Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Romans - Goodies or Baddies?

Two good articles on the Romans and their language. The latter, by Mary Beard, wants Latin put back into comprehensive schools partly as a subject to stretch the academically able, but also because it is the language on which Europe was founded. Please let that be the last yawn. I know, you've heard it all before. I happen to believe it's true and it's important, but that's not what I want to write about here.

Among many interesting comments, there is this one that stands out by someone with the moniker of DeepSouth.

Latin is the language of a nasty rapacious bunch of vermin. They looted and destroyed wherever they went.
Now it's not just country hicks who say such things. The ex-Python, Terry Jones, speaks of "the Roman killing-machine that marched out to rob and ruin [the barbarians]". The historian, Neil Faulkner, likens the Roman influence on Britain as comparable to the worst effects of imperialism and capitalism.

They completely miss the point. Yes, the Romans invaded and colonised other groups, cultures and regions. Yes, they did a lot of killing, which they were very good at. Yes, they exploited the conquered territories. But then, who didn't? In this, they were like every other tribe in the known world. The only difference is that they were better at it. Much better. You may want to believe that the losing side were little close-to-nature bunnies, but there is no evidence for it and there never was. The Romans did what their competitors would have liked to have do (conquer), but did it better. The Romans were stronger; for a long time they won. That's it.

But that is not why we ought to remember and study them. It's the what-else they did that merits attention. They built and maintained the most complex social organism yet to exist on the Earth and raised the very questions that still occupy us today. As Will Hutton puts it
Rome's debates - and earlier debates by the Greeks - about the best form of political organisation, about ethics and morality, about love and human relationships made us what we are. Without republican Rome, there would have been no Magna Carta, no tradition of civil scrutiny of government, no Shakespeare, no Christianity, no liberalism and no republicanism.
And they did it in such a manner that it continued to inspire people for 2 millennia afterwards. A brief example. Most of the Thousand that followed Garibaldi in the defense of the Roman Republic in 1848 and to Sicily in 1860 were educated men. When they looked for models to inspire them in their quest for Italian liberty and the republic, they looked to Plutarch and to the stories of Cato the Elder, Cincinnatus and Brutus. These young men were imbued with an idea of 'virtue' that was rigorous and enabling. So, too, for the American 'revolutionaries' - it was the study of Rome that opened their eyes to the possibility of a republic. It was the study of Rome that showed them the fragility of republican liberty.

So whatever atrocities you can attribute to the Romans, as much (relatively) can be attributed to any other tribe, or group. What cannot be attributed to any other group is the immense gift that we have received from the Romans. The resurgence of the West began with an imaginary return to the Classical past. May we live up our masters.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great to see intelligent comments about the value of Latin and Classical History.

Do you think that the Western Roman empire collapsed due to a lack impetus, as a result of internal corruption and stumbling imperial ambitions? I am not knowledgeable about these matters, but from the little I know, it almost seems as though the culture lost its unifying sense of purpose. I'd be grateful for your potted view on what the principal causes of the decline were.

Many thanks.