Rome Was Not Good

People sometimes argue that the Roman Empire was a good thing for the people of the Mediterranean, Europe, even the whole world. You will especially hear this argument made in connection with claims about the unique value of European (or, even more bluntly, “white”) civilization. Those who make this claim often, implicitly or explicitly, extend the argument to later history, implying that if the Roman Empire was good for the world, then so was all other European-led imperialism in world history.

This argument is wrong. The Roman Empire was not a force for good.

I am not speaking here of the moral qualities of any individual Roman or of the ancient Romans as a whole. People are people, and always have been; some are good, some are bad, and most of us are a mix of both. That is as true of the ancient Romans as of anyone else. My point is rather that the net effect of the Roman Empire on humanity as a whole was not one for good.

Pax Romana

The most typical claim made for the benefits of Roman imperialism is that it created peace in the lands it ruled. This is, in fact, the claim that Romans made for themselves. In the words the poet Vergil put into the mouth of the spirit of Anchises, revealing the future to his son, Aeneas:

Remember, Roman, that you shall rule the world’s peoples by your power.

These will be your arts: to impose the laws of peace,

to be merciful to the conquered and subdue the arrogant.

Vergil, Aeneid 6.851-853

(My own translations)

This claim is, at best, exaggerated. The history of Rome is marked with numerous revolts, civil wars, and other internal conflicts. The first century BCE and the third century CE were particularly blood-stained by the struggles of would-be dynasts and their personal armies. Many provinces saw revolts in the generations after their conquest, and some remained turbulent for centuries. The Roman response to provincial unrest was often a violent reconquest.

It is true that in some parts of the Roman world and in some eras of history, generations of provincial subjects lived free from the threat of war and other large-scale violence, but even this limited peace came at a cost. Roman peace was always the product of violence. Caesar’s conquest of Gaul in the mid-first century BCE has been estimated to have cost the lives of a million Gauls and the freedom of a million more forced into slavery; the population of Gaul may have been decreased by as much as half as a result. By any definition, Caesar committed genocide. Other Roman conquests may have been less thorough in their devastation, but Rome was never shy to apply overwhelming force. The Greek historian Polybius’ eyewitness account of Roman siege warfare is chilling:

When Scipio judged that enough soldiers had entered the city, he gave the order that most of them should kill everyone they chanced upon and spare no one, according to the Romans’ custom, and not to begin looting until the signal for it was given. They do this, I suppose, for the sake of terror. Because of this custom, you can see in cities captured by the Romans not only people slaughtered, but even dogs hacked in two and other animals with their limbs hewn off. Because of the numbers who were in the captured city, there was a lot of this sort of destruction there.

Polybius, History of Rome 10.15

The Roman historian Tacitus, imagining what the victims of Roman conquest would say of it, put things even more bluntly:

They falsely call stealing, slaughtering, and ravaging “empire,” and where they have made a wasteland they call it “peace.”

Tacitus, Agricola 30

To the extent that Roman rule created areas of peace inside the empire, it did so in part by creating more violence outside of it. The frontier was a militarized zone in which Roman soldiers had effective license to harass, extort, and plunder locals and travelers. Roman commanders appeased restless troops by letting them raid neighboring settlements for booty, and used the threat of attacks to extract tribute from peoples beyond the frontier, whether for the empire or their own personal enrichment. The Roman market’s demand for enslaved labor spurred increased volatility and raiding outside the empire as some people took advantage of the opportunity to sell their neighbors to the Romans.

The world before Rome had not been one of peace and harmony. Roman violence had ebbs and flows, the worst contained in times and sites of expansion and civil war. Some people lucky enough to live in quiet provinces in orderly eras could indeed thank Rome for a life free of the threat of war. On the large scale, though, Rome can take no credit for making the world more peaceful, only for changing the distribution of violence.

Law and order

In connection the claim of creating peace, Romans (like Vergil above) often also justified their empire by its ability to impose law and order on a chaotic world. Like Roman peace, Roman law was real and beneficial for some, but it makes a poor argument for the value of the empire.

Law was hardly a unique Roman creation. All ancient societies had legal traditions because every complex society has to deal with fundamental problems such as the ownership and inheritance of land and other economic resources or the destabilizing effects of interpersonal violence. Societies that had not had to deal with specific kinds of problems may not have developed legal principles for them and so may have gained some marginal benefit from the introduction of Roman law, but this was not particular to Rome; the Romans themselves, inhabitants of an inland city, had imported large portions of maritime law from Greek cities (particularly Rhodes) as they came to terms with ruling a Mediterranean empire. Just because the laws of many of the people Rome conquered have not been recorded does not mean that they did not exist or that Rome was bringing anything new to them by conquest.

Roman law could be helpful to some. It conferred certain rights and privileges on particular groups of people, primarily freeborn Roman citizens, a group to which some portion of the population of the empire belonged. At the same time, it codified many kinds of inequality, most prominently the exploitation of enslaved people, but also several kinds of non-citizen status, each of which had limited rights under law, if the law of the empire recognized their rights at all. The fact that citizenship conferred such privileges as freedom from torture and the right to appeal for the emperor’s intercession should remind us of how many of the Roman empire’s subjects lived without those guarantees.

In practical terms, there were also serious limits on who could effectively exercise the rights that the law theoretically granted them. Roman law operated on a basis of self-help, meaning that a court only pronounced a judgment; enforcement was entirely up to the winning litigant, so the poor and powerless had no meaningful recourse against the rich and powerful. Even gaining access to the processes of law could be difficult. In the city of Rome itself, where elected praetors oversaw the courts, citizens of adequate wealth and social standing could be reasonably confident of getting their case before a judge with a hope of a fair hearing. In the provinces, legal proceedings were under the purview of appointed governors who were famous for their corruption and disinterest in local affairs. The letter of complaint directed to the provincial governor of Britain written by a merchant who had been roughed up by a soldier gives us an idea of how ineffective Roman justice could be:

He beat me further until I would either declare my goods worthless or else pour them away. I implore your majesty not to allow me, an innocent man, to have been beaten with rods. Furthermore, my lord Proculus, I couldn’t complain to the prefect because he was detained by sickness, and I complained in vain to the adjutant and the other centurions of his unit. I beg your mercy not to allow me, an innocent man from abroad, about whose honesty you may inquire, to have been bloodied with rods like a criminal.

Tabulae Vindolandenses, II 344


Another claim sometimes made for the value of the Roman Empire is that it brought superior technology from the Mediterranean to the rest of Europe. Like other claims for the empire’s virtues, this one is exaggerated at best.

The areas of the world that would eventually fall under Roman rule had long been connected by the movement of people and goods. Such movement carried technological developments in all directions. By the time of the Roman Empire, there was relatively little that Romans could do that the people they conquered could not.

The major differences between Roman and non-Roman material culture had more to do with economics than with technology. The Mediterranean held large cities whose populations demanded goods and public works at a scale not needed in other parts of Europe. To meet these demands, Romans and other Mediterranean peoples developed large-scale manufacturing that depended not on technological advances but on the widespread exploitation of enslaved workers.

Archaeological research has identified few cases in which Roman technology was actually superior to the technology of the conquered. Even at the northern edges of the empire, which lagged in economic development compared with the Mediterranean, Roman products were not necessarily superior. A study of Roman-made and locally-made knife blades in Britain, for example, found that the British blades were equal or superior in quality to the Roman examples. Similarly, research on Roman-period architecture in Britain finds that many buildings that looked Roman in style were built using methods and techniques already well known in Britain before the conquest.

Some Roman technologies were unknown in the farther reaches of the empire. These included glass-blowing, the smelting of brass, and the production of concrete. These technologies, however, were not freely shared with the subjects of the empire but were held as proprietary secrets either by the Mediterranean artisans who knew them or by the imperial administration itself. Conquest brought little to the wider European and Mediterranean world that could not have come through peaceful trade.

Rome in the balance

There is no denying that the Roman Empire was a good thing for some people in some times and places. It was particularly good for the Roman elite who gained access to new sources of wealth, enslaved labor, and prestige through conquest, but some of the conquered benefited as well. Individuals and communities who aligned themselves with Rome’s interests could reap the rewards, and some were simply in the right places and times to enjoy periods of peace, stability, and economic growth.

All of these benefits, however, came at a cost. For those in the empire, there was the brutality of conquest, and the frequent need for reconquest in future generations, the violent side effects of Rome’s unstable politics, and the costs that came with the disruption of traditional social and economic organizations. Outside the empire, the ripple effects of Rome created volatility and violence whose effects were felt hundreds of kilometers from the frontier. Some people lived richer, happier, more peaceful lives because of Rome, but many others suffered war, deprivation, and enslavement to make these benefits possible.

Those who claim that Rome was good for the world align themselves, consciously or not, with the conquerors, and the reveal much about their view of both history and the world today by assuming that the benefits to the victorious matter more than the sufferings of the defeated.

Image: Gemma Augustea, lower register, photograph by Andreas Praefke via Wikimedia (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Austria; early 1st c. CE; onyx)

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