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The Mediterranean cultures of Greece and Rome have long been considered the foundations for the modern western world. The cultural traditions, political conventions, and philosophical, religious, ethical and moral standards have survived since the days of Socrates, Plato, Solon, Caesar, and Augustus, and still play a role in our culture today. The Greeks and Romans were part contemporary, part successive, and sometimes indistinguishable from one another as is seen by the spread of their cultures, the role of women in society, and the effect of social distinctions. It must be said, however, that when speaking of “Greeks,” more often than not, the Greek polis of Sparta is not included, such as in its equality of women and social distinctions.
The Mediterranean, throughout history, has “acted more as a bridge than a barrier, encouraging trade and social contact between the countries bordering it” (Gilmore, 1982, p. 177). Both the Greeks and Romans used the sea as a way to spread their culture from one end to the other, but in different ways. The Greeks were always able seamen, relying on their maritime trade to supplement meager harvests caused by the rocky terrain. By the mid-eighth century BCE, the Greeks were colonizing areas along the Mediterranean coastline (Bentley, et al., 2008). These colonies, while maintaining many of the cultural aspects of the Greeks and benefitting from their trade routes, were not part of any Greek kingdom or empire, and were mostly left to their own devices. On the other hand, the Mediterranean served as an invasion point for Rome against Carthage and many of its other conquests. At the high point of the Roman Empire, there was a wide strip of Roman land entirely surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, which they referred to as “mare nostrum (“our sea”)” (Bentley, et al., 2008, p. 149). While the Greeks were content to maintain cultural unity with independent city-states, or poleis, the Romans centralized government power in a Republic, then an Empire, but allowed conquered people to maintain much of their own culture.
Gender equality is both an ancient concept, and a relatively new one. In the days of hunters and gatherers, the small family units are generally thought of as egalitarian- all members of the family play a role in food production, so all members are considered equal. With the rise of agriculture, men started doing the heavy outdoors work of tending the fields, and with it, the power within the household and culture. Both the Greeks and Romans had strong patriarchal traditions, with the Greeks granting citizenship only to men, and giving men total control of their family, including the ability to legally abandon children in the wilderness (Bentley, et al., 2008). The only public position available to women was priestess, and one of the very few exceptions is Sappho, the 6th century BCE poet, who was eventually ostracized for probable homosexuality, another example of something open to men but unacceptable for women (Bentley, et al., 2008). However, Greek women did have some power within their households, and upper class women were valued for their “pedigree” (Sanders, Nelson, Morillo & Ellenberger, 2006). In Rome, pater familias were given much authority over their households, including the ability to sell their family members into slavery or even execute them (Bentley, et al., 2008). Roman women also had some power within the domestic sphere, which gradually extended to small shops and stalls as well as working around the law regarding inheritances until, in the third and second centuries BCE, women owned a considerable amount of property (Bentley, et al., 2008).
Finally, and most applicable to our modern world, is the effect of social distinctions. Both the Greeks and Romans had an upper class of wealthy landowners and a lower class that was unhappy with their lot (Bentley, et al., 2008). In both cases, the underprivileged threatened to revolt or secede, and in both cases, additional allowances were granted to help ease the gap between the rich and the poor. In Greece, a 6th century BCE statesman named Solon compromised, allowing the aristocrats to keep their land, but cancelling all debt, freeing those who were in slavery due to debt, and outlawing debt slavery, and eventually, statesmen were even paid to ensure that “financial hardship would not exclude anyone” from holding office (Bentley, et al., 2008, p. 135). In Rome, plebeians were granted the ability to elect tribunes, which became eligibility for almost all state offices, and eventually, even one of the consuls could be elected from the plebeians (Bentley, et al., 2008). By the early third century BCE, plebeians had majority in the Senate, allowing the lower classes political power that bound the rest of the Romans (Bentley, et al., 2008).
The geographic proximity of Greece and Rome likely led to many of their similarities, while time and experimentation can account for many of their differences. Even the term “Greco-Roman” points toward the inevitable comparison between these two cultural, political and philosophical powerhouses. From the use of the Mediterranean to spread their cultures, the way women were treated in their societies, and the effect of social distinctions, one can see their similarities, differences, and effect on the western world.
Bentley, J. H., Ziegler, H.F., & Streets, H.E. (2008). Traditions and encounters: A brief global history. Ashford University edition. Boston: The McGraw-Hill Companies.
Gilmore, D. (1982). Anthropology of the Mediterranean area. Annual Review of Anthropology 11, pp. 175-205. Retrieved January 14, 2012 from JSTOR.
Nowak, B., & Laird, P. (2010). Cultural Anthropology (S. Wainwright & D. Moneypenny, Eds.). Retrieved from http://content.ashford.edu/books
Sanders, T., Nelson, S. H., Morillo, S. & Ellenberger, N. (2006). Encounters in world history: Sources and themes from the global past: Vol. 1. To 1500. Boston: The McGraw-Hill Companies.