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How the Romans Viewed Themselves and Their Empire

2863 words (11 pages) Essay in History

08/02/20 History Reference this

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Introduction

The Roman are thought to have been important in laying the foundations for the subsequent history of the development of empires throughout the ages, even to the present day. Knowledge on how they viewed themselves, their attitudes and values can be derived from examining their buildings, monuments, public spaces, amenities, manuscripts and artefacts and these have given scholars vital clues about their thinking on their own status and place in the World. Romans decided that they should develop the city in a way that would exemplify their glorious history and serve as a reminder of their character and values for future generations and to confirm the status of themselves and their city as the centre of the universe, both metaphorically and physically. They regarded themselves as vastly more advanced than those races who were living beyond their jurisdiction.  They viewed these other races as lacking the virtues that only Romans possessed.  Drawing their legitimacy from the Gods, they regarded it as their duty to bring civilisation to them by conquering and assimilating them into their expanding empire.  

How the Romans viewed themselves and their empire.

The Romans felt that the aggrandisement of the City was important and they used their organised and rational skills to carefully plan elaborate buildings, public spaces and libraries as well as temples to the Pagan Gods on a scale never seen before. The scale and magnificence of the buildings and monuments planned in the late Republic by Caesar and built in the reign of Augustus are well documented.[1] These developments give us an idea of the image the Romans had of their unique importance in the World and their wish to demonstrate this. They built their city to be ordered and to facilitate their values of cooperation and having people of different backgrounds, living together in peace and harmony. Favro listed thirty major developments during this period, including Ara Pacis, Forum Augustus and Pantheon as well as numerous restorations.[2] These magnificent developments were built to last and they would require a prolonged time to complete, demonstrating their belief in their society their values and their empire and the importance of this legacy for future generations.

Examining a few of these projects in a little detail gives further insights into their thinking. The Solarium Augusti constructed at Campus Martius includes an Obelisk of great sophistication that threw a shadow on a large paved area and it was possible to know the time throughout the year. On the birthday of the Emperor Augustus its shadow lined up with the alter of Ara Pacis, acting as a symbol of his role as the bringer of peace and prosperity.[3] This carefully designed feature demonstrated their belief that Roman power was derived from God the Sun and that it was used to conquer and bring order, peace and prosperity to the world. It also shows their values of stability, predictability and order as each day the sun rises and sets, as each season its trajectory varies but always in a pattern that follows a rule.  Augustus celebrated his victories and conquests by constructing temples to the Gods, Mars and Apollo emphasising the Roman view of themselves and their actions receiving legitimacy from the Gods.  When lightning struck his house on the Palatine Hill he took advantage of this event to claim it was a sign from the God Apollo. His lavish enhancement of the Forum Romanus which housed the senate as well as public civil, religious and social events, served as symbols of Roman attitudes to civilisation, accommodating people of different type and status and facilitating cooperation between them.[4] 

 ‘He who takes it upon himself to look after his fellow citizens and the city, the empire and Italy and the temples of the gods, compels all the world to take an interest.’(Quoting Horace)[5]

The fact that these buildings were very well constructed and were meant to last,  demonstrates the Romans attitude to the importance of these as symbols and  legacy. They viewed themselves and the empire as worthy, powerful, stable and long-lasting.  They were conscious of the need to be respectful of their past history and by implication the importance of their values for the future.

‘Throughout the city, sparkling materials physically manifested a new age that was both golden and respectful of thepast.’ [6]

Their truth was constant and timeless and they felt that their peace and order must persist throughout their empire and must endure for all time. Rich colourful and hard stone like Porphry and marble could be used, representing these ideals in the Forum Augustum.

‘I found Rome of mud brick, I leave to you a city of marble.’[7]

Romans were aware of their fertility and the need to feed and nurture their population They were aware of balance in nature, the importance of the sun, the seas, the rivers and the lands all forming an ordered and predictable pattern which could be harnessed for their benefit. As illustrated in the Tellus panel from Ara Pacis, the mother of peace is feeding her offspring with the two figures on either side sitting on the swan (symbolising rivers and lakes) and the scaly sea creature (symbolising the seas).  Romans saw themselves as being responsible for creating this world of plenty and bounty and using it for nurturing their civilisation.  This is seen on the Acanthus plant frieze of Ara Pacis, with the abundant plants, leaves and buds with the creatures of the earth all feeding on this abundance.[8]

They labelled all races outside their empires boundary as Barbarians and savages. They were everything that the Barbarians were not.  They regarded themselves as civilised and creative city dwellers who cooperated and behaved tactically in creating and maintaining their world. In contrast they looked at the savage, country dwelling, passionate and erratic savages who led a destructive and nomadic life. Romans depicted these fierce, animal eating, shaggy bearded men wearing animal skins and trousers against their hostile cold climate. Barbarians are shown in statues with their arms crossed at the wrists showing the Romans expectation that they would be subjugated. In contrast the Romans depicted themselves as the very opposite, smooth skinned, neatly trimmed hair, sophisticated clothes of fine materials and eating refined foods such as bread.   The contrast between how the Romans saw themselves and how they viewed Barbarians could not have been greater. The Romans viewed themselves as organised and rational (their Ratio) while the outer races lived by their passion (their Barba). The Romans view of the contrast between their own values and those of the German tribes are shown in the writings of Tacitus on Germania, describing the general coarseness of the Barbarians, their primitive nomadic lifestyle and their reluctance to engage in organised farming when they can feed themselves by hunting. [9]  This is in stark contrast to the Roman appreciation of the value of organised work as opposed to the more primitive ways of the Barbarian. 

The Romans were well aware that their peace and order were dependant on their continued success in maintaining their power and wealth. They knew that this was based on bloodshed, brutal conquest, plunder and subjugation during the extension of their empire as well as the collection of taxes from the enterprises in the conquered regions.  The difference between the official propaganda in Rome and the reality of life in the regions they were conquering were documented by Tacitus who as we shall see,  put words of disaffection into the mouth of the conquered.  He gave an account of a speech made to the Romans in Northern Britain by Calgacus a Scottish chieftain in which he describes the Roman modus operandi. He uses the conquered to convey his own misgivings.

‘Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a desert and call it peace.’[10] 

Nonetheless Romans had a sufficient belief in themselves and their God inspired    mission to regard all opponents of their imperial designs as illegitimate[11]. All empire builders have to justify what they do and The Romans knew that were heavily dependent on the military actions of their legions to ensure the supply of monies and goods to the centre of power in Rome.  The propaganda value of their triumphs helped to maintain their focus on their objectives and the Romans were very keen to have public displays showing their conquests for their empire. Trajan brought back many riches to his market to celebrate his success in Persia and he constructed a magnificent market to display these with its columns dwarfing the Forum.[12]    The celebrations in the Coliseum served as lavish and extreme demonstrations of their power and extent of their empire, slaves being paraded and public executions and ritual and lavish slaughtering of animals being carried out.[13]  They were proud of the extent of their conquests and plunder and the triumphant and symbolic manner of their bringing them back to Rome as exemplified by the Procession of Pompey. Clough describes this with descriptions of the scale and magnificence of the procession, the tablets and banners detailing the vast list of places and peoples conquered and accounts of the huge monetary returns as well as the calibre and value of the prisoners of war.[14].

The Romans knew the benefits of incorporating conquered peoples into their empire and the advantages of getting them to work for them and also to avoid the risk of rebellion.

‘By offering the vanquished a share in your own justice, you have made a city out of what was once a world’ (Quoting Rutilius Natamianus)’[15] 

Indeed, so strong was their belief that they viewed their city as the actual centre of the world.

 ‘The world and the city of Rome occupy the same space (quoting Ovid).’[16] 

Similarly they were aware of the substance behind these claims and were keen to propagate this in their writings such as the descriptions of Pompey and his triumphant campaigns extending the empire.

‘For others among the Romans had the honor of triumphing thrice, but hisfirst   triumphwasoverAfrica,hissecond,overEurope,andthislast, over Asia; so that he seemed in these three triumphs to have led the whole world captive.’[17]

Conclusions

As legitimized by the Gods, Romans viewed themselves as being the purveyors of order, peace harmony and cooperation and it was their duty to bring this civilization to other peoples. The character of their truth must live throughout their empire and endure for future generations. They knew that their peace was based on conquest and was enabled by assimilating the goods and peoples they conquered and by use of bloodshed to establish and maintain the rule of law. Just as the sun and the planets were ordered and harmonious, different countries and races should be brought into order and in turn people of differing status should be living together in peace and harmony.  Rules were needed to achieve this cooperation and prosperity and by necessity, this peace was gained by means of bloodshed. These methods of creating empires and extending civilisation have everyday life and death consequences and these were subsequently used throughout history, extending to the present day. In summary they regarded it as their God inspired duty to bring their values of order, rationality, peace, cooperation, sophistication, innovation and harmony to the rest of the world by rule of force and by subsequent assimilation of the goods and peoples they conquered into their empire.

Bibliography

  • Ashby T ‘Rome’, The Town Planning Review, 10 (1923) 43-52.  https://www.jstor.org/stable/40101638 Accessed: 10-10-2018 12:32
  • Birley AR. ‘Tacitus Agricola German’ (Oxford 1999) 37-51.
  • Favro D. ’Making Rome a World City’, in K.Gallinsky(ed), The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Augustus (Cambridge University Press 2005) 234-263.
  • Clarke K.’ An Island Nation: Re-Reading Tacitus, Agricola’, The Journal of Roman Studies, 91 (2001) 94-112 https://www.jstor.org/stable/3184772 Accessed: 15-10-2018 21:30.
  • Clough A H.  Plutarch’s Life of Pompey, from A. H. Clough (ed). Plutarch: the lives of the noble Grecians and Romans the Dryden translation (New York 1992) 105-106.
  • Davies P E J. ‘The Politics of Perpetuation: Trajan’s Column and the Art of Commemoration’, American Journal of Archaeology, 101, (1997) 41-65, https://www.jstor.org/stable/506249 Accessed: 11-10-2018 15:49.
  • Edwards C, Woolf, G. ‘Cosmopolis: Rome as a World City’, In Catherine Edwards and Gregg Woolf (ed), Rome the Cosmopolis (Cambridge University Press 2003) 1-20
  • Morley Neville. ‘The Roman Empire; Roots of Imperialism’ (Pluto Press, London 2010) 45.
  • Spaeth,B S. ‘The Goddess Ceres in the Ara Pacis Augustae and the Carthage Relief’, American Journal of Archaeology, 98 (1994), 65-100. https://www.jstor.org/stable/506222 Accessed: 11-10-2018 14:38.
  • Swetnam-Burland, M.  ‘Aegyptus Redacta: The Egyptian Obelisk in the Augustan Campus Martius’, The Art Bulletin,  92 (2010)135-153. https://www.jstor.org/stable/29546118
  • Accessed: 15-10-2018 21:00.
  • Woolfe G. ‘Beyond Romans and Natives’
  • World Archaeology 28 (1997)339-350.
  • https://www.jstor.org/stable/125023.   Accessed: 08-10-2018 17:16.

[1] T. Ashby, ‘Rome’, The Town Planning Review, 10 (1923) 43-52.  https://www.jstor.org/stable/40101638 Accessed: 10-10-2018 12:32

[2] Diane Favro,’Making Rome a World City’, in K.Gallinsky(ed), The Camebridge Companion to the Age of Augustus (Cambridge 2005) 234-263:236.

 

[3] Swetnam-Burland M, ‘Aegyptus Redacta: The Egyptian Obelisk in the Augustan Campus Martius’, The Art Bulletin, 92 (2010)135-153. https://www.jstor.org/stable/29546118

Accessed: 15-10-2018 21:00.

[4] Diane Favro,’Making Rome a World City’, in K.Gallinsky (ed), The Camebridge Companion to the Age of Augustus (Camebridge 2005) 234-263:253.

[5]Favro, ‘Making Rome a World City’, 234.

[6] Favro, ‘Making Rome a World City’, 254.

[7] Ibid

[8] Barbette Stanley Spaeth ‘The Goddess Ceres in the Ara Pacis Augustae and the Carthage Relief’, American Journal of Archaeology, 98 (1994), pp. 65-100. https://www.jstor.org/stable/506222 Accessed: 11-10-2018 14:38.

[9] A.R.Birley, ‘Tacitus Agricola Germany’ (Oxford 1999)37-51.

[10] Katherine Clarke,’ An Island Nation: Re-Reading Tacitus, Agricola’, The Journal of Roman Studies, 91 (2001) 94-112 https://www.jstor.org/stable/3184772 Accessed: 15-10-2018 21:30.

[11] Neville Morley, ‘The Roman Empire; Roots of Imperialism’ (London 2010) 45.

[12] Penelope J. E. Davies, ‘The Politics of Perpetuation: Trajan’s Column and the Art of Commemoration’, American Journal of Archaeology, 101, (1997) 41-65, https://www.jstor.org/stable/506249 Accessed: 11-10-2018 15:49.

[13] Catherine Edwards and Gregg Woolf, ‘Cosmopolis: Rome as a World City’, In Catherine Edwards and Gregg Woolf (ed), Rome the Cosmopolis (Cambridge) (2003) 1-20:1.

[14] A. H. Clough, Plutarch’s Life of Pompey, from A. H. Clough (ed). Plutarch: the lives of the noble Grecians and Romans the Dryden translation (New York 1992) 105-106.

[15] Catherine Edwards and Gregg Woof, ‘Cosmopolis: Rome as a world city’, 3.

[16] Catherine Edwards and Gregg Woof, ‘Cosmopolis: Rome as a world city’,2.

[17] A. H. Clough, ‘Plutarch’s Life of Pompey’, 106.

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