The first emergence of the Greek city-state in the Aegean and the last traces of municipal self-government in the Roman Empire are phases in the history of a single civilization. It may seem a paradox to call this civilization a unity. But the study of Greek and Latin literature leaves no doubt in one’s mind that the difference of language there is less significant than the unity of form, and that one is really dealing with a single literature, the Hellenic…
The unity is even more apparent when, instead of confining our attention to literature, we regard the whole field of civilization. It is not really possible to draw a distinction between Greek history and Roman history. At most one can say that at some point Greek history enters on a phase which it may be convenient to distinguish verbally by connecting it with the name of Rome…
When one studies the Empire one finds that it was essentially a Greek institution. Institutionally it was at bottom a federation of city-states, a solution of the political problem with which Greek society had been wrestling since the fifth century B. C. And even the non-municipal element, the centralized bureaucratic organization which Augustus spread like a fine, almost impalpable net to hold his federation of municipalities together, was largely a fruit of Greek administrative experience.
As papyrology reveals the administrative system of the Ptolemaic Dynasty—the Greek successors of Alexander who preceded the Caesars in the government of Egypt—we are learning that even those institutions of the Empire which have been regarded as most un-Greek may have been borrowed through a Greek intermediary. Imperial jurisprudence, again, interpreted Roman municipal law into the law of a civilization by reading into it the principles of Greek moral philosophy. And Greek, not Latin, was still the language in which most of the greatest literature of the Imperial period was written.
One need only mention works which are still widely read and which have influenced our own civilization—Plutarch’s Lives, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, and the New Testament. They are all written in Greek, and who will venture to assert that the age in which they were written falls outside Greek history, or that the social experience which produced them was not an act in the tragedy of Hellenic civilization?
Even statistically the Empire was more Greek than anything else. Probably a considerable majority of its inhabitants spoke Greek as a lingua franca, if not as their mother-tongue. Nearly all the great industrial and commercial centres were in the Greek or Hellenized provinces. Possibly, during the first two centuries of the Empire, more Greek was spoken than Latin by the proletariat of Rome itself.
The Greek core of the Roman Empire played the part of Western Europe in the modern world. The Latinized provinces were thinly populated, backward, and only superficially initiated into the fraternity of civilization. The pulse of the Empire was driven by a Greek heart, and it beat comparatively feebly in the non-Greek extremities.