G. THE CLASSICAL CIVILIZATIONS: MEDITERRANEAN
From approximately 2000 B.C.E. to around 500 C.E., two Mediterranean civilizations, Greece and Rome, dominated the region. Countless books have been written on these two empires. There is no doubt that your AP textbook dedicated a considerable chunk to the details of these two powerhouse civilizations. Why all the fuss? Simply put, Western civilization as we know it today essentially began with these two empires. The Sumerians, the Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Hebrews, the Persians, and the Phoenicians laid the groundwork, but the Greeks and the Romans left the most pervasive and obvious influence behind. Perhaps their most important contribution is the concept of representative government, but the Greeks and Romans also made lasting contributions to art, architecture, literature, science, and philosophy.
Ancient Greece was located on a peninsula between the waters of the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas. Because the land in Greece is mostly mountainous, there wasn’t much possibility for agricultural development on the scale of the ancient river valley civilizations. But Greece did have natural harbors and mild weather, and its coastal position aided trade and cultural diffusion by boat, which is precisely how the Greeks conducted most of their commercial activity. The Greeks could easily sail to Palestine, Egypt, and Carthage, exchanging wine and olive products for grain. Eventually, they replaced the barter system with a money system (remember where this developed? Hint: Lydia, oh Lydia), and soon Athens became a wealthy city at the center of all this commercial activity.
Greece’s limited geographical area also contributed to its dominance. Land was tight, so Greece was always looking to establish colonies abroad to ease overcrowding and gain raw materials. This meant that the Greeks had to have a powerful military. It also meant that they had to develop sophisticated methods of communication, transportation, and governance.
Social Structure and Citizenship: It Takes a Polis…
Like the other early civilizations, Greece wasn’t a country then in the way that it is now. Instead, it was a collection of city-states, very much like those of early Mesopotamian civilizations in Sumer or Babylon. Each city-state, known as a polis, shared a common culture and identity. Although each polis was part of a broader civilization and shared a common language and many similar traditions, each was independent from, and often in conflict with, the others.
The two main city-states were Athens and Sparta. Athens was the political, commercial, and cultural center of Greek civilization. Sparta was an agricultural and highly militaristic region. Most citizens in Sparta lived a very austere, highly disciplined existence (which explains where modern-day terms such as “Spartan existence” come from). All the boys, and even some of the girls, received military training, which stressed equality but not individuality.
Each polis was composed of three groups.
· Citizens, composed of adult males, often engaged in business or commerce
· Free people with no political rights
· Noncitizens (slaves, who accounted for nearly one-third of the people in Athens, and who had no rights)
Among the citizens, civic decisions were made openly, after engaging in debates. All citizens were expected to participate. This practice led to Athens being regarded as the first democracy. But it’s important to point out that only adult males could participate, so it was not a democracy in the modern sense of the word. (Interestingly, it was in Sparta, not Athens, where women held a higher status and were granted greater equality than women of other city-states.)
It’s also important to point out that democracy in Athens did not develop immediately. As Athens grew more and more powerful, the government changed from a monarchy to an aristocracy, and finally to a democracy. (Note: You may be asked about Dracoand Solon. Just know that they were aristocrats who worked to create the democracy in Athens and to ensure fair, equal, and open participation.)
Ironically, it was slavery that enabled the Greeks to develop their democracy. It was by slave labor that Greek citizens found themselves with free time to meet and vote and to create great works of art and philosophy. Slaves, obtained by various means, were the private property of their owners. They worked as laborers, domestic servants, and cultivators. Educated or skilled slaves became craftsmen and business managers. Some owners helped slaves set up small businesses and then kept part of the profits; and in a few cases, slaves who earned and saved enough money could eventually buy their freedom.
Greek Mythology: Many Gods
The Greeks were polytheistic. The myths surrounding their gods, like those of Zeus and Aphrodite, are richly detailed and still hold our interest to this day. As you know by now, most early civilizations were polytheistic (the Hebrews being a notable exception), but Greek polytheism was unique in one major respect: The Greek gods were believed to possess human failings—they got angry, got drunk, took sides, and had petty arguments. Greek mythology remains part of Western heritage and language. Every time we refer to a task as “Herculean” or read our horoscopes, we’re tipping our hats to the ancient Greeks.
War with Persia: Greece Holds On
Prior to the development of the democracy in Athens, Greece was involved in a series of wars that threatened its existence. The Persian Wars (499–449 B.C.E.) united all the Greek city-states against their mutual enemy, Persia. (Recall that the Persian Empire was the largest empire in the eastern Mediterranean and Mesopotamia to date.) Much of Athens was destroyed in these wars, but Greece held on and the wars ended in a stalemate. Two huge victories by the Greeks, one at Marathon and the other at Salamis, allowed the Greeks to maintain control of the Aegean Sea. With Persia held back, Greece was free to enter into an era of peace and prosperity, which is often called the Golden Age of Pericles.
The Golden Age of Pericles: Athens Wows the World
The Golden Age of Pericles (480–404 B.C.E.) saw Athens become a cultural powerhouse under the leadership of Pericles. Pericles established democracy for all adult males. It was also under Pericles that Athens was rebuilt after its destruction by the Persians (the Parthenon was built during this reconstruction). And it was under Pericles that Athens established the Delian League with the other city-states, an alliance against aggression from its common enemies. Philosophy and the arts flourished, and continued to do so for the next two centuries.
In philosophy, we find the names many would regard as the most famous of all the ancient Greeks: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. They believed that truth could be discerned through rational thought and deliberate and careful observation, and that virtue and the quest for goodness would lead to internal peace and happiness. Some of their observations proved false in time, especially with regard to the functioning of the universe on a cosmic scale, or microcosmic scale, but it was the process they established, rather than the actual conclusions they drew, that were so revolutionary. Although our modern understanding of the world differs in many ways from theirs, these three men are still revered today as the fathers of rational thinking.
During the Golden Age, Greek drama was dominated by the comedies and tragedies of Aeschylus and Euripides; the sculptures of Phidias adorned the streets; and Greek architecture earned its place in history with its distinctive Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns. Math and science thrived under the capable instruction of Archimedes, Hippocrates, Euclid, and Pythagoras (you probably remember the Pythagorean theorem from geometry—guess which famous Greek that came from).
Of course, cultural achievement existed in Greece prior to the Golden Age. Homer, for example, wrote the epic poems the Illiad and the Odyssey a few centuries earlier; they are widely regarded as Western civilization’s first two masterworks of literature. But make no mistake about it, during the Golden Age, the arts and sciences became firmly cemented into the Western consciousness. The accomplishments of this period served as the inspiration for the European Renaissance and the Enlightenment nearly two millennia later—which is why we’re making such a big deal out of them here.
Trouble Ahead for Athens
Although Athens dominated the Delian League with its powerful navy, other Greek city-states in the Aegean allied themselves with Sparta’s great army to form the Peloponnesian League. Athens and Sparta, as leaders of their respective alliances, became increasingly fearful and envious of each other’s power. After years of increasing tensions, a trade dispute involving the city of Corinth pushed Athens and Sparta into the Peloponnesian War (431–404 B.C.E.). Athens attempted a defensive strategy, hiding behind its great walls while allowing the Spartan army to ravage its farmlands. This worked well for the Athenians for a time until two tragedies occurred. First, a great plague afflicted the city, killing vast numbers of the population including Pericles. Then, Athen’s navy suffered a devastating defeat at Syracuse on the island of Sicily. Athens was never the same again.
Although they could have, Sparta didn’t destroy Athens out of respect for the defeated city’s former role in the Persian War. Sparta failed to dominate the region for long; despite its victory, it was so weakened by the war that it became vulnerable to outside aggression. The Macedonians,under the rule of Philip III of Macedon, who reigned from 359 to 336 B.C.E., invaded Athens from the north and conquered the entire region. Fortunately, Philip respected Greek culture and, rather than destroy it, encouraged it to flourish.
Alexander Adds Greatness
The Macedonians didn’t stop with Greece. Philip’s son, Alexander the Great, who was taught by Aristotle, widely expanded Macedonian dominance. Under Alexander, they conquered the mighty Persian Empire and moved eastward to the shores of the Indus River in what today is India, eventually creating the largest empire of the time. To manage his massive realm, Alexander divided it into three empires: the Antigonid (Greece and Macedon), the Ptolemaic (Egypt), and the Seleucid (Bactria and Anatolia).
Along with its size, the Macedonian Empire is notable for the fact that it adopted Greek customs and then spread them to much of the known world. Consequently, much of the world became connected under a uniform law and common trade practices. Therefore, Hellenism—the culture, ideals, and pattern of life of Classical Greece—didn’t perish as a result of the victories over Athens and Sparta; instead, it came to be influential far beyond its original borders.
In the immediate aftermath of the expansion of Hellenism, the economies of Athens and Corinth revived through trade. Of the three Hellenistic empires, the Ptolemaic Empire became the wealthiest. Alexandria, its capital, was built at the mouth of the Nile. Wisely, the Ptolemaic rulers did not interfere in Egyptian society, and, eventually, Ptolemaic Egypt also became a cultural center, home of the Alexandria Museum and Alexandria Library, the latter of which contained the most scrolls of any location in the empire, perhaps the whole world.
When Alexander the Great died at age 33, his empire started to crumble. Because the Macedonians were focused on the East and on Egypt, the door was open in the West for a new power to rise to the world stage. That power was the Romans.
2. Rome (509 B.C.E.–476 C.E.)
Geographically, Rome was relatively well-situated. The Alps to the north provided protection from an invasion by land (although, ultimately, not enough). The sea surrounding the Italian peninsula limited the possibility of a naval attack unless a large armada floated across the sea. Yet, although somewhat isolated, Rome was also at a crossroad. It had easy access to northern Africa, Palestine, Greece, and the Iberian Peninsula (modern-day Spain and Portugal), which meant easy access to the rest of the world.
Roman Mythology: More Gods
Like the Greeks, the Romans were polytheistic. (Every time you see a cupid on a Valentine’s Day card, you see the impact of Roman mythology on our world today.) Many of their gods were of Greek origin, though appropriately renamed to suit their culture and language.
Social Structure in Rome: Organized and Patriarchal
The social and political structure in the Roman Republic consisted of patricians (land-owning noblemen), plebeians (all other free men), and slaves. Does this sound familiar? It should. It’s very similar to the social structure of ancient Greece. Roman government was organized as a representative republic. The main governing body was made up of two distinct groups: the Senate, which comprised patrician families, and the Assembly, which was initially made up of patricians, but later was opened to plebeians. Two consuls were annually elected by the Assembly. The consuls had veto power over decisions made by the Assembly.
This structure was much more stable than the direct democracies of the Greek polis, in which every male citizen was expected to participate on a regular basis. In a republic, the people have representatives, so they don’t have to vote on every issue. This is similar to the constitutional democracy we have in the United States. Everyone in this country votes for representatives, so it’s correct to call our system a democracy; however, our representatives in Congress vote on all the major issues, so our system of government is also very much a republic. Indeed, the structure of our government was modeled on the system used in the Roman Republic. Instead of two consuls, though, we have one, known as the president.
Early on, Rome developed civil laws to protect individual rights (in some ways similar to our Bill of Rights). The laws of Rome were codified (remember that the idea of a code was Hammurabi’s, in Babylon) and became known as the Twelve Tables of Rome(the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” originated here). Later, these laws were extended to an international code that Rome applied to its conquered territories.
The social structure of the Roman family centered on the pater familias—eldest male in the family—though women did have considerable influence within their families, with some supervising a family business or family estate. Roman women could own property, as well, but they were,nevertheless, considered inferior to men, just as in Greek society. And, as in Greece, slavery was an important element of the social structure of Rome—at one point, slaves comprised one-third of the population, most of whom came from conquered territories. Although life was difficult for all slaves, generally, those living and working in the cities had better conditions than their country counterparts, and some had the possibility of freedom.
Roman Military Domination: All Directions, All the Time
As Rome expanded, Carthage, a city-state in North Africa with powerful ambitions of its own, became its first enemy. It didn’t take long for this conflict to escalate into full-fledged wars, which came to be called the Punic Wars. These lasted on and off from 264 through 146 B.C.E.
The First Punic War (264–241 B.C.E.) was fought to gain control of the island of Sicily; Rome won this one. The Second Punic War (218–201 B.C.E.) began with an attack by Hannibal, a Carthaginian general considered one of the greatest military geniuses of all time. In an amazing feat, Hannibal led his army all the way to northern Italy, crossed the Alps (on elephants no less!), and surprised the Romans, who were expecting an attack from the south. Hannibal’s army destroyed many towns and villages to the north of Rome and were on the verge of destroying Rome. But a Roman army had landed in North Africa, forcing Hannibal to return to Carthage to defend his city. Carthage eventually agreed to sue for peace, and this made Rome the undisputed power in the western Mediterranean. Fifty years later, the Third Punic War (149–146 B.C.E.) was instigated by Rome. Rome invaded Carthage and burned it to the ground. With Carthage out of the picture, Rome continued its expansion throughout the Mediterranean.
Part of that expansion was to obtain Greece by defeating the Macedonians. The Romans also fought the Gauls to the north and the Spaniards to the west. Warfare aided the spread of Roman culture (which, you’ll recall, was linked to Greek culture) throughout much of western Europe and the Mediterranean. To maintain their vast empire, the Romans built an extensive road network and aqueducts, and greatly enlarged their navy.
Collapse of the Republic and the Rise of Imperialism
Following the Punic Wars, and even as Roman influence grew, the situation in and around Rome was becoming unsettled. Several events caused this restlessness. First, large landowners had begun using more slaves from the conquered territories. This displaced many small farmers, who moved into the cities, causing overcrowding among the plebeians and not enough jobs to support them. Second, the Roman currency was devalued, causing a high rate of inflation. This meant that the plebeians did not have enough money to buy the things they previously could afford. Third, political leaders began fighting amongst themselves. The result was that the power of the Senate weakened, ultimately to be transferred to three men, who came to be known as the first triumvirate:Pompey, Crassus, and Julius Caesar.
Caesar was given power over southern Gaul (France) and other parts of Europe. He chose not to conquer Germany, which would later prove significant. (Germany developed a different culture and would ultimately serve as a training ground for groups intent on conquering Rome.) Civil war between the Senate and Caesar’s followers resulted in pushing Pompey and Crassus out of the picture, after which Caesar became “emperor for life.” But his life didn’t last long. His angry senators assassinated him in 44 B.C.E.
After the death of Julius Caesar, a second triumvirate, composed of Octavius, Marc Antony, and Lepidus, came to power. Things didn’t improve the second time around. Power again shifted to one person, Octavius, who rose to power, assumed the name Augustus Caesar, and became emperor. The days of the Roman Republic were over once and for all. Rome was now an empire led by a single emperor.
Pax Romana: Peace and Prosperity
Under Augustus, Rome became the capital of the Western world. Augustus established the rule of law, a common coinage, civil service, and secure travel for merchants. With all these elements in place throughout the empire, stability returned to its people, and for 200 years, they enjoyed a period of peace and prosperity known as the Pax Romana (Roman Peace). Interestingly, however, though many of the laws were uniform throughout the empire during this period, a number of traditional customs of the people in the conquered territories survived. This, of course, meant that the distinct groups within the empire, such as the Hebrews or the Egyptians, maintained their individual cultural identities.
Under imperial power, the Roman Empire expanded to its largest geographical proportions through additional military conquests. But more important in the history of the Roman empire was the growth of the arts and sciences during this time. For centuries, Greece had been the arts center of the Western world. With the Roman peace, however, the arts in Rome flourished, especially literature (notably, Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Virgil’s Aeneid) and architecture (marked by the building of the Pantheon, Colosseum, and Forum). Science also reached new heights. Ptolemy looked to the heavens and greatly influenced achievements in astronomy, while Roman engineers went to work on roads and aqueducts.
Compare Them: Pax Romana with the Golden Ages of Greece, Gupta, and Others
In case you haven’t noticed a pattern, we’ll point it out for you. When a major empire greatly expands its territory, it becomes the center of artistic and scientific energy. This is because it has a tremendous amount of wealth flowing into its capital from its conquered regions, and because the people have the freedom and confidence to pursue goals other than military protection. This happened in Rome, Athens, Gupta India, Han China, and the other civilizations we’ve discussed so far.
Religious Diversity: New Chiefs of Beliefs
Throughout the days of the Roman Republic and during the early days of the Roman Empire, paganism was the state religion. Roman citizens were required to make sacrifices to traditional Roman gods. But shortly after the reign of Augustus, a new religion developed in the Mediterranean and Aegean regions. That religion was Christianity.
Christianity grew out of Judaism, which had been practiced by Hebrews in Palestine for thousands of years. Judaism was the first major monotheistic religion. (These two religions are described in detail in Section IV of this chapter.) Initially, both Judaism and Christianity were tolerated by the Romans. The Romans allowed the conquered territories to practice their own faiths as long as doing so didn’t interfere with the functioning of the empire. Eventually, however, Jewish resistance to Roman control led to the suppression of Judaism. And as the apostles of Jesus and missionaries extended the influence of Christianity throughout the empire, the Romans began to see the new religion and its leaders as threats to both paganism and their power. To make it clear who was in charge, Emperor Nero began to persecute Christians, even killing them in open spectacles at the Colosseum. These acts of violence failed to stop the spread of Christianity. Only when Emperor Constantine himself issued the Edict of Milan in 313 C.E. did the persecution end. And by 391 C.E., Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Since then, it continues to be one of the world’s most influential religions.