Imperialism, Power and Identity: The Roman Empire

Imperialism, Power and Identity: Experiencing the Roman Empire
David J. Mattingly
Princeton University Press  366pp  £27.95

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In the film Life of Brian, the Monty Python team expressed what was in 1979 the prevailing view of Roman imperialism, held by generations of ancient history students. Reg (John Cleese) asks the People’s Front of Judaea: ‘But apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?’, and a member of the Front responds, ‘Brought peace?’ But this comforting picture of advanced technology and social order conferring inestimable benefits on previously uncivilised backwaters of the Mediterranean world has begun to be radically revised and David Mattingly’s important book, which developed out of a series of distinguished lectures delivered at Tufts University in Massachusetts, will be seen as a landmark text in this process.

How we think about imperialism in the ancient world matters because it is a crucial index of how we think about imperialism in general. There has rarely been an author as conscious of his own responsibility as a historian in shaping our judgements of empire. Mattingly is convinced that the ’demographic, economic, and social aspects of empire – and in particular the ugly side of Roman imperialism – require much closer attention’. The reader will be left not only with an extraordinary set of insights into the way it must have felt, as an ancient North African or Briton, to live on land conquered by the Roman army, but required to think hard, as well, about the experience of the territories expropriated by later European imperialism, especially the inhabitants of India under the British Raj. Mattingly never loses sight of the links between the ancient world and our own; he carefully points out how the symbols and terminology of the imperium Romanum have been adopted by much more recent colonists and the way that scholars have bent over backwards, often in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary, to defend the Romans’ imperialist activities, as if the reputation of their own modern nations were at stake instead.

After a bracing theoretical workout in the first chapter, in which Mattingly asks how recent advances in the postcolonial understanding of more recent imperialisms can inform the study of the Roman Empire, he launches his attack on the conventional model which maintains that the Romans ruled by ‘consensus’, by and large welcomed and supported by their subject peoples. He looks at the coercive policies of the still expansionist Rome of the first century ad and the exercise of power through docile client kings. Mattingly breaks newer ground when he looks unflinchingly at the sexual inequality and exploitation that the empire both legitimised and psychologically fostered. But the heart of the book consists of economically focused and meaty chapters on garrisoning, landscapes and mining activities in North Africa. As an experienced ‘hands-on’ archaeologist, whose fieldwork has done much to illuminate ancient life in the deserts of Libya, Mattingly communicates a deep sense of the physical realities of ancient colonised spaces, the redrawing of boundaries, the erection of stone and fencing markers on the land and the circumscription of free movement. But he is also fascinated by the experience of individuals living in Roman territories, shifting the focus to the challenges posed to identity based on ethnicity, language, religion and status by the colonisation process in both Roman Britain and Punic or Libyan North Africa. Some of the evidence is arresting: for example, the tombstone of the freedwoman Regina from South Shields, who is visually portrayed as a dignified and typical Roman matron. But her husband, a military man, scrupulously recorded in a bilingual inscription, apparently with pride, that she originally came from the Catuvellaunian people of south Britain. What does this enigmatic monument say about how Regina and her husband really felt about Roman rule?

Although appealingly and sometimes passionately written, this is a substantial and technically detailed book packed with more than 60 maps, distribution charts, tables and images, ranging from modern satirical cartoons to images on Augustan coins. An advanced and theoretically sophisticated approach, it will shift the centre of the debate over the merits of Roman imperialism for many years to come.

Edith Hall is the author of Greek Tragedy: Suffering under the Sun (Oxford University Press, 2010).

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