Ancient History & Civilisation



Once upon a time Kings ruled this City, but they were not fated to have home-grown successors. Outsiders took over their rule, foreigners in fact, for when Numa succeeded Romulus he came from the Sabine lands—not far away to be sure, but it made him a foreigner in those days. When Tarquin the Elder succeeded Ancus Marcius, well he was of mixed race, for his father was Demaratus the Corinthian, while his mother was born in Etruscan Tarquinii. She was not a wealthy women, as you might imagine given she had agreed to such an inferior marriage, and for that reason he was unable to hold office at home. But he migrated to Rome, and here was made king.

(From a speech of Claudius inscribed on bronze, ILS 212)

Desperately Seeking the Romans

The Emperor Claudius’ speech to the Senate in AD 48 proposed opening up membership of the Senate to the wealthiest and most noble citizens of the provinces of Gaul. Part of his words are preserved on a bronze tablet at Lyon, and Tacitus records the resentment the proposal aroused among senators.1 Fear that admitting new blood might dilute national identity is all too familiar today. Claudius’ appeal to an ancient tradition of inclusiveness maybe did not convince, but then he was an emperor and did not need to. But he was correct that Roman identity was in flux right from the very beginning.

It is impossible to write an account of the Roman Empire without lapsing into writing about the ‘Romans’, as if it is obvious who should be included in that term. But it is surprisingly difficult to answer the simple question ‘Who were the Romans?’

Formal answers exist, of course. If we were to apply strict legal criteria we would have to focus on Roman citizens.2 But the nature and composition of that group was repeatedly transformed, as Rome grew from a conventional city-state, with its assemblies, taxation, and armies all based on citizenship, into a Mediterranean power composed of different kinds of imperial subjects. En route we would need to consider the citizens of the middle Republic, concentrated in Rome, but with a penumbra of citizen colonies up and down the peninsula; then Italy after the Social War in which almost all free people were citizens; then the situation in the early empire when citizenship was acquired by various privileged groups, including provincial aristocrats and auxiliary veterans; and finally the Roman world after Caracalla’s Edict by which citizenship was generalized, a world in which most people were citizens and yet the status was strangely still valued.3

It would also be necessary to factor in peculiarities such as the Roman habit of extending citizenship to many former slaves, and also a range of ‘half citizens’, most of them termed ‘Latins’ of one kind or another. That title was extended from its original sense of citizens of other Latin states, first to members of the Latin colonies, founded by Rome in Italy in the middle Republican period, and filled with a mixture of settlers drawn from Romans and allies; then to citizens of certain provincial communities granted the Latin right in a series of regional grants beginning in Caesar’s day; and also to a different category of freedmen who were not fully citizens and were known as Junian Latins (after the Lex Iunia which created the status). Other Mediterranean citizenships were drawn into the system: within the astonishingly complex society of Roman Egypt, Alexandrine citizens meant not just citizens of the provincial capital but also a status group treated as halfway between other Egyptians and Romans. Multiple citizenships were absolutely normal too, not just in Cicero’s sense that he had two homelands—Arpinum and Rome—but also in the sense that many provincial communities had come to allow dual citizenship, and had also created half-citizenships of their own, giving resident aliens a range of rights and obligations. Some of these grants were privileges, others devices designed to make sure the ever more mobile propertied classes did not evade local obligations either where they lived or where they were born.4

Nor were all citizens equal. There were experiments in the Republican period with creating citizens without the vote. The traditional assemblies were in any case organized in complex ways that gave more weight to the votes of those in higher census categories than to others. Freedmen could vote, but in many cities were not allowed to hold office or become members of the most senior councils. Women of all social statuses faced strict limits on how far they could exercise citizen rights. The wives and daughters of Roman citizens could confer citizenship on their male children, but their political participation was effectively zero, very few had financial autonomy or could make independent use of the law, and their roles in ritual—if often prominent—were always subordinated to the authority of male priests. Many of the things that defined the role of citizen in Republican Rome—including voting, fighting, sacrificing, being taxed, taking public contracts, and being counted in the census—never applied to women. The crucial point is that Romans did not use citizenship as a way of creating a hard boundary between themselves and aliens. Instead they used the language of citizenship to express a set of statuses and relationships through which individuals might be involved in the community in different ways, and also to various degrees.

Other ways existed to mark the boundaries. Romans were often contrasted to barbarians, especially in imperial propaganda. A common coin type of the second century depicted a mounted emperor trampling down a cowering barbarian. More elaborate developments of these motifs appear on monuments such as Trajan’s Column. Roman literature also displays a rich harvest of xenophobic and racist stereotyping, a legacy presumably of traditions of invective that were so central to Roman oratory.5 Then again, scholars writing in Latin since Cicero’s day differentiated between the writings of the Greeks and those of nostri, which literally means ‘our people’. Tacitus does this describing writers who had dealt with Britain before he did, and Pliny the Elder added a list of sources for each book of his Natural History divided into Roman and foreign authorities. The arrangement was replicated in Roman libraries where Greek and Latin books seem, in theory at least, to have been shelved separately. Roman priests also traditionally distinguished a bundle of cults considered of alien origin as needing to be celebrated ‘with Greek rituals’: in fact, the rituals were nothing of the kind, but the idea of a difference evidently mattered.6

The distinctions between Romans and others probably mattered most inside provincial societies. Metal detector users in southern Spain have found a number of fragments of bronze tablets that record constitutions granted local communities by the emperors in the late first century AD.7 These Latin municipia must have been strange worlds, in some ways miniatures of Rome with councils, collegiate magistracies, priesthoods, gladiatorial munera, courts, and so on. One clause of this basic law stipulates that any gaps in its coverage should be dealt with as if the parties were Roman citizens. In fact, almost the only true Roman citizens were the magistrates, those who had been magistrates, and the descendants of those who had been magistrates: plus their ex-slaves of course!

Citizens were generally the most privileged members of the societies in which they lived. A dramatic scene in the Acts of the Apostles describes how Paul, returning to Jerusalem from his mission in Asia, is caught up by an angry mob, attracting the attention of the Roman soldiers. Addressing them in Greek he asks permission to defend himself to his fellow Jews, which he does in the vernacular explaining he is a Jew of Tarsus, educated and raised in Jerusalem, and then describes his conversion. His speech rouses the mob to a frenzy, and he is arrested and dragged off by the soldiers to be flogged. At this point (and only then) he reveals to the centurion that he has in fact Roman citizenship. The centurion is appalled that he had ordered him to be flogged. There is a nice exchange between the centurion, bitter at having paid for his citizenship, and Paul who declares he is a citizen by birth. Was this yet another distinction that mattered? The centurion has Paul released at once, and handed over to the priestly council of the Sanhedrin where Paul deftly stirs up a squabble between two priestly factions, the Sadducees and the Pharisees.8 It does not matter very much how historical these incidents are because even if fictionalized the anecdote reveals interesting assumptions about how identity politics worked in the Roman provinces. Paul is presented as cleverly exploiting his multiple identities; as a Jew, as a Roman citizen, as a citizen of Tarsus, as a Pharisee, and as a resident alien within Jerusalem. His ability to speak more than one language clearly helped too.

It is easy to identify other locations in the empire where these fine distinctions mattered. Frontier societies had their own gradations of status.9 Legionaries were recruited from citizens but auxiliaries from other subject populations, those whom Romans termedperegrini, a word that simply meant foreigners. The populations they served among were mostly peregrini too, but unlike them the auxiliaries could look forward to citizenship when they were discharged. Hundreds of bronze certificates of these grants to auxiliary veterans have been recovered by archaeologists: they were obviously displayed rather proudly in the homes of former soldiers. During their twenty to twenty-five years of service, soldiers of all kinds naturally formed relationships with local women: but these were not formally marriages and children born to them would not be citizens. Special dispensations allowed soldiers to make wills, but their wives and children had no automatic rights in respect of them. An auxiliary veteran could make his slave a citizen by freeing him, but any children he had fathered before he was discharged would have to join up themselves if they wanted the same status. Considerations like these mean we can never study ‘Roman societies’ without including many who were not Romans. Yet if we treat all provincials as ‘in some sense’ Romans, we obscure distinctions that mattered enormously at the time.

Docile Bodies

Over time, more and more of Rome’s subjects were successful in obtaining citizenship. I have already suggested that one reason the Roman world did hold together during the third-century crisis was a sense on the part of enough of Rome’s subjects that this was their world. It is also clear that in many ways the lifestyles of provincial populations came to converge, not on a single or uniform imperial culture, but into a world structured by these very Roman differences, differences based on the gradations of education and status and cultural competence that Paul (or rather the author of Luke–Acts and his readers) understood so well. Enfranchisement, loyalty, and acculturation are not the same thing, but they were deeply interconnected.

For most parts of the empire, the best evidence for the emergence of Roman habits and attitudes is provided by material culture. Consider Roman baths. Roman bathhouses are very distinctive structures; architects, archaeologists, and cultural historians have studied examples from all over the empire.10 Greeks too had taken baths: their nakedness had shocked the Elder Cato. But facilities for collective bathing were fairly rudimentary before the last century BC. One reason was technological. Few Greek cities had aqueducts before the Principate and hydraulic concrete was only developed in Campania just before the turn of the millennium. (Greeks had had to use hip baths, which were a rather subsidiary part of exercise spaces.) Eventually bath complexes would also exploit new techniques for covering vast enclosed spaces, and would use bricks and tiles to create spaces heated through warmed floors and by circulating air, and in the grandest examples would create glassed solaria. But the spread of bathing was not just a matter of technology. It also stands for the emergence of a new consensus about cleanliness, health, and beauty. Those ideas can be traced in other ways: the spread of toilet sets, mirrors, and cosmetics, the appearance of standardized hairstyles in statuary, and so on; but let us stick with baths for the moment.


Fig. 18. The Stabian Baths at Pompeii

The rich had been the first to develop bathing into a central part of a civilized lifestyle. Unsurprising the first luxurious bathhouses were created in the Bay of Naples in the last century BC, just when so much else of Roman elite culture was being remodelled.11Yet even before the end of the Republic, bathing culture was becoming popular in other sectors of society. Public bathhouses, which anyone could pay to use, appeared next. The Stabian Baths in Pompeii are one of the earliest known examples. During Augustus’ reign, Agrippa incorporated grand baths into his park on the Field of Mars. Even more spectacular complexes, usually called thermae, were built in Rome by the emperors Titus and Trajan, Caracalla and Diocletian: they included exercise grounds, swimming pools, saunas, and elaborate displays of the kind of sculpture that Pompey had placed in the porticoes of his theatre. Even today the surviving shell of Diocletian’s baths houses a museum and a couple of churches, while the Baths of Caracalla are the venue for open-air operas and concerts. These imperial benefactions to the capital were the grandest example of a style of civic benefaction known from all the greatest cities of the empire.

Greek cities like Ephesus and Sardis have produced monumental evidence for a variation on this theme, bath complexes combined with gymnasia. The gymnasium had in the classical period been the setting for elite education and leisure: exercise and discussion took place here in a more public setting than the symposium. But in the new lands conquered by Alexander, where Greeks were usually a privileged (and sometimes embattled) urban minority, the gymnasium had become central to a certain definition of Hellenic culture. Greek education and Greek identity operated in these societies as a culture of exclusion, more than as the marker for a particular ethnic group. Athleticism was central to this identity. Festivals ‘equal to the Olympics’ were set up by benefactors all over the Greek world, young aristocrats competed in them for prestige rather than cash prizes, professional athletes also emerged, and athleticism became a focus for certain kinds of Greek literature.12 The civic elites of Roman Egypt were even known as the gymnasial classes, so central were these spaces to that kind of elite culture that looked to Greek models which had in fact become widespread only under Rome: they were also, or claimed to be, hereditary and quite separate from the Egyptians among whom they lived. Everywhere gymnasia became a focus for monumental architecture, and the gymnasiarch became an important figure in civic society. Long list of regulations survive from cities all over the Greek world, showing how gymnasia had come to be thought of as key sites where new citizens were produced and trained. Bathing fitted easily into this complex of associations.

But baths were popular everywhere. Soldiers had bathhouses provided for them in the larger camps, which had come in any case to resemble cities: some British examples are equipped with indoor exercise grounds in place of the open palaestra common in the Mediterranean. Where hot springs were discovered, medical establishments were set up. Wealthy landowners built small bath suites in their rural homes, although they were probably only in use when the owner was present. Pliny the Younger describes arriving late at one of his villas and deciding, as an expression of his consideration and lack of pride, to use the baths in the local town rather than have his own fired up. Bathing had by now become incorporated into aristocratic lifestyles, a social activity that divided the day of work from the evening of leisure. Other adopters included sanctuaries and especially healing centres, and medical writers have a great deal to say about the advantages of bathing (only slightly undermined by their lack of understanding of infection). But we are dealing, after all, with ideology. The habits and ideals of cleanliness had become integral to notions of the self and of civilization that the empire propagated. No extant texts declare that dirty bodies are barbarian bodies— although trousers and beards receive some mild abuse—but upwardly mobile provincials could hardly ignore Roman notions of what constituted civilized standards.

A similar story could be told about food. It would include the spread of the elaborate manners that surrounded meals; the popularization of wine-drinking; new styles of cooking, including a preference for bread wheats over other grains; the creation of new dinner services in ceramic and plate; the evidence for imports of newly essential ingredients such as olive oil, pepper, fish-sauce, and Mediterranean fruits; and the centrality of the evening meal in Roman society and in Latin literature.13 The new ways of life, or lifeworlds, that had come to be widely shared across the empire had many other dimensions. There was a new culture of lighting, one made possible by glass windows in the south and in the north by the spread of lamps and the oil used as fuel: the evening became a new space of time available for work or leisure. New kinds of dress were developed, along with new notions of posture and etiquette of gesture. And of course there was the influence of education—never widespread, but no longer restricted to scribes either—and the effects on provincial children of learning Latin and Greek from Cicero and Virgil, Homer and the tragedians, and of learning to speak in public in a particular way. But I will not labour the point. If what we are considering is a change of identity, it is mostly the kind of identity created by routines and training, an embodied sense of self rather than a set of abstract concepts about ‘Romanness’. The relationship between these learned ideals of the good life and political action is complex. But barbarian raiders in the third century had nothing much to offer in replacement of all this, and perhaps were not interested in doing so, while the groups who moved into the empire in the late fourth and fifth centuries were already convinced of the superiority of Roman ways and simply wanted them for themselves. The transformation of everyday life, in other words, was profound and it had profound effects.

Identities and Empires

Most studies of identity politics in the Roman Empire have concentrated on the largest scale, on identities such as ‘Romans’ and ‘Greeks’, and on conscious statements about their attitudes to each other. Great progress has been made in this area in recent years. The enormous range of Greek responses to empire has been explored in particular detail, through studies of explicit statements in literary texts; through discussion of how the opposition between the two was constructed through discursive and rhetorical practices; and by playing material culture off against literature.14 Roman ideals are also clearer now, especially the extent to which the conscious efforts of generation after generation of cultural leaders were focused not on creating an alternative, parallel high culture to that of Greece, but rather a universalizing civilization (usually called humanitas) in which Greek and Roman both had a part.15

Greek and western elites seem now to have a good deal in common; including a shared commitment to rehearsing their differences. Perhaps we should have suspected this, given that many of the Greek writers of the second and third century—including Arrian and Dio—were Roman senators as well as fans of the classical Greek past, while many of their western contemporaries, including Aulus Gellius, Fronto, and the emperors Hadrian and Marcus, were deeply involved in Greek culture and writing. Two educational systems coexisted, and many members of the civic elites were presumably comfortable only in one. Yet most Greeks must have known and used much more Latin than they ever allowed in their classicizing compositions. The historical researches of the Greek historians of the imperial period are inconceivable without a good knowledge of Latin. Most telling of all is the broad unity of elite material culture across the Mediterranean world, especially expressed in their residences, urban and rural alike. No one who comes to elite culture through the elaborate mosaic art of their dining rooms, with its elaborate references to food and myth, astrology and hunting, gladiators and philosophers; or their taste in marble statuary, where gods and monsters and kings and poets jostle for space; or the wall paintings that open up imaginary vistas over cities and landscapes, or make play with stage scenery, or portray gardens full of life; could imagine for a moment that there were two high cultures rather than one in the Roman Empire.16 Many regional variations existed, of course. But the overwhelming impression is of a single world of the imagination, one accessible through art and literature whether one was in Sicily or southern France, Syria or Asia Minor, in North Africa or in Germany.

Identity politics looks very different in discussions of modern imperialisms. There the focus is not on the emergence of vast imperial identities, but rather on how imperial regimes have shaped local experiences; on the emergence of newly self-conscious peoples and nations; on diasporas and displacements; and on how the experience of migration has impacted on the lives of countless individuals. Cosmopolitanism, cultural hybridity, and the persistence of economic and cultural domination after the end of formal empire are central topics in post-colonial studies. Enormous differences clearly existed between the long-lasting, but fundamentally weak, empires of antiquity, and the short-lived but phenomenally powerful ones of the last few hundred years. Ancient imperialisms never effected population transfers on the scale either of the transport of Africans to the New World as slaves; or the establishment of populations of south Asian origin in Africa, Europe, and North America; or the spread of communities of east Asian origin around the Pacific; let alone the colonization of much of the world’s temperate zones by people of European origin. Modern empires established vast inequalities of wealth that persist today. Because of their impact on public health, and because they exported cash-cropping and industrialization into their peripheries, they set in train enormous changes in the global environment. Cosmopolitanism in the modern world is linked to the creation of huge cities, in both the developed and underdeveloped worlds. Any comparison with antiquity has to bear those differences in mind.

Post-colonial approaches to classical antiquity and an interest in processes of globalization processes and localization in the Roman world are relatively new, but a few recent studies indicate their potential.17 Long before Rome expanded, both the Mediterranean world and its continental hinterlands experienced population movements of various kinds.18 Nevertheless, Roman imperialism presided over what were probably unprecedented levels of human mobility in the ancient Mediterranean world. The slave trade; the recruitment, redeployment, and resettlement of soldiers; and the growth of cities all played a part. We should probably imagine net flows of humans into the core provinces, especially into the most urbanized regions, since ancient cities certainly had higher death rates than birth rates, and relied on immigration to sustain their populations. Roman authorities also occasionally moved tribal populations across frontiers. Missionaries, pilgrims, traders, travelling scholars, and craftsmen all travelled back and forth across the empire, many at least intending to return home.19 When they did not, their tombstones provide precious information about their travels, while a range of techniques for analysing skeletal material provide objective evidence.20 Alongside this can be set the legal and documentary evidence for efforts to respond to human mobility, and to control it: Greek cities had already developed regulation for metoikoi (resident aliens) and western ones began to impose financial obligations on wealthy incolae (inhabitants of a community whose formally registered place of origin was elsewhere).21 Diasporas of Jews and Syrians and Greeks are reasonably well attested during the empire.22 Very often it is the spread of the worship of particular gods that provides the best evidence for diaspora communities across the empire.23 Atargatis, known as Dea Syria, the Syrian goddess, eventually attracted other worshippers, but it looks as if the founders of her temples in the Aegean and in Italy were actual migrants. Synagogues are known throughout the Roman east, and in some parts of the west as well. The fact that cult centres were established in new locations suggests not only semi-permanent populations, but also groups who maintained contacts with fellow immigrants from the same areas. All major Roman cities contained minorities within them, and where there is abundant epigraphic evidence as in the Vesuvian cities, Ostia, and some North African ports, these communities are highly visible.

But there is little sign of any positive value being placed on hybridity or multiculturalism by the host societies. Although the rich spent a good deal acquiring exotic foreign raw materials, from Indian Ocean spices to silk, they were not interested in consuming alien cuisine, or dressing in new ways influenced by foreign styles. Jews and Isis worshippers were both hounded out of Rome in the late Republic. The upwardly mobile took care to lose their regional accents. Only Greek orators could make capital out of their exotic origins: Lucian stressed his ‘Assyrian’ identity, and Favorinus of Arles stated that one of the paradoxes of his life was that although he was a Gaul, he could ‘play the Greek’. But what they were stressing was the cultural distance they had travelled. Septimius Severus allegedly would not let his sister come to Rome even when he was emperor, because he was embarrassed by her African speech.

Being part of an empire also had more subtle effects on the identities claimed by different peoples in the empire. Theorists of globalization today point out that increased connectivity has often had the effect of making a group more conscious of its distinctive location within the whole. It has been suggested that both Greeks and Jews came to formulate their distinctive identities in new ways that responded to the wider imperial world in which they lived.24 Some aspects of Jewish life, from the use of Greek to a form of worship based on scriptures rather than the rituals of the Temple in Jerusalem, were more portable and so easier to replicate in a Greek or Roman city. Greek education too was more transferable than rituals based on ancestral shrines. Isis worshippers could use hieroglyphs in their rituals, and even imported Nile water, but they could not orient cult on the flooding of the river. Many cults came to resemble each other in their outward-looking faces, while remaining (or even becoming more) distinctive in terms of what worshippers did or knew on the inside. Diasporic populations were not the only ones to find new identities in the empire. Local communities in east and west developed parallel myth-histories, peopled with Trojan and Greek founding fathers and a range of similar tropes, the local princess who marries the refugee prince, the oracle that points to the spot where the city should be founded. This myth-making was an ancient tradition, but it flourished in all parts of the Roman world.25

Further Reading

Almost no topic in Roman history has generated as much recent research as the subject of this chapter, although there has been some confusion between attempts to examine the broad social and economic consequences of Roman rule; studies of collective identities as consciously experienced phenomena, as expressed in texts, monuments, and material culture; and investigations of the means by which loyalty and solidarity were generated among the emperors’ subjects. Those issues are clearly linked, but they are not the same.

Studies of the impact of Roman rule vary considerably, especially in how they treat cultural phenomena. Examples include Martin Millett’s Romanization of Britain (Cambridge, 1990), Nico Roymans’s Tribal Societies in Northern Gaul (Amsterdam, 1990), Susan Alcock’s Graecia capta (Cambridge, 1993), David Mattingly’s An Imperial Possession (London, 2006), Andrew Wallace-Hadrill’s Roman Cultural Revolution (Cambridge, 2008) and my own Becoming Roman (Cambridge, 1998); they offer a selection of approaches, all employing archaeological data, generally in combination with other evidence. So too do two collections, Tom Blagg and Martin Millett’s Early Roman Empire in the West (Oxford, 2000) and Susan Alcock’s Early Roman Empire in the East(Oxford, 1997). It would be easy to add to this list.

Conscious expressions of Roman identity are the subject of Emma Dench’s Romulus’ Asylum (Oxford, 2005) while Simon Swain’s Hellenism and Empire (Oxford, 1996) and Simon Goldhill’s Being Greek under Rome (Cambridge, 2001) investigate the identity politics of the empire’s best-documented subject people. Seth Schwartz’s Imperialism and Jewish Society (Princeton, 2001) asks some of the same questions about the second best-known case. Fergus Millar’s Roman Near East (Cambridge, Mass., 1993) opens up a vast field of study, one mostly known from inscriptions written in a bewildering variety of languages. By far the most thoughtful examination so far of how cultural identity, political power, law, and social solidarity were connected during the early empire is Clifford Ando’s Imperial Ideology and Provincial Loyalty in the Roman Empire (Berkeley, 2000).

Most recently attention has focused on how particular groups within the empire developed common identities often based on social memory. Three recent collections give an idea of the state of the question: Ton Derks and Nico Roymans’s Ethnic Constructs in Antiquity (Amsterdam, 2009), Tim Whitmarsh’s Local Knowledge and Microidentities in the Imperial Greek World (Cambridge, 2010), and Erich Gruen’s Cultural Identities in the Ancient Mediterranean (Los Angeles, 2011), which includes much else besides.


Map 6. The empire in the year 500 AD

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