We’ve all seen the Monty Python sketch, ‘what have the Romans done for us?’.
The legacy of the Roman Republic and Empire can still be felt today – from water transportation and industrialised production, to news reportage and the welfare state.
However, it is a truism that history is written by the winners. Not many people are familiar with the cruelty and violence at the heart of Roman society.
But by exposing the severity of the atrocities committed in the name of Rome, we can reveal the dark side of the ancient world’s most infamous regime.
War of Plunder
The glory of Rome was founded on blood. The Republic's – and, later, Empire’s - massive economy and rapid territorial expansion were both funded primarily by plunder.
At their peak, the Romans controlled territory on three continents, slaughtering any opposition and forcing Roman culture on the native inhabitants.
Consider the following statement from Historians, Arnold J. Toynbee and James Burke:
“The economy of the Empire was a Raubwirtschaft or plunder economy based on looting existing resources rather than producing anything new. The Empire relied on booty from conquered territories or on a pattern of tax collection that drove small-scale farmers into destitution.”
Wealthy Romans profited hugely from this war economy, while subjugated populations were worked to the bone to sustain the Empire’s military might.
Unsurprisingly for such a dominating and aggressive society, Rome produced some truly evil statesmen – particularly during its imperial phase.
For instance, Commodus (as portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix in 'Gladiator') was Emperor of Rome for 12 years, between 180 and 192 AD.
Despite being a complete coward, he adored gladiatorial combat and would have cripples and undesirables rounded up and lashed together into ungainly ‘giants’ for him to slay in the coliseum.
Commodus was despised by the Senate for bringing Rome into disrepute with this posing, not to mention his enormous gambling debts - and, eventually, a group of conspirators paid Commodus’ favourite wrestler to strangle him in the bath.
However, Commodus’ crimes were minor transgressions compared to the actions of Caligula ‘Little Boots’ Cesar, whose madness and sadism are strangely absent from most modern texts on Roman history.
Caligula’s favourite torture/execution method involved fileting the condemned with a saw-blade from spine, to crotch, to chest. Excess blood in the brain prevented unconsciousness and death could take hours.
As a pastime between executions, Caligula also enjoyed chewing up the testicles of his victims - while still alive, of course.
His reign was mercifully cut short by the Praetorian Guard, who betrayed their Emperor, stabbed him to death and threw his body to the dogs - although he was allegedly so rotten that even they couldn’t stomach him.
Slavery and Sexual Exploitation Throughout its 1000-year history
Ancient Rome’s vast slave trade was a cornerstone of its economy.
Most slaves were war captives, sold as property to the Roman citizenry. A slave of Rome had absolutely no rights and was utterly at the mercy of his/her master (a situation known as 'dominica potestas'), who could use them for sexual gratification and have them flogged or killed as they pleased.
In fact, Roman law and classical moral philosophies defined a slave as a ‘non-person’ with no autonomy or selfhood. Marcel Mauss states that, in the eyes of Romans, ‘servus non habet personam' ('a slave has no persona')’
Consequently, Roman slaveholders had no qualms about punishing captured runaways with crucifixion.
While some laws were eventually imposed by the Empire to protect slaves, they were largely ignored and many slaves chose to commit suicide rather than endure their lot. Shockingly, at the height of Rome’s power, slaves represented 10-15% of the total population of the Empire.
In antiquity, war rape was an integral aspect of virtually all military conflicts, with conquered civilians (both men and women) serving as spoils for the Roman soldiery.
The Roman historian Tacitus notes that even prepubescent boys were raped en masse by Roman officers during the Revolt of Batavi.
Even The Bible alludes to war rape by the Roman Empire, with Zechariah 14:2 quoting a centurion who boasted, 'I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle, and the city shall be taken and the houses plundered and the women taken...'.
As with enslaved peoples, the Romans did not regard these rape victims as having any rights or persona - instead, mere commodities to be used, and then discarded, by ‘true’ citizens.
Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing
From the sack of Ancient Carthage after the Third Punic War, and the annihilation of Ilurgia, to the Gallic genocides, and the relentless persecution of ethnic Jews - the Romans responded to any hint of rebellion from perceived ‘inferiors’ with utter liquidation.
As Dr. Miland Brown points out, ‘War was different in the ancient world. There was no Geneva Convention back then. There were no rules for war other than those decided on by the combatants and which they then had the power to enforce.’
By the fall of the Empire, the Romans had slaughtered around 8 million people, a staggering number considering the inefficiency of ancient war technologies. Galgacus, a Caledonian chief, summarised Roman military strategy and imperial subjugation, when he said, ‘Where they make a desert, they call it peace.’
In summary, Ancient Rome is clearly guilty of every war crime and breach of human rights imaginable. Were its leadership around today, any tribunal would be an open and shut case.
However, the crimes described above were conducted before the introduction of rules for conflict. In the ancient world, they weren’t true crimes at all.
For the most part, the atrocities committed by Rome were acts of intimidation, designed to maintain a stranglehold of fear over its subjects.
In its defence, the Romans were willing to accept conquered nations into the general citizenry, as long as they paid fealty to the Emperor and kept his peace. In these terms, despite being power-hungry and ruthless, the Romans were not completely without mercy.
I’m willing to offer the Romans some credit for their contributions to science, culture and civilisation.
Beyond that, I’m consigning this remarkable, appalling civilisation to the eternal Hall of Infamy.