The Roman Empire has been represented in cultural contributions as diverse as the 1959 American film Ben Hur and the 1979 British film Monty Python’s Life of Brian. The Romans are the villains of the Christians’ New Testament. Yet they are also the people who gave contemporary civilization some of its most practical architectural innovations. Anyone who benefits from a public sewer system should thank the Romans. In history, the Romans were both winners and losers. Their revered empire collapsed. Perhaps it does not deserve to be unquestioningly revered. Below are 10 reasons the Roman Empire does deserve to be thoughtfully examined.
10. The Romans worshipped many deities (many borrowed from the Greeks)
The Romans were polytheists, meaning they worshipped more than one god. One minor god was Nemesis, the god of revenge. From his name comes the English word, “nemesis,” meaning “a rival against whom one seeks revenge.” The primary 12 gods and goddesses, called the di consentes, meaning “associated with the gods” in Latin, were taken from the Greek pantheon of gods and goddesses. Of those 12, the three most important ones were Jupiter, protector of the state (the Greeks’ Zeus), Juno, protector of women (the Greeks’ Hera), and Minerva, goddess of craft and wisdom (the Greeks’ Athena).
The Romans sometimes changed Greek myths so that their morals promoted the values of Roman civilization. While the Greek gods and goddesses were anthropomorphized, the Roman gods and goddesses seldom visited earth. Their power symbolized the hierarchical power of the state.
9. The Romans adopted the practices of the civilizations they conquered
Early in its expansion, the Roman Empire was influenced by the cultures of the Greeks and the Etruscans. The decline of Greece began when the Roman emperor Maximus took the Greek city of Corinth in 146 BCE, though the Greeks retained land in present day Italy. The Etruscans ruled Rome for roughly 100 years before the Romans deposed them. Many of Rome’s architectural innovations were introduced by the Etruscans, including the sewer system, called the Cloaca Maxima; the Temple of Jupiter, on the Capitaline Hill; Rome’s race track; the Circus Maximus; and the Servian Wall (a wall surrounding Rome).
The Romans adopted the Greeks’ religious structure and theatrical genres, though Roman plays are more likely to include stock characters. The Romans’ adoption of some practices of the cultures they conquered was more indicative of practicality than cultural tolerance. They adopted practices that were beneficial to them, regardless of who initiated those practices. In the case of the Britons and other subjects of the empire west of Rome, productive relationships were promoted based on subjects’ willingness to adopt Roman practices.
8. The Roman Empire was actually two empires
By 286 CE, The Roman Empire stretched from present day Britain to the present day Persian Gulf. Invaders regularly threatened the empire, so Emperor Diocletian (284-305 CE) divided it so it could be more easily defended. Maximian ruled the Western Roman Empire from Milan (and led the necessary battles against invaders), while Diocletian ruled the Eastern Roman Empire from near western Anatolia. When Diocletian reorganized territory, he also streamlined authority. Under his rule, both sections of the Roman Empire were theocratic absolute monarchies.
Diocletian consolidated the earlier practices of separating military careers from civil careers and decreasing the authority of the Senate. The Western Roman Empire eventually became the lesser of the two empires. During the rule of Emperor Theodosius I (379-395 CE), Theodosius’ zealous promotion of Christianity, invasions by Germanic tribes, and scarcity of resources all weakened the Western Roman Empire.
7. Roman emperors spread Christianity more systematically than they condemned it
Though Christians were publicly sacrificed during certain periods of the Roman Empire’s history, they were never killed specifically because of their religious beliefs. Nero used Christians as scapegoats in an attempt to discredit the rumor that he himself had started the Great Fire (64 CE). In 250 CE and 303 CE, Decius and Diocletian, respectively, passed edicts requiring Roman citizens to make public sacrifices in front of Roman officials. Though Christians were sometimes offered as sacrifices, they were not specifically targeted in either edict. In both cases, the emperors wanted to quell civil unrest by strengthening their authoritarian governments.
In 313 CE, the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity himself (though perhaps not wholeheartedly). That year, he issued the Edict of Milan, promising tolerance to Christians. Perhaps, as he claimed, Constantine did see a vision of a flaming cross in the sky on the eve of a battle. Perhaps Constantine’s conversion was another example of a Roman adopting a beneficial practice from another culture. Christianity is a monotheistic religion. There is one god who, Constantine claimed, chose the emperor as his divine representative on Earth. Divine rule could have been a strong justification for consolidating one man’s political power. Constantine’s successor, the Emperor Theodosius, persecuted non-Christians.
6. Roman society was openly classist
Roman society was hierarchically structured. However, unlike in a contemporary democracy containing hierarchical power structures, Roman society provided few opportunities for social mobility. There were three classes in Roman society: the patricians, who, according to the Roman author Livy were descendants of the 100 men Romulus chose to form the first Senate; the plebeians, who were the citizenry; and the slaves. After the Conflict of the Orders (500-287 BCE), the process of transitioning between the patrician and plebeian classes become much more fluid. During the Conflict of the Orders, the plebeians asserted their civic authority by seceding from the Roman Empire during wars, which eventually earned them the right to intermarry with members of the patrician class, and assuming roles in governmental organizations such as the consul and the priesthood. In 287 BCE, Hortensian Law ended the Conflict of the Orders by making resolutions passed by the Plebeian Consul binding for all Roman citizens.
Unlike plebeians, slaves had no rights under Roman law. The Romans valued dignity and restraint, but of course those are defined based upon one’s own sociocultural norms. Raping slaves was an accepted practice. For the Romans, the acceptability of a sexual pairing was determined by the status and positioning of the partners, not by their sex or gender. Penetrating a male slave was perfectly acceptable, because the partner of lower social status should always be the one getting penetrated. Beating a slave with a stick was dignified, because the owner was not using his hands. The father of the physician, Galen, reportedly urged his friends not to punch their servants’ mouths, because the owners might injure their own hands.
5. Divorce was not maligned in the Roman Empire
Whether chosen or arranged, a contemporary marriage is considered a personal event. For the Romans, however, marriage was a civic duty. A marriage could create mutually beneficial sociocultural and sociopolitical connections between families. As the head of the family, a father had the authority to promote a marriage that would benefit his household. A divorce, however, was considered a personal matter between the members of a couple, partially because breaking one alliance to form another, more desireable one was a socially accepted practice.
Since wives were the property of their husbands, no divorce required a division of goods, though a man was required to return a woman’s dowry to her family if he divorced her. Men were permitted to divorce their wives without citing a reason, though common reasons included adultery, infertility, consuming wine excessively, and making copies of the household keys. The Justinian Code of 449 CE allowed women to divorce men under certain circumstances. It was not the first such law, but it was the first that did not impose penalties on the woman if her divorce was denied.
4. The Pax Romana lasted 200 years
In 27 BCE Augustus Caesar, nephew of Julius Caesar, became the emperor of the Roman Empire. His reign marked the beginning of the Pax Romana, a Latin phrase meaning “Roman peace.” Augustus’ reforms provided the Pax Romana’s stability. He decreased imperial expansion (admittedly only after gaining land in what are now Spain, Switzerland, Bulgaria, Turkey, and Egypt by defeating Mark Antony). He ordered the building of roads and aqueducts, using concrete made from ash. He decreased the size of the military. He protected sea trade, ordering the navy to capture pirates. He promoted the arts. Horace, Virgil, Ovid, and Livy are all writers whose careers flourished during the Pax Romana.
Though Augustus’ rule, exemplifies the best of the Pax Romana, it outlasted his reign. Incompetent emperors and invasions from Germanic tribes combined to end the Pax Romana in 180 CE.
3. Scholars disagree about why the Roman Empire fell
More accurately, no one can isolate the single most significant factor that led to the Western Roman Empire’s collapse in 476 CE. The Eastern Roman Empire, also called the Byzantine Empire, lasted until the 1400s, when it was conquered by the Ottoman Empire. The division of the Roman Empire into two halves was one factor in its decline. Both halves did not thrive equally, and each half developed distinct sociocultural values.
Other factors: The empire was too large to rule uniformly, and it was vulnerable to invaders, particularly Huns and Germanic tribes. After the third century, some of the Western Roman Empire’s emperors weren’t of Roman descent, and that threatened civic unity. Increasing reliance on mercenaries led to military defeats, and a lack of successful conquests decreased the availability of the slave labor on which the farmers depended. Historian Guy Halsell writes, “The Roman Empire was not murdered […] nor did it die a natural death. It accidentally committed suicide.”
2. English words are inspired by Roman culture
Latin words are still used in the medical and legal professions. However, some English words also come from Roman culture. The Senate was the Romans’ term for their lawmaking body, and a senator was a person who served there. Auditorium is Latin for, “a place for listening.” For the Romans, a circus was any place of entertainment designed in a circle, racetracks included. “Civilized” comes from the Romans’ “civitas” meaning “citizen.”
The Romans contributed the words “emperor” and “gladiator” to the English language. In military academies, a first year cadet is called a “plebe.” This is a shortened form of “plebeian,” the Romans’ term for a lower class citizen.
1. The Romans influenced contemporary governments
Any democracy owes a debt to the Greeks. The concept of democracy, a political system wherein each person receives one vote when legislative governmental matters are being determined, originated in Athens. In Athens, as in any other place democracy is instituted, how personhood was defined determined who actually had the right to vote. The word “democracy” comes from two Greek words, “demos” (people) and “kratos” (power). However, the structure of a contemporary democracy, or any form of government that includes an elected lawmaking body, owes a debt to the Romans. Contemporary democracies are representative democracies.
Like the Romans, voters elect officials, who then vote on policies on behalf of their constituents. The Patrician and Plebeian Consuls were comprised of citizenry from both of the Roman Empire’s social classes. The Senate functioned more like a parliament in a constutional monarchy, insofar as the extent of its powers was largely determined by the ruling emperor. However, members of the Roman Senate were appointed. The Roman Empire’s government was primarily authoritarian, since the emperor created and enforced policy. However, the governmental structures the Romans modeled have inspired other types of governments.