In historical terms, it is often useful to speak of the beginning of one era and the end of another. For the people living in those eras, though, the line may not be so clear. When looking at the classical civilizations of antiquity and the Middle Ages which followed, it is clear that Greek and Roman culture and civilization had a large amount of influence on the era. Indeed, the people who lived in the Middle Ages thought of themselves as the successors and natural extension of Roman civilization, and did not see their era as notably different. In light of the influences of Greco-Roman culture on the Middle Ages, it can be more accurately stated that the Middle Ages were a time of blending classical civilization with the other tribes in Western Europe to form the beginnings of what we currently describe as “European” culture.
Classical cultures brought to Europe a shared language, a unifying religion, scholastic literature that would be kept through the tradition of monasticism, vast amounts of knowledge in the arts, and a cultural heritage.
While nations may be divided along geographical lines, cultures are often divided along linguistic ones. This holds true even in contemporary society: those who speak Spanish in the United States are generally considered part of Hipic culture, while Anglophones are divided culturally into dialects. In much the same way, language meant everything to cultural boundaries in the Middle Ages. Latin became the universal language of the European elites and intelligentsia.
The development of a shared language aided in the transmission of knowledge beyond tribal boundaries and made diplomatic relations easier. According to notable linguist John McWhorter’s book The Power of Babel, those who were uneducated at first spoke creoles of Latin and their native tongues, and these creoles turned into languages in their own right (McWhorter, 36). French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian are all heavily influenced both by Latin and by the languages spoken by the other tribes and groups in their region. Language change, however, is a slow process. The language we now consider French, for instance, was not noted to be too different from Latin until 849 A.D. in the Oaths of Strasbourg, “when two grandsons of Charlemagne taking an oath had to concede that the local ‘Latin’ was now too different from Classical Latin for common people to even pretend to comprehend.”
Perhaps the most powerful influence on the Middle Ages came from Rome in the form of the Christian religion. Initially suppressed by Roman authorities, Christianity blossomed in a time when the Roman Empire was quickly fading. While initially, many sects of Christianity used different sets of biblical books for doctrine, the Catholic Church became the dominant church within a few centuries and stayed that way for over a millennium. Roman paganism, as well, was absorbed by the new religion.
Holidays celebrated by the pagans were kept and renamed in the Christian religion, and were changed into worship of notable dates in Christian history. Saturnalia, a Roman holiday celebrated on December 25 and often commemorated with a decorated evergreen tree, became a holiday representing the birth of Christ.
The Catholic Church’s sense of grandeur and splendor was also heavily influenced by Roman culture: by attending and supporting the Catholic Church, the upper classes of the Middle Ages could experience some of the excesses of the previous Roman era without the guilt. With its heavy emphasis on ritual and a multitude of martyrs and saints who acted as minor deities for prayer purposes, Catholicism was an easy conversion for those who had believed in the polytheistic religions of earlier times.
Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular also influenced intellectual developments during the Middle Ages. It could be hotly debated whether this influence was good or bad. On one hand, the Catholic tradition of monasticism kept many ancient texts alive. Early Christian monks and scholars were converts to Christianity from the old religions, and relied heavily on ancient texts, both to copy as manual labor and for their own scholarship. However, Catholicism’s growing influence had a high price: works deemed to be non-Christian were censored – either burned permanently, resulting in the loss of thousands of ancient works, or accessible only to those who were in the Church’s employ.
Many of the works which later began the Renaissance were lost and only copied in the Middle East and North Africa. As the Church tightened its influence, even some of the clergy copying books became illiterate, copying the letters mechanically, by rote.
By keeping literacy in the hands of very few, Catholicism preserved some of the class structure that had dominated Rome: a small, educated majority ruling over a far poorer, ignorant majority. While the loss of classical learning may seem, today, a terrible waste, the truth is that it only affected the wealthiest citizens. Even in Rome, only the wealthy had been able to afford formal education for their children. To the wealthy, the change was minimal as well: rather than sending sons and occasional daughters to school, in the Middle Ages, wealthy families sent sons and occasional daughters to become part of the clergy.
Christian and Jewish doctrines both opposed the idea of making “graven images” or paintings of religious or historical figures. But both the Greek and Roman civilizations had a love for art, sculpture, and architecture, and soon enough Catholicism found itself changing the rules to accommodate classical sensibilities. Art depicting the human form began to appear in the guise of religious paintings and continued in the creation of the first basilicas and cathedrals of the Middle Ages.
Soon, saints and martyrs, as well as notable biblical figures, were depicted in both painting and sculpture – a distinct change from Christian doctrine previously. Once more, Roman culture had seeped into the Middle Ages, most likely without even being noticed. Sadly, though, many of the techniques of the Romans had been lost in the sacks and plunder of Roman cities, and most of Roman painting itself had also been destroyed. Comparing the few surviving Roman paintings (some of which were preserved by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the burial of Pompeii) to the art of the Middle Ages shows that the later artists painted more crudely and two-dimensionally than the Romans – and yet, it was an artifact of Roman culture that they painted at all. Society would be much poorer today if the early Christians had banned all figure painting and sculpture as graven images.
The Roman legal system also had profound effects and influences on European law into the Middle Ages and beyond. In most of Europe, Roman law would be the primary basis of nations’ legal systems until the 18th century and beyond – but before all this, it was lost for centuries. The Justinian codes, issued at the end of the Roman Empire, established the absolute power of monarchs and held the opinions of many esteemed jurists. The Justinian codes established that justice is ruled not by individual cases but by guiding principles – a concept still in use today. Justinian’s codes were the first to discuss the nature of law as it relates to the concept of “injury,” and said that without injury – in other words, harm to a victim – there could be no law broken, as the law was designed only to prevent injury.
Violent, tumultuous times, however, hold little regard for legal scholars, and the Justinian were ignored for centuries in the early Middle Ages as European tribes scrambled to take over the remnants of the Roman Empire. The codes were rediscovered in the 11th century in Northern Italy, and represented a resurgence in classical legal thought. Study of the codes led to the emergence of some of Europe’s first universities. As centuries passed, Roman law was incorporated with aspects of the emerging feudal law system and created legal systems that would last for centuries more.
While it is easy today to see the distinction between Roman culture and the later culture of the Middle Ages, it is important to realize that Greco-Roman culture was not supplanted or replaced by European culture until the classical revival of the Renaissance. Rather, Roman culture was an indispensable part of the Middle Ages. Rome’s unifying influence on the warring tribes of the European continent gave the area an identity and a culture. Where before, there had been only small nations with different languages, different religions, and different cultural practices, Greco-Roman culture blended with each one to create a more sophisticated and complex society. It was the fall of the Roman Empire that tore Europe apart, but in many ways, classical principles and cultural ideas were the only thing that put it back together again.
Craig, Albert M., William A. Graham, Donald Kagan, Steven Ozment, and Frank M. Turner. 7thth ed. Vol. 1. New York: Prentice Hall.
McWhorter, John H. The power of Babel a natural history of language. 1st Perennial ed. New York: Perennial, 2003.
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