Thursday 31 January 2013

What was it to be Roman?

Face it, Rome was around a long time - it was a global player for almost 1000-years - so the concept of 'being  Roman' changes repeatedly. Take a look at a Roman living around 500BC, and this is a person identified with a tiny city state in the middle of Italy. This Roman is a descendant of the same Celtics who would become Gauls in Central France and speaks a similar Celtic language - one that is fast becoming Latin. Their world extends to the farms surrounding their walled city and they still only number in the tens of thousands. To the north the Etruscan Kingdom controls much of the trade in the region, while the Greek city states are facing off with the Persian Empire.

Fast forward to 89BC and a Roman is now very different - the small city state has extended its reach across all of Italy, into southern Gaul, Spain, Greece and North Africa. After a civil war to decide the matter - to be  a Roman is almost anyone born in Italy and in the veteran communities dotted around the western Mediterranean. A Roman might speak Latin, but many now speak languages that will eventually become Italian, while others speak Greek or Etruscan. Late Republic Romans might now recall Celtic, Etruscan and Greek ancestors and they already dominate trade across much of the known world. With the fall of Carthage they know they are part of the greatest superpower in the Mediterranean - even though the Roman Republic has a population of just six million people.

Two hundred years later and the Roman Empire means 'being Roman' is largely becoming a state of mind. By now nearly 100-million people from across the North, Mediterranean and Black Sea basins can call themselves Roman. Most of these will never visit Rome - or even know someone who has. To be Roman has become something more akin to being European - or even American. Romans are African, Greek, Italian, Spanish, Gauls, Britons, Germans, Jews, Arabs, Persian, Syrian, Armenian, Pontic and Slavs. They speak hundreds of different languages and rely more on Greek than Latin as a common tongue. This is the world most Roman watchers know - so this is the one that probably best explains what it was to be Roman. These were the people of the Empire - they may have felt stronger regional and language ties with their immediate neighbours, but they paid their taxes with Imperial coins, they walked on Roman built-roads, marched in Roman armies, and lived in Romano cities sharing such a common culture that someone from the northern England city of York would just as easily find and talk their way around Syrian Damascus. That was what it was to be Roman.

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