Chapter 10


The Legacy of Rome

Roman aqueduct at Segovia, twenty-nine metres high and still in working order. (VRoma: Paula Chabot)

The remarkable thing about the Roman civilization is not that it ultimately collapsed, but that from such minute beginnings it survived for so long under so many external and internal pressures. It lasted long enough, and the pressures were resisted firmly enough, for many Roman practices, even those dating from before the Christian era, to become entrenched in modern life.

Latin inscription on an altar to Disciplina, a military cult deity, found at Birrens, Dumfriesshire, and dating from between AD 120 and AD 180. It goes on to say that the altar was erected by the Second Tungrian Cohort, which included a troop of cavalry. (Illustration by Jennifer Campbell from Antony Kamm, Scotland in Roman Times, Scottish Children's Press, 1998)

Except for the addition of three letters, the alphabet used for English and the Romance languages, as well as for German, Scandinavian and other languages, is that which the Romans developed and refined for Latin. Further, the Romance languages themselves are firmly based on Latin, as is one-third of English. The success of Latin as the foundation of so many modern languages is not just due to the fact that it was possible to use it eloquently for the expression of literary forms, but because it could be employed so precisely to express points of law, science, theology, philosophy, architecture, agriculture, botany and medicine. As such, it was the language of scholarship, and of prose, in Western Europe during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It is still the language of the Roman Catholic Church. And it survives intact within the English language in the form of numerous tags and phrases. Without a close acquaintance with Latin literature on the part of writers in other languages, there would be virtually no English or European literature before about AD 1800.

Spread from William Shakespeare's sonnets, published by the Folio Society in 1947. (Antony Kamm)

The Romans’ systematic attitude to measurement enabled them to establish the basis of a calendar that has never been improved upon, and to devise methods to assess distances with great accuracy. They turned building into a science and gave a new impetus to hydraulics.

A device for measuring distance, described by Vitruvius (fl. c. 50–26 BC). The wheel (A) runs along the ground. A peg on its axle fits into the cogs of the wheel (B), the rotation of which is transmitted through a series of joints (C, D, E, F) to a disc (G), which is perforated with holes. As the disc rotates these holes come opposite to the open end of a tube (H, J), leading to a tank (K). Pebbles are placed on each hole at (G), and the device is so geared that at every mile one falls into the tank. Dials may be fitted to the horizontal shafts (L, M). (From Cyril Bailey (ed.), The Legacy of Rome, Clarendon Press, 1923)

The contribution of Roman law to European law is incalculable, and from the Romans come the traditions of impartial justice and trial by jury. Banking, public hospitals and libraries, the postal system, daily newspapers, the fire service, central heating, glass windows, apartment blocks, sanitation, drainage and sewers, social benefits and public education are all Roman in origin, as is that universal common bond and basis of social life that they called familia (‘the household’) and we recognize as the family, or the family unit.

Families, from the Ara Pacis, Rome 13–9 BC. (VRoma: Ann Raia)

Case Studies

Click to view/download the following content.


Click to view/download the following content.

Image Gallery


Click to view/download the following content.


Christian empire and the fall of Rome

340 - Constans defeats and kills Constantine II in Italy and takes his territories.

343 - Trouble in northern Britain, to which Constans crosses in January.

350 - Constans is replaced in a coup by Magnentius, and then murdered.

351 - Magnentius is defeated by Constantius, who makes Gallus, nephew of Constantine I, Caesar in the East.

353 - Magnentius' suicide results in official reprisals against his supporters in Britain.

354 - Gallus is executed for abusing his authority.

355 - Julian, Gallus' half-brother, is made Caesar with charge over Gaul and Britain, and marries Helena, Constantius' sister. He wins victories over the Alamanni and Franks.

c. 356 - The Picts and the Celtic Dál Riata (later known as the Scots) form an alliance against Rome.

361 - Constantius dies in Cilicia while marching to oppose Julian, who has been declared Augustus by his troops. Julian enters Constantinople as emperor, having publicly declared his paganism.

363 - Julian dies of wounds while retreating from an encounter during his eastern campaign. His soldiers declare as Augustus his senior staff officer, Jovian, who makes peace with the Persians.

364 - Death of Jovian. A convention of civilian and military officials at Nicaea elects as emperor Valentinian, a military commander, on condition he appoint a co-ruler. He chooses his brother Valens to rule the East, while he takes the West.

367 - Revolt in Britain of Picts, Scots and Attacotti, aided by Franks and Saxons. Valentinian names as Augustus his eight-year-old son Gratian.

368–374 - German Wars.

375 - Death of Valentinian , whose four-year-old son, Valentinian II, is named Augustus by the troops, without the consent of Valens or Gratian.

378 - Death of Valens.

379 - Theodosius I, supreme commander against the Goths, succeeds Valens.

382 - Theodosius makes a treaty with the Goths and gives them lands in Thrace and Lower Moesia. In northern Britain, Magnus Maximus, military commander in Britain, heavily defeats Picts and Scots.

383 - Theodosius names as Augustus his infant son Arcadius. Maximus crosses to Gaul and defeats Gratian, who is murdered at Lyon while escaping to Italy.

384 - Theodosius and Valentinian II recognize Maximus as Augustus over Britain, Gaul, Spain and Africa.

387 - Theodosius marries Galla, sister of Valentinian II, and gives Serena, his niece and adoptive daughter, in marriage to his military commander Stilicho, the son of a Vandal captain. Maximus invades Italy and expels Valentinian II

388 - Maximus is defeated and executed by Theodosius. Valentinian II is again ruler of the western empire.

390 - Massacre of inhabitants of Thessalonica in response to the murder of one of Theodosius' commanders, for which he is refused communion and ordered by the archbishop of Milan to do penance.

391 - Theodosius sanctions the destruction of the Temple of Serapis in Alexandria, and passes measures banning all forms of paganism.

392 - Death of Valentinian II. At the instigation of Arbogast, Valentinian's cavalry commander, Eugenius, a teacher and keeper of imperial dispatches, is proclaimed Augustus, but he is not recognized by Theodosius.

393 - Theodosius appoints Honorius Augustus in the West, with Stilicho as his military commander and guardian.

395 - Death of Theodosius. His elder son Arcadius is emperor in the East, and his younger son Honorius emperor in the West. Visigoths under Alaric are in Greece.

396 - The division of the empire is now permanent. Augustine becomes bishop of Hippo.

398 - Honorius marries Stilicho's daughter Maria.

401 - Alaric the Visigoth invades Italy.

402–403 - Stilicho twice defeats Alaric, who, however, is allowed to escape.

404 - Honorius transfers his court to Ravenna.

405–406 - Ostrogoths under Radagaisus invade Italy, but they are destroyed by Stilicho at Fiesole.

406 - Germanic tribes cross the frozen Rhine and occupy northern Gaul, causing devastation. Some reach Spain.

407 - In Britain, Constantine III, a soldier, is proclaimed emperor. He crosses to Gaul and his authority is accepted both there and in Spain.

408 - Constantine makes Arles his base and appoints as Caesar his elder son Constans II, with orders to put down a revolt in Spain by some relatives of Honorius. Honorius marries Thermantia, younger daughter of Stilicho. Death of Arcadius, who is succeeded by his seven-year-old son Theodosius II. Conspiracy against Stilicho, who is executed by Honorius. Alaric besieges Rome, but accepts bribes to withdraw.

409 - Alaric again besieges Rome and proclaims the city prefect, Attalus, emperor.

410 - Alaric besieges Rome for the third time. He deposes Attalus and tries to negotiate with Honorius, who declines to do so. Alaric sacks Rome, taking away Galla Placidia, Honorius' twenty-year-old half-sister. The Rescript of Honorius is issued, allegedly informing the inhabitants of Britain that they must organize their own defence against Saxon invasions.

414 - Death of Anthemius, effectively regent of the eastern empire, after which the role is undertaken by Theodosius' elder sister, Pulcheria (later canonized).

418 - Honorius grants Visigoths federate status in Gaul.

423 - Death of Honorius.

429–438 - Publication of the Theodosian Code of laws.

439 - Vandals occupy most of North Africa and north-west Spain, and Visigoths, Burgundians, Alans and Franks occupy almost all of Gaul.

440–461 - Leo I is pope.

446 - Britons appeal to Aetius, consul for the third time, for help against the Saxon mercenaries introduced by Vortigern to fight the Picts.

450 - Death of Theodosius II.

451 - Attila the Hun invades Gaul, but is defeated for the only time.

452 - Attila invades Italy, but Pope Leo persuades him to withdraw.

455 - Vandals sack Rome from the sea. Avitus, a Gallic noble, is proclaimed emperor in Gaul, but on his arrival in Italy he is not recognized in the eastern empire and is forced to abdicate by the imperial commander-in-chief, Ricimer, who until his death in 472 effectively decides who will be emperor, and for how long.

457 - The new emperor in the East is Leo I, a serving military officer.

472 - Death of Ricimer, after which there are four western emperors in four years.

474 - Death of Leo. His grandson, Leo II, whom he had made Augustus the previous year, rules for three weeks before appointing his father, Zeno, husband of Ariadne, daughter of Leo I, joint Augustus. Leo II dies of natural causes, after which Zeno rules alone until 491.

476 - Romulus Augustulus (aged fourteen) is deposed by Odoacer, a Germanic mercenary commander, who informs Zeno, emperor in the East, that he will rule under his sovereignty. Establishment of a Gothic kingdom in Italy, and the end of the Roman empire in the West.