Did you know that “democracy” comes from Greek and means people’s rule? Also, did you know that “republic” comes from the Latin “res publica,” meaning public interest? Many words and ideas that our civilization is built on come from only three cities in the Mediterranean: Rome, Athens, and Jerusalem.
Logic and Reason
When we try to make sense of the world, we use logic and reason. It was the ancient Greek philosophers of Athens that invented these concepts and studied them. Logic and philosophy come from the Greek “logos,” meaning idea or word, and “philosophia,” meaning love of wisdom.
Later, Greece was conquered by Rome, but the Romans admired the Greeks so much that they adopted the culture’s philosophy. Romans valued thinking and used the word “rationare” for making a logical argument. This became the word reason.
If you think logically about the world in a systematic way, you are doing science, which comes from the Latin word “scientia,” meaning knowledge. Latin was the language of the Romans. They borrowed this word from the Greek “skhizein,” which means to cut or divide. They thought of science as dividing the world into many different pieces to see if they could understand how it worked.
It was the Greeks that invented democracy, and the Romans built on their idea to create a republic. When the American Founding Fathers created the Constitution, they modeled it on the insights from Rome and Athens.
About 2,500 years ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote the influential book “ta politika,” meaning affairs of state. That gave us the word politics!
In addition to Rome and Athens, one more city has shaped our civilization: Jerusalem. It is the city in which Jesus Christ was crucified and gave rise to Christianity. The word Christ comes from the Greek “khristos” and means the anointed. The new religion quickly spread throughout the Roman Empire, and by the fourth century A.D., Rome got its first Christian emperor, Constantine the Great.
Christianity brought some new ideas, namely what the Roman Christians called “imago Dei.” It is the notion that all humans have a divine nature because they are created in the image of God. Because of this, all people are equal in the eyes of God.
Christians promoted the radical idea that all people, regardless of race, nationality, gender, or social status, belonged in communion with God. They had a Greek word for this: “katholikos,” meaning of the whole. The Latin word for this is “universalis” – or universal in English.
Much later, during the Enlightenment, the philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries formulated the idea of universal rights. We find this idea of the image of God and universal rights in the Declaration of Independence, which states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”
End of Slavery
The Greeks and Romans didn’t have the concept of universal rights, and therefore slavery was an accepted practice in the Roman Empire and ancient Greece, just like in the rest of the world at the time.
America and other colonies also had slavery in the beginning, but due to the idea of universal rights, Christians in Britain and America started a movement to end it.
In 1833, the British Parliament enacted the Slavery Abolition Act. Not only did it ban slavery throughout the British Empire, but it also bought slaves their freedom. Many Americans worked toward the end of slavery as well. After a little more time and the Civil War, slavery was ended in the U.S.
Britain and the United States continued to eradicate slavery around the world, and as late as 1962, Saudi Arabia and Yemen agreed under pressure to abolish the long-held practice. However, slavery is still not gone in all areas of the world.
The ideas from these three ancient cities have not only shaped the West but have changed the whole world. Science and reason brought us cars, electricity, and space travel. Christianity ended slavery across much of the globe and brought us universal rights. And it all began in Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem.