BMCR 2002.07.23

Italy and the West. Comparative issues in Romanization

, , Italy and the West : comparative issues in romanization. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2001. xii, 233 pages : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm. ISBN 1842170422 $39.95 (pb).

Romanization is a central but problematic and controversial topic for any scholar working on Roman Italy or the Roman provinces. It is a term which resists definition, can be problematic to study in practice, and is frequently politically and culturally loaded. Nevertheless, it is an issue to which scholars consistently return, with each generation of new researchers grappling with the necessity to find an acceptable definition and create a methodology for studying this aspect of cultural change. This volume — a collection of papers by leading scholars working on Italy and the western provinces — represents one of the periodic attempts to redefine the topic and present a set of methodologies for approaching it. In particular, it attempts to address the regionalisation which is a besetting problem for the study of Romanization, and which has led to a considerable lack of communication (noted by Terrenato in the preface) between scholars working on Italy and those working on the provinces of the Roman empire.

The book is divided into three discrete sections, devoted respectively to the Romanization of Italy, the Romanization of the western provinces, and a final summing-up and discussion of some of the general themes and problems raised by the preceding papers. Part One is devoted to research on the Romanization of Italy, a topic which has generated much debate but a debate which is still isolated from the work of scholars examining the same questions in the context of the provinces. Terrenato’s introduction provides a comprehensive, and also polemical, summing up of the major approaches to Romanization in recent years and highlights a number of peculiarities of the way in which it has been studied in the context of Roman Italy. One of the most curious features highlighted by Terrenato is the extent to which ‘Roman Italy’ as defined by scholars (and particularly those working in Britain and the US) is an artificial construct which includes Latium, Etruria, Samnium, and parts of Campania (notably Pompeii and Herculaneum) but excludes other regions of Italy. However, the selection of regions covered as case-studies in this volume only partially redresses this. Williams’s paper on Celtic northern Italy provides insights into an area which is often overlooked, as do Guidobaldi’s paper on the Ager Praetuttianus and Munzi’s contribution on Tiati, but despite this there is still a strong focus on Etruria and central Italy. It would have been interesting to compare these with studies of Romanization in, for instance, Umbria, south-east Italy, Lucania, and the Greek colonized areas of the south, all regions in which interesting work on acculturation is being undertaken.

The individual contributions in Part One are a mixture of studies of specific areas (Antonacci, Guidobaldi, Munzi, Terrenato, Van Dommelen and Williams) and thematic examinations of aspects of the problem or types of evidence (Benelli, Curti), with a heavy bias towards regional/area studies, but all show a shared concern for the problems of definition and methodology highlighted in Terrenato’s introduction. Curti attempts the most wide-ranging re-evaluation of Romanization, providing a critique of Toynbee’s influential work on post-Hannibalic Italy and challenging the tendency to treat Romanitas as a single, unchanging cultural entity. His paper illustrates the extent to which Roman culture was something which constantly changed and re-invented itself and places this in the context of wider changes in the social and political culture of the polis in the Greek world. The underlying assumption that the city in Italy can be equated with the Greek polis is something which perhaps requires greater examination, but this does not undermine the essential point of this paper, that Romanization is not an encounter with a static culture, but a dialogue with an ever-changing one. This theme of the changing nature of Roman culture is picked up by many of the other contributions, as is the need to find alternative ways to address the process of Romanization. Williams, for instance, places it in a social context. He sees the apparent homogeneity of Roman culture across the empire as the result of a common elite culture which had its roots in the common social and educational background of the Roman elite and the non-Romans who adopted it. Van Dommelen also approaches the problem from a tangent, by seeking to analyse the changes in Late Republican Sardinia as an economic phenomenon and as a case-study of interactions in a multi-ethnic context with Sardinian, Punic and Roman elements intermingled. A further strand picked up by a number of papers is that of the difficulty of inferring cultural change or cultural attitudes from the adoption of Roman material culture, and several authors rightly point out that it is all too easy to make assumptions about why certain artefacts, building styles, etc, are adopted and to see Romanization where none may have been intended.

Like Part One, Part Two, which covers the western empire, has a slightly uneven geographical coverage, with an emphasis on Spain and north Africa, and only two papers (Woolf and James) devoted to north-west Europe. That having been said, one of the problems facing the editor of any book on Romanization is to balance regional or case studies — in what is essentially a very regionalised field of research — with sufficient thematic overviews to create a synthesis, and this volume achieves this reasonably well both on Roman Italy and on the provinces. Keay, in both his introduction to this section and in his own paper, raises many of the same methodological points as Terrenato. He also identifies a similar range of problems affecting the study of Romanization in areas of the Mediterranean outside Italy, notably a long-standing division between the positivist tradition of Italian and Spanish archaeology and the theoretical approaches of British, Dutch and US scholars. Other papers emphasise to an even greater extent the ways in which many of the indigenous societies studied in the provinces and the impact of Rome on them have parallels with Romanization in Italy. James, for instance, draws parallels between the societies of Iron Age Britain and archaic Italy, and sees some similarities in their respective responses to Rome. Woolf identifies cultural changes in Gaul as a part of a wider process of cultural change during the reign of Augustus, which transformed both Roman and non-Roman culture. Fontana separates some aspects of Romanization at Leptis Magna from the physical presence of Romans, arguing that in an region of relatively low Roman immigration, the pace and nature of cultural change was essentially dictated by local priorities and responses to Rome.

Perhaps the least satisfactory is the final section, comprising two summaries of the conference and overviews of the topic by Alcock and Andreau. Both of these raise stimulating points but are short pieces which do not allow enough space to develop their themes in any detail. This is a shame, because issues such as how we define and re-define the concept of Romanization, how we relate it to socio-economic factors, and how it relates to other concepts such as imperialism — all raised by Alcock — are central to the debate. They are also concepts which, as explored in other papers in this volume and elsewhere, are still very fluid and require more investigation and debate. Despite Alcock’s strictures on the need to move the debate on from problems of definition, this problem is still central to the study of Romanization since it is impossible to fully get to grips with such a protean and difficult subject unless one first establishes what one means by it. However, she is entirely right in suggesting that the way to move the debate forward is to consider cultural change alongside, and in the context of, other issues such as social change, imperialism, economic development, etc. One of the strengths of this volume is that it seeks to reclaim the term ‘Romanization’ and challenges the argument put forward in recent years that it is an unhelpful term and should be abandoned.

This volume is a valuable and thought-provoking collection of essays which gives an overview of the current state of the debate on this difficult and diverse subject. Although it poses as many questions as it answers, it will provide considerable food for thought for scholars working in this field and an accessible way into the problems and issues for students. In particular, it makes a strong case for breaking down the barriers between the study of Roman Italy and Roman provincial archaeology which have created so many artificial and unhelpful divisions in the study of Romanization.