Quotes: No Call for Nastiness

The Roman orator Quintilian has a thing or two to say about making jokes at the expense of groups of people:

I have already noted, when talking of jokes, how unworthy it is to go after someone’s circumstances in life, and there is no call for nastiness against classes, ethnicities, or nations, either.

Quintilian, The Institute of Oratory 11.1.86

(My own translation)

Now, Quintilian is specifically speaking here about how to comport oneself as an advocate in court, and he goes on to say that if your opponent comes from a group whose moral qualities might seem dubious to a Roman jury, like soldiers or tax farmers, it may sometimes be appropriate to make a joke at their expense. His advice is tactical, not moral: this is how you sway a jury and win your case. Still, it’s good advice in general that “just joking” about people’s ethnicities, origins, or life circumstances is not a great way to get people on your side, in ancient Rome or today.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

The Unspoken Messages of an Unswept Floor

This floor mosaic comes from the dining room of a Roman house. The central parts of the floor have been lost, but the edges of the room were decorated to look like the untidy remains of a banquet. We can identify leaves, fish and poultry bones, nut shells, bits of fruit, and the shells of a wide variety of shellfish. This may seem like an odd choice for home decoration, but mosaics in this style were popular in well-to-do Greek and Roman households. To contemporary guests, mosaics like this sent a number of messages about the people who dined on them.

On one level, this mosaic simply reflected the reality of the room it was in. Diners at an ancient banquet could toss their refuse on the floor with abandon because they were not the ones who had to clean it up. The widespread use of enslaved labor for domestic service meant that the rich could lob greasy chicken bones and half-eaten olives around the place without caring about the time and effort involved in cleaning up afterward. In that sense, this mosaic identified the owners of this house as the sorts of people who had other people to do the cleaning up after them.

On the other hand, the evident abandon with which the detritus is strewn around the room is deceptive. The individual pieces are precisely placed so that there the space between them is relatively even. Larger items are spread out with smaller ones between them. They are positioned in loose diagonal lines with a subtle aesthetic regularity; similar objects repeat to help unify the image, but are spaced out and given different orientations to avoid any sense of pattern. This mosaic is an extremely fine one made of very small tesserae in many different shades that must have taken a substantial amount of work by a skilled mosaic artist and a team of workers. The details of this Roman mosaic also imitate a famous Greek predecessor created by the mosaic artist Sosos of Pergamum. The effect was meant to project wealth and power: only the very rich could afford to put so much care into looking so careless.

The choice of food to show in this mosaic is also significant. Meat had a religious, even moral, significance in Greek and Roman culture. Large land animals like cattle, sheep, and pigs were typically eaten as part of a communal religious sacrifice, and religious custom dictated how they could be cooked and served as well as who should partake in the feast. Fish, shellfish, and poultry were not constrained by similar rules and could be eaten when, how, and in any company one liked. As such, this sort of food was associated with indulgence, even decadence. To say that a fellow Greek or Roman dined on fish had a sting of moral judgment akin to declaring that someone today enjoys champagne and caviar. The variety of fish bones, chicken claws, and shells in this mosaic makes a statement that this room is not one for solemn sacrificial meals but a place where the diners can indulge in their favorite delicacies free of any religious scruples or moral condemnation.

A great deal of meaning is packed into a mosaic of an untidy floor. These were messages that the original guests in this dining room would have implicitly understood in same way that we today grasp the status-signaling meaning of a four-car garage or a water view.

Image: Detail of unswept floor mosaic, photograph by Yann Forget via Wikimedia (currently Gregorian Profano Museum, Vatican; early 2nd c. CE; glass tessera mosaic; by Heraclitus, copied from work by Sosos of Pergamum)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

DM-ing Past an Impasse

One of the difficult situations you can find yourself in when acting as Dungeon Master / Game Master for a tabletop role-playing game is when your players find themselves stuck. An adventure is about forward movement, whether it’s fighting the next band of goblins so you can take their loot, discovering the secret door that leads into the hidden underground facility, or navigating through the asteroid field to get to safety. When your players feel like their characters aren’t making progress, that can sap the fun out of your game. What can you do as a DM to help your players get past an impasse?

Sometimes, you don’t have to do anything. Remember that your players are not the same as the characters they play. Being on an adventure is often not a lot of fun for the characters as they face danger, uncertainty, and the possibility of death. Sometimes even though the characters may be stuck, the players are still having a good time. They may be relishing the chance to role-play how their characters deal with failure or enjoy the prompt to think outside the box and come up with wacky new schemes so crazy they just might work. Some players want a game that plays strictly by the rules, even if that means they “lose.” When the characters run into trouble, watch how your players react. If they’re still having fun, you can just let them keep at it, but if the characters’ frustration leads to your players being frustrated, then it is time for you to step in as DM. In that case, here are some things to think about.

Break the DM Wall

As DMs, we have a barrier between us and the players, not just the physical barrier of the DM screen (for those who use them), but the distance between ourselves, who know all the secrets of the adventure, and the players, who do not. When your players are feeling stuck, it can help to open that barrier a little.

Suppose your players’ characters are trying to get into a castle to stop the evil duke from doing an evil ritual with an ancient artifact of evil. They try to get through the front gate and are stopped by the guards. They decide there are too many guards to fight, so they try to bluff their way in. The bluffing doesn’t work, but the players are committed this plan and keep trying to argue and make rolls to get through the gate.

Try saying something like: “I’m stepping in as DM to let you know that the guard just isn’t going to budge, no matter what you say or how well you roll. You’ll have to find another way in.” Giving the players this out-of-game information can help in several ways. It lets the players know that they weren’t on the right track so they can focus their energies on something else. It reassures the players that you are playing fair with them—they didn’t do something wrong, this approach was just never viable, and there is a way forward if they can figure it out. It also helps everyone take a step back from the characters’ frustrations to refocus on the fun of the game.

If your players like to actively role-play their characters and speak for them, it can help to shift perspective and speak about them instead. If you can get your players from “I’ve tried everything I can think of, but this guard captain is just stonewalling” to “Whiteleaf the bard is feeling frustrated and at a loss because her skills aren’t helping her group accomplish their mission,” that can help your players reframe their problem and work toward a solution.

No, but

You may have heard of the rule that in improv you always want to say “Yes, and.” “Yes, and” means you accept whatever ideas someone else brought to the scene and add your own contribution to develop it further. DM-ing is a kind of improv, but an adventure is also constrained by rules, rolls, and the story you have built for your players to explore. Sometimes the best thing to do is just throw out the other stuff and go with your players’ ideas, but if you always ignore the rules and the story, then you leave your players without a structure to work within. So there’s a corollary to the “Yes, and” rule: the “No, but” rule.

“No, but” means that when you say no to something your players want to do, you nudge them toward an alternative. This could be anything from a subtle hint on how to sway the current encounter successfully to a neon arrow pointing at the next plot point.

In the example above, you could “No, but” as you play the castle guard with a grouchy reply: “Look, His Grace said no one gets into the castle but Merchant Severan’s crew with the monthly wine shipment. I don’t see any wine barrels, so you’re not getting in here.” Alternatively, you could step out of character and say: “As you continue to argue with the guard, you notice that the northern wall of the castle overhangs a sheer cliff; there are no guards there, for obvious reasons.” These options give your players a hook for a way forward without interrupting the scene.

It’s up to your players to pick up on the “No, but” and figure out how they want to take advantage of it, but it allows you to steer them out of a dead end and back into the adventure without breaking the immersion of the game.

Change something

If your players just keep trying something that won’t work, you have the option as DM to change the rules and make it work. If necessary, you can always just say: “Okay, ignore that last roll. You succeeded. Move on,” but it’s better if you can fit the change into the story. If the situation the players’ characters find themselves in is a deadlock, you’ll want to either add something or take something away to break the stalemate.

Adding something may mean a new character comes on the scene, an event occurs to disrupt the current stalemate, or the characters get new information that gives them a way forward. For instance, perhaps the evil duke himself comes out to see what the fuss is and decides to invite the characters in so he has someone to gloat at as he does his evil thing. Perhaps a band of marauders swarms out of the nearby woods, giving the castle guards something more important to focus on and letting the characters take advantage of the chaos.

Instead of adding something, you might take away one of the things causing the impasse. Perhaps the guard captain gets frustrated and walks away to let her subordinate handle the characters, and that subordinate turns out to be much more gullible or a secret ally to the party. Perhaps several of the guards get called away to handle another problem elsewhere in the castle leaving a smaller number that the player characters can take in a fight.

In the end, remember that a role-playing game is a collaboration between players and DM. The most important thing is that everyone, including you, gets to have a good experience. Sometimes your players are going to get themselves into places where they aren’t having fun, but as a DM you have options for helping them get out.

Image by Erik Jensen

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.

Hipposandals

This strange-looking contraption is a Roman hipposandal, a forerunner of the horseshoe (from the Greek word “hippos,” meaning horse). It could be applied to a horse’s hoof, with the side pieces bent around to hold it in place or tied on with leather straps. Hipposandals like this one were known in the ancient Mediterranean (examples have been found in Greece and Italy), but archaeological evidence for them is concentrated in Roman contexts in northwestern Europe.

The function of hipposandals has been debated. They were not practical for long-term wear and were designed to be temporary and removable. One use may have been to protect injured hooves from further deterioration while healing. Some versions were also made with spikes on the bottom that could have given a horse extra traction while walking on loose or icy ground. Either use might explain why they appear to have been more common in the colder, wetter parts of the Roman world. In places like Britain and the Gaulish Alps, horses were exposed to soft, wet ground in summer and frozen roads in winter, which took a greater toll on their hooves than the hard, dry ground more typical in the Mediterranean.

One reason we are so uncertain about how exactly hipposandals were used is because no ancient source talks about them in any detail. Hipposandals are one little piece of material culture that would have been part of the everyday experience of people in the past, so mundane and unremarkable that nobody thought it was worth writing down just what they were for or how they were used. This is one more example of the paradox familiar to historians: the more typical and ordinary a thing was for people in the past, the more mysterious it is likely to be to us.

Image: Roman hipposandal, photograph by G. Garitan via Wikimdia (currently Musée de Saint-Remi; Roman period; iron)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Herodotus and the Upside-Down World of Egypt

The ancient Greek traveler and historian Herodotus was impressed by many of the things he saw in his visit to Egypt. He wrote about ancient monuments like the pyramids (already thousands of years old by the time he saw them), great temples, and the works of kings. But he was equally interested in the habits and daily life of the people around him. He noted a number of things in the daily life of Egyptians that struck him as unusual.

Just as the Egyptians have a unique climate, and the nature of their river is unlike any other, they have established customs and norms that are different from any other people. Among them, the women haggle in the market while the men stay home weaving. While other peoples weave by pushing the weft up, the Egyptians push it down. Men always carry burdens on their heads, women on their shoulders. Women pee standing up, men sitting down. They relieve themselves in their homes but eat outside in the street, saying that what is embarrassing but necessary should be hidden away, but what is not shameful may be done in the open. No woman serves as priest either for a male or a female deity; men serve each and every god. No son is obliged to care for his parents if he does not wish to, but daughters must whether they wish to or not.

Herodotus, Histories 2.35

(My own translation)

Herodotus’ perspective on Egypt was shaped by his background as a Greek. These details he lists are things that were the reverse of typical Greek habits: in Greece, men usually went out to the market while many women stayed in the home doing textile work. Greeks customarily ate their meals inside their homes but went outside to relieve themselves. In the Greek world, women served as priests of female gods while men served as priests of male gods.

Two factors are at work in Herodotus’ perception of the Egyptians, factors familiar to anyone who has spent time in a foreign culture. In the first place, we tend to notice things that are different more than things that are the same. When you visit a new place, you tend to notice that people speak differently than you are used to or eat foods you haven’t tried before, not all the little things that are just like at home. Secondly, when we notice these differences, they tend to blow up to exaggerated proportions in our minds. We may come home from a vacation thinking “Wow, everybody there likes to sing a lot,” when the reality was that it was one or two people who busted out a song at a time you just weren’t expecting it.

Some of Herodotus’ observations actually do align with our evidence for ancient Egyptian culture in the period when he visited. For example, it seems it was not unusual for Egyptian women to do business outside the home or for men to work as weavers. Some are simply false: at least some Egyptian women did serve as priestesses. Others are harder to pin down—no one has yet come up with evidence for Egyptian women habitually standing up at the toilet, but it’s not the sort of thing we have much documentation for at all.

Herodotus was a sharp-eyed observer of culture, but even so he wrote from a partial and biased perspective, not just as a foreign visitor trying to make sense of an unfamiliar world, but as an educated Greek who knew something about history and literature. Greeks had a long tradition of writing about Egypt as an alien world, a kind of magical Neverland where nothing was as it was in Greece. We credit Herodotus with inventing the genre of history in the Western tradition, but he saw himself as following in the footsteps of epic poets like Homer. In the details he provides about his time in Egypt, we see how he both tried to ground his account in the facts he observed and also fill out an existing Greek picture of Egypt as an upside-down world where everything was different.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

History for Writers: 2021 Compendium

History for Writers explores history to offer ideas and observations of interest to those of us who are in the business of inventing new worlds, cultures, and histories of our own. Here’s what we’ve been talking about in 2021:

Worldbuilding exercises

Organizing society

Thinking about history and justice

The details that make a different world

Join us in 2021 for more history from a SFF writer’s perspective.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Socks with Sandals, Ancient Egyptian Style

This amazingly preserved sock comes from the late Roman period of ancient Egypt. The colors of the stripes give us some idea of how bright and cheerful this sock must have been when it was new.

The notch at the end separated the big toe for wearing thong sandals. The question of whether this means “wearing socks with sandals has an ancient and honorable pedigree” or “ancient Egyptians could be huge dorks, too” is left as an exercise for the reader.

Image: Sock via National Museum of Scotland (currently National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh; 4th-5th c. CE; wool)

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Rating: Babylon 5, Season 5

The fifth and final season of Babylon 5 has its problems, but it holds up well on rewatching. Here’s our take:

  1. “No Compromises” – 4
  2. “The Very Long Night of Londo Mollari” – 7.5
  3. “The Paragon of Animals” – 5.5
  4. “A View from the Gallery” – 6
  5. “Learning Curve” – 5
  6. “Strange Relations” – 4.5
  7. “Secrets of the Soul” – 3
  8. “Day of the Dead” – 4
  9. “In the Kingdom of the Blind” – 3.5
  10. “A Tragedy of Telepaths” – 4
  11. “Phoenix Rising” – 2
  12. “The Ragged Edge” – 4.5
  13. “The Corps is Mother, the Corps is Father” – 4.5
  14. “Meditations on the Abyss” – 7
  15. “Darkness Ascending” – 3
  16. “And All My Dreams, Torn Asunder” – 4
  17. “Movements of Fire and Shadow” – 4
  18. “The Fall of Centauri Prime” – 5
  19. “The Wheel of Fire” – 7
  20. “Objects in Motion” – 6
  21. “Objects at Rest” – 3.5
  22. “Sleeping in Light” – 6

The average rating for this season is 4.7, which is in line with the rest of the series. It was a little surprising to review the numbers and find that season 5 held up so well, since it is so different from the rest of the series. What had been planned as a five-season story got squished into four, then the series unexpectedly got picked up for a fifth season, so new stories had be written to fill out the time. The effects of these compromises are plain in season 5. Some of the new storylines go on too long, like the refugee telepaths on Babylon 5; others don’t have enough time to develop the depth they need, like the Drakh war. That this season holds up as well as it does largely rests on the excellent writing and acting work of previous seasons, developing characters with complicated stories and relationships still to be worked out.

There are no standout great episodes this season, but none that are truly terrible, either. The lowest rating we gave for this season was 2 for “Phoenix Rising,” which brings the telepath story to a head. That storyline as a whole was marred by clumsy writing and hammy acting. Add to that a further unpleasant turn for Garibaldi in this episode, after the character spent most of the past season and a half being mean and miserable, and it’s not an episode we care to come back to often.

At the top of the scale, the best episode of the season is “The Very Long Night of Londo Mollari,” at 7.5, a surreal and poetic episode mostly set in Londo’s unconscious as he reckons with the crimes of his past while fighting for his life after a heart attack. This episode pays off the long and sometimes painful growth of the character from cynical hack to manipulative monster to wise but broken leader. Peter Jurasik’s performance of Londo, always one of the strengths of the series, gets to shine here as the character tumbles through fear, anger, resentment, petulance, vulnerability, and finally contrition.

In other developments, Claudia Christian departed the series this season, so we get Tracy Scoggins playing the sharp and sharp-edged Captain Lochley. The character largely fills the role vacated by Ivanova and doesn’t get much time to set herself apart from her predecessor, but Scoggins makes the most of the time she gets.

Babylon 5 is, like many great things, deeply flawed in some ways. Some of its weaknesses are the result of a turbulent production environment; others are inherent in the story or come from the limitations of the creators who worked on it. Yet its great moments shine through despite those weaknesses, as brilliant, touching, even transcendent now as they were when the big blue barrel of a space station first appeared on our screens decades ago.

Season 1

Season 2

Season 3

Season 4

Image: Babylon 5 season 5 DVD cover via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

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

Technology

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)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.