1600 years ago, St. Augustine observed a similar obsession: “Indeed, a man wishes to be happy even when he so lives as to make happiness impossible.” This question has endured the test of time – all human civilizations have struggled with and have attempted to answer this fundamental question of human existence.
In western civilization, the Greeks and Romans, Jews and Christians, ancients and moderns, philosophers and theologians have all had something to say about happiness. What is happiness? Why does it seem to be so important? Is it important to you? How do you answer this question:
What does it mean to be happy in life?
The great Greek philosopher, Socrates , has been famously quoted as stating that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
Happiness means to experience pleasure, is living a life of virtue and A person should not be concerned with happiness because it is selfish.
Greek philosopher Epicurus who believed that pleasure was the goal of life. Epicurus wrote: “Pleasure, we declare, is the beginning and end of the happy life. We are endowed by nature to recognize pleasure as the greatest good. Every choice and avoidance we make is guided by pleasure as our standard for judging the goodness of everything”
What do you mean by pleasure: It is the freedom to do what I want, whatever makes me happy or freedom from pain and anxiety?
Circular Reasoning and it is not a good basis for a position. Technically, circular reasoning is defined as when the conclusion of an argument is basically the same as one of the premises in the argument or in plain English, it’s when someone argues that “It’s true because it’s true
Excess – Virtue – Deficiency
Recklessness – Courage – Cowardice
Boastfulness – Truthfulness – Understatement
Shyness – Modesty – Shamelessness
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The Sophists were a group of philosophers/teachers in ancient Greece. They emphasized the practical side of philosophy and argument, teaching young men who were interested in political office and power how to persuade people.
“Greeks agreed with the Hebrews that people fail to follow wisdom. Aristotle lamented “such men are rare,” arguing “the mass of mankind are evidently quite slavish in their tastes, preferring a life suitable to beasts.
Plato describes this dilemma in his Allegory of the Cave. Plato argues that we are like prisoners chained in a cave. We are unable to understand perfect virtue because all we see in this life are but shadows.
This dialogue activity was designed to help you think deeply about happiness and how you view it in your life.
In this journal assignment, please reflect on this dialogue and the following questions:
Your journal entry should be between 250-300 words in length.
For this part of the assignment, we would like your feedback on the technology and approach that this assignment utilized; specifically, the use of an automated dialogue process. Please respond briefly to the following questions:
Your journal entry should be between 250-300 words in length.
What would you change about it, if anything, to make it a more effective learning tool?
Click on the Week 5: Journal Reflection link above to post your journal.
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HIST 101 Western Civilization I
Section 1: Mesopotamia and Egypt
As we examine and compare the early civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt, keep in mind one of critical enduring questions: Who is God? How did these civilizations view God (or their gods) and their relationship to the divine?
The civilizations of both Mesopotamia and Egypt grew up in river valleys and depended on their rivers to sustain a productive agriculture in otherwise arid lands. In fact, Mesopotamia is the Greek word for “land between the rivers.” Most historians consider Mesopotamia to be the first civilization. It developed between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers (present-day Iraq).
While both Mesopotamia and Egypt developed around rivers, they were radically different. At the heart of Egyptian life was the Nile which rose predictably every year. This brought soil and water, which nurtured Egyptian agricultural life.
Click here to read a Hymn to the Nile. How does the writer portray the Nile?
In contrast to the Nile, the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers also rose annually but unpredictably, sometimes actually submerging a farmer’s crops and ruining them.
Mesopotamia was also an open environment without any serious natural obstacles—this made Mesopotamia far more vulnerable to invasion than the much more protected space of Egypt which was surrounded by deserts, mountains, seas and cataracts. For long periods of time, Egypt was secure from external attack in ways that Mesopotamia could only have envied.
While a civilization’s environment certainly shapes the culture, most historians are reluctant to endorse the idea that the geographic or environmental context wholly shapes a culture. Christians believe that human beings are more than environment. Rather, humans are created in the image of God with a soul. Humans are not material beings alone but spiritual beings as well. They are not fully determined by their circumstances, their context or even their culture. Indeed, Scripture instructs, and Regent’s College of Arts and Sciences promotes, challenging culture with Christian Truth, values and wisdom.
While avoiding the idea of geographical determinism, we see in this case of Mesopotamia and Egypt that a connection or link between the physical setting and culture existed. This can certainly be seen in the religious outlook of both civilizations to which we now turn.
Section 2: The Mesopotamian Outlook
Religion was the overarching center of Mesopotamian culture. All other cultural activities functioned in subordination and in light of religion. Like many ancient civilizations, Mesopotamia was polytheistic, a belief in many gods and goddesses. Important decisions by kings were done in consultation with the gods. The gods and goddesses could not be seen with the naked eye but they were everywhere. They controlled the entire universe. Along with gods, demons also inhabited the earth. While gods made the rains come and kept the planets in motion, demons might bring disease, sandstorms and other problems. Mesopotamians sought protection from the gods by offering sacrifices. Individual Mesopotamians or groups often gave special attention or reverence to a single god or group of gods.
But Mesopotamian gods were unpredictable. The gods had little love for humanity. One Mesopotamian writer asked:
“What is good for oneself may be offense to one’s god. What in one’s heart seems despicable may be proper to one’s god. Who can know the will of the gods in heaven? Who can understand the plans of the underworld gods? Where have humans learned the way of a god? He who is alive yesterday is dead today.” (Perry, Western Civilization, 12)
Some documents from Mesopotamia portray an understanding of life that saw the world as dangerous, volatile, and often violent. Many viewed humankind as caught in an inherently disorderly world. The gods were unpredictable and quarrelsome. The afterlife did not offer much hope. The afterlife was characterized by life in a dreary underworld. Mesopotamians lived in a world of anxiety and this permeated their worldview. As one Mesopotamian poet complained: “I have prayed to the gods and sacrificed, but who can understand the gods of heaven? Who knows what they plan for us? Who has ever been able to understand god’s conduct?” (Robert Strayer, Ways of the World, 81).
The Epic of Gilgamesh captures this Mesopotamian outlook.
Click here to view an introductory video about this classic piece of literature. Click here to access some excerpts of the Epic.
Test your understanding of the materials by taking this brief self-assessment:
Section 3: The Egyptian Outlook
By contrast, the Egyptian outlook, at least at the elite level, was more cheerful and hopeful. The pyramids reflect the belief that the pharaohs and other high ranking people might enjoy eternal life after death. Indeed, a key part of Egyptian religion was the afterlife. Pyramid tombs, mummification, funerary art all show the Egyptian desire for endless life. Priests would recite incantations to ensure the continuation of life for the deceased.
Click here to read a pyramid text. How is the afterlife of the pharaoh depicted?
At first, the Egyptians believed only the pharaoh and the royal family could live forever in an afterlife. More and more Egyptians came to believe they could gain access to the afterlife—nobility and commoner alike. Prayers that had been reserved for the pharaoh were recited by priests at the funeral of commoners.
Click here to read an excerpt from the Book of the Dead. What might it suggest about the religious thinking of Egyptians?
Like the Mesopotamians, Egyptians were polytheistic, worshipping many gods. Religion was also central to Egyptian culture. They appealed to the gods for help with crops, in battle and in day to day life. Egyptians believed the gods manifested themselves in animal shapes; therefore, Egyptians often worshipped animals. In addition, the power of nature could be the embodiment of gods—the sky, earth, the Nile, a storm.
Test your understanding of the materials by taking this brief self-assessment:
Section 4: Mesopotamian Political and Social Life
Mesopotamian history was marked by constant warfare and conquest. The first civilization to arise in Mesopotamia was known as Sumer. The Sumerians organized themselves into a dozen or more separate and independent city-states. Each city had its own gods. Each city-state was ruled by a king, who claimed to represent the city’s patron deity and who controlled the affairs of the walled city and surrounding rural population. City-states frequently engaged in warfare over boundaries and water rights. These conflicts eventually left Sumerian cities vulnerable to outside forces. Stronger people from northern Mesopotamia conquered Sumer’s warring cities. First the Akkadians, later Assyrians, and then Babylonians created larger empires that encompassed all or most of Mesopotamia.
One of the oldest discovered and deciphered law codes in the world is from Mesopotamia. The Code of Hammurabi provides a look into the social and economic life of the Babylonian Empire during the reign of Hammurabi (r. ca. 1795-1750 B.C.).
Click here to read the document. What insight can we gain into the social and economic life of Mesopotamia from this document? What can we infer about some of the problems that ancient Mesopotamia faced?
Section 5: Egyptian Political and Social Life
In contrast to constant warfare of Mesopotamia, Egyptian Civilization lasted 3000 years. These years were, for the most part, marked by unity and independence. Egyptian civilization stretched 1000 miles along the Nile River. Rather than the urbanized living of the Mesopotamia city-states, most Egyptians lived in agricultural villages near the Nile.
While Mesopotamia political rulers differed from city-state to city-state, political life in Egypt was centered on the Pharaoh. The Pharaoh was believed to be a god in human form. Pharaoh was considered to be the embodiment of the god Horus. He was an absolute ruler whose word was the law of the land. Pharaoh’s power extended to all areas of Egyptian life. All Egyptians were subservient to the ruler and there was no concept of political liberty. The Egyptians believed the pharaoh controlled the floodwaters of the Nile, which kept Egypt fertile and prosperous. When the pharaoh died, he was believed to join his fellow gods.
Test your understanding of the materials by taking this brief self-assessment:
Section 6: The Environments of Mesopotamia and Egypt
The different geographic environments of Mesopotamia and Egypt affected their cultural outlooks. These differing environments also presented unique challenges and advantages to each region. In Sumer, a series of canals and ditches were developed to irrigate crops. Intensive irrigation, however, led to increased salinization (salt content) of the Sumerian soil. Deforestation and soil erosion led to decreased crop. By 2000 BC some reports claimed that “the earth turned white” as salt accumulated in the soil (Robert Strayer 82). Ecological deterioration weakened Sumerian city-states and facilitated their conquest by foreigners such as the Akkadians.
Egypt had a more long-term sustainable environment. Rather than dams and ditches, Egyptians simply regulated the natural flow of the Nile. This system was easier for the Egyptians but it depended on the Nile’s annual flooding. When there were poor floods, disaster could follow such as starvation and social upheaval. This was particularly true since the annual floods were believed to be regulated by the god-man Pharaoh. The Bible indicates how important the annual flooding was to the social, environmental and political systems of Egypt.
In Genesis, we read about the story of Joseph. Pharaoh has a dream about seven fat cows followed by seven skinny cows. He hears that Joseph is able to interpret dreams. He calls Joseph out of prison and tells him the dream.
Read Genesis 41: 25-45 (NIV):
25 Then Joseph said to Pharaoh, “The dreams of Pharaoh are one and the same. God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do. 26 The seven good cows are seven years, and the seven good heads of grain are seven years; it is one and the same dream. 27 The seven lean, ugly cows that came up afterward are seven years, and so are the seven worthless heads of grain scorched by the east wind: They are seven years of famine.
28 “It is just as I said to Pharaoh: God has shown Pharaoh what he is about to do. 29 Seven years of great abundance are coming throughout the land of Egypt, 30 but seven years of famine will follow them. Then all the abundance in Egypt will be forgotten, and the famine will ravage the land. 31 The abundance in the land will not be remembered, because the famine that follows it will be so severe. 32 The reason the dream was given to Pharaoh in two forms is that the matter has been firmly decided by God, and God will do it soon.
33 “And now let Pharaoh look for a discerning and wise man and put him in charge of the land of Egypt. 34 Let Pharaoh appoint commissioners over the land to take a fifth of the harvest of Egypt during the seven years of abundance. 35 They should collect all the food of these good years that are coming and store up the grain under the authority of Pharaoh, to be kept in the cities for food. 36 This food should be held in reserve for the country, to be used during the seven years of famine that will come upon Egypt, so that the country may not be ruined by the famine.”
37 The plan seemed good to Pharaoh and to all his officials. 38 So Pharaoh asked them, “Can we find anyone like this man, one in whom is the spirit of God?”
39 Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has made all this known to you, there is no one so discerning and wise as you. 40 You shall be in charge of my palace, and all my people are to submit to your orders. Only with respect to the throne will I be greater than you.”
Joseph in Charge of Egypt
41 So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I hereby put you in charge of the whole land of Egypt.” 42 Then Pharaoh took his signet ring from his finger and put it on Joseph’s finger. He dressed him in robes of fine linen and put a gold chain around his neck. 43 He had him ride in a chariot as his second-in-command, and people shouted before him, “Make way[c]!” Thus he put him in charge of the whole land of Egypt.
44 Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I am Pharaoh, but without your word no one will lift hand or foot in all Egypt.” 45 Pharaoh gave Joseph the name Zaphenath-Paneah and gave him Asenath daughter of Potiphera, priest of On,to be his wife. And Joseph went throughout the land of Egypt.
This story in Genesis demonstrates the importance of adequate preparation for famine in Egyptian life. Being able to prepare for famine was so important to Pharaoh that he raised Joseph to second-in-command. While the Nile’s annual flooding provided Egypt with rich soil and productive crop yield, disaster would follow if the Nile failed to flood. In fact, around 2200 BC, the Nile repeatedly failed to flood. This discredited the pharaoh, which led to the disintegration of the country into independent provinces for about 200 years. The pharaoh was restored in 2000 BC but the two hundred year disunity indicates the powerful influence of the Nile on Egyptian life.
Mesopotamia and Egypt did interact with one another. Egyptians grew wheat and barley, which are believed to have derived from Mesopotamia. Some historians have even argued that Egyptian pyramids are based on Mesopotamian models.
Section 7: Israel, Mesopotamia and Egypt
This link between Mesopotamia and Egypt is supported by the biblical account as well. Abraham was originally a Mesopotamian from Ur. He migrated to Canaan, a land between the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt. The Hebrews, descendants of Abraham, eventually migrated to Egypt where they were enslaved. After the Exodus and the establishment of Israel, Jewish history was still tied to Mesopotamia and Egypt. Israelites were constantly concerned with their neighbors to both the North and South. Their position meant that Israel had to depend on God for their security and prosperity. Since Assyria (and later Babylonia) and Egypt were bitter enemies, Israel was in a precarious situation since they lay between these civilizations. God used these civilizations to call the Israelites back to obedience. The Assyrians invaded Israel on multiple occasions. Later, the Babylonians captured and brought a large portion of the Israelite population to Babylonia in a period of Jewish history known as the Babylonian Captivity.
Some of the ethical law codes of Mesopotamia match that of the Hebrews documented in the Old Testament. Some of these laws are found in the Law Code of Hammurabi. In addition, the Epic of Gilgamesh details the story of a great flood. This account of the flood differs from the Old Testament interpretation but it does indicate a shared history.
Click here to read the Gilgamesh account of the flood. As you read the account, think about how this account differs from the Genesis account. How does YAHWEH differ from the Mesopotamian gods?
HIST 101 Western Civilization I
Week 2: The Greeks
Greek Civilization played a decisive role in the history of Western Civilization. Greek culture is often referred to as Hellenistic, due to the fact that the Greeks referred to themselves as the Hellenes. Although Greek Civilization began on the tip of the Balkan Peninsula jutting out into the Aegean Sea, Greek culture gradually spread throughout the Mediterranean rim, and even up into the Black Sea region. The modern world can thank the Greeks for many of Western Civilization’s most important liberal arts traditions, from political science, philosophy and history to mathematics, architecture and sculpture.
Section 1: Greek Civilization – Geography
Geography played an important role in the development of the Greek Civilization. Greece is an extremely mountainous, peninsula almost completely surrounded by water. It includes both a mainland and some 1400 outlying islands in the Mediterranean Sea.
This geography shaped Greece in several ways:
1. The country’s rough terrain and geographically isolated settlements prevented the Greeks from forming a highly centralized, inland empire like the Egyptians. So they adapted their settlement pattern to the prevailing geography and settled in small, independent city-states nestled in valleys between the mountains, many of which were located near the sea.
2. Only 20% of Greece contained arable land and the country possessed few natural resources. This inspired the Greeks to become a maritime power and take to the sea. This was also true because Greece was surrounded by water and included some 1400 islands. So much of Greece would be a seafaring culture.
3. We also see that a combination of lack of space, closeness to the sea, and lack of arable farm land meant that the Greek civilization would expand in efforts of colonization. Colonization was not necessarily conquering. Greek traders and Greek farmers emigrated throughout the Mediterranean basin and the Black Sea.
Section 2: Homeric Greece
Greeks believed their origins lay in the distant but heroic age detailed by the great Greek poet Homer in the Iliad and Odyssey, considered to be the great literary works of Greece. According to these poems, the Trojan War began when Helen, wife of Menelaus, King of Sparta, was abducted by Paris, a prince of Troy. The Trojan War pitted the Greeks against the Trojans. The Iliad tells the story of the wrath of the Greek warrior Achilles at Troy. Ultimately, the Greeks overthrew and destroyed Troy. The Iliad portrays only a small segment—albeit important—of the last year (the tenth) of the Trojan War. The Odyssey picks up where the Iliad leaves off. It recounts the adventures of Odysseus on his way home from the Trojan War.
These books were written five hundred years after the events they describe. Most historians view Homer’s account as largely fictional although based on historical realities. This does not mean the account of the Trojan War can be discarded. Accounts of the Trojan Wars were highly influential in the ancient world and fundamental to Greek and Roman self- understanding. The Greeks, Romans and other cultures all found their origins in the Trojan War. For these cultures, the Trojan Wars were the “founding acts of European history” (Price and Thonemann, 11).
Homer was the earliest molder of the Greek outlook and character. Greek children grew up learning these epic accounts of the Trojan War and its aftermath. The individuals spoken of in Homer’s epics became the heroes of Greek civilization. Homer’s epics highlighted the great virtue of early Greek culture—Arête—excellence. Homeric characters desired to reach excellence in their life. Arête in Greek culture extended to all areas of life, including the life of the mind; however, in Homer’s work, excellence is generally associated with duty and bravery in battle. To Greeks, cowardice brought great shame. So, based on the Homeric epics, early Greek understandings of arête applied to bravery and skill in battle.
Click here to read an excerpt from Homer’s Iliad. How is bravery and duty in this battle portrayed? What is the role of the gods?
Homer’s epics informed Greek religious life as well. Unlike the Hebrews, the Greeks did not have prophets or works of scripture but Homer gave some definition to Greek religion. There was, however, no official creed or doctrines. Greek religion was immersed in the cults of gods and goddesses. The principal gods resided on Mount Olympus. The chief deity was Zeus. All Greeks recognized these Olympic gods but every city also had their own local gods and rituals. Greeks engaged in scared ceremonies. For example, followers of Dionysus, the god of wine and agricultural fertility, engaged in ecstatic dances and prayers asking for a good harvest. Greeks offered the gods prayer, offerings and ritual purification (such as ceremonial washing).
In the Mesopotamian and Egyptian minds, the gods were primarily responsible for the good or evil that befell human. In Homer, the gods are still very active but human beings also are decisive actors. Here we find the beginnings of Greek humanism—an emphasis on human action. This can be seen in the Homeric excerpt. By fate and the actions of the gods, Hector faces death at the hands of Achilles but, at the same time, he still is able to act.
Section 3: The Hellenes and Europe
Homer did not to any large degree emphasize the idea of “Greekness”—the idea that the Greeks were a single people in opposition to non-Greeks. In fact, the Greeks of the Iliad were not linguistically or ethnically distinguished from the Trojans. However, by the 6th century, there was a growing Hellenistic self-consciousness. The Greeks called themselves the Hellenes. The Greeks claimed that all the various inhabitants of the Greek peninsula and islands descended from the mythical King Hellen.
The Greeks began to see the world as divided into two opposing halves—Europe and Asia. It is from Greek Civilization that the idea of a distinct western or European civilization emerges. Greeks came to believe that Greece stood on one side of a vast cultural divide. By the late 5th century, some Greeks (including the physician Hippocrates) argued that Greeks and Asians were biologically different. They argued that the Asian climate was milder than Europe and therefore Asians were softer and gentler in nature than Europeans. Asians were feebler, less courageous and more susceptible to tyrants and despotic governments. The Greeks began to use a term for all those on the Asiatic side of the world—barbaroi—the barbarians.
A narrow strait ran between the Aegean and the Sea of Marmora. This strait is less than a mile wide. The place was called Hellespont by the Greeks. This narrow strait became the dividing line between Asia and Europe in the mind of many Greeks.
On the eastern side of Hellespont lay the great Persian Empire. The clear distinctions between the Persian Empire and Greek Civilization contributed to the growth of Greek self-understanding as a distinct people. This self-consciousness would be even greater as tensions and eventually war developed between Greece and Persia.
Section 4: Persia
By 500 B.C., Persia was one of the greatest empires in the world. It drew on earlier empires such as the Babylonians and Assyrians but it was much larger than these previous empires. The total population of Greece was just about 2 to 3 million, a fraction of the Persian Empire, which had a population of over 35 million.
The Persian Empire was centered on the king. The Persian king was an absolute ruler. He could not be approached except through elaborate ritual. His word was law. The Persian King Darius once remarked: “what was said to [my subjects] by me, night and day, it was done,” (J.M. Cook, 76). When the king died, Persians were expected to shave their hair and the manes of their horses in mourning. Persian kings demanded absolute obedience from their subjects and their administrators. Any rebellion or disobedience was punished severely. King Darius was once interrupted by an official while the king was with his wife. As punishment for the interruption, the official, a high nobleman, was executed along with his entire clan (Strayer, 120).
A great example of this absolutist rule of the Persian king is demonstrated in the Old Testament Book of Esther. The story of Esther occurs during the reign of the Persian King Xerxes. At this time, the Jewish people are in exile in Persia. Esther provides readers an inside look into the Persian royal court. What the reader sees is an absolutist king who has supreme power. In this book, Esther, who is a Jew, ultimately becomes a queen. This providentially puts her in a position where she is able to save the Jews from genocide in Persia. In this excerpt we see Xerxes’s response to Queen Vashti for disrespecting of his authority.
Esther, Chapter 1, reads (NIV):
This is what happened during the time of Xerxes, the Xerxes who ruled over 127 provinces stretching from India to Cush: 2 At that time King Xerxes reigned from his royal throne in the citadel of Susa, 3 and in the third year of his reign he gave a banquet for all his nobles and officials. The military leaders of Persia and Media, the princes, and the nobles of the provinces were present.
4 For a full 180 days he displayed the vast wealth of his kingdom and the splendor and glory of his majesty. 5 When these days were over, the king gave a banquet, lasting seven days, in the enclosed garden of the king’s palace, for all the people from the least to the greatest who were in the citadel of Susa. 6 The garden had hangings of white and blue linen, fastened with cords of white linen and purple material to silver rings on marble pillars. There were couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl and other costly stones. 7 Wine was served in goblets of gold, each one different from the other, and the royal wine was abundant, in keeping with the king’s liberality. 8 By the king’s command each guest was allowed to drink with no restrictions, for the king instructed all the wine stewards to serve each man what he wished.
9 Queen Vashti also gave a banquet for the women in the royal palace of King Xerxes.
10 On the seventh day, when King Xerxes was in high spirits from wine, he commanded the seven eunuchs who served him—Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar and Karkas— 11 to bring before him Queen Vashti, wearing her royal crown, in order to display her beauty to the people and nobles, for she was lovely to look at. 12 But when the attendants delivered the king’s command, Queen Vashti refused to come. Then the king became furious and burned with anger.
13 Since it was customary for the king to consult experts in matters of law and justice, he spoke with the wise men who understood the times 14 and were closest to the king—Karshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena and Memukan, the seven nobles of Persia and Media who had special access to the king and were highest in the kingdom.
15 “According to law, what must be done to Queen Vashti?” he asked. “She has not obeyed the command of King Xerxes that the eunuchs have taken to her.”
16 Then Memukan replied in the presence of the king and the nobles, “Queen Vashti has done wrong, not only against the king but also against all the nobles and the peoples of all the provinces of King Xerxes. 17 For the queen’s conduct will become known to all the women, and so they will despise their husbands and say, ‘King Xerxes commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come.’ 18 This very day the Persian and Median women of the nobility who have heard about the queen’s conduct will respond to all the king’s nobles in the same way. There will be no end of disrespect and discord.
19 “Therefore, if it pleases the king, let him issue a royal decree and let it be written in the laws of Persia and Media, which cannot be repealed, that Vashti is never again to enter the presence of King Xerxes. Also let the king give her royal position to someone else who is better than she…
This passage also points to great extent of the Persian Empire, which according to Esther, stretched from India to Cush (Ethiopia).
In order to keep stability in such a vast empire, a complex administrative system was established. Governors ran the various Persian provinces. A network of spies kept the administration, especially the king, informed. Rebels and rebellions were forcefully stopped. A system of roads was built throughout the empire in order to link it internally. A canal was built to link the Red Sea to the Nile. Elaborate irrigation systems were built in order to sustain agriculture. A standardized tax system was enforced. Even a postal service was established. Herodotus, the famous Greek historian, was impressed by the Persian mail system. He wrote: “Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor darkness of night prevents them from accomplishing the task proposed to them with utmost speed.” It is this description, first penned for Persian mailmen, that is inscribed on the James Farley Post Office in NYC, which has become an unofficial motto of the U.S. Postal Service.
The Persian Empire was an eclectic cultural and ethnic mix. The Story of Esther and the presence of a large Jewish population indicate this. Generally cultures swallowed up by the Persian Empire were allowed to retain their own distinct customs and religions. One example of this relative ethnic tolerance is the Persian King Cyrus’s willingness to allow the exiled Jewish people to return to Jerusalem to rebuild their Temple. Several Old Testament books speak to the Jewish return to their homeland. The following is an excerpt from Ezra.
Ezra 1 (NIV) reads:
1 In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and also to put it in writing:
2 “This is what Cyrus king of Persia says:
“‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. 3 Any of his people among you may go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem, and may their God be with them. 4 And in any locality where survivors may now be living, the people are to provide them with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.’”
5 Then the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites—everyone whose heart God had moved—prepared to go up and build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem. 6 All their neighbors assisted them with articles of silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with valuable gifts, in addition to all the freewill offerings.
7 Moreover, King Cyrus brought out the articles belonging to the temple of the Lord, which Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and had placed in the temple of his god.[a]8 Cyrus king of Persia had them brought by Mithredath the treasurer, who counted them out to Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah.
9 This was the inventory:
gold dishes 30
silver dishes 1000
silver pans 29
10gold bowls 30
matching silver bowls 410
other articles 1000
11 In all, there were 5,400 articles of gold and of silver. Sheshbazzar brought all these along with the exiles when they came up from Babylon to Jerusalem.
Test your understanding of the materials by taking this brief self-assessment:
After taking the quiz, please continue on to Section 5.
Section 5: The Greek Polis / City-State
Greek political and social structure was radically different than the rigid hierarchies, inequalities and absolute monarchs of Persia. Greek social and political life was centered on the city-state, or Polis. The Polis was a clearly defined territory under the authority of a single political community. The key concept is that of the community, the body of citizens. The city-state was a self-governing community. Greece was not yet one country. Ancient Greece was a collection of city-states. If you asked an ancient Greek where he was from, he would not say, “I live in Greece.” If he was from Sparta, he would say, “I am a Spartan.” If he lived in Athens, he would say, “I am Athenian.” By 500 BC, self-identification with a polis was so central to social relations that people began to add their polis to their family names.
In the fifth century BC, at the height of the city-states, the Greeks viewed the city state as the only way to achieve the good life. Historian H.D.F. Kitto has argued the Greeks saw the city-state as “the only framework within which man could realize his spiritual, moral, and intellectual capacities,”
Around 400 BC it has been calculated that there were at least 862 city states. Most of these were extremely small. A polis with a population of over 10,000 would have been unusual. Most city-states were 500-5000 male citizens. The culture of the Greek city states was unlike anything that had existed in Europe before—it was predominately an urban culture. An estimated 50% or more lived in these city-states. In contrast, in 1700 AD, the estimated urban population of Europe was only 12%.
Strictly speaking not all the Greek City States were cities, with some little more than glorified farming villages; however, living together in community was a key feature. In this way, Greeks in the fifth and fourth centuries were city-dwellers.
Reflecting the idea that the Polis was a collection of self-governing citizens, new public spaces emerged. For example, the agora, or gathering place, by 600 BC had been clearly developed in Greek city-states and designated as a place for public discussion, debate and other community functions. Increasingly, religion was also more social than spiritual. Religion was about community unity. It was more about binding a community together rather than personal religious feelings or experience.
Each city-state had its own form of government. Some city-states, like Corinth, were ruled by kings (Monarchy). Some, like Sparta, were ruled by a small group of men (Oligarchy). Others, like Athens, experimented with new forms of government such as the rule of citizens (Democracy). Whatever the mode of government, the crucial idea was the sense of belonging to a political community.
City-States drew from the writings of Homer in order to create a communal past and establish a communal identity. Certain heroes from the Iliad or Odyssey were often thought as being the ancestor of the entire city-state. Sparta, for example, erected shrines and statues of Helen and Menelaus, the husband and wife that sparked the Trojan War. They used the idea of the Trojan War to forge a communal identity. Individual city-states also focused on certain gods and goddesses. Athens bears the name of their patron goddess, Athena. The great Parthenon was erected in honor of the goddess (see below):
The city-states might band together to fight a common foe but they also went to war with each other. Each of the city-states was fiercely independent and in frequent conflict with its neighbors. BUT they had much in common—language and worship of the same pantheon of gods. Every four years the Greek city-states temporarily suspended their persisting rivalries to participate in the Olympic Games, which had begun in 776 BC. Early athletes had competed for individual glory and honor but by the 6th century—they competed on behalf of their city-states.
The Olympics is yet another indicator of growing “greekness”. By the 5th century B.C., the games were restricted to “Greeks” only. Growing tensions and eventual war with the mighty Persian Empire would help solidify the self-understanding of “Greek” versus “Non-Greek.”
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Section 6: Persian War
A number of Greek settlements in the Anatolian seacoast, known to the Greeks as Ionia, came under Persian control as Persia expanded. The following map provides an overview of the status of Greek-Persian control:
In 499 B.C., some of the Greeks in Ionia revolted against Persia. They found support from Athens on the Greek Mainland. This angered Persia. Twice in ten years (490 BCE and 480 BC) Persia launched major military expeditions to punish the Greeks. Against all odds, the Greeks held them off.
Watch this 30 minute account from this PBS program: The Greeks: The Crucible of Civilization – Part 2 – Golden Age. Please watch the segment beginning at the 1:40 mark to the 29:10 mark. (Click on the link and log in with your Regent ID; this is located in the Regent Online Digital Library. The video can also be accessed by navigating to the Regent Library homepage, click on Databases under Research Tools, click on the letter “P” under Browse by Database Title, and select PBS Video.)
The Persian War was a pivotal moment in western history. If the Greeks were defeated, they would most likely have gone into decline. But their surprising victory emboldened them. Athens especially entered into a golden age.
Section 7: Athenian Democracy
Athens had taken a leading role in defeating the Persian forces. Victory over the Persians led to a Golden Age in Athens. The city was located near the coast. It had a great navy. It was a leading commercial center. This led to both economic and military strength.
The Persian War also radicalized Athenian politics, which resulted in the growth of democracy. Democracy had grown over time in Athens. In early Greek history, only wealthy and well-born men had the right to hold public office, vote and even fight in the army. The average polis in the period 700-500 B.C. was generally dominated formally or informally by small aristocratic elite, who belonged to wealthy families. Power-sharing occurred only between competing families. At the same time, the period 700-500 B.C. is characterized by the ever increasing participation in the business of politics—polis affairs—of the ordinary man.
The 7th century saw the emergence of law-codes in Athens and other poleis, which were concerned with limiting power of individuals and wealthy families. By 6th century, class conflict in Athens was very intense, leading almost to civil war. This sparked a number of reforms.
Solon:A reformer named Solon emerged in 594 B.C. and attempted to break the power of a small group of aristocratic families. Athenian politics were pushed in a democratic direction. Debt slavery was abolished, access to public office was opened to more men, and all citizens were allowed to take part in the Assembly, the legislative body of Athens.
Cleisthenes:Fifty years after Solon, a reformer named Cleisthenes, an aristocrat sympathetic to democracy, further pushed Athens in the direction of democracy. He broke the traditional practice of filling offices based on heredity and family ties. He introduced the idea of people serving in political positions being chosen by lottery. Cleisthenes may have introduced the practice of Ostracism, where an individual who was believed to be a threat to democracy was exiled from the city-state.
Gradually, the lower class—mainly small scale farmers—obtained citizenship rights. They often did this by fighting in the military. For example, it was men of the poorer classes that helped the Greeks defeat the Persians. This broadened the understanding of political rights in Athens.
The Structure of Athenian Democracy
The Athenian Democracy was direct democracy. This meant that citizens—not representatives—debated and voted on the issues. They declared war, they signed treaties and they chose how to use public funds. These decisions were made in the Athenian Assembly, the center of Athenian democracy and where all citizens could participate. Majority vote was supreme.
There was also a Council of Five Hundred which managed the courts, military and other public facilities. They also prepared the agenda for the Assembly. The members of this council were chosen by lot (random selection) for a one year term. People could not serve more than twice in a lifetime. This assured that the council of five hundred could never take too much authority into its own hands or become dominated by elites.
There were also 350 magistrates, chosen by lot who performed administrative duties: collected fines, policing, street repair, inspections.
Ten generals served the military. They were not chosen by lot but elected by the Assembly.
The ancient concept of arête—excellence—which had often been equated with courage in battle was increasingly equated for Athenians with the good citizen—a concern for the good of the community which outweighed personal aspirations and goals. Citizens devoted a great deal of time to civic affairs.
It is important to remember “citizenship” in Athens was quite limited. Women, slaves and foreigners—together more than 50% of the population—were wholly excluded from political participation. Slaves constituted 1/4 of the Athenian population. Slavery was considered by the Greek to be necessary for the good life. Some had to be enslaved if others were to be free and prosper. They did not see a contradiction between slavery and freedom but believed they complemented one another. Slaves were occasionally Greek but the majority were foreigners gained as prisoners of war or captured by pirates. Despite serious limitations, for the ancient world, Athenian democracy was quite radical.
Athenian woman were especially restricted. Women were barred from holding office. They received no formal education, although some could learn to read and write at home. In legal matters, women had to be represented by a guardian and the court did not refer to the woman by name but only as someone’s mother or wife. Women in Athens were often compared to children or domesticated animals.
Athenian women were expected to remain in the house at most times. Men, not women, did the shopping at market. When a woman left the house, she was typically accompanied by a male. They were generally married in their mid-teens to men ten-to-fifteen-years older. Marriage was arranged by a male relative. Their main function was management of domestic affairs and production of male heirs. They could own personal property but land was almost always passed through male heirs. By law, women were forbidden to buy or sell land. Both the male and female could obtain a divorce but children remained with the father after the divorce. Wives spent most of their time in women’s quarters, not even dining generally with their husbands.
|Greek vase depicting Greek women engaged in wool making
It is clear from Athenian literature and vase-painting that the ideal Athenian woman was silent, obedient, good at sewing, and had almost permanent seclusion indoors.
Test your understanding of the materials by taking this brief self-assessment:
Section 8: Sparta
Spartan prosperity was founded on the ruthless exploitation of war captives. Sparta’s chief means of expansion was to conquer. In the eighth century BC, Sparta conquered Messenia, its neighbor on the Peloponnesian peninsula (Peloponnesus). The Spartans kept the captured Messenians and turned them into state serfs, called helots. Helots were owned by the state rather than by individual Spartans. The Spartan economy was centered on agriculture although work was done by the helots while the Spartans focused on military training.
The Messenians outnumbered the Spartans 10 to 1. In order to retain power and order, the Spartans transformed their society into an armed camp. They were marked by single-mindedness, discipline and loyalty. The Spartans focused on one craft—how to be a warrior. They had a single minded idea of arête—fighting courageously for Sparta. The Spartans were criticized by other Greeks for having a limited conception of arête that focused only on fighting rather than the life of the mind as well. All boys were removed from their families at the age of seven to be trained by the state in military camps, where they learned the art of war.
Sparta was an oligarchy. The city-state vested most political authority in its Council of Elders—28 men over the age of sixty. They served for life. They were the wealthier and more influential people in society. Sparta emerged as the leading city-states in the Peloponnesian League. This league focused on defense, not aggression. They pursued an isolationist policy.
Sparta and Athens differed drastically in how they viewed freedom. For Spartans, freedom meant preserving the independence of their fatherland; this overriding consideration demanded order, discipline and regimentation.
For Athenians, freedom was more about political freedom. Emphasis was placed on human beings reaching their full potential and the enrichment of personal life. Sparta was not as interested in cultural flourishing. Historians have described Sparta as cultural sterile. In this period, Athens emerged as the leader of Greek civilization.
While Athens was politically freer than Sparta, Spartan women enjoyed more freedom than Athenian women. A Spartan’s central task was reproduction—bearing warrior sons for Sparta. However, to strengthen their body for childbearing, Spartan women were encouraged to take part in sporting events—running, wrestling, discus, even driving chariots.
They were also required to be educated. Their hair was often cut short. Their clothes were considered immodest by other Greeks but they were meant to give Spartan women more freedom of movement. They were not secluded or segregated from the rest of the population. Because men were always away fighting war or preparing for it, Spartan women had more authority in the running of everyday life.
Law and Structure
Lycurgus is considered to be the individual who established the law and structure of Sparta. Roman historian, Plutarch, wrote of the legendary Lycurgus.
Click here to read an excerpt of Plutarch’s Lycurgus. What are some of the key qualities/aspects of Spartan society? How would you contrast it to Athens?
Figure of a Spartan woman engaging in physical activity.
Section 9: Debating Democracy
Athens has been described as a government by amateurs. Not everyone thought this was a great idea. A foreign king, observing the operation of the public assembly in Athens, was amazed that male citizens as a whole actually voted on matters of policy. He said, “I find it astonishing that here wise men speak on public matters, while fools decide them” (Strayer 124).
Athenian aristocratic critics equated democracy with mob rule—they had no confidence in the common people to make important decisions. Aristocratic leaders in Greece often favored oligarchy—rule by a few—as you found in Sparta. Oligarchs and Democrats would often compete with each other throughout the Greek city-states.
Click here to read an excerpt from Thucydides’History of the Peloponnesian War that documents some of these struggles. How does Thucydides portray the motives of these political leaders?
There were also more philosophical arguments against democracy. Plato, the famous Athenian philosopher and student of Socrates, argued that Athenian democracy was problematic. It was unreasonable to expect the common people to think intelligently about weighty issues. He did not believe the average common person was capable of participating sensibly in public affairs. He also argued that democratic leaders were also chosen for the wrong reasons such as persuasive speech rather than wisdom. Plato also feared that democracy would simply denigrate into anarchy and, perhaps, open the way for tyrant to take power.
Click here to read an excerpt of Plato’s TheRepublic (Plato can be difficult reading. Take your time and read slowly for understanding. Re-read lines when necessary). Are you able to identify Plato’s criticism of democracy in this excerpt?
Plato and Socrates were also disgusted by the practices of the Sophists in democratic Athens. The Sophists were professional teachers who wandered from city to city teaching the skills necessary for political engagement—especially in a democracy. They taught rhetoric (persuasive speech), grammar, poetry, gymnastics, mathematics and music. Sophists were not interested in the ideal political state. Rather, they focused on how to practically shape public policy and city politics. Sophists focused on preparing people to get elected or get their opinions adopted. Sophists tended to be moral relativists. Not surprisingly, The Sophists became tutors to political ambitious people, especially in the democracy of Athens. Sophists, according to Plato and others, were another symptom of the problems of democracy.
Click here to read an excerpt from Xenophon’s Memorabilia where Socrates debates with Sophists. How do Socrates and the Sophists differ?
Not everyone agreed with Plato’s assessment of Athenian Democracy. Many individuals saw Athenian democracy as what made Athens great. Pericles, a gifted statesmen, orator and military commander, was a major figure in Athenian democracy. During his leadership years, Athenians achieved greatness throughout the Aegean Sea. In the opening period of a war with Sparta, Pericles delivered a speech honoring the dead Athenians fallen in battle.
HIST 101 Western Civilization I
Week 3: Greek Civilization
Section 1: Greek Philosophy
Increasingly citizens de-emphasized the role of the gods, magical powers or divine rulers in politics and placed emphasis on human intelligence expressed through community. Community problems, according to Greek thinkers, were caused by human beings and could be solved through human solutions.
The emergence of rational attitudes was not the end of traditional religion. Many people remained devoted to particular gods, cults or religious shrines. Traditional religion did not die out among the Greeks but it increasingly existed alongside of and competed with Greek rationalism—an emphasis on the ability of human reason to explain the world and solve life problems.
For many Greeks, religion became ceremonial. It was not a way of expressing personal spirituality but a way of expressing loyalty to your city-state, which often had patron gods or goddesses.
The changes in Greek culture allowed room for new philosophical outlooks to emerge. Sophism was one of these movements.
The Sophists were professional teachers who wandered from city to city teaching the skills necessary for political engagement—especially in a democracy. These skills included rhetoric (persuasive speech), grammar, poetry, gymnastics, mathematics and music.
The Sophists believed that it was useless to think about the first principles—the foundations—of the universe. This kind of knowledge was beyond human grasp. They instead argued for more practical considerations. Individuals should improve themselves and their city-state through civic activities. Arête for the Sophists was political excellence—the ability to create laws, policies and have success in public life. Not surprisingly, the Sophists often became tutors to political ambitious people, especially in the democracy of Athens.
Sophists tended to be relativists. No truth, they argued, was universally valid. Keep in mind they believed first principles were beyond human grasp. There were no universal standards. Laws and morality were determined by communities and individual judgment. Sophists challenged the religious traditions and moral values of Athens and other Greek City States. Many sophists contended that religion was the contrivance of man to simply make people obey traditions and laws.
Section 2: Socrates
Socrates (470 BC to 399 BC) lived during the Golden Era of Athens.
Like the Sophists, Socrates believed in applying reason to society and its problems. He agreed that individual and community improvement could come through human efforts.
But Socrates attacked the relativism of the Sophists. Sophists provided skills but not virtue. Socrates wanted to ask bigger questions than the Sophists: What values should humans live by? What makes a good human being?
For Socrates, arête was Moral Excellence—the perfection of moral character. According to Socrates, there were objective standards in the world. Those objective standards could be reached through the active use of a person’s reason. Moral excellence was achieved when a person lived their life in accordance with these standards. Socrates argued for universal standards of truth and justice.
Click here to read a debate between the Sophist Hippias and Socrates in Xenophon’s Memorobilia.
So Socrates did not argue for a return to the traditional religions but rather argued that reason was the primary guide. Wrong thinking led to wrong actions. Knowledge would give the ability to do right. Rationality was perhaps the most distinctive part of being human, according to Socrates. The highest form of excellence (arête) was “taking control of one’s life and shaping it according to ethical values reached through reflection.” (Perry 81)
Socrates left no writing or systematic ethical system. He is most famous for his model or method: Socratic Dialogue, or Dialectics. Dialectics is a rational dialogue with another individual or even with oneself. The goal of this dialogue was knowledge. The key to dialectics was thinking through questions rationally.
According to his students who wrote about his life, Socrates spent much of his life engaging people in dialogue. Socrates argued, “No greater good can happen to a man than to discuss human excellence every day” (Plato’s Apology).
This eventually led to problems for Socrates. Socrates was arrested at the age of 70 for corrupting the youth of Athens and not believing in the city’s gods. Socrates denied the charges; nevertheless, he was found guilty and ordered to drink poison.
Click here to read a portion of Socrates Defense in the Apology by Plato. What is the “good life” (the life well lived) according to Socrates?
The Death of Socrates (Jacques-Louis David)
Section 3: Plato
Plato was one of the greatest systematic philosophers of the ancient world. He was a student of Socrates and wrote the major works documenting Socrates’ life and teaching. Like his teacher Socrates, Plato argued there were universal and absolute standards of right, justice and beauty.
Plato argued that the existence of a higher reality existed. This reality was a world of Ideas, or Forms. These Forms are unchanging, eternal, and absolute. They were the standards of arête—excellence. Arête was attempting to live life in accordance with these standards—standards for beauty, goodness, justice and truth.
Plato argued that full realization of these standards is usually impossible in this world. For example, a person might not be able to draw a perfect circle but a perfect circle exists in the world of Forms. That is the standard. Perfect goodness and justice might not ever be obtained by individuals but standards of perfect goodness and justice existed in the world of Forms. This is why philosophy was so important. The Forms existed as Ideas. The senses (touch, taste, sight, etc.) could only perceive and examine the imperfect because this world is unstable and imperfect. The philosopher, however, could conceive in the mind the Forms or Ideas.
One of Plato’s most famous dialogues is the Allegory of the Cave, in which he explains the Forms. Click here to read the allegory.
For a visual representation of this allegory, watch this claymation dramatic version.
Section 4: Aristotle
Aristotle studied at Plato’s academy in Athens for twenty years. Like Plato and Socrates, he believed that reason/rationality was a person’s highest faculty; however, Aristotle modified Plato’s beliefs. Plato had little interest in sense perception—that is investigation of things in the natural world. For Plato, philosophical thought concerning the Forms was most important.
In contrast, Aristotle believed study of the natural world was beneficial and important. He agreed with Plato that there were universal principles and standards but much could be learned from studying the natural world. He argued that Plato’s belief in another world where the Forms existed was too mystical. Plato focused on reason alone; therefore, he spent more time in philosophy and mathematics. Aristotle argued for the development of empirical sciences—physics, biology and other disciplines based on observation and investigation of data.
Aristotle was very much a Greek in the era of the city-state. He believed deeply that the city state was the primary institution of Greek life. The good life could only be lived within the city-state. For a person to reach their full potential—human excellence (arête)—it had to be done in the context of a political community. Like Plato, Aristotle believed that reason should be applied to political life. Doing good for one’s city-state, according to Aristotle, was more virtuous than doing good for oneself.
One of Aristotle’s most influential works is the Nicomachean Ethics. In this work, Aristotle wrestles with fundamental questions about human existence. What is our ultimate purpose? What is the “good life?” Aristotle argues that happiness is the chief end of humankind. Happiness is always an end in itself. All other activities, according to Aristotle, are a means toward happiness.
Happiness, however, according to Aristotle, is not instant gratification. Happiness is the final goal of the totality of a person’s life. It is not merely seeking pleasurable experiences but rather how well you have lived your life. Ultimately, you cannot judge your success until the end of your life. Aristotle argues, “it is not one [bird] or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.” (Nicomachean Ethics,1098a18)
What is the key asset in human happiness—reason. Unlike Plato, Aristotle focuses a great deal on studying the natural world. But they come to the same conclusion that reason is the most important part of being a human.
Aristotle had a hierarchical view of nature. At the bottom were the inanimate objects such as rocks. Next came vegetation such as plants. These seek nourishment and life, therefore, they are alive. Above vegetation came animal life. They were higher than plant life because they seek pleasure. At the top of this hierarchy are humans; only humans are capable of living life according to principles, taking responsibility for their actions. The key to this difference is reason. Therefore, if one wants to lead a happy life, that person must live a life in accordance with reason.
Aristotle argued, the function of man is to live a certain kind of life, and this activity implies a rational principle, and the function of a good man is the good and noble performance of these, and if any action is well performed it is performed in accord with the appropriate excellence: if this is the case, then happiness turns out to be an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue. (Nicomachean Ethics,1098a13)
Unlike instant gratification, Aristotle argued that in order to live a happy life, humans must live life based on moral virtue. He wrote: “He is happy who lives in accordance with complete virtue and is sufficiently equipped with external goods, not for some chance period but throughout a complete life. (Nicomachean Ethics,1101a10). Unfortunately, Aristotle admits that many people cannot live this way because they are slaves to their immediate desires. He lamented: “the mass of mankind are evidently quite slavish in their tastes, preferring a life suitable to beasts (Nicomachean Ethics, 1095b 20)
As you will see with Epicurus, Aristotle argues that friendship is key to living a life of virtue and happiness. This does not mean every friendship leads to virtue. Rather, friendships based on the pursuit of arête—excellence—is best. The best friendships are those where the people “are good and alike in virtue.”
Click here to read an excerpt from Book VIII of the Nicomachean Ethics. Consider the friendships that are “not perfect” by Aristotle’s standards. Think about how this would apply to people you meet and the type of friendships you form. Is Aristotle right? As the college encourages students to “cherish character” reflect on how friends can influence our growth (or decline) in character.
Aristotle’s ethics have often been referred to as the “golden mean” because Aristotle argued that virtue often lay between the extremes of excess and deficiency. Courage for example falls between rashness (not enough fear) and cowardice (too much fear). Benevolence is the mean between giving to people who deserve it and not giving to anyone at all.
Section 5: Greek Art
Greek art was characterized by two things: the belief in universal standards and an appreciation for the individual human experience. Greeks applied the idea of reason and universal standards to art. Greek art was realistic, although often bordering on idealistic.
Sculpture: Greek sculpture attempted to present objects as they were found in nature. For example, a statue should reflect real human anatomy. But Greek art was also idealistic. Statues aspired towards the perfect standard; therefore, a Greek statue was portrayed as flawless without wrinkles or scars. Portrayals of human likeness affirmed that human beings were worthy of dignity and honor.
Architecture: Greek architecture indicated the belief in universal standards and order of beauty and art. For the Greeks, the ideal was harmony and equilibrium.
Literature: Greek poetry and drama often portrayed the sufferings and triumphs of individuals. Greek literature focused on the meaning of the human experience, revealing growing awareness of the individual. Like the Greek philosophers, Greek writers believed in a logic that controlled the universe—Fate or Destiny. The Greek tragedy form brings Fate into sharp focus. In Greek tragedies, an individual struggles against the cosmic forces which eventually crush him. The tragedies revealed in the inescapability of Fate but they also affirm individual courage, choice and determination in the face of Fate.
Section 6: The Decline of the City States
After the conclusion of the Persian Wars, Athens experienced a Golden Age. During this age of democracy, Athens also became an empire. Athens saw no conflict between imperialism and democracy. They saw it as natural for a stronger state to dominate a weaker state.
For example, the Athenians decided to invade the island of Melos. The Melians resisted. In response, the Athenians killed all the men and sold the children and women into slavery. According to Thucydides, the Athenian envoys told the Melians, “the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.”
Click here to read the Melian Dialogues.
The Athenian Empire grew out of a naval alliance—the Delian league—which Athens formed with other Greek city-states in case the Persians attempted to re-invade the Greeks. The Delian League was headed by the Athenians. The original members of the naval alliance were those states that had the most to fear from Persian reprisal—western Asia Minor and the Hellespont. Allied states were required to make contributions to the war effort in the form of ships or precious metals. It soon became clear that the Delian League was not voluntary. The allied Island of Naxos attempted to leave the league. The Athenian fleet besieged the island and made the people slaves. More and more states were added to the Delian league. Even as threat from Persia declined, the annual financial contribution was still collected by Athens. Athens began to refer to the allied states as “the cities which the Athenians rule” (Price and Thonemann 120).
By the mid-5th century, Athens had secured naval dominance over the Aegean. Out of roughly 850 Greek city-states, around 250 paid tribute to Athens. It is estimated that 700 Athenians officials were permanently serving overseas—more than 4 times as the officials sent out to administer the provinces of the entire Roman Empire. By the 450′s, tribute collected from city states was being used for purely Athenian projects such as the Parthenon.
The Peloponnesian Wars
Sparta and their allies believed that Athens was imperialistic and threatened the traditional independence of the Greek City-States. Relations between Athenians and their Mainland Greek neighbors grew increasingly tense over the course of the 5th century. Relations with Sparta were damaged by diplomatic disagreements. There was an uprising of the Helots in Sparta. The Helots were the enslaved population of Sparta. Sparta crushed the rebellion but the Athenians settled the surviving rebels in a city-state and acted as their protector. War erupted between Athens and Sparta.
The Peloponnesian War (431-404) was fought on a number of fronts, from Sicily to Hellespont. Sparta fought on the idea that it was bringing “freedom for the Greeks” from Athenian imperialism. The turning point in the war was the Athenian attempt to conquer Sicily (415-413). The Sicilian expedition ended in failure. Athens and its allies lost 50,000 men and 200 ships. The venture cost Athens any hope of defeating the Spartans. Athens was defeated. Though they struggled for 10 more years against the Spartans and their allies, Athens was defeated in 404 BC.
The Peloponnesian War was the great crisis of Greek history. The war shook the foundation of the Greek civilization. Men brutally killed one another. Cities were destroyed. Captives murdered. Civic duty was no longer the focus of the city-states.
The city-states would never fully recover. While the Greek city states battled one another for domination, a new power was rising to the north—Macedonia.
Section 7: Macedonia and the Greek Empire
The Macedonians were barely considered Greeks by the Athenians and Spartans. Participation in the Olympic Games was a crucial marker of Greek identity. When King Alexander I of Macedonia attempted to join the games in the period shortly before the Persian War, his fellow-competitors objected arguing he was not Greek. He eventually convinced them that Macedonians were Greek descendants but this incident clearly shows that Macedonians—if not quite barbarians—were not entirely Greek.
The Macedonian language was a dialect of the Greek language but it would probably have been hardly intelligible to non-Macedonian Greeks. Macedonians were considered wild men who spoke the Greek dialect. More important than language, Macedonian culture differed significantly from the Greek-City states. Macedonians were ruled by kings. They were organized into tribe and not city-states. For this reason, the Macedonians and the Greeks saw each other as distinct.
In 359 BC, Phillip II ascended the Macedonia throne and began to turn the state into a military power. Increasingly, Macedonia gained power over individual city-states. The city-states failed to unite against the Macedonian threat. Individual city-states and their small citizen armies were unable to compete against the powerful military of the Macedonians.
By 338 BC, all of Greece was under Macedonian rule. The city-states remained but they were now under the authority of Phillip II. Marvin Perry argues, “The Greeks did not respond to the Macedonian threat as they had earlier rallied to fight off the Persian menace because the quality of citizenship had deteriorated…when people no longer regarded law as an expression of sacred traditions ordained by the gods but saw it as a merely human contrivance, respect for the law diminished, weakening the foundations of the society” (Perry 69-70).
Once Macedonia had conquered the Greek-City states, Philip chose to downplay the cultural differences between Greek and Macedonia. He participated in the Olympic Games in 356 and 348. Rather than impose direct Macedonian rule, Philip established a “Common Peace,” enforced by League of Greek states.
Philip emphasized the European character of his nation in distinction to Asia. This allowed him to identify with the Greeks, as he was also a European, but he did not have to state specifically he was Greek. His youngest daughter, born shortly after his victory over the Greek city states, was aptly named “Europa”.
Section 8: Alexander the Great
Aristotle had argued that monarchy was only suitable for non-Greeks because they lacked the capacity to rule themselves. Ironically, Aristotle’s own student—Alexander—brought an end to the age of the independent city-state.
Alexander succeeded the throne upon the assassination of his father, Phillip II in 336 BC. Alexander’s overriding focus as ruler was revenge against the Persians. With an army of 35,000 Greeks, Alexander not only conquered all of Persia but pushed on all the way to India. The geographical extent of Alexander’s conquests was astonishing. Between 334 and 330 BC Alexander overran Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt, Mesopotamia and western Iran—the heart of the Persian Empire.
As Alexander conquered, he brought with him Greek culture. Alexander was less narrow than other Greek thinkers and leaders. He broke down the walls of Greek versus non-Greek and was willing to blend Greek culture with Eastern culture. He married a Persian woman. Thousands of Greeks in Alexander’s army married Asian women. He incorporated Persians into his army. This cultural interaction and cultural mixing broke down their earlier focus on the city-state. There was a shift from life and philosophy focused on the polis (the city-state) to life and philosophy focused on the cosmopolis (the world community).
Alexander’s royal court was deeply isolated as the Greek armies pushed farther and farther east. This helped to fuel Alexander’s growing sense of paranoia. Alexander had those suspected of plotting against him executed. Increasingly, he began to expect divine honors from his subjects.
By Spring 327, he led his army into the Hindu Kush in India. This was significant because for the first time, he was expanding his empire beyond the boundaries of the Persian Empire. He could no longer claim his campaign was punishment of Persia for the Persian Wars. Eventually, Alexander’s Macedonian troops, refused to continue eastward. The long journey back west was marked by “gratuitous slaughter of native populations” (Price and Thonemann 148). In 332 BC, after a drinking party with his friends, Alexander died at Babylon.
Section 9: The Hellenistic Era
Upon his death, Alexander’s generals engaged in a long struggle to determine who would rule the empire. By 275 BC, the Greek empire had become divided between three major dynasties: the Ptolemies in Egypt, the Seleucids in western Asia and the Antigonids in Macedon.
These kingdoms were ruled by Greeks, foreign conquerors. These three Greek kingdoms often vied with one another for territory and power. The style of government of the Hellenistic Kingdoms was not based on the Greek city-state but rather the absolutism of the eastern kingdoms. The Hellenistic kings laid down the law. They presented themselves as gods or representatives of the gods. Statues of the kings were often set up in Temples.
Cities within these empires became centers of Greek culture. Greek architecture, schools, temples and theaters became common. Koine (shared language) was a form of Greek spoken by soldiers and administrators. It became a common tongue through the Mediterranean world. It is the language that the New Testament is written in.
While cities were heavily Hellenized, the countryside largely retained older customs and traditions. The segregation between the Greco-Macedonian ruling class and their non-Greek subjects was all but total. A few bilingual Egyptians, Syrians, Persians, etc. could aspire to be clerks, accountants and tax-collectors. But the thousands of royal officials in the Hellenistic kingdoms were Greek or Macedon.
Hellenization (the adoption of Greek culture) in the cities was not always driven from above. In a world where Greekness meant power, there was strong incentive to Hellenize.
Section 10: City-State to World State
The transition from a local focus to a universal focus brought great changes to Greek civilization particularly in philosophy. The Athenian philosophers (Socrates, Plato and Aristotle) had been great speculators. They spoke at length about the ideal person and the ideal city-state. They debated at length on political organization and civic duty. Hellenistic philosophers were far more concerned with “providing the individual with practical guidelines for living” with emphasis on achieving happiness in a hostile, competitive and imperial world. Two of the leading philosophies of this era were Epicureanism and Stoicism.
Epicurus: Epicurus founded a school in Athens around 305 BC. Instead of civic virtue, Epicurus argued that to achieve individual happiness a person should withdrawal from civic life. Citizenship was not a pre-requisite for the good life or the achievement of human excellence (arête). People achieved happiness when their bodies were free from pain and their minds were free of worry and fear. Epicurus saw the increase of pleasure and happiness as the goal for a human. But he rejected unchecked hedonism. He believed happiness had to be achieved rationally—through the use of reason. For example, heavy drinking or over-eating has unpleasant aftereffects; therefore, it did not help a person achieve happiness. So for the most part, Epicurus argued from moderation. Pursuit of fame, wealth or power would only bring anxiety. People should act justly because unjust actions are burdened with troubles. Love and hate should be avoided. Fear of the gods brought anxiety so Epicurus argued that, while the gods existed, they did not intervene in this world. He especially emphasized the necessity of having a good company of friends to achieve happiness.
Click here to read the Life of Epicurus. What is the best way to achieve the good life, according to this document? The teachings of Epicurus are also spelled out in three surviving letters from the philosopher. Click here to read one of those letters.
Stoicism: Around the time that Epicurus opened his school in Athens, Zeno also opened a school in the city. Zeno’s teachings—Stoicism—became the most important philosophy of the Hellenistic world. Stoicism would go on to be highly influential in Roman society as well.
The Stoics argued that the universe contained a principle of order called the Divine Reason/Logos. This was the foundation for all reality and permeated all things. The Logos was implanted in every human soul. This allowed human beings to act rationally and to comprehend the order of nature. Since reason was common to all humans, they were fundamentally connected and equal. Certainly, this was a philosophy geared towards the cosmopolis, not the individual city-state. Greek and non-Greek, rich and poor, slave and free were all under this law of nature or natural law..
Stoics believed that happiness came from disciplining one’s emotions by the rational part of the soul. Rationality was key to Stoicism. One wanted to live in accordance with the Logos. Self-mastery was also key. This led to inner peace.
Life’s misfortunes would not disturb this person. These were beyond a person’s control. Individuals were responsible for their actions but one could not control all of life. Stoics encouraged people to take action in those areas that they would control. To neglect this would bring despair. But they counseled not to try and control what was uncontrollable. This too brought despair.
Click here to read The Enchiridion. How should one approach life in order to live the good life?
HIST 101 Western Civilization I
Week 4: The Romans
Section 1: The Rise of Rome
Historians divide Roman history into three broad categories: the kingdom of Rome (beginning in the 8th century BC), the period of the Republic (beginning in 509 BC) and the period of the Empire (beginning in 27 BC).
Rome began as a small city-state on the western side of central Italy in the 8th century BC. In a transformation of epic proportions, Rome became the center of an enormous imperial state that encompassed the Mediterranean basin and included parts of continental Europe, Britain, North Africa, and the Middle East.
The Kingdom of Rome
The ancestors of the Romans were the Latins, who took their name from the small plain of Latium (“flat land”). The Romans were aware that their Latin ancestors had lived in Latium for a long time before they established the city of Rome, but they knew little about them.
Homer’s epics—the Iliad and Odyssey—provided the classical world with its assumed history. So the Roman looked to Homer to supply them with a past. Because the Romans were not Greeks, they sought an ancestor from the Iliad’s other major nation, Troy.
According to the Romans, the Trojan prince Aeneas escaped Troy’s fall and eventually made his way to the plain of Latium and married the daughter of the native King Latinus. Thirteen generations of their children reigned over Latium until Rome’s founders, the twins Romulus and Remus, were born to a Latin princess and Mars, the Latin’s god of war. Romulus founded the city and it bore his name—Rome.
The traditional date of Rome’s founding is 753 BC. Archeological evidence confirms the existence of several primitive villages on the hills next to the Tiber River around that time. It was the first spot inland from the coast (about 20 miles) where the Tiber narrowed enough to be easily bridged so it made a smart location for settlement.
Between 753 and 509 BC kings are said to have ruled Rome in tandem with an aristocratic council called the Senate. Senate is derived from the Latin Senex, which means elder. Little is known of this period of Roman history. We do know that Rome made significant progress under the leadership of its later kings. The Romans drained the swampy lowland that separated the hills on which they lived. They built the largest temple in Italy. Archeological evidence suggests that they enjoyed a rising standard of living.
At the same time, we know that relations between the kings and the senate were strained. Ultimately, the Senators decided to dispense with kings and govern the city themselves. The exact details of this revolution are a mix of history and legend (legend says it had to do with the Roman king raping a woman). We do not know what happened for certain except that the revolution took place around 509 BC and the Roman Republic was founded.
Section 2: The Roman Republic
The traditional date for the start of the Roman Republic is 509 BC when the landowning aristocrats–patricians—(many who served as Senators) overthrew the king. These patricians fought for power with the commoners, or Plebeians. This is known as the Struggle of Orders. Although it took time, as well as internal fighting between these two groups, the Roman Republic would eventually be a mixed form of government, meaning that power was shared among various groups.
Romans understood the various political experiments of the Greek City States. Romans hoped to avoid the problems of these various forms of government by mixing them. They did this by dividing the government up into monarchial, aristocratic (oligarchical) and democratic elements.
Consuls were the monarchial element, the Senators were the oligarchical element and the Assembly was the democratic element. The Consuls were leading citizens of Rome. The Senators also were drawn from the aristocratic families. The Assembly, however, was made up of common citizens.
Roman System – Based on Balance of Interests
2 Consuls + other magistrates
Assembly of Tribes
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|Limits on power:
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Chart by Paul Halsall
The republic’s complex organization was designed to prevent any single person or group from acquiring enough power to re-establish the monarchy. All elected magistrates served terms of only one year, and they were forbidden to seek immediate reelection. The duties of the chief executive were shared by two consuls—the expectation being that each would keep the other in check. The consul’s authority over soldiers in the field (their imperium) was absolute, but their power in the city of Rome was limited. To prevent them from seizing control of Rome, their armies were strictly forbidden to cross the pomerium, the city’s sacred boundary. If the Senate wished to honor a general, it showed its trust by suspending this rule and granting him a “triumph” (permission to parade his men through the city).
Section 3: The Roman Family
The Roman Republic was not a democracy. Indeed, politics in Rome was a game for the wealthy, political families. At the heart of Roman politics was the family.
A Roman familia (family) included not only immediate blood kin but all the dependents of a household—including slaves. The male head of a famalia, the paterfamilias, had absolute authority over all its members. His sons never outgrew his power, and he could (early on in Roman history), if he wished, order their execution.
What family you belonged to had a great deal to do with political power and privileges. Family was such an important determiner of status that each Roman male needed three names to indicate the place he occupied in the social order. His first name was one of a few common names used only by close friends. His second identified his gens, the great clan to which his paternal ancestors belonged. His third name indicated his birth family.
A complex patronage system developed in the Roman Republic. The wealthy families still tended to hold power. The poorer citizens needed the support and protection of those who were richer and more powerful. For this reason, patron-client relationships were common in Rome.
A plebian-client (commoner) sought protection from a patrician patron (aristocrat). In return, the plebian gave the patrician both military and political support when it was needed. Clients gave their patron’s political strength. They voted as he commanded or risked losing his support. A patrician, therefore, had influence in the Plebian Assembly through his clients.
No poor man could marshal enough votes to be elected to an important office. He also could not afford to serve because the Republic’s magistrates were not paid. Office holders funded the costs of their position from their private fortunes.
Political power in the Roman Republic took years to attain. An individual spent a long time building a client base, developing their political clout, and forming political alliances. A man who wanted a major office had to spend years pursuing it.
Section 4: Roman Expansion
During the Republic, the Romans launched their imperial enterprise, a process which took more than 500 years. The rise of Rome as a world power was a slow process that developed in stages. It began in the 490′s BC (while Greece was in its golden era) with Roman control over its Latin neighbors in central Italy. Over the next several hundred years, Rome encompassed most of the Italian peninsula.
Roman Expansion occurred in three stages: uniting the Italian Peninsula, wars with Carthage, and conquest of the Hellenistic/Greek States.
Stage 1: Italian Peninsula
In 507 BC, Rome was just one city-state, although it was the principal city state in Latium. Rome formed a treaty with the other city-states in Latium, known as the Latin League; however, Rome was the strongest city-state in the League. As the principal city state in the Latin League, Rome was able to use soldiers from other city-states for its own imperial agenda.
From roughly 300 BC to 146 BC, Rome continued to expand its power throughout Italy, both north and south. By 146 BC Latin was considered the primary language of the Italian Peninsula and there was increasing pressure to adopt the language.
By the 200 BC’s, Roman expansion throughout Italy was almost complete. It had become one of the major states in the whole of the Mediterranean world. Expansion brought Rome into conflict with another leading Mediterranean state based in North Africa—Carthage.
Stage 2: Carthage
The Carthaginians had borrowed heavily from the Greek and Phoenician (modern day Lebanon) world. Carthaginian power was based on its trade network in the Mediterranean Sea. Carthage had close relations with the Italian Peninsula, particularly as a trading partner. In the first year of the Roman Republic (507 BC), Carthage made a formal treaty with Rome and some of its neighbors. The two sides agreed to establish friendly relations. But growing Roman influence in the Mediterranean was seen as a threat by Carthage to its own power and ability to conduct commercial trade. Conflict developed between these two empires.
Relations broke down by 264 BC with the First Punic War. Punic was the Latin word for the Carthaginian people. The war erupted over control of Sicily. Sicily was under the Carthaginian control but Rome saw it as part of their realm. Rome was the victor in the contest, which humiliated Carthage. Rome took over Sicily, which would be its first overseas colonies.
The acquisition of Sicily would bring significant changes to Roman foreign policy. Rome did not want to pay to maintain Sicily. So they turned the province over to a Roman general and told him to raise the funds from the Sicilians themselves. The general did so by looting, taxing, etc. This general returned to Rome much wealthier than when he had left. And in Rome, wealth could mean power because of the patronage system. So becoming a provincial governor gave a person advantages in the game of Roman politics. Many individuals took note of this policy and saw military leadership and war as a way to increase military, political and financial power.
The Second Punic War broke out in 218 BC, when Hannibal, a Carthaginian commander, launched a surprise attack on Italy. Eventually, Rome defeated Carthage again. Carthaginian power was confined to North Africa. Its power in the Mediterranean was declining. Rome was on the rise.
The Third Punic War came in 146 BC when Rome launched an attack on Carthage for invading a Roman ally in North Africa. Carthage was utterly defeated and the city was destroyed. Roman citizens were sent to the area to resettle it.
Stage 3: Hellenistic Empires
Roman intervention into Greek affairs began benignly. Rome, as a leading power, was asked to help settle disputes between various Greek kingdoms. Increasingly, Roman influence took on a sharper, more imperialistic, edge. With time, the Hellenistic kingdoms became client states to Rome.
Roman power over Greek cities was not always welcome. Citizens in the Greek city of Corinth jeered Roman representatives who had been sent to city to settle problems. In response, in the same year of the Third Punic War, the Romans destroyed Corinth. For this reason, 146 BC marks an important date in Roman expansion. In that year, Roman armies destroyed both Carthage and Corinth. Conquest over both Greek and Carthaginian power was complete. By that time, Rome has solidified its power over the Italian Peninsula. There was no doubt that Rome was now the ruler of the Mediterranean world.
Roman expansion continued beyond the Mediterranean world. Additional territories were added piecemeal. There was no systematic plan to the process. Romans often justified adding more land as a defensive measure; however, each addition created new vulnerabilities, which demanded more conquests.
The growth of empire represented military, political and financial opportunity for some people. Poor soldiers hoped for land or wealth that might lift their families out of poverty. The well-to-do or well-connected built massive estates on newly acquired land and sometimes achieved high political office.
The wealth of ancient civilizations such as Greece and Egypt were too tempting for Rome. The resources and food supplies of the less developed western regions such as Spain or Gaul (part of present-day France) also beckoned. There was no shortage of motivation for the creation of the Roman Empire.
The relentless expansion of empire raised a profound question for Rome: could republican government and values survive the acquisition of a huge empire?
Section 5: The Problems of Empire
The transition from city-state to empire created problems and pressures for the republican government.
In the Republic, Roman governors were expected to meditate between Rome and its subject peoples. This sometimes brought increased stability to a region. Honesty was expected from governors and their staff. However, as the empire grew, governors often failed to regulate their own behavior. Roman governors, officials and businessman saw the conquered provinces as a way to get rich quick. Politics in Rome was an expensive game to play. Politicians needed to recoup election expenses and the provinces became a way of gaining these funds.
Many Roman officials abused their positions. The tax system especially became increasingly corrupt. The New Testament provides a look at the hate that many subject people had of tax collectors in the Roman provinces. Rome’s ruling elite showed little concern for their conquered subjects. Corruption became increasingly rampant. The Roman poet Horace wrote “this perverted greed” and “lack of principle” had caused “impious slaughter…domestic fury…and lawless license.” Historian E. Badian argues: “No administration in history has ever devoted itself so whole-heartedly to fleecing its subjects for the private benefit of its ruling class as Rome of the last age of the Republic” (Badian, 87).
The immense wealth brought to Rome from its conquests gave the upper classes a taste for luxury. They built elaborate homes, wore fancy clothes, gained more slaves and held lavish banquets. Many moralists argued that the Roman people were losing their traditional values.
The established Roman administration was unable to govern such a large empire. The older balance of power between the people and the senate diminished. Rotation of office eroded. Elites increasingly competed with each other for power because of the wealth that could be found in political office. Riches from Roman conquests empowered a small group of military leaders who recruited their own troops. Every Roman politician who hoped to remain in power or gain power had to get a military command because through military action a person became wealthy and who had vast clients—soldiers—underneath them. That meant that politicians needed wars. Roman leaders began to look for lands to conquer as a means to the ultimate conquest: political power within Rome itself. This led to civil wars between the leading Roman families competing for power.
Section 6: Julius Caesar and Civil War
Between 57-52 BC, Julius Caesar, a leading general from one of the most powerful Roman families, led a campaign in Gaul. Gaul was the first Roman province remote from the Mediterranean or Black Sea. This marked an important northward shift northward in the Roman Empire.
Just as important as this shift towards the north was the popularity, power and prestige that the conquest of Gaul brought Julius Caesar. Many Senators in Rome feared Caesar’s growing power. They feared that Caesar’s conquest of Gaul and his growing popularity would provide him an opportunity to seize control of the Roman state. They were right to worry.
In early 49 BC Caesar led his army across the Rubicon. This river marked the boundary of Italy. As a way to protect the balance of power in the Roman Republic, Roman law stated that no general could command troops in Italy proper. Roman historian Suetonius claims Julius Caesar said as he crossed the river: Aleaiactaest—”the die is cast”. This phrase, still in use today, means that one has passed the point of no return.
The Senate condemned Julius Caesar’s action. Pompey, a general in the east, stood with the Senate in condemning Caesar’s actions as illegal. Civil war broke out but Caesar defeated his enemies in 48 BC.
In 46 BC, Caesar returned to Rome, where he no longer had rivals. He believed republican institutions no longer operated effectively. He believed only strong leadership could keep Rome from destroying itself.
How would this new political reality work? The senate appointed Caesar dictator for ten years. Two years later, they appointed him dictator for life. The office of dictator allowed the holder of the title greater powers than any other magistrate in Rome. The office was only used in cases of extreme emergency and was meant to be temporary. Clearly, Julius Caesar did not intend for his power to be temporary.
Many aristocrats in the Senate saw this as the beginning of a monarchy, repugnant to Roman republican traditions. On the Ides of March (March 15), 44 BC, Julius Caesar was assassinated by a group of senators. They argued that Caesar was a tyrant and could legitimately be killed. Not everyone agreed with this view. Some saw Caesar as a hero who had Rome’s best interest in mind. Others viewed him as a tyrant destroying the republican traditions of Rome. William Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar, has served as the lens through which many of us consider this time in history. The name “Brutus” has become synonymous with betrayal. After he is stabbed and realizes that his friend Brutus is one of the assassins, Caesar cries, “Et tu, Brute! Then fall, Caesar”; the Latin phrase means, “You, too, Brutus!”
The death of Caesar led to another civil war between two leading figures: Antony and Octavian. Antony was a friend and distant relative of Julius Caesar. Octavian was Caesar’s nephew. Octavian ultimately prevailed—becoming the first emperor of the Roman Empire—Caesar Octavian Augustus. He ruled from 27 BC to AD 14.
Section 7: Caesar Octavian Augustus and the Roman Empire
Julius Caesar’s nephew, Octavian, became Rome’s imperator (emperor). This was an ancient republican term for a victorious general, not a monarch. Octavian was very careful to avoid titles that implied he was a monarch.
Octavian preferred to use a civilian title that the grateful Romans had lavished on him to recognize his record of public service: princepscivitatis (first of citizens). Octavian also used the name Augustus—meaning “the revered one.” The name was granted to him by the Roman Senate.
All of these titles were rooted in republicanism but they, like his family name Caesar, soon came to signify regal authority; indeed, we derive words such as Tsar or Kaiser from Caesar.
A monarchy, which set one man above all the others, promised more stability, but Romans equated monarchy with servitude/slavery. Despite the fact that the republic was dead, Romans still clung to republican ideals. After the era of civil wars, Rome’s immediate need for a leader strong enough to restore order bought Octavian a period of grace to solidify his power. BUT he had to tread carefully in respect to Rome’s republican past.
For eight years, Octavian served as consul but this was risky. It looked too much like monarchy. So in 27 BC, he secured his position by threatening to give up power. There was no risk that the Senate would accept this offer because they knew without Octavian, Rome would disintegrate into chaos. So instead, they thanked him for his service to the republic by granting him the title—Augustus and prevailed on him to continue as consul. In this way, Augustus was able to retain power but appear to pay allegiance to Rome’s republican traditions.
Augustus was very careful to avoid anything that smacked of monarchy. His home was a typical upper class residence—not a kingly palace. He wore ordinary civilian dress and claimed that his togas were home-spun by his wife and daughter. He wandered the streets, entered into the fray of elections, solicited votes for candidates he backed, took part in debates and treated his senatorial colleagues as equals.
Augustus’s stated affection for republican tradition was not entirely insincere. He did share power with the Senate and other magistrates. BUT he was in effect, the ruler of Rome. In fact, he introduced the practice of emperor worship in the eastern provinces, where the people were used to the idea of a divine or semi-divine ruler. In the west, which did not practice emperor worship, Augustus and his successors, were deified (thought to become gods) once they died. Over time, an imperial cult with ceremonies, processions, temples, statues and rituals developed throughout the empire.
Augustus brought order out of chaos. He truly believed that he was saving Rome from destruction. He believed that the state should promote the good life by protecting its citizens and fighting barbarism.
Augustus engaged in extensive public building activity in Rome in his own name and members of his family. Aqueducts and water mains were built throughout Rome, bringing water into Roman homes. New temples were built and older religious sites and monuments were restored. He organized a police and fire force. He improved roads throughout the Italian Peninsula.
Caesar Augustus’s main reforms focused on the military. He was eager to shrink the army. One reason was fiscal. Rome had an army twice as large as they could afford. A second reason was political. Augustus was eager to prevent the outbreak of more civil wars and challenges to his own authority. A smaller army meant fewer generals. Fewer generals meant fewer threats to Augustus’s own power. Augustus retired about 300,000 men from the army, cutting the number of legions by over half.
Augustus then posted the remaining legions along the frontiers of the empire limiting generals’ opportunities to interfere in politics in Rome. Elite troops of about 4500 men, the Praetorian Guard, were created to protect the city of Rome and Italy. This army was professionalized, meaning they were state employees no longer dependent on their generals for pay and retirement benefits. This took away some of the incentive for troops to follow a general into a power play.
To back up these legions, Augustus created auxiliaries, companies of men recruited from the provinces. Auxiliaries were less well paid than legionnaires, but a term of honorable service earned citizenship for the veteran of an auxiliary unit and qualified his sons to join the legions. Reform of the military therefore provided entry into Roman society for provincials, and created closer ties between Rome and its outlying territories.
We also find that military reforms helped to consolidate the empire. Roads were built for the purpose of moving armies. This created a vast road network linking Rome with its outer territories. Military outposts along these roads became cities. These cities in turn assumed responsibility for administering the districts in which they were located and helped to spread the Latin language and culture, particularly in the western parts of the Empire.
Augustus instituted standardized governments in these places and reduced corruption by establishing fixed rates of taxation and by appointing state officials to collect and audit taxes (although we know from the New Testament, tax collector corruption was still a reality).
The Roman Empire became a kind of federation of city-states. Each of its urban centers operated within parameters set by the central administration but each also accommodated local customs. Indeed, while Romanization spread widely, in many places this classical civilization was only a thin veneer over native cultures that outlasted the empire.
Section 8: Romanitas
Augustus inaugurated Rome’s golden age—the PaxRomana (Roman Peace). For the next two hundred years, there was relative peace and prosperity throughout the empire.
Augustus, like many Romans, believed that Italy had been able to build the empire because of the unique strength and virtues of the Roman people—their Romanitas.
One poet who agreed with Augustus that the Roman people had been destined for greatness was Virgil. Between 29 and 19 BC, Virgil worked on an epic poem, the Aeneid. The Aeneid tells the legend of Aeneas, a survivor of the fall of Troy. Aeneas is on a mission to establish a new home—a new Troy—for the survivors. He eventually lands in Italy where the Trojans defeat the Latins. Virgil focuses on national glory. He expresses Roman virtues—patriotism, devotion to the family, duty to the state and a strong sense of religion.
Click here to read an excerpt of the Aeneid.
The Aeneid was instantly recognized as a classic. The poem was immediately adopted as part of the school curriculum. Virgil came to be taught throughout the Latin-speaking parts of the Empire. Virgil and Homer were regarded as the greatest poets of antiquity. Dante, author of the Divine Comedy, calls Virgil “our greatest poet”.
The Glory of Rome
Other public figures agreed with Virgil. PubliusAelius Aristides, a wealthy landowner whose family had become Roman citizens, praised the glory of Rome.
Click here to read Aristides’s speech glorifying the PaxRomana.
Increasingly, Romans began to emphasize the need to preserve Italy’s traditions and cultural dominance. Horace, the greatest Roman poet during his lifetime, wrote about the glories and virtues of Rome; however, he also warned Romans that they must remain true to traditional Roman values in order to retain their empire.
Click here to read some of the “Odes” of Horace.
Not everyone saw the imperial period as wholly glorious. Tacitus, the greatest of Roman historians, was sympathetic to republican institutions. He believed emperors were needed in order to maintain stability within the empire but this did not mean that all emperors were good. In his Histories, he does not always paint a pretty picture of the emperors. He shows that emperors could often be power hungry and certainly had many faults.
Click here to read an excerpt of Tacitus’s Histories.
Test your understanding of the materials by taking this brief self-assessment:
Section 9: Greco-Roman Culture
While many Romans at the height of the empire believed the Roman people had unique cutures, Roman culture also rapidly adopted Greek culture, creating a hybrid-Greco-Roman culture that would dominate the west.
Romans followed Greeks more closely in some fields than others. In architecture, they built on Greek ideas and made contributions of their own. They appreciated Greek emphasis on symmetrical designs but Roman buildings were often much larger and complex. They added curves—arches and domes—to the linear elements. The Romans invented concrete and used it to construct new kinds of imposing but graceful structures.
Related to architecture was Rome’s unique gift for engineering. They created roads across difficult terrain that lasted centuries. They tunneled through mountains. They created complex systems of aqueducts in order to supply Roman cities with water.
In terms of literature, the Romans built on Greek writing. Most of the early Roman literature was composed in Greek rather than Latin. At about the same time that Romans were discovering Greek literature, they were introduced to Greek philosophy. Athens dispatched a number of its prominent teachers to Rome as ambassadors.
Despite their fondness for Greek culture, Romans were wary of philosophies that undermined Roman values. Traditional Roman values included: resoluteness, simplicity in manners and a willingness to sacrifice personal interests for the good of Rome.
The traditional values of Roman culture disposed the Romans to reject philosophies that flirted with atheism and religions that undercut moral rigor.
Traditional Roman culture emphasized moral virtue as a major strength of Roman culture. In 186 BC, the Senate had outlawed the worship of Dionysus because the cult was associated with excess. In 173 BC it had banished Epicurean philosophers for teaching what it regarded as self-indulgent quietism.
The Romans did, however, adopt the humanist outlook of the Greeks. They believed that human intelligence was of highest importance. Because republican politicians had to solicit support from voters and sway the thinking of popular assemblies, they were attracted to the study of rhetoric, the art of persuasive speaking pioneered by Greek philosophers.
The Greek philosophy that most appealed to the Romans was Stoicism. In fact, Rome produced well-known Stoic philosophers. Stoics provided a rationale for the traditional Roman virtues of duty and self-discipline. Its doctrine of natural law, which applies universally to all humanity, also fit with Roman ideals of a large empire, where all people had the same duty.
The Romans also inherited the Greek love for public spectacles. The Greek and Roman religious calendars were full of festivals which were celebrated with games. While the Greeks had a passion for athletic competitions, the Romans loved to witness the shedding of animal and human blood.
In the Roman Republic, politicians had tried to bribe voters and gain popularity by hosting lavish games. Augustus and later emperors continued this tradition. Augustus funded both grain distribution and games for the Roman masses. This has been encapsulated in the famous phrase “bread and circus,” as a way to placate the masses. Augustus staged gladiatorial games involving 10,000 men and 35,000 animals. Later emperors even outdid Augustus.
Exotic animals from around the known world were imported at great expense in order to kill them. Slaves, criminals and captives were frequently placed in gladiatorial games. Some Romans, especially Stoics, hated the games but the masses loved them. It was politically unwise to criticize what the masses loved. For this reason, Roman politicians supported the games.
Section 10: The PaxRomana
By the time that Augustus died, the growing collection of Roman provinces had become a single empire. For almost 200 years, the provinces were generally at peace and emperors helped to ensure reasonably effective safeguards in Rome against excesses by Roman officials in the provinces.
After Augustus, politics in Rome was marked by the growing power of the emperor. There was no widespread popular support to return to the republican system. The Senate did not seek to restore republicanism because they feared political chaos and civil war. So the imperial bureaucracy grew larger.
The first four emperors who succeeded Augustus were related to him or his wife. They constitute the Julio-Claudian dynasty, which ruled from AD 14 to AD 68. This dynasty ended with the suicide of Emperor Nero, who had grown tyrannical and lost the confidence of the Roman people.
After a brief civil war, the Flavian Dynasty (69 AD-96 AD) was established by Vespasian and included his sons Titus and Domitian.
In 96 AD, after the assassination of Domitian, a Roman Senator—Nerva—became Emperor. Nerva established an important policy, which brought greater stability to the empire. Nerva adopted a son with proven ability as a leader. This adopted son was then made the heir of the throne. In this way, competent rulers would remain on the throne rather than a hereditary heir who may not have been a capable ruler.
From the succession of Nerva in 96 AD to the death of Marcus Aurelius in AD 180, the Roman Empire reached its height of prosperity and power. This era is known as the period of “the Five Good Emperors”.
Nerva 96 AD-98 AD
Trajan 98 AD-117 AD
Hadrian 117 AD-138 AD
Antoninus Pius 138 AD-161 AD
Marcus Aurelius 161 AD-180 AD
The Romans saw the PaxRomana as the fulfillment of Rome’s mission and destiny—the creation of a world state that provided, peace, civilization, security. The Romans built close to 53,000 miles of roads throughout the empire. They cleared forests, built and improved harbors, they brought irrigation to dry areas and drained wet areas. Their water systems helped bring clean water to areas. Roman peace stimulated trade because roads were safe and navigable. They brought Greco-Roman culture to previously untouched areas such as North Africa, Britain, South Germany.
By creating a stable, single political community, the Romans did not face the same problem as the Greek cities states –constant warfare between the city-states. Romans also did not divide the world into Roman and non-Roman as the Greeks had done (Greek versus non-Greek). Certainly, Romans viewed people outside the Roman Empire as barbarians but Roman citizenship could be expanded. People could come under Roman rule and become Roman citizens, partaking in the greatness of Roman civilization.
Roman law brought order and stability. The earliest written laws in Rome developed during the republican period.
The Twelve Tabletsestablished for Rome a written law code that would be applied to all citizens. These were written laws that served as the legal foundation of the Roman Republic. They were inscribed on twelve tablets and posted in the Roman Forum (a public square in Rome) for all Romans to read.
Over the centuries, civil laws expanded by statutes enacted by the assembly as well as precedents set by judicial magistrates. To this Roman tradition, Romans added elements from the legal tradition of the Greeks and other conquered people. Stoicism and its emphasis on universal standards based on natural law also shaped the Roman legal system. Romans argued the law should be uniform, universal and should be able to be understood by all rational people.
The great Roman writer and thinker Cicero argued, “True law is right reason in agreement with nature; it is of universal application, unchangeable and everlasting…And there will not be different laws at Rome and at Athens or different laws now and in the future, but one eternal and unchangeable law will be valid for all nations and all times,” (De Republica, Cicero).
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Section 11: Roman Expansion and Rule
Roman expansion had more or less come to halt by the reign of Hadrian (117-138).
From the late first to the fourth century (300′s), with a few exceptions, the Roman provinces saw remarkably few internal revolts. Rome enjoyed extraordinary success and stability. The Roman Empire was not, on the whole, governed by Romans. In any given year, the central government sent out about 160 officials for a population of 50 million. The most important officials were the 40 some provincial governors appointed by the Senate or the emperor, each of whom held the office for between one and five years.
The Roman world was a world of cities. In the whole of the Roman Empire, there were thousands of cities although a specific number is difficult to determine. The local civic elite were responsible for the collection of taxes, urban and rural police duties, road-building and maintenance, food and water supply. Cities already existed in the east such as in Greece and the present-day Middle East. In the west, there were far fewer towns. These, the Romans often created from scratch.
The size of provincial cities varied widely. The average Roman city would probably be counted in the tens of thousands. There were exceptions Alexandria had more than half a million. The population of Rome itself would have been a little over one million.
Throughout the Roman Empire, particularly within the cities, the lives and cultures of the local people were significantly changed. This was especially true of the western part of the empire. Language, religious practices, drinking habits and naming practices took on Roman characteristics. This process is generally referred to as Romanization (becoming Roman). The political dominance of Rome made Roman things fashionable. People wanted to be and look Roman. In this way, people often willingly assimilate in a process that might be referred to as “self-Romanization” rather than forced.
The eastern parts of the Roman Empire did not become “Romanized” to the extent that the western provinces did. The west became thoroughly Romanized. In the east, the dominant culture was Greek culture.
It is helpful to think of Europe in the first 3 centuries AD as being divided into three distinct regions.
Gradually, the empire granted citizenship to various individuals, families, or whole communities for their service to the empire or because they had become thoroughly Romanized.
In 212 AD, Roman citizenship was bestowed on almost all free people of the empire. Citizenship offered several advantages to people. They could now hold office, they could serve in the legions (Roman military units), and more.
The Jewish People
Romanization certainly did not erase other identities, such as being Greek, Egyptian or a citizen of a particular city. This was particularly true of the Jewish people.
One subject people tried repeatedly to throw off Roman yolk—the Jews. In AD 66, the Jewish inhabitants of Jerusalem rose up in revolt and massacred the city’s Roman garrison. After a long siege, Jerusalem fell to the Romans in September 70 AD. The Great Temple, the center of the Jewish religion, was destroyed.
A second Revolt in Judea occurred in 132. By 135, the Jews were defeated and Judea was laid to waste by the Romans. The Romans saw the problem not as a Judean problem but a Jewish one.
This was confirmed by a Jewish revolt outside of Judea in Egypt and Cyprus in 116-117 AD. As punishment, no Jew was allowed on the island of Cyprus.
The fundamental problem was the refusal of the Jewish people to religiously assimilate to Roman ways. Other groups, such as the Celts in Gaul, had adopted the Roman gods. This acceptance by non-Roman people was often half-hearted. They generally mixed older religious practices with Roman names and gods. The Roman world was a world of religious pluralism.
The strict monotheism of the Jewish people was incompatible with the Roman polytheistic and pluralistic system. The practice of the Mosaic Law prevented Jews from assimilating with Gentiles and made them stand out as a distinct people. There was also the Jewish belief that God had given them the land of Palestine as part of the covenant. To submit to Roman rule, according to many Jews, was a violation of the covenant.
Assimilation was also a key problem for another group—Christians. This would be the fundamental problem with Christians in the Roman Empire.
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Section 12: Christianity and the Roman Empire
It is very difficult to determine the size of the Christian population in the Roman Empire from the death and resurrection of Christ until 300 AD. The size of the Christian community varied significantly from one region or city to another. Overall, the Christian community would have been a small minority of the total population into the 200′s AD.
The Christian community made steady growth however. According to Rodney Stark in The Rise of Christianity, this was based on a variety of factors.
Click here to read an early account of a Christian Martyr.
Due to persecution by Roman authorities, Christians did not always view the Roman Empire as highly as others such as Virgil. The Book of Revelation paints a bleak picture of the Roman Empire.
Click here to read the Apostle John’s description of Rome.
Section 13: Constantine the Great
There was an estimated 5-7.5 million Christians in the Roman Empire by the reign of Constantine the Great in 300 AD. That was about 10% of the total population. This was a significant faction of the society since Rome was pluralistic with many different religious groups. So while Christianity was still a minority within the empire at the time of Constantine’s reign, it was a growing minority with increasing influence.
One of the most significant events in the history of Christianity was the conversion of the Emperor Constantine. The story recorded by early church historians is that Constantine had a dream (or vision) of a heavenly symbol in the sky. This symbol, according to most sources, was the Chi Rho, an early Christian symbol. Chi Rho was the first two Greek letters in the name Christ.
Constantine claims that he was instructed by a voice to place this sign on the shields of his soldiers. The voice commanded him: “In this sign, conquer.” Constantine did as he was instructed. That day he was victorious over his enemies at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (312 AD).
There is a great deal of debate about the sincerity of Constantine’s acceptance of Christianity. He certainly hoped Christianity would act as glue to hold together the empire’s very diverse population in a weakening imperial state; nevertheless, he also showed a genuine interest in the theological debates during his reign. What we can say for sure is that Constantine did not receive baptism until his death bed.
Constantine issued his famous Edict of Milan in 313 which granted toleration for the practice of Christianity in the empire. Constantine and his successors thus provided Christians with newfound security and opportunities. Indeed, some Christians saw the glory of Rome and the Glory of the Kingdom of God as intertwined.
Click here to read an excerpt from the earliest church historian Eusebius. How does his portrayal of Rome differ from the Apostle John’s?
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Section 14: Christianity after Constantine
After Constantine, Christianity continued to grow in strength but it was not yet the official religion of the empire. Traditional cults continued to be practiced into the fourth century (300′s). In a few places, the traditional cults continued into the fifth century (400′s).
From 312 onward, imperial patronage was put behind Christianity and not paganism. Pressure was put on senators to convert to Christianity. Imperial legislation gradually defined more and more aspects of pagan religious rituals as illegal.
Emperors after Constantine were all Christians with the exception of Julian (360-363)—a committed pagan who promoted the traditional cults. Eventually, there was a shift from Christianity being tolerated, to Christianity being favored, to Christianity being the official state religion. Constantine himself was responsible for only a few destructions of traditional temples. By the Emperor Theodosius (reigned 370-395 AD), there was an enforced ban on all polytheistic ritual sacrifices and Theodosius ordered pagan temples closed.
Christians by contrast received patronage for their buildings, official approval for their doctrines, suppression of their rivals, prestige from imperial recognition, and during the late fourth century, the proclamation of Christianity as the official state religion. During the 400′s, more temples were destroyed or converted into churches. Christians could be responsible for serious acts of violence against pagan cults; however, other Christians attempted to find common ground by combining the Classical and Christian.
Christian festivals began to take over from the traditional ones. From 321 onward, Sunday held the status of “holiday.” The Easter period became increasingly celebrated throughout the empire when courts were officially closed for Easter celebrations. In the 300′s, December 25th was chosen as the birth date of Christ. This was coordinated to replace a pagan holiday worshipping the sun on December 25th. In this way, Christian officials hoped to combat the pagan holiday.
Monasticism began in the eastern portion of the Roman Empire but it would eventually be embraced by western Christians. Monasticism initially began as a solitary endeavor. A monastic was an individual who deliberately separated himself or herself from normal life to devote himself or herself to prayer and religious devotion. By the fourth century, thousands of Christians had decided to pursue some form of monastic life in the desert, forest or mountains. Eventually, communal monasticism emerged where monks pursued the devoted life together in community.
Benedict of Nursia was the most significant influence on western monasticism. His Rule for monks became the most influential document for the western monastic tradition. The Rule was written for Benedict’s own monastery at Monte Casino near Naples.
In the Rule, Benedict instructs moderation rather than the extreme asceticism of some monks. The Rule encouraged three principle activities. First, the work of God, including worship seven times a day. These seven times of prayer and worship can still be found in church practices today such as vespers, Matins and Compline. Second, monks were to engage in spiritual reading of the Bible. They also spent time copying manuscripts and other intellectual pursuits. Third, monks were required to engage in manual labor for seven to eight hours a day.
Click here to read an excerpt from Benedict’s Rule.
Monastic life was never fully withdrawn from society. Monasteries established schools, orphanages, ministered to the local poor and sick and also engaged in commercial trade. Towns often grew up around monasteries, making them less isolated.
As Christianity spread within the Roman Empire and beyond, it developed a hierarchical organization, with patriarchs, bishops, and priests.
Certain cities emerged as the seat of patriarchs—the highest ranking officials in the Christian Church. Five ancient cities emerged as the first major seats of Christianity: Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem and Constantinople. The Bishop of Rome, later called the Pope (father) claimed primacy over the other Patriarchs. This was based on the fact that Peter and Paul were both martyred in Rome and the fact that it served as the capital of the Roman Empire.
Underneath these Patriarchs were Bishops of particular cities or regions. Underneath these Bishops were priests of individual churches.
Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, on Rome
It was one of these bishops who had the difficult task of explaining the relationship between Rome and Christianity when the Roman Empire began to decline. When Rome came under serious attack in the early 5th century, the idea of equating the kingdom of God and the Roman Empire became problematic.
In 410, Visigoths sacked Rome—an utter disaster for the Roman Empire. Non-Christians blamed the tragedy on Christianity arguing that Christians had refused to make sacrifices to the ancient gods. Even Christians were disconcerted. Where was their kingdom of God on earth that many believed the Roman Empire would usher into existence?
The person who would respond to these questions was Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, in North Africa. Augustine had been born in North Africa where he had exhibited a keen intellect as a child. He was able to attend school in Carthage where he studied rhetoric—the art of verbal persuasion. Despite doing well in his chosen profession, Augustine still struggled to find meaning in his life. Eventually, he turned to Christianity. He left his position as teacher to the imperial family and became a priest. He was ultimately made Bishop at Hippo.
In response to the disintegration of Rome, Augustine wrote one of the greatest Christian works of all time, City of God. Plato had written The Republic in response to problems he saw in Athens. In his work, Plato expressed hope that an ideal state could exist if based on rational principles. Augustine differed from Plato. He believed that the worldly city could never be the central concern of the Christian. The ideal cannot be realized on earth, only in heaven. The collapse of Rome should not distress Christians because Christianity did not belong to the earthly realm but rather to the spiritual. Christians were citizens of the City of God but they only sojourned in the City of Man.
Click here to read some of Augustine’s City of God. He responds to Rome (indeed, any earthly empire) differently than other writers before him.
HIST 101 Western Civilization I
Week 5: The Decline of the Roman Empire and the Rise of Europe
Few historical debates have aroused some much fascination and debate among western historians than the causes of the decline of the Roman Empire.
Like most historical events, there is no single cause. The decline and eventual fall of the western Roman Empire was a complex and long process. The fall of Rome was a process that lasted over a hundred years. Many of the problems began in the crises of the third century.
It is also important to realize that only the western half of the empire collapsed. The eastern half of the Roman Empire—eventually called the Byzantine Empire—remained strong for several hundred years after the overthrow of Rome by the Germanic tribes in 476 AD.
Section 1: The End of the PaxRomana/The Third Century Crises
The Roman Empire experienced a range of problems in the third century. The PaxRomana came to an end with the death of Emperor Marcus Aurelius—the last of the “Five Good Emperors.” Marcus Aurelius did not use the adoptive system of his predecessors and chose his hereditary son, Commodus, to succeed as emperor. Commodus was not fit to rule. With his ascension in 180 AD the PaxRomana ended.
Dio Cassius, Roman Historian who lived during the time of Commodus, describes him as “not naturally wicked but, on the contrary, as guileless as any man that ever lived. His great simplicity, however, together with his cowardice, made him the slave of his companions, and it was through them that he at first, out of ignorance, missed the better life and then was led on into lustful and cruel habits, which soon became second nature.” (Cassius Dio 73.1.2 Roman History). Commodus was ultimately assassinated, which ushered in a period of civil strife as powerful Romans competed for power. In 193 AD alone, there were five different claimants for the title of Roman Emperor.
During the third century (200′s) the Roman Empire saw political anarchy as various claimants fought for the throne. The army degenerated. Soldier’s loyalty to Rome declined and they used their position to steal from civilians. Soldiers and generals were increasingly drawn into the political intrigues of would-be emperors. Taking advantage of this situation, Germanic tribes increasingly invaded the frontier regions of the empire. The life of the average citizen also declined. Cities were pillaged and/or destroyed by both Roman soldiers and Germanic raiders. The economy faced serious inflation. Many people turned from Roman currency to a method of trade and barter. For all these reasons loyalty of the average citizens to the Roman Empire declined. Compounding problems was a plague that swept through North Africa and the Balkans region.
Section 2: Diocletian and Constantine
Two Emperors attempted to stop the growing instability in the empire—Diocletian and Constantine. While they significantly differed from each other, their solution to the decline was similar—shift more power to the central government and draw more taxes from the citizenship.
Diocletian: Diocletian (reigned AD 285-305) imitated the kingship of eastern rulers. He wore magnificent robes and jewels. In opposition to older Roman ideals, Diocletian argued that the individual lived for the state rather the than state having the responsibility to foster the good life for its citizens.
Diocletian centralized the government. He stripped cities of their self-government. He increased the size of the military by recruiting German mercenaries. The state often forced workers and artisans to hold the same job for life and were ordered to pass the trade onto their children. This ensured production of food as well as goods but this turned Roman citizens into serfs with little to no freedom to start new careers or migrate to new places.
A very significant change was the division of the Roman Empire into western and eastern halves. Diocletian also appointed a loyal general to govern the western provinces of the empire while he ruled the east. Diocletian hoped this would allow more time for each ruler to concentrate on the problems of the two realms.
Constantine: Constantine increased the trends started by Diocletian. He solidified the division of the Roman Empire into western and eastern halves by building a new eastern capital at Byzantium, an ancient but minor Greek city on the Bosporus, a strait where Asia meets Europe. The new city was named Constantinople. It was meant to rival although not replace Rome. This division created a Greek-Latin divide within the Empire.
These changes did stabilize the empire; however, Rome never returned to the glory days it had experienced in the first and second centuries.
Section 3: The Decline of Rome
By the fifth century (400′s), the Roman Empire was experiencing severe problems. In 410, Germanic invaders sacked Rome. The traditional date for the collapse of the Western Roman Empire is 476 AD when German tribes overthrew the Roman Emperor and placed one of their own on the throne.
Historians have argued that all of the following contributed to the decline of Rome. There is much debate over which factor was most important:
Germanic Tribes: Barbarian invasions into Roman territory had begun as early as the third century but these attacks increased. These attacks left the border regions unpopulated becaused people feared invasion. The military needs of the fourth century drained the coffers of the empire but the Roman legions were still unable to keep Germanic invaders at bay. Increased taxes, in order to support the military, fell on the middle and lower classes who increasingly resented Roman rule.
Revived Persia: Alexander the Great had crushed the Persian Empire but by the third century, a revived Persia was on the rise under leadership of the Sassanid Empire. In fact, the Persians defeated the Romans in the Battle of Edessa in 260 and took the Roman emperor, Valerian, prisoner for the remainder of his life. This new Empire in Persia distracted Rome from the western Germanic tribe and forced them to spread their forces.
Political Centralization: Increased autocratic tendencies within the Roman government under Diocletian and Constantine may have saved the empire from immediate ruin but it also initiated a steady decline in the civic spirit of the Roman people. Less focus on the local level meant local peoples increasingly withdrew their loyalty to Roman rule.
Military Commanders: Increasingly, military commanders were less concerned with Roman glory and more concerned with personal gain. Often times, these military commanders hoped to use their military power to gain political power in the empire. This led to renewed civil wars within the empire.
Roman Soldiers: The quality of Roman soldiers also declined. During the PaxRomana, Roman soldiers were known for their superior training and discipline. In the late Roman Empire, the quality of soldiers declined. The army consisted mainly of provincial peasants. This may have been related to the fact that in 212 AD, most free people in the empire received citizenship. Previously, provincial people saw military service as a gateway to citizenship and an improved life. This meant the army attracted ambitious young men. But by the late Roman Empire, this was no longer the case. Increasingly, Roman emperors recruited mercenaries from the Germanic tribes. The Germanic soldiers may have been brave but they had very little loyalty to the Roman state.
Religious Considerations: The classical Greco-Roman world preached human potentiality as it related to intellectual pursuit. This humanistic view of the world was in decline by the third century. The upper class, who generally served as the foundation for the Greco-Roman culture of rational inquiry and civic pride, took less of an interest in public life. Some historians have argued that these people increasingly turned to other-worldly religions, such as Christianity, rather than focus on the glory of the Roman state.
Population Decline: Throughout the fourth century, the population of the empire declined. Much of this was related to a series of plagues that ravished various Roman regions. Birth rates could not keep up with these death rates. Constant warfare also brought a drop in population. Economic conditions encouraged people to have smaller families. Population decline affected the Roman Empire by reducing the tax-payers, reducing the number of agricultural workers who produced food, and forcing the empire to recruit Germanic settlers and mercenaries.
Slave Labor: Slavery was a central part of the economic world of classical western society. Neither the Greeks nor Romans questioned the morality of slavery. The widespread use of slavery in the empire had several effects. First, it did not encourage technological breakthroughs. There were few incentives for the slave population to invent more efficient means of work. The upper classes saw manual labors as fit only for slaves so there were no people from this class who were interested in inventing efficient means of labor. Second, widespread use of slavery limited employment opportunities for the masses of poor people. There was no internal market for employment in Rome. These poor masses were increasingly subsidized by the state, which created a heavy tax burden.
Division of the Empire into East and West: The division of the empire accelerated the decline of the west. The eastern half of the empire had always been more learned and wealthy. With division of the Roman Empire, the western emperors could no longer rely on the east for military or financial support.
Think of these factors more as a web than as single problems. One example may suffice. The decline in the military was related to the decline in civic duty among the citizens. Many young men avoided military service and conscription because they had little loyalty to the state. This decline in the military often meant Germanic raids and pillaging of the citizens by the military. These raids led to civic decline. This civic decline in turn led people to avoid military service (and the cycle began again). In fact, disenchanted citizens did not often put up a fight against Germanic invaders. Many times, citizens saw the Germanic barbarians as liberators from an oppressive state and corrupt military.
With increased decline, decentralization occurred. Trade became less international and more focused on the local level. Barter and trade became more common than the use of Roman currency. Increasingly, local aristocrats who owned large portions of land became more powerful at the expense of the Roman government. Peasants, increasingly impoverished, settled on a wealthy aristocrat’s land where they received protection. These peasants, however, lost their freedom and became dependent on the landlord. By the fourth century, the slow transition to feudalism had already begun. Feudalism would serve as the basic social, political and economic system for medieval Europe. You will read about this.
Section 4: The Middle Ages and the Medieval Outlook
With the collapse of the Roman Empire in 476 AD, the classical period of western civilization came to an end. The thousand year period following the classical period is commonly referred to as the Middle Ages or the Medieval Period (500-1500).
The Middle Ages are further divided into three sections: The Early (500-1000), the High (1000-1300) and the Late Middle Ages (1300-1500).
Classicalism and Christianity Compared
The Medieval world differed significantly from the classical Greco-Roman world. Much of the medieval worldview was based on the writings and thought of Augustine of Hippo. Augustine “became the chief architect of the Christian outlook that succeeded a dying classicism” (Perry 187). Augustine rejected the key feature of classical humanism: the autonomy of human reason. Ultimate wisdom, according to Augustine, could not be achieved through reason alone. Reason had to be guided by faith. There could be no true understanding without faith. Philosophy had to be grounded on the idea of the existence of God and the authority of his revelation. In contrast to the classical view that asserted the primacy of reason, Augustine argued for the primacy of faith. The human-centered outlook of classicism gave way in the medieval world to a God-centered outlook.
Perry et. al. in Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics and Society, compares and contrasts the medieval and classical worlds. Western Civilization did not abandon classicalism completely; in fact, western civilization is a combination of Christianity and classicalism, a Christian-Greco-Roman hybrid. For example, both affirmed the value and worth of human beings. For classicalism, this was based on the individual’s capacity to reason and shape his character. For Christians, God has created every individual in his image (the Imago Dei) and cares for them.
There are strong parallels between Stoic Ethics and Christian ethics although they arrived at these conclusions in very different ways. The Gospel of John actually uses the Stoic concept of Logos arguing that the Logos (translated as word) had become flesh—John argues that the Logos is none other than Jesus Christ. Both Christians and Stoics believed all human beings shared a common dignity and were fundamentally equal. They both stressed the universality of moral values. They both argued that individuals needed to suppress inner passions or sinful urges. They both argued that a good individual expressed concern for other people and each believed that conscience played a key role in helping people understand right and wrong.
Many Christian thinkers also found Platonism to be of good use. Platonism drew a distinction between a world perceived by the sense and a higher order—a transcendent world that should be the primary goal or focus of human beings (see the lecture on Greek Philosophy). Christian thinkers found this to be one way to express Christian beliefs. Plato argued that the Forms, or Ideas, were the true goal of knowledge. Christians argued that these standards—the Forms—existed only in the mind of God.
Despite some similarities, Christianity and Classicalism represent two different views of life. Indeed, the ultimate goal of life shifted from the classical emphasis on excellence (see Greek emphasis on arête) in this world through the development of human capacities, particularly reason, to Medieval Christianity, which argued that human accomplishment meant little if one did not accept God and his revelation. Ethical standards were based on the person of God for Christians. The classical world saw ethical standards as based on universal reason—the laws of nature—which the human mind could discern.
We also see that the good life was found in the political community in the classical world—whether Greek or Roman. The community was the best way to establish justice, happiness and the good life. For Christians, the good life was not identified with worldly achievement but with eternal life.
The classical world emphasized human potentiality while medieval Christianity noted human depravity and sinfulness. In the classical world, human history had no ultimate end. The view of history was cyclical with good and bad ages coming and going. The Christian view of history, which has deeply affected western views of history, emphasized that history was moving in a linear direction with an ultimate goal—the ultimate restoration of the kingdom of God.
Remember, Augustine argued that our ultimate citizenship is in the City of God rather than in the City of Man. The most important aspect of life was a person’s spiritual destiny and not the coming and going of earthly realms and empires. However, Augustine recognized that all people live in the City of Man. For this reason, Christians need to work in the earthly realm by living life, engaging in economic activity, raising a family and serving the state in a manner based on Christian principles. However, Augustine cautioned Christians that they should never fool themselves into thinking the City of Man would be the City of God. There was perpetual conflict between the two cities and their inhabitants.
Click here to read an excerpt from Augustine’s City of God.
Section 5: The post-Roman world and the geography of Europe
Though the roots of the medieval world were already being established by the decline of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, it would take time for it to become the dominate worldview of Europe.
One reason for the slow recovery of Europe was due to the chaos that ensued after the fall of Rome. Western Europe in the wake of Rome’s fall looked very different than what he had under Roman rule.
Large scale centralized rule vanished completely and Europe descended into competing independent, mainly tribal, factions. Disease and warfare reduced Western Europe’s population by more than 25 percent. Land under cultivation (farm land) contracted while forests, marshland and wasteland expanded. Urban life diminished sharply and Europe largely reverted back to a rural existence. Rome itself at its height had a population of 1 million people, but by 1000 AD, its numbers were around 10,000 people. Public buildings crumbled from lack of care. Roman roads deteriorated. Money exchange gave way to barter. Literacy lost ground.
The geography of Europe affected its development. With the end of the Roman Empire, Europe found itself isolated from much of the rest of the world.
Europe was at the far end of the Eurasian land mass—so somewhat isolated from the rest of the world’s empires. It was far removed from any major trade routes—the sea in the Indian Ocean, the land across the Silk Road to China, or the Sand Roads of West Africa. Western Europe had no access to these trade routes.
Europe’s population centers were also separated by mountain ranges and dense forests as well as five major peninsulas and two large islands—Ireland and Britain. Political unity was nearly impossible.
However, Europe had a large coastline. It has good rainfall. It had fertile land. All of these factors lent itself to a growing population. This population largely developed in isolation from the rest of the world.
Another factor that contributed to Europe’s relative isolation and decline after Rome was its inhabitants—the Germanic tribes.
Section 6: The Germanic Tribe
The Germanic people, whom the Romans had viewed as barbarians, became the dominant peoples of Western Europe—Goths, Visigoths, Franks, Lombards, Angles, Saxons and so forth.
From the sixth century through the eight century, Europeans struggled to bring stability to the disorder of the dissolution of Rome. The Germanic kingdoms provided a poor political base on which to revive a dying Roman civilization.
The Germanic people had originally been organized into small family-based tribal groups with very strong warrior values. They remained tribal in their outlook for several centuries. The Germans gave loyalty to their kin and tribal chief—the King. The King viewed the land as his possession, which could be divided among his kin as he saw fit. The Germanic people valued faithfulness-fealty—to kings and lords highly.
The Germanic people had very strong warrior values. The Germanic warrior tradition valued strength, courage, and loyalty in warriors.
The Roman historian Tacitus wrote about the Germanic people.
Click here to read an excerpt from this work.
Germanic law tended to be unwritten tribal customs that varied from tribe to tribe. They did not have a universal idea of law such as the Romans. The Germanic people were a rural people and were not interested in sustaining an urban culture. Rulers settled their peoples in the countryside. Cities became the seat of Bishops of the Church but they were not the seat of political power. The old Roman roads deteriorated. Latin became the language of the church, not the people. Knowledge of the Greco-Roman world faded. Classical works were lost or unread.
The western world was deeply influenced by the Germanic culture. Western culture could be described as Christian-Greco-Roman-Germanic.
Section 7: The Roman Catholic Church and missions to the Germanic tribes
In the wake of the collapse of the Roman Empire, the church grew in power. It served as an integrative institution for Europe. The Church retained and gained greater prestige in the west because it offered structure and stability in a now somewhat chaotic world. The church structure also harkened back to Rome because its structure (popes, bishops, priests and monasteries) were modeled on that of the Roman Empire. The Church took on more significance and more responsibility—sometimes political, administrative, and educational and welfare functions. It preserved some of the ancient works and classical philosophy. Eventually, people in the Middle Ages would not have been able to conceive of a world without the church. Membership in the church replaced citizenship in the Roman Empire. It served as the dominate institution of the Middle Ages.
The church also focused on bringing the Christian message to the Germanic people. The Germanic tribes can be divided into three broad religious groups. Some were pagans worshipping their ancestral gods. Other Germanic people had converted to Roman Catholicism. A third group had converted to a heretical form of Christianity known as Arianism, which did not believe that Jesus was fully God.
Over time, the vast majority of Europe was converted to orthodox Christianity, under the domain of the Roman Catholic Church.
There were a number of ways the conversion of Europe occurred.
Top-Down Strategy: Numerous missionaries, commissioned by the pope, monasteries and already converted rulers, fanned out across Europe, generally pursuing a “top-down” strategy—that is, focus on rulers or lords. This strategy often had success. Local kings or warlords found Roman Catholicism advantageous and converted—the ordinary people underneath them followed.
One of the most important “top-down” conversions was that of Clovis, ruler of the Franks. The Franks lived in Gaul, present France, and indeed, France derives its name from the Franks. Their eventual leader, Clovis (466-511), was about 10 years old when Rome fell. He was a teenager when he succeeded his father as one of the many Frankish tribal chiefs. Over time, Clovis defeated other Frankish tribal chiefs as well as other Germanic tribes such as the Visigoths, thereby much of the Frankish people into a single kingdom. Clovis and the Franks were pagans. Like Constantine before him, Clovis abandoned the ancestral gods claiming that the Christian God had given him victory in a crucial battle. This allowed the Franks to turn their wars of expansion into holy wars as well. Clovis and later Frankish kings would conquer territory of pagan people not only in the name of the Franks but also in the name of the church.
Click here to read the conversion story of Clovis.
Coercion: Outright coercion to convert was sometimes part of the process. Charlemagne, King of the Franks, conquered the Saxons. Upon conquest, Charlemagne enforced conversion, tithing and attendance at church.
Click here to read the rules set forth by Charlemagne.
Accommodation: The Church was also willing to accommodate a considerable range of earlier cultural practices, absorbing them into an emerging Christian tradition. For example, amulets and charms to ward off evil became medals with the image of Jesus or the Virgin Mary. Traditional sacred wells and springs became sites of churches. Festivals honoring ancient gods became Christian holy days, such as Christmas.
Click here to read a letter from Pope Gregory encouraging the use of accommodation as a missionary strategy.
By 1000 AD, most of Europe embraced Christianity. Even so, priests and bishops continued to have to warn their congregations against the worship of rivers, trees, and mountains, and for many people, ancient gods, monsters, trolls and spirits that inhabited the land. The spreading of the Christian faith—much like the social and political structures of Europe in the early Middle Ages—was a blend of many elements.
Section 8: Feudalism
Feudalism became the political, social and economic structure of medieval Europe. Feudalism is a highly fragmented and decentralized form of society. Think of this in comparison to centralized Roman Empire, with an emperor ruling from Rome or Constantinople.
In feudalism you find a patchwork of independent, self-sufficient, and largely isolated estates or manors. The word manor was from the Latin for dwelling. A manor was a community of peasants, often referred to as serfs. Power—whether political, economic or social—in these manors was held by the warrior elite, landowning lord.
Manors were usually divided into two parts: the lord’s land and common lands. The lord’s land was worked by the peasants. Peasants lived on the lord’s land (hence the title landlord). Peasants might have their own farms and cottages but these were also owned by the landlord. There were also extensive common lands (held by men in common by the grace of God) used by the serfs for grazing, gleaning, hunting and fishing.
The typical medieval manor also contained various workshops which manufactured clothes, shoes, tools and weapons. There were bakeries, wine presses and grist mills.
A lord controlled at least one manorial village and great lords might control hundreds. A small manor estate might contain a dozen families while larger estates might include fifty or sixty.
Lords protected their peasants. They provided the peasants with land to cultivate and live on. When a manor was attacked by a rival lord, the peasants usually found protection inside the walls of their lord’s house. By the 12th century, the lord’s home had become in many cases, a well-fortified castle.
In return, peasants had many obligations. These obligations could include taxes or giving a certain amount of one’s harvest. It might also include work such as building bridges, chopping firewood, digging ditches for the lord. Lords had a great deal of power over their peasants. They settled disputes, approved marriages, and set laws.
Three Orders of Medieval Society
Medieval Society then was made up of three orders: those who pray (clergy), those who fight (warrior lords) and those who work (serfs)—a tripartite division of society. Security, protection and order were all premised on the idea that each person would play their part.
A serf’s life was dominated by their lord and the Church. The village church was the center of the medieval community. Nearly all of the important events in the short life of medieval men and women took place within the confines of the Church or churchyard. And nearly all of a serf’s life took place within the confines or their Lord’s manor.
Church authorities and the nobles/warriors who exercised political influence reinforced each other. Rulers provided protection for the church and strong encouragement for the faith. Church offered religious legitimacy for the powerful and prosperous warrior elites.
Over the centuries, constant fighting had led to some lesser lords who swore allegiance to greater lords—often referred to as kings—and thus became their vassals, frequently receiving lands and plunder in return for military service. Underneath nobles/lords, a warrior class also developed–knights. At the bottom of this system were the vast majority of people—the peasants. Here is a diagram of the European Feudal System.
Section 9: The Frankish Kingdom
There is one exception to the tribal, patchwork organization of early medieval Europe—the Franks. The Franks had originated in the Rhine River valley in present day Germany. The ruler Clovis (466-511 AD) had united the various Frankish tribal factions. The conversion of Clovis to Roman Catholicism made the Franks allies to the Pope in Rome. Clovis and his successors expanded the Frankish Kingdom by conquering their neighbors. One of the most significant conflicts of the Frankish Empire was with the Muslims who ruled in Spain. The Frankish leader Charles Martel defeated the Muslims at the battle of Tours in 732 AD. This prevented Islam from spreading from Spain into the rest of Europe. Not only did the Franks prevent the expansion of Islam into Europe, they spread Roman Catholicism throughout Europe, most often through conquest. For example, the Franks conquered the Saxons, another Germanic tribe, and compelled the conversion of many Saxons upon threat of execution.
The Frankish Kingdom reached its greatest extent under Charlemagne (Charles the Great), who ruled from 768 AD to 814 AD. The Frankish Kingdom was never as advanced or efficient as the Byzantine or Islamic Empires in the east but it was the closest example Europe would have to an Empire during the Middle Ages.
On Christmas day in the year 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor of the Romans, laying the foundation for the future Holy Roman Empire. Of course, the Frankish Kingdom never reached the greatness of Rome; however, the coronation of Charlemagne represents the medieval period as a whole. It revealed the long shadow that the Roman world cast on Europe. There was a sense and desire for the Roman universalism of old. Because Charlemagne was crowned by the Pope, it also shows that Christian universalism was at the heart of medieval Europe. Charlemagne embodied Europe’s blended culture of Germanic, Greco-Roman and Christian. Charlemagne paid respect to all these traditions. He was a Frank, a Germanic tribal warrior. Germanic emphasis on faithfulness to kin and king remained strong among the Franks. Charlemagne also ruled as a Roman Catholic king. He saw it as his duty to protect the Church and endorse its teaching. He supported the training of the clergy by encouraging the development of schools and libraries. He also showed a great deal of respect for the Greco-Roman past. He encouraged the preservation of ancient texts. He encouraged education. The Franks adopted Roman architecture and artistic forms. The Franks never reached the level of learning, art and architecture of the Greco-Roman period but many texts were preserved during Charlemagne’s reign.
The Frankish kingdom was never as strong as it was under Charlemagne. Over time, rivalry and civil wars continued to break the kingdom into smaller pieces. The centralization of Europe under the Franks was short lived after Charlemagne. Feudalism would be the primary system in the Middle Ages.
Section 10: Byzantine Civilization
The western half of the empire fell to the Germanic tribes but the eastern half survived. The eastern half became known as Byzantium or the Byzantine Empire. They had always been a richer, more urbanized and more populous people. Constantinople was a much more defensible city. The eastern half of the empire had a much smaller frontier to protect. For all of these reasons the eastern half of the empire survived the fall of Rome.
Byzantium encompassed much of the eastern Mediterranean basin while continuing the traditions of the Roman Empire, though on a smaller scale until its conquest by the Muslim Ottoman Empire in 1453.
It was centered in the magnificent city of Constantinople. Constantinople was known as the “New Rome” and it had magnificent building projects in order to become a worthy successor to Rome. It gradually evolved a distinct civilization but it claimed to be Roman and sought to preserve the heritage of the classical Mediterranean civilizations—that is Greco-Roman culture. Much that was Roman—its roads, taxation system, military structures, centralized administration, imperial court, laws and the Christian Church—persisted in Byzantium for several more centuries.
The Byzantine Empire was never the size of its Roman predecessor. The western half of the Roman Empire was permanently lost. Byzantine rulers longed to reunite the two sections but this was never fully accomplished. The height of the empire was reached under Emperor Justinian when he regained much of the Italian Peninsula but with time the Empire lost these outposts. The rapid Islamic expansion in the 7th century (600′s) resulted in the loss of other parts of the Byzantine Empire: Syria, Egypt and North Africa.
Political authority was tightly centralized in Constantinople. The Byzantine emperor claimed to be God’s representative on earth. He was the “peer of the Apostles” and the “sole ruler of the world”. The imperial court tried to imitate the awesome grandeur of what they thought was God’s heavenly court with much pomp and circumstance.
The state and the church were intimately connected in the empire. This relationship is sometimes referred to as caesaropapism (a connection of the papal office and Caesar).
In the west, the Roman Catholic Church maintained some degree of independence from political authorities but in the Byzantine Empire the emperor assumed the roles of both Caesar, as head of the state, and the Pope, as head of the Church. Technically, the Patriarchs ruled the church but they reported to the emperor. The emperor sometimes made decisions about doctrine, he called church councils into session, and he generally treated the church as government department.
Section 11: The Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches
The Christian Church still bridged the east/west divide even after the fall of the western half of the Roman Empire. However, the Byzantine Empire in the East and Europe were divided over religious issues. This would eventually lead to a major division within the church. Europe would become Roman Catholic under the leadership of the Pope in Rome. The Byzantine Empire would become Eastern Orthodox under the leader of the Patriarchs.
There are several reasons for the division between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. The division did not occur in a single moment but developed over several centuries. The following are some of the reasons for the eventual division:
Political Divisions: The Byzantine Empire was distinct from the emerging Germanic kingdoms in Western Europe; however, both Byzantium and Europe claimed to be the true heirs to the Roman Empire. The Byzantine Empire was offended by the declaration of Charlemagne as the Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope.
Culture:Language and culture were also different. In the west, Latin remained the language of the church. In the east, Latin was abandoned for Greek. In the east, Greek culture continued to be the dominant influence while in the west a hybrid Roman-Germanic culture dominated.
Theology and Church Practice:Over the centuries, church practices between the east and west became distinct. Some of these were minor. Priests in the west shaved their beards and could not marry. Priests in the east grew their beards long and could marry. Eastern churches used leaven bread for the sacraments while Catholics used unleavened bread.
There were also intense theological disagreements. One of the major debates centered on filioque clause in the Nicene Creed.
Click here to read the Nicene Creed.
The original Nicene Creed at the Council of Constantinople had read: And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, from the Father proceeding. The Latin Church had added the Son to this section. This was known as the filioque clause. It read: And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, and giver of life, who from the Father and the Son proceeds. The Latin Church believed this was more theological correct and amended the text. The Eastern Churches were deeply offended by this move because they did not believe the Latin Church had the right to change a church creed without discussion or consent by the rest of the church.
Church Authority:The most important issue in the growing divide between east and west was the question of church authority. In the west, there were growing claims that the supreme leader of the church was the patriarch of Rome (also known as the pope). The Eastern Church did not agree. They argued that the ancient church had been overseen by several Patriarchs. Rome had been the preeminent patriarch but this did not give the Roman Patriarch supreme power over all the church. For this reason, the Roman Catholic Church is overseen by a single Patriarch—the Pope in Rome—while the Eastern Orthodox Churches are overseen by various Patriarchs.
The Crusades:The final blow to the declining relationship between the east and west were the Crusades. The Crusades were a series of military campaigns by western powers into the east to fight Islam; however, as Roman Catholics from the west traveled into and through the east, they encountered, conquered, and pillaged Eastern Orthodox Christians. For westerners in the Roman Catholic Church, they did not feel that Eastern Orthodox Christians deserved much more respect than the Muslims because they were not part of the true Church. Eastern Orthodox Christians believed that the Crusaders represented all of western Christendom and this only confirmed their belief that the western Roman Catholics were nothing more than German barbarians.
Section 12: Islam
Islam arose in the borderland between east and west. It certainly had a profound effect on the development of western culture, particularly in the sense that European culture developed in the face of Islam and often thought and defined itself in comparison to, reflection of, opposition to Islam.
Islam arose in seventh century Arabia near the trading communities of Mecca and Medina on the Arabian Peninsula.
At the time Arabia found itself occupying a peripheral region of the central battlefield between Byzantium and the Sassanid Empire.
The century’s long conflict between these two powers had shifted caravan trading routes south so that they were now travelling through Mecca and Medina on their way to Red Sea ports and shipment to India. While it was surrounded by harsh deserts and ringed by rocky hills, Mecca was a thriving commercial town.
Muhammad was one of the wealthier merchants. Born in 570 AD, Muhammad was raised an orphan. He was always a religious seeker and frequently discussed the subject of monotheism and religion with the Orthodox Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians he encountered during his caravan work.
After marrying a wealthy widow, Muhammad was enjoying an extremely successful career as a merchant when his children reached the same age he had been when his parents died. At this point, Muhammad became disillusioned with the idolatry, worldliness and his neighbors apathy for the plight of the poor, orphaned and widowed. He experienced a religious crisis of sorts, and went off to meditate in the caves surrounding Mecca.
He claims the Angel Gabriel appeared to him during one of these sessions. The angel gave Muhammad a special message or recitation (Qu’ran) for him to share with his polytheistic neighbors concerning the true god. Local people worshipped mountain spirits, tribal gods, and jinni, spirits who inhabited the desert. According to Muhammad, he continued to experience these visitations.
Muhammad’s Qur’an warned Arabs to give up idolatry or polytheistic worship of the gods. He told them to destroy their idols and worship the one true god. It also instructed them to abandon their immoral, materialist lifestyle and extend their compassion and financial assistance to the poor, slaves, widows, orphans, and other abused women. Muhammad stressed the urgency of moral reform because a judgment day was coming when Allah (Muslim god) would judge the deeds of all men and reward them with either hellfire or paradise.
His message was not well-received. He was persecuted by merchants who stood to suffer from his message. Muhammad would eventually emigrate (Hegira or Hijira) to present day Medina in 622 AD. Year One in the Muslim calendar begins with the Hegira because it marks what they consider to be the beginning of the Muslim community. This is because Muhammad’s message was received more favorably in Median. The first mosque would be established at Medina. Medina would war with Mecca for several years until Muslim forces took Mecca and Muhammad returned in 630AD. From here, Muslims expanded to other places in Arabia. Muhammad would die in 632AD.
Islam means “surrender” or “submission,” indicating surrender to God. Muslim means “one who submits.” The Muslim god is called Allah—a combination of al (the) and ilah (God).
Muslims believe that God speaks to humans through Prophets. They recognize Abraham, Moses and Jesus as prophets. They reject Jesus’ divinity and the Trinity.
The Five Pillars (vows) of Islam are as follows:
Muslim expansion happened rapidly. Beginning as a small Muslim community in the Arabian Peninsula, within one-hundred years the Islamic Empire stretched from Spain to Persia.
The Byzantine Empire and the Sassanid Empire had been at intermittent war for over a century. This had exhausted both empires and provided the Arab armies with a perfect window for expansion. Syria was captured in 635 AD, Persia in 636 AD, Egypt in 640 AD, and moving west across northern Africa until Spain was conquered in 711 AD.
The Byzantine Empire would engage in a centuries long struggle with Islam; however, it continuously lost ground to Islamic expansion. It was not until 1453 when Constantinople, the last strong hold of Byzantium, would fall to the Ottoman Muslim Turks.
The Byzantine Empire acted as a buffer zone between Western Europe and the Islamic Empires. In many ways, Europe had the Byzantine Empire to thank for their relative safety from Islamic conquerors. The Islamic civilizations were more technologically, administratively and scientifically advanced than Europe at this time. Without the Byzantine Empire shielding them from the main threat, it is quite possible that Europe could have fallen to Islamic expansion.