Roman Greece

Roman Greece


At this point, the story of Greece normally comes to an end. Yet decline is in many ways as important as rise, and the story of the decline of Greece is in many ways almost as interesting as its rise.

The Romans loved Greece. Horace expressed it well in his epistle to Augustus, outlining the story of Latin Literature . . .

Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit et artis
Intulit agresti Lati

Captured Greece captured  her fierce victor and brought the arts to rustic Latium . . .
– Horace Ep 2.1.156

Athens, Tower of the Winds in  the Roman Agora

The Tower of the Winds, erected in the first century BC in the Roman Agora at Athens.

Athens in particular had immense prestige and flourished as a university town. It took some time to find its niche – in the 80s BC it backed the wrong side and supported Mithridates, and was sacked by Sulla in 86 BC as a result. It backed the wrong side too when it backed Mark Anthony against Augustus, but Augustus soon forgave it and major changes took place. The Agora was transformed:  a new market place was begun by Caesar, to the east of the Agora, and the agora itself was turned into something of a museum.

Athenian Agora C2 AD

Plan of the Agora in the second century A.D, as given in John Camp’s book on The Athenian Agora. Note the Odeion occupying the southern half of the open space and the Temple of Ares to the north. Between them they would have taken away much of the space that would have been available for stalls on market days.

A huge Odeion or concert hall built by Agrippa took up most of the south half, while to the north a temple of Ares was built, or rather re-erected.  It was a temple of the 5th century BC – we do not know where it stood originally – but it was demolished and re-erected in the Agora. Together these buildings transformed the Agora into something more of a museum than a market place, and perhaps rather spoiled the slightly chaotic open space that was the classical agora.

The emperor Nero (AD 54-68) was also a great supporter of Greece.  He fancied himself as an artistic performer and presented himself as a competitor in the Olympic Games, for which technically he was not eligible not being a Greek.  But he was the Emperor so scruples about eligibility were swept away, and inevitably he won all the competitions for which he entered.  We cannot quite be certain of the details because the Roman upper classes did not approve and the historians delighted in presenting him as a buffoon, but Greece certainly benefited.

Statue of giant er-erected in the Agora at Athens

One of the giants erected in the second century in front of the Odeion and later reused. It has now been re-erected in its original position in the archaeological site

Hadrian (AD 117 – 134) was also an enthusiastic supporter of Greece and particularly Athens where he completed the building of the great temple to Olympian Zeus which had been begun in the 6th century BC, but had never been completed.

Sparta too flourished by turning itself into a tourist destination. Whereas Athens was the destination for Roman intellectuals, Sparta was the place for the Roman hearties.  No less than three sets of games were instituted so the Roman visitors could claim they had competed with the best at the Spartan games.  A theatre was built which is today the best preserved classical monument in Sparta and the shrine of Artemis Othia was renovated.  As we have already noted the ancient shrine of Othia was the place where ritual floggings took place to ensure that Spartan youths were toughened up,  but this too became a tourist attraction in the Festival of the Whips – it is after all splendid sport to watch young boys being flogged– but the shrine was surrounded by seating to form a theatre, and it is in the mounds formed by the new seating arrangements that the bronze figurines that testify to the artistic abilities of Sparta in the 8th and 7th century BC were preserved.

Map of Western Greece to show Patras and Nicopolis

In the Roman period, the geography of Greece was reoriented to face westwards, towards Italy and Rome. This map of Western Greece from Graecia Capta by Susan Alcock shows the position of the new towns of Patras and Nikopolis

The geography of Greece was also substantially changed by a Roman re-organisation. Whereas mainland Greece had hitherto looked eastwards across the Aegean Sea to the Greek cities of Anatolia (modern Turkey), Greece now began to face westwards to Italy and Rome.  Greece was divided into three provinces.  The main province was Achaea where the capital was Corinth which had been refounded in 46 BC as a Roman province, and thus for most of the Roman period, Corinth rivalled Athens in size and in importance.  But there were two new towns on the western coast: Patras at the north west corner of the Peloponnese became the main port for sailing to Italy, as it still is today. And then in north western Greece, Augustus founded a new town at Nicopolis (the city of victory), near the site of the Battle of Actium where he finally defeated Mark Anthony.

But by the 3rd century, the standard history of Greece becomes a story of decline and fall.  In AD 267 the Heruli invaded.  The Heruli were a Germanic or perhaps Scythian people who originally lived north of the Black Sea, but they erupted into Greece and caused widespread devastation.  Then a century later in 395, Alaric and his Goths invaded Greece and sacked both Athens and Corinth, in what was to be a trial run for his greatest triumph twenty years later when in 410 he finally sacked Rome itself thereby bringing the Roman Empire to the first of its many “falls”

Nevertheless Athens continued to flourish as the home of Neo-Platonism, the most highbrow of the pagan philosophies.  The end came in 529 when the emperor Justinian outlawed all paganism and thus effectively brought the intellectual life of Athens to an end.  The physical end came in the 580s when the Slavs invaded and some of them at least settled.  In the 7th century the Agora was finally abandoned and covered by a thick layer of earth. When three centuries later the area was finally re-occupied, the former layout was entirely lost.


The ‘other’ story of the archaeologists

This then is the conventional story of Roman Greece as derived from the historians. However this is one of the cases where history and archaeology differ, and a rather different story is told by the archaeologists. For whereas in most of the Roman Empire world, the Roman Empire was a time of boom, when the Pax Romana, the peace imposed by Rome caused the economy to flourish, the archaeology suggests that in Greece, the Roman period was one of decline, one might almost say of economic slump.  History does indeed hint at this, for Pausanias, the great travel writer of the 2nd century AD often remarked on depopulation in the countryside, with shrines being derelict.  Though his remarks have sometimes been shrugged off as being a piece of rhetoric, the depopulation seems real enough: there was a massive emigration from Greece to Rome, for   Greeks were in great demand in Rome both as teachers of the classics and as administrators and managers.  Some may have been brought to Rome as slaves, but many no doubt came of their own free will, seeking high wages and the good life. But the result was that Greece itself became depopulated.

Greece and S Argolid

Map to show the Argolid, and also the other places where field-walking has been carried out, Melos and Boeotia. Map from Beyond the Acropolis.

Archaeology fills this out. One of the greatest advances in archaeology in the late 20th century has been the development of field walking surveys.  The principle is very simple: you get a team of archaeologists, normally students, to walk in line across a ploughed field picking up bits of pottery and flint and any other archaeological debris, putting them in bags and recording where the bags came from.  Analyse the bags, date the pottery, and then you will have the distribution of archaeological sites across the countryside: not just towns and villas, but farms and villages – and even hovels.   You will then have the growth and decline, the booms and slumps of all the various periods within the area of survey – and of all various types, rich and, hopefully poor alike.   A more sophisticated analysis looks at the sites and types of the finds – are there lots of small sites indicating individual isolated farmsteads scattered around the landscape?  Or are there fewer bigger sites meaning villages where people lived and then went out to farm their fields in the countryside?

The method was first popularised by Colin Renfrew and colleagues on the Island of Melos where the obsidian flint comes from.  A similar survey was done by Anthony Snodgrass and John Bintliff in Boeotia,  but the biggest survey, or at least the best published is that done in the southern Argolid by teams from Philadelphia and Stanford Universities.  This is the north western promontory of the Peloponnese, cut off by mountain ranges from the big towns of Argos and Epidaurus, but easily accessible by sea.  It was an ideal survey area, because though not obviously in the mainstream, it was not exactly in the backwoods either, at least to those who came by sea.


Sizes of archaeological sites in the Southern Argolid
Small Medium Large Major Total
Early Bronze Age 13 10 2 25
Middle Bronze Age 3 1 4
Late Bronze Age 13 3 2 18
Geometric 9 3 12
Archaic & Classical 28 5 3 2 38
Classical/hellenistic 56 14 3 2 75
Hellenistic – Middle Roman 16 4 2 1 23
Late Roman 31 12 9 1 53
Middle Byzant/Frankish 27 7 6 1 41


This table, taken from ‘Beyond the Acropolis: a Rural Greek Past’, by Tjeerd van Andel and Curtis Runnels, gives the results of field walking in the southern Argolid  project. Note the decline in the number of sites in the Hellenistic-Middle Roman period, but the increase in the Late Roman period.

The results show a very marked decline in the Roman period, that is after the Hellenistic period in the 3rd and 2nd century BC, but continuing right down into the 3rd or 4th century AD.  Then, surprisingly, there is a revival in the 5th and 6th centuries, when there are almost as many sites as in the Classical period.  The cause for this is surely the rise of Constantinople.  We tend to think that Athens was always the centre of Greece, but following its foundation, Constantinople became the leading Greek city and Athens became a provincial town.  As Constantinople flourished, so did Greece as a whole. and to some extent the history of Greece from the 4th to the 14th century is the history of Constantinople.  And as the 5th and 6th centuries were the period of the greatest flourishing of Constantinople, so they were for much of mainland Greece. But in the seventh century, the Byzantine empire shrank, and this meant that in mainland Greece,  the last flickerings of the glory that was Greece finally came to an end.


Roman Greece concluded

It is interesting to compare the end of Roman Greece with the ending of Rome itself. In both cases the advent of Christianity led to a revival, lasting much of the fourth century in the West, but flourishing  mainly in the fifth and sixth centuries in the East. In many towns, great new basilicas were constructed as churches: a good example is Salamis in Cyprus where the basilicas were in a new part of the city quite distinct from the old agora or market place.

In Greece the first major effect of Christianity came in 393 when the Olympic Games were held for the last time: this really did form the end of an era, for in Greece dating had always been by Olympiad, starting with the date of the first Olympic Games in 776 BC, so the ending of the games really did mean the end of the era

However Athens limped on and it was not until AD 529 that the intellectual end came  when Justinian finally brought to an end the teaching of pagan philosophy – which meant the closure of the ‘universities’ which formed the life-blood of the final era of Athens’ greatness. It is difficult to under emphasise the importance of this: hitherto for nearly 1000 year Greece had intellectually been very ‘modern’, with concepts such as freedom and democracy at the forefront of discussion, even if the pursuit of democracy was even less successful than it is today. Nevertheless politics was a major topic of intellectual discussion, then as now. However with the advent of Christianity, different concerns come to the front: is God the Father of one substance with the Son, or merely of a similar substance? Or should religious images should be forbidden? This is type of concern is entirely alien to us today –  indeed the different heresies that chase after each other in rapid and bewildering succession do not make sense as topics of conversation or discussion today.

The proximate cause of the end of classical Greece is usually given in terms of the invasion of the Slavs from the north, who, just as the German barbarians invaded Western Europe and established their own kingdoms, so the Slavs invaded the Balkans  and established their own rule and the Slavic languages, and even penetrated down into Greece.

But with Greece, as indeed with Rome, the question must be asked, was Greece in the seventh century A.D. by any reasonable definition still Greek? What was the effect of Christianity on the Greek society?

Greek historians like to tell the story of Greece as being the twin story of how classical Greece combined with Christian Greece to form modern Greece. But it is difficult to know how far Classical Greece and Christian Greece can be seen as two sides of the same story.  Christian Greece was totally different to classical Greece, just as Christian Europe was very different to the Roman Empire. Europe only really came through to modernity through the intervention of the Renaissance, a revival not only of classical learning but also of classical thought, and a great challenging of the basis of Christianity.  Sadly there was no Renaissance in the Ottoman world and Christianity still remained the defining feature, indeed it was Christianity that held the very concept of Greek-ness together,  and the questioning of Christian philosophies that the Renaissance introduced was never part of the Greek story.

Let us take a quick look at what happened to Greece in its long dark age and then see how, against all the odds, modern Greece revived and became a proud independent state and let us try to understand some of its problems.

On to Modern Greece

9th May 2016