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Some thoughts about Ancient Rome, and its dawn

I listened to and watched Sam Laird’s interesting presentation on 11 January with much pleasure and not a little nostalgia – I had almost forgotten how familiar the events, people and words he discussed were to me, how much a part of my life they have always been.

I studied both Latin, and Greek and Roman History, to advanced level in school, and my mother occasionally coached pupils in both Latin and French, so I grew up with books in Latin, and about Rome, all over the house.

I loved Latin, both the literature and the grammar. The grammar has stood me in good stead for learning Latin-based languages. And the literature – I still remember the opening of Caesar’s Gallic Wars, Book 3, "Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres", and some of the poems written by the poet Horace, whose famous line “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” was so movingly quoted by Wilfred Owen.

And so I had always thought of the influence of the Roman era as a positive force in European culture. There is so much of it in English writing, as Sam illustrated in his talk. Although, on reflection, Rome was the Italian city I liked least when I was fortunate to spend time working in Italy, for the European Commission, in the late 1990s. It was in the Coliseum, on a rare free afternoon, that I had the sensation of hearing screams, smelling blood and feeling the immense fear and pain of people and animals in that space, and I had to leave.

Living in Spain, I began to ask more questions about the Roman Empire, and in November last year, on a visit to the MARQ Museum in Alicante, I learnt about the Etruscans, and how formative their civilisation was in what we know of the culture of the Roman era.

Living here, over time I began to wonder why the Roman occupation of Spain was such a popular subject for excavations, writings, and exhibitions, whereas the time of the Moorish occupation went almost unremarked in our part of Spain. I realised that the Romans took all the produce from this part of the Empire and from other outposts, straight to Rome. The large number of wrecks of Roman galleons and the amphorae inside them that litter the seabed south of Villajoyosa is not, as I had wondered, due to poor seamanship but is just the result of the sheer volume of ships travelling the sea route between the south of Spain and the Roman capital, taking Spanish oil and other treasures to the heart of the Empire.

The MARQ exhibition opened my eyes to just how much I had thought of as Roman was in fact inherited from the Etruscans – from their art, architecture, way of life. And yet I learnt nothing about them in school, not even that the city states of Renaissance Italy mirrored the city states of the Etruscan era. Partly I think this is because the Romans did their best to destroy the Etruscan language, and even today historians and archaeologists are trying to decipher the codes that will yield more insight into the period.

I thoroughly recommend this exhibition, a joint endeavour with a Florentine museum, and because it has proved so popular, it remains in Alicante until the end of March.

January 2022

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