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The reasons why the Romans still fascinate us

A society in decline, religion as counter-culture, and mass immigration are just some of issues that link us to the Roman Empire

By on Tuesday, 30 July 2013

The Coliseum in Rome, built during the reign of Emperor Vespasiano in  c.72 AD (Photo: PA)

The Coliseum in Rome, built during the reign of Emperor Vespasiano in c.72 AD (Photo: PA)

Never turn your nose up at a parish bazaar. In our parish we often have a table of stuff from which one can help oneself, and I have done just that, helping myself to a nice compact edition of Quo Vadis. This is the book that helped its author, Henry Sienkiewicz, win the Nobel Prize for Literature. It was first published in 1896, and is an unashamed piece of Christian propaganda, set in the heroic times (for the Church) of the reign of Nero.

The Roman setting is rather stagey – I last read the book decades ago – but Roman settings are surely making a comeback. The film Gladiator may have had something to do with this. Ever since our screens have been full of Roman programmes, among them Professor Mary Beard’s superb Meet the Romans.

You’d think that there was little fresh to say about the Roman Empire, but our appetites seem to be as sharp as ever. Also gratifying to see is that the interest is not just confined to the epoch of the Julio-Claudians or the Antonines, but is also encompasses the final decades of the Empire too. There have been many fine books of late about the fourth and fifth centuries.

Why are we so interested in Rome? Here are a few possible reasons.

First, we in the West are aware that we are living in a society that is in decline, and like the Romans before us, we do not know how to arrest this decline. The Romans from the time of Augustus onwards were aware that their Golden Age was behind them. This decline was not just economic, but it was also moral, hence the constant cry of “O tempora! O mores!”

Second, thanks to tabloid journalism, we are all too aware of the misdeeds of our ruling class. This fits in well with out somewhat skewed understanding of the Roman Empire as a place of huge excess for the few and a tough life for the many. We really do not know how much the Romans were given to orgies, but the concept of the Roman orgy (as opposed to the dignified dinner party) is something that haunts us. Ask Berlusconi.

Third, like the Romans, we are haunted by death. That is one of the reasons why our favourite Roman place is Pompeii, the place that met a sudden and unprovided end, where we can still see its people caught in the very moment of its destruction.

Fourth, Roman society from quite early on contained huge numbers of immigrants, all of whom needed to be integrated. The Empire’s greatest achievement was the concept of “Romanitas”, Roman-ness, which meant it was possible for foreign slaves to rise to citizenship. Nevertheless, the Romans were suspicious of barbarians (a term that simply means non-Latin speakers) and in the closing centuries almost paranoid about the enemy within. This contributed to the murder of the last great Roman general, the half-Vandalic Stilicho. In the end the Roman experiment failed. We live with the challenges of multiculturalism, and the Roman example is eloquent.

Fifth, there is the whole world of Roman religion, so ably mocked by Saint Augustine in The City of God. Some Romans were genuinely pious: Virgil springs to mind, a lover of the countryside and the gods and spirits that dwelt there. But the state cult was a pretty shabby thing. We too live in an age where “state religion” is in poor shape, and where the decline of the state may be blamed by some on our failure to uphold the cult of the state. All our institutions are being hollowed out. Christianity today is very much counter-cultural, as it was in the times before Constantine.

Sixth, despite what I have said, the Romans were by no means fatalistic about the extinction of Rome. In the time of Stilicho, who won a huge victories against the barbarian invaders in the first decade of the fifth century, Roman defeat must have seemed most unlikely. Even after the sack of Rome in 410, Augustine writes of Rome having fallen, but only to rise again. Like the Romans, we too find it hard to envisage any other form of society than our own.

  • Scyptical Chymist

    For an excellent, very readable, account of the Roman republic and its principal citizens I recommend Tom Holland’s “Rubicon”. It is truly a bloody story with high principles, greed and murder in almost equal proportions. Then of course there is the depravity that has always been publicised. Not all that different from our western post-Christian world today. The top Romans were aware of their problem to some extent as the Sibylline prophecies promised doom following a time of increasing tolerance of depravity but did not know how to deal with it. Sound familiar?

  • Peter

    The similarity between ourselves and Rome is complicated by the advent of scientific discovery and its catastrophic impact on Protestant fideism and scripural literalism, which has turned hitherto Protestant societies into spiritual wastelands.

    In the Catholic heartlands of Europe, although religious practice is in decline, the impact of scientific discovery has not been so devastating because, unlike the blind faith of sola scriptura Protestantism, Catholic faith is based on reason as well as revelation.

    Consequently, while scientific discoveries would appear to contradict the literal fideistic beliefs of Protestants, they do in fact fully support a Catholic understanding of natural philosophy.

    While Protestant literalists may react against science with blank denials and proposals of creationism and intelligent design, Catholics ought to welcome each and every discovery as a greater affirmation of the presence of an intelligent Creator whose works we are capable of understanding because our minds are similar.

    Rather than including the West as a whole in your analogy with the decline of the Roman empire, perhaps it’s best to limit it to those former Protestant societies whose brand of faith has no defense against the encroachment of scientific discovery.

  • Dave

    Romanitas was first a christian term and applied pejoratively to pagan Rome. Later it as used more positively to refer to solid “Roman” qualities such as gravitas, severitas, firmitas, et al. Classicists now often use it anachronistically to refer to some more vaguely defined traditional Roman culture, but it still incorrect to apply it to Roman social mobility and changes, which if anything were viewed as a sign of decadence and a threat to ‘Romanness’ itself–as the Roman satirists and moralists always harped on about.

  • Pedantic git

    The correct form is et cetera, rather than et alii. The contraction ‘et al’ is used to continue a list of people, ‘etc’ to continue a list of things.

  • Dave

    In this case, you have the gender wrong with alii. What you say is correct for legal usage and some English style conventions, but as I am not here constrained by them, ‘et al.’ works better, as I meant ‘others of a fixed group’ (the group being Roman virtues) rather than more generally ‘others of the same kind’ or more vaguely ‘the rest’.

    Et villas video, urbes, ac oppida studiis fervere grammaticae. Unde a veteribus historicis noluissem, si facultas suppeteret, discrepare!

  • Pedantic git

    Fair enough. Anyway, I suspect we both have a little too much spare time on our hands today!

  • Cestius

    One of the main reasons that Rome fell was that it did not advance much scientifically and technologically – and eventually its competitors (the barbarians) caught up and defeated it. I don’t see that happening with the West just yet, science and technology (particularly research) is still stronger in the West than anywhere else. The West’s malaise is more existential, we have stopped believing in God and we have to a large extent stopped believing in ourselves.

  • John of Kent

    Nothing new to say about the Roman Empire? The Later Empire is one of the most rapidly advancing areas of historical knowledge. Read the massive and brilliant works of Peter Heather particularly “The Fall of the Roman Empire”. which blend literary and archaeological sources in a way which no one has previously done. And unlike Gibbon and A.H.M. Jones, he does not see Christianity as a factor in its downfall.

    There is a ‘state religion’ today. It is not in decline and it is not Anglicanism or any other form of Christianity. It is state-enforced diversity and multiculturalism. Those are the values our masters order us to honour and obey, and to oppose which is considered punishable blasphemy.