The reasons why the Romans still fascinate us

The Coliseum in Rome, built during the reign of Emperor Vespasiano in c.72 AD (Photo: PA)

Never turn your nose up at a parish bazaar. In our parish we often have a table of stuff from which one can help oneself, and I have done just that, helping myself to a nice compact edition of Quo Vadis. This is the book that helped its author, Henry Sienkiewicz, win the Nobel Prize for Literature. It was first published in 1896, and is an unashamed piece of Christian propaganda, set in the heroic times (for the Church) of the reign of Nero.

The Roman setting is rather stagey – I last read the book decades ago – but Roman settings are surely making a comeback. The film Gladiator may have had something to do with this. Ever since our screens have been full of Roman programmes, among them Professor Mary Beard’s superb Meet the Romans.

You’d think that there was little fresh to say about the Roman Empire, but our appetites seem to be as sharp as ever. Also gratifying to see is that the interest is not just confined to the epoch of the Julio-Claudians or the Antonines, but is also encompasses the final decades of the Empire too. There have been many fine books of late about the fourth and fifth centuries.

Why are we so interested in Rome? Here are a few possible reasons.

First, we in the West are aware that we are living in a society that is in decline, and like the Romans before us, we do not know how to arrest this decline. The Romans from the time of Augustus onwards were aware that their Golden Age was behind them. This decline was not just economic, but it was also moral, hence the constant cry of “O tempora! O mores!”

Second, thanks to tabloid journalism, we are all too aware of the misdeeds of our ruling class. This fits in well with out somewhat skewed understanding of the Roman Empire as a place of huge excess for the few and a tough life for the many. We really do not know how much the Romans were given to orgies, but the concept of the Roman orgy (as opposed to the dignified dinner party) is something that haunts us. Ask Berlusconi.

Third, like the Romans, we are haunted by death. That is one of the reasons why our favourite Roman place is Pompeii, the place that met a sudden and unprovided end, where we can still see its people caught in the very moment of its destruction.

Fourth, Roman society from quite early on contained huge numbers of immigrants, all of whom needed to be integrated. The Empire’s greatest achievement was the concept of “Romanitas”, Roman-ness, which meant it was possible for foreign slaves to rise to citizenship. Nevertheless, the Romans were suspicious of barbarians (a term that simply means non-Latin speakers) and in the closing centuries almost paranoid about the enemy within. This contributed to the murder of the last great Roman general, the half-Vandalic Stilicho. In the end the Roman experiment failed. We live with the challenges of multiculturalism, and the Roman example is eloquent.

Fifth, there is the whole world of Roman religion, so ably mocked by Saint Augustine in The City of God. Some Romans were genuinely pious: Virgil springs to mind, a lover of the countryside and the gods and spirits that dwelt there. But the state cult was a pretty shabby thing. We too live in an age where “state religion” is in poor shape, and where the decline of the state may be blamed by some on our failure to uphold the cult of the state. All our institutions are being hollowed out. Christianity today is very much counter-cultural, as it was in the times before Constantine.

Sixth, despite what I have said, the Romans were by no means fatalistic about the extinction of Rome. In the time of Stilicho, who won a huge victories against the barbarian invaders in the first decade of the fifth century, Roman defeat must have seemed most unlikely. Even after the sack of Rome in 410, Augustine writes of Rome having fallen, but only to rise again. Like the Romans, we too find it hard to envisage any other form of society than our own.