But What Has Rome Done For Us…Lately?


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.

roman road.jpg

Roman Road

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.


A page from the Visconti Hours, National Library Florence. Plague of the Firstborn (Exodus 12:21-30).

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?


Columbian Exchange: 1492 fallout explained

A number of years ago a ladies-who-lunch type of group asked me to provide a lecture for Columbus Day.  I suppose they expected a whitewashed, ‘Caucasians Discovered The World’ piece.  That is not what they got.  To their credit, they listened and they learned.  I have since presented this lecture for a few other groups, and here it is for you guys to enjoy as well.  This was originally cobbled together from a lecture I gave in my American Indian History class, and it was inspired many, many years ago by a fantastic course I took during my undergrad years on imperialism.  The first time I read Alfred Crosby, I felt like all the little pieces of ‘colonial’ history were clicking into place.  Much thanks to Chet DeFonso, my former professor and advisor, and still and always my friend.  He has never failed to inspire and encourage me, for over twenty years.  This lecture is almost entirely his fault.


Before 1492, we couldn’t talk about “world history” at all; we could only talk about the histories of separate regions.  Columbus changed all of that.


Divergent Evolution

When the continents drifted apart millions of years ago, separating the Americas from Eurasia and Africa, it brought about divergent evolution—the development of different species, as the continents (and their contents) were isolated one from another.  This occurs when a group from a specific population–in this case, the population of the ancient supercontinent, or Pangaea–develops into a new species.  In order to adapt to various environmental conditions, the two groups develop into distinct species due to differences in the demands driven by their environmental circumstances.

While some similarities remained between the flora and fauna of the Old and New Worlds, such as the existence of jaguars in South America and leopards in Africa, divergent evolution also resulted in entirely original species for each of the continents.  The rattlesnake of the Americas has no similar European species, nor does the camel of Eurasia have an American counterpart.

Beginning with the cargo accompanying Columbus’ second journey to the Americas, the movement of explorers and colonists after 1492 from Old to New World began the reversal, in small part, of this divergence.  After millions of years of divergent evolution humming along on its own, human behavior set into motion what became an enormous reversal in geographical biodiversification.

The Columbian Exchange is a term coined by historian Alfred Crosby.  Columbian Exchange refers to the exchange of crops, animals, disease and technology between the Old World and the New World in the decades following Columbus’ arrival in the Americas in 1492. Sometimes called the Triangle Trade, this concept includes Europe, the Americas, and Africa in a three-pronged swap of flora, fauna, foods, technologies, and ideas. Not to mention people.

This exchange can be organized under four categories:  disease, animals, plants, and people.



Native Americans had exactly ONE response to the arrival of Europeans: death.  Native Americans suffered a 90% mortality rate upon the arrival of Europeans, and that was mainly due to disease.

The spread of infectious disease in the Americas was so devastating mostly because the Western hemisphere was isolated, biologically, from Europe’s pathogens, and the Americas just did not have much in the way of infectious diseases prior to 1492.

Prior to the coming of the Europeans, the New World only had a few infectious diseases, perhaps in part because the Americas were populated much later, and the cities were newer than those of the Old World.  More importantly, the Americas had far fewer domesticated herd animals, which are among the greatest sources of disease-carrying microorganisms. Influenza, for example, originates in barnyard animals such as pigs.

Smallpox, measles, malaria, mumps, yellow fever, cholera, typhus, chicken pox, bubonic plague, and influenza were all new to the Americas.

Secondary effects of disease in the Americas were numerous, as well.  For example, the deaths of Aztec and Incan rulers set off wars, which eased the spread of disease, as we all know the best way to spread germs is via hand to hand combat.

Plus, leaders kept dying.  The Incan leader Huayna Capac succumbed to smallpox before the Spanish Conquistador Pizarro even arrived!  This led to a great battle for succession amongst his sons, eventually won by Atahualpa, who was then captured and killed by Pizarro.  Without that war for succession, the Incas would have had much better chances against the Spaniards, as the Spanish numbers were comparatively small.

The same thing happened to the Aztecs:  Moctezuma was the nephew of a more powerful king who died of smallpox, leaving a weak leader in his place, which provided an opening for some of the smaller states in the Aztec Empire to revolt and aid the Spanish in the defeat of the Aztecs.

Another secondhand effect of the introduction of disease was starvation.  There simply weren’t enough people left standing to get food to keep themselves alive.  Malnutrition, then, left people more vulnerable to disease.  Smallpox was the most deadly of transmittable diseases brought to the Americas.  This pathogen sometimes took down so many adults simultaneously within a community that deaths by starvation numbered nearly as high as those from the disease.  In some cases, entire tribes were rendered extinct.

The one and only disease that spread from New World to Old World, usually via sailors and explorers, was syphilis.  It quickly made its way into the upper classes of European society, and amongst the infected were Gauguin, Nietzche, and the famously infertile Tudor family, who all suffered from syphilis.  The effects of this, of course, paled in comparison to smallpox in the Americas.

However, the New World provided tobacco to the Old World.  Cigarettes were handed out to American soldiers during World War II, and more soldiers who started smoking during the war died eventually from smoking than died from the war. Slow moving revenge for smallpox. Well done, New World.



All other purposes aside, the main reason Europeans came to the Americas was to eat—abundant land for crops and animals was highly appealing.

American animals like llamas and guinea pigs never really caught on in Eurasia, but European animals coming to the Americas were revolutionary.  Prior to Columbus, the Americas had no horses, donkeys, pigs, cattle, goats, sheep, or chickens.  Pigs breed really quickly, and eat anything, which utterly remade the food supply in the Americas.  De Soto brought 13 pigs with him when he arrived in Florida in 1539.  By the time of his death three years later, there were 700 pigs.

Large European animals changed the nature of work in the Americas.  Before the Columbian Exchange, the largest beast of burden was the llama, and at best it carried 100 lbs.  This meant that for the long distance travel that the Inca engaged in regularly, the primary transportation was on foot.

The Europeans brought the horse, which was a game changer for Native American culture.  The introduction of horses enabled many Plains tribes to develop entirely nomadic lifestyles, traveling and hunting by horse.

The Comanche became known for their superior horsemanship, and are known for this skill even in our modern world.  The horse was so valuable to the Plains tribes’ daily lives that horses were used as currency between tribe members and from tribe to tribe, and the possession of a horse or more was their primary signifier of prestige.

Oxen with their plows enabled large-scale cultivation, heretofore unknown in the Americas.  This obviously allowed for greater food production.

There were much fewer large mammals that were native to the New World that could be tamed. Buffalo, the primary large American mammal, are still not domesticated.



While Old World animals and diseases totally reshaped the New World, it was New World plants that had the biggest impact on Eurasia.

Europe gave us wheat and grapes—useful for Catholic mass, to be sure—but American plants radically changed the lives and cuisines of millions of Europeans, Asians, and Africans.

Imagine Indian and Thai curries without hot peppers; Italian food without tomatoes; or Belgium with no chocolate!  Much of what we perceive to be typical European food was unheard of prior to the Columbian Exchange.  New World crops foreign to Eurasia and Africa before Columbus arrived in the Americas also include: corn, beans, potatoes, avocados, peanuts, squash, pumpkin, manioc.

The abundance of food influx from New World crops led to a planet-wide population explosion.  The world population doubled between 1650 and 1850.

Potatoes and corn grow in soil that Old World crops cannot survive in.  Consuming primarily potatoes, the Irish more than doubled their population between 1754 and 1845, when the potato famine it.


Side note:

In 1847, roughly 15 years after their forced removal from their ancestral lands in the east, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma heard about what was happening in Ireland, and perhaps they saw an echo of what had happened to them during the Trail of Tears.  Despite their impoverished situation, the Choctaw took up a collection and sent it, via an aid agency, to Ireland.  The Irish people never forgot their generosity, and a huge plaque still hangs prominently in the airport in Dublin to honor the Choctaw people.


So, manioc and cassava went to Africa, the sweet potato went to China and Japan, and corn became the primary ingredient in animal feed around the world.


African Crop Exchange

 The European colonization of the Americas led to the establishment of plantation slavery in the New World, spurring the Atlantic slave trade. This transfer of unwilling migrants from Africa to the Americas had another, unintended effect: a transfer of crops across the ocean between Africa and the Americas, creating another leg in the Columbian Exchange. Slave ships en route to the Americas were provisioned with African food crops, and these crops, upon their establishment in the New World, dramatically influenced American cuisine.  Typical African foods supplied to slave ships included yams, African rice, pearl millet, sesame, sorghum, and tamarind. It was believed that slaves fed familiar foods were more likely to survive the ocean voyage.

New World crops made their way to the west coast of Africa in the first decades after 1492, beginning with corn, and followed shortly thereafter by manioc, sweet potatoes, capsicum peppers, and others. Corn, as it is a high-yield crop, quickly became a standard cereal crop grown along Africa’s west coast, in order to supply slave ships.

South Carolina had, by 1690, established rice as its primary export crop. In order to establish this economy, plantation owners requested seeds from ship captains, and the result was the introduction of seeds from all over the globe, including a red rice from Africa. African slaves working the plantations planted the same red rice in their garden plots for their own consumption.



With the Columbian Exchange, we had the exchange of people. This was largely going in one direction, as Europeans and Africans (the latter mostly against their will) moved to the Americas, repopulating the New World following the disease and devastation that came with colonization.

Europe’s population had been cut by 1/3 – ½ by plague during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.  Better food products from the New World allowed Europe’s population to grow by leaps and bounds, putting pressure on the continent, causing more people to move to the Americas for land and food.


In Conclusion…

So there were our three categories: disease, food, and people.  The bottom line is, the Columbian Exchange devastated the population of the Americas; led to widespread slavery of Africans; allowed for a worldwide population increase.  And as a result of the Columbian Exchange, fewer people have starved since 1492, but the diversity of life on earth has diminished dramatically, and planting crops where they don’t belong has hurt the environment.

Via man’s meddling, says Alfred Crosby, humanity ‘has killed off more species of life forms in the last 400 years than the usual processes of evolution might kill off in a million years.’

Recipe: New World Brownies

This recipe combines some wonderful New World ingredients.  I have been making these to accompany my lectures for years.  Enjoy!

  1. 2C unbleached flour
  2. 2C sugar
  3. 1/2C cocoa
  4. 1 tsp baking powder
  5. 1/2 tsp salt
  6. 1/2 tsp habanero powder
  7. 1C coffee
  8. 1C veg oil
  9. 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  10. 1/2 tsp jamaican rum

Mix flour, sugar, cocoa, baking powder, and salt.

Mix remaining ingredients separately, then add to bowl of dry ingredients. 

Stir until well blended. Pour into a 9 x 13 pan. Bake 25-30 minutes at 350 degrees. Cool ten minutes before cutting. 










What is history but a fable agreed upon?

We talk about the historian as storyteller, and the history, therefore, is made up of the stories being told about the past.  History is a grandfather recounting an event to a younger relative; a document detailing what work was done on one’s vehicle; a photo album of a now-ended relationship; an eyewitness account of an affair of state; the events that brought a civilization up and then to its knees; and it is all of these things, for and from all people, forever, making up a network of stories within stories.

It was the very idea of stories that drew me in.  My father’s office was filled with books, floor to ceiling shelves, stacks of books on the floor, under his chair, covering his desk. All of those books were stuffed with stories about ancient people, far off places, amazing adventures. How could I not fall in love with them?


I left all of my clothes in Wales and Ireland in order to fit this library book in my backpack.

R.G. Collingwood suggests that history is not so much the events or actions that happened, but the thoughts and ideas behind them. To understand the thoughts which precede the actions is the historian’s path to understanding how events came to pass, and why. A historian records the events of the past, and attempts to interpret them and determine their importance/relevance.

The thing about importance or relevance is that it’s subjective.   Stories I find important are not of any consequence to others.  Sometimes when a friend tells a story we tune them out, focusing on our own thoughts and ideas. Where does that story go, when there is no one to hear it? What of the lost stories in the library of Alexandria? Do we not have some responsibility to keep thoughts and ideas alive, to fill the empty spaces in history with the minutiae of lives lived by those long dead?

Everybody has an angle. That old adage about there being three truths: mine, yours, and what really happened, has some merit. How do we record history when there are so many stories telling different truths about the same event?

It is expected that the historian holds knowledge and understanding of the past and of its impact on the present and potential effect on the future. It is expected that this knowledge shall be dispensed with truthfulness and without influence from the historian’s own beliefs or intentions. There is some room for making judgments on how information is put forth, as there is in every profession.  The madness of being a historian is deciding when to stop digging, upon what level of detail to settle. One of my favorite professors long ago told me that what is most important to know about doing research is when to stop.  At some point, he said, you have to start writing. You have to tell the story. Pick a truth, and make it your own.


The mindblowing Barter Books in Alnwick, Northumberland.


So what was Napoleon (or, perhaps, Voltaire) getting at with the statement with which I have titled this post?  In my particular case, this blog is a series of stories, of histories, of a life lived, maybe a lie lived.  These are my own family’s fables, and over the years the details may have shifted slightly during transport. However, with only myself left standing to tell these tales, while I present truths here, MY truths, the truths are unchallenged — these fables are agreed upon.