Arts & Humanities Classics Features

Greece vs. Rome: A Civilisation Debate

This long-read article was written by OG Matthew Sargent, as a response to a debate between Mary Beard and Boris Johnson.

Estimated read time: 6 minutes

This long-read article was written by OG Matthew Sargent, as a response to a debate between Mary Beard and Boris Johnson.

Estimated read time: 6 minutes

“Liberté, égalité, fraternité had nothing whatsoever to do with ancient Greece … Liberty, for the Romans, was not just some simple Periclean slogan … the real point for me is that the Romans were the first people systematically to debate the limits of political liberty. They faced head on the unanswerable questions that matter now to us most: how far should the rights and the freedom of the individual citizen be suspended in the interests of homeland security … Classical Athens was a very small place; there were perhaps 40,000 people, not all citizens, living in the city itself … the city of Rome itself was home to a million people. It was the biggest city in the west until nineteenth century London. The Romans were committed to making urban living, modern style, work … Rome devoted itself to organising big city life … Top of the Roman agenda were the practical issues of living together and how to make a human community work … Finally, Roman society incorporated those who were mostly excluded in the ancient world, most obviously women … What does survive from Rome are all kinds of attempts, admittedly by men, to construct a variety of female voices in Greek and Latin – not just suffering heroines, ridiculous parodies, or lovelorn females … that is Roman culture all over. It’s fun, it’s warm, and it’s raising more important points than you might think, without all the fuss and pretension … Ultimately it was not the incorporation of women into the state, into a role in the state, but it was the incorporation of new citizens into the state. Rome had a mechanism for becoming Roman. Classical Athens had such an exclusive, a narrowly ethnic – you might even call it racist – policy on who could become a citizen … at he same time, slaves in their millions were freed at Rome, and in the process – completely unlike in the Greek world – they became full Roman citizens … Rome’s real, it’s rough, it’s in-your-face, it’s open, it’s welcoming, and it’s us.”

– Mary Beard

This piece was conceived as a response to a debate held in November 2015 between Professor Mary Beard and then Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, on which was better ‘Greece or Rome?’ Since it aired, I’ve often returned to the arguments brought up by both sides, but this piece aims at re-evaluating some of Mary’s claims as to why Rome was the better civilization. Despite identifying as a Hellenist myself, and admittedly having a pro-Greek bias (which cannot be avoided, rather acknowledged and factored into one’s reasoning), neither will counter-examples be suppressed, nor has Mary’s speech been trimmed in such a way as to lead to confusion and misrepresentation. 

Essentially, her argument rested on three pillars, namely the relevance of the Roman notion of libertas to modern parliamentary democracy, Rome’s commitment to city planning, looking after its citizens (importantly through the corn dole), and addressing the exigencies imposed by living in a city of more than a million inhabitants, and thirdly their openness to migrants, inclusiveness of women, incorporation of slaves and ethnic non-Romans into the citizen base, and their down-to-earth and unpretentious and realistic approach to everyday problems and societal concerns.

Before laying out my criticisms of her line of argument, it’s worth registering how – with the exception of the Emperor Caracalla’s citizenship grant in 212 AD – Mary nowhere noted in her talk how life in the Republic changed under the emperors. Suetonius may be right in claiming that Augustus found Rome as a city of bricks but left it a city of marble, but with the appearance of principial rule came a diminution in the de facto power of the senate (the one emperor who tried to hand over the reins of government entirely to the senate, Tiberius, saw his plans scuppered by senatorial apathy, and his reign ended in a decade long ‘Personal Rule’), a suspension of voting rights for ordinary citizens, and – depending on the emperor – the exercise of invariably unmitigated violence against the urban plebs or the aristocracy or both. Boris may have omitted to mention Sparta in his answer at all, but Mary’s guilty of passing over mention of the Principate.

First question: did the Greeks debate these questions of political liberty and tackle moot points such as the extent to which the rights of the individual should be sacrificed in the interests of the state? Beard references the Catilinarian Conspiracy as one such instance where the tension between state and individual surfaced. Did Classical Athens hold equivalent debates? We should note that Athens, which was never a Republic, and for most of its history was either governed by kings, tyrants, or democrats, was likely to discuss similar, but not the same questions; the form of government does not just determine how the political agenda gets implemented, but to an extent governs the agenda. Athens may not have had a Catilinarian Conspiracy, but they did have the trial of the Athenian generals after the naval disaster at Arginusae, as a result of which the six generals on trial were convicted by an impassioned mob and executed; Plato would cite this as but one case-study of the disordered crowd getting carried away by emotion. When in 404 the Thirty, a pro-Spartan oligarchic regime, commenced their Reign of Terror, they targeted in particular metics and wealthy Athenian families, confiscating property and murdering the well-off. In the years after their fall, they were systematically eliminated, either in private prosecutions or assassinated by the regime’s victims. So, Athens did have to navigate issues such as the rights of the individual in relation to the state, the accountability of the state for its perceived wrongdoings, and political theorists like Plato were constantly interrogating the merits of different forms of government, not least radical democracy.

And before we start making highfalutin claims about Roman openness, let’s remember that all ancient power was ferociously jingoistic and nationalistic, even borderline racist. Just as Athenian citizenship laws excluded aliens from participating in the city’s political business, so Rome would go to war with her allies over the matter of enfranchisement – the so-called ‘Social War’ – and she held debates in the senate over the admission of Gallic nobles into Rome’s governing bodies (preserved on the Lyon Tablet, from Claudius’ reign). Roman woman, like at Athens, technically had no political rights, even though they were likely freer and subject to less strict social expectations, but let’s remember the Roman empire was powered by an enormous slave economy, which was cruelly run (albeit, this finds a strong parallel in the treatment of Messenian helots at Sparta), whereas the Athenians were notoriously relaxed in terms of the control they exerted over their slaves – read a chapter from the Old Oligarch to see how unfussed they were, indeed he even claims that, at Athens, citizens and slaves were indistinguishable from one another in the streets!

So, this notion of Rome as an open, inclusive, cosmopolitan society has to be qualified. Mary arraigned against the pretension of Boris’ praise of Periclean politics and the institution of democracy, but if we’re looking for pretension how much further need we look than the Roman triumph, or the Res Gestae inscription put up by Augustus to commemorate his deeds, or the hypocrisy of the Stoic philosopher and statesman Seneca, who defamed the dead emperor Claudius by writing a play called ‘Pumpkinification’, tried and failed to advise the emperor Nero, and despite (in typical Stoic manner) recommending sufferance and endurance of ills, was one of the wealthiest men at Rome and one of the largest private slave-owners from antiquity. Fifth-century Athenian democracy may only have lasted some hundred and ten years, in its pristine form, roughly, but during that period Athenian citizens were freer and enjoyed more rights than at any time in Rome, Athens became the ‘school’ of the ancient world with schools for Platonic, Aristotelian, and Epicurean thought in a way never achieved by Rome (and, indeed, by no other ancient city with the exception of Alexandria), its artistic and literary output was prodigious in a way never rivalled even under Augustan Rome, and while libertas may have been Republican Rome’s main political legacy to us, from Athens we inherited concepts of isonomia (equality of rights), isegoria (equality of speech), parrhesia (freedom of expression), and most importantly eleutheria (freedom); these canonized human rights occupied a place in the Greek consciousness in a way never seen at Rome.

Cicero said of Socrates that he had brought philosophy down from the heavens and set it among mortal men, so even by the standards of Rome’s most euphuistic forensic orator Greek philosophical study was hardly pretentious. And besides questions of individual rights and the accountability of magistrates and tyrants, we should also appreciate the vast repository of other questions and important debates first aired by the Greeks, questions such as do we have free will or are we just subject to a predetermined fate; how do we, and how does the world, exist; what are the benefits of different forms of government; what makes us civilized in relation to barbarians; how does race impact citizen identity; what does living a good life mean; how do we attain happiness; do laws matter; what makes a democratic assembly truly sovereign; how does freedom differ from slavery; how should we lead our lives; and the question that underpinned all ancient expansion and was especially crucial to the Roman moralists, can empire ever be a good thing? Greek thought provides us with a conceptual framework for our modern debates, be it about philosophy or politics or identity or interaction of the sexes or civilization versus barbarism. Greece has bequeathed unto us more than some Periclean slogans about the greatness of democracy. Rather, they were the first to systematically interrogate the fundamental questions which still occupy us today, about the human condition, about how we define us and situate ourselves in the world, about how we are to live life.

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