Roman civilization is alive and kicking (sort of)

I’ve just been on holiday near Malaga, in the south of Spain. It was warm and relaxing, eating in lovely little restaurants by the sea. My idea of heaven.

I love the domestic architecture of the Mediterranean: lovely white villas with their terracotta tiled roofs, often built around cool courtyards, with balconies overlooking a garden and a small pool; perhaps a little fountain playing in the centre.

Of course, the south of Spain has more than its fair share of brutal modern hotels, tower blocks which have been plonked down without regard to context or aesthetics (though there are some stylish contemporary hotels as well); however, there is plenty of the traditional built environment still there if one looks.

One thing that always strikes me when I go to Spain or Italy (and I suppose the same would be true for the south of France but I’ve not yet visited there) is the thought that the Graeco-Roman culture of ancient times never actually vanished. The architecture is so clearly descended from classical antecedents. Some old streets near where we were staying looked to me precisely how I would imagine Roman streets to look like. One is forced to conclude that the Roman way of life (and the Greek culture which infused it) outlasted the barbarian invasions of the 5th century AD and the Germanic kingdoms to which they gave rise, to become the foundation for the later Mediterranean civilization of Medieval and early modern Europe.

This is probably self-evident to a lot of people (after all, the languages of these regions are a bit of a give-away), but the sheer sense of cultural continuity is fascinating for an historically-inclined Brit like me. In our country, we think of the “Fall of he Roman Empire” as being a dramatic affair of sacked towns, burnt villas, literate urban populations put to the sword…you get the picture. And for us, here in Britain, it may well have been something like that (although modern scholarship is painting a somewhat more nuanced picture). In Mediterranean lands, however, the “decline and fall” of Graeco-Roman civilization is perhaps better seen as a gradual evolution to something different: yes, initially less urban, with localities less able to afford the libraries and book-learning of previous generations, or to maintain the roads and aqueducts of the old “Pax Romana”; but still maintaining the old way of life within the smaller towns as new influences (Germanic warrior chiefs, Christian churchmen) gradually reshaped their ideas, economy and society

By Peter Britton