Greek Influence on the Roman Empire

Updated on March 11, 2019
Larry Slawson profile image

Larry Slawson received his Masters Degree in History at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian history.

Roman Colosseum
Roman Colosseum | Source

Introduction

Ancient Greek ideas of warfare, religion, literature and art, as well as architecture all played significant roles in the development of future civilizations. From the architectural designs implemented by engineers worldwide, to the use of the Greek alphabet as a basis for numerous languages the ancient Greek’s formed the foundation of civilization as we now know it today. Perhaps the Greek’s most heavily influenced civilization, however, can be seen with the Roman Empire. Following the conquests of Alexander the Great, Greece became a center for new ideas and concepts within the Mediterranean. Years later, Greek knowledge of literature, art, architecture, and warfare were all implemented to great lengths by the Romans. With this heavy employment of Greek concepts, therefore, it could be concluded that Rome’s success as an empire was largely due to the influence of the ancient Greek civilizations.

Statuette of girl reading in ancient Rome.
Statuette of girl reading in ancient Rome. | Source

Education and Language

Greek ideas of education and language were highly sought within the Roman Empire. Greek slaves within Rome “were in high demand as tutors, musicians, doctors, and artists” (Spielvogel, 165). Teachers were often of Greek descent, and it was considered mandatory that “upper class Romans had to learn Greek and Latin in order to prosper in the Empire” (Spielvogel, 165). Rome deeply admired Greek educational concepts. To the Romans, Greeks were considered “masters of philosophy and the arts” (Fiero, 131).

Cicero
Cicero | Source

Literature, Drama, and Music

Perhaps one of Greece’s most influential concepts adopted by the Romans can be seen with literature, drama, and music. Literature, essentially, “served as a model for Rome, suggested themes for treatment, widened the mental horizon, opened new vistas,” and “inspired new desires” within the Empire (Wedeck, 195). Examples of this can be seen with Ennius’ adoption of the Greek hexameter, as well as with Plautus and Terence’s “manners and customs depicted in their plays” that were mainly Hellenic in nature (Wedeck, 195). In addition, the poet Virgil’s literary works relied largely upon Greek influence as well. The Aeneid was “inspired heavily by Homeric epics and was largely undertaken as a work meant to rival Homer” (Fiero, 140). Even Cicero recognized the importance of Greek literary influence which can be seen with the following statement:

“…And old as I myself am, it is but lately that I acquired a knowledge of the Greek language; to which I applied with the more zeal and diligence, as I had long entertained an earnest desire of becoming acquainted with the writings and characters of those excellent men, to whose examples I have occasionally appealed…” (Cicero, 224).

Essentially, Cicero “recognized the Greeks as artists, accomplished in literature, in the fine arts,” and “men who supplied Rome with entertainment and instruction of various kinds” (Wedeck, 196). Thus, Cicero gives a descriptive idea of the way in which Greek concepts were explored by the Romans.

Greek drama and music also heavily influenced the Roman Empire as well. Roman dramas were crudely modeled on those of the Greeks and were largely “moral and didactic in intent” often drawing upon themes from both Greek and Roman history. (Fiero, 145). However, strong differences between Greek and Roman dramas can be clearly seen. Whereas Greek dramas were typically religious in nature, Roman dramas were used mostly for entertainment purposes only (Fiero, 145). The inclusion of music within Roman society was also a direct result of Greek influence as well. While little is known about Roman music, due to a lack of sufficient records, it is believed that Greek musical theories, as well as most Greek musical instruments were adopted by the Romans (Fiero, 158). Just like the Greeks, many Romans believed that music held special magical properties and spiritual powers (Fiero, 124). Building upon the music and religious ties maintained by the Greeks, however, the Romans expanded on the concepts of music by incorporating it into public entertainment, and their military. “Brass instruments, such as trumpets and horns, and drums” became exceedingly popular during military processions (Fiero, 158). Thus, like literature, both Greek drama and music were heavily influential in early Rome.

“…And old as I myself am, it is but lately that I acquired a knowledge of the Greek language; to which I applied with the more zeal and diligence, as I had long entertained an earnest desire of becoming acquainted with the writings and characters of those excellent men, to whose examples I have occasionally appealed…”

— Cicero

Architecture and Art

In addition to literature, drama, and music the Greeks were also instrumental in influencing Roman architecture and art. Relying heavily upon Greek models, the Romans often constructed buildings and houses that implemented Greek styles such as colonnades and rectangular based designs. Essentially, all “furniture, utensils, houses” and “colonnades” were all the result of Greek models (Wedeck, 197). The Roman temple of Maison Carree is a terrific example of the Greek influence upon Roman architecture.

Greek and Roman architectural designs also varied to a large degree as well, however. Building upon Greek architectural concepts, the Romans incorporated concrete as a means of construction that allowed them to create enormous buildings unlike anything seen in Greece, and implement “forms based on curves such as the arch, vault, and dome” (Spielvogel, 164). Nevertheless, Greek architectural design and artwork was prevalent in almost every Roman structure. Even the enormous Roman Colosseum displayed signs of Greek influence. At the Colosseum “on each level of the exterior, arches were framed by a series of decorative, or engaged, columns displaying the three Greek orders: Doric (at ground level), as well as Ionic and Corinthian” (Fiero, 147).

Greek art in the form of portraits and statues heavily influenced Roman artists as well. By the 3rd and 2nd Centuries B.C. the Romans incorporated many different forms of Greek artwork and design (Spielvogel, 163). Greek statues, above all else, were among the most popular designs incorporated by the Romans. Hellenic statues could often be seen within public buildings and even within private homes (Duiker and Spielvogel, 141). With this large influx of Greek art the Romans underwent a dramatic Hellenization process within their society. As Jerome Pollitt explains about Greek art in Rome: it was only “inevitable that, as time went by, the Romans would begin not only to examine their artistic subtleties and differences but also to assess what their value was, if any, to Roman society” (Pollitt, 155). Throughout early Roman history many replicate Greek statues were designed by Roman sculptors, many of which differed slightly from their Greek counterparts. Whereas Greek statues were largely idealistic works of art lacking imperfections, Roman statues focused on ideas of realism and incorporated even the “unpleasant physical details” of the subject (Duiker and Spielvogel, 141-142). The same can be said of Roman paintings which derived from Greek influence as well. Inspired by Greek murals, Roman painting typically included scenes from “literature, mythology, and everyday life” (Fiero, 156).

Maison Carree
Maison Carree | Source

Religion

In addition to literature, art, and architecture the Romans were also heavily influenced by Greece in regards to religion. Like that of the Greeks, early Roman religious beliefs implemented a polytheistic system of worship based around gods and goddesses. Nearly all of the Roman gods share basic characteristics of the Greek gods which demonstrates how instrumental Greece was in the overall development of Rome. Neptune, the Roman god of the sea, shares a direct correlation with the Greek god Poseidon. The head god Jupiter, on the other hand, directly resembles the Greek god Zeus. Not all roman gods were given different names from their Greek counterparts, however. The Greek god Apollo, for instance, was adopted by the Romans and “was established as a deity of medicine and healing” (Bailey, 120). He maintained his Greek character, was worshiped with Greek rites, and maintained his Greek name in its entirety (Bailey, 121). The only difference between the Greek and Roman versions of Apollo was his functions. Whereas the Greeks worshiped Apollo for a variety of reasons, the Romans worshiped Apollo for his medicinal and healing characteristics. As was typical with Rome during this time, the Romans were willing to admit foreign deities, but “she would make her own terms with them” (Bailey, 121). Thus, many Roman gods and goddesses were, essentially, Greek gods in concealment. The role that Greece played in Roman religion, nevertheless, was essential to Roman religious development. Greece’s role can be summed up with Cyril Bailey’s statement: “it may be questioned whether Rome would ever have reached the full measure of anthropomorphism, had it not been for her contact, first indirectly, and then directly with Greek religious thought and conceptions” (Bailey, 112).

Modern depiction of the phalanx
Modern depiction of the phalanx | Source

Military Doctrines

Finally, one of Greece’s most important contributions to the Roman Empire can be seen with their ideas of military formations and tactics. Greek military thinking became an intricate part of Roman military strategy and success. The Greek idea of the phalanx coupled with the concepts of teamwork and unity became the basis for the future Roman Legions. The Greek phalanx incorporated a system of order and movement of troops that was widely respected among the Romans (Lendon, 281). Julius Caesar later embraced this system of fighting while also integrating changes based on the Roman’s experience (Lendon, 281). Thus, the Roman military was based upon a blending of Greek military theory and traditional Roman military thinking (Lendon, 278).

Whereas the Greek phalanx system was comprised of a compact unit of Greek troops marching shoulder to shoulder, the Roman Legion design incorporated a design that allowed for a loosely deployed force. Caesar recognized the role that terrain played in battles and quickly learned that poor topography caused general disorder among the Greek phalanx (Lendon, 289). Since uneven ground made it difficult to remain closely compacted the Greek phalanx was prone to breaking apart under attack. Maintaining order and closeness within the Greek phalanx was of the utmost importance and is described by Thucydides:

“All armies, as they come together, push out toward the right wing, and each side overlaps the enemy’s left with its own right, because in their fear each man brings his uncovered side as close as possible to the shield of the man stationed to his right, thinking that the best protection is the tightness of the closing up.” (Thucydides 5.71.1) (Krentz, 52).

Thus, for Caesar’s loosely deployed Roman Legion the terrain was far less of a threat, and the vulnerability of the compact Greek phalanx “breaking apart” was a problem overcome (Lendon, 289). Even with these shortfalls in Greek strategy, however, their ideas of military deployment and formation played decisive roles in the future success of the Roman military. Greek concepts of trireme warships, catapults (artillery), armor, and siege weapons were all heavily incorporated into the early Roman Empire as well and played a pivotal role in future Roman conquest.

Do you believe that the Roman Empire was heavily influenced by the Greeks?

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Conclusion

In conclusion, ancient Greece played a tremendous role in the development of the Roman Empire. Literature, education, art, architecture, religion, and military theories demonstrate only a few of the contributions made by the Greeks in Rome. Using Greek ideas and concepts to their advantage, the Romans continuously improved on Greek ideologies and thoughts which, ultimately, allowed for the creation of one of the most powerful empires the world ever saw. Greek thought was highly advanced for its time. If it had not been for the numerous divisions that existed within Greek culture, Greece might have potentially rivaled that of the Roman Empire had it been unified. Lacking cultural divisions, the Romans implemented these same basic Greek ideologies allowing for them to become a dominant power in the world for many years to come. Thus, as one can clearly see, the Romans success was largely based upon the Greeks. Without Greece it could be argued that Rome would not have been as successful as it was, and the world as we know it today would be far different.

Suggestions for Further Reading:

Enos, Richard Leo. Roman Rhetoric: Revolution and the Greek Influence. Anderson, South Carolina: Parlor Press, 2008.

Freeman, Charles. The Greek Achievement: The Foundation of the Western World. New York, New York: Penguin Books, 2000.

Newby, Zahra. Greek Myths in Roman Art and Culture: Imagery, Values and Identity in Italy, 50 BC-AD 250. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Works Cited:

Books/Articles:

Bailey, Cyril. Phases in the Religion of Ancient Rome. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1932.

Cicero, Marcus Tullius. The Orations, Volume 3. Translation by William Duncan and Thomas Cockman. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1839.

Duiker, William J., and Jackson J. Spielvogel. World history. 5th ed. Belmont, California: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2007.

Fiero, Gloria K.. The Humanistic Tradition. 5th ed. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2006.

Krentz, Peter. “The Nature of Hoplite Battle,” Classical Antiquity, Vol. 4, No. 1 (1985).

Lendon, J.E. “The Rhetoric of Combat: Greek Military Theory and Roman Culture in Julius Caesar’s Battle Descriptions,” Classical Antiquity, Vol. 18, No. 2 (1999).

"Nemausus." Livius Articles on Ancient History. http://www.livius.org/ne- nn/nimes/nimes2.html.

Pollitt, Jerome J. “The Impact of Greek Art on Rome,” Transactions of the American Philological Association, Vol. 108 (1978).

Spielvogel, Jackson J.. Glencoe World History. New York, N.Y.: Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, 2003.

Wedeck, Harry E. “The Roman Attitude toward Foreign Influence, Particularly toward the Greek Influence during the Republic,” The Classical Weekly, Vol. 22, No. 25 (1929).

Images:

Wikipedia contributors, "Cicero," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Cicero&oldid=887041731 (accessed March 11, 2019).

Wikipedia contributors, "Maison Carrée," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Maison_Carr%C3%A9e&oldid=870969372 (accessed March 11, 2019).

Wikipedia contributors, "Phalanx," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Phalanx&oldid=884621778 (accessed March 11, 2019).

Wikipedia contributors, "Roman Empire," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Roman_Empire&oldid=887102621 (accessed March 11, 2019).

Wikipedia contributors, "Education in ancient Rome," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Education_in_ancient_Rome&oldid=885974158(accessed March 11, 2019).

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Larry Slawson

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      • Larry Slawson profile imageAUTHOR

        Larry Slawson 

        7 days ago from North Carolina

        @Alexander Yes indeed. Totally agree. Could actually turn this article into “Greek Impact on the World” haha.

      • Guckenberger profile image

        Alexander James Guckenberger 

        8 days ago from Maryland, United States of America

        The Greeks have been heavily influential on a number of cultures.

      • Larry Slawson profile imageAUTHOR

        Larry Slawson 

        8 days ago from North Carolina

        Yeah, Greek history (along with Soviet and Russian history) has always fascinated me. Its amazing to see how much of an impact they had on the modern world.

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        8 days ago from UK

        This takes me back to my classical studies many years ago. Modern western society owes a lot to its Greek and Roman fore runners.

      • Sam Shepards profile image

        Sam Shepards 

        8 days ago from Europe

        Greek culture was the soul of the mechanic Roman Empire. Maybe a little unfair, but the Romans were just so practical that it overschadows most of their other achievements like art and literature.

      • Larry Slawson profile imageAUTHOR

        Larry Slawson 

        9 days ago from North Carolina

        @Marja, thank you so much! I'm glad you enjoyed :)

      • Marja Radic profile image

        Marja Radic 

        9 days ago from Split, Croatia

        Love this article! And yes, I agree with all written. Without Greeks, the Roman empire wouldn't be an empire at all, I think.

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