How A Loser Lived Forever and the Influence of the Roman Empire to the World
By his own account Quintus Horatius Flaccus was a rotten soldier. He fought for the losing side in the civil wars; when the order came to “Charge!” he dropped his shield and ran like mad in the wrong direction.
Back in Rome he landed a post as a petty bureaucrat, a quaestor’s clerk — not much of a job but one that left time for writing poetry on the side. He came to know great architects and builders, judges, sculptors, and political leaders. And Quintus Horatius Flaccus himself never governed a province, never built an aqueduct or temple, never created a striking bronze sculpture.
Still, when this Roman sat down in 23 B.C. to review his life’s accomplishments, he concluded that his contributions in poetry would outlast whatever the soldiers and builders had achieved:
Exegi monumentum aere perennius
Regalique situ pyramidum altius …
Non omnis moriar.
(I have erected a monument more lasting than bronze
And taller than the regal peak of the pyramids …
I shall never completely die.)
That famous epilogue from the third book of Odes has been endlessly quoted as testament to the immortality of literature and, most of all, its writer.
It was written by a man named in the entire known world as Horace.
But it could also stand as a tribute to the Roman Empire and the countless Roman influences that still flow through our daily lives some 15 centuries after the walls of Rome came tumbling down.
The most widely used alphabet on earth to this day is the one the Romans developed. The uppercase you are reading are the same ones the Romans were reading in 600 BC. Roman publishers developed the lowercase forms around AD 300. The only changes since then came in medieval times, when the consonant value of I was promoted to a letter in its own right, J; and V was divided into U, V, and W. So when you see an ancient inscription “IVLIVS,” it means “JULIUS.”
You might say Rome’s influence is dead yet Latin pops up in conversations and documents around the world today: alma mater, alter ego, antebellum, habeas corpus, ignoramus, in extremis, ipso facto, persona non grata, per capital, prima facie, quid pro quo, sui generis, sine die, sub rosa, vice versa, AM, PM, i.e., A.D., rip, etc. Our list could go ad infinitum.
One more phrase we must mention though is Carpe Diem or “Seize the Day”. It is not from Robin Williams.
This familiar live-for-the-moment philosophy has evolved into YOLO (You only live once). It comes from a poem by that loser Horace.
Proof, indeed, that he did not completely die.
One of the most important documentary legacies the Romans left behind was the law — the comprehensive body of statute and case law that mankind — to this day — is struggling to achieve.
The ideal of a written law as a shield — to protect individuals against one another and against the power of the state — was a concept the Romans took from the Greeks. But it was the Romans that put this abstract notion into daily practice, and the practice is the very reason why there are courts and justice systems on earth, terrible as some may be.
Of course, the historian Tacitus did warn: “Corruptissima republic, plurimae leges” — The worse the state, the more laws it has.
In chapter 22 of Acts, Paul is brought before a Roman magistrate on criminal charges — apparently for something like provoking a riot. Even then the Christians were considered a nuisance. the police are just about the beat and jail him when Paul pipes up that he is a Roman citizen. That changes everything, and he is permitted to remain free pending trial.
Later the chief of priests of Jerusalem complained to the Roman governor Festus about the failure to prosecute Paul. Feasts responds, in chapter 25, with a lecture on legal rights: “It is not the Roman custom to hand over any man before he has faced his accusers and has had an opportunity to defend himself against their charges.”
Eventually Paul asserts yet another legal prerogative — his right to make an appeal directly to Rome. This process leaves him free for a few more years. Paul makes his way to Rome, but then the Book of Acts ends, with no word about the final decision on his case.
Some scholars say that the charges were dropped since there were no records of the case — Romans loved recording everything.
Of course, some also said that Nero fed him to the lions. Of course that made for better storytelling for the Christians.
But juxtapose that now to Indonesians that kill their fellow citizens on the basis of theft. Sorry, I mean burning alive a person for stealing a motorcycle. The nation didn’t care: from Bogor to Jakarta. The cops didn’t care, actually, nobody seems to care because it did not happen once. And it happened in 2015!
Which makes you wonder which one is more barbaric … Ancient Rome or Modern Day Indonesia?
Of course, there would be Neros and Caligulas and Augustus from which the law could be subverted, but there’s a general tendency to abide by legal discourse.
If the emperor himself had to honour the law, the obligation fell even more heavily on low ranking officials. A provincial consul or curate who violated the law risked an imperial summon back to Rome, where he would be thrown in pedica (in chains).
One reason the consul Festus was so concerned about Paul’s legal rights in Acts may be that his immediate predecessor, the inept Felix, had in fact been recalled after citizens of Judae complained that he was abusing their rights.
The admirable thing about the Ancient Roman mindset was that they were so much focused on the here and now. The got today’s job done and left the next for tomorrow. It’s a spirit that Horace himself knew well, when he wasn’t worrying about monuments, I suppose.
Of all the charming odes of Horace, my favourite is the one that expresses this characteristics sense of Roman confidence:
… Ille potens sui
laetusque deget cui licet in diem
dixisse Vixi …
Happy the man, and happy he alone,
He, who can call today his own;
He who, secure within, can say,
Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have
There are 24 hours in a day … how many belong to you?