Echoes of Rome: Roman Influences in Everyday Modern Lives

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: THE ROMAN EMPIRE: FROM AUGUSTUS TO THE FALL OF ROME

By Gregory S. Aldrete, Ph.D.University of Wisconsin, Green Bay

The Romans are long gone, but their influence can be felt even now in different spheres of life. These influences are not limited to language and architecture. They stretch far and beyond our imagination. What are these influences?

Latin inscription from the time of Augustus.
A glance at a Latin inscription reveals the Roman influence on many European languages. (Image: BlackMac/Shutterstock)

Latin Influence in Modern English

The language you are reading this in is affected by Rome. Written English employs the Latin alphabet, and about one-third of English words are derived from Latin, and at least another third come from languages that are descended from Latin.

In the specialized vocabularies of science, medicine, and law, the percentage of Latin or Latin-derived words is even higher, amounting to 90% in the most common estimates. So the very way we communicate, both in speech and writing, is primarily through a system developed by the Romans.

This is a transcript from the video series The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Roman Materials and Style in Architecture

What about the buildings we live in? The popular image of Roman architecture is a marble structure with columns, and the Neoclassical style which combines Greek and Roman elements. This style has been widely used especially for major public edifices such as government buildings, universities, and museums.

Sketch of the interior of the Pantheon.
The dome of the Pantheon is made of the concrete that was pioneered by the Romans. (Image: Marzolino/Shutterstock)

The most widespread legacy of the Romans on modern construction is probably their mastery and popularization of concrete as a building material. The Romans also made extensive use of brick in their structures, both monumental and private.

Other important Roman contributions include domes, especially large ones, arches, and vaulting. All of these are still standard parts of the modern architectural vocabulary, appearing in thousands of structures all around the world. 

Roman Models for Modern Buildings

Many specific types of buildings can trace their lineage back to Roman models. The most famous Roman edifice, the Colosseum is the direct inspiration for almost every contemporary sports arena and stadium.

The Pantheon, with its innovative combination of a triangular pediment and classical columns fronting a giant dome, is copied today by innumerable government buildings, from the Capitol in Washington DC to most local state capitols, as well as banks, courthouses, and museums.

Roman bath complexes were the ancestors of contemporary spas and bath houses, featuring hot water pools as well as centralized heating systems that warmed up the floors and walls. 

Learn more about Roman art and architecture.

Markets, Apartments, and even Christmas?

Trajan’s Market, a multistory assemblage of over 150 rooms linked by arcades, internal hallways, and staircases, was the forerunner of contemporary shopping malls and office complexes.

It is not just in the realm of public architecture that the Romans have had a profound influence, but in the private, domestic sphere as well. For example, most of Rome’s inhabitants lived in apartment buildings that could rise eight or 10 stories high, and the nicer examples are strikingly modern in appearance and organization.

The way in which we regulate and measure time is by systems developed by the Romans. Our 365-day annual calendar, including the names of all the months, is essentially the same as that instituted by Julius Caesar. Dividing the day into 24 hours is also a Roman practice, although their hours varied in length according to the time of year. The Romans loved holidays and festivals, and aspects of many of these were assimilated into their modern counterparts; thus Christmas incorporates some elements of the Roman Saturnalia festival.

Learn more about the early Roman emperors.

Influence of the Roman Republic

One of the most overt ways in which Rome has shaped the modern world is in the area of politics and government. The United States was founded and designed as a deliberate imitation of the Roman Republic. This is why it possesses such features and vocabulary such as a senate, three branches of government, a system of checks and balances, and vetoes, all of which were components of the Roman Republic.

The emphasis on citizenship and the participatory role of citizens are based on a Roman paradigm, exemplified by the legendary Roman citizen, Cincinnatus. The Founding Fathers were steeped in classical ideas, and self-consciously set out to fashion a new Rome.

The instigators of the French Revolution were similarly inspired by an idealized notion of the Roman Republic, and both countries adopted much of their symbolism and terminology from Rome. 

In general, Roman history and the Latin language have given rise to a surprising number of terms for absolute rulers, including ‘prince’ from princeps; ‘duke’ from dux; ‘Tsar’ and ‘Kaiser’ from Caesar; and, of course, the word “dictator” itself.

Learn more about Rome’s transition from a Republic to an Empire.

Military Ranks and Insignias

The Roman military has been one of the most emulated in all of history. The Roman legions have functioned as the paramount example of a professional fighting force which many subsequent armies have attempted to copy.

The traits of discipline and organization embodied by Rome’s legions have also become central concepts for later professional armies. Even the command structure of the legions, with its division between officers and centurions, is mirrored in how most modern armies employ a system of commissioned and non-commissioned officers.

It is no coincidence that many militaries and governments have adopted the eagle as a symbol, in direct imitation of the famous eagle standards borne by the Roman legions.

Modern Athletic and Celebrity Culture

Many of our mass entertainments follow in Rome’s footsteps. Not only do our stadiums look like Roman ones, but the whole culture of professional sports teams, with their distinctive colors, fans, and rivalries, recalls the chariot-racing factions of the Circus Maximus.

Even related phenomena, such as celebrity athletes, a mania for sports statistics, and gambling on athletic events, were as familiar to ancient Romans as they are today. When it comes to staging spectacular shows as entertainment, and relishing violence in sports, the Romans surpassed anything found in modern culture.

Common Questions about Roman Influence in Modern Life

Q. Can we see the Roman influence in European languages?

Yes, we can see the Roman influence in many European languages. These languages are descended from Latin, and at least 60% of English, directly or indirectly, has Latin roots. In technical fields such as medicine, law, and science, Latin has influenced about 90% of the vocabulary used.

Q. What is the Roman influence on modern buildings?

The Roman influence in modern buildings can be seen both in terms of design—domes, pillars, arches—and in terms of material such as tiles, bricks and concrete. In addition, several structures, such as sports arenas, spas, supermarkets, and even apartment buildings are modeled on Roman originals.

Q. What is the Roman influence in politics and government?

The Roman Republic has influenced the ideas of the senate, three branches of government, a system of checks and balances, and vetoes, all of which were components of the Roman Republic. The emphasis on citizenship and the participatory role of citizens are also based on a Roman paradigm.

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