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Similarities between the ancient Roman and modern East Asian cultures and lifestyles

Did the pre-Christian Roman lifestyle share more in common with modern Japanese, Korean and Chinese cultures than with modern Western ways?

Written by Maciamo on 3 November 2007 (updated in October 2016)

Modern Western cultures, and particularly those of Romance and English-speaking countries, like to identify with the Roman Empire. We use the Roman calendar, Roman alphabet, and obviously Romance languages do descend directly from Latin, and so does approximately half of modern English vocabulary, but language alone does not define a lifestyle nor does it instil values.

Europeans and Americans have copied, among others, the Roman politcal system and public architecture. Most Westerners from the former Roman Empire tend to regard the Romans as their ancestors, even if their DNA is more Celtic, Germanic or even Slavic. But, whether we admit or not, Western culture owes more to Christianity and to the "barbarian" Germanic tribes that unfurled unto the Roman Empire and created modern states in the Middle Ages.

It does not immediately come to mind to compare the ancient Romans with cultures far beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire, indeed with people who have nothing to do with the Romans historically or genetically. Yet, after living in Japan for many years and travelling to Korea, China and other East Asian countries, I have come to notice a number of striking similarities between the ancient Roman way of life and the 'traditional' East Asian lifestyle and values. By traditional I mean the culture that existed before East Asian countries tried to Westernise themselves, from the late 19th century in Japan's case, and from the mid-20th century for China and Korea. Those similarities are most conspicuous with Japan, which also shares a strongly militaristic past with the Romans, portrayed by their highly disciplined carreer warriors (be them legionaries or samurai). Here are some of the common points I have noticed between East Asians and the Romans.

  1. Roman cities were organised on a grid pattern, and so were Chinese and Japanese cities. On the contrary, European cities since Medieval times have been more circular, with tortuous streets or irregular patterns adapted to the topography and type of neighbourhood. Only colonial cities in the Americas and Oceania have resurrected the Roman grid pattern.

  2. One of the most important public buildings for the Romans were the thermae (public baths & sauna), where people liked to socialise. The same is still true in Japan today. Hot springs with public baths are more popular than ever in Japanese society, and is seen as one of the best ways to relax and socialise at the same time. The Japanese also have communal bath houses (sento) in places outside volcanic areas, and so do the Koreans with their jjimjilbang. Apart from the sauna culture in Finland and the Turkish baths from the former Ottoman Empire, there is no equivalent to Roman public baths in Europe. Interestingly, both Finnish and Turkish languages and people originated in Northeast Asia and are distant cousins of the Mongols, Koreans and Japanese (see Y-haplogroup N1c).

  3. Roman society was polytheistic and didn't mind mixing elements of different religions and philosophies together. Being atheistic was not a problem either. The same is true in Japan, Korea and (pre-/post-communist) China, which mix elements of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and, in Japan's case, also animism.

  4. Both Roman and Oriental temples were/are typically open, with pillars around the main hall, and a statue of the god inside. This contrasts sharply with the hermetically closed Christian churches, some of which look almost like castles (notably those of the Romanesque/Norman period).

  5. Prostitution was seen as a normal part of life in Roman society. It lacked the Judeo-Christian stigma. This is also true in East Asia. Sex with a prostitute or a slave was not considered as adultery by the Romans. Likewise, the Chinese used to have concubines in addition to their official wives. Many East Asian nowadays still hold similar views regarding prostitution. It is not uncommon for Japanese wives to turn a blind eye on their husbands going to 'enjoy themselves', especially among middle-aged couples with children who may have become sexless couples.

  6. Gender relations in ancient Rome and East Asia are very similar. Indo-European societies have given a lot of importance to women since the Bronze Age. This is particularly obvious in ancient Celtic and Germanic cultures, where female warriors and leaders were not uncommon. Nordic people have had a rather egalitarian attitude to genders at least since Viking times, and perhaps since the Bronze Age. Despite their partially Indo-European roots, the Romans did not retain this liberated attitude to women. But neither did they look down on them the way modern Muslims do. There were strong gender roles and women were banned from politics and martial matters. Married women were expected to stay home and occupy themselves with typically feminine tasks like sewing, but nevertheless enjoyed considerable sexual freedom, very much like in East Asian societies. Roman women were married early and arranged marriages were common, yet women from higher social classes generally still had a say in the decision process and could veto potential suitors proposed by their family. Once again this is pretty much the same as in East Asia until the early 20th century, and in some rural or more traditionally minded families until now.

  7. Roman houses, like their East Asian counterparts, had roofs with undulated tiles built with a relatively low inclination. Many houses had a patio or walled courtyard. This is still seen in some parts of Mediterranean western Europe, such as Andalusia and has been exported to countries like Mexico.

  8. Roman and traditional East Asian buildings were/are built more horizontally than vertically - usually on only one or two storeys. Typical European city centres have had houses built on at least 5 or 6 storeys at least since the Renaissance. It is also a defining feature of churches and cathedrals to rise high above the cityscape - something absent from Roman and Asian cities.

  9. Many houses, temples and public edifices were painted in bright red in ancient Rome, which also happens to be the most common colour for Oriental houses and temples, especially in China. On the other hand, Western Europeans have since the Middle Ages favoured unpainted stones or bricks, or white/grey render, while Scandinavians, central and eastern Europeans and Italians like to paint their houses in a variety of pastel colours (yellow being the most popular).

  10. Depictions of imaginary monsters and wild beasts (including lions and leopards used in Colosseum games), which are omnipresent in Roman mosaics, remind of the traditional Chinese or Japanese ones on temples and in art in general. Europeans may have kept mythological scenes from ancient Rome or Greece, but they discarded monsters as unrealistic and prefer tamer animal depictions (little birds, dogs) to scary ones.

  11. Both Romans and East Asians have a tradition of cremating their dead. Although single burials had been the traditional way of disposing of dead bodies since the Indo-European migrations during the Bronze Age, the Romans turned to cremation instead, and the burial practice only made its comeback with the advent of Christianity. Interestingly cremation has become popular again in Western society since the decline of Christianity.

  12. Latin uses declensions, lacks definite or indefinite articles, and typically places the verb at the end of the sentence. Japanese and Korean languages follow the same pattern. Apart from the lack of articles, Chinese is different though, as it does not have declensions and places the verb between the subject and object. German, Greek and Balto-Slavic languages still use declencions, although ironically languages that descend from Latin (including English) have got rid of them.

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