Book Review by Ursus
The bent of academic studies in recent times seems to focus on relationships of power between various agents. It is given that there are certain identity groups within a culture. How these groups create their identity, and how they relate to other identity groups within their culture, is fodder for ongoing societal analysis. At its most extreme, this manner of inquiry sometimes construes culture as an artifice that imprisons certain identity groups for the exploitation of others. More moderate tones instead simply offer commentary on the dynamic among various groups, be it antagonistic or otherwise. What "Experiencing Rome" attempts to do is offer an objective dialogue on how various groups in the Roman Empire came to cultural terms with the power of the imperium.
Culture can be defined simply as common ground – a shared sense of values, symbols, languages, experiences and habits. Cultural studies in the Roman empire have always focused on how Rome imparted its values, symbols, languages, experiences and habits on its subject peoples – a process usually called Romanization. Depending on the commentator’s politics, Rome either nobly uplifted savage peoples to its own superior level of culture, or else ruthlessly destroyed indigenous cultures and reshaped them in its own tyrannical image.
A new perspective seeks to bypass this antagonistic dichotomy. The relationship between ruler and ruled need not be so stark. The ruled can appropriate the ruler’s culture for themselves and their own ends, remolding that culture in their own terms and thus giving it a local flavoring. In other words, culture is a mosaic. While the central power offers a broad outline, it is for the subject peoples to fill in the details. What results is a multiplicity of values, meanings and experiences.
For instance, if a Celtic god is identified with a Roman one, which religion is done injustice? Has the native god been ruthlessly blended into an imperialist religion? Has the Roman god been degraded just as much by having to blend with a Celtic god? Or is it possible that a hybrid religion has been erected, where Roman and Celt can see their own values in the same religion without having to compromise each other’s?
The overall thrust of the book leans to the latter hypothesis. It surmises that there were various layers of identity within the Roman Empire, where the relationships were continually renegotiated between ruler and ruled. The central government offered an overarching structure of culture, which identity groups could interpret within their own paradigms. Thus while the subject peoples of the empire had certain broad things in common, nonetheless the daily experience of a Celt in the Roman empire was different from the Punic or Greek experience. There was no one, single way of being Roman. Different peoples experienced the concept of Rome differently in different times and places. It was possible for the same individual to experience different realities – for instance, the same citizen performed different roles as a citizen of Rome, a citizen of Athens, a member of a trade guild, and a member of a religious cult.
This unity in diversity actually was of benefit to the empire. Most local elites were all too eager to appropriate Roman culture for themselves provided they could carve their own niche within Rome’s limits. The Principate seemed to have been conscious of this profitable dynamic and was keen to offer a lax imperial yoke on its subjects. Only vicious malcontents who refused to compromise needed fear extermination. The evidence for widespread rebellion against Roman domination is in fact slim. Granted that slaves, the lower classes, and women did not have much of a hand in writing history – nor did those who did not write, such as the Celts. Nonetheless most of the evidence of opposition comes from the Jews (and their later Christian offshoots) and some recalcitrant Greeks. Something can also be said about opposition within the imperial center, from such rhetoricians as Tacitus.
The book itself is a collection of twelve essays penned by different authors, examining the same overall theme from different angles. The quality varies with the author, as well as the reader’s interest in a given subject. For example, I found the chapter on religion to be the best summary of Roman spiritual politics I had ever seen, but considered the essay on gender too postmodern to stomach. Nonetheless, the phrase “to each his own” comes to mind. Experiencing Rome is broad enough that most people interested in cultural studies can benefit from its erudition.
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