Oliver – Year 13 Student & Chief Editor, Humanities Journal
Editor’s note: This carefully researched and expertly written essay was originally planned for entry into the University of Sheffield History Essay Competition and later edited for publication in The GSAL Journal. Through detailed examination of the period, including skillful analysis and evaluation, Oliver seeks to answer the following questions: what did it mean to be ‘Roman’ and how ‘Roman’ was the Empire? CPD
‘The immeasurable majesty of the Roman peace’  dominated the classical world, and this essay will focus upon the epoch from 27BC (the year Octavian became ‘Augustus’) to 235AD (the beginning of the ‘imperial crisis’). My aim is to examine the nature of Roman imperial culture, exploring the various imperial provinces and the metropole itself, and will present a picture of a complex, heterogeneous and decentralised empire that is very different from many early histories that saw the empire as centralised and with an homogenous character emanating from a dominant Rome.
Let us first consider the different provinces. Clearly, one cannot consider every corner of the Empire in 1,500 words, so generalisations must be made. Perhaps the most Romanized section of the classical Empire was the West, consisting of Gaul, Celtiberia and Britannia. Here Latin was the Lingua Franca, and Roman customs were prevalent. Even before the conquest of Gaul, there is significant evidence of Roman exports to these regions, particularly that of wine, which rather took the Gallic dinner table by storm. Roman religion soon became standard from Cordoba to London; although local cults still existed, these were typically limited to the more rural elements of the provinces. Significant evidence of Roman architecture, and so presumably the cultural baggage associated with it, can be found across Western Europe today, whether that be the magnificent Pont Du Gard aqueduct, the baths at Bath or the arena at Chester. The picture being painted here is one of cultural penetration by Roman customs and goods, suggesting that this half of the Empire took on a relatively simple ‘Roman’ imprint. However, administrative records clearly indicate that local support depended on the gladius, with many legions stationed in Gaul (more specifically ‘Upper Germany’) and Britannia, and this suggests that the process of cultural assimilation may not have been as easy as has often been advocated historically. Frequent conflict erupted within the first century AD, presumably in defence of Celtic culture, whilst the hallmark of Roman control, the urban city, was typically born surrounding a legionary fortress: Chester, literally meaning fort, is the best example of this. Speaking of Celtic culture, we must recognise that it held significant sway over the lives of many, a truth encapsulated by the survival of Celtic dialect in Wales today. However, as we approach 235 AD, these provinces, save for Upper Germany (which faced the redoubtable Germanic tribes), became more settled, and more Roman. The peak of this process culminated in the Gallic chieftains entering the Romansenate. We should also realise that ethnic Roman colonies (typically small towns) sprang up across the Western world, particularly in Spain – more evidence of Romanization. Overall, how ‘Roman’ was the West? Even if such provinces had to be won and were initially dominated by a military presence, their later prosperity and stability, combined with the merging of the landed classes with their counterparts in Rome, suggests that later Western citizens considered themselves Roman first and foremost.
The collection of provinces that made up Roman Africa strengthen the idea that the Roman Empire was essentially the export of a quintessential Roman character. Again, Roman architecture abounds. One can find a forum, theatre or public bath in locations as diverse as Carthage and Lepcis Magna – unlike other provinces, signs of Roman culture were not limited to major urban areas. Evidence of Roman commercial goods can be found in the vast vineyards near Kasserine, and the landowners that ran them merged easily with Roman blue blood. Despite the widespread use of Punic as a second language, Berber culture Romanized painlessly, and careers as successful as Quintus Lollius Urbicus, a Berber landowner who ended up as governor in Britannia, weren’t atypical. In fact, in the form of Septimius Severus, the African provinces even produced an emperor. Perhaps the reason for this fluid process of assimilation is due to their existing links with Rome, with both commerce and conflict facilitating the spread of different cultures centuries before the assassination of Julius Caesar. Maybe, unlike their Celtic neighbours, the Berber culture prized stability over ‘liberty’, especially after the devastation of the Punic wars during the days of the Roman Republic. Whatever the causes, examination of Tunisia, Algeria and Libya suggests that this area of the Roman Empire felt very Roman indeed.
‘‘The East’’ was, and perhaps still is today, the melting pot of the Mediterranean world. Here, culture and customs ran deep, and it is here that the picture becomes much more complex. The ancient civilisations of the Middle East had been enriched by the influx of migrants throughout antiquity, such as that of Egypt, which contained a large Greek minority, particularly in urban areas (evident in the use of Greek rather than Latin as the administrative language). And those civilisations had matured into powerful cultures that impressed the Romans. Throughout the Eastern world, local religion and custom remained largely untouched by the process of Romanization that was prevalent in the more homogenous West. This is not to say that Roman religion had no penetration – a Roman could feel vaguely at home in the forums of Alexandria or Antioch – but in rural areas, where the Proconsul had less authority and Rome seemed far away, one could expect to see shrines to Isis or Zoroaster rather than temples of Juno. Moreover the urban city was less of a bastion for Rome than elsewhere; cities had more independence, with native Romans often outside the chain of administration, possibly because of Eastern traditions of autonomy, and a stronger cultural identity. The greatest sign of the individuality emanating from the Eastern Empire can be seen in the rise of Christianity. This was hardly a Roman development – in fact, governors such as Pliny the Younger attempted to stamp out Christianity wherever possible – and the religion’s eventual adoption by Rome suggests that the East had far more cultural clout than other provinces, and a greater tendency to withstand Roman assimilation. Whilst traits and customs of the Latin people can be identified throughout, the East was only slightly ‘Roman’ in the epoch being examined.
That crucial instrument of Roman power, the military, became a complex microcosm of the Empire it swore to defend. Roman legionary recruitment originally sourced from Italy, but quickly moved to Spain and other well settled provinces, so one could hardly call the core legions ‘Roman’. Additionally, one must consider the auxiliaries, which equalled the legions in number. Overall, whilst recruitment was extraordinarily diverse, ranging from the Rhine to Syria, the military was consistently structured on a traditional legionary model and retained a character that was stamped from a recognisably Roman mould.
What about Rome itself? The adoption of Christianity as an import from the East has already been mentioned. Crucially, as the centre of an Empire, Rome attracted migrants from across the known world. By the time of Augustus there were sizable Jewish minorities resident in the capital, for example. And no account is complete without a mention of Greece. We could argue that Roman paganism dominated other religions up to 235 AD, but this pantheon itself was essentially borrowed from Greece. We could point out the unique Latin story, the storied fable of Aeneas. Yet was this not based in the Greek world intentionally, to link the stinky backwater of Rome with the epics of Troy and Mycenae? The blue bloods of Rome adopted practices from the more ‘sophisticated’ Greek world, whether they be culinary or philosophical, whilst Greek was a popular subject for young aristocrats. Clearly, Rome imported as many cultural practices as it exported in this case. Whilst the Roman elite aped the very Eastern despots their ancestors deposed, the ‘plebs’ lapped up the exotic creatures slaughtered in the Colosseum. As all roads led to Rome, the city became an immense two-way cultural melting pot.
In conclusion, what did it mean to be ‘Roman’ and how ‘Roman’ was the Empire? Essentially, whilst Roman influence can be detected throughout the provinces, a degree of local custom still existed, and in some provinces, there remained a culture that pre-dated and supplanted Latin influences. When considering Rome itself, one realises that the process of cultural exchange was exactly that: Rome was influenced heavily by the provinces it governed, with certain civilisations playing a greater part than others. So the Empire is revealed as a collaboration between different civilisations, although with Roman influence being the strongest of the various strains flowing across the Mediterranean world. The Roman Empire was ‘Roman’, but from the first century AD, ‘Roman’ itself became a complex construct and an amalgam of different ways of life.
Lastly, a word on the sources. The selection used when researching this essay was secondary; of course, most of those secondary sources used primary sources themselves. The author has also used his experience of Roman architectural remains across Europe as inspiration for some of the body of this essay, particularly that regarding Britain.
 Pliny the Elder
Boundless World History, (date last updated not available), Crises of the Roman Empire, Lumen Learning (unclear as to the exact website name), viewed 30 March 2021, <https://courses.lumenlearning.com/suny-hccc-worldhistory/chapter/crises-of-the-roman-empire/>
De la Bédoyère, G (2013) Roman Britain: a New History Revised Edition, United Kingdom, Thames & Hudson.
Holland, T (2004) Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic Paperback Edition, Great Britain, Abacus.
Holland, T (2016) Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar Paperback Edition, Great Britain, Abacus.
March, J (2009) The Penguin Book of Classical Myths, Paperback Edition, Various, The Penguin Group.
Virgil (translated 1952 by Lewis, C.D) (2008) The Aeneid Reissued Edition, New York, Oxford University Press Inc, Oxford World Classics
Wells, C (1992) The Roman Empire Second Edition, London Great Britain, Fontana Press, Fontana history of the ancient world.