But apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?
The quote above, from the film Life of Brian, is a fair start to a discussion of Roman contributions to the development of modern Western civilisation. We tend to think of the Roman Empire as having died out long, long ago, and yet its influence is all around us, all the time.
Rome, by way of its longevity as well as its innovative nature, has left us with innumerable legacies. Three of the most influential of their contributions to western culture are the Latin language and alphabet, Roman road systems, and Roman law. The Roman organized professional military should also get an honorable mention here, as its incredibly flexible nature changed the way wars were waged.
The Roman contribution to modern legal systems is so deeply ingrained in our culture that it goes virtually unnoticed but for the Latin terminology still in use (habeas corpus, for example). The Roman legacy of law is found not just in individual laws that carried over, but perhaps more importantly, in the theory of law. The Romans divided their laws between public law, wherein the state is involved directly, and private law, which dealt with personal disputes. Modern civil law is based heavily on this system. The foundation of United States law, that one is innocent until guilt has been proven, comes from Roman law. Lawmaking in our modern world has its basis in Roman processes as well. During the republican era, Roman legislation was passed by the comitia, and then approved by the senate. Many western nations, to include the US, have implemented this dual approval system in their own governments. The application of written laws as a device of protection of individual citizens from the state is also Roman, and America’s founding fathers implemented that as well.
With the Justinian Code, Rome set up an ordered legal system much emulated in modern western nations, and included a collected case history, the prototype for the case studies of modern law in most western nations. The Romans were not pillars of morality by our standards, but they did develop and implement a solid formula for justice and law, serving the Roman citizens and setting an example for the ideals of citizenship, government and society.
The Roman road system was instrumental in Rome’s plot to take over the world, as it was by these 80,000 KM of paved roadways that the Roman army, supplies, messengers, merchants, information, mail, news, religious ideas, money, everything made their way from Rome to the rest of the world, and from the rest of the world back to Rome. Sure, the speed of travel was still limited by one’s horse or shoe construction, but an existing road system crisscrossing most of Europe and beyond changed the world milepost by milepost.
The original purpose of the roads was, of course, military, and beginning with local areas, Rome was connected by these roads to Latium, Ostia, and then they moved further out as the Roman army expanded its territory. Highways gave the Roman army an advantage in speed and ease of transport of supplies and soldiers. As with most Roman public works, the roads were built largely by the soldiers as they moved forward, pushing their frontiers further outward. Besides the accessibility and speed the roads provided the military, commerce, communication (they had a mail service!), and civilian land travel aided the spread of cultures, ideas, Romanization. Even the Britons at the far reaches of civilization took up Roman ways. As a result of the roads, a taste for Roman goods developed amongst the native people, and this sometimes happened before the Romans even arrived en masse. Romanization was heavily encouraged as the Roman method of expansion required natives to become “civilized,” and later citizens. During the earliest periods of Romanization, adopting Roman dress, behaviors, manners, customs, was likely connected with social standing amongst conquered people, their social elites being first to make the change, and on down the line.
Goods, troops, and people traveled efficiently across the Empire (provided they were not mugged by bandits at roadside inns, another Roman contribution of happenstance associated with road building). The Romans understood that solid, paved roads ensured that troops could move toward their front lines in good time, the mere knowledge of which was often enough to keep outlying areas peaceful. The roads stretched outward from their hub, Rome being the central one, other cities in the Empire establishing secondary or tertiary hubs. This hub system is in evidence not only in the modern nations where the Empire once stood, but elsewhere, such as in the U.S. First as railways, later as interstate highways, the Roman idea of travel directly from hub to hub is plain to see across most of western civilization. Some of the old Roman roads remain in use, and more modern roadways are built atop old Roman ones, as they had already determined the most direct routes from city to city (and those cities, in many cases, remain today).
By far the most important, pervasive and far-reaching influence of Roman civilization is that of the Latin language. Early Latin was spoken, and written, at least as early as the 6th century B.C. As Rome developed from a small civilization into a conquering world power, they took their language with them across Europe and the Mediterranean. Part of the successful process of Romanization throughout the vast Empire was the spread of the Latin language and alphabet. After Rome divided, even as the western empire was disintegrating, the eastern Empire, speakers of Greek, kept the Latin language in use for official purposes until mid-6th century AD.
But by 600 AD Latin was dying. During the Dark Ages in Europe, few people outside of monasteries could read at all. As a result, spoken language changed and took on local peculiarities, giving birth to Italian, French and Spanish linguistic offshoots. Literate monks still read and wrote in Latin, and through their diligent efforts in preserving ancient texts, especially in monasteries in Ireland, and the use of Latin in church documents, Latin held on by a thread until the Carolingian Renaissance, wherein Charlemagne determined that education was important, and set forth on a campaign to promote literacy in his realm. Late medieval contact with the learned Arabs (also due great credit for the preservation of classical knowledge) brought about a resurgence of interest in literacy in Europe. All scholarly writing was done in Latin.
During the Renaissance period, Europeans developed interest in reading classical authors, and incorporating Latin terms in their own languages. Also, as study of the sciences picked up speed, Latin names and descriptions were used for their findings, in order to share discoveries internationally. Until the early 1900s, students at university were required to study Latin, and Latin was taught in primary and secondary schools as well, for students to better understand the structure of their own languages. Post-World War II, the emphasis shifted to the sciences as technology was growing rapidly, and Latin instruction in schools died off.
The Catholic Church used Latin as its required liturgical language up to the mid-1960s. It is still used in some masses, and the Anglican Church implements it in worship as well, despite Henry VIII and the pope having such a bad breakup. It remains the state language of the Vatican, used for official purposes much like it was in Byzantium.
Rome gave us our alphabet, and languages developed out of Latin have enough commonality that with little expenditure of time or effort, speakers of one Latin-based language can understand those of another. French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian all owe heavy debts to Latin. Furthermore, Latin lent heavy influence to other languages, such as English, as well. The roots of many English words are derived from Latin. With the exception of the Cyrillic language group, the Latin alphabet is almost universal in Europe and the Americas. Scientific, medical, legal, theological uses assure Latin’s continued legacy in our modern world. British and American coins bear Latin text, and where would our everyday communications be without such things as et cetera, versus, and exit?