Roman Contributions

The Romans #

The Romans made significant contributions to our Western Civilisation. Rome is sometime called the Eternal city, because it is one of the longest established ruling centre of the world. Rome is known as the divine city due to the myth of Mars seducing a Vestal Virgin giving birth to Romulous and Remus who are abandoned and suckled by a wolf. Remus later is considered the founder of Sienna. They gave us the institutions of government – the senate, republicanism, the rule of law, Art and Architecture, a diverse multicultural and multi-state empires – virtues such as dignity, humanity, honesty. Their enduring legacy includes Latin, one of the contributors to the English language, the absolute primacy of law to maintain order and harmony. We are linked to them through a great chain of human experience.

They give us a continuity of cultural constants in the experiences of life. Their imperialism demonstrates our most enduring urges of dominance – power, greed ambition, desire and love. Yet its contributions to their subjected states were enormous and timeless. Remnants of Roman infrastructure endue in their roads, theatres, aqueducts and buildings in Spain, France, Britain Constantinople and in many other territories. While conquering Greece, they adopted and integrated many aspects of Greek culture including their Gods by simply giving them Roman names.

Half of Washington’s monumental architecture is inspired by Rome. The British Museum itself is Greek in style and Roman in scale.

Rome is affectionately called “The Eternal City”. Greece was decentralised, with over 90 independent competing city states. The loose Delian League was insufficient to providing a unified force.

The Roman Empire succeeded because it was ethnically heterogeneous – not homogeneous. Greece had a different approach.

Augustus Caesar #

August, a word that means “inspiring reverence or admiration,” is the name of the eighth month of the year in our Gregorian calendar. It’s the sixth month of the ancient Roman calendar used by the Roman kingdom and republic. Back then, the month of August was known as Sextilus, Latin for “sixth month.” In 8 BCE, the month was named in honor of Augustus Caesar, the first Roman emperor. Augustus Caesar reigned 27BC – 14 CE

He was born Gaius Octavius, the grandnephew of Julius Caesar. He took the extended name Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus in 44 BC after Caesar’s assassination. Though in English texts, he was often referred to simply as Octavian.

Then in 31 BC, he defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra to gain control over the empire. Finally in 27 BC, when he was named emperor, he was given the honorary title Augustus.

August, means majestic and inspires reverence or admiration. The word can also take the form of an adverb (augustly) and a noun (augustness).

August also relates to augury, the act of divination (telling the future), particularly by the behavior of birds and animals and the examination of their entrails and other parts.

His legacy is conflicted, fairly well regarded by some, but realistically, the first and greatest pragmatic, enlightened despot who dismantled the Republic and consolidated dynastic unaccountable authoritarianism.

Though a sickly man with many near death experiences, his life-long strong arm, henchman, Marcus Agrippa, propped up his leadership, giving Augustus, the appearance of an overpowering dictator.

As the first emperor, Octavian, found himself navigating a careful balancing act of titles and epithets without ever assuming himself as Rex (king): from Princeps Civitatis (first citizen) to primus inter pares (first among equals), all with connotations of authority but not monarchical supremacy. He would settle on Augustus (the venerable one) as his official title. The end of the Roman Republic was never announced – despotism prevailed in the superficial likeness of the Republic.

Amid this upheaval, the masses were manipulated with imperial cults and vanity projects and placated with bread and circuses. But still there remained a class of educated Republican aristocracy whose raw memories and ambitions had to be reined in.

Hoping to resonate with the disaffected Roman public, Julius Caesar had already intended ‘to make as large a collection as possible of works in the Greek and Latin languages, for the public use,’ as the Roman historian Suetonius wrote. Caesar was ultimately beaten to the task by a soldier and politician named Gaius Asinius Pollio, who, by 28 BCE – just a year before Octavian became the Emperor Augustus – used his war plunder to fund Rome’s very first ‘public’ library in the Atrium Libertatis, Rome’s census record building.

Augustus understood his gesture was laden with symbolic, even revolutionary, significance

Also, renown for the dark arts of ancient propaganda and Machiavellian power machinations to seize absolute power. Like Trump he was a deal maker; most ended up, through duplicity, to his advantage. He betrayed both Lepidus and Antony by not honoring his side of the bargain.

Antony was denounced as ”an enemy of the people”, Cicero was executed, Ovid banished, while Horace was offered sanction if he wrote propaganda for Augustus’ cause.

Augustus and his successors tried to eradicate subversive writings, but the emperors soon learned that the memory of such works would outlast them.

Virgil composed The Aeneid (19 BC). This Latin epic casts a patriotic spell over its audience in its evocation of the foundation of Rome from the ashes of Troy to the glory of the Augustan Age. Unlike his poetic successor, however, Virgil is alert to literary censorship under the reign of Augustus (63 BC-AD 14), Rome’s first emperor, and carefully navigates its perilous terrain.

To raise money, over 2000 wealthy families were accused of treason, a process of proscription, declared enemies of the state, assassinated, their lands, wealth and other assets confiscated for the state. Proscriptions (Purges) had already been used by Sulla after he won a civil war (83-82 BCE) against Marius, who advocated for populist reform. Sulla summarily executed some 9000 Roman citizens, confiscated their property as the spoils of victory. Richard II attempted similar tactics against his uncle, John of Gaunt, when he dies, incurring the wrath of his son, Bolingbroke, who retaliates by usurping the British throne as King Henry IV, igniting the War of the Roses. Henry VIII used these tactics to raise money for his navy by seizing all the Catholic churches’ property. Hitler derived a lot of his ill-gotten loot by confiscating the wealth of Jews, Bosheviks, homo-sexuals, and other non-conformists.

More positive civic reforms statecraft legacies of Augustus, include: ending nepotism by appointing civil servants on merit, eliminating corruption, establishing a professional army loyal to the empire, rather than their commanders, criminalised adultery – for others – not his cohort.

When his messy family tree, as a result of divorces and forced marriages, died out, he simply named his successor.


“To impose the way of peace you must spare the conquered and subdue the proud.”

Even people at the periphery of the empire felt they were at the heart of the empire. Most young men from conquered territories were conscripted into the army to serve 25 years after which they became full Roman citizens with lifelong pensions. Spain took 200 years to subdue, but eventually produced Seneca, born in Cordoba, a Stoic writer and advisor to the Emperor Nero. It also produced two emperors, Trajan and Hadrian. Constantine was born in Serbia.

The Emperor Caracella in 212 made all free men citizens, simply so he could broaden the tax base. The Roman Empire succeeded because it was ethnically heterogeneous – not homogeneous. Greece had a different approach. In-breeding was always the privilege of royalty - and look what happened to them. Some of the most interesting people are miscegenous. Much of what we know of ancient civilisations is very recent. Most records were wantonly vandalised and destroyed by misguided religious vandals. Byzantine and the Moorish cultures managed to preserve and transmit some to future generations. More and more we rely on archaeological excavations for reliable artefacts to base our assumptions.

The Roman Empire lasted some 500+ years giving us some salutary lessons on enduring cohesion and good governance. It gave us the model of integrating diverse people through tolerance and co-opting talent from across the empire. While the Romans certainly attempted to crush their conquered subjects when they failed to submit to their authority, they also attempted to integrate and assimilate the “barbarians”.

Roman thinkers and historian’s wisdom still applies today. #

There were truth-tellers throughout Roman history, but as the centuries wore on, the telling of official lies became a recognized art form.

Cicero, 55 BC, in his book, De Re Republica, noted that even the most carefully calibrated constitution, could be undermined in practice. As a later advisor to Augustus Caesar, he observed:

“…the arrogance of officialdom needs to be tempered and controlled,….”

TACITUS 56 - 120 AD - Born In Gaul, Publius Cornelius Tacitus, a Roman historian and politician, regarded as one of the greatest Roman historians, writing in the silver age of Latin Literature.

The purpose of an historian is to:

“Standards of historical research and scholarship should be more than just glorified gossip. We have higher expectations - to commemorate great deeds and to bring to the attention of posterity the damage that evil deeds do and to denounce them”.

Shocking crimes committed on the unscrupulous initiative of few individuals, with the blessing of more, and amid the passive acquiescence of all.

”Misdeeds, once exposed, have no refuge but in audacity”.

A desire to resist oppression is implanted in the nature of man.

Reason and judgment are the qualities of a leader.

When the state is most corrupt, then the laws are most multiplied.

Abuse, if you slight it, will gradually die away; but if you show yourself irritated, you will be thought to have deserved it.

Tacitus was aware of the “pretences of freedom” long after it ceased to play any important role.

“It was a tainted, meanly obsequious age. The greatest figures had to protect their positions by subserviency; and, in addition to them, all ex-consuls, most ex-praetors, even many junior senators competed with each other’s offensively sycophantic proposals.

The Emperor Claudius maintained the senate should “transfer to this city all conspicuous merit, wherever found”.


“To impose the way of peace you must spare the conquered and subdue the proud.”

Horace lived in volatile times where the rise and fall of fortunes was subject to that of those you serve. Horace had sided with Brutus and Cassius so when Augustus and Antony won the Battle of Actium in the year 34 B.C. he was in great danger. He was extremely fortunate that his poetic skills were valued and found favour with Maecenas, Octavian’s rich and influential ally, who was fostering and patronising a talented literary circle in the emperor’s interests.

In Rome Panegyrists, like Horace, were paid performers, subsidized by those they celebrated.

As spin doctor, for celebrating the emperor and portraying his regime as the beginning of a Golden Age of peace and prosperity, Horace was rewarded with a large country estate called the Sabine farm. While appreciating his good fortune, he recognised the fragility of life and came up with the philosophy of Carpe Diem - of living for the moment. Dead Poet’s Society brings this alive here:

Horatian Satire chooses targets it cares about to gently mock or send up causing laughter to avoid offending the powers that be. For this reason, his satire needed to be more subtle. Example:

“Why is no one happy anymore? Oh, lucky traders! Moans the soldier, his once young limbs now busted up with combat. While the storm-tossed trader sighs in response, Oh to be at war! Where in one crowded hour, the whole issue is decided, for death or glory.”

From Horace’s Odes, the Latin saying:

‘Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori’ translates into: “Sweet and decorous (noble, becoming) it is to die for one’s country”.

Ovid was not as fortunate under Augustus’ template for dictatorship. He was banished by Augustus. His wrongdoings were, in his own words, carmen et error (“a poem and a mistake”). What irritated Augustus sufficiently enough to relegate the poet to the middle of nowhere was his perception that the Ars Amatoria made a mockery of his moral reforms.

Trained for a career in the law, the young Ovid faced his father’s disapproval for aspiring to become a writer. (“Even Homer died penniless!”).

Ovid revealed a deep sympathy for women’s suffering and a keen interest in female perspectives unusual for the time, going as far as to advising women on how to seduce men.

However when Augustus began a puritan campaign against adultery, ten years later, he banished Ovid to Tomis, on the northwest coast of the Black Sea, where he complained few people appreciated his Latin.

By this time he had already begun his major opus - Metamorphoses, another perspective, like Hesiod’s Theogony or Genesis, of mapping out the path of creation from chaos to order, passing through the stages of myth to history.

It was the savage, brutal violence that the immortals subjected the mortals to, that preoccupied Ovid and still causes many readers to demand “tigger warnings”. Ovid’s The Metamorphoses shows Arachne’s weaving, depicting nine rapes committed by Jove, six by Neptune, a few by Apollo and Bacchus, and one by Saturn, Jove’s father. Ovid questions the arbitrary violence of all deities.

Was Ovid subtlely portraying the creeping authoritarianism of the rule of Augustus, who declared his leadership for life and asserted the right to appoint his successor?

Juvenal who lived about 100 years later had already been exiled for criticising authority, so his writing is less subtle.

Juvenalian sarcasm tends to be stinging, cutting, bitter acerbic, even savage in its criticism evoking scorn, contempt and even hatred. Juvenal targets the evil or actively harmful aspects of society, and to attack them with serious intent to harm their reputation or power. He often attacks individuals on a personal level, its most common objective is social criticism.

He utilized the satirical tools of exaggeration and parody to make his targets appear monstrous or incompetent. While he occasionally utilized humor to make his point, Juvenal’s satire had more in common with the invective of a political pundit than the primarily humor-driven form favored by most modern satirists.

The primary weapons of Juvenalian satire are scorn and ridicule.

It was the Roman codger Juvenal who wrote of the people’s appetite for bread and circuses; we prefer the cheap nourishment of legal theatrics to real hard research for hard reliable evidence. He also coined:

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Translated, “who will guard the guards (themselves)?”

While he ridicaules the vaunted power of Xeres, Hannibal and even Alexander the Great, his tribute to Solon consists of four words: “eloquent Solon, the Just”.

Seneca: Born in Cordoba, raised in Rome, he became a learned stoic tutor to the unpredictable Emperor Nero.

Emily Wilson writes, In the ancient world, as is true today, navigating political chaos was a pressing dilemma. Philosophers were forced to decide whether to participate in, resist, or simply endure the political rulers of their time. He was a philosopher drawn into politics; he wanted to make a difference in the real world and then found himself in the court of Nero, trying to contain a wildly insecure, inexperienced leader who was deranged. A bit like Trump.

In accordance with the philosophy of the Stoics, Virtue (virtus) and Reason are the basis of a good life, and a good life should be lived simply and in accordance with Nature, which, i> ncidentally, didn’t mean you should eschew wealth.

Seneca’s advice to his mother to cease her grieving. “You are beautiful, with an age-defying appeal that needs no make-up, so stop acting like the worst kind of vain woman.”

At the whim of the paranoid tyrant, Nero, who suspected Seneca of plotting to kill him, Seneca, like Socrates was sentenced to commit suicide.

the arrogance of officialdom need to be tempered and controlled,….” - Cicero, 55 BC

Lucius Cassius, regarded as a very honest and wise judge, was in the habit of asking, time and again, “Cui bono”, ‘To whose benefit?’

The Emperor Claudius maintained the senate should “transfer to this city all conspicuous merit, wherever found”.

The Roman Empire eventually became composed of an enormously diverse base of people from different racial and ethnic groups. They developed a system of naturalisation that allowed citizens to maintain dual allegiance to their original tribe or ancestral place – Spain or Britain.

Edward Gibbon in 1776, claimed that high point of civilisation – when mankind was happiest and most prosperous was when the Roman Empire was at its peak.

(Excerpted from Luke Slattery and Rosemary Neill)