• by Herodotus on January 03, 2011 | Read 20178 times

Language and Identity in the Roman Empire

The most detailed records we have of ancient Europeans come to us from early Greek historians who describe the various tribes and peoples that lived at the periphery of their known world. A common thread that runs though these narratives is a a distinct sense of otherness, for the peoples being described that were not of Hellenic or greek stock. These “Barbarians”, a term coined by the later Romans because of the beards they wore, were bereft of any value and systematic forms of civilizations that existed in the Greek world. They were alien to them, useful perhaps as slaves or hired mercenaries, but not a part of the “polis”,  the citizen city state that differentiated the perceived noble races form those who still maintained the attributes of the archaic and uncivilized past.

The Romans thoroughly adopted this belief system, and used it as a moral objective to justify their conquest of first the Latin tribes. In the 2nd century BCE , when they quickly expanded from the Italian peninsula , they encountered those same Indo-European peoples as the Greeks had a few centuries earlier. The concept of Roman versus Barbarian become adopted in the social consciousness of every a citizen of the emerging  Roman Empire. It was done for political reasons, but also because it had been formulated as a strategic survival myth of origin their earliest tribal history when the Romans were just a confederacy of hill tribes fighting for survival among the various established cultures of Italy. These native inhabitants of the Italian peninsula were part of the earliest migrations to italy, and were predominately made up of Etruscan, Oscan, Samnian and Umbrian speaking peoples. The Etruscans first controlled the early Latin tribes but were then overthrown by the Romans when they rebelled against their tyrannical kings.  Although much of this early history is steeped in legend, one thing is for certain – when the Romans finally overcame their Etruscan overlords, they wanted to establish an identity that was uniquely their own. Those who were seen as not sharing the egalitarian principles of the Romans, and the citizen state republic they had founded, were meant to be conquered and subjugated.

In the first century BCE, the Italian mainland having already been unified under a single  banner, the Romans encountered the Celtic tribes of the Po river valley. These Celtic people were the ancestral enemies of the Italians, and started meeting with resistance from Romans as they began encroaching on the northern fringes of Italy. The area south of the Alps was a fertile plain that for centuries had been settled by the Celtic descendants of the first La Tene cultures to inhabit central Europe. These people were not only fundamentally different the the Italic tribes, but were also being pushed upon the Italian borders from the pressure of Germanic tribes moving west. These tribes in turn were being pressured to migrate due to the existence of Slavic tribes that were leaving the steppes of Asia. All these people shared several things in common, in that they represented an earlier warrior centric society that was much different then the "civitas" that the Romans had exemplified. To the Romans, they were all simply "Barbieri", the apotheosis to civilized clean shaven roman centurion. As the Romans conquered and expanded their Empire, they brutally suppressed many of these ancestral cultures of Europe and it is though the Roman conquerors that we have the most detailed narratives of Gauls, Celts, Britains, Germans, Slavs and many other groups of people they conquered. All these depictions have a fundamental flaw that obscures our visibility into the distant reality of theses ancient lives. And although the Romans historians speak of them as heroic warriors worthy of confrontation, they consistently reject them as uncivilized and undeserving of the culture the Romans could share with them.

The Roman EmpireLater, the Romans carved out provinces out of their lands, and ordered these based on what they perceived to be the cultural and linguistic groupings of these people. These provinces were somewhat artificial as the languages and regional differences of the tribes within each cultural area was tremendous,There was also not a clear distinct division between tribes that formulated the border zones of one cultural sphere to another. In the province of Hispania for example, the hinterland between the Celtic late comers, and the original Iberian inhabitants, was populated by hybrid Celti-Iberian tribes that possessed qualities of both these peoples. In the province of Gaul, the Celts were in fact part of a larger cultural entity primarily based on a the notion that they shared the same Brythonic Celtic language. But pockets of pre-celtic people still existed in the peripheries, some disappearing from the record completely, while others existing to this day like the Vacones (Basques) and Rheatian speaking peoples of Switzerland. On the borders of the empire things were even more transient with Celto-germanic tribes mixing with Germanic or Slavic speaking peoples. The Belgae, inhabiting roughly the same region as their namesake today, were actually various tribes with varying degrees of Celtic and Germanic influences. In the 1st century CE as the Romans began conquering lands further east they encountered various mountain tribes and nomadic tribes of the pannonian plains, whom they simply grouped as Dacians despite the ethno-linguistic differences in their region. over time the Romanization of these regions created a new ethnic commonality. In a sense, the Romans helped create new and more homogenous groups of people based on provincial boundaries they created. Even Greece itself did not achieve political unity until the Romans declared her a possession. Their conquest hastened the dissolution of the regional dialects of Ionic or Doric peoples, but helped preserve the development of a Greek nation state based on a common language.

But who were these people through their own eyes? Where they the blue painted Celts that had sacked Rome, only to be driven back north to their cold northern forests? Where they the Germanic barbarians that later invaded the crumbling empire destroying all that remained of civilization? Or were they the ancestors of the people that inhabit those regions today?

Post Comment

Please Login or Register to post a comment!

1 Comments

by miesfone on 2011 09 07

Fascinating article - kudos. This is a highly riveting blog post. Thank you once more - I will return.

Our Sponsors

Your support keeps the Ancient Web running!