The Roman Empire collapsed more than 1,500 years ago, but in many ways it never died. Instead, it continues to influence people throughout the world even today. Take language, for example. The Romans based their alphabet on that of the Etruscans who had borrowed theirs from the Greeks, who had borrowed theirs from the Phoenicians. However, the modern letters you see on this page are a direct gift from the Romans. So are Roman numerals.
Even the planets of our solar system show the influence of imperial Rome because they bear the names of Roman gods-Mars, Mercury, and Venus, for example. Our calendar is based on the one developed by Julius Caesar in 46 B.C. July bears the name of Julius Caesar himself, August that of his successor, Augustus Caesar. The last day of the week, Saturday, honors the Roman god Saturn. Latin, the language of the Romans, developed directly into the Romance languages of Italian, Romanian, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. The common origins of these languages become evident when you examine a few of their words. For example, the Latin word lux, meaning “light,” is similar to the Italian word luce, the Spanish word luz, and the French word lumiere.
Although the English language is a mixture of Old Norse, Old German, Latin, and Norman French, about 50 percent of English words have Latin origins. For example, the word republic comes from res publica, Latin for “thing belonging to the people.” Senate comes from the Roman council of elders, the senatus. Rome’s legacy remains highly visible throughout the countryside of southern Europe, North Africa, and Southwest Asia. Roman bridges still span French and Spanish rivers, and roads that once connected Rome with its provinces are still in existence today. In each city the Romans conquered, they added their own urban plan-a grid system of roads, temples, a central forum, baths, and theaters.
Many cities that flourished under the Romans, such as Alexandria, Antioch, and the rebuilt Carthage, owe their city’s layout to the engineers of the Roman period. The ruins of Roman buildings, themselves largely based on Greek models, have continued to inspire generations of architects. Michelangelo used Roman models to design St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome in 1547. Moreover, Thomas Jefferson studied Roman architecture when he built his home, Monticello, in 1770. Roman law also left its imprint on the world. Codified in the second and third centuries, Roman laws were adopted by many countries in Europe and Southwest Asia after the empire fell. Some of those European nations eventually established colonies in Asia, Africa, and the Americas.
They modeled the laws of their colonies after the laws of their own countries. In this way, although greatly modified, the Roman influence has been transmitted to the legal system of most of the countries of the world. In hundreds of ways, Rome speaks to us all. Why? What made Rome so special? For one thing, the Roman Empire was huge. It once included what is today Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Austria, Greece, Romania, Turkey, Libya, Syria, Morocco, and Tunisia, as well as parts of Great Britain and Germany. Across its far-reaching roads Rome sent not just legions but also commerce and culture. Rome also lasted a long time. Founded, according to legend, in 753 B.C., it survived for more than 1,200 years, until the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed in A.D. 476.
When Rome fell, the city of Constantinople laid claim to the entire Roman world. The Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire carried on the heritage and organization of Rome for another 1,000 years, until it fell to the Turks in 1453. The Near East was not the only place to keep the Roman tradition alive. The Germanic rulers who overran the empire saw themselves as successors to the Romans. The Frankish ruler Charlemagne, who spoke fluent Latin, was crowned “Emperor of the Romans” in A.D. 800. In A.D. 962 Otto the Great founded the Holy Roman Empire, uniting the lands of Germany and Italy in a loose confederation of states. This empire lasted, at least in name, almost 1,000 years, until the reign of Napoleon. Roman influence lived on not only in politics but also in religion. Christianity, first scorned by Roman authorities, was made an official state religion in the A.D. 300s and took on many Roman features. Church structure and organization were modeled after Roman government.
Roman law became the model for canon, or church, law, and the pope became the center of Western Christianity. Christian churches were styled after Roman government centers, or basilicas. Over the centuries, our Roman heritage has been idealized, romanticized, and often sanitized. While much about Rome was corrupt and unappealing, it was Rome’s sense of grandeur, its power, and its organization that made everyone want to be a Roman and that ultimately passed its legacy down to us.