BMCR 2017.07.52

Ways of Being Roman: Discourses of Identity in the Roman West

, Ways of Being Roman: Discourses of Identity in the Roman West. Oxford; Philadelphia: Oxbow Books, 2016. x, 175. ISBN 9781842172926. $46.00 (pb).

Table of Contents

In her latest monograph, Ways of Being Roman: Discourses of Identity in the Roman West, Louise Revell explores the formation and maintenance of identity among communities in the western Roman provinces from the time of Augustus through the mid-3rd c. AD. She includes case studies from Iberia, Gaul, the Germanies, and Britain. Revell focuses on how lived experiences and daily practices of individuals within a community shape their identities in a variety of thematic categories (ethnicity, class/status, gender, age). Her examples are intended to be more anecdotal than comprehensive, serving as illuminating illustrations of ways that identities were constructed, performed, and maintained.

Chapter 1 provides a summary of the history of scholarship on Roman identity and then lays out the theoretical framework that Revell adopts in the book. Her account is brief but useful in outlining trends in Roman scholarship, couched in the wider context of the humanities and social sciences. She traces the evolution of the concept of identity as a static, essentialist idea to the fluid, experience-based perception of identity more prominent today. Revell pinpoints the transition in the 1980s post-processual theoretical turn and discusses the role of the Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference in the increase in identity studies. She points out several lingering issues, which are deconstructed further throughout the book. Specifically, marginalized groups are often described based on their relationships with and/or difference from elite adult males. Further, the concept of identity as unchanging has led scholars to assume uncritically that modern and ancient identities can be equated.

Revell concludes Chapter 1 by proposing a theoretically explicit archaeology of Roman identities. She asserts that “identity rests within practice and the routines of daily living, which incorporate the material culture of the archaeological record. Therefore our undertaking in writing an archaeology of Roman identity is the exploration of such practices” (p. 16). She reveals three core areas of focus: the social practices that served to construct and reaffirm identity, the boundaries that maintained group divisions, and the social structures and ideologies that constrained identity formation. Her framework fits comfortably alongside studies of everyday life, habitual practice, and community that have emerged in recent decades in anthropological archaeology (e.g. Canuto and Yaeger 2000, Robin 2013, Varien and Potter 2008),1 though Revell does not reference much of this work explicitly.

Chapters 2 through 7 are organized as complementary pairs that explore various aspects of identity through overarching themes. Chapters 2 and 3 discuss the idea of a Roman ethnicity that existed alongside multiple, regionally based ethnic identities in the provinces—and how these forms of ethnicity were reconciled. Chapters 4 and 5 address status and class through a discussion of provincial elites and non-elites. Finally, Chapters 6 and 7 explore the relationship of gender and age to identity. Revell explains that these are just some of many themes that can be used to address identity, and that future studies could focus on religious or military identities.

In Chapters 2 and 3, Revell discusses the concept of ethnic identities, focusing on the global and regional/local scales respectively. Here, she defines ethnicity loosely as a set of shared practices and beliefs that set Romans apart from non-Romans. These practices can be enacted and beliefs expressed through a range of different material correlates, so no specific object type or style can be directly associated with a distinctive “Roman ethnicity.” She illustrates her point first with a discussion of how the construction of new buildings in the forum of Tarraco enabled local inhabitants to adopt practices associated with Roman urbanism (voting, enacting religious rites, attending market days) that reinforced a global Roman ethnicity. Revell then describes how portrayal of mythological scenes on portable objects in Roman Britain indicate shared beliefs and, by extension, a shared Roman ethnic identity.

Chapter 3, by contrast, explores regional and local variability in ethnic identities, tying the discussion to scholarship on resistance, hybridity, creolization, bricolage, and ethnogenesis. Revell asserts that different identities coexisted, and someone might choose to foreground a local or regional identity depending on the context. Importantly, she emphasizes a need to decenter Roman culture in analysis, and to understand local identities as multi-layered rather than a binary combination of Roman and indigenous. This chapter relies primarily on inscriptions to reveal when and where local or regional origins are included on epitaphs. Other examples that use evidence of agriculture, foodways, and production, however, incite fascinating questions about how pre-existing cultural norms and local environmental situations influenced practices. These cases show we can surmise a great deal about local identity in contexts where epigraphy was scarce, a key point this book demonstrates throughout.

Revell discusses in Chapter 4 the ways that Roman imperialism incited changes in social rank, focusing on how status was displayed and performed by magistrates in public and domestic settings. For instance, when a magistrate in Roman Britain entered a tribunal or council chamber in a basilica, those observing would associate him and the space with elite status. These perceptions could be reinforced by the magistrate’s dress and entourage as he approached the building. Revell also comments on less ephemeral associations of elites with public spaces, including statues and inscriptions on public buildings that were viewed by elites and non-elites alike. Similarly, houses served as material signifiers of elite status to visitors. Despite variation in architectural forms across the western provinces, houses with highly decorated meeting and dining areas gave elites a place to show their position to visitors and perform political duties.

Because so much writing on Roman identity has privileged elites, the discussion of non-elites in Chapter 5 is perhaps the most significant contribution of the monograph. Revell discusses the biases of research, recording, and archaeological survival that have led to the invisibility of non-elites in scholarship. She proposes three areas of research to help remedy this situation. The first is the concept of entangled spaces, or trying to understand how accessibility, temporality, and other patterns of use led to divergent experiences of places by elites and non-elites. The architecture of amphitheaters and baths as well as the laws and customs surrounding their use, for instance, ensured that non-elites perceived these spaces differently than elites. The second is an investigation of the archaeology of labor, the social practices surrounding the production and manufacture of goods. Because production often leaves tangible archaeological traces, an investigation of labor is an excellent way to study daily practices from a material perspective, and Revell’s arguments concerning identity in these contexts are particularly convincing. Through a discussion of jewelry making, mining, and potting, Revell suggests some ways that being a part of producing communities permeated everyday routines—and identities—of those involved, as well as the ways that production stimulates ties between skilled and unskilled laborers, specialists, and various groups within the broad “non-elite” designation. Revell’s final point is that institutional ideologies that constrained non-elites in Roman society must be closely examined. She illustrates this with the examples of slaves and gladiators in the provinces, discussing how their lives were impacted by Roman laws and values. She suggests rightly that we should make efforts not just to recognize their existence in provincial communities, but to better understand how these structures affected their experiences.

In Chapters 6, Revell turns to gender identities. Despite the rise in studies of women and gender in archaeology, the topic of gender identity is not often integrated into big-picture studies about Roman imperialism and cultural change. She suggests that this is a problem of traditionally male-centered scholarship rather than a lack of evidence, and details how archaeological evidence for dress and adornment can reveal how gender identities were performed. Epigraphic evidence is also key to understanding gender within family structure, and Revell discusses the variation in provincial practices surrounding commemoration of and by women on epitaphs. She also argues rightly that gender should be considered within broader changes in the practices and ideologies surrounding production, such as the role of women’s labor in the home and in larger scale production. Because gender studies are often underrepresented in Iron Age archaeological literature, Revell emphasizes that it is difficult to look at the long-term impacts of Roman imperialism on gender practices. However, her comments on ways of accessing local change and continuity throughout this chapter are key and deserving of future research.

In her final thematic chapter, Revell addresses the issues of age and aging. Like gender, these topics are difficult to present comprehensively in the western Roman provinces because they have not played a major role in scholarship until recently. Much of her discussion is based on funerary evidence—both epitaphs and the burials themselves, and Revell describes the varied treatment of infants, children, adults, and the elderly in several provincial cemeteries. She suggests that we should look beyond the funerary sphere for children, and discusses the ways that children would have used public spaces in urban and rural environments. She also makes an important point about the contribution of child labor to production in and outside of the home, and that artifacts associated with these activities can provide evidence of the lived experiences of children (so, we should not only associate toys with childhood).

One of the primary strengths of the book is the application of old data and case studies from across the western provinces to the robust theoretical framework that Revell outlines. She advocates the use of old data sets to ask new questions (p. 18). This book serves as a skillful example of just this kind of research. It is a useful reminder that data produced from different regions and scholarly traditions can successfully be integrated into large-scale studies. The decision not to include Italy (and not to focus solely on Britain) was a wise one. In doing so, Revell brings out a wide variety of case studies from provinces less represented in Anglophone literature and diverges from many existing studies of identity that rehash widely-known evidence from Rome and Pompeii. Considering the breadth of the book, it is no surprise that Revell seems most at home using examples from Roman Britain and southern Spain that she is personally familiar with. Likewise, many of the case studies seem to have been selected because they were published in accessible, often English language, books and articles. I noted a handful of minor errors and typos.2 The addition of a map indicating sites discussed would have been helpful.

Any oversights and minor errors are far outweighed by the benefits of a monograph with such a wide-ranging geographical and temporal scope, and one which presents this material with keen attention to theory. Revell is to be commended, and I hope that her arguments for this kind of research will make an impact on future work on Roman identities, archaeology, and social history broadly speaking. The book will also be useful for undergraduate and graduate courses about the Roman world. The writing style is accessible and jargon-free. While bibliography is not exhaustive, it provides a concise foundation.3 The substantial overlap in archaeological, epigraphic, and historical material will provide reading for fruitful cross-disciplinary discussions. Most importantly, Revell’s notion of identity grounded practice will help push the tired discussion of identity towards more innovative research about lived experience and community formation in the Roman world.


1. Canuto, M., and J. Yaeger, eds. 2000. The Archaeology of Communities: A New World Perspective. New York: Routledge; Robin, C. 2013. Everyday Life Matters: Maya Farmers at Chan. Gainesville: University of Florida Press. Varien, M. D., and J. M. Potter, eds. 2008. The Social Construction of Communities: Agency, Structure, and Identity in the Prehispanic Southwest. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.

2. For instance, Vipasca is in southern not northern Portugal (p. 93).

3. For more comprehensively cited literature reviews, see especially: Díaz-Andreu, M. 2005. The Archaeology of Identity: Approaches to Gender, Age, Status, Ethnicity and Religion. New York: Routledge; Insoll, T., ed. 2007. The Archaeology of Identities: A Reader. New York: Routledge.