That question was hilariously asked in the Monty Python film The Life of Brian. It was hilarious because it was so incongruous.
Everybody knows we got – inter alia, oodles of alia – our plumbing, roads, aqueducts, public lavatories, alphabet and much of our thought and legality from the Romans. Even the notion that a meal should have three courses came from them.
However, as any wizened old cynic will tell you, every silver lining has a cloud.
In this case, recent research shows that the Romans are directly responsible for almost two million people dying of tuberculosis every year – not to mention all those millions who have died over the centuries from the time soldiers wore shiny breastplates to the time they started sporting Kevlar vests.
TB first appeared in Africa some 5,000 years ago and there it stayed until the Romans got going in earnest. When the Roman republic became the Roman Empire, TB began to spread like bad taste.
This ought to have given mankind a pause, best used to ponder the downside of globalism and free movement of people.
The upside, otherwise known as the silver lining, is obvious enough and it’s primarily economic. Some will insist it’s cultural as well and England, say, can benefit no end from the resuscitating cultural input of the 100,000 Somalis now resident here.
Without sounding too reactionary for words, let’s just say that the cultural benefits of global human circulation are open to debate. What’s indisputable is that people from exotic countries bring not only couscous and curry, but also viruses and bacteria.
If you look at two other deadly blights that have afflicted Europe, syphilis and Aids, both were spread due to the Europeans’ unquenchable thirst for expansion.
Syphilis, which reduced the number of Schubert lieder and Baudelaire poems (and, on the plus side, shortened Lenin’s life), was by all accounts brought to Europe by a triumphant Columbus expedition.
So it wasn’t just potatoes, chaps: old Christopher’s ships were also laden with some 30 exotic infections, including smallpox, measles, influenza – and of course syphilis.
I’m not suggesting considerations of hygiene should have put a stop to exploration. And, the day after the great US holiday, I won’t dare insinuate that we should have left America undiscovered and let native Americans (previously known as Red Indians) get on with it.
However… well, I won’t develop this qualifier to its logical conclusion. Suffice it to say that, had those 30 diseases stayed where they came from, Europe might have been spared hundreds of millions of deaths.
A curmudgeon like me may be a bit harsh on the Third World, but then so are the statistics. In 2016, the latest year for which such data are available, 10.4 million people contracted TB, and 1.7 million of them died.
More than 95 per cent of all cases occurred in what used to be called underdeveloped countries. (Are they now called ‘differently’ or ‘alternatively’ developed? Hard to keep up with all the progress.)
And Google helpfully informs me that “Sub-Saharan Africa alone accounted for an estimated 69 per cent of all people living with HIV and 70 per cent of all Aids deaths in 2011.”
Such petty concerns shouldn’t be allowed to stop, nor indeed slow down, the march of diversity. But it wouldn’t hurt raising them from time to time, for not raising them may hurt very badly indeed.
Now what was that about ‘the Aids of March’?