The enemies of Rome, by the English with Stephen podcast

Word Stories: The enemies of Rome

This is the transcript for the second English with Stephen podcast on how the enemies of the Roman empire continue to exist in the English language.

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Hello and welcome back to English with Stephen. My name’s Stephen Greene and today I have a great episode for you. At least, I think it’s great because I love history. I love reading about history and listening to podcasts about history. And today’s episode is directly linked to history.

You see, I have just finished listening to an amazing podcast called The History of Rome by Mike Duncan and I just loved it. While I was listening I realised that a lot of the people that Rome fought still live on today in language.

So I am going to mix my love of history with my love of language and talk about the enemies of Rome and how we use those enemies in English some 2,000 years later.

After this.

I’m going to post a few images of maps and a video on my site,, to help you understand some of the ideas in this episode. You can also use to get in touch with me if you have any questions or comments.

Before we talk about the enemies of Rome, I need to quickly mention something about dates. In English we traditionally use BC and AD to talk about years. BC means Before Christ and AD is Latin for Anno Domini which in English can be translated to ‘in the year of our lord’.

However, this system is not especially useful, and might even be offensive, to people of other religions and those with no religion. In recent years, there has been a move to use BCE and CE to replace BC and AD. BCE means ‘Before the Common Era’ and CE means ‘Common Era’. Personally, I don’t like the original BC and AD words, but I don’t think BCE and CE really help much either. But I have to make a choice, so I am going to use BCE, which is equivalent to the traditional BC, and CE which is the same as the traditional AD.

I hope that is clear.

So, the enemies of Rome.

Perhaps the first great enemies of the Romans were the Celts. The Celts lived all through central and western Europe, from Romania to France, and from Spain to Scotland. I will post a map on my site if you would like to see where they lived.

The Celts were not one, united Empire, like the Romans would become. Instead, they were probably a loose collection of tribes who shared a similar language and culture. In the year 387 BCE, the Celts who lived in Gaul, modern-day France, beat the Romans in a battle and went on to sack Rome. If you ‘sack’ a city, you invade that city, steal everything you can find, burn the buildings and probably take many of the people as slaves.

This sacking of Rome almost destroyed the people before they had created their empire. In fact, some historians believe that it was this sacking that created the motivation to build a strong army to make sure it could never happen again. And this strong army went from a defensive use to an offensive one and ended up taking over most of Europe, North Africa, and western Asia.

The word ‘Celts’ still lives on today. The Celtic languages are spoken in places like Wales and Ireland. In Glasgow, one of the biggest football clubs is called Celtic and there is a basketball team in the USA called Boston Celtics. Before you ask, I don’t know why the word is sometimes pronounced with a /k/ sound and sometimes a /s/ sound.

As well as sport, you can find Celtic music, Celtic art and Celtic culture celebrated all around the world, and not just in the countries that still speak a Celtic language.

After the Celts, Rome would not be sacked for another 800 years. But Rome still had its enemies. One of them was King Pyrrhus.

King Pyrrhus lived around 300 BCE and was king of one of the Greek tribes. He fought, and won, two battles against Rome, and was considered to be one of the strongest opponents. However, those two victories cost him a large part of his army. He lost so many men in the battles that he couldn’t exploit his victories. We still use the phrase ‘pyrrhic victory’ to talk about anything we have won but was not worth the cost.

The Romans had to do a lot of fighting to eventually control Greece. Archimedes lived in the Greek city of Syracuse on the island modern-day Sicily around the year 220 BCE. Archimedes was considered one of the greatest mathematicians of his time, and he put his mathematical knowledge to practical use by creating weapons to fight against the Romans. Today, Archimedes is most famous for the Archimedes Principle, which he figured out while in the bath and lead him to run naked around the city shouting “Eureka”, and the Archimedes screw which is still commonly used to move water up a hill.

800 years after the Celts had sacked Rome, it happened again. In the year 410 CE, the Goths invaded Italy under their king Aleric and, with no real opposition, entered Rome and took everything they could find. The Goths didn’t totally destroy the city because they wanted to come to a negotiated settlement and thought that this would be difficult if they actually destroyed the cultural home of the Romans.

The Gothic people originated in modern-day Germany, and by the 17th Century, academics were using the word “gothic” to describe anything that came from that area. At about this time, the architecture of Germany became very influential around Europe, and so that type of building was called “gothic”. There is, however, no link other than a geographical one, between the original gothic people and the style of architecture.

In the 19th century, there was a popular style of writing that was set in northern and eastern European medieval locations to tell horror and mystery stories. The most famous of these is probably Dracula. If you think about the typical vampire, they are often described as wearing black clothes and having pale skin. In the 1980s, the word “goth” was revived to describe a youth culture that used black clothes and very white skin.

The Goths would not be the last group of Germans to decide they wanted a piece of Rome. About 40 years later, the Vandals also went for a trip to Italy and came back with all manner of souvenirs from the Eternal City. The word ‘vandal’ is today used to describe a person who intentionally damages the property of another person and was inspired by the German tribe who did exactly that to a whole city.

One of the reasons why the Goths and the Vandals were so keen to enter the Roman empire was that they were trying to escape the Hun. The most famous Hun was called Atila, and he was a fearsome general at the head of a very strong army. Today, the country of Hungary gets its name from the Hun. The capital of Hungary is Budapest, which was originally was two cities called Buda and Pest. Legend has it that the ‘Buda’ part of Budapest comes from the brother of Atila the Hun, whose name was Bleda. However, there is no proof that this is actually true.

Finally, another group of Germans who were only enemies of Rome for a short time. The Franks quickly became allies with Rome and were in a perfect position to take advantage as the Western Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th Century CE. They ended up creating the Frankish kingdom, a kingdom that is today known as France.

So there you have it, some of the enemies of Rome who live on in English today.

Have I missed out any important enemies that are still represented in language? If so, perhaps you could let me know on my site,

Thank you so much for listening. I hope to speak to you again next week.

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