The subject of my first book review, “Cleopatra,” was one from ancient history; that of my second was recent history, the up-to-the minute “Confidence Men.” In this review I consider a book that connects the two and shows how the events of the past affected the present. The book, “Why We’re All Romans: The Roman Contribution to the Modern World,” by Carl J. Richard, does just that, presenting history not only as names and dates that have little to do with current events, but as living in the present and future as the sum of past actions.
When it comes to the totality of our lives, Americans – and all Westerners – are a cultural blend made primarily of Hebrew, Greek and Roman “beans,” among others. We owe much of our intellectual inheritance to Athens, our religious attitudes to Jerusalem, and our legal, administrative, and political acumen to Rome. In his new book, “Why We’re All Romans,” historian Carl J. Richard, argues that the complex composition of Westerners owes much to Rome and the influence of its empire.
The Greeks and Hebrews might have developed central pillars of modern Western Civilization, but it was the Romans who codified them and preserved them. From the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, Westerners learned of Greek art primarily from Roman copies, and of Greek mythology from Ovid, Horace and Virgil rather than Homer and Hesiod. They learned of Stoicism from Seneca and Marcus Aurelius rather than Zeno, its Greek founder; of Epicureanism from Horace and Lucretius rather than Epicurus; of popular sovereignty, mixed government and natural law from Cicero rather than Plato or Aristotle. Although some of the original Greek texts were later rediscovered, if it were not for the Roman authors and the reverence they inspired among medieval transcribers — and late Roman emperors who converted to Christianity — many of the accomplishments of the Greeks and Hebrews would be lost forever to the fog of time.
In “Why We’re All Romans,” Richard sets about the noble task of presenting a roster of wise and good Hebrew and Greek thinkers and of principles that informed our ancient Roman forbearers. He then describes the Romans’ efforts to culturally assimilate the conquered citizens living within the boundaries of the Pax Romana. While the Greek phenom Alexander the Great trampled the extent of the known world under the hooves of his Macedonian army in the 4th century BC, the administration of that empire was beyond his ken, and it fell to the Roman inheritors of his conquests to devise effective means of maintaining law and order throughout such an expanse populated with cultures of diverse ethnicity and distinct ethos.
Richard cogently and convincingly supports his thesis with compelling evidence of the influence of Rome on Western religion (Christianity), administration, law, architecture and engineering. He attributes the vitality of this import to the fact that although they were conquerors, the Romans humbly and gratefully took the best notions of perfections found in their dominions, repackaged them, and exported them to the wider world dominated by the government of Rome.
Richard places much emphasis on the Roman Empire’s subsequent effect on the nascent American Republic and its founders. He holds that we Americans, like the Romans have been blessed geographically, but unlike the Romans, as a people we have abandoned what Cicero and Richard describe as “public piety.” We have jettisoned the devotion to the public performance of rites and civil obligations that moored our ancestors to the American dogma of discipline and ethic of hard work. While it is true that the faith of some of our Founding Fathers was arguably less channeled into this or that political way of thinking, it is irrefutable that they were to a man reliant on the strength they derived from their classical education and the performance of public ritual such as elections, inaugurations, public meetings, belonging to a militia, and others. While such devotion to the demands of public morality strengthened the cement that held the Roman Republic together – and the weakening of the same later tore it apart – the foundations of the American Republic are being equally enervated by the current disregard to these same principles of public piety. Thus, Richard contends, to guarantee continued American strength, we must look to the failures of a past republic and learn to avoid them.
All in all, “Why We’re All Romans” is a good addition to Carl J. Richard’s scholarship on the undeniable influences of the ancient Mediterranean civilizations on the government, religion and mores of the modern Western world (this is his fourth book on the subject; the other three, I also highly recommend). However, the fact is that, to my knowledge, their influence has never been contested by anyone. Still, the elegance of Richard’s prose makes up for his somewhat uninspired subject matter.
The book is not targeted to an academic audience and is easily approachable by anyone, classics major or not. Richard is a clear, lucid, and persuasive writer who powerfully makes his argument and communicates his message. The only fault is a conspicuous absence of footnotes and citations to primary or secondary sources. While the book is understandably not targeted at an academic market, current works written in this genre (for example, “Cleopatra”), have referenced – and should reference – appropriate source material. Despite this, “Why We’re all Romans” is an engaging, enlightening and thoroughly enjoyable book – and definitely worth checking out over the long weekend.