TRAVEL / Civilisations: Benevolent dictatorship borne on broken roads: David Keys finds the heart of the greatest empire is lost in the mists of misrepresentation

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
SOME civilisations are, as the cliche goes, lost in the mists of time. Not so Rome, largest empire of the ancient world. An army of historians, antiquarians and archaeologists has gathered information about it over the centuries. The Roman Empire has been lost in the mists of misrepresentation, in a million school history lessons and a score of Hollywood epics.

In a sense the problems start with the name. Although founded by Rome, the empire developed a life of its own, with the Eternal City (and Italy as a whole) becoming less and less relevant. Roman emperors rarely came from Italy, let alone from Rome itself. Eighty per cent of the 70 who ruled from the first to the fifth centuries AD hailed from anywhere and everywhere else. Many were from the Balkans. Others came from Syria, North Africa, Spain or Asia Minor. Constantine was of Balkan origin; Septimius Severus was from North Africa and died in York.

After AD 160 or so, most emperors spent most of their time away from Rome. Some never bothered to visit the place at all. Others went there rarely - as tourists or to carry out ceremonies. One of the most important, Diocletian - who ruled for 21 years (284-305) - visited Rome only once; he appears to have been heckled by the populace for his pains.

From the early third century, a series of secondary 'capitals' developed. These new imperial centres - Milan in northern Italy, Sirmium in Serbia, Nicomedia and Antioch in what is now Turkey, Thessaloniki in northern Greece, and Trier in Germany (where impressive remains can still be seen) - acted as temporary seats of government for emperors on the move. AD 330 Constantine - who visited Rome only three times - recognised the growing irrelevance of the Eternal City and transferred his capital to the town of Byzantium (he modestly renamed it Constantinople) in what is now Turkey. The city, which became Istanbul five centuries ago, has the Roman world's largest single roofed building, Santa Sophia; Constantine initially referred to the city as New Rome.

Rome was, in fact, the capital for only a third of the life of the Roman Empire. There is a popular misconception that the empire faded out with the barbarian invasions in the fifth century AD. But as an imperial Mediterranean power, it lasted 14 centuries until AD 1204, when the Crusaders sacked Constantinople.

Although the western half was indeed overrun, the eastern half went resolutely on. Today's history books usually refer to the Roman world from the seventh century as the Byzantine Empire. This term is a modern invention. To its people it was, as it always had been, the Roman Empire. Britain was lost for good in the fifth century, but other parts of the west were reconquered in the 530s. The empire's last territory in Western Europe - southern Italy - was not lost until the 11th century.

At the empire's peak, back in the second century AD, it occupied just over 2 million square miles, and covered all, or parts of, what are now 36 independent countries. Put another way, it was 41 times the size of England, or almost twice the size of modern India.

None the less, the popular image of heavy- handed authority backed up by a vast bureaucracy and an all-pervading army is incorrect. To a great extent the empire, in its heyday, ran itself. Central government was normally non- interventionist in the extreme. It ruled with a light touch - but with the threat of military action always in the background. In most places, the army would have been barely visible, but potential rebels would have been well aware of the fate others had suffered. Its activities were largely confined to border areas and trouble spots.

When the military did step in, it was usually on a decisive scale. Probably the best place today to explore a Roman battle site is in southern Israel, at Masada. Here one can still see the original Roman siege-works and huge ramp built to storm a great fortress during the Jewish revolt AD 73.

At Rome's zenith the army is thought to have had fewer than 300,000 men. The imperial state of 60 million people was run by around 300 senior administrators - one for every 200,000 people. That compares with one per 140,000 in modern Britain, or one per 11,000 in ancient China. A hands-off approach to government was probably the only practical option available to the Romans, given the tiny number of top administrators and the immense time (anything up to two months) it took to get orders delivered.

There was a government courier system and a large road network. Contrary to the claims of generations of school textbooks, however, the Romans were often atrocious road-builders. They built 56,000 miles of highway, a massive amount for any pre-industrial society. But the surfaces were sometimes badly constructed and many rapidly broke up. Roman road- builders packed the surface slabs of some highways too closely, allowing no room for expansion on hot days. Cracks worsened through winter frost. It has been calculated that the annual repair bill would have been half the entire budget of the army.

Many roads were left to deteriorate, and were often so dangerous for horse and wheeled traffic that the best way to travel was along the verges, weather permitting. Of course the military, who built many of the roads, were probably not that bothered. After all, most of the army was made up of infantry.

At its peak in the second century AD, the empire's per capita gross national product is estimated to have been equivalent to that of late 16th-century England. Like Elizabethan England, it was a pre-industrial society. Unlike the Elizabethans, however, the Romans would have been capable of an industrial revolution, had their social and economic circumstances required one. The technology existed, in embryonic form, to build steamships, trains, mechanically powered looms, and even relatively complex mechanical computers.

By the fourth century AD, engineers had invented or designed steam-driven turbine engines, piston pumps, complex differential gear systems, paddle-driven ships, mechanical astronomical calculators and sophisticated watermills - the ruins of one can still be seen at Barbegal in southern France. Rome had the beginnings of the technology necessary to become an industrial power of 19th-century proportions. So why did it never make the breakthrough?

Scholars have suggested that the supply of slave-power made mechanical power uneconomic. Yet, contrary to popular mythology, slaves made up, at most, 10 per cent of the empire's population. Other historians have argued that the Romans were not psychologically attuned to entrepreneurial ways of thinking. The elite was certainly anti-business - an attitude of mind it bequeathed to a plethora of anti-entrepreneurial aristocracies in medieval and later Europe.

This stereotype is, happily, not the only legacy we enjoy from Rome. Half of Europe's major languages and legal systems, many of its greatest cities, much of its road network and two of its most important institutions - the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches - come directly from the empire.

The cloaks still worn by Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican high church priests originated as the Sunday-best attire of fourth-century Roman aristocrats. Latin, the ritual language of the Catholic Church, also dates from the fourth century. The Church's legal system is inherited directly from the empire, and aspects of its hierarchy are modelled on that of the Roman civil service.

The Church of the Virgin Mary in Rome - Santa Maria Maggiore - was once the Temple of the Goddess Roma. Here you can sit and contemplate the metamorphosis of empire into a religious institution that has weathered almost 2,000 years, in the heart of the Eternal City itself.

WHERE TO GO AND WHAT TO SEE

ALBANIA: 1 Apollonia* Roman ruins with very fine mosaics.

ALGERIA: 2 Djemila*** Well preserved Roman city amid beautiful scenery. 3 Timgad*** An African Pompeii - ruins of literally hundreds of domestic and civic buildings; other Roman sites include 4 Tebessa** and 5 Lambese*.

BRITAIN: 6 Bath** Roman sacred baths. 7 Bignor** Great Roman villa with gladiator mosaics. 8 Caerleon** Remains of fort, amphitheatre. 9 Dover** Roman house and lighthouse. 10 Fishbourne** Royal palace, mosaics. 11 Hadrian's Wall*** Of its original 73 miles, 40 survive, with seven major forts, 21 turrets and fortlets, and three temples. 12 Pevensey** Third- century fortress where Britons were massacred by Germanic invaders AD 491. 13 Portchester*** Best-preserved Roman fortress in Western Europe. 14 Silchester** Walls of Roman city.

CROATIA: 15 Pula*** Amphitheatre. 16 Split** Ask Foreign Office for information before travelling. Imperial palace.

CYPRUS: 17 Paphos*** Magnificent mosaics.

EGYPT: 18 St Catherine's*** Beautiful sixth-century monastery. Limited access.

FRANCE: 19 Arles*** Theatre, amphitheatre. 20 Barbegal* Site of unique Roman mill ruins. 21 Glanum*** Ruins of Roman town in beautiful mountain setting. 22 La Turbie** Victory monument. 23 Nimes*** Perfectly preserved temple, amphitheatre, city gates and tower. 24 Orange** Theatre and triumphal arch. 25 Paris** Baths of Cluny, amphitheatre. 26 Pont du Gard*** World's finest Roman aqueduct, 160ft high. 27 Vaison-la-Romaine** Ruins of Roman town. 28 Vienne** Temple, theatre.

GERMANY: 29 Trier*** Great imperial city with the best-preserved Roman buildings north of the Alps, Emperor Constantine's 100ft-high throne room.

ISRAEL: 30 Avedat** Reconstructed citadel. 31 Bethlehem** Sixth-century Church of the Holy Nativity. 32 Bet She'arim** Remains of Jewish city. Also rock-cut tombs. 33 Caesarea** Roman harbour. St Paul was imprisoned here before setting sail for Rome. 34 Jerusalem*** Fourth-century Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on site of the crucifixion. Remains include city walls and Roman street. 35 Masada*** Fortress stormed by the Romans in the Jewish revolt of AD 73. See also remains of siege camps and assault ramp. Rather than surrender, the Jewish rebels committed mass suicide.

ITALY: 36 Alba Fucens* Roman colony. 37 Capua** Amphitheatre. 38 Herculanium*** Many complete buildings excavated from lava which covered it during eruption of Vesuvius AD 79. 39 Ostia*** Superbly preserved ancient port of Rome. Fine buildings, theatre - and even an original Roman loo. 40 Piazza Armerina*** Massive Roman palace with 3,000 square metres of mosaics - the world's greatest collection. 41 Pompeii*** Virtually complete Roman town which is covered with ash and pumice after a volcanic eruption AD 79. 42 Ravenna*** Virtual capital of Italy in the sixth to eighth century AD. Roman churches with some of the world's finest mosaics. 43 Rome*** The Eternal City boasts the greatest collection of complete or substantially complete ancient buildings - four temples, the Curia where the Senate met, three triumphal arches, superb imperial palaces (including Nero's), a theatre, a fortress, fresco-covered villas, public baths, streets and tenement blocks, tombs (including a Roman pyramid), city walls and gates - and the Colosseum where tens of thousands of Christians were not fed to the lions. (The accurate figure was around 50 over 200 years). Also Christian catacombs and churches. 44 Susa* Roman city gate. 45 Tivoli*** Hadrian's villa. 46 Verona*** Amphitheatre.

JORDAN: 47 Jerash*** Spectacular ruined Roman city, complete with walls, market, temple, theatres, baths, early synagogue and churches. 48 Petra*** Pre- Roman and Roman tombs and temples. Colonnaded main street, temples and theatre. The site featured in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

LEBANON: Seek advice from the Foreign Office before considering a trip to this destination. 49 Baalbek*** Heliopolis (sun city) to the ancients, it retains its pagan religious complex - including the world's largest classical Roman temple.

LIBYA: No flights available. Land and sea access only.

50 Cyrene** Ruined Roman city. 51 Leptis Magna*** Magnificent theatre, forum, temples, baths, early churches and city walls. 52 Sabratha*** Beautiful Roman city with four temples, three early Christian churches, public baths, forum, theatre and town walls.

MOROCCO: 53 Volubilis*** Ruins of Roman city.

PORTUGAL: 54 Condeixa a Velha** Ruins of Roman town. 55 Ebora** Roman temple, city walls, city gate.

ROMANIA: 56 Adamklissi** War memorial. 57 Constanta** Magnificent large mosaic. SPAIN: 58 Merida*** Theatre, amphitheatre. 59 Segovia*** Aqueduct. 60 Tarragona*** Roman aqueduct.

SWITZERLAND: 61 Avenches* Amphitheatre, walls, temple.

SYRIA: 62 Bostra** Visually stunning theatre built in black basalt. 63 Dura Europus*** Hellenistic, Parthian and Roman city. 64 Halebiyeh*** One- and-a-half miles of sixth-century ramparts and a huge fortress. 65 Palmyra*** Spectacular Roman city with temples, baths, theatre, monumental arch, colonnaded streets and city walls. 66 Qalat al-Siaman*** Complex of fifth-century churches. 67 Qalbloseh*** Fifth-century church. 68 Resafa*** Fascinating remains of a sixth-century walled city, with early cathedral.

TUNISIA: 69 Carthage** The original city was destroyed by Rome. Most visible remains belong to its successor, built on the same site. 70 Dougga*** Ruined Roman city with temples, theatre, houses and brothel - complete with tiny bedrooms. 71 El Djem*** Amphitheatre that once seated 50,000, approaching capacity of the Colosseum. Other ruined Roman cities include 72 Sbeitla***, 73 Makthar**, 74 Thuburbo Maius** and 75 Bulla Regia**.

TURKEY: 76 Aphrodisias*** Theatre, baths, houses, city walls. In the sixth century AD Christians changed the name to Stavropolis - City of the Cross - because they weren't too keen on Aphrodite. In its pagan heyday, however, the city's sacred swimming pool had been a centre for risque water sports. 77 Aspendos*** Superb Roman theatre with extraordinary acoustics. See also aqueduct, shops and public buildings.

78 Ephesus*** Largely Roman remains of baths, theatre, temples, early churches, houses, city walls and brothel. 79 Istanbul*** Its massive fifth-century walls (four-and-a-half miles long) withstood attacks for over 1,000 years. Visit one of the greatest buildings of the Roman empire - Santa Sophia. See also Roman underground reservoir, monastery and imperial palace. 80 Pergamum*** Mainly second-century remains of a great medical centre and other ruins. 81 Side*** Roman theatre and other remains.

UKRAINE: 82 Chersonesus* Greek and Roman ruins.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Library facilities, lectures and journals available from the Roman Society (membership pounds 20), 31-34 Gordon Square, London WC1H 0PP (071-387 8157).

FURTHER READING: Rome's Desert Frontier from the Air,

D Kennedy and D Riley (Batsford pounds 35); the British Museum Press's series Exploring the Roman World (from pounds 14.95 to pounds 19.95); Roman North Africa, E Manton (Seaby pounds 17.50); A Guide to the Roman Remains in Britain, R Wilson (Constable pounds 12.95); Byzantine Architecture, C Mango (Faber & Faber pounds 14.95);Atlas of the Roman World, T Cornell and J Matthews (Facts On File pounds 22.95); The Emperor in the Roman World, F Millar (Duckworth pounds 19.95); History of Rome, M Grant (Faber pounds 8.99), a lively single-volume history; Memoirs of Hadrian, Marguerite Yourcenar (Penguin pounds 5.99), a fine novel in the form of a valedictory letter by the Emperor Hadrian; other historical novels of note include I Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves (both Penguin pounds 5.99); Augustus and Tiberius, Allan Massie (both Sceptre pounds 5.99).

All titles available from good bookshops, and by mail order from Daunt Books, 83 Marylebone High Street, London W1M 3DE (071-224 2295).

*** spectacular ** very interesting * interesting

(Photograph and map omitted)

Comments