The civilizations of Greece and Rome rivaled those of India and China in cultural richness and their effect on world history. Their institutions and values reverberated in the later histories of the Middle East and Europe and Europe’s colonies around the world. The study of classical Mediterranean civilization is complicated because it includes Greek and then Roman political, social, and economic institutions, which were sometimes shared but often unique. The Persian Tradition. Greeks and Romans had contacts with and were influenced to some degree by the large Persian Empire and its descendants. The Persians absorbed many of the attributes of earlier Mesopotamian societies. Zoroastrianism, an early monotheistic religion, came from within the empire. After being toppled by the Greek leader Alexander the Great, another empire arose—the Sassanid—during Rome’s imperial era.
Patterns of Greek and Roman History. The rise of the dynamic city-states of classical Greece began around 800 B.C.E., reaching a high point in the fifth century B.C.E. with the leadership of the Athenian Pericles. The next major era came under the expansionist Alexander who briefly united Greece and the Persian Empire. The legacy of the combination of the two civilizations was called Hellenism. Rome’s development as a republic began as Hellenism waned. As Rome gained more territory by challenging regional powers and lesser developed cultures, it grew into an empire.
Greek and Roman Political Institutions. Greece and Rome featured an important variety of political forms. Both tended to emphasize aristocratic rule but there were significant examples of democratic elements as well. Politics was very important in the classical Mediterranean civilizations and offer similarities to Confucian values, yet the variety of political forms reminds the historian of India. There was no single Greek political style, but democracy is the most famous. Classical Mediterranean political theory involved ethics, duties of citizens, and skills, such as oratory. Governments supported an official religion, but tolerance of other faiths was the norm. The exception, Christianity under the Roman Empire, occurred because Christians refused to place state first in their devotion. The greatest political legacies of the Mediterranean cultures were an intense loyalty to the state, a preference for aristocratic rule, and the development of a uniform set of legal principles.
In Depth: The Classical Mediterranean Civilization in Comparative Perspective. The three great classical civilizations of China, India, and the Mediterranean lead historians to espouse a variety of comparisons. Similarities include that each developed into an empire; each relied primarily on an agricultural economy; and each supported the development of science, but for different reasons. All three civilizations emphasized clear social strata with the elites considerably distanced from the masses. Differences included social mobility, with India’s the most restrictive and Rome’s the most fluid, comparatively. In addition, each civilization developed a different cultural “glue” that held society together, with the Mediterraneans’ emphasis on devotion to the state for the good of the whole (“civic duty”), while India promised reward for good behavior through reincarnation and Chinese Confucianism promoted obedience and self-restraint as a good unto itself, with the result being peace and prosperity. Over time, Indian and Chinese social structures survived better than those in the Mediterranean because of the introduction of Christianity into the latter’s culture.
Religion and Culture. The Greeks and Romans did not create a significant world religion. Their religions derived from a complex set of gods and goddesses who were seen as regulating human life. Both Mediterranean and Indian religious lore reflected the common heritage of Indo-European invaders. Greco-Roman religion tended toward an of-this-world approach with lessons that illustrated human passions and foibles but offered little in regard to modeling ethical behavior. Thus, separate models of moral philosophy were developed, by such men as Aristotle and Cicero, who like Confucius, taught the importance of moderation and balance in human behavior. Socrates taught his followers to question conventional wisdom by using rational inquiry. In the sciences, Greek work in geometry and anatomy were especially important. The greatest Roman contribution to the sciences was in engineering. In the arts and literature, the Greeks had few equals, particularly in sculpture, architecture, and plays. The Romans mimicked but rarely surpassed the Greek innovators in these fields.
Economy and Society in the Mediterranean. Most Greeks and Romans were self-sustaining farmers, but there was also a great deal of commercial agriculture, which in turn fueled their establishment of empire. There was also extensive trade. Slavery was an important economic and social institution in the Mediterranean civilization. The family was a tight social structure, with men in firm control; however, women were often active in business and sometimes controlled property. Overall, the status of women in the Mediterranean world was better than in China.
Toward the Fall of Rome. The fall of Rome differed from China’s and India’s declines. For instance, no single civilization rose to replace Rome, although several smaller governments claimed to be its inheritor. In addition, Rome’s fall was fragmentary, collapsing in the Western empire long before the Eastern side did.
Global Connections: Greece, Rome, and the World. The Greeks set up a widespread colonial and trading network, peaking with Alexander, but it did not last. The much bigger world of the Romans was well aware of the Asian, African, and northern European world outside their realm. Chinese goods were traded in the city of Rome itself, but interest in the Middle Kingdom seems to have been strictly out of a desire for material goods, rather than because of China’s technology or system of governance.