The Roman Empire is a textbook example of how human depravity and weakness will eventually dissolve even the greatest achievements. The civilization that gave us aqueducts, government-funded roads, and republicanism also gave us government welfare, state-subsidied religious persecution, and widespread classism.
Weighing the virtues of a culture against its sins is seldom profitable, however. All nations are composed of men and women, human beings, all with a sin nature and all prone to transgress God's Law. Society is always a mixed bag, and to try to say "This was an evil empire" or "Here was a godly people" is largely fruitless. Man is man, and his story has remained fairly static throughout the ages.
It is said the brothers Romulus and Remus built the city of Rome on its seven hills and populated it with ex-slaves and criminals. As far as historical narratives help us this is the true story, though it's pretty far-fetched: the brothers were raised, it is also said, by a she-wolf. Historians have determined many things about the story, including that it's not true (from the archaeological evidence) and that Romulus was derived from the word Rome, rather than the other way around.
We do know that what became the Roman Empire began as a monarchy, and that its values and morality in many ways reflected those associated today with a Judeo-Christian ethic. It wasn't long before the kingdom became a republic, a move which brought more equality between high and low classes, and limited the power held by the collective rulers (while increasing that of the electors).
The Republic was finalized around 509 BC, when the last king was deposed. When it technically ended and when it practically ended are rather disparate dates; it was kept alive by the emperors for about two centuries after the accession of Julius Caesar (100-44 BC), but under his auspices the Republic effectively broke apart, leaving his successor, Augustus Caesar, to rule absolutely.
Gaius Julius Caesar inaugurated a program of Roman conquest that subsequent rulers accepted almost as a religious obligation. The Roman Empire in its heyday stretched from Britain in the West, throughout Western and Southern Europe, across the breadth of Northern Africa, and deep into Asia Minor in the East. The whole thing was marked by efficiency and unification, an amazing feat in any age.
Roman culture was fairly advanced, but most of it was borrowed from the Greeks. If the Romans could be said to have any genuinely unique contributions, it would be primarily in the realms of science and warfare—civic inventions like the aqueduct (to transport water) and the Roman road (to facilitate travel), and military inventions like the trebuchet (a form of catapult), contributed to their success in conquest and imperial unity.
That's not to say they were a bunch of backwater schlubs with no taste for high culture. Roman literature, sculpture, architecture, rhetoric and oratory, theater, and philosophy were among the greatest the world has seen, but they were still largely borrowed from the Greeks, both in form and in content. It was this propensity for borrowing which Edward Gibbon identified as the beginning of the end of Rome as a great empire.
In his monumental work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (published between 1776 and 1788), Gibbon says the beginning of the end came during the rule of Constantine. There were no artisans competent enough to adorn a victory arch (commonly erected after a military success), so the Emperor was forced to rob existing arches of their ornament in order to beautify the new one.
A death of artists wasn't the only problem, though. The third emperor (Augustus being the first) was an evil and highly deranged individual named Caligula who used the Emperorship to satisfy his own perverse appetites. Several of the Emperors following him were also insane and vile (Nero among them), and their ineffectual or outright bad rule led to nothing but problems.
One of those was a continual moral degradation affecting both the nobles and senators, and the populace at large. The Colloseum became the central entertainment hub, featuring all manner of grisly attractions from gladiator battles to Christian executions to chariot races, all of them including massive amounts of bloodshed. Sexual mores were relaxed and eventually dispelled altogether, the masses were given free bread in exchange for unquestioning subservience, and abuses of power became expected rather than exceptions.
Under the rule of some of the more conscientious Emperors (the philosopher-warrior-king Marcus Aurelius comes immediately to mind), Rome made something of a recovery before the end, but when the German barbarians finally destroyed the capital city in AD 410, the centuries of decay, internal warfare, and overextension took their toll.
Today, it's generally accepted that the Roman Empire, together with the Greek civilization, was the foundation on which all subsequent Western culture was built. The Latin language dominated literature and academic writing for a millennium and a half, and even today the English grammar is based largely on that of the Romans. Roman political science is almost ubiquitous in the West, as are Roman theories of law and religion.
Yet, if we're going to claim Latin heritage, we must also accept that we've inherited the evils of the Empire as well. And indeed, there is little difference (in many ways) between the corruption and carnage of ancient Rome and the moral degradation of our modern society. Looking down the corridor of Time, all we can do is thank God He hasn't destroyed everyone, and pray that mankind will turn to Him for guidance and rule.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur.Read more of his reviews here.
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