Echoes of Rome: Roman Infrastructure, Culture, and Law

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

Roman civilization was an urban one, and the cities of the empire presaged many aspects of the modern urban experience. Rome anticipated many contemporary urban concerns, and various aspects of its city life influence modern life, too.

View of the city of Rome from Castel Sant'Angelo.
Ancient Rome was the biggest city of its time, and it had to deal with problems that sound positively modern. (Image: S.Borisov/Shutterstock)

Urban Problems in Rome

The city of Rome was exceptional because of its unique size, approximately one million inhabitants at its height. As the sole megacity of this scale in the Western world at the time, Rome had to deal with what sound like very modern problems: overcrowding, traffic congestion, pollution, sanitation, noise, crime, wealth inequity, homelessness, and underemployment.

The city of Rome had to contend with other challenges that still plague cities today, such as frequent and destructive fires and floods, rioting, and public disorder, each of which was particularly problematic due to the scale of the city. 

Simply providing an adequate quantity of food and water for the capital resulted in the building and maintenance of a colossal infrastructure, and the collection and long-distance importation of a volume of supplies not equaled for over a millennium. Some scholars have calculated that Rome’s aqueducts provided more water per person than almost any other city in history. Given its hundreds of baths and fountains, this is probably not an exaggeration. The grain dole distributed to Rome’s poor citizens has elicited countless comparisons with modern welfare schemes.

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.

Civil Engineering on a Grand Scale

Rome’s influence on the field of civil engineering is enormous. The Romans were master builders of infrastructure, connecting the cities of the empire with a network of thousands of miles of carefully graded and constructed roads. Roman bridges, tunnels, harbors, and sewers were marvels of solidity and efficiency, and as testimony to their engineering, many remain standing thousands of years later.

Roman Aqueduct Pont del Diable in Tarragona, Spain.
The aqueducts are the prime example of the complex infrastructure developed by the ancient Romans. (Image: nito/Shutterstock)

Hundreds of cities in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East had their origins as Roman colonies or military camps, and their current street plans often follow those laid down by the Roman surveyors who established them.

Learn more about Roman art and architecture.

Romanization Versus Localization

There are many modern debates that would not have seemed unfamiliar in the Roman world. The empire spanned three continents, and the peoples that Rome conquered included dozens of distinct ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups. It truly was a multicultural empire, and the question of how, and to what degree, to assimilate newcomers was an urgent one.

One of the secrets to Rome’s longevity was its success, at least for several centuries, in walking the line between compelling the incorporation and Romanization of provincials, and allowing local cultures to continue practicing their traditional ways of life.  

Intellectual and Cultural Influences

The far-reaching intellectual influence of Rome in fields such as literature, art, philosophy, and science form another category in which the Romans’ impact is unavoidable.

Similarly, aspects of Roman culture are embedded within nearly all facets of our daily lives and habits. For example, the ways in which we dine, are educated, travel, and get married all contain specific elements drawn directly from Roman practices.

Even in something as trivial-seeming as superstitions, we emulate the Romans. Just as some people today worry about unlucky numbers or carry around lucky charms, so did the Romans. Modern audiences enjoy horror movies, but the Romans also told stories about werewolves and creepy old haunted mansions inhabited by chain-rattling ghosts.

Learn more about the early Roman emperors.

In religion, Christianity began in the Roman world and, once it was adopted by the emperors, spread rapidly throughout the Empire. Today, about one-third of the world’s populace are Christian.

Nearly the entire world, except a handful of countries in the Middle East and Africa, uses legal systems that are directly or indirectly derived from the Code of Roman Law.

Front page of Justinian's 'Digest of Roman Law'.
Justinian’s Digest of Roman Law contains many cases which shed light on ordinary life in ancient Rome. (Image: Renato Fucini/Public domain)

Let us consider a recorded case from urban Rome, from Justinian’s Digest of Roman Law, about a slave, a barber, and some ball-players. One day, a Roman decides that one of his slaves is getting a bit shaggy, so he sends the slave to a barber to get a haircut and a shave. Nearby, some people are hitting balls with sticks, and one man smacks a ball especially hard so that it flies next door and strikes the barber’s hand.

This causes the barber’s hand to involuntarily jerk, with the result that the razor slices the slave’s throat. The slave dies. The slave’s owner wants to bring a lawsuit in order to recover the cost of his slave.

Who is at fault? Is it the barber? Is it the man who hit the ball too hard? Is it his companion who failed to catch the ball? Is it the slave owner, who should have known better than to send his slave to a barbershop located next to an athletic field? This is an actual Roman law case, but apparently it does not have a clear legal solution. The Digest only records the conflicting opinions of several eminent ancient Roman jurists regarding who is at fault in this instance.

Thus, in language, timekeeping, government, war, architecture, religion, science, literature, philosophy, entertainment, customs, habits, religion, and law, we still walk in the footsteps of the Romans, and we cannot truly understand ourselves unless we comprehend the vital influences of Rome on our modern world.

Common Questions about Roman Infrastructure, Culture, and Law

Q. What urban problems were the Romans the first to face?

The Romans anticipated many contemporary urban concerns, including overcrowding, traffic congestion, pollution, sanitation, noise, crime, wealth inequity, homelessness, and underemployment.

Q. Were the Romans successful in civil engineering?

The Romans were master builders of infrastructure, connecting the cities of the empire with a network of thousands of miles of carefully graded and constructed roads. Roman bridges, tunnels, harbors, and sewers were marvels of solidity and efficiency, and as testimony to their engineering, many remain standing thousands of years later.

Q. How has Roman Law affected the modern world?

Nearly the entire world, except a handful of countries in the Middle East and Africa, uses legal systems that are directly or indirectly derived from the Code of Roman Law.

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