Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Factors in the Development of Ancient Greek Culture

The following chart shows a timeline comparing Athens and Rome during the period 800-450 B.C.

It’s obvious from the chart that the Greeks were a couple of hundred years ahead of the Romans in developing their culture. In 625, when the Romans were living in mud huts and working at draining the swamp that would become the Forum, the Athenians were already 125 years removed from establishing their colonies in Italy and well on the way toward defining a unique and advanced culture. Architecture forms were well developed, large sculptures were being produced, and pottery had already passed through its orientalizing period. The polis had become a mature political system as it broke new ground in human rights and political participation. At the same time, the Greek army had evolved advanced battle tactics including use of the Phalanx.

So why the disparity between Athens and Rome?

There are both environmental and cultural reasons for this. Rome and the Italian peninsula had similar experiences to Europe in the middle ages with respect to development of their political systems. This similarity is based on two factors: personal leadership and a collective unity and equality of tribesmen. In other words, their political systems grew out of leadership based on personal charisma which encompassed regal, military, and political elements. The society was flat with a leader and his associates on top and everyone as equals below.

The early Greek experience was different because it was influenced by unique factors: tribal kings were weak financially, the Aegean was isolated geographically, and Greek life was simpler than Roman life.

Since the early kings were not wealthy, their attempts at power were overcome by military leaders who excelled at forming superior tactics. Without money kings could not buy power. The isolation of the Aegean and its geography was also a factor because it prevented foreign threats and the influence foreign invaders could exert on evolving Greek political systems.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect was the simplicity of Greek life. The Greeks looked at the world through an intellectual lens: embracing science, mathematics, philosophy, and the arts, rather than pure wealth building. Greek philosophy dictated that possessions were not the route to happiness in life and that logic demanded equality among free people. The Greeks believed that all possess inherent rights to justice, participation in government, and equality under law.

Ultimately Rome would come to dominate Greece because its unity and the power derived from it would overcome the Greeks independence. In this case, Greek philosophy was the liability because it kept the Greeks form creating a powerful empire which could compete against Rome.

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