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indianasmith

WAS THE ROMAN EMPIRE EVIL?

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A friend with whom I frequently discuss matters of history, philosophy, and religion recently commented that, in her opinion, the Roman Empire was the most evil government in the history of the world.  She talked about its wanton disregard for human life, its practice of slavery on a scale that was unprecedented, the countless cultures it destroyed or assimilated, its cruel and barbaric punishments including crucifixion, and a number of other things which she thought singled it out as a standard-bearer for human wickedness.

 

All of this got me thinking, and I responded thus:

 

So, I've been mulling over your comments last week about the Roman Empire being the most evil nation in the history of the world, and my inner Caesar got his dander up.

Here is his reply, then:

TO HADES WITH ROMAN GUILT!

 

There was not a single evil you attribute to Rome that was not widely practiced by every other nation in the ancient world.

Did we practice slavery?  So did every other contemporary nation.  Did we crucify criminals?  Sure, after the Phoenicians invented the practice.

Did we wage wars of conquest?  Absolutely - as did Sargon, Alexander, David, Ramses, Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus . . . the list goes on!
Did we use secret informants?  So did the Parthians and the Medes.  Did we crucify Jesus? Yes, after his own high priest and the mobs of Jerusalem demanded it of us!

 

So what was Rome's crime?

We were better than them all.

 

  We were better warriors, better architects, better conquerors, better administrators, better merchants, and better sailors.  We met our enemies head-on, studied their strengths, and then copied them and made them our own.  We ruled more of the world for longer than any other Empire; the civilization spawned on the seven hills above the Tiber flourished in one form or another for nearly two thousand years (don't forget, the rulers of Constantinople were still Caesars!).  Our leaders were so envied that the Germans, the Franks, the Russians, and the Austrians copied our titles - Imperator and Caesar (Kaiser, Tsar, it's all the same!).  Our Republic was the template upon which yours was patterned.

 

We will not apologize for being the best.

 

She responded to me later that evening with this:

 

Would that citizens of the modern United States took the pride in their nation that ancient Romans did!

 

Indeed, what you wrote is just what a Roman alive today would say, and nicely stated, though to do so I notice you used that lovely post-Roman invention: punctuated sentences, lol.

 

All that you said is of course accurate and true, and anyone who is unimpressed with Rome's rise and all that Rome did would have to be half-witted. Few civilizations were more interesting or more remarkable, and it is seldom any historian's job to judge the past when studying and discussing it. To put the ethics and policies of individuals dead fifteen to twenty centuries on trial is simply without any point.

 

I do sometimes think what is lost track of is that a case could be made that at its heart no other "country" was evil in quite the same way that the Roman Empire was.

 

The leadership of the Soviet Union did much that was barbarously cruel, yet it should be remembered that even when in actuality its founding ideals were hypocritically disdained, the Soviet Union was birthed upon notions of human equality and betterment: however obscenely perverted those (flawed) high ideals were. Rome never felt any compunction to enshrine universal human rights, or see that all peoples dwelling within received education, medical care, and guaranteed employment. The USSR did those things, chasing after impossible goals through one of the most unworkable systems ever devised, one that spread misery and paved pathways for Satanic dictators to crush the human spirit.

 

Nazi Germany was essentially evil to its rotten core and deserves no kind words, yet it endured not even a decade and  a half so I don't think it challenges Rome as a contender given Rome's longevity and far-reach to enact ethnic cleansing and genocide on scales unseen in the West before or since.

 

I think because Rome's very antiquity has made such thoughts meaningless it is not considered how evil the dark hemisphere of its dual nature was, but the case is there to be made that Rome's cruelty ventures into the heart of any definition of what (organized) evil would be. Given its size and its enduring might, Rome simply had more opportunity to bring harm and misery to more people than any other power in history: even China. To laud the public spectacle of human beings fighting one another to the death, or the condemned being ripped apart by beasts, that is like something from the pit of Hell itself.

 

I don't try to say the average Roman was evil, just frequently cruel by Christian standards. I don't argue that Rome ever had a paucity of achievements. I definitely don't think Rome was uninteresting or unworthy of deep study. I do increasingly wonder if we aren't all missing the forest for the trees and failing to recognize that ancient Rome was all in all a great psychopathic enterprise in human depravity run wild amid Godlessness.

 

 

 

 

So, having read both sides, and understanding that "good" and "Evil" are terms that may mean different things to different people - would any of you like to weigh in?

 

Come on, quirites, this place has been dead of late!  It could use a good old ethical discussion!

 

 

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The Roman world is often seen in modern popular opinion as an evil empire - but this is a reflection of more recent experience such as the vast scale of the ideological conflicts of the last century which more or less started in 1914 and haven't completely yet tailed off. The Roman Empire is a title one needs to be cautious of - they were not a unified society in terms of culture (many don't realise this - common perception is everyone got 'romanised' after being conquered, but that just isn't true, and the image of latin culture we get introduced to at school is incredibly misleading). Nor was their empire a coherent centrally controlled nation state - it was a patchwork of loyal territories with varying status. Mainland Italy for instance never achieved provincial status until the reign of Diocletian.

 

Evil? Well, the Romans certainly got up to things we see as morally or ethically wrong. Politically they toy with tyranny to suit themselves. Their political system was not gentlemanly and often involved murder. Their justice system was very harsh and often partisan, their military functionally independent of state control and for that matter often barely under control, their entertainment heavily skewed in favour of violence and risk of death. Their Caesars were often power hungry, domineering, dangerous men. One or two genuinely flakey. That's accepted.

 

In actual fact the Roman Empire was relatively benign, nothing like as cruel and overbearing to its own citizens as say the Sassanid Persian Empire. There was a genuine chance of social mobility, opportunities to prosper, ways of making your mark upon the world. The simple fact is, regardless of circumstance, the desire of former territories to look back upon the Roman Empire as a sort of 'golden age' is very expressive of the lingering attachment the bonds of latin dominance have left us - we still bear those marks today and it colours modern politics.

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I wouldn't say the Roman Empire was anymore evil than others. I think we have a substantial amount of data left over from this period and writings which give us more information to dissect.  

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Regarding the comment above about the Romans being "Godless"... no, they weren't. In fact, they had quite a lot of gods and goddesses. Pantheism isn't so common in our modern world, but it was part of the Roman world for many centuries. It's as much a valid expression of religious thought as any other.

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I think for this thread the main sticking point would be the definition of 'evil'.  Do you mean that they did things to hurt people on purpose with no 'valid' reason behind it?  That they acted in a selfish way in order to get what they wanted, without taking the feelings of others into account?  Or their 'atrocities'?  Or are you talking about the individuals who ruled and ordered such things?  Or some other reason?  By defining the term 'evil' you could open the whole debate.

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One must define "evil". Once that has been done, perhaps communication can begin.

If we think of it in terms of barbarism, I can't help thinking of the Mongols killing everything within a city from the humans down to the pets.

WWI, WWII.....

The end is listless. Sadly. :(

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'Evil' is subjective, but the question asks whether the Roman Empire was evil from our perspective. Defining 'Evil' is pointless - it remains an opinion and therefore everyone has a different conception of what evil is (though most of us would be somewhere in the same ball park). Further, the idea is clouded by modern perception of what a nation state is, and a suprising number of people imagine SPQR to be some kind of centrally controlled totalitarian state much like Humanity experienced in living memory. Of course Rome was never like that. It was a city state with interests in a large swathe of self governing but ostensibly loyal provinces. Control was never absolute. It can be easily said that there were evil people within the empire, some of whom in positions of power and influence, but this was always balanced by the actions of the good or the disgruntled. I agree that Rome was tyrannical in some respects - that was a reality of ancient politics.

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