Friday, August 28, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Louise Revell, Roman Imperialism and Local Identities. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. xiii, 221. ISBN 9780521887304. $80.00.
Reviewed by Emma-Jayne Graham, University of St. Andrews

Table of Contents

In the Preface to this excellent volume, Revell states that it is not a book about 'becoming Roman' but 'being Roman' (ix). She stresses that we should consider 'Roman-ness' a discourse rather than a static and unchanging label of identity, and explore the complexities of what it meant to participate in a Roman way of life. Drawing upon evidence of urban public buildings from the provinces of Hispania and Britannia, Revell argues that experiences of public spaces not only established a shared Roman ethnic identity and reproduced Roman power structures, but also played a crucial role in the formation of myriad local identities. An understanding of how to be Roman was linked to shared ideals, but this always remained locally specific. By drawing attention to what she describes as the 'elasticity' of this discourse of Roman-ness, Revell offers a refreshing and theoretically informed perspective on what it meant to be 'Roman' in the conquered provinces which represents an important step forward for studies of Romanisation.

Having set out briefly in the Preface (ix-xii) the questions at the heart of the book, and commented upon the use of certain key terms ('Roman-ness' instead of Romanitas, 'pre-Roman' or 'non-Roman' in place of 'native'), in Chapter 1 'The context of the argument' (1-39) Revell presents the theoretical, methodological and evidential basis of the study. She argues that the study of Roman identity and processes of Romanisation have been beset by the problem of labels and inflexible ideas about bounded cultural identities. In fact, she suggests, we should not expect to find any degree of homogeneity but should consider Roman-ness a discourse in which people engaged actively, producing subtly different experiences of what it meant to be Roman. Drawing upon case studies from the provinces of Baetica, Tarraconensis and Britannia, Revell explores how variable experiences of public architecture might have enabled 'different kinds of identity without undermining an overall empire-wide identity' (10). This approach draws heavily upon Gidden's (1984)1 ideas of structure and agency, with experiences of public spaces being seen to play an instrumental role in the negotiation of a multiplicity of identities grounded in an ideology of how to be Roman.

Chapter 2 'Living the urban ideal' (40-79) begins with a discussion of the links between urbanisation and imperialism, and the need to find a new angle from which to approach this relationship. Revell's approach is to consider experiences of living and moving within a town, in particular the ways in which urban architecture subsequently became 'embedded in the negotiation and expression of political power' (43). Such an approach makes it possible to incorporate the experiences of both the elite and the wider community. Noting that urbanism was an ideology concerning the 'correct' way of living that operated on two levels, as both the conditions which framed life and a lived experience which reproduced this ideology, Revell uses four case studies (Italica, Clunia, London and Caerwent) to explore how this might have occurred in practice. By examining the way in which the town was placed at the centre of political and sometimes, but not always, religious activities, Revell demonstrates that the town was located within an understanding of daily life, becoming 'part of the mental landscape of the local population' (76). What emerges most clearly from an examination of evidence from different provinces is that, whilst urbanism was a structure which reinforced Roman ideals and imperial authority, its effect was dependent on active participation by townspeople. Consequently, given the different circumstances prevalent in each provincial town (for example, the separation of politics and religion in Britannia), different urban experiences were produced, meaning that there were 'shared ideals within town life but not a fixed paradigm' (78).

A second ideology, imperial authority, forms the focus of Chapter 3 'The Roman emperor' (80-109). Attention is drawn to the way in which various mechanisms (including sculpture, inscriptions, patronage and imperial cult) represented the authority of the emperor within the town and permeated the everyday lives of its inhabitants. Revell suggests that this relationship was unstable, depending not only upon the emperor's might, but also upon his subjects' recognising and reproducing that authority through their own activities. Iconography associated with the imperial family, it is argued, pervaded daily lives and affirmed the emperor's political power, so that, as with inscriptions, 'to be confronted by such an image and to acknowledge its significance was to replicate and to legitimate his power' (89). Equally, the imperial cult formed part of localised encounters between communities and imperial authority, with participation, most notably in festivals and processions, recreating imperial power and enabling participants to assert their place in the community. Statues and inscriptions were used to create a shared historical narrative in which all of this was understood. Revell concludes that power was 'written into the physical fabric of provincial towns' (107), and that the performance of repeated activities within this context reproduced the emperor's power and gave it legitimacy. However, the examples that she presents emphasise that this was not necessarily a uniform phenomenon across the empire, given the differing extent to which the emperor might be directly involved with individual towns (Italica being a prime example). As with urbanism, overarching structures were present across the empire, but there were also discrepancies between the ways in which people experienced the power of the emperor and constructed their own identities in relation to it.

Chapter 4 'Addressing the divine' (110-149) turns its attention to a third ideology. Noting the range of problems facing anyone wishing to approach Roman religion, Revell rejects a focus on belief in favour of ritual, as an activity which was capable of reproducing the structures of the empire whilst still providing scope for local variability. To this end she examines the evidence for religious activities at Bath (where the tradition of 'Roman' and 'native' religion is convincingly broken down), Minigua, Italica, Bilbilis and Caerwent. She draws out the extent to which these encounters with religion shared certain practices but were manifested in diverse ways within the urban fabric, therefore producing subtly different experiences. Communal acts of ritual are revealed to be of particular significance, allowing the community to come together in order to reproduce wider structures but also providing occasions upon which the local social hierarchy might be affirmed. The role of the built environment was key to ensuring that these experiences resonated within the town, even once the performance had ended. The elite were at the heart of these activities but, Revell argues, non-elite members of the community also made sense of their place in the world through responses to and participation in religious events. The presence of variability beneath an umbrella of common practice is again stressed, as Revell highlights how the physical differences between provincial towns offered an opportunity for local interpretations of ritual: 'there is no such thing as a "typical" religious site. Each has a distinctive local character: a form of religio which we might think of as broadly "Roman", but within which remained the possibility of diversity and individuality' (146).

Having examined how these three ideologies created a framework of imperial power within which there remained scope for local variability, Revell turns her attention in Chapter 5 'A question of status' (150-190) to these different experiences of being Roman, particularly the role of public space in negotiations for status. Revell comments on how the adult, wealthy male has become a paradigm for Roman behaviour, with women, children and other groups essentially being written out (both now and by contemporaries) in spite of their importance in negotiations for social identity. Beginning with political activity, and referring back to the themes of previous chapters, Revell argues that this played an important role in negotiations of social identity. In particular, whilst eligibility for political office was drawn into a definition of elite status, it also determined how those excluded from office expressed and internalised their own identities. Once more the urban fabric of the town is shown to be central to the playing out of these inequalities, and experiences of the basilica, curia and tribunal are pinpointed as significant examples. Discussion of how an office-holder might experience the tribunal provides an especially effective illustration of the multiplicity of possible experiences within a town and their links with negotiations for identity and status within the local community. It is suggested that those 'written out of these privileged areas, [used] the reasons for their absence (gender or age for example) as a way to make sense of their own place within the urban community' (161). Revell then examines the importance of other public spaces (baths and entertainment venues), religious rituals, and inscriptions for the negotiating these identities, and the ways in which they allowed other groups such as wealthy women and successful former slaves to participate in the same processes but in different physical settings. Focusing on a number of different categories of individual (wealthy elite male, elite woman and former slave), Revell then explores how different elements of their identity resulted in particular experiences of the urban landscape, before concluding that 'the same material which was used to create an elite Roman experience was also used to construct the experience of a Roman woman, a Roman child or a Roman slave. Their understanding of being Roman was different from that of the local magistrate, but it was not necessarily less Roman' (189).

The final chapter 'Being Roman' (191-193) brings together the conclusions from each of the preceding chapters in order to stress the multiplicity of meanings for 'Roman-ness' prevalent within the provinces of the empire. Revell concludes that a common understanding of what it meant to be Roman was reproduced by overarching structures such as urbanism, religious ritual, political activities and the authority of the emperor, but that there was a certain amount of give within this discourse. This 'elasticity' provides the means by which varied experiences and localised understandings of Roman-ness came into being, leading to a 'paradox of similarity and diversity, both within individual communities and throughout the empire as a whole' (191). Public spaces provided both the medium through which this was expressed and brought about this multiplicity of understandings by providing the setting for localised experiences. Imperialism was thus a dialectic, even if it always remained unequal. Consequently, the approach advocated here enables us to move away from traditional interpretations of Romanisation as the elite-driven promotion of a bounded cultural identity, towards a more nuanced understanding of Roman-ness as something that was experienced in subtly different ways by people across the empire who considered themselves to be 'Roman'.

This is a refreshing book that moves away from traditional 'art historical' approaches to the public spaces of the Roman world to take a theoretically informed look at the multiplicity of meanings that they might have held for the people who experienced them. The methodology advocated by Revell for exploring the mechanisms of imperialism, power and identity should be praised and offers much potential for future explorations of space and place in the Roman world. In particular, the way in which the variability present in the archaeological record is handled highlights the fact that ancient identities and power relations were constructed on a number of complex levels, and that the sharp distinction between 'native' and 'Roman' is no longer particularly relevant. The book is not entirely without limitations.2 The focus on power relations, political activities and the structures associated with them means that the non-elite are sometimes relegated to a more passive position than that of the political elite. For example, despite noting on several occasions the need to consider how the non-elite constructed their own sense of identity in response to public spaces, the identities attributed to them are often framed only in opposition to those of the elite. The impression given is that whilst the elite used their experiences of the forum, basilica or temple to construct, negotiate and affirm their social identities, the non-elite defined themselves simply by the fact that they did not have these same experiences. They thus defined themselves by what they were not, rather than what they were. This can, in large part, be explained by the emphasis placed here on public spaces and public activities, as well as authority and power, which focuses on the 'Roman' elements of identity, not on other experiences that gave people a sense of who they were. It is a shame that Revell does not point towards the fact that other spaces within the town may have acted in a similar manner for different members of the community. Experiences of the domestic, economic or funerary sphere for example, presumably acted in a similar manner. This is, however, one way in which the ideas and methodology presented here offer a new perspective that might lead to more nuanced interpretations of space in the Roman world.

Furthermore, the book contains few competing identities, little dissonance or opposition to the ideologies in which people engaged, nor is there a sense of the extent to which the non-elite actively engaged in incorporating experiences of these into their sense of identity. For example, portraits of the emperor may indeed have served to assert his authority, but to what extent did the inhabitants of a town actively engage with these images? For how long did they hold meaning? The forum was filled with imperial iconography, but does that mean that people were constantly incorporating them into their sense of identity, or did they eventually become another feature of the urban landscape that went almost unnoticed on a daily basis? Did the non-elite really choose to 'contemplate' an image of the emperor whilst going about their daily business? These, however, are perhaps questions that do not fall within the remit of this study and in fact highlight the value of the book for provoking new questions about the potential of exploring lived experiences of Roman towns.


1.   Giddens, A. (1984). The Constitution of Society. Outline of the theory of structuration. Cambridge, Polity.
2.   There are a number of missing words and errors throughout the text, although these do not detract from the quality of the argument:

p.14 '... were an integral part [of] these daily activities...'
p.112 '...religion [at] Rome ...'
p.117 '... little work on the reconstructing [of] ritual practice ..'
p.122 '... been used [for] libations ...'
p.126 '... [h]as it written out ...'
p.134 '...out [of] the nine ...'
p.136 '... the banque[s]t was ...'
p.138 '(See Fig. 4.6)'
p.150 '...duality was that [it] made possible ...'
p.184 ' ... local communities also formed of the expression of ...'
p.192 '... community in [a] wider sense could participate ...'
p.202 Gardner J, 2003 is listed twice in the bibliography.

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