Monday, April 20, 2009

Roman Holiday

Barry Strauss

According to ancient tradition, the city of Rome had a birthday. It was founded on April 21 in what, according to the most common version, was the year 753 B.C. We don’t have to trust the story in order to use the date as a reason to ponder ancient Rome’s legacy.

If we ask, as Monty Python did, “what have the Romans ever done for us?” we might be surprised at the answer. Truth to tell, we might be surprised at the question. Rome is better known these days as the center of the Catholic Church and the capital of Italy than as one of the twin fountainheads of the West (the other, of course, is Greece). Yet we needn’t probe too deeply in order to find that conviction.

Americans, for example, haven’t gotten over their pride at (or fear of) being the new Rome. Despite numerous obituaries, Latin is alive and well as a subject of study in schools and universities. Nor can the story of Christian origins be told outside the Roman context. Meanwhile, both Islamic and Jewish histories assign a major role to Rome or its successor state, the Byzantine Empire (also known as Rome and, rightly so, since the “Byzantines” called themselves Romans). Rome still matters.

With that in mind, here is an exercise in civic literacy: two sets of questions about the legacy of ancient Rome. The first set consists of traditional problems while the second features new scholarly approaches. They cover a wide range of subjects, but, I fear, not wide enough to hide my own limitations. To begin with:

1. What was the constitution of the Roman Republic? Was it a democracy, oligarchy or so-called mixed regime? Why did the American Founders lean so heavily on the Roman Republic as a model? Did they understand the reality of the Republic or were they misinformed?
2. How (and why) did Rome, a small city-state in Central Italy, conquer an empire that covered the shores of the Mediterranean and stretched from Britain to Iraq? Why were the legions so successful? Did Rome’s empire bring the blessings of peace (the famous pax Romana) or did the Roman historian Tacitus get it right when he had one of Rome’s enemies say of Rome “They make a desert and call it peace” (Agricola 98).
3. Why did Rome’s republican government collapse and why was it replaced by a monarchy?
4. To what extent was Rome an original culture? To what extent did it merely absorb, codify and preserve the culture of Greece?
5. To what extent was Rome a slave society? How can we admire a slave society today?
6. At its height, the city of Rome was the largest and most powerful city in the world, with a population of over a million people. What was life there like?
7. Why and how did Rome change from paganism to Christianity?
8. Why did the Roman Empire in the West decline and fall? Why did it survive in the East as the Byzantine Empire? Is “decline and fall” the right way to think of the fate of the Roman Empire in the West or is “transformation and change” a better model?

Here is the second set of questions:

9. What new evidence and new methodologies are uncovering the ancient environment and ecology? Was environmental pollution a problem in the Roman era?
10. How is the evidence of material culture revealing the lives of Roman women, including working women? How is it adding to the history of the Roman family? Roman childhood?
11. How are archaeology and anthropology opening a window into the medical dimension of Roman life? How advanced were Roman science, technology, and engineering?
12. How can we explain the brutal phenomenon of gladiatorial games? What new evidence do we have of a gladiator’s life?
13. What new evidence and models are there for the ancient economy? How did it support the Empire’s large population? For that matter, what advances in demography allow us to chart that population?
14. How is new research filling in the picture of the lives of the Italian peoples whom Rome conquered: e.g., Bruttians, Celts, Etruscans, Greeks, Lucanians, Samnites? Likewise, how is new research illustrating the lives of the peoples outside of Italy whom Rome conquered or whom Rome fought and failed to conquer: e.g., Carthaginians, Celts, Germans, Greeks, Jews, Persians, Thracians? What special contribution to Roman history does the extraordinarily well-preserved evidence of Roman Egypt make?
15. What new insights emerge from a comparison of the Roman Empire with Han Dynasty China? What new evidence has been found of Roman trade in goods and ideas with such countries as India, China, Arabia, and Kush?
16. How is new research describing the experience of Roman battle?
These questions offer a glimpse of the subject, not an overview. But birthday parties only start the new year.

Barry Strauss teaches ancient history at Cornell University. His most recent book is The Spartacus War (Simon & Schuster, 2009). He blogs at


Jeff Vanke said...

I have a question about the fall of the Roman Empire. I recently read one of those academic arguments that percolated to the media, about drought and decreased grains production and a possible correlation to the collapse of the Roman Empire. What should we make of this?

Randall said...

I wonder if Jared Diamond looks at any of that in Collapse? I've been reading through some of that lately.

Unknown said...

Jeff, Have a look at Bryan Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome, a book that discusses materialist explanations for the end of the Roman Empire.

I don't think that Diamond covers Rome in any detail in Collapse but he does discuss ecological and environmental causes for the fall of civilizations.

Anonymous said...

i hate reading... i wish they just answer the question