Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome Compared: Roman Civilization Endured as an Empire Because of Self Identity

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Roman Emperor Hadrian

The temptation to compare and contrast two great ancient civilizations must be tempered with the fact that Greece and Rome were uniquely different communities.

Why did Rome succeed as an empire yet Greece did not? The answer to this question may well begin with the fact that Ancient Greece never was an empire in the strictest sense of the definition. Other than a brief “imperial” period under Athens – which did not involve all of the Greek city-states, and Philip of Macedonia’s unification of the Greek peninsula followed by his illustrious son’s Asian conquests, Greece could never compare with the centralized structure of Ancient Rome. Hellenisation disseminated Greek culture throughout the Mediterranean world, but this hardly constitutes an empire.

Roman Hegemony during the Republican Period

After defeating their one-time Etruscan masters, the Romans moved to consolidate power in Italy. This was accomplished through war, diplomacy, and the granting of Roman citizenship. The extent of these successes became evident during the Second Punic War when the Italian city-state allies of Rome remained loyal, denying Hannibal the support he needed to decisively defeat Rome.

The Punic Wars determined whether Rome or Carthage would dominate the Mediterranean. The result of the Third Punic War was the destruction of Carthage, recounted by Livy in brutal detail. Following the Punic Wars, Rome turned toward Greece, in part because of the Macedonian-Carthaginian Treaty. Unlike Egypt, which sent the Roman Senate congratulatory remarks following the victory over Carthage, the Macedonians were in league with Hannibal.

By the time Octavian became the first augusti, all of Greece was under the domination of Imperial Rome. Rome’s success was based on many factors that included a willingness to learn strong lessons from defeats and co-opt the ideas of its enemies. The Roman legion owed much to the Greek phalanx of earlier decades and her navy was modeled on Carthaginian designs and strategies. From Greece, Rome took culture and religion. Finally, Rome never interfered with provincial beliefs and customs unless they posed a threat to the core tenets of Roman ideology and practice.

Greek Limitations in the Ancient World

The voluntarily unity of Greek city-states occurred only when outside forces threatened the disparate civilization such as the invasion of Darius I and later Xerxes during the Persian Wars. Yet after these threats were eliminated, the city-states withdrew into their own spheres. Sparta, for example, was more concerned with internal security and control rather than empire building. Even the rise of an imperial Athens seemed motivated more by commercial interests and less by conquest.

The very nature of self interest among the Greek city-states may have been one factor among many in the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, a series of conflicts and changing alliances that ultimately left a power vacuum filled by Macedonia. Unlike the rise of Rome, there was no central, powerfully competent state able to forge an empire with lasting ramifications. The successes of Philip of Macedonia and his son, Alexander, were built upon the personalities of the leaders so when Alexander died, the empire he forged fell apart.

Unlike Rome, no lasting institutional entities tied together an imperial or pre-imperial community of states. Rome had its period of civil wars such as the contest between Marius and Sulla and the conflicts within the triumvirates, yet the cogent example of Cincinnatus reminded the Romans what had made them a great people, an ideal Cato and Cicero kept in the forefront of Roman identity.

Article Credit: Mike Streich

Sources:

  1. Mary T. Boatwright, Daniel J. Gargola, and others, The Romans From Village to Empire: A History of Ancient Rome from Earliest Times to Constantine (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004)
  2. Michael Grant, History of Rome (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1978)
  3. Srah B. Pomeroy, Stanley M. Burstein, and others, Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999)
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