A Very Brief History of Ancient Greece and Rome

Ancient Greece was a civilization that lasted from the 12th to the 3rd century BCE. It consisted of several hundred independent city-states unified under similar culture and beliefs. These tribes or kingdoms controlled relatively small territories with a strong sense of community. In the 8th century, Greece began colonizing the Mediterranean Basin and ushered in the period referred to as Classical Greece. This political structure and culture lasted until 323 BCE when Alexander the Great campaigned to conquer the Greeks’ territory. Rome had fully annexed Greece by 146 BCE. 

The surviving historical information that we have about ancient Greece comes from written texts. Herodotus, often referred to as the “father of history,” wrote down the history of Greece from 450–420 BCE. The words of philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle were recorded by their students, giving us an idea of the reason- and inquiry-dominated educated thought at this time, while plays by writers such as Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides give us an idea of Greek ethics and culture. Perhaps the most famous texts from this time are Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. These epic poems preserve much of the religious belief system of Greek civilization.

The Roman Empire began around the 8th century BCE. At the time, it was a collection of farming towns on the Italian peninsula. Rome began to expand in the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE, conquering Hellenistic cities, those marked by Greek culture but not under Greek rule. From these cities, Romans began to adopt culture, philosophy, and political structures. They learned that they could have a richer existence outside of the harsh realities of farming. Rome annexed all of Greece, even taking some Greek citizens and soldiers as slaves, but in preserving the Greek lifestyle for the majority of conquered citizens, Rome protected itself from revolt. In 31 BCE, ancient Rome became the Roman Republic under Augustus Caesar. By 117 CE, Rome had become the most extensive political and social empire in Western civilization with 50-90 million inhabitants. The Roman Empire lasted until 476 CE when a Germanic king overthrew the last Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustulus. 

Roman city-states adapted Greek myths by creating their own pantheon that heavily reflected the Greek mythos. Some scholars claim that Romans were influenced by Greek culture and religion because of their close geographical proximity to Greece. Other scholars speculate that the Romans actively assimilated Greek culture in order to make it easier to conquer the people under Greek rule. Romans followed their polytheistic religion until 306-337 CE when Emperor Constantine converted the empire to a Christian republic. 

Since myths are used to create a universal creed for a population, Greek and Roman myths can be referenced to interpret the values, thought processes, and social order that Greece and Rome respectively maintained. Greek myths feature gods who are more domestic than those of Roman mythology. They have very human attributes and are riddled with contradictions and faults, and they frequently interact with humans on earth. These stories were meant to create thought and inquiry within the listener to teach morals. They were supposed to build a collective consciousness in disparate groups of people spread across many city-states. While most of Greek culture and religion is preserved in drama and poetry, many of Rome’s extant texts are prose. The Romans’ creed was very different from the Greeks’. The Romans’ goal was conquest and empire; consequently,  their myths work to create a sense of history, a foundation or single narrative on which to build an empire. While the Roman gods are an adaptation of the Greeks’, their purpose was to create a mythological base on which a people could become conquerors. For this reason, Roman gods demonstrate a warrior mentality. Roman history and mythology were blended to create an almost mythological “city of destiny.”