Wednesday, 9 November 2011

The shadow of the Roman Empire

One of the things I like most about classical history is that the principal states (Sparta, Athens, Rome) still dominate, in many ways, the modern world.

Over two thousand years have passed since Athens and Sparta faded, and even the mighty (Western) Roman Empire fell about 15 centuries ago. But, despite that, the shadow, especially of Rome, continues to loom large.

For a start, when you visit my blog you’re reading the Latin alphabet, essentially. A number of names that are either Roman or Greek, or modern derivatives, remain popular (Marcus, Alexander, Lucy etc) and many terms (particularly of a scientific nature) are Latin or Greek.

Architecture is a more concrete, if you’ll pardon the pun, example. Indeed, concrete was used by the Romans in the construction of the Colosseum. A great many modern buildings make use of pediments, Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns (the White House being a prime example).

Today, democracy is seen as essential for a modern constitution. Indeed, the Lycurgan idea of a mixed constitution where genuinely powerful monarchs (or diarchs) and the elite also held sway would be rather frowned upon. Indeed, it’s a supreme historical irony that it was the Spartans who helped safeguard the cradle of democracy (Athens) at Thermopylae. Concepts about law and justice are also heavily influenced by Rome, which, although a harsh mistress, did have a series of properly codified laws.

The national borders of modern countries occurred after the Western Empire fell. Despite that, the idea of Britannia was a Roman one (even if the stupidly designed new coins have axed the splendid icon for what seems to be an idea cooked up by an educationally sub-normal second former, but there we are). It was also the Eastern Empire that effectively acted as a shield for most of Europe to grow out of the Dark Ages without being overrun by the Persians and then the Ottoman Turks (although they did finally, tragically, crack open Byzantium and make their way west, without the Eastern Empire they would have gotten far further far faster).

Culturally, the Roman/Greek world also made a permanent impression upon the collective psyche of Europe. I’m not just speaking of the excellent works of art that the Renaissance harked back to, but the idea of imperial glory and civilisation which was aped and admired by the Czars of Russia, amongst others.

The further back in time you go the more significant every event becomes. It’s like a line, and a different decision marks a deviation. The nearer to the end, the smaller the final change of course. If Scipio had lost at Zama, or Pompey had won at Pharsalus the world might very well be unrecognisable. And if the Gothic Claudius or Aurelian had been rubbish… well, I’ll get onto that more in the next piece.

It’s worth recalling that both Western and Eastern Empires (the former especially) were defeated as much by infighting and bickering sapping the strength of the military as by external foes. When patriotism and loyalty to the state is eclipsed by ambition and loyalty to individuals empires wane and fall.


No comments:

Post a Comment