One of the most famous sequences in comedy history comes in the film, The Life of Brian. A group of would-be Jewish rebels are bad-mouthing their occupying power.
‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ asks their leader. In response he gets a long and dispiriting list of the myriad ways in which Rome has made the lives of the ordinary person better.
The phrase, ‘what have the Romans ever done for us?’ has become historical and comedic shorthand for unrecognised achievement.
It’s become so popular because it still rings true today. You’ll use dozens of words from Latin today and, around 15 centuries after the fall of the Western Empire, we still live in a world the Romans invented.
Here are just five of their many innovations.
Substances like concrete do predate the Roman era, but the material they refined and perfected is very similar to what we use today.
The fact that so many Roman buildings still stand today is down to concrete. Architectural historians even refer to the “Concrete Revolution” that allowed Roman builders and designers to reach for more complex and beautiful constructions and even to build underwater.
The large domes and arches, which were also Roman innovations, were made possible by the adoption of concrete, including the Pantheon dome, the largest dome in the world from its construction in about 126 AD until 1436. It is still the largest unsupported concrete dome in the world.
Concrete in its broadest definition is a mixture of an aggregate (anything formed from small fragments of material, it could be building rubble) and a hydraulic mortar, which is a binding powder that will take up water before hardening.
The Romans perfected this technique, using materials like gypsum and lime that we still use today. When they could they used volcanic dust that made their concrete better at withstanding sea water than anything we can produce today.
Roman roads are largely the product of the need to get large bodies of fighting men around an ever-expanding empire.
Roman road construction was a huge step up from the simple tracks they replaced. They were built in a strip of land up to about 100-metres wide, digging drainage ditches at the side. A level centre was created with sand or gravel, before a two layer (at least) finish was applied. This was usually just of a gradation toward ever smaller and more compacted gravel and stone, but some roads were concreted. This top metalling was probably as deep as half-a-metre.
The first great Roman road was the Appian Way, linking the capital to Brindisi on the south-eastern coast of Italy, and built from 312 BC. One of the first things the Romans did on occupying Britain in 43 AD was to start building a network of roads linking military bases, for example the Fosse Way from Exeter to Lincoln.
We still follow many Roman routes in the UK today. Their roads were famously straight, a product of brilliant surveying and mapping for the time. They also looked after their roads, setting up something like modern local government to facilitate repairs, which took place regularly.
After the Romans left Britain, nothing as good replaced Roman roads until the 18th century boom in Turnpike roads. No other nationally-managed road system was in use in the UK until the 20th century.
3. Social welfare
Benefits and welfare are controversial today. If you’re looking for someone to praise or blame for their introduction then look no further than the Romans.
Augustus, the first (and perhaps greatest) Roman Emperor (ruled from 27 BC to 14 AD), set up the first programme to feed the poor. The congiaria was named after a food container, and was initially a simple grain ration. Food and other essentials, including education, were already subsidised as a way of keeping the peace and producing a population that could serve the greatest empire on earth.
The seat at the top of the Roman Empire could be precarious, and generous congiaria for citizens came to mean large cash hand-outs from Emperors who feared for their position.
Augustus’ successor Tiberius handed out 300 sesterces to each citizen. His successor Caligula (emperor 37 Ad to 41 AD) repeated the same gift twice. Emperor Trajan’s (ruled 98 AD to 117 AD) congiaria were criticised for being too generous.
Don’t get the picture that Rome was some socialist paradise. These more extravagant gifts were for citizens only, and becoming a citizen wasn’t easy. One contemporary account of Hadrian’s (ruled 117 Ad to 138 AD) gifts to his people remarks that while gifts of grain are good for those who qualify, everyone can see the free games (the famous “bread and circuses”) the Emperor funds.
Sewers are perhaps best taken for granted, no-one wants to spend too much time talking about them. Roman sewers are the model for what we still use today.
Aqueducts, gave the people of Rome water, and, from around 80 BC, sewers took the resulting waste away, often from another innovation, the public latrine.
The first sewers were used to deal with floods rather than human waste. In time the greatest city in the world had the greatest sewerage network to match its magnificent buildings.
By 100 AD, individual houses were connected to the sewers, though usually those of the wealthy first. Roman sewers were incorporated into the modern city’s sanitation system and many still stand today.
5. Books and newspapers
If you like to read, you owe the Romans a debt. Not only are most modern languages filled with words from Latin, but the very machinery by which we consume language is often Roman in origin, still lasting against the assault of electronic readers.
The Romans were the first to bind what we would recognise as books. They were called a codex, and the leaves they contained were originally wood, sewn together with a spine. They were replaced with lighter, more flexible parchment, and early Christians were enthusiastic adopters of this new technology.
Small parchment notebooks were also introduced, the first really portable writing surface. And perfect for ancient newspaper reporters.
That’s stretching things a bit, but Roman Acta Diurna or “daily acts” were round-ups of the day’s events. Originally, they were limited to official news, but in time came to include everything from sports news to family notices and the doings of the senate, after Julius Caesar lifted a ban on their publication in 59 BC.