Roman in the Gloamin: The Tautology of A Diverse Empire

Nature has willed that every man’s children and kindred should be his dearest objects. Yet these are torn from us by conscriptions to be slaves elsewhere. Our wives and our sisters, even though they may escape violation from the enemy, are dishonoured under the names of friendship and hospitality. Our goods and fortunes they collect for their tribute, our harvests for their granaries. Our very hands and bodies, under the lash and in the midst of insult, are worn down by the toil of clearing forests and morasses. Creatures born to slavery are sold once for all, and are, moreover, fed by their masters; but Britain is daily purchasing, is daily feeding, her own enslaved people.
Tacitus (attributed to Calgacus), Agricola

There was quite the rammy in social media a couple of days ago. No, not that one: I’ve said all I want to say on that subject. The rammy I’m talking about regards this recent (well, over half a year old) BBC video for 7-to-11-year-olds:

As far as I can tell, the argument seems to be between one group of people who think that the Roman family in the video are not representative of the Ancient Romans as a whole, and another group of people who think that the family represent the diversity of the Ancient Romans.

Now, you know me and the BBC. I am deeply ambivalent about it as an organisation: I started with great enthusiasm & respect for it, to downright anathema & disappointment, within what seemed like only a few years – coincidentally, as a teen watching the Iraq War unfolding. So I view this with the same sense of weary cynicism I now view shows like Blue Peter: a general sense of unease and distrust on every viewing.

Well, I got that watching this cartoon – but it probably wasn’t for the same reasons as those who criticised historians like Mary Beard. Rather, it’s for the disquieting ease by which folk can normalise conquest & colonisation, if it appeals to the right angle on their sensibilities.

The BBC, & the UK in general, seems fair enamoured with the Romans: they certainly make enough documentaries about them. It’s easy to see why: the Renaissance was all about recreating an exaggeratedly noble, learned, and intellectual classical age, exemplified by Greece and Rome. The nostalgia for Rome is so extreme & embedded in British, indeed Western European, consciousness, that the very word romanticise ultimately derives from the Romans. Rome occupies a place shared only by the mythic Alexander of Macedon: where most peoples, nations, and cultures would boast how they repelled a conqueror’s forces, you can barely move for the folk scrambling to claim descent from Caesar’s legions.

That’s how insidious Rome was: it took elements of its conquests’ local culture, gave them a Roman spin, and pretended that their cultural dismemberment was in fact the “melting pot” of cultural exchange. Everything else was destroyed utterly. In due course, the conquered would see themselves as Romans.

Hadrian’s Wall stretches across the isle of Britain, crossing some of the most dramatic and harsh terrain in Britannia and cutting the island in half. Hadrian was concerned with consolidating and defining the Empire he received in AD 117, unlike his predecessor Trajan, who had continued the policy of unbridled expansion of Rome’s borders. The building of the wall defined the limits of the Roman Empire. Britannia was one of the newest provinces in the Empire, conquered for less than a century. The island was not completely subjugated by Rome and rebellions were common. Hadrian saw the wall as an opportunity not only to solve the problem of northern incursions, but also to send a message to those living below the wall in the province. Hadrian intended that the province would become part of the Empire and embrace the Roman culture that the Britons up to this point had avoided accepting.

By building the wall, Hadrian created not only a defensive line that separated the barbarians beyond it from the civilized, but also created a symbol. The wall symbolized the disassociation of the province of Britannia from the northern portion of the island. It showed the permanence of the Romans in Britannia and the power of the Roman state. Hadrian wanted the Britons to see themselves as Romans, not Britons. It was his hope that the wall would be not only a physical barrier but also a psychological barrier for those in the south as well as the north. The wall became part of a larger strategy of symbols used by Hadrian, including coins he produced commemorating the province and the military stationed in it as well as building projects through out the Empire.

Hadrian’s Wall was dynamic, filling more than a single role. It was a defensive structure, a porous barrier that controlled commerce, a symbol of Roman might to intimidate those who would dare oppose her, an attempt to exclude those who were not civilized, and protection and provision for those who were within the wall.

Hadrian’s Wall: Romanization on Rome’s Northern Frontier, Joshua P. Haskett

The aforementioned rammy was predictable. The usual suspects all came out with their usual propositions, met with rebuttals, met with counterpoints, and so forth; all with the depressing sense that everyone (at least, everyone reasonable) is actually in broad agreement with each other over the salient facts. Both sides were making statements that were not mutually exclusive to the other, and acting as if they were – arguing past one another. That’s the narcissism of small differences, right there.

Of course the Roman Empire was diverse: it was an Empire. An Empire will be composed of different nations, peoples, or tribes, because that is what an Empire tends to be. To refer to the Roman Empire as “diverse” seems, to me, a ridiculous tautology: how could something be an Empire, and not diverse? The Mongol Empire was not composed exclusively of Mongolians, or the Ottoman Empire of Turks, or the British Empire of Britons: their numbers were bolstered, and eventually outnumbered, by the subjects they conquered. Even Italy itself was not unified under Rome by the popular acclaim of the Etruscans, Latins, Volsci, Samnites, Umbrians, and Magna Graecians – it was because the Romans went and beat them up until they couldn’t fight back any more. As in Italy, so it was in the Mediterranean, Africa, Middle East, Northern Europe, and Britain.

Yet because of the power of buzzwords, “diverse,” “multicultural” Rome is given a veneer of respectability, even positivity – even when the inevitable reasons behind that diversity are acknowledged:

Romanization has been represented as a simple progression from barbarism to civilization. Roman forms in architecture, coinage, language and literature came to dominate the world from Britain to Syria. Hingley argues for a more complex and nuanced view in which Roman models provided the means for provincial elites to articulate their own concerns. Inhabitants of the Roman provinces were able to develop identities they never knew they had until Rome gave them the language to express them.
Hingley draws together the threads of diverse and separate study, in one sophisticated theoretical framework that spans the whole Roman Empire. Students of Rome and those with an interest in classical cultural studies will find this an invaluable mine of information.
– Richard Hingley, Globalizing Roman Culture: Unity, Diversity and Empire

One of the most astonishing features of the Roman Empire is the sheer diversity of the geographical and cultural landscapes it controlled. It was a European empire in the sense that it controlled most of the territory of the member states of the present EU, except part of Germany and Scandinavia.
But it was above all a Mediterranean empire, and pulled together diverse cultures, in Asia (the Near East), Egypt and North Africa that have not been reunited since the spread of Islam. This represented a vast diversity, including language (two ‘international’ languages were still needed for communication, Greek as well as Latin, let alone local languages) and relative development – they spoke of ‘barbarians’ versus Romans/Greeks, where we would speak of first and third world.
– Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, Roman Empire: The Paradox of Power

There is plenty of evidence that the Roman empire was relatively diverse, as might be expected from an empire that encouraged trade and mobility across a territory that extended from Hadrian’s Wall to north Africa, the Rhine, and the Euphrates (and which, less positively, enslaved and moved conquered populations around by force).
– Dr Matthew Nichols, How Diverse Was Roman Britain?

The problem there being that virtually the entirety of Rome’s territory was conquered territory – and thus, the vast majority of the population of Rome’s empire were conquered populations. It seems more than a mite problematic to implicitly celebrate the diversity of an Empire which is diverse through the forceful acquisition of resources, territory, and especially people.

But then, the damage has been done to poor old Britain – for, just as Hadrian intended, many Britons do see themselves as Romans, don’t they? Hence we have this educational cartoon, where people who are part of a decades-long military occupation, drawn from all corners of a sprawling empire, speak with British accents. “Father” is not Ethiopian, or Libyan, or Mauretanian, or any other imperial province of Africa: he may have been born in Africa, and live in Britannia – but even if he never set a single foot in Italy, Father is Roman.

History is history, and the past is the past. I have zero problem with the cartoon choosing to depict a (presumably) African soldier & his family in Britannia, as there is ample evidence for such individuals in the archaeological record. I have no issues whatsoever with the clear and explicit intention to highlight people like this in the interests of representation, because it is fascinating to me to imagine people coming here from half a world away. How many adventure stories feature intrepid explorers on journeys to the jungles of Africa, the rainforests of South America, the mist-shrouded mountains of Asia, the distant isles of the seven seas? From another perspective, Britain was that lost land, that mysterious island, that realm of myth and legend – and some people made that journey here. It is awesome to imagine that trek across desert, wilderness, hillside, mountain, and ocean, to find themselves at what was for all intents and purposes the very edge of the world. Stories like this are, frankly, just cool.

But on no account should we forget just why some of those people were here. Some came to trade; others to settle; still more for adventure. Those that came – or, rather, were sent – by the Romans, had other motivations. The Romans came to Britain with sword in one hand and fasces in the other: they did not seek to form an equal relationship with the Ancient Britons. They were not interested in sharing Britannia’s rich resources & ample farmland.

They came here to make more Romans. The cruellest irony? We find that for many people, 1,607 years after the last legion was withdrawn and Britannia’s disparate peoples formed kingdoms of their own, Rome has never left.

Plutarch tells of a conversation which he held at Delphi with a Greek teacher of languages from Tarsus returning home from Britain. If in modern England, apart from Wales and its borders, the old native language has disappeared, it has given way not to the Angles or to the Saxons, but to the Roman idiom; and, as usually happens in border-lands, in the later imperial period no one stood more faithfully by Rome than the man of Britain. It was not Britain that gave up Rome, but Rome that gave up Britain.
– Theodor Mommsen, The Provinces of the Roman Empire from Caesar to Diocletian

One thought on “Roman in the Gloamin: The Tautology of A Diverse Empire

  1. […] news about Cheddar Man will come as no surprise to people with an interest in anthropology, or even ancient history. Britons with dark skin & black, curly hair have been recorded since the Roman period, with […]

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