Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.05.38 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.05.38

Wouter Vanacker, Arjan Zuiderhoek (ed.), Imperial Identities in the Roman World.   London; New York:  Routledge, 2017.  Pp. xii, 225.  ISBN 9781472440815.  $165.00.  

Reviewed by Robyn L. Le Blanc, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (

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[The reviewer apologizes for the lateness of this review]

Imperial Identities in the Roman World focuses on the role of ritual in defining the methods and contexts in which people were drawn together in the Roman world. Despite increased interest in questions of local and regional identities, the ways in which peoples were drawn together by the Roman Empire is still a topic of great interest. 1 Although what it meant to be a member of the empire changed over time and place, there is a general notion that some institutions and practices existed in the empire that were distinctly “imperial” and worked to create a sense of belonging to Rome. The eleven contributions to this volume, which comes out of a conference on the volume’s theme held in Ghent in 2014, cover a variety of themes and locations, and embody a number of different methodological approaches in order to explore how imperial identity (or shifting imperial identities) was created, how it linked inhabitants of the empire, and how the rituals employed in simultaneously maintaining and transforming these identities might also be used to frame and validate imperial power structures. Ritual is used as the framework for defining the contexts and methods in which people were drawn together in this volume, but the concept is not focused entirely on religious ritual, although about half of the volume’s contributors do approach it from a religious perspective.

The introduction by Zuiderhoek and Vanacker serves to establish several emergent themes and approaches in the volume. The discussion is interested in how ritual frames and extends legitimacy, and creates a sense of belonging to a larger, distinctly imperial, cultural and political entity. Zuiderhoek and Vanacker situate their interest in imperial identity and legitimacy within the interplay of ideas surrounding the Romanization debate, and theoretical frameworks concerning identity in the Roman Empire. The focus on ritual expressions of power and engagement in the text allows them to engage with the three main themes that are present in discussions of Romanization and identity, which Zuiderhoek and Vanacker discuss briefly, particularly the multiplicity and dynamism of identity formation and expression and the role of individual and institutional agency in this process (4-6).

Chapters 1 and 2 consider how communal activities brought large groups of people together. Andreas Hartmann looks at the ways that ritual surrounding the ara maxima, and Italian traditions surrounding Aeneas at Lavinium, and how they allowed elites from outside Italy and the old Roman patrician aristocracy to tie themselves into Rome’s unique past through reenactment of certain important historical moments or religious rites bound to the landscape of Rome itself (16-35). He embeds these examples in a larger analysis of so-called “Greek” rituals and rites which linked Rome to the Greek past, and served to project current elites and their roles, and the cosmopolitan nature of the empire, into the past. Johannes Han surveys the ways in which participation in public forms of violence and punishment in the context of the arena forged a sense of communal acceptance of the power of the state to control the bodies of its citizens and inhabitants, and allowed the spectators a position within this hierarchy, above those upon whom power was being exercised, and in conversation with the higher orders of the power structure.

Chapters 3 and 4 move to the army as a body engaged in ritual. Conor Whately’s stimulating chapter traces the development of legionary war cries as described in Roman literature, demonstrating that while the legions alternated between cries and silence, the terminology used to describe the war cry reflects a distinct shift in Late Antiquity. Whately asserts that the baritus, described by Ammianus Marcellinus and Vegetius as a Roman war cry, was a Germanic tradition that developed into a quintessentially Roman one, mirroring the “barbarization” and increasing provincial make-up of the legions known from other sources and studies. Gwynaeth McIntyre also explores ritual in the military, particularly in the ways that ritual in the forms of the triumph and commemorative rites created a sense of belonging within the legion, and loyalty and belonging to the imperial family. Germanicus’ career and popularity is used as a case study, and it is well-chosen, as McIntyre is then able to discuss public ritual (the triumph), commemorative monuments (his arch), and more.

Jesper Majbom Madsen focuses on the role of the imperial cult in creating a common identity. This chapter provides an interesting thematic link between those preceding it and those coming after, considering peoples both in the provinces and in Rome. Madsen argues that the main differences between Romans and non-Roman citizens in the imperial cult occurred in the opportunities and contexts in which the emperor was worshipped. Throughout, however, the participation in a variety of rituals organized under the umbrella of ‘imperial cult’ brought Romans and provincial citizens together as citizens of the emperor. He also suggests that the role of the Roman administration and the emperor himself, albeit ad hoc in approach and engagement, were crucial in maintaining the rituals and contexts of the cult of both the deceased emperor and the living one, establishing several interesting themes about imperial intervention picked up in subsequent chapters.

Religious landscapes in and outside Rome take center stage in Chapters 6 and 7. Jussi Rantala contends that the Severan ludi were designed to represent Septimius Severus’ power to the senatorial and Roman elite within the city and to reconfigure and cement the power hierarchies within the city. The new participation of the Vestal Virgins in the sacrifice of the first night is a particularly interesting part of the analysis; Russi discusses how the special status enjoyed by the Vestals in the city allowed the group to represent the city as a whole and integrated them into the symbolic household of the emperor during the ritual sacrifice. In the subsequent chapter, Claudia Beltrão da Rosa takes up the theme of the shaping of ritual and landscapes by the imperial administration by considering the Augustan reconfiguration of archaic myth and ritual landscapes attached to those myths using the Terminalia and the Fortuna Muliebris.

In Chapters 8-10, the self-definition of provincial peoples and how this changed under Rome is key. Augustus Morales takes the discussion into the provinces, looking at the Augustan period transformation of the Athenian Acropolis. Morales studies the range of ways that the monopteros on the Acropolis reflected continued local strategies to honor foreign benefactors and integrate foreign power structures into the local landscapes. He argues that the monopteros expressed and helped perpetuate the notion that there was a new imperial identity in which Athenian traditions and past were upheld, valued, and preserved while simultaneously working to validate and support Roman power structures. Joel Allen continues the discussion about imperial identities in the world of Roman Greece, considering Herodes Atticus’ pupil, Memnon. Allen suggests that Memnon represented an attempt by Herodes Atticus to reconfigure his identity as a distinctly imperial elite whose associations broadened and transcended traditional Greek models and forms. By integrating Memnon into his family and involving him in traditional modes of Athenian youth performance and coming-of-age rituals, Herodes Atticus simultaneously made Memnon a Greek insider while retaining a distinctly cosmopolitan identity marked by his origin elsewhere. By highlighting how Herodes Atticus tapped into the strategies and frameworks of the Roman world writ large, Allen also contributes to discussions concerning the mechanisms and frameworks for creating an imperial identity, and the ways that they were adopted and adapted for local and personal purposes.

Mark Depauw’s chapter surveys changing naming practices in Roman Egypt using data collected by Trismegistos, a digital database comprised of papyrological and epigraphic documents from the region. He correlates changes in naming practices with changes in the way that peoples in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt conceived of themselves, and their relationship to larger cultural and political structures and practices. He identifies a number of interesting trends—for example the rise in Greek double names replacing Greek-Egyptian double names, and the appearance of filiation identification perhaps inspired by Roman naming and identification practices—and the chapter is illustrated with several charts and graphs. The chapter is an excellent example of the utility of Trismegistos, and the immense amount of data to which the project provides access.

The final chapter deals with changes to imperial identity and its manifestations in Late Antiquity. Luise Marion Frenkel surveys the changing role of the Senate and its power (both real and symbolic) in the fourth to fifth centuries CE, through a study of senatorial ritual and institutional practices, such as speech giving and taking minutes. Frenkel demonstrates that even though the power of the Senate was in decline, ritual and rhetoric in the Senate promoted a sense of legitimacy to rulers and their decisions and a connection to the past. The Senate’s connection to the Roman past gave it the power to represent the antiquity and power of the past even when held outside Rome, and with little in the way of actual power. Sections of the chapter can be read against those preceding it; imperial identity, and the way it was formed, was a dynamic process, but one kept alive through institutions deriving from or articulated within the political and social systems of empire.

Overall the book strikes a good balance between focus and methodological approach, incorporating material, digital, and textual techniques, and moving between the early and high empire, and from Rome to the provinces, although there is rather an emphasis on imperial control over ritual and manipulation of ritual behavior and landscapes to validate and legitimize power. One might wish for a more direct engagement with ritual—at the very least, a working definition provided in each chapter—but the text’s strength is in demonstrating the richness of the subject, and the multifaceted approaches that can be fruitfully taken to study this type of identity. The chapters work well in comparison to each other, considering how the themes or approaches of one are picked up on, or modified by others. The volume will be a nice resource for those interested in a variety of approaches to the topic, and to see how a sense of belonging to the cultural, religious, social, or political world of Rome was manifested in different areas and in different times.

Table of Contents

Arjan Zuiderhoek and Wouter Vanacker, Introduction: imperial identities in the Roman World, pp.1-15.
Ch. 1: Andreas Hartmann, Between Greece and Rome: forging a primordial identity for an imperial aristocracy, pp.16-35.
Ch.2: Johannes Hahn, Rituals of Killing: public punishment, munera, and the dissemination of Roman values and ideology in the Imperium Romanum, pp.36-60.
Ch.3: Conor Whately, The war cry: ritualized behavior and Roman identity in ancient warfare, 200 BCE—400 CE, pp.61-77.
Ch.4: Gwynaeth McIntyre, Uniting the army: the use of rituals commemorating Germanicus to create an imperial identity, pp.78-92.
Ch.5: Jesper Majbom Madsen, Joining the Empire: the imperial cult as a marker of a shared imperial identity, pp.93-109.
Ch.6: Jussi Rantala, Promoting family, creating identity: Septimius Severus and the imperial family in the rituals of the ludi saeculares, pp.110-124.
Ch.7: Claudia Beltrão Da Rosa, Constructing a religious landscape: Terminalia, Fortuna Muliebris, and the Augustan ager Romanus, pp.125-140.
Ch.8: Fabio Augusto Morales, The monument of Roma and Augustus on the Athenian Acropolis: imperial identities and local traditions, pp.141-161.
Ch.9: Joel Allen, Herodes Atticus, Memnon of Ethiopia and the Athenian ephebeia, pp.162-175.
Ch.10: Mark Depauw, Roman influence on rituals of identification in Egypt, pp.176-198.
Ch.11: Luise Marion Frenkel, The imperial identity of senatorial rituals in Late Antiquity, pp.199-218.


1.   e.g., Ando, C. 2000. Imperial Ideology and Provincial Loyalty in the Roman Empire. Berkeley: London and Ewald, Christian Björn, Noreña, Carlos F. 2010. The Emperor and Rome: space, representation, and ritual. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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