Empires that Changed the World:
The Roman and Arab Empires and their influence on the world today
Empires are influenced by the world around them, but more heavily by the
people within them. This holds true
for nations today and nations in the past.
Religion, culture, and society itself find their roots in the people, not
in the circumstances or the environment. The
circumstances and environment influence society only by the beliefs of people.
Empires are no exception. Two
empires heavily influenced by the societies they conquered and had those
societies, in turn, influenced by them were the Roman and Arab Empires,
especially in the realms of religion, architecture, and literature.
Both the Arab and Roman Empires had sweeping influence on the world we
know today. Rome held most of
Europe, including Britain, France, Spain, and most of Germany.
The Arab Empire took over the eastern half of the Roman Empire, the
Byzantine, after Rome fell in the fifth century C.E. and also held the
modern-day Middle East, which consisted of various powers, including the Persian
Empire. Religion deeply influenced
both of these cultures, originally stemming from minorities in the populace.
Christianity arose in the western Roman Empire in the first century C.E.
with the teachings of a man called Jesus, hailed by the Christians as their
Messiah. Stories that survive today
in the Christian holy book, the Bible, speak of the teachings of Jesus, whom his
followers believe was the Son of God. “Love
the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your
mind and with all your strength. The
second is this: Love your neighbor
as yourself.” (Spielvogel, 152) These
teachings eventually got him into trouble with the hierarchy of the Jewish
church, which found the teachings of Jesus heretical.
Because of an agreement the Romans had with the Jewish leaders, a Roman
magistrate, Pontius Pilate, ordered the arrest of Jesus, called Christ, and
later his crucifixion. The
martyrdom of Christ and the teachings of the Apostles, his disciples, and
others, caused Christianity to spread throughout the Roman Empire. At first, Christianity was a minor annoyance to the Imperial
hierarchy, but eventually Christianity became the state religion of the Roman
Empire under Constantine. Christianity,
too, changed as a result of the Romans. Martyrdom
became commonplace and the suffering of Christians came to be considered holy;
the more one suffered, it seemed, the closer they came to God.
This idea held true well into the modern era.
Likewise, Islam arose in the Middle East several hundred years later, in
the seventh century C.E. as an extension of the faith started by the Jews in
time immemorial. The teachings of
Islam’s first prophet, Mohammed, are in the Qur’an (Koran), the Islamic holy
text, which preaches “God! There
is no god but Him, the Living, the Self-subsisting: He hath…sent down the
Salvation.” (Kishlansky, 129) It
was in the hopes of bringing more people to salvation that Mohammed and his
followers began to spread the faith of Islam amongst the peoples of the Middle
East. Islam itself was the basis
for the Arab Empire and changed after the death of Mohammed into several sects
that survive to this day. The
pressures of an Empire and the thirst for power over nations caused the creation
of the divisions in Islam, divisions that survive today all over the world.
Architecture is another aspect of cultures
inspired by both empire and subject nation.
In Spain, there are excellent examples of the influence that the Berbers
and Moors, both tribes associated with the Arab Empire, had on the architecture,
with the fantastic mosques and castles in various regions of the nation.
Structures built by Arabs found themselves influenced by local peoples in
places like Africa, where both conquerors and conquered peoples built structures
in slightly modified traditional ways. Rome
had similar experiences. The Roman
Empire left its mark all over Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East with
their baths, which were centers for public health and for socialization.
Some of these baths are still in use today.
The concept may have led to our modern-day spa.
However, one of the most famous Roman edifications, the Roman road, did
not start out Roman at all. The art
of road building came to the Romans from the Etruscans, another people in Italy,
which Rome conquered and fell to over the period of the Roman kingdom and
Greek literature had a great impact on Roman literature and mythology,
literature that later had an impact on the medieval and modern worlds.
The Greek tale by Homer, the Iliad, is the prequel to the Roman
tale, the Aeneid, written by Virgil.
The Iliad and its Greek sequel, the Odyssey, tell the tale
of the Trojan War and one man’s journey home.
The Aeneid is the tale of one Trojan’s search for a new home
after the Greeks destroyed his. Both
these tales come to the modern world through various translations.
The Odyssey and the Aeneid are classic journey stories that
some modern novelists look to for inspiration. Not only did the Iliad have an impact on the
literature of Rome and the modern world, it also had an impact on the mythology
of Rome. The Iliad made it
possible for Virgil’s tale of Aeneas to also be the tale of where the Roman
people came from. In the Aeneid,
exile, from the Trojan shore
To Italy, the blest Lavinian strand.
Smitten of storms he was on land and sea
By violence of Heaven, to satisfy
Stern Juno’s sleepless wrath; and much in war
He suffered, seeking at the last to found
The city, and bring o’er his fathers’ gods
To safe abode in Latium; whence arose
The Latin race, old Alba’s reverend lords.
And from her hills wide-walled, imperial Rome. (Kishlansky, 104)
tale of the Aeneid is the tale of Aeneas’ flight from the ruins of
Troy, on a quest to find Italy, where he finds that he will found a great city,
and from that great city would come the architects of a great empire.
That great Empire was Rome, according to the tale Virgil weaves, which is
a part of Roman history and mythology.
The Arab Empire had similar experiences with literature, but it deals
with their holy book, the Qur’an (Koran).
The style of the Qur’an is very similar to that of other religious
texts, including the Torah and the Bible. This
may be because religious texts tend to follow a certain pattern, but it also
could be reflective of the peoples living in the Arab Empire.
The Arabs were very tolerant of non-Islamic peoples and their style of
writing their holy texts may be evidence of their study of other religions.
Many Arab religious texts survive today, and the Qur’an is still a
guide to daily life for many people living in the Middle East, southwest Asia,
and North Africa.
Rome and the Arab Empire had a large impact on the societies they conquered, but those societies also influenced the culture, writing, and architecture of their conquerors. Today, people see evidence of this surviving in places like Spain, North Africa, the Middle East, and most of Europe. Spanish mosques and Roman roads in Britain survive today as reminders of empires that left their indisputable mark on the world and in leaving their mark found things to admire and incorporate into their own cultures from those they overtook. Literature, whether it be mythological, religious, or fanciful history, found itself changed by the forces around it as cultures merged and changed under the pressure of an Empire. Even religion itself changed and changed the world when it came into contact with these two empires. Their sweeping influence helped shape the world we know today.
Mark A. Kishlansky. Sources of World History: Readings for World Civilization (Cincinnati, OH: Wadsworth, 1999).