Earned Knowledge, L6, P1

Living In Greece

Life in the famous classical civilizations of Greece and Rome was quite a bit different from life in the ancient age, and different even from life in the age of transition that ran between 1,200 and 800 BC or so.

We’ll start our examination focusing more on life in Greece, but these two groups – the Greeks and the Romans – although they started separately, came together over time, so much so that many people have treated them as a single civilization, which they called Greco-Roman.

One of the first things to understand is that both of these groups were fairly well separated from Mesopotamia and Mesopotamian ideas. They knew there was a good deal of tyranny and subordination in their past, but that came to them mostly in the form of old stories. They didn’t have well-recorded history as we do.

An excellent 20th century historian named Will Durant described the difference between the Greeks and the ancient civilizations this way:

Every one of these (ancient) peoples except the Phoenicians lived under despots, surrendered their souls to superstition, and had small experience of the stimulus of freedom or the life of reason. That is why the Greeks called them all barbaroi, barbarians; a barbarian was a man content to believe without reason and to live without liberty.

Both Greece and Rome, as they formed, started telling heroic stories of their past. Each, however, had multiple stories, and they didn’t agree very well. Nonetheless, the stories were popular; then, as now, people enjoyed thinking that they were special in some way.

The Romans were a mix of people whose ancestors had fled the Near East several centuries earlier and others from central Italy. And so a fair number of lessons taken from Mesopotamia remained, but again it’s hard to say much more than that.

The Greeks, however, had more influence from the Minoans than the Mesopotamians, and especially from the Mycenaeans who took over from the Minoans. Their history, between about 1,750 and 1,100 BC, included many stories of violent kings and violent takeovers. That affected the way the Greeks thought, even after the period of readjustment.

And again, these people tended to identify themselves with their home city, calling themselves “Ephesians,” Delians,” and so on, rather than “Greeks.” And they called the entire area “Hellas” rather than “Greece.”

Another important difference for the Greeks was that the ground in the Greek islands (which included what is now Greece and the Western edge of what is now Turkey), was rocky and poor for farming. There were some places with good agricultural ground, but most of it was good only for grazing herds: usually of sheep, goats, cows, pigs or horses. In Italy, including the area around Rome, there was far more useful agricultural land.

Mesopotamia, sadly, never entirely escaped the old model, and through all the years since it has seldom really thrived. There were a few cities that did well for periods of time, but there were no highly productive times. During the Roman era there was a lot of production in nearby areas (such as what is now Syria), but once the Romans left, productivity left with them. And this is so important that we’ll examine it before moving on. We’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves by doing this, but the point needs to be made.

Ideas Are The Most Important Factor

As you continue through life, you’ll hear people blaming success and failures of peoples on the weather, on the amount of minerals available in their area and many other things. And while minerals and weather do make a difference, they are very minor, compared to the ideas that rule people’s minds. What a group of people assumes to be important and true is the primary factor governing their success or failure. Violent and powerful neighbors can ruin their progress, but without a useful set of ideas, success is all but impossible.

When a group of people hold a set of ideas, they organize around them, but not usually on purpose: So long as they all “see through the same lens,” they’ll all see certain things as theirs and others as foreign. That will, more or less, determine what they choose to do.

Probably no story illustrates this better than that of Mesopotamia and Egypt. Even though Mesopotamia was filled with production in its earliest days, the people there lived by a different and barely-changing set of ideas for thousands of years after that, and those ideas stuck. The same thing, including almost the same ideas, happened in Egypt. And those ideas stuck as well.

One of the first and greatest students of Sumer, a man named Samuel Noah Kramer, described the inner world of the Sumerians this way:

A Sumerian tended to take a tragic view of his fate and destiny. They were convinced that man was fashioned from clay and created for one purpose only: to serve the gods by supplying them with food, drink and shelter so that they might have leisure for their divine activities.

One of the great historians of our era, a man named Peter Brown, called the area between Mesopotamia and Egypt “the land of the begging bowl.” He went on to say that the people living there even in a later era accepted that life was a long, slow slog unto death, featuring “the endless drudgery of labor.”

This tendency can be seen in the fact that religious beliefs matching that idea took root in this area. The beliefs of the Manicheans, for example (250-700 AD or so) were of this type.

Another way this can be seen is what people with these ideas saw as “normal” regarding rulers… and which dictated what those rulers could get away with. For example, approaching an Eastern ruler (eastern including the area of Mesopotamia and adjacent areas to it) was done in the prostrate position; crawling on the floor. In contrast to that stood the emperor of Rome who was expected to listen to the complaints of individual Romans as he walked or rode down the street.

But once people with different assumptions about life arrived in the area between Mesopotamia and Egypt, things became much different.

From around the year zero to about 500 AD, these areas, from Syria through northern Africa, were some of the most productive on Earth. As Peter Brown noted:

We’re dealing with a thriving agrarian landscape. Syria was a zone of intense agrarian settlement. A surge in population in the 4th and 5th centuries had covered the Syrian highlands with villages of unparalleled density.

What happened was that the Romans, some time before, had sent 6,000 colonists, giving each about 60 acres to grow grain. The bodies of these colonists were only very slightly different from those of the North Africans, but their ideas – their expectations of themselves and the world – turned a land accustomed to bare survival into the world’s largest grain supplier.

We know that this change can’t be credited to external things, because nearly everything the Romans had put in place – trade networks, grain storage buildings and so on – remained after Rome vanished, but grain production faded away all the same. As people with Roman ideas left, people with Mesopotamian and Egyptian ideas remained, and production sank back to minimal levels. And it stayed there for a long, long time.

What people think – what they assume to be true, normal and good – affects their success more than anything else.


Paul Rosenberg