It is difficult to argue the fact that the Romans were profoundly influenced by the Greeks, who colonized the southern Italian peninsula, transferring their art, literature, philosophy, and religion. Others lived in the area as well, including the Etruscans, Latins, and Celts. The Romans would take aspects of all cultures and make them their own. In addition, they would solidify the Hellenization began by Alexander the Great by spreading Greek culture across the Western world.
In the central part of the Italian peninsula, modern Tuscany, a group of people historian’s call the Etruscans developed a civilization roughly coinciding with the Greek Archaic period. We know little about them, but their influence on the Romans was nearly as profound as the influence of the Greeks on Roman culture and society. They were skilled at working in metals, and the most important contributions they gave to the world, through the Romans, was the arch.
The contributions to Western culture by the Romans are enormous. Many scholars believe their advancements in “the fields of politics, law and engineering” are unparalleled (Benton & DiYanni, 2005). In addition to the arch they invented our modern day alphabet system with exceptions to the letters C, G, U, and W, the twelve-month calendar, and even the blueprint for Europe’s roadways. (Foster, nd).
Despite the influence of the Greeks, the Romans were their own people. Industrious and practical, they took pieces of other cultures and changed them to something distinctly Roman. The arch, for example, appears to have come from the Etruscans, but it was the Romans who perfected it and developed the dome. They did not invent cement, but they made it better. In copying Greek statuary, they preserved many great works of art that would have otherwise been lost. Everything part of previous cultures they touched, they accepted and changed.
The Romans were in fact surprisingly modest about their own cultural achievements, believing their strengths lay in good government and military prowess rather than in artistic and intellectual accomplishments. From a Romans viewpoint Rome should, instead, get on with the job of ruling the world and leave luxuries like sculpture and astronomy to others. They brought their passion for law to the outermost reaches of the Empire and invented civil law, which was the foundation for legal systems in many Western nations. They brought forward, too, ideas of natural law from the philosophy of stoicism, which became the basis for those inalienable rights written by Thomas Jefferson in the American Declaration of Independence.
Along with law, they brought the ideas of civilization to the Empire. Roman civilization was preferred, of course, but the Romans incorporated ideas from other cultures into their own. Because of this, Christianity went from a cult to a full-fledged religion that would deeply impact Western culture. However, if the Romans were civilized, they could also be barbaric. Blood sport was popular, and the persecution of Christians (and others) is well known. Romans had slaves, and women had few rights.
Eventually, the Romans to, like the Greeks, would dismantle their monarchy and give the power to the Senate and Assembly, and in doing so they created the Republic. Until its demise in 44 BCE, its history would show a people who were almost at constant warfare with those around them. The Romans were obsessed with incorporating all know territories, expect the northern parts of Britain, into the land holdings.
Due to Roman preoccupation with war they developed little literature of their own. Greek literature was popular, and Romans, in typical Roman fashion, adopted it. “The first real example of a literary work in Latin is a translation of Homer’s Odyssey” (Witt, M., Brown, Dunbar, Tirro, & Witt, R., 1997, p. 185). However, one of the greatest works of Roman literature was the Aeneid, written by the poet Virgil. It is an epic in the tradition of the Iliad and the Odyssey about the founding of Rome by the Trojan Aeneas after the destruction of Troy. The real subject, however, is Rome’s greatness during the Augustan Age, the Roman values of pietas, “respect for authority”; virtus, “fortitude in the face of adversity”; and officium, “duty.” Where Achilles and Odysseus were individuals, Aeneas embodies cultural values. Augustus, the nephew of Julius Caser, probably commissioned the work, and “it is probable that Augustus felt that his great empire should have a literary work to rival Homer” (Benton & DiYanni, 2005, p. 178). Although the poem is similar to Homer’s, it is completely Roman “saturated with Roman traditions and marked at every turn by its respect for family and country” (Benton & DiYanni, 2005, p. 178).
Aeneas represents Roman Stoicism—suffering to achieve a better life—and a parallel is drawn to Augustus in his “willingness to sacrifice himself for the greater good of the people and history” (Hooker, 1996). It was an epic that came during a time when Augustus was using propaganda to its fullest in Rome; but at the same time, the Aeneid shows that the Romans were “conscious that their real genius was not in the cult of individualism or in art for its own sake but in the art of administrating and ruling” (Witt, M. et al., 1997, p. 187).
While the Greeks built sacred buildings, the Romans were more practical. They were “among the first to develop city planning on an extensive basis, and their methods of planning are in themselves a significant guide to their values” (Witt, M. et al., 1997, p. 181). The perfect Roman city was rectangular and had major streets intersecting at right angles that were coordinated to the cardinal points of a compass. Smaller streets branched off from the main arteries, forming a grid pattern, and these grids had different functions of living, marketing, and entertainment. A series of aqueducts would feed water to the city, and the center of the town would have a forum, initially a place for public speeches but during Julius Caesar’s time it became “a visible sign of Roman conquest, law and administration” (Witt, M. et al., 1997, p. 182).
The Romans built baths, theaters, and areas in their cities too. The Colosseum, for example, is among the most famous of the great amphitheaters (although not the most perfect). This is where gladiatorial combat and other spectacles took place. It is constructed from a series of groin vaults and barrel vaults on thick walls that support tiers of seats for as many as 50,000 with no blocked views and provides passageways for quick exit from the building. The columns are decorative, “used to emphasize the scale and height of the exterior” (Witt, M. et al., 1997, p. 182). It also had a movable roof made of cloth and worked by Roman sailors. It also had an extensive plumbing system that allowed the floor to be flooded for naval battles. Beneath the main floor are a series of passageways in intricate, movable lifts, and trap doors that would allow wild animals to appear before the audience.
Furthermore, aqueducts may be among the most important uses of the arch. Some are miles long and span great rivers, valleys, go over mountains, and/or pass underground. The first system brought water into Rome in 144 BCE (paid for by the spoils of the Carthaginian defeat), and the best preserved is the Pont du Garde in southern France built between the 1st century BCE and the 1st century CE. It is “based on a series of arches, each arch buttressed by the arches on either side of it. The water channel is at the very top and is lined with cement. Flat stone slabs were placed over the top to keep out leaves and debris” (Benton & DiYanni, 2005, p. 161). More remarkable, however, is that the aqueducts were constructed using gravity to move the water. The slope typically had a gradient of 34 cm per kilometer.
In the end, people must consider the whole of the Romans and celebrate their accomplishments while remembering that, horrible as some Roman actions might be to modern people, it is not for modern people to judge by their cultural standards but to allow the ancient Romans to do that for themselves. Given the scope of the empire, the legacies of the Roman Republic remain prevalent in the region in the contemporary era. For instance, multiple languages known as the Romance languages (for example, Italian, Spanish, French, and Portuguese); architecture and engineering styles; and legal traditions, like trial by jury, all remain central globally.
Benton, J. R., & DiYanni, R. (2005). Arts and culture: An introduction to the humanities, vol. 1 (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. humanities (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Cengage/Wadsworth.
Foster, E. (n.d.). Lesson 3: The roman alphabet is our alphabet. Retrieved from http://edsitement.neh.gov/lesson-plan/alphabet-historic-roman-alphabet-our-alphabet.
Sayre, H. M. (2013). Discovering the humanities. (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Pearson.
Witt, M. F., Brown, C. V., Dunbar, R. A., Tirro, F., & Witt, R. G. (1997). The humanities: Cultural roots and continuities (5th ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.