Sunday, January 31, 2016


Andrew Gardner, Edward Herring, Kathryn Lomas (ed.), Creating Ethnicities and Identities in the Roman World. BICS supplement, 120. London: Institute of Classical Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London, 2013. Pp. xiii, 278. ISBN 9781905670468. £38.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Nathanael Andrade, University of Oregon (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Creating Ethnicities is a book worth reading. Its core consists of revised papers delivered at the 7th Roman Archaeology Conference held at University College London and Birkbeck College in early 2007. But the volume's editors have supplemented these to expand the book's range (vii). Their brief introduction (1– 10) outlines its main goals. One is to explore how ethnicities and identities in the Roman world were shaped through social interactions. Much recent scholarship has explored how people in antiquity identified themselves. But the editors are sensitive to how they often crafted perceptions of ethnicity or identities through dialogues with outsiders and sometimes even adopted the categories of others. Another goal is to situate these topics within a broader Roman context of interaction, whereas many studies have focused on regional cases. While specifying such aims, the editors also explore the analytical challenges raised by the topics of ethnicity, identity, and "Romanization."

Creating Ethnicities is divided into two parts. The first, consisting of four chapters, examines the formation of cultural identities in Italy, principally during the period of increased Roman domination (3rd–1st centuries BCE). Elena Isayev (11–34) focuses on the south Italian region of Hirpinia. She probes the dialogues or tensions that arose between local elites that were linked to Rome and those that were not (especially during the 2nd century). After treating the archaeology and histories of notable sites, she observes that the alignments of elites in the Social War (91–88), especially those of the Magii, were determined largely by whether they maintained social connections with Romans and by the local tensions that such relationships inspired. Ethnic or cultural solidarities were not very significant factors.

Ralph Haüssler (35–70) examines western Cisalpine Gaul and its identity formations after c. 500 BCE. He first critiques the Greek and Roman sources that identified its populations as Celts/Gauls or Ligurians. He then discusses how the region's inhabitants expressed dynamic local identities through eclectic cultural forms—including the La Tène culture that scholars sometimes associate uncritically with "Celts" or Celtic identities—in the 4th–1st centuries. In fact, increased Roman encroachment often intensified local identity expressions in this period. The material sources that Haüssler brings to bear include ceramics, funerary objects, coin distributions, and inscriptions.

Kathryn Lomas (71–92) treats the relationship between language and identity in south Italian Puglia (principally after c. 500 BCE), with a key focus on the types of inscriptions featuring the "Messapic" language. She postulates that in response to Roman intervention, 3rd-century elites increasingly expressed state and regional ethnic identities by cultivating new epigraphic practices that often involved Messapic. They did so even while using Greek for their coin legends and in some cases adopting Latin, which appears to have displaced Messapic by the 1st century. Despite such trends, Lomas also stresses that for much of Puglia's history, the cultivation of Messapic, Greek, or Latin probably did not signify ethnic affiliations but other forms of social identity, like elite status or involvement in a cultural koine (Greek or Roman).

Roman Roth (93–111) delves into economy, commerce, and regional connectivity in Italy during the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE. Focusing principally on Campania and Etruria, he enlists material finds, especially the circulation of ceramics, to paint a picture of increased economic integration, connectivity, and the "linking" of various local and regional networks. Italians from central and south Italy even participated extensively in eastern Mediterranean trade. As Roth argues, these trends may have been facilitated by Rome's expansion into Italy but should not be ascribed to specific historical events from literary sources. The increase in networking was nonetheless an important factor in the consolidation of regional identities among Italians.

The second part of Creating Identities treats cases from non-Italian Mediterranean societies. Most examples come from a Roman context, but Carthage and Nubian Ethiopia are discussed as well. Andrew Erskine (113-30) treats mid-Republican Rome's encounter with the Carthaginians and other western Mediterranean Phoenicians that scholars have traditionally labeled "Punic." He explores how "Punic" culture—including language, agricultural treatises, and food— circulated in Rome and its territories. He thus places Republican Rome in a Mediterranean context of cultural exchange beyond its well-trodden encounter with Greece and Hellenism.

In her contribution, Amanda Kelly (131–68) explores bathhouses and bathing on Roman Crete. While describing the archaeological evidence for public and private bathing facilities, she also links them to the activity of local elites who emulated Roman displays of liberalitas. These financed or managed baths and commemorated other benefactions of theirs in baths' decorations. Kelly also argues for the widespread cultivation of Roman bathing culture not only by elite males but by people of varied social status.

Matthew Peacock's chapter (169–93) explores the cultural life of Petra after the Romans annexed Nabataean Arabia in 106 CE, a generally neglected period. He highlights the construction and maintenance of buildings and urban spaces that typified cities of the Roman empire, along with shifts in language, coinage, and army occupation. But he also stresses the cultural continuities that persisted at the city after its integration into Roman Arabia.

Focusing on temples and sanctuaries in the countryside of Roman Lebanon, Kevin Butcher (195–211) challenges the widespread view that their Greco-Roman monumental forms were merely cosmetic but that their interiors, couched in Near Eastern traditions, defined the identities of worshippers. After all, cultural styles do not always correlate to analogous identities. The article thus explores how temples and sanctuaries were often built, embellished, renovated, or refined through the accretive donations of many different patrons. Local influences and contemporary social demands, not decisions to retain or disavow unchanging traditions, thus determined the cultural features that patrons gave them over time.

In her article, Jane Rowlandson (213–47) thoroughly analyzes what the terms "Greek" and "Egyptian" signified in Roman Egypt. A main point is that Greeks and Egyptians, who were often one and same, principally used these terms to refer to legal, national, and class or occupational status. They usually did not denote ethnicity, and derogatory views about Egyptians in papyri or inscriptions marked class distinctions, not ethnic ones. While metropolitai and gymnasials could assume Greek identities, this is not always explicit. They certainly did not disassociate themselves from Egyptian identities.

Finally, the contribution of Rachael Dann (249-66) probes the so-called "X-group" of Lower Nubia and the history of archaeological work and scholarship devoted to it. She shows how perceptions of race affected how the material assemblage of the "X-group" was understood throughout the 20th century. She also raises the possibility that the Nobadae or Blemmyae, peoples that classical sources describe as raiding Roman territory, formed at least part of the "X-group." Texts found at the remarkable site of Qasr Ibrim and other locations verify that people in lower Nubia identified themselves by such labels.

Creating Ethnicities has much to recommend it, and it deserves a broad academic readership. One strength is its regional and temporal variation. The volume understandably cannot be comprehensive, but four chapters focus on Roman Italy, and six treat Roman provincial societies or external peoples. The Republican and imperial periods each receive five articles. The contributors generally stress that ethnicity and identity are constructs forged through social activity and expressed through cultural markers, a premise now established in academe. But some articles take the extra step of questioning the widespread view that common language and culture must correlate to shared ethnicity or identity. Moreover, the editors and contributors were thinking productively about the oft-debated term "Romanization." The contributors who invoked it usually defined their usage in ways that captured the nuances and complexities of provincial cultures. All the articles seem to me to make valuable contributions to their regional fields. As someone who researches the easternmost regions of the Roman empire, I was impressed by the scholarship on the Near East, Egypt, and Nubia.

I was however perplexed by how the editors or contributors in certain places critique the various terminological alternatives to "Romanization" that scholars have suggested in recent decades. Let us take "hybridity" and "creolization" as examples. In the introductory chapter, the editors define them as processes in which "Roman and non-Roman culture merge together to form new and hybrid cultural forms" (5). They then dismiss these terms by stressing how disparities of power enabled Roman culture to be dominant over indigenous ones. As they state, "One of the major problems of the creolization or hybridization model is that it does not take into account this imbalance of power to a sufficient degree" (5). Similarly, in her article, Kelly defends the term Romanization on the grounds that alternative labels, including creolization, do not sufficiently capture how contact with the Roman empire was a common factor in the formation of diverse provincial societies (131).

I am not arguing here that Roman provincial cultures should be understood through the lenses of hybridity or creolization. One can offer valid reasons to conceive of them in other ways. But I was not entirely convinced by the critiques as specifically aired. First, these concepts are not necessarily incongruous with the premise that common engagement with Roman imperialism shaped provincial cultures, in all their diversity. Second, immense imbalances in power have arguably inspired their formulation. For this reason, the concepts have often been invoked by scholars of British imperial south Asia (especially in post-colonial treatments) or of the multicultural contexts of the Atlantic and Caribbean that were profoundly affected by African slavery.1 For many such scholars, the concepts do not refer merely to processes of cultural mixing. They also capture how such processes could challenge premises of cultural purity or authenticity through which political elites oftentimes claimed social superiority. But more to the point, the social and cultural contexts that these scholars study were in fact defined by vast power disparities that had substantial impact on culture. They therefore usually have such issues in mind. As Stuart Hall emphasizes, "Creolization always entails inequality, hierarchization, issues of domination and subalterneity, mastery and servitude, control and resistance. Questions of power, as well as entanglement are always at stake" (his italics).2 Whatever problems hybridity or creolization may pose, they do not by necessity entail an insensitivity to the impact of a common engagement with Roman imperialism, the disparities of power that it involved, or the dominance of "Roman" or "Greek" cultural practices (however defined) over others.3 I was therefore not entirely persuaded by the critiques offered in the volume.

Overall, Creating Ethnicities has many merits. By encouraging readers to contemplate ethnic and identity formations in a variety of regional contexts, it fulfills its intended purpose. Undoubtedly Roman archaeologists and historians will gravitate toward the articles most pertinent to their specific areas of study. But given its range and relevance for the topics of ethnicity and identity, the entire book is worth reading.

Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgements vii
List of Contributors ix
Abbreviations xi
1. Introduction, Kathryn Lomas, Andrew Gardner, and Edward Herring 1
Cultural Identities in Italy
2. Italian Perspectives from Hirpinia in the Period of Gracchan Land Reforms and the Social War, Elena Isayev 11
3. De-constructing Ethnic Identities: Becoming Roman in Western Cisalpine Gaul? Ralph Häussler 35
4. Language and Identity in Ancient Italy: Responses to Roman Conquest, Kathryn Lomas 71
5. Trading Identities? Regionalism and Commerce in Mid-Republican Italy (third-early second century BC), Roman Roth 93
Cultural Identities in the Provinces
6. Encountering Carthage: Mid-Republican Rome and Mediterranean Culture, Andrew Erskine 113
7. Roman Bathhouses on Crete as Indicators of Cultural Transition: the Dynamics of Roman Influence, Amanda Kelly 131
8. The "Romanization" of Petra, Matthew Peacock 169
9. Continuity and Change in Lebanese Temples, Kevin Butcher 195
10. Dissing the Egyptians: Legal, Ethnic, and Cultural Identities in Roman Egypt, Jane Rowlandson 213
11. Becoming X-Group: Ethnicity in North-East Africa, Rachael J. Dann 249
Index 267


1.   The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994), esp. 112–20 and Stuart Hall, "Créolité and the Process of Creolization," in O. Enwezor et al., Créolité and Creolization (Kassel: Hatje Cantz, 2004), 27–41 have been influential. These appear in various reprints. Michael Dietler, Archaeologies of Colonialism: Consumption, Entanglement, and Violence in Ancient Mediterranean France(Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 50–53 provides concise discussion.
2.   Hall, "Créolité," (as in n. 1) 31. Dietler, Archaeologies of Colonialism(as in n. 1) 50–53 also emphasizes asymmetries of power.
3.   For "creolization" in the Roman empire, Jane Webster, "Art as Resistance and Negotiation," in Sarah Scott and Jane Webster, Roman Imperialism and Provincial Art(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) 24–51 (esp. 40–42) and "Creolizing the Roman Provinces," AJA 105.2 (2001): 209–25 (esp. 217–19); Michael Sommer, Roms orientalische Steppengrenze: Palmyra, Edessa, Dura-Europos, Hatra: eine Kulturgeschichte von Pompeius bis Diocletian (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2005), esp. 25–28 and 98–109.

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