invented theater; specifically: “Thespis impersonated a character in dialogue with the chorus, and so invented true drama,” (Hadas, 6). Also it has been argued that Homer wrote the first novels (Fitts, backpanel) by composing the Iliad and the Odyssey, although that honor might go to much older the Epic of Gilgamesh.
There can be no argument that, for good or ill, Christianity has had and continues to have a major influence on Western civilization even into the 21st Century. Indicative of the influence of the Hellenistic and Roman world on this very Western religion are the facts that the New Testament was first written in Greek. The apostle (Saint) Paul sat astride both the Jewish Diaspora world and Greco-Roman world. He was a product the yeshiva and the gymnasium, (Cahill, 118) and wrote in Greek, the language of the educated people in the Roman Empire. It is also an important fact that both Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome (Roberts,138-139). Also the Roman Catholic headquarters continues to reside in Rome (Vatican City), and further, the organization of the Church was taken directly from the political organization of the late Roman Empire.
I could go on and on. Philosophy and logic, rational history and geography, science and math were all essentially invented or highly refined by the Greeks and then passed on to the modern world through the Romans (Roberts 117-118).
In conclusion, it may be said that the Greeks and Roman influence on Modern Western civilization is a literally incalculable. In short, the Greco-Roman world gave birth to Western civilization in all its glory and with all its failings.
Black, Jeremy. War in the New Century. London, Continuum Press, 2001
Cahill, Thomas. Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus. Oxford, Lion
Hudson Plc, 2002.
Fitts, Dudley. Homer’s Odyssey. New York, NY: Signet Classics, 1999.
Hadas, Moses. Greek Drama. New York, NY Bantam Classics, 1983.
Lee, Margaret Mikyung. Expedited Citizenship Through Military Service: Policy and Issues,
Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service. http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/ RL31884.pdf.
Parker, Geoffery. The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500-
1800 2nd Ed. New York, NY; Cambridge University Press 1996.
Porter, Bruce. War and the Rise of the State: The foundations of Modern Politics. New York,
NY: The Free Press, 1994.
Roberts, J. M. A Short History of the World. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Schlesinger, Arthur. The Cycles of American History. New York NY: Mariner Books, 1999.