In my 8th grade ancient history class one of the great questions of the year involves whether or not one believes that Greece or Rome was the superior civilization. The students usually get into heated discussions on the issue and seem quite excited by the question–until they discover that they have to write a long essay about it for the final exam. Somehow, this dampens their ardor.
Comparisons between Greece and Rome can always yield fruit. Each civilization has significant primary source documentation. Their development overlaps and departs at points like a figure eight. Both civilizations had similar climates, were right near the Mediterranean, with mountains forming a large part of the topography. Both civilizations started out a city-states and transitioned from kings/tyrants (in the technical sense of the word) to a republic/democracy at almost exactly the same time.
But despite these similarities, Rome grew into one of the largest global empires of all time and Greece stayed within its narrow confines for the vast majority of its history and never expanded as Rome did. I thought of this question recently because Michael Rostovtzeff raised it in the early pages of his book on Rome.* He saw more similarity between Greece and Rome than others, and so had to account for the differences in their historical development in ways that those who see more difference between the two could ignore.
I agree with Rostovtzeff’s rejection of purely mechanical or physical explanations. Some argue that geography can explain the difference. Greece’s geography hemmed them in and forced the creation of independent city-states, whereas Italy’s geography allowed for more expansion. But Rostovtzeff points out that both areas had relatively the same interaction with mountains and the Mediterranean. Italy’s soil had an advantage, but not a great enough advantage to explain Rome’s expansion. And while Greece’s topography had more mountains to contend with, occasionally certain city-states built empires, showing that geography itself cannot explain the difference.
He then goes on to assert that we can explain Rome’s expansion, and Greece’s relative lack of territorial expansion, to the following:
- Rome had a better political structure, which allowed for more effective and consistent mobilization of the population, and
- Rome’s political changes came slowly, which prevented shocks to the system that would inevitably derail or delay a civilization’s growth. Such shocks could be compared to long bouts of illness in an individual.
I certainly prefer these explanations to geographical explanations, but I feel one needs to go deeper. Politics flows downstream from culture, and culture from religion, and it is here that I feel the answer must lie. To get at religious differences we need to look not at particular beliefs or religious rites, but what those beliefs and rites point to. To get at that question, we need to examine their mythologies, for if nothing else, it shows us how they perceived themselves and gets at their motivations.
On the surface of things Greece and Rome look much alike, but their myths tell a different story. The story of Pygmalion and Galatea, for example, reveals the Greek passion for perfection. Pygmalion eschews women because none he sees truly merit his affection. He carves his thoughts into a perfect stone sculpture, and Aphrodite rewards him for his devotion by having the statue come to life, and they live happily ever after. We see this pursuit of perfection in other areas of Greek life, in the Parthenon, in their mathematical idealism, and so on.
When Livy writes of Rome’s early days he recounts how Romulus and the early founders of Rome–all men–needed women. So they come up with an idea of a religious festival and invited young ladies from the Sabines. When they came they abducted and forcibly marry them.
When the hour for the games had come, and their eyes and minds were alike riveted on the spectacle before them, the preconcerted signal was given and the Roman youth dashed in all directions to carry off the maidens who were present. The larger part were carried off indiscriminately, but some particularly beautiful girls who had been marked out for the leading patricians were carried to their houses by plebeians told off for the task. One, conspicuous amongst them all for grace and beauty, is reported to have been carried off by a group led by a certain Talassius, and to the many inquiries as to whom she was intended for, the invariable answer was given, “For Talassius.” Hence the use of this word in the marriage rites. Alarm and consternation broke up the games, and the parents of the maidens fled, distracted with grief, uttering bitter reproaches on the violators of the laws of hospitality and appealing to the god to whose solemn games they had come, only to be the victims of impious perfidy.
The abducted maidens were quite as despondent and indignant. Romulus, however, went round in person, and pointed out to them that it was all owing to the pride of their parents in denying right of intermarriage to their neighbours. They would live in honourable wedlock, and share all their property and civil rights, and – dearest of all to human nature – would be the mothers of freemen. He begged them to lay aside their feelings of resentment and give their affections to those whom fortune had made masters of their persons. An injury had often led to reconciliation and love; they would find their husbands all the more affectionate, because each would do his utmost, so far as in him lay, to make up for the loss of parents and country. These arguments were reinforced by the endearments of their husbands, who excused their conduct by pleading the irresistible force of their passion – a plea effective beyond all others in appealing to a woman’s nature.
The tenor of this story fits well within the framework of the rest of Livy’s work. The story of Romulus and Remus, for example, has some of the same heroic qualities as in the founding myths of other civilizations. But the story have Romulus kill his brother Remus in a fit of temper for a minor dispute, and the tale takes little pains to justify the deed.
I think that Livy has more actual history in him than others might, but even I would not say that Livy writes history as Thucydides wrote history. So we must consider why Rome’s foundational stories have this different feel and emphasis. Two possibilities present themselves:
- The key to Rome’s greatness comes from the fact that they did not whitewash things. They called a spade a spade. They did not hide the truth about themselves, and so they were much better equipped to deal with reality than those around them
- The key to Rome’s greatness comes from the fact that, not only did they not hide their warts, they reveled in them. In fact, stories like the Romulus/Remus story would not have been viewed as a black spot on their past, but rather, a positive good. Of all the soft civilizations that surrounded them, Rome and Rome only did what needed to be done. Rome understood, just as Machiavelli understood, that states need founded by one man, and one man only. Either Romulus or Remus would have to go, twins or not.
I favor the second option. If we imagine that Rome’s founding myths and folklore follow the general pattern of most every other civilization (the U.S. included), we should imagine that these stories reflect something of an idealized version of themselves.
Some years ago in our 8th grade ancient history class, a student made a striking comment as we discussed exactly what Rome “meant” by their multiple conquests. What drove them to expand? Rome’s religion technically forbade offensive war, and yet Rome never lacked a justification for war when they felt they needed one. The student suggested that the Romans were not unlike the Assyrians. The Assyrians conquered (in part at least) as an offering to Ashur, their god of war. The Romans (though certainly not as rapacious or cruel as the Assyrians) conquered as offering to their god as well, except their god was the city of Rome itself. Greece could occupy itself with abstractions like ideal perfection but Rome remained very physical in their orientation throughout. Their god was literally made visible all of the time. Thus, this physical orientation would require very tangible applications.
Perhaps the key to Rome’s expansion vis a vis Greece lies here.
Machiavelli recorded an intriguing anecdote on Roman religion:
Auguries were not only, as we have shown above, a main foundation of the old religion of the Gentiles, but were also the cause of the prosperity of the Roman commonwealth. Accordingly, the Romans gave more heed to these than to any other of their observances, in undertaking new enterprises; in calling out their armies; in going into battle; and, in short, in every business of importance, whether civil or military. Nor would they ever set forth on any warlike expedition, until they had satisfied their soldiers that the gods had promised them victory.
Among other means of declaring the auguries, they had in their armies a class of soothsayers, named by them pullarii, whom, when they desired to give battle, they would ask to take the auspices, which they did by observing the behaviour of fowls. If the fowls pecked, the engagement was begun with a favourable omen. If they refused, battle was declined. Nevertheless, when it was plain on the face of it that a certain course had to be taken, they take it at all hazards, even though the auspices were adverse; contriving, however, to manage matters so adroitly as not to appear to throw any slight on religion; as was done by the consul Papirius in the great battle he fought with the Samnites wherein that nation was finally broken and overthrown. For Papirius being encamped over against the Samnites, and perceiving that he fought, victory was certain, and consequently being eager to engage, desired the omens to be taken. The fowls refused to peck; but the chief soothsayer observing the eagerness of the soldiers to fight and the confidence felt both by them and by their captain, not to deprive the army of such an opportunity of glory, reported to the consul that the auspices were favourable. Whereupon Papirius began to array his army for battle.
But some among the soothsayers having divulged to certain of the soldiers that the fowls had not pecked, this was told to Spurius Papirius, the nephew of the consul, who reporting it to his uncle, the latter straightway bade him mind his own business, for that so far as he himself and the army were concerned, the auspices were fair; and if the soothsayer had lied, the consequences were on his head. And that the event might accord with the prognostics, he commanded his officers to place the soothsayers in front of the battle. It so chanced that as they advanced against the enemy, the chief soothsayer was killed by a spear thrown by a Roman soldier; which, the consul hearing of, said, “All goes well, and as the Gods would have it, for by the death of this liar the army is purged of blame and absolved from whatever displeasure these may have conceived against it.” And contriving, in this way to make his designs tally with the auspices, he joined battle, without the army knowing that the ordinances of religion had in any degree been disregarded.
But an opposite course was taken by Appius Pulcher, in Sicily, in the first Carthaginian war. For desiring to join battle, he bade the soothsayers take the auspices, and on their announcing that the fowls refused to feed, he answered, “Let us see, then, whether they will drink,” and, so threw them into the sea. After which he fought and was defeated. For this he was condemned at Rome, while Papirius was honoured; not so much because the one had gained while the other had lost a battle, as because in their treatment of the auspices the one had behaved discreetly, the other with rashness . . .
Machiavelli surmises that the Romans wisely manipulated their religion to serve their political or cultural needs. I agree as far his explanation goes, but I think we can go one further. The Romans had a conscious religion of oracles, auguries, and the like, but a deeper, perhaps even unconscious religion of worship of their city itself. I’m not so sure that Appius would have received censure had he been victorious.
I remain grateful to this student, who years ago helped me see the history of Rome in a new light.
*Though it has little to do with the post above, I cannot resist commenting on some reviews of Rostovtzeff’s work. He emigrated from Russia shortly after the Russian Revolution. His experience of events in Russia certainly impacted his analysis of Rome, where he saw the decline of the Republic in terms of 1) Too much change too quickly, and 2) Given the size of Rome, too much power shifted into the hands of too many (he felt that democracies needed to be small in size to work well).
Some dismiss him out of hand, because, obviously, his experience in Russia strongly colored his analysis of Roman politics. Well, ok. But a man is surely more than his influences. What of the merits of Rostovtzeff’s analysis? It can be debated, but his interpretations is hardly crazy, or such an obvious byproduct of personal experience that it has nothing to do with the evidence. These same reviewers, I’m sure, would not want their own work subjected to the tests they used for Rostovtzeff.
Though C.S. Lewis’ original discussion of the “personal heresy” applied directly to poetry, I think it applies also to works of history as well, which are acts of creation somewhat akin to poetry.