The Romans were people who varied as widely as any large society does — some kind, some artistic, some scholarly, and some evil. In this sense there is no typical Roman, just as there is no typical person. Pliny the Younger wrote in one of his letters, “There are times when I laugh, make jokes and enjoy my fun, in fact I can sum up all these innocent relaxations in a word: I am human.” To imagine what a Roman might be is to understand common customs and beliefs shared amongst the populace, customs and beliefs that are almost entirely of Greek origin. Investigations into the Roman sense of identity, Roman religion, culture, social structure, and treatment of conquered peoples reveal that it is this assimilation of Greek culture and a sense of imperial pride that all classes in Roman society had in common, a society that flourished thanks to their imperial legion in ways that few in history have.
The Romans themselves lived in a golden age, citizens of a luxurious and thriving nation whose inhabitants benefited from the boon of conquest, raising their quality of life to previously unprecedented levels. So it is written in Germania, “It is no use trying to escape their arrogance by submission or good behavior. They have pillaged the world: when the land has nothing left for men who ravage everything, they turn to the sea. If an enemy is rich they are greedy, if an enemy is poor they crave glory. Neither east nor west can sate their appetite. They are the only people on earth to covet wealth and poverty with equal craving.” It is in this fashion that Romans lived, atop the food chain, living better than any of their peers or any had before them. They were superior and they knew it; conquest was not a source of shame but a point of pride. Tacitus speaks of the German conquest, “For the greatness of Rome has spread the awe of its empire beyond the Rhine.” The empire was proof of their dominance, of their superiority and elevated sense of national identity; the Empire was tied directly to their personal identity, proof of their superiority, and so it was defended and preserved viciously.
Romans did not identify themselves ethnically, but culturally. Aelius Aristides writes on Roman citizenship, “You have divided all the people of the Empire, when I say that I mean the whole world, in two classes: the more cultured, better born, and more influential everywhere you have declared Roman citizens and even of the same stock; the rest vassals and subjects.” This attitude towards its citizenry was uniquely Roman. Conquered peoples they deemed civilized could become citizens of Rome, turning what it meant to be a Roman from ethnicity to something else entirely. Greeks, Celts, Germans, Egyptians, and Africans could become Romans. A bronze tablet circa 168 A.D. confirms the granting of Roman citizenship to an African Headman and his family.
The Romans, even before their conquest of Greece, had in many ways already completely adopted Greek culture. Most Romans dressed much as the Greeks did; many, such as Germanicus and Publius Scipio, were quite intentional about looking as Greek as possible. All Greek Gods were adopted as Roman Gods, though with variations reflecting Roman sensibilities, and temples and golden statues of these Gods could be seen all over Rome and the provinces. Just as the Greeks had performed animal sacrifices to these gods, so the Romans did as well. Often mass sacrifices would take place upon the coronation of a new emperor. When Gaius Caligula became Princeps, 160,000 animals were sacrificed in celebration over a three-month period. It is worth noting, however, that human sacrifice was never practiced and was detested by the Romans. Aside from the official state religion, the Egyptian cult, witchcraft, Judaism, and Christianity also existed within the empire. Each of these minority religions were targeted and persecuted at various times, and Christians were often the primary targets. At times it was in fact illegal to be a Christian, and adhering to this religion would have been a dangerous risk in the years before the Roman Empire’s state religion became Christianity. Those Christians who refused to renounce their faith were executed, but those who renounced were generally pardoned. Rome was not a society that often practiced religious tolerance.
While Roman Emperors were often barbaric and prone to murder and other atrocities, the Romans themselves should not be judged by the character of their emperors. The society in large part, however, could be considered comparatively bloodthirsty prior to the conversion to Christianity. The Roman sports were both incredibly popular and incredibly bloody. The uniquely Roman gladiatorial games were the biggest events pitting both human and animal against each other in a fight to the death to be watched by thousands. Criminals and prisoners of war were most often the hapless combatants thrown into the arena. Seneca describes the spectacle: “The spectators call for the slayer to be thrown to those who in turn slay him, and they detain the victor for another butchering. The outcome for the combatants is death; the fight waged with sword and fire.” The gladiator games were attended by both nobles and the masses. The horrors of the arena are proof of how deeply rooted war and violence were in Roman society. The next most popular events were the Greek chariot races, which also featured plenty of carnage. Despite the Roman society’s being a bloody one, there were limits to the carnage, and life did have value placed upon it. Less violent pastimes were the Greek-styled tragic and comic plays, orations of history, and the Greek-styled bath houses and shopping malls.
The noble classes (or Nobiles) had, by and large, the utmost interest in the politics of the nation. Their early government had been based on the model of the Athenian democracy, which evolved into a republic and later an Empire. Most nobles served the empire in some official capacity or could expect the potential to be given such a task. Members of the Equites class could expect to serve the empire in middle-ranking governmental positions, including military posts. Attaining rank within the Roman governmental structure was the paramount honor for nobles, and positions were often highly sought after. Many of the Roman princeps and emperors, however, were incredibly suspicious. Their wariness made seeking to attain higher political standing just as dangerous as it was rewarding. News, gossip and rumor were heavily traded commodities among the Romans. The exchange of such information was abundant and encouraged throughout the society. Writing was a luxury of the nobles and the well-educated spent much time writing letters to each other, always certain to include any noteworthy happenings.
Education was considered mandatory for any male child of status. Males were expected to know both Latin and Greek. In addition to language and writing instruction, they were taught to excel at the art of speech, or Greek oratory. This would teach the child to speak with both elegance and polish in front of an audience. Likewise, the Greek Rhetorician School would teach young men how to debate, persuade, and motivate their audiences. Greek and Roman history, poets and philosophers were heavily studied, as well as astronomy. The Greek philosophies and histories in many ways now belonged to the Romans. The words and wisdom of Socrates and Aristotle were often quoted in Roman writings and letters, and likewise the Greek legends and histories. These schools were designed around preparing a student for an active public life, in which a young man might hold a government position one day.
Two primary schools of philosophical thought existed in the Roman Empire, both of which originated in Greece: Stoicism and Epicureanism. The Epicureans believed that because life was short it should be enjoyed and that pleasure was the greatest of things in life, although it should be practiced in moderation. The Stoics believed that the greatest achievements in life were knowledge and virtue, and they heavily borrowed from the ethical teachings of Socrates, which resembled many of the teachings of early Christianity. Of the utmost importance in their ethical teachings was the presence of the golden rule. Stoicism was the primary moral light in Roman society before the acceptance of Christianity.
The lives of Roman women were much different from those of their male counterparts. Just as in Greece, women were effectively property in the Roman Empire. Women were required by law to have a guardian. Women were deemed intellectually inferior, and to engage in most legal and business activities a woman required a male protector and overlord whose permission and accompaniment would be needed. For non-slaves this would be the father and, upon marriage, the husband. And if the husband were to perish, the role of guardianship would pass to the woman’s eldest son even if he were still but a child.
In marriage the woman’s role was to adopt the gods of her husband; she was not to have her own friends but to share in the friends of her husband. In terms of expected wifely behavior, “a virtuous woman ought to be most visible in her husband’s company, and to stay in the house and hide herself when he is away.” Although a woman might be able to choose whom she married, equally as often the marriage would be arranged for her, usually by a father, guardian or trusted friend of the family. Males in this way were also subject to lack of choice in partners for marriage.
The poor of Rome — that is, its legitimate citizens — could at times receive help from the Roman government. Children of poor and needy families received money from the government, through the ‘Alimenta’ or Imperial Child-Assistance System. It was initiated by Emperor Nerva and lasted two hundred years. Legitimate children received greater governmental support, with boys receiving 16 sesterces per month, and girls 12 sesterces each month. Illegitimate children also received governmental assistance, but the amount was less than legitimate children received.
The lowest ranking members of Roman society were slaves, and the treatment they received depended greatly on the personality of their master. There is evidence that many were mistreated, and there is likewise evidence that many were treated very well. In Roman law, a slave could be freed by his master. This often occurred upon the master’s death, and slaves could even be granted their master’s property and inheritance in a will. A master could also legally allow a slave to own property and work a job on the side for additional wages. Such instances suggest that there was a small degree of autonomy allowed for slaves in the Roman Empire. Because Roman masters had such a propensity for freeing their slaves, a law was enacted by Augustus that forbade the freeing of a slave before the age of thirty. Another law, enacted this time by Emperor Hadrian, forbade the murder of one’s own slaves; this edict, however, did not stop beatings or other mistreatment of slaves at the hands of their masters. Stoic thought greatly contributed to the better treatment of slaves in the empire, as the Stoic philosopher Seneca noted, “Treat those below you as you would be treated by those above you.” Slavery was not hereditary in the Roman Empire, and the son or daughter of a slave would not necessarily become one themselves. Instead they were frequently abandoned, orphaned, or unwanted infants and children. Slaves were also acquired from conquest.
Conquered peoples could either thrive or suffer greatly at the hands of the Romans. Local nobles and merchants benefited from the peace and stability that Roman control brought. Infrastructure in conquered lands was also greatly improved. This is interpreted as a ‘hearts and minds’ type strategy an attempt at quelling future rebellions by ‘Romanizing’ the populace. In parts of England this strategy worked. Agricola “assisted communities to build temples, public squares and proper houses.” In some areas this tactic succeeded in winning the Romans’ loyalty while in other areas the approach failed. A Jewish Rabbi living under Roman rule wrote, “All that they have instituted they have only instituted for their own needs. They have instituted market places to place harlots in them; baths, for their own pleasure; bridges, to collect toll.” However if conquest was resisted or the conquered peoples were to rebel, the consequences were enormous.
The Britons resisted Roman invasion ferociously and were rewarded for their efforts with a Roman scorched-earth policy. “Robbery, Butchery, Rapine, these the liars call ‘empire’: they create desolation and call it peace.” Revolt was also severely punished. Cassius Dio writes that 985 villages and 580,000 Jews were killed in the attempted Jewish uprising. Overall, conquered Roman subjects could thrive at a local level, but insurrection was subject to severe punishment and decimation by Roman forces. Captured Roman foes were taken as slaves or thrown into the arena as gladiators, to butcher or be butchered for the amusement of the populace. Peoples who submitted to Rome could thrive; those who refused submission could suffer near extinction.
In conclusion, culturally the Roman society was shockingly similar to the Greek city states. Roman religion, mythology, art, philosophy, sports and customs for the most part came to mirror that of the Greeks. Very few things about the Romans were uniquely Roman in origin. What made them different was that Rome was a military society. The Roman Legion was the lifeblood of Rome. Through conquest and pillaging they achieved great riches, riches that were used to invest heavily in infrastructure. Everywhere roads, bridges, aqueducts, and temples were erected. The legion’s spoils greatly improved the Roman quality of life; throughout the land, houses, schools, bath houses, shopping malls and amphitheaters were built. Circuses, plays, chariot races, and gladiator games were held across the empire. In this way everything we know to be Roman was achieved through the blades of the Roman legion and the loot and tribute they received from these conquered lands. In the words of Tacitus “the destiny of the empire is driving us ever onwards.” For Romans, war meant slaves and spoils; it meant an increase in the Roman quality of life. Roman imperial grandeur and propensity for violence and conquest were the primary distinctions between the Greeks and the Romans. Given all the Romans derived from the Greeks, there is a reason for the existence of term ‘Greco-Roman’: The Romans were in many ways simply a more industrious and military-oriented Greek state up until the state adoption of Christianity.
If you are interested to delve further into the subject I recommend reading the follow up to this article ‘The Creation of Medieval Western Europe’.
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