Rome - the Triumph of Pragmatism

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The Romans created one of the world's largest and most impressive empires, but they were not democrats and culturally speaking, they came nowhere near being on a par with the Greeks.

Class divisions

The oldest archaeological remains of Roman buildings stem from the 900s BCE, and from the 700s BCE, Rome was ruled by a king. It gradually became a real city whose population was divided into three classes: patricians, plebeians - plebs in Latin - and slaves. The patricians were the nobility, the plebeians represented the people, and it was not possible to marry across classes. Moreover, the clergy were exclusively patricians. In 509 BCE, the city-state became a republic, in which the patricians elected two consuls to head the city one year at a time.

The sharp division between the patricians and the plebeians gradually dissolved as some plebeians became quite prosperous and by 287, the dispute between the two classes was over. The plebeians were admitted to political life and the prohibition against marrying across classes was abolished. On the other hand, society was divided into classes by wealth and political influence became dependent on monetary status. There was therefore no question of equal and universal suffrage or anything even remotely similar to it.

The Romans' encounter with the Greeks

Many Italian towns south of Rome had been founded as Greek colonies but a number of smaller towns gradually became absorbed into the Roman Empire. The Greeks must have inspired the Romans and as early as the 400s BCE, Greek philosophers were formulating the legislation for some of the Roman cities. During the 300s BCE, Rome and the Roman towns were repeatedly involved in wars with, among others, the Gauls and the Greeks, but by 275 BCE, Rome had succeeded in subjugating the entire south of Italy.

After the death of Alexander the Great, the Greek kingdoms remained in perpetual strife with each other - this had also been the case before but now chaos reigned - and around 200 BCE, Rome began to interfere. By 146 BCE, the Romans had managed to conquer all of Greece and turn it into a Roman province. Three things emerged from this: the wars between the Greek city-states ceased; Rome gained even more power; and the Romans imported Greek culture on a large scale!

Roman power and the lack of democracy and philosophy

Thereafter, cultural development among the Romans exploded and, in addition, they conquered the entire Mediterranean region and large parts of the Middle East. For 400 years it was Rome which determined the political, technological and cultural agenda. But unlike the Greeks, who had philosophical schools just for the sake of studying enlightment, the Romans were pragmatists. The Romans never became a great nation of philosophers. Whereas the Greek philosophers had cultivated "sofia", i.e. wisdom for wisdom's sake, the Romans were mostly interested in power and technology. When compared with what the Greek democracy had produced of philosophers in just 200 years, it is telling how few philosophers and how little fresh philosophical thinking the Roman republic could achieve in 400 years.

The republic was not a democracy in the Greek sense, and the greater Rome became, the greater the gap became between the people and power. Eventually, the emperors were even deified after their deaths. Julius Caesar died in 44 BCE and two years later, he was officially deified. His heir, Octavian, was thus "divi filius", the son of a god. This didn't give him power automatically however, and not until he had put an end to about 100 years of civil war could he take power in 27 BCE. Octavian then reigned supreme for 41 years and secured both peace and prosperity for Rome, even in the conquered territories. In fact, he was responsible for transforming the republic into an empire. On him taking power, the Roman Senate awarded him the name Augustus ("the revered one") and it is by this name that Christians know him from the story of the Nativity in the Gospel according to Luke.

Two Roman philosophers

The two most famous Roman philosophers are Cicero (106-43 BCE) and Seneca (4 BCE - 65 CE). Both were Stoics and philosophised over the individual and the composition of the state, and both tried to counter the deification of the emperor and his power. In his political philosophy, Cicero described the state as a community of the people and he agreed with the Stoics' view of natural justice. He believed that natural law is "in the highest sense, a gift that human beings are born with, commanding what one should do while forbidding the opposite."

But Cicero and Seneca were quite alone in their theoretical reflections and neither their influence nor their philosophical depth could come close to matching the Greeks. Whereas the Greek philosophers each created their own schools of thought and trained new philosophers, both Cicero and Seneca were politicians and businessmen for whom philosophy was more of a sideline. The same was true for the emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE).

Roman Law

The Roman empire attained to greater power and expansion than any empire had before and the Romans were great entrepreneurs and inventors in terms of new technology. Furthermore, Roman law left its stamp on most of Europe's legislation up until the present day.

Roman law emerged gradually from 400 BCE. The Romans regarded the law as an independent subject and created a whole strata consisting of professional lawyers. The Romans developed and amended Rome's civil laws up to 250 CE. Some of these laws were based on the lawyers' systematic work, and others evolved as a result of past common practice and ongoing judicial practice. The laws were therefore not a product of negotiations in the Roman Senate. After 250 CE, the legal system collapsed and legislation then became a mere tool of power in the hands of the Caesars.


We rediscover the individual in Roman art, literature, philosophy and law. But overall, Roman culture was inspired by the Greeks and in terms of reflecting about the individual, most of the progress can be attributed to Greek culture. Rule by the people completely disappeared under the Romans.

Next chapter: Christianity - Dogma Takes Over