Hidden Wonders

History

Rome: Was it White and European?


Published:

Table of Contents

Preface[#]


Was the Roman Empire culturally “white”? Was it European? These are questions I personally never would have even considered. The notion of a “white” culture at the time of the Roman Empire is silly to me, and it is, I believe, well known that Roman culture was a direct precursor to European culture due to the way it impacted European religion, thought, politics, and cultural beliefs even thousands of years after the fall of the Empire.

The following essay——which I initially wrote several years ago——elaborates upon these points, primarily focusing on details from various Roman sources that support the existence of a common Greco-Roman culture and the existence of ethnic——but not racial——distinctions between the denizens of the Roman Empire.

I think it’s well written for the most part, but it’s a bit too wordy. That’s a characteristic of my writing that I’ve been trying to correct whenever I write, since expressing ideas concisely is a key aspect of technical writing, and carefully choosing each and every word is an important part of creative writing.

Introduction[#]


The Roman Empire——a nation, it is crucial to note, that was founded and primarily located on the European continent——was undoubtedly a European society. Because modern day European and Western culture took inspiration from the Roman system, Roman culture at least resembles that of Europe and the West as a whole. Modern day European culture has been massively influenced by the Roman system, so Rome can in turn be viewed as an early form of Western culture. The question of whether the Roman people are “white” or not is an entirely different question that is inapplicable to the Roman Empire; to clarify, the notion of a “white” person likely did not exist until the beginning of slave trade in the early 15th century CE.1 The peculiar notion that an individual’s culture can be determined by the color of their skin had not yet taken root during the time of the Roman Empire, and no reputable ancient source can be found that classifies one’s culture as synonymous with the color of one’s skin. There were, however, cultural differences between the different peoples the Romans conquered that were based on geographical and social conditions, and there was also a common Greco-Roman culture that was adopted to some extent by the entirety of the Roman Empire. It is this Greco-Roman tradition that would lay the foundation for the formation of European culture. Evidence for the existence of a combined Greek and Roman culture being shared by all regions of the empire can be found by closely examining the various ethnic groups in the Roman Empire as well as their political and social conditions.

Evidence of Greco-Roman Culture[#]


According to the ancient sources, the Roman Empire saw Greeks, Romans, and Italians as the core ethnic groups that made up the empire. Since by modern standards the Greeks and Romans are considered European, the fact that these cultures were widely adopted by all residents of the Empire is evidence that Rome was a European empire. One of the most striking examples of this can be found in Suetonius’ history of Caligula’s reign. In this work, Suetonius mentions Caligula’s hosting of a contest “in Greek and Latin oratory” in Lugdunum, a prominent city in Southeastern Gaul (Suetonius, Caligula 20). This is incredibly significant because it shows the adoption of both the Greek and Latin languages in other regions of the Empire; considering that games of this nature were typically open to the public, it is likely many natives of Gaul were present for these games and able to understand at least some of the Latin spoken at them. The learning of Latin by other ethnic groups is also mentioned by Tacitus, who writes that the then governor of Britannia, Agricola, built cities with Roman squares, temples and houses for the people of Britain, ultimately leading the Britanni people to have “a passion to command” the Latin language (Tacitus, Agricola 21). It is clear from this that the adoption of Roman culture was in some locations welcomed with open arms, provided that the Romans showed adequate kindness to the conquered.

Apuleius was a Roman[#]


The philosopher and writer Apuleius in particular is the highest example of the adoption of Latin outside of the Italian Peninsula. He wrote extensive works of literature entirely in Latin, such as the well known book titled The Golden Ass; this is significant because, as he mentions in the Apologia, he was a native of North Africa who considered himself “half Numidian and half Gaetulian” (Apuleius, Apologia 24). Even if people from outside of Italy like Apuleius adopted Latin to such a high extent, the fact that he still identifies with his homeland hints at the true nature of the adoption Roman culture by people outside of Rome. It was not that Roman culture completely replaced one’s native culture; rather, those who assimilated to Roman culture remained members of their native communities while simultaneously become a member of the greater Roman community. This truth continues to hold even after analyzing other Roman sources.

Also worth noting about Apuleius is that, even if he may have had bit of a darker complexion than native Romans did, what he defends in the Apologia not his different skin color, but his character and intelligence; he believes that “What we must consider in a person is not his birthplace but his character, not in which land but on what principle he began the course of life” (Apuleius, Apologia 24). The take away from this fact is that Apuleius was on trial for the oddness of his North-African cultural traditions compared to native Italian culture, not in any way because he was “black” or “non-white.” Apuleius wrote the Apologia in defense of his foreign origins, and his physical appearance was not something he found it necessary to defend because, in all likelihood, the Romans did not base any bias they may have had against foreign people on their phenotype. This proves that the concept of “whiteness” did not exist in Roman times as it might today.

Multiculturalism in the Empire[#]


There are also very specific allusions to Greek culture made by Latin authors such as Petronius, a fact that implies the existence of a shared Greco-Roman culture. For instance, at one point a character is introduced named Menelaus, who is an assistant to the character Agamemnon (Petronius, Satyricon 27). Both of these characters are named after figures in Greek mythology; this is significant because Petronius would not have made these references to Greek culture unless his audience Latin-speaking audience had great familiarity with the Greek myths. In fact, Petronius implies that Romans may have had greater familiarity with Greek literary works than their own Latin works; in particular, he writes about a Roman child that is “done with the Greeks now, and he’s coming at Latin literature” (Petronius, Satyricon 46). This implies that Romans often read the great works of Greek literature before they read Roman literature, supporting the idea that Latin speakers of the Italian peninsula would know Greek literature perhaps even better than they did their own. Further reinforcing this notion is the mention of “paintings on display [depicting] ‘The Iliad and the Odyssey,’” two famous Greek literary works that must have, by the same logic, been widely read by Roman and Italian people (Petronius, Satyricon 29). This notion in particular is particularly intriguing because these are works still widely read in Europe and the entire Western world even today. It seems clear from Petronius’ writing that there was a common culture among Romans, Italians, and Greeks of the Empire that has, at least to a small extent, continued on in present day European and Western civilizations.

There was, however, a subset of the people under Roman control that were not yet as assimilated into Roman culture as other ethnic groups——for instance, the Gauls——were; for example, Suetonius finds it necessary to note that a group of performers were “Egyptians and Aethiopians,” signifying that this was an atypical ethnic background for a performer in Rome during the reign of Caligula (Suetonius, Caligula 57). The notion of the Egyptians being perceived as foreign is further supported by Tacitus, who——writing about times roughly three decades after Caligula’s reign——describes Egypt as uncivilized and filled with “strange cults”; even so, it seems that the Romans understood these people to be different from themselves, and therefore appointed a native Egyptian to govern the province (Tacitus, Histories 1.11).

The Egyptian example is important to note because it exemplifies the Roman tradition of ruling conquered lands through local officials backed by the Roman Emperor. Another example of this can be seen in Mauritania in North Africa, which was ruled by a native Mauritanian king. According to Suetonius, Caligula——in a questionable act typical of his reign——sent a man King Ptolemy of Mauritania and told him to do to him “‘good nor ill’” (Suetonius, Caligula 55). That such a frivolous command could be given to King Ptolemy by the Emperor makes clear how obedient these client Kings were to the Empire. A similar condition existed in Judea, where King Herod ruled under the reign of Augustus Caesar, who expected Herod’s obedience (Josephus, War 20.2). While simultaneously appealing to Augustus Caesar, Herod sought the favor of the Jews by rebuilding the temple among various other public works projects (Josephus, War 21.1). A public speech Herod gives to the people of Jerusalem apologizing for recent disturbances in the region also helps solidify the idea that Herod worked hard to please both the Jews and his masters in Rome (Josephus, War 23.5). From these points regarding both the Mauritanian and Jewish kings, it seems that these provincial rulers acted largely independent of Rome, but still yielded to the whims of the Emperors whenever it was necessary.

Roman Governance of a Diverse Land[#]


From looking at all these different parts of the Empire, it seems that the Romans in many cases assigned native rulers to rule their parts of the Empire as long as they ruled in a manner Rome approved of; this expresses an acknowledgment by the Romans of the diversity of their Empire as well as an understanding that ruling it all directly would in many cases be a poor decision. Each region was culturally different, so the Romans gave each region given its own government that in turn answered to the Emperor in Rome; its level of autonomy varied by province. It is easy to see how Western governments have been inspired by this model; governments such as the United States or the European Union have their territories divided up into states or countries whose inhabitants, while each having their own local identity and culture, consider themselves to also be American or European. A specific example of this can be seen in Medieval Europe, where the Pope provided an administrative and political center for Europe while the Kings ruled over their individual countries.2 However, the more regional identity often comes before the more national identity, and the same seems to be true in the Roman system. The Egyptian performers Suetonius spoke of, while certainly perceiving themselves as Egyptian, would have simultaneously understood that they were residents of the Roman Empire; it is also near certainty that they spoke either Latin or Greek since they were traveling to the city of Rome. By this logic, Roman governance of its diverse ethnic population inspired governments in modern Western societies.

It is also worth briefly noting that even Roman Emperors were at times understanding of the different cultural traditions throughout the peoples that made up their Empire. In the Edicts of Caracalla, the Emperor proclaimed that “I understand that Egyptians are in the habit of bringing down sacrificial bulls and other livestock at the festival of Serapis, on certain other festival days, and also at other times. For such visits they must not be prevented” (Edicts of Caracalla, III). What this statement indicates is an understanding of local Egyptian traditions as well as an understanding that these cultural traditions should not be violated. While certainly not as welcoming to other cultures as more modern governments are, the tolerance Caracalla demonstrates here——even if done merely to avoid angering the Egyptian peoples than out of any respect for their culture——shows how aware the Emperors were that they ruled over a diverse group of peoples who practiced many unique cultural traditions.

Judaism[#]


Looking again at Petronius’ writings yield further insights regarding the diversity of the Empire, particularly regarding Judaism. Writing under the reign of Emperor Nero, the familiarity Petronius exhibits with Jewish cultural traditions is indicative of Judaism not being entirely foreign or unknown to the people of Rome. One such example is when a man with the name Seleucus——a name more common to natives of the Middle East than the Italian Peninsula——implied that he would not bathe because of his recent attendance to a funeral (Petronius, Satyricon 42). This is significant because this is a Semitic custom rather than a Roman one, implying Petronius had an intimate knowledge of Jewish funeral customs. In another interestingly relevant example, the character Ganymedes, in a speech intended to be in favor of Roman traditions, refers to the gods no longer favoring the Romans because they, among other points, didn’t observe the fast (Petronius, Satyricon 44). This is ironic, for the fast was a distinctly Middle Eastern custom, meaning that Petronius may be implying a larger theme about the Empire. By mocking those who claim to be Roman traditionalists like Ganymedes through this irony, Petronius shows that many of the customs traditionally seen as Roman actually originate from foreign lands. The Roman culture was based in Europe, but that is not to say that Greco-Roman culture was void of influence from other parts of the Empire, a claim as Petronius seems to imply.

Tacitus’ Accounts of Different Ethnic Groups[#]


The story of Agricola as told by the Roman historian Tacitus is one of the best ways to understand the growing number of Roman citizens who could hold high office despite their foreign origin. Agricola originated from the colony of Forum Julii——a Roman colony in the southern part of Gaul founded by Julius Caesar——and his father was a member of the Roman senate (Tacitus, Agricola 4). This suggests that Agricola was either descended from Roman immigrants to the region or from a Celt granted Roman citizenship. Regardless, it is clear that the Roman government——an institution which only a century earlier considered figures like Cicero foreign due to originating from Italy rather than Rome——was continuing to become more inclusive to those who lived in other parts of the Empire. Those of the lower classes of society also were able to participate in Roman service despite their foreign origins; Tacitus writes that Emperor Nero had drafted many men from “Germany, Britain and Illyricum” into the army, hinting at the multicultural nature of the Roman military during the Empire (Tacitus, Histories 1.6). The multi-ethnic nature of the Roman army is further hinted at by the Britanni leader Calgacus, who makes note of the “motley agglomeration of nations” the Roman army was made up of (Tacitus, Agricola 32). Increased participation in the army by other ethnic groups would help those participants become more acclimated to Roman culture and Latin language while building positive relationships among people from different parts of the Empire.

The military played an important role in the expansion of Roman culture because of just how massive the Roman military was, and its size was in part because it functioned also as a police force for the Empire. Most interesting is the pride many of these soldiers had in their position in the army as a police figure——the Romans called these police stationarii. On a sandstone cliff south of the Egyptian town of Pselchis, some Roman soldiers etched their name, proudly labeling themselves stationarii.3 The stationarii were stationed all over the Empire, undoubtedly facilitating the spread of Greco-Roman culture even to villages as remote as the aforementioned Pselchis.4 If these men truly were prideful of their status in the military, it is safe to say they were also proud of being apart of Greco-Roman culture. There were also extensive Roman garrisons at Vindolanda in Britannia and the city of Byzantium, showing just how effective the Roman military was at spreading this culture to every part of the Empire.5

Tacitus’ writings paint a similar picture of the Roman army as a diverse group, mentioning in the Agricola that cohorts of soldiers “levied in Germania” were “transferred to Britannia,” further making clear that the Germani were an ethnic group that was at least partially under Roman control and that they regularly participated in the Roman armies throughout the Empire (Tacitus, Agricola 28). So great was Tacitus’ interest in these people that he dedicated one of his books, the Germania, entirely to the discussion of their history and culture. One aspect he writes about is their outward appearance, referring to them generally as having red hair, blue eyes, and large bodies. Significant is the fact that Tacitus writes when talking about their appearance the phrase “If one may generalize about so vast a population”; this indicates that Tacitus understands that making a claim about a race’s phenotype and applying it to them all is inaccurate since not every member of the same race looks the same (Tacitus, Germania 4). This shows that some individuals in the Roman Empire had a strong racial awareness, and understood that not all stereotypes of a race were accurate for all its members.

One of the more peculiar details mentioned in the Germania is that of Hercules, a legendary Greek hero Tacitus mentions visited Germania in ancient times (Tacitus, Germania 3). If true, this notion would strongly support the idea of a common European culture based around Ancient Greek culture; however, this idea is far more likely to be false considering Tacitus himself doubts whether the statement is true or not (Tacitus, Germania 34). However, this is still a significant point even if false because it shows how readily Romans projected their own cultural identity upon other ethnic groups. In a world where the Romans increasingly saw other European peoples as similar to themselves culturally——even if the way the Romans saw those peoples was based on a misconception——it is possible that this was the beginning of the formation of a European or “white” identity as Greco-Roman culture appeared to the Romans to encompass the majority of cultures in Europe.

Many historians have given a name for, as the Roman historian Tacitus calls it, “our habit of assigning any outstanding achievement anywhere to [Hercules]”: Interprettatio Romana, which is the idea that Romans often apply Roman or Greek names to the historical and religious figures of other cultures (Tacitus, Germania 34). The existence of this phenomenon is proven in Tacitus’ writings, where he states that in a unique religious ritual of the Germani’s “the gods, in Latin translation, are Castor and Pollux” (Tacitus, Germania 43). This definitely confirms that Tacitus does at times substitute Roman names for their Germani equivalents, and also makes it likely many other Roman historians have often done the same. This continues to support the previous idea that, even if inaccurate, the Roman people seemed to believe that other polytheistic faiths were the same as their own.

On the Syrian Goddess is only about Greek Gods[#]


Lucian——a Syrian satirist who wrote in Greek——describes a Syrian cult that worships a particular goddess. He describes this Syrian cult that most people in Rome or Greece would see as foreign, yet the satire comes in as he hints at how similar it is to Greek religion——put bluntly, the work is supposed to be about a Syrian goddess but all Lucian talks about are Greek gods. At one point, Lucian mentions a temple to Heracles in the city of Tyre——only, this temple is for a local Tyrian hero who bears the same name as a Greek hero, at least according to the local inhabitants (Lucian, On the Syrian Goddess 3). He then follows this describing a temple built by the Phoenicians honoring the Greek gods and depicting Europa; however, “they do not allow that the temple is Europa’s” (Lucian, On the Syrian Goddess 4). When talking about the origins of the temple to the Syrian goddess, Lucian states that he prefers the story in which the goddess is the same as the Greek goddess Hera (Lucian, On the Syrian Goddess 16). While it seems that Lucian is mocking religion as a whole, he is also poking fun at the idea that there really is no difference between Greek and Syrian religion. Even if the people of Tyre insist their temple does not depict Europa, and that their Heracles is somehow different from the Greek Heracles, Lucian implies that these mythologies are the same. This concept is remarkably similar to Tacitus calling Germanic gods by Latin names, which together implies that many Romans saw their religion as similar to the religions of places like Syria or Germania. This shows that different polytheistic religions in the Empire were not a barrier to other peoples being incorporated in Greco-Roman culture, but that Greco-Roman culture already allowed for the worship of different gods in different ways throughout the Empire.

Christianity: A Major Part of European Culture[#]


The spreading of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire reveals a lot about the place religion had in the Empire. Christianity in its earliest form was a religion almost identical to Judaism, made different almost exclusively by its belief in Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus’ death at the hands of the Romans would spark the spread of this new religion throughout the Empire (The Gospel of Mark 15.1-15.39). The tale of Jesus’ followers spreading this religion is told in the Acts of the Apostles, which is useful in that it reveals just how widespread Judaism was throughout the Eastern Roman Empire. For instance, Paul once goes to preach at a synagogue in Damascus, one of the major cities in Syria (The Acts of the Apostles 9.19-22). While this place is geographically close to Israel, more surprising are the existence of multiple synagogues in Cyprus, the city of Antioch in Asia Minor, Thessalonica in Northern Greece, and even in the city of Athens, a city that can almost be seen as the birthplace of Greco-Roman culture (The Acts of the Apostles 13.4-7, 13.13-15, 17.1-4, 17.16-18). Paul makes journeys to these synagogues multiple times, spreading belief in Jesus as the Messiah to other lands. Taken as a whole, it becomes evident that Jewish communities were scattered throughout the Empire and that those like Paul who sought to convert people to other faiths were common enough that all of these various cities always welcomed him. He even makes the proconsul of Cyprus a believer in God, showing that Paul’s travel there was not a cause for suspicion by local Roman authorities (The Acts of the Apostles 13.4-13.12). This means that the Roman Empire was a diverse land of many religions, even in major cities typically associated with mainstream Greco-Roman culture such as Athens. Even Rome had a Jewish community according to the writings of Josephus, showing that as increasing numbers of people adopted Greco-Roman traditions, many other cultural and religious beliefs continued to thrive (Josephus, The Life of Josephus 3).

A final point worth noting on Christianity in the early Roman Empire is the fact that it was a new religion, and few people were Christian; since one of the essential parts of being European or Western to many people is Christianity, it becomes significant that Rome was not a Christian land. Christianity was a very obscure religion in its earliest days——in fact, those who practiced it were often persecuted——and the non-practice of it widely in the Roman Empire is clearly one of the major factors that differentiate Greco-Roman culture from European, Western, and “white” culture.6 This is an especially vital distinction when the period immediately following the fall of Rome is examined, for it quickly became clear that the only part of European culture that bonded all of these separate peoples together was Christianity.7 During the period often referred to as the Dark Ages, it could be argued that to be European was synonymous with being Christian; this makes it possible to assert that only after Rome fell and Christianity had greater political force in Europe was a European culture like the one that exists today formed.

Conclusion[#]


Overall, it is clear that the Roman Empire was one in which different ethnic groups all identified with their native cultures while simultaneously embracing Latin or Greek, becoming Roman citizens, and aspiring to participate in Roman government and military. This created an identity which all cultures of the Empire shared. Rome was certainly not a “white” empire, for——as initially claimed——no classification of one’s culture from the sources used involved the term “white” in a cultural sense, verifying its modern nature and inapplicability to the classical era. Even with the lack of a common “white” culture, the Greco-Roman identity was adopted by even these supposedly non-white peoples, and it was to some extent adopted by the European society which followed Rome. The foundations of modern European, Western, and “white” culture indubitably trace their origins to the Greco-Roman culture which was spread and cultivated in the Roman Empire.

Citations[#]



  1. Jonathan W. Daly, The Rise of Western Power: A Comparative History of Western Civilization (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 130, accessed December 10, 2020, [REDACTED]. ↩︎

  2. Daly, The Rise of Western Power: A Comparative History of Western Civilization, 242 ↩︎

  3. Christopher J. Fuhrmann, Policing the Roman Empire: Soldiers, Administration, and Public Order (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011), 209, accessed December 3, 2020, [REDACTED]. ↩︎

  4. Fuhrmann, Policing the Roman Empire: Soldiers, Administration, and Public Order, 207 ↩︎

  5. Fuhrmann, Policing the Roman Empire: Soldiers, Administration, and Public Order, 222 ↩︎

  6. Fuhrmann, Policing the Roman Empire: Soldiers, Administration, and Public Order, 223 ↩︎

  7. Daly, The Rise of Western Power: A Comparative History of Western Civilization, 242 ↩︎


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