Academic journal article Antichthon

Did Romans Have an Ethnic Identity?

Academic journal article Antichthon

Did Romans Have an Ethnic Identity?

Article excerpt

Abstract

This paper begins with a stark contrast. Whereas the Athenians took great pride in claiming autochthony, a bloodline unsullied by admixture with barbarians or even other Hellenes, Rome's legendary genealogy unhesitatingly encompassed a host of divergent blends and multiple minglings. Greek forbears from Arcadia, Trojan immigrants who merged with Latins, Sabine and Etruscan kings, the fabled intermarriage of Romans and Sabine women - all indicate a firm belief in ethnic mixture at the origins of the nation. This article asks a pointed question: if Romans were perfectly comfortable with multiple identities in their own makeup, how does one account for the numerous slurs, smears and nasty comments addressed by Roman writers against other races and peoples? It examines a variety of such calumnies and stereotypes and argues that they do not fall into the category of ethnic prejudice. Many of the more (ostensibly) hostile remarks have been taken out of context, misunderstood, more humorous than malicious, and outweighed by a host of admiring comments. The collection of quips, jibes and clichés does not amount to ethnic bigotry. Indeed ethnicity, in terms of genetic characteristics that render non-Romans inferior to Romans, plays little or no role in these assessments. A far better indicator of the Roman outlook is the remarkable practice of extending citizenship to manumitted slaves - almost all of whom (or their ancestors) came from abroad. The Romans' sense of themselves did not require the establishment of ethnic superiority.

The people of Athens notoriously claimed that they were indigenous to the land of Attica, virtually sprung from the soil. There was no admixture of foreigners or aliens who might compromise their purity, no prior population who might challenge their precedence. Their blood-line was unsullied by barbarians or even by other Hellenes. Athenians were autochthonous - a proud, probably pompous, declaration.1

Romans, by contrast, had no comparable fantasies. Quite the contrary. Their legends assured them, indeed were concocted to convince them, that their origins rested in a complex of divergent blends and multiple minglings. The amalgam began at the beginning. Livy provides a celebrated account of the arrival of Aeneas and the Trojans in Italy. The historian spins a tale of the violent clash between natives under Latinus and the interlopers under Aeneas. But the outcome brought concord, a treaty and a marriage alliance. Aeneas wed the daughter of Latinus - the symbolic union of Latins and Trojans. Aeneas indeed generously applied the name 'Latins' to both peoples as token of the merger. A gradual coalescence took place between the two nations, a foundation for the future.2 Sallust treats the origins quite briefly and differently, but with the same basic message: Aeneas and the Trojans reached Italy where they found the Aborigines, a rustic and uncivilized people, and the two nations, of different stock, language, and customs managed with remarkable speed and ease to merge into a single harmonious state.3 For the great scholar Varro, Rome enjoyed a triple blend: a mixture of Trojans, Sabines and Aborigines.4

A fuller and far more tangled story of Rome's earliest history appears in Dionysius of Halicarnassus who took as his mission to demonstrate that the city derived from Greeks. Not a simple migration, however, but a complex combination of the indigenous and the immigrant, the Hellenic and the proto- Hellenic, the barbaric and the cultivated, overlapping legends that gave the land a layered legacy. The hodge-podge of myth and history in Dionysius had Sicels as original inhabitants of Italy, succeeded by Aborigines and Pelasgians, no mere barbarians but Greek migrants from Arcadia and Argos, settlers who gave various names to tribes and nations in the Italian peninsula in eras that long preceded the Trojan war.5 That episode, of course, spurred a new and the most celebrated migration, that of Aeneas and his countrymen to the shores of Italy. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.