The Roman heritage

Today – March 28 – is a significant date as regards Roman history. On this day in 37 AD the new Roman emperor Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus entered Rome to take up his throne. The event was seen as one of great significance and was greeted with major public celebration. The new emperor, who succeeded the eventually despotic and unpopular Tiberius, took a number of early decisions that cemented his popularity. That this did not last long may be clearer when we give him his more common name, Caligula. Within a short space of time he became unpredictable and cruel, a development sometimes now supposed to have been brought about by illness, perhaps syphilis. Increasingly mad, he eventually tried to appoint his horse Incinatus to the Senate. Eventually he was assassinated by members of the Praetorian Guard.

March 28 is also the date on which the Praetorian Guard, this time in 193 AD, assassinated another emperor, Pertinax, who only managed to reign for 86 days. The reason for his assassination was perhaps highly symbolic in the context of current Irish events: the Praetorian Guard had suffered a pay cut.

And also on March 28, in 364 AD, the emperor Valentian appointed his brother Flavius to be co-emperor. Their joint reign came at a turning point in Roman history, with the western empire beginning to fall apart; it would not last much longer.

The history of Rome is, as I frequently discover when I talk with young people, now largely unknown to the general population today, and yet it is hugely important to us. The general structure of western society, including Ireland, owes much to the Roman empire. Concepts of public administration, and the general legal framework, can be traced back to Roman practices and regulations. Furthermore the academic discipline of history was largely formed during that era, as were aspects of science.

It is perhaps time to restore Roman history in the public consciousness, as part of a move to widen our understanding of this important part of what we have inherited.

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9 Comments on “The Roman heritage”

  1. Jilly Says:

    While I don’t dispute your suggestion that Roman history ought to be more widely taught to school-children to help them understand the origins of our own society, I would suggest that we may need to start with wider teaching of more recent influences. I’ve had some very blank looks (and had to start at the very beginning) when trying to discuss the influence of The Enlightenment on the origins of our own society. What DO they do in history at school?!

    And now cue Vincent, who I presume will definitely have views on the importance of classical history…

  2. Vincent Says:

    Actually you’d be very wrong Jilly. I’d much prefer that we had a coherent History of Ireland first. One which admitted that everything did not hinge on religions.
    BTW, how can one teach Poetry in the English without any reference to the Roman poets or Plays sans Greeks.

  3. iainmacl Says:

    the thing is, that there is basically so much to learn that its not about fighting over what should be crammed into school curricula and which topics should be prioritised (we will after all no doubt here from the ‘entrepreneurial’ crowd that we should be teaching business rather than xxx). Wouldn’t it be better if we could actually instill the notion of lifelong learning (in its real, rather than politicised meaning)..that learning is a part of life and not just contained in school and university years. I think that there are actually not that many opportunities available for people to follow subjects out of interest, or at least those that do exist are increasingly under pressure to become ‘credentialised’ into certificates, diplomas, etc.

    I learned nothing much about the Romans in school, but did get a flavour from “I, Claudius” in the evenings! And years later eventually read up about greece and rome informally…oh and of course there was always Asterix..! 😉

    • kevin denny Says:

      “Ben Hur” made a big impact on my generation. I think the moral of the story is bring sex, violence and possibly sport in to it.

  4. kevin denny Says:

    I don’t know what history they do in school. They may well do something about the Enlightenment. In my microeconomics lectures I would mention the Scottish Enlightenment (Smith, Hume etc) & get equally blank looks. But even if the students did study the period in school, it wouldn’t follow that they would retain that understanding into university. I say this on the basis of teaching mathematics to economics students where one ends up covering ground that you know they did either in previous years in university or for the Leaving or even the Junior Cert. This is not a criticism of the students most of whom are perfectly decent individuals who respond to the circumstances they find themselves in. And who,lets face it, are only 18.
    I think the problem is that the Leaving Cert, in particular, trains students to think of education as a series of arbitrary hoops to be jumped through, mainly based on memory. The grown-ups have to take the rap for that.
    As an aside, I wonder is this general problem exacerbated by the move towards a modular system in the universities?

    • Jilly Says:

      Yes, I think you’re entirely right there about the Leaving Cert syllabus: it’s not the content that’s the problem, it’s the ethos. ‘Will this be on the test?’ and all that. And you may well be right about the modular degrees too – many people who teach on the more developed versions of these in Ireland mention this problem to me.

      If I could have one wish for the Irish education system (well actually that would be a terribly hard call, but one of my top wishes, anyway), it would be to burn the Leaving Cert syllabi, exam system, the lot, and start again.

      And while I’m on this subject, has anyone here who’s involved in Irish higher education ever, ever been asked to contribute to any debate/reshaping of their subject at Leaving Cert level? I’ve been asking this question of friends in several disciplines for a while now, and no-one ever reports being contacted. So apart from its other failings, the Leaving Cert appears to exist largely in a vacuum, quite detached from third level…

      • kevin denny Says:

        I am not aware of any input by academic economists into the Economics curriculum which is not to say there hasn’t been any. But I look at the papers & marking scheme from time to time & it seems terribly old fashioned and, frankly, boring.

  5. belfield Says:

    I suspect that the Parents of Middle Ireland would have a very considerable amount to say if anyone set about burning those syllabi and disassembling the leaving cert examination.

    Indeed, the NCCA has made a number of attempts over the years to get a bit of serious debate going on this issue – most recently in their efforts to put in place a more fully-articulated Senior Cycle (which if memory serves me right got very short shrift indeed from then-Minister Hanafin) but inevitably get knocked back by political and/or societal conservatism.

    As for Roman history, I seem to recall that the Tribunals played a sizable roll in helping set the public mood that brought down the Republic. Hard to see what the message might be in that. But on the other hand, when a Caesar neglected his Praetorians it always seemed to end badly and swiftly. Which perhaps is why there has been such a rush to prop up the banks and to NAMAfy our wonderful little island empire.

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