• A 'modern Roman' view of how Ancient Rome influences us

    Single Issue VIII

    “Their history is our history”:
    A ‘modern Roman’ view of how ancient Rome influences us
    by Flinn

    The charm of the Colosseum is still intact, despite centuries of abandonment and cannibalization

    Being a "Modern Roman" One of the first things I remember about studying history at school is a recurring question: was the Roman Empire the greatest ever? As Italians, we tend to answer affirmatively to that question, though as someone who has the opportunity to travel a lot around the world and to meet many cultures, I would say that the Roman Empire was indeed very important but not the “most” important (I don't think any empire or old civilization can claim this, indeed), and also that nothing comes out of thin air and that everything happens as a consequence of something that took place before. I now need to point out the fact that I’m not an historian; I do like history in general and, like any other Italian, I’ve been literally overwhelmed by the quantity of information and notions we had to study about Rome. Nevertheless, I can’t claim to be an expert at all. (Actually, there are more experts about Rome’s history outside of our country than inside, I guess because we are largely biased and we tend to focus on the wider picture more than on tiny particulars. Foreigners and tourists are often surprised to see how little we seem to be concerned about Roman history and our TV historical shows are actually mostly focused on other older cultures, such as the Egyptian one or even prehistoric cultures). I don’t live in Rome either, so I can’t claim to be in any way "Roman", but as for anyone else who was born in Italy, their history is our history and what they did still echoes and is visible in our days.

    However, the history of Rome (and of its heirs) starts at the very beginning of the European history, but it’s still a result of many past influences and since when the city was just a heap of huts in a swampy area, its politics, its morale, its religion and its culture were influenced by its neighbors, whether they were friends or foes. If there’s something that always amazed me about the Romans of old, it was their ability to not be bothered at all about recognizing that someone else was doing something better and then copy it, which was their real strong point: the final goal was the greatness of Rome, and every means was good to achieve it. As a broad example: they learned commerce and advanced constructions from the Etruscans, philosophy and arts from the Greeks, the mythologizing of the ruler from the Egyptians, they copied every military tactic they found appropriate, they incorporated all the Gods of the people they conquered, etc, etc. Sure, I don’t believe that the purpose of the first who dwelled in the Seven Hills was anything else than just surviving, but soon after they started to register their history and consider themselves as a “people”, the idea of the greatness of Rome and of its destiny was the common denominator that drove the actions of the greatest of them. Nothing is forever, but the ideas never die, or so they say. That’s exactly what happened with Rome: the heroes came and went, the deeds are forgotten, the people passed away and the symbols of its power faded in the waves of time, but the idea remained, and though it changed and adapted during the centuries, its values and its concepts remained, and actually spread around the World and influenced many new cultures and peoples: this is the main heritage that the Romans left us, the will to “achieve” in a way that will not admit any form of failure, for a “greater” goodness. Almost every major western nation that aimed at dominion used explicit references to the Rome of old, whether in the form of declaring to be their rightful heirs (see for instance the Holy Roman Empire), or in assigning themselves titles that refer to great Romans of old (see the use of the words Kaiser and Tzar, both originating from the word Caesar), or simply by using similarities to identify their form of government (the US was the first country to use the word “Senate” to identify the senior chamber of the parliament, as an example).

    In a more general term, almost every western country’s legislation is based on the Roman Law and the organization of the state and its services (post, police, public road, etc) is largely based and inspired on what the Romans did. In some cases, claiming to be the heir to the Imperial seat of Rome was vital and caused many deeds to happen that largely shaped our history: I guess that we all know of the great Frederick Barbarossa and the sad story of his attempt to reunite the cities of Italy under a single rule, which costed him many years and many tears, struggling to be recognized as the only “Roman” emperor of his times. This is just one of the many examples I could use. Even when not actively pursuing the “imperial dream”, almost every western culture referred to Rome as a term of paragon in many aspects: for the arts (architecture, see the many government palaces and public buildings spread out around Europe or in the US; cinema and visual arts, the classic "Colossals" from the 50s and 60s, the recent success of "The Gladiator", etc), for the “right and law” as mentioned above, for inspiration to do great deeds, for naming our children and so on and on. Latin is of course another obvious bequest: it did not only served for centuries as the only international language in west Europe, but practically every European language has been based on and/or largely influenced by the Latin, thus allowing us with a common base that has helped in keeping our languages close one to the other, with the clear advantage of easier communications. In a certain sense, the Rome of old has enforced the idea that a united Europe was possible and that after all we have common roots, which again is one of the main themes of the last period and that largely influenced the last 60 or 70 years.

    One of my favorite historical characters, Frederick I, the Holy Roman Emperor, (here portrayed as a Crusader, from Wikipedia).

    The influence of the Roman empire extended outside of Europe as well, not just in the whole Mediterranean area, but in the Near and Middle East too (where it mixed with the local Persian, Greek and Egyptian cultures) and probably even in China (there’s a mention about a lost group of captive legionaries, the survivors of the battle of Carre, who ended up somewhere in the Gangsu region as slaves). Besides, the Romans created commercial routes that reached almost everywhere, from the central Africa to the Far East, thus creating even more channels for their culture to spread and for people to know about and to be attracted by them. Many of the main characters of the Roman history were in fact not Romans or even Italians: especially after the conquest of the Greek area and during the whole Imperial period, many were attracted to Rome by its greatness and its fame and some of them certainly brought what they learned back to their homes, thus contributing to further spread the myth of Rome. The idea that a “city” could rule the known world, the Caput Mundi, was in truth revolutionary (and quite unique I would say): it’s not the glory of a single ruler that was pursued, but the glory of a whole people and of its city; I’m convinced that of all the things that the Romans did, the fact that they were able to grow constantly over the centuries and to finally achieve their goal as a unique “force”, is the most important one and their true heritage: when a whole people aims at something, nothing can stop it. No doubt that many acted on their own interest, but always for the glory of Rome; when the city itself became less important and the new rulers started to think as themselves as the center of the world where before this center was Rome, then its glory started to fade and it soon lost its power and its appeal.

    I’m not particularly fond of the idea that the Roman Empire continued into the Byzantine Empire: when Rome ceased to be the center of the power, the idea of its myth faded away and as much as the Byzantines inherited its structure, it was not anymore "Roman" in the true meaning of the term. Religion played a main role here: with putting God at the center of the universe and consequently the Emperor as his “delegate on Earth”, the idea of the people (intended as those who dwell in the city) ruling its fate was lost forever. Rome was nothing else than the culminating point of the development of civilization in the classical period: it incorporated all the knowledge from its predecessors, mixed it with its own “barbaric” and aggressive nature and gave it to the people for them to exploit it for its greatness. It was the greatest democracy ever, where the people were allowed to show their value and to use all the means available to grow personally and to reach to the highest levels if possible, but the people in itself were not central (like it happens with modern democracies), while it was just the mean by which the Res Publica grew and spread out: by increasing the glory of Rome with any mean, included killing their own relatives or families, they dedicated their lives to create a stronger and wider dominion, which in turn granted better conditions for those who followed. Rome never really had an aristocratic class (in the modern sense), and that means something I guess: it was the “kingdom of meritocracy”, where no matter how poor or rich you were born, you still had the same chances of rising among the Greats or beaten down to the dust, because it was only up to you . Every time a similar aptitude is seen in a people, then this people are certainly doing well; the following centuries are full of such examples, though not one reached the heights of Rome nor lasted as long as it did.

    However, as mentioned above, the turning point was the introduction of Christianity as official religion of the Empire: as a matter of fact, the values which were at the base of the Roman culture were codified in the old religion, so with the new course being introduced, step by step those values were lost and the idea of the greatness of Rome was replaced by the new goal of spreading Christianity around the known world. The new religion was probably the thing which benefited most from the imperial infrastructure: along the course of its commercial and military routes it easily spread in the whole empire and was soon known to almost anyone. Many of the early Saints (such as Sant’Agostino, Sant’Ambrogio or San Girolamo, all of them considered as Church Fathers) were not Italians and, in truth, the diffusion was faster and stronger in the provinces than in Italy. Besides, what today are only religious offices, in the early days of the introduction of Christianity were, in fact, administrative positions: the office of Bishops was basically that of a local administrator, amongst whose duties was that of administrating the Mass and attending to other religious duties (we should not forget that historically the figures of the Kings, Consoles and later Emperors were also religious positions in the old Rome). The assimilation of the new religion into the imperial system was also central to grant its shaping and to fight heresy along various centuries: in the early history of the Catholic Church there are different examples where the military force of the Empire was essential to impose the will of the Synods and, as a matter of fact, as soon as the reach of the army became too short, the Church of Rome lost control over the process (which lead to various schisms). Personally, I really doubt that the Christianity would have been so successful if not for the infrastructure of the Roman Empire: call me a fool, but if I have to point at who’s the real successor of the Empire, then it will be the Catholic Church.

    Constantine I the Great, he was the one who moved the capital from Rome to Constantinople; he was also central to the introduction of Christianity as a tolerated Religion

    On a more earthly level, as an Italian I feel like that we have even been affected by the “idea of Rome” too much; for centuries we have considered ourselves to be the center of everything (and we still have many people that believes this), even when Rome itself was largely an abandoned place and the ruins of old were only used as breeding fields. Sure, the presence of the Pope was undoubtedly very important and the Catholic Church played a main role for centuries, none the less the city in itself and the whole Italy were nothing compared to the old period and the extent of the power of the Pope in itself could reach only as far as granted by the various European rulers. But, are we, the Italians, true heirs of the old Rome? It’s a complex question: the first answer that comes to my mind is, yes and no. If we look around, we can’t simply walk anywhere without stumbling on something “Roman”; more than often is something simply abandoned or not well manned, but sometimes it’s stuff that we are still using, probably without even knowing that it’s roman: bridges, roads, aqueducts, tunnels and so on and on. The old Romans changed Italy in a way that it’s difficult to understand and explain: I’m convinced that the big leap forward in Italy during the Renaissance was largely due to the infrastructures that the Romans left behind them; the transport system was already completely developed, and where others had muddy tracks, we had paved roads and stone bridges, which were fundamental to boost the commerce and the economy (that were at the base of the Renaissance, that is). I’m living in an area that is crossed by one of the oldest roman aqueducts (still working) and the land where I built my own vineyard is the same that the Romans reclaimed from swamps more than eighteen centuries ago.

    Aqueduct of Segovia (Spain); many of the Rome's fountains are still served by the original roman aqueducts

    Now I have to be honest, we have not been good kids: there’s a saying in Rome, “Quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini”, which translate into “what the barbarians did not do, the Barberini did”. If you look at some of the most famous Roman monuments, such as the Coliseum or the Circo Massimo, you might believe that they have been damaged by enemies or by the waves of time, but it was not so, unfortunately: for centuries, they were abandoned to themselves, but managed to survive the passage of time (the Romans were, in fact, awesome architects and excellent masons), till during late 15th Century and onwards they became the main source of stone and marble for the new Roman aristocracy’s villas and buildings (hence the mention of the Barberini family). However, in general, we have not given to such monuments the attention they probably deserved, but when you literally bathe in historical stuff, it’s easy to lose interest: in some places like Rome it’s impossible to dig a hole without finding something of archaeological interest and there are huge warehouses filled with artifacts (for the most part broken pots and other stuff of little value) that still have to be checked and classified, and that I doubt will ever be, in all due honesty. But it’s not just a matter of archaeological carelessness, rather a more general disinterest for the “past”, which again I assume is a consequence of the fact that we are immersed in history at many levels; more generally, History isn’t a popular subject in Italy, at least at a scholastic level. The fascination of finding something old is still strong, but more than often is only greed: I’m sure that there are more treasure hunters than historians, and it’s not a case that we have such strict laws about finding (and keeping!) archaeological artifacts. Moreover, the last time we openly referred to old Rome was during the period of Fascism, and many are not really fond of what goes along with that name; nowadays, a lot of people still connect the Roman world with Fascism (the fasces lictorii were a symbol of power and imperium, that’s why they were used by Mussolini, while in any case they are used by many other countries, even nowadays): for instance, a tattoo portraying a typical centurion helm (or a legionnaire) is considered a show of affinity with far right parties.

    The Circo Massimo: left, a reconstruction, right as it is nowadays...

    So far for the “no” part; what about the “yes” one, then? Well, it’s pretty easy in my book: basically, we have inherited many of their vices and almost everything which is related to enjoying life. The word nepotism should be familiar to everyone (it proceeds from the word nepos, nipote in Italian, niece or grandchild in English; this practice became a custom during the Middle Age, but it was common during the Roman age too), which indicates the very bad habit of exploiting personal power (especially political power) to grant privileges and other perks to relatives; to be honest, we are not certainly the only place in the world where this happens, but in Italy it has become a common thing, to the point that no one really ever complains about and even if they do, the object of their complaints couldn’t care less. I don’t think I need to mention the issue with laziness: as much as the truth is far from what people from outside can think, we certainly value the idea of otium, and we give much importance to the time we can spend for ourselves and, in general, to enjoy life. On the positive side, we have fully retained the multicultural aptitude of our ancestors, and even if today we have some xenophobic “insurgencies” (due to the issue with heavy immigration), I’m confident when I say that no one else is as welcoming and uninterested about differences as we are; there’s a little story about: it is said that no matter where you come from, but that when you start to live in Rome, you invariably become a Roman. Our multiculturalism dates back to the time Rome became the center of world, but it surely developed during all the following centuries, to the point that it is enough to move few hundreds of meters from one village to another to find a different dialect and local traditions. I need to mention what multiculturalism is for me: a society which reshape itself continuously, using the best from each culture it gets in contact with, thus creating ever new approaches that could "fit" this culture as much as possible, which is perfectly represented by how the Romans behaved. The passion for food (and wine!) is another thing we certainly inherited from the old Romans and that later developed (mostly due to the many invasions we had) to the point that I doubt you can find the same variety and interest about food as you can in Italy; the word luculliano (meaning sumptuous) openly refers to Lucio Licinio Lucullo, the most famous gourmet of the Roman period. To close the list for the best, the (in)famous skills of Italians in courting and picking up mates surely dates back to the times of old: many of the great ones (such as Cesare or Marco Antonio) were known to be famous lovers and I can guess that there must be a reason if the Latin lover locution is still widely used...

    There are literally tens of thousands of different dishes, and the numbers keep growing!

    In conclusion, I'd like to answer a direct question: where are the heirs of the Romans, then? Nowhere ... and everywhere! No one, not even the Italians, can really claim to be their exclusive heirs and, at the same time, no one can actually state the contrary, because for culture, importance and inspiration, the Roman Empire was certainly that essential for the shaping of our modern times that even those who have not been directly in connection with it, in a way or another end up to be influenced or inspired by it!
    Comments 10 Comments
    1. Alwyn's Avatar
      Alwyn -
      As the new director for the Helios, I am happy to announce that the Helios has returned to posting articles relating to any aspect of history. People who enjoy the reviews by Gen. Chris of historical TV shows and movies do not need to worry - the Helios will continue to publish such reviews. I look forward to working with Flinn, Gen. Chris - and other writers who will be revealed in future. Meanwhile, comments on this article (and suggestions for future Helios articles) are welcome!
    1. SXFighter's Avatar
      SXFighter -
      Speaking from an American perspective, this was a fascinating peek into Italian psychology.

      Other than that I think you have some great points about Roman influence, anyone would be hard-pressed to debate what you've said.

      Very nice article! Although now I'm pretty hungry.
    1. hoho96's Avatar
      hoho96 -
      Amazing article, and fascinating read.

    1. Johnadiw26's Avatar
      Johnadiw26 -
      Wonderful...I agree with SXFighter said, and congratulation for your position as new director for the Helios, I am waiting for the next article.To answer your question about who is the heir of the Romans? it is us.
    1. stevehoos's Avatar
      stevehoos -
      "However, as mentioned above, the turning point was the introduction of Christianity as official religion of the Empire: as a matter of fact, the values which were at the base of the Roman culture were codified in the old religion, so with the new course being introduced, step by step those values were lost and the idea of the greatness of Rome was replaced by the new goal of spreading Christianity around the known world."
      Very well written.
      However I knew that this article would take a jab at Christianity. So it was the "values" that Christianity replaced that led to the fall of the greatness of the Roman empire? There's no mention of hyperinflation, over expansion, or just plain power hungry tyranny. Christianity could have never dropped its search lights on the Roman Boot and the same outcome was inevitable. Is there an Edward Gibbon quote in the preface?
    1. Alwyn's Avatar
      Alwyn -
      Thanks, everyone, for your comments on Flinn's article! Like SXFighter, I was hungry too after reading this!

      stevehoos asked if there was an Edward Gibbon quote - were you asking about the quote "Their history is our history"? This quote came from the last sentence of the first paragraph; it summarised the argument in the article, which is why it was used as part of the title.

      stevehoos, it sounds as if you might find the article's depiction of Christianity offensive, since it appears to blame the fall of the Roman Empire on Christianity. Obviously, I cannot speak for Flinn; I can tell you my thinking, for what it's worth. Yes, economic problems, over expansion, hunger for power and tyranny undermined the empire and its eventual fall was probably inevitable. There is a long list of possible reasons for the fall of Rome. Over expansion is one possible explanation; one historian argued that it was the failure of the empire to keep expanding which triggered its fall (perhaps both are true).

      Is Flinn's article taking a jab at Christianity? Maybe - and yet I wonder if Flinn's argument is more nuanced than simply saying that 'Christianity ended the empire'.

      Flinn argued that "Religion played a main role here: with putting God at the center of the universe and consequently the Emperor as his “delegate on Earth”, the idea of the people (intended as those who dwell in the city) ruling its fate was lost forever." This could be seen as a criticism of Christianity. It could also be seen as saying that Christianity is opposed to the republican ideal of the people's rule. In other words, it could be seen as criticism of claims by monarchs to rule 'by divine right' (as King Charles I of England claimed to do, before the Civil War in the 1640s). In other words, this can be seen as a criticism of the misuse of Christianity by a powerful ruler, an attempt to silence dissenters - not an authentic expression of Christian faith.

      Flinn also argued that "the turning point was the introduction of Christianity as official religion of the Empire". As before, this could be seen as a condemnation of Christianity - however, that it not the only possible interpretation. This could be seen, not as an attack on Christianity, but on the fusion of Church and State. Flinn mentions "The assimilation of the new religion into the imperial system" which seems to support the view that it was the integration of the church and the power-hungry, expansionist and tyrannical empire which was the problem.

      Of course, the view that this is a criticism of Christianity relies on the idea that the fall of the empire was a bad thing. Perhaps, if Christianity undermined a system which was (or had become) power-hungry, expansionist and tyrannical, that was not a bad thing?
    1. Dante Von Hespburg's Avatar
      Dante Von Hespburg -
      A fascinating and fantastic article, thoroughly enjoyable to read. I would chime in on the Christianity aspect here- i didn't read it as the 'religion' per say, but Christianity's political-earthly systems were established and the faith 'abused' to cement the ideal of an absolutist authority by shoring up its legitimacy as being 'divine'. Christianity as a temporal structure no doubt had a major role in changing the face of the Empire- making it weaker or stronger depending on perspective and time-period (The Later Eastern Roman Empire- Christianity and the 'fanaticism' it could inspire- particularly with a divinely 'appointed' Emperor could be said to actually have saved the Empire from the encroaching Caliphate through its inspiring of a pseudo-Crusader zeal).
    1. Legatus Legionarii's Avatar
      Legatus Legionarii -
      Thanks for this interesting article and for sharing your view on this topic. I am convinced that the Roman heritage (law, legal and political institutions, language, warfare, administration, the idea of an Empire/imperium), are very recognizable in today's world, certainly in Europe. I read a related article by Mary Beard, in which she reflects on exactly this topic: https://www.theguardian.com/books/20...t-rome-matters, linking experiences the Romans made with similar events and problems we are facing today. In her book S.P.Q.R. - A history of Ancient Rome (2015), which in my opinion brought some fresh interpretation concerning Roman history from its very beginnings into the Imperial era, she also dedicated a chapter to the question of how Rome and her history are still influencing the world of today. For anyone interested in this, I can only recommend this book.
    1. Beavertronius's Avatar
      Beavertronius -
      I enjoyed reading this immensely! Especially the concluding remarks. Looking forward to hearing more from you Flinn, soon I hope
    1. atthias's Avatar
      atthias -
      I like this +rep
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