Compare and contrast the government and economics of early Greek and Roman cultures.

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ophelious eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The economies of ancient Rome and Greece were similar in a lot of ways, but different in focus.  The trick is, of course, that "ancient" Greece and Rome went on for a long time and developed during that period.

  • The Greeks, for the most part, lived on very rocky and difficult terrain.  It was not possible for them to do large scale farming of food crops, and they grew mostly what they needed to survive or olives and grapes for producing oil and wine.  The Romans were in a better position for farming.  The land was flatter and more fertile, and their farming skills marginally better.
  • Both cultures used coinage as a means of exchange.
  • Both had artisans who created products, though in Greece those who worked with fine textiles were more respected than those who worked with leather and metals.  In Greece being a merchant was considered a lowly profession.
  • Both cultures used slaves.  The quantity varied in different parts of Greece, but their use grew and grew in Rome until almost 40% of those actually in Rome were slaves.
  • The Greek, because of their lack of food, were forced to develop maritime trade much faster.  This led them to have access to goods from around the Mediterranean.  Ancient Rome didn't do as much trading (though it did a heck of a lot more conquering.

As for governments, again things were different.

  • Greek cities, because of the harsh terrain and limited open space, developed into "city states" that were more or less united in heritage but not in politics.  They all had their own rules about things. In practice, most Greek city states were ruled by some hereditary council of aristocratic men, in conjunction with a king or not.  Some, like Athens, developed fairly democratic institutions.  None of the city states were able to fully dominate the others and all lived fairly independent existences (as long as no outside force was attempting to conquer them.)
  • Ancient Rome was not divided into separate entities.  The culture had a central "hub" from which to expand.  In the very early days Rome was ruled by a king, but this was supplanted by the Republic with a Senate.  Just how democratic this was depends on the exact time frame.  Senators, early on, were selected, while later on they were elected.  Oddly enough, early on the Senate had no real power to make laws or get things done.  It was the fact that the Senate was made up of powerful men who had the means to get things done that gave them authority.  Ancient Rome had no real bureaucracy of government.  Things changed under the Empire.


thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Because Greece is divided by mountain ranges which limit trade and communication by land, the most distinctive feature of the area we now call Greece is that it formed city states or poleis (singular: polis) consisting of fortified urban centers and surrounding agricultural areas divided from other city-states by mountains. Also important geographically is that mainland Greece is surrounded by the Mediterranean sea, which is filled with islands. This made the Greek-speaking peoples focused on maritime trade and colonization. Greek city-states and trading posts flourished in Ionia (on the coast of what is now Turkey), many islands in the Aegean sea, and even Sicily (a large island south of Italy). There really was no such thing as "Greece" in antiquity, only city-states inhabited by Greek-speaking peoples which were just as likely to fight wars against each other as to ally against common enemies. Different city-states had different political systems ranging from kingdoms to oligarchies, tyrannies, and democracies. Economies also differed (and varied with period as well as place) with some areas being primarily agricultural and others renowned for their pottery (Corinth, Athens), military prowess (Sparta), or specific natural resources (the marble from Paros and Naxos was highly prized). 

Italy, by contrast, has fewer natural barriers meaning that soon after the expulsion of the Etruscans, the Romans set about conquering Italy. Rome started as a kingdom, then became a Republic, and later, under the Caesars, became an empire. Although Romans did trade and eventually accumulated an empire, they were more of a land than a maritime power. Roman civilization was more centralized, uniform, and bureaucratic than the Greek one, as well as less diverse. 

While both Roman and Greek civilizations used slaves, Roman slavery had the potential for freedom, with many slaves able to work their way out of slavery by saving money to buy their freedom and many owners freeing slaves. There were numerous laws governing freedmen who still had a special relationship to former masters. Although the lot of a slave was not pleasant in either society, Roman slaves with intelligence and ambition could become wealthy and powerful freedmen (as was the case with Trimalchio). This would not have been possible in most Greek states. 

chadfrazee | Student

Since Roman government was rooted in the Greek tradition, many similarities can be found. A major difference between them is the nature of how decisions were made. Greece was more truly democratic, allowing the people to participate in decision-making, while Rome was more of a representative form of government.

While Greek citizenship was highly valued, it was not rare. Stemming from the need for a well-armed militia, citizenship was a way of assuring that soldiers would value their positions as part of their homeland's defensive and offensive efforts. The citizen-soldiers were a part of the decision-making process, and therefore more committed to a favorable outcome in any military engagement. Thus, the citizens were responsible for the decisions that would affect their society in wartime as well as peacetime. Every citizen's voice had a right to be heard.

By the time the Roman government had evolved, the citizenry was more divided by classification. Even slaves had the opportunity to become citizens, although their status di not carry the same rights as a full citizen. As time went on, divisions between economic classes arose, creating levels of power in the marketplace. The working-class plebs were able to combine forces and withhold their labor, giving them a collective power against the business-owning patrician class. By working together, a system of representation evolved and the concept of "citizen's rights" became more political and legal than the Greek concept.