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Beyond Vulgarity and Ugliness: Some Reflections on Roman Imperialism The Syme Lecture, 20th October


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Title: Beyond Vulgarity and Ugliness: Some Reflections on Roman Imperialism The Syme Lecture, 20th October

Beyond Vulgarity and Ugliness Some Reflections
on Roman ImperialismThe Syme Lecture, 20th
October 2005Wolfson College, Oxford
  • David Mattingly

Definitions of empire and imperialism
The rise and fall of a great empire cannot fail
to fascinate us, for we can all see in such a
story something of our own times. But of all the
empires that have come and gone, none has a more
immediate appeal that the Empire of Rome. It
pervades our lives today its legacy is
everywhere to be seen. (Cunliffe, Rome and her
Empire (1978), 10).
The endurance of the Roman Empire is one of the
success stories of history. That it survived so
long is a sign of its principal achievement,
whereby a heterogeneous mixture of races and
creeds were induced to settle down together in a
more or less peaceful way under the Pax
Romana. (Wacher 1987b, 12).
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  • Empire can be defined as rule over very wide
    territories and many peoples without their
  • Imperialism is the process and attitudes by which
    an empire is established and maintained
  • Colonialism defines the system of rule of one
    people over another, where sovereignty is
    operated at a distance often through the
    installation of settlements of colonists in the
    related process of colonization

Approaches to Roman Imperialism
  • Seldom has the government of the world been
    conducted for so long in an orderly sequence In
    its sphere, which those who belonged to it were
    not far wrong in regarding as the world, it
    fostered the peace and prosperity of the many
    nations united under its sway longer and more
    completely than any other leading power has ever
  • (Mommsen 1968, 4).
  • If a man were called upon to fix the period in
    the history of the world during which the
    condition of the human race was most happy and
    prosperous, he would, without hesitation name
    that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to
    the accession of Commodus.
  • (Gibbon 1896, 78).

  • Roman civilization has survived through the
    centuries as a tangible living tradition,
    manifesting itself in every aspect of the modern
    world, from language and legal systems, to roads
    and buildings this magnificent survey of the
    astonishing achievements of one of the greatest
    and most influential of all civilizations
  • (jacket blurb, Liberati and Bourbon, Rome
    splendours of an ancient civilisation, 2001)

Global empires real or claimed
  • Empire is a theoretical concept characterized
    fundamentally by a lack of boundaries Empires
    rule has no limits
  • (Hardt and Negri 2000, xiv).

Compare Virgils imperium sine fine that
Jupiter ordained was to be without physical or
temporal constraints (Aeneid, 1.278-79).
Doyles models of imperialism
  • You, Roman, remember by your empire to rule the
    worlds peoples, for these will be your arts, to
    impose the practice of peace, to be sparing to
    the subjected, and to beat down the defiant
  • (Virgil, Aeneid, 6.851-3).

  • colonization could be (re)presented as a
    virtuous and necessary civilizing task
    involving education and paternalistic nurture. An
    example of this is Kiplings famous admonition to
    America in 1899 to Take up the White Mans
    Burden colonialism developed an ideology
    rooted in obfuscatory justification, and its
    violent and essentially unjust processes became
    increasingly difficult to perceive behind a
    liberal smokescreen of civilizing task and
    paternalistic development and aid.
  • (Howe 2002, 47)

Agricola brings civilization to the Britons (1790
History of England)
Vulgarity and ugliness
  • In modern text books the term Romanization
    is put to frequent employment. It is vulgar and
    ugly, worse than that, anachronistic and
    misleading. Romanization implies the execution
    of a deliberate policy. That is to misconceive
    the behaviour of Rome.
  • (R. Syme, 1988, p. 64 from an article Rome and
    the Nations p. 62-73, originally published in
    Diogenes 124 (1983), 33-46).

  • The conquest forced artists "into the mould of
    Roman life, with its vulgar efficiency and lack
    of taste, destroyed that gift and reduced their
    arts to the level of mere manufactures"
  • (R.G. Collingwood 1936, 247).
  • Romano-British art was "dull, mechanical
    imitation ... third rate artistic achievement ...
    an ugliness which pervades the place like a
    London fog not merely the common vulgar ugliness
    of the Roman empire, but a blundering, stupid
    ugliness that cannot even rise to the level of
    that vulgarity"
  • (Collingwood 1936, 250).

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The inverse relationship between power and taste
as exemplified by Dictators homes
  • The world of the ancient Mediterranean states,
    the world in which Rome existed, seems to fulfil
    the grimmest paradigms of state behaviour
    proposed by international systems theoreticians
  • (Champion, Roman Imperialism, 2004, 6).

Financing the Empire
  • And since it is quite impossible to maintain
    the empire without taxation, let Asia not
    begrudge its part of the revenues in return for
    permanent peace and tranquility
  • (Cicero, Letters to his Brother Quintus 1.1.34)

The global dimension
The Roman period peaks in hemispheric copper
(above) and lead (right) pollution attested in
the Greenland ice-cores
Las Medulas, NW Spain
Ancient ground level
Opencast mine
Modern village
Las Medulas left with 5.4 sq km opencasts
(yellow) and 5.7 sq km buried under spoil dumping
(green) and below detail of main opencast and
hydraulic evacuation systems
Salgados Brazilian gold mine pictures
The Bierzo Edict (15 BC)
The Wadi Faynan Roman copper mines ancient
Khirbet Faynan
Central administrative building
Roman Mines in Faynan region
Umm al-Amad
Pollution in the body
Normal or safe level
Cemetery WF3
Heavy metal pollution in human bone from
Byzantine cemetery WF 3
Post-colonial approaches giving voice to the
A Gallic view of Roman military culture?
Boudica Follow me men speech (as imagined by
Dio, etc)
The protracted garrison presence in Britain
The effects of military garrison on provincial
development in Britain?
Gosden, The Archaeology of Colonialism
  • The typology should not be seen as stable and
    fixed. Nor should it be seen as anything other
    than an attempt to simplify a large and confusing
    reality for initial heuristic purposes it is
    something to be put at risk and modified through
    an encounter with different cases, rather than an
    adequate description of them all. The last
    qualification is that the typology should not
    be seen as a linear progression from one form to
    another within one colonial formation all three
    types can exist simultaneously there can be
    movement from one to another, or one form can be
    found alone.
  • (Gosden 2004, 25)

Gosdens models of colonialism
Progressive barbarization as a literary trope in
the ancient sources
  • The northern tribes inhabit wild and
    waterless mountains and desolate and marshy
    plains they have neither walls nor cities nor
    tilled fields, but live on their flocks and by
    hunting and on certain fruits ... They live in
    tents, naked and without shoes, possess their
    women in common, and rear all offspring in
    common. They have a democratic system for the
    most part and are very fond of plundering. For
    this reason they choose their boldest men as
    rulers They can endure hunger and cold and
    every hardship. For they plunge into the marshes
    and exist there for many days, only keeping their
    heads above the water, and in the forests they
    support themselves on bark and roots
  • (Dio 7677.12.1-5)

But when those in the island revolted again, he
summoned the soldiers and ordered them to invade
their country again and to kill everyone they
met, quoting this Let no one escape sheer
destruction At our hands, not even the child that
the mother Bears in her womb, if a male, let him
not escape sheer destruction. (Dio
7677.15.1-4, quoting Homer, Il. 6.57-59.
Augustan imperialism in Africa
  • MacMullens map

Colony of Augustus
Romanization (again)
  • Virgils exhortations regarding the use of
    Romes military might were set in a broader
    context that of a civilising mission. Indeed,
    military conquest was not, except perhaps in the
    minds of a few traditionalists, an end in
    itself its purpose was to establish the
    conditions in which a culture of Romanisation
    could flourish Only thus could prosperity be
    realised in the provinces and (eventually) the
    empire at large. Romanisation was, therefore, a
    crucial part of the process of empire building.
  • (Shotter 2003, 230-32).

Native agency versus State structure?
Combining 2 maps from Greg Woolfs Becoming
Roman, to illustrate the distorting influence of
the army on the Rhine (and the supply routes
feeding it) in the distribution of stone
inscriptions in Gaul and Germany
Key arguments against use of Romanization concept
  • Multiple meanings/understandings flawed
  • Is a very unhelpful term - implies cultural
    change unilateral and unilinear from advanced to
    less advanced
  • Part of a modern colonial discourse on the nature
    of empire
  • Emphasis is on elite sites, Roman state monuments
    and elite culture
  • Leads scholars to take a fundamentally pro-Roman
    and top-down view
  • De-emphasizes elements suggesting continuing
    traditions of indigenous society.
  • Interprets material culture change in simplistic
    and narrow terms (acculturation, emulation, etc.)
  • Focus on degree of sameness across provinces,
    rather than degree of difference/divergence.

Religion in Roman Britain
The conundrum of Milletts maps
Distribution of inscribed altars
Distribution of Romano-Celtic temples
Religious discrepancy in Britain under Roman rule
  • Roman imperialism shows dynamic development over
    time and impact of metrocentric, pericentric and
    systemic factors
  • Can trace features of all 3 of Gosdens models of
    colonialism in the Roman case study
  • More attention needed to ugly or negative
    aspects of imperialism and its material
    correlates, to counterbalance traditional strong
    focus on the positive achievements
  • Financial demands of the Empire post-Augustus
    radically different to Republican situation
  • Post-colonial approaches offer some useful models
    for deconstructing the ideologies behind colonial
    discourse in the past
  • Like Syme, but for different reasons, I reject
    the use of the term Romanization
  • Advocate alternative approach to culture change
    based on concept of discrepant identity
  • Heterogeneity and regionality of cultural
    responses to Roman imperialism merit closer
    attention in future studies, also linked to
    effects of exercise of power in society