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.

 

LAW

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.

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Justinian

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.

 

ROADS

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.

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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).

 

LANGUAGE

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.

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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?

 

The Smallest of Prices

Everywhere we lived, my father had a home office. And the best thing about that office was that it was filled with books. Floor to ceiling, stacked in front of his desk, piled under his chair and atop tables, were books ranging in topic from religion to geography, world cultures, dead languages, history, science, and so on. Among them was one large book, with a blue spine, and in it were descriptions and photographs of Istanbul. Markets, mosques, street scenes. It was exotic, even to my travel-jaded eyes, and I wanted to experience the sights and smells for myself.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe obvious apple of my eye, in regard to Istanbul, was the Aya Sofya, or Hagia Sofia. I cannot think of another place so steeped in religious history.  There, my studies of Byzantine, Ottoman, Islamic, and Christian history collide in one breathtaking structure. I simply had to go there.

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And so I did, many years later. I saw the Blue Mosque, and viewed the sacred relics in Topkapi Palace, and dined on a terrace overlooking the water. And, indeed, I spent hours in the Aya Sofya, touched the Marble Door, viewed the ancient Christian mosaics, and the mosque was even larger and more beautiful than I had imagined for all those years.

14 million people in a city seems like a terrible crush, and the streets and markets were at times cacophonous, but over the racket of vendors, traffic, and street prophets, the haunting müezzins’ calls to prayer resound. The city is made of magic. The sounds, the scents wafting on the breeze off the Bosphorus, the gentle ways of its inhabitants, all create a sense of calm amidst the chaos. Orhan Pamuk wrote of Istanbul, “If I see my city as beautiful and bewitching, then my life must be so too.”

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A friendly guard at Topkapi Palace

 

I walked through the squares, and parks, and markets, through neighborhoods, and down city streets. I talked to guards and shopkeepers and ladies out walking with their friends and children. The people of Istanbul are friendly and funny, and curious and kind.

 

Later in the day, full of Turkish delight and nose twitching from sampling the wares in the Egyptian market, where spices are sold, I made my way to the Grand Bazaar.

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The gate of the Grand Bazaar

The name is apt; everything about this bazaar is grand. The vendors are endless in every direction, so many I could not see the far end, and in fact never did make my way all the way through to the opposite side. I made a few small purchases: a scarf, a necklace, and by then it was growing late and the sun was setting quickly.

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Not prayer rugs, but a sales demonstration inside a rug shop.

As I approached the way out, a man about my age called to me, and asked if I wanted to buy a prayer rug. They were beautiful, and I admired them, but declined. I went on, and there was a bit of a bottleneck as people were leaving through the gate. I stood waiting my turn, and the man came to me again. His English was only slightly better than my Turkish, but we managed nonetheless. He said that he noticed I admired his rugs, and he would cut the price for me, as the hour was late, and he wouldn’t have to carry it back home again.

The price was more than fair, and yet I hesitated, as the idea of carrying a prayer rug across the city, then jamming it into my bag, was a complication I was not sure I was prepared to take on. He held my hand, looked into my eyes, and said, “I will give you this rug, for the smallest of prices: a kiss. A kiss,” he said, “to bring me good fortune.”

Who can say no to that kind of charm? Righty-o, I agreed, he rolled up my rug and handed it to me, and I offered my cheek. Quick as a snake, he landed the most resounding smooch square on my lips, winked, and disappeared into the market.

And that is how I bought my prayer rug for the price of a kiss in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, a magical city where anything can happen.