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.

The Origin and History of Gladiator Contests

Athletic events held to commemorate a fallen warrior or leader had a long tradition in the ancient world before the Romans. For example, according to Homer in the Iliad, 12 days of contests that included chariot races, foot races and non-lethal combat were held in honor of Achilles’ friend, Patroklos.

The Romans claimed to have inherited this custom from the Etruscans.  In the Etruscan tradition, servants of the deceased would fight to the death to both honor the dead man and also to see who would be buried with him to serve him in the afterlife.  However, regardless of what the Romans thought about this, there is little archaeological or literary evidence that the Etruscans held any such contests.

The great Roman writer, Livy, described the first recorded gladiatorial contest, in 310 BCE, when he wrote:  “While the Romans made use of armor to honor the gods (putting up a trophy tower of captured Samnite armor), the Campanians, out of contempt and hatred towards the Samnites, made the gladiators who performed at their banquets wear it, and they then called them `Samnites.’” (Livy, 9.40.17)

The first recorded Roman gladiator games were held in 246 BCE when Marcus and Decimus Brutus had three matched sets, or ludi, of gladiators fight to the death as a munus, or death offering, at the funeral of their father, Junius Brutus.  This small scale affair took place at the Roman cattle market or Forum Boarium.  These early fights to the death served two purposes. First they honored the valor of the deceased by having the gladiator display bravery in the face of death, and, second, that the deaths of the gladiators would fend off death from family members of the men that organized the games.

The earlier gladiators were usually captured prisoners of war who were bought specially for the purpose of having them fight.  It wasn’t until the 1st Century BCE that the large gladiator schools, or ludii, were developed.   For many years the contests retained their ritual and religious elements. For example, outside of funerals, the only time games were held was at winter and spring solstices. Also the Vestal Virgins would attend and give their blessing to the games.

After the first small start, gladiatorial contests grew in popularity and cost. For example, by the 180’s BCE 60 matched pairs fought in the winter games. But by 65 BCE Julius Caesar held games that pitted 640 gladiators against each other.  These fights were held in the Forum or in the Circus Maximus. The famous Coliseum, or Flavian amphitheater, wouldn’t be completed until 80 CE.

It wasn’t until the reign of Ceasar Augustus that the religious aspect of the games was finally jettisoned and they became a civic affair run by the Emperor to help control the Roman mob.


Livy, History of Rome.

David Stone Potter and D.J. Mattingly, eds., Life, Death, and Entertainment in the Roman Empire (Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 1999.)

Donald G. Kyle, Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome (London: Routledge, 1998)

How the Romans Conducted Siege Warfare

The Roman legions were masters at siege warfare. In their siege craft they combined the greatest attributes of their civilization; organization, determination, engineering and courage.

As with all their military operations, the Romans had a set plan for taking a fortified location and they practiced it; just as they practiced all their other military drills. The Romans were so taken with realistic training that Josephus said in the 1st century AD that “Their drills were bloodless battles and their battles were bloody drills.”

When confronted with a fortified camp or city that had to be conquered, the Romans first did a reconnaissance of the enemy’s defenses. This survey looked for weak spots in the walls or undefended locations.

If the commander deemed the fortified location could not be taken directly than he would begin a siege with  a standard Roman legion circumvallation.  Such walls were designed to cut the enemy off from all communications and any help from the outside. Often a second circumvallation was built, this one facing outward to prevent reinforcements from reaching the besieged enemy, or an enemy attacking the Romans from the rear.

After the surrounding walls were built, the Romans placed their various artillery machines. For siege warfare the three main types of engines were the onager, ballista and catapulta. The onager was a torsion catapult capable of hurling large stones hundreds of meters. The ballista and catapulta were huge crossbow-like machines that could throw stones and also large arrows, or bolts.

The Romans rarely abandoned a siege once started. For example, they besieged the City of Carthage for nearly three years during the Third Punic War.

As the siege reached its climax, the Romans would often launch direct attacks on the walls. First they would build battering rams to knock down the city gates. The Roman battering towers were sometimes 50 feet tall or more that would let the Romans attack the tops of walls directly or shoot arrows or artillery down on defenders.

Also during assaults to protect themselves the legionaries would form their shields into a tortoise (testudo) formation with shields held over their heads and on all sides to deflect arrows, stones and other projectiles.

After a city was conquered the Romans were ruthless, killing, raping and looting. Any survivors were sold into slavery or kept to be marched thru Roman as part of a triumph (triumphus)  and then executed.