“Apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”
The classic comedy of Monty Python’s Life of Brian sums up the modern perception that the Roman empire was a force for good. But there are darker aspects to the legacy of Rome: racism, sexism and religious intolerance.
It is frequently claimed, always for a contemporary motive, that the Romans were not racist. The assertion does not fit the evidence. Although capable of subtle variations, Roman attitudes were essentially simple; there were two types of foreigners.
Easterners were perceived as devious, untrustworthy, effeminate, and cowardly. ‘Like Jews,’ Cicero said, ‘Syrians were born slaves.’ In a popular fable, Arabs were ‘liars and impostors, who did not know the meaning of truth.’ These negative stereotypes of the easterner had been created by the Greeks during the Persian Wars of the fifth century BC. Ironically, after the Greeks had been conquered by the Romans, they found the derogatory categorisations applied to themselves. The Romans added a new element for the Greeks; they talked far too much. The Greek philosopher Plutarch tried to defend his people; talking was good physical exercise.
As Phoenicians from the east had colonised the northern shores of Africa, above all at Carthage, when the Romans looked to the South unsurprisingly they saw more easterners. ‘Punica Fides’, Phoenician good faith, meant exactly the opposite. The hot sun increased the cowardice of Africans. It meant they bled easily, and thus were scared of being wounded.
Northerners were pretty much the opposite of easterners. They were tall, pale, drunken, stupid, and fierce. However their ferocity was short lived. They lacked staying power, and they soon gave way to abject terror. It was unusual, according to Polybius, to find a Thracian who was sober or gentle. According to Vellius Paterculus, who had fought against them, Germans were capable of speech, and resembled human beings, but were little better than animals. They were irrational, and thus incapable of progress, let alone culture. With a certain symmetry to their world view, when the Romans considered the west, they saw Spaniards as much like northerners.
The modern assertion that Romans were not racist focuses on black sub-Saharan Africans. Unfortunately it is wishful thinking. Black people were seen as funny and grotesque. Bath houses were decorated with mosaics portraying black attendants with exaggerated curly hair, thick lips, and enormous penises. The depictions were apotropaic; intended to divert the evil eye, or any lurking demons, by provoking laughter. Yet worse, black people were considered inauspicious. One morning when the emperor Septimius Severus – who himself it is often implausibly claimed was black – met a black man, he took it is an omen of death. The depth of Roman racism is revealed, along with the others it was unlucky to meet at the start of the day: eunuchs and monkeys.
The philosopher Musonius Rufus argued that women were capable of being educated like men. It was the sort of unreal utopianism to be expected of a hard line philosopher. Romans firmly believed that a woman’s place was in the home. They endorsed, and enthusiastically repeated, the Greek saying that the finest praise a woman could receive was not to be mentioned outside the home at all. In law, except under exceptional circumstances, a grown woman had to be represented by a male tutor, just like a child. Public magistracies, and other offices, were barred to women. After all they were physically weak, irrational, superstitious, lascivious, and, if not carefully watched, given to drunkenness. In all they were much like barbarians or slaves.
Modern historical novels abound with feisty women, chaffing against the restraints of the patriarchal society of Rome. Some undoubtedly did, but it is far more likely that most accepted the culture in which they had been raised.
A chilling anecdote about the emperor Elagabalus illustrates the degree to which women were routinely oppressed and brutalised. Elagabalus, we are told, wanted to become a woman. Doctors had to convince him that it was impossible for a medical procedure to give him a vagina. Despite this he married a man. To show that he really was a bride, he appeared with a black eye from the beating his husband had inflicted.
In the normal run of things the Romans accepted the gods of others. Even the Jews, except when in armed rebellion, were tolerated. Their odd monotheist superstition at least had the merit of being that of their forefathers. Things were very different with the Christians. They had perversely chosen their ‘deadly superstition’.
A traditional Roman knew that the safety and wellbeing of the empire depended on the Pax Deorum. If the Romans did right by the gods, in turn the gods would do right by them. Christians threatened the Pax Deorum by denying the existence of the pagan gods. From the beginning there were sporadic persecutions of Christians. As a Christian put it ‘if the Tiber floods or the Nile does not, the shout goes up “The Christians to the lion”.’ These persecutions were localised and ‘bottom up’. After some natural disaster, the pagan majority in a city or province began lynching Christians, and the authorities had to step in to restore order. Things changed with the political and military disasters in the third century AD. The emperors Decius and Valerian issued decrees designed to force all the inhabitants of the empire to worship the traditional gods. By chance Decius was the first emperor to die in battle against the barbarians, and Valerian became the only emperor ever to be captured alive by barbarians. Christianity was immensely strengthened, becoming a major feature in the religious landscape. Under the Tetrarchy, Diocletian and his fellow emperors launched a far more vigorous campaign of persecution.
In the fourth century AD, after the conversion of Constantine, when Christianity had become the official religion of the empire, it was payback time. The Christians had learned the horrible techniques of persecution from their own oppressors. They embraced them with fervour. Pagan temples were torn down, statues smashed and defaced, books burnt, irreplaceable knowledge destroyed. Eventually worshipping the traditional gods was declared a capital crime. The course of religious intolerance was set.
These, and other aspects of the dark legacy of Rome, are explored in Harry’s new novel, The Last Hour. Look out for a chance to win a copy in our giveaway next month! To find out more visit Harry’s website.