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What Have The Romans Ever Done for Us? Adrian Goldsworthy on the Lessons of Ancient Rome

Posted on 24th August 2017 by Martha Greengrass

'In our modern world peace is a goal and not yet a reality. We should never make the mistake of assuming that it is a natural state, for warfare and violence are threads running throughout human history.'

One of the UK’s most popular ancient historians, bestselling author Adrian Goldsworthy’s latest book Pax Romana examines the lasting myth of the Roman imperial dream of stable conquest and whether their much-vaunted peace was worth the cost. Here, in an exclusive article for Waterstones, Adrian Goldsworthy considers what we might learn from the Romans about power, oppression and the dangers of taking peace for granted.

What can we learn from the Romans? After all, the Roman Empire fell a very long time ago, and even if it has cast a long shadow over western culture, the world has changed so much since then. It was also an empire, and empires are no longer fashionable. Words such as ‘imperialism’ and ‘colonialism’ have deeply negative associations, and in 2017 most people would see empire by its very nature as a bad thing. Yet it has not always been this way, for this is the centenary of Passchendaele, and the First World War was a clash of empires and for most people at the time loyalty to empire (and often monarch) was as natural as distaste for empires and cynicism over patriotism is today. Some of these certainties crumbled amid the devastation, and this year of course also marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution. Assumptions we take for granted are not universal, which was something Herodotus understood two and half millennia ago.

Still, apart from being an empire, the Romans did a lot things that are deeply unpalatable to us – accepting slavery as normal and revelling in the appalling cruelty of gladiatorial games, for example. (Curiously, I have always found that students tend to get even more worked up about the slaughter or animals in the arena than they do about the people killed there). The modern judgement of Rome is often that it was a society that was unpleasant, but remarkably advanced, with their roads, bath houses and glass in the windows.

There is also the Pax Romana, or Roman peace, the boast that imperial rule banished warfare to the fringes of the empire and for centuries allowed much of Europe, the Near East and North Africa to be free of major wars. Roman warfare was aggressive and brutal, killing and enslaving millions of people, and after conquest the provinces were exploited for Rome’s benefit. The Roman senator and historian Tacitus has a Caledonian leader saying that the Romans ‘create a desolation and call it peace’. The poet Virgil claimed it was Rome’s duty to ‘spare the conquered and overcome the proud in war’, neatly dividing the rest of the world into the already submissive and those too proud to acknowledge Rome’s superiority and who therefore needed to be crushed by force. Selfishness as much as anything else was the motive for treating provincials well, since if they were peaceful and prosperous then this increased the profits of empire. As the Emperor Tiberius put it when condemning extortion by provincial administrators, ‘I want you to sheer my sheep, not flay them.

Rebellions against Roman occupation occurred in many provinces within a generation or two of conquest and then stopped. Lowland Britain saw no rising against Roman rule for the three and half centuries after Boudicca. The prosperity within the provinces, especially during the first and second centuries AD, is shown by flourishing long-distance trade and simply the sheer quantity of goods that turn up on archaeological sites for this period. The Roman peace was a reality, and even if the benefits were not universal or evenly distributed, very many people benefitted – and lived without having to worry that their neighbours might well come and burn their house down or cut off their heads for trophies. 

The Pax Romana remains a real and admirable achievement, regardless of its flaws or the reasons for its creation. This of course complicates even further the whole question of learning from the past. Can we learn good lessons from bad people? Or, to put it another way, are the consequences of something we consider bad inevitably equally bad or can they prove to be for the wider good? That old quandary about the ends justifying the means. Our world lives with the consequences of empires whether we like it or not, since many modern countries are the creations of imperial rule. In some cases this brought a permanent end to violence or open warfare between distinct communities and dynasties. At other times – as we see all too often in current news reports – the old hostilities and hatreds were simply dormant and all too readily resurface.

Peace remains sadly elusive in the twenty-first century, even if we have avoided global conflicts since 1945. One of the proudest boasts of the EU is that it has kept the peace in western Europe since the Second World War, and it was no coincidence that Rome was chosen as the location for the 1957 treaty creating the European Economic Community, invoking the civilization, unity, prosperity and most of all peace brought by the ancient empire. The aim was to learn the lessons of history. No western European country has gone to war with another since 1945, and there has been peace, apart from overseas adventures and terrorist campaigns waged in several member states. The role played by what became the EU in all this is harder to assess. The devastation and exhaustion caused by the world wars, the demilitarisation of German society and industry, and the perception of a Soviet threat meant that there was never a situation where war between two west European countries was even remotely likely.

In our modern world peace is a goal and not yet a reality. We should never make the mistake of assuming that it is a natural state, for warfare and violence are threads running throughout human history. Those of us born in the west in the second half of the twentieth century have been fortunate enough to live in a period of unprecedented prosperity and unusual peace. The Romans created a similar situation and made it last a lot longer through conquest and empire. Whether or not those ends justified the means is less important than understanding how this happened. There are certainly lessons about what power, coercion, and also persuasion can and cannot achieve from the Roman experience. More importantly, it should remind us not to take our own peace and security for granted, and accept that peace will only come if we are willing to work for it.

Adrian Goldsworthy is a renowned classicist with an impressive list of critically acclaimed books to his name. These include: The Fall of Carthage, Caesar, In the Name of Rome and Augustus, which all together have sold more than a quarter of a million copies and been translated into more than a dozen languages. 

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