This article is an edited transcript of The Ancient Romans with Mary Beard, available on History Hit TV.
What’s great about visiting Roman sites, whether it’s Housesteads on Hadrian’s Wall or Timgad in Algeria, is you start to see the real life of ordinary Roman squaddies or civilians. Then you start to think about how it was to exist in that world.
Rome worked, in a sense, because it left people alone. There were very few officials on the ground compared with the size of the local population. The British Empire looks overstaffed by comparison.
The Roman Empire therefore depended on collaboration. It collaborated with the local elites who, drawn in perhaps by the excitement of being part of the imperial project, effectively did the Empire’s dirty work.
An empire that embraced outsiders
This approach worked because the Empire incorporated the outsider. Whether this was a conscious strategy or not, the Romans made the upper echelons of the oppressed feel that they could rise to the top.
So you get Roman emperors in the second and third centuries AD who were born elsewhere. They’re not people who think of themselves as Roman in terms of coming from Italy. This was an incorporative empire.
Of course, in some ways the Roman Empire was as nasty as any empire in history, but it’s also a very different model from ours.
Aeneas was a refugee from war-torn Troy and he founded the Roman race in Italy. So their origin myth is at heart about the incorporation of outsiders.
What’s important about Rome is its desire and its commitment to incorporate those it conquers. That doesn’t mean we think that conquest was nice, of course, but Rome’s distinctive character is borne out in both myth and reality.
A civilisation founded by refugees
The Romans were refugees. According to the myth of Aeneas they came from Troy. Aeneas was a refugee from war-torn Troy and he founded the Roman race in Italy. So their origin myth is at heart about the incorporation of outsiders.
The same is almost true with Romulus, who actually founded the city. He killed his brother then put up a notice saying “Refugees Welcome,” because he had a new city and didn’t have any citizens.
This is an extraordinary myth of origin, in terms of how the ancient world sees it and how we see it and it’s absolutely hard-wired into the way the Romans thought about themselves.
When a Roman citizen freed a slave, that freed slave became a Roman citizen. There was a kind of feedback loop between the notion of being foreign, because originally most slaves were foreign, and the idea of Roman citizenship.
We now have a very ethnocentric view of citizenship. And, while it would be mad to simply say we should emulate the Romans, because we’re very different, it is important to look at this hugely successful empire from the past that worked according to different principles. It didn’t repel outsiders, it took them in.