On Forgotten Glories

I have always considered the study of history a form of time travel. Diving into a text from another time transports the reader far away from the unchosen circumstances of his or her birth and puts them down in an unknown place, a society that no longer exists — narrated by someone long dead.

This form of time travel lets us see the world as it once was, and as such, gives us a broader base of experience from which to envisage what ought one day to be.

One of my favorite destinations for this is Ancient Rome. Ever since I picked up my first copy of Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita (“From the Founding of the City”, written in the 1st century BC), I found myself drawn there again and again.

Gradually over the course of these visits, I began to develop a familiarity with the local language (Latin), the strange customs and mores (eating a dinner consisting of dormice reclined on couches), the stories, myths, and legends (from Aeneas’s epic journey to Italy to young Gaius Mucius Scaevola’s defiant stand against the Etruscan King Lars Porsena, where he burned off his own right hand to demonstrate his resolve), and the many rituals the Romans held sacred (like the lupercalia, where Mark Antony famously ran naked and offered Julius Caesar a crown).

To some people, traveling to the past is little more than an opportunity for moral condemnation, not for curiosity and learning. It is all too easy to sit in judgment of those who came before us and are therefore different.

But though visiting from a time that considers itself (rightly or wrongly) more advanced, I find that I am more often struck with admiration than condescension for the ways the Romans differ from us. I think that there is much to admire about the way the Ancient Romans lived life, practices and attitudes that might benefit our society today, and even lost beauty that we may hope to one day revive.

Of these forgotten glories, I have returned to report. Here are three of the things which I think, were we to remember and adopt them anew, would set us on the path to a brighter and more beautiful future — just as it did for Petrarch and his Italian compatriots long ago.

I. A Sense of Grandeur

His ego nec metas rerum nec tempora pono; imperium sine fine dedi. 

“For these Romans I set no limits neither in space nor in time, but have given them empire without bounds.”

  • The almighty Jove to his daughter Venus in Virgil’s Aeneid, 1.278

Imagine, for a moment, that your country was in constant threat of extinction from the moment it was born.

Rome was founded in the year 753 BC — or, as the Romans counted it, 1 AUC, because the Roman world dated things ab urbe condita: “from the city’s founding” (2021 is the year 2774 AUC, in case you were wondering). This is when the twins Romulus and Remus laid Rome’s first foundations with their own hands, shortly before they got into a deadly fight in which Remus was killed.

The tale of Romulus and Remus —  one riddled with violence, adversity, and ultimately tragic fratricide — was not taken quite literally, even by the Romans themselves. Instead, the foundation story conveyed a sort of collective memory from the foggy early years of Rome.  

At the time of Rome’s founding, the many peoples of Italy made war on each other as a matter of course. If you lived in a place with good fertile land and no geographical protection (like mountains or rivers), you lived under the constant threat of invasion. And the plain of Latium, where Rome lies, was just that — a magnet for marauders and invaders.

So, like their founders Romulus and Remus, who were abandoned as babies and saved from death by a she-wolf (lupa), the Romans’ early years were spent fighting for their lives — first against other Latin-speaking peoples, then against the Sabines and the Etruscans, and then more distant enemies that also live in Italy at the time — peoples like the fierce Samnites of the hills or the trouser-wearing, unshaven Gauls in the north.

In their early years, these fights were desperate. Rome was threatened by destruction multiple times and narrowly avoided it, and their wars with the Etruscans of the nearby cities Veii and Fidenae were especially fierce.

Surrounded by threats — the peoples of central Italy circa 1 AUC

In 390 BC (363 AUC), almost four centuries after it had been founded, Rome suffered a crushing military defeat and was sacked by a tribe of Gauls from the north led by the chieftain Brennus — that was almost the end for them.

Instead, they survived. One by one, they overcame the surrounding peoples who posed geopolitical threats — the Latins, Etruscans, Gauls, Samnites, Sabines, and all of the myriad other peoples who dwelled in Italy. They even fought a bitter war with the Greek colonies in the south in the region they called Magna Graecia (greater Greece), which reached its climax in the dramatic campaign of Pyrrhus of Epirus, whose fame for having won a battle that cost him the war against Rome during his invasion of Italy is memorialized to this day in the term “Pyrrhic victory”.

Notably, not only did Rome overcome these threats, but was also able to absorb her former adversaries into the franchise of the Republic, to their mutual and lasting benefit (for the most part). It is easy for the modern person to look upon this conflict-ridden story with disdain and condemn Roman militarism, as so many of us consider war an evil best avoided, and conquest a mark of indecency rather than something to be respected as an accomplishment.

But this is a point of view ensconced in true privilege — the privilege of never having to face the kill-or-be-killed situations that occur so regularly in the state of nature which modernity has allowed us to escape.

Ask yourself this question: if you are constantly put in a situation where you must fight for your life, what attitude towards warfare, something horrible and painful, is most likely to help you? Should you lament your fate, or should you embrace it? Should you flee from the God of War, or should you tell yourself that he’s on your side? 

Rome chose to embrace the difficult circumstances of her birth and interpret it as a harbinger of future glory. In this light, it’s hard not to feel awe at what the Romans were able to accomplish against the greatest odds. From a tiny village of thatched huts huddled on seven hills beside the Tiber, the Roman Republic — the first Republic in history — driven by geopolitical necessity, slowly grew its imperium (command) to encapsulate the whole landmass of Italy and beyond.

The point is this: through all these struggles, through the constant threat of invasion, conquest, and extinction, the Romans held on to their sense of grandeur. They believed, rationally or not, that their founders were descended from Mars, the God of War, and Aeneas, the hero of Troy and the son of Venus.

They believed this gave them a special mandate not only to survive, but to thrive in war — and to bring a new form of peace, good government, civilization, and order to the Western Mediterranean world which had known nothing but chaos and barbarism. The historian Livy says that Romulus’s final message to the Roman people, when they were barely more than a tiny village, was as follows:

Abi, nuntia Romanis, caelestis ita uelle ut mea Roma caput orbis terrarum sit, proinde rem militarem colant sciantque et ita posteris tradant nullas opes humanas armis Romanis resistere posse.

“Go and tell the Romans that by the will of heaven my Rome will be the capital of the world. Let them cultivate the military arts. Let them know, and let them teach their children, the fact that no power on earth can stand against Roman arms.

 – Livy, Ab Urbe Condita 1.16.7

That sense of being special, of having a destiny, of mattering in the grand drama of human history — it’s one that we have grown suspicious of in recent centuries. Rightfully so, perhaps, because we have seen how badly a people’s sense of grandeur can be abused, if married with reckless jingoism, supremacism, and totalitarianism.

However, I think an overcorrection against having any sense of grandeur at all may have even more damning consequences. Our civilization has grand ambitions — it aspires to one day reach out beyond its terrestrial origins and spread amongst the stars. But the realization of this aspiration, given the sheer distances and obstacles involved, is far away, and far from a certainty. If we accomplish such a thing, it will be by far our greatest achievement.

How then can we reach such heights without a powerful, even irrational sense of grandeur motivating us to attempt the seemingly impossible? We must have a vision and conviction that rivals Rome’s belief that her dominion was meant to spread across the Mediterranean world, even at a point in history when this was a laughable pipe dream. 

For it is no less improbable that we will ever become an interplanetary civilization and master interstellar travel than it was that a small town on seven hills would grow to govern the whole middle of the Earth for a thousand years (the word “mediterranean” comes from the Latin medium: “middle” + terra: “earth”, and the Romans’ at their height nicknamed the Mediterranean Sea mare nostrum: “our sea”.)

Grandeur is a self-fulfilling attitude; so too is nihilism. The trite observation of the modern nihilist that our world is a tiny speck adrift in a vast universe, and that it will therefore never matter, is potentially much more corrosive than is commonly realized— precisely because it is the type of belief that may prove itself true if enough people adopt it.  

What if the reason we never become a spacefaring people is that too many of us succumb to that way of thinking? What if we accept as certain the unprovable belief that our actions can never matter on a cosmic scale, and therefore we have no great destiny calling to us as a people?

Motivation comes from the stories we tell ourselves. The sacrifice, will, cohesion, discipline, and steadfastness the future will demand of us cannot be summoned if we don’t think our own story matters. 

Our vision of the future sets both its possibilities and its limits. I would argue that the Roman experience teaches us the following: that, like them, we should accept no limits in time nor in space, but seek “empire without bounds”.

II. A Distinctive, Globalizing Identity

Rome, when it was founded, was little more than a tiny village. Romans counted themselves in the hundreds. By the time Julius Caesar was born in 653 AUC (100 BC in the Christian calendar), they counted themselves in the millions — with maybe 90 million human beings living in the Republic’s imperium near its height, a substantial minority of whom were Roman citizens.

It is hard to understate the impressiveness of this accomplishment. This was long before large-scale nation-states had become a norm — a time when the diversity of peoples was much greater, the scale of cities and countries was much smaller, and the challenge of traveling or communicating across vast distances was much more extreme.

It is striking to me that in the face of this, Roman culture spread rapidly, widely, and deeply. From the way they built their towns and cities (their famous bathhouses, arenas, aqueducts, paved roads, forums, and curiae) to the way they dressed (togas and tunics) to representative town government (even towns in remote Roman provinces adopted the practice of rule by annually elected officials known as duumviri), to their language, people across the Mediterranean world — often of vastly different ethnic origins, geographic circumstances, and historical identities — converged around Roman culture.

The thing that makes the Romans stand out from most empire-building peoples is not only the duration of the empire itself, which lasted from roughly 1,000+ years (if you count until the end of the Western Empire) to nearly 2,000 years (if you count to the end of the Byzantine “Romans”, which I don’t), but their enduring cultural influence long after they died.

Start with language. In the regions that comprise modern-day Spain, France, Belgium, Britain, and northern Italy, the majority of peoples were speaking variants of Celtic — the same language family as modern-day Gaelic. Ever since the Romans conquered these regions, the inhabitants have spoken either Latin or a Latin derivative (with the partial exception of English, which due to the invasions after Roman Britain fell became a hybrid form of Saxon and Norman French).

What about buildings? Roman roads built more than two thousand years ago are still in use in Europe, as are some of their aqueducts. Roman religion gives its names to our days (Saturday = Saturn’s Day), months (June after the goddess Juno), and planets (Jupiter, Mars, Venus, Mercury, etc. were the names of the Roman Pantheon). Writing — the very alphabet I am using now is Roman in derivation. Time itself — a.m. is Latin for ante meridiam, which literally translates as “before the day’s middle”, and p.m. stands for post meridiem.

What this lasting and extensive cultural inheritance from the Romans, who lived thousands of years ago and far away from many societies who embody that influence today, shows is that it is possible to pass your identity to peoples who are far distant in time, distance, and ethnicity. 

It further shows that cultural unity among people of diverse and pluralistic origins is possible. Peoples from the chariot-riding, blue-painted Britons of the northern reaches of the empire, to the desert-dwelling Palmyrans in the east, to the horse-taming Numidians of the south eventually adopted many of the same language, dress, values, and architectural forms; all eventually were granted Roman citizenship and participated in the Roman enterprise.

What the experience of cultural blending across the Mediterranean world under the Romans also shows is that it is not the case, as we seem to have forgotten after the rise of 18th-century nationalist ideology, that identity is fundamentally about inherited characteristics and shared descent. It is much more complicated — and much more up to our volition than that.

How could the vast spread of Roman culture and identity, and its evolution from contact with new peoples, have happened unless there is nothing immutable about identity? 

What makes a Roman? Someone who speaks Latin, who wears a toga, who elects their magistrates, who organizes their life a certain way. These are all actions — something anyone can do, and that anyone can adopt, as many did. This is why, I believe, Roman culture had such wide appeal and lasting impact. It was fundamentally universal, and fundamentally inclusive, without surrendering its distinctiveness.

In our age, there remain those who seem dead set on reviving the old, disgraced idea that identity is fundamentally defined by immutable characteristics. Many continue to place unmerited emphasis on arbitrary genetic subdivisions as a locus of identity, unable to see that culture is where identity really lies — culture, which can be chosen or acquired, and is not just something that you’re born into.

I think much needless suffering and harm could be avoided if more of us were to remember Rome’s example here — that it is possible for identity to be distinctive, inclusive, and unified — that, in other words, having a strong cultural identity is not synonymous with excluding people according to their bloodlines and place of origin, and that being inclusive is not synonymous with cultural relativism. Achieving this at scale is one of Rome’s great forgotten glories.

III. A Fighting Spirit

One of the most famous foes of the Romans was the Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca, and his most iconic act was crossing the Alps with an army including elephants in the middle of winter.

While many people remember this scene even today (deservedly so, it’s mind-blowing that he pulled this off) they rarely remember what it led to — which was three of the most serious military defeats the Romans ever faced, all in a row, at the battles of the Trebia (535 AUC, 30k dead), Lake Trasimene (536, 25k+ killed), and Cannae (537, ~50k casualties).

The Romans had no answer for Hannibal. The panic he inspired in Rome after coming suddenly out of the Alps and smashing a large, outnumbering army at Trebia was substantial — it would be like waking up one day to the news that the Russians or Chinese had invaded Michigan by sneaking down across Canada via the Arctic.

By the time the Romans lost at Cannae, a battle between armies so vast their numbers would not be matched again until modern times, the Romans were literally running out of fighting-age men. They had sacrificed almost an entire generation of their young and had nothing to show for it. Hannibal was at the gates.

Any rational geopolitical actor at this point in a conflict would have seen only one option: to surrender — just as the Carthaginians themselves had done a generation before during the First Punic War in which Hannibal’s father Hamilcar had bitterly fought.

But the Romans hardly entertained the idea. They fought on. This fanatical, even suicidal zealotry can have its downsides — it is strikingly reminiscent of the Japanese Empire’s doctrine of “a hundred million shattered jewels“, and the moral calculus of unyielding defiance in war is much different in an age with weapons technology like gunpowder, nuclear weapons, and drones.

Nevertheless, there is something quite admirable about this collective will to survive. What makes a society vibrant is not only its riches, knowledge, or technology, nor even its level of freedom and equality — which is not to say these things are useless. It is also its collective will to exist; the conviction that no sacrifice is too great for survival.

This is a striking contrast with our society, where so many question whether the survival of humanity itself — let alone any particular nation — is an unambiguous good. How often do we hear that we simultaneously don’t matter (the nihilistic “vastness of the universe” argument mentioned earlier), or that humanity is a plague upon the earth?

Let’s sidestep whether or not those are valid arguments for now (they aren’t, although I understand where they are coming from), and consider the motivational consequences. Suppose an alien version of Hannibal showed up on Earth’s doorstep tomorrow, looking to murder us all and take our planet. How hard would we fight? How much can a people without the conviction that their own existence is justified, and indeed vital, possibly struggle against a hostile universe?

I worry about this. Existential threats are real — the vast majority of species, of countries, and even of civilizations that have ever existed have gone extinct. The odds are not in our favor. I think we could use a little Roman grit, self-belief, and will-to-survive.

The Spirit of the Times

One could argue that the modern era began in a fit of enthusiasm for everything Roman. The American Revolutionaries modeled much about their new Republic (including the very form of government) after the Romans. When Washington wanted to inspire his struggling army at Valley Forge, he arranged a performance of the Roman drama Cato. The French Revolution drew inspiration from Roman titles and trappings, Napoleon’s reign as “consul” is but one striking example among many. In Kolkata, the capital of the new British Raj in India, the Victorians built their Town Hall in an unmistakably Roman style:

I think it safe to say that the accomplishments of the Romans were constantly at the forefront of the minds of many of the people who built our modern world — whether as a source of inspiration, or a benchmark for competition. 

Before 1500, Roman accomplishments like running water, sewage, paved roads, and monumental architecture had become little more than forgotten glories. But then the world remembered.

Remembering is not about the past, it’s about the future. It’s about knowing where you’ve been so that you know where you want to go — indeed, where it’s possible to go. And though our civilization has long since eclipsed the Romans in terms of our material and technological accomplishments, our culture is palpably enervated and dissolute. 

As the modern period ends, where will we turn for new energy and direction? Are the Romans now stale, a civilization whose example has long since been used up? Or is the eternal city like a wellspring, an empire with no bounds in space or time, an idea that will live on in new and fresh reincarnations in age after age?

Time will tell. As for me, I plan to keep up my time travel.

By Sachin Maini

Longtime student and enthusiast of antiquity writing about the history of ideas, cultural evolution, and complex adaptive systems.