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Romanization in the Time of Augustus

Romanization in the Time of Augustus

by Ramsay MacMullen

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During the lifetime of Augustus (from 63 b.c. to a.d. 14), Roman civilization spread at a remarkable rate throughout the ancient world, influencing such areas as art and architecture, religion, law, local speech, city design, clothing, and leisure and family activities. In his newest book, Ramsay MacMullen investigates why the adoption of Roman ways was so prevalent


During the lifetime of Augustus (from 63 b.c. to a.d. 14), Roman civilization spread at a remarkable rate throughout the ancient world, influencing such areas as art and architecture, religion, law, local speech, city design, clothing, and leisure and family activities. In his newest book, Ramsay MacMullen investigates why the adoption of Roman ways was so prevalent during this period.

Drawing largely on archaeological sources, MacMullen discovers that during this period more than half a million Roman veterans were resettled in colonies overseas, and an additional hundred or more urban centers in the provinces took on normal Italian-Roman town constitutions. Great sums of expendable wealth came into the hands of ambitious Roman and local notables, some of which was spent in establishing and advertising Roman ways. MacMullen argues that acculturation of the ancient world was due not to cultural imperialism on the part of the conquerors but to eagerness of imitation among the conquered, and that the Romans were able to respond with surprisingly effective techniques of mass production and standardization.

About the Author:
Ramsay MacMullen, Dunham Professor Emeritus of Classics and History at Yale University, is ceo of PastTimes Press. He is also the author of Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries, Corruption and the Decline of Rome, Paganism in the Roman Empire, and Roman Social Relations, all published by Yale University Press.

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Romanization in the Time of Augustus

By Ramsay MacMullen

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2000 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-08254-1

Chapter One

In the East

1. The immigrants settle in

Here in the east, as people saw their homeland pass into the Romans' power, they must have wondered just how life would change-now that the fighting was over and done with. There might or might not be new taxes to pay; and there would be loss of control over relations with other states. These consequences could be predicted from Rome's behavior in the past. But would there be much else?

Rome's leaders and spokesmen appeared to be civilized people, that is, like Greeks themselves. Surely, then, they brought with them no policy of cultural imperialism. Their personal servants were Greeks, that is, slaves. Besides masters and slaves in the conquering force there was of course the immense mass of soldiery, not to be counted on; but they might be capable of respecting what deserved their respect. Finally, on their heels or even in advance of them came civilians seeking profit. These moved or lodged where they pleased, while fitting in not too badly: and they too spoke Greek not only to do business but for the very good reason also that, as often as not, they too were Greeks in some sense-from southern Italy or Sicily, or freed slaves descended from once-Greek families.

You might almost suppose that Romans were only another folk among Alexander's boundless conquests, thoroughly digested into his legacy by the point in time with which the present study is concerned. For confirmation, a visit to their homeland in Italy and Sicily would have opened to view a degree of approximation between these, and the east, truly remarkable, in certain parts and strata. What had been for long called Greater Greece had received its settlers from Miletus and a dozen other cities centuries earlier; they had occupied the most promising southern coastal points from Syracuse and Palermo up to the Bay of Naples with a success that insulated them against much change, even after incorporation into the Roman state; while in that Roman state's very capital a majority of the population were of Greek descent, by the hundreds of thousands, through importation and manumission of enslaved captives. Why fear the imposition of barbarism, then, when Aeneas' descendants began and steadily extended their subjugation of the Hellenistic world?

That unapologetic conqueror of Alexander's homeland, L. Aemilius Paullus, when he had a chance as governor later to share his own civilization with the population in Spain, chose instead to offer Greek gifts, works of statuary, out of a superabundance of prior pillage. The date lay close to the mid-second century B.C., at a time when the Hellenizing of the Roman elite was still in its early phases. In the next century in what had been Gallic territory to the north, as the population of the Po valley was absorbed into the Roman state, some of the changes introduced into the way of life there can only be called Hellenistic. Items of fine pottery or sculpture manufactured there for export to regions further west might copy Hellenistic models. Roman admiration for such and similar models expressed itself through both import and imitation. By Augustus' day the resulting ascendance of the conquered Greeks over their conquerors in all but the public spheres of life was complete. Chefs, secretaries, interior decorators, physicians, were all from the east; likewise the most stylish of material comforts and artifacts. What leaders in taste and opinion were agreed on in calling civilization itself, humanitas, was to be sought among Greeks. "Even as we govern over that race of men in which civilization is to be found," Cicero remarked to his brother Quintus (in the days of Augustus' childhood, it so happened), "we should certainly offer to them what we have received from them ... for we appear to owe them a special debt." He goes on to remind Quintus that he had been raised in that humanitas from his very childhood.

In such a society with such an upbringing, it is no wonder that Augustus shared the consensus and eventually expressed it from his position of gigantic influence. He shared it in such little things as the quoting of Greek proverbs and literary tags, or in such big things as the celebration of a New Age in 17 B.C. by hymns in both languages. That jewel of his reign, the Altar of Peace, was given a double staircase ascending it like the Twelve-Gods' altar in Athens; its reliefs were carved in the Athenian style; and the women of the imperial house therein portrayed had their hair done up in fashions most exquisitely derived from that of Hellenistic queens.

To return, then, to my point of departure, asking what demeanor one might expect from Romans who appeared in one's streets in some eastern city: clearly no aggression should be looked for on the cultural level. The intruders would defer to local custom, they would be already converts to it, even if they were present, of course, principally as predators.

Their future intentions as well as the plain fact of their armed intrusions in the past must make their reception nevertheless somewhat chilly. For an advocate's reasons, Cicero might even claim that the average man in the agora (not of course the decent upperclass) "would freely seize the opportunity of inflicting some wound" on aliens among them "whose symbolic axes of authority are hated, whose name is bitter, and whose pasture-, land-, and import taxes are death." Those western aliens are indeed found clustering, or it may better be thought of as huddling together, in neighborhoods and associations, whenever they were numerous enough to leave some mark on the historical record. The name they take in Greek is "The Local Roman Businessmen," sometimes merely "Resident Romans," the eastern equivalent of what in western provinces would be called conventus of Roman citizens. Mention of them begins in the early second century and runs down almost to the end of the period of interest to me, when "in the agora [of Gangra] the oath taken by the inhabitants of Paphlagonia and Roman businessmen" bound them publicly to the emperor and his descendants. Scores of such associations are attested; they are spread over the Balkan peninsula, Aegean Islands, and Asia Minor, especially the coastal parts; even Syria, at Petra. In Augustus' day they could be found in every city of any importance. No doubt the largest was Delos', terribly punished by Mithridates in 88, its survival barely detectible for a generation thereafter before its total disappearance. Another large one was in Pergamum. As the Augustan principate developed and Roman power advanced into Asia Minor, so too did the presence of immigrant citizens, to Phrygia or Caria.

To determine what influence these groups might exert if they chose, the more clearly to bring out how little was exerted in the service of cultural changes, perhaps the degree of their corporate organization should be considered first. At Delos in the second and earlier first century they formed several large associations of a sort quite common both in the east and Italy, defined by common occupation; these in turn elected presidents, magistri, and an agreed-on patron deity, Hermes = Mercury, Apollo, Poseidon. We may suppose they consisted of retailers, bankers, and shippers. Roman citizens in Narona in 48 B.C. elected their magistri and quaestors. With no sign of having formally titled leaders, associations here or anywhere raised money under duress, or did so freely as groups of good citizens for public projects; they expressed their thanks or offered their respects as groups to this or that political figure; were granted permission by Augustus to build a shrine to Roma and the deified Caesar; or they wangled corporate tax exemptions; from all of which, it seems fair to suppose that they could generally unite behind a common concern if they wanted to.

In three small centers in Dalmatia in time of civil war the resident Romans appear to be in charge of the city itself. The exception tests the rule: they were influential not because of any constitutional position but because of the unusual circumstances, in which Roman citizens were expected to take an active part, to contribute, even to sign into the armies. Their fellow residents without Italian connections looked to them to do the talking. Far more than by weight of numbers or formal organization, influence could always be brought to bear through personal ties to a governor, best, or to some past or present official or millionaire. Cicero is our witness to this in the 60s, 50s, and 40s B.C.

The form of government prevailing in cities throughout the east remained very much as Roman conquest had found it, oligarchic. Roman senators controlling foreign affairs wanted to find their like in charge of the local scene, suitably conservative and deferential; but the natural drift of things even before conquest had long lain in that oligarchic direction anyway. A great conqueror like Pompey acting almost on a clean slate and as a good Roman in what had been Mithridates' kingdom, now to form the provinces of Pontus and Bithynia, organized the region along lines that looked pretty much like those to be found elsewhere in pre-Roman Anatolia. He raised several small rural centers to the official status of cities in the Hellenistic sense, which was also the Italian; and he invested these, and an additional handful of existing cities like Sinope, not only with authority over, but income deriving from, a farming territory around each. Like a Hellenistic monarch he renamed half of those he promoted after himself: Magnopolis and so forth; he created from nothing a Victory City, Nicopolis in Armenia. Only the introduction of a censor to enroll the senators in these new centers, and life-membership for the chosen, had a Roman character. In this region as in others needing no reorganization, thenceforward, there would be popular assemblies little listened to, and a council really in control, overseeing a small number of annual officials.

To these latter positions, even in cities where Roman associations were also active, inscriptions show a not inconsiderable number of Roman aspirants winning election. They are seen to act like the minority they were, accepting the majority structure of politics around them and seeking reward in ordinary terms: through public offices, priesthoods, pious acts to local deities, membership on civic boards, or the presidency of the gymnasium or festival games. They made big cash contributions to their communities. The aqueduct-section across the Marnas valley built for Ephesus in Augustus' reign by one P. Sextilius Pollio in his own name and that of his wife and children still stands today as a testimony to the civic ambitions of a family from Italy. They were 'playing the game,' one may say, by the local rules.

Further epigraphic evidence shows the children of such families beginning the ascent to office through participation in athletic competitions, in the age-old Hellenic tradition. They joined the upperclass Youth Associations and went on to further studies in Athens. A certain Mussius at Miletus is honored in a public decree for "his talent in rhetoric, poetry, and the arts generally," needless to say not Latin. And resident Romans married local women, they bought land and set up as farmers. In sum, wherever they are found in the east, save in their own colonies, they seem determined to fit in, even to deny their ancestral culture if not the advantages of their Roman citizenship and connections.

It might be thought important to define more closely who "they" were: not all descendants of Aeneas, but many of them, as was indicated above, descendants rather of Greeks in the first place. The evidence on which to decide the proportions of the immigrant mix consists almost entirely of names in inscriptions. Here, distinguishing between a person of thoroughly Italian origin and Roman citizenship, and another whose own father or father's father had been born in Syria, reduced to servitude, and sent back east as agent for the interests of the family or of some tax-collecting company, may be impossible. Perhaps the latter, freedman category in "Roman" communities even made up the majority. Add, the people of eastern origin who earned Roman citizenship and so took a Roman name-they too are indistinguishable. But what counts for my purpose is the fact that, regardless of their origin or civic status, the immigrants' behavior was the same. The superiority they asserted had nothing to do with the general style of life they found around them. That, they seem all to have accepted as the best imaginable. What they rather reserved to themselves was the pride of power, enjoyed either directly or indirectly.

For their part, Greeks seemed to invite more change than was attempted. Their readiness to fawn and flatter was often remarked on contemptuously by the rulers of the world. They liked to pass honorific decrees, a number of which Cicero mentions, while more still survive on stone; or they put up statues-of one of Antony's legates, most likely when he was a governor in the early thirties, or of Agrippa in Sparta, commissioned by a civic leader. They organized festival games in compliment to a proconsul, renamed a voting unit of the citizen population after some great man, instituted a cult group-all this before and during Augustus' lifetime and ultimately centering on him. Latin names thus appeared increasingly in the public record and might be called a form of Romanization; yet the customs, social or political, which accounted for their appearance were entirely Hellenistic.

Certain little habits died hard. In Delos the Italian originals imported quantities of wine from Apulia and pottery from Etruria and Campania; in another generation or two the residents of Corinth, mostly Roman colonists, imported Italian lamps for their parties, along with the drinking vessels named for their north Italian manufacturer, "ACO" cups, and elegant relief-decorated ceramic ware from Arretium, some by that late-Augustan potter with a splendid name, Publius Cornelius. In Pergamum there was even some local imitation of Italian ceramics, presumably for the resident Italian or Roman population.

Naturally, too, when civil war commanders in the east needed cash to pay their troops, their troops insisted on something with a familiar look; so mint-men at campaign headquarters, wherever that might be, issued Roman silver pennies, denarii, even in the midst of a sea of eastern city- and royal issues. The experiments were at first only that. They helped to familiarize eastern markets with Roman units of reckoning in silver, and encouraged cities to respond with their own experiments in equivalences. It is natural to suppose that, as money was raised for war or as taxes, it should be payable in Roman terms, for example, in Illyria in the 30s or in Galatia in the 20s. An inscription of 27 B.C.


Excerpted from Romanization in the Time of Augustus by Ramsay MacMullen Copyright © 2000 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Ramsay MacMullen, Dunham Professor Emeritus of Classics and History at Yale University, is CEO of PastTimes Press and the recipient of a lifetime Award for Scholarly Distinction from the American Historical Association. He is also the author of Voting About God in Early Church Councils, Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries, Corruption and the Decline of Rome, Paganism in the Roman Empire, and Roman Social Relations, all published by Yale University Press.

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