The genius of Rome was a marked flair for effective organisation – Greece’s forté lay in matters of the intellect.
Rome’s unique organisational talent was clearly manifest in the way the Romans were successful in directing and controlling the destinies of great armies and in carrying out huge engineering projects – but primarily it was demonstrated in the way they actively managed society through a very effective administration. It was an administration that generally operated smoothly, with a breadth and depth previously unseen in the history of the world. Roman governance was regulated, stable and for the most part accountable to universally acceptable legal principles. Many aspects of Roman civic arrangements would not seem unfamiliar to most bureaucracies of the modern world. In short, Rome was good at handling people in the mass.
“Rome ~ A Flair for Organisation”
The Greeks, on the other hand, applied their talents in other fields. They were fascinated, not with the power of the masses, but with universal ideas and in finding explanations for observable phenomena. They were especially interested in exploring the situation of the individual mortal person as he stood in relation to the cosmos and universal values, but they were also interested in finding practical ways to define his role as a citizen with both rights and implied duties towards the wider society.
Greco-Roman Cultural Unity
The merging of two such conflicting traditions into a shared common culture would not seem likely to meet with much success. However against all the odds, a strong and surprisingly uniform structure did begin to evolve all around the Mediterranean shores and it then spread wherever the powerful reach of Rome was felt. Moreover the acceptance of this shared Greco-Roman cultural umbrella was a decisive factor for the success and longevity of the mighty empire that for centuries, in most parts of the realm, enjoyed almost unbroken internal peace and brought the benefits of the pax Romana to so many nations and races.
A City Culture
Greco-Roman culture was essentially an urban phenomenan that implanted itself strongest within the middle and upper classes of the cities. It was a stabilizing and civilizing influence that provided an overiding set of norms, behind which a multitude of local customs, religious practices and traditions could be tolerated and encouraged to co-exist in harmony. In spite of local traditions, Greco-Roman culture was uniform to the extent that a merchant from as far afield as Syria or Spain would have been quite at home in any city of North Africa or Gaul and felt himself comfortable to do business in what would seem to be familiar surroundings. Of course having Latin as a common language that could be understood virtually everywhere helped immensely. However the use of Greek remained widespread throughout the East and Greek was often the preferred written language of the cultured and intellectually minded, even in Rome. For instance, Marcus Aurelius the famous philosopher-emperor wrote his major work “Meditations” in Greek.
The strength of this movement towards Greco-Roman cultural unification was that because it had evolved as a hybrid, it was never oppressive or exclusive, but was easily able to integrate any conflicting national traits behind an what was in effect a universally adopted value system. This in turn established clearly understood conventions of social rights and obligations, thus setting acceptable norms of behaviour for the individuals within society, which helped integrate so many dissimilar national groupings harmoniously. Moreover, despite their innate differences, it gave a sense of unity and shared ownership of the empire to each of the citizens of this vibrant world empire.
This unification of culture meant that even cities from outlying provinces were able to provide emperors who were acceptable candidates to rule the world. This was a truly amazing achievement, not seen in the narrow nationalism of modern times. Because this hybrid culture was so willingly embraced and taken up by every one of the various subject races making up the citizenry of the vast empire (with the notable exception of the Jews) there was a great cross pollination of ideas.
The Latin culture of Rome and the West willingly embraced aspects of Greek philosophy, art forms, religious traditions and modes of oratorical expression. Classical Greek authors such as Thucydides, Xenophon and Plato would greatly influence the style of the great Latin writers. The Greek language itself benefited from this stimulating environment and the “Second Sophistic” movement saw a return to Classical Greek forms. The East was better ruled and regulated than ever before, by the universal adoption of Roman law and administrative precedent. This is clearly demonstrated in that the ultimate compendium of Roman law was put together by the 6th Century Byzantine emperor Justinian , who was Greek speaking.
The emergence of a common Greco-Roman culture from the traditions of two great nations with such a marked dichotomy of background cultural emphasis was a triumph for pragmatism. From diversity comes strength, so it is not at all surprising that this infinitely valuable heritage has played such a leading and stimulating role in forming the world as we know it today. There is such a rich fund of contradictions and unlikely combinations, implicit within this marriage of convenience, that it has stimulated the imagination of the world for centuries and provided inspiration for generations of artists, philosophers, theologicans and scientist. The unravelling and understanding of the combined legacy of Rome and Greece will continue to be a fascinating field of study for many years to come.