World History 1 119 - 7.5.1 The Culture of the Roman Empire

The Roman Empire was divided into administrative units called provinces, the number of which seems to have always been in flux as new territories were lost or gained. A province was governed by a magistrate chosen by the Senate or personally by the emperor. The term for governing a senatorial province was one year, while that for administering an imperial province was indefinite. Provincial governors had imperium, or jurisdiction over a territory or military legion. They were also relatively autonomous in managing their territory, having a staff of lieutenants and other officials to conduct administrative business.

By the first century CE, the western empire had undergone several periods of conquest by the Romans. The regions of Britain and Gaul (the latter is now France and some areas east of it) witnessed many cultural changes after the invasions of Julius Caesar in the 50s BCE. The process of Romanization in Gaul shaped the unique culture that developed there. Local Gallic elites and Romans, generally members of the military for a time, contributed to a fusion of cultures. Characteristic Roman features such as roads and centuriation, a process of mapping the land onto a grid for development, demonstrated the integration of Gaul into the wider Roman economy. The production of local goods increased in order to supply the Roman army. Gauls constructed villas with Roman features such as tiled roofing, stone masonry, and peristyle or columned courtyards. Urban spaces also became characteristically Roman in their architecture. This shifting culture in Gaul shows the adoption of a Roman way of life following the period of conquest.

Following Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain in 55 BCE, the region came into increasing contact with Roman culture, though the Roman army did not have a permanent presence there. So, in 43 CE, the emperor Claudius invaded Britain and incorporated the southern region of the island into the empire. Unlike the case in Gaul, centuriation and the construction of roads in Britain were an attempt at direct control of the local population. The militarization of the province reflected the imposition of Roman culture. In addition to roads, the Roman army also constructed forts and camps, including the immense fortification called Hadrian’s Wall, built to establish a frontier in the early second century (Figure 7.18). Still, a local community was able to flourish in small towns, which increased their agricultural production and adopted a limited version of Roman culture. For example, the town of Silchester included a forum, possibly an early Christian church, and an amphitheater that may have hosted gladiatorial matches.

An image of a photograph of a green countryside is seen with a gray and white cloudy blue sky in the background. In the forefront, a low brick outline of a square area can be seen with some small squares lined with stones on the inside. Green grass fills in the rest of the area. Connecting to the square, a low stone wall continues in a curved line to the back right of the image and over rolling green hills to the left. A flat dirt path goes around the square wall and continues as a thin stone path running along the low wall over the first green hill. Two figures are seen walking on the path dressed in white and black clothing. In the background a pond can be seen and sparse trees and bushes over green terrain.
Figure 7.18 The massive Roman fortification built in Britain by the emperor Hadrian in the second century CE is roughly seventy-four miles long, with small forts known as milecastles placed at every mile along its entire length, as in the foreground of this photo. (credit: “Milecastle 39 on Hadrian’s Wall” by Adam Cuerden/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

In the eastern empire, the relationship between locals and Rome was similarly complex. Even before its conquest in the second century BCE, Greece and its classical past had fascinated Romans. Hellenism—a high regard for the Greek cultural institutions of philosophy, religion, and system of education—influenced Roman views of this region. Greek culture inspired Romans with both reverence for and anxieties about literature, language, and even fashion. For instance, to some, Latin was in a power struggle with Greek after the latter language became popular among the Roman elite and educated. And even the Roman toga was contrasted with the Greek pallium cloak, in an effort to articulate Roman identity. Emperors such as Augustus and Hadrian praised classical Greece, attempting to preserve its past greatness; they imposed a Roman view of Greekness by contributing to monument building in the region, and local Greek elites sought imperial favor and grants in their cities.

North Africa also had a long history of interaction with Rome. Through a series of conflicts with the Carthaginians, the Romans had taken control of the coastal regions by the second century BCE. Following the conquest, local settlements in the west underwent a period of intense urban building as the Romans attempted to set up the frontier. In the east, Egypt, like Greece, had a profound influence on the Romans. In addition to Egyptian religious cults that became popular, Egyptian art and architecture gained a foothold, with motifs such as crocodiles and hippos appearing in the art of wealthy Roman homes. The Egyptian practice of embalming the dead may also have gained some prominence among Romans in the first century CE. Furthermore, the encaustic portraits that adorned coffins reflect the multiethnic identity of people in Roman Egypt. This artistic style, in which pigments mixed with wax were painted on wood, originated in ancient Egypt. But the subjects of the portraits wear Roman dress and bear Greek and Egyptian names (Figure 7.19).

An image of a painting on a rectangular piece of wood, skewed a bit to the right, with a rounded top is shown. The background is gray and two cracks run down the middle of the wood. An image of a dark skinned man is shown with short, very curly hair, a short curly beard and moustache, and round dark eyes. He has large, arched, connected eyebrows and dark eyelashes. Around his neck is a white, frayed collar and his shirt is brown. The sides of the image show faded areas.
Figure 7.19 This life-size Egyptian funerary portrait from about 170–180 CE was painted in encaustic on wood and shows the deceased as they wished to be remembered. Its naturalistic style demonstrates the influence of Roman culture in Egypt at the time. (credit: modification of work “Mummy Portrait of a Bearded Man” by Walters Art Museum, Acquired by Henry Walters, 1912/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The Past Meets the Present

Cleopatra in Popular Culture

As the Roman Empire expanded, its population became increasingly diverse. There are several examples of racially and ethnically diverse peoples playing significant roles in Roman history. For example, Cleopatra VII was a ruler of Egypt from 51 to 30 BCE and the final member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, named for descendants of Ptolemy, general under Alexander the Great. An ambitious woman of exceptional intelligence, she courted Julius Caesar and married Marc Antony—breaking up his existing marriage in the process. She sought power in her own right and flaunted the wealth of her kingdom.

Her identity, however, has remained a contentious issue in academia and in popular culture. She is particularly controversial because she was all the following: female, foreign, and famous. Cleopatra challenged nearly every aspect of stable Roman society, from the family home to the halls of the emperors. Thus she is an interesting case study of the cross-sections of gender, race, and power. The retelling of her story is not yet done; a new film about her starring Gal Gadot is underway and will likely not be the last.

In 1987, Martin Bernal published the first volume of his controversial three-volume work Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization. This book’s main claim, which has little evidence, was that the Egyptians colonized Greece sometime in the second millennium BCE, and that this event and Egypt’s subsequent influence on Greece has been erased by scholars. Following the book’s publication, Afrocentric models of the ancient world gained ground and addressed the way Africa and Blackness had been written out of classical studies. Specific topics were the origin of Greek philosophy, the possibly “stolen legacy” of Egyptian philosophy, and Cleopatra’s Blackness (Figure 7.20). Debates about these issues also moved into the public sphere.

Two photographs of images are shown. (a) This image shows a shiny-brownish stone statue of a bust with almond shaped eyes, a triangular nose and full lips in a smile. The figure wears a plain headdress that goes behind the ears in a triangle and hangs down in the front on their chest. An upside down cross-like knotted figure hangs from the top of the headdress over the forehead. The bust is plain and darker in some areas. (b) A black and white photograph of a woman is shown wearing a bright white shirt that fades into her skin color with beaded straps. She has pale skin, dark round eyes, black straight eyebrows, and long very curly hair. She wears a headband of flowery ribbons around her head with a curved ribbon sticking out on each side. The background is blurry gray colors.
Figure 7.20 These two images of Cleopatra show drastically different interpretations of the Egyptian ruler. (a) The limestone figurine from the first century BCE shows Cleopatra dressed as pharaoh. (b) The U.S. silent film star Theda Bara portrayed Cleopatra in the film Cleopatra in 1917. The queen’s racial identity remains a mystery to this day. (credit a: modification of work “Busto de soberano” by Ángel M. Felicísimo/Flickr, CC BY 2.0; credit b: modification of work “Theda-Bara-Cleopatra6” by Gordon Edwards (director)/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)
  • Identify some of the questions around Cleopatra’s ancestry, ethnicity, and appearance. Why are these still an issue today?
  • Why do you think these questions are important? Would they have been as important in ancient Rome? Consider the Roman view of family, obedience, and citizenship.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax