Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1998.11.07

Ray Laurence, Joanne Berry, Cultural Identity in the Roman Empire.   London:  Routledge, 1998.  Pp. xi, 205.  ISBN 0-415-3594-X.  $70.00.  

Reviewed by Tim Whitmarsh, St. John's College
Word count: 2107 words

Cultural (or whatever inadequate term is used in this embattled field) identity is currently big news in classics. This book joins the ranks of recent volumes by Erich Gruen, Jonathan Hall, and Simon Swain (amongst others), and will shortly be joined by Greg Woolf's work on Roman Gaul, and by important collections edited by both Richard Miles and Simon Goldhill.1 The reasons for this exponential rise of interest are no doubt legion and complex, but it is not hard to spot some of them. Studies in cultural (or ethnic, or...) identity have many intellectual debts: to anthropology's investigations of the multi-faceted forms of 'culture' and explorations of the performativity of social role-playing; to radical feminism and queer studies, with their denaturalisation of sexual 'identity'; and to psychoanalysis, and the interrogation of the notion of a monolithic 'identity' at the core of the individual. The rising academic interest in identity is also, however, motivated by more immediately pressing issues, both in the academy and the larger world. Few will need to be reminded of the intensity and continued significance of the debates, originating in the US, over the degree of potential complementarity between multiculturalism and the nation state (in classical studies, Bernal's Black Athena has been the main battle-ground2). In large parts of Europe (including the UK, where the Laurence volume was written), the dilemmas of ethnicity have a further twist in the many contexts where national identities are atomised by unification or entrenched by fragmentation, where terrorism, neo-nazism, hooliganism and civil war have become the most commonly represented expressions of 'patriotism.'

Cultural Identity in the Roman Empire is, thus, a timely intervention in one of the most energised and controversial fields of current academic enquiry. This book does little to settle the debates, the emphasis being more upon defiant provocation than definitive statements. Herein lies the greatest value of the project, in its querulous contestation of the unexamined données underlying previous studies of Romanitas and Romanisation: as a challenge to orthodoxy, this volume succeeds like a host of Socratic gadflies. Yet this approach also shows a general neglect of systematic engagement with the questions raised by the title. What is culture? How does it differ from ethnicity? How does it relate to citizenship? What is identity, and what degree of homogenisation does it imply? Can 'in the Roman Empire' be used as a catch-all phrase, or does it matter whom one is talking about, and where? It is not, it must be stressed, that these questions are not raised during the course of the individual essays, it is that there is little overall sense of a theoretical or methodological framework. Whether such shortcomings in this eclectic and diverse volume are defrayed by the gains to be had from the individual contributions, some of high quality, will depend upon the reader's tastes.

A major part of the polemic thrust of this book lies in its attempt to bring together archaeology and history (pp.1-2; 8-9), and more specifically to introduce 'historical' issues and methodologies to archaeologists: to this end, 'cultural identity' is here studied primarily (although not exclusively) through landscape and edifices. There is, thus, very little on art, numismatics, law, linguistics (only Woolf, pp.119-20) or literature here (although there is an elegant essay on inscriptions at Nîmes by Valerie Hope). A sub-title might have clarified the rather narrow focus of the volume. Moreover, the majority of contributors (again, there are exceptions: Marshall, Hope) focus upon Romanisation, the process whereby indigenous peoples were incorporated into the Roman empire. Does this bias reflect a putative axiom that cultural identity only achieves an identifiable intensity at 'ground level' in times of resistance or acquiescence to foreign dominion (intelligently discussed by Grahame, pp.157-60)? Or is it due to the traditional heuristics of archaeology, which emphasise the relationship between stylistic change in the material record and ethnic flux (compare the current interest within Greek archaeology in colonisation)? At any rate, the primary focus is upon Roman conquests and incorporations of indigenous peoples. What is more, the book is not about all cultural identities in the Roman empire (only Braund and Marshall discuss Hellenism, for example), but centrally about the subjugation of the West (particularly Italy and Britain) by Rome. Most contributions would fit snugly into a volume entitled The Romanisation of western Europe: critical approaches to the archaeological record. But that, of course, would have been much less eye-catching...

If there is a dominant party line in this collection, it is the assertion that cultural identity is inherently unstable and problematic: Romanisation did not simply involve the imposition of a single, stable, cultural vocabulary onto the passive form of the conquered, like a stamp onto a die. David Braund's sharp essay shows how one particular strategy of Romanisation involved mirroring the values of the conquered: the ideology of Roman provincial governorship was assimilated to Hellenistic kingship theory, and thus Roman rule was calculated to neutralise and incorporate Greek idealism. Romanness itself comes under question in the essay by Ray Laurence: he views it as a 'negotiable' concept (p.95), arguing from an analysis of the ethnic divisions of Roman Italy that 'the ideological and cultural complexity of the process known as Romanisation' (p.109) meant that Italian subjects had to live with precarious and at times contradictory senses of who they were and to what polities they were affiliated. For Valerie Hope, meanwhile, gladiatorial inscriptions of Nîmes manifest a Romanness which is similarly precarious, oscillating between cultural centrality and cultural marginality. Although this awareness of the ambivalent status of gladiators is not new, it gains new urgency in this context by throwing into sharp relief the problems involved in defining Roman identity. Alex Woolf's essay demonstrates convincingly that the systems of acculturation and affiliation in the British societies conquered by the Romans, too, were not as simple and uniform as is traditionally assumed (although it is hard to see why they are any more likely to have resembled the mediaeval Irish model he proposes as an alternative). Culture is a multiform, fluid social process, and conquest is not a simple process of unilateral extirpation and substitution.

The implications of this point are explored most fully in a highly stimulating piece by Mark Grahame. Where other contributors see problems with the concept of 'Romanisation', Grahame comes close to rejecting it altogether. For Grahame, personal identity is a point of convergence between many different kinds of identity, specifically social, political and ethnic (p.159; one could imagine others, e.g. sexual, religious, professional etc.). Invoking models drawn from social psychology, he proceeds to question the level at which the various styles which can be discerned in Pompeian houses can be said to embody or display Roman 'cultural identity' rather than any other form of identity. The important question for Grahame is whether or not the contemporary Pompeians themselves felt that they were being Roman: 'a Roman cultural identity is not automatically implied by the adoption of apparently Roman ways of doing' (p.176). Although not everyone will agree that the discipline of social psychology transcends such problems by offering access into the subjective consciousness of an ancient people, Grahame's challenge to the orthodoxy presents a crucial insight, and at two levels. Firstly, we should not always assume that 'cultural identity' is a substratum underlying all aspects of the ancient world: it is our creation, a scholarly heuristic born of the intellectual and ideological climate of the nineties, more than a key to the subjective experience of the ancients. (Which does not, of course, make it useless: the same goes for any historiographical construct.) Secondly, any individual proclamation of identity is inevitably embedded in a web of local affiliations and agendas, and does not in any obvious sense reflect a transcendent essence which unites a whole 'people.' To interpret identity, we need to understand the strategic reasons why it has been affirmed in the specific context in which it manifests itself.

This sense of the evanescence of the object of enquiry recurs throughout the volume. On many occasions, as with Grahame's essay, it is the basis for stimulating reconsiderations of the methodologies which might be appropriate to the study of identity in the ancient world. Marshall's investigation of Cyrenaican perceptions of Libyans (which, it must be said, focuses mostly on pre-Roman Cyrene) borrows the model of self-definition through 'the other' used so effectively for the Greek world by Hartog, Hall and Cartledge:3 the twist is that the Libyans were either polarised or assimilated to the Cyrenaicans depending upon the exigencies of the specific situation. Petts' essay on Roman Wessex shows how open the British landscape was to multiple interpretations from different perspectives ('landscape' being used in the specific sense, popularised for classicists by Susan Alcock,4 of 'culturally constructed space'). This is an important challenge to the assumption commonly found (even in this collection) that the cultural value of an object inheres within it and can be unproblematically decoded. Literary critics are familiar with the notion that the meaning of a text is produced by the reader: Petts observes a similar polysemy in landscape, even if he is perhaps over-confident that a 'subjective understanding of Roman Britain' (pp.83-4) can be achieved. Can we predict with such certainty the response to the landscape that a (any?) 'Roman official would have' (p.87)? Or that which 'would have been' for the native (p.87)? Petts' contribution is also valuable for the important reminder that other social matrices come into play when one experiences landscape: male--female, soldier--civilian, urban--rural, Christian--pagan etc. (p.92).

There is little here which might be described as bad scholarship, but there are certain points where the level of sophistication or integration drops. Peter van Dommelen's piece on the persistence of Punic customs after the Roman conquest of Sardinia, despite the lip-service to the idea of the 'nuanced many-faceted nature of colonial situations' (p.44, as though it were an article of faith that all colonial situations were such), operates according to a pretty much unreconstructed view of the relationship between invader and invaded. The interpretation of the persistence of Punic styles simply as 'cultural resistance' begs too many questions and ignores too many possible alternatives. Consider the following conclusion drawn from the observation that a rural sanctuary was found to contain many more locally made lamps than Italian imports: '... it was evidently felt inappropriate to use explicitly 'foreign' Roman objects in the rituals which were of a markedly local Punic character' (p.42). This reconstruction of subjective processes ex silentio is far from 'evident,' and the framing opposition of 'local' and 'foreign' surely belies a more complex 'negotiation' (as Laurence would have it). Kathryn Lomas' careful and articulate analysis of the urbanisation of Roman Italy, meanwhile, has much of interest and potential relevance, but would have benefited from greater interaction with the core concerns of the volume. What, we are left wondering, did the transformation of the urban landscape mean in terms of the relationship between Roman and local identity, and in terms of the changing meaning of Romanitas? How do the conclusions drawn here about Romano-Italic cities relate to those reached by Laurence and Grahame? (Perhaps the editors could have insisted on more cross-referencing.) Isserlin's essay on marble in Roman Britain, finally, is wholly out of place. This reviewer is not fit to judge the competence of a catalogue of marble finds, but this sprawling and at times confusing piece ('unwieldy' the author calls it, p.150), the longest by some way in the volume, provided little enlightenment. Incidentally, while on the subject of gripes, I should also point out that the bibliographical indexing in the volume as a whole, is rather hit and miss. I was unable to locate the following references, and there may well be more instances: Shennan 1989 (p.1); Crawford 1995 (p.2); Alcock 1995 (p.90); Hurst, in progress (p.137); Duncan-Jones 1990 (p.186).

These problems, some major and some minor, stand out against a largely uniform background of solid scholarship and thoughtful inventiveness. Cultural Identity in the Roman Empire is a stimulating read, which should invigorate discussion in what is already a highly animated field. As already noted, it does not so much attack the issues head on as present a series of methodological experiments, some successful, some less so, but most raising important issues. As a result, the reader is left more challenged than enlightened as to the meaning of 'cultural identity in the Roman empire.' A more substantial introduction might have helped to delineate the major issues, and a more precise title (or a sub-title) would have forestalled the feeling that expectations raised are not satisfied. Still, an important volume that deserves to be read by all involved in the area.


1.   Erich S. Gruen, Culture and National Identity in Republican Rome (London: Duckworth, 1993); Jonathan M. Hall, Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997); Simon Swain, Hellenism and Empire: Language, Classicism, and Power in the Greek World, AD 50-250 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996); Greg Woolf, Becoming Roman: The Origins of Provincial Civilization in Gaul (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Richard Miles, ed. Constructing Identities in Late Antiquity (London: Routledge, forthcoming); Simon Goldhill, ed. Everything is Greece to the Wise: Cultural Identity in the Second Sophistic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming). To leave no trumpet unblown: the present reviewer has a stab at such issues in R.L. Hunter, ed. Studies in Heliodorus (Cambridge: Cambridge Philological Society, 1998). See also Laurence's own list, 'Introduction' p.1.
2.   Martin Bernal, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization. Vol. 1: The Fabrication of Ancient Greece, 1785-1985 (London: Free Association, 1987); Vol. 2: The Archaeological and Documentary Evidence (London: Free Association, 1991). For a selection of responses from within classics to such issues, see e.g. The Challenge of "Black Athena" (Arethusa special issue, Fall 1989); M. Lefkowitz, Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History (New York: BasicBooks, 1996); P.A. Cartledge, 'Classics: From Discipline in Crisis to (Multi-)cultural Capital' (in Y.L. Too & N. Livingstone edd. Pedagogy and Power: Rhetorics of Classical Learning [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998]).
3.   F. Hartog, Le Miroir d'Hérodote: Essai sur la Représentation de l'Autre (Paris: Gallimard, 1980); E. Hall, Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-Definition through Tragedy (Oxford: Clarendon, 1989); P.A. Cartledge, The Greeks: a Portrait of Self and Others (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).
4.   Susan Alcock, Graecia Capta: The Landscapes of Roman Greece (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

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