GED Social Studies Practice Test: Greek and Roman Civilization

Greek Life and Culture

Today, we look to Greek culture as a basis of Western civilization. Unlike the civilizations of the Fertile Crescent, the Greek civilization was based around the sea (the Mediterranean). One of the greatest things that the Greeks bequeathed to the world is the concept of democracy — the idea that ordinary people could participate in the political life of a civilization.

Unlike the flat plans of the Nile Valley and Mesopotamia, Greece (a term used collectively for the city-states) that arose is hilly and has an irregular coastline. Thus, Greece never had one great kingdom. The two best-known city-states are Athens, a center of civilization of architecture, and Sparta, a city-state that was geared around military preparedness and war. Each Greek city was known as a polis ( political entity). There was little unity, and the Greek city-states often fought one another.

In Athens, the concept of democracy (a compound world combining “people” and “rule”) took hold around 550 B.C.E. All citizens (free men, whether rich or poor, common or noble) could vote. Women and slaves were excluded. Each citizen had one vote, and the majority’s decision decided a matter. Since Athens was relative small, each citizen could participate, and this is known as direct democracy. Today, in large political systems, we elect people to represent us, and this is known as republicanism.

The Greek culture was marked by exquisite architecture (such as the Acropolis, a temple to their patron, the goddess Athena, believed to be the goddess of wisdom); a complex belied system (involving a family of gods); highly sophisticated pottery and poetry; and the development of the theater (drama and comedies). The Greeks were also highly skilled in mathematics and astronomy, and gave the world the first comprehensive system of the study of knowledge, philosophy.

The Acropolis is a high mountain on which there are multiple temples. The largest, the Parthenon, was dedicated to the goddess Athena.

Greek civilizations did not survive for very long. Intra-city warfare, a bloody war with Persia, and the conquering of Greece by Alexander the Great in 334 B.C.E. led to the decline of Greek city-states.


The Roman Empire

One of the greatest and most enduring civilizations of the ancient world was the Roman Empire, based on the Italian Peninsula. The civilization was founded about 1000 B.C.E. and Rome was its first settlement. But it was not until about 700 B.C.E. that Rome became a true city-state. It was centered around farming and herding, and the first kings were elected. After a period of domination by a civilization known as the Etruscans, the Romans staged a successful revolt around 500 B.C.E. and set up a republic, in which officials were elected (or selected) to represent the people and make laws. This is an outgrowth of the direct democracy that was the hallmark of ancient Athens.

The Roman hierarchy was controlled by the Patricians, who were the only people who could actually participate in the running of the state. They tended to be wealthy landowners. People of lower social classes (small farmers, tradesmen and craftsmen) were known as plebeians and made up the vast majority of society. They also served as soldiers and eventually fought for, and received, more rights. Eventually, the plebeians became full citizens (around 280 B.C.E.).

The Roman governmental structure was made up of elected ruling authorities, followed by men who enforced the law (the term “magistrate” is still used today), and then a body of local mayors and tax collectors. Every now and then, the government would appoint a dictator to take power in times of emergency or when quick action was needed. However, the term of a dictator was short, and rule reverted to elected officials.

As the Romans were surrounded by hostile tribes, they had to become skilled warriors. All male citizens (from the age of 17 to 46) received military training and could be called into service. The Roman Army was notable for its discipline and innovation (such as military engineering). The units of the army were known as legions.

Beginning in 343 B.C.E. and continuing to 64 B.C.E., the Romans fought a long series of wars against neighboring tribes and the civilization of Carthage (based in North Africa). Eventually, Rome conquered what is today Greece, Central Europe, Syria, France, Spain, England, north Africa, and parts of the Middle East.

Roman law is one of the most enduring legacies to Western civilization. Law was centered around the concepts of equality and natural law — the idea that all men shared the same needs and rights. In other words, law extended to all, not just to those in positions of power and influence. The first body of Roman law, dating from about 450 B.C.E., was known was the 12 tablets, and it was required that children memorize the laws.

Those who were not Roman citizens were subject to the law as well, and today we have records of legal decisions made by judges. Even today, concepts of Roman law, such as being innocent until proven guilty, having the right to know one’s accuser, and the reasons for being imprisoned, are used.

Roman engineers invented the dome, the aqueduct (used to carry water to distant places), and permanent roads. Bridges built by the Romans — along with walls to keep out invaders — are still in use today. Many buildings were equipped with surprisingly sophisticated heating and cooling systems, and the Roman Empire was also noted for its statuary and public areas (such as the Roman Forum and the Coliseum).

The language of the Roman Empire was Latin, and it forms the basis of the many of today’s modern languages (such as Italian, French, and Spanish).

The Roman Empire eventually descended into civil war and chaos. The end of the Roman Republic was marked by the rise of Julius Caesar around 100 B.C.E. After Caesar, a series of emperors — some good and some bad — ruled the empire. The Emperor Constantine moved the capital to the east, to the new city of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul, in Turkey). German invaders, and later a group known as the Huns (from Central Asia) invaded, led by a fierce warrior named Attila. In 476, a German general entered Rome and destroyed much of the city.

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