While both Roman and Greek cultures greatly influenced Western Civilization, Greeks contributed more to the western world than the Romans. The Greeks used their own ideas and thought of new ways to add to their culture, while the Romans mostly mixed and matched ideas from other civilizations and cultures to make their own. The Romans took up the inheritance of the Greeks adapted it to their own language and national traditions. (Grant 2)The Greeks introduced many new ideas and traditions, the most important being democracy – Athenian democracy in particular.
After the Dark Age, the population in Greece grew so quickly that soon, there were way too many free peasants. These peasants realized that nobody could stop them if they tried to make some changes because there was so many of them, so they insisted on having their voices heard by the government. Their wish was granted, and democracy in its simplest form became known. Now that the peasants had more freedom, some of them started to earn higher wages, and soon were rich enough to purchase hoplite armor. (Hoplites made up the majority of the army and fought on foot.)
The peasants were also placing strong demands on the elite class, also known as the oligarchy. The system of citizenship in Greece was established as a result, during the late 7th century BCE (Martin 82), and enabled the peasants to have more influence on their leaders and protection under the law. There were three kinds of citizens the rich, the hoplites, and the poor. Only males were citizens. All citizens could attend open meetings in the Assembly, elect archons (leaders) each year, and were protected under the law.
The peace of Greece had been slowly deteriorating, and in 621 BCE, it only got worse. The rich, elite class had been accumulating farmland from the poor farmers, who had to pack up and leave once a rich person took their land. A poor farmer had a hard time gaining wealth because any wealth they did gain would be in the form of surplus grain. Extra grain was not permanent, and could not be converted into money since coins were not invented yet. Then in 621 BCE, Draco was appointed to establish a code of laws to help bring stability by changing the situation. But his laws were so harsh that they only destabilized the people more. Civil war threatened to break out until 594 BCE when the Athenians gave Solon power to revise Dracos laws and deal with the crisis. His new laws steered a middle course (Martin 84) between the demands of the rich and the demands of the poor. He introduced the right of appeal to the Assembly, forbade the selling of Athenians into slavery, and sorted male citizens into four classes based on income. Overall, Solon helped to make democracy more peaceful.
After a short period of tyranny, the democratic system was reinstalled and new rules were made yet again. Cleisthenes organized villages in Athens into trittyes according to location, and each of the trittyes was divided into phylai, or tribes. He also started to keep track of which males were old enough to vote and join the Assembly, with the voting age at eighteen. The Assembly would choose fifty representatives by lot from each tribe. Each representative would get to serve for one year on a council of five hundred men. Also, ten men were selected by officials with the highest military authority to serve as strategoi, or generals, in the army. (Martin 88)Another reform was made after an earthquake near Sparta in 465 BCE created tension between Sparta and Athens, and a crisis in formal affairs took place. Athens sent military help to Sparta that was rejected in a complicated series of events.
As a result, in 461 BCE, Ephialetes convinced the Assembly to limit the influence of Areopagus the highest judicial and legislative council of ancient Athens that met on a hill west of the Acropolis. (Martin 110) A new judicial system was created with juries of males over thirty years old chosen by lot to serve for one year. Ostracism was also established. If the general public submitted over six thousand ballots, the man who had his name on the most ballots was exiled for ten years. In general, democracy rested on the belief that the cumulative political wisdom of the majority of the voters would outweigh the eccentricity and irresponsibility of the few. (Martin 113)In addition to democracy, the Greeks most important contribution to Western civilization, many elements of modern culture are rooted in ancient Greece.
Philosophers, especially Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates impacted the way people thought about the world around them. Greek architecture is still commonly used today, as evidenced by our use of pillars and columns. The ancient Greeks also excelled in sculpting. They figured out how to make graceful, emotional, and realistic statues which needed no additional support. Poetry, theatre, and drama also made up an important part of Greek culture. Some Greeks studied science, math, history, and their studies form the basis of many of todays theories. Science helped others understand a little more of these subjects. In Greece, as in todays world, science was based on observation, not myth, even though myths were considered an important part of life to every Greek. The Greeks are also considered to be the first people who recorded history only after consulting witnesses, forming the base of modern history.
One exceptionally significant custom of the Greeks still observed today is the Olympics. These ancient games incorporated a concept of free athletic competition without bloodshed. If the Greeks were engaged in war at the time the Olympics were to take place, they would pause for three days and compete in many different events. At first, there were only a few competitions, but as the Olympics became more popular, additional sports were included. The four main contests of the ancient Olympics were the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw, and wrestling. At one time, the Olympics were for male Greek citizens only, but today people of various nationalities, men and women, can take part in this unique Greek custom. The Olympics were also very different from the Roman sport games, such as gladiator fighting or the Roman form of wrestling, where humans and animals were killed.
Even though Romans did use many ideas and designs from Greeks and other cultures, they also thought of their own. A considerable contribution of the Romans to the Western World is their system of government a Republic. Republic comes from the word respublica, which means a matter for the people. (Corbishley 15) Officers in the Republic included consuls, praetors, censors, quaestors, adiles, and the senate. Consuls had the same powers as a king, but unlike a king, they were elected each year by the citizens and had to serve in pairs. The praetors were the chief judges, the censors kept track of who could vote, the quaestors looked after the state finances, and the adiles were in charge of public works. The senate was a body made up of ex-officials that formed a parliament to discuss matters and advise the other officials. As in the Athenian democracy, only male citizens could vote, but the people of ancient Rome were glad they had a republic, and they hated the word rex, or king.
The Romans excelled in literature, poetry, law, engineering, state organization, military training and organization, painting, sculpture, and architecture. They also had games in the amphitheater sports like chariot races, gladiator fights, fake battles in ships, and fights with wild animals.
The Romans had a complex law system that was the foundation for Italian, German, French, and Spanish law. The Roman techniques of interpreting the law and their legal system of lawyers and judges were also incorporated into many other cultures. There were three kinds of laws. Civil law was for Roman citizens only, and there were laws for those people who were not citizens, but lived in Roman provinces or on the outskirts of Roman towns. The third type of law was natural law, deciding between right and wrong. Civil law and the other laws could be created by the Assembly, praetors, senate, emperors, and jurists. They created many different laws. They made sure there was a variety of laws, to deal with every situation, and these multiple laws helped the kingdom of Rome run smoothly.
The Romans were also great engineers. They paved roads wide enough for the whole army, built walls around their cities for protection, and even had apartment buildings. They also had aqueducts, built high above the ground to carry water to the cities. Arches, a very important Roman invention, helped the aqueducts to stand strong without collapsing. Arches were also used in buildings like the Coliseum, the Forum, and basilicas. Many early churches were built using the plans of the Roman basilicas.
Other buildings had vast domes. Roman engineers did not want these magnificent domes to collapse, either, so they thought of coffering as a solution. Coffering is also known as placing decorative, sunken panels in a ceiling to make it lighter. Romans added other things to buildings to make them more attractive, like fountains, pillars, and sculptures. The Roman civilization made many of their buildings out of brick and mortar, and even concrete. Engineering is, indeed, the most noticeable Roman influence on Western civilization, seen in many public buildings and even houses.
Beyond arches and coffers, Roman people did not focus so much on the structure of their buildings as the facades and interiors. They combined Greek columns with fancy arches to make majestic entrances, and painted splendid pictures on walls of mythical characters and nature scenes. Roman sculptors copied Greek masterpieces, adding to the collection of Greek works in existence. They learned how to sculpt faces more realistically and how to make better portraits, and as a result made some pretty remarkable portrait busts of famous people. In addition, the Romans developed a continuous sculpture relief, something like a comic strip that wound around pillars, the most famous of which is known as Trajans column.
Many great rulers governed Rome, including Trajan, and over time helped develop an extremely organized empire. At one time, the Roman administration was split into four levels. Two emperors ruled over four prefectures, who in turn governed three or four vicars each. Each vicar presided over one diocese, and each diocese was split up into many provinces. Early Christians saw how organized this system of government was, that it was one of the reasons Rome was so powerful, and based their own leadership system on this Roman model.
The Greeks and the Romans both contributed much to Western Civilization, but the Greeks seem to have contributed more. The Romans took many ideas from the Greeks and even copied sculptures and other artwork for their own houses and public places, so that much of what they had was Greek. Thus, without the Greeks, the Romans would not have been as impressive of a civilization. This quote best describes the influence of the Greeks and Romans on the world today: we ourselves, whether we like it or not, are the heirs of the Greeks and Romans.
In a thousand different ways, they are permanently and indestructibly woven into the fabric of our own existences. The Romans intertwined Greek culture with other cultures and added their ideas to make what they called their own culture. They then showed it to the rest of Europe through conquering the people, who adopted it and blended it into their civilizations. These civilizations developed into strong European societies, and eventually the ideas and traditions became known as Western civilization. So, really, it all started with the Greeks.
Corbishley, Mike. Cultural Atlas for Young People: Ancient Rome. New York: Facts on File, 1989.
De Fabianis, Valeria Manferto, ed. Ancient Rome: History of a Civilization that Ruled the World. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1996Grant, Michael. The Founders of the Western World: A History of Greece and Rome. New York: Charles Scribners Sons, Maxwell Macmillan Int., 1991Martin, Thomas R. Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times. New Haven, Eng.: Yale University Press, 1996.
Pomeroy, Sarah B., Stanley M. Burnstein, Walter Donlan, and Jennifer Tolbert Roberts. Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Powell, Anton. Cultural Atlas for Young People: Ancient Greece. New York: Facts on File, 1989.