David Mattingly has been in Rome this week, giving an evocative series of lectures and seminars on Roman domination in Africa. Today’s session was a seminar which began with a visit to the ‘Roma Caput Mundi’ exhibition curated by Andrea Giardina and Fabrizio Pesando at the Colosseum.
The exhibition traces the development of Rome’s destiny as a pan-Mediterranean power, seeking to clarify, in a low-key and accessible way, why the peoples who came under Roman domination might have wished to cooperate with their invaders. Here is a citation from the ‘Romanisation’ panel of the exhibition:
The Romans did not insist that their defeated enemies speak Latin, adopt their manner of dress, or change their laws. Romanisation was the highest privilege they could offer, and since they were convinced that their culture was superior, they thought it natural that foreigners should make it their own. Individuals chose to become romanised because they were attracted by Roman culture, because it raised their social status, because it allowed them access to local and central public offices. The same could be said of cities. By becoming “Roman” they acquired prestige within the system of the empire and enjoyed material and political advantages.
This seems an intentionally ‘soft’ reading of a situation where Roman imperium was designed to foster the aggressive extraction of economic surplus from the provinces, and only by aligning themselves with Rome could local elites skim off a share of the wealth rather than being simply targets of the exploitation.
Mattingly argues convincingly that the ‘superiority’ of Roman culture should be understood as a useful fiction in this context – useful both to the conquerors and to those among the conquered who were able to ‘buy in’ to the Roman project successfully.
If there was something particularly outstanding and distinctive about Roman culture, it was its ability to absorb successive influences and to change dramatically over time as new conquests and new brought new opportunities to the fore. So ‘Romanisation’ isn’t realy ‘Romanisation’ after all…