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E - 196: Adopting a Culture

Updated: Apr 16, 2021

The large Teatro Greco in Syracuse where performances are still held to these days

One of the questions I never found an answer to was how the Greek culture came to dominate Roman culture. The Roman Deities are identical with the Greek, the founding myth traces Rome’s origin back to Troy, the Roman alphabet was derived from the archaic Greek alphabet, architecture, art and literature took their inspiration from the Hellenistic world, Greek philosophy was greatly admired and during the Roman Republic reference was always made to Greek democracy.

Magna Graecia around the 4th century BC

It its early days, Rome was just one of many city states in the Apennine embedded in the much larger Etruscan culture. Interestingly we know relatively little about the Etruscans. Why has so little survived? Was it eclipsed by something more powerful? Rome’s superior military doctrine and organization are well documented and made it the dominant power on the Italian peninsula. Its engineering and street building skills were unmatched. But I heard relatively little of an original Roman culture which surely must have existed. Not being a classicist, I may just have missed important papers. If anyone has something that I should read, please let me know.

Rome's expansion from the 5th to the 3rd century BC

Had my own idea though. As I pointed out in my blog about Magna Graecia (D - 212 ), the Hellenistic world was not just centred around Athens. It was far more distributed and spanned from Asia Minor to Sicily. For centuries, Greek towns like Syracuse in Sicily or Sybaris in Calabria could easily match the might of Athens. With more than 100’000 inhabitants each they also were much bigger and wealthier than Rome. Had they been politically united, they would have been a formidable power. But the Greek city states of Magna Greacia were not but rather often at each other’s throat.

Statue of an Olympic Athlet from Magna Graecia

As Rome expanded into central Italy during the Samnite Wars (343 – 290 BC), it must have expanded its trading relationships and communication with the Greek towns in Southern Italy. These cities did not only provide merchandise the Romans desired. They also introduced Romans to a different way of living. They were organized around the Polis, their administrative, political and religious center and ruled by their own citizen. It reminds me of the Roman Forum. The Greek city states also had skills and tools Romans had not seen before. Their easy-to-use alphabet made record keeping simple and communication fast – something a military culture would appreciate. The Greek cities had architects who knew how to build large temples, formidable fortresses and long, mighty town walls. And their engineers, craftsmen and logistics people could build a fleet, maintain and deploy it. Until the Punic wars, the Romans had no fleet.

Last but not least Magna Graecia offered a coherent cultural view of the world, an identifiable family of Deities, philosophy, science, arts and literature which distinguished its citizens from the barbarian world. What better than to marry Greek culture and Roman military prowess? It could provide the philosophical base for an Empire that set out to conquer the world. With a sophisticated culture, they could do it in the name of civilisation. Have not come across any paper exploring this idea but find the thought fascinating. An upcoming military power adopting a superior culture to justify its ruling. No wonder the traces of Etruscan culture had to go.

One of the many beautiful vases we are going to see in the local museums

Rome’s conquest of Italy happened relatively fast. When the Greek town of Thurii, built over the ruins of ancient Sybaris, was attacked in 285 BC by local tribes related to the Samnites, Rome established a garrison to defend it The military move provoked Tarant which concluded a military alliance with Pyrrhus, King of Epirus. The resulting war lasted five years (280 – 275 BC) and ended in a draw which forced Pyrrhus to return to Greece. You may remember Pyrrhus famous quote from school, “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined”.

The disastrous Pyrrhic war when too many tight victories wiped out the Greek Army

In the years following the war, Rome quickly completed the conquest of Southern Italy, made its people citizens of Rome (albeit with no right to vote) and opened the door for the Greek culture. Within a few decades, a Greek education moved from highly desirable to almost mandatory. Since Greek tutors were not easily available, Greek slaves - mostly prisoners of war from Rome's conquest of Greece - were brought to Rome to teach philosophy, art or literature. Militarily, Rome conquered Magna Graecia, but culturally the winner was the Greek culture. A military behemoth adopted a new culture.

Many of the great towns of Magna Graecia survived and their former splendor is still visible today. You only need to stand on the top of the Greek Theatre in Syracuse to recognize it as the predecessor of the Coliseum. Syracuse, Crotone and Taranto will be interesting to visit.

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