WIP study guide #2: Classical Antiquity...

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the Greco-Roman world, centered on the Mediterranean, of the 8th century BC and the 6th century AD.

Why is the classical antiquity period significant?

Western civilization - modernity - was born of a mix of the classical and the Christian. And the recent history of the world - for the last several hundred years, until recently - has been the history of westernization or modernization of the whole world: scientific ideas/methods, new ways of thinking, military technology, and public administration fueling greater power and wealth. 

Previous ancient civilizations did some science for very practical purposes, but on the whole relied upon myths and superstitions to “understand” the world. The Greeks invented critical thinking / systematic inquiry. This “rare, general-purpose, soft-technology” - like writing or money, to borrow Venkatesh Rao’s term - flowered into advances in math, science, philosophy, history and politics. 

What do we mean when we say that “the Greeks invented _________?”

Critical thinking

It meant methodically searching for logical (e.g. chain of humanly verifiable “why’s” and “because’s”) and coherent explanations for the nature of things; questioning and rejecting religious pronouncements and superstitions.

To think critically supposes that there is a logic to how things work as well as confidence in human powers to uncover the logic of these workings and use them to actively influence life on earth. And in so doing, become more free and powerful. No longer were they at the mercy of whimsical gods.

I think we take this for granted today. The availability and importance of critical inquiry makes Greeks very contemporary and familiar, and others from different periods/places in history all the more unfamiliar and strange. 


Close observation of events and and discernment of causation so as to more effectively influence human affairs.


The Greeks created the first city-states with strong identity, cultural unity, sense of shared public interest (the polis). Much larger proportion took part in public life compared to other ancient civs. Beginning of deliberative bodies made up of citizens, making big collective decisions. None of this existed before.


Systematic deployment of observation and reasoning.

Observation —> Interpretation of observation —> Active experimentation to further verify/deny.

Why is it useful to know about classical antiquity today?

Not to take human flourishing, rationality, and science for granted…it’s the exception, not the rule. Magee says they weren’t equalled until the Germans 18th-20th century. And it’s cool to know where we come from, allows us to better evaluate our current methods and institutions when we see them as the result of human intention/interaction. 

A conservative interpretation / argument for keeping politics small from Gay & Webb:

This is an interesting argument, I’m not convinced that the Hellenistic school grows as a way to respond to larger, more impersonal political structure…but I can see how this might rhyme with Stoicism’s contemporary resurgence, even if I don’t really think it’s rhyme’s strongly.

How did Greek civilization spread?

Ironically, it was spread by the Macedonians who ultimately conquered/ended the flowering of Greek culture. In the 4th century BC, with the polises weakened by internal wars, Philip II of Macedon (a Greek-speaking place but not really considered Greek by the rest of the Greeks) conquers Greece, ending the age of the city states. Alexander the Great would spread Greek civilization near and far, Europe and Asia, creating what we know as the “Hellenistic world.”

It was during this “Hellenistic Age,” following Alexander’s death in the 4th century BC, that Stoicism - the first moral philosophy, which provided the first known condemnation of slavery - arose, which would become extremely influential for centuries amongst the elite of Rome. (Though it seems Gay & Webb would disagree re: whether Stoicism counts as part of the ultimate flowering of Greek culture…their view echos the 1517 view of it.)

Why is Ancient Rome significant?

“To provide regular, lawful government over a wider area than ever before, to black, white, brown ‘Romans’ equally, and to assure them also peace and prosperity”…this was unprecedented at the time. [JMR] In the Augustan age, leading families from various provinces (Gaul, Syria, Africa, Illyria) were “romanized”…they all shared in a sense of Roman heritage, unified civilization. 

We’re indebted to their political arrangements and legal doctrines - the sovereign ruler and of a public order under law - for our emergence from feudalism in 13th, 14th century Europe onward. [G&W] Modern Europe would feed on the Roman legacy/mythology of civic principles (citizenship) and republicanism. Not that citizenship/republicanism withstood or had much to do with the growth of the Roman Empire. [JMR]

Though they conquered the Greeks militarily, culturally they were “reverse-conquered” by the Greeks culturally, and would carry forward Greek heritage to the future. Similarly, Rome accelerated the growth of Christianity, anchoring it in Rome and rooting it in Latin. [G&W]

Though they didn’t contribute much to science, they left behind magnificent feats of engineering, monuments, architecture (aqueducts, central heating, under-floor heating, roads).

How did the Roman Republic turn into the Roman Empire?

  1. Republicanism caves in to plutocracy
    1. The numbers of impoverished citizens with votes to be bought grew, as people outside the original territories were granted citizenship, and the Punic Wars’ impact devastated the Italian countryside and undercut small, independent farmers. 
    2. In parallel, politicians gained the wealth to buy votes in newly conquered territory, where they could become governors and generals and receive taxes.
    3. Popular assemblies in Rome no longer had the same power.
  2. Professionalizaton of war paves the way for warlords.
    1. The Roman armies became full-time, and grew apart from the republic. Soldiers felt loyalty to their comrades and generals then to the republic. Constant wars of expansion made way for warlords
    2. This set the scene for Julius Caesar in the 1st century BC.

What’s the big deal about the Roman Empire? Or is there more to the story?

It’s renown for achieving rule of law over a wide and diverse area. Caesar Augustus was the most influential architect here. But the empire existed to extract from new territories for the benefit of a few influential Italians and the people of Rome. And this parasitism made use of slavery. And the enforcement of law was harsh - though to be fair, the spirit of the laws were not necessarily so intolerant…they did not prosecute blasphemy like the later, more Christian Roman Empire.

Why did it decline?

The decline of the Roman Empire coincided with the triumph of the Christian and the Church over the Classical and the Roman Empire. Emerging church fathers, themselves Roman (e.g. Augustine), rejected the “temptation to put the things of this world [Classical culture, Rome as a city] above the things of heaven” and “man’s ultimate realities.” [G&W]

Why is it useful to know about Ancient Rome today?

It’s often looked at as a case study for what makes a political entity grow immensely wealthy and powerful and then ultimately decay.

A doctrine of unworldly or super-worldliness marked the decay of the Roman Empire, the same way the Hellenistic schools marked the decay of the Greeks? Parallels to today?

How/Why did Christianity become so influential?

TBU. That it started as a small fringe group and now has 2+ billion adherents is wild.

A probably unrealistic syllabus