Most of today’s non-Asian cultures can be traced continuously back to ancient Mediterranean progenitors. The two root influences were Greece and Israel, both of which ascended in the 1st millennium BCE. These two heritages crossed paths in the Roman Empire.
C. Ancient Rome
Classic Greek civilization emerged from a dark age in the 9th century BCE. This nation of loosely affiliated city-states was one of the dominant forces of the Mediterranean Sea. Over the next few centuries, Greeks established colonies in present-day Italy and Turkey, including Byzantium. An important contemporary was Phoenicia, from whom Greece adopted the alphabet and improved it with vowels. The Greek alphabet allowed greater precision of expression than any earlier written language, allowing Greece to become a highly literate culture.
The city-state of Athens is well known for its democracy, or direct rule by the people. Democracy evolved out of aristocracy in a series of reforms to expand the rights of the lower classes. For two centuries, Athenians debated the virtues of democracy, and sometimes actually reverted to tyranny, before committing to their most democratic constitution in the 4th century BCE. All male citizens were invited to debate and vote about serious matters of domestic and foreign policy. 2
Democracy was a boon for stability and the economy. The Athenian democracy of the 4th – 5th centuries BCE was Greece’s golden age, and the accomplishments were almost unbelievable. A well-organized Athens prevented an invasion from the much larger Persian Empire. Athens became an unofficial capital over more than 100 city-states, some of which also became democratic. Herodotus and Hippocrates established history and medicine, respectively, as earthly fields of study without divine intervention. The arts flourished in the age of classic life-like statues and Greek choruses.
Greek philosophers were especially influential. The Socratic method of education is named after Socrates, an Athenian intellectual alive in 400 BCE. His student Plato founded the Academy, one of the world’s earliest universities. Plato and his student Aristotle wrote prolifically on subjects such as politics, ethics, language, and reality. Their works left an enduring impression on all civilizations that came to know the Greeks.
Though ancient Greek democracy is glorified, it was far from perfect. The full benefits of citizenship were not available to women or immigrants. Greeks owned slaves without a second thought. Most importantly, democracy did not help unite Greece in peace. The city-states were nearly constantly at war with each other. King Philip II of Macedon took control of most of Greece by 337 BCE.
Philip’s son, Alexander the Great, consummated his father’s vision of quelling the belligerent Persian Empire to the east. In one manic decade, Alexander destroyed Persia and invaded Asia as far east as the fringes of India. After Alexander’s short life, his Hellenistic empire immediately split into four kingdoms. As a political body, it continued to fragment, and was ultimately absorbed into other empires by the 2nd century BCE.
Although classic Greece was gone, its language, philosophy, and way of life were now carried far and wide. Greek influences survived in parts of Arabia and Central Asia longer than they did in Europe. The most important new city of the empire was Alexandria, Egypt. Alexandria was the site of the greatest museum / library of its era and was home to well-known “Greek” scholars such as Archimedes and Euclid. The Hellenistic Empire also encompassed Canaan, the eastern Mediterranean shore, where Jewish history was in the making. Greek became the language of Canaan’s educated, including the authors of the Christian New Testament.
Judaism is named after Judah, an ancient kingdom in southern Israel. Early Jews, Hebrews, were polytheistic like all nearby tribes. 3 They then went through a period of monolatry during which they believed in many gods but worshipped only one, who came to be known as Yahweh. 4 Monolatry was fairly common practice. What made Judaism unique was its eventual conviction that Yahweh was the only god. Hebrews still believed that God was partial to them and promised them the land of Israel. 5
Though it was traditionally construed as much older, the Hebrew Bible was written piecemeal through the 1st millennium BCE. The bible mirrored Israel’s relationships with contemporary kingdoms, personified by God and legendary figures. 6 Even the Torah, the five-book account of early Hebrew mythology, assumed its final form sometime after 586 BCE, when Babylon destroyed Jerusalem and took many Jews into exile. 7 Jews were devastated by this conquest, and the legend of Egyptian bondage and exodus (probably fictional 8 ) was especially meaningful to them.
Persians liberated the Jews after two generations in Babylon. Judaism was profoundly influenced by the Persian religion, Zoroastrianism, and incorporated some of its themes. These included the concepts of a devil at war with God, a future apocalypse, and an eternal afterlife. Some of these beliefs were not adopted within priestly circles, so they became more influential in early Christianity. 9 One important post-exilic element, though, was central to Judaism’s evolving faith. Prophets taught that God would send a messiah, a priest-king who would complete God’s promise and even strengthen Israel into an empire.
The entire Hebrew Bible, then, was a direct response to the geopolitics of Canaan in the 1st millennium BCE. This would seem a pretty narrow scope. Its enduring message was its fatherly vision of God. Jews saw God as perfectly loving his followers. 1 He was omnipotent, yet he had a personal relationship with his worshippers. This is the idea that spread like wildfire beyond Judaism, which has never been a large religion.
By Year 1, Israel was very unhappily under Roman control. This was the situation into which Jesus was born. Jesus preached that the “kingdom of God” was at hand, the reign of God as a king on Earth. He and other Jews looked forward to this liberation of Israel, a reversal of fortune in which the oppressed would become dominant. Roman authorities executed Jesus for sedition. 10 Some of his followers claimed to see him resurrected. These founders of Christianity immediately started to proclaim Jesus as the messiah.
The first written account of Jesus’ life appeared a few decades later, after a severely traumatic episode. Following a Jewish revolt, Roman soldiers destroyed Jerusalem in 70. This was the final exile, after which Jews were scattered for two millennia. To the Christians who remained, it may have been imperative to soften Jesus’ anti-imperial message to distance themselves from the Jews. 11 The gospels portrayed Jesus as preaching an innocuously abstract redemption of the dispossessed: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” 12 The “kingdom of God” was vague enough to mean many things to many Christians.
Early church leader Paul found it important to convert non-Jews. This universality enabled Christianity to outgrow Judaism and to outlast Roman occupation. Later gospels magnified Jesus into God incarnate. His role expanded from liberator of Israel to savior of all Christians’ souls. 13 Christians often call Jesus “The lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” 14 This metaphor would make sense to a culture that regularly sacrificed animals to God, sometimes in exchange for the forgiveness of sins. 15
At about the same time that Athens developed its democracy, Rome liberated itself from its kings and formed a republic. A republic is a more moderate form of rule by the people, where citizens elect representatives instead of participating directly in government. The Roman Kingdom had a senate that advised the king. After throwing off the monarchy, the senate elected its own leaders, consuls. Senators came from the upper class, so, as in Greece, oligarchy (rule by the few or the wealthy) was a transitional stage to popular rule. Eventually, the lower class had its own tribunals, with representatives elected according to residential district. The senate, tribunals, consuls, and courts functioned together in a complex system of checks and balances. This constitutional arrangement was strongly influential on the United States millennia later.
The Romans were better than the Greeks at growth and assimilation. Through a combination of conquests and alliances, the Roman Republic expanded from a city-state to most of Western Europe. As it acquired new territory, Rome offered its subjects citizenship, education, and employment as soldiers. The representative system of government was much more adaptable to a large country than direct democracy would have been. Nevertheless, Rome had its limits and was stretched too thin. Unprepared to administer such a vast territory, Rome suffered corruption, inflation, and slave revolts.
When consul Julius Caesar created a new office for himself, “dictator for life,” in 45 BCE, Rome entered its final phase as an autocratic empire. Under its emperors, Rome entered its most stable and prosperous phase, the Pax Romana. This transition possibly created the belief, held until the United States’ success, that a king was necessary to hold a large country together. The empire reached its peak in the 2nd century.
Christianity and the Roman Empire had a complicated relationship. The emperor was presumed divine, so the concept of a single god was at odds with that mandate. Roman officials persecuted Christians until 4th century emperor Constantine converted. Constantine was engaged in a civil war against other claimants to the throne. According to the classic account, he sought the strongest god to petition for help. He prayed to his parents’ Christian god, who sent a sign before a victorious battle, cementing the emperor’s loyalty. 16 Even more remarkably, Christianity became the official Roman state religion by 400. The Christian population exploded, and the empire treated the church with great political favors, including land grants and tax exemptions.
Constantine established a secondary capital in Byzantium (renamed Constantinople). For a time, Rome and Constantinople each had a co-emperor and a powerful bishop; Rome’s bishop was the pope. The western empire gradually dissolved while neighboring German kingdoms pervaded it. A German tribe captured Rome itself in 476, dethroning the last Latin emperor.
Top of this page: Section 3.III: The Ancient Mediterranean
Continue to Section 3.IV: Ancient Asia
- Cover image: “Vision of the Cross”, School of Raphael (1520s), public domain. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:School_of_Raphael_-_Vision_of_the_Cross.jpg (accessed and saved 6/15/16). ↩
- Christopher W. Blackwell, “The Development of Athenian Democracy”, Demos: Classical Athenian Democracy (1/24/2003), http://www.stoa.org/demos/article_democracy_development@page=all&greekEncoding=UnicodeC.html (accessed and saved 9/08/19, archived 10/13/19). ↩
- Supported internally in the bible by such passages as Exodus 32:1-6, Jeremiah 2:28, and Ezekiel 8:9-16. See also Mark S. Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts, Oxford University Press (Amazon Kindle eBook edition, 2001), location 344. ↩
- 1st – 2nd Commandments (Exodus 20:3-6). See also Frank Eakin, The Religion and Culture of Israel: An Introduction to Old Testament Thought, Allyn & Bacon (1971), pp. 70, 107 – 108, and 263. ↩
- Genesis 15 : 1 – 21. Accessed, saved, and archived 9/14/19 at BibleGateway.com, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+15%3A1%E2%80%9321&version=niv . BibleGateway.com offers hundreds of translations. ↩
- Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed, Simon and Schuster (2002). ↩
- Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? Harper (1987). ↩
- Finkelstein and Silberman, op. cit., Chapter 2. ↩
- Richard Hooker, “The Jewish Temples: After the Babylonian Exile”, The Hebrews: A Learning Module, Washington State University (1/17/1997), reprinted by the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/after-the-babylonian-exile (accessed, saved, and archived 10/13/19). ↩
- Samuel George Frederick Brandon, Jesus and the Zealots: A Study of the Political Factor in Primitive Christianity, Manchester University Press, 1967, p. 330, https://books.google.com/books?id=tIC7AAAAIAAJ&pg=PA330#v=onepage&q&f=false (accessed, saved, and archived 9/14/19). ↩
- This thesis is fleshed out by Reza Aslan in Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Random House (2013), esp. pp. 120 – 121 and Ch. 12. ↩
- Matthew 5:5 ↩
- None of the gospels except John, the last written, refers to Jesus as “God”. Dom Henry Wansbrough, “What Did Mark Think of Jesus?” Tutorial Essays for Oxford BA in Theology, https://web.archive.org/web/20161129135401/http://users.ox.ac.uk/~sben0056/essays/marksviewofjesus.htm , paragraph 2 (c. 2012, accessed and saved 9/14/19). See also Gustavo Vazquez Lozano, Jesus of Nazareth: The Historical Search for the Christian Messiah, 2016, Charles River Editors, eBook version, location 239, which shows the progression of describing Jesus from an earthly preacher in Mark (earliest gospel) to a divine figure in John (latest gospel). ↩
- John 1:29 ↩
- Ralph F. Wilson, “The Lamb of God: Basic Concepts of Sacrifice”, Jesus Walk (2020), http://www.jesuswalk.com/lamb/lamb_1basic.htm (accessed, saved, and archived 10/02/20). ↩
- Eusebius Pamphilus, The Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine (4th century), “# 107: Constantine’s Vision”, translated by Stephen Tomkins, https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/study/module/constantine/ (accessed, saved, and archived 9/15/19). ↩
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