Race in Antiquity: Who Were the Romans?

“What race were the ancient Greeks and Romans?”

It sounds like a simple question that ought to have a straightforward answer, but both the question and its answer are far more complicated than they appear. In these posts, I dig into the topic to explore what we know, what we don’t know, and what we mean by race in the ancient Mediterranean world.

Part 6: Who Were the Romans?

In the last post in this series, I explored the question of who we mean by the ancient Greeks. It’s a more complicated question than it seems and doesn’t offer any easy answers. When we turn to the Romans, find that, if anything, Roman identity was even more complicated than Greek.

The history of Rome was one of expansion and contact with a larger world. The city of Rome itself was located at the crossing point of two important routes of travel: the Tiber river, which ran from the Apennine mountains to the sea, and an ancient trade route that ran along the western coast of the Italian peninsula. Early Rome flourished from the trade that ran along these routes, and a degree of openness to outsiders was part of Roman identity from its earliest days. Indeed, the city of Rome itself was formed out of several originally independent hilltop villages that merged into one city-state as they grew. The people of Rome were Latins and they shared an ethnic, linguistic, and cultural identity with the people of other nearby Latin cities. There was never a time in Roman history when Roman identity did not embrace people of multiple different origins.

The early Roman state was ruled by kings. Roman kingship was not hereditary; rather, on the death of a king the people of Rome elected a new one. Many of the kings recorded in Roman legends are likely entirely mythical, but the myths have important implications for how early Rome related to the outside world. Few kings were from Rome. Instead, the list includes Sabines (from the hills east of Rome), Etruscans (from the prosperous cities to the north), and Latins from other communities. Indeed, it appears that the early Romans may have favored outsiders for their kings in order to avoid conflicts between the aristocratic families of the city over the office. (Livy, History of Rome 1.10-49; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 2.36-58, 3.36-46, 4.1-28; Eutropius, Compendium of History 1.1-8)

Roman of later ages continued to assert their connections to other peoples. Roman priests adopted Etruscan methods of interpreting messages from the gods. Even long after Rome had conquered the Etruscan cities, Romans continued to practice what they called the “Etruscan method.” The Claudian family, one of the most powerful noble clans in Rome and part of the first dynasty of Roman emperors, proudly declared their Sabine origins. (Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, “Life of Tiberius,” 1; Valerius Maximus, Memorable Deeds and Sayings 1.1)

Being open to the world was not just a Roman habit; it was key to the success of Rome as an expansionist state. Rather than subjugate or exterminate the peoples they conquered, the Romans incorporated them into their state, extending legal and political rights and creating incentives for the conquered and their descendants to think of themselves as Romans. The practical benefits for the empire were considerable. Provincials who felt like part of the empire were less likely to revolt. They provided a practically inexhaustible stream of new recruits for the Roman army. The best and brightest gravitated towards the city of Rome where they became the leading lights of Roman art, literature, scholarship, and law. Some of the great names of Roman history came form the provinces, including the comic poet Martial, who came from Spain, the biographer of the early emperors Suetonius, from North Africa, and the jurist Ulpian, from the old Phoenician city of Tyre. Even emperors could come from the provinces. By the end of the third century CE, Rome had been ruled by men from Thrace, Illyria, Arabia, North Africa, and Gaul. (Martial, Epigrams 10.65, 10.103, 10.104; Herodian, Roman History 7.1; Epitome de Caesaribus 31; Eutropius 13, 18; Zosimus, New History 1.13; L’anneé épigraphique 1953 73)

Many people who remained in the provinces also claimed Romanness as part of their identity. Being Roman did not necessarily exclude other identities, and it could mean different things to different people. Being Roman was part of the complex set of identities that people could assert, adapt, question, and repurpose as they saw fit, in much the same way that people today who identify as American, or British, or Hungarian can have very different ways of understanding and expressing those identities. A gravestone on the Danube frontier identifies the soldier it was set up for as both a Roman and a Frank. An orator who came from the Aeduan tribe of central Gaul declared: “What people in all the world is more in love with the Roman name than the Aedui?” Throughout the empire, people who spoke Latin but were not Roman citizens, or who had Roman citizenship but dressed in British style, or who wore Roman clothes but spoke Greek could all call themselves Romans with an equal claim to that identity. At the same time, not everyone who lived under Roman rule or participated in Roman culture wanted to be thought of as Roman. There were those who rejected Roman identity entirely, or embraced it only when circumstances demanded it, like Saint Paul, who asserted his Roman citizenship only when threatened with torture. (Acts of the Apostles 22; Panegyrici Latini 8.2; Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum III 3576)

Like Greekness, Romannes had never been conceived of as an ethnic or racial identity. There was never a moment in Roman history when those who called themselves Romans believed that they were a genetically distinct people, separated from the rest of the world by an uncrossable barrier. Although Rome’s empire was created and sustained by acts of violence against outsiders, some of them arguably rising to the level of genocide, Roman culture did not invent or impose racial categories on its victims in the same way the modern empires have done. The question of whether someone was Roman or not was never one that could be answered by the characteristics of a person’s body or an examination of their origins and ancestry. As with the ancient Greeks, any questions we pose about the race of the ancient Romans must contend with the ways in which those who identified themselves as Romans thought about themselves and the world around them.

Other posts on Race in Antiquity:

Image: Portrait of two brothers from Roman Egypt, via Wikimedia (currently Egyptian Museum, Cairo; 2nd c. CE; distemper on wood)

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.


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