The Impact of the Roman Empire

It’s impossible to escape the history of this city.

Everywhere you look it is filled with ancient sites and monuments to past glories. You can’t escape the history of the Roman Empire either.

The twin pillars of Western civilization merged together in the ending centuries of this two thousand year empire to form the foundations of what we know as European civilization. Today you can still see the dual influence of Hellenistic Culture and Christianity in every ancient stone, statue and structure.

We draw so much from Roman influences. Washington D.C’s monuments use Greco-Roman themes to mimic the glory of Rome and strengthen the legitimacy of the three branches style of government we share with the Senate and People of Rome.

The basis of all Latin languages from Spanish to French to Romanian to Portuguese and Italian all come from the dialect that Romans spoke.

The idea of holding games and competitions in giant stadiums for public entertainment, the public having a say in government, fresh running water, the daily lives of Romans and the urbanization of society are all emulated in our culture today.

Just like we call the United States of America the USA, they too had an abbreviation for their state. Romans called their Republic and Empire SPQR, which stands for the Senate and People of Rome. This abbreviation shows how they conceived of themselves, not as a sprawling, militaristic, conquering empire which they undoubtedly were, but as a publically informed Senatorial three branched government.

The transition from the Republic of Rome to the Roman Empire occured when Julius Caesar marched his army across the Rubicon river to invade Rome itself and depose of the Senate’s true power. Of course publically the Senate remained the highest legal body of the land, but privately the Cesars began to govern with sole authority.

This was a long process that did not start or end with Julius but his actions represent a turning point in our modern interpretations of this ancient state.

In fact the growing disparity of wealth, class conflict, concentration of land in a few hands and the success of previous “dictators in disguise” all laid the groundwork for this momental shift to one (sometimes two) man rule.

Rome during this time transformed from a city built of bricks to one of marble. During this authoritarian phase Roman architecture as we know it today was created. Almost all monumental structures were built after the Senate lost it’s true power and the people no longer had much of a say. The massive public monuments and stadiums were a way to placate a population that had lost it’s political power. Authoritarians love to create collosal architectural projects to display thier weath, status and enduring impact.

Life as a Roman Emperor was not easy. Many were assassinated, most by their own body guards. However, the Roman State lived on.

A period of stability following the switch to Emperors, or Cesars as they were called, is commonly considered one of the best times to live, ever. The line of Cesars from 27 BCE to 192 CE are often considered the height of the Empire and an incredible time to have lived as a Roman citizen. Today you can still see a market and massive column as an enduring testimony to the greatness of of emperors like Trajan.

It is nearly impossible to imagine but the quality of life reached by Roman civilization in this time period was probably only surpassed in Europe around the year 1760 CE or so.

The amount of fresh water that was able to be brought into this city from miles away with incredibly engineered aquedecuts allowed the city of Rome to grow to a nearly impossible size. Modern Rome only reached the same population of the Ancient City in the last few hundred years. In fact no Western city reached the same peaks of ancient Roman population until the 1800s CE.

If you had to pick a time, outside of our own, to live in the past 10,000 or so years of cities existing, you would do well to skip all the way back to the height of the Roman Empire under the so called “Five Good Emperors”.

Running water, sanitation, public theater, fast food stalls, advertisements, shopping in large plazas, living in a well made apartment, general literacy, the amount and variety of foods to choose from, the urban way of life, the art and paintings and population size would all seem familiar to our modern sensitivities. We would feel much more at home in a thriving Roman city then any Medieval or Renaissance or many Early Modern ones.

Most people do not think of history like this.

They assume that quality of life, density of population, literacy and creative or artistic achievements only grow over time. This is not so.

History is not an ever-growing timeline of human progress. The arrow does not always point “upwards”.

Of course this depends on your view of so-called “civilization”, but by Western qualifications the standard of living has not always increased.

Roman ruins were so impressive to Medieval people that some thought giants must have lived here.

The loss of literacy and knowledge of the past contributed greatly to the destruction of many Roman architectural feats. Medieval people tore out stones from monuments, re-carved statues and made monumental buildings like the Coleseum into their own personal fortified apartments.

The buildings that did survive were ones converted into Churches and Cathedrals, then deemed worthy of preservation because of their religious value rather then their ancient cultural one.

The Pantheon is a perfect example. This place of worship was initially created to honor all Mediterranean gods and goddesses, from Egypt to Greece and back, hence the name “Pan Theon”, or “All Relgions”.

This seemingly remarkable religious tolerance was actually widespread. You were free to worship any Roman, Persian, Egyptian etc. deity you wanted.

This free standing concrete dome with internal niches was converted into a Christian church in the late stages of the empire, removing it’s pagan connotations. Because of this religious transformation and loss of original identity the exterior was nearly perfectly preserved as an important place for Christian worship, not plundered for stone and art like many other were.

The architecture of the Pantheon has only recently been matched. The Romans mastered the engineering feat of having a free standing massive dome without the need for supporting columns.

Cathedrals all across Europe for a millennium were unable to do this.

Although the gothic beauty of the interior columns and flying buttresses are undoubted, architecturally they do not match the structural soundness of the Pantheon, built over 1,000 years before Notre Dame. The gothic features were built out of neseccity to keep the towers and domes from collapsing, unable to master the techniques of Roman free standing concrete.

The scale of this ancient Capitol of the World is so grand even today. In my opinion there is only one modern building in all of Rome that even comes close to matching the glory of the Forum at its height.

Even the Coleseum, so impressive today, is only the inner shell of what was once a three ringed stadium. All modern stadiums are based off of this 2,000 year old model. It would seem so familiar to us to have a ticket with out seat number and section on it and be able to grab fast foods and alcohol while watching the games like they did. Given, it was a much more violent set of games. Not everything about ancient Rome was pleasant or appealing to us moderns.

If there weren’t games going on that weekend you could still meet up with some friends, grab a drink at a bar, get some tasty hot food to go and wander around the theater district looking for a play, or just people watch and scrawl some graffiti in an empty alleyway. Something us modern people still do.

The incredible amount of accumulated knowledge and achievements may have slipped out of European minds entirely if it were not for the preservation and reverence that the following Islamic Empires had for Rome. They are considered something of a succesor state, more so than any Medieval European kingdom was, for their scale, Mediterranean orientation, literacy and focus on learning from and preserving the past.

Ancient Greek and Roman texts often only exist today because they were translated from Latin into Arabic during this Islamic golden era. Then, centuries later, they were translated back into the European languages by monks, helping spark the Renaissance movements. We owe much of our cultural heritage and flourishing to the Abbasid and Umayyed Caliphates, a fact mostly unknown to Western people today.

I refrain from using the term “Dark Ages” precisely because these empires defied all stereotypes associated with the time period between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance. “Dark Ages” really only applies to Western Europe during this time. Literacy rates plumeted, at times only a handful of people across all of Western Europe could read. Those few monks who could read were almost exclusively focused on religious texts.

It is hard to comprehend the amount of time that has passed since Rome reached it’s height.

Medieval castles built in the 1100’s CE are considered incredibly ancient, and those were constructed a thousand years after the height of the Roman Empire. The late Middle Ages are as far away in time from us as they are from the Pantheon or Colloseum being built.

One common misconception is that Rome was all marble white. If you are able to visit the ruins of Pompeii just a few hours away you can clearly see how colorful and vibrant the walls were painted. I tried to imagine the vibrancy of both life and color as I walked through the Forum.

Rome never “fell”. Romans would not have been aware that their empire ended when we commonly say it did. It faded away slowly into the multiplicity of city-states and feifdoms that formed the complicated tapestry of the medieval world that followed.

The repeated invasions of people from Northern and Eastern Europe into Italy, pushed by mass migrations of entire cultures from as far away as Mongolia eventually led to a militarization and “Germanization” of Roman culture and structure.

Senators lost their status while military commanders took over civilian positions and gained reverence. Currency no longer held much value, instead owning land became the way to secure your wealth. It was now more stable to grow your own grain than to buy it from elsewhere.

During this “Crisis of the Third Century” the Roman Empire nearly collapsed. The transformations by the Emperor Diocletian, from a civilian led empire to a military one paid in land not coin, in the late 200’s CE preserved the state of Rome but destroyed it’s classical culture.

It is possible that the solidification of the Han Chinese in securing their Northern border via tools like centralized government and maybe even the Great Wall may have restricted nomadic people’s movements east and forced some to turn west, creating a cascade of violent population migration. It is likely that climate change played a massive role as well as traditional pasture and grazing land was no longer viable.

As each nomadic horse riding clan pushed the other further West, hordes of armed warriors and genuinely frightened populations arrived on Rome’s doorstep century after century.

Many groups were simply incorporated into the fabric of Roman society, settled peacefully along thier borders or recruited as mercenaries for the Roman Army.

Eventually this over reliance on mercenary armies and the relentless movements of peoples like the Huns, Goths, Vandals and later Franks and Slavs overran the Western Roman State. This is called the Migration Period by historians and generally lasted from 300 to 800 CE. This is considered the begining of the Medieval world, one focused on individual military prowess, rural life and Christianity over civilian authority, urbanization and paganism.

The exact reasons for the mass movements of people varies. Climate change likely played a role as their homelands became less fertile, driving starving people to leave en masse. It may have been the other way though, that populations actually grew rapidly outside of Rome and forced overcrowded peoples to seek new land.

These factors alone do not explain the fall of Western Rome, Romans had been incorporating and settling people on their borders for centuries. You did not have to be born in Rome or even of a certain ethnicity to be considered a Roman. You just needed to speak Latin and emulate the Roman way of life to be able to exist and function within the empire.

Central authority in the Roman State also declined, leaving the Empire with no effective way to deal with these age old problems. In the end it may have been internal disintegration and currency devaluation more than external factors that brought the state down.

At some point the Roman Army became almost entirely Germanic, not Latin. These Northern and Eastern European armies replaced Roman legions as the military powers. One Roman garrison in what was then called Gaul simply stopped receiving payments one day. Letter after letter sent back to Rome was never answered. Communication within the Roman army and state broke down.

It is during this time that we say the Roman Empire fell, although Romans experienced this rather gradually.

We mark the end of the Roman Empire when a Germanic chief named Odoacer took over the city and declared himself king in 476 CE.

Instead of claiming to rule all of the Western Empire, a hollow claim by then, he realistically declared himself just the King of Italy. He subordinated himself to the surviving Eastern half of the Empire based in Constantinople and made no claim to govern the rest of Europe. The city of Rome continued to function, or dysfunction as it did by this time, as usual but the Western Empire ruled by a Latin speaking Cesar ceased to exist.

The Catholic Church rose to power during this time, one of the only functioning power structures able to pay off marauding armies and protect their individual perishes.

The Pope fortified himself in Castle St Angelo. Bishops gained status and the Church entered the empty vacuum created by declining Roman military authority. The rich classes even fled, sailing to an offshore lagoon and creating Venice as their haven from the other European “barbarians” repeatedly plundering Italy.

Fortifications protecting individual towns and farmland areas took the place of cities. Eventually these became medieval castles and kingdoms.

The urban population shrank. Cities were too dangerous to live in, aqueducts were no longer maintained and people fled to the countrysides. Language split apart, knowing and speaking Latin was mostly lost outside the clergy. It took over 1,500 years to recover from this urban to rural shift.

Not all of the Roman Empire experienced this decline. We are often too focused on the Western half. Greek speaking Constantinople, once called Byzantium, was considered a second capitol long before these events began.

It’s legendary massive fortifications and strategic geographic location were too hard of a nut to crack for these early medieval armies. In at least one famous incident, the Byzantines even paid armies to attack Rome instead of threatening their own walls.

The often misunderstood and downplayed Byzantine Empire withstood the crisis of the third century and the later mass migrations of entire populations that the rather geographically exposed Western Roman half could not. This Eastern part of the empire remained the most important and powerful state in Europe throughout the Medieval era.

In fact in this Eastern Greek half of the empire they still considered themselves Romans right up until Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire in the 1400’s. The city was soon after renamed Istanbul.

Although the nature and character of the Byzantine Empire changed quite a bit from the classical Roman height, and they no longer controlled any part of Italy, you can make a case that some version of the Roman State lasted from 753 BCE until 1453 CE, or 2,206 years. Nothing else compares.

Modern historians call this post-Rome Roman Empire the Byzantine Empire but no one at the time would have called themselves that. To them, they were still Romans, albeit Greek speaking ones.

The eventual fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks cut off essential trade routes and connections spanning from Italy to China. This so called Silk Road was torn apart and the wealth of the trade posts along the land route to Asia declined massively.

The Mediterranean sea no longer connected the world together, the Atlantic Ocean was to be it’s replacement in terms of trade and cultural connections.

European merchants and entrepreneurs had to look elsewhere to find ways to reach the wealth of China, Persia and India. The final fall of the people who call themselves Romans led to the rise of Western Europe. Kingdoms like Portugal, Spain, England and France as well as the Dutch sent out explorers to seek a sea path to the East in order the avoid the now treacherous and costly land route.

This led to the re-discovery of the Americas in 1492 CE. The Vikings found a route there first, before 1,000 CE, they just did not establish lasting colonies like later Europeans did. We know this from discovering Viking towns in Canada and the genes of Native Americans are found in Scandinavian peoples. The discovery and subsequent tragedy of mass genocide of Native Americans did not necessarily need to play out the way it did once Western Europeans reached the “New World”.

The area where wealth was shipped no longer transversed the Mediterranean Ocean. The importance of this ancient connecting sea declined and has not been revived to it’s former glory since. Ports along this route fell in importance. It was no longer advantageous to be a city facing the Mediterranean.

What was once a massive disadvantage, being located on the Atlantic seaboard, far from “civilization”, became a world shaping advantage. Long considered the frozen backwoods of the world, the power, wealth and history of Europe shifted strongly West and helped create the modern world we know today. This time period marks the ending of the connections during classical Greece and ancient Egypt into the modern one today that exists on a global scale.

If we had to choose the time period that defines the difference between the Ancient World and the Modern World we would do well to mark it as the period between the fall of Constantinople with the closing of the Silk Road to the “rediscovery” of the Americas and the begining of the Atlantic sea trade.

Globalization truly began after this time. The wealth forcibly extracted and violently shipped back to Europe gave the West a distinct advantage over many other cultures in military conflicts and led to the rise of a new world oriented on Western Civilization, for better or worse.

The impacts of the Roman empire and it’s succesor states are deeply felt across the entire globe still. If Constantinople never fell, would Europeans still have been as driven to sail into the unknown?

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