BMCR 1999.02.09

Becoming Roman: The Origins of Provincial Civilization in Gaul

, Becoming Roman : the origins of provincial civilization in Gaul. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. xv, 296 pages : maps ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780521414456 $64.95.

It is only rarely that an eagerly awaited book repays the anticipation it has provoked, and we should therefore be grateful that Greg Woolf’s Becoming Roman does just that. Becoming Roman is the culmination of a long series of articles on related topics that the author has published since the first year of this decade, and fulfills all the promise of the best of these. W. sets out to explain how a common civilization grew up in Gaul in such a way that the historical memory of a third-century Gallo-Roman was purely classical and the whole of society was articulated according to empire-wide canons of taste and belief. How, that is, do we arrive at a place where “even the poorest had learned to be impoverished in a Roman manner”? Answers to such questions are never simple, but W. succeeds in problematizing them much further than most ancient historians are accustomed to do. His answers are subtle, carefully nuanced, sometimes wilfully allusive, and Becoming Roman is for that reason a very difficult book. And yet page by page it repays the effort it demands, becoming a model study even as it undermines existing interpretative models of what it meant to become Roman.

The opening chapters of the book are a grand exercise in clearing up scholarly underbrush. For W., the prevailing discourse of romanization is a simplistic and simplifying byproduct of the nineteenth-century imperial experience, and he deftly exposes the notion of Gallo-Roman cultural resistance as a misplaced critique that merely helps entrench the idea of romanization as an imperialist process. Rather than looking at the Gallic experience of Rome from one of the aprioristic models he has dismissed, W. spends his second and third chapters on defining the terms of his study. The nature of the Roman presence in Gaul is given a brisk treatment in chapter two, with a warning about accepting too uncritically Roman definitions about what incorporation into the empire might have meant. More interesting, perhaps, is the discussion of Rome’s civilizing ethos in chapter three, a chapter that is likely to prove controversial not so much for its focus on the ideal of humanitas, but for its assertion that the Latin-right was granted as a recognition of progress towards that ideal.

The rest of the book, then, is an episodic working-out of the implications of chapters two and three. How was the cultural process of becoming Roman a reflection of the circumstances of the Romano-Gallic contact sketched in chapter two? And how did the civilizing ethos operate upon the intellectual and material culture of the Gauls, insofar as we can recover that culture today? W.’s argument gathers force cumulatively, though the relationships among the arguments of individual chapters are rarely signposted explicitly. For that reason, there is little point in reprising the component discussions here. Instead, we may note a number of important contentions that become plausible through the steady accumulation of individual bits of data.

One of these is the suddenness of change, the existence of a formative era in which Gauls are forced to become Roman. This period, on the whole, coincides with the reign of Augustus, and represents a sharply focussed moment at which a number of cultural choices were forced upon the Gauls. W. returns to this formative period in topic after topic, in his discussions of the epigraphic habit, of technological and material consumption, of urbanization, and of religion. The impact of Rome could be traumatic and disruptive, in part because the incorporation into the Roman world meant a much higher level of social differentiation than had previously existed.

This is a second major theme of W.’s book. Integrating Gaul within the empire meant creating a Gallo-Roman aristocracy that not only mediated between Roman and Gaul, but also controlled social subordinates much more strictly than iron-age aristocracies had done and indeed identified more gradations of subordination than iron-age society had done. In this context we find two of W.’s most persuasive contentions: first, that the Roman ethos encountered was not a single, definable culture, but rather a set of cultural markers, both material and behavioural, that needed to be understood in order to be manipulated, and whose manipulation was the measure of cultural competence or ineptitude; second, that this Roman ethos was itself undergoing a profound disruption in precisely those years when the Gauls encountered it and were forced to come to terms with it in one way or another. In this context, becoming Roman did not mean adopting in whole or in part a single readymade Roman culture, but rather gaining the cultural competence necessary to take part in the process of deciding what that Roman culture actually was.

Both these points make an appearance in a third major theme of W.’s book, that cultural markers of all sorts — from life in urban domus to the use of specific varieties of tableware, from the monumentalization of religious life to the social implications of wine — cease very swiftly to mark a relationship between native and foreign, Gaul and Roman, and instead become class or status markers. In the course of the first century AD, W. identifies a massive internalization of Roman tastes at all levels of Gallic society, so that differences in taste mark differences in status according to a Roman scale of values. The speed with which this change takes place is astonishing, though the pace varies according to both the unit of measurement one chooses and the part of Gaul at which one looks.

This last point is perhaps the one flaw some might detect in this study. Despite a constant, and indeed self-conscious, effort to underscore regional distinctions, one wonders whether too much local variation has been elided, in particular that between Narbonensis and the north. A study such as this, if it is to hang together at all, must by its very nature search for commonalities of experience. By repeatedly drawing attention to the respect owed to regional differences, W. is in danger of protesting too much. Without some recourse to simplifying patterns, books like this could not be written and it is as well to admit as much.

By any normal standard of judgement, however, the last criticism is minor indeed, and W. has written a book worthy of its high ambitions. To say that the author defines the process of becoming Roman would be no compliment. Definition would subvert the spirit of the book. Instead, W. illuminates the problems inherent in a historical process which penetrated the whole of the Gallic population and reshaped it entirely. Becoming Roman was a clear-cut case of neither Roman imperialism nor Gallic imitation. As importantly, it was not the leisurely process of assimilation that we often assume it to have been. To paint his picture, W. has — in his own words — engaged a process of asset-stripping the site-specific research of many hundreds of other scholars (his list of works cited runs to 39 pages). One imagines that those so handled will be pleased by the results of W.’s prospecting. The genesis of provincial civilizations in the Roman world is an impossible topic to exhaust, and W. has certainly not done so in Becoming Roman. He has, however, produced a study that any serious student of the ancient world must read, and that is without question the best book on the western provinces written this decade.