Lecture 11: Roma Aeterna (Eternal Rome)

This lecture covers the Roman Empire and its civilizing influence.


In the 11th of 17 lectures in his "Civilizing the Barbarians" course, Stepanov discusses the Roman Empire and its effects on society. He begins by referencing Winston Churchill's book "A History of the English-Speaking Peoples" in which Churchill states that life in Britain was never as good as it was between 180 and 480 AD. Stepanov goes on to explain that throughout a huge area of Europe, Asia, and Africa there was an established system which provided many things attributed to civilization. He cites examples such as central heating, hot baths and bathing facilities, advanced road systems, and clean and easily available water supply and sanitation systems. He attributes this to the Romans, whose greatest legacy is the empire they created which lasted for 2000 years.

Stepanov continues his lecture discussing various aspects of Roman society. He mentions that Greek slaves were highly sought after by wealthy Romans and that Romans were relatively liberal in terms of freeing their slaves. He notes that the Roman Empire was a cruel empire, but that it provided many benefits such as education, medical care, and entertainment for the poor. One form of mass entertainment, gladiatorial games, continued on into the 4th century and beyond, when the empire was Christian, because people were still addicted to the games. He asserts that despite all the cruelty, the Roman Empire was fundamentally good and that what came after it was much worse. 

Stepanov notes that the dream of the Roman Empire lived on for centuries even after its collapse in the West in 476 AD, and that the collapse of the empire was a tragedy that led to a decline in safety and infrastructure, such as the destruction of aqueducts by the Goths. He also states that people throughout history have attempted to rebuild the Roman Empire, such as Charlemagne in the 8th century and the czars of Russia in the 16th century who saw themselves as its heirs. Stepanov recommends the book "Twelve Caesars" by Suetonius as a great read for understanding the Roman Empire and its effects on society.

Finally, Stepanov discusses the Roman Empire and its attitude towards conquered peoples, specifically the Jews. He mentions that for the Romans, it was normal to enslave conquered peoples and that they would not have criticized their country for it. He mentions that empires require a belief in manifest destiny and that they provide benefits such as roads, currency, and educational systems. However, he also acknowledges that empires often come at the cost of terrible injustice and misery for the conquered peoples.

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