Sunday, April 22, 2012

Who were the Romans?

From /Daily Telegraph, April 14 2012
Mary Beard asks - Who were the Romans?

Some time in the early second century AD, Julius Lupianus - a Roman soldier who had served on garrison duty along the Danube - brought a wife back to Rome for his retirement. She didn't last long in the metropolis, dying there when she was just 19 years, two months and five days old. Or so her tombstone (now displayed, almost 2,000 years later, in the courtyard of the American Academy in Rome) tells us. It also records her name, "Carnuntilla". Curiously, this isn't a real name at all, but a nickname based on what was presumably her home town, Carnuntum (a few miles from Vienna). Lupianus must have called his bride "my babe from Carnuntum".

This little epitaph is more than a poignant memorial of a marriage cut short by death. It's also a reminder of one aspect of the Roman empire that we often overlook: that is, the extraordinary influx of people, goods, luxuries and food into the imperial capital.

The history of Rome still tends to be told from the centre outwards. It concentrates on the far-flung conquests of armies, emperors and generals, on the resistance they met from the conquered natives, and on the changes that the Romans brought to their imperial territories (as the second-century AD historian Tacitus cynically summed these up, "baths, togas and Latin").

But the influence of the empire on the city of Rome itself was, if anything, more dramatic. In the space of just a couple of hundred years (between the third and first centuries BC), imperial conquests turned Rome into the world's first cosmopolitan city of a million inhabitants - a place where your neighbour might come from Scotland or Syria, and where the sights, tastes and experiences of every single person must have been affected by imports from abroad.

True, only the billionaires of the Roman world would have sported fine silks shipped from the Far East. But there can't have been many Romans who didn't occasionally brighten up their staple diet of (imported) wheat with a bit of (imported) pepper.

Consumer commodities, though, were not at the very top of the list of imports pouring into the city. As the story of poor Carnuntilla has hinted, it was the influx of people that defined Rome. And most of them didn't come as brides, but as slaves - who made up perhaps 350,000 of the city's total population of a million. "Human resources" in this form were one of the main profits of Roman victories in foreign wars.

In fact, until the first century AD, when the pace of imperial expansion slowed and then stopped entirely, the vast majority of slaves came from far beyond Italy. (Where they came from when the Romans were no longer making new conquests is one of the great mysteries of Roman history: partly, no doubt, they were bred at home from existing slaves; partly they were picked up from the unwanted babies of the poor which had been left out on rubbish heaps; but almost certainly there was plenty of money to be made from "people trafficking" beyond the boundaries of the empire.)

Like all ancient societies, Rome depended on slave labour: slaves worked the fields, cleaned the houses, staffed the libraries, rowed the boats, sorted the filing cabinets, dug the mines -- and (let's not forget) provided a full range of sexual services for their owners, as and when required. But Rome's version of slavery was absolutely unique in one particular respect, quite different from the slave system in ancient Athens, or in the American South, for that matter. The majority of slaves - at least those working at urban jobs in Rome itself (it was most likely different in agriculture or the mines) - would eventually have been freed by their owners. And more than that, if their owner was a Roman citizen, the ex-slave too became a full Roman citizen. So, brutal as it was, slavery was often not a life sentence, and it could also be, in a way, a fast track into Roman citizenship for millions of men and women who had once been "foreigners" or even "enemies".

The effect of turning foreign slaves into citizens on the ethnic make-up of what we usually call "the Romans" was enormous. Ex-slaves and their immediate descendants were a major element in the capital's population - so much so that more than half the ancient tombstones ever found in Rome commemorate ex-slaves, rather than freeborn Romans.

The Roman citizen body was as diverse as that of any city in the world had ever been - or, until the 20th century, would ever be. You can still see tell-tale "foreign" names all over the surviving epitaphs - Marcus Vergilius Eurysaces, the prosperous baker (with a last name that would have sounded distinctively Eastern to Italian ears), whose grand tomb playfully imitates the ovens of his professional life, to Baricha, Zabda and Achiba, three Jews captured after a revolt in Judaea, who ended up in Rome, first as slaves then, in due course, comfortable Roman citizens.

Some modern historians have found this multicultural mixture of Roman citizenship rather disquieting. In the Thirties, Mussolini's coterie of writers loudly bemoaned the way in which the original, rugged, "pure" Italian stock had been polluted by the servile blood of oriental immigrants. But the truth was that the Romans had always been a pretty mixed bunch, as their own myths insisted. Most ancient people traced their origins back to the very soil on which their city was built: the legend was, for example, that the first generations of Athenians and Spartans had miraculously sprung up from the territories of Athens and Sparta. By contrast, the Romans' myths celebrated their foreign roots. Aeneas, the heroic founder of Alba Longa, the forerunner to Rome, had fled the city of Troy (in modern Turkey) after its destruction by the perfidious Greeks with their wooden horse. Romulus himself had been a local lad, but had populated his new city by advertising for asylum seekers.

The result is that by the first century, Rome was a city of imported people, living off -- and sometimes making a nice living out of - imported goods. It wasn't just that the Roman population now could spice up their food with pepper from the East; a good number of them were employed in the pepper and spice business. Tombstones again give us a glimpse of the men and woman who worked at the "pepper exchange" (horrea piperataria) and other such specialised markets - and that's in addition to all the sailors, businessmen, money-changers and transporters involved in bringing it to Italy in the first place.

Occasionally, we come across some really ingenious ways of making money from imperial luxuries. One of my favourite Roman epitaphs of all commemorates an ex-slave called Caius Pupius Amicus, who was, he proclaims, a purpurarius or "purple dyer". Proper "purple" in Rome could only be obtained from the little sea molluscs that produced it in the eastern Mediterranean. It was the height of luxury, and - to judge from this substantial memorial (which "he made for himself while still alive") - Pupius had done very nicely out of the business.

But it wasn't only luxuries that came into Rome. The expansion of the Roman empire set off a vicious circle: the city grew as it became capital of a vast empire; as it grew, its need for food vastly outstripped anything that Italy could supply; so it became more and more dependent on basic supplies from the empire that it had conquered. This was not just wheat, but an estimated 30 million litres of olive oil a year, and 75 million litres of wine. And this was the import business that must have provided most of the work for Roman labourers (slave, ex-slave or freeborn): one recent calculation has reckoned that it would have taken almost 10 million individual portering loads per annum just to disembark the basic staples from ships to the Italian shore. The best image of the scale of this trade comes in the unlikely form of a Roman hill - though not one of the canonical "seven hills of Rome". This one is down by the Tiber, in what is now a flourishing nightclub district. Its name is Monte Testaccio and it's not a natural feature at all, but a vast ancient Roman rubbish heap, consisting of more than 50 million broken storage jars that had once brought olive oil from Spain.

Not that Rome was "multicultural" in the modern British sense - and emphatically not in a liberal, tolerant kind of way. For a start, Romans would have been amazed at our notions of "respect" for cultural difference. No one in Rome, so far as we know, set up an Egyptian (say) or a Lebanese restaurant, where the locals could experiment with ethnic cuisine. There was no Chinatown here, no ancient equivalent of chicken tikka masala. And when these people from all over the Western world put up their tombstones in Rome almost all (apart from a few in Greek and Hebrew) were written in the Latin they had learnt since their arrival.

The basic idea was not separateness, but that everything went into that diverse, changing mixture that counted as "Roman". In a way, perhaps, it was more like the American or French version of multiculturalism than the British.

Nor should we get the impression that there was no Roman prejudice against foreigners either. Multiculturalism and ethnic suspicion are often two sides of the same coin; and so it was in Rome. The satirist Juvenal, who lived at the turn of the first and second centuries AD, complained that the Tiber was becoming polluted by the Syrian river Orontes (a scarcely veiled complaint at Syrian immigration).

And his contemporary, the comic poet Martial, took numerous xenophobic potshots at all types of "foreigner". Greeks and Gauls get ribbed for their effeminacy, Germans for being little more than barbarian captives, Africans for their curly hair, and so on. Yet the (very Roman) irony of this is that Martial came from Spain.

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