Greco-Roman Religion and Philosophy

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Greco-Roman Religion and Philosophy

The ancient Greek and Roman worlds made important contributions to both religion and philosophy, the study of the nature of truth, knowledge, and moral values. In fact the word philosophy is of Greek origin, combining the words philia or "to love" with sophia or "wisdom."

Greek and Roman religion was polytheistic; ancient Greeks and Romans worshipped many gods and goddesses. Devout members of both groups believed that there were gods who influenced all natural phenomena. Ancient Greeks developed elaborate myths, or stories that explained these phenomena in terms of how these deities behaved, their strengths and weaknesses, and their histories. Each Greek polis, or city-state (independent political units consisting of a city and the countryside around it) had its own set of important gods and goddesses and its own way to worship and honor them. Eventually most Greeks identified a pantheon (a group of all gods and goddesses) of twelve major deities.

The Greeks called this set of twelve gods and goddesses the Olympian gods, because they supposedly lived on Mount Olympus in northern Greece. They were led by Zeus and his wife Hera. The worship of these twelve deities was connected to the political life of the city-state, and all citizens were expected to participate in public worship as part of their duty to the state. The Romans, who greatly admired Greek culture, later identified their own deities with powers similar to the Greek gods. Many of the myths and other stories known about the Greek gods actually have come through Roman authors, who adapted the work of Greek writers or created stories of their own to fit their conception of the Greek deities.

Ancient Greeks and Romans were strongly affected by these gods and goddesses. They worshipped them daily, offering parts of each meal to the gods and taking part in special religious festivals and holidays. The major life cycle events of birth, marriage, and death were also celebrated by religious rituals and ceremonies. The Greek myths, in turn, attempted to explain the mysteries of life and nature, such as the origin of the world and the creation of the seasons. However, Greek religion, and later Roman religion, had no specific rules of proper behavior. There was no set of religious beliefs or principles to follow. Each citizen was free to decide how he or she should behave, as long as he participated in the public official worship ceremonies.

As a result, in Greek secular (nonreligious) life there was room for discussion about what a good life meant, and even for wondering about how nature is constructed. Greco-Roman philosophy, the system of thinking established and used in ancient Greece and Rome, took over the discussion of these questions. In other cultures these questions were answered by religion. For this reason, Greco-Roman philosophy was revolutionary in the history of human thought. It relied on logical reasoning, established the first scientific vocabulary, and generally laid the foundation for much of future Western philosophy (the philosophy of countries in Europe and the Americas). From the sixth century bce on, the Greco-Roman tradition served as the dominant religious and philosophical system of the western world until about the fifth century ce.

Greco-Roman philosophy focused on objective inquiry, asking unbiased questions that favor no particular outcome. It is often seen as humanity's first attempt to provide rational explanations for the workings of the world, without mythological content (traditional legends or stories) or the use of gods to explain existence. The Milesian School (early philosophers who tried to explain how nature was made) searched for an underlying element, archeē, constituting all matter. Later Socratic thought, which followed the teachings of the Athenian philosopher Socrates (469–399 bce) added social, ethical, and political theories to established philosophy. These philosophies later inspired Roman thinkers during the period of the Roman Empire (c. 31 bce–476 ce).

Although many of the answers found by early Greek philosophers regarding the nature of the universe were later proved false, their use of logical analysis led to the rise of the scientific method. The scientific method is an approach to conducting research in which a problem is stated, data or pieces of information are gathered, a hypothesis or intelligent guess is made from these data, and this hypothesis is then tested through experiments. Socrates, for instance, developed a teaching


Stoic belief that happiness comes from freedom from internal turmoil.
Anaximander's term for the first principle, an undefined and unlimited substance.
The beginning or ultimate principle; the stuff of all matter, or the building block of creation.
Serenity, tranquility, or peace of mind.
The belief that matter is composed of simple, indivisible, physical particles that are too tiny to be observed by human beings.
The condition of being aware of one's thoughts, feelings, and existence.
That which inevitably flows outward from the transcendental (spiritual, beyond human experience) central principle of reality, "the One," in the Neoplatonic philosophy of Plotinus.
Belief that through the senses.
The philosophy of Epicurus and others that states that the highest good is pleasure and the avoidance of pain.
Branch of philosophy concerned with the evaluation of human conduct.
Meaning word or logic, it is the defining pattern of the universe, similar to the Dao in Chinese philosophy.
The branch of philosophy that deals with explanations for the most general questions of being, such as what brought the world into being, and the nature of space, time, God, and the afterlife.
Transmigration of souls, or the migration of the soul into a different form, animal, or object after death.
Following the rules of right behavior and conduct.
A collection of deities, or gods and goddesses.
The rational or logical investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct.
Belief that knowledge can come exclusively from the mind.
A philosophical system that doubted the possibility of ever discovering real truth through the senses.
Having to do with the philosopher Socrates and his method of asking questions of students to develop an idea.
A group of traveling teachers in ancient Greece who doubted the possibility of knowing all the truth through the physical senses.
The philosophical system that holds that people should pursue the knowledge of human and divine things through the use of logical systems. It also says that we may not be able to control natural events, but we can control the way we react to them.

method in which the student follows a logical path through questions and answers. Certain Greek scientific findings did prove accurate. For example, the concept of atoms as building blocks of matter, usually thought of as a nineteenth-century discovery, was actually first developed by two Greek philosophers in about 400 bce.

Other Greek concepts come close to the worldviews of Buddhism and Daoism, which see all things in life as being interconnected. The Greeks attempted to view all aspects of the universe as parts of the same whole. Though often looked down upon in their times, the early Greeks and Romans made many important philosophical advances.

History and development: Greco-Roman religion

The origins of ancient Greek religion go back thousands of years. The Greeks took some of their ideas from the ancient Minoan civilization (c. 3000–c. 1000 bce), located primarily on the island of Crete, and some from the Mycenaean civilization (c. 2000–c. 1100 bce), centered primarily on the Peloponnesian peninsula of southern Greece. They also borrowed from Egyptian religions and from west-Asian civilizations. By about 900 bce these numerous gods and goddesses had begun to be organized into the pantheon, or collection of deities, honored in ancient Greece.

The Religion's rise

Two writers are credited with this task of organizing the gods and the myths surrounding them: Homer (born c. 900 bce), and Hesiod, who lived in about the eighth century bce. Homer's famous epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey give order to the chaos of all the separate myths that existed at the time. An epic poem is a long narrative poem that relays the story of heroic deeds. Homer explained the family relationships between the various gods, gave each one a title and a specific power or responsibility, such as Zeus, as the supreme god; Poseidon, the god of sea; or Ares, the god of war. He also gave them very human qualities. Homer is held responsible for raising twelve gods over the others and giving them Mount Olympus as their living place. This phase of Greek religion is called Homeric, after the poet.

While Homer's gods could sometimes be cruel or selfish, they all demonstrated a basic moral code, or rules for good behavior. They were loyal to friends and family, honest, and brave. About a century later, the poet Hesiod, in his poems called the Theogony (a family tree of the gods) and Works and Days established the Olympian gods at the center of Greek religion. Similarly, two Roman poets created a mixed Greco-Roman mythology and pantheon of gods by adapting the Greek myths. These two writers were Virgil (70–19 bce) and Ovid (43 bce–17 ce). Virgil was the author of the Aeneid, a kind of sequel to Homer's Iliad, which tells the tale of Aeneas and the founding of Rome, while Ovid is best known for the Metamorphoses, an epic collection and expansion ot Greek and Roman myths.

The Olympian gods remained at the center of Greek culture and religion for several hundred years. The climax of their power came during the middle of the fifth century bce, in the polis of Athens. In 490 bce Greece was invaded by the forces of the Persian Empire. Athenians (citizens of Athens) led the resistance to the Persian invaders and defeated their much larger army at the battle of Marathon. When the Persians mounted a second invasion ten years later, Athenian leaders were vital in driving them away. Because of its role in the Persian wars, Athens became the strongest polis in all of Greece, a leader in culture as well as in politics.

The writers Aristophanes (525–456 bce.), Sophocles (496–406 bce.), and Euripides (480–405 bce.) helped clarify the powers and the relationship of the Olympian gods to human beings and to each other in their plays. In much the same manner as Homer and Hesiod before them, the playwrights examined historical and contemporary events and attributed the causes of those events to the gods. Plays like Aeschylus's The Oresteia, Sophocles's Antigone, and Euripedes's Elektra emphasize the power of the gods and the uselessness of human effort in the face of divine indifference.

The Religion's decline

The Peloponnesian War (431–404 bce) was one of the most widespread and damaging of the events the Athenian playwrights chose as the subjects of their plays. The war involved almost all of the Greek world in a long and bloody conflict. The primary combatants in the war were Athens and its major rival for power, Sparta. Athens lost this struggle, which brought an end to its Golden Age (c. 460–430 bce). Warfare continued between other rivals in the Greek world for the next two centuries. When a king from the north, Philip II of Macedon (359–336 bce), launched an attack on the city-states, the situation for the city-states worsened. Philip's son Alexander the Great (356–323 bce) completed the conquest of Greece. The Olympian gods seemed powerless to help them. Ultimately, the Greek pantheon lost its influence in Greek life, and by the fourth century ce, Christianity had taken its place.

The gods of the Roman pantheon lost their influence in a similar process. From the reign of Augustus (27 bce–14 ce), Roman emperors were worshipped as gods after their death, and the cult of the emperor partly displaced the worship of the traditional gods. Constantine the Great (c. 288–337) became the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, and by the end of the fourth century Theodosius I (c. 346–395), also a Christian, officially banned the practice of the old Roman polytheistic religion.

About Greco-Roman Religion

  • Belief. Greco-Roman religion was polytheistic, believing in many gods. The twelve main gods formed a pantheon, or group. All the gods could involve them selves in human affairs and often acted very much like humans.
  • Followers. All Greek and Roman citizens were obliged to follow the religion. This symbolized their obedience and loyalty to the state.
  • Name of God. The main god in the ancient Greek religion was Zeus, who was known to Romans as Jupiter.
  • Symbols. Images of the gods were often displayed in paintings and sculptures. The gods often carried objects that rep resented them and their powers. For in stance, the arrow was a symbol of Artemis, goddess of the hunt.
  • Worship. Ritual sacrifices were a common element of Greco-Roman religion. Daily prayers were offered privately in the home.
  • Dress. Worshippers wore no special attire.
  • Texts. The works of Homer, Hesiod, Ovid, and Virgil collected and organized Greco-Roman myths. Homer's Iliad and The Odyssey remain popular with modern readers.
  • Sites. Delphi was a special location to Greeks, who would consult with its famous oracle.
  • Observances. Each member of the Greco-Roman pantheon had festival days attributed to him or her, such as the Great Dionysia held each spring in Athens in honor of the fertility god Dionysius.
  • Phrases. There is no common word or phrase that was shared between worshippers.

History and development: Greco-Roman philosophy

Some believe the beginning of early Greek philosophy can be traced to contact with ancient Egypt and Babylonia. By the seventh century bce Egyptians had allowed Ionian (from the west coast of modern-day Turkey) traders to establish a seaport on a branch of the Nile River at the city of Naucratis. One theory holds that traders brought ancient Egyptian wisdom and practices home to the shores of Asia Minor. The prosperous center of Miletus, on the Ionian coast, was one place where many of these travelers gathered and distributed their knowledge to other traders throughout the Mediterranean world. Whether indigenous (native) or borrowed, the Ionian, or Milesian, School was the beginning of Greek philosophy.

The Milesian school

The thinkers of the Milesian School described the nature of the universe and of change and motion by the use of reasoning. Writers and thinkers such as Thales (c. 636–c. 546 bce), Anaximander (c. 611–c. 547 bce), and Anaximenes (sixth century bce) concentrated on the study of nature. They searched for the archeē. They believed that this archeē was the first substance or idea, which predated anything else in the universe. The Milesian philosophers thought that, if they could discover the archeē, they would understand something important about the nature of the universe.

For Thales, the archeē was water. Although many of his students rejected his ideas, the Ionian philosopher was still honored for the boldness and innovation of his ideas. Thales is also thought to have introduced geometry (a type of mathematics dealing with angles and lines, and with their measurement) to Greece. An able astronomer, he correctly predicted an eclipse of the sun (when light from the sun is blocked by the moon as it comes between the earth and sun) in 585 bce. An astronomer is someone who studies the planets and stars.

Thales's pupil, Anaximander, also attempted to give detailed explanations of nature. He defined the primary source of everything as the apeiron, or the unlimited and infinite. This concept in some ways is similar to the modern conception of space, in its idea of something without end. Anaximenes, the last of the Milesian School, believed that the primary substance was air or vapor. In his view, the thinning and thickening of air gave substance to life. Heraclitus (c. 535–c. 475 bce) thought in much the same way as the earlier nature philosophers. He was also from Ionia, though from Ephesus and not from Miletus. Heraclitus believed in fire as the primary element. Therefore, he thought that all things came from and returned to fire. Even though everything was always changing, changes were structured by the Logos, the logic of the universe. The human soul, according to Heraclitus, was but one part of the universal fire.

A second major school of thought revolved around the mathematician Pythagoras (c. 582–c. 507 bce), who believed that the universe could be explained in terms of numbers. Pythagoras was a native of the Greek island of Samos. He and his followers formed a religious/philosophical society in southern Italy that practiced secret rites and believed in metempsychosis, the doctrine, or set of beliefs, that states that after death the soul moves from one person to another, or even to an animal or an object. The unity of the world, as far as Pythagoreans were concerned, could be found not in a physical substance but in the relations of numbers, as seen in the regular progress of musical chords and harmonies. Pythagoras, for example, is credited with discovering the numerical relations of tones to divisions of a stretched string. He developed a numerical system to explain the harmony generated by these tones that is still in use in modern music. For the followers of Pythagoras, the aim of human life was to live in harmony with these numerical relationships.

About Greco-Roman Philosophy

  • Belief. Reason and rational thought can provide answers about the origin and nature of the cosmos without involving the supernatural or gods.
  • Followers. Those who turned to philosophy often did so because Greco-Roman religion did not address their questions about nature and existence. As the religion declined in popularity, more people turned to philosophy for answers.
  • Name of God. Logos, or reason and defining pattern, was used by several Greek philosophers to denote the way matter and all life is organized. Logos was not, however, considered a god, but a concept or ideal.
  • Symbols. There is no symbol that represents Greco-Roman philosophy.
  • Texts. Plato's The Republic is the most influential single text from Greco-Roman philosophy.
  • Sites. Athens, Greece, is often viewed as the seat of Greek learning.
  • Phrases. "Know thyself" might be considered the most important phrase of Greco-Roman philosophy.

Italy was also home to the Eleatic School, named for the location of its major thinkers in Elea, Italy. Some say the founder of this tradition was Xenophanes (c. 570–c. 480 bce) of Colophon. Others give credit to Parmenides (born c. 511 bce). Xenophanes was the first of the so-called pantheists, who found God in everything. For him, the deities of Greek religion and mythology were misrepresentations of the reality of the universe. God, he insisted, was in no way similar to the humanlike pantheon of Greek deities. Rather, God had no physical being and was eternal and universal. Parmenides, on the other hand, argued that being itself was the one and only constant reality. All changes were simply illusions of the senses. Therefore, only the use of reason, without the use of the senses, could bring humans close to an understanding of the real truth of existence.

Empedocles and the four elements

An attempt at compromise was proposed by Empedocles (c. 495–c. 435 bce). He thought that the four unchanging elements of earth, water, air, and fire all combined to create the harmonious world of movement and variety experienced by the senses. His work led to a basic law of modern physics. His theory of elements remained in use until the modern era. More ideas about the mixing of elements to create all of matter came from Anaxagoras (c. 500–c. 428 bce). With the rise of Anaxagoras, the center of philosophy moved from the fringes of the empire to Athens, in the heart of Greece. For this philosopher, everything was infinitely divisible into tiny particles of many kinds, which were mixed together by the organizing principle of nous or "mind." This nous was not godlike. It did not create matter, but only organized it.

The work of the fifth-century bce Atomists, who believed that all matter is made up of tiny, indivisible, and indestructible particles, marked a high point in the search for a rational explanation for the existence of the universe. Democritus (c. 460–c. 370 bce) believed that everything was made up of small primary bodies or elements, called atoms. He theorized that these atoms were in constant motion. Heavier atoms formed Earth, while lighter ones made up the planets and stars. He further stated that the senses see the collective presence (the "big picture") rather than the separateness and diversity of atoms. Therefore, the senses could not be trusted to understand ultimate reality. Thought and the mind were the instruments to be used for such a goal.

One other important early school of philosophy was formed by the Sophists of the fifth century bce. The Sophists were teachers in Athens who were skeptical about what the human mind could know. Protagoras (c. 490–c. 421 bce) was one of the better-known Sophists. He believed that truth is relative, depending on perspective or point of view. He is famous for saying, "Man is the measure of all things." Rather than rejecting the senses as tools to be used in the search for knowledge and truth, the Sophists believed that all knowledge was necessarily based on information gathered by the senses. Finding truth on both sides of an argument, because all truth depends on perspective, became a cornerstone in Western education.

Socrates and Plato

With Socrates (469–399 bce), Greek philosophy entered a new period. The Sophists had already shifted discussions away from the substance of nature, or natural science, to the realm of morality and society. Morality is a system of acceptable human behavior. Socrates deepened and expanded the trend. He dismissed the material and physical theories of earlier thinkers to focus on the thoughts and opinions of individuals. This led him to inquire into the nature of such virtues as courage, justice, and morality. He developed an ethical system of behavior rather than attempting to explain origins or the afterlife. Socrates wrote nothing down, and what is known of him comes from his pupils, especially Plato (428–348 bce).

Socrates is understood to have lived by the principles that he created. He famously stated that he knew nothing but the fact that he knew nothing. For him, questions of metaphysics were unimportant. (Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that deals with explanations about what brought the world into being, and the nature of space, time, God, and the afterlife.) He believed that the soul was the source of a person's consciousness and morality, and that true understanding should lead to the living of a good life. He emphasized that one could live a good life by questioning one's own preconceived notions, particularly through a method of self-examination called elenchus. This method ultimately led to the well-known Socratic method called the dialectic, or finding the truth through questioning and considering opposing beliefs and then modifying one's own beliefs. Socrates was brought to trial and executed in 399 bce on the charges of disbelieving in the gods and corrupting the young people of Athens through his teachings.

The teachings of Socrates gave rise to many schools. Perhaps his most important student was Plato, whose teachings and writings, such as The Republic, have been among the most influential in Western philosophy. Plato's writings consist primarily of dialogues, or conversations, usually with Socrates as one of the speakers. Plato wrote about moral virtue, how to lead a good life, and the nature of knowledge. He also wrote about the immortality of the soul. In fact, Plato was the first of the Greek philosophers to offer an extensive argument concluding that the soul was immortal. In many ways Plato blended much of the work that had come before. His conception was that humans wanted to become one with the bigger and eternal world of the Idea and the Ideal, of which the waking world was only a shadow.

Aristotle (384–322 bce) was a student at Plato's school, the Academy. Aristotle later opened his own school, the Lyceum, and became the tutor to the Greek king and conqueror Alexander the Great (356–323 bce). He wrote about politics, art theory, nature classification, physics (the science of matter and energy and their interactions), and speech. For Aristotle, a person's intellect was his or her most important quality. Aristotle did not try to discover any ultimate reality. Rather, his starting point was the world of reality that humans perceive. He taught that the intellect should be used in the observance of nature. In terms of ethics, he taught a balanced path, featuring the avoidance of extremes. The highest good for anything was the realization of its nature and purpose. Hence, for humans, the highest good was to exercise the specifically human skill of rationality (reasoned thought). Aristotle and Plato were perhaps the most influential of the classical Greek philosophers.

Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Skepticism

Classical philosophy after Aristotle is sometimes called Hellenistic philosophy. The small, independent city-states of ancient Greece were incorporated into the empire founded by Alexander the Great and then later folded into the Roman Empire. New cities and centers of learning were founded, such as Alexandria, Egypt, with a library containing over 700,000 volumes. Indeed, even after the conquest of Greece by Rome in 146 bce Greek schools of thought continued to thrive. Alongside the followers of Aristotle, who continued to spread his ideas, three other major schools of thought were later developed: Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Skepticism. These lasted until the Roman Empire was dissolved in 476 ce.

Stoicism, founded by Zeno of Citium (c. 340–265 bce) in about 300 bce, got its name because the original thinkers met in a stoa, or a columned porch. Zeno adapted the Socratic ideas of virtue and blended them with a description of the physical universe as explained by Heraclitus and Aristotle. These ideas were later built upon by Zeno's followers, in particular Chrysippus (c. 280–c. 207 bce), who incorporated some of Plato's theories. Stoics of the Roman period included Epictetus (c. 50–c. 138 ce) and the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (121–180 ce). Epictetus said that happiness came from freedom from internal turmoil, or apathia, a concept similar to Buddhism's nirvana, which is the end of suffering.

Basically, Stoics believed that a moral life should be lived on the principles of physics and ethics. That is, people should pursue knowledge through the use of logical systems of thought. Stoics further believed that all parts of the world were interrelated, part of a huge and unchanging chain of causation (producing an effect). The greatest good was therefore brought about when human and divine will were in harmony and when humans acted in agreement with nature. The ideal virtuous person would approach knowledge from this viewpoint. The Stoics held that although people cannot control what happens to them, they can control how they react to such happenings. In this way, unhappiness is caused, not by the world, but by the individual's reactions to the world. In a sense, Stoicism proposed that people should meet life's challenges with dignity.

The goal of Stoicism was ataraxia, or peace of mind. This was also the goal of Epicureanism, a philosophy founded by Epicurus (341–270 bce). For Epicurus, philosophy was the art of making humans happy. All divine or spiritual elements were made secondary to ethical ones, and pleasure was considered the highest good. This concept of pleasure centered on the avoidance of pain and the attainment of ataraxia through intellectual, rather than physical pleasures. According to Epicurus, people were to live simply and not desire the wrong things. Acting justly and honestly was wise not because of some abstract idea of virtue, but because doing so would prevent a person from suffering any retribution from society. Indeed, Epicureans believed that the soul died with the body and, therefore, death was not to be feared.

The Skeptics formed another Hellenic school of thought, as founded by Pyrrho of Elis (c. 365–275 bce) and expanded by the Roman Sextus Empiricus in about 200 ce. The philosophers of this school doubted the possibility of ever discovering real truth through the senses. As a result, they taught that people should reserve judgment on things and thereby gain release from the tyranny of theories. While they held that the nature of absolute ethical values could never be known, the Skeptics taught that living by the customs of society was wise.

The last of the great Greco-Roman philosophical systems, Neoplatonism, was developed by Plotinus (205–270 ce). An Egyptian of Roman descent, Plotinus traveled in the East and borrowed ideas and practices, such as breath control and meditation (focused thought with the goal of gaining spiritual understanding), from Indian religions. Plotinus added these Eastern ideas to the writings of Plato, and developed the idea of emanation. This idea held that the universe was created by a series of radiations that began in a divine source, like the ripples flowing out from a stone dropped in water. Neoplatonists called this original source "the One." The concept of the One led to the concept of the Logos, or the divine order of things, sometimes called the Divine Mind. Beneath this was the World Soul. All three of these realities were linked together, and Plotinus believed that individuals wanted to return to the Divine Mind and then be absorbed back into the One. Sin was the result of being kept separate from the One. These concepts had a powerful influence on early Christianity. The idea of emanation is very close to the idea developed by Christian theologians to explain the concept of the Trinity, the union of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three divine persons in one God. Moreover, Plotinus's concept of sin is very close to the Christian concept. Sin, for Plotinus, came about from humans being separated from the One, just as in Christian theology sin arises from humankind's separation from God.

Sects and schisms

Greek religion was both a public and private matter. But there were no written rules for the religion, no moral code, no dogma (established opinion) or church teaching. The mystery cults could not properly be called sects, as they were simply another way of honoring various gods. However, what could be called a schism or split in Greek religion came about when the Greek philosophers began to offer counter explanations to the myths about the workings of nature.

There were several instances where philosophy conflicted with religion, but the most famous was the trial and execution of Socrates.

When he was seventy years old, he was charged with impiety: corrupting young people, insulting the gods of Athens, and teaching about new gods. Socrates argued that Apollo, god of wisdom, had given him the duty to search for the truth and to encourage others to do the same. A jury of 501 Athenians (large enough to give a cross-section of Athenian society and too many to bribe) finally condemned him to death; the method was by drinking a poison made from hemlock. Socrates, a strong believer in the rule of law, took the poison. While Socrates may have broken the laws of Athens by teaching new ideas, his real crime was that one of his students betrayed the city during the Peloponnesian War and caused its defeat.

When the Romans adopted Greek religion, they took many of the gods and the myths and simply gave them new names. Like the Greeks, the Romans believed in many gods, each with a different power: some controlled love, others dealt with crops and fertility, and others controlled storms. There were, however, differences in the two religions. The Greeks believed that the gods and goddesses had come to give order to chaos. For Greeks, balance was an important principle. They felt that the gods helped humans to establish a balance between the forces of nature and the forces of law and reason. The Romans, however, were more interested in raw power than in balance. Rome incorporated other foreign gods into its pantheon. Among these were the goddess Cybele from the city of Pessinus in Asia Minor, and Mithra, the ancient Persian god of light and wisdom. Mithra offered the promise of individual salvation through the belief in the immortality of the soul. A mystery cult, Mithraism, grew up around this imported god.

Basic beliefs: Greco-Roman religion

Greek religion was dominated by the Olympian gods, who made their home on Mount Olympus in northern Greece. Even though most sources say there were twelve gods living on Mount Olympus, there are fourteen gods listed next. Hades did not live on Olympus, although most myths about him associate him with the Olympian gods, and Dionysius was a later addition to the pantheon:

Zeus was a sky god, but he also represented order. He maintained order in the universe and in the home, protected strangers who arrived asking for hospitality, punished people who broke their sworn word, and served as god of intellectual thought.

Zeus's wife Hera was the goddess of marriage, childbirth, and women. She was also sacred to herders of cattle; Homer often called her "ox-eyed Hera."

Aphrodite was the goddess of love and beauty.

Ares was the god of war. In warlike Sparta he was held in high regard, but in Athens he was worshipped in the same building where people were tried for murder.


While Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are usually considered the founders of modern Western thought, earlier thinkers also significantly influenced Western civilization. One of the most interesting of these thinkers was Heraclitus, who was born to a noble family in Ephesus in about 535 bce. Though he came a generation later than the Milesian School, Heraclitus continued their tradition of looking for the fundamental substance of all matter. Unlike the other philosophers of Asia Minor, he claimed that everything came from fire. With such a volatile element as his core substance, Heraclitus went on to argue that change was the only reality in the cosmos and that stability was mere illusion. One of his most famous sayings is "We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not." Although the universe was held to be in continual flux, the Logos, literally meaning "word" or "logic," served as an ordering principle. This concept influenced not only Plato but also the Neoplatonists. According to Heraclitus, the soul was part of the cosmic fire, and only one universal soul truly existed. Heraclitus's model of nature essentially underlies all modern physics and metaphysics.

Heraclitus has a dominant position in Greco-Roman philosophy despite the fact that little of his original writings still exist. Indeed, the 120 surviving pieces of his thought, in the form of short quotations, are referred to as the Fragments in various modern editions of his work. Because of the brief, mysterious nature of his prose, he was often called the "obscurer" or the "riddler." His poetic statements have more in common with the lyrical Dao De Jing of ancient Chinese philosophy than with other early Greek philosophy. Many scholars have pointed out Heraclitus's links with Eastern religions. For example, the idea of permanent flux or change is similar to the Buddhist concept of impermanence. The Logos is often equated with the Dao, or the Way, in Daoist belief.

Athena was the goddess of wisdom. According to Greek myth, she was not born the way that her fellow gods were born, but sprang directly from Zeus's forehead. Because she was the protector and defender of Athens, she is often depicted as armed.

Artemis, the goddess of hunting and wild places, was also a moon goddess. She was Apollo's twin sister, and young men and girls held her sacred because she was a virgin.

Hermes was the messenger of the gods.

Apollo was the sun god and the god of music and prophesy, or predictions on the future. He also represented law and order, appearing in court in Aeschylus's plays.

Hephaestus was the god of fire and crafts requiring fire, such as metalworking. He was also the god of volcanoes.

Poseidon was the god of the sea, but he was also god of horses and earthquakes.

Hestia was the goddess of the home and hearth. In that role, she served as the protectress of order within the family. Although she was worshipped in households throughout Greece, the center of her cult was at Delphi, where her sacred hearth was kept.

Demeter was the goddess of agriculture and, some critics say, may have been a version of the Earth Mother worshipped by prehistoric Europeans.

Hades was the god of the underworld.

Dionysius was the god of wine, fruit, fertility, and ecstasy (joy). Dionysius's myth is much more complex than that of the other Olympians. As a child, the story goes, he was torn apart by wild women and spent three years in the underworld. The worship of Dionysius played a significant role in the development of Greek drama.

The Romans adopted this pantheon and gave many of them different names. The Roman gods were, in the same order, Jupiter, Juno, Venus, Mars, Minerva, Diana, Mercury, Apollo, Vulcan, Neptune, Vesta, Ceres, Pluto, and Bacchus. (In parts of the Roman Empire, the emperor was also worshipped as a god.) These gods, along with many minor deities who came to Earth to do the bidding of the gods, controlled the fate of humankind. Zeus also appeared in human form, or even in animal form at times, to father children by mortal women. Some of his sons became the heroes of Greek legend.

Protecting and serving the gods

For both the Greeks and the Romans, worship of the Olympian gods was both a civic responsibility and a personal choice. Although the gods could be approached by individuals petitioning for divine favor, it was much more important that the city or city-state as a whole benefit from the goodwill of the gods. Each city-state had its own protecting god or goddess. For example, Athens had Athena as its patron goddess. One of the most famous Greek temples, the Parthenon, was built to serve as Athena's seat of power on Earth. Hera was the patron goddess of Argos, and Poseidon the patron god of Corinth. The patron goddess of Rome was Roma Dea, who was not one of the Olympian twelve but was nonetheless a very important goddess for Roman citizens.

Priests and priestesses took care of these temples and supervised the official sacrifices to the gods and goddesses. Some priestesses also served as oracles, persons who acted as a medium or messenger between the gods and humans. Greeks would go to oracles to receive messages from the gods in order to determine what they should do in the future. One of the most famous of the oracles was at the temple of Apollo at Delphi, which is located in central Greece.

The Greeks believed in a soul, which they called psyche, but beliefs varied as to whether it survived after death. The traditional belief was that both good and bad souls went to the underworld, Hades, escorted there by the god Hermes. There, those who were evil were punished in a place called Tartaros, while good souls lived in Elysium, a place of eternal happiness and sunlight in a portion of Hades. Others believed that the soul resided in the grave; still others felt that it left the body at death and floated in the sky.


Both Romans and Greeks used myths to explain the creation of the universe and their place in it. For the Greeks, the original gods emerged from chaos and brought order to the universe. The earth goddess, Gaia, and the sky god, Uranus, had children, including Rhea and Chronos. Uranus, however, was afraid of his children's power, and he kept them locked in a cave until finally Chronos challenged him and reestablished order in the universe. Rhea and Chronos then repeated the pattern: they had Zeus, Hestia, Hera, Demeter, Poseidon, and Hades. Chronos, like his father before him, was afraid of his children and swallowed them as they were born. His mother hid the infant Zeus, who later killed his father, cut his brothers and sisters out of the corpse, and then became king of all the gods, creating order from the madness of Chronos's actions.

Though the Romans did not develop a separate myth about the creation of the world itself, they did attach great importance to the founding of Rome. In addition to Virgil's story of the founding of Rome, the Aeneid, there is a second major myth that explains the founding of the city. Romulus and Remus were two brothers, sons of the god of warfare, Mars. They were separated from their mother as infants. They were rescued by a female wolf and then was raised by a shepherd and his wife. When they reached adulthood they discovered their true heritage and established a city on the river Tiber where the she-wolf had fed them. Later, though, they became enemies, competing with each other to be the leader of the new city. Romulus killed his brother and became the king, giving his name to the city he founded, Rome.

Mystery cults

While the worship of the Olympian gods was a civic duty, there were other forms of worship that gave individuals a direct relationship with the divine. In ancient Greece the Eleusinian and Orphic mystery cults offered people the chance to come face-to-face with the god or goddess. A cult is a religion that is regarded as unorthodox, or untraditional; it usually has a small number of followers compared to other religions. Although their mystic rites were kept secret, it is known that they required elaborate initiations, including purification rites (rituals to clean the new members and make them pure), accepting occult or magical knowledge, and acting out a sacred drama.

Many of these mystery cults celebrated a cycle of death and rebirth. The Eleusinian mysteries, held at the sacred site of Eleusis near Athens, for example, reenacted for believers the myth of the goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone. The story tells that Persephone was so beautiful that Hades himself kidnapped her and carried her off to be queen of the underworld. Demeter, mourning for her daughter, caused all growing things to fade. This so alarmed the rest of the gods that they ordered Hades to release Persephone to her mother. Hades could not do so lawfully, however, because Persephone had eaten a tiny amount of food while she was in the underworld, tying her to it. The compromise worked out was that Persephone had to spend six months of the year with Hades in the underworld and six months with her mother. On one level this is a story about the seasons and fertility, but on another it is a story of death and resurrection, or rising from the dead. Historians believe that initiates to the mystery cults were given a chance to symbolically "die" and were then brought symbolically back to life.

The relationship between death and rebirth was also evident in another of the Greek mystery religions: the Orphic Mysteries, centered in Crete. Orpheus, the myth states, was the greatest musician in the world. His wife, Euridice, was killed by a snake bite and her spirit descended into the underworld. Orpheus followed her there, charmed the underworld with his music, and won the right to bring her back to the world of the living, but he was forbidden from looking behind himself on his way back to the surface. Orpheus was unable to keep from looking back and as a result lost Euridice forever. Just like the Eleusinian Mysteries, the Orphic Mysteries celebrated a process of death and rebirth, offering its initiates a chance at life beyond death.

While historians know of other mystery cults active in ancient Greece, such as the Pythagorean Mysteries, details are sketchy or missing. One exception to this was the cult of Dionysius. A fertility god, Dionysius was honored by rituals fully as unique as those of the Orphic or Orphic Mysteries. Dionysius was a relatively new god in the pantheon, not mentioned by Homer. By the fifth century bce he had become one of the more popular gods. During the festivals honoring him, people sang, danced, and performed sacred plays. These plays later developed into classical Greek drama, which in turn influenced the structure of Western theater. In Rome the mysteries of Bacchus, the god of wine, were also observed in what is called the Bacchanalia. Though these celebrations of Bacchus began as religious celebrations, over time they became simply an excuse for drunkenness and immoral behavior and were banned in Rome in 186 bce.

Basic beliefs: Greco-Roman philosophy

Three main features are found in all of Greco-Roman philosophy. The first is the attempt to understand the existence and function of the universe in natural instead of supernatural terms. The second is the desire to guide conduct by understanding the nature of reality and the place of human beings and human behavior in the greater scheme of things. The third is critical thinking. This involves a careful examination of the foundations upon which ideas rely.

Ancient Greek philosophy was the first system of thought to propose rational conceptions, or ideas, of how the universe came into being and how it is constructed. Until about 2,500 years ago thinkers attributed the existence of the universe to divine forces, such as gods. Beginning with the Milesian School, Greek philosophers searched for the basic substances that made up the universe and drove it. Early philosophers, such as Thales, Pythagoras, Heraclitus, and Parmenides, believed that the ultimate basis of reality rested on a single kind of substance. This type of belief is now called monism.

Another question widely considered by the Greeks concerned how knowledge was gained. Some, such as Thales and Aristotle, felt that knowledge was attained through the senses (sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste); these thinkers were called empiricists. Others, such as Parmenides and Plato, believed that the mind could gain knowledge without the aid of the senses; these thinkers were called rationalists. Aristotle attempted to resolve the question of how knowledge is gained by categorizing knowledge based on the objects in question and how certain one could be about those objects.

Mathematics, for example, allows certain definitive truths, while human behavior does not. Aristotle proposed four causes that needed to be addressed: (1) the material cause, regarding the material from which objects are made; (2) the formal cause, regarding objects' patterns of form; (3) the efficient cause, regarding how objects came into being; and (4) the final cause, regarding the goals or purposes of objects. The nature of change and stability were also central concerns of Greek philosophers. While Heraclitus, for example, thought the universe featured eternal change, Parmenides declared change an illusion. According to him, reality was constant and never changed.


Many of the Greek philosophers also dealt with ethics, a set of moral principles or values about what is right and what is wrong. Among the pre-Socratic philosophers, Heraclitus taught that humans should not attempt to stop change because change is the way of the world. Therefore, it is wise to be able to adapt. Socrates was the first of the Greek philosophers to make ethics a primary concern. For him, all knowledge came at birth, and this knowledge only needed to be discovered by each individual. A human could never perform wrong actions knowingly. Instead, Socrates argued, immoral behavior was the result of ignorance. For Socrates, knowledge was also more essential than behavior. If a person knew about good and bad, then he or she would act for the good. Plato believed that just as a good society is ruled by a just king, so a good person is controlled by reason that has been nurtured by philosophy. Aristotle, on the other hand, believed that ethical actions were not preordained or universal concepts. Rather, a moral action was one that had a moral outcome. The best life, according to Aristotle, was one following a moderate course, as guided by reason.

Consideration of the supernatural

The question of immortality was also important for Greek philosophers. Heraclitus's notion of the fire-soul comes close to addressing immortality, while the Pythagorean belief in the transmigration of souls (the belief that souls find another body to reside in after death) held that life continued after death, only in different forms. Plato made the first coherent statements about immortality. In fact, through a series of dialogues he sought to prove the immortality of the soul. In his writings Plato repeatedly refers to the reward of the afterlife as an incentive to performing good deeds in the earthly life.

For Aristotle, on the contrary, the pragmatic world of the senses and the categorization of all things, from animals to the forms of drama, left little room for supernatural discussions. Others, such as the Epicureans, firmly denied an afterlife and said that obtaining pleasure on Earth was the sole purpose of life. Linked to this is the doctrine of eternal return, or the belief that everything that happens has happened before and will happen again, since both the universe and time are cyclical. This was a standard feature of Pythagorean and Stoic thought.

Sacred writings

There were no sacred texts in either Greek or Roman religion, but the works of Homer, Hesiod, Ovid, and Virgil do collect and give form to the ancient myths and also to the relations between the gods and goddesses. Homer, in the Iliad and the Odyssey, tells the story of the Trojan War (c. 1200 bce), the tale of a war between the people of Greece and Troy, a powerful rival city on Asia Minor. In these works, Homer organizes the Greek pantheon of gods, carefully noting all the relationships between each of the gods and their individual spheres of power. He also gives order to the legends or myths of these gods, blending sometimes contradictory tales into a system of myths that have survived into modern times. The Homeric Hymns, thirty-four ancient Greek poems to the gods, have also been attributed to Homer, though it seems these were written over a large span of time by a number of different authors. They were meant to be sung during religious rites.

Hesiod furthered the process of collecting the myths and defining the gods with his Theogony, which supplies more information about the relationships between the gods and goddesses. Also, in his Works and Days, he provides a history of what he called the five ages of humans, from the Golden Age, ruled by the god Chronos, to the Silver Age of Zeus, the warlike Bronze Age, the Heroic Age of the Trojan War, and ending with Hesiod's own time, the Iron Age.

Virgil and Ovid provided a similar service for the Romans. In his Aeneid, Virgil transforms the sometimes bickering and petty couple Zeus and Hera into the thundering and all-powerful Roman god Jupiter and the angry Juno. Ovid, in his fifteen-volume Metamorphoses, supplies a history of the world, from creation to Ovid's own age. In doing so, he uses various Greek myths to create his historical survey.

Philosophical texts

While many of the early Greek philosophers, up to and including Socrates, either did not record their thoughts or wrote books and essays that were destroyed, the philosophers from the time of Plato onward did leave books of their teachings. These are essential for understanding the principles of the various philosophical schools. Among pre-Socratic philosophers, a part of Parmenides's work is found in his On Nature. Heraclitus also left behind writing, usually referred to as the Fragments or sometimes the Cosmic Fragments. Several other early philosophers, including Empedocles and Anaxagoras, also left behind brief writings.

Pato's Allegory of the Cave

Plato created one of the most famous analogies (a comparison in story form) in Western thought with his discussion of how much, or little, humans perceive of actual reality. For Plato, reality was divided into a higher and a lower part. The lower part included the physical universe and whatever was learned and experienced through the senses. The higher part, the Ideal, included all of actual reality, eternal and unchanging. Plato explained the visible and constantly changing world as one that merely resembled the higher Ideal world. He said that there existed Forms, or unchanging megaconcepts. Therefore, truth as perceived by humans only approximated the Ideal, or the Form of Truth. Likewise, what humans may see as good is only truly good insofar as it resembles or comes close to the Form of Good.

Plato explained this theory in The Republic by comparing what humans see in their waking lives to what prisoners in a cave might see, the so-called Allegory (symbolic story) of the Cave. These prisoners are chained with their backs to the cave opening. The only images they see are shadows cast upon the wall of the cave by actual objects outside. Thus, what humans, trapped within physical bodies, experience through the senses is only a shadow of actual reality. Plato taught that at death, souls leave their bodies and enter the higher realm of the eternal Forms. There, each soul chooses a new body and life, thus forgetting the lessons learned in the higher realm. Over the course of a lifetime humans are sometimes able to recapture the wisdom hidden within.

The first comprehensive works in Greek philosophy come from Plato. Important among Plato's books are The Republic, Phaedo, Symposium, and Timaeus, in which he attempts to connect the soul, the state, and the cosmos. Aristotle wrote Organum, dealing with logic. He also wrote Physics, Metaphysics, De Anima, De Poetica, and other texts on natural science and physics. The Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius, deals with practical questions surrounding Stoicism

Sacred symbols

There is no one powerful symbol that represents either Greek or Roman religion. Instead, various gods and goddesses have symbols attaching to them. Athena, the patroness of Athens, carried a shield, or aegis, representing her role as a divine protector of the city. The arrow was the symbol for the Greek gods Apollo and Artemis, as well as for Eros, god of love; for the Romans the arrow was the symbol of Cupid, god of love. The arrow was also used on Roman coins to represent the god Mithra. The lightning bolt was a symbol for Zeus and his Roman equivalent, Jupiter. It would be thrown by these sky gods to punish, water, or fertilize the earth or its creatures.

The Greeks also adapted the Egyptian sphinx, the lion with a person's head. The sign or symbol of the sun was also worshipped by the Greeks and Romans as a life-giving source. This could be simply a circle or a stylized sun with rays. The frog was a symbol for fertility for the Romans, often representing Venus, their version of the Greek goddess Aphrodite.


The major form of worship for both Greeks and Roman was sacrifice and prayer. The Greeks felt that all human actions could be influenced by the gods, and it was important for humans to show their reverence or respect for the gods through their actions. They made daily sacrifices to their family or house god or goddess at a simple altar in the courtyard or at the hearth. These sacrifices were generally food or drink; Greeks and Romans would simply share part of each meal with the gods. Animals such as goats, sheep, and birds might also be sacrificed to the gods and the blood served in goblets. Ribbons of flowers were usually placed over the neck of the animal as it was led to the altar and then struck on the head before its blood was drained by cutting its throat. Both Greeks and Romans thought that the larger the offering, the more attention the gods would pay to their needs.

Sacrifices were also made at temples dedicated to the patron god or goddess. These sacrifices were not made inside the temple, but outside, usually on the eastern wall, at altars. These public sacrifices were conducted by priests or priestesses, who were not dedicated experts but officials carrying out their civic duties, like mayors presiding over modern cities. There were no regular services in Greek or Roman religion. There were, however, many regular religious festivals, and then the priests would conduct ritual sacrifices. The highest religious officials in Rome were six women known as the Vestal Virgins. Their name comes from the goddess Vesta, spirit of the hearth and home, whom they served. It was their duty to keep the sacred fire lit in the temple of Vesta.

The daily religion of the people of Greece and Rome was largely conducted in private. Each person could pray to his or her personal god, asking for good health, riches, success, or good luck. Prayers were made standing up with the hands raised and the palms pointing toward the sky. If a person wanted to talk to one of the gods of the underworld, then he or she might stamp on the ground or point his or her hands toward the ground to get the god's attention. In Rome the oldest man in the house usually led the family prayers. Flour and salt would be thrown into the cooking fire each day to keep the household gods happy. Janus, the Roman god of the door, was the most powerful of the household gods. He had two faces: one looking into the house and the other looking out. He let friends in and kept enemies out.

Both Greeks and Romans consulted specialists to learn about the future, priests or priestesses who acted as messengers between humans and the gods. In Greece these priestesses were called oracles, and the most famous of these was the oracle of Delphi. Even military leaders consulted the oracles to see what the future would hold for them. In Rome there were two types of these reporters or interpreters, of the future. The augurs were priests who could read the evidence of a god's will by the flight of birds or by the way sacred chickens ate. Another group of interpreters were called haruspices (literally "gut-gazers"); they read signs of the will of the gods in the organs of sacrificed animals.

Observances and pilgrimages

In Greece, every city-state had its own patron god or goddess and its own schedule of religious festivals and celebrations. In Athens, for example, where Athena was most honored, there were seventy religious holidays each year. These were times for public displays of respect for the gods. There would be religious plays, music, dancing, parades to the temple, sacrifices at the sacred altars, athletic contests, and huge feasts. One the most important annual festivals in Athens was the Anthesteria, which was held in February and honored Athena. Even more important, however, was the Panathenaea, held every four years in honor of Athena. This

Plato's Dialogues

Plato is considered one of the founders of modern Western thought. Most of his writings use Socrates's method of seeking truths through questions and answers of opposing beliefs. This question-and-answer style is known as the Socratic method. In the passage below, Plato's train of thought seeks to reason out how states and societies began. He begins with the question of whether humankind was destroyed in a flood and then tries to determine how survivors would have then ordered their lives to create a new society.

Laws was written in the fourth century bce. It is interesting to note that Plato references a flood as being responsible for the destruction of humankind. This is similar to the biblical story of the Flood, in which Noah is warned that God will destroy humankind and builds an ark to house two of each animal. All of them survive a flood of forty days and forty nights. Another flood story is referenced in the ancient Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh. In this story the Mesopotamian gods decide to destroy humankind, but Utnapishtim is warned in advance and is able to build a great ship, on which he allowed humans and animals. The flood of The Epic of Gilgamesh is said to have lasted six days and seven nights.


If a man wants to know the origin of states and societies, he should behold them from the point of view of time. Thousands of cities have come into being and have passed away again in infinite ages, every one of them having had endless forms of government; and if we can ascertain [determine] the cause of these changes in states, that will probably explain their origin. What do you think of ancient traditions about deluges [floods] and destructions of mankind, and the preservation of a remnant [remainder]? "Every one believes in them." Then let us suppose the world to have been destroyed by a deluge. The survivors would be hill-shepherds, small sparks of the human race, dwelling in isolation, and unacquainted [unfamiliar] with the arts and vices [bad behaviors] of civilization. We may further suppose that the cities on the plain and on the coast have been swept away, and that all inventions, and every sort of knowledge, have perished [been destroyed]…. -After the great destruction we may imagine that the earth was a desert, in which there were a herd or two of oxen and a few goats, hardly enough to support those who tended them; while of politics and governments the survivors would know nothing. And out of this state of things have arisen arts and laws, and a great deal of virtue and a great deal of vice; little by little the world has come to be what it is…. In those days they were neither poor nor rich, and there was no insolence [disrespect] or injustice among them; for they were of noble natures, and lived up to their principles, and believed what they were told…. May we not suppose that government arose out of the union of single families who survived the destruction, and were under the rule of patriarchs [respectable men], because they had originally descended from a single father and mother? "That is very probable."

 Plato. Laws. In The Dialogues of Plato, vol. 5. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. London, England: Oxford University Press, 1892. Available online at The Online Library of Liberty.

lasted six days and included music, dancing, feasts, athletic contests, and a huge procession on the sixth day to the Parthenon for sacrifices to the goddess. People from all over Greece might attend one of these gatherings. These were both religious festivals and also times for the Greeks to enjoy themselves. Each spring in Athens the Great Dionysia was held. This was in honor of the fertility god, Dionysius, and dramatic contests were held at the theater named for him. A spring festival, it represented rebirth and new life.

Additionally, there were larger festivals held at various locations throughout Greece that honored the major gods and attracted people from not just one city-state, but from all over Greece. The largest and best known of these was the games at Olympia that celebrated the major god, Zeus. These have evolved into the modern-day Olympic Games. There were other similar religious athletic contests. The Pythian Games were held at Delphi and were dedicated to Apollo. These included musical competitions in addition to athletic ones. The Isthmian Games were held at Corinth and dedicated to Poseidon. Each of these festivals included sacrifices and prayers to the gods.

Initially, the number of religious holidays in Rome were small, but later in the Roman Empire so many festivals were adopted that there were more holidays than workdays per year. Among the more important of the Roman religious festivals were the Saturnalia, Lupercalia, Equiria, and Secular Games. The Saturnalia was celebrated for seven days, from December 17 to 23, during the period in which the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, occurred. All business was suspended, slaves were given temporary freedom, gifts were exchanged, and people generally enjoyed themselves with food and drink. The Lupercalia was an ancient festival originally honoring Lupercus, a country or agricultural god of the Italians. The festival was celebrated on February 15 at the cave of the Lupercal on the Palatine Hill, where the legendary founders of Rome, Romulus, and Remus, were supposed to have been nursed by a wolf. The Equiria, a festival in honor of Mars, god of war, was celebrated on February 27 and March 14, traditionally the time of year when new military campaigns were prepared. Horse races marked this celebration. The Secular Games, which included both athletic spectacles and sacrifices, were held at irregular intervals, traditionally once only in about every century, to mark the beginning of a new era.


For Greeks, a visit to Delphi constituted a form or pilgrimage or holy journey. This was the site of the temple of the Delphic oracle, the famous priestess who sat on a stool over a deep chasm. She would go into a dream state and begin to speak the words she heard from the gods. Only men, however, were able to approach her. Delphi may also have been the source of the Delphinios cult of Apollo.

Major festivals also served as pilgrimages, such as the Panathenaea, the Olympic Games, and the Isthmian Games. There were additionally numerous healing sanctuaries and caves throughout Greece where people would go to pray for good health. Similarly, attendance at events such as the Equiria and the Secular Games were forms of pilgrimage for the ancient Romans.

Everyday living

Religion, more so than the words of the philosophers, influenced the structure of the daily lives of the citizens of ancient Greece and Rome. The daily prayers and sacrifices gave routine and schedule to their lives. No major decisions would be taken in life without first consulting an oracle or other priest who was trained to interpret the future.

Rites of passage

The large cycles of life, or rites of passage, including birth, marriage, and death, were marked by religious observances. Though there were no official baptism or marriage ceremonies, these major rites of passage were celebrated by giving offerings to the gods in hopes for a good future. Various hymns were sung for rites of passage in ancient Greece. A wedding hymn would be sung by the guests before a bride and groom went to their room for the night.

In ancient Greece funerals were especially important. Greeks believed that without a proper funeral, the soul of the dead person would wander forever by the River Styx, which separates this world with the Underworld. At funerals, everyone wore black, and relatives cut their hair short to show respect. The body was washed by family members and dressed in white, and a coin would be placed in the body's mouth: this was the cost of passage on the mythical ferry run by Charon across the River Styx. After a short period of mourning at the house, the body was placed in a coffin and carried by cart or on the shoulders of family members to the graveyard, where it was either buried or burned. If burned, there would be a large fire, and afterwards ashes and bits of bone would be gathered and placed in urns or containers to be put in the family burial place. If buried, the coffin was accompanied by belongings of the dead person to prevent him or her from returning to claim these possessions. The burial was usually in a family plot just outside the walls of the city, and graves were marked by marble columns or slabs. Female members brought offerings of perfume to the grave for several weeks after the funeral.

In Rome, at the birth of a child, men would hit the threshold of the house with tools to keep the wild spirits away. At puberty, or when a young boy started to mature, he would put away the bulla, or protective charm of childhood, and replace his boyhood toga or robe for the toga of manhood. The modern tradition of the bridal veil goes back to the Roman practice of veiling a young woman who was leaving the protection of her father's home for that of her new husband. Similarly, the modern custom of the groom carrying the bride over the threshold of their house comes from ancient Rome. There she would be carried into her new home to avoid the bad luck that was supposed to come if she tripped over the threshold.

When someone died in a house, the corpse was removed feet-first to discourage the ghost from returning. At the Roman religious festival of the Parentalia, in February, the members of a family would make offerings of flowers, corn meal, and wine on the graves of their family's dead. Funerals were major ceremonies for the Romans, with hired mourners and large tombstones erected. Sad songs were sung and played on instruments as the body was put into the ground. Later in Roman history, however, these funerals were held only at night so as to discourage too many people from attending. The souls of the dead were called lares, and the Romans believed that they watched over and protected the household.

Greco-Romanism's influences

Greek and Roman mythology has had a lasting effect in the modern world, especially in literature and art. Without these sources, such works as the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) or the Faerie Queen by Edmund Spenser (c. 1552–1599), or even the works of William Shakespeare (1564–1616) would be unthinkable, for all of them borrowed themes from mythology. Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), the founder of psychoanalysis, or the study of the unconscious mind, borrowed the Oedipus tale from Greek mythology for one of the central principles of his new science. In this myth, an abandoned son unknowingly kills his own father and marries his mother. Likewise, Renaissance painting, such as The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli (1444–1510) would have lacked for inspiration. Mythical themes were the subject for painters from the fourteenth through the nineteenth centuries. The myths of ancient Greece and Rome have inspired operas, novels, and cartoons for children. The first superhero, Hercules, was a Roman adaptation of the Greek hero Herakles. From computer games using mythical characters, to company names such as Nike (named for the Greek goddess of victory), Greek myths continue to have an impact on modern life.

The philosophy that came out of ancient Greece and Rome had a resounding impact in all spheres of thought, not only in the West but also in the Near East, where Muslim scholars preserved the tradition after the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century. It was largely through Arabic texts that the Greek philosophers were re-discovered during the Renaissance, beginning in about the fourteenth century. Greco-Roman thought established the foundations of critical thinking and reasoning characteristic of Western philosophy.

Influences on religion

The Greeks and Romans greatly affected Christianity as well, especially the work of Plato, with his higher and lower realities. His Ideal is compared to the Christian notion of heaven. Plato was also extremely influential in early Christianity in defining the role and power of God. Before Platonic beliefs were blended into early Christianity, the role of God was not clear. With the mixture of Platonic belief, however, God became all-powerful and able to know everything. It was also from the Greeks that the Christian concept of geocentrism arose. This concept holds that the earth is the center of the universe, and that the sun, moon, and stars revolve around it. It was developed by the Greek mathematician and astronomer Ptolemy, who lived in the second century ce.

The Christian apostle, or follower, of Jesus, Paul (died 67 ce; also known as Saint Paul), was well trained in Platonic and other forms of Greek philosophy. Neoplatonism was also a strong influence on Christianity in its concept of Original Sin and the Trinity. Additionally, as Greek was the common language for much of the Middle East at the time of the beginnings of Christianity, early forms of the Bible appeared in Greek translation. Paul, writing in the Bible, at times warned against the dangers of free-thinking and philosophy. He also rejected the schools of Epicureanism and Stoicism, with their emphasis on the material world. Later Christian leaders, however, blended the two schools of thought further. For example, the writings of Plato and Aristotle influenced such Christian writers and scholars as Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) in the creation of his influential Summa Theologica (a summary of theology or religious writings). Here he talks of God as being "infinite," just as Plato and Aristotle had centuries before.

Influences on science

Further, modern Western science would not exist without the foundation laid by Greek thinkers. The Atomists anticipated modern atomic theory, and biology is highly indebted to Aristotle and his classification systems. Many Greek philosophers, including Thales and Anaximander, made significant contributions to astronomy. Anaximander was also an early evolutionist, noting from a study of fossils that animals tend to develop from simpler forms into more complex ones. Mathematics was profoundly changed by the Pythagoreans' work with numbers, such as the Pythagorean theorem. Likewise, physics owes much to the work of thinkers such as Empedocles.

The Greek desire to offer rational explanations also contributed to theories of atheism (the rejection of God), and agnosticism (the belief that humans cannot know if God exists or not). Anaxagoras, for example, was the first to present a systematic explanation of the origin and nature of the universe without using supernatural devices. The Skeptics also gave the modern world a distrust of absolute knowledge and a critical viewpoint when examining supposed facts. Much of Greco-Roman philosophy is, in fact, remarkably modern.

For More Information


Barnes, Jonathan. Early Greek Philosophy. New York, NY: Penguin Classics, 2002.

Hadot, Pierre. What Is Ancient Philosophy? Translated by Michael Chase. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2004.

Irwin, Terence. Classical Thought. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Mellor, Ronald, and Marni McGee. The Ancient Roman World. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004.

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