Romanitas

Romanitas  has been described aptly as not the shared biological traits of ‘a specific group’, but the fluid characteristics ‘that made a man Roman, made him an appropriate husband, father, general, and politician, and which distinguished him from a woman, child, barbarian or slave’. Moreover, different ethnic groups and regional identities could appropriate and shape ‘the form in which Romanitas was expressed in different places and in different circumstances’.[1] In other words, Roman identity represents a flexible concept that over time meant distinct things to diverse peoples.[2]

Admittedly, ancient references to Romanitas are not common. As Guy Halsall notes, it appears more frequently in the works of modern academics than in the ancient sources.[3] Our first evidence of its use comes from a early third-century harangue, where the Christian writer Tertullian ridiculed the men of Carthage for aping Roman culture.[4] Yet, despite its rarity, Romanitas captures the ancient Romans’ sense of ‘us’ versus ‘them’, and consequently, provides a valuable tool for one hoping to recover the nuanced ways individuals regarded themselves and others as Romans/non-Romans and manly/unmanly men. It also captures the Romans’ androcentrism. Following recent scholarship’s lead, I use the expression ‘manly Romanitas’ in my own work as a way to convey this intimate relationship between Romanitas and existing codes of idealised masculinity.[5]

Although there is no precise counterpart in ancient Greek to Romanitas, the adverb, Ῥωμᾰϊκῶς, with its meaning ‘in the Roman fashion’, comes close to capturing its essence.[6] As Ionnas Smarnakis comments, through its long history, vital facets of their identity remained linked to the Byzantines lingering sense of Romanitas:

The traditional Byzantine concept of the term “Roman”, which defined their own God-protected empire and emphasized the Roman and Christian roots of the imperial ideology, underwent several changes through the centuries. Besides its strong political content, romanitas eventually came to encompass a vast body of different, changing, and often overlapping meanings: it stressed the contrast between civilized” Romans and “uncivilized” barbarians; it declared a political identification with the Roman state; and finally, it referred to an ethnic group of people who believed that they had a common origin, spoke the same Greek language and followed the Christian Orthodox religion.[7]

 

[1] A. Merrills and R. Miles, The Vandals (London, 2010), pp. 88-9.

[2] The notion that Roman identity represented primarily an ideal of the ruling elite is posed by I. Stouraitis, ‘Roman Identity in Byzantium: A Critical Approach’, Byzantion 107 (2014): pp. 55-7. Though not without its merits, this position, to my mind, too readily dismisses the lower-classes sense of Roman identity.

[3] G. Halsall, ‘The Barbarian Invasions,” in NCMH, ed P. Fouracre (Cambridge, 2005), p. 40.

[4] Tertullian, De pallio 4.1, quoted and trans in P. McKechnie, ‘Tertullian’s De Pallio and Life in Roman Carthage’, Prudentia 24 2 (1992), pp. 57-8:Why at this time, if Romanness is salvation for everything, are you still not taking honourable attitudes towards the Greeks? [quid nunc, si est Romanitas omni salus, nec honestis tamen modis ad Graios estis?’].

[5]As Andy Merrills explains (The Vandals, pp. 88-9), by the fifth century, Romanitas ‘was based overwhelmingly upon certain notions of appropriate male behaviour’.

[6] For the early Byzantines emphasise on the religious and political aspects of Romanitas, see C. Rapp, ‘Hellenic Identity, Romanitas, and Christianity’, in Hellenisms: Culture, Identity, and Ethnicity from Antiquity to Modernity, ed K. Zacharia (Burlington, VT, 2008), pp. 127-47.

[7] I. Smarnakis, Rethinking Roman Identity after the Fall (1453): Perceptions of ‘Romanitas’ by Doukas -and Sphrantzes’, Byzantina Symmeikta 25 (2015), pp. 212-13.

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