Archaeology, Archaeology Research

‘The Romanisation of Rome’ – identity or just fashion?

This evening I braved intermittent snowfall and frankly cruel temperatures to visit my old haunt of Kings College London. Nicola Terrenato from Michigan University was giving a talk on The Romanisation of Rome. The Republican period is not my specialism, what with being decidedly non-British, but it was really interesting.

The main thrust of the lecture was:

a) The things we consider typically ‘Roman’ (forums, large villa estates, villa-based oil and wine production, council buildings, theatres, poured concerete) aren’t introduced to Rome and its close environs until the Grachiian or Caesarian periods (late 2nd/1st century BC) when it all started happening.
b) These things come from other cultures nearby.
c) Prior to this period Roman culture is very similar to any other nearby culture
d) Those kind of things occur around the same time across the Western Empire provinces at about the same time, rather than emanating out of Rome itself.
e) Those kind of things can be seen as a fashion rather than an inherently socio-political thing.
f) Adoption of those kind of features is therefore adopting a fashion, rather than necessarily adopting something that was inherently ‘Roman’

Which all culminates in the idea that ‘Roman’ culture isn’t some monolithic thing, but a kind of mish-mash of aquired traits with no one ‘thing’ that we could tie down to being inherently Roman.

Nicola was reasonably good at answering the questions put to him, but rather steadfastly avoided engaging my secondary supervisor’s attempts to raise questions of post-imperialist discourses (like below). I guess that’s not surprising really – although he’s Italian, he is currently operating in the US and I somehow doubt they are ready to talk critically and self-awarely about imperialism.

That said, I’m surprised he manages to pull all these ideas about this creation of a ‘Roman’ identity together in a country that probably doesn’t know that you’re supposed to see the Romans as a massive monolithic culture, so won’t spot the novelty of his ideas. Or maybe that’s what’s given him the space to develop his ideas?

I have to admit I rather like the whole thing, because if we accept that many of those traits we think of as archetypally ‘Roman’ are in fact just a fashion, it rather explains why so many of them disappear so early in Britain (third century or even earlier). It’s not that people stop being Roman and revert back to pre-Roman ‘native’ patterns (whatever they might really be). It’s just that villas or forums went out of fashion.

Of course there’s a bit of a problem if you follow post-imperialist theoretical ideas, the idea of which I think is that cultures form their own ideas of what it means to be them and then propagate it on purpose, because you might expect that by the time of the Roman invasion of Britain the Romans might be actively propagating this fashion as a ‘Roman’ thing.

But I do like the idea that the Romans are some kind of meta-culture self-constructed from lots of nearby cultures, picking out the best and the most useful. It fits nicely in some kind of evolutionary perspective on culture, making the Romans the most adaptive and quickly evolving culture and thus their success down to survival of the fittest, in this case being fittest meaning being most able to grab the good bits out of other cultures for their own. I’ve always thought of them in this way, and it’s nice to know real archaeologists think so too!

The lecture did leave me with a few questions though. I mean, as an archaeologist it’s all about people, right? So what does he think that people in Rome during this massively exciting period of innovation and adoption experience? Did they adopt these things as their idea of a ‘Roman’ identity, or did it remain always a fashion that they could take or leave? If all we’re left with is the language (which is what Nicola suggested) what did it mean for them to be Roman? Because contemporary writers seem to be certain that there was a proper ‘Roman’ way of doing things, etc, so what was that? And will it ever be visible for archaeologists?

I guess it’s not going to have a massive impact on my own practice, but I probably won’t know until I have some results to interpret (must get back to the lab!). But I do like the idea that you can still be ‘Roman’ without all the trappings we usually think of. One thing is nagging on the edge of my mind though – what about the material culture that dominates the archaeological record? I mean, ignoring the forums, the basilicas, the amphorae. What about the domestic pottery, the brooches, the pins, the minutiae of life? Do the same arguments still apply?

And perhaps more importantly, have we demolished the concept of ‘romanisation’ into nothing but a fashion and all the material-culture traits into a take-or-leave-it fad? And where does this leave the poor old Romans – were they just as uncertain as we are about who they were?

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