What makes one Roman?

As I consider this question in writing my SAA talk (ok, who am I kidding? in merely thinking about my SAA talk, since I haven't written a word yet), I'm wondering how people define the term "Roman." At the AAPAs, I saw a poster that compared an "urban" Roman sample (Casilina) to a "rural" Roman sample of skeletons (Urbino). The "urban" sample is even further from the Imperial city walls than my Castellaccio site, a site that I'm calling "suburban" - and that's probably generous. The "rural" sample is over 200km from Rome, close to the east coast of Italy.

In the early view of JAS (Journal of Anthropological Sciences, not to be confused with the much more well-known Journal of Archaeological Science), the article by Paine et al. is subtitled "Paleopathology of Roman skeletons," in which they discuss skeletons from Urbino. Can those people really be called "Roman"? Sure, there was extensive citizenship in the Empire, and all of these people would have been subjects to the emperor, possibly required to pay taxes to Rome and suchlike. But they didn't live in Rome, and there is no discussion at all in the article about what cultural or biological criteria constitute Romanness. Don't get me wrong - I'm excited that there is more published data coming out with which to compare my sites (although the unpublished stuff on Casilina would help more). But at the same time, it's largely uncontextualized data - at least in this article, which doesn't publish anything about the archaeological context. More importantly, though, the authors are assuming that these people are Roman simply because they lived in the Italian peninsula.

The connotations of Rome and Roman have been unchanging for thousands of years, but I thought scholars had started to shy away from these monolithic understandings of this massive preindustrial society. At least, I feel that classicists are starting to shy away from this idea and am very surprised that physical anthropologists are perpetuating a lack of complexity. Perhaps I'm reading too much into the article. But it annoys me when someone asks what I study, and I reply, "Stable isotopes in ancient Roman skeletons," and they ask me where my skeletons are from. Uhm, Rome - it's a geographic location, not a cultural affiliation. I'm not sure that my people are "Roman" either, because I don't really know what "Roman" was - but part of my dissertation involves trying to find out what being Roman meant to the people whose skeletons I am studying and to the people who interacted with them. After all, culture resides in individuals, but it only takes on meaning when shared by a larger community. Romanness likely had many different definitions in antiquity and a few shared features. I'm just more interested in creating a nuanced vision of how people in the Roman Empire lived their lives than attempting to find all possible commonalities in the vast cultural-geographical mess that was ancient Europe.


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