Nowadays, people can hear very conflicting things about the Roman Empire. On the one hand, they hear how brutal the Romans were, with slavery, slaughtering of enemies, etc. On the other hand, it was also the fondest wish of many “barbarians” to gain Roman citizenship, and many important aspects of today’s life rely on Roman achievements. It begs the question of whether the Roman Empire was ultimately good or bad for the trajectory of humanity. There are enough arguments both for and against, and some of them are so tainted by a modern colonial allegory that they’re pretty historically dubious. By the modern moral standards, Rome was utterly repugnant to its core – a system of authoritarian violent militarism built around slave labor. Still, it is no reason to deny its positive impact on legislation, infrastructure, or public hygiene. Ultimately, the Roman conquest was good for the area in the long run but bad for the people at the time.
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Perhaps the most evident example of how Roman conquest was bad for its victims in the short-term perspective is slavery. Roman society used slavery to a great degree in many spheres of life, from agriculture and industry to housekeeping and entertainment. Naturally, most of the slaves came from Rome’s victorious military campaigns and were those who once attempted to resist Roman expansion. Nor even the upper classes of the defeated countries were safe from this fate, as evidenced by what happened to Perseus, the king of Macedon, after his defeat from Romans in 167 BCE. During the triumphal procession for Aemilius Paulus, the general who won the war, Roman victors demonstrated their trophies and paraded the captured enemies along the city’s streets. It included the defeated king himself and his children, who were put on display for Roman crowds, being “led along as slaves.” This example illustrates that Romans could disregard wealth and social status alike and turn even the most prominent people of the conquered countries into their slaves. Considering this example, it is hard to argue that the immediate impact of Roman conquests on its victims was negative.
Yet slavery was not merely universal and sustained through aggressive wars – it was also enforced through brutal and uncompromising legislation. Rich households could have hundreds of slaves, and it was fairly common for them to outnumber their masters in a given place. Under these circumstances, Roman wanted to ensure that their bonded labor force would not rebel and opted to instill fear in their slaves through extremely severe punishments. According to one Roman law, “if a slave killed a master in his own house, then all of his slaves living in the household were to be crucified.” As one can see from this example, Romans did not bother with proving one’s guilt as a perpetrator or accomplice when they judged slave insubordination. Instead, they used the idea of collective responsibility and punished all slaves in the household for the misdeeds of even one. Thus, being a Roman slave was not merely hard and humiliating but also directly dangerous to one’s life even without one’s fault. With this in mind, the negative impact of Roman conquests on the countries that fell prey to it is all the more evident.
However, it would be presumptuous to view Roman legislation merely as a system of extremely harsh punishments serving to care people into submission. Admittedly, individual Roman laws could have been exceptionally cruel by the modern standards, but the ways in which Romans approached their lawmaking is important in its own right. Thanks to its regular codifications, including the one by the Byzantine emperor Justinian after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Roman law as a set of legal principles prevailed throughout history. As a result, Roman law left an immense impact on Western legal thinking by serving as a foundation for the civil law legal tradition. According to legal history professionals, the law of ancient Rome remains “one of the strongest formative forces in the development of what we now think of as the Western legal tradition.” Hence, even though the severity of Roman laws at the time could have a negative impact on those subjected to them, their underlining legal principles had enduring value. Therefore, Roman law may serve as one example of the long-term positive impact of the Roman Empire.
Legal matters aside, Romans also left a profoundly positive long-term impact when it came to infrastructure. The most obvious example is, of course, the famous Roman roads built to facilitate troop movements and commerce across the vast Empire. Naturally, Romans did not invent roads, but they still created “the first effective network of roads in Europe.” In fact, it was so effective that its impact outlived the empire itself by centuries. Roman roads lowered transportation and trade costs, creating persistent patterns across regions, and, as such, largely predetermined the outline of the newer transportation systems. According to one study comparing the Roman road network density to the transportation systems of modern Italy, “Roman road network has had a persistent effect on the present day road and railway system in Italy.” It is an impressive display of just how influential and important the Roman infrastructure projects proved to be in the long run. Even when the empire itself crumbled, its excellent roads still facilitated travel and commerce across great distances.
Yet transportation was not the only legacy left by Roman engineers and planners for the generations to come – the long-term impact of the Roman Empire was just as important in terms of public health. In the time when sanitation was nearly nonexistent, Romans made some of the first steps to incorporate it into their city planning. One notable example would be the famous Roman baths, but latrines were probably equally important in this respect. As early as the 1st century BCE, most Roman cities “had public toilets of some sort” connected to a sewer system. Admittedly, these toilets were fairly atrocious by the modern standards – small, cramped, dark, filthy, and disease-ridden. Nevertheless, they still left a positive impact on public health due to being connected to the sewer system and using cesspits. The physical separation of people and their excrements made fecal-oral transmission of disease impossible or, at the very least, unlikely. This positive impact on public health as a cornerstone feature of Roman architecture and city planning was yet another beneficial effect of the Roman Empire in the long historical run.
One may rightfully object that Romans were hardly the first ones to invent pit toilets that prevent direct contact between humans and their feces, and hailing this particular advancement as Roman is unwarranted. It is true in the sense that Roman did not create the idea of cesspool – latrines of a similar basic design were already known at least in Ancient Mesopotamia. Yet while pit toilets existed long before the Roman Empire, their effect on public health was limited. It happened because approximately “75% of a population must have access before there are widespread improvements in health”. This was where the Romans truly shined: while they did not invent pit toilets, they ensured that every urban center had easily accessible latrines for its denizens to use. This integration of public toilets into architectural design and city planning made them accessible enough so that latrines could actually improve public health in the cities. Thus, one may still credit the Roman Empire with its positive impact in the history of public sanitation represented by its baths and, to a significant degree, latrines.
As one can see, it would be hard to make a decisive conclusion on whether the Roman Empire was ultimately good or bad for humanity’s trajectory. It was often bad for people at the time but left numerous long-term positive impacts. Enslavement of entire populations and brutal punitive measures supported by legislation made Roman dominance less than desirable for those conquered. However, Roman legislation created the framework used in the creation of civil law – one of the two major families of law in existence. Roman roads created patterns of transportation that influenced communication and commerce for the centuries to come. Finally, the Roman Empire also left a profound impact on pubic sanitation, making it easily accessible and integrating it into city planning.
Benedictis, Luca D., Vania Licio, and Anna Maria Pinna. “The Long-Term Effects of the Historical Roman Road Network: Trade Costs of Italian Provinces.” Findazione Manlio Masi. 2020. Web.
Culik-Baird, Hanna. “Staging Roman Slavery in the Second Century BCE.” Ramus 48, no, 2 (2019): 174-197.
Hopkins, Keith. “Novel Evidence for Roman Slavery.” In Critical Readings on Global Slavery, edited by Damian Alan Pargas and Felicia Roşu, 371-393. Leiden: BRILL, 2018.
Koloski-Ostrow, Ann Olga. The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy: Toilets, Sewers, and Water Systems. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2015.
Mousorakis, George. The Historical and Institutional Context of Roman Law. London: Routledge, 2016.
Muñoz, Alejandro Fornell, and Francisco Guerrero. “Mediterranean Basin Wetlands as a Vertebral Axis of the Territory: Relationships with Roman Roads and Contemporary Livestock Trails.” Nature and Culture 14, no. 1 (Spring 2019): 61-78.
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Wand, Chelsea. “The Secret History of Ancient Toilets.” Nature. 2016. Web.