By classical civilization, I mean one that form the ethical, governmental, scientific, or lexical foundation for cultures that follow. Such a civilization's impact lasts for centuries if not millennia. There are many examples of these civilizations in our own history. The most obvious examples are the Greek and Roman civilizations which have impacted Western civilizations in countless ways (the words ethical, governmental, scientific and lexical all have Greek/Latin roots). Another example I have in mind is Confucianism, which impacted the sociopolitical systems of many East Asian cultures. On the other side of things, there are have been countless civilizations who have been overshadowed by more influential cultures. Think about the Celts in Northern Europe. Though parts of their culture survived, they were largely Romanised and have little effect on today's society.

But enough history, this is about worldbuilding after all.

For my setting, I am creating several ancient cultures who flourished roughly 500-1000 years prior to the story. I want at least one of these to be a foundation for a neoclassical revival. Why would an ancient civilization be "targeted" by such a movement? Or more to the point, why would one ancient culture overshadow another? This is not to say the civilizations not chosen are completely forgotten or irrelevant. The ancient Babylonians had quite the influence on the more prominent Greek sciences, for example. I'm just looking for some rationale why a certain civilization's influence would be prevalent centuries after that civilization's decline.


2 Answers 2


Breaking your questions apart I have distilled what you are asking down to:

  1. Why would an ancient civilization be "targeted" by such a movement?

  2. Why would one ancient culture overshadow another?

  3. Why a certain civilization's influence would be prevalent centuries after that civilization's decline.

Neoclassicism relates to the arts, architecture and culture.

To reword your first question: Why would a culture choose to emulate and model a past time? I will be using the Roman Empire as my example.

  • What makes a past entity emulable? Past nations and empires worth of emulation usually did a few things.

    1. They simplify the world. Rome accomplished this by conquering and implementing Roman values throughout their territory. The Empire was civilized and beyond were barbarians. This creates a natural bi-polar scenario not dissimilar to the cold war where there were two factions. Dealing with two factions is simpler than dealing with a multitude.

    2. They standardize and make the world smaller. Much like McDonald's today familiarity makes things easier. When you travelled the Roman world you could count on Roman law, transportation networks, infrastructure, security and more. Throw in common coinage and language (at least among the ruling classes) and the world is vastly more accessible.

    3. Peace and stability...Legacy. Sort of. To be worthy of cultural emulation you have to have made a lasting impact on the cultural world. Era's of relative peace and prosperity give people the time to delve into the arts, be that painting or sculpture or philosophy, mathematics...etc etc etc. No one can claim that the Roman era was wholly peaceful but in comparison to the times before and after it certainly was.

    4. Reverence and nostalgia. Those were better days... If the population looks back on a time as a golden age of prosperity and knowledge, progress and promise it makes people wish for the good ol' days. This will be derived from some of the things mentioned in the above points. The empire was powerful, stabilizing and promoted growth...which people living in hard times want. Note that the times may not be as difficult by direct comparison but the ideal of the old empire may appear better than the current state even if that is not strictly true.

This should pretty well explain WHY a civilization would be emulated.

The short version is they simplify the world, making it a more familiar place, in essence making the world smaller. The empire leaves lasting cultural (government or social) institutions, maybe libraries or councils or trade groups, the empire leaves art and architecture that require generations of skill development (several lifetimes of student - teacher - student - teacher growth in knowledge to accomplish), and the current people must believe that the past glory days are something worth returning to.

  • Why would one culture be chosen over another? The answer to this is much simpler, and more practical.

    1. Cultural Familiarity. While there are cultures worthy of emulation the world over, a people are not likely to attempt to emulate a culture that is very different from their own. Europeans are not going to choose to emulate the glory days of the Han Empire in China, nor the Shoguns of Japan simply due to a lack of familiarity and commonality in the two cultures.

    2. Values similarity. Part of culture but worth singling out. The French, German and obviously the Italian nations of the renaissance era obviously have more in common with the Roman Empire than they do with the Mayan empires.

    3. Timeline. What is best remembered? There are layers and layers of history in most of the world. The practical effect of what was great and happened most recently will play a role in what culture is chosen for emulation.

    4. Documentation. A written, usually internally biased history of the empire being emulated helps familiarize a people with what the empire was and represented. Timeline plays a role here. The likelihood of history being preserved has dramatically increased as time has progressed.

Why would a civ's influence be prevalent centuries after its decline?

  • This is mostly a rewording of question #2. The short version being they leave lasting reminders of their greatness be that in culture, art, architecture, science, etc. If the history isn't there to see it's pretty tough to emulate.

A final note.

Counter culture. When you look at the neoclassical revolution in western Europe you can see that it replaced the Baroque and Rococo styles. These were very detailed, elaborate, gold leaf a-go-go styles. Neoclassicism on the other hand was all about simplicity, function and symmetry.

We humans get tired of the same old thing, we want to be different...it's a species wide selective insanity in ways. For proof look at any teenager dealing with their parents.

  • $\begingroup$ Teenagers may pretend they are being different but in reality they are conforming to specific parameters of dress, be it Gothic, or punk, or redneck cowboy, etc. Even rappers have a certain style that must be conformed to--gold chains, hat at 90 degrees, Nike shoes. The list goes on. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 2, 2016 at 20:09

Aside from military conquests and ownership of land, I find that a significant factor to the success and cultural zeitgeist of certain civilizations (Greek, Roman, etc) to be Enlightenment eras.

The Ionian Enlightenment gave way to forward thinkers like Democritus (known for his speculation on atomic theory) and Pythagoras (who needs no introduction.) Its influence stretched into the Hellenistic period, where you had thinkers like Socrates and Aristotle.

Enlightenment eras of the past are the same as modern Enlightenment eras.

But that's what they are - cultural zeitgeists. It wasn't so much individuals who just put forth their hard work and had it mooched off of (you know, like today), it was embodied in the collective conscience of the people. It pervaded society, government, and church.

You need all of society to be in on it. Values of empiricism, ethics, and culture has to be part of the collective where everyone has a shared interest. To accomplish this, give your culture a religion, or some dogmatic (for lack of a better word) system where the primary cultural goal is to simply innovate on everything, and change lots of minds about large questions about our environment through that process of innovation.

For example, we hold on to the past few hundred years because minds have been changed drastically in terms of things like gravity, physics, and medicine (germ theory.)

Your government - which runs by the system or religion - would be more willing to fund projects that adhere to their belief system, in the same way King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella funded Columbus or that King Charles funded Magellan.

You basically have to have a government that's like an oversized Royal Society - it cares not about funding as much for military conquest or funding Guantanamo Bay, but about changing minds and literature that prove to withstand the test of time.

We can't help but think about these times of innovation because everything around us only works because of the innovations made in those times. With our knowledge of thermodynamics, we have refrigeration systems. With knowledge of gravity and relativity, we have GPS.

You would think of these times with a sense of nostalgia, of charm, of simplicity, of a fount of cultural innovation, whether it's the Renaissance or the Enlightenment, because it's tied to the present. You can't be as tied to a past civilization that didn't affect you.

"If I have seen further than other men it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants."

— Isaac Newton


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