Excellent question, but one that’s very difficult to answer.
I would say what I love most about their civilization is their spirit. But what is that exactly? I’m not sure myself. Please bear with me as I explore the idea below.
You have a tiny city state, one of hundreds of others scattered around the Mediterranean like shells on a beach at the time, and from that tiny state situated on hills alongside a river would spring a civilization that changed the world – one which continues to touch us today through our laws, literature, science and language thousands of years later.
It could easily have been crushed, but it kept on. It never quit. Even during its darkest hour when the Gauls swept down the Italian peninsula and sacked Rome in 390 BC, they never gave up. Instead the men of fighting age took refuge in the citadel, a fortress on the Capitoline Hill, while the elderly men donned their finest toga’s and sat waiting for the barbarians to come.
When the Gaul’s arrived at Rome they found the gates opened. Fearing a trap, they entered the city cautiously and found the patricians seated in the porticoes of their homes.
Livy writes, “They gazed with feelings of real veneration upon the men who were seated in the porticoes of their mansions, not only because of the superhuman magnificence of their apparel and their whole bearing and demeanour, but also because of the majestic expression of their countenances, wearing the very aspect of gods. So they stood, gazing at them as if they were statues, till, as it is asserted, one of the patricians, M. Papirius, roused the passion of a Gaul, who began to stroke his beard – which in those days was universally worn long – by smiting him on the head with his ivory staff. He was the first to be killed, the others were butchered in their chairs.” (Liv. 5 41 7–10)
Roman Patricians (source)
Almost 200 years later Rome faced another dark hour by the hand of the Carthaginian Hannibal. But unlike the Gauls before, Hannibal was a consummate general, well tempered by battle who would become Rome’s greatest enemy.
Hannibal and his family, with only tepid support from Carthage, swept the Romans out of Hispania and southern Gaul before crossing the Alps and defeating the Romans in a series of battles culminating in the Battle of Cannae.
Cannae was one of History’s greatest battles – if only due to the prose of Livy who would document it two hundred years later. Livy paints a chilling scene on the battlefield after Hannibal’s victory.
“The next day, as soon as it grew light, they set about gathering the spoils on the field and viewing the carnage, which was a ghastly sight even for an enemy. There all those thousands of Romans were lying, infantry and cavalry indiscriminately as chance had brought them together in the battle or the flight. Some covered with blood raised themselves from amongst the dead around them, tortured by their wounds which were nipped by the cold of the morning, and were promptly put an end to by the enemy. Some they found lying with their thighs and knees gashed but still alive; these bared their throats and necks and bade them drain what blood they still had left. Some were discovered with their heads buried in the earth, they had evidently suffocated themselves by making holes in the ground and heaping the soil over their faces. What attracted the attention of all was a Numidian who was dragged alive from under a dead Roman lying across him; his ears and nose were torn, for the Roman with hands too powerless to grasp his weapon had, in his mad rage, torn his enemy with his teeth, and while doing so expired.”
Due to contemporary movies like 300, I believe the Spartans are seen as bad-asses of the ancient world, but honestly having studied both, Sparta’s greatness would last a few generations while Rome’s lasted for millennia. And it was due to the Roman spirit, the spirit of never quitting that eventually defeated Hannibal.
In my view the Romans are more deserving of the title than the Spartans.
Sorry Leonidas, the Romans would have kicked your ass.
Hannibal expected Rome to do what his nation did: capitulate after being defeated on the battlefield. War reparations and other terms would be agreed to, the Romans would be disarmed and life would return to normal.
That’s what happened when city-states defeated other city-states. In fact, Livy’s early chapters are a litany of shampoo-rinse-repeat when it comes to fighting enemies like the Veii, the Hernici, or even the Carthaginians whom they would face three times in massive wars.
But not Rome. Rome would not surrender – and it didn’t after Cannae. Instead it raised armies including one of slaves – an unthinkable action of the times that shows just how desperate Rome was – and eventually took the war to Carthage itself, leaving Hannibal impotently raging in southern Italy.
The Roman republic was a marshal republic. All the senators had served in the military and the consuls lead armies into battle. Society moved to the rhythms of war, with the timing of wars often dictated – especially early in the republic – by the agricultural season.
But it’s not the soldiers that represent the spirit. I don’t wish to leave with that impression. Everyone in the society, from the lowest slave to the emperor, felt the spirit of the Roman people that lived on through its religion, its festivals, its literatrue and its history.
It’s that spirit that caught my eye in middle age which has lead to a seven year long obsession with ancient Rome, including 6 trips over the past 6 years to Rome and its former provinces. It’s the spirit that lives on today in the Romans themselves, who, suffering from coronavirus sang to one another from their balconies during the darkest hours of the epidemic.
The spirit lives on: Modern Italians Singing During Quarantine