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The Roman Ragnarök: What Did The End Of The World Look Like To The Ancient Romans?

For once, the Romans have turned out to be surprisingly chill.

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Dr. Katie Spalding

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Dr. Katie Spalding

Freelance Writer

Katie has a PhD in maths, specializing in the intersection of dynamical systems and number theory.

Freelance Writer

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A view of Vesuvius as seen from Pompeii
The destruction of Pompeii was one of many catastrophic events that the Roman Empire survived. You can kind of understand why they figured they were safe. Image credit: muratart/Shutterstock

For the Vikings, it’s Ragnarök. For the Aztecs, it comes with a blackened sun and the slaying of Huitzilopochtli; for Zoroastrians, it’s called Frashokereti and involves a great war and molten metal coursing across the Earth. Christians have a whole bunch of ideas, but it’s generally accepted to involve things like destruction and devastation, dried-up rivers, and zombie Roman emperors.

The details may change, but the general gist is the same: one day, the world as we know it will come to an end. It’s an idea that goes back about as far as human civilization itself – and one that’s distressingly ubiquitous in the modern world, too – so you might expect that coming up with an Apocalypse myth is something that’s just baked into the human psyche somehow.

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But of course, human imagination could never be so simple. For some civilizations and traditions, there is no great End Times prediction – and to find an example or two, we don’t even need to look that far.

Despite being often thought of today as the birthplace of much of modern Western society – and the society in which the apocalypse-happy mythology of Christianity first got a foothold – Ancient Rome didn't really seem to have predicted some big “end of the world.”

“The general assumption in Roman society was that the city and its empire would be around forever,” writes Martin Goodman, Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Oxford and President of the Oxford Centre for Jewish and Hebrew Studies, in his 2007 book, Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations. “Many thousands of honorific texts and epitaphs showed an expectation among ordinary Romans that their descendants, or others with whom they had once been connected, would read the words in hundreds of years’ time.”

More pressing for the apparently rather self-absorbed Romans was the end of Rome. The city’s foundational myth – the tale of Romulus and Remus and their milky wolf mother – actually came with an expiration date: Rome would last for 120 years before its eventual fall, according to a legend involving twelve prophetic birds of prey.

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To be fair, there were some Roman philosophers – the Stoics – who did think that this downfall would come from some universal catastrophe, big enough to end everything in existence. But the thing about specific predictions is that they tend to be self-limiting. 

“One hundred and twenty years after the traditional founding of Rome, it became apparent that the twelve eagles seen by Romulus did not signify 120 years of historical life for the city,” writes Peter J Holliday, professor emeritus of art history at California State University, Long Beach – and so gradually, the Roman psyche moved away from the idea of an imminent all-consuming universal apocalypse, and more towards a kind of generalized low-level anxiety stemming from the constant threats faced by the city and empire.

In fact, while Roman mythology as a whole lacks a unifying apocalypse myth, there were quite a few thinkers who considered what the End of Everything might look like: “There is a long and underappreciated tradition of Greek and Roman thought about the end of the world that stretches from Hesiod to the literature of the Roman Empire,” notes Christopher Star, a professor of classics at Middlebury College, in his 2021 book Apocalypse and Golden Age: The End of the World in Greek and Roman Thought.

But just because they thought about it, doesn’t mean our Greek and Roman forebears had an apocalypse myth as we would recognize it, Star clarified. “[The tradition] precedes and then runs parallel with the more familiar tradition of Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature,” he explains. Yet "Greek and Roman texts are in many ways very different… [their] accounts are part of larger debates and thought experiments about the future.”

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Roman thinkers were certainly aware of ideas like those of the Stoics, or their rival philosophers the Epicureans, both of whom anticipated some kind of an end to the universe. For the Stoics, the End was thought to come as ekpyrosis – the returning of the universe into its most basic form: a divine, all-consuming fire. The Epicureans, meanwhile, had a philosophy that may seem weirdly familiar to our modern eyes: for them, the universe was built up of atoms, and eventually, that’s what it will return to – just a disorderly scattering of infinitesimal and indivisible pieces of matter floating through the void.

However, neither of these ideas were taken as gospel in any sense of the word: they were abstract hypotheses, independent of human action, and apparently not worth devoting much time thinking about. “There is not a single extant text by a pagan Greek or Roman writer that is entirely devoted to describing the end of the world,” points out Star.

As a modern comparison, consider how we think today about the inevitable heat death of the universe: yeah, it’ll happen, but we’re not sure how and there’s nothing we can do about it, so why worry?

In the end, it simply wasn’t something they seem to have taken too seriously. “There is evidence that the end of the world came to be something of a clichéd joke among Greeks and Romans,” Star writes. “A fragment survives of an unknown Greek tragedy […] that reads ‘After I am dead let earth be mixed with fire. I do not care for myself, for all is well with my affairs.’”


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