The 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 republic.

          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, Virgil writes:

Predestined 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)

The 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.


Works Cited
Mark A. Kishlansky.  Sources of World History: Readings for World Civilization (Cincinnati, OH: Wadsworth, 1999).