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The Grandeur That Was Rome
Page Five
Date: 1992

The Roman Contribution

Unlike the Greeks, the Romans were not gifted in abstract thought. They
constructed no original system of philosophy, invented no major new literary
forms, and made no outstanding scientific discoveries. Yet they excelled in
the art of government. The Romans created a workable world-state and developed
a skill in administration, law, and practical affairs. The Pax Romana
was fashioned and maintained by a people who were, on the whole, conscious of
their responsibilities to others.

The Roman Spirit

The Roman spirit was compounded of many factors. Never completely
forgotten was the tradition of plain living that stemmed from Rome's early
history as a nation of farmers. Geography was another factor; for centuries
the Romans were faced with the need to conquer or be conquered, and they had
to stress discipline and duty to the state. But the Roman spirit also had
another side. It could be arrogant and cruel, and its sense of justice was
often untempered with mercy. In A.D. 84, a Scottish chieftain is reported to
have said of his Roman conquerors, "To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give
the lying name of empire; they create a desert and call it peace." ^16

[Footnote 16: Tacitus Agricola 30.]

Rome's answer to such criticism was delivered a few years earlier by a
Roman general to some tribes in Gaul that had revolted after the infamous
emperor Nero had arrested some of their leaders:

Gaul always had its petty kingdoms and intestine wars,
until you submitted to our authority. We, though so often
provoked, have used the right of conquest to burden you only
with the cost of maintaining peace.... You often command our
legions. You rule these and other provinces. There is no
privilege, no exclusion.... Endure the passions and rapacity
of your masters, just as you bear barren seasons...and other
natural evils. There will be vices as long as there are men.
But they are not perpetual....

Should the Roman be driven out...what can result but wars between all
these nations? ...Let the lessons of fortune...teach you not to prefer
rebellion and ruin to submission and safety. ^17

[Footnote 17: Tacitus Histories 4.74.]

Evolution Of Roman Law

Of the contributions made by the Romans in government, Roman law is
preeminent. Two great legal systems, Roman law and English common law, are the
foundation of jurisprudence in most modern Western nations. Roman law is the
basis for the law codes of Italy, France, Scotland, Louisiana, and the Latin
American countries. Where English common law is used, as in the United States
(except in Louisiana), there is also a basic heritage of great legal
principles originated by ancient Roman jurists. In addition, Roman legal
principles have strongly affected the development of the canon law of the
Roman Catholic Church; and international law has borrowed principles inherent
in the Roman system.

Roman law evolved slowly over a period of about a thousand years. At
first, as in all early societies, the law was unwritten, mixed with religious
custom, and harsh in its judgments. In the fifth century B.C., this law was
put in writing in the Law of the Twelve Tables, as the result of plebeian
demand. During the remainder of the Republic the body of Roman law (jus
civile, "law of the citizen") was enlarged by legislation passed by the Senate
and the assembly and by judicial interpretation of existing law to meet new
conditions. By the second century A.D. the emperor had become the sole source
of law, a responsibility he entrusted to scholars "skilled in the law"
(jurisprudentes). These scholars stuck fast to the idea of equity ("Follow the
beneficial interpretation"; "Letter of law is height of injustice") and to
stoic philosophy with its concept of a "law of nature" common to all people
and ascertainable by means of human reason. Finally, in the sixth century
A.D., the enormous bulk of Roman law from all sources was codified and thus
easily preserved for posterity.

Roman Engineering And Architecture

The Empire's needs required a communication system of paved roads and
bridges as well as huge public buildings and aqueducts. As road builders, the
Romans surpassed all previous peoples. Constructed of layers of stone and
gravel according to sound engineering principles, their roads were planned for
the use of armies and messengers and were kept in constant repair. The
earliest and best known main Roman highway was the Appian Way. Running from
Rome to the Bay of Naples, it was built about 300 B.C. to facilitate Rome's
expansion southward. It has been said that the speed of travel possible on
Roman highways was not surpassed until the early nineteenth century.

In designing their bridges and aqueducts, the Romans placed a series of
stone arches next to one another to provide mutual support. At times several
tiers of arches were used, one above the other. Fourteen aqueducts, stretching
a total of 265 miles, supplied some fifty gallons of water daily for each
inhabitant of Rome. They were proudly described by Rome's superintendent of
aqueducts as "a signal testimony to the greatness of the Roman Empire," to be
contrasted with "the idle pyramids or all the useless, though famous, works of
the Greeks." ^18

[Footnote 18: Frontinus, quoted in Michael Grant, The World of Rome (New York:
New American Library, 1960), p. 298.]

At first the Romans copied Etruscan architectural models, but later they
combined basic Greek elements with distinctly Roman innovations. The
structural simplicity of Hellenic buildings was too restrained for the Romans.
By utilizing concrete - a Roman invention - faced with brick or stone, they
developed new methods for enclosing space. The Greeks' static post and lintel
system was replaced by the more dynamic techniques of vaulting derived from
the arch, borrowed from the Etruscans.

Heavy concrete barrel vaults, cross (or groin) vaults and domes - all so
solid that they exerted no sidewise thrust - made possible the vast interiors
that distinguish Roman architecture. The barrel vault was essentially a series
of connected arches resembling a tunnel, and the cross vault consisted of two
barrel vaults intersecting at right angles. The largest Roman domed structure
is the Pantheon, the oldest important roofed building in the world that is
still intact. As its name indicates, it was dedicated to "all the gods" by the
emperor Hadrian as a symbol of the union of Greeks and Romans on equal terms.
The massive dome rests on thick round walls of poured concrete that could not
be weakened by window openings. The only light enters through a great hole,
thirty feet wide, at the top of the dome. The size of the dome remained
unsurpassed until the twentieth century.

The typical Roman basilica, which served as a social and commercial
center and as a law court, was not domed or vaulted. It was a rectangular
structure with a light wooden ceiling held up by rows of columns that divided
the interior into a central nave and side aisles. The roof over the nave was
raised to admit light, creating a clerestory like that found in the temple of
Karnak in Egypt. The Roman basilica was to have a remarkable future as a
Christian church.

Roman buildings were built to last, and their size, grandeur, and
decorative richness aptly symbolized the proud imperial spirit of Rome.
Whereas the Greeks evolved the temple, theater, and stadium, the Romans
contributed the triumphal arch, bath, basilica, amphitheater, and the
multistoried apartment house. Perhaps the most famous Roman edifice is the
Colosseum, a huge amphitheater about one quarter of a mile around on the
outside and with a seating capacity of about 45,000. Its three stories of
arches are decorated with Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns.

Sculpture And Painting

After the conquest of Greece thousands of statues and other art pieces
were brought to Rome. Many Romans acquired a passion for art, and the homes of
the wealthy were filled with all kinds of Greek art, either brought to Rome as
booty or copied there in great number.

Although strongly influenced by Etruscan and Greek models, the Romans
developed a distinctive sculpture of their own, which was remarkably
realistic, secular, and individualistic. Lifelike portraiture flourished,
probably originating in the early practice of making and preserving wax images
of the heads of important families. During the Principate, portraiture and
relief sculpture tended to idealize the likenesses of the emperors. Portraits
on coins also served to glorify the Empire and particular emperors. Equestrian
statues, sculptured coffins, or sarcophagi, and the reliefs found on imperial
monuments were exceptionally fine works of art. The Romans developed a great
fund of decorative motifs, such as cupids, garlands of flowers, and scrolls of
various patterns, which are still used today.

What little Roman painting has been preserved clearly reflects the
influence of Hellenistic Greek models. The Romans were particularly skilled in
producing floor mosaics - often copies of some Hellenistic painting - and in
painting frescoes. The frescoes still to be seen in Pompeii and elsewhere show
that the artist drew the human figure accurately and showed objects in clear
though imperfect perspective.

Literary Rome

In literature as in art, the Romans turned to the Greeks for their
models. Roman epic, dramatic, and lyric poetry forms were usually written in
conscious imitation of Greek masterpieces. Compared with Greek literature,
however, Latin literature is for the most part inferior to its Greek models.
But it remains one of the world's great literatures largely because of its
influence upon medieval, Renaissance, and modern culture.

Formal Latin literature did not begin until the third century B.C. when a
Greek slave named Livius Andronicus translated Homer's Odyssey and
several Greek plays into Latin. By the end of the same century the first of a
series of Latin epics dealing with Rome's past was composed. Only a few
fragments have survived.

The oldest examples of Latin literature to survive intact are the
twenty-one comedies of Plautus (c. 254-184 B.C.), which were adapted from
Hellenistic Greek originals but with many Roman allusions, colloquialisms, and
customs added. Plautus' comedies are bawdy and vigorously humorous, and their
rollicking plots of illicit love and stock characters of the shrewish wife
("Look at you! Gadding about, reeking of scent; you ought to know better, at
your time of life"), henpecked husband ("But dear, I was only helping a friend
buy a bottle of perfume"), lovelorn youth, clever slave, and swashbuckling
soldier reveal the level of culture and taste in early Rome. The works of
Plautus suggest many of the types that modern comedy has assumed - the farce,
burlesque, and the comedy of manners. From him Shakespeare got ideas for his
Comedy of Errors and The Merry Wives of Windsor; the modern musical and movie,
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, is an adaptation of three of
Plautus' plots.

The Golden Age Of Latin Literature

Latin literature entered its first great period of creative activity in
the first century B.C., when an outpouring of intellectual effort coincided
with the last years of the Republic. This period marks the first half of the
Golden Age of Latin literature, known as the Ciceronian period because of the
stature of Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 B.C.), the greatest master of Latin
prose and the outstanding intellectual influence in Roman history.

Acclaimed as the greatest orator of his day, Cicero found time during his
busy public life to write extensively on philosophy, political theory, and
rhetoric. Some 900 of his letters still exist. Together with fifty-eight
speeches, they give us insight into Cicero's personality as well as life in
republican Rome. Cicero also made a rich contribution by passing on to the
Romans and to later ages much of Greek thought - especially that of Plato and
the Stoics - and at the same time interpreting it from the standpoint of a
Roman intellectual and practical man of affairs. He did more than any other
Roman to make Latin a great literary language.

Other works of the Ciceronian period include the personal lyrical poetry
of Catullus (c. 87-54 B.C.), a young man about town who wrote intensely of his
loves and hates:

I hate and love - the why I cannot tell,
But by my tortures know the fact too well. ^19

[Footnote 19: Carmen 85, trans. Theodore Martin.]

Catullus' contemporary, Lucretius (99-55 B.C.), found in the philosophy
of Epicurus an antidote to his profound disillusionment with his fellow
citizens who, he wrote, "in their greed of gain...amass a fortune out of civil
bloodshed: piling wealth on wealth, they heap carnage on carnage. With
heartless glee they welcome a brother's tragic death." ^20 Lucretius' long
philosophical poem, On the Nature of Things, is discussed on page 94.

[Footnote 20: Lucretius On the Nature of the Universe 3.70, trans. Ronald
Latham (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1951), p. 98.]

Augustus provided the Roman world with a stability that was conducive to
a further outpouring of literary creativity. The second phase of the Golden
Age of Latin literature, the Augustan Age, was notable particularly for its
excellent poetry. Virgil (70-19 B.C.) is considered the greatest of all Roman
poets. His masterpiece, a great national epic called the Aeneid, glorifies the
work of Augustus and eloquently asserts Rome's destiny to conquer and rule the
world. Using Homer's Odyssey as his model, Virgil recounted the fortunes of
Aeneas, the legendary founder of the Latin people, who came from burning Troy
to Italy. The Aeneid breathes Virgil's deep and enthusiastic patriotism and is
as much a piece of imperial symbolism as Rome's triumphal arches.

As Augustus' poet laureate after the death of Virgil, Horace (65-8 B.C.)
often sincerely praised the emperor's achievements:

Now Parthia fears the fist of Rome, the fasces
Potent on land and sea; now the once haughty
Ambassadors from the Caspian and the Indus
Sue for a soft reply.
Now Faith and Peace and Honor and old-fashioned
Conscience and unremembered Virtue venture
To walk again, and with them blessed Plenty,
Pouring her brimming horn. ^21

[Footnote 21: Horace "The Centennial Hymn," trans. James Michie, The Odes of
Horace, p. 227.]

Most of Horace's poetry, however, is concerned with everyday human
interests and moods, and succeeding generations up to the present have been
attracted by his serene outlook on life:

Happy the man, and happy he alone,
He, who can call today his own:
He who secure within, can say,
Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today. ^22

[Footnote 22: Horace Odes 3.29, trans. John Dryden.]

Quite a different sort was Ovid (43 B.C. - A.D. 17). His partiality for
themes of sensual love in his Art of Love and other poems ("There she stood,
faultless beauty in front of me, naked") caused Augustus to exile him to the
shores of the Black Sea, Rome's equivalent to Russia's Siberia. But Ovid was
also a first-rate storyteller, and it is largely through his Metamorphoses, a
witty verse collection of Greek stories about the life of the gods - not
neglecting their lovelife - that classical mythology was transmitted to the
modern world.

The Silver Age Of Latin Literature

The literature of the Silver Age, the period between the deaths of
Augustus and Hadrian (A.D. 14-138), substituted a more critical and negative
spirit for the patriotism and optimism of the Augustan Age. Despite a great
emphasis on artificial stylistic devices, the Silver Age was memorable for its
moral emphasis, seen in Tacitus, Plutarch, Seneca, and especially in Juvenal
(d. A.D. 130), who has been called "the greatest satiric poet who ever lived."
With moral indignation and bitter irony he assailed the shortcomings of Roman
society: the common people of the city, no longer having votes to sell, are
interested only in free "bread and circuses;" a good woman is a "rare bird,"
as "uncommon as a black swan," but "worse still is the well-read menace" who
"with antiquarian zeal quotes poets I've never heard of."

The Writing Of History

Two Roman historians produced notable works during the Golden and Silver
Ages. The first, Livy (59 B.C. - A.D. 17), was a contemporary of Virgil;
Livy's immense History of Rome, like the latter's Aeneid, is of epic
proportions and glorifies Rome's conquests and ancestral ways. By assembling
the legends and traditions of early Roman history and welding them into a
continuous narrative, Livy, like Virgil, sought to advance Augustus' program
of moral and social regeneration. He praised the virtues of the ancient Romans
- their heroism, patriotism, and piety - and sought to draw moral lessons from
an idealized past:

What chiefly makes the study of history wholesome and profitable
is this, that you behold the lessons of every kind of experience
set forth as on a conspicuous monument; from these you may choose
for yourself and for your own state what to imitate, from these
mark for avoidance what is shameful in the conception and shameful
in the result. ^23

[Footnote 23: Livy History of Rome 1.10, trans. B. O. Foster, The Loeb
Classical Library (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), vol. 1, p. 7.]

Tacitus (A.D. 55-117), like his contemporary Juvenal, was concerned with
improving society, but he used history rather than satiric poetry to serve his
ends. In his Germania Tacitus contrasted the life of the idealized, simple
Germanic tribes with the corrupt and immoral existence of the Roman upper
classes. In the Annals and Histories he used his vivid, epigrammatic prose to
depict the shortcomings of the emperors and their courts from the death of
Augustus to A.D. 96. For example: "Tyrants merely procure infamy for
themselves and glory for their victims" and "The more corrupt the state, the
more numerous the laws." Tacitus suffered from the bias of his own senatorial
class; he looked upon the emperors as tyrants and thus could not do justice to
the positive contributions of imperial government.

The most famous Greek author in the Empire was Plutarch (A.D. 46?-126?).
He lectured on philosophy at Rome before retiring to his small hometown to
pursue research on the outstanding figures in Roman and Greek history in order
to discover what qualities make people great or ignoble. His Parallel Lives,
containing forty-six biographies of famous Greeks and Romans arranged in pairs
for the purpose of comparison, is one of the eminently readable classics of
world literature. Because many of the sources Plutarch used have been lost,
his Lives is a mine of invaluable information for the historian.

Stoicism And Epicureanism

The Romans contributed no original philosophical theories, preferring to
adapt existing Greek systems of thought to suit their needs. As people of
action with grave governmental responsibilities, the Romans paid scant
attention to such abstract problems as the nature of the universe and of human
knowledge. But the corrupting effects of life that began in the late Republic
on the old Roman virtues and traditions caused thoughtful Romans to be
concerned over problems of behavior. As a consequence, they were attracted to
the two chief Hellenistic ethical philosophies, Epicureanism and Stoicism.

Epicureanism made its greatest impact during the last days of the
Republic, since some people found its tenets comforting in a period of
political upheaval when no one knew what the future would bring. As young men,
Virgil and Horace embraced Epicureanism, but Lucretius was the most important
Roman interpreter of this philosophy. In On the Nature of Things, Lucretius
followed Epicurus in basing his explanation of the "nature of things" on
materialism and atomism. He called on people to free themselves from the
superstitious fear of death, which was drawing them to the emotional mystery
religions of Greece and the East. Lucretius exhorted his readers to seek
pleasure in philosophical serenity, rather than in sensuous gratification, and
to have no fear of death since souls, like bodies, are composed of atoms that
fall apart when death comes: "What has this bugbear Death to frighten man/If
souls can die, as well as bodies can?"

More enduring, especially in the days of the Empire, was the appeal of
Stoicism to the Roman ruling classes. The emphasis of Roman Stoicism was on a
just life, constancy to duty, courage in adversity, and service to humanity.
It had a humanizing effect on Roman law by introducing such concepts as the
law of nature and the brotherhood of all - including slaves. The law of
nature, as defined by Cicero, "is not a product of human thought, nor is it
any enactment of peoples, but something eternal which rules the whole universe
by its wisdom in command and prohibition." It is the source of "the rational
principles on which our laws must be based." ^24

[Footnote 24: Cicero De Legibus 1.4.14 - 6.20.]

One of the outstanding Roman Stoics was Seneca (4 B.C. - A.D. 65), Nero's
tutor and a writer of moral essays and tragedies. He was regarded with high
favor by the leaders of the early Christian Church, for his Stoicism, like
that of the ex-slave Epictetus (d. A.D. 135) and the emperor Marcus Aurelius,
had the appearance of a religious creed. He stressed an all-wise Province, or
God, and believed that each person possessed a spark of the divine:

God is near you, he is with you, he is within you.
This is what I mean, Lucilius: a holy spirit indwells
within us, one who marks our good and bad deeds, and is
our guardian.... No man can be good without the help of God. ^25

[Footnote 25: Seneca Epistles 41, quoted in Chester G. Starr, Civilization and
the Caesars: The Intellectual Revolution in the Roman Empire (New York:
Norton, 1965), p. 228.]

Christians assumed that Seneca must have been influenced by St. Paul
during the latter's stay in Rome. By A.D. 400 a fictitious collection of
letters between the two was being circulated.

Science In The Roman Empire

The Romans had little scientific curiosity, but by putting the findings
of Hellenistic science to practical use, they became masters in engineering,
applied medicine, and public health.

The Romans pioneered in public health service and developed the extensive
practice of hydrotherapy - the use of mineral baths for healing. Beginning in
the early Empire, doctors were employed in infirmaries where soldiers,
officials, and the poor could obtain free medical care. Great aqueducts and
admirable drainage systems also indicate Roman concern for public health.

Characteristic of their utilitarian approach to science was the Romans'
predilection for amassing immense encyclopedias. The most important of these
was the Natural History compiled by Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23-79), an
enthusiastic collector of all kinds of scientific odds and ends. In writing
his massive work, Pliny is reputed to have read more than 2000 books. The
result is an intriguing mixture of fact and fable thrown together with
scarcely any method of classification. Nevertheless, it was the most widely
read work on science during the Empire and the early Middle Ages.

Pliny was well aware of the lack of creative scientific activity in his
day. "In these glad times of peace," he wrote, "no addition whatever is being
made to knowledge by means of original research, and in fact even the
discoveries of our predecessors are not being thoroughly studied." To Pliny,
the cause of this state of affairs was "blind engrossment with avarice," and
he cited this example: "...now that every sea has been opened up..., an
immense multitude goes on voyages - but their object is profit not knowledge."
^26 Pliny himself was suffocated by a rain of hot ashes while he was
studiously observing the eruption of Mount Vesuvius near Pompeii, an awesome
event that killed two thousand people and was described by Pliny's nephew:
"Many lifted up their hands to the gods, but a great number believed there
were no gods, and that this night was to be the world's last, eternal one."
^27

[Footnote 26: Pliny Natural History 2.14.117118, trans. H. Rackham, The Loeb
Classical Library (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), vol. 1, pp. 259,
261.]

[Footnote 27: Pliny the Younger Letters 6.16.20.]

The last great scientific minds of the ancient world were two Greeks,
Claudius Ptolemy and Galen, both of whom lived in the second century A.D.
Ptolemy resided at Alexandria, where he became celebrated as a geographer,
astronomer, and mathematician. His maps show a comparatively accurate
knowledge of a broad section of the Old World, and he used an excellent
projection system. But he exaggerated the size of Asia, an error that
influenced Columbus to underestimate the width of the Atlantic and to set sail
from Spain in search of Asia. His work on astronomy, usually called the
Almagest ("the great work") from the title of the Arabic translation,
summed up the geocentric, or earth-centered, view of the universe that
prevailed until the sixteenth century. In mathematics, Ptolemy's work in
improving and developing trigonometry became the basis for modern knowledge of
the subject.

Galen, born in Pergamum in Asia Minor, was a physician for a school of
gladiators. His fame spread, and he was called to Rome where he became
physician to Marcus Aurelius. Galen was responsible for notable advances in
physiology and anatomy; for example, he was the first to explain the mechanism
of respiration. Forbidden by the Roman government to dissect human bodies,
Galen experimented with animals and demonstrated that an excised heart can
continue to beat outside the body and that injuries to one side of the brain
produce disorders in the opposite side of the body.

Galen's account of how he discovered the cause of a Roman matron's
chronic insomnia shows that he was aware of the psychosomatic factor in
illness: he noted that the lady's pulse "suddenly became extremely irregular"
whenever the name of a famous actor was mentioned. "Now what was it that
escaped the notice of previous physicians when examining the aforesaid woman?"
Galen wrote. "They have no clear conception of how the body tends to be
affected by mental conditions." ^28 Galen's medical encyclopedia, in which he
summarized the medical knowledge of antiquity, remained the standard authority
until the sixteenth century.

[Footnote 28: Galen "On Prognosis," in Thomas W. Africa, Rome and the Caesars
(New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1965), p. 217.]
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