Sunday, September 6, 2009

5 Reasons to Love the Ancient Romans

               I have spent the past few years working on a M.A. in Ancient History. I love all history, pretty much, but Ancient Rome has always held a special place in my heart. I love it so much I willingly sat through twenty hours of Latin in order to emphasize in the field. I have to admit, as a language lover, Latin is interesting. As a quick aside, here’s a little tip from me to you. The BEST week of television is the week before Halloween on the Travel Channel. If Haunted Travels Week doesn’t increase your love for the past and its amazing stories then I don’t know what will. You’re welcome.
            Both of my completed (meaning written, not perfected) novels, as well as my work in progress, devote a large number of pages to historical events and characters. Those who have been forced to read my drafts have been unanimous in their belief that the historical flashbacks are the best parts of my story. There’s a reason for that. It’s the easiest thing to write, at least for me. These people lived rich, full, colorful lives. If they hadn’t, we wouldn’t remember them. Their lives and personalities provide my characters with built-in hopes, dreams, and motivations. It also doesn’t hurt to know their futures ahead of time. Hindsight is enlightening.
            Now, I hear there are people out there who hate history. I’m not sure who those people are but it’s my guess that they don’t have souls. Since this is my blog, I’m going to take some time to expound on the awesomeness that was the Ancient Romans. If you don’t like history, now is the time to leave. If you do, stick around and you just might learn something. Here are 5 (there are so many more) reasons to love the Ancient Romans:
            1 – They understood the importance of running water. Seriously, how amazing it that? The majority of middle and upper class urban homes had running water, including toilets. The government paid for public toilets, baths, and drinking water for everyone else. They built aqueducts (which sound boring, until you understand what they went through to build them), huge structures that sloped downward centimeters at a time and spanned miles and miles and delivered fresh water from mountain springs, rivers, etc. into the cities. Bye-bye scary, waterborne illness! So long, hygiene related diseases! Hello, homes and towns that don’t smell like urine and feces. This is why I never understood how historians could be fascinated with the Middle Ages. Those people were ass backwards. They took a society brimming with culture and every creature comfort imaginable and within a hundred years reduced themselves to the point where humans were shitting in holes dug in the ground. WTF.
            2 – Their practical approach to problem solving.  For every problem, there was a solution. It was usually simple. Sometimes it involved busting heads and kicking ass, but it had to be done. They were running and Empire, not a daycare. They needed a large army to support their expanding borders? Require military service. Jewish people won’t behave even after being allowed religious concessions? Burn down their city. Still won’t comply? Kick them out of Jerusalem. For good measure, rename area Palestine. Christianity overrunning the Empire? Embrace it. Incorporate existing religious festivals/holidays into Christian calendar to make things easier. Oh yeah, and take over the church. Centuries of inbreeding hampering likelihood of sane leadership? Start ‘adopting’ military men who have proven their leadership skills into royal families, groom them to become Emperor. Last and my favorite. Upper class houses were all designed containing a room called the vomitorium. It’s exactly what you think it is. The Ancient Romans threw kick ass parties, which more often than not included all types of sex, drugs, drinking, and awesome food. They didn’t want to have to quit when they were full/drunk, so what’s the logical fix for that one? You guessed it. Run to the vomitorium, throw up, and start over. Just like college. (Note: This is a disputed fact. Some historians don’t believe the vomitoria were used for this purpose, as they also existed in theatres where people ‘spewed out’ after the show. Whatever.)
            3 – They had their own gossip rag.  I was writing a paper about my favorite Roman Emperor (yeah, I have a favorite Emperor, so what?) when I ran across a book called The Twelve Caesars. In it, a man named Suetonius recounts the lives of the first twelve rulers of the Roman Empire. He begins with Julius, even though he wasn’t technically and Emperor. He did get the ball rolling in the area of narcissism, though, so well done Julius. The book is amazing. It recounts all the partying, temper tantrums, Oedipus complexes, and sexual preferences (usually for both sexes) of each Roman ruler. It’s juicier than anything sitting in your supermarket checkout line, I promise. He does extol the high points of each with regards to their policy, as well. It’s worth reading, even if you don’t have papers to write or favorite Emperors to pick.
            4 – Their willingness to learn from others. For all their blustering superiority, the Romans did not believe that they had all the answers. They nurtured a healthy respect for the most ancient societies, and treasured their languages, religions, and traditions. They borrowed an immense amount of culture from the Ancient Greeks. The Roman pantheon of Gods were simply borrowed from the Greeks and renamed. They did add one or two along the way, but the majority of their religion came directly from the Greeks. They did this for two reasons: first, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ is a phrase I’m still looking for in Latin. It could have been the Roman’s motto, so I know it must be there. Second, when the Romans began their conquest of the known world, said world was Hellenized by years of Greek rule. It would have been too hard to change people’s religion and culture entirely. The elite Roman families also recognized the fact that Greek philosophy, language, and education were established and more superior to their own. No one of noble birth was educated in Rome. The upper classes spoke Greek as opposed to Latin. Latin was a ‘vulgar’ language. In Latin, vulgar simply means ‘common.’  The Romans borrowed many aspects of their society from many people they conquered. That’s what made them the best. They combined the best practices from around the world into one society.
            5 – Their tolerance, especially of other religions. Some people might think that sounds funny. Overall, the word tolerance isn’t what comes to mind when one thinks of the Romans. I am here to argue against that mindset. The bottom line for the Romans was this: If you aren’t messing with the stability of our government, it’s cool. Truly. The Romans allowed the worship of pretty much every other god or goddess in existence. The only rule was that you also had to sacrifice and pay homage to the Emperor as a god as well. No problem for most first century people, since they were pagans and believed in multiple gods. The more the merrier. The more you sacrificed to, the better chance of hitting on one who was in the mood to help you out. The Romans even made an exception to this rule for the Jews. Though they didn’t understand the concept of one God, they automatically respected Judaism because of how old it was, and gave the Jewish people a lot of latitude. They even agreed that they didn’t have to worship the Emperor. The only cults they ousted were those ‘corrupting society.’ It not only made their population happier, but also made it extremely easy to integrate newly conquered people into their ranks. The Christians ran afoul of the Roman government because the religion threatened to completely undermine the way society functioned. By insisting that only one God existed and that he did not require sacrifices, the people of the Empire would suffer. Businesses selling animals, amulets, and other religious items would suffer. The commerce surrounding the coliseums and their games would suffer. The very foundation of society, the election of senators, was tied up with omens from the gods. The temples in the cities were major sources of revenue and religion was a tool to control the masses. They didn’t have a problem with the Christians. Like I said, pretty much any god you wanted to believe in was fine. They had a problem with the threat to their way of life. Understandably. In the end, they figured out a way to make it work in their favor. How very Roman of them.
            My current work in progress takes places partially in first century Rome and centers around Titus, the second of the Flavian Emperors, (yup, he’s the one!) and his tragic love story. Titus was the Roman general who conquered Jerusalem the final time, when the temple was burned to the ground. Sadly, he fell in love with the Jewish princess, Berenice. Though she felt the same, it was, for obvious reasons, not to be. It’s a great story, and one I am excited to tell. My point being, even if you are not a historical author you should read history. There are so many stories, so many characters waiting to have their stories told. They are free, they are interesting, and because they are true they resonate with readers. What are you waiting for?


  1. This is beautifully argued. I love it!

  2. Well done! You have inspired me to start my morning with my manuscript. By the way, my favorite Roman? Aetius.

  3. Thanks! Have never read anything about Aeitus, but I am about to go searching through my books right now! Don't you just love learning new things about history? It's almost as good as starting a new novel!

  4. Confession time- Ben Hur is my favorite movie. Not 100% Roman, but it does have Romans at the best (and worst). Have you read the Marcus Falco mysteries by UK author Lindsey Davis? Set at 72 ADish, post Nero when Vespasian (I know I spelled it wrong) ruled. They're mysteries, but I'm there for the characters and history. Rome is a great backdrop for a book.

  5. Dawn, there are a pile of Roman Mystery writers in addition to the Falco stories. There's a thread with a list over at GoodReads.

    Caroline Lawrence also writes in Vespasian's Rome with her 4 child detectives led by Flavia.

  6. Wow, thanks for the suggestions. I am definitely going to add those to my "to read" pile. Vespasian's time is one of my favorites. My favorite stories are the "Mark of the Lion" triology (especially the first two) by Francine Rivers. They are amazing.

  7. I like history, I've looked over a few of your posts and think it will be fun to follow. My writing is very much based on history too. I'm writing a fantasy series surrounding the American Civil War.

    Ah, the Romans... How I love and hate thee. First of all, you make great points. It's hard to imagine what society (any of them) would be like today had they never made it.

    They were certainly willing to learn from others. I think I would use the word appropriated more than borrowed when thinking about Roman's though, especially when it comes to the Greeks. They did sack them after all. It's sad to think of all the knowledge and information that was lost because of it. That's probably my biggest beef with them.

    I think it's also worth noting that their religious tolerance lasted only to the time of Constantine. After that it was all about Christianity. That's the reason it has the power it does today. Caligula was fun, how many of them claimed themselves Gods? I think he was the first.

    I think something worth adding to the list is their development of highways. A large part of their lasting power was thanks to this since they could move troops much faster than was possible before. It let them control such a vast empire (though eventually even that didn't save them).

    This was fun. I'm not an expert of history, so I'm curious to know what you think of my points. If you agree or disagree, etc.

  8. Robert-
    I actually considered adding the roads/communication to my list, it certainly aided in their expansion and success. And yes, to the religious tolerance ending with Constantine. At that point, I stop thinking of the ruling body as the Romans and start thinking of them as Christians. Who were (are), of course, not known for their great tolerance.
    Appropriated, borrowed...I think they wished later on that they hadn't destroyed as much, either, as the Romans came to understand the depth of Greek society and what they had to offer.
    Glad you enjoy the blog. I should put a disclaimer that my interest in Rome peters out around the time of Constantine, so my more intense knowledge is from the first two centuries. To answer your question, Caligula was first to insist people worship him, but after that a 'cult of the Emperor' was established and all were worshipped as gods on earth. Some (like Nero) reveled in it more than others. Good to hear from you!