BECK index

Summary and Evaluation of Greece & Rome to 30 BC

by Sanderson Beck

Greece to 30 BC
Rome to 30 BC
Evaluating Greece and Rome to 30 BC

This chapter has been published in the book Greece & Rome to 30 BC. For ordering information please click here.

Greece to 30 BC

Preliterate Minoan civilization on Crete seemed respectful to women and probably suffered less violence than most until they had to contend with the warlike Mycenaeans. Greek culture glamorized warrior heroes in their myths and the epic poems of Homer. The brutality of the Trojan War was depicted heroically in the Iliad, and the adventures of Odysseus culminated in his bloody revenge against the suitors of his loyal wife Penelope in the Odyssey. Hesiod's poetic version of the gods' origins was extremely violent, though he urged hard work and virtue in his Works and Days. Hades' rape of Persephone symbolized for the Greeks the death and rebirth of seeds in agriculture, which suggested life after death in the Eleusinian mysteries. Even the god Hermes had to learn not to steal when he was touched by the culture of music, and the promiscuous behavior of Aphrodite and other gods and goddesses was only curtailed with difficulty.

After the dark iron age, tyrants began to spring up in Greek city states as aristocratic oligarchs struggled for power. Poets commented on war, drinking, and love, while early sages attempted to make peace and establish justice by means of written laws. In the Peloponnesian peninsula invaded by the Dorians, the Lacedaemonians subjugated the Messenians as Helot serfs. Lycurgus gave Sparta militaristic laws that disciplined the male citizens for politics and war. Athens took over Attica and with annually elected leaders favored democratic politics. Dracon instituted a severe law code, which was moderated and reformed in 594 BC by the wise Solon, who made popular the Greek axiom of "nothing excessive." However, Peisistratus and his family managed to control Athenian politics until his son Hippias was expelled in 510 BC. Cleisthenes re-organized Athenians into ten tribes and widened participation to include foreigners and ex-slaves.

Much folkloric wisdom was put into animal fables by Aesop. Philosophy began with speculation on the nature of the universe by the astrologer Thales of Miletus, who promoted the Delphi advice to know yourself. Anaximander noted that everyone pays a penalty of retribution to others for any injustice. Pythagoras of Samos started a spiritual community in Crotona in southern Italy based on initiation into esoteric doctrines such as immortality and reincarnation of the soul, the three parts of the psyche as mind, emotions, and appetites, their virtues of wisdom, courage, and temperance, and to which were added justice and friendship. Pythagorean practices included vegetarianism, self-examination, music, and mathematics. However, the Pythagoreans were resented for being aristocratic, and the community was attacked and destroyed, though the influence of its philosophy continued, especially through Socrates and Plato. Xenophanes criticized anthropomorphic religious beliefs, and Heraclitus of Ephesus taught a dry wisdom of change, character, and the importance of reason and laws.

Greek cities of Ionia and the eastern islands of the Aegean broke away from the domination of the Persian empire in 500 BC, and with Athenian help they burned Sardis in Lydia before their revolt was put down. Persian emperor Darius sent forces to conquer European Greeks, but they were defeated by the Athenians at Marathon in 490 BC. Ten years later an enormous Persian army led by Xerxes invaded Greece and burned Athens, but a coalition of Athenians and Spartans once again was victorious by sea at Salamis and on land at Plataea. Greeks had defended their independence from Persian imperialist aggression.

Athens was quickly rebuilt and took leadership of the Delian league to protect Greek cities, collecting tribute from their allies until an Athenian empire threatened its rival Sparta. The democratic reforms of Pericles were accompanied by an ambitious building program and sponsorship of the arts. Conflicts between Corinth and its colony of Corcyra pulled Athenian naval supremacy into a defensive alliance, and soon another Corinthian colony at Potidaea revolted from the Athenian empire.

This and Athens' boycott of Megara caused the beginning of the Peloponnesian War that would go on for 27 years between Sparta and Athens. Spartans invaded Attica, and Athenians crowding into the city suffered a devastating plague that also killed Pericles. An aggressive Athenian policy advocated by Cleon killed the men in the cities of Mytilene and Scione and enslaved the women and children, while the Spartan general Brasidas could claim he was only fighting against Athenian imperialism, and Hermocrates of Syracuse wisely kept Sicily out of the war. In 421 BC the Athenian general Nicias made peace with Sparta, but the influence of the bold Alcibiades led Athens to launch an ambitious invasion of Syracuse in 415 BC. Accused of impiety, Alcibiades went over to the Spartans for a while and then negotiated with the Persians; he returned to fight for Athens, won some victories, but was soon dismissed. Eventually Persian aid helped the Spartan general Lysander defeat the Athenian alliance and starve Athens itself into surrender in 404 BC.

Sparta took over the Athenian empire and began forcing cities to adopt oligarchic governments supported by Lacedaemonian garrisons led by a harmost. In Athens the Thirty led by Critias acted tyrannically, executing without trials about 1500 citizens before they were thrown out. For eighty more years Athenians governed themselves with a slave-supported democracy. Yet battles between various Greek cities were frequent. Elis had to surrender to the Spartan confederacy. Ten thousand Greek mercenaries tried to help young Cyrus take over the Persian empire; but after they failed and their generals were murdered, they had to return on their own. Agesilaus became a Spartan king and invaded Asia Minor in 396 BC. The Athenian admiral Conon, supported by the Persians, defeated Spartan mercenaries at Cnidus, expelled Spartan harmosts from Asia Minor, and helped Athens rebuild its walls. Greeks agreed to the treaty of Antalcidas in 386 BC even though it acknowledged Persian sovereignty over Greeks in Asia Minor. Spartans marched against Mantinea and were criticized for taking over the citadel of Thebes for a time. Pelopidas led the liberation of Thebes, and by 371 BC the Boeotian league had gained enough power to defeat the Spartans at Leuctra.

More Greek cities expelled Spartan harmosts, and Arcadians joined together and built the city of Megalopolis. Boeotians led by Epaminondas invaded and raided Lacedaemonian territory. Athens tried to help defend Sparta, which was now fighting many of its old allies. The power of Thebes waned after Epaminondas was killed at Mantinea in 362 BC, and the military adventures of Agesilaus finally ended with his death in Africa. Syracuse was taken over by the tyrant Dionysius in 405 BC, and his bloody rule in Sicily lasted 38 years as numerous battles were fought with Carthaginians and others.

Greeks could learn vicariously about ethical issues by seeing them dramatically presented by actors in the theatre. Aeschylus revealed the folly of imperialist war by showing the consequences on the Persian court in The Persians. The dilemma of whether to offer hospitality to women, who would be forced into marriages, when it could mean war was portrayed in The Suppliant Maidens. The Seven Against Thebes explored the terror of civil strife. The cosmic drama of the suffering caused by invention and the struggle between power and wisdom was played out in Prometheus Bound. In the only surviving trilogy, the Oresteia, Aeschylus demonstrated how the chain of murder and revenge could eventually be broken by a nonviolent judicial system, such as that of Athens.

Sophocles portrayed the madness of foreign war and the folly of military glory in the dark play Ajax. A woman challenged the power of the state with her religious conscience in Antigone, as the arrogant pride of Creon was brought down by her tragic death and his son's. In Oedipus the Tyrant Sophocles commented on the current plague during the Peloponnesian War by showing the tragedy of an ambitious political leader who used murder and marriage to gain power, indicating the need for greater self-knowledge and showing how ignorant violence can pollute a city. In The Women of Trachis, a tragedy of lust and jealousy, the heroic Heracles and his wife Deianeira were portrayed as pitiful victims of these human flaws. Perhaps caught up in war fever himself, Sophocles seemed to make murderous revenge heroic in his Electra as Orestes killed his mother and her husband Aegistheus without guilt. Philoctetes, a complicated play about the intrigues and bitterness of war, ended happily after a resurrected Heracles persuaded the hero to participate in the war, once again indicating the conservative patriotism of the elderly Sophocles. In the posthumous Oedipus at Colonus Sophocles dramatized the last hours of Oedipus amid Theban conflicts and Athenian rescue before his mystical death.

The plays of Euripides explored the psyches of powerful women tested in extremely adverse situations from the cruel Medea and Phaedra, the suffering Trojan women such as Hecuba and Andromache to the adventures of Helen and the Bacchae and the noble sacrifices of Alcestis and Iphigenia. Several of his plays, such as Alcestis, Helen, Iphigenia in Tauris, and Ion had romantic endings. Although early in the Peloponnesian War The Children of Heracles, Andromache, and The Suppliant Women seemed to support the war effort, many others like Rhesus, Hecuba, The Trojan Women, The Phoenician Women, Orestes, and Iphigenia in Aulis exposed the horrors of war. The tragedies of Euripides showed how human folly could produce some terrible situations that could only be resolved by the intervention of a god or goddess.

The hilarious comedies of Aristophanes left little doubt of his opposition to the Peloponnesian War. The Acharnians pleaded for a peace treaty, and The Knights satirized Cleon and his slavish generals Nicias and Demosthenes. In The Clouds philosophers were satirized for their atheism and sophists for using wrong logic; but using Socrates to represent them apparently gave Athenians many mistaken ideas about him. The Wasps made fun of Athenians' economic dependence on the courts and politics. In Peace Aristophanes contrasted the violence of war to the joys of peace in heaven and on earth. A peaceful utopia was called for again in the Cloud-cuckoo-land of The Birds. The bawdiest anti-war play, Lysistrata, showed women using a sexual strike to seduce the men into making peace. Euripides and tragedy writers were satirized in The Thesmophoriazusae and The Frogs. A communist utopia was ridiculed in The Ecclesiazusae, and Plutus debated the advantages and disadvantages of wealth and poverty.

Fragments by Empedocles indicate a mystical poet believing the soul reincarnates until it realizes its divinity. Empedocles described the universe as shifting between love and strife, and he asked people to avoid bloodshed. The atomist Democritus also taught justice and finding tranquillity in the soul.

Socrates was born at Athens in 469 BC, worked as a stone-mason on the Acropolis, fought in the Peloponnesian War, but spent most of his time discussing philosophical issues with friends for no fee. He was guided by a divine spirit, which only warned him what not to do. Socrates refused to cooperate with the illegalities that condemned the Athenian generals at Arginusae and the judicial murder of Leon by the Thirty. In 399 BC Socrates was prosecuted for corrupting the youth and for violating the state religion by teaching new gods; he refused to escape from prison and was the first philosopher to be executed. Although he wrote nothing himself, much is known about his ideas and how he taught because of the extensive dialogs written by his students Xenophon and Plato.

Xenophon wanted to defend Socrates from the calumnies that led to his execution and continued after his death. So he published a version of the speech Socrates gave in his defense at the trial. The Delphic oracle had told his friend Chaerephon that no one was wiser than Socrates. Rather than corrupt the youth, Socrates had done much to improve them by education and urging them to be virtuous. Xenophon explained that Socrates was not responsible for the evil actions of Alcibiades and Critias, the infamous leader of the Thirty. Xenophon also recorded numerous conversations of Socrates counseling his friends, showing his sense of humor and humane wisdom in practical ways specifically aimed at the needs of various individuals. Socrates practiced and taught self-control, and he explained the advantages of virtue and self-knowledge. The pragmatic Xenophon even has him giving an extended discourse on estate management.

Xenophon also wrote of his own adventure fighting as a mercenary in Persia and a history of Greece from 411 to 362 BC. His works on Socrates, the emperor Cyrus, Agesilaus, and Hiero were the earliest biographies, though some would argue they were more encomiums than factual lives, especially the Cyropaedia, one of the first historical novels. A short work on economics made some positive suggestions, although he did not question the injustice of slavery.

Plato's dialogs with Socrates emphasized his interest in philosophical issues and the dialectical process of discussion. The first Alcibiades is an outstanding dialog on self-knowledge, showing Socrates' attempt to educate the ambitious young man. Charmides attempted to define the virtue of moderation without success. In Protagoras Socrates discussed virtue and whether it can be taught with the most famous sophist, and in Euthydemus he demonstrated an exhortation to virtue, while Plato ridiculed the tricky arguments of professional sophists. When asked to advise about fighting in armor in Laches, Socrates turned the discussion to defining courage. Friendship was discussed in Lysis, and Menexenus gave an example of a patriotic speech. Socrates tried to define beauty in a discussion with the sophist Hippias.

Plato's Meno showed Socrates exploring whether virtue can be taught and demonstrating his method of getting the soul to recognize what it already knows by his artful questioning. In the dialog named after the most famous rhetorician of the time, Gorgias, Socrates considered rhetoric not a science but a flattery or pandering perversion of justice, as sophistry is of legislation, cooking is of nutrition, and cosmetics and fashion are of gymnastics. Socrates argued for the importance of justice and declared that he would rather suffer injustice than commit it, though he preferred neither. Phaedrus gave another example of rhetoric on the theme of the lover. Socrates contended that sometimes madness can be inspired by the gods, as in love. Plato presented a myth of how the soul must control the dark side of its animal nature in order to re-ascend to heaven. In the Symposium Plato had several prominent men praise Eros, the god of love. Socrates described love as an intermediary between the gods and humans.

Plato described the trial, imprisonment, and execution of Socrates in four dialogs. On the way to court Socrates discussed piety with Euthyphro, who was prosecuting his father for killing a slave caught for murder. In the trial Socrates described his mission to seek wisdom inspired by the Delphic oracle's pronouncement that he was wisest. When Crito offered to help him escape from prison, Socrates argued that it was more just for him to stay there than to disobey the state when he could have chosen exile earlier. Plato's Phaedo described the last day of Socrates' life when he discussed death and the immortality of the soul. He concluded that if the soul is immortal, then great care must be taken, because there is no escape from evil except through ultimate justice.

In The Republic Plato seemed to reject a simple and healthy society recommended by Socrates for a luxurious one requiring a military class. Although Socrates eloquently showed that justice is better than injustice, the class society they designed based on a strong military and deceptive myths leaves much to be desired. Plato did advocate equal education for women, as he included that in his Laws too. Analogies and myths described the good and the philosopher's difficulties in an ignorant society. Political science was inaugurated in an insightful analysis of how aristocracy degenerates into timocracy, plutocracy, democracy, and tyranny. As with the concept of karma, justice was explained by a series of reincarnations. Plato himself tried to advise Dionysius II and Dion in Sicily without much success, but he founded the Academy in Athens for the study of philosophy, probably the first great institution of higher education.

Medical ethics was pioneered by the oath and writings of Hippocrates. He did much to make healing more scientific and wisely used extensive observation of patients and their environment, diet and drugs, fresh air, and rest or exercise as needed. Above all, Hippocrates taught that the physician should do no harm.

Isocrates wrote speeches for the lawcourts and became the foremost teacher of rhetoric and a proponent of liberal education. His Panegyricus praised the culture of Athens and Greece. He urged Athens to give military aid to Thebes. Isocrates believed in being prepared for war while avoiding unjust aggression. He spoke for virtue and self-control and often mentioned the golden rule of treating others as one wishes to be treated.

Isocrates pleaded for the Greeks to stop fighting with each other, as he encouraged them to launch a crusade against the Persian empire. His oration On the Peace to the Athenian assembly in 355 BC was a masterful critique of Greek foreign policy. He showed how the injustice of Athenian imperialism brought great suffering and then how Spartan hegemony failed too. War was expensive and reaped hatreds and trouble; his unpopular speech was needed to cure their ills. Athenian naval imperialism had undermined their democracy and brought their defeat. He brilliantly pointed out that states, even more than individuals, need to be virtuous, because they have no escape from the consequences of injustice in death. Reflecting on these disasters, they must refrain from all wars and abhor despotic rule and imperial power. Isocrates favored the peace with Philip in 346 BC, and he again urged a united Greece to liberate the Asian colonies of Greeks.

Aristotle studied in Plato's Academy for twenty years and then tutored young Alexander in Macedonia before founding his own school at the Lyceum in Athens. His extensive writings were probably from his lectures. Aristotle organized and analyzed human knowledge so comprehensively that his ideas would remain influential for many centuries in disciplines he founded as logic, metaphysics, physics, biology, poetics, rhetoric, politics, and ethics. He discussed the art of persuasion, rhetoric, in terms of character, emotion, and argument and showed the differences of political speeches aimed at beneficial legislation, forensic speeches in the lawcourts concerned with individual cases of justice, and public exhibitions that praise or censure.

Aristotle critiqued the ethical ideas of Socrates and Plato and suggested his theory of the moderate mean between lack and excess. He found that virtue was a choice based on habit (ethos) which depended on practice. He analyzed justice and the traditional virtues but also added intellectual virtue. He considered friendship based on equality very important. Aristotle's Politics revealed his prejudices against slaves (non-Greeks) and women. He further analyzed the various forms of government and their aberrations his teacher Plato had begun, while criticizing Plato's communistic ideas in regard to women, children, and property as contrary to human nature and unworkable. He justified the class system and slavery as inherited from ancient Egypt and Crete. He upheld traditional roles for men and women although he favored education of women. For Aristotle education made a good life possible; thus a teacher is even more important than a parent.

Antisthenes was the most ascetic of Socrates' followers, and his student Diogenes continued the mocking criticism of Plato. Diogenes, famous for searching for an honest person, lived simply and freely in public until he was sold as a slave and became a tutor. He also scorned Demosthenes and Alexander, while considering himself a universal citizen (cosmopolitan).

In Sicily Dionysius II succeeded his father and resisted the efforts of Plato to make him a philosopher king. With the help of some students of Plato, Dion overthrew the tyrant but would not allow democracy either. After much turmoil a Corinthian general named Timoleon helped the Sicilians overthrow the oligarchs, fend off the Carthaginians, and become democratic.

The Macedonian king Philip II rose to power through military conquest and exploitation of gold mines. He fought with Athens in various places, particularly for control of the grain trade from the Bosphorus. After the Phocians took the Delphi treasure and used it for warmaking, Philip's Macedonians punished them in the Sacred War. Macedonia's conquest of northern Greece continued as Olynthus was defeated and enslaved. Athens made a controversial peace with Philip in 346 BC that would be debated by Demosthenes and Aeschines as to which Athenians had been bribed by Philip. Demosthenes continued his warnings against Macedonian aggression in his famous Philippic orations. In 338 BC the Macedonian army defeated allies led by Chares and then captured Thebes. Athens, after failing to stop Philip by its support of Thebes, submitted to his lenient terms. Two years later Philip was assassinated; his young son Alexander III became king of Macedonia and quickly secured his Greek empire in the north and with a devastating defeat of revolting Thebes.

Alexander also succeeded his father as general of a Greek confederation with supreme power for an invasion of Asia. With a veteran army of about 40,000 the bold Alexander was able to conquer the immense Persian empire including Egypt in less than a decade. His invasion of India had to turn back when his soldiers refused to go any farther. Alexander attempted to merge Greek and Persian cultures by training Persians for his army and supporting marriages of his men to Persian women by educating their children. A Spartan revolt against Macedonian rule was crushed. Alexander was about to leave on another military expedition of conquest when he was probably poisoned in Babylon in 323 BC.

After Alexander died, Athens revolted from Macedonian rule and was defeated. The generals succeeding Alexander battled over their portions of the divided empire for about forty years. Eventually after much bloodshed the dynasties of the Ptolemies in Egypt, the Seleucids in Mesopotamia, and the Antigonids in Macedonia were established. The ambitious Agathocles became king in Syracuse and even attacked Carthage. The Ptolemies ruled continuing Egyptian religion while promoting Hellenic culture by supporting the Alexandrian library and the Bucolic poets. Apollonius found a home in Rhodes, where his violent epic on Jason and the Argonauts was appreciated. The Seleucid empire was too large to be ruled effectively for long and gradually broke into various kingdoms. The ambitious Antiochus III overreached and was defeated by the Romans. Antiochus IV Epiphanes offended the religion of the Jews and set off a revolt that led to an independent Judean kingdom until numerous conflicts resulted in Herod ruling there under the Roman empire. The combination of Hellenic culture with Jewish religion and scholarship produced more wisdom and fine literature.

Frequent wars occurred among the Greeks fighting for independence against domination by Macedonian kings and among each other with the Aetolian and Achaean leagues. Rome began to intervene more actively after the second Punic War ended about 200 BC; they defeated King Perseus of Macedonia in 168 BC and finally crushed the Achaean league and destroyed Corinth in 146 BC. Greek philosophy continued to flourish as Xenocrates headed the Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum was taken over by Theophrastus. His student Menander wrote elegant new comedies with urbane humanity. Influenced by his experience in India, Pyrrho founded the Skeptical school. Epicurus taught an intellectual form of hedonism in the Garden at Athens that emphasized a calm life free of pain more than pleasure, his main value. Zeno also made philosophy more personal in his Stoicism that concentrated on virtue as the supreme good. Stoics also sought peace of mind but, unlike the Epicureans, were not averse to engaging in politics as a natural process of society.

Roman Domination 30 BC to 180 CE
Roman Decline and Christianity 180-610

Rome to 30 BC

Early Roman history began with legends of Etruscan and Roman kings. Numa Pompilius was credited with developing religious institutions like the fetial priests, who were responsible for seeing that any wars were just and formally declared. The last arrogant Tarquin caused the expulsion of kings in 509 BC and was replaced by a republican government of patrician senators and two annually elected consuls. However, the people soon organized to insist on electing tribunes as a check on patrician power. The citizen Roman army fought numerous wars with neighbors and incorporated conquered tribes into alliances. With their Latin allies Rome gradually expanded its power over the entire Italian peninsula. Rome's Twelve Tables of law were based on the study of Greek institutions. Roman forces successfully fought off invasion by Gauls and defeated a Greek army led by Pyrrhus of Epirus.

Rome came into conflict with Carthage over Sicily, and having built a strong navy, was able to win the first Punic War, making Sicily one province and Sardinia and Corsica another. The hatred and conquests of Hannibal in Spain caused another war. Hannibal with his mercenary army crossed the Alps and for fifteen years won battles and occupied Italy. After the Scipio brothers were killed in Spain, young Publius Scipio replaced them, won there, and eventually helped the Romans defeat Carthage in Africa, as Hannibal returned, lost, and accepted his terms in 201 BC.

Macedonia's Philip V had sided with Hannibal and was defeated by a Roman army four years later. At the Isthmian and Nemean games Roman officers announced the liberation of Greece, and two years later Rome withdrew its garrisons. They returned a few years later to defeat the invading Seleucid king Antiochus III. The Romans and their allies defeated the Seleucids again, driving them out of Asia Minor and forcing them to pay tribute in 188 BC. A Bacchic cult was suppressed, as many of the revelers were killed. Marcus Cato was elected censor and attempted to restrain the morals of Romans according to his Stoic ideals. The comedies of Plautus and Terence made fun of the shenanigans of slaves, lust of the young, hunger of parasites, vainglory of soldiers, and avarice of the old in Roman society.

The major Roman victory over the Macedonian army led by King Perseus was fought at Pydna in 168 BC. The Roman senate decided the Greeks should be free, though Macedonia had to pay tribute. A third Punic War ended with the complete destruction of Carthage in 146 BC, while a Greek revolt was also put down when Corinth was devastated the same year. Seven years later astrologers and Jews were expelled from Rome. Spanish revolts were defeated when Numantia was destroyed in 133 BC. These wars not only expanded the Roman republic from the Atlantic Ocean to Asia Minor but also greatly increased the number of slaves, and a major rebellion led by captive Asian workers lasted three years in Sicily. Tribunes Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus attempted to bring about land distribution and other reforms; but Tiberius Gracchus was murdered by Roman senators in 133 BC, and his eloquent brother Gaius was killed in a riot twelve years later.

After becoming wealthy by tax collection, Marius with Sulla's help ended the war against Jugurtha in Africa. Marius replaced Rome's citizen militia with a professional army by hiring proletarians. To meet the crisis of invading Gauls, he was re-elected consul five years in a row. Conflicts over rights of the Latin allies led to a Social War in Italy. Sulla in 88 BC marched his army on Rome; Marius fled, and the tribune Sulpicius was killed. The same year an Athenian bid for independence was starved into surrender with a siege by Sulla's army. While Sulla was fighting Pontic king Mithridates in Asia, Cinna as consul for three years autocratically tried to reform Rome. However, when Sulla returned with his army, many were killed in battles and from a list of his enemies. As dictator, Sulla revived conservative institutions like the senate and then retired and died.

When the consul Lepidus sided too much with reformers, his forces were defeated in battle by Sulla's veterans led by Pompey. A slave rebellion in Italy led by Spartacus was eventually crushed by Crassus. The army of Lucullus won victories in Asia, and Pompey's forces defeated the revolt in Spain after Sertorius was killed. Pompey was then given military authority to eliminate pirates and settle conflicts in Asia. In 63 BC Cicero as consul was primarily responsible for destroying the conspiracy of Catiline. Cato and the senate resisted the growing power of Pompey and Julius Caesar, but these two became stronger by joining with Crassus. After serving as consul, Caesar was appointed governor of Gaul for five years which was renewed for another five, allowing his army to conquer all of Gaul and briefly invade Germany and Britain, killing one million and capturing another million. Poets like Lucretius, Catullus, and Virgil criticized the wars caused by ambitious men as they pleaded for justice.

Caesar refused to give up his army and face charges Cato threatened, and so a civil war broke out between his army and those loyal to Pompey. Caesar became dictator and consul, won in Spain, defeated Pompey at Pharsalus, and had a child by Cleopatra, whom he made queen of Egypt. Julius Caesar returned to Rome, won in Africa, where Cato committed suicide, and in Spain again. Dictator for life, Caesar was about to be made king before leaving for more military conquests when he was assassinated by senators led by Brutus and Cassius, whom he had forgiven for supporting Pompey. The senate granted amnesty to the assassins but waffled while Antony struggled with Caesar's heir Octavian for power in Italy, and Brutus and Cassius went to Greece and Asia to raise armies. Cicero finally opposed Antony's ambitions and violent methods in a series of orations, but Antony formed a triumvirate with Octavian and Lepidus; Cicero and many others were proscribed and murdered.

The defeat of forces led by Cassius and Brutus at Philippi by the armies of Antony and Octavian doomed the last hope of the republic. Antony ruled in the east, Octavian in the west, and Lepidus in Africa. When Antony came under the spell of Cleopatra and began giving away kingdoms to her children, the senate supported Octavian, whose naval victory at Actium was followed by the suicide of Antony and Cleopatra in Egypt. The young Octavian had consolidated power into his own hands by 30 BC.

In the last few years of his life when his political influence had waned under the militarism of Pompey and Julius Caesar, Cicero wrote several books on oratory and philosophy. With the exception of Lucretius' poetic version of the philosophy of Epicurus, these were the main Latin philosophical works of this era to be passed on to the future. Considered by many the greatest orator ever, Cicero's work repeated much of Aristotle's ideas on rhetoric but with a depth drawn from much practical experience. Cicero considered it the most important art and essential in a republic. His works on government and law recapitulated much he found in Plato, though he commented on Roman history and favored institutions similar to Roman ones.

Cicero's ethical works also summarized the main schools of Greek philosophy, namely the Stoics, Epicureans, Academics, and Peripatetics, as his intention was to make Greek philosophy available to readers of Latin. This did provide a service to humanity, as for centuries his work was read by many in western civilization who depended on Latin instead of Greek. Cicero passed on the cardinal Greek virtues of wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice along with the value of friendship. His book On Duties synthesized much wisdom on the integrity of justice and honesty and was influential for a long time. His eloquent republican zeal was to inspire the American and French revolutions after centuries dominated by monarchies.

Roman Domination 30 BC to 180 CE
Roman Decline and Christianity 180-610

Evaluating Greece and Rome to 30 BC


Greeks in admiration of their Homeric heroes were quite competitive and aggressive. Yet at the same time as Confucius, Lao-zi, Mahavira, Buddha, Zarathustra, and second Isaiah were teaching, Pythagoras had an esoteric school practicing spiritual principles. Socrates developed philosophical ideas with his stimulating dialectic to such a high level of intellectual sophistication that his student Plato and Plato's student Aristotle could formulate philosophies as comprehensive as any ever produced. I have found that the similarities between Greek and Chinese concepts of virtue without any known cultural influence is a powerful argument that these ideas are universal to humanity. Corresponding to the Chinese Period of Warring States was a violent era in Greece beginning with the invasions of the Persians and ending with Rome's conquest. Athenian efforts to defend against Persian aggression with the Delian confederacy led to imperialistic encroachments that stimulated the Peloponnesian War. The solution of Isocrates to unite Greece for an invasion of Persia, though successfully carried out by Alexander's Macedonian army, still spread the contagion of military methods even as far as India.

The Hellenistic world divided by Alexander's successors was one of frequent wars and the domination of Macedonian kings until republican Rome used its military might and moral imperative to attempt to liberate Greece. Yet Greek philosophy, drama, and literature educated many, including the Romans. Attempting to handle a large empire by militaristic methods that demanded tribute (taxes) to pay for itself naturally brought revolts. Yet Rome was so powerful in these that it was the internal conflicts between the privileges of aristocrats and the desperation of the debtors and slaves that brought civil strife. As powerful military leaders gained greater glory and power, they came into conflict with each other. While senators like Cicero and Cato pleaded for republican principles of justice, the ambitions of Pompey and Julius Caesar brought about a civil war. Rome's long republican tradition of hating kings almost seemed to be overcome when Caesar became dictator for life, but resentment of this led to his assassination and another civil war between the conspirators and Caesar's legal and political heirs, Octavian and Antony. When these two united to defeat Cassius and Brutus, the republic was dead. Yet the conflict between the two ambitious men produced one more civil war that defeated Antony and his paramour Cleopatra, enabling Octavian to become the first emperor of Rome. The Romans had the wisdom of Greek philosophy popularized in Latin by Cicero, but they had lost their representative government to a single powerful leader.

There would be a Roman peace (Pax Romana), but freedom would be subject to arbitrary Roman laws, taxes, and their soldiers. The world had been blessed by the ethical wisdom of several excellent teachers; yet folly still abounded in every civilization. Soon from the religious tradition of the Jews would come an obscure teacher, whose inspired ethics would astonish the world.

How long will it be until human beings learn how to treat each other well? This ancient history shows that the folly of exploitation and violence has its consequences. So many times did cities and states fight each other because of previous incursions. Other times they went to the aid of states that had aided them in the past, even when several generations had passed in between. Alexander's conquest of the Persian empire was not accomplished until about 150 years after the Persian invasions of Greece. Yet to me Alexander was not a "great" hero but one of the greatest criminals ever, because he caused so much needless death and destruction. When will the teachings of the sages and philosophers, who remind us of the golden rule, be practiced more universally? The golden rule suggests that we treat one another as we would wish to be treated, but too often politicians and military leaders fight violations with more violence. Even children know that two wrongs do not make a right. Nations and other social entities are affected by the karma of cause and effect, just as individuals are, perhaps even more so, since individuals seem to escape the consequences of wrong in death. I hope that this work has enabled readers to learn from the wisdom of our universal heritage how not to be victims of folly.

Evaluating the Roman Empire to 610

Copyright © 2004 by Sanderson Beck

This chapter has been published in the book Greece & Rome to 30 BC. For ordering information please click here.


Greek Culture to 500 BC
Greek Politics and Wars 500-360 BC
Greek Theatre
Socrates, Xenophon, and Plato
Isocrates, Aristotle, and Diogenes
Philip, Demosthenes, and Alexander
Hellenistic Era
Roman Expansion to 133 BC
Roman Revolution and Civil Wars
Plautus, Terence, and Cicero
Summary and Evaluation


World Chronology to 30 BC
Chronology of Europe to 1400

BECK index