The big question: what have the Romans ever done for us?

Two millennia ago, the Roman empire swept through Europe, extending its reach around the Mediterranean through the Middle East, north Africa and Britain. Seven experts discuss the enduring legacies of Roman expansionism, including humour, food and government

What have the Romans done for us? (Illustration by Davide Bonazzi)

Shushma Malik: “The British system of government owes a debt to Rome – the idea that not everyone’s vote should count equally”

The system of government we call democracy today would have been unrecognisable as such in ancient Athens. Rather, the idea of electing a representative to carry out the will of the people shares more with the Roman ‘mixed constitution’. Athenians chose their representatives by lot. The Romans, like us, favoured elections that could showcase the wealth and talents of the individuals standing. The Romans also established the idea of an appointed upper house – their senate, similar to the British House of Lords.

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In Rome, by the third century BC, citizens had established a system in which three modes of rule – monarchy, aristocracy, democracy – combined to govern the state. As described by the second-century BC historian Polybius, the monarchical element comprised two consuls: magistrates elected annually who led the Romans out to war and who occupied the leading position in the senate. The aristocracy was the senate itself, of which elected or former magistrates (c44 men) were just a small part of the unelected whole (c300–600 men). Senators proposed and debated laws, which could not be passed without the support of the people – the democratic element of the ‘mixed constitution’.

Perhaps the greatest debt the British system of government owes to Rome, however, is the idea that not everyone’s vote should count equally. Roman male citizens (women could not vote) were divided into groups called ‘centuries’ to vote, with the wealthiest minority in society making up 98 centuries, and the poorest, most populous section of society having 35; the other 60 centuries were allotted to those of middling wealth, giving a total of 193 voting groups. The idea of wealth influencing eligibility to vote was pervasive over the following millennia. In Britain, not until the 20th century was suffrage awarded to non-property-owning men, shortly followed by women. In the 19th century, more British prime ministers sat in the House of Lords than in the House of Commons.

Rome’s mixed constitution, then, provided the model for British ‘democracy’ for centuries – a system centred on seniority, elections and restrictions on the vote.

Shushma Malik is lecturer in classics at the University of Roehampton

A wall painting from the house of Julia Felix in Pompeii depicts a bowl of fruit
A wall painting from the house of Julia Felix in Pompeii depicts a bowl of fruit. “The Romans brought about 50 new foods to Britain, including apples, pears, coriander, fennel and walnuts,” says Erica Rowan. (Image by Bridgeman)

Hannah Cornwell: “The justification of imperialism was framed through a message of global peace”

Globalisation seems a modern phenomenon. The framework for an interconnected world, the contraction of relative distances and speed of communications between communities is, however, a distinctive product of Roman imperialism. Historically, empires and hegemonies existed before Rome held sway over the Mediterranean, but the means through which it maintained its empire and generated an imperial ideology has provided a model for later western powers to shape their own imperial world views. The justification of imperialism was framed through a message of global peace.

The Roman concept of a worldwide peace – the so-called pax Romana – expressed the dynamics of power between Rome and her subjects. The Roman historian Tacitus articulated such a concept in a speech of the general Cerialis, addressing Gallic leaders in AD 69: “For it is not possible to have calm among nations without arms, nor arms without military wages, nor military wages without taxes.” Here, imperial and military justification foregrounds peace as the overarching value of the Roman empire to all who participated in it. Yet peace had a price: Rome demanded a necessary buy-in, in order to maintain a militarily protected interconnected world.

The stability Roman imperial rule brought should not be underestimated. A tombstone from South Shields, written in both Latin and Palmyrene (a western Aramaic language), commemorates a woman from southern Britain named Regina, a freed slave and, later, wife of a Palmyrene (Syrian) man named Barates. This single monument gives us a brief insight into identity, mobility, inclusivity and participation in the Roman world. The global aspects of that empire reveal many similarities to our modern, interconnected world. The benefits of world peace are undeniably important for stable economies and societies. Nevertheless, we should also reflect on how Rome provided other world powers with a justification of empire and colonialism, perhaps most notably reflected in the pax Britannica of the 19th century and the pax Americana of the 20th, and ask whose peace it is.

Hannah Cornwell is lecturer in ancient history at the University of Birmingham, and author of Pax and the Politics of Peace: Republic to Principate (Oxford University Press, 2017)


Erica Rowan: “Southern Spain and much of northern Tunisia and Libya were transformed by the mass production of olive oil”

Food was of great importance to the Romans. We have an abundance of literary and archaeological evidence in the form of satires and dramas, storage vessels and plant remains that shows they frequently thought about, talked about, traded and experimented with food. It was not just essential for survival, but a tool with which to show status, to communicate values and beliefs, and to create a sense of connectivity within a vast empire. It was this attitude, this curiosity and this dedication to food that helped shape our modern foodscape – in particular, the range of ingredients with which we cook today.

Although both olive oil and wine were already popular in the Greek world, the Romans spread production methods for both around the Mediterranean, and vines as far north as they would grow. The countryside of what’s now Spain, northern Tunisia and Libya were transformed into centres of mass production of olive oil. Following the Roman conquest of the northern provinces of Europe, vineyards were planted in regions we now know as Germany and central and northern France.

The Romans were also intensely curious about new and foreign foods. Hand in hand with the expansion of their empire into the east (now Greece and Turkey) and south (Egypt) came an increase in the number of ingredients available in their lands. Some items, such as peaches, had been known to the Greeks, but it was the Romans who again grew and traded them across Europe and north Africa, and made peaches, cherries, chickens and black pepper regular components of their diet. The Romans not only grew and consumed a wide range of foods in Italy, but also went to great lengths to introduce ingredients to newly conquered territories. To Britain they brought about 50 new foods, including apples, pears, coriander, fennel and walnuts. When the Romans left Britain in the fifth century AD, these foodstuffs stayed behind – and we enjoy them to this day.

Erica Rowan is lecturer in classical archaeology at Royal Holloway University of London, and author of Food and Diet in Republican and Imperial Roman Italy, due to be published by Bloomsbury this year


Carey Fleiner: “We aren’t Romans, but to find comedy in both mundane and profound situations is, like Rome, eternal”

The Romans didn’t invent humour, but their distinctive witty stamp still resonates in modern western society. ‘Biggus Dickus’ – the comically named character played by Graham Chapman in Monty Python’s Life of Brian – has been part of our cultural landscape for 40 years, and he has a venerable pedigree. The Romans revelled in joke names: Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio earned the cognomen Asina – ‘Ass’ – after his calamitous showing at the battle of Lipara in 260 BC (despite this, he went on to have a successful career in politics!). Remember Boaty McBoatface? [Playwright] Plautus was cranking out the super superlative in 210 BC, writing “occisissumus sum omnium qui vivent”: Deady McDeadson of Deadville (literally, “I’m the most dead of all dead men who’ve lived!”).

Comedy allowed the Romans to let down their conservative hair and blow off steam. Jibes from their satirists chime with anyone who’s been stuck in traffic or crowds: the poet Martial moans about his block of flats being so close to the neighbours’ that he can reach through the window and touch their building; the poet Horace’s holiday was partly ruined when he drank the local water and suffered a dicky tummy.

Sarcasm threw shade on the powerful then as now. Tacitus records how, after defeat by Agricola’s Roman forces at the battle of Mons Graupius, the Caledonian chieftain Calgacus scolded the conquerors for their greed in destroying what little their victims possessed – and then expected the vanquished to be grateful, recounting how “[the Romans] level green fields, leave a desert in their wake, and yet call it ‘peace’”.

Humour doesn’t always translate well: the passage of time thwarts contextual understanding, and puns stumble against the language barrier. We aren’t Romans – their world comes to us through two millennia-worth of cultural baggage – but to find comedy in both mundane and profound situations is, like Rome, eternal. The farce – bedroom or political – the fool, and the folly of arrogance still resonate, still shape, still make us giggle.

Carey Fleiner is senior lecturer in history at the University of Winchester. Her latest book is A Writer’s Guide to Ancient Rome (Manchester University Press, 2020)


Daisy Dunn: “The Romans very much shaped our expectations of what comfortable living should be”

You need only look around your home to appreciate just how much the Romans shaped modern life in Britain and beyond. The contribution they made to our everyday experience is so all-encompassing that we risk taking it for granted. Glance at the calendar on your wall, or the concrete beneath your house, and the importance of their legacy is revealed.

Food would not be nearly so colourful today had it not been for the Romans. They enlivened the relatively simple British diet with a wide range of fruit and vegetables, including dates from Judaea, pepper from India, cherries, cabbage, carrots, asparagus, globe artichokes, turnips and shallots. Dishes were prepared using utensils that prefigure our own – indeed, it is difficult to distinguish a Roman colander from its 21st-century counterpart.

The Romans also introduced to Britain a new culture of dining. Wealthy homeowners took their cue from the senators and elites of Italy, and built for themselves ornate triclinia – dining rooms with three couches upon which to recline – akin to those discovered in the villas of Pompeii and Herculaneum. They similarly commissioned lavish mosaics for their floors; those at Bignor Roman Villa in West Sussex are particularly splendid.

Beneath these floors they engineered an early form of underfloor heating. Near Bignor is Fishbourne Roman Palace, the largest residential villa of the period found in the UK to date, which contains a fine example of a hypocaust, its floor raised on columns of tiles so that hot air from a furnace could circulate and penetrate the rooms above. The Romans, famous also for their aqueducts, very much shaped our expectations of what comfortable living should be.

Romans may even have influenced our predilection for certain pets. The Normans are usually credited with introducing the rabbit to Britain, but the identification of a rabbit bone at Fishbourne last year suggests that it might rather have been the Romans who did so. Rabbits were probably kept as pets at first, and bred for food only later.

Daisy Dunn is a historian, journalist and author of books including In The Shadow of Vesuvius: A Life of Pliny (William Collins, 2019)

Pontius Pilate (Michael Palin) fails to grasp why centurion John Cleese (left) sniggers at the name of Biggus Dickus (Graham Chapman, right) in Monty Python’s Life of Brian
Pontius Pilate (Michael Palin) fails to grasp why centurion John Cleese (left) sniggers at the name of Biggus Dickus (Graham Chapman, right) in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. “Biggus Dickus has been part of our cultural landscape for over 40 years, and he has a venerable pedigree,” says Carey Fleiner (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)

Tom Holland: “Christianity is the most enduring legacy of antiquity – and the index of its transformation”

I doubt that a single day has gone by since the first publication of Virgil’s great epic when someone, somewhere, has not studied the Aeneid. Europeans – not to mention their descendants planted on continents undreamed of by the Caesars – have never forgotten ancient Rome. Its history has always been interpreted, and reinterpreted, in the light of the world’s convulsions. From Charlemagne to Mussolini, autocrats in western Europe have consistently looked for inspiration in the primal example of Augustus. Conversely, the English, American and French revolutions were all consciously inspired by the model of the Roman Republic. Variants of Latin continue to be spoken across the globe. Roman roads, urbanism, law: all still underpin the very fabric of large stretches of contemporary Europe. Not for nothing does the word ‘civilisation’ itself derive from Latin.

Yet appearances can be deceptive. Precisely because the Roman world can seem so similar to our own, it is easy to be fooled into thinking that the resemblances are much closer than they actually are. We are separated from the empire of the Caesars by the effects of two seismic convulsions. The first of these – the most obvious – was the utter implosion of the western half of the empire. One striking measure of this is that even today it determines how everyone in the west instinctively understands the notion of empire. What rises must fall. This seems to most of us almost as much a law in the field of geopolitics as it is in physics. Every western country that has ever won great power status for itself has lived with a consciousness of its own mortality.

The second convulsion – less obvious, but perhaps even more profound in its effects – was the emergence of Christianity. This cuckoo in the Roman nest is at once the most enduring legacy of classical antiquity and the index of its utter transformation. The surest tracemarks of the way in which ancient Rome shaped the modern world derive – by a paradox typical of Christianity – not from the great cultural and political achievements of the empire, but from its torturing to death of an obscure provincial.

Tom Holland is a writer and broadcaster. His books include Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic (Little, Brown, 2003)

A Christian is executed on a wheel by Roman soldiers in a fresco
A Christian is executed on a wheel by Roman soldiers in a fresco in Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos, Greece. From the crucifixion of Christ to the persecution of early Christians and then conversion to the faith of the emperor Constantine, the empire’s changing relationship with Christianity was key to the evolution and transformation of the Roman world, argues Tom Holland. (Image by Alamy)

Catherine Nixey: “The codex has been described as the most important invention in book-making before the printing press”

How much are you enjoying this article? Lots? Or perhaps you are (perish the thought) tiring of ancient Rome. Perhaps you are even wondering whether the next page might hold a period that is more exciting, more modern, more relevant – the Victorians, say, or the Edwardians. Perhaps your finger has already started to move past this paragraph and down, down to the bottom right-hand corner of the page to turn it.

But stop. No other period in history could be as remotely relevant to what you are doing as you read this. Because that surpassingly simple act – of turning a page – is one of the most important and, perhaps, most overlooked debts that we owe that empire. Because every time you flick from one page of print to another you are performing an act made possible only by the design brilliance of the Romans.

And, like so much in Roman history, it was Julius Caesar who, so the story goes, started it. Caesar is a man known for divisions. He famously wrote that Gaul was divided into three parts, and he divided the Roman state with a bitter civil war. He should also be remembered for a less bloody but, in the end, more momentous split. Whereas previous generals wrote continuously along a scroll, Caesar had his scrolls split into parts, then reassembled. Therefore, as Suetonius records, he “seems to have been the first to reduce… documents to pages and the form of a notebook”.

It was such a simple change – and had a precedent in the wax tablets used by schoolchildren – but the results were momentous. Scrolls were cumbersome, long (Pliny the Elder mentions one 6–8 metres in length) and tricky to unroll. The ‘codex’, as the book form is called, allows a reader to access any part with ease, almost instantaneously. It took centuries to fully take off as a fashion, but the results were momentous.

The codex has been described, without exaggeration, as the most important invention in book-making before the printing press. It quite literally opened up knowledge to readers and, centuries later, it is still enabling you to turn this page. Which you are now welcome to do.

Catherine Nixey is a journalist and classicist, author of The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World (Macmillan, 2017)

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This article was first published in the Issue 22 edition of BBC World Histories Magazine