Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire are arguably the most critical ancient civilizations which served as the foundation of modern Western society. Greece is known for its creation of Democracy as a government, contributions to philosophy and sciences, and a rich culture closely intertwined with religion. The Roman Empire is profoundly known for its geopolitical expansions, complex politics, and establishing itself as the center of civilization in Europe and Asia Minor for centuries, attracting economic, intellectual, and cultural assets. Although the Romans drew significant influence and built upon various elements of Greek civilization, the two cultures differed in critical ways in their worldview and development, which negates the argument that Romans created a world that Greeks “had only dreamed about.”
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As it is well known, Greece underwent various stages of development as a civilization including its founding, the Dark Age, the Archaic Age, and the Classical Age. For the purposes of this paper, when referring to Greece or the Greeks, the primary focus will be on the Classical Age, also known as the Golden Age of Athens stretching between 479 BCE and 404 BCE. This period is considered as the peak of Ancient Greek civilization from a cultural, political, and intellectual standpoint, although other periods may be drawn upon for evidence and comparison (Dutton et al. 56). The Hellenistic era of Greek civilization represents a time when Greece was conquered by Phillip of Macedonia, and although significant with the subsequent conquests of Alexander the Great, significantly divert from the classical Ancient Greek culture of Athenian rule.
Roman history is slightly more complex, and it is important to include both its days as a Republic as well as the Empire. Therefore, when referring to the Romans, this paper will clarify whether it is referencing the Roman Republic, lasting from 509 BCE to 27 BCE, or the Roman Empire established shortly after. Similarly, to Greece, the focus in comparisons will attempt to focus on eras of peak prosperity such as the great Pax Romana under the first two centuries of the Roman Empire (Dutton et al. 156).
Greek government took on various forms throughout its history but is best known for introducing forms of representative Democracy, particularly in Athens. Most of the city-states, including the monarch-ruled Sparta, had some sort of elected body or council which sought to represent the will of the people. However, societies formed around the concept of providing a voice to the citizens of their respective polis. Athens had a council of 500 representatives from each demos, offering representative balance although the assembly members were often members of the aristocratic class. Democracy was also practiced in an unofficial capacity via the Pynx, an assembly of thousands of male citizens who could voice their opinions. Pericles wrote on his thoughts about Athenian democracy, “Our constitution has named a democracy because it is not in the hands of the few but of the many. Our laws secure equal justice for all in their private disputes, and our public opinion welcomes and honors talent in every branch of achievement, not as a matter of privilege but on the grounds of excellence alone” (Dutton et al. 68). It should be noted that for much of its early history, Athens was ruled by aristocratic leadership, and at one point experienced a bout with tyranny which failed. While Greek democracy was a vital contribution, the majority of governments in city-states were a mixture of oligarchic, aristocratic, monarchical, and democratic elements.
The Romans after achieving freedom from the Etruscan conquerors established the Roman Republic. Citizens were elected to the Senate to rule while there was a Consul at the head of the government. Only wealthy Romans with full citizenship known as patricians could vote, hold office, and engage in other affairs. The lower class of citizens known as plebeians had little rights at first, but eventually also achieved the ability to vote and run for office. The Roman political spectrum during the Republic was complex – both flexible and inconsistent. Polybius notes in his writings, “it had three elements, each of them possessing sovereign powers; and their respective share of power in the whole state had been regulated with such scrupulous regard to equality and equilibrium that no one could say for certain, not even a native, whether the constitution as a whole was an aristocracy or democracy or despotism (Dutton et al. 130). The Roman Republic was notably not stable, engaged in a consistent state of political turmoil and internal division which eventually led to its transition to the Roman Empire where all power was virtually given to the emperor. While the Senate remained a branch of government, actual authority remained with the Emperor which held absolute control over the Senate.
The Roman economy was very similar to Ancient Greece, being an agrarian and slave-based economy. Both societies also heavily relied on imported goods due to the poor quality of soil which limited food production en masse. Therefore, trading was a strong element for both Greeks and Romans which exported artisan products and resources while importing food products and highly luxurious or technological products that were necessary for their respective lifestyles. While Greece did develop a tax system and levies, the government was not heavily involved in the economy (Migeotte 68). The Roman government virtually during all its eras was heavily involved in the management of the economy and tax collection, both from its citizens and numerous provinces – overseeing the distribution of resources and products as necessary for economic growth. The Greeks valued simplicity in the economy, and it is something that the Romans were able to achieve by avoiding economic complexities and maintaining rather simple systems despite how large their territory was. The expansive trade which brought goods and technologies from continents and cultures to Rome was also a subject of significant importance to Greece which engaged in trade not only for economic terms but cultural exchange as well (Bowman and Wilson 49).
The Romans imitated the Greeks in various elements of culture, ranging from religion to art. The two civilizations obviously had differences in language as Greece consistently used Greek while Romans adopted Latin which was developed with some input of Greek but had a distinctly different form. In religion, the Romans took upon many of the deities of a polytheistic approach, which was similarly reflected in art. Greeks laid the foundation for many art forms such as poetry, theater, and sculpture. Romans imported many of these elements and provided them with much more resources and better technology improved on it. However, it may have been a cultural element as well. For example, Greek sculpture was always an idealized portrayal of people and events, while Romans always took upon a much more naturalistic and realistic approach. Therefore, while Roman culture imitated the Greeks it never quite took on the same approach, with the Romans largely continuing the Hellenistic traditions and culture of the post-Alexander era which did not reflect the Classical or earlier eras of the Athenian rule (Woolf 116).
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There was an inherent difference as the Greeks valued culture and art as the centerpiece of their societal development. Meanwhile, Romans, while valuing and attracting cultural progress as the center of its vast empire, never placed such a strong emphasis on it, rather focusing on elements such as governance, social structures, and economy. In the listing of his achievements as emperor, Augustus lists only one remotely cultural element out of 35, “On my own private land I built the temple of Mars Ultor and the Augustan Forum from the spoils of war. On ground bought for the most part from private owners, I built the theater adjoining the temple of Apollo which was to be inscribed with the name of my son-in-law Marcus Marcellus” (Dutton et al. 130). This highlights that religion maintained high cultural meaning to the Romans similar to the Greeks, but the Romans had the vast resources to build temples and architectural cultural landmarks across Europe that Greece did not have the ability to do. However, the majority of achievements both socially and culturally for Romans focused on the economy and military conquests.
Comparing and contrasting various elements of civilization between the Greeks and Romans, it becomes evident that there are critical differences. In retrospect, these are large gaps that represent highly different civilizations and would be potentially unsurmountable for the Greeks. In government, the Romans struggled to find consistency or equilibrium in their Democracy, and while Greeks also had a more aristocratic form of representative democracy, it sought to be inclusive in representation, something that was completely eliminated once the Roman Empire was established. It is unlikely that the Greeks envisioned a government type that would be so inherently autocratic, even with much progress such as under Emperor Augustus (27BC-14AD), the Greeks knew well the threat of corruption and tyranny such as under Emperor Nero (54BC-68BC) that they themselves experienced with Hippias.
The Greek civilization in its Classical Age and prior was a collection of city-states, which was their preference, they rarely sought to unite with other city-states other than during crises such as the Persian Wars (492-449BC). The polis structure was critical to the Greek culture and state, they rarely sought to conquer or expand past their immediate territories such as Sparta conquering Messenians or Athens usurping Attica, both largely for resource purposes. Meanwhile, Rome emphasized rapid expansion and a centralized form of government that ruled its territories with strength and full control. These are radically different geopolitical contexts and approaches to governance that Greeks would strive to avoid.
One area where Greeks and Romans were closely interrelated was social order, culture, and economy. They had very similar approaches to social classes, their religions, economic growth through the use of slaves, trade, and infrastructure. Potentially, the only element in which Greeks would see some improvements to their legacy was in architecture which Romans capitalized upon alongside some cultural elements. However, even in these aspects, the two societies differed such as regarding the portrayal of people, preferences of entertainment, and philosophical culture. The Romans took influence from Greek foundations but most of their activities and lifestyles centered around more grounded and social elements as well as national self-identity (Laurence and Berry 12).
Despite popular culture and even historians portraying Greeks and Romans as inherently similar, the civilizations had massive differences in a wide range of aspects. Examining government, military, culture, and economy, while Romans undoubtedly drew influences from some of the Greek foundations as a society, the Roman Republic and subsequent Empire evolved into a completely different type of civilization. Therefore, the argument that the Romans created a world which Greeks would want to strive towards and live in is very presumptuous at best. The Romans initiated changes in their own internal and external worldview that would not have been compatible with Greek values and way of life.
Bowman, Alan, and Wilson, Andrew. The Roman Agricultural Economy: Organization, Investment, and Production. OUP Oxford, 2013.
Dutton, Paul et al. Many Europes: Choice and Chance in Western Civilization Volume I: To 1715. McGraw-Hill, 2014.
Laurence, Ray, and Joanne Berry. Cultural Identity in the Roman Empire. Psychology Press, 2001.
Migeotte, Léopold. The Economy of the Greek Cities: From the Archaic Period to the Early Roman Empire. University of California Press, 2009.
Woolf, Greg. “Becoming Roman, Staying Greek: Culture, Identity and The Civilizing Process in The Roman East.” Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society, vol. 40, 1994, pp. 116-143.