The Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount are fundamental to what we call ‘western civilisation’. The Greeks knew none of it. Nor did Rome until it was too late. Ancient religion was not about love. As a result, the ancients look to us to be hard-hearted, to be missing something. Aristotle said that ‘it would be strange if one were to say that he loved Zeus’. It would truly have been madness – for a Greek or a Roman.
The Greeks did not see mankind as sinners requiring redemption; nor did they see people trying to behave according to their conscience. Divine favour was won through ritual, by paying formal cult. The most important form of cult was the sacrifice, and the most important of those was the blood sacrifice. (Our word ‘sacrifice’ comes from two Latin words meaning ‘make holy’.)
In imperial Rome, the poet Juvenal said that ‘the public has long since cast off its cares; the people that once bestowed … all else, now… longs eagerly for just two things: bread and circuses.’ In one show put on by Claudius, 19,000 condemned prisoners manned ships for a staged naval battle. They saluted Claudius: ‘Hail Caesar, we who are about to die salute you.’ The audience got a say in whether the loser lived or died. The defeated would then kneel with his hands behind his back or clasping the legs of the victor and ‘take the iron’ when the crowd would yell ‘he has it!’ It sounds rather like a bull-fight. Christians were thrown to the lions out of fear – that the local gods may have been offended and might retaliate. In the less vicious republic, a rebellion of slaves was answered by crucifying 6000 of them on the Appian Way.
Ancient Greece and Rome were by our standards barbaric. Barbarism is the reverse of civilisation. Their constitutional structures were also hopelessly uncivilised. The inability of Greek city-states to live with each other led to their demise. The Romans never developed a decent policy for succession for their rulers. As a result, very few died in their bed. The Empire was run in the way that the SS would have run the Reich after Hitler.
Why then do people say that the ancients or, for that matter, the medieval world, were civilised?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘civilize’ as ‘to make civil; to bring out of a state of barbarism, to instruct in the arts of life; to enlighten and refine’. People who extol ancient Greece and Rome as ‘civilised’ presumably use the word in this final sense. They see ‘enlightenment’ and ‘refinement’ as being enough to outweigh the barbarity of slavery, empire and their unholy religions. They see civilisation even though neither Greece nor Rome had then been blessed with the respect for the dignity of each human life which is elemental to our concept of ‘civilisation’. Unlike Hamlet, the ancients had not heard the beautiful notion ‘that there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.’ They could not have understood Hamlet’s agony about ordained revenge.
In his book, Civilisation, Kenneth Clark said that he didn’t know what ‘civilisation’ was. He then compared a tribal African mask to a sculpture of the Apollo of the Belvedere of the 4th century BC. He said ‘I don’t think that there is any doubt that the Apollo embodies a higher state of civilisation from the mask’. He acknowledged that ‘there was plenty of superstition and cruelty in the Graeco-Roman world’ but said that mankind had at times sought to ‘approach as nearly as possible to an ideal of perfection – reason, justice, physical beauty, all of them in equilibrium’. There are at least three issues here.
First, most people could not give a hoot about and do not appreciate the kinds of ‘enlightenment’ or ‘refinement’ referred to; indeed, most people in a pub would have as much trouble in following what Clark was saying as I do.
Next the relative terms are in any event very variable. If I were choosing art for my home or place of work, I would much prefer the African mask to the Apollo; but, then, I like aboriginal art, which would have been foreign to Clark, and pop art, which would have appalled him. The fact that the Apollo is a ludicrously idealised and stylised portrait of a vain pagan god that Napoleon looted from the Vatican does not add to its charms.
And, finally, it is not much good having a refined ear for Mozart’s Requiem if you can be murdered in your bed, or your having a Ph D for analysing the downward smile of the Mona Lisa if you can be raped or cast into prison forever on the mere say so of a prince or a bishop – or if you just cannot get enough food or water to live.
So, it’s time for the Oxbridge myth of the civilisation of Greece and Rome to be put to sleep forever. Nor do I think this picture changed much during what we call the Middle Ages – but in my view we then reach a stage in our journey where we can see the beginning of what we call civilisation.