The Conquered Know Best: Ancient Rome and Progress

Over 2,000 years ago, the Ancient Romans conquered territory around the Mediterranean, forming what was then the largest empire the world had ever known. It might be tempting to think that the Romans, as the ‘conquerors’, thought of themselves as bringing ‘progress’ and ‘modernity’ to the people and lands they ruled. But it wasn’t quite this simple… Stephan Nitu explains.

When the Spanish and Portuguese toppled the indigenous civilizations of the Americas, the natives’ cultures were trampled underfoot. Books were burned, languages and customs brushed aside, religion and all other parts of culture replaced by the conqueror’s. This is a pattern we’re familiar with: as one society subjugates another, the new way of life is dictated by the invader. Sometimes, as with the British Raj in India or Japan in Korea, there’s even a claim that the conqueror’s way means progress, that newer is better. Surely it would have been odd for the British to adopt the local cultures. And yet that’s exactly what happened 2,000 years ago, when Rome conquered Greece.

By the second century BC, Rome had grown beyond its origins as a small town ruled by neighboring, foreign kings. Having defeated the many other peoples of Italy, its eye was now drawn to the larger Mediterranean Sea. A series of wars against Carthage — the preeminent naval trading power, made famous by Hannibal and located in modern-day Tunisia — cemented Rome’s power abroad. Greece’s heyday, conversely, had passed. The collection of city-states who gave us democracy, Socrates, and the Olympics had been restrained by various monarchs from Egypt or Macedon — Alexander the Great’s home. So, when Quintus Flamininus proclaimed the freedom of all Greeks after defeating Macedon, he simply meant that Greece had a new overlord. Yet it might have been difficult to tell who conquered whom: plundered art and sculpture did not sit in an ancient ‘museum’, displaying Rome’s predatory power, but became actively copied as wealthy Romans changed their cultural tastes to suit the Greeks. The elites spoke Greek, adopted Greek fashions and manners, and co-opted Greek religion!

Why did the conquerors adopt the conquered’s culture? Of course, the Romans were not pure at heart: Flamininus plundered Sparta, once a mighty military power, and fifty years later the mercantile city of Corinth was razed to the ground. In fact, the Hellenization of Rome — ‘Hellas’ being the Greeks’ endonym, or their name for themselves — may have been influenced not by the very top of society, but the very bottom. Roman children were often educated by slaves, bought and used as pedagogues. Along with merchants and refugees, the influx of slaves from Greece, Macedonia, or Asia Minor brought Greek culture into Roman homes. More importantly, the Greco-Roman view of progress was different from our own. Modern society still sees progress as a straight arrow from the past to the future, where as time passes things improve. It seems obvious enough: the economy keeps on growing, computing power doubles every 18 months, and human rights are improving. Yet this planet is old, and any idea, no matter how seemingly true right now, remains just an idea. Different cultures have always had different ideas, other frameworks equally valid to ours by which they measured the same concepts. Our progress framework was forged during the ‘Enlightenment’, a period marked by philosophers like Hegel and scientists like Newton, convinced that time was linear and knowledge was cumulative. Everything could only get better.

For the Romans, though, the present was often a poor man’s past, the future uncertain. Writing in a particularly turbulent period shaken by rich generals with private armies, the great orator Cicero frequently set his philosophical dialogues in the past, a ‘golden era’ filled with better men. Centuries after their establishment, the Romans still paid attention to mos maiorum, ancient customs that safeguarded their way of life. As for the Greeks, the golden past was quite literal: in the revered writings of Hesiod, time was split into Gold, Silver, Bronze, Heroic, and Iron ages, the last one being the one the Greeks inhabited. Later philosophers broke with this strain of thinking, but the idea firmly remained in the word ὀπίσω (opisō), which can both mean ‘backwards’ or ‘the future’. The Greeks considered the future to lie behind us, because we can’t see it. Time was also cyclical, with Aristotle believing that every great invention had been invented in the past, ideas revolving with the ages. Both the Romans and the Greeks applied cycles to their political theories, arguing that from the undifferentiated masses first arises a monarch, who degenerates into a tyrant. He is deposed by aristocrats, men with good principles, who turn into oligarchs, a few governing many. They are deposed by democrats, who degenerate back into mob rule, and the kyklos renews.

This is not to say that progress and the future didn’t exist as ideas. The Roman philosopher Seneca wrote that there will be a time when the vastness of the Earth will be known, and those words inspired Columbus to set sail 1,300 years later. It was simply not a dominant philosophy, though. And this is perhaps our greatest takeaway from a civilization so removed from ours: the diversity of ideas, concepts, and frameworks so different from each other and from our own, a reminder that progress is not a pre-existent yardstick, that societies create even such deeply-entrenched ideas as time in their own image, and there may always be somebody who sees the world differently.

Stephan Nitu is studying for DPhil in Ancient History at Lincoln College, Oxford

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