The Romans

The Romans today have a bad press.

The overwhelming opinion about the Romans in academic – and wider – circles today is hostile. The Romans are seen as militaristic imperialists, who owed their success to their brutality and their militarism. Consider for instance some of these quotations, from the leading scholars on Roman Britain today:

My colleague and friend Neil Faulkner for example sees the Romans as a system of “Robbery with violence“.

Rome was a system of robbery with violence, it was inherently exploitative and oppressive, it was crisis prone, unstable and doomed to collapse.

I think there are lessons for the present in this. The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse , – Conquest, Slaughter, Famine and Death – stalk the modern world, dominated as it is by corporate capital and imperialist war, just as they did that of late antiquity. In this context, continuing discussion about the past especially about the role of violence and exploitation in human affairs becomes part of an urgent debate about the sort of future we want to create.

              – Faulkner: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, pages 11-12

Martin Millett, the Professor of Classical Archaeology at Cambridge sees Rome as a ‘truly militaristic society’ , where ‘instablility was endemic’

There was a highly competitive system of power within Roman society; a system where instability was endemic and power concentrated in the hands of an oligarchy. Moreover, the personal political and economic fortunes of this group were closely bound up with their success in the military sphere. Military service was essential within the social structure of the Roman elite and a sine qua non for political advancement. Indeed, it seems clear that the whole ethos of Roman society and its economic system came to be reliant upon wars of conquest, so that Rome became a truly militaristic society.

– The Romanization of Britain – Martin Millett

David Mattingly, the doyen of Roman archaeologists is equally damning. In his classic book on Britain in the Roman Empire, provocatively titled An Imperial Possession, he writes:

“Compared to the other ancient Italian peoples, the Roman state was exceptionally aggressive and warlike. The unification of Italy and a large part of temperate Europe under Roman rule was a lengthy process and achieved at huge human cost . . . For the majority of Britons it is clear that in the short term the Romans were very bad news, and even in the medium and long-term, Britain in the Roman Empire was colonised and exploited territory. This was not a Golden Age . . . “


All three writers present a similar view, comparing Rome implicitly with Britain and America and the modern world. The Romans were imperialists and colonisers — and successful ones too, so they must therefore be bad, because imperialism and colonialism are bad.

I don’t see it that way. I believe that words such as ‘Imperialism’ and ‘colonialism’ are essentially abusive terms with no real meaning, and that Britain and America have developed a society where it is rather pleasant to live, and which much of the rest of the world wants, in practice, though not always in theory, to copy. I think much the same was true of ancient Rome.

I do indeed see parallels between Rome and the modern Western world because I see the modern Western world as having discovered whatever it is we mean by civilisation, and I believe that some of these characteristics were first discovered by Rome. I hope in these pages to examine the reasons for the rise of Rome, and to show too how Rome eventually declined and fell. And I believe that both the rise, and the fall, have lessons for the modern world.

On to: The Archaeology of the Romans

The logo at the top of the page is from a wall painting in Pompeii known as the Marine Venus. It shows Venus riding on a sea shell accompanied by two cupids, her veil billowing out behind her and the hinge of the seashell forming the prow of her boat. It is often thought to be based on a famous painting by the Greek painter Apelles.

The painting is presumably a stock painting from a painter’s pattern book, but the face seems to be very up-to-date with a hair style typical of the 60s to 80s of the first century AD, just before the eruption of Vesuvius: is this in fact a portrait of the lady of the house?

It is placed in a prominent position in at the end of the peristyle where all visitors to this private part of the house would see it. Such paintings of nudes are very common on Roman wall paintings, but did the owner of the house really want to flaunt a nude picture of his wife  in this prominent position? It shows that the Romans had a very different attitude towards nudity to that of today. They were far less inhibited than we are in the 21st century. The real secret of the Romans success was that they had a secret formula: make love, not war!

 Created: 26th January 2009