Tuesday, November 28, 2017


Andrew C. Johnston, The Sons of Remus: Identity in Roman Gaul and Spain. Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2017. Pp. 420. ISBN 9780674660106. $49.95.

Reviewed by Myles Lavan, University of St Andrews (mpl2@st-andrews.ac.uk)

Version at BMCR home site


This is an important study of the Roman empire in the west based on an impressive synthesis of epigraphic and literary material. The allusive title (The Sons of Remus, a nod to a foundation myth of the Remi) and generic subtitle (Identity in Roman Spain and Gaul) perhaps risk obscuring the two clear and important theses at its heart. This book is a powerful argument for the primacy of local identity in the Roman West (challenging the implications of the now ubiquitous language of 'becoming Roman') and for the importance of the pre-Roman past in the social memory of provincial communities (rebutting conventional accounts of a 'forgetful' West).

The argument is developed through a series of scintillating close readings of an extraordinarily rich array of epigraphic and literary texts. The close readings are grouped into five thematic chapters, framed by a brief Introduction and even briefer Conclusion.

Chapter 1 ('Selves') explores the communities that provincials of the Roman west represented themselves as belonging to. The extensive discussion covers a series of topics including the sub-divisions of civitates and municipia, practices for marking boundaries, local calendars and eras, and eponymous divinities. The central argument is that the identities that were most important for provincials were largely independent of Roman influence, because they were often grounded in collective memory of the pre-Roman past and often articulated at a local level that was 'beyond the practical and discursive reach of the Roman imperial apparatus' (p. 65).

Chapter 2 ('Others') analyses the evidence for interactions between provincial communities, both collaborative and antagonistic. Two larger points emerge. First, interaction often followed pre-Roman patterns, either in form (e.g. the use of hospitium agreements in Spain) or geographic extent (informal groupings sometimes reflect pre-Roman ethnic divisions, e.g. a collaboration between a sub-set of the civitates of Lusitania that shared an origin in the former ethnos of the Lusitani). Second, local identities were constructed in opposition to neighbouring communities, creating the potential for vicious conflict in moments of crisis.

Chapter 3 ('Local pasts') is a broadside against 'the long-standing assumption that the inhabitants of the western provinces were uninterested in their pasts' (p. 188). It develops two related arguments: that local communities constituted distinct 'memory communities' whose sense of self was rooted in memory of a shared past and that those local memories often extended into the pre-Roman past. The wide-ranging discussion gleans ethnographic literature for evidence of possible local foundation myths (an exercise necessarily involving some bold imaginative moves), highlights the richness of local memoryscapes (encompassing distinctive urbanisms, non-Latin monumental writing and cult sites in the landscape), gathers evidence of monuments memorialising local heroes and collates genealogies that reached back to the pre-Roman past.

Chapter 4 ('Roman Pasts') explores the role of the Roman past in local memory. The discussion traverses claims to Trojan ancestry by the Aedui and Arverni, stories that Saguntum (Arse) was founded from Italian Ardea, various local deployments of the iconography of Aeneas and Romulus, a mosaic from Albuterium that represents the final scene of the Aeneid (and may be attuned to Vergils' 'further voices'), local resonances of the Lupercalia, and the invention of connections to prominent figures in Republican history. Throughout, the emphasis falls both on the idiosyncrasies of provincial constructions of the Roman past ('localized, unconventional and non-canonical') and on their embeddedness in local politics and the construction of local indentity.

Chapter 5 ('Performances of Identity') foregrounds the question of agency, seeking to correct what it identifies as a widespread assumption that provincials played a passive role in the construction of their identity and culture. The rich and suggestive discussion ranges over the persistence of pre-Roman political offices, druidism ('primarily performative' in the imperial period, an example of provincials appropriating imperial stereotypes), the local identities constructed by Martial and Ausonius, and distinctively Gaulish elements in the funerary arrangements in the testamentum Lingonis. The chapter's target is something of a straw man, since an important strand of work in the 'Romanization' tradition has for several decades been stressing the importance of local agency in the transformation of provincial cultures, but this does not make the material and readings any less interesting.

This provocative and important contribution to the literature on identity in the western provinces is the fruit of extensive and profound research. Johnston demonstrates a very impressive command of the vast epigraphic record of the Gauls and Iberia, including much recent material, while showing himself equally at home developing insightful readings of sophisticated 'literary' writers such as Martial, Pompeius Trogus and even Pseudo-Plutarch. He also shows considerable dexterity with the archaeological literature where it is relevant to his argument, though texts remains very much the focus of attention.

It is perhaps a pity, given the book's significance, that Johnston did not take more time to situate it in relation to other scholarship on provincial society and culture. The very brief 8-page Introduction provides only a cursory frame for the argument. Johnston's main interlocutor is Greg Woolf, or rather two relatively early articles by Woolf that argued that provincials in the West – unlike the East – were 'forgetful' of the pre-Roman past.1 Johnston spends far less time contextualising his thesis about the primacy of local identity, though this is, if anything, even more important than the argument about memories of the pre-Roman past. He does align his book with David Mattingly's work on 'discrepant experience' in the provinces.2 But he does not discuss how it relates to other influential studies of the provincial experience, such as Greg Woolf's larger argument that what we call 'becoming Roman' 'did not involve becoming more alike the other inhabitants of the empire, so much as participating in a cultural system structured by systematic differences' or Clifford Ando's argument that the communicative action of the Roman state induced provincials to conceive of themselves as subjects of an imperial polity.3 Although Johnston represents his work as a reaction against recent scholarship, it seems to me more useful to think of it as a complement to, rather than rebuttal of, Woolf's analysis of social stratification and Ando's analysis of new forms of subjectivity that worked to legitimate imperial rule.

The compatibility of these different arguments become clearer if Johnston's argument is brought into dialogue with recent work on empire as a particular mode of organising large states. 'The creation of lasting unity out of an ever vibrant diversity' is not really 'a singular and in many respects enigmatic phenomenon', as Johnston's concluding remarks suggest (p. 282). The two most important influences on his conception of what constutes a community are the anthropologist James Brow's discussion of community, 'communalization' and social memory and Benedict Anderson's observation that a sense of 'deep horizontal comradeship' is one of the constitutive features of a nation.4 The idea of horizontal solidarity certainly helps to illuminate the political culture of the small city-states that constituted the empire and are the main focus of Johnston's book. But it is less helpful in understanding what it meant to be a citizen of one of those city states and a subject of the emperor. Empires are organised and conceived very differently than nation states. Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper, in their world history of empire, have usefully formulated a fundamental distinction between nation states and empire: 'Empires are large political units ... that maintain distinction and hierarchy as they incorporate new people. The nation-state, in contrast, is based on the idea of a single people in a single territory constituting itself as a unique political community. The nation-state proclaims the commonality of its people—even if the reality is more complicated—while the empire-state declares the non-equivalence of multiple populations'.5 Johnston repeatedly argues that, far from 'becoming Roman, provincials remained 'local', and implies that that they did so despite incorporation into the empire. But this obscures the fact that, like other imperial structures, the Roman empire actively recognised and cemented ethnic and other forms of difference by, for example, organising the population of the empire into more than two-thousand largely-self governing communities and developing the administrative category of origo which ensured that all persons were clearly affiliated to one of these constituent communities. The 'robust' local identities so well illustrated by Johnston might more usefully be seen as the result of a collaboration between local agency and imperial structures rather than a failure of the latter.

I should also observe that the book sidelines any question of chronological developments. The only time horizon that matters for its argument is that between the Roman period and the pre-Roman past. The discussion regularly flits back and forth between the first century BCE and the fourth CE, as if nothing had changed in the interim. This is obviously the result of a decision to focus on continuity rather than change, a decision that makes sense given the book's central objectives. But it means foregoing the opportunity to explore how the relationship between local communities and imperial structures may have evolved over the course of five centuries of Roman rule in the West.

These are relatively minor reservations about how Johnston has represented the significance of his argument. They should not be allowed to detract from the importance of this book and its clear, powerfully argued and richly documented case for the diversity of local communities in the West and their primacy as foci of belonging for their inhabitants.


1.   G. Woolf (1996), 'The uses of forgetfulness in Roman Gaul', in H.-J. Gehrke and A. Möller, eds., Vergangenheit und Lebenswelt. Soziale Kommunikation, Traditionsbildung und historisches Bewußtein, Tübingen; Woolf, G. (1997), 'Beyond Romans and natives', World Archaeology 28: 339-50.
2.   Most recently D. J. Mattingly (2014), 'Identities in the Roman world: discrepancy, heterogeneity, hybridity, and plurality', in L. R. Brody and G. L. Hoffman, eds., Roman in the Provinces: Art on the Periphery of Empire, Chestnut Hill, MA, 35-59.
3.   G. Woolf (1998), Becoming Roman: The Origins of Provincial Civilization in Gaul, Cambridge (quote from p. 242), mentioned briefly at p. 366 n. 69. C. Ando (2000), Imperial ideology and provincial loyalty in the Roman empire, Berkeley, cited once at p 342 n. 142.
4.   J. Brow (1990), 'Notes on community, hegemony, and the uses of the past', Anthropological Quarterly 63.1: 1-6. B. Anderson (2006), Imagined Communities: Reflections of the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, 2nd ed., London; New York.
5.   J. Burbank and F. Cooper (2010), Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference, Princeton (quote from p. 8).

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