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Lessons from Rome

By Dr Chris Kanyane


I recently attended an international conference that was themed: "Reclaiming and Living out the Values of a Just and Caring Society." The conference started lamenting about low base morals and values characterizing people and organizations across the globe. The conference discussed the following values as key to building of the world's people:.

1. Integrity and Honesty
2. Justice
3. Respect and Acceptance
4. Responsibility and Accountability
5. Industriousness (self worthiness and self-reliance)
6. Compassion and Care.

But during the conference, as a trained historian, I wondered about the ancient Roman virtues which every Roman embraced during those times. These virtues made Rome, which was a barely significant, uncivilized, rural market town in a farming community, to rise ultimately to become the master of the entire Mediterranean world. It would prove so successful that its glory and myth would endure more than 2000 years even to our modern times.

The ancient Romans knew exactly what it takes to succeed. The character traits as displayed by the ancient Rome are age old traits and we do well to pay our attention to them so that we may practice them in our daily lives. We are living in the modern times where everybody seemed not to care, so that the majority of people are driven by short term enjoyment or fun, at the expensive of the grander scheme of things.

When I was educated as a historian, I immersed myself in the ancient records and annals about ancient Rome. Studying these ancient records and annals one gets the clear impression that there was not much kidding around with the ancient Romans. They disliked disorder and luxury (meaning excess). The legend of how Rome was founded is a case in point. Romulus and Remus were raised by a she-wolf. Remus refused to follow Romulus' strict orders to behave over the sacred boundaries of Rome. Remus jumped over the sacred boundaries as if they did not matter and Romulus killed him. The moral of the story is that serious things should not be taken lightly. True virtue subordinates the individual to the state. With this solid base of gravitas the Roman Republic was established in the 6th century BC.

The Romans were a conservative people, and so they wanted strong leaders, but not too strong. So the city's wealthy aristocrats, the patricians who monopolized state office, elected two of their kind to the executive office of consul, but only for 1 year. These consuls had vast powers but they were constrained by law and custom as well as the powers of the senate, the main legislative branch. Since the consuls after one year will leave the office to sit as senators for the rest of their lives, it was a foolish consul who will ignore or defy the will of the senators.

The Roman soldiers also mirrored this image of hard beaten society. Every soldier provided his own equipment, which meant he had to have a farm or some kind of property so that he could have the necessary resources to buy a shield, helmet, a sword and spear. If you did not have all these you did not get into the army. So the landless poor did not fight, they were called the proletarian because their only contribution to the state was their proles (their offspring). They did not pay taxes, and they did not have a say in how the city was run.

The primary attraction to the army was the spoils of war. At the beginning of Roman conquests, the Roman army fought in the phalanx, a tight formation without any room for maneuvering. But then they switched to smaller self contained units of 120 men called maniples. Three maniples made a cohort of 360 men, and ten cohorts made a legion. This was in a checker port formation that allowed room for flexibility. But they also made great demand of the individual soldier and they could only be perfected by strict training and discipline. These soldiers proved superior in discipline and determination to the cruder troops of their neighbors. And by the middle of the 3rd century BC this small insignificant city called Rome controlled nearly all the peninsula.

What made Rome so successful were the virtues in which they believed. The virtues Romans admired were all related to discipline and self discipline. These Roman virtues were accepted and recognized by every conscious thinking Roman as <i>mos maiorum</i> (ways of the fathers), and characterized their disposition, conduct and behavior.

The Romans believed in:.

Dignitas: "Dignity." A sense of self-worth, personal pride. Strength that is clothed in dignity. And never in a hurry about anything, patience and orderliness in carrying one's tasks.

Firmitas: "Tenacity." Strength of mind, the ability to stick to one's purpose. "Good people strengthen themselves ceaselessly." "I am more than I appear to be, all the worlds strength & power rests inside me."

Frugalitas: "Frugalness." Economy and simplicity of style, without being miserly.

Gravitas: "Gravity." A sense of the importance of the matter at hand, responsibility and earnestness. Can be translated to mean dignity, but it was taken by the Romans to mean weightiness. It was this weighty quality, sober conduct that was enduring amidst great difficulties that characterized every sensible Roman, his system of government, in fact all things Roman. Enduring strength rather than breaking under pressure; power and brutal force rather than delicacy. Driven by facts, not emotions or flimsy imaginations.

Honestas: "Respectibility." The image that one presents as a respectable member of society.

Humanitas: "Humanity." Refinement, learning, and being cultured.

Industria: "Industriousness." Hard work. The courage to act and the courage to endure - never to quit regardless of the circumstances. Understanding that they are bigger than circumstances is what gave every Roman the courage to succeed.

Pietas: "Dutifulness." More than religious piety; a respect for the natural order socially, politically, and religiously. Included in these are practical ideas of patriotism and devotion to others.

Prudentia: "Prudence." Foresight, wisdom, and personal discretion. Follow your fife's mission and calling, develop joyful thoughts. Sow a character - you reap your destiny.

Salubritas: "Wholesomeness." Health and cleanliness. "Health is very important part of the whole system of causing immortality and longevity."

Severitas: "Sternness." Gravity, self-control.

Veritas: "Truthfulness." Honesty in dealing with others.

So Rome went on to conquer the entire Mediterranean world and that included North Africa, that is Carthage Empire (present day Tunisia). But with Carthage it was a close call as Carthage had a great general by the name of Hannibal.

In 218 BC Hannibal set out from Spain to invade Italy. He had about 40,000 soldiers and 700 African elephants. These elephants were meant to strike terror in the hearts of Romans. By the time Hannibal crossed the Alps, however, he had less than half of his soldiers and no elephants. But still Hannibal was so brilliant a general that he weakened Rome. He outwitted and outfought them and by 216 BC he was camping under the walls of Rome itself.

Fortunately, when Hannibal called on other Italian cities to join him against Rome they turned a deaf ear. Rome's liberal policy and attachment to them had paid off. While Hannibal hang around looking for support, the Roman fleet cut off his supply and then landed troops first in Spain, then in North Africa near Carthage itself. Hannibal was forced to go back home to defend his territory and Rome was saved. And when Carthage foolishly went to war one more time with Rome two centuries later, the Romans obliterated the city of Carthage, literally tearing it down.


Dr Chris Kanyane is a friendly and simple humanitarian rising from one of the dirt mud villages in Limpopo province of South Africa, where he grew up with no electricity, plumbing or shoes.


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