What have the Romans ever done for us?
'It is clear that parts of Roman society still live on today, you just have to look around you.'
Charlie Nicholls | 24 January 2016

Have you ever seen the comical sketch, written by Monty Python, in which the People’s Front of Judea hold a meeting asking: “What have the Romans ever done for us?” No? Well, as the sketch progresses, they seem to answer their own question with suggestions including sanitation, education, roads, public peace and the aqueduct, just to name a few.

Today we can see that the Romans have influenced our own policies on travel. I am particularly referring to the Schengen Agreement, which allows residents in set border areas to travel across internal borders freely, away from fixed checkpoints without the need for a visa. Citizens who do not belong to the European Union or the European Economic Area must have a visa, or come from a visa-exempt country if they wish to enter the Schengen Area. However, European Union citizens do not require a visa and they are also legally entitled to enter and inhabit each other’s countries. This is similar to a Roman policy where Roman citizens were given specific tokens housing an inscription of a duck and a small identification mark for the authority which the citizen was registered to. Border guards and watchmen were given lists of the identification marks they were allowed to pass through, allowing for regulated travel to a certain extent. These tokens of identification could be seen as our modern day passports, showing a clear link between Roman society, and our own society today.

However, non-Roman citizens had a slightly more demanding task if they wished to enter the Roman Empire. Typically people became Roman citizens once they had been conquered by Rome; after which they had free access to places throughout the Empire. On the other hand, with regards to those that the Romans did not manage to conquer, there was clearly a conscious effort made to keep them out of the Roman Empire. A famous example of this is Hadrian’s Wall, built by the Romans to separate themselves from the Barbarians to the north.

This easy form of travel across internal borders certainly encouraged the increase of trade throughout the Roman Empire, allowing resources to be bought and sold in a much easier and convenient way. Admittedly, our form of trade today is very different to what it was in Ancient Rome but it was the Romans who pioneered this crucial activity. The goods they imported included foodstuffs such as meat, olive oil and wine, animal products such as leather and hides and also construction materials. Interestingly, this way of working still permeates modern society, as the UK imports 40% of the total food consumed and this proportion is still rising! Trade was paramount to the Romans, particularly in relation to the quantity of goods and foodstuffs they had to import into Rome each year to sustain its enormous, growing population. The same can be said for the UK and all thriving countries throughout the world. Major cities rely on trade and importation of food to sustain their populations, because it just is not possible for a developed county, in modern day society, to be 100% self-reliant.

It would not be right to overlook, what is probably the most famous aspect of Roman society that is still present today: entertainment. The Romans are notoriously famous for building the Colosseum where gladiator fights, battle re-enactments and mock hunts were often held. Whilst modern society’s tastes have changed quite significantly from the days of the Romans, there are still some similarities we can draw between the two societies. Modern day estimates suggest that the Colosseum could accommodate around 50,000 people. Twickenham has a capacity of 82,000 spectators. Therefore, the idea of huge crowds coming together to watch sport is not a new idea; it has come from the Romans and their amphitheatres. The stadiums we build today, though they serve a different (arguably less brutal) purpose, are very similar to those built by the Romans.

These are only three ways in which the Romans have influenced our society but I can think of many more, such as law, sewage systems, construction and architecture. It is clear that parts of Roman society still live on today, you just have to look around you.


Original illustration by Kate Oldham.

James Routledge 2016