there were brilliant letter-writers like Pliny, orators like Cicero, and above all the great historians: Livy, Tacitus and–by no means least–Julius Caesar himself.
In the visual arts the same influences are clearly traceable. Such was the Roman admiration for Greek sculpture that the Emperors and nobles filled their palaces and gardens with copies of statues by Phidias and Praxiteles; many famous Greek works of art are nowadays known only by their Roman copies. Original Roman sculpture, splendid as it could often be, admittedly never quite succeeded in capturing the spirit of the Greek: there is no Roman equivalent of the Elgin Marbles, let alone of the greatest piece of classical sculpture in existence, the so-called Alexander Sarcophagus in the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul. 27 In the art of painting a fair comparison is a good deal harder, if only because–apart from those on vases–so few Greek examples have survived. Of Roman paintings–if Roman they can be considered–by far the most astonishing are those funerary portraits, mostly dating from the first and second centuries AD, found in the region of Fayum, some eighty miles southwest of Cairo. Together, these portraits constitute the most outstanding body of painting to have come down to us from the ancient world.
But the Roman achievement extended well beyond the field of the arts. The Romans were legists, scientists, architects, engineers and of course soldiers. It was in these last two capacities that they built up their astonishing network of roads the length and breadth of Europe, with the primary object of getting an army to its destination in the shortest possible time; if these were to be passable in all weathers it was essential that they should be properly paved, and it was self-evident that they should run, wherever possible, in a dead straight line. The first stretch of the Appian Way was finished as early as 312 BC , and the year 147 BC saw the completion of the Via Postumia, running from sea to sea–from Genoa on the Tyrrhenian to Aquileia on the Adriatic. Such communities as these, and countless others like them which in the early days of the Republic had been little more than settlements, were now prosperous cities, with temples and public buildings conceived on a size and scale unimaginable in former times.
All this had been made possible by perhaps the single most important discovery in the history of architecture. To the ancient Greeks, the arch was unknown. All their buildings were based on the simple principle of a horizontal lintel laid across vertical columns; although they were able to use this principle to create buildings of surpassing beauty, such buildings were severely limited, both in their height and in their ability to carry weight. With the invention of the arch and its extension, the vault, vast new possibilities were opened up; we have only to think of the Colosseum, or those mighty constructions like the Pont du Gard near Nîmes, or the tremendous 119-arch aqueduct at Segovia in Spain, to understand the size and scale of the architecture of which the Romans were now capable.
Thoughts of the Colosseum, however, evoke other, less happy associations. The Romans were talented, efficient and industrious; they produced fine artists and writers; they spread their remarkable civilisation across much of the known world. Why, then, did they display such a passion for violence? Why did they flock, in their tens of thousands, to witness gladiatorial contests which were invariably fatal to at least one of the participants, to cheer while innocent and defenceless men, women and children were torn to pieces by wild animals, or as those animals in their turn were subjected to slow and hideous deaths? Has any European people ever, before or since, publicly demonstrated such a degree of brutality and sadism? Nor are we speaking exclusively of the mob; the Emperors themselves, over at least the first two centuries of the Roman Empire,