Greece and Roman and the Modern West

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. 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.


Civic Militarism

“Civic militarism is the creation of a broad, shared military observance among the majority of the population” (Skelly, 1). Also embodied in the concept is “the idea that a citizen has particular rights as an individual that transfer into battle” (Hanson). Or that a person does not give up certain basic rights when entering the military; like trial by jury, security of personal property, and so on. At least one book claims that the French Revolution and the Levee en Mass “re-invented” this concept, taking it, as it were, from the Romans and Greeks. (Lynn, 184). Victor Davis Hanson would disagree with that thesis, as he sees a strain of “Civic Militarism” all through Western military history (Hanson).

One thing is clear, that mass military service develops, or imposes, a high degree of social cohesion and discipline on a society. In short, it “team builds” in a massive way that no other social institution can do. Two examples of this massive team building are Prussia in 18th and 19th Century (Porter, 116) and Israel in the 1940s and 1950s (Porter,18).

Also, civic militarism seems to encompass the idea that military service is not only necessary for state survival, but is also honorable and one of the duties a citizen owes the state.

However, people who join the military should certainly receive praise and social benefits as well. After “they are those that places thier frail bodies between thier loved home and war’s desolation”. But should a society that cannot foster and encourage enough sense of obligation to join the military in its own citizenry really have the ability to compel its citizens into a duty that they, the individual, clearly does not feel obligated for which to volunteer?

 Hanson, Victor Davis. “War and the West, Then and Now” paper presented at the University of Oregon on February 11, 2004 online at html 

Lynn, John A., Battle: A History of Combat and Culture (Cambridge, MA: Westview Press, 2003). 

Porter, Bruce. War and the Rise of the State: The Foundations of Modern Politics. (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1994). 

Skelly, Patrick G. “Evolution in ‘The Western Way of War’: Continuity, Punctuated Equilibrium, Neither?” 28 May 2006 online at


Defining Civilization

Will Durant provided us a very good, brief summary of what civilization really is: “Civilization is social order promoting cultural creation. Four elements constitute it: economic provision, political organization, moral traditions and the pursuit of knowledge and the arts. It begins where chaos and insecurity end. For when fear is overcome, curiosity and constructiveness are free, and man passes by natural impulse towards the understanding and embellishment of life.”

Civilization, the city and the political state are all highly interrelated. Most anthropologist, historians and sociologist would agree that all three develop nearly simultaneously.

A civilized city whether it creates or is created by a civilization, has some primary characteristics: a large population of at least around 5000 people. The urban area is densely settled. The urban population is generally not engaged in agricultural work; rather they produce arts, crafts or are administrators, record-keepers, and other specialists. This urban population is supported by the food production of others, usually in the surrounding hinterland. The agricultural population exchanges goods and services with the urban dwellers. Therefore, the city is part of a complex system of urban and non-urban production and exchange. The exchange may be market-based or more directed through central controls, such as thorough taxes or tribute. Regardless of how the exchange is managed, urban and hinterland populations are interdependent on each other for specialized goods and services.

Also a city usually has some kind of public spaces set aside for public business and an infrastructure to move goods and people from the outland into the urban center and back again.

The political state has a direct relation with cities and civilization. To the Greeks, the city and the state were one in the same, thus the Greek’s very concept of civilization was rooted in the poleis, or city-state. The characteristics of the state are those of the city, but also with a political organization as well. A state has some central authority or government, an administrative hierarchy, a monopoly on the legitimate use of force to both enforce laws and defend the state. The state has some form of legal coercive power, however limited, on its citizens. The state also collects taxes, maintains territorial sovereignty, and finally a state has the right, ability and power to make decisions regarding is sovereign territory.

In addition, a civilization will have full-time labor specialization among a large population, the concentration of surplus of goods, or wealth, in the hands of large institutions like an organized religion structure or government or into the hands of certain individuals like a monarch, or aristocrats or both, leading to a class structure. Also civilizations have a state organization with political hierarchies of power and administration. Civil and economic organizations are fueled by writing, arithmetic and other arts and sciences. Secondary civilization traits are monumental public works such as temples, palaces, city walls and gates, and may include long-distance trade, standardized and monumental artwork.


Whitehouse, Ruth; Wilkins, John. The Making of Civilization: History Discovered Through Archaeology New York: Knopf, 1986. Childe, V. Gordon. Man Makes Himself London: Coronet Books, 2003.

Childe, V. Gordon. Man Makes Himself (London: Coronet Books, 2003.)

The Influence of John Locke on the Declaration of Independence

John Locke was the greatest of the Enlightenment political philosophers.  In his work: “An Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent and End of Civil Government”, Locke proposed that all men have certain inalienable rights. These rights are “Life, Liberty and Property”. These are inalienable because they may not be taken from a person except by due process of law. Further these rights were self-evident, meaning they required no more support that was given by observing human nature.  Based on these natural rights and his view that all humans are rational actors, Locke argued for a nation-state structure that was designed to secure these rights and prevent chaos but nothing more. For Locke, the best state was a constitutional state with the three branches of government separated from each other, with legislative control of state finances, an independent legal system and the rule of law.

Locke was deeply affected by the Glorious Revolution of 1688.  His philosophical works strongly supported the Revolution Settlement of 1688 between Parliament and William of Orange, later King William III and the Bill of Rights of 1689.

Jefferson’s devotion to Locke’s ideals is clear in the famous preamble to the Declaration of Independence where he states “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  Here Jefferson paraphrased “life, liberty and property” into “life, liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Further the Declaration is an almost line for line recapitulation of the English Bill of Rights of 1689 and how King George violated those rights in America.

For example in the Bill of Rights:  “No royal interference with the law. Though the sovereign remains the fount of justice, he or she cannot unilaterally establish new courts or act as a judge.” And in the Declaration: “He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.  He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.”  There are many other examples.


John Locke, An Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent and End of Civil Government, 1696

The American Declaration of Independence 1776

The  English Bill of Rights 1689