This is the third part (I, II, III, IV, V) of a series asking the question “Who were the Romans?’ How did they understand themselves as a people and the idea of ‘Roman’ as an identity? Was this a homogeneous, ethnically defined group, as some versions of pop folk history would have it, or was ‘Roman’ always a complex identity which encompassed a range of cultural, ethnic, linguistic and religious groups?
Last time, we looked at the process by which Rome first came to dominate Italy and then subsequently how the Romans won a Mediterranean empire through the century of blood and iron from 264 to 168 BC. In particular, we noted how Rome’s strength came not from its homogeneity, but from skillful management of the high degree of cultural, linguistic, ethnic and religious diversity of pre-Roman Italy, with at least three different religious systems, a half-dozen major languages, dozens of different cultures and communities. Rather than eschewing different peoples, the Romans won precisely because they incorporated communities which were often quite different than they were; doing so gave Rome access to the broad base of resources they needed to out-compete other imperial powers. Far from Rome being a homogeneous power that was crippled by diversity, Rome was a diverse polity which benefited precisely because it was well-equipped to deal with lots of different sorts of people effectively. While Rome’s opponents – Carthaginian and Macedonian especially – attempted to maintain ethnically homogeneous ruling classes, Rome’s approach (adopted, to be clear, entirely in the self-serving pursuit of maximum military strength, not from altruism) gave it an insurmountable advantage. And when Roman stubbornness about opening up the citizenship prompted renewed war in Italy, the Romans solved the issue (and saved their empire) not by clamping down, but by opening up, in the process creating a ‘Roman’ Italy by extending citizenship to all of the Italian allies.
This week we are going to look at some of the consequences in the city of Rome itself of both the extension of citizenship as well as imperial expansion (the broader empire will come next time). We’re going to look at the Roman senate and chart the degree to which first Italian elites outside of Rome and then provincial elites outside of Italy were able to gain entrance into Rome’s most prestigious and selective political institution. Then we’re going to look at literary culture; to what degree were people from outside of Rome active in the flowering of Latin literature. Finally, we’re going to look at the attitude of the Roman elite to all of this, which as you may imagine was often less than friendly.
But first, as always, if you like what you are reading here, please share it; if you really like it, you can support me on Patreon. And if you want updates whenever a new post appears, you can click below for email updates or follow me on twitter (@BretDevereaux) for updates as to new posts as well as my occasional ancient history, foreign policy or military history musings.
(Three notes: first, this post is going up with basically no pictures because they’re all going to be in next week’s post which will be very image heavy. Second, I had a warning about this at the start of the series, but I should note there is going to be some translations here of both some very bigoted Roman literature and also some rather explicit Roman literature. Finally, since we have a lot of people showing up below, I use some standard notation for their dates: r. means reigned, cos. indicates the year they were consul, and suff. cos. indicates the year they were consul suffectus.)
The Changing Senate of the First Century
When we last left off, after several centuries of slowly expanding citizenship in Italy the Romans had, in the emergency of the Social War, decided on the spectacular measure of expanding Roman citizenship to effectively all of the communities of Italy, functionally quadrupling the number of Roman citizens in just a few years. But did those freshly minted Romans actually penetrate into the Roman leadership? Or were they just used as catapult-fodder- if you’ll pardon the expression – to stock the armies? Once again, to the degree that the popular imagination tends to think on the Roman senate, it is as an insular body, rather more like the Great Council of Venice after the Serrata del Maggior Consiglio formally closed it to new entrants. The senate is imagined to look much like it does in HBO’s Rome – one big homogenous group of men who collectively have been in power forever:
There is some truth to this; a handful of longstanding (but also quite large) Roman gentes (‘clans’) reappear again and again in high office and in the Senate. On the other hand, the Senate was open to anyone who won election to the quaestorship and technically any male citizen who was free-born could run for the office (though political connections and wealth were necessary to win it).
Consequently, while the average poor Roman family lacked the cash and friends to run for high office, the wealthy families of the many towns of Italy had been running for office in their home towns for generations. The most successful of them had both the money and the experience to make a go of it in Rome. And even before the Social War (91-87 BC), we do in fact see Italian elites from outside of Rome penetrating the Roman Senate, the very uppermost crust of Rome’s political and social ladder. Now the caveat must immediately be offered that, unsurprisingly, the sort of men that were the first to begin filtering into the senatorial elite from the rest of Italy tend to be individuals of uncommon wealth, skills and abilities. But again recall the starkly exclusionary citizenship regimes of other ancient polities from last time where entrance into even the lowest ranks of the citizenry was barred to outsiders. In that context any ‘foreign’ entrants into the Roman Senate would have been truly remarkable and we actually have a lot more than that.
Gaius Marius, (c. 157-86; cos. 107, 104, 103, 102, 101, 100, 86; he had a wild career) was born in Arpinum, modern day Arpino. Located in the Apennines foothills of central Italy about 60 miles south-east of Rome, it was a town of the Volsci on the border of Samnite territory and the population was probably a mix of the two groups. Strabo (5.3.4) is quite clear that the Volsci were distinct from the Latins; linguistics confirm this as the Volsci spoke an Osco-Umbrian language closer to the languages of the Samnites and the Sabines than Latin. Arpinum only received full citizenship in 188, within the lifetime of Marius’ grandparents, if not his own parents. Nor was Marius the only senator from Arpinum! Marcus Tullius Cicero (cos. 63) and his brother Quintus Tullius Cicero (praetor 62) were both also from Arpinum (as was Cicero’s son, M. Tullius Cicero Minor, suff. cos. 30); all three served in the Senate to varying degrees of distinction.
Meanwhile, Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo (135-87, cos. 89) was from Picenum, a region roughly situated in modern day Abruzzo on the North-East of Italy up against the Adriatic. The people here, the Piceni, were a mix of different groups and there were actually two languages, South Picene (an Umbrian language) and North Picene (language family unknown). The gens Pompeia may indicate Oscan origins; it certainly isn’t Latin. We know that members of the gens Pompeia were in the senate as early as 141 with Quintius Pompeius (cos. 141) whose obscure origins Cicero mentions (Cic. Pro Murena, 7.16). Pompey Strabo’s son, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (cos. 70, 55, 52) would also be in the Senate; his sister Pompeia was, among other things, the great-grandmother of one Gaius Octavius Thurinus, also known as Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus Augustus (r. 31BC-AD14), himself from Velletri, a Volscian town. Also from Picenum (from Asculum) and a humble background, our hero Publius Ventidius Bassus (suff. cos. 43); his community only got citizenship during the Social Wars, so Ventidius was a first generation Roman in the Senate and by all accounts an originally rather poor (by the standards of the Roman elite) fellow who came up through the army as a logistics officer for Julius Caesar.
Nor was this a new phenomenon just in the late republic. Our evidence for earlier integration of Italian elites is thinner because sources for the early centuries of the republic aren’t as forthcoming, but N. Terrenato (In The Early Roman Expansion into Italy: Elite Negotiation and Family Agendas (2019)) picks out the example of the Plautii (unrelated to the playwright mentioned later). They first hold the consulship in 358 and as Terrenato notes, “a very significant proportion of the consuls elected in this period were members of new families, often of non-Roman origin” (Terrenato, op. cit., 175), noting the Sabine Curii, Etruscan Licinii, Campanian Decii and Samnite (!!) Otacilii. In short, Italian elites had been filtering into the Senate for some time, though this filtration accelerated markedly during the first century.
Mihi Patria Est
Now you might expect that the next thing I would normally say is that the paucity of our sources means that while we can observe this extension of citizenship and the arrival first of Italian and later (see below) provincial elites into even the highest levels of Roman society, we don’t know what they thought about it. Except we do know what they thought about it, because quite a lot of these Italian and later provincial elites write to us and talk directly about questions of identity. It is rare, but sometimes the ancient source-base comes through for us (and actually, as we’re going to see, the question of diversity in Rome is one of those rare cases where the source-base really does, repeatedly come through for us, making this a point on which we can be rather more certain than usual. It is a sad irony that one of the topics that we can be most certain of, ‘was Rome a diverse society?’ is one of the topics so endlessly contested by folks determined not to find the fairly clear and unambiguous answer the sources deliver.).
One thing that is important to note from the outset here is that identities do not replace each other, rather they layer on top of one another. That’s both true of identities which touch on different parts of a person (e.g. someone can be American (country-identity) and Catholic (religious identity) and a dentist (professional identity)) but also with identities that touch on the same part of a person. Taking myself, for instance, I grew up in Virginia but have lived in North Carolina for more of my adult life than anywhere else; asked to give a demonym, I might well offer Virginian or North Carolinian or Southerner (in the US sense) or American. Even though those answers all speak to the same question (‘where are you from?’) I partake in all of those identities.
So again, identities are not exclusive; they layer and coexist, sometimes easily, sometimes in tension. This insight is essential to make any sense out of how historical people think of themselves and define themselves and others.
We can see that layering very clearly in the writings of a number of Italian elites who end up circulating in the upper-reaches of Rome’s literary class. P. Ovidius Naso (Ovid, 43BC-17AD) explores rival conceptions of home in his famous autobiographical poem, Tristia 4.10:
Sulmo is my fatherland, abounding in ice-cold streams, Ninety miles distant from the city [Rome]. I was born here, should you want to know when, [It was] when both consuls perished by the same fate [ed.: 43BC, both consuls died in battle that year] If it matters, I was always the heir to an ancient line, not made an eques by the gift of fate [...] Straight away we [Ovid and his brother], tender-aged, were educated and by the care of our father we went to the men distinguished in the arts at the city [=Rome] [...] Meanwhile as the years silently sliding past, My bother and I assumed the toga of free men ['toga liberior'=toga virilis]...
Ovid is asserting quite a few identities there. He identifies his home: sulmo mihi patria est, “Sulmo is my fatherland;” Sulmo was a city of the Paeligni (speakers of an Oscan language) in central Italy and probably granted citizenship only after the Social War. Patria is a strong word there; he might have used natus or origo if he just wanted to say “Sulmo is where I was born.” Patria implies a lingering, permanent connection. For comparison, Horace’s famous “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country” in Latin is dulce et decorum pro patria mori (Horace, Odes 3.2.14). Evidently Ovid’s family was locally prominent; Ovidius may itself be from an Oscan root word suggesting Paelignian ethnic origin. He then asserts his education in Rome and notes prominently his assumption of the toga virilis, the narrow purple stripe of which marked him as a Roman citizen (we’ll come back to that garment next time, but for now I want to note this was the marker of Roman citizenship). There’s a lot of other identity markers in the poem, I should note; his brother’s home (‘natus’ in the sense of home/origin) in the forum and political speech is contrasted with Ovid’s love of poetry. Ovid moved in the highest circles in Rome; though he left off a career in politics early, he was familiar with the poets who circled around Maecenas and himself was a client of M. Valerius Messalla Corvinus. But evidently Sulmo remained his patria.
Ovid isn’t alone here. Livy, we are told, was born in the 60s BC in Padua (ancient Patavium), a city of the Veneti outside of Italy as the Romans understood it (it was in Gallia Cisalpina); Padua was made a municipium and given Roman citizenship by Caesar in the 40s; Livy would likely have been in his teens or perhaps early 20s when this happened making him a ‘naturalized’ Roman. Livy evidently had a pronounced accent or marked Venetian manners; he was mocked for it by Gaius Asinius Pollio as noted by Quintilian (8.1.1). Yet Livy is fiercely proud both of his home town in particular (note, e.g. Livy 1.1 where Livy claims a Trojan antecedent not only for Rome but for his own people, the Veneti as well) but also of the tradition which would place the socii in the Roman narrative; as Paul Erdkamp has noted (see P. Erdkamp, “Polybius and Livy on the Allies in the Roman Army” in The Impact of the Roman Army, ed. E. Lo Cascio and L. De Blois (2007)), Livy goes out of his way to include feats of derring-do performed in Rome’s wars by Rome’s socii. Yet Livy is also a proud – if sometimes conflicted – Roman, openly proclaiming Rome as the “foremost nation in the world” at the opening of his work. He writes a history of Rome after all, rather than a history of Patavium. Livy never entered politics but was a friend to Augustus himself (Tac. Ann. 4.34; albeit if evidently Augustus occasionally complained, apparently, that Livy was too friendly to Pompey in his histories; alas those books are lost to us).
Quintius Horatius Flaccus (Horace, 65-8) was from Venusia, a point he tells us in Satires 2.1.35; he notes he is unsure if he is ethnically Lucanian or Apulian, “for the Venusian plows at the boundaries of both” but Horace is fiercely defensive of his family and origins. Remember last time we noted that freed slaves became Roman citizens? That was Horace’s family’s road. His father was a freedman and Horace writes movingly about his father’s sacrifices so that he could attend school in Rome rather than in his own village and proudly refuses to be ashamed of his humble birth or the social station of his father (Satires 1.6). Horace served as a military tribune under Brutus at Philippi (awkward!) before becoming a famous poet in Rome, introduced to Maecenas, Augustus’ informal minister of culture, by no less than Vergil himself (Vergil, by the by, was from Cisalpine Gaul, like Livy, though from a village outside of Mantua).
I could go on. W.J. Watts once noted (“The Birthplaces of Latin Writers,” Greece & Rome 18.1 (1971)) that “within the first century B.C. we find Italians from all parts of the peninsula, but none – excepting possibly Lucretius and probably Caesar – born at Rome.” The ‘Golden Age‘ of Latin was consequently defined by authors from Italy, many from communities only enfranchised during the Social War or by Caesar. Those authors frequently write of, or are proud of their Italian origins, but at the same time come to shape what it means to be Roman and often rejoice in the elements of their Roman identity.
Into the Empire
These trends did not abate with the closing of the Republic and the beginning of the Empire. Indeed, this process accelerates at the tail end of the Late Republic and even more so in the empire. We can start with the Senate. Now of course the imperial Senate lacked the power it had wielded during the republic, but this was by no means a dead institution for the first few centuries of the Roman Empire. The Senate was still the pinnacle of public life in Rome and its members reflected the very top of the Roman social hierarchy below only the emperor himself. Provincial governors and field commanders were still drawn from their ranks and they were generally the wealthiest Roman citizens and consequently most of the wealthiest men in the Roman world.
The extension of the ranks of the Senate beyond the Italian elite begins with Julius Caesar, who brought in a number of Roman citizens of Gallic ancestry into the senate during his dictatorship (Seut. Caes. 76.2, 80.2). To be clear, while Romans angry about the inclusion of what they saw as a truly foreign element complained about the new senators “taking off their breeches and putting on the broad-striped [toga],” these were mostly elites from Cisalpine Gaul (much longer exposed to Rome and Roman culture); nevertheless the outrage tells us fairly clearly that these were ethnic Gauls, not merely Roman colonists settled in Gaul. These are our first provincial senators (‘the provinces’ being in Roman thought every place that wasn’t Italy, although it is worth noting that Cisalpine Gaul would be annexed into Italy shortly).
(This is also, by the by, another example where the foreigners so often despised by snobbish Roman elites were very frequently European Gauls and Germans, rather than non-Europeans. Somehow whenever I see arguments that this or that culture was ‘incompatible’ with Roman civilization, it is always directed at people from the East or South, but for the Romans, it was often the Gaul, Briton or German who was the ultimate ‘other.’)
As R.J.A. Talbert notes in his study of the imperial Senate, “Augustus and Tiberius continued the trend [of introducing provincial elites] cautiously…Claudius continued along the same lines, so that from his time provincials became a notable group in the Senate” (Talbert, The Senate of Imperial Rome (1984), 31). Mason Hammond attempted to quantify this (M. Hammond, “Composition of the Senate, A.D. 68-235” JRS 47 (1957)) for the period from the emperor Vespasian to the third century. Under Vespasian (r. 69-79), of the senators whose origins are known (only 46% – so this is a huge caveat on our information), 83.2% remained Italian; we know of 3 from Africa, 5 from the eastern provinces, 21 from the western provinces and 1 senator for Dalmatia; while most of the Senate is still Italian, there is already a striking spread of senators from all over the empire with Gaul and Spain particularly well represented. By Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180), we know of 25 senators from Africa, 44 from the east, 8 from the west, and five from Dalmatia; Italians make up only 54.4% of known origins. That Italians remain a large portion of senators should be no surprise; admission to the Senate came with a high wealth qualification and Rome’s conquests had enriched the Italian elite massively at the expense of basically everyone else. Nevertheless, it is clear that the even the Senate, the most selective, snobbish institution in Rome, progressively embraced broader and broader slices of the Roman world. The only part of the whole Roman empire that doesn’t seem to have supplied at least one Roman senator by 238 AD was Britain, presumably because, as Strabo notes (2.5.8), there is nothing in Britain worth having, a fact that remains true to this day (though I should note that we have plenty of evidence of native Britons sharing in a Roman-citizen-identity once the Romans do decide to conquer about half of the island; one assumes the lack of senatorial Britons had to do with both wealth (it was a remarkably poor province) and distance).
The same is true of the Roman literary world. As the first century heads toward the second, the origins of our authors begin to spread beyond Italy. L. Annaeus Seneca – that is, Seneca (4BC – 65AD), the philosopher and rhetorician – was born in Spain; his father, M. Annaeus Seneca (c. 54BC – 39AD) was from Cordoba, probably from the Latin colony there (founded in 169) but his mother may have been local. His nephew, the poet Lucan, (M. Annaeus Lucanus, 39-65) was from there as well. Seneca made it into the Senate but his ‘provincial’ status stuck with him and Tacitus brings it up in the retirement speech he gives Seneca (Tac. Ann. 14.53) with a touch of false modesty remarking with amazement that “Is it me, but an equestrian* and arisen from a provincial origin who is to be counted among the leading men of Rome? Is my new name come to glitter among noble and long-decorated pedigrees?” Martial the satirist and Quintilian the rhetorician were also from Spain (the former’s provincial origins will seem more than a little ironic in a moment when we see how little tolerance he has for people he perceives as ‘non-Roman’).
Apuleius (c. 124-170), author of the world’s oldest surviving complete novel, the Metamorphoses (also known as The Golden Ass) as well as several other extant works of speeches and philosophy, was an African Roman citizen. And to be clear, not “oh, he was an Italian who settled in Africa and…” Nope. He openly notes in his Apology that he is “half-Numidian, half Gaetulian” (Apuleius, Apology, 24), two of the native peoples of North Africa. The Numidians were a North African people who lived in the coastal regions of what today would be Algeria; the Gaetuli lived a bit further inland, off of the coast. He wasn’t the only one; M. Cornelius Fronto (c. 100-160s, cos. 142), the grammarian, was from Cirta and described himself as a “Libyan of the Libyan Nomads,” (“ἐγὼ δὲ Λίβυς τῶν Λιβύων τῶν νομάδων” which is, if I may make an aside, the easiest to read actual Greek sentence I believe I have ever read; Fronto writes his correspondence in both Greek and Latin); Fonto was also the tutor for the emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus and regarded in antiquity as the second best Latin orator, after only Cicero, along with being a senator.
And of course we must speak of authors writing in Greek too. The biographer Plutarch (46-119) was born in Greece in Chaeronea and received citizenship as an adult (as Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus). His biographies (the Parallel Lives, written in Greek) are set in matched pairs, with a Greek and a Roman compared, a very literal blending of Greek and Latin literary traditions (it is clear Plutarch had Latin sources; he must have been bilingual). The historian Cassius Dio was from Nicaea in what is today Turkey and maintained a strong attachment to his hometown. His father, Cassius Apronianus was probably Bithynian, but had become a Roman senator and Dio followed in his footsteps, attaining the consulship in 205 and serving as the proconsular governor of Africa (an office that generally marked the pinnacle of a senatorial career). Dio wrote his Roman History (Ῥωμαϊκὴ Ἱστορία) in Greek and writes not as Polybius does, as an outsider looking in, but as an insider detailing the history of his country. Again, recall that identities layer, so Dio is a proud Greek, and a proud Nicaean and a proud Roman all at once.
How are all of these fellows becoming Roman (to borrow a title from Greg Woolf)? We’ll talk about some of these mechanisms in more depth subsequently, but there were a few major routes. The tendency of Roman manumission to mint new Romans in communities which already had citizenship remained from the Republic. Added to this, elites in communities in Rome’s provinces began to seek the legal benefits of Roman citizenship; this status was in the power of the emperors to grant and so elites (or even whole communities) which were particularly helpful might be granted citizenship en bloc. At the same time, local elites absorbed Roman culture (including the literary culture we’ve discussed) and then as they themselves became producers of that culture or had political careers in Rome, also disseminated elements of their own provincial cultures.
Then there was the army. We’ll talk more about the army in our last section, but in brief it had three mechanisms of spreading both citizenship and blending Roman and local cultures. The first was the settlement of soldier’s colonies outside of Italy which began in the late second century and continued through the civil wars, creating little ink-blots of Roman citizenship which could then spread both the status and the culture by the same mechanisms (marriage, manumission, political connections). Second, after the legions are permanently relocated to the frontiers, retired soldiers tend to retire to communities where they served, rather than returning to Italy, creating pockets of Roman citizens in frontier provinces. Finally – and we’ll get into this in a lot more depth – half of the Roman army consisted of non-Romans who after a full term of service (20-25 years) received a grant of citizenship as a reward, meaning that the Roman army was minting a meaningful number of new citizens every year (new citizens who will have already had to learn Latin and spent two decades exposed to Roman culture via the other half of the army which consisted of the citizen-legions).
This is something I want to stress – the way this topic gets taught, under the rubric of ‘Romanization’ one might imagine the Romans minting out new identical Romans, but what one in fact sees is cultural blending (the most obvious example being how by the early fifth century, most Romans will be adherents to a strange, Levantine religion from the empire’s east). And it isn’t merely Roman and Greek culture merging this way; Apuleius is big on Isis-cult which while very Hellenized has its roots in Egyptian religion, the Iranian god Mithras is apparently quite attractive to Roman soldiers (as are breeches, much to the irritation of some old fashioned Romans) and then of course there is Christianity. At the same time, localities often retained their own peculiar local customs, because of course they did.
The slow march of Roman citizenship suddenly reached its conclusion in 212, with the issuance of the Constitutio Antoniniana by the emperor Caracalla (true fact: to teach Roman history, you have to prove you can repeat the phrase, “the issuance of the Constitutio Antoniniana by Caracalla” at speed without missing any syllables; it’s a requirement of the defense process), which made all free persons in the Roman empire citizens. Caracalla’s reasons are obscure (Dio, 78.9 suggests it was to raise more tax revenue, but there’s no convincing reason why it would have done so) but in practice, knowingly or not, the edict recognized a fact which had probably become inevitable: the Roman empire had stuck around long enough and minted enough new citizens that the distinction between the ‘core’ Romans and the people they ruled was largely meaningless. There were still elites and non-elites, of course – wealth mattered in this very stratified society – but by and large the whole empire had become….Roman.
In all of this I don’t want to give the wrong impression about the Rome or the Romans. Rome was diverse, but that doesn’t mean it was particularly tolerant, much less accepting. There is a tendency to give empires in the past, especially the ancient past, laurels for ‘tolerance’ because they opt sometimes not to suppress local religious or ethnic customs, when for most tributary empires that kind of ‘tolerance’ is merely smart business, not high-mindedness. Suppression and ethnic cleansing interfere with tax collection. And it would be untrue to say that the Romans never engaged in religious suppression, ethnic cleansing or even genocide anyway. The Roman Senate ordered the mystery cult of Bacchus in Italy violently suppressed in 186 BC (Liv. 39.8ff). The Romans also reacted very negatively to religions involving human sacrifice. Druidic religions, seen by the Romans as “cruel and inhuman” were exterminated in both Gaul and Britain; Tiberius apparently ordered it done in Gaul (Plin. NH 30.13) and Claudius in Britain (Suet. Claudius 25.4). The Romans purportedly responded to child sacrifice in Punic religion by crucifying anyone who did so (Tertullian, Apol. 9.2; there has been some debate as to the degree to which the Carthaginians practiced child sacrifice, but frankly the testimony of the ancient sources is unanimous and backed up by archaeology which to my mind rather closes the matter, leaving only the question of ‘how prevalent was the practice.’). Of course under Diocletian, the Roman empire would embark on a sustained, systematic effort to stamp out Christianity. And we’ve actually already done a survey of Roman efforts at genocide or ethnic cleansing: the Senones, the Samnites, the Cimbri, the Teutones, the Helvetii, the Atautaci and so on.
The Romans were not ideologically committed to tolerance of any kind; tolerance was merely usually the pragmatic approach. Where tolerance suited Roman military and political aims, it was mostly used (with notable exceptions like the ham-fisted Roman approach in Judaea); when tolerance didn’t suit Rome’s aims, there was little hesitance to employ extreme violence.
(Hopefully this doesn’t need saying, but as we’re about to discuss Roman bigotry here, that means I am going to quote some Romans saying some very bigoted things. I obviously do not endorse these bigoted statements, but we need to discuss them because it is important to learn history as it really was, not as we might wish it to have been.)
Moreover, even once a people had come under Rome’s protection and even received Roman citizenship, that didn’t mean that other Roman elites immediately dropped their bigotry. Quite to the contrary, Romans complained bitterly about the presence of ethnic outsiders – even those with Roman citizenship – at Rome, often in extremely vile and bigoted terms. As noted already, Suetonius records the snobbish Roman reaction to the introduction of a handful of elites from Cisalpine Gaul into the Senate couched in ethnic terms (Seut. Caes. 80.1). But that was hardly the worst of it. Roman literature, particularly among the satirists (but hardly exclusive to them) drips with direct and blatent ethnic bigotry. Take Martial’s (c. 40 – c. 104 AD) indictment of a woman who dared to romance with foreigners (Martial, Epigrams 7.30):
You give it up for Parthians, for Germans, Caelia, for Dacians too.
Nor do you spurn the beds of Cilicians or Cappadocians
A fellow sailing from Memphis,
and Black Indians from the Red Sea fuck you;
Nor do you flee from the shaved cocks of Jews
Nor does the Alani pass you by on his Sarmatian Horse.
Why is it, when you are a Roman girl,
that no Roman cocks can please you?
The antisemitism of Juvenal, another Roman satirist, was even more marked. He lets loose with the now all too familiar canards, quipping that “the Jews sell dreams of anything you want for the smallest penny” (Juv. 6.547, trans. here and the two following from R.F. Kennedy, C.S. Roy and M.L. Goldman, Race and Ethnicity in the Classical World (2013)), accuses them of being “accustomed to despise Roman laws” (14.100) and offers an anecdote about “this grove with its sacred fountain and shrine is leased out to Jews with their basket and hay chest. Every tree, of course, is forced to pay its tax to these people, and the forest throws out its Italian muses and goes a-begging” (3.10-21). Juvenal is hardly unique in this prejudice; Tacitus writes of Jews that “everything which is sacred to us is profane to them, everything is allowed for them which is sinful to us (Tac. Hist 5.4; the word ‘sinful’ here is incesta, ‘impure, polluted, defiled, sinful’ – it is a very strong word). Tacitus goes on to declare the Jews the most lustful people (Hist. 5.5), a stereotype that recurs in Roman literature (something that always made the Jewish character of Timon in in HBO’s Rome and his willingness to accept sex over money as payment more than a little uncomfortable to me).
(A word about Jews in the Roman empire. It is often suggested – you may recall the comment from last time – that the Jews in particular were incapable of ‘assimilating’ into Roman culture and were thus a weakening element. It is certainly the case that a lack of Roman cultural understanding meant that the Roman authorities found the fractious politics of Judaea (modern Israel-Palestine) hard to manage; the Romans mostly didn’t understand Judaeaism, didn’t care to understand it and so frequently gave quite grievous offense. One can hardly fault the Jews of Judaea for being upset that their imperial overlords not only imposed taxes on them but then also came to their country to profanetheir sacred sites or trample their religious rituals. That said, there were plenty of Roman Jews who accomidated just fine to the Roman system. Josephus, first a rebel against Rome and then a defector too Rome, was granted Roman citizenship and worked as an advisor to Vespasian and Titus, writing in the imperial court. St. Paul (of Tarsus) was a second-generation Roman citizen; initially an important member of the Jewish religious establishment he went on to be one of the most important early Christian evangelists; he adroitly used his Roman citizenship and the legal rights it gave him. Paul’s easy command of Greek and Roman cultural norms – and his adroit use of them – comes out fairly clearly in Acts. And of course there is Tiberius Julius Alexander, an equestrian procurator of Judaea, prefect of Egypt and Roman military commander. The thing to remember is that there were Jewish communities in many cities in the Roman Empire, not merely in volatile Judaea and that by and large those communities got along just fine. Jewish religious practice and Jewish ethnic identity were not incompatible with Roman citizenship or engagement in the broader Roman world.)
The Greeks got this treatment from the Romans too – Plautus (254-184BC; the oldest Latin writer to have works survive complete) presents his Greeks as either untrustworthy deceivers (e.g. Plaut. Asin. 199) or else as “those cloak-wearing Greeks, who walk with their faces covered, their clothes stuffed with books and beggar’s baskets, loitering together and prattling on among themselves, blocking the way and vaunting their own opinion” (Plaut. Cur. 2.3.9-12). Plautus even uses pergraecari, ‘to play the Greek’ to mean to engage in drunkedness, laziness and debauchery (e.g. Plaut. Most. 22-4, 64-5), playing on Roman stereotypes of the Greeks as lazy, effete, and deceptive. Plautus is also, by the by, contemptuous of Southern Italy (particularly Apulia, e.g. Plaut. Miles 641ff, Casina 67ff) which at the time of his writing was the most recently added part of Rome’s Italian then-young empire. Plautus is, as noted, the earliest Roman writer to have works survive in their entirety and even from that earliest point we find the Romans dealing in crude and bigoted stereotypes about foreigners, especially those – like Greeks and Apulians – freshly entering Rome’s control. We have Romans angrily denouncing the latest ‘foreigners’ (citizen or otherwise) to arrive in the city of Rome from our earliest texts right up to the fall of the empire in the west.
Nor were more northern Europeans immune from Roman bigotry; indeed the Romans may have held the most contempt (and fear) for Gauls and Germans. Vellius Paterculus, attempting to write ‘serious’ history, calmly declares “But the Germans – one might scarcely believe if he hasn’t met them – are the most savage and most deceitful people, a race [genus] born for lying” (Vell. Pat. 2.118.1). The geographer Pomponius Mela declares the Gauls to be “arrogant, superstitious and at times so inhuman that they once believed the sacrificial victim best and most pleasing to the gods was man” (3.18, trans. Kennedy, Roy and Goldman, op. cit.). Pliny the Elder remarks that the Romans did the world a favor by wiping out the druids and suppressing Gallic religion; he derides the people of Britain as the most superstitious in the world (NH 30.13).
We’ve already discussed Tacitus’ reductive and mostly ignorant description of the Germans, but such ethnographic descriptions which boiled down complex peoples into simplistic national characters were very common. Vegetius in his de Re Militaris (1.2) bases his ideal recruiting practices on the notion that people from southern areas are clever, but weak and cowardly while people from northern areas were strong and brave, but stupid and intemperate; naturally Rome, situated in the temperate zone in the middle, had men who were the best of all worlds (e.g. Strabo 6.4.1; on this see G. Irby, “Climate and Courage” in The Routledge Handbook of Identity and the Environment in the classical and Medieval Worlds, eds. R.F. Kennedy and M. Jones Lewis (2016).). One is reminded of the racist British theory that in India that there were ‘martial races‘ more suitable for recruitment into the British army than others. Ancient geographic and ethnographic writers abound with crude national stereotypes (generally presenting foreign peoples as inferior, of course), often with equally crude environmental justifications; quite a few of these are gathered together and translated in the aformentioned R.F. Kennedy, C.S. Roy and M.L. Goldman, Race and Ethnicity in the Classical World: An anthology of Primary Sources in Translation (2013). In short then, the Romans had some kind of bigoted stereotype at hand for functionally every ethnic group in their empire.
(Now isn’t the time to get into the mostly hair-splitting argument of if these views constitute ‘racism’ – an argument which mostly turns on how one defines racism and the degree of connection to psuedo-scientific theories about race. Suffice to say the Romans mostly don’t think about ‘race’ in quite the same way as the concept is now used; for more on this see the introduction to Kennedy, Roy and Goldman op. cit. 1-83. To avoid that debate, I have stuck with the word ‘bigoted’ which I think we can all agree applies.)
Not all Romans were so close-minded, of course – had they been, they likely would have pushed to restrict the steady expansion of Roman citizenship and free movement which made this all possible. The emperor Claudius gave a speech to the Senate (recorded in an inscription which survives in part and summarized at Tac. Ann. 11.24) where after recounting a short history of expansions of Roman citizenship beginning with the legendary period notes that “my great-uncle Augustus and my paternal uncle Tiberius wished there to be in the Senate house the flower of the coloniae and municipiorum [towns with Roman citizenship regardless of origin; it is clear in context that Claudius is speaking of ethnically Gallic towns], that is all good men of substance” and that “but certainly I think that, if they [provincial senators] are able to be an ornament to the Senate, they should not be rejected.” Tacitus, in his summary of the speech is even more blunt, “Are we sorry that the Balbi came to us from Spain, and other men not less illustrious from Gallia Narbonensis? Their descendants are still among us, and do not yield to us in patriotism. What was the destruction of the Spartans and the Athenians but this that as strong as they were in arms, but shoved away as aliens those they had conquered?” (Tac. Ann. 24).
That argument to practicality seems to be what drove the Romans forward. Strikingly, with the exception of one debatable passage in Tacitus’ Agricola, at no point does any Roman writer suggest the Romans ought to spread Roman ‘civilization’ or culture to the rest of the world. The Romans never intended to ‘Romanize’ anyone and they certainly were not always welcoming to the peoples they conquered – even after the initial trauma of conquest had passed. But time and again, practical necessity forced the Romans to open their doors to new entrants (we’ll get into how doing so allowed the Romans to keep their empire at the end of this series). And while holding the empire together required the Romans, again and again, to cope with (and profit from) increasing diversity, the Romans themselves complained, in bitter and bigoted terms, every step of the way. Much like Roman complaints about ‘decadence’ (which start up as soon as we have a Roman literary tradition and continue unabated throughout Roman history) we have to be on our guard when Romans complain about the Roman people being ‘diluted’ by provincials; they were always complaining about this even in the best of times.
Rome Under the Five Good Emperors
To recap where we are so far: Rome began as a cultural-fusion society, a frontier town at the edge of different cultural, linguistic, religious and ethnic zones. It then expanded and rather than attempting to remain culturally homogenous in its expansion, the Romans repeatedly, driven by the practical demands of war and empire and despite their own considerable bigotry against foreigners, expanded their citizen body to include progressively more different peoples as Romans. By the first century BC, that expansion had included the whole of Italy, which as we’ve discussed, was hardly a uniform place; those Italians as Romans would come to dominate the flowering of literary culture and the political elite of the early empire. By the beginning fo the second century, that process was rapidly moving out of Italy into the provinces, with prominent Roman writers, senators, generals and leaders (and as we’ll see next time, emperors too!) coming from Spain, Greece, Anatolia, Africa, Gaul and beyond.
I want to pause our story there for a moment, in the second century. One problem with popular ‘folk history’ about Rome is that the Roman empire exists for a really long time and that, as noted, Romans spend all of that time complaining. For people who are often at best dimly remembering Roman history from a high school or college course, all of that time blends together: Rome for them has one rise and one fall and a neat apex, probably right around that Julius Caesar fellow, because he’s the one person whose name they remember. But the Roman Empire lasted a long time; Roman rule in parts of Spain, for instance, lasted form the late third century BC to the mid-fifth century AD. Rome expands, has crises, recovers, has more crises, recovers again; even where we are now (around the year 180) the ‘fall of Rome’ is still about three hundred years away! With such vast amounts of time, keeping the chronology straight is very important. We’ve actually set out one form of this chronology already:
- Roman Expansion in Italy (509-265 B.C.), during which the Roman Republic consolidated control of the Italian Peninsula.
- Rapid Roman Overseas Expansion (265 B.C. – 14 A.D.), during which the Roman Republic (along with Augustus, the first emperor) defeated the other major powers of the Mediterranean and also rapidly subjugated large numbers of minor states and pre-state peoples. This period also sees political stresses within the Roman Republic eventually tear it apart, leading to a new monarchy under Augustus.
- Consolidation, Stabilization and Frontier Defense (15 – 378 A.D.), during which expansion does not stop, but it does slow, and the greater military focus is on protecting what Rome has (which is, to be fair, nearly all of the territory worth having). This period is disrupted by a period of fragmentation and civil war called the Third Century Crisis (235-284), but Rome stabilizes and regains control of its older borders afterwards and holds them successfully for another century.
- The Long, Slow Collapse of the West (378-476), during which the Western Roman Empire slowly collapses, while the Eastern Roman Empire remains prosperous, militarily successful and almost entirely intact.
We’ve now in the second century AD, particularly in the reign of the ‘Five Good Emperors‘ (also known as the Nervan-Antonine Emperors, ironically there are six of them – Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius, plus the one bad one, Commodus) stretching from Nerva (r. 96-98) to Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180). It was the period of Rome’s maximum territorial extent (reached in reign of Trajan, 98-117 and held steady for decades) and greatest levels of wealth and security. And it is nearly a century long, a period of (for most of the empire) largely untroubled prosperity and success. Moreover, collapse and failure aren’t even particularly close; we’re still in the middle of the ‘Consolidation, Stabilization and Frontier Defense’ stage. The next truly dangerous crisis will come in 235 – more than fifty years in the future from Marcus Aurelius – and won’t be fatal. By 284, the empire will have mostly recovered (it’ll have almost all of its territory back, but the war will have damaged the economy substantially) and still have more than a century of unquestioned military and political dominance in front of it.
And I stop here to note that it is this period, this sustained peak of Roman power, wealth, literature and culture which is marked by the brilliant efflorescence of diversity in the Roman world. Far from bringing collapse, the steady incorporation of elites from beyond Italy causes Rome to gleam brighter and brighter; the philosophy of (Spanish) Seneca and the humor of (African) Apuleius, the moralizing anecdotes of (Greek) Plutarch and the voluminous history of (Anatolian-Greek) Cassius Dio – Roman citizens all! – all belong to this period (Dio lives through and beyond it). If we stretch a bit to capture the late first century, we may also include the spiritual writings of (Levantine Jew) Paul of Tarsus, which will spend the second century rapidly spreading through the Mediterranean world. Marcus Aurelius himself, tutored by (African) Fronto goes on to write – in Greek – his Meditations, meant as a journal but also a quite moving treatise in Stoic thought. He does this while commanding an army – as we’ll see not next week but the week after – which undoubtedly included soldiers from almost every corner of the empire.
Just as the great Roman conquests of the third and second centuries BC had been the result of the Roman willingness to accommodate and manage the diversity of Roman Italy, so the great floruit of the Roman Empire, running from Augustus in 31 BC to the death of Marcus in 180 (and one could argue perhaps further to the death of Alexander Severus in 235) was the product of the Roman embrace – begrudging and complaining embrace, but embrace nonetheless – of the diversity of the entire broader Mediterranean world.
Next week, we’re going to go ahead and tackle a question that always comes up when discussing ethnicity in the Roman world: what color were the Romans? Most of them, it turns out!