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Quotes / The Roman Empire

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Reg (leader of the People's Front of Judea): All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?
PFJ member: Brought peace?
Reg: Oh, peace—SHUT UP!

Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace.
Calgacus from Agricola by Tacitus.note 

The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful.
Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

By the 70s BCE, the vast territories under Roman sway as the result of two centuries of fighting, negotiation, aggression and good luck, the nature of Roman power and the Romans' assumptions about their relationship to the world they now dominated were changing...Even more controversial, and central to the eventual collapse of the Republican government, were questions of who could be trusted with the command, control and administration of the empire. Who was to govern the provinces, to collect the taxes, to command, or serve in, Rome's armies?...At the very end of the second century BCE, Gaius Marius, a 'new man', loudly blamed a string of Roman military defeats on the corruption of Rome's commanders...He went on to base a political career on his ability to score notable victories where they had disastrously failed, and to be elected consul no fewer than seven times, five in a row...By the middle of the first century BCE, riding on the back of overseas conquest, Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar had become rivals for autocratic power: they commanded what were effectively their own private armies; they had flouted Republican principles even more comprehensively than Sulla or Marius; and they had opened up the prospect of one-man rule, which Caesar's assassination did not block...the empire created the emperors — not the other way around.
Mary Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome.

I admitted that it was indeed vain to hope for an eternity for Athens and for Rome which is accorded neither to objects nor men, and which the wisest among us deny even to the gods. These subtle and complex forms of life, these civilizations comfortably installed in their refinements of ease and of art, the very freedom of mind to seek and to judge, all this depended upon countless rare chances, upon conditions almost impossible to bring about, and none of which could be expected to endure. We should manage to destroy Simon; Arrian would be able to protect Armenia from Alani invasions. But other hordes would come, and other false prophets. Our feeble efforts to ameliorate man's lot would be but vaguely continued by our successors; the seeds of error and of ruin contained even in what is good would, on the contrary, increase to monstrous proportions in the course of centuries. A world wearied of us would seek other masters...I could see the return of barbaric codes, of implacable gods, of unquestioned despotism of savage chieftains, a world broken up into enemy states and eternally prey to insecurity ...Our epoch, the faults and limitations of which I knew better than anyone else, would perhaps be considered one day, by contrast, as one of the golden ages of man.
Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian (translated by Grace Frick)

Our literature is nearing exhaustion, our arts are falling asleep; Pancrates is not Homer, nor is Arrian a Xenophon; when I have tried to immortalize Antinous in stone no Praxiteles has come to hand. Our sciences have been at a standstill from the times of Aristotle and Archimedes; our technical development is inadequate to the strain of a long war; even our pleasure-lovers grow weary of delight. More civilized ways of living and more liberal thinking in the course of the last century are the work of a very small minority of good minds; the masses remain wholly ignorant, fierce and cruel when they can be so, and in any case limited and selfish; it is safe to wager that they will never change. Our effort has been compromised in advance by too many greedy procurators and publicans, too many suspicious senators, too many brutal centurions. Nor is time granted oftener to empires than to men to learn from past errors. Although a weaver would wish to mend his web or a clever calculator would correct his mistakes, and the artist would try to retouch his masterpiece if still imperfect or slightly damaged, Nature prefers to start again from the very clay, from chaos itself, and this horrible waste is what we term natural order.
Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian (translated by Grace Frick)

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