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BEARD, Mary



S.P.Q.R., A History of Ancient Rome

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In Rome there was no doctrine as such, no holy book and hardly even what we would call a belief system. Romans knew the gods existed; they did not believe in them in the internalised sense familiar from most modern world religions. Nor was ancient Roman religion particularly concerned with personal salvation or morality. Instead it mainly focused on the performance of rituals that were intended to keep the relationship between Rome and the gods in good order, and so ensure Roman success and prosperity.

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the success of Christianity was rooted in the Roman Empire, in its territorial extent, in the mobility that it promoted, in its towns and its cultural mix. From Pliny’s Bithynia to Perpetua’s Carthage, Christianity spread from its small-scale origins in Judaea largely because of the channels of communication across the Mediterranean world that the Roman Empire had opened up and because of the movement through those channels of people, goods, books and ideas. The irony is that the only religion that the Romans ever attempted to eradicate was the one whose success their empire made possible and which grew up entirely within the Roman world.

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And some of the modern admirers of the gentle philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius would be less admiring if they reflected on the brutality of his suppression of the Germans, proudly illustrated in the scenes of battle that circle their way up his commemorative column that still stands in the centre of Rome; though less famous, it was clearly intended to rival Trajan’s and was carefully built just a little taller.

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Caesar laid the foundations for the political geography of modern Europe, as well as slaughtering up to a million people over the whole region. It would be wrong to imagine that the Gauls were peace-loving innocents brutally trampled by Caesar’s forces. One Greek visitor in the early first century BCE had been shocked to find enemy heads casually pinned up at the entrance to Gallic houses, though he conceded that, after a while, one got used to the sight; and Gallic mercenaries had done good business in Italy until the power of Rome had closed their market. Yet the mass killing of those who stood in Caesar’s way was more than even some Romans could take.

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In 63 BCE the city of Rome was a vast metropolis of more than a million inhabitants, larger than any other in Europe before the nineteenth century; and, although as yet it had no emperors, it ruled over an empire stretching from Spain to Syria, from the South of France to the Sahara. It was a sprawling mixture of luxury and filth, liberty and exploitation, civic pride and murderous civil war.

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