Many people are fascinated with the rise and fall of Ancient Greek and Rome. Known as some of the greatest cities, and eventually empires, they have been a fascinating subject of study. Historians have studied their rulings for decades, but Anthropologists are fascinated with their culture.
What did they do, say, think, and believe that allowed them to be so great? Much of this we cannot know for certain, because we do not have the most well-kept accounts. However, the information that we do have can allow us to learn a lot.
From Greco-Roman culture, many things grew. Romance languages, including Italian, Romanian, and Spanish, are derived from Latin. Our modern alphabet, calendar, and Christianity all came from this vast empire.
Let’s dive into where Greco-Roman Culture came from, what it is, and where we see it today.
History of Greco-Roman Culture
Greco-Roman culture, like any, was an interconnected web of various traditions, histories, and influences. This strong combination comes from the influences that Greek traditions had on the Romans.
We now know it for its proficiency in literature and learning. Greek culture was seen as a sort of launching pad. Romans saw Greek ways as influential, yes, but also stifling. Focused on defeating enemies, the Greeks placed more emphasis on doctrines than life. The Romans desired to expand beyond such beliefs.
Despite such intentions, Romans obtained much of their culture not through appreciation, but through enslavement. As the Romans expanded their land, they also expanded their culture. In their fascination and enslavement, the Romans absorbed so much of what the Greeks produced. Now, their cultural proximity is so close that it’s commonly known as Greco-Roman Culture.
How it All Began
Ancient Rome is believed, according to ancient mythology, to have been founded by Romulus and Remus. Through a series of wild events with the twin brothers, the city of Rome was formed in 753 BCE. Romulus became the first king of the city, with all following him titled king by election, not lineage.
Rome began as a little city in the lower part of Italy, but eventually grew into a grand empire. This expansion began around the 8th century, BCE. The Romans first encountered the Greeks in Southern Italy in the 3rd century, BCE. Here they began to learn their culture and language. Of course, they were not only interested in learning, but rather expansion. Romans took many Greek slaves back to their home city as both a prize and a lesson.
A Brief Backstory
From these captures, the Romans took much more than physical possessions. Ideas of Greek policy were quickly absorbed into their Roman ways. Romans believed they could improve the ideas found in Greek culture, such as the Republic. These furthered their expansion and attacks as the Romans used Greek power to their own advantage.
Rome’s “elected” rulers were still active monarchs at this time, as they were elected by the senate, not by the people. Such practices ended in 509 BCE, following the horrid ruler Lucius Tarquinius Superbus. After this time, Rome was known solely as a Republic.
Ideas of the Republic grew quickly and swiftly. Magistrates, senators, and patricians were easily implemented. They did not come without contestation, however. Plebeians, the common people revolted and desired political power of their own. Eventually, they obtained some power and were able to be active members of the Republic.
At the height of their empire, Rome had a hold of Europe, Britain, North Africa, the Mediterranean Islands, and much of Western Asia. For nearly 450 years, Rome was ruled as a republic, a time of democracy and equality. Around the first century BCE, Julius Caesar came to rise and moved Rome from a republic to a complete Empire.
Not long lasting, the Roman Empire had fallen by the 5th century, CE.
Separation of Greco-Roman Culture
This separation of Greco-Roman Culture might not be what you think it is. Because Rome took over so much of Greece’s society, we often refer to their culture as one big thing. When we apply those ideas to history, we see that many of them are present in our own society. Anthropologists aren’t trying to separate Greek culture from Roman culture. Rather, they work to categorize culture as a whole.
Anthropologists segment the culture of a society, country, or people into three main categories. First, there’s the Material Culture. These are the elements that meet the material needs of humans. How they create, use and process good to form and maintain their way of life. Second is the category of Social Culture. This is the way in which humans interact and work with each other on a larger scale. The third category is Ideological Aspects. These include traditions, norms, and legends of people.
These three segments help anthropologists understand how people live, the actions they take, and the experiences they have. Not all elements of a society can be easily placed into one of these categories, and some will reach into multiple categories. But having basic separations between martial, social, and ideological elements will help anthropologists learn much more.
As we learn more about the individual elements of a culture, it also creates a larger picture of what the society or culture was as a whole. In reference to the Greco-Roman culture, this helped us learn more both in reference to their culture as it was, and how it has impacted our own society.
In the Ancient Greco-Roman Culture, a lot of the lower, or poorer, populations received their material goods through donations from the upper classes. This included grains, olive oil, and meat. The lower class citizens could gain more material goods as a client to a patron. A patron was a richer citizen in their area that the lower class would sign allegiance to by providing regular payments. In turn, these payments offered the poorer citizens more money when the material distribution came around.
Regular distributions from the Republic or Emperor (depending on the time period) were based on the job positions. Earnings from such jobs were for basic survival, and all other needs or wants were additional that individuals had to obtain. It is these additional needs that lower class citizens often look to patrons for help with.
Greco-Roman culture came from well developed cities. Their distribution of material goods also came from their division of labor, which resulted in specializations. This allowed for there to be more specially processed goods, monetary systems and timing systems. Overall, these systems were widely interdependent.
It was not that one worked on its own, but that the people themselves were a system who all functioned together to produce, use, and move those material goods.
The term “social culture” might seem a bit redundant, being that the terms are so cumulative. However, they have prominent differences. Society is the group of people themselves; individuals, of a certain number, in a certain place. Culture is the way those people interact and their customs. So we see that Social Culture is a category for anthropologists that focuses on the social makings of a culture.
Similar to the interconnectedness of the material culture, social culture is deeply dependent on all parts functioning evenly. Greco-Roman culture was a very class-based society. Firstly, there was the separation between slaves and free people. From all their conquerors, slaves accounted for 1/3 of the Roman population.
Slavery, as a social class, was separated into active slaves and free slaves. Further classified, free slaves were categorized based on how they were freed. A person could either be freed by their masters, or buy their own freedom. Despite being freed, former slaves still maintained the social category of “slave” and never reached the privileged gas that a free-born person obtained.
The social category of free people was separated into three primary divisions; plebeians, knights, and senators. Wealth was the dividing factor between these social categories. People could fall into a lesser category if they lose their wealth. Even during empirical times, these class systems remained largely intact because it didn’t just tell which people could live where, but it helped society function.
Both part of daily lives and much larger interactions, ideological aspects are very important to anthropologists. They indicate what a culture was, is, and what it can be. Part of their importance is that they can be understood by anyone. Where society is segmented into specific sections, ideologies apply to all. Legends and myths are told by those who are illiterate; monuments tell the history of those who weren’t alive.
Anthropologists find these ideological aspects to be important in the maintenance of society. Providing reason and rationale, they kept people with power in power, and those of the lower classes at the bottom. For example, priests were held in prominent power during this time. Teaching the ways of the gods and deciding when ceremonies were held allowed the priests great social power.
The continuation of these ideas was also reinforced through private education at this time. Where the lower classes were taught through myths, the upper classes were educated by scholars. Only furthering the social class divide, the upper classes became more educated while the lower classes were kept in place. Legends and myths gave explanations as to why people were in their separate classes.
These ideas relate back to the other two segments of culture discussed above, and thus we have an interconnected system of society.
Strict social structure we do not see in our present day, but there are many other elements derived from Greco-Roman roots. Pillars, satire, comedy, and sewers are but a few examples of the daily impact.
One of the most prominent ideas we see from Greco-Roman culture is entertainment, especially the theater. Both the format itself, and the plot lines that we have come to know are derived from their ancient traditions. Shakespeare himself drew upon such ideas in forming his own writings.
Modern media was also influenced by Greco-Roman tradition. Theater shapes, with the rising seats, were an invention of their era. We see this regularly in all theater formats, working to maximize the seating and enhance the audio.
Priests, as mentioned earlier, also have roots in Ancient Rome. While these ancient priests told stories of pagan gods, our modern priests typically follow Christianity. However, many of their roles were the same. Acting as a mediator between the people and the gods, priests decided how, when, and where religious rituals were held. This influenced much of the government and people in power, as priests were a mediator for all social classes.
Death rituals also have a connection to Greco-Roman culture. In ancient times, a deceased person would be laid out on a couch for eight days in their finest clothes before complete burial. While we don’t have an eight-day process, we see that our loved ones are still laid out and in their best.
A primary aspect of Greco-Roman culture was sports. Gladiators, boxers, and gymnasts are all athletes these days. Often fighting to the death, these “sports” are nothing like we see on screen today. However, there are still many aspects in common. In front of hundreds of adoring fans, these metal-clad warriors would fight and stab to the end.
We certainly don’t see such blood-shedding today, but encouraging fighting on the field is nothing new. The arenas in which sports are played also aren’t new. Coliseums bare close resemblance to football stadiums. Just like theaters, the Greeks and Romans learned how to optimize space and sound for onlookers.
Similar to our own, and all others, marriage was a big part of Greco-Roman culture. In ancient times, marriage was a largely political undertaking. Creating alliances through union, many political leaders would marry off their children to gain more power.
Sometimes this came in direct ways, such as obtaining more land. Other times, it was focused on social power, people that a marriage allowed more social influence. Marriages were also arranged by parents as a way to appease the gods. Again, this could be used as a political movement, but it also had a front of religion.
Another are of advancement that has impacted our current era is technology and science. Ancient Greeks and Romans didn’t work with microchips or hard drives, but they did advance much of their own machinery. Aqueducts, roads, and drainage are some of the advancements that they made. Without these tools, which were huge back in the day, we would not be where we are now.
Perhaps the most well known influence on our modern culture is literature and language. During the 70 BCE to about 18 CE, was what we now know as the “Golden Age of Roman Poetry”. This lead to make of the greats, such as Virgil and Ovid. These writers influenced later writers, like Dante. Along with the use of Latin, which we see as part of the English language, they have had a great impact on how information is shared.
Anthropology and Society
As we can see in the examples above, there is much from the ancient Greeks and Romans that is part of our culture. From the alphabet to funerals, Greco-Roman society has greatly impacted the world. Partly due to their greatness, and partly from their expansion, their ideas have spread well beyond their borders. Without any doubt, we can say that they have been a fundamental element of society.
Anthropologists recognize their importance not just in the direct commonalities that we share, but also the indirect ways. More than the theater, Greco-Roman culture taught us about social classes, politics, and ways of life. Anthropologists value the study of ancient civilizations because it allows us to understand our own. Such as with the three categories of society, we can apply similar theories to our present day analyses.