The diverse and incalculable influence of Rome on the modern world.

This is the final page of "The Romans".


Aqueduct at Segovia, Spain

Roman aqueduct at Segovia, 29 m high and still in working order. (VRoma: Paula Chabot)

The remarkable thing about the Roman civilization is not that it ultimately collapsed, but that from such minute beginnings it survived for so long under so many external and internal pressures. It lasted long enough and the pressures were resisted firmly enough for so many of what were Roman practices, even before the Christian era, to become entrenched in modern life.

Altar to Disciplina

Latin inscription on an altar to Disciplina, a military cult deity, found at Birrens, Dumfriesshire, and dating from between AD 120 to 180. It goes on to say that the altar was erected by the Second Tungrian Cohort, which included a troop of cavalry. (Illustration by Jennifer Campbell from Scotland in Roman Times, Scottish Children’s Press 1998)

Except for the addition of three letters, the alphabet used for English and the Romance languages, and for German, Scandinavian, and other languages, is that which the Romans developed and refined for their own language. Further, the Romance languages themselves are firmly based on Latin, as is one-third of English. The success of Latin as the foundation of so much of modern language is not just due to the fact that it was possible to use it eloquently for the expression of literary forms, but that it could be employed so precisely to express points of law, science, theology, philosophy, architecture, agriculture, botany, and medicine. As such it was the language of scholarship, and of prose, in western Europe during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance; it is the language of the Roman Catholic Church; and it survives intact within the English language in the form of tags and phrases. Without a close acquaintance with Latin literature on the part of writers in other languages, there would be virtually no English or European literature before about AD 1800.

Shakespeare's sonnets

Spread from William Shakespeare’s sonnets, published by the Folio Society in 1947. (Antony Kamm)

The Romans’ systematic attitude to measurement enabled them to establish the basis of a calendar which has never been improved upon, and to devise methods to assess distances with great accuracy. They turned building into a science and gave a new impetus to hydraulics.

A hodometer

A device for measuring distance, described by Vitruvius (fl. c. 50 - 26 BC). The wheel (A) runs along the ground. A peg on its axle fits into the cogs of wheel (B), the rotation of which is transmitted through a series of joints (C, D, E, F) to disk (G), which is perforated with holes. As the disk rotates these holes come opposite to the open end of a tube (H, J), leading to a tank (K). Pebbles are placed on each hole at (G), and the device is so geared that at every mile one falls into the tank. Dials may be fitted to the horizontal shafts (L, M). (From Cyril Bailey (ed.), The Legacy of Rome, Clarendon Press 1923)

The contribution of Roman law to European law is incalculable, and from the Romans come the traditions of impartial justice and trial by jury. Banking, public hospitals and libraries, the postal system, daily newspapers, the fire service, central heating, glass windows, apartment blocks, sanitation, drainage and sewers, social benefits, and public education are all Roman institutions. So is that universal common bond and basis of social life, which they called familia (the household) and we recognize as the family, or family unit.

Roman families

Families, from the Ara Pacis, Rome 13 - 9 BC. (VRoma: Ann Raia)



Click here for a list of Latin abbreviations commonly used in English.

Believe it or not:

Unlike English law, Scottish law has a basis in Roman law, to the extent that Alexander Bayne, elected in 1722 Edinburgh University’s first Professor of Law, observed, “We consider the Roman laws which are not disconform to our own fixed Laws and Customs, to be our own Law.” Lord Kames (1696--1782), the Scottish judge, took a similar view: “Our law is grafted on that of Old Rome. The Roman law is illustrious for its equitable rules, affording great scope for acute reasoning.”