Ancient Greece and Rome: The Introduction

Much of Western civilization can be traced to a common source—the world of ancient Greece and Rome. From this world came principles of law and government, fundamental concepts in science and mathematics, standards of art and architecture, and the root words of many living languages. Indeed, so much of Greco- Roman civilization serves as a standard that it is referred to as classical.

The first act in the drama of Greco- Roman history was the rise of civilization on the islands and shores of the Aegean Sea in the eastern Mediterranean. The island of Crete, in particular, grew wealthy through trade with advanced civilizations in Egypt and Asia Minor.

Another important Aegean centre was Mycenae in southern Greece. From about 1500 to 1200 B.C., Aegean civilization flourished. Then it was overrun by invaders from the north. The newcomers belonged to a group of light-skinned peoples, the Indo-Europeans, whose original home was probably in central Asia.

In ancient times one branch of this large group moved westward into Greece, Italy, and Western Europe. Others, such as the Hittites and Persians, emigrated to Asia Minor. Still others, referred to as the Aryans, pushed south-eastward into India.

As the Indo-European tribes moved into the Greek peninsula, they mixed with the Aegeans and borrowed elements of their culture. From this intermingling of peoples came the Greeks, or Hellenes. The high point of Greek civilization was reached in the Hellenic period, which lasted from about 750 to 338 BC.

The Greeks established city-states on the rugged peninsula of Greece. Two were especially important: Athens and Sparta. The government of Sparta was harsh, and its people had to conform to rigid military discipline. In Athens political and personal freedom was encouraged, and a workable democratic government was formed. Although the Athenians admired military prowess, the pursuit of beauty and truth was considered more important. In the 5th century, after taking the lead in repulsing a Persian invasion of Greece, Athens enjoyed a Golden Age. Important discoveries were made in science, mathematics, and medicine. Literature of enduring beauty and masterpieces of sculpture and architecture were created. Brilliant thinkers, such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, inspired men to undertake the quest for truth and wisdom.

The Greeks were the first people in the world to establish a workable democratic government. They believed that every freeborn man should participate in the political affairs of his community, and they were fiercely proud of the right to vote which they enjoyed as citizens.

By the end of the 5th century, war and strife among the Greek city-states threatened the existence of Hellenic civilization. But it was not destroyed by the conquest of Philip of Macedonia in 338 B.C., which ended the Hellenic period.

Philip admired Greek culture and so did Alexander, his son and successor. In the belief that it was his destiny to rule the world, Alexander invaded the huge Persian Empire and conquered it. Within a few years, he had won an empire stretching from Greece through Asia Minor to the borders of India. After his death in 323 B.C., his empire split into three kingdoms that together make up what is called the Hellenistic world.

While Hellenic civilization was flourishing, dramatic events were taking place on the Italian peninsula. There, on the banks of the Tiber River, a Latin people of Indo- European origin built the city of Rome and established a republic. At the end of the 6th century b.c, the vigorous and aggressive Romans began a long program of conquest. First, they conquered the neighboring tribes and the prosperous Greek colonists on the Italian peninsula. Then they challenged the powerful state of Carthage and defeated it. By 100 BC, all the lands around the Mediterranean Sea were theirs. Roman conquests brought on serious problems, and the leaders of the republic proved unable to meet the needs of the state. Following a century of unrest and civil war, Augustus ended the republic and became the first emperor in 27 B.C.

Augustus and the emperors who followed him extended Roman territory and established a Pax Romana, or “Roman Peace/’ throughout the imperial realm. The ruins of a Roman temple in Asia Minor, pictured at the beginning of this unit, suggest the grandeur of the empire. The Romans displayed a genius for governing with justice the many different peoples in their empire. One of their greatest contributions to civilization was their comprehensive, flexible, and enduring system of law.

The Romans were also great builders. They constructed magnificent public buildings, massive engineering projects, and durable roads. Although they were not creative in the arts, philosophy, or science, they admired Greek cultural achievements and preserved them for future generations.


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