The legacy of empire — The Romans

I find learning about empires fascinating as an education in longevity. The manifestation of power and the necessity for organisational and management expertise whilst integrating or subduing local culture has echoes for government and corporates alike. I discovered that the supremacy of Rome embodies these attributes in positive and cynical ways.

Most of us know the story of Romulus and Remus, but mortifyingly as I considered further I realised I could tell you very little more about the Roman empire. So Cost centre 3 on discovering my ignorance took to educating me (it comes to something when a 9 year old knows more than you do!) I learnt that Rome was all powerful across the ancient world for more than 1000 years, with a might spanning three continents and a rule over approximately 20% of the global population. An incredibly successful dominance leaving a legacy that still reveals today.

To understand the inheritance of Rome, we need to take a step back and split history: The Roman Kingdom (753 BC to 509 BC); The Roman Republic (509 BC to 27 BC) and the Roman Empire (27 BC to 476 AD).

Rome was founded by Romulus in 753 BC on the river Tiber as told in the Story of Romulus and Remus. These twins were related to descendants of Troy (discussed in a previous post) and according to the tale were believed to have been the children of the god of war, Mars. Through jealousy and paranoia, the King of Alba where they resided, saw them as a threat to the throne and ordered them drowned. Instead, servants placed them in a basket to be set adrift on the river Tiber. The story narrates their survival by being cared for by a she-wolf and then reared by a herdsman and his wife. Eventually as the boys grew stronger, they returned, able to over throw and kill the King. These young men then decided to found a city in the place they had been saved by the wolf. In the course of this the brothers fought and Remus was killed by Romulus who declared that the new city would be named after himself; Rome.

Initially the city was not much to speak of. However supporting itself through agriculture and animal farming it slowly grew in wealth and land over the next two centuries. Rome in those times was run on patriarchal lines, with the male father leading the clan; having the power to make decisions for his family. As the community of the city came together, the leading patriarchs formed a decision making body that would evolve into the Senate. In time the Senate recognised that they needed a leader which they did through election. It is thought that during the time of the Roman Kingdom, Rome was ruled by seven lawfully elected Kings (record keeping is limited so we are not entirely sure). The monarchy was toppled in 509 BC when Brutus led a successful uprising against the King of the time, Tarquin the Proud. Tarquin was meant to be extremely cruel and tyrannical with the insurgency taking place after the rape of Lucretia (a noble lady) by his son which further enraged the populace.

When the monarchy was overturned, the Senate took charge and Rome became a Republic with its laws for all to follow written down in 450 BC backed by a centralised bureaucracy. The power that had been vested in the monarchy passed to two annually elected magistrates called Consuls. The Consuls were elected by the people although drawn from the Senate which was largely dominated by descendants of the original Senators from the time of Romulus. Struggles between the common people and the Senators raged eventually resulting in the people instating their own political bodies called Tribunes, which could veto or initiate legislation.

At the start of the 4th century BC, Rome began to undertake wars to expand territory taking over Italy, Greece, much of northern Africa and the Middle East. Conquests encouraged their heavy use of slavery to further perpetuate their strength. Although the Romans did not consciously support the many cultures they absorbed, common values were spread through the elites in each region. The ability to retain loyalty was based on a system of regional participation in the power and money the Republic (and later Empire) generated.

The many famous citizens from this time include Gaius Marius (Consul), Sulla (General), Cicero (Consul), Pompey (briefly a Consul) and Crassus (a wealthy landowner). Julius Caesar — one of the most powerful politicians of the period, declared himself dictator for life in 45 BC but was murdered a year later by republican nobles which included Brutus. Into the 1st Century BC the Republic degenerated into chaos for many reasons including in-fighting (as the weight of managing such a vast empire took its toll) and the rising anger of the natives as the gulf between rich and poor continued to widen. After Julius Caesar fell, Mark Anthony (Consul) with Octavian and Lepidus, divided up power across the territories between them in an uneasy alliance which wasn’t to last. In 31 BC Octavian raged war against Mark Antony and Queen Cleopatra of Egypt (with whom Mark Anthony had been having an affair). In defeat, both committed suicide. That brought an end to the Roman Republic.

Octavian on vanquishing Mark Antony, ensured he was the sole leader of Rome and its provinces. Restoring the political institutions of the Roman Republic, he was re-named Augustus by the Senate and proclaimed himself Emperor. With this title he retained ultimate power and authority. His reign ushered in a long period of relative peace lasting approximately 200 years with the Empire at its peak from 96 -180 AD. The dynasty of Augustus included the rulers Caligula and Nero — famous Emperors we know well in modern times for cruelty and debauchery respectively. With the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 AD, the decline of the Empire commenced as civil wars, economic weakness, disease and invasions from the likes of the Goths plagued the rulers. In 285 AD, Diocletian became Emperor and split the Empire into two parts — the Western Empire based in the city of Milan and the Eastern Empire in Byzantium. But this did not prevent fracture as the two areas failed to co-operate and fought over resources and the military. The Western Empire continued to weaken whilst the Eastern grew more secure. With the powerful Emperor Constantine, Byzantium was re-named Constantinople and resumed its ascent. The Eastern Empire was re-named the Byzantine Empire and remained intact for several more centuries before being subsumed by the Ottoman Empire in the 1400’s. The Western Roman empire collapsed in the 5th century AD losing its provinces one by one to German tribes including the Vandals and Attila the Hun.

Within the aggression, the despot leaders, extensive slavery, the diminishing of women — the Romans did offer some favourable advancements in their legacy to us. Roman government with the splitting of power into executive (Consuls or the Emperor), legislative (Senate) and judiciary (judges) to ensure checks and balances over might is particularly familiar to the USA; trial by jury and the concept that the law applies to all; engineering feats of road building and startling architecture. The invention of concrete enabling the Romans to create aqueducts transporting water to urban areas whilst improving sanitation. Military tactics and training which pervade today and the the language of Latin forming the basis of many English and European words. It’s a fascinating history and I’m glad it took a 9 year old to force me to understand it better…..

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Curious Rascal

I want to learn and understand more of the the world, people, history, science, making sense of the random. Join me if you feel the same!