Greeks and Romans: dead, but immortal

You, my fellow Sun Devil, live, laugh and love in a world very much affected by dead people. But these dead people are more than just characters in stories to be ignored or biographies to be kept in dusty libraries.

These people were real — living, laughing, loving — assigned, however, to a different century and geographical region. But they are the ones who set the stage for the pilgrims’ experiment in freedom or as we more familiarly call it, America.

These dead people were the famous Greeks and Romans of antiquity, immortalized in the archives of human history. For mental exercise, think about that quarter you just put into the vending machine to buy your Coke or bottle of water. Whose image did it have on it?

George Washington’s. Why did our founders decide to put a presidential bust on our coinage? Was it just to humor our commander-in-chief’s pride?

No. It was a purposeful mimic of the traditions of ancient Rome.

Think also about when you will graduate, after having taken every opportunity to carpe diem (seize the day), since we all know tempus fugit (time flies), you will no longer be a student of ASU, you will be an alumnus or alumna and stay semper fidelis (always faithful) to the Sun Devil way of living.

These little word associations just scratch the surface of the overall effect of Greece and Rome on our daily living, as well as on the social, literary, and especially the political trajectory of America.

As Julia Klein wrote in The Wall Street Journal this weekend, the American founders being “steeped in the classics, looked to Greece and Rome for political precedents. Among their borrowings was the idea of mixed government, but with a twist. The Roman Senate, for example, was composed of an aristocracy whose members served for life. But both Rome and the framers of our Constitution sought to funnel the will of the masses through conservative institutions, walling off the legislature from purely democratic whims.”

Just as the Greek and Roman classics were imperative for the founding fathers, so they are unsurpassable to us, as well.

Too many of us pass up the studying of Latin, Greek, and classical literature because we are terrified that such subjects are not practical or applicable to the unanswered questions, economic troubles, and political dramas of today’s turbulent tide. This is where we are wrong.

While no two people have existed who are 100 percent identical in all of history, we know from Solomon, the ancient King of Israel, that there is still nothing new under the sun.

Interestingly, centuries before Darwin’s “Origin of Species,” one of those dead Romans, the poet Lucretius, in his work “De Rerum Natura” (“On the Nature of the Universe”), had already hypothesized about the theory of evolution.

The manifestation of virtue and the study of sociology in ancient Roman and Greek culture are also noteworthy. Consider the universal human feeling of sympathy for those less fortunate — a characteristic that the ancients argued is what separated us from animals. In many a story, speech or play by Virgil, Cicero and Plautus, can we see how humans will always feel sympathy for those suffering and want to offer help.

And all this is just a smattering of what we can learn from those dead people before us —those antiquated Romans and Greeks.

They were people too, who lived, laughed, and loved – if we ignore them and shun their wisdom, we’ll be the ones whose stories will be shelved in the archives of history — not them.

Reach Catherine at catherine.e.smith@asu.edu


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