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.

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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).



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?


Valentines Day: not necessarily the holiday you thought it was

What do Chaucer and werewolves have to do with Valentines Day?  After reading this, you may reconsider your feelings toward this holiday, or at the very least, discover some reasons it may not be such a bad thing to be without a Valentine this year.

We can begin tracking the origins of Valentines Day, vaguely, in ancient Egypt.  Men and women of the lower classes determined their marital partners by the drawing of lots.  This happened in mid-February, though its association with the holiday we know now is possibly no more than coincidental.  This does add a bit more solemnity to the phrase “luck of the draw,” however.

And now, on to werewolves:

In prehistoric societies, the wolf charmer was a fellow who had a particular affinity for communicating with wolves. A wolf whisperer, one could say.  As these ancient tribes developed agriculture and settled in small villages, it became necessary to have a person skilled in singing with the wolves in order to convince them not to attack the villages’ domesticated animals.  The wolf charmer  had the ability to howl with the wolves and lead them away from the livestock pens.  In some stories, the wolf charmer also had the power to transform himself into a wolf if he so desired.

These beliefs continued through history to our arrival in the times of the ancient Greeks and Romans, amongst whom the wolf charmer was called the Lupicinus.

Lupus, meaning wolf, is not an original Latin word, but was borrowed from the Sabine dialect.  The Sabines were a nearby people, and in the very early days of Rome, when they found their male population far too heavily outnumbered their female, they raided the Sabines for their young women, who they then took back to Rome and married off to Roman citizens.

Luperca, the she-wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus, legendary founders of Rome, was represented in a bronze statue, possibly of Etruscan origin, called the Capitoline Wolf, the presence of which was noted by such scholars as Livy, Pliny the Elder, and Cicero.


The significance of this wolf in the founding of Rome gave rise to secret fraternities known as the Luperci, who sacrificed goats at the entrances to their “wolves’ dens.”   Well, now that I’ve written this, they’re not so secret anymore, are they?  Difficult to hide a pile of smelly dead goats, so they were bound to be discovered at some point.

The Lupercalia festival, one of the most ancient of Roman holidays, occurred annually from February 13-15.  It was a perpetuation of the ancient blooding rites of the hunter, wherein the initiate is smeared with the blood of his first kill.  The sacrificial slaying of a goat represented the flocks that nourished early humans in their efforts to establish permanent dwelling places.  This was followed by the sacrifice of a dog, in honor of the watchful protector of a flock that would be the first one killed by attacking wolves.

The blood of the goat and the dog were mixed, and a knife was dipped into the blood and drawn across the foreheads of two noble-born children, possibly representative of Romulus and Remus.  Once the children had been “blooded,” their faces were washed in goat milk. As the children were being cleansed, they were expected to laugh, thereby demonstrating their lack of fear of blood and their acknowledgment that they had received the magic of protection against wolves and wolfmen.

The god Lupercus, represented by a wolf, inspired men to behave as werewolves during the festival.  Early in history, these werewolves chased down innocent victims and ate them, tearing off bites of the flesh with their teeth.  In later years, as the Romans and their practices gained sophistication, their bloodlust was satisfied in a slightly more acceptable fashion.  The men were drunk, and naked, and young women would line up for the men to flog them with leather thongs cut from the animals they had just slain. They believed this would make them fertile.  This idea stemmed from earlier practices of beating the fields to encourage crop success.

The festival also included a matchmaking lottery, similar to that of ancient Egypt, in which young men drew the names of women from a jar.  The man and woman would then be coupled up for the duration of the festival — or longer, if the match was right.  So, ladies, if you fancy being publicly flogged by a naked drunk guy, who then draws your name from a jar, thus winning your sexual services for the weekend…perhaps this is indeed your kind of holiday.

Moving forward a bit in time to the third century; the Roman Empire was ruled by Emperor Claudius II Gothicus.  He was nicknamed Claudius the Cruel for his merciless tactics, which must have been considerable for him to stand out in the crowd amongst Roman rulers.  The Roman Empire was, in this period, experiencing massive turmoil.  The Empire was divided into three competing factions, and the threat of invasion came from all sides, and

Claudius was struggling to fill his military ranks.  He decided that recruitment was down because Roman soldiers were unwilling to leave their wives and families for such long periods.  His solution was to outlaw marriage in Rome.  You can imagine how well this went over amongst the citizens.

Hope arrived in the name of a Christian priest called Valentine.  Recognizing the injustice of Claudius’ decree, Valentine began conducting secret marriages for Roman soldiers.  When Claudius discovered the secret ceremonies, he ordered Valentine’s execution.  As Valentine was awaiting execution, tradition has it that he fell in love with the jailer’s daughter.  It was unfortunately a short romance, as in 269 Valentine was clubbed to death and then beheaded by Roman executioners.  Father Valentine, champion of sweethearts, was named a martyr by the Church, because he gave up his life to perform the sacrament of marriage.  When the Church gained power in the Roman Empire, the Holy See quickly made him a saint.

Lupercalia survived the initial rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire, but was outlawed—as it was deemed “un-Christian”–at the end of the 5th century.  This was the same era in which Pope Gelasius I, in declaring February 14 St. Valentine’s Day, combined it with the celebration of Lupercalia, in order to replace pagan ritual with Christian, as had been done with such holidays as Easter and Christmas.

The early Church fathers were quite aware of the popularity of a vast number of heathen gods and goddesses, as well as the dates of observation of pagan festivals, so they made a point of replacing as many of the deities and the holidays as possible with ecclesiastical saints and feast days.  Mid-February had an ancient history of being devoted to acts of love of a far more passionate and lusty nature than the Church was willing to bless, and the bishops moved as speedily as possible to claim mid-February as belonging to Saint Valentine.  One can easily see why the early Church fathers much preferred the union of man and woman to be smiled upon by St. Valentine, rather than the leering wolf god Lupercus.  St. Valentine’s Day was celebrating the same general concept: that of fertility and love, and so it became Lupercalia with its clothes put back on.

By the Middle Ages, Valentine was among the favorite saints in England and France, popular for his romantic and heroic story.  Among the peasantry, the customs surrounding Saint Valentine appear to have roots in the traditions of ancient Egypt and Rome.  On the evening before Valentine’s Day, young men and women would gather in the village and draw names by chance.  The matches would be sweethearts for the year.  Clearly, this residually Lupercalian method of celebrating St. Valentine led to circumstances that encouraged relationships of a more lasting nature, presided over by the local priest. Among the upper classes, where arranged marriages were of greater importance to the continued success of the landed gentry and aristocracy, this practice was a dangerous prospect.  Instead, upper class families allowed their children to draw names at highly supervised holiday parties, and be chaperoned “sweethearts” for the length of the event, and no further, thus protecting the noble family lines and the future of the families.

Rarely does a day go by I don’t blame Chaucegeoffrey-chaucer-drawing1-e1329413408492r for something, and this is no exception.  Geoffrey Chaucer, medieval English poet, is known to have taken liberties with history, often placing his characters into fictionalized historical contexts, which he then presented to his readers as fact.  There are no records of courtly, romantic celebrations on Valentine’s Day in the medieval era before Chaucer wrote a poem around the year 1382, in celebration of the engagement of King Richard II of England and Anne of Bohemia.  In the poem, “Parliament of Fowles,” he makes the assertion that Valentine’s Day is a special day of romantic celebration for lovers, with the exchanging of notes and gifts.  The poem refers to February 14 as the day birds and humans find their mates.  It was only after this poem received widespread fame that Valentine’s Day became the holiday we recognize today.  Yes, Chaucer invented Valentine’s Day.  It’s his fault.

Side note: Here are links to the book of past posts from Chaucer’s blog and his current twitter for your perusal.  Your love life may depend on it.

Valentine greetings, therefore, were popular as far back as the Middle Ages, though written valentines didn’t begin to appear until after 1400.  The oldest known valentine still in existence today was a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London.  (It is now part of the manuscript collection of the British Library.)  Several years later, it is believed that King Henry V hired a writer named John Lydgate to compose a valentine note to Catherine of Valois.

By the 1750s, it was common for friends and lovers of all social classes to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes, and by the 1850s, Valentine’s Day cards were being manufactured and sold commercially in England, and the custom of observing the holiday with cards to one’s sweetheart became popular in the United States in the 1860s, around the time of the American Civil War.

By 1900, printed cards began to replace written letters due to improvements in printing technology.  Cheaper postage rates also contributed to an increase in the popularity of sending Valentine’s Day greetings.   Today, an estimated 1 billion Valentine’s Day cards are sent each year.

And finally, a few facts about the fellow who started the whole mess: Valentine.  The saint we celebrate on Valentine’s Day is known officially as St. Valentine of Rome, in order to differentiate him from the dozen or so other Valentines on the list of saints.  Because “Valentinus”—from the Latin word for worthy, strong or powerful—was a popular name between the second and eighth centuries, there were bound to be a few martyrs with that name, and indeed, there are about a dozen Valentines (or some variation thereof) on the official Roman Catholic roster of saints.  There was even a Pope Valentine, though all we really know about him is that he served a mere 40 days around A.D. 827.


Saints don’t get to lounge about much in the afterlife, and Valentine is no exception.  St. Valentine has a wide-ranging assortment of spiritual responsibilities, to include being the patron saint of beekeepers and travelers, and sufferers of epilepsy and the plague.  All of this on top of his duties to look after engaged couples and happy marriages.

stvalentinesskullIf you happen to be in need of his services, you can find Valentine’s skull on display in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Rome.  (It’s cleverly displayed in a little gold television-shaped reliquary, with a sticky note on his forehead identifying him.  I think he looks rather fetching.)  Excavations in the early 1800s in a catacomb nearby unearthed his skeletal remains, and as is customary in the Catholic Church, bits and pieces of Saint Valentine have been shipped about to reliquaries around the world.  You can find parts of Valentine in the Czech Republic, Ireland, Scotland, England, and France.

Today, of course, we have great commercial enterprises focused on St. Valentine’s Day, insisting that folks buy their sweethearts a box of candy, a dozen roses, a diamond ring or necklace, or at least a five-dollar card.  This is all Chaucer’s doing, which makes me wonder why more florists aren’t named after him.

As you stand in line to buy your roses this February 14, remember that it all began with a deranged wolfman smeared in blood, chasing down women with a leather strap.

Feel free to celebrate that as you see fit.