How Cosmopolitan was Imperial Rome?
WORDS BY JOCELIN CHAN
On Thursday evening, what seemed to be the entire Classics and Ancient History faculty – alongside about five undergrads – filled out the Quad’s General Lecture Theatre. Only the presence of a select few individuals could ever effect this sort of response from historians, a group of people usually disconnected from quotidian happenings, and on this occasion that individual was one Professor Greg Woolf.
Woolf, the current Director of the Institute of Classical Studies in London, can be considered a celebrity in the ancient history world. One acquires this unique status by appearing in various Roman history documentaries and writing exciting tomes with titles such as Rome: An Empire’s Story and Rome the Cosmopolis. And that latter book he co-wrote with Catherine Edwards was the focus of his talk that night.
‘How cosmopolitan was Imperial Rome?’ Woolf asked his audience, which vibrated with excitement in response. An affable-looking man, Woolf was wearing wire-rimmed spectacles, a neat brown suit, and a smile framed by a salt-and-pepper beard. Humorously, he also had a penchant for putting very large and unflattering photos of the historians he referenced in his PowerPoint.
What exactly, though, did he mean by “cosmopolitan”? Well, just that – fluent in many different cultures. Our modern, multicultural cities are just that, thanks to immigration in a globalised world. We can partake in a multitude of cultures – their foods, languages, customs – without taking a step out of Sydney. Was Rome like that?
‘Today, in this lecture,’ Woolf told us, ‘I’m going to argue that no – Rome wasn’t very cosmopolitan at all.’
An interesting response. After all, at its height, Rome stretched from Britain to Germany to Syria to north Africa. Surely, Rome would be welcoming in new peoples and cultures constantly?
Woolf brought up first the example of Hadrian, the 2nd century emperor famous for building that wall in Britain. Hadrian was a huge fan of Hellenistic culture (with a Hellenic boyfriend to prove it) and travelled extensively over his empire, collecting art and artists along the way. Surely, Hadrian was a most cosmopolitan Roman.
‘Rome was more uniform than we think,’ Woolf countered. Hadrian’s constructions didn’t reflect this seemingly cosmopolitan identity. The architecture was conservatively Roman, for such a seemingly urbane emperor. What, then, was the reality about Rome’s multiculturalism?
Woolf turned first to the issue of ancient cities. The total world population in AD200 was about half a billion, and possibly 5% of these people lived in the Roman empire. There were also very few city dwellers, but there were, according to Woolf, “many tiny, tiny cities”. Around 12 000, in fact, with populations between 1000 to 10 000. Only six cities in the entire empire had a population over 10 000, the size of a modern city: Alexandria, Carthage, Antioch, Ptolemais, Memphis, and of course, Rome.
But of course, there was the issue of the “urban graveyard” – that is, these cities had a higher death rate than birth rate. To maintain their sizes, these big cities had to draw in people – and the only way was through immigration.
“But,” said Woolf, “the Romans had a different cultural calibration.” New migrants tend to bring their culture in the form of language, religion, food – but there is no evidence for these in Roman cities. In fact, “ethnic” cults largely attracted Roman worshippers, and truly ethnic worship spaces such as synagogues were small and few.
“There were no great migration streams,” Woolf concluded. “The importance of keeping homeland connections meant that there was lots of back and forth movement between the city and homeland.”
Only two groups of people regularly moved and settled in foreign places in the Roman empire. One was the army – which didn’t often end up in cities. The other was slaves.
What, then, happened to these slaves? A xenophobic rant on Greeks in Juvenal’s third Satire seemed to provide the answer. Woolf supplied a few jokes about Farage and Trump alongside the extract, but then dismissed the connection.
“It’s a different sort of xenophobic rhetoric,” he said. “If you read it carefully, you’ll see he expresses a concern that Rome is becoming foreign from the inside.”
These slaves, it seemed, had become so acculturated to Rome by the time of their manumission that they had become excellent at “metabolising” Roman culture, taking over Roman roles. The fear wasn’t of a foreign “invasion” that would stamp out Roman culture – it was of Roman culture becoming inherited by those who weren’t Roman.
Thus, Woolf’s dilemma was solved. Imperial Roman had to replenish its cities’ populations continuously – with slaves. But these slaves would become so integrated into Rome’s culture that they would not bring their own into the city by the time they were freed.
It’s certainly a new perspective on Rome’s cultural diaspora. Neo-Nazis recently kicked up a fuss about the existence of people of colour in a BBC cartoon about Roman Britain, only to be shut down by historians – who are always itching for a fight – producing reams of evidence. Woolf’s sketch of a multiethnic-yet-monocultural Rome adds a new layer of nuance to that conversation.
As for us? We can be glad that our cosmopolitanism is one that allows us to encounter many ethnicities and dip into their cultures as well. I fully embrace the variety we experience.