Much of Western civilization takes its roots from its Greek and Roman predecessors. While little thought is given to the early cultures of western Europe as the foundations of the modern world, even fewer realize just how much of these cultures still exist in our world today. If an ancient Greek or Roman were to suddenly find themselves in our modern world, although they would be overwhelmed at the vast technological differences, upon inspection, they might find that on a very basic level, they could communicate and understand our society based upon vast amounts of symbolism we have carried over through today.
The basic idea behind using a symbol is that a group uses a particular object or picture to represent an idea or object or even a group of ideas. When a large group of people agree on what a symbol represents, it becomes a cultural symbol. Cultural symbols tend to be passed on to the descendents of a culture as a way of preserving traditions and ideas. Though modern civilization has all but lost the origins or many of its commonly used symbols, these symbols still have meanings and uses similar to what they were used for when they were originally developed.
Take for instance the staff of Asclepios. Sometimes confused with Hermes staff which has a double entwined serpent on a staff with wings. The staff of Asclepios is the symbol for the Greek and Roman god of medicine with a single snake twining around a staff. Just about anywhere in the modern world of Europe and the Americas, even if one cannot speak the language or understand the written word of the area, this seems to be the universally understood symbol for medicine.
What about the Zodiac? Horoscopes are a popular cultural pastime as well as the zodiacs use in modern astronomy. The concept of the zodiac came down from Babylonia, but was infused into the Hellenistic culture of Greece and thus passed onto us with all of the knowledge that was gained from its adoptive culture. The zodiac was the beginning for modern astronomy as it served as the basic reference point for charting stars and planet path patterns and many other stellar events. It also served its purpose as marking growing seasons for agriculture and is still used as ear markers for farmers all over the world to indicate planting and reaping times.
Names. Wow. There are a ton of commercial businesses that use Greek and Roman names to symbolize what they stand for. Companies pick these names because they know that they represent certain qualities that they want the customer to think of when they hear the name. For example, Nike, the winged Goddess of victory who ran like the wind is the name of a very popular running shoe company that has global conglomerates. People in just about every country of the world understand that the word Nike stands for speed.
There are also many terms and phrases that western civilization uses to universally describe certain ideas and situations which come from Greek and Roman mythology. For instance, just about everyone knows what you mean when you say someone opened a Pandora’s box or overcame Herculean odds. What about when you have a Trojan Horse on your computer? Or someone is referred to as having a Midas touch. These are all concepts that arise from ancient Greek and Roman mythology.
Roman Numerals are commonly used to count anything from hours to sequels of cheesy horror movies. The field of mathematics in general owes a lot of its symbolism and systematic workings to the ancient Greeks. They were leaders in technological advancements, science and mathematics. Many of the symbols used in every field of mathematics and science were devised by the Greeks and Romans.
The Greek alphabet, while not as widely used today as it once was plays an integral part of advanced education. Knowledge of the Greek alphabet and its symbols with multiple meanings as letters, words and numbers all in one are considered marks of a well educated individual. Colleges around the world use letters from the Greek alphabet to represent fraternities, sororities and honor societies that draw the student body to excel and come together as a group. Many secret societies which are popular in modern culture use Greek alphabet symbols to represent their membership. The concept of the secret society itself can trace its roots back to at least ancient Greece and Rome where it was highly popularized by society.
The Roman calendar is probably the most widely used symbol that has been passed down to us. The current calendar is based on the Cesarean calendar with 12 months and one extra day every four years. We are still using it relatively unchanged except for a few minor adjustments made by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. The names of the months and days we use are all derived from Roman names.
The tradition of a bride to be wearing an engagement ring on her wedding finger before the wedding can be traced back to Roman marriage rituals of around the second century A.D. The marital status being signified by a gold ring on the third finger of the left hand. During Roman times and for centuries afterwards it was widely believed that this finger contained a sinew which was attached to the heart.The Roman Cross, a very powerful symbol of Christian culture and faith came from the miniaturization of the actual cross which the Romans used as punishment for criminals during the time of Christ and on which Christ was executed for his perceived crimes against the state. This symbol is so powerful it has inspired wars and poets alike and is probably the most predominant symbol of the modern world to have come to us from ancient Rome. It is used to symbolize the Christian struggle over worldly ways among other ideologies of the faith.
Cupid’s arrow, the universal symbol of love, widely pictured on anything from cards to candy derives from the Roman God of love Cupid who would mischievously strike arrows into two mortals hearts to make them fall in love.
The Cornucopia, a symbol widely depicted at holidays like the United States Thanksgiving or other national feasts. It is commonly understood to mean a harvest of plenty and great fortune. The Cornucopia comes from an ancient tale of the Greek god Zeus where it was given as a reward to a kindly Nymph in gratitude for a meal of goats milk and would produce whatever the owner wished.
The eagle is widely accepted as a symbol of power. It was originally thought to be the messanger of the Greek god Zeus and was revered in nature. The eagle is now the national symbol of one of the worlds greatest countries, the United States.
The Peace Symbol or Nero’s Crossis is a broken, upside-down cross. To Roman emperor Nero, who hated and persecuted the early Christians, it meant destruction of Christianity. Revived in the sixties by hippies and others who protested nuclear weapons, Western culture, and Christian values, it now symbolizes a utopian hope for a new age of global peace and earth-centered unity.
A crown of laurel leaves was placed on the head of a Roman ruler or victorious general. The laurel wreath is still widely recognized world wide as a symbol of a great victory or achievement.
There are many, many more examples that could be given of the legacy that the ancient Greeks and Romans have passed down to us. All one has to do is glance over a modern history book to see where some of the greatest symbols of western civilization come from.