What If the Roman Empire Had Never Existed?
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?
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.
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 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 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 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.