Rome in the News: Did Romans all look the same?

The United States has a long and productive history with Rome. The Founding Fathers took symbols like the eagle from Rome’s standards for US coinage, modeled the three-tiered division of powers after Polybius, and even got the name ‘Republic’ from Rome’s res publica. So it’s not a huge surprise that we see Rome reappear as a springboard for comparison in popular media, from movies like Spartacus and Gladiator to recent political books like Are We Rome?.

Last week, a professor of education joined the party. In an interview with CNN about the crisis in Ferguson, MO, Anthony Carnevale claimed that the US is superior to Rome because there is more tolerance for diversity:

“If you have only white men sitting in a room making decisions, you get low-quality decisions and very little change,” he says. “If you include a woman and a minority in that room, the whole process changes. You get more quality and innovation.”

He says America is a successful country partly because its citizens never stop arguing. Those clashes force people to think, abandon what no longer works and innovate.

“Quiet, peaceful communities rarely invent things,” Carnevale says. “The Romans failed because they kept marrying each other and they all looked the same. Their habits became set. There was no challenge to the elites.”

Really? The Romans?

I won’t challenge Carnevale on higher education, which is his specialty, but I think he might want to revisit his Roman history. For example, we don’t know what most Romans looked like. But we do know that they had citizens in Britain, Spain, Italy, Greece, Egypt, and Tunisia. Maybe those people looked the same in 200 CE, but it’s pretty unlikely. Writers like Juvenal castigate Roman women for wearing blonde wigs (with hair from Celtic women — i.e., from Germania or Britannia). Mummy portraits from Roman Egypt show a wide variety of physical appearances. And certainly Romans did not marry in — that was the Athenians. In fact, Romans were exogamous from the beginning of history, as the historian Livy reports in his History:

A shortage of women meant that its greatness was fated to last for a single generation, since there was no prospect of offspring at home nor any prospect of marriage with their neighbours… Romulus [the city’s founder and first king] went among [the women] in person to assure them that none of this would have happened if their fathers hadn’t been so inflexible in not letting them marry their neighbours. But now they would have the status of wives with all the material rewards and civil rights of citizenship and they would have children, than which nothing is dearer.

Now, we can talk about the rampant misogyny in this post later — the fact remains that Romans married out, and they were proud of marrying outside of their culture.

As for there being no challenge to the “elites” — I guess that depends on who you think the elites were. The historian Keith Hopkins long ago calculated a high mortality rate among Rome’s upper classes, which means that new blood — in the form of novi homines or ‘new men‘ — were constantly entering the governing class. Yes, new men were wealthy elites of Rome’s neighboring cities. Yes, freedmen — but not their descendants — were barred from entering the senate, the advisory body of Rome (but over the empire, less important politically). And the rights and restrictions of freedmen is one of the most difficult and interesting areas of Roman social history.

So instead of saying “Romans were set in their habits, they never listened to anyone, and that’s why their civilization ended” — with the underlying assumption that we are different and therefore better — we should try to take a page from Edward Gibbon, possibly the first true giant of modern history:

instead of inquiring why the Roman empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long. (The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire vol. 4)

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