Chapter 1 - Section 9

Ancient Roman Contributions to Western Civilization

     The fabulous history of the city of Rome, the Roman Republic and the Empire remain sources of amazement and wonderment even today. Such a small and relatively unimportant city-state located approximately in the center, west side, of the boot of the Italian peninsula could rise to create an empire of the then entire civilized Western world is nothing short of awe inspiring. Founded during the 8th century BCE, its almost thousand year history enabled Rome to make many contributions to Western Civilization. Its influence remains in the world of the 21st century. A summary of Roman contributions to our cultural inheritance is presented here. The ancient Roman world incorporated the cultures of the entire Mediterranean basin. Its empire included many diverse religions, ethnic/tribal and political groups. The fact that the genius of the Romans united all these societies into a long lasting universal empire based upon the Roman way of life is truly extraordinary.

     The Romans were able to achieve this level of social coherence due to six important factors. These are as follows:

  • Extensions of Roman citizenship and Roman law to subdued peoples
  • Use of Latin as the universal language
  • Adaptations of local customs to Roman culture
  • Practical and flexible use of political power and Roman administration
  • Creation of a vast empire wide economic and social infrastructure of roads, sea lanes and communication networks
  • Use of the Roman legions to insure security and law and order
The Glory of Rome

     Law and Politics: The Roman legal system and Roman law remains the foundation of the legal systems of Western civilization. Throughout their history the Romans developed laws, set precedents and established rules and procedures for the fair, impartial and humane administration of justice. These laws affected every aspect of economic, social and political life. Roman law regulated businesses, family life, individual rights and through the framework of empire, international law as well. The great body of Roman law is known as the “corpus ius civilis” or body of civil law. It was updated and codified by the Emperor Justinian (527-565 BCE). It comes down through history as the famous Code of Justinian. Roman law greatly unified the empire and insured its citizens equal protection before the law, protection of individual rights and the security of property.

     The Pax Romana, the Roman Peace (27 BCE-180 CE): The Pax Romana time period may be termed the Golden Age of ancient Roman civilization. It was a time of universal peace, unity, prosperity and extraordinary accomplishments in art, science, economics, civil engineering and of course, government and law. Within the boundaries of the empire peace prevailed. This state of peace promoted progress in commerce, education, art and architecture and the expansion and adaptations of Roman law to the provinces of the empire. Today, periods of peace under the umbrella of a super power’s dominance are often termed the pax of this or that, such as the Pax Britannica of the 19th century. Modern societies try to emulate the Roman peace in their own way. However, it is not quite the same.

     Language Usage: In the area of language, a strong unifying and defining element of culture, the Latin language provided the Romans with a means of unifying the empire. In addition, the Romans were great admirers of the Greeks. Therefore, educated Romans used Latin and Greek as a means of oral and written communication. This was especially true in the Hellenistic eastern provinces of the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, the root of our modern Romance languages of Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian is Latin. Roman Britain was strongly influenced by the Latin language as well. About half of the words in the English language have Latin roots.

Pax Romana

     Written Expression in Literature and History: The Romans were great writers. They wrote extensively in law, politics, history, philosophy and science. Heavily influenced by Greek learning, the Romans emphasized practical applications of ideas and knowledge in their writings. For example, some famous Roman authors of history and literature whose writings have been preserved for posterity are listed as follows. There were of course, many others such as St. Augustine who wrote The City of God and who rightfully belongs to the Roman Christian tradition.

  • Cicero
  • Livy
  • Julius Caesar
  • Horace
  • Ovid
  • Plutarch
  • Seneca
  • Tacitus

     Science and Medicine: The Romans carried on the Hellenistic tradition in these areas. They were not specialists in theory or speculation. The Romans remained pragmatic. They preferred useful applications of medicine, mathematics and science. They left the theories largely to non-Romans. Galen was the most famous physician who followed up the learning and discoveries of Hippocrates. The theory that the earth was the center of the solar system was advocated by Ptolemy. Unfortunately, this interpretation was later favored by the Catholic Church because it fit its cosmic viewpoint. This view lasted until the Renaissance when Galileo and Copernicus re-established the tradition of Aristarchus that the Sun is the center of the solar system and proving it beyond any scientific doubt.

     Art and Architecture: Roman art was characterized by its realism and naturalism. It leaned heavenly on Greek and Hellenistic qualities for its influence. The Romans often simply copied earlier works by the great Greek and Hellenistic masters. However, in viewing Roman sculptures, frescoes and many other artistic expressions that have survived the centuries, one must acknowledge that all these too became manifestations of Roman life and Roman civilization. More than slavish copies, the Roman artistic adaptations of Greek culture changed into enduring expressions of the Roman way of life. It can be stated that the Romans had the good taste to admire and love anything Greek.

     The Romans specifically excelled in architecture and monumental projects of civil engineering. They built the justly famous Roman highway system of military and commercial interconnecting roads. The Romans built aqueducts, bridges, tunnels, public and private buildings of all kinds and for all purposes. History records famous one-of-a- kind projects that are still wonders today. Projects uniquely designed and constructed such as Hadrian’s Wall, Hadrian’s Column, the Baths of Caracalla and the Pantheon are testaments to their engineering and building genius. The triumphal arches of famous rulers such as Trajan, Titus, Septimius Severus and Constantine still create wonder and amazement in visitors today.

Roman Architecture

     The Romans developed and mastered the use of concrete. They effectively constructed arches, domes, columns and underground utility systems with concrete applications. The Romans were able to build sewers, plumbing, hot and cold water sources and heated baths in sophisticated underground utility networks. Throughout the empire, they constructed temples, private villas, government and commercial buildings, public baths, stadiums, theaters and arenas of all sizes. The Romans were by far the master builders of the ancient world. Two of their most famous structures in Rome itself are the ruins of the Circus Maximus and the legendary Coliseum. Many Roman buildings are still in use today. They also served as objects of admiration for tourists through the ages. They are still studied by students of art, architecture and civil engineering. Roman building techniques remain a heavy influence in construction of modern structures.

     Peace, order, unity, harmony, a flourishing culture and economic prosperity are hallmarks of the great period of the Pax Romana. These qualities and the ideals they represent remain dreams for modern civilization. Perhaps modern humankind will never be able to emulate the ancient Romans in this area. History will bear witness as it always does. The legacy left from Roman civilization after its collapse in the West, 467 CE, was largely absorbed by the new civilization of the medieval world, and subsequently by the modern world. Rome had assimilated and preserved the best of the ancient world and passed on those achievements to the European world which followed its fall.

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