I Came, I Saw, I Judged: Why is Rome the “Bad Guy?”

To many, Ancient Rome represents an arrogant dictatorship greedy for power and oppressive and draconian towards its subjects. One can’t deny that aspects of Ancient Rome are certainly considered inhumane and barbaric in our society. While we marvel at the splendor of the arena, many find it cruel to find entertainment in the suffering of others. Rome’s imperialism could be considered very oppressive and arrogant nowadays. Roman justice and punishments would probably qualify as “cruel and unusual” by our standards! However, one must understand where the Romans were coming from, before judging them so quickly. While many of their acts are considered brutal and evil, with some context, it puts Rome into perspective.

One specific example of how we characterize Rome as tyrannical is through all of its conquests. We see Rome as being this brutal, oppressive force crushing peaceful barbarian tribes and being too imperialistic. Conflicts such as the Dacian wars are characterized as “genocide” or the Judean revolts as religious oppression. Part of this is most likely a reflection on our own attitudes toward conquest and expansionism. Influenced by imperialism in the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as some of our own expansions, it is now fashionable to condemn that in the modern perspective due to sensitivities about Image result for roman slavesminority groups. All of those who have the belief that the US was founded on oppression of Africans and Native Americans I guess would think similarly of Rome and its conquests. However, one must realize that it wasn’t just Rome who was imperialistic. Those “barbarian” tribes were just as brutal and genocidal to each other! Like many indigenous peoples we thought of as idyllic and peaceful yet were actually quite brutal and expansionist themselves, many of the conquered peoples of Rome were the same way. Rome won because it was more powerful and larger, but many outsiders would have done to the Romans what Rome did to them. Those conquered peoples were not helpless little victims, defenseless against Rome’s power and no less brutal. When Rome fell, guess who stepped in!…

Another example that goes hand in hand is Rome’s treatment of slaves and peoples once they were conquered. True, many slaves were treated brutally. Slaves in the mines and on farms had it extremely rough. Condemned criminals were expendable and you could see them executed in creatively brutal ways. However, it wasn’t all uniform across the board. Many slaves, especially well educated ones and ones with talents were very valuable and could be in positions of trust, and even considerable authority. One could have close bonds with one’s slaves, as unlike “chattel” they were humans who could be loyal companions. I guess like owning pets or other animals, yes, they’re property, but that doesn’t mean everyone feels they have free reign to mistreat them. Gladiators, in particular could have very good lives, short due to the roughness of what they did, but they could earn considerable money if they won, and fame like celebrities and famous athletes. They could even earn their freedom if they fought well. They had access to good medical care and meals, perhaps better than many free poor people. In our society, slavery is considered as a crime against humanity basically. I won’t dispute that slavery is dehumanizing, but there is some cultural bias still. Our views of what constitutes “dignity” and humanity are culturally bound, and other cultures may have different interpretations on what exactly would “dehumanize” someone. Although it sounds like something universal, what someone considers an integral part of personal dignity and rights based on their humanity depends on cultural values of what makes a person have full personhood. In antiquity, becoming a slave was a merciful and humane option to give your defeated enemy rather than to kill them. You may have a life of servitude, but at least you were spared your life. Our society is more egalitarian than much of antiquity and believes autonomy to be central to humanness. In Rome, society was more stratified and had significant power differentials. This could mean that slaves could still be seen as “human”, versus livestock, but just at the lowest rung socially. Perhaps the free will to make one’s own choices and control one’s destiny wasn’t as central to being considered a full human being, as opposed to just being on a lower rung on the social ladder. Less social privilege, less choices. No doubt being defeated and becoming a slave was very humiliating, but in antiquity, anyone could become a slave, it wasn’t about particular groups. Our own past with slavery and how politicized it is today certainly taints our view of the nature of slavery in antiquity versus the slavery we had. Again, different circumstances, different attitudes…

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Lastly, this particular issue has a Judaeo-Christian bias to it. In Judaism, the Jew’s conflicts with the Romans color our view of Rome, and especially Christianity. In a Judaeo-Christian society, religious bias plays a part in seeing Rome as the bad guy. If you heard stories of Christians being persecuted and being thrown to the lions, especially if you are Christian, it paints Rome as the bad guy to your religion. However, if one looks deeper, one would realize that Christian authors wrote those accounts centuries after, and had an anti-pagan bias of their own. Also, most these “victims” wanted to be martyred so they openly did not sacrifice to the Roman gods. This was a threat to the state, as politics were Image result for early christiansintertwined with religion. Christians who were more “in the closet” were left alone for the most part. The religion was not the issue there, it was the politics and not helping the state. Pagans like the Romans were much more tolerant of other religions, and there were numerous cults in Ancient Rome as one could simply add deities to their pantheon. It wasn’t “all or nothing” like Christianity. The status of Christians was sort of don’t ask, don’t tell. Even Diocletian, who was known for persecuting Christians told an adviser to leave them be if they weren’t threatening the state. The crucifixion of Jesus is another biggie, it seems to encompass most of Roman brutality. No one denies that crucifixion is a barbaric and torturous punishment, but Jesus wasn’t special in receiving it. Also, the Romans did it because he was thought to be a threat to the state, (his whole “King of the Jews” thing…) not for his ideologies on peace and harmony. I won’t go into too much detail here, but also theologically, the whole saving of sins by dying thing was a predetermined plan explicitly mentioned in the Bible, it wasn’t like the Romans did it out of the blue and Jesus was a passive victim. Portraying the Romans as the bad guys helped further a Christian agenda.

Overall, Rome certainly does have aspects that we disapprove of. However, it’s too much of a blanket statement to say they were all “evil” and let that overshadow their accomplishments. In studying all history, it’s important to try to not view their actions through our own cultural matrix, but theirs to truly judge them. Judge the Romans by looking at their circumstances in antiquity and their cultural views, not ours and modern ideologies. I think a lot of it is due to the fact that our society is in many ways, so much like theirs. Their advanced technologies, society and government as well as their success make us see ourselves in them. Like it or not, Ancient Rome has influenced our own culture in more ways than most of us know.Perhaps criticisms of our own society are projected onto them because we can relate to them so much. It’s okay to personally disapprove or disagree with actions they did, I certainly do. I’m not saying Ancient Rome was justified ethically in everything they did despite their circumstances, but to be a little more gentle with your judgement on the Romans. The Romans were a harsh people in a harsher world.

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About persnicketythecat

I like ancient and medieval history!
This entry was posted in Ancient History, Opinion Piece. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to I Came, I Saw, I Judged: Why is Rome the “Bad Guy?”

  1. fab says:

    Most of us are victims of “presentism”, the attempt to judge past historical events according to current sensibility. That’s a common fallacy. When one studies ancient history, it is evident that Romans compared to their contemporaries were equal if not better, as far as typical behavior, and had far superior moral standards, on average. Romans had strict law codes, written and administered by judges interpreting the law, something that was not at all common in ancient civilizations. There were examples of written rule, such as Hammurabi code. But for example the much celebrated Greek democracy had nothing equivalent to Roman law system. And such system was exported to all “barbarians” that fell under roman rule, they were given partial roman citizenship with all the rights and duties that this implied. Something to which most ancient “barbarian” populations were not accustomed. With modern eyes, those people were “subjugated” and “deprived of their liberty”… However, their liberty often consisted in societies much less developed and primitive. Certainly, with modern eyes this may look like “exporting democracy” into unwilling countries… However, thanks to such a forced acculturation, the areas of ancient Europe, North Africa and Near Orient have known a modernization that would have probably escaped them. Including private and public toilets.

    Liked by 1 person

    • persnicketythecat says:

      So true! Our sentiments about the past are often clouded by our present attitudes! You make very good points that compared to others, the Romans were very advanced. I think a lot of this criticism of Ancient Rome stems from our current attitudes towards anti-imperialism and we can see ourselves in the Romans since like us, they were a very powerful and advanced nation. I’d say even more powerful than the US is! As I mentioned in the article, people also compare apples to oranges such as confusing Roman slavery with slavery in the US.

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