HIW chats to Dr Ed Bispham: University lecturer in Ancient History at Brasenose College, Oxford
What is the most important roman invention, creation or discovery?
Concrete, especially concrete, which was water-resistant or could be coated with a waterproof lining; also concrete which set under water (hydraulic concrete). The perfection of concrete construction allowed the development of the vault and the dome, giving us the blueprint for St. Peter’s and the Channel tunnel. It also allowed mass-construction to enter building for the first time, everywhere from leisure complexes to high-rise housing.
How are the effects of Roman society still present in modern civilization/what Roman things do we use todsy? (In all walks of life)
See the famous scene in the Life of Brian. Perhaps half the words in our language are derived from Latin (words like ‘language’ and ‘derived’, as well as ‘effect’, ‘present’, ‘society’ and so on). It should be said that many ideas which we consider Roman have Greek precedents; the Roman genius was not so much in innovation (although there were innovations, from communal bathing to satire) as in adaptation. So the Greeks invented sport, and bathing for recreation, but only under Rome do we find sport as something for the masses, with (in chariot racing for example) fanatical devotion to teams distinguished by different coloured strips. Indeed the idea of ‘popular culture’, keeping the masses happy with ‘bread and circuses’ is intrinsically Roman. Another key area is law – Roman law is at the root of modern European legal systems. Roman legal thinking brought with it Roman political theory (itself clearly a Greek invention, but developed by Romans in new ways), and we owe concepts like patriotism to the Romans.
A further legacy is the idea of a professional army in which service could be a career for life, but in the service of the state. But every time you spend coins in a shop, read advertising in a shop window, make a credit-agreement to buy something or take out a loan, vote in an election, watch a play or a sporting event, turn on a tap and see water come out, climb a staircase in a block of flats, use a pedestrian crossing to get over a busy road, post a letter overseas, or say etcetera, you are doing something which would be absolutely familiar to a Roman. The list could go on and on and include schools, dentists, political assassinations and repressive autocrats, regime change and mass protest.
What advancements did they make in architecture and building construction?
See above on concrete construction. The Colosseum again shows the flexibility of concrete, with the ability to build enormous stadia with raked permanent seating on flat ground, as opposed to the side of a hill. The Circus Maximus was very large (and doing things as colossal scale is a Roman mode), but not architecturally very daring. Mass-construction, and the ability to throw up warehouses or blocks of flats quickly was an innovation. The Romans didn’t really bring much to mosaic art. The Romans also invented a genuine multi-culturalism that actually worked, based on the power and flexibility of the base-culture – it was open, and happy to take on elements from the local substrate.
How innovative were Roman roads and the Empire’s transport network for the age?
Very; the roads did bring the parts of the empire much closer together, and projected Roman power more forcefully; milestones gave the whole a unity as well as associating the whole with the emperor of the day. Goods and ideas travelled as much as people and armies, and promoted cultural unity, and made access to empire-wide markets possible, changing local social and economic horizons.
How did the Romans progress methods of warfare on both land and sea?
Romans didn’t really add a whole lot to naval warfare, other than the idea of policing the seas and having a responsibility to get rid of pirates. In terms of land warfare they introduced the idea of a professional long-service army which could be deployed away from home for years at a time; the idea of training, discipline and special military corps like medics and engineers and vets. Romans specialized in heavy infantry conflicts, but introduced a flexible fighting mode which made existing infantry formations obsolete. Over time the Romans managed to adapt weapons and tactics from all the people they encountered, but felt that discipline and ruthlessness were their real contributions.
How big was the Greek influence (and other Hellenistic period civilizations) on Roman life?
Huge; the number of purely Roman innovations is not huge (mostly discussed above), but Romans adapted and reshaped Greek culture in such a way as to make it something the whole Empire could buy into. From the Greeks came the whole Roman political and religious set-up, most literature, intellectual and leisure pursuits (although the Romans never really adored athletics, and the Greeks didn’t get beast-hunts or gladiators); the idea of political society; sophisticated luxuries; and the idea of cities as the place where civilization is essentially located.
What progress did the Romans make in politics, economics, law and society as a whole?
The idea that a political society was one of stake-holders was one the Romans embraced; and the idea of the rule of law was, as in Greece, central. But Rome was also one of much greater social mobility than any previous society: most graphically seen in the case of freed-slaves, who might, when freed, become wealthy and influential figures, and see their children, who were born free, make a political or military career. Romans were also much more relaxed that Greeks about the role of women in private life, and less restrictive, although by our standards they still seem backward. Economically Rome was quite sophisticated, with complex instruments of credit, detailed legal provision for financial ventures and partnerships; Romans had banks, accounts, book-keeping and so on. Their economic prowess was not limitless, and thus the failure to control inflation in the late empire.
One major innovation was the extension of taxation to the whole of Europe, and the growth of a monetary economy driven by the need to pay taxes. Like Greeks, Romans did not tax the poor, only the rich. Innovations in civil and criminal law were huge, including the creation of a legal profession (and education), elaboration of concepts like restitution etc; and indeed law as we think of it today is intrinsically Roman.
How did Roman ideas affect future civilizations and spread over Europe?
Roman ideas spread with Roman people (soldiers, settlers, traders) but were associated with a high cultural status, and thus across Europe native peoples, especially upper classes and then others imitating them, wanted to buy into the Roman ideals, which could lead to Roman citizenship, and then perhaps even a career in the army or the central administration. Roman civilization was also strikingly open to local ideas, as long as everyone was unambiguously loyal to the emperor. Romans would have found our anxieties about what we call multi-culturalism incomprehensible.
After the Western Roman Empire declined, what Roman traditions did the Eastern Empire (Byzantine) maintain?
Not the language, but the political power structures; the Christian religion of the western empire; bureaucratic and legal structures; as a major city Constantinople bore very many similarities in terms of architecture, society, character and law, to the major western cities.