“What have the Romans ever done for us?”, a typical quote used today to signify Rome’s achievement’s as late antiquity’s great power. Conventionally underlined are stories of grand extravagance, triumphs, aqueducts and other projects. This is just the tip of the ice berg and is something which is not new by any respect to public knowledge. Rome outlines an underlying reality: a philosophy which completely shaped and re-defined motions of state, governance and themes that we understand as important today. Sure, they were understood in different contexts but conceptually they remained vastly similar. This will investigate that claim and show how in some respects, many of what we accomplish today can be related; things pointed out can be seen and things understood can be acknowledged. Let me take you on this journey and welcome you abroad.
Rome itself was an immensely large and prestigious power for its time. With territory stretching from Britain in the north, Africa and Egypt to the South, Syria and Iraq to the East and lower Germany, France, Belgium and the Balkans, to the West (during the time of Trajan), for 600 years it had endured as an empire however it’s customs, laws and philosophies had survived for much longer and thrived culturally. It expanded to the point where it laid the foundations for Western culture and ideals which survived subtly even today. I would argue at any rate, British society is largely the idealised version of Roman society that the Roman aristocrats and philosophers could have only dreamed of. Let me demonstrate this.
When analysing the similarities, it is important to look at law. In many respects Roman law and British common law are very similar, as well as the political institutions that formed during the republic and survived as formal institutions during the Empire (that were inheritingly based on common law). Roman law, like British Common law, is very similar for the simple reason that rather than based on abstract ideas, it venerated and constantly modified itself based on dialogue. In the case of Rome, there would be various political lobbying groups that represented specific strata’s of society, for example the conciliam plebiswould represent the plebeian legal group in Roman society (free born citizens); the Comitia centurata the military and Comitia Tributa was divided amongst the different classes which were separated into plebeians and patricians (aristocratic and wealthy members of Roman society). The leaders of these lobby groups, which were tribes, would be magistrates which would form part of the senate: an advisory body which the magistrates depended on. Though it held no executive power, it dictated pay to the Roman military and allocated where which provinces the consuls (the highest magistrates would rule). These customs of politics were ultimately defined by the confines of the law and these formalised how Roman customs took hold (in other words, the law aimed to determine everyday behaviour and not vice versa) with “justice laying at every man’s door”. The British legal and political system, though different in custom and contexts, holds and similar ethos. Let the origin begin with the word parliament: it derives from the French word parley which means ‘to speak, converse or discuss’. It represented an advisory council which sort to legally and morally guide the English monarch and the term appears in the 12th century. Like Roman law this is also a result of a culmination of previous legal documents, in this case being the Magna Carta (arguably the first basis of British common law) which helped define the confines of British law and ultimately, like its Roman counterpart, formalise customary behaviour. In legal terms (rather than historic), no longer was the king able to simply dictate but had to abide by the culmination of varying land and tax laws.
Similarity also takes hold in the way both Roman and British laws articulated themselves through empirical measurements. Both laws founded themselves on economic aspects because of its simplicity and easily regulatory basic principles. For the Romans, laws such as The Custom Laws of Asia created justification through common goods, land holdings and trade and this is seen in the language it articulates. A similar case can be posed for British Law: when the de facto reasoning for British law is expressed, empirical measures are used as a form of referencing and to ultimately attribute quality to un-qualitative aspects; for example, British law constantly quotes ‘the law the common land’ when talking about holdings and, like Roman law, was used to distinguish different economic and social groups in society. Many would argue that the nature of European civil law is vastly more similar because, like Roman law, it is adaptive and compiles law through discussion. However unlike European law, which sought to mimic its Roman counterpart, British common law provides a basis on tradition which is outlined through historical texts. A good example is the accumulation of laws under the monarchy and, like Roman law, does this on the basis of spiritual tradition which continues to be preserved even today.
Similarity also appears in the basic underlying ethoses of legal perception. Roman law is very understandable because it is very blunt in its interpretation of reality and seeks to attain a real honest distinction. In the first paragraphs, Roman law distinguishes ‘all people as either slaves or free’ and within free there were different classes and within different classes there were certain privileges and condemnations. These became the forefront of determining political and economic positions in society, which any family could achieve over generations; for example, a freeman could become eventually wealthy enough to become a patrician and therefore possibly go into a political role but this came with customary restrictions which could demote his class. However, if successful, and with enough money earned, the political position could be purchased. Augustus (the first Emperor of Rome) used this as a determining factor to get his supporters into the senate by charging the position 900,000 sesterces (a lot of money) and giving a million sesterces to people to buy them. The basis of British law is very similar in the fact it makes itself very blunt and contextual through discussion. It states all people are free and entitled to be accountable under law and therefore have an equal basis however certain economic partners, holdings and land holders are entitled to certain responsibilities, privileges and condemnations if the law isn’t proceeded through. The same effect lies within social groups since, in today’s society, economic and social classes and intrinsically linked (as they were in Ancient Rome), for example a working class profession, such as a builder, scaffolder, roofer etc need certain licensing and contracting which offer different terms and conditions to be met, whereas what is considered middle class professions, such as merchants, businesses, contractors etc, hold different terms and conditions which determine different pay, entitlements and privileges based on profession. This can be an inevitable determining point in the political arena as well with British politician being able to gain political standings based on education, social or economic standing informally (which can by-pass or re-shape the law). A good example is Boris Johnson’s entrance into power based on his education in Eton, Oxford and profession in journalism. It seems there is a social and economic requirement to hold the high vestures of power.
Manipulation and the development of Roman and British law can also display similarities but also how both have branched in different directions. In the case of Roman Law the transition from Republic to Empire and the gradual political nurturing of the Emperor was successful in re-defining political institutions and their legal standing. The legal institutions, such as the conciliam plebis, became obsolete and only existed formally, as did the consuls (whose numbers expanded) and the senate transitioned from a corporate and advisory branch, to an executive branch. In the middle of all of this laid the emperor who did not exist as a legal entity. In legal terms, he was a senator who was given imperium (absolute power and authority over troops) and was delegated a number of titles but whose positions were based on informal customs such as honour. In many ways he was the ceremonial father figure that the Roman Empire depended on and his display of honour was one which leaned upon the honour of other institutions. In British law there was a similar development but it occurred in a different/opposite fashion. As originally stated, parliament was an advisory body to the English monarch but, as the monarch centralised its absolute power during the 16th and 17th centuries, it transitioned into a full executive and sovereign body after the English Civil war. It was then that the King became a figure head which established the empirical authority of British common law. However, unlike the Romans, the King was based on legal proceedings: its honour still stood but that’s all it held. In both cases, both were looked at as figure heads, but in the case of British law, the Monarch ultimately succumbed to the executive branch of law.
A similar transition can be seen with the role of politicians because of the diluted social and political boundaries. In the Roman Empire, a politician would specialise in different social and economic positions as a means of experience and strength; in fact it is arguable there were no boundaries as we understand it today. A potential Roman politician who would want to become a consul in the time of the Republic would have to go through the Cursus Honorum (the courses of office) which would enable them to go through a hierarchy of positions to achieve political advancement; for example a Quaestor (the lowest in the course) served as paymaster to the legion as well as supervised public games; others positions such as Aediles supervised public works and religious property. Eventually, they would advance to praetor where they would hold military authority and be designated to a province which they would need to look after. This position would act as both a military, political and legal figure (as there was a lack of distinction) and it was not surprising that the praetor would look over legal cases, read petitions, command units in the provinces and lead men into battle and tour the provinces. Cicero governed the province of Cilicia and sorted legal cases as well as defended Cappadocia against the Parthians (the successor to the Persian Empire). Pliny the Younger, under the Emperor Trajan, was delegated provincial governorship of Pontus-Bithynia where he was delegated authority to sort of corruption (which would lay the way for Trajan’s Eastern campaigns). These were considered building blocks to govern and were delegated to high wealthy political classes. A similar case is seen in British politics. In political parties, a person can work their way through the hierarchy by excelling in different institutions and skills, though many are successful as a result of their educational and social background. However, unlike Ancient Rome, the roles are reversed. As was formal, different informal skills are now perceived to be informal in the eyes of the British political system (it’s seen as something that contributes, but doesn’t matter as much on a superficial level).
The similarities are also affected in roles of business and, more importantly, business relationships because both Roman and British cases possess a mixture of formal and informal customs and relations. The Roman style of business was inevitably intermixed with its political and social counterpart and enabled mobility between different social groups because it developed a form of creating connections. A patronus (patron) would have a range of connections with lower clines (clients) who would contractingly oblige to support each other based on verbal or written consensus. In return for money or protection from a patron, clients would be guaranteed security and committed favours which would be paid back in kind. It was part of the Roman social system of honour whereby favourable acts were outwardly performed and perceived to be morally upright. In British society the framework still exists and arguably this bears onto social and political relations, the Romans knew these boundaries did not exist and inevitably were part of each other. Today a business quotes its customers as ‘clients’ and it is expected to stretch beyond economic means. In the workplace, though it is expected for the person to work, it is informally expected for them also to develop social relationships with their co-workers in a daily basis which goes beyond the realms of business. After all, it is needed to know the person in order to work comfortably with them, the Roman’s knew of this however it seems much of this is not understood today. With the institutional boundaries that are placed, it seems the opposite has ironically taken effect and the social relations of the Romans have transferred to the formal procedures of business.
What is similar are the issues which enveloped Roman society and continue to do so today. Many of the issues have different boundaries and contexts but still hold the same considerations in principle and also have similar themes:
One of the most important was the idea of the military, especially in the realms of welfare. The Roman Military, as a cohesive land force, is estimated by historians to have numbered roughly 300,000 men protecting an Empire of 60 million and it is no coincidence that this force was under much consideration and acceptance as a major factor in the issues of the time, as it is today. In fact, the only variable difference is funding: the funding and maintenance of the Roman military is estimated to have accumulated half of the Empire’s budget whereas today it is 2.7% (measured in 2013). Of course, there are many different contextual considerations when taken into account: the technological and innovative advances of warfare today has meant less men are required, especially with the innumerable increase in firepower and specialist training/ education. Much of it coincides with the increase of the life expectancy of each soldier as well as the economic paradigm British society has formed through history (we now have the currency to guarantee that expenditure and welfare). During the Roman Empire, the context differed considerably: the economy worked on a measurable basis from agriculture whereby wealth was empirically measured in crops and therefore was the only homogenous source of income; the only other sources of revenues being rents from property and taxes from the provinces. In the spectrum of health, it was acceptable that the mortality rate for legionaries and auxiliaries during peace was high because of the lack of medical innovation or understandings that were available today. This, coinciding with the manufacturing the supplies, requisitions, armour, weapons etc, (and the lack of regularised currency as we obtain today) meant more talents (a form of Roman currency) needed to be invested. As well as difficulty, funding tended to come from the Emperor’s fiscus (treasury) rather than the states which further originated from plunder. Especially with the pestilent standard of living of soldiers, it was probably wages come from the plunder itself. Nevertheless the general theme remained, as it does today, of military welfare. The Roman emperors always made sure to pay their soldiers and ensure that they received full entitlements during retirement such as pensions and land. This concern still permeates within British society today as the standard of equipment and care for serving soldiers comes into consideration.
Public perception of the military also shares various similarities with its Roman counterpart and the prospect of ‘war far away from home’ still beacons within the confines of the public. Since the Roman army was always absent from public perspective during the Empire, people sought the reflection of war through public events, such as the coliseum where re-enactments of land and sea warfare were done for purposes of entertainment. It can be said that today, the public follows a more superficial version to come to grips with the absence of violence. Things such as violence in video games, films and public events such as cage fighting enable people to come to terms with violence by de-sensitising it so to be more aware of it. Much of this is attributed to the media and it is no coincidence a similar principle followed in the eyes of the Romans. Perceptions of events outside or afar from the Empire were advertised through few parties that gave their own perception of the situation (contributing to the glory of Rome).
It is arguable that both today’s and the Roman case attend similar concerns with emphasis on foreign campaigns. Within Ancient Rome, military units were confined near the boarders of the Empire and it was not expected for them to be in urban areas, unless for strategic purposes. In a wider context, this was to reinforce cultural or economic domination of the area (both at times being part of each other). Bordering kingdoms, leagues or tribes would often be client states to Rome in order to reinforce political stability for purposes of trade and the pax romana (Roman peace). The implications of this were so potent that towards the end of the Empire, or the so called ‘barbarian invasions’, many of the tribes sought to become part of the Roman Empire rather than destroy it. Cicero governance of Cilicia had to deal with the king of Cappadocia’s (Central/Southern Turkey) concerns that his family members were conspiring against him as well as protection of the Armenian King. Within today’s world, there lies a similar case as a result of the former colonial ambitions of the 19th century and the problems it has caused. Many of the campaigns waged by British army in places such as Iraq or Afghanistan are done for similar motives of ideology, finance or to simply give to culturally re-define states and these deal with similar political cases (it is arguable client states still exist today) The majority of states in the world, on paper, have been more secularized than ever before and share similar European democratic procedures.
The British social spectrum similarly mirror’s off the Roman one via its class system and perception of class. When Tacitus was invited to a banquet at a colleague’s house, he noted how everything was separated according to class and how he disproved of such customs. The implication of this writing enables us to proceed into the attitude of Roman patricians and plebeians and how fluid the social boundaries were. Like today, different separations were based upon legal customs however de facto a lot of it did not apply. For slaves, once they had escaped, they were hard to find. During the reign of Augustus, it was easy for plebs to copy the rings of the equestrians to get special treatment (though they were made out of iron and not gold). Non-senators often sat in senator’s seats during performances. Since it was hard to distinguish each person’s social status, it was simple for people to simply not live by them and legal distinctions should be seen as something that was for people to fall back upon. The only cases where these mattered were within the wealthy patricians who used their legal distinctions to enforce their social statuses; though it is probably true they mangled with plebeians on a daily basis and did things that went beyond the eyes of law such as sex. Such distinctions are made today. There is a ‘formalised’ class system though it is loosely defined and only bares informal barriers as it did in Rome. Groups of people, such as celebrities and wealthy members of society, use their wealth to display social distinction through events, parties etc. At times these are reinforced or are fluid, based on the individual who wants to be recognised or uses social status for purposes of insecurity, ego etc. At times it doesn’t matter, only in the eyes of people who think it should or feels the obligation to enforce it.
In the social arena, welfare was also one of the consisting political topics in the Empire and the idea of tending to the unfortunate is nothing new (within the economic capability of Rome). Within Rome, the poorest in society were given a bread doll where they would receive a token and that would entitle them to a bread supply, eventually carrying on to Constantinople where citizens received free bread before the Islamic conquest of Egypt. During Trajan, a welfare system for children was set up which consisted of food rationing. Like today, the perception of welfare largely originated out of charity and the majority of welfare was circulated through non-state groups as it had been in Britain before the mid 19th century.
All these points have outlined similar perceptions from today and many of them would have been issues and themes in the Roman world. Indeed many Roman philosophers and politicians, such as Cicero, could have only imagined a society such as ours and how we have carried the burdens which the Romans once experienced and idealized about. Yep, there are many things the Romans did for us and I think the legacy is more potent and influential than ever before.