Mary Boatwright’s slim new book, Peoples of the Roman World, is part of a series designed to introduce undergraduate students to topics in Roman civilization. This ambitious collection engages head on with some of the knottier problems in Roman studies—slavery, women and warfare, among others. Boatwright’s contribution takes up the thorny topic of Rome and her many “others” and in doing so attempts to frame one of the most intractable of Roman debates—Roman imperialism and provincial populations—in a mere 241 pages. This is a discussion over which much ink has been spilled in the scholarly literature over the last twenty years or so, but which rarely makes an appearance in textbooks beyond revolt narratives and a nod to the institutional incorporation of elites.1
The contours of this dispute are almost never unpacked for the uninitiated, because the resulting discussion opens a window into many of the schisms that divide Classical disciplines, particularly the sharp disagreement between some archaeologists, art historians and historians about the accessibility, interpretation and even relevance of provincial responses to Roman rule. The debate over terms such as “Roman” and “Romanization” in the provinces positively qualifies as dirty laundry and is best stowed far from the prying eyes of impressionable undergraduates. Accordingly, any text that takes on this topic walks a fine line. The subject demands a wide-ranging treatment that does due diligence to the variety of possible approaches to the evidence (material and textual) while acknowledging the problems with accessing and parsing a range of approaches to Roman expansionism and responses to it. All this must be accomplished without leaving the reader with the sense that the disciplines have come unmoored.
Boatwright’s solution to this knotty problem is to put together a careful, if not entirely unproblematic, discussion of Roman responses to conquered peoples, drawing on disparate examples from across the empire—“Northerners,” Greeks, Egyptians, Jews and Christians. Her approach is framed for the reader in a meaty, but occasionally uneven, first chapter, “Rome and its Peoples.” Boatwright structures her project in terms of Roman plurality by focusing on the “tension between assimilation and distinctiveness in Rome’s expanding populace, as well as the transformation brought to Rome by its multicultural nature” (3). This is a very promising statement, but it is immediately qualified as she signals that the tension that interests (or is at least accessible to) her is firmly anchored in “ Roman concepts and tolerance of community and difference” (3, my emphasis). This is a critical point. The aim of the volume is not, as the title might imply, to provide a survey of how Roman imperialism played out in a range of provincial contexts and the active responses of those diverse communities. Rather, the study is focused on Roman views of subject peoples and the way that Romans imagined and represented the communities they conquered. This is a book almost exclusively concerned with how Romans processed the tension produced by the absorption of diverse peoples, not with the dynamics in provincial communities per se.
Boatwright’s approach to the provinces is partly explained by the evidence that she employs to craft her narrative. In her introduction, she is dismissive of material evidence from the provinces on the grounds that objects cannot often be associated with any individual or group, their use and context are not often reliably known and much of the material culture of the empire is too widely distributed or uniform to tell us anything about localized practices (14). Because of its mutability and situational nature, identity is deemed too slippery a concept to be of much use (18); thus responses, especially material ones, to Roman power and practices are not integral to the narrative because too much interpretation is necessary to make them do any heavy lifting. So much for the bulk of our evidence for provincial society. Even in the most epigraphically habituated Eastern provinces, the vast bulk of our direct evidence for the life of the peoples of the Roman Empire is provided by material culture, and it is discouraging (and methodologically problematic) to see it dismissed out of hand when its value to these debates has been so clearly demonstrated elsewhere.
Boatwright’s evaluation of the textual evidence is much more forgiving, primarily because it provides positive evidence for the Roman response to conquered peoples, and this is ultimately the dynamic she wants to outline. The limitations of the textual sources — elite bias, ambiguities of terminology, Romanocentrism — are not deemed serious enough to impede her project, although she does acknowledge them (14ff). Significantly, art and public monuments that depict barbarians are invoked as useful documents of “Roman notions of ethnicity and difference” especially when they are associated with the Roman state. We can conclude, then, that it is not necessarily the materiality of the provincial evidence that leads Boatwright to reject it, but rather our lack of reliable texts to help us interpret its meaning. Her preference is not strictly for textual sources over material ones, but for Roman words and things over provincial things, which usually lack texts to act as scaffolding for any interpretation.
The effects of this evidentiary regime are clear in the first of her case studies: “Gauls, Celts, Germans, and other ‘Northerners.’” The almost total lack of textual sources from these areas requires Boatwright to concentrate on the Roman and Greek sources. The result is a study of the variety, strength and durability of a set of stereotypes. Conquest narratives constitute the bulk of the material and most of the chapter is devoted to a discussion of what can be gleaned about changing Roman constructions of the various groups from the region. Given the approach outlined in the introduction, it is noteworthy that this chapter includes discussion of several interesting material sources—for example, the Lyon tablet and the Ennius family tomb in Slovenia. Using them, Boatwright makes the point that “visual and epigraphic evidence….reveals a mixed culture in which indigenous customs and traditions…and Roman ones… flourished simultaneously” (58). This engagement with the material evidence is welcome after the rather pessimistic introductory chapter, but leaves the reader feeling confused about the status of such evidence in her larger project.
The following chapter is devoted to the enormously complex interaction between Romans and Greeks, which seems, in contrast with the Gallic case, overburdened with an overwhelming range of potential sources. Boatwright makes a cogent case for the compression of “Greek” identity from the Roman point of view; Roman authors often failed to differentiate between Greek speakers from across the Mediterranean and the Near East or to offer a clear set of criteria for how Greeks differed from Romans. The drifting boundaries of barbarism are nowhere more apparent than in the changing attitudes towards Greek culture that she outlines, and the related transformations in notions of Roman identity; some provincials were indeed less provincial than others. This is the book’s strongest chapter, since it draws on a rich range of textual sources to explore the contours of Roman responses to Greek culture, and, to a much lesser extent, the anxieties among the Greeks at the experience of Roman rule. Material evidence is also deployed here, but it does less than in the previous chapter to advance the discussion, given the strength and variety of textual sources.
Boatwright’s treatment of Egypt in the following chapter is calibrated in a slightly different way than the rest of the book, in that she treats both perspectives — center and provincial — as (almost) equally accessible. She contrasts the “exoticism” that was the key characteristic of Egypt in Roman depictions with evidence for customs and beliefs derived from painted “mummy portraits” and papyri, both of which give some insight into the choices made by Egyptians living under Roman rule. Her discussion of Roman Egyptomania is thoughtful; she makes the important point that much of what was “Egyptian” in Italy was filtered through cults that arrived via other locales, especially Delos. Her discussion of political propaganda involving Egypt is accessible and is a useful reminder of the specific political contexts in which many Roman stereotypes were developed.
Her presentation of the evidence from Roman Egypt brings out the difficulties in assessing ethnic or cultural identity in Egypt itself, where status was tied to civic and social divisions imposed by the new provincial government, but identity or ethnicity, as a set of practices, was much more mutable. This ambiguity is clear in the documentary papyri from Egypt, where categories such as “Egyptian” or “Greek” are not clearly defined and do not easily match up with the administrative divisions created by the provincial government. Many residents of Egypt had dual Egyptian and Greek identities and this dynamic fusion was variably expressed through onomastic, linguistic and material practices. The mismatch between the Roman construction of Egypt, provincial administrative categories and the choices available to individuals, is instructive. In this case, a myriad of textual sources is available from Egypt and yet our interpretation of the material evidence, as in the case of the mummy portraits, is not straightforward. This highlights the difficulty of reading material evidence narrowly through texts, and argues for a complex treatment of the archaeological evidence on its own terms.
The final two chapters deal with Jews and Christians, groups whose identities were constructed by Romans in different terms although from the Roman point of view they are by definition both religious communities with a tendency to cause problems. As in previous chapters, Boatwright is interested in the objectification of these groups by Roman authors and she traces the way they are viewed as their relationship with the Roman state changed. Her primary sources are authors concerned with the persecution and punishment of these groups; they are especially anxious about the refusal of both Jewish and Christian communities to assimilate to Roman cultural practices. This tells us a great deal more about the way that Roman notions of imperialism changed than about these communities themselves.
In a short final chapter, Boatwright reiterates the limits that she sees on our ability to reconstruct the experience of any provincial group: “We cannot tell the difference between assimilation, acculturation, and accommodation, or between resistance and a simple lack of contact” (193). This is somewhat confusing since the best chapters in the book address precisely these phenomena, at least, from the Roman perspective and indeed what reasonable discussion of the provinces could avoid them? Less problematically, she reminds us that the Roman preoccupation with diversity was fundamental to Rome and the Romans, even though the authors who engage with the problem of diversity are often criticizing its effects and seem aware of it as a fact of empire and the result of conquest without making it a pillar (in a positive sense) of Roman self-identity. Nevertheless, the importance of this characteristic of Roman society — the tendency to absorb, the constant reevaluation and remaking of Romanitas in light of conquest — is indisputable. This short book makes an eloquent case for considering this discourse a fundamental part of the Roman imperial project.
I am not sure, however, that this work succeeds in its aim of looking at Roman culture “from below” (xvii). The orientation is emphatically from the center, and this is unfortunate, since the distinctions that Boatwright discusses mattered most inside provincial societies where the privileges of citizenship, or other kinds of identity, were critical for success. The ambiguities in the evidence (especially the material record) that Boatwright points out are real, but this does not justify the devaluation of material culture as a source for tracing the dynamics within provincial societies. The textual sources are often equally ambiguous, as she has amply demonstrated. Still, since there is no other book that might plausibly be used to introduce this topic to an undergraduate audience and as such it is likely to be widely influential as a textbook, it is a welcome inconsistency that she in practice makes use of a full range of sources. Even if her reading of material evidence is ultimately dependent on textual insights, at least the complexity of this topic and the disciplinary tensions are fully on display for the sensitive undergraduate reader. Taken in that light, this short book is an exceptional achievement.
1. The Roman history textbook of which Boatwright is a co-author, now standard in many introductory courses, conforms to this pattern. Boatwright, Mary Taliaferro, Daniel T. Gargola, and Richard A. Talbert. 2012. The Romans: From Village to Empire. New York: Oxford University Press.