Survival lessons from Ancient Rome

The Romans have so much to teach us about what it means to live in a society in crisis.

Thomas Cole / Public Domain
Thomas Cole / Public Domain

Humans are social beings. When Aristotle said that they are political animals, he meant that they form communities. Their best way of life is as citizens, members of a polis, which is a city and its territory. Stoic philosophers said that humans have a natural sense of ‘belonging’, of recognising ‘one of ours’, and should aim to extend that sense in ever-widening circles from immediate family to local community to the world. That, not rootlessness, is what Stoics meant by being a ‘cosmopolite’, a citizen of the world. Augustine thought that God created people not only as naturally social, but as family, with one common ancestor; that is why God made Eve from Adam, not separately.  People like to find connections, and they need to communicate. Humans are alike in nature, but, said Augustine, a man would rather spend time with his own dog than with a foreigner whose language he does not share. ‘Social’ is the adjective from Latin socius/a : associate, partner, ally, companion.

What makes some of these social beings into an identifiable societas, a ‘society’, and what throws a society into crisis?

Cicero’s commonwealth

In the late 50s BC, as Rome lurched from political in-fighting to civil war and dictatorship, Marcus Tullius Cicero composed a philosophical dialogue De Republica. This title is best translated as ‘on the commonwealth’, for res publica means literally ‘public property’ or ‘public concern’; it need not mean ‘republic’ in contrast with ‘monarchy’. Cicero had held the consulship, the highest Roman office. He wanted to discuss ‘the best condition of the city [civitas, the Latin equivalent of polis] and the best citizen’, and he intended a challenge to Plato’s dialogue Politeia, which is confusingly known as Republic because its title in Latin was Res Publica.

Politeia means a community of citizens, and the constitution and form of government by which it is organized. Plato’s thought-experiment presents an imagined ideal state, in which justice is maintained because everyone has their due, and everyone does their proper job not someone else’s. Cicero chose to take an actual state, namely Rome almost a century before his own time, as the basis for reflection. His leading character wants to start with a definition, and suggests ‘a res publica [‘public property’] is res populi [‘property of a people’]; and a populus is not every assembly of a multitude, but an assembly allied [sociatus] by agreement on justice and by community of interest. The first cause of its coming together is not so much weakness as a natural tendency of human beings to congregate.’

Here is a starting-point for thinking about society. The phrase ‘not so much weakness’ sidelines the argument, made by some Epicurean philosophers, that society begins with safety in numbers, as a defence against predators and rivals; laws follow because the quicker-witted people realise that some rules are needed, for instance forbidding murder.

Instead, Cicero holds that people naturally want to live together, and that a ‘commonwealth’ is formed when a group is united by agreement on fundamental principles of life, namely what they think is just and what is in their common interest. This ‘commonwealth’ seems to be what we would now call a society. One obvious difficulty is that its members may change their minds, or may differ, on how to interpret justice and common interest. Aristotle, for example, distinguished ‘geometric’ and ‘arithmetic’ equality. In the first, influence is in proportion to status, which may be defined by birth or property or contribution to the community. In the second, one citizen has one vote, regardless of all these factors. Some people thought that ‘arithmetic’ equality was unjust; surviving lawcourt speeches show that jurors in Athens were swayed by arguments that the accused deserved their favour as a great man and a benefactor of the city. Other people thought that ‘geometric’ equality was unjust, because wealth and status were inherited rather than earned, and because an ordinary farmer or soldier also contributed to the city.

Cicero’s survey of Roman political history showed repeated disputes about justice and equality. People excluded from power fought against their exclusion, and people oppressed by the powerful found ways to resist. Rome was at first a monarchy, but the kings became tyrants and were expelled. Who, then, were the ‘people’ of Rome, who had the res publica as their common property? Patrician families claimed a special inherited status, but were forced to admit others to some of their privileges. Poor people, oppressed and exploited, walked out, and established a rival settlement until they got their own representatives, ‘tribunes of the people’ who could speak for them and protect them against arbitrary force. Through all these disputes about justice and common interest, Rome survived. What kind of crisis then would bring an end, or a transformation?

res publica, Cicero said, must have a way of making decisions. It can be governed in different ways, as a monarchy or an aristocracy or a democracy. Cicero favoured a ‘mixed constitution’, and thought that Rome’s balance of monarchy (the executive power of the consuls), aristocracy (the advisory role of the senate), and democracy (the people’s vote on laws and offices) was about right. But he feared that Rome in his time had inherited a res publica like a splendid picture, whose colours were fading with the loss of traditional mores: customs, moral values, the Roman way of life. If monarchy or aristocracy or democracy becomes too powerful, so that injustice prevails, then there is no populus united by agreement on justice and community of interest, so there is no res populi and no res publica. That argument allowed Cicero’s definition to survive when other parts of his Republic were lost.

Was there ever a Roman res publica?

Almost five centuries later, Augustine quoted it for his own purposes. He did not wish to discuss the best condition of the city and the best citizen: he wished to challenge complaints against Christianity.

Augustine lived through one traumatic event which seemed to some people like the end of the society they knew. In AD 410 barbarians invaded the city of Rome, the capital of the greatest empire (so far as Romans knew) that the world had ever known. Latin-speaking schoolchildren learned from Virgil’s Aeneid that Jupiter, king of the gods, had given Rome empire without end, without limits of time or extent. To historians in later centuries, and to some people at the time, the sack of Rome signalled the fall of the Roman empire. How could this happen?

High-status refugees fled to Africa, where Augustine was bishop of the sea-port Hippo Regius. He was asked to respond to complaints that this disaster, like many others, was due to Christianity: the gods of Rome were offended because they no longer received sacrifice. This made no sense, Augustine argued, because the authors whom Romans took as authorities showed that Rome had experienced worse disasters in the times before Christianity was known. Rome’s classic writers, who were still the core texts of Latin education, revealed a history of moral and physical disasters, defeats and social conflicts, in which the gods of Rome were no help at all. Livy provided narrative, Sallust provided moral and social comment, and according to Cicero’s definition, Rome was not merely a res publica in very bad condition, as Sallust declared: Rome was never a res publica at all.

Augustine would never have finished his work, he wrote, if he tried to discuss all the disasters, moral and physical, recorded by these Roman authorities: harm done by people to each other, especially in war; harm caused by earthquakes and eruptions, wildfires and deluges and floods. Rome’s fragile first settlement struggled for independence from its Etruscan neighbours.

War with nearby Veii seemed as epic as the Trojan War, though the territory at stake was no bigger than a tribal hill-town in Augustine’s African homeland. (Veii is now a suburb within Rome’s inner-city ring road.) Gauls who invaded from North Italy inflicted a bitterly remembered defeat, and had to be bought off with gold; when the Romans protested that the agreed weight had been reached, the Gallic war-lord threw his sword into the balance, shouting Vae victis, ‘woe to the defeated’.

There was no further invasion until the Goths, more than 800 years later – provided, said Augustine, you discount the times when Rome was invaded by Romans in civil wars. But there were perpetual crises, both immediate and endemic. Rome had citizen soldiers, so when wars dragged on away from home, farmland could not be cultivated. Veterans fell deeper into debt because their pay was always late, and rich people, so far from helping them, took the opportunity to increase their land-holdings. War brought famine and epidemic; frozen winters ended in destructive floods. Wars with the rival great power of Carthage caused more defeats on land and sea, and greater losses of soldiers and civilians, than Augustine could even list, still less describe. Empire was achieved at a horrific cost in blood.

In Sallust’s analysis, the destruction of Carthage removed fear of the enemy, so that patriotic self-discipline gave way to unrestrained competition for wealth and power. Augustine summarised the first century BC as ‘wars with allies, wars with slaves, civil wars’, which ended in dictatorship and the loss of political liberty. Rome reverted to monarchy, at first disguised by republican conventions, then open autocracy.

An ‘afflicted’ empire

Augustine said little about Rome’s later history, because he wanted to look at the evidence of the classic authors who wrote before Christianity was known. Would Cicero have recognised Rome in Augustine’s time?

Rome survived through crisis after crisis to become a huge city, dependent on imports of grain and olive oil. Farmer-soldiers had long since been replaced by professional armies who were paid for by taxes; few of those soldiers came from Rome or even from Italy. In practice, and increasingly in law, it was not enough to be a freeborn Roman citizen: the ‘more respectable’ were distinguished from the ‘lower orders’ who were liable to physical punishments once reserved for slaves. Grants of citizenship became more widespread until, in AD 212, all freeborn persons within the Roman empire were Roman citizens. Perhaps that was idealism; perhaps (as one well-connected historian claimed) the point was to make everyone liable for death duties, because there was as usual a crisis in paying the armies. The immense empire was always at war on several fronts, whether fending off ‘barbarians’ who were themselves displaced by movements of peoples in central Asia, or enmeshed in civil wars which transformed ‘usurpers’ into legitimate rulers.

There were emperors from Spain and from Africa, from the Balkans and from Syria. Some never visited Rome, because the action was happening elsewhere, or because civil wars removed them too quickly. From the early fourth century there was a New Rome at Constantinople, and more often than not there were two emperors, one in the Greek-speaking east and one in the Latin-speaking west. Some emperors came up through the ranks of the army, which was now full of barbarians; many of the Goths who sacked Rome in AD 410 had recently deserted from the Roman army. Some emperors had powerful barbarian advisers, such as Stilicho, son of a Vandal, who was executed in 408. Some old families and old money survived, but there were many new names. Impressive churches and martyr-shrines joined the ancient monuments and temples.

Christian bishops became new sources of patronage, because they had a duty to intercede for mercy, and to care for the poor with the welfare funds they gathered from legacies and from charitable giving. When Cicero wrote On Duties (De officiis) he thought carefully about priorities in using the resources of the household, balancing the claims of family members and dependants and fellow citizens, personal friends and political allies. He did not reject common humanity: it would be heartless to refuse a coin or a crust to a beggar. But Cicero did not recognise a general obligation to give in charity to people with whom he had no personal connection. Nor did he see welfare provision as a task of government: its job was to maintain peace and order.

As Augustine said, the empire survived the disasters it experienced: ‘The Roman empire was afflicted rather than changed. This happened to it in other times, before Christianity, and it was restored from that affliction. In these times too we should not despair of restoration, for who knows God’s will in this matter?’

In AD 410 the Goths left after three days. They were bought off, and seven years on, according to one visitor, the locals said you would not know anything had happened, unless you came upon one of the ruins that had not been rebuilt. Augustine cited another passage of Cicero’s Republic: ‘A city ought to be established so as to be eternal. So there is no natural perishing of a res publica as there is of a human being, in whom death is not only necessary, it is often to be wished for. But when a city is removed, destroyed, extinguished, it is in a way (to compare small things with great) as if this whole world perished and collapsed.’ Augustine commented that Cicero thought, with the Platonists, that the world would not perish; and that he thought the city would be eternal, although individuals die and are born, in the way that the foliage of an evergreen tree continues though individual leaves appear and fall.

The Vandals reconsidered

Like an evergreen tree, Roman society survived through crises and disasters, changes of scale and of power-holders. Rome, as Augustine said, was the Romans. But when Augustine died, in 430, his city was under siege by Vandals, a Germanic people who had moved south into Spain, then crossed to Africa. In the next decade they established a kingdom, centred on Carthage, which lasted for a hundred years. They achieved some sea-power, they negotiated with the western and eastern Roman emperors, and in 455, when negotiations failed, they in their turn were able to sack Rome. Was that the end of Roman society in Africa? ‘Vandalism’ became a name for mindless destruction. It took some time for archaeologists to realise that Vandals were responsible not only for burn-layers and for public monuments reused as shops, but also for building grand African churches. Vandals were Arian Christians, who sometimes (according to some sources) persecuted Christians who held other views; theological writing flourished, and one Vandal king himself engaged in theological debate. Vandals commissioned (or so the poets claimed) elaborate Latin verse, which combined praise of Vandal rulers with allusions to classical literature. Vandals appreciated silk, and gardens, and theatres, and Roman baths; this, said the Greek historian Procopius, weakened their moral and physical fibre, so that it was easy for the emperor Justinian to defeat them.

Roman culture and education continued, but Vandalic culture and values are almost unknown. Their language is lost, there is no Vandalic literature, and (as is usual for ‘barbarian’ kingdoms) the written sources are Latin and Greek. Those sources, together with inscriptions, provide evidence that Roman civic culture also survived. A cache of wooden tablets, dated by the regnal year of a Vandal king, documents property transactions made in accordance with Roman law; Fulgentius the theologian, according to his biographer, began his career as a tax-collector for the Vandal rulers. Roman imperial administrators, in Egypt and elsewhere, allowed local custom to continue. If Vandal rulers did the same, it may have made little difference to farmers and traders when Vandal warlords displaced Roman proprietors.

Economy, tradition, cultural memory, expectations and acknowledgement of duties, all contribute to the sense of belonging to a society. Did the Vandal conquest, after the initial trauma, do more than place different people in power at the top of a familiar system? Did parents begin to decide that their sons should learn Latin and Vandal not Latin and Greek, and practise fighting skills not writing and speaking skills? Perhaps the conquered population began to feel like Vandals, loyal subjects of Thrasamund or Geiseric, taking pride in a history of conquest. Or perhaps they simply acquiesced in Vandal rule, because it was not more oppressive than they could bear, and because it was better than the alternative of continued war. That too is a kind of society, allied by community of interest in peace and by agreement in observing the rules.

Augustine held that all human beings want peace, in their own bodies, in their households, and in their cities. Peace can be achieved only by agreement, at all levels of society, on who gives the orders and who takes them. Without that agreement, there will be perpetual conflict, because all human beings inherit from their common ancestor the desire to have their own way. In his view, it does not matter who conquers and who is conquered, because all that matters is the relationship of individual human beings to God; good rulers are a blessing, bad rulers are spiritual training.

According to Cicero’s definition Rome never was a res publica, allied by agreement on justice and on community of interestbut, Augustine said, there are other ways of defining a populus. He suggested ‘a populus is a gathering of a rational multitude allied by sharing with concord in the objects of its love’. (‘Rational’ means only that non-human animals are excluded, not that people think clearly.) What it loves may be better or worse, as in the case of Rome, but that does not mean that the Roman populus is not a populus and that it has no res publica. The same applies to Athens or Egypt or Babylon or any other people. ‘So long as there is some kind of gathering of a rational multitude, allied [sociatus] by common agreement in concord about the things they love’, there is a res publica. There is also a starting-point for thinking about society surviving through crisis.


Gillian Clark