Imperialism, Power, and Identity (2013)

David Mattingly’s book on the Roman Empire argues that the term “Romanization” is outmoded and should be discarded.

Written by Josho Brouwers on 30 September 2017

Anyone studying the Roman Empire will, sooner rather than later, come across the concept of “Romanization”. This is a difficult term to define. The most simplistic definition considers Romanization the process by which non-Romans gradually become more Roman. During the European colonial period, thinkers drew parallels between the Romans and themselves, and believed that the Romans had a civilizing influence on those parts of Europe and the Mediterranean that they drew within their sphere of influence.

With the rise of postcolonialism, and especially in archaeological theory with leading thinkers of the 1980s and especially the 1990s, simplistic definitions of Romanization have made way for more nuanced, better frameworks for understanding processes of acculturation, integration, and assimilation. One influential book, which I had to study back in my own university days, was Greg Woolf’s Becoming Roman: The Origins of Provincial Civilization in Gaul (1998). Woolf argues that the confluence of Gallic and Roman cultures in Gaul created a unique Gallo-Roman civilization: the result of mutual exchanges rather than unidirectional acculturation.

Naturally, research has continued over the past two decades. There have been many noteworthy publications in the field, but I want to discuss one in closer detail: David Mattingly’s Imperialism, Power, and Identity: Experiencing the Roman Empire (2011). It is largely based on a series of lectures that Mattingly has given and, as a result, the book is not as cohesive as one might expect from a monograph. Nevertheless, the overall aim of the author is to examine “Romanization”, especially from the point of view of those who experienced it, most notably those living in the provinces of the Roman Empire, with a particular emphasis on the lower classes.

This approach is chosen specifically to avoid treating acculturation as a top-down process, whereby perceived Roman influences trickled down from the elite to the lower classes of society. As a result, Mattingly sticks closely to archaeological sources, rather than literary ones, which were invariably produced by the upper classes. His book seems to represent a consensus that exists among a large number of contemporary archaeologists, namely that “Romanization” is no longer a useful construct, preferring instead to focus on imperialism. But does Mattingly’s solution work?

Review of the book

The contents are divided into nine chapters, grouped into four different parts. Part 1, “Imperalisms and colonialisms”, focuses on theory and definition. In chapter 1, “From imperium to imperialism: writing the Roman Empire”, Mattingly discusses imperialism, colonialism, and how to define the Roman Empire. Chapter 2, “From one colonialism to another: imperialism and the Magreb”, serves to highlight one key problem that Mattingly argues continues to plague studies of Roman imperialism, namely “the persistence of the colonialist framework of analysis of”, in this particular case, “Magrhebian (North African) archaeology and history”, adding (p. 43):

Modern and ancient colonialism have become so interwoven that this state of affairs is perceived in certain quarters as the natural order of things.

In part 2, “Power”, two topics are discussed: “Regime change, resistance, and reconstruction: imperialism ancient and modern” (chapter 3) and “Power, sex, and Empire” (chapter 4). The first of these chapters builds on chapter 1 in tackling the nature of Roman imperialism, with a particular emphasis on client kingship in Britain. Chapter 4 is a fascinating subject that could easily have been expanded into a book on the topic; here, it feels a little underdeveloped, with a heavy reliance on Foucault and a mix of other theory that those not steeped in recent debates may find a little tought of follow.

Part 3, “Resources”, sticks closer to stricter definitions of archaeological objects of study by focusing on exploitation of natural resources and some landscape archaeology. Chapter 5, “Ruling regions, exploiting resources”, is wideranging in scope and therefore rather superficial (we start with Moses Finley, get introduced to tax farming and supply systems, before hurtling into a not-quite-satisfactory pseudo-conclusion). Chapter 6, “Landscapes of imperialism. Africa: a landscape of opportunity?”, benefits from being more tightly focused on (North) Africa; one does well to read this after chapter 2. The third and final chapter of this part, chapter 7, “Metals and metalla: a Roman copper-mining landscape in the Wadi Faynan, Jordan”, is similarly focused: it’s chapters like these where Mattingly is perhaps at his strongest, even if he doesn’t convince.

The fourth and final part of the book deals with “Identity”. Chapter 8 is entitled “Identity and discrepancy”, and is concerned with issues of identity in the Roman provinces. The early parts reiterate material stated elsewhere; as a result, this chapter even more than the others can be easily read on its own. Nevertheless, the contrast Mattingly sketches between the concept of Romanization, which he consideres elite-centred, with creolization, which focuses on “the lowest status individuals in society” (p. 203) is interesting, even if he claims that his approach isn’t wholly compatible with notions regarding creolization.

In chapter 9, “Family values: art and power at Ghirza in the Libyan pre-desert”, Mattingly again focuses on a particular case study, with an emphasis on the theme of “art and imperialism”, especially funerary art. Again, this chapter is far too short and could easily serve as the subject for an entire book, yet it does offer a good introduction for readers interested in various aspects of Roman imperialism.

The afterword, “Empire experienced”, is an attempt to provide something of a summary of Mattingly’s views on Roman imperialism. His emphasis on the newness of his ideas grates a little, since many of the ideas he puts forward have been current for a while in archaeological circles. In any event, Mattingly writes here (p. 269):

At the heart of the essays that make up this volume there is a series of ideas about the nature of the Roman Empire and Roman imperialism. I shall summarize these in the form of a series of key propositions that link across the chapters.

The first four propositions are connected to the concept of imperialism. Mattingly argues that “Roman imperialism” is a valid construct in comparative debates on imperialism and colonialism, that it was subject to processes of change, and that discussions about Roman imperialism need to be framed within current discussions on imperialism and colonialism.

His fifth proposition boldly states that “The Romanization paradigm is no longer workable”, and that the term “Romanization” is indeed “outmoded”. The reason for this is stated already on the book’s cover: “Despite what history has taught us about imperialism’s destructive effects on colonial societies, many classicists continue to emphasize disproportionately the civilizing and assimilative nature of the Roman Empire and to hold a generally favorable view of Rome’s impact on its subject peoples.” In Mattingly’s view, in other words and if I read him correctly, “Romanization” is a word that politely covers up the brutal imperialism of subjugating conquerors.

The next three propositions emphasize the importance of the concepts of “power” and “identity” (which is not new, despite Mattingly’s claims), while downplaying the importance of economic concerns. Propisition nine states that the “traditional strengths of Roman archaeology/history are still core strengths” (to the surprise of absolutely no one), with proposition ten stating weakly that “taking a critical approach to the Roman Empire is not a sign of prejudice”. The latter strikes this reader as rather defensive, especially because Mattingly frames Roman imperialism largely in a negative way.

Closing thoughts

David Mattingly’s book on Roman imperialism offers plenty of food for thought. He rejects the concept of “Romanization” as something that is essentially elite-centred and, according to his straw men, largely beneficial. Instead, he focuses on Rome as a conqueror, which occupied the territories of native peoples.

The chapters on resources, for example, make clear that Rome is essentially a machine that sucks up raw materials and labour from regions that it has annexed. In chapter 7, Mattingly emphasizes the “environmental and human damage inflicted by the metalla at Phaino”, going so far to claim that the “story of Rome’s exploitation of metals from a remote desert region represents in a microcosm key elements of the Roman imperial economy” (p. 199).

My main criticism of Mattingly’s book is that he does not offer, as far as I am concerned, a viable alternative to the concept of “Romanization”. Mattingly’s main problem with the term seems to be superficial: that some modern scholars consider it to have been a beneficial process, by which “barbarians” were “civilized” by becoming more “Roman”. He reframes it within the context of imperalism and colonialism as something that was distinctly negative (and experienced as such by the Roman Empire’s victims). In this, he essentially uses the same colonialist framework, just with the conquerors cast in the role of villains rather than benefactors.

This doesn’t seem to me to get us anywhere. Both Mattingly and the scholars he critizes focus on etic (i.e. external) conceptions of identity: e.g. what we define as “natives” versus our conception of “Romans”. In my opinion, and based on my own research regarding cultures and cultural exchange in pre-Classical Anatolia, we need to let go of such notions entirely and assume a more emic point of view, i.e. a view of identity from the perspective of the people we study themselves.

Rather than e.g. trying to define the “Roman Empire” and figuring out the difference between ancient and modern forms of imperialism, Mattingly would have been better served by spending that time and effort on critically evaluating such problematic concepts like “natives” and “Romans”. Alas, we need to turn to other books if we want that kind of self-reflection.