What can we see today that reminds us of the Romans?
How are the effects of Roman society still present in modern civilisation? What Roman things do we use today?
Many words in English are derived from Latin. If it has more than one syllable, it probably has a Latin root! Several languages across Europe are derived direct from Latin – if you study Latin, you’ll probably find that studying French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and one or two other European languages comes to you quite easily and that many words are already familiar to you. Latin terms and phrases are common in legal language as well as medical terms. The Romans were famous for their skills at rhetoric and oratory, and students today are still encouraged to study Latin to improve not only their writing skills, but also their skill at logical thought and argument. Our modern form of university curriculum in the West can be traced back to Roman schools and academies.
On the continent, law courts still practice Roman law and have aspects of Roman legal precedence in their procedures; that’s partly because of how much of what is now western Europe used to be part of the Roman Empire, and also because both the Romans and later Germanic kings allowed the practice of Roman and local laws side by side in their communities.
English law isn’t really derivative of Roman law; US and Canadian law is based on English common law, but because of French settlers, Louisiana state law and Quebequois law is based on Roman forms.
Different types of Roman architecture are still influential on modern buildings in areas that used to be part of the Empire – the British Museum in London, for example, has a façade in a Graeco-Roman style; the Pantheon in Paris is modelled after the Pantheon in Rome (although the dome of the former is currently hidden from sight as it’s being refurbished). Many US buildings, especially on university campuses, are modelled after classical styles, including Roman buildings. Again, there is continuity from the past as original Roman buildings were repurposed in the Middle Ages. Temples were converted into churches, for example, and early Medieval cathedrals were built in the Romanesque style – with very heavy, thick walls and arches. A number of medieval city walls in Britain are built on top of Roman foundations; other medieval buildings are built of scraps (‘spolia’) actually pulled off Roman buildings. Up until recently, with the increased use of heavy vehicles on them, a number of Roman roads were still in use across Europe.
Finally, the whole idea of a ‘unified Europe’ is a legacy of the Romans: numerous ambitious political leaders and kings hoped to ‘restore’ the Roman Empire after the last emperor was retired in 476 CE – the Franks tried to do it under Charlemagne and then later during the so-called Holy Roman Empire. Napoleon tried, Hitler tried. The legacy of the unified yet diverse Roman Empire in the West persists today in economic institutions such as the EU, or culturally as in Eurovision!
Dr Carey Fleiner is a senior lecturer in Classical and Medieval History at the University of Winchester.