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Why Does Rome Dominate Ancient Classical History?


Roman Empire to 395

Roman Empire to 395 With Inserts for Constantinople, Gaul, and the 14 districts of Italy

"An Historical Atlas," by Robert H. Labberton (1885)
Question: Why Does Rome Dominate Ancient Classical History?
Answer: There are many reasons why Rome or Roman history dominates Ancient/Classical History. Although there really is quite a lot on the Greeks, as well, I have a feeling this doesn't help people who have written me because they feel their modern nation of interest has been slighted. Some reasons for "why Rome" are peculiar to this site and/or the Internet; others, with the nature of history, and still others, with the concept of Rome. I shall start with the last.

Rome and Roma

Rome = The Known World
Historically, Rome spread from that city of Roma (founded traditionally in 753 B.C.), first, throughout the Italic peninsula, Italy (Italia), and then, around the Mediterranean, and finally, beyond. Rome can mean the Roman Empire, including its non-Italic parts, northern Africa, the Balkans, southern and western Europe, and the eastern Mediterranean. The Roman Empire extended from Britain to Syria and Armenia. So, since Rome meant a good portion of the known world, material on the Roman Empire is less parochial than it sounds.

Roma: might be a better term than Rome, but being a foreign term, it might also be confusing. The popular historical fiction writer Steven Saylor successfully uses the term Roma as the title of the first of his most recent ancient series, whose sequel is [The Roman] Empire. In his earlier, Gordianus the finder series, which he calls Roma sub rosa, Roma refers mostly to the city of Rome itself or the divine personification of Rome.

Greece and Empire: Before Rome became such a major player in the ancient world there was Alexander the Great, who in only a few years took Greek culture all the way to India, following the swath cut by the Persians, so in those days, reference to the Greek or Persian world would have meant more than, in the one case, modern Greece, and in the other, modern Iran. Upon Alexander's demise, his empire was divided up, gradually losing out to Rome and the Parthians.

Writing: Pre-history vs. History

Archaeologists divide the eras of man into periods like the Bronze Age and Iron Age. Following the era of iron implements comes the Roman period.

It is the nature of history that it relies primarily on written documents. Archaeology and art history supplement the written material, but for most purposes, if the area lacks written documents, you're dealing with pre-history, not ancient history.

Cuneiform: Although evidence may emerge that cuneiform is not the earliest script, for now, history starts with cuneiform inscriptions.

Classical History: refers to the classical world, and that is, basically, Greece and Rome, although it can include the rest of the Mediterranean. This site is called Ancient/Classical History, meaning it covers history of the ancient world, with a focus on Greece and Rome. Other ancient areas are covered more shallowly, for reasons explained below.

History Began: There are arguments for saying history began in 5th century B.C. Greece with the "father of history", Herodotus, who writes about the Greco-Persian Wars. There were other historical writers, but the next great name in Greek history is Thucydides, who writes about the Peloponnesian War. You'll find a good deal of material on this site covering these periods -- since there are historical documents covering them. Some of the material in these early historical documents wouldn't pass muster with modern standards of history, but that's a separate issue. There are references, and, while debated for two and a half millennia, we have some idea what went on.

Accuracy Problems
Not Even Rome Immune

Elsewhere in the Mediterranean world, in Egypt, some pharaohs inscribed monuments boasting of their deeds and military accomplishments, and in Mesopotamia/Persia, there are, similarly, references to such things, but they are not in the kind of historical detail found in Greece and Rome. Still less could they be considered objective; rather, they are a type of propaganda or simply lists. Comparatively late (3rd century B.C.), Ashoka posted his edicts in India.

It wasn't until about the 3rd century B.C. that Romans started writing historical documents that we can access. These documents describe much earlier events with questionable reliability.

Reliable Dates

Roman Calendar: Since the Romans gave us the basis for our calendar system -- theirs modified by the Egyptian system via Julius Caesar -- we can even calculate, approximately, when their events occurred with reference to today's Gregorian calendar. It's much harder and often impossible to fix the date for earlier events. That's why most of the events on this day in ancient history lists are Roman. Even Roman dates are mostly approximations.

Greek Calendars: Greece loses out here because the ancient Greeks used a lunar system that doesn't match up well with our modern calendar. In addition, there wasn't a standard system of monthly dating across the Greek poleis. The Greeks did, however, sometimes describe (or inscribe) events with reference to the pan-Hellenic Olympiads, the period between one set of Olympic games and the next, which gives us an approximate year in which to claim an event took place. Their historical period begins with the 1st Olympiad, a few decades before the founding of Rome.

Fonts and Language

Translation Problems: For the purposes of history, reading documents in translation is better than nothing, even poetic and/or religious writing like the Sanskrit Vedas and the Hebrew Bible, but being able to verify details by reference to the original (let alone archaeologically or astronomically verifiable events) means fewer inaccuracies and over-generalizations. Unfortunately, even if I could read the ancient languages, it is hard to represent non-Roman scripts suitably for all computers, so I don't, which contributes to the Roman/Latin bias of this site.

The Short Answer

The short answer is that the classical civilizations of Rome and Greece dominate this site on Ancient/Classical History because they dominate the written history about the ancient world that has survived from the period.

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