The Roman Package Deal

31 October 2000: Ramsay MacMullen's latest contribution to the study of antiquity, Romanization in the Time of Augustus (Yale, 2000), marshals the archeological evidence, most of it in the form of foundations and inscriptions, of Roman structures, real and conceptual, at the dawn of the Empire, with a view to illuminating the processes by which a Roman, or Italian, way of life overran Mediterranean and Black Sea shores and came to prevail in much of modern Europe as well, all within three or four generations. Mr. MacMullen divides the Empire into four territories – the East, Africa, Spain, and Gaul – and his discussion into five chapters, one for each of the territories and one for a summary that focuses on the modes of replication that assured the dissemination of Roman quality itself. (Some two hundred fifty portrait busts of Augustus survive; Mr. MacMullen estimates that there at least twenty thousand must have been produced.)

The background of Mr. MacMullen’s discussion is our mistrust of ‘cultural imperialism,’ which may be politically incorrect today but was quite the opposite two thousand years ago. Barbarians were forced to lay down their arms, yes. Once they'd done so, however, they rushed to Romanize with an enthusiasm that strikes me as both shrewd and unfeigned. As a matter of course, Romans pitched their culture and its structures to local elites, who had the money to buy it. In Mr. MacMullen's formulation, Romanization was pulled, not pushed, into the provinces, by ambitious men like Juba, the king of Mauretania, who had been raised in Rome as a political hostage and whom Augustus rewarded with the hand of Cleopatra’s daughter (another Cleopatra), and L. Cornelius Balbus, a Spaniard and crony of Caesar’s who “proved himself of that type that every conqueror embraces, the indispensable native – on occasion, collaborator or Quisling.” Men like these devoted themselves to euergetism (a term derived from the Greek for ‘doing good,’ in the sense of ‘conferring benefits.’) They built, or rebuilt, forums, basilicas, baths, marketplaces, and temples in the towns to which they were attached, spending fortunes acquired during the civil wars. They adopted (as Balbus did) eminent Roman names, and a taste for the theatre.

The armed forces – active soldiers and veterans together – played a complementary role. Armies built roads and contributed to the construction of the aqueducts needed to fill the baths. Roman veterans – by Augustus’ time, Italian proletarians – were pensioned off with grants of land in coloniae throughout the Empire, sometimes built up against an existing urban center. In Africa, Spain, and Gaul, colonies amplified the process of Romanization, but in the East, which had been civilized far longer than Rome itself, the veterans’ descendants had the habit of slipping into Greek identities within a few generations. Romanization remained superficial in the East, and never outshone the prestige of Greek ways. In time, by a final irony, Caesar’s heirs would be Greek in everything but name, ruling a Graecophone empire from Byzantium.

But it’s the big public benefactors in the West who open up the most interesting points of comparison between Ancient Rome and Contemporary America. The cycle in which a few men in any given city would amass great wealth, and then spend it on stupendous public works, cannot be imagined very practically today. If Bill Gates were to rebuild all of Bombay’s important public buildings – assuming that public buildings had anything like the importance now that they used to have – throwing in a few temples and cathedrals  and perhaps an entirely new port, then one might see something like the cycle in action. But not even Bill Gates would be allowed such monumentality; nor is it likely that he’d have enough money. Problematic as income disparity is today, it was far wider in the ancient world, almost unimaginably so. We expect the modern state to see to such projects – and we expect to have a say in their design.

Roman design was modular, starting with Vitruvius’s architectural system but branching out widely into such diverse units as ceramics, land surveys, and civic constitutions. It afforded a generalized articulation of urbane civilization that proved remarkably easy to export, and Mr. MacMullen yields to a certain enthusiasm when he speaks of the mass production of a mass culture (all those busts of Augustus!), and tempts us to ask what went wrong with a project so marvelously, if superficially, like our own. The fleet and lightweight nature of Roman culture would prove a drawback whenever it came up against a less adaptable one – in the ancient Middle East, for example, or in the brand-new cult of Christ, for another. In the West, Roman culture would mutate into strange new forms when the Roman center faded. Always far more dependent upon personal relations, and far less upon political activity, than is nowadays thought healthy – Roman patronage/client relationships bear a striking resemblance to our popular picture of organized crime – the Roman way put loyalty ahead of law, and eventually succumbed to unsustainable corruption, as Mr. MacMullen himself made painfully clear in his Corruption and the Decline of Rome (Yale, 1988).

How interesting it will be to read the counterpart to Mr. MacMullen’s book that will analyze the worldwide distribution of Coca-Cola and Jimi Hendrix. Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait another two millennia.


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