Diary: What did the Romans ever do for us?
Nothing, it turns out. They did it all for themselves, the selfish so-and-sos. Natalie Haynes explains
I have probably been asked at least a thousand times what the Romans ever did for us. This isn’t because I have inexplicably filled my social circle with deranged Monty Python enthusiasts, although I’m sure that has occasionally, unintentionally, been true. Rather, it’s because I studied Classics at university, taught Latin, Greek and Ancient History briefly, and have just written a book about how the ancient and modern worlds make more sense when each is refracted through the prism of the other. So whenever anyone asks me what I’m up to at the moment, and I tell them, the question inevitably crops up.
And the honest answer is: nothing. The Romans did nothing for us, just like we don’t do anything for future generations. Sure, the more optimistic of us might wonder idly if one day our Twitter feed will be considered a mine of incisive social commentary by a 40th-century historian. But most of us live without too much thought of how our lives would look if – like the first-century Pompeians – we were suddenly on the receiving end of a volcano, and frozen in time and space for a couple of millennia.
Of course, the Romans did all kinds of things that we have borrowed and admired: aqueducts and central heating, roads and rudimentary sanitation. But they did those for their benefit, not ours. There is something deeply depressing in the belief that a society is only worthy of our attention and study if it has in some way contributed to our own – the historical equivalent of believing that the sun and all the planets go round the earth.
The same is true of ancient languages, which are so frequently lobbed around in discussions about education. Should children learn Latin instead of French or Spanish? Latin is certainly easier, and its rules have often shaped the way English works. But then, wouldn’t Mandarin or Arabic be more useful in the economy of tomorrow (irrespective of how much Mandarin you could actually learn in a two-year GCSE course)?
And so the conversation drags on. But Latin isn’t a learning tool – we shouldn’t learn it because it will make us better spellers and grammarians. We should learn it – if we want to – because it will allow us to read Latin literature. And being able to read Virgil or Horace or Tacitus is a massive reward for learning a few verb endings.
None of which should suggest that the Romans wouldn’t have been delighted that we are still so interested in them today. Ancient literature from Homer onwards is full of the idea that human beings can most closely reach immortality by doing famous deeds. Achilles, so the legend goes, was given a choice when he was young: a long life, ending in obscurity, or a short life, ending in glory, his name sung through history by poets and bards. He chose the latter, explicitly preferring fame to longevity.
Everyone who watches The X-Factor through a veneer of sniffy superiority, wondering why these kids can’t seem to get enough of the fame factory, might bear this in mind. Each generation since the Bronze Age, it seems, has prized fame – and its connection to immortality – above all things.
So perhaps that is what the ancients – the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and Carthaginians – have done for us: they have given us a sense of perspective. By studying any society that is different from our own, we learn about that society and about ourselves. As the late historian Trevor J Saunders once wrote, “The society that loses its grip on the past is in danger, for it produces men who know nothing but the present, and who are not aware that life has been, and could be, different from what it is. Such men bear tyranny easily; for they have nothing with which to compare it.”
Natalie Haynes’s The Ancient Guide To Modern Life (Profile) is published in November