The Roman Empire began in about 27 BC, when Augustus Octavianus Caesar became first Emperor of Rome, and it spanned centuries. At the height of their dominance, from about 1 to 200 AD, the Romans had conquered much of the Mediterranean world, their territory stretching from Britain to Mesopotamia and from the Rhine River to the deserts of North Africa. It is a time and place that has inspired and captivated the imagination of everyone from scholars to Hollywood movie makers.
Dr. Michael Fronda is an associate professor of Roman History at McGill University. Fronda’s fascination with the Roman world began when he was a young boy. “Maybe it was all of those National Geographic magazines my family kept in the house,” he jokes. “In high school, I loved history. I was also lucky because my high school offered Latin and as a precocious teenager, I decided to learn the language. I can still remember the first line of Caesar’s account of his conquest of Gaul: Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres (All of Gaul is divided into three parts…).”
Today, the 44-year-old says he is still captivated by ancient Rome: “On the one hand the Romans seem so modern and so similar to our society today. And then on the other hand the ancient world is radically different, and many of their cultural practices and assumptions would strike us as bizarre or even horrifying,” explains Fronda. “For example, here was a society in which slavery was simply accepted, where gladiators and exotic animals were slaughtered in blood sports that were quite popular, and so on. I think most of us today would find the Roman world simply shocking. This duality – the profound similarity and extraordinary foreignness of ancient Rome – is a paradox that never ceases to amaze and interest me.”
“LITERALLY, IN THE ROMAN EMPIRE, ALL ROADS DID LEAD TO ROME. ROMANS WERE PIONEERS WHEN IT CAME TO INFRASTRUCTURE AND ENGINEERING, CREDITED WITH INVENTING OR PERFECTING EVERYTHING FROM AQUEDUCTS AND PLUMBING TO CONCRETE. THE LONGEVITY OF ROMAN ARCHITECTURE IS A TESTAMENT TO THE FLAWLESSNESS OF THEIR INNOVATIONS.”
Fronda says one of the most fascinating aspects of the Roman empire was its ability to control such a large and vast territory – which included anywhere from 50 million to 100 million inhabitants – at a time when the modes of communication were quite rudimentary. The Romans used more than military prowess to assert their power. “They appear to have done a remarkable job in getting local political leaders to cooperate and collaborate with Roman rule. To use a modern phrase, the Romans seem to have been masters of soft power,” says Fronda. “The Romans made grants of Roman citizenship to individuals – usually men of status who had served Rome loyally and their families – and to whole communities. Citizenship meant certain legal privileges and protections, and perhaps even status to the one receiving it.”
Romans were also avant-garde in the manner in which they treated those they conquered. Dr. Lionel Sanders has been teaching Classics at Concordia University since 1972. He believes the Romans’ greatest legacy is their ability to unite the Mediterranean communities – the only time this was ever done. In spreading their culture, the Romans also spread their language, and this is why so many people today speak French, Italian, Spanish and other Romance languages: these all derive from Latin, the official language of the Roman Empire. “Unlike the Greeks, the Romans recognized and were not ashamed of the fact that they were not of pure stock and they encouraged non-Romans to become Romanized,” explains Sanders. “This is reflected in the Roman view that the Mediterranean is our sea – mare nostrum. They did so by a universal Roman Law, pursuance of a vigorous policy of urbanization, especially in the Western areas, and by uniting the communities by their roads.”
Literally, in the Roman Empire, all roads did lead to Rome. Romans were pioneers when it came to infrastructure and engineering, credited with inventing or perfecting everything from aqueducts and plumbing to concrete. The longevity of Roman architecture is a testament to the flawlessness of their innovations. That’s why countless tourists to the Eternal City can, to this day, take selfies beneath the Roman arches of the Flavian Amphitheatre (aka the Colosseum), first opened in 80 AD.
Modern Romans are equally proud and mindful of their city’s great legacy and prominence in the founding of Western civilization. Laura Mancini is a native Roman and author of two books on the city: Roma Underground (2012) and A spasso per Roma (2014). The 29-year-old says Italians are taught, early on, about their rich history. “The Roman heritage imprinting begins with school: as soon as we start studying, we get familiar with ancient Roman history and myth.” Mancini continues, “During high school the study of Latin is mandatory in most schools; we learn everything about the Roman Empire. Of course for Romans this knowledge is even more profound and significant because we grow up seeing what is left of that Empire.”
Mancini says she does not take Rome’s deep history for granted, even though she’s walked its ancient streets her entire life: “As a citizen of the city, I believe that this heritage still counts a lot for me. I see the beauty all around when I walk through the streets of the historical centre, I enjoy the romantic view of the Appia Antica while biking, and I say bye to the Acquedotto Romano while driving out of the city.”
The Roman Empire has been called the birthplace of Western civilization and although its glory was on the decline by the 3rd century AD, many, including McGill professor Michael Fronda, believe the Empire never truly disappeared: “This is going to sound like I am being funny or cute, but the Romans’ greatest legacy is their legacy. By that I mean that for whatever reason the image of the Roman Empire endures in the imagination: the Romans remain the arch-example of a successful martial and imperial people, the Roman Empire, the ultimate model of imperial achievement to be emulated by would-be emperors or scorned as the ultimate example of tyranny and oppression.”
So next time you turn on your faucet, drive on a highway, or even look at a calendar, know it all started in Roma Aeterna.
Photography Pascal Rousseau
written by Panoram Italia