[Paleopsych] BBC: Roman Empire: The Paradox of Power

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Roman Empire: The Paradox of Power
Published on BBCi History: 2001-06-01 (note date)

By Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill

The Roman Empire set up many of the structures on which the
civilisation of modern Europe depends. It's no wonder the Romans can
fire our imaginations, but what values did they hold, to help them to
such success?

Changing views of the Roman model

A gap of 2,000 years may seem to have put the Romans at a safe
distance from our own lives and experience, but modern Europe with its
Union is unthinkable without the Roman Empire. It is part of the story
of how we came to be what we are.

The Romans are important as a conscious model, for good or ill, to
successive generations. Why do they have such a powerful hold on our
imaginations? What attracts us to them, or repulses us? What do they
have in common with us, and what makes them different?

'A century ago, for imperialist Britain... the Roman Empire
represented a success story.'

A century ago, for imperialist Britain (and for other European states
with imperial ambitions), the Roman Empire represented a success
story. Rome's story of conquest, at least in Europe and around the
Mediterranean, was imitated, but never matched, by leaders from
Charlemagne to Napoleon. The dream that one could not only conquer,
but in so doing create a Pax Romana, a vast area of peace, prosperity
and unity of ideas, was a genuine inspiration.

'...the efforts of 20th-century dictators... left Europe disillusioned
with the Roman model.'

But the efforts of 20th-century dictators such as Mussolini,
peculiarly obsessed with the dream of reviving an empire centred on
Rome, left Europe disillusioned with the Roman model. The dream of
peace, prosperity and unity survives, but Roman style conquest now
seems not the solution but the problem. Centralised control, the
suppression of local identities, the imposition of a unified system of
beliefs and values - let alone the enslavement of conquered
populations, the attribution of sub-human status to a large part of
the workforce, and the deprivation of women of political power - all
now spell for us not a dream but a nightmare.

Fascination in the emperors

So is the Roman Empire a legacy of mistakes? That depends on what we
want to make of it. One image of the imperial system is of strong,
effective central control. The figure of the emperor himself, as
defined by Julius Caesar and Augustus, stands for good order in
contrast to the chaos of pluralism - squabbling city-states or
competing aristocrats.

Historians have underlined the benefits of provincial government
restrained by imperial control and the development of a sophisticated
and complex law code which still underlies continental legal systems.
They have pointed to the benefits of the central bureaucracy built up
by the early emperors, especially Claudius, which provided a structure
for long-term continuity amid changing dynasties. That bureaucratic
mentality, you could say, transmitted from late antiquity through the
papacy to modern nation states, is what makes contemporary Brussels

But look at the figures of the Caesars themselves and what fascinates
us now is their arbitrary nature. We see not an efficient system of
fair and sober government, but a gamble at work. From Augustus's
ruthless intelligence, to Caligula's scary insanity, or Nero's
misplaced parade of rockstar popularity, we seem to be dealing with a
system which throws the individual and his personal foibles into
excessive prominence.

'The 'mad' and 'bad' Caesars seem more interesting than the good,
sober ones...'

The 'mad' and 'bad' Caesars seem more interesting than the good, sober
ones - certainly, from Quo Vadis to I Claudius to Gladiator, they are
the ones who have fired the popular imagination. It is as if we do not
want to learn the secret of Roman success, but scare ourselves by
looking deep into the irrationality of an apparently successful
system. In that sense, the Caesars now serve us not as a model of how
people ought to rule but a mythology through which we reflect on the
terrifying power of the systems in which we may happen to find
ourselves entrapped.

A slave society

One element, which perhaps more than others seems to separate our
world from that of the Roman Empire, is the prevalence of slavery
which conditioned most aspects of Roman society and economy. Unlike
American plantation slavery, it did not divide populations of
different race and colour but was a prime outcome of conquest.

'...slavery required the systematic use of physical punishment,
judicial torture and spectacular execution.'

Again, we find ourselves gazing back at the Roman world not as a
model, but as an alien and terrifying alternative. No concept here of
human rights: slavery required the systematic use of physical
punishment, judicial torture and spectacular execution. From the
crucifixion of rebel slaves in their thousands to the use of
theatrical enactments of gruesome deaths in the arena as a form of
entertainment, we see a world in which brutality was not only normal,
but a necessary part of the system. And since the Roman economy was so
deeply dependent on slave labour, whether in chained gangs in the
fields, or in craft and production in the cities, we cannot wonder
that modern technological revolutions driven by reduction of labour
costs had no place in their world.

But while this offends against the core values on which the modern
world is based, brutality and human rights abuses are not limited to
the past. Enough to think of the stream of refugees struggling to
break into the fortunate zones of Europe, and recall that the Roman
empire collapsed in the West because of the relatively deprived
struggling to get in, not out.

The system that seems to us manifestly intolerable was in fact
tolerated for centuries, provoking only isolated instances of
rebellion in slave wars and no significant literature of protest. What
made it tolerable to them? One key answer is that Roman slavery
legally allowed freedom and the transfer of status to full citizen
rights at the moment of manumission.

'Roman society was acutely aware of its own paradoxes...'

Serried ranks of tombstones belonging to liberti (freed slaves,
promoted to the master class), who flourished (only the lucky ones put
up such tombs) in the world of commerce and business, indicate the
power of the incentive to work with the system, not rebel against it.
Trimalchio, the memorable creation of Petronius's Satyricon, is the
caricature of this phenomenon. Roman society was acutely aware of its
own paradoxes: the freedmen and slaves who served the emperors became
figures of exceptional power and influence to whom even the grandees
had to pay court.

Pulling together diverse cultures

One of the most astonishing features of the Roman Empire is the sheer
diversity of the geographical and cultural landscapes it controlled.
It was a European empire in the sense that it controlled most of the
territory of the member states of the present EU, except part of
Germany and Scandinavia.

'The planting of cities... was a sign and instrument of the advance to
'first-world' status.'

But it was above all a Mediterranean empire, and pulled together
diverse cultures, in Asia (the Near East), Egypt and North Africa that
have not been reunited since the spread of Islam. This represented a
vast diversity, including language (two 'international' languages were
still needed for communication, Greek as well as Latin, let alone
local languages) and relative development - they spoke of 'barbarians'
versus Romans/Greeks, where we would speak of first and third world.
The planting of cities, with their familiar apparatus of public
services and entertainment, was a sign and instrument of the advance
to 'first-world' status.

But while we can still admire the effectiveness of this city-based
'civilisation' in producing unity and common cultural values in
diverse societies, what we might look for from a contemporary
perspective, and look for in vain, is some conscious encouragement of
the 'biodiversity' of the different societies that composed the

Vast regional contrasts did indeed continue, but there is little sense
that the emperors felt an obligation to promote or protect them. The
unity of the empire lay in a combination of factors. The central
machine was astonishingly light compared to modern states - neither
the imperial bureaucracy nor even the military forces were large by
modern standards. The central state in that sense weighed less heavily
on its component parts, which were largely self-governing.

But above all the unity lay in the reality of participation in central
power by those from the surrounding regions. Just as the emperors
themselves came not just from Rome and Italy, but Spain, Gaul, North
Africa, the Danubian provinces, and the Near East, so the waves of
economic prosperity spread over time outwards in ripples.

Common values unifying the empire

The unified empire depended on common values, many of which could be
described as 'cultural', affecting both the elite and the masses.
Popular aspects of Graeco-Roman literary culture spread well beyond
the elite, at least in the cities. Baths and amphitheatres also
reached the masses. It has been observed that the amphitheatre
dominated the townscape of a Roman town as the cathedral dominated the
medieval town.

'Christians were persecuted because their religion was an alternative
and incompatible system...'

The underlying brutality of the amphitheatre was compatible with their
own system of values and the vision of the empire as an endless
struggle against forces of disorder and barbarism. The victims,
whether nature's wild animals, or the human wild animals - bandits,
criminals, and the Christians who seemed intent on provoking the wrath
of the gods - gave pleasure in dying because they needed to be

There was also a vital religious element which exposed the limits of
tolerance of the system. The pagan gods were pluralistic, and a
variety of local cults presented no problem. The only cult, in any
sense imposed, was that of the emperor. To embrace it was as
sufficient a symbol of loyalty as saluting the flag, and rejecting it
was to reject the welfare of all fellow citizens.

Christians were persecuted because their religion was an alternative
and incompatible system (on their own declaration) which rejected all
the pagan gods. Constantine, in substituting the Christian god for the
old pagan gods, established a far more demanding system of unity.

We are left with a paradox. The Roman Empire set up and spread many of
the structures on which the civilisation of modern Europe depends; and
through history it provided a continuous model to imitate. Yet many of
the values on which it depended are the antithesis of contemporary
value-systems. It retains its hold on our imaginations now, not
because it was admirable, but because despite all its failings, it
held together such diverse landscape for so long.

Find out more


The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward
Gibbon, abridged by David Womersley (Penguin, 2000)

Cultural Identity in the Roman Empire edited by Ray Laurence and
Joanne Berry (Routledge, 2001)

Ancient Rome and the Roman Empire by Michael Kerrigan (BBC Consumer
Publishing, 2001)

The Roman Empire by Colin Wells (Fontana Press, 1992)


The Roman Empire in the first century
[http://www.pbs.org/empires/romans/] Meet the emperors of Rome, read
the words of poets and learn about life in the first century AD at the
PBS website.

Internet Ancient History sourcebook
[http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/asbook09.html] Read ancient
sources dealing with a range of subjects on Ancient Rome, including
slavery, everyday life, law and education.

Place to visit

Colchester Castle Museum [http://www.colchestermuseums.org.uk/] Once
the capital of Roman Britain, Colchester experienced devastation
during the Boudiccan rebellion. Beneath the castle are the remains of
the Temple of Claudius, which can still be seen.

About the author

Image of author Andrew Wallace-Hadrill

Andrew Wallace-Hadrill is Professor of Classics at the University of
Reading. He is currently on secondment as the Director of the British
School at Rome. His publications include Suetonius: The Scholar and
his Caesars, Augustan Rome, and Houses and Society in Pompeii and

  Related Links


   * Vindolanda: A Roman Army Camp -
   * Malaria and the Fall of Rome -
   * After the Romans -

Multimedia Zone

   * Hadrian's Wall Gallery -
   * 3d Reconstruction of Housesteads Fort -

Historic Figures

   * Julius Caesar -
   * Caligula -
   * Augustus -


   * Ancient Rome Timeline -
   * British Timeline - Romano Britain -

BBCi Links

   * Radio 4: The Roman Way -
   * BBC Schools: The Romans - http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/romans/

External Web Links

   * Roman fort and museum: Vindolanda - http://www.vindolanda.com
   * British Museum: Rome -
   * Britannia: Roman Britain -
   * The Roman Empire in the first century -

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