Greco-Roman world

Greco-Roman world

The Greco-Roman or Graeco-Roman World, as understood by medieval and modern scholars, geographers and miscellaneous writers, refers to those geographical regions and countries who were directly, protractedly and intimately influenced by the language, culture, government and religion of the ancient Greeks and Romans. In exact terms the area refers to the "Mediterranean world", the extensive tracts of land centred on the Mediterranean and Black Sea basins, the "swimming-pool and spa" of the Greeks and Romans, i.e. one wherein their cultural perceptions, ideas and sensitivities were dominant.

ignification of term

This term, rather broad in superficial signification, is given a more precise, historic and determinate meaning by an understanding of political and cultural developments in ancient history. Historically, the entire expanse of land and sea between the Gates of Hercules (Strait of Gibraltar) and the River Indus (excluding the Arabian peninsula) were at one point in time or another subordinated to the authority of the Greeks and Rome. Those regions which were but briefly or nominally subjugated to the civilisations of these two cultural preceptors, i.e. Asia between the Tigris and the Indus for the Greeks following Alexander the Great's conquests, and Germany between the Rhine and the Elbe by the arms of Augustus, are for this reason normally discounted. There are, of course, slight exceptions to this open rule. The ill-defined but strongly characteristic Asian region of Bactria was one of the few formerly Persian satrapies beyond the Tigris wherein Hellenism was so devotedly embraced by the natives, as was the Punjab, that the culture and thought survived the waning and ultimate disappearance of the administration of Alexander's Successors (the Diadochi). In both areas, long after direct communications with the traditional Hellenistic world cores of Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor and Macedonia had been terminated by the interposition of "uncouth" Barbarians (i.e. Parthians), Hellenism not only flourished but in indigenous kingdoms found a vibrant and powerful expression. Moreover, these exceptions often, even after their practical establishments had been subverted and destroyed, still transmitted the knowledge of Hellenism as intermediaries to new states, i.e. the Bactrian and Indian Greeks "Hellenizing" the Scythic Kushans, and the Armenians, later reinforced through the facility of Christianity, disseminating Greek ideas to the Caucasian kingdoms of Colchis, Asiatic Iberia and Asiatic Albania (all of which escaped the yoke of the Macedonians but fell before the armies of Republican and then Imperial Rome).

Exact definition and scope of term

As mentioned, the term "Greco-Roman world" describes those regions who were for many generations subjected to the government of the Greeks and then the Romans and thus accepted or at length were forced to embrace them as their masters and teachers. This process was aided by the seemingly universal adoption of Greek as the language of intellectual culture and at least Eastern commerce, and of Latin as the tongue for public management and forensic advocacy, especially in the West (from the perspective of the Mediterranean Sea). Though these languages never became the native idioms of the rural peasants, the great majority of the population, they were the languages of the urbanites and at the very least intelligible, often as corrupt or multifarious dialects, to those who lived outside of the Macedonian settlements and the Roman colonies. Certainly, all men of note and accomplishment, whatever their ethnic extractions, spoke and wrote in Greek and Latin. Thus, the celebrated Roman jurist and Imperial chancellor Ulpian was Phoenician, the Greco-Egyptian mathematician and geographer Claudius Ptolemy was a Roman citizen and the famous Christian expounders John Chrysostom and Augustine were pure Syrian and Berber respectively. The eminent and learned Jewish historian Josephus Flavius was a Jew by religion, wrote and spoke in Greek and was a Roman citizen! Properly speaking, the term "Greco-Roman World" signifies the entire realm from the Atlas Mountains to the Caucasus, from northernmost Britain to the Hejaz, from the Atlantic coast of Iberia to the Upper Tigris River and from the point at which the Rhine enters the North Sea to the northern Sudan. The Black Sea basin, particularly the renowned country of Dacia or Romania, the "Tauric Chersonesus" or the Crimea, and the Caucasic kingdoms which straddle both the Black and Caspian Seas are deemed to comprehend this definition as well. As the Greek Kingdoms of Western Asia successively fell before the reputedly invincible arms of Rome, and then were gradually incorporated into the universal empire of the Caesars, the diffusion of Greek political and social culture and that of Roman "law and liberty" converted these areas into parts of the Greco-Roman World. The slow but inexorable transformation of the "Empire" from an aggregation of the city of Rome, to a Mediterranean Commonwealth, the stark frontrunner of today's United Nations and more visibly the European Union (a group of disparate and independent countries united by a single religion, language, history and future or at least cause), intensified the "Romanization" and "Hellenization" of these areas. The universal adoption of Christianity by the Mediterranean peoples as their religion strengthened these bonds and they would have undoubtedly solidified had not the vexatious theological questions of the late 4th and 5th centuries undone the stupendous work of almost half a millennium of political, cultural and ethnic assimilation and unity.

Cores of the Greco-Roman world

Assuming the above definition as our base, it can be confidently asserted that the "cores" of the Greco-Roman world were Italy, Gaul, Iberian Peninsula, Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt and Africa Proper (Tunisia and Libya of modern geography). Occupying the periphery of this world were "Roman Germany" (the Alpine countries and the so-called Agri Decumates, the territory between the Main, the Rhine and the Danube), Illyria and Pannonia (the former Yugoslavia and Hungary), Moesia (roughly corresponds to modern Bulgaria), Dacia (roughly corresponds to modern Romania), Nubia (roughly corresponds to modern northern Sudan), Mauretania (modern Morocco and western Algeria), Arabia Petraea (the Hejaz and Jordan, with modern Egypt's Sinai Peninsula), Mesopotamia (northern Iraq and Syria beyond the Euphrates), the Tauric Chersonesus (modern Crimea in the Ukraine), Armenia and the suppliant kingdoms which swathed the Caucasus Mountains, namely Colchis, and the Asiatic Albania and Iberia.


*Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography, Sir William Smith (Editor), Spottiswoode and Co;, London, 1873
*Oxford Classical Dictionary, Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth (Editors), Oxford University Press, 2003

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