This is a question that was asked by just about everyone I have ever spoken to about Romans, because everyone thinks they’re hilarious. You know when you’re working in retail and you’ve served maybe 8000 people and asked each one if they’d like a bag and you’ve gone into autopilot thinking about taking up smoking for the extra breaks and then something won’t scan properly and you’re waving it about and the the jolly customer says “does that mean it’s free?!!” with a big grin and they’re the 7,999th person to say it that day and you smile far too hard and grind your teeth? This question is a bit like that. Except it happens more at parties and I’m never getting paid to answer it. But it’s all cool, because I love talking about the Romans, and Monty Python.
For the young, the ignorant and the forgetful, this question of course refers to the Monty Python film The Life of Brian and this exchange:
This skit ends listing the benefits of the Roman presence in Judea as follows: the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, public health, and peace. All perfectly reasonable answers and all true to a certain extent. It’s also an old fashioned, somewhat colonialist 19th century viewpoint that depicts the Romans as a homogenising, civilising force bringing technology and advancement and nice things to the savages, which is obviously a little “problematic” to say the least. But that’s Monty Python’s list, and I am a willful contrarian and I like to make things difficult for myself (also super fun at parties), so today I am going to do my own list and I am going to be answering it from a different angle; not what did the Romans do for first century Judea, but what did they do for the twenty-first century west .
Those of you who went to decent schools, where kids probably didn’t get stabbed, likely did Latin at some point. This means you’ll know two things: first that Caecilius is in the garden, and secondly that Latin is a dead language that killed the Romans(1). But think about this for more than 10 seconds, and you’ll realise that Latin is very much alive today, just not the Latin you learnt in school. Latin is the foundation of all Romance languages, French, Spanish, Italian Portuguese, Romanian and a bunch of languages you’ve never heard of like Aragonese.(2) Which means that Latin vocab and certain aspects of grammar remain fundamental to western languages, and in a post-colonial world, huge amounts of Africa and all of America. Even in English, a Germanic language, Latin is important. Not only because of the strong French influence but also in formal language. As a result of classical renaissance, Latin is the language of law, medicine, science and academia. You’ve certainly written etc., et al.,n.b.,. and so on.(3) Broken your tibula? Fallen on your gluteus maximus? Picked any lavendula? Worked pro bono? Or devised an ad hoc solution? Had a long pub discussion about superhero alter egos? Latin is in your life, your life is steeped in Latin and you don’t even slightly appreciate it. Ungrateful.
2. The Arch
When I was 17 I went on a college trip to Greece, including a visit to the ancient site of Olympia, where I got into my first stand up row with a moron about the ancient world.(4) It concerned The Arch, which I had been taught by my wonderful Ancient History A-Level teacher Gill Partington to pronounce with capital letters. Because The Arch is important. At the site of ancient Olympia, there stands two or three almost complete buildings and a covered walkway leading from the temple to the Olympic stadium. Each of these involves arches: an arched window, a doorway, an arched covering. As we – being 10 passionate, mouthy 17 year olds – walked towards the stadium we encountered a group of tourists. “Look” shouted one “look at the beautiful Greek arch!” “No no!” we interjected, drunk on history and teenage arrogance, “the Romans invented the unsupported arch. The Greeks never had the architectural ability! This is all Roman, built by Hadrian! Isn’t that fascinating?” The tourists, sober, American, oddly unhappy about being corrected by English children, all of whom were suspiciously gothy, violently disagreed until we were politely separated by Gill. The Arch is everywhere in Roman architecture, and as a result is everywhere in western architecture. As is concrete, which the Romans also invented. And the unsupported dome, represented in religious architecture the world over. And where there’s not an arch, there’s a flying buttress, which the Romans also invented. Because the Romans were excellent at architecture, maths (even without having a zero) and building cool stuff.
3. Representative Democracy
Oh yeah, it’s getting hot now. I know there’s nothing internet kids enjoy more than discussion of the ancient roots of different forms of political structures. I’m with it. And so are you. Greeks invented democracy, everyone knows this, they’ve built an entire tourism industry on that fact. But Athenian democracy was direct, which meant that for every single issue every eligible citizen (men. Only some men) who wanted to have a say had to traipse up an enormous hill to debate and vote. Which is tedious, time consuming, exhausting and quite annoying. Russell Brand can’t even be bothered to put a cross in a box once every four years, and I avoid Question Time because it’s stressful, so I’m sure you can imagine how difficult getting people to climb a mountain every couple of weeks was.
So when the Romans kicked out their kings and instituted democracy, they decided to do it better -like they did everything. They developed a form of democracy that would work for enormous groups of people, which would be less time consuming and more likely to get people involved but still allow every man a voice. They invented the idea of voting for someone else to represent your views in the actual process of governing. They did this by developing a series of offices, each with very specific roles and responsibilities, lead by two consuls, and each officer was appointed by public vote. After the term of office, consuls could be prosecuted if they were deemed to have been corrupt. This system, which worked in its ideal form for about 2 hours before the political class emerged and corrupted it, forms the basis for all representative democracy today. Particularly, it ideologically underpins American government as the founding father borrowed not only the names of institutions but the ideas of limiting the power of each office and institution to prevent the outbreak of tyranny. That’s going well too.
I’ve talked previously about the enormous size and reach of the Roman empire. And earlier we noted that one of the major benefits of being a part of the empire was long lasting peace. These two attributes, plus a general wealth of the empire, allowed people to travel much more extensively than they otherwise could have, and thus allowed ideas to spread around the Roman world very fast. And for the modern world, the most significant of these ideas was Christianity. It was the Roman desire for conquest which allowed the conditions for Christianity to spread and grow. It was the empire wide persecution of Christians which really raised its profile as a movement. And it was the imperial adoption of Christianity which gave it the final push into full legitimacy. Interestingly, it was also the fall of imperial power in the west which allowed the church to gain the power and influence it enjoyed in the medieval world. It is because of the spread and influence of the Romans that Christianity, which now underpins western philosophy, morality and often law. One of the reasons we have Sunday Opening hours is because of the influence of Christian morality today. In the US, abortion debates which were hammered out in the Roman empire are being applied daily by powerful Christian Right. Without the Roman empire, the structures, peace and leisure that it provided, the church would have had a much harder time becoming the dominant moral and legal force in the western world for almost two millennia. And whatever your religious flavour, however you feel about Christianity or organised religion or whatevs, you have to be impressed by that.
Roman law particularly the sixth century codification in the Justinian Code, enshrined the separation between private law like divorces, and public law like murders. I have no jokes about this. Because it’s boring. Please see your local law professor for more. Though they wont have any jokes either.
6. Pithy Quotes
Finally, the Romans gave us all the pithy quotes a civilisation could desire. The kind of pithy quotes which get reused by people who don’t even know who they’re quoting. How many know that when they paint “who watches the watchmen?” wonkily on New York walls that they are quoting noted first century satirist and renowned misogynist and xenophobe Juvenal? I suspect many think that Alan Moore came up with this all by himself. How many more know that the horribly misused line about bread and circuses is also from Juvenal? The Romans also gave us “the die is cast” to be used ominously by ponces, and “Where there’s life, there’s hope” to be sighed in desperate times. The Romans gave us the last line of the only war poem you remember from school “Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori.
” Latin literature, and the morals and sentiments which they express, remain powerful in western culture, in our books and in out everyday speech. They also gave us the works of Catullus, who offers the best life advice I can offer (and a series of distressing poems about facefucking) “Let us live and love, nor give a damn what sour old men say/The sun that sets may rise again, but when our light has sunk into the earth it is gone forever.”
1. Latin is a language/as dead as dead can be/first it killed the Romans/and now it’s killing me.
2. Spoken in Aragon, Spain. Also such fictional sounding languages as Extremaduran, Mirandese, Mozarabic, Norman, Picard and Romansch. The world is so much stranger than you think.
3. Meaning et cetera (and the rest); et alii (and the others); note bene (note well)
4. If you ever meet me or @flossieraptor, ask about our British Museum row that ended in us being on the receiving end of a series of anti-semetic slurs. It’s quite the tale.