The Roman Impact
by: Gn. Dionysius Draco Invictus
A modern politician once said that international politics are always geopolitics. While this may not be entirely true anymore in the atomic age, geopolitical differences may be more influential than we think. Focusing specifically on the Roman world, this essay will try to explain briefly what impact the Roman conquest had on today's Europe, especially in terms of culture and language.
As the most obvious starting point of our travel, Italy used to be the centre of the Roman Empire for quite some time, until it shifted from Rome itself up to the north and further to the east. The heritage of the Italians' ancestors is still most visible here, not in the least in their capital, Rome, itself.
An interesting remark is that, before the unification of the peninsula in the third century BC, there had been a set of loosely tied city states, a frequent appearance in ancient times, and one which would show up again after the Holy Roman Empire began to crumble in the Middle Ages, long after the western Roman empire had ceased to be, officially in 476 CE. This oddity, of having a lot of different city states lasted until deep in the nineteeth century, where Italy was finally united again.
Its language is the most direct descendant from the Latin language, and some cultural habits, such as clientelism (mafia) are still in use. Despite the abuse of their Roman history as fascist propaganda in the twenties and thirties, Italians still remain proud of their descendance - and rightfully so.
Spain and Portugal [Hispania et Lusitania]
Before being romanized, the Iberic peninsula was inhabited by Celtiberic tribes, and the Basque people, who as of yet still have an unknown origin. Hispania and Lusitania were gradually conquered by Rome, from the Mediterranean shorelines onwards to the Atlantic Ocean. By 133 BC, it was almost fully conquered. Thus, its romanisation began early.
Next to Italian, Spanish and Portuguese can also be considered very direct children of Latin. Although the whole peninsula was conquered by the Visigoths in the fith century, they merged with the people they had vanquished, and later the Arabs would be driven away, after an occupation of about five centuries, without significantly altering the romanic roots of the respective languages. Of course, the Arab occupation did change their culture, as their own colonisation of foreign territories would bring in elements from all over the world.
Present day, the colonial past of both countries is more important than their Roman roots, in which they differ from their eastern neighbour Italy, which never had any large colonies of any significance for a long time.
The territories of what is now considered as the republic of France roughly correspond to what the ancients saw as Gallia. For the Romans, Celtic Gallia stretched itself from northern Italy [Gallia Cisalpina] to the Seine [Sequana]. Rather early in its history of conquest, Rome acquired the southern shorelines in 121 CE, and named this territory the "Provincia Romana". Ever since, it would become known under that name. Today, it is called la Provence.
The final conqueror of Gallia, however, would be the world famous Iulius Caesar. By playing a complicated game of divide and conquer, he drove the Celtic tribes into war against one another, and thus gradually advanced, until he had acquired the territories in around 50 BC. While most men had been slaughtered or deported to Rome, a lot of Celtic people stayed behind, most of which would later marry to, or coexist, with the Roman coloniser, most of them ex-soldiers and other military veterans. Since their Latin was already a Latin spoken by the lower class, and the Gauls had another (although historically related) language, the Latin spoken in Gallia differed significantly from that in Rome itself.
It was only after a century or two that Gallia became a relatively quiet province, and the Gallo-Roman culture (and economy) reached its apex. By then the Celtic residus in the population had grown to a minimal percentage, and the only Gauls of significance left were those in present day Bretagne. However, in the fifth century, Gaul was invaded by large troops of German tribes, who made a permanent residence there. These were mainly Franks, which would give their name to the country. While present day French has a germanic layer in its language, it is still a romanic language, and is even so more in the south than it is in the north, where there was a much larger germanic influence.
The Gallo-Romans' persistence in defending their own language and culture, which was rather impressive to the "barbarian" invaders, led the Franks to accept that language fairly quickly, as would later the Normans that invaded and settled in Normandy (hence the name). Because of the failure of other provinciae such as Britannia or parts of Helvetia and Raetia, France was the only country with a romanic culture that reached up north so far. While it was never the primary reason for war, its significant difference with its neighbour countries, which mainly have a germanic origin, have created certain tensions.
Today, the French people like to refer more to their Celtic ancestors than to their Roman past, while latter would be historically more correct. However, they have a sufficient feeling of present day nationalism already, partially due to cultural achievements in the Middle Ages, Renaissance and later times, that their Gallo-Roman heritage does not really matter anymore, even though it clearly shows in their language, especially in the Occitan dialects spoken in the south.
United Kingdom [Britannia]
Under the rule of emperor Claudius, and continued by his successors (first century CE), the British isle was conquered, mainly out of fear for a Celtic attack from that island, that might inspire the Celtic people of Gallia to rise against Rome. While at a given point completely occupied, the Scotish Highlands were given up almost immediately again. Thus, the romanisation of Britannia only reached as far as North England, where Hadrian's wall was built, an impressive defence line against possible invasions from the Picts or Scots.
Unlike Gallia, Britannia was never deeply romanised, and many natives kept their ancient faith. This far kinship with the original Roman traditions may have been one of the reasons why the island was given up so quickly when it was invaded by the Anglons, Saxons and Jutes. The mainly still Celtic people of Britain were gradually cornered and driven into Wales and Cornwall by the germanic invaders. After this first wave of invaders, that had gradually settled themselves on the island, came the Danes and Vikings, which provided for a second wave of germanisation.
However, some Roman elements would creep back into Britannia when William the Conqueror claimed rulership of the island after the memorable battle of Hastings in 1066. Middle-French was installed as official legal language, and this of course brought many words and idioms back that came directly from Latin. English, which was already a creole language used by the various tribes to communicate with each other, was as such deeply influenced by the ancient French tongue, which explains why there are so many similar words in both languages.
In later times, while the interest in classical civilisations was stimulated, the Brits would usually not see themselves as descendants from the Romans, and would rather see them as a Germanic people. Nowadays, with the revival of many ancient religions, there is a significant return to the Celtic roots. In spite of the fact that the Brits did have an empire of their own, which in some aspects resembled that of Rome, we can safely assert that the echo of their Roman past is very weak, perhaps the weakest in all of Europe, and as such doesn't really play a role in their modern history.
Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands [Belgica et Germania Inferior]
With remarkable ease, Caesar continued his conquest of Gallia from the centre to the north, crossing the Sequana (Seine) and entering the territories of what he called the Belgae, whom he considered brave men, because of their efforts in battle against the Germans, commonly regarded as ferocious and brutal warriors. However, despite their resistance, especially under their leader Ambiorix (much like the Gaul Vercingetorix, whose existence can be historically disputed), their territories were annexated.
Being on the outskirts of the empire, this region was more romanised in the south than in the north, which was only scarcely populated. When the Franks and Normans came to invade these territories in the fifth century, the resistance in the south was larger, and the Franks were gradually assimilated into the local population, which retained its romanic roots - this process was much like what happened in the rest of Gallia, to which Belgica traditionally belonged. The north of the territories, from the Zoniënwoud onwards, became populated by the Franks, who brought their own language to these regions; that language would later evolve into Dutch.
Because of the countries' cornered position towards the other nations in Europe, it has always been a region subject to influences and alien conquest. This has repeatedly given rise to conflicts between the francophone minority, which used to be the ruling class, the neerlandophonic majority. In a sense, this difference was due to the difference in profoundness of the Roman colonisation, and this still plays a role in the - mainly political - conflict in Belgium, that is threatening to split the country.
In the Netherlands, this conflict is absent because of various historical reasons, and in Luxembourg, the German and Gallo-Roman elements have blended themselves into a new sort of language, and both French and German are equally respected and tolerated, without little dispute in the small country.
The Roman impact was very faint in Germany. Only the small stripe of land between the Danuvius (Donau) and Rhenus (Rhine) that now belongs to Germany was a part of the empire. Further conquest failed, with the defeat of general Varus in the Teutoburg Wald at the hands of the traitor Arminius as most known occasion. Due to the heavily guarded frontiers, which were mainly natural in origin, both cultures did not really have much influence upon one another until the fall of Rome, when germanic tribes were driven into the empire due to the conquests of Attila the Hun and the weakened borders.
However, in the Karolingian era, the German Bond, and some parts of north Italy, called themselves the "Holy Roman Empire", as some sort of legitimate continuation of the Roman Empire. It did contain some elements from that time, and had an emperor, but it differed completely for the rest, being really German in origin, with some faint christian influences. The name "Roman" referred more to the Church than it did to the actual civilisation. In the 18th and 19th centuries, this name was gradually dropped, but the dream of an empire with an emperor kept existing until deep in the 20th century.
Nowadays, little is left of the already small Roman heritage, and it does not play a significant role in Germany's modern culture, politics or language.
Today, Switzerland is a mixture of many people and languages: German, French, Italian and Rhetoroman. In contrast to Belgium, these people do get along with one another, presumably because the isolation of the mountains, and their different political orientation towards the rest of the world gives them a sense of uniqueness. This "happy mix", so to speak, can be traced back to Roman times.
Before the Roman settled in the region, Helvetia was controlled by the Celts, but was under severe pressure by the Germans, who repeatedly rampaged through the region to enter Gallia or northern Italy. After the Romans' "pacification" of the region, and its later fall at the hands of – again – the Germans, it was consequently occupied by the Karolingian crown, the Austrians and Napoleon. Under the regime of the Austrians, the Swiss rose against their opressors, which gave rise to the legend of Wilhelm Tell.
Although the Swiss French is more a re-entrance than it is a remnant of the classical era, Italian clearly is, as is the peculiar Rhetoromanic, which even preserved the reference to the old Roman Empire in its language name. The cultural impact of the Roman occupation was minimal and is of an insignificant impact on Switzerland's general culture, as it was in most other buffer provinces, but their linguistic difference is still a sign of their past under the Romans.
Austria and Hungary [Raetia et Panonnia]
Austria was already inhabited by – again – the Celts when the Romans took control of the territories in the first century BC. It would form one of their border territories at the Donau [Danuvius], but would also be one of the first to fall at the hands of the Germans in the 4th century CE. Being only thinly populated, Austria was deeply germanised, with the exception of a few romanic minority groups in the west, which are akin to the Swiss Rhetoromanics. Other than that, the Roman impact was almost entirely wiped out, and today Austria is much more influenced by its neighbouring Slavic countries than it is by Italy.
Hungary, that is only slightly southeast of Austria, had a different course of history. Due to its easily accessible plains and half-steppes (also called "pusta"), it had always been a "crossroads" for many peoples, until it was occupied by the Romans. Like the territories of Raetia, Panonnia suffered the German invasion, and later the Huns and other Central-European armies (and people) went through and in the region, causing the population to become ethnically very diverse. This diversity was perturbed in the 8th century and onwards by the invasion of the finugric tribe of "Magyar", who succeeded in overrunning the local population quite easily, and after a series of plundering conquests, made the grassland country their home.
Nowadays, there are still many Roman sites to be found in the area of Hungary and Austria, alongside Celtic and Gothic ruins; silent witnesses from a past era, of little significance other than tourism.
Rumania and Moldavia [Dacia]
The territories across the Donau in the southeast of Europe were, since ancient times, inhabited by Thracians, which were in fact akin to the Celts. The Romans did not interfere in the region until a Dacian king named Decebalus unified his people and fared war against the Roman emperor Domitianus. One of his successors, Traianus, would conquer the region about a decade later, not only to neutralise the Dacian threat, but also because of the various gold sources that were known to be in the region. The Dacian capital, Sarmizegethusa, was sacked and Decebalus committed suicide.
From that point on, Dacia was gradually romanised, especially in the south, by old war veterans, a procédé already commonly in use in the time of Caesar, a century before. However, in the 3rd century, the region, because of its vulnerable, diffuse borders, proved uneasy to defend, and soon enough the northern area of the province was given up. In the decades that preluded and succeeded the collapse of the western empire, Dacia fell aprey to the Visigoths, Huns and a few Slavic tribes, under whose rulership they would repeatedly come. The Dacian nationalism and language, based on their Roman heritage, would only grow slowly.
Only in the 19th century, the century of romanticism and nationalism, did Rumania acquire its present name and national independence, despite its obvious multi-ethnicity. In the 20th centuries, the country's aspirations were made into reality after world war one, and the many minorities that were now living in the country were – sometimes aggressively – romanised, a process that was not entirely unlike France's gradual re-romanisation of surrounding regions from the 16th century onwards.
Today, despite the many difficulties that plague the country, Rumania is still proud of its Roman heritage, and cherishes it as a part of its national identity, even more than countries like Spain or France do.
Ex-Yugoslavia [Illyricum et Dalmatia]
Before the Roman colonisation of the area, the shorelines of the northern Balkan peninsula were inhabited by Greek colonists, and the more inland areas by Celtic tribes. Because of repeated aggression and piracy, the region was brutally subjected by Rome in the second century BC, but only fully "pacified" under Augustus and his successor, Tiberius. Ever since, it became a staging ground for soldiers, and would become the later birthplace of emperor Diocletianus.
After the Roman Empire of the west fell at the hands of the Goths, the eastern emperor Iustinianus was quick to reclaim some of the lost territories back in the 6th century CE. While the Greek influence in the region was of a greater significance than the Roman one, neither of these colonisations would survive the attacks of the Slavic tribes in the 7th century. Ever since, the population, though ethnically diverse, was gradually slavised. The territories subsequently came under control of Venice and Hungary, and was later split up between Austria and Turkey. Due to these many occupations, the ethnical and religious diversity have only grown.
While this diversity is in se of course a valuable asset, it has given rise to a lot of tensions in the region. In 1914, World War I was started there by the assassination of the Austrian crown prince in Sarajevo, and recently, in the nineties, the region was torn a part by the most vicious and gruesome conflict in Europe since World War II. Diverse as the countries may be, there is barely a trace of its Roman history. Only the northern republic Slovenia is in some way connected to Italy, but this dates back more to medieval times than it does to the Roman era.
Greece and Albania [Provincia Achaia]
What we now call Greece, and what the Greeks themselves used to call Hellas (nowadays simply without the first letter), was larger than the Greek peninsula alone; next to incorporating those territories, the western parts of Turkey also belonged to it. Long before the Romans arrived in the region, the Greeks had their own distinct culture, molded and shaped in an interesting past of the Minoans, Trojans and Doric kings in their megalomanic keeps. But today, the period of the city states, followed by the hellenistic period under Alexander the Great (the period between the 5th and 3rd century BC) is generally regarded as the golden era. In that time, the influence of Greek culture stretched from the Indus to all the way to Hispania.
However, when the hellenistic empire had already been divided multiple times, and its culture degraded, it was conquered by the Romans, and annexated in 146 BC, the same year a definitive end was put to Carthago. The Romans were now without doubt the rulers of the Mediterranean. The Provincia Achaia, as they called it, would soon prove its worth and merit, and was perhaps the only part of the empire that was able to alter Rome more than Rome had altered it. In Rome itself, a lot of Greek immigrants came looking for a job as teacher or luxury slave, and a lot of hellenophile circles originated in that time. Of course, there were also notorious haters of Greek culture, such as Cato Maior, who saw them as decadent, depraved and spineless.
The Roman empire was essentially bilingual, although the accent on Greek was of course much heavier in the east. This would appear even more so when the empire was effectively split up. Instead of being romanised, Hellas had hellenised new regions, and despite later occupation by the Venitians and the Turks, would the country retain its nationalism and pride. The heroic - and romanticised – past of the Greeks was what also inspired them to rise up against the Turks in 1823, and choose Athens as their capital, with a lot of financial help from the United Kingdom (and, to an extent, France and Germany). Today, the country remains true to its ancient roots (in a lot of practises and cultural habits), but many Greeks remain blissfully ignorant for their own past, save for some superficial notions of culture taught in school.
Outside of Europe… Africa and the Middle East [Ex Europae: Africa et Asia]
Of course, in today's so-called global village, we can't afford ourselves anymore to look at one continent, or a part of it, alone when we are trying to get a general overview, even if it is specifically focused on one continent, in casu Europe.
For the Romans, the northern shorelines of Africa, contemporary Turkey and the shores of modern Israël and Lebanon belonged to Europe as well. Only when the Islam expanded culturally and territorially, Africa (the Roman name to designate the southern shores of the Mediterranean) and Asia (the Roman name for the Turkish peninsula) became more or less seperated form the rest of Europe, and their names came to be used for the whole continent the regions were part of, as if it were a geological metonymy.
Today, a lot is left over of the Greek and Roman presence in Turkey. Perhaps not in their culture, but most ruins have survived the test of time pretty well, and attract thousands of toursist every year, which is for countries in that region, a source of income that is more than welcome. This heritage in ruins is less present in Africa, but still to an extent that it is visible, as it was conquered in the 7th century by the Arabs, after centuries of Roman colonisation.
Even without writing this brief, limited overview, the most clueless of student in the field of classics or history will know that the Romans left a definite and visible mark on this world. However, the extent of this impact has been different in nature and consequences every time.
There are countries such as Germany, Austria, the Netherlands or the United Kingdom, faintly romanised, or where the romanisation was wiped out. Other countries have remained faithful to their romanic roots, such as Spain, Portugal and Italy. And then, there are countries that, partially due to the Roman colonisation or conquest, are what they are today in the cultural landscape: without the deportation and killing of the ancient Celtic tribes, we would not be speaking of Rumania and France as romanic countries, proud of their heritage, despite the natural ambiguity of their course of history. Or the Greeks, who, much like the Rumanians, crawled from under the military boot of surpression, fighting for their common background that originated so many centuries ago.
Perhaps, the most interesting countries are those where the romanisation has led not only to lasting cultural but also political differences: Switzerland, with its multi-ethnic population that it owes to both the Romans and Germans; the various countries in the Balkan area, where the ethnic diveristy already present in ancient times gave rise to terrible wars; and Belgium, where various phases of de- and re-romanisation still give tensions between the two population groups.
The Pax Romana, or Roman Peace, was often far from peaceful, and often machiavellistic. But we also recognise its merits, and applying the good points from that practise today might perhaps benefit all of Europe. After all, the European Union did not appear from a void, and although it includes many countries that never knew Roman occupation, in some institutions and uses, we still feel the Roman spirit, sometimes faintly, sometimes strongly. May the successes – and failures – of the ancients continue to guide us!