Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Romans and Greeks

I’ve written before about the differences between Romans and Greeks, pointing out how these two great cultures of antiquity, in close proximity, developed in very different ways. Once again, as we see over and over again, geography is an actor in the play.

The Romans were inland dwellers; founding their civilization at a ford in the Tiber where traders would pass by. They were farmers, in the beginning hardly above the level of barbarians. Loyalty was their character and their tribes were comfortable in a totalitarian world of kings.

Rome is the story of survival of archaism, unlike Greece where the archaic point of view was thrown off in the 6th century B.C. The Romans never developed that independent intellectual streak of the Greeks, perhaps because they were not capable. They were always more comfortable retaining a loyalty to the state, which they would never give up even when the concept became an anachronism.

That is not to say that Roman archaic is Greek archaic. Rome began to develop when the Greeks were settling on the Italian peninsula, but there was little interaction between them. Education, when it began in Rome was for the peasants, unlike Greece where it was the knights who were trained. In Rome there was a rural aristocracy of landowners; in Greece an aristocracy of military leaders.

The Etruscan kings tried to change things by creating a city based political system but, in the end, they were defeated by the rural aristocracy when it threw them out and formed the Republic. So Rome remained essentially rural in point of view – patricians owned the land and worked it. Plebs were their workers. The Senate was a collection of rich rural landowners protecting their interests.

Roman culture was built around a system of moral ideals: sacrifice and absolute devotion to the community rather than the individual. The paterfamilias, the clan, and the tribe were its components – a structure so ingrained it could not be overcome by any outside force. Roman heroes received their accolades because of what they accomplished for the community and not what they accomplished for themselves. Their virtues were handed down from history: gravitas, dignitas, pietas, veritas, and the others.

In Rome the family was dominant and the point of view aristocratic. Old patricians were replaced by new nobility who shared the same values. The aristocracy continued generation after generation until its hardening effects on the oligarchy in the second century paved the way for aristocratic support of the Empire. Augustus helped by making it look like the aristocracy was now only slightly modified by putting one of their own at the top – a principate or Republic in new clothes.

The family ideal continued to be fostered through the Lars kept in the homes of the nobility - masks of the ancestors hanging on the wall as a symbolic reference for every Roman child. It was truly a myth of ancestor worship preserving the value of group over the individual.


Caleb said...

I have always seen parallels between these two and pre-Columbian civilizations. The Mayans similar to Greece; both were prior to the other, both were city-states, both more mathematics and learning based, mountainous terrain, ect. The Aztecs were like Rome; Drew on the previous civilization for ideas centralized authority, dominant emperor, less intellectual, huge military expansion, architecture on the grandest scale, ect.

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