What If the Roman Empire Had Never Existed?

The Roman Empire at its Height. What if the Empire had never existed?
The Roman Empire at its Height. What if the Empire had never existed? | Source

How the Roman Empire Came to Power

The Roman Empire was a an incredibly large and powerful political and social entity. At its height, the empire covered most of Europe, all of North Africa and much of the Middle East. Its magnificent network of roads helped unify the areas under its control into a socially cohesive unit sharing one language and, later, one religion.

The barbarian invasions brought the western half of the Roman Empire to an end in 476 A.D., but the eastern half withstood the onslaught of the Religion of Peace until 1453 A.D., when the city of Constantinople, the so called "New Rome," was taken after a long and bloody siege. With the fall of Constantinople, the long and proud history of the Roman Empire came to an end.

But the contributions of the Empire survived long after the fall of its political structure. The barbarians themselves in time realized that they were the heirs to a superior culture and though they wrecked much of what the Roman Empire had achieved, many subsequent rulers adopted Roman laws and many customs survived. In time the language changed from Latin to French, Spanish, and Italian (languages with Latin roots). These languages retain much of Latin vocabulary. Even English, a primarily Anglo-Saxon tongue, has a large percentage of words derived from the Romans. And, in fact, Latin continued to be the common language of scientists and intellectuals well into the 18th century, providing the disparate peoples of Europe with a common link.

The lasting contributions of the Roman Empire to the modern world are many:

  • a common linguistic base and shared vocabulary for English and other European languages
  • a set of shared values and cultural norms in Europe, which in the era of colonization, spread to North America, Australia, etc., making these countries close cousins.
  • the diffusion of knowledge and science
  • the spread of Christianity through the empire and, later, the rest of the world

Given the amazing achievements of the Roman Empire and its cultural heritage, (which we in the West continue to share) it is easy to assume that it could not have been any other way. But, the reality is that the rise of a small city-state in a remote part of Italy was an incredibly improbable outcome. Rome could just have easily have never risen to become a world power, and the world of today would be a very different place. Would we even recognize it?

Cartago delende est - Carthage Must Be Destroyed! was the battle cry of the Romans. But what if Carthage had won?
Cartago delende est - Carthage Must Be Destroyed! was the battle cry of the Romans. But what if Carthage had won?

Rome and Its Uncertain Destiny

The Roman Empire had an improbable beginning. Most of us have heard the legend of Romulus and Remus, the two brothers raised by a she wolf, who according to Roman mythology went on to found the city of Rome. Lacking women to help populate their city, they appropriated them from the local Sabine tribes. And so began Rome's long march to imperial glory, clashing with one powerful neighbour after another — the Etruscans, the Gauls, the Greeks, Carthage — and always emerging victorious and ever-expanding.

But in fact, the Romans' march towards imperial greatness was far from certain, and, more than once, Rome came close to being annihilated. In its early history, Rome was occupied and pillaged by the Gauls. Years later the Romans would return the favour in grand style when they occupied and pillaged all of Gaul.

Carthage came close to destroying Rome during the Punic Wars, when its superb general Hannibal invaded Italy with his army mounted on elephants.

As Rome grew it encountered powerful enemies, all of which could have snuffed out the budding empire. These enemies included the kingdom of Mithraedes, Greece and Macedon, Egypt. What if any of these opponents had succeeded in stopping the Roman Empire from reaching the heights that it did?

With the hindsight of history, it is easy to assume that it was inevitable that Rome would triumph. But, in fact, it is amazing that a little city built far from the sea, in an obscure place far from the centers of commerce and civilization at the time, could have gone on to rule one of the largest empires the world had ever seen. A single defeat in battle, a single what-if, could have changed the course of world history forever.

What if the Roman Empire Had Failed

What if the Roman Empire had never been? What if Rome had continued to be nothing more than a backwater village founded by thieves and outcasts from neighboring tribes, or if it had been wiped out in its early history before it was able to bind all of Europe into a single nation? The world today would be a very different place.

Rome's Contributions


One of the main contributions of the Roman Empire was a common linguistic heritage that formed and enriched the languages of modern Europe, including English. Without the Roman Empire, Britain would never have come into contact with Latin and English.

In many ways, English is the current common language of much of the world today. Without the Roman Empire, the English language spoken today (which has much of its roots in Latin) would not exist.

The World That Rome Built
The World That Rome Built

The Spread of Christianity


From its origins in the Holy Land, Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire. Missionaries used Roman roads to evangelize the cities of the Empire.

At first, Christianity was an oppressed religion, persecuted by pagan Emperors who saw in Christianity (correctly in fact) as a threat to their divine worship and to the established cultural order. But, with the semi conversion of the Emperor Constantine, Christianity went on to become the state religion of the Roman Empire. When the barbarians took over the lands that had been Roman, they were often converted to Christianity. And despite the initial devastation wrought by the barbarians, their newfound faith led them to respect the church, whose monks served as the sole transmitters of ancient and classical wisdom. Without the monks painstakingly copying manuscripts, the great works of Aristotle, Plato and much of our histories would have been lost to the flames of the barbarian invasions.

Most importantly, if Christianity had not established itself in the Empire, it would not later have spread and become the dominant religion in Eastern Europe, North and South America. The spread of Christianity also disseminated Judeo-Christian culture and values throughout the Western world. In the West today, we live by ethical beliefs and laws that are rooted in Christian tradition, regardless of whether an individual is nominally Christian or not.

There are many who would say that the Empire's spread of Christianity was a bad thing, They will point to the significant moral failures committed in the name of Christianity. They are right to criticize. But these critics are generally ignorant of the world that Christianity replaced.

Before Christianity became the dominant cultural and ethical base for Europe and, later, its colonies, human sacrifice was commonplace and ordinary. The Aztecs sacrificed thousands of people every year to their gods. The Phoenicians maintained ovens in the middle of their cities to use for sacrificing children to Baal. The Romans themselves, before the practice was abolished by Christian emperors, sacrificed thousands in bloody gladiatorial combats and other slaughters in the arena, mainly for entertainment, but also for religious purposes. The Druids regularly sacrificed humans, and so did many cultures in the world. In fact, even today in Africa, in places such as Uganda and Nigeria, there is an epidemic of traditional witch doctors sacrificing children for religious reasons.

Ironically those who criticize Christianity and point to its "sins," including wars of conquest and forced conversions, are doing so using a Judeo-Christian value system. If there had been no Christianity, the things that they object to would be common place and no one would think anything of it.

The world would be a very different place if the Empire had not served as the instrument of spreading Christianity. Chances are that you would be sacrificing to Baal or some other pagan deity.

The Persian Empire at its Greatest Extent
The Persian Empire at its Greatest Extent

Other Empires

The power vacuum that would have existed without Rome would have allowed other empires to grow. Most likely the larger empires would have been centered in the east, which was more populous and advanced. Persia would have expanded more than it did, becoming in many ways similar to the Roman Empire.

But, in the history of the West, there has never been an empire as enduring as the Roman Empire, and it is likely that none of the other empires and kingdoms that might have tried to take its place would have achieved the same greatness. Most empires would have come and gone without hardly a trace.

The Renaissance was in many ways a revival or Roman culture, and shaped the modern world.
The Renaissance was in many ways a revival or Roman culture, and shaped the modern world.

The Renaissance and the Modern World

The barbarian invasions plunged the world into chaos, and, for centuries, the light of knowledge flickered and dimmed, but it did not go out. In the 1400s, there was a revival of learning and science in Italy which spread to the rest of Europe. The Renaissance, or rebirth, is what created the modern world. But, it was a rebirth firmly built on old foundations, mainly on the rediscovery of ancient wisdom and learning.

The spark that was started in the city states of Italy, in Florence, Rome, and Milan, was able to spread and abolish the Dark Ages with the light of knowledge because of the shared cultural heritage of the Roman Empire. Although at the time Europe remained largely disunited politically and made up of petty states, it remained united culturally thanks to its common Roman heritage.

The people of Europe shared common cultural values, spoke languages which were similar enough that they could easily understand each other, and its intellectuals still spoke the common language of Latin, which allowed for the easy transfer of ideas.

Most of all, the people of Europe shared and continued to share the concept of a united Europe. They were one nation under Rome for centuries, and, despite the passage of time, there has always been a tendency to reunite what had been torn asunder. For a long time, the efforts were militaristic. First, it wa the Empire of Charlemagne, which came close to reestablishing the Empire. Then it was the Holy Roman Empire (which as one wit commented was neither Holy nor Roman nor an Empire, and, then later, the Napoleonic Wars. And, now, there is the European Union, in many ways the reestablishment of the Western Roman Empire.

Without the Roman Empire, Europe would never have considered itself part of one large, extended family. There would not have been the same impetus towards unification, and instead of a culturally compatible continent, there would have been a bewildering array of little petty states, all jealous of each others' traditions and cultures.

Without Rome and the Roman Empire, the world would be a much different and poorer place.

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Comments 16 comments

Davidwork 3 years ago

The world would have gone on without Rome, and it would have survived, for better or for worse, no one will ever know. Hannibal had Rome at his mercy after crushing the Roman armies at the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC, but he made the mistake of not advancing to occupy the city. If he had done so, much of the world might have come under Carthaginian influence.

As for human sacrifice not ending without the spread of Christianity, no, I don,t agree. Humans would have eventually grown out of that sort of behaviour without Christianity, because of enlightenment.

The ancient Chinese sacrificed people wholesale 3,000 years ago during the Shang Dynasty. Sacrifice in China at that time was almost on the same scale as that in Ancient Mexico. This tradition continued for over 1,000 years, but the Chinese eventually grew out of it themselves; by about 100 BC, there was no more human sacrifice in China, and the Chinese had no contact with Christianity (Nestorian Christianity) until the 7th century AD at the earliest.

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quotations 3 years ago from Canada Author

The world would of course have continued but it would have been very different. I disagree with you about the Enlightenment however. If you mean the historical period known as the Enlightenment, this was an extension of the Renaissance. As for outgrowing human sacrifice, the fact is that it went on for tens of thousands of years before so I doubt anything would have changed. In fact, the Hindu practice of suttee (burning the widow on her husband's funeral pyre) as well as the death cults of the Thugees who murdered over a million people, were not suppressed until the British, heirs to Roman culture came along.

In fact, when you mention China while there may have been a move away from wholesale human sacrifice due to the moral ethics of Confucianism and Buddhism, but even then it did not disappear completely until almost modern times. In southern China during the Sung Dynasty just before 1279 AD researchers have uncovered menus from restaurants specializing in human meat!

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quotations 3 years ago from Canada Author

I might add that in "Eat Thy Neighbor: A History of Cannibalism", at page 32 it is reported that as late as the 1890's Chinese soldiers would sacrifice and eat French captives in the belief that it would stimulate their courage. I am not saying that the world would not have progressed beyond these barbarous customs without the Roman Empire, only that the empire diffused the civilization and moral framework that we take for granted today.

Davidwork 3 years ago

**I had posted this comment earlier, but for some reason it disappeared.

You are describing cannibalism here, not human sacrifice per se.

Ritual cannibalism has occurred amongst many primitive peoples and ethnic or cultural groups throughout history.

Survival cannibalism has occurred amongst many civilised peoples, including Christian Europeans, e.g. the Medusa ship in 1816, the Donner pioneers on their way to California in 1846, and during the Russian Civil War in the 1920’s. The consumption of human flesh, blood or remains of various types was practiced throughout the history of Europe, look up the three sources below.

By the way, Chinese history and culture has been of great interest to me for over 40 years, I’m actually going to publish a Hub on this subject soon, and while I am aware of cannibalism in Chinese history, I have never read of the of the particular incident to which you refer.

Where I said enlightenment, I was referring to enlightenment in general, with a small e, not The Enlightenment, which was mainly scientific.

Rome and Christianity did not give the world everything, including ethics. There were major civilisations before Rome, such as Ancient Egypt and Sumeria, that had laws, morality and ethics, and there were major civilisations contemporary with Christianity, such as Islam, which made important contributions to mathematics and science.

Christianity attempted to suppress new scientific knowledge and rational discussion by means of the Inquisitions between the 12th and 19th centuries; and Christian European nations were also 50% responsible for the Slave Trade. Africans sold the slaves, but Christian Europeans had no moral objections to buying them.

What is your agenda here? Is your Hub really about Ancient Rome, or is it a 19th century style justification for the colonisation and domination of the world by European Christian peoples, the sort of justification that was used to commit genocide against many indigenous peoples?

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MikeSchultheiss 3 years ago from Eugene, OR

Great hub, I love it! I think you very rightly identify the many things we owe to Rome and its great empire. Indeed, though I am myself a proud descendant of the Germanic tribes that played so great a role in bringing down the Western Roman Empire, I remain very much in Rome’s debt for bringing Western civilization to so much of Western Europe and thus, the world.

You are certainly right that Rome faced many challenges on her path to greatness. I’ll note in passing that Romulus was mythical, though the legend is an interesting one. At any rate, I question that the rise of Rome was really all that improbable. As you reference, the Gauls invaded and partially occupied Rome in 390 BCE. Now, this is something interesting: in his great book “War and Peace and War”, author Peter Turchin notes that the Gauls exerted precipitous frontier pressure on Rome, and for that matter on other Italian city-states. They even ground down and destroyed some of the last Etruscan outposts in northern Tuscany, if memory serves.

Rome itself was already a child of the Latin-Etruscan frontier, the argument goes, and thus was able to adapt the more readily to the pressures of the Gallic incursions. Over the centuries, Rome cultivated the martial virtues in her sons in response to this exogenous pressure—though of course, as you also noted, there were plenty of competitor city-states and tribes within the Italian Peninsula.

Viewed this way, the Roman Republic was a predator created through the crucible of adversity, tested in the fires of war. While it is true that Hannibal trounced the Romans in three great battles (River Trebia, Lake Trasimene, and Cannae), the Roman response demonstrates the tremendous political resolve of the Roman Republic, and the cultivation of civic and martial virtues which she had perfected: they raised new armies and adopted new strategies designed to avoid direct confrontation. Viewed this way, it seems doubtful that Hannibal came nearly so close to destroying the Republic as has often been supposed.

Mithridates VI Eupator, King of Pontus, was quite arguably the Hannibal of the East. This wily Asiatic monarch was responsible for the Asiatic Vespers, the massacre of perhaps 80,000 Roman and Italian men, women, and children in Asia Minor, and he fought three generations of Romans. Again, however, the martial virtues of Rome speak to a certain inevitability of her eventual triumph: though hindsight may be twenty-twenty, by this time Rome had a tradition of practically never backing down. Indeed, the main thing that delayed Rome’s total victory was the internal political troubles she was also facing during the Mithridatic Wars, case in point the civil war between seven-time consul and brilliant general Caius Marius, and Lucius Cornelius Sulla, another brilliant general and a merciless dictator to boot.

There’s a book you absolutely need to read: Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined”. The book’s thesis is that in fact, violence has been declining remarkably through ‘civilizing processes’ in Western civilization, and even elsewhere to some degree. One of the most outstanding findings he relates in that book is that effective state formations reduce murder rates: non-state peoples in tribal societies kill each other at rates that often exceed even the murder rates of America’s worst inner-city neighborhoods! Looks like there really is something to that Pax Romana, after all!

Finally, I think you make some excellent points about the importance of the legacy of Christianity. Sure, Christians have done terrible things, but to my mind this is very arguably much less a reflection on Christianity per se, and far more a reflection of the human capacity to rationalize essentially any abuse in the name of God, or some other cause (and I say this as a non-religious man).

Cheers, all the best, and I look forward to reading more of your hubs.

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MikeSchultheiss 3 years ago from Eugene, OR

//Christian European nations were also 50% responsible for the Slave Trade. Africans sold the slaves, but Christian Europeans had no moral objections to buying them.//

@Davidwork, very true and good points! However, let us not forget the Islamic slave trades from sub-Saharan Africa: across the Sahara, down the Nile, and out of East Africa.

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quotations 3 years ago from Canada Author

@ Mike Schultheiss - Regarding the Christian slave trade - yes it was a very bad thing but not unusual in the context of the time. Most of the slavers were actually muslim and and local African rulers who sold their own people. It was Christians however who finally grew out of it and put slavery to an end in the areas that they controlled. The British Empire during the Victorian era not only abolished slavery within its dominions but also used its navy to intercept slaver ships bound from Africa to other parts of the world.

In many muslim areas of Africa slavery still persists. In Mauritania today about 20 percent of the total population are slaves and in Sudan muslim slavers regularly raid Christian villages and sell the captives into slavery.

To blame Christianity for slavery is I think highly inaccurate, I think what we need to focus on is that western Christian civilization, founded on the roots of the Roman Empire was the first civilization that had the moral compass to realize that this was wrong. To the extent that this realization spread to the rest of the world, it was largely through the efforts of the British Empire, which correctly regarded itself as the successor of Rome.

Davidwork 3 years ago

**I had posted this comment earlier, but for some reason it disappeared, the second time that has happened.


Please read my comment properly - it is above, in black and white.

I did NOT blame Christianity for slavery - I said that Christian European nations were FIFTY PER CENT responsible for the slave trade - which is historical fact - I ACKNOWLEDGED that Africans were responsible for the rest of it. My point was that Christian nations, which you are arguing are morally superior, had NO MORAL OBJECTION to buying slaves, which is also historical fact, end of argument.


If Western civilisation has had such a civilising influence on the world, then explain World War I, in which millions of Western Europeans, from Britain, France and Germany, all Western Christian nations, slaughtered each other in trench warfare for four years. Explain the European theatre of World II, in which Germany, a Western Christian nation, fell under a dictatorship that espoused many of the ideas of cultural and nationalistic superiority that you justify, resulting in a planned and organised genocide against six million European Jews, and an invasion of Russia that killed up to 20 million people. Amongst other things, tens of thousands of Russian prisoners were put to death upon capture by the Germans, and entire villages were dynamited in Byelorussia.

Also explain some of the European colonial atrocities; the genocide of possibly up to 10 million people in The Congo under Belgian colonial rule; the genocide of the Herero and Namaqua people of south west Africa under German rule. (The German colonial authorities decapitated the heads of many of these people and sent them back to Europe for medical research).

What, also, of the brutality of slavery in the United States, and the suppression of black Americans by the Jim Crow laws and segregation after the end of the Civil War? (And no, Lincoln didn’t pursue the civil war because of his good Christian values, his original motive for fighting it, from April 1861 onwards, was to maintain the Union of the States. It was not until December 1862 that he enacted the Emancipation Proclamation and changed the overall objective of that war).

(There are quite a few other sources available).

There are many other examples that could be cited, but I don’t want this comment to be another essay.

As someone who has always been interested in world history, I fully understand the influence that Greco/Roman civilisation and its inheritors, the later European nations like Portugal, Spain and Britain, have had upon the world, but I simply do not accept for one moment the racist, colonialist/imperialist argument that the world could never have progressed WITHOUT ‘Western Civilisation’.

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quotations 3 years ago from Canada Author

@Davidwork - there is no need to keep reposting the same comment over and over. All comments are subject to moderator approval but I am not censoring you.

Your comments about the failings of western civilization are well founded but you ignore the context. Mao Tse Tung was responsible for at least 50 million deaths in the 50s and 60s. Pol Pot 3 million out of a population of 9 million in Cambodia.

Regarding slavery and Christian countries, I did not misunderstand your post. I simply pointed out that western civilization was the first to realize that this institution was wrong and put an end to it. This is not the case in other civilizations. In Mauritania, 20 percent of the population live as slaves now. Considering the fact that slavery has existed throughout the world for thousands and thousands of years the fact that Western Civilization was the first to break free of that pattern is significant. There is no reason to believe that change would have happened otherwise. I know that this conflicts with current cultural relativism but so be be it.

Davidwork 3 years ago

Sorry, I thought there was a technical problem.

My first comment didn't appear until several days later, and only after I had re-posted it. If someone blocks a comment, there is usually an immediate message to say that it has not been approved.

I'm not going to keep on posting on this Hub, because we are clearly not going to change our standpoints, but I must conclude by saying that I think you did misunderstand my post, because you implied that I had actually said Christianity was responsible for slavery when I clearly did not say that.

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MikeSchultheiss 3 years ago from Eugene, OR

@Davidwork, you're arguing past me. Please read what I actually wrote: I said that I was grateful to Rome for bringing Western civilization to much of Western Europe, and consequently, the world. Let me specify and clarify this by saying that I meant the great legacy of Western institutions, literature, and general cultural heritage.

Never did I say that it was not the case that Western countries have committed atrocities. Still, these atrocities are readily explicable not by virtue of Westerners being Westerners, but rather by virtue of Westerners being human.

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MikeSchultheiss 3 years ago from Eugene, OR

*I'll add that I highly recommend "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined" by Steven Pinker. He does an outstanding job making the case that violence has actually declined, particularly in Western civilization.

Now, this doesn't justify Western atrocities (and yes, I'm familiar with what happened in L'etat Independant du Congo, and in the Caribbean planter colonies, etc.). In fact, Pinker makes a very good case that Western civilization has itself, in essence, become far more civilized (as in, with marked tendencies to be more humane in at least some respects) in recent centuries, with the ascendancy of reason from the 17th century on, and then the Enlightenment-era 'rights revolutions' opposing slavery and torture, and so on.

Davidwork 3 years ago


Thanks for your comment.

I wouldn't be so foolish as to argue that Westerners committed atrocities because they were Westerners.

I was responding directly to this part of your comment:

"... The book’s thesis is that in fact, violence has been declining remarkably through ‘civilizing processes’ in Western civilization, and even elsewhere to some degree. One of the most outstanding findings he relates in that book is that effective state formations reduce murder rates: non-state peoples in tribal societies kill each other at rates that often exceed even the murder rates of America’s worst inner-city neighborhoods! Looks like there really is something to that Pax Romana, after all!"

This theory of the book, which you endorse, is that the civilising influence of Western Civilisation reduces violence; I was countering that by demonstrating that it certainly hasn't reduced violence within Western culture generally, or by Westerners toward other peoples in the last century or more.

I would argue that most of the progress in the latter half of the 20th century was more due to the painful lessons learned from the World Wars, and by growing economic prosperity.

The Pax Romana, and the Pax Britannica, which was modelled on it, came about because Rome in its era, and Britain in its era, nearly 2,000 years later, each had the POWER to impose them, not because of any particular moral superiority. As a person interested in history, I am sure you are aware that the Romans were in some ways just as uncivilised, if not more so, than the peoples they referred to as Barbarians. Tens of thousands of people were killed in the Roman arenas in the name of entertainment.

I am non-religious, and I view us humans as being an intelligent but potentially dangerous and cruel animal species, who will only improve our behaviour through steady advancement and enlightenment. (With a small e, not as in the post Renaissance Enlightenment).

I am optimistic, and I believe that full enlightenment is an inevitable outcome of our progress as a species, but it will take time. I am simply wary of any argument that one particular part of humankind has some sort of moral superiority to any other, because that can then be used as justification for wrongdoings by the latter part. In the 19th century, the argument that Westerners were superior to other peoples WAS used to excuse many ugly things; just one example was the argument of a large body of white Americans that Chinese immigrants were inferior people. That was used to implement an anti-Chinese immigration act, the only blatantly anti-immigration act the USA has ever had.

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John MacNab 3 years ago from the banks of the St. Lawrence

A fabulous article, quotations. The Roman invasion reached as far north as Scotland where Hadrian's and Antonine's walls were built. Where I was born there was a small Roman fort and my wife was born in a village named Roman Camp. Voted up and across. Thank you.

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quotations 3 years ago from Canada Author

@ John MacNab -Thanks for the feedback. It is truly amazing how influential the Roman Empire was and still is. Scotland is quite far from Rome even in today's era of air travel and instant communications. Yet Rome was able to maintain a cohesive social and political unity for centuries with horses and sails. The fact that many place names still bear Roman names despite all of the centuries that have passed shows just how important this civilization was to the world.

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jainismus 3 years ago from Pune, India

Interesting article.

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