The legacy of the Romans for Britain
I have never been to Rome. It must be strange for you, reading this statement of the author of an essay about Roman influence in Britain. But it’s true. And I have to face that fact even more often and be ashamed of what consequences it implies since I have come to Britain, and especially since I have come to Bath. Bath, the Roman City. Bath, the Roman Baths. Bath and the Romans. I feel like I have come to little Rome since I come here, really. It is everywhere and overwhelming, the still palpable presence of Roman life and culture today. I am very aware of the fact that the Roman Empire influenced not only Britain, but entire Europe. But the Romans never got so far as to conquer Berlin, so I never really got in touch with such an astounding presence still today. But the Romans did not have to really set a foot in a territory to make people feel their influence, even hundreds of years after the breakdown of the Roman Empire. Their influence is noticeable in almost every branch of human life, still today.
All roads lead to Rome. Taking this little proverb verbatim one might say that from the historic point of view it is true. The Roman Empire was a military state and in order to move troops to the remotest edge of the Empire there had to be proper ways to get there. The Empire was huge: “The Romans were the first and last people to unite the whole of the Mediterranean littoral under a single authority, and they maintained their empire for centuries-one of the most remarkable feats in history” (Jenkyns, 3). And one way of controlling it was make the flow of orders more fluent, hence to take care of that the messenger arrives at his destination quickly. But even in a broader sense the proverb is true. When the Romans came to the Britannic island they built edifices made from stone and totally different from those the indigenous population had known before; which is also a reason for their defeat, because the Romans where in general the more advanced group of both. Some of the temples they built are still visible today, as, of course, the Roman Baths in Bath. Another very prominent example of Roman architecture is the Hadrian Wall, which was the frontier of the Roman Empire to the northwest. In southern Germany there is the ‘limes’, which had exactly the same function to it. Roman architecture is not in is very sense still apparent today, also its influence on the Renaissance architecture and thereby its rediscovery in the 15th century have been and are very important.
All roads lead to Rome. Rome was, as said before, a huge military apparatus that was depended on orders being given and carried out. In order to reach that aim there had to be language that everybody could understand; otherwise the system would have collapsed. Latin – contrary to its present-day state of a dead language – provided the necessary fluency of those orders, and became thus the first lingua franca. And because of magistrates being sent from the very centre of power to every more or less important geographic point in the Empire, and taking their language with them, soon – in linguistic terms – the entire population of the Roman Empire communicated in Latin. It was the language of the poets, of great politicians and philosophers, not to mention that of the conquerors, and for that reason had an influence in most European contemporary languages, that cannot be neglected. Obviously, the Romanic languages have their very roots in the Latin of 1400 years ago, Vulgar Latin. But even such remote languages, Germanic languages, as German and English would not be what they are today without the Latin influence. Of course, the Romans introduced first such words of objects that were unknown to the people whose land they conquered, such as wine, parsley, and cucumber. But also more abstract ideas entered the defeated people’s mind: Roman Catholic Church, Apostles, Bishops. And the Romans were pretty clever; they just took over what the culture of the defeated people had to offer and affixed the Roman seal on it. They did it with the Roman Baths, that not for always had been Roman. They did it with the polytheistic religion of the Britons. And they also did it with the names of the months and weekdays. “The Romans had no problem in combining these with their own gods, simply associating them with the god(s) or goddess(es) who most resembled them” (Ibeji). For Britain this had a very special effect: “For 400 years, Rome brought a unity and order to Britain that it had never had before. Prior to the Romans, Britain was a disparate set of peoples with no sense of national identity beyond that of their local tribe. In the wake of the Roman occupation, every 'Briton' was aware of their ‘Britishness’” (Ibeji).
All roads lead to Rome. And because of the good roads by that time, not only orders and language could spread so fast. It was also ideas that followed the Roman soldiers on their paths to the provinces. Democracy is certainly the most striking one among them. Of course or present-day definition cannot be compared to what the Romans thought a democratic state was. “[T]he Roman Republic represents the first example in our history of constitutional government operated on a grand scale and extending over centuries. It had to contend with social and political issues and dilemmas unprecedented in kind and in magnitude. It produced new modes of law and government that have permanently affected the character of Western democracies. Its legacy is one of the most enduring influences of antiquity” (Mitchell). It might even be argued that the Roman understanding of democracy was a highly exclusive, if not discriminative one. Women were not allowed to vote, and even not every man had the right to vote. One condition was to be a respected member of Roman society, and to become such one had either to belong to a wealthy family or make a little fortune themselves. And they kept slaves. But in comparison to the Greeks, from which the Romans copied a lot of ideas, they also gave their former slaves the opportunity to become a full member of the Roman society: “Another major asset of the Roman system was its willingness to create ‘naturalized’ citizens. This is the same concept the United States has made much out of. For the Romans, anyone willing to swear loyalty to Rome and its institutions [sic], could become a Roman citizen. Since Rome began as a successful, but geographically limited, city-state, this approach to citizenship was a key element in creating a Roman empire” (Dunnigan). “‘Roman’ was a juridical term, and anyone, of any race, could become a Roman citizen (it is a curious fact that not one of the Roman poets, so far as we know, was a native of Rome itself)” (Jenkyns, 6).
All roads lead to Rome. But the same roads also lead away from it, to every little corner there was in the Roman Empire. And although one has to dig deeper to find the true influence of the Romans today – “It is hard to trace an influence when it has been as fully absorbed as this [...]” (Jenkyns, 6) – it is there! It is in almost every thing we do, look at and speak. And because of the Romans having done such a great job in spreading their culture over the entire Empire even I can feel their influence today. So, maybe, I do not have to travel to Rome to experience Roman culture. It is in front of my eyes and Rome has surely changed ever since. Nevertheless I think it is worth a try...
Anonymous. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_Britain#The_legacy. 05.11.2006.
Dunnigan, James F. and Nofi, Albert A.. “The Legacy of Rome”. http://www.hyw.com/Books/History/Rome__Le.htm. 05.11.2006.
Field, A.J.. http://www.schoolhistory.co.uk/year7links/doneforuse.shtml. 05.11.2006.
Ibeji, Dr. Mike. “An Overview of Roman Britain”. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/romans/questions_01.shtml. 05.11.2006.
Jenkyns, Richard. “The Legacy of Rome”. The Legacy of Rome: A New Appraisal. Oxford University Press. 1992. http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=9806586. 05.11.2006.
Mitchell, Thomas N.. “Roman Republicanism: The Underrated Legacy”. http://www.aps-pub.com/proceedings/1452/Mitchell.pdf. 05.11.2006
- Quote paper
- Katja Buthut (Author), 2006, The legacy of the Romans for Britain, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/134720