Thursday, 18 February 2010

The Roman Empire and its lessons for Europe today

“I came. I saw. I conquered.” Those are the words of Julius Caesar, a key ruler of the Roman Empire, but they could easily have been the motto of Roman generals for centuries. They were infamous for their excesses of greed, lust, and cruelty; but the empire lasted more than six hundred years, during which time Rome managed to conquer and rule over two million square miles, stretching from the Rhine River to Egypt and from Britain to Asia Minor. In subsequent years it has been the example of empire that European powers with imperial ambitions have tried and often failed to imitate.

Although the Romans provided a degree of freedom and stability to its conquered subjects, they were often brutal rulers. Slavery was endemic, accounting for about a quarter of the Roman population. Rebellious slaves and dissidents were tortured and killed in spectacular fashion, ranging from crucifixion to a form of entertainment in amphitheatres. There was little concept of human rights. Yet all this was tolerated for many years, provoking only isolated instances of rebellion.

Controlling a vast expanse of land, covering Europe, West Asia and North Africa, the Roman Empire pulled together very diverse geographical landscapes and cultures. The Romans borrowed much from the Greeks, including their art, philosophy and literature. Roman religion was polytheistic. They were good soldiers, administrators, lawyers and engineers. They built long straight roads, connecting different parts of their empire, as well as elaborate water systems and public baths. They invented concrete, made of lime and sand, and built tall buildings.

The Romans did not look kindly on Christians, who refused to worship the pagan gods and partake in emperor worship. They were seen as stubborn and subversive, and were often persecuted, sometimes severely. Things eventually changed when Constantine became emperor in 324 AD as he favoured Christianity, and set in motion the process whereby Christianity would become the state religion of Rome. He moved his capital to Byzantium, on the boundary between Europe and Asia, and built a “New Rome,” which became known as “Constantinople” or “city of Constantine”.

The legacies of the Romans still endure with us today. In addition to preserving and building upon the Greek ideas of arts and literature, democracy, philosophy, theatre and free speech, Rome made many contributions of its own. The language of the Romans, Latin, formed the common root for the Romance Languages - Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and French – and also influenced the Germanic languages. Their road and water systems were tremendous improvements over previous civilizations. Our modern legal systems, based on trial with a judge, plaintiff and defendant, are derived from Roman law. The final legacy of the Roman Empire is Christianity, which marked a significant change from the classical age. Due to well-paved and well-guarded roads, as well as flourishing trade, the circumstances favoured the spread of the religion.

Rome fell in 410 AD to the barbarians. The pagans blamed the Christians for Rome’s fall, while Christians blamed the pagans. Europe was plunged into centuries of cultural and economic decline known as the Dark Ages, for the relative lamp of civilisation that Rome offered was extinguished. The eastern section of the empire, which came to be known as the Byzantine Empire, lasted more than a thousand years until that eventually fell to the Ottoman Turks.

Augustine of Hippo, probably the greatest theologian in the western church, wrote The City of God, in which he claims that there are two cities, each built on love. The city of God is built on love of God, while the earthly city is built on love of self. In human history, these two cities appear mingled together but in fact they are irreconcilably different from each other. In the end only the city of God will remain. Meanwhile, human history is filled with kingdoms and nations, all built on love of self, which will all wither away no matter how powerful they may be. In the case of Rome, Augustine says, God allowed her and her empire to flourish so that they could serve as a means for the spread of the Gospel; but now that this purpose has been fulfilled, God has let Rome follow the destiny of all human kingdoms, which is no more than punishment for their sins.

The lessons of Rome are equally pertinent today. What we are almost definitely witnessing is another period of cultural and economic decline in Western Europe. Nearly all of these countries are mired in high levels of national debt that will take possibly a generation to pay back, not helped by an ageing population. Economic growth will inevitably be slower than in the past. Meanwhile, other countries such as China, India, Russia and Brazil are growing rapidly. It remains to be seen how far these countries rise and how far Western Europe falls, but the trend seems set. Almost five hundred years of Western European hegemony in the economic and cultural spheres of this world is coming to an end. This is not to say that their legacies won’t last, for those of Rome still last today. They may rise again in the future. As human history shows, nothing is permanent. Empires and nations will continue to rise and fall unceasingly throughout time.


Kiran Ignatius said...

hi JI,

I found quite a few sites on st Thomas. But I liked this one. Quite detailed.
Check it out.

catholic briefly

JI said...

Thanks Kiran.

I will check it out.