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The Influence of Greek Culture on the Roman Empire

The Roman Empire was greatly influenced by Greek culture, from art and architecture to philosophy and religion. Discover the impact of this cultural exchange in this article.

Greek Culture on the Roman Empire

The Influence of Greek Culture on the Roman Empire

The Roman Empire was one of the most powerful and influential civilizations in history, and its culture was shaped by a variety of factors, including its interactions with other cultures. One of the most significant influences on Roman culture was the exchange of ideas and traditions with the ancient Greeks. From art and architecture to philosophy and religion, the impact of Greek culture on the Roman Empire was profound and enduring.

The Roman Era 27 BCE - 476 CE 

  • THE Roman Empire affected the history of culture in various more or less separate ways.
  • First: there is the direct effect of Rome on Hellenistic thought. This is not very important or profound. 
  • Second: the effect of Greece and the East on the western half of the empire. This was profound and lasting, since it included the Christian religion. 
  • Third: the importance of the long Roman peace in diffusing culture and in accustoming men to the idea of a single civilization associated with a single government.
  • Fourth: the transmission of Hellenistic civilization to the Mohammedans, and thence ultimately to western Europe. 

Roman political history

Introduction to the Greek influence on the Roman Empire.

The ancient Greeks and Romans are often studied together due to their close proximity in time and geography, as well as their significant impact on Western civilization. The Greeks, in particular, had a profound influence on the Romans, who admired and emulated many aspects of Greek culture. This cultural exchange had a lasting impact on the development of Roman art, architecture, literature, philosophy, and religion.

Roman and Greek Philosophy

This begins in the second century B.C., with two men, the historian Polybius, and the Stoic philosopher Panaetius. The natural attitude of the Greek to the Roman was one of contempt mingled with fear; the Greek felt himself more civilized, but politically less powerful. If the Romans were more successful in politics, that only showed that politics is an ignoble pursuit. The average Greek of the second century B.C. was pleasure-loving, quick-witted, clever in business, and unscrupulous in all things. There were, however, still men of philosophic capacity. Some of these- notably the sceptics, such as Carneades had allowed cleverness to destroy seriousness. Some, like the Epicureans and a section of the Stoics, had withdrawn wholly into a quiet private life. But a few, with more insight than had been shown by Aristotle in relation to Alexander, realized that the greatness of Rome was due to certain merits which were lacking among the Greeks.

The historian Polybius, born in Arcadia about 200 B.C., was sent to Rome as a prisoner, and there had the good fortune to become the friend of the younger Scipio, whom he accompanied on many of his campaigns. It was uncommon for a Greek to know Latin, though most educated Romans knew Greek; the circumstances of Polybius, however, led him to a thorough familiarity with Latin. He wrote, for the benefit of the Greeks, the history of the Punic Wars, which had enabled Rome to conquer the world. His admiration of the Roman constitution was becoming out of date while he wrote, but until his time it had compared very favorably, in stability and efficiency, with the continually changing constitutions of most Greek cities. The Romans naturally read his history with pleasure; whether the Greeks did so is more doubtful. 

Panaetius the Stoic has been already considered in the preceding chapter. He was a friend of Polybius, and, like him, a protégé of the younger Scipio. While Scipio lived, he was frequently in Rome, but after Scipio's death in 129 B.C. he stayed in Athens as head of the Stoic school. Rome still had, what Greece had lost, the hopefulness connected with the opportunity for political activity. Accordingly the doctrines of Panaetius were more political, and less akin to those of the Cynics, than were those of earlier Stoics. Probably the admiration of Plato felt by cultivated Romans influenced him in abandoning the dogmatic narrowness of his Stoic predecessors. In the broader form given to it by him and by his successor Posidonius, Stoicism strongly appealed to the more serious among the Romans.

At a later date, Epictetus, though a Greek, lived most of his life in Rome. Rome supplied him with most of his illustrations; he is always exhorting the wise man not to tremble in the presence of the Emperor. We know the influence of Epictetus on Marcus Aurelius, but his influence on the Greeks is hard to trace. 

Plutarch (ca. A.D. 46-120), in his Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, traced a parallelism between the most eminent men of the two countries. He spent a considerable time in Rome, and was honoured by the Emperors Hadrian and Trajan. In addition to his Lives, he wrote numerous works on philosophy, religion, natural history, and morals. His Lives are obviously concerned to reconcile Greece and Rome in man's thoughts. 

On the whole, apart from such exceptional men, Rome acted as a blight on the Greek-speaking part of the Empire. Thought and art alike declined. Until the end of the second century A.D., life, for the well-to-do, was pleasant and easy-going; there was no incentive to strenuousness, and little opportunity for great achievement. The recognized schools of philosophy-the Academy, the Peripatetics, the Epicureans, and the Stoics- continued to exist until they were closed by Justinian, from Christian bigotry, in the year A.D. 529. None of these, however, showed any vitality throughout the time after Marcus Aurelius, except the Neoplatonists in the third century A.D. The Latin and Greek halves of the Empire became more and more divergent; the knowledge of Greek became rare in the west, and after Constantine Latin, in the east, survived only in law and in the army.

Greek art and architecture in the Roman Empire.

The Romans were greatly influenced by Greek art and architecture, adopting many of their styles and techniques. Greek statues and sculptures were highly prized by the Romans, who often commissioned copies of famous Greek works. Greek architectural styles, such as the use of columns and pediments, were also adopted by the Romans and can be seen in many of their buildings, including the Colosseum and the Pantheon. The Romans even imported Greek marble to use in their own buildings, demonstrating the high regard they held for Greek craftsmanship.

There are here two very different things to consider: first, the influence of Hellenic art and literature and philosophy on the most cultivated Romans; second, the spread of non-Hellenic religions and superstitions throughout the Western world. 

Greek and roman art

(1) When the Romans first came in contact with Greeks, they became aware of themselves as comparatively barbarous and uncouth. The Greeks were immeasurably their superiors in many ways: in manufacture and in the technique of agriculture; in the kinds of knowledge that are necessary for a good official; in conversation and the art of enjoying life; in art and literature and philosophy. The only things in which the Romans were superior were military tactics and social cohesion. The relation of the Romans to the Greeks was something like that of the Prussians to the French in 1814 and 1815; but this latter was temporary, whereas the other lasted a long time. After the Punic Wars, young Romans conceived an admiration for the Greeks. They learnt the Greek language, they copied Greek architecture, they employed Greek sculptors. The Roman gods were identified with the gods of Greece. The Trojan origin of the Romans was invented to make a connection with the Homeric myths. Latin poets adopted Greek metres, Latin philosophers took over Greek theories. To the end, Rome was culturally parasitic on Greece. The Romans invented no art forms, constructed no original system of philosophy, and made no scientific discoveries. They made good roads, systematic legal codes, and efficient armies; for the rest they looked to Greece. 

Hellenisation of Rome

The Hellenizing of Rome brought with it a certain softening of manners, abhorrent to the elder Cato. Until the Punic Wars, the Romans had been a bucolic people, with the virtues and vices of farmers: austere, industrious, brutal, obstinate, and stupid. Their family life had been stable and solidly built on the patria potestas; women and young people were completely subordinated. All this changed with the influx of sudden wealth. The small farms disappeared, and were gradually replaced by huge estates on which slave labour was employed to carry out new scientific kinds of agriculture. A great class of traders grew up, and a large number of men enriched by plunder, like the nabobs in eighteenth-century England. Women, who had been virtuous slaves, became free and dissolute; divorce became common; the rich ceased to have children. The Greeks, who had gone through a similar development centuries ago, encouraged, by their example, what historians call the decay of morals. Even in the most dissolute times of the Empire, the average Roman still thought of Rome as the upholder of a purer ethical standard against the decadent corruption of Greece.

The cultural influence of Greece on the Western Empire diminished rapidly from the third century A.D. onwards, chiefly because culture in general decayed. For this there were many causes, but one in particular must be mentioned. In the last times of the Western Empire, the government was more undisguisedly a military tyranny than it had been, and the army usually selected a successful general as emperor; but the army, even in its highest ranks, was no longer composed of cultivated Romans, but of semi-barbarians from the frontier. These rough soldiers had no use for culture, and regarded the civilized citizens solely as sources of revenue. Private persons were too impoverished to support much in the way of education, and the State considered education unnecessary. Consequently, in the West, only a few men of exceptional learning continued to read Greek. 

Religion and mythology in the Roman Empire.

Greek religion and mythology also had a significant impact on the Roman Empire. The Romans adopted many of the Greek gods and goddesses, often giving them Roman names. For example, Zeus became Jupiter, Aphrodite became Venus, and Poseidon became Neptune. The Romans also adopted many of the Greek myths and legends, incorporating them into their own religious practices. This cultural exchange helped to shape the religious beliefs and practices of the Roman Empire, which in turn influenced the development of Christianity in the Western world.

Roman religion ancient

(2) Non-Hellenic religion and superstition, on the contrary, acquired, as time went on, a firmer and firmer hold on  the West. We have already seen how Alexander's conquests introduced the Greek world to the beliefs of Babylonians, Persians, and Egyptians. Similarly the Roman conquests made the Western world familiar with these doctrines, and also with those of Jews and Christians. I shall consider what concerns the Jews and Christians at a later stage; for the present, I shall confine myself as far as possible to pagan superstitions.

In Rome every sect and every prophet was represented, and sometimes won favour in the highest government circles. Lucian, who stood for sane scepticism in spite of the credulity of his age, tells an amusing story, generally accepted as broadly true, about a prophet and miracle worker called Alexander the Paphlagonian. This man healed the sick and foretold the future, with excursions into blackmail. His fame reached the ears of Marcus Aurelius, then fighting the Marcomanni on the Danube. The Emperor consulted him as to how to win the war, and was told that if he threw two lions into the Danube a great victory would result. He followed the advice of the seer, but it was the Marcomanni who won the great victory. In spite of this mishap, Alexander's fame continued to grow. A prominent Roman of consular rank, Rutilianus, after consulting him on many points, at last sought his advice as to the choice of a wife. Alexander, like Endymion, had enjoyed the favours of the moon, and by her had a daughter, whom the oracle recommended to Rutilianus. "Rutilianus, who was at the time sixty years old, at once complied with the divine injunction, and celebrated his marriage by sacrificing whole hecatombs to his celestial mother-in-law." 

More important than the career of Alexander the Paphlagonian was the reign of the Emperor Elogabalus or Heliogabalus ( A.D. 21822), who was, until his elevation by the choice of the army, a Syrian priest of the sun. In his slow progress from Syria to Rome, he was preceded by his portrait, sent as a present to the Senate. "He was drawn in his sacerdotal robes of silk and gold, after the loose flowing fashion of the Medes and Phoenicians; his head was covered with a lofty tiara, his numerous collars and bracelets were adorned with gems of inestimable value. His eyebrows were tinged with black, and his cheeks painted with an artificial red and white. The grave senators confessed with a sigh, that, after having long experienced the stern tyranny of their own countrymen, Rome was at length humbled beneath the effeminate luxury of Oriental despotism."  Supported by a large section in the army, he proceeded, with fanatical zeal, to introduce in Rome the religious practices of the East; his name was that of the sun-god worshipped at Emesa, where he had been chief priest. His mother, or grandmother, who was the real ruler, perceived that he had gone too far, and deposed him in favour of her nephew Alexander ( 222-35), whose Oriental proclivities were more moderate. The mixture of creeds that was possible in his day was illustrated in his private chapel, in which he placed the statues of Abraham, Orpheus, Apollonius of Tyana, and Christ.

Ancient Rome religion Christianity

The religion of Mithras, which was of Persian origin, was a close competitor of Christianity, especially during the latter half of the third century A.D. The emperors, who were making desperate attempts to control the army, felt that religion might give a much needed stability; but it would have to be one of the new religions, since it was these that the soldiers favoured. The cult was introduced at Rome, and had much to commend it to the military mind. Mithras was a sun-god, but not so effeminate as his Syrian colleague; he was a god concerned with war, the great war between good and evil which had been part of the Persian creed since Zoroaster. Rostovtseff  reproduces a bas-relief representing his worship, which was found in a subterranean sanctuary at Heddernheim in Germany, and shows that his disciples must have been numerous among the soldiers not only in the East, but in the West also. 

Constantine's adoption of Christianity was politically successful, whereas earlier attempts to introduce a new religion failed; but the earlier attempts were, from a governmental point of view, very similar to his. All alike derived their possibility of success from the misfortunes and weariness of the Roman world. The traditional religions of Greece and Rome were suited to men interested in the terrestrial world, and hopeful of happiness on earth. Asia, with a longer experience of despair, had evolved more successful antidotes in the form of other-worldly hopes; of all these, Christianity was the most effective in bringing consolation. But Christianity, by the time it became the State religion, had absorbed much from Greece, and transmitted this, along with the Judaic element, to succeeding ages in the West.

The Eastern Roman Empire: Byzantium and the Rise of Christianity.

While the Western Roman Empire fell in the 5th century AD, the Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire, continued to thrive for several more centuries. The Byzantine Empire was centered around the city of Constantinople, which had been founded by the Roman Emperor Constantine in the 4th century AD. The Byzantine Empire was known for its strong military, impressive architecture, and rich culture, which included the rise of Christianity as a dominant religion. The Byzantine Empire finally fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, bringing an end to the Roman Empire as a whole.

 Government and culture and Comparison of political systems

We owe it first to Alexander and then to Rome that the achievements of the great age of Greece were not lost to the world, like those of the Minoan age. In the fifth century B.C., a Genghiz Khan, if one had happened to arise, could have wiped out all that was important in the Hellenic world; Xerxes, with a little more competence, might have made Greek civilization very greatly inferior to what it became after he was repulsed. Consider the period from Aeschylus to Plato: all that was done in this time was done by a minority of the population of a few commercial cities. These cities, as the future showed, had no great capacity for withstanding foreign conquest, but by an extraordinary stroke of good fortune their conquerors, Macedonian and Roman, were Philhellenes, and did not destroy what they conquered, as Xerxes or Carthage would have done. The fact that we are acquainted with what was done by the Greeks in art and literature and philosophy and science is due to the stability introduced by Western conquerors who had the good sense to admire the civilization which they governed but did their utmost to preserve. 

In certain respects, political and ethical, Alexander and the Romans were the causes of a better philosophy than any that was professed by Greeks in their days of freedom. The Stoics, as we have seen, believed in the brotherhood of man, and did not confine their sympathies to the Greeks. The long dominion of Rome accustomed men to the idea of a single civilization under a single government. We are aware that there were important parts of the world which were not subject to Rome-India and China, more especially. But to the Roman it seemed that outside the Empire there were only obscure barbarian tribes, who might be conquered whenever it should be worth while to make the effort. Essentially and in idea, the empire, in the minds of the Romans, was world-wide. This conception descended to the Church, which was "Catholic" in spite of Buddhists, Confucians, and (later) Mohammedans. Securus judicat orbis terrarum is a maxim taken over by the Church from the later Stoics; it owes its appeal to the apparent universality of the Roman Empire. Throughout the Middle Ages, after the time of Charlemagne, the Church and the Holy Roman Empire were world-wide in idea, although everybody knew that they were not so in fact. The conception of one human family, one Catholic religion, one universal culture, and one worldwide State, has haunted men's thoughts ever since its approximate realization by Rome.

The part played by Rome in enlarging the area of civilization was of immense importance. Northern Italy, Spain, France, and parts of western Germany, were civilized as a result of forcible conquest by the Roman legions. All these regions proved themselves just as capable of a high level of culture as Rome itself. In the last days of the Western Empire, Gaul produced men who were at least the equals of their contemporaries in regions of older civilization. It was owing to the diffusion of culture by Rome that the barbarians produced only a temporary eclipse, not a permanent darkness. It may be argued that the quality of civilization was never again as good as in the Athens of Pericles; but in a world of war and destruction, quantity is, in the long run, almost as important as quality, and quantity was due to Rome.

Legacy of the Greek influence on the Roman Empire.

The influence of Greek culture on the Roman Empire left a lasting legacy that can still be seen today. Greek art and architecture, such as the use of columns and the creation of intricate mosaics, can be seen in many Roman buildings and structures. The Roman adoption of Greek philosophy, particularly the works of Plato and Aristotle, helped to shape the development of Western philosophy. The influence of Greek religion on the Roman Empire can also be seen in the continued use of many of the same gods and goddesses in modern Western culture. Overall, the cultural exchange between Greece and Rome had a profound impact on the development of Western civilization.

 The Mohammedans as vehicles of Hellenism  

 In the seventh century, the disciples of the Prophet conquered Syria, Egypt, and North Africa; in the following century, they conquered Spain. Their victories were easy, and the fighting was slight. Except possibly during the first few years, they were not fanatical; Christians and Jews were unmolested so long as they paid the tribute. Very soon the Arabs acquired the civilization of the Eastern Empire, but with the hopefulness of a rising polity instead of the weariness of decline. Their learned men read Greek, and wrote commentaries. Aristotle's reputation is mainly due to them; in antiquity, he was seldom mentioned, and was not regarded as on a level with Plato. 

It is instructive to consider some of the words that we derive from Arabic, such as: algebra, alcohol, alchemy, alembic, alkali, azimuth, zenith. With the exception of "alcohol"-which meant, not a drink, but a substance used in chemistry-these words would give a good picture of some of the things we owe to the Arabs. Algebra had been invented by the Alexandrian Greeks, but was carried further by the Mohammedans. "Alchemy," "alembic," "alkali" are words connected with the attempt to turn base metals into gold, which the Arabs took over from the Greeks, and in pursuit of which they appealed to Greek philosophy.  "Azimuth" and "zenith" are astronomical terms, chiefly useful to the Arabs in connection with astrology.

The etymological method conceals what we owe to the Arabs as regards knowledge of Greek philosophy, because, when it was again studied in Europe, the technical terms required were taken from Greek or Latin. In philosophy, the Arabs were better as commentators than as original thinkers. Their importance, for us, is that they, and not the Christians, were the immediate inheritors of those parts of the Greek tradition which only the Eastern Empire had kept alive. Contact with the Mohammedans, in Spain, and to a lesser extent in Sicily, made the West aware of Aristotle; also of Arabic numerals, algebra, and chemistry. It was this contact that began the revival of learning in the eleventh century, leading to the Scholastic philosophy. It was much later, from the thirteenth century onward, that the study of Greek enabled men to go direct to the works of Plato and Aristotle and other Greek writers of antiquity. But if the Arabs had not preserved the tradition, the men of the Renaissance might not have suspected how much was to be gained by the revival of classical learning.


A History of Western Philosophy Book by Bertrand Russell 


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