Did the Romans have an Imagined Community?

I just finished reading the first book on my list of summer readings, Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, which argues that the growth of the nationalism since the late eighteenth century occurred because groups of people were able to imagine a new sort of community—the nation—that formed the locus of their self identity. People were willing not only to kill, but more surprisingly to die, for these imagined communities.

Anderson argues that several types of nationalism arose, but that the first wave of these, the nationalism that arose among creoles in the colonial Americas, were based on two main factors: first, the establishment of a vernacular print language that linked its speakers to each other and to ‘homogenous time,’ and second a path, which he likens to a pilgrimage, toward administrative centers. It was this latter path, which united, e.g., Peruvian creoles toward Lima on their way up the administrative ladder and along the ‘looping upward trajectory’ of their professional lives, that birthed the idea that their world—the nation—was filled with other similar people united by an orientation toward the provincial capital and a professional ceiling just below the metropole.

As I read the book I wondered whether "the Romans" had an imagined community (I’ll shy away from what must a loaded phrase in ‘proto-nationalism’).* The Romans—or probably best understood as the male civic elite of both Italy and the provinces—seem to, at different points, have access to different technologies of identity which in the early modern period led to nationalism.  I will here gesture towards two of them: first, a unified vernacular language of administration, recopied and distributed in the same way that a newspaper would be; second, a well charted path toward administrative centers (which, crucially, changed over time) that could create a shared sense of identity based on the ‘administrative pilgrimage.’** 

First, language. Even the most casual student of Roman history must be struck by the epigraphic habit. But what is more notable than the urge to write down who built every building for miles around seems to me the uniformity of the language of epigraphy: either Latin or, in East, Greek.  Without wading into debates about literacy, it seems worthy of note that these local elites chose to memorialize their civic eurgetism in the language of the metropole rather than, say, Punic or Aramaic or some variety of Celtiberian. Moreover, although we don't today think of Greek or Latin as vernaculars, they did not have the problematic relationship to revelaed truth that Anderson identifies with, e.g., Latin in the Medieval West or Quranic Arabic in the Muslim world, the quality he uses to distinguish these from the emerging vernacular administrative language. To take a cue from Adams’ Bilingualism and the Latin Language, many of the people who put up inscriptions had, at best, shaky Greek and Latin. Moreover, as Paul Zanker has shown, memes proliferated in the Roman world, not just epigraphic memes but images and icons. The outcome of the first Roman centuries was, whatever we think about Romanization (verdict: problematic?), one of cultural homogenization through standardized civic architecture and education.

Could this create an imagined community that encompassed the entire empire? Possibly, but it strikes me as more broadly similar to that of the Spanish Empire of the early modern period, where unified cultural, cultic, and linguistic backgrounds provided the potential for imagined community but in practice did not foster nationalism on the level of empire. And the reason, I will suggest, is the same: administrative hubs and the glass ceiling of provincial government. Now, I admittedly have not done a prosopography of provincial elites, nor do I have one on hand. But my impression of the Roman world is that provincial elites generally stayed in their provinces, or at least maintained their power bases there, and in the first centuries of the Empire rarely became prominent in Italy (the Senecas stand out as an obvious exception).***

Cut off from the metropole in the same way that a Peruvian might be from Madrid, they languished—with pride—in Antioch or Athens. In one of the later examples of this, Libanius is proudly an Antiochene in a much deeper sense than he is a Roman. But Antioch is not a nation, and Antiochene pride was based not on an imagined community but on an actual physical community that existed.

Libanius is late, though, to have such civic pride, and this seems to me to be because during the tetrarchic period and beyond, the ceiling on provincial administrative pilgrimage seems to have disappeared. This is most obvious, of course, in the case of Emperors, whether of Balkan or even Spanish stock. But it also rings true for the multitudes of officials who, with talent and pluck, could leave their home towns, find the roaming capital of whichever warlord seemed best, and serve at the illustrious court of the divus imperator. Compare, fruitfully I hope, Libanius and his Antiochene pride with Augustine who, despite a firm sense of Thagastic (?) pride, finds himself drawn away to the capitals and toward a universal identity grounded—only by accident—in the service of God rather than of God’s chosen servant. Augustine could have become a Roman bureaucrat, and he would have felt something akin to the national pride felt by someone who shares a community and a common pilgrimage toward power.

In The World of Late Antiquity, Peter Brown argues that the image of Roma Eterna that haunted Europe for generations, even down to the present, was not the creation of the triumphant first centuries but of the fourth and fifth. He points to the Senatorial elite glorifying the city they lived in, but I wonder—could this explosion of pro-Roman sentiment in fact be a reflection of a growing identification with Rome the metropole as opposed to the local administrative centers that once were the peak of provincial ambition?

Another question, of course, is the peasantry and the lower classes. Did they see themselves as Roman? I don’t know—but I figure Cam Grey does!


*I have been told that there is a massive literature on Romanization, in as many scare quotes as one wants, and that I should read this first. Well at the moment I don’t have the time, but suggestions are welcome.

**Why only gesture? Well, admittedly, I haven’t done the research on these topics and, probably more importantly since I don’t plan on doing serious epigraphical studies this summer, I don’t have my library with me. So citations will be brief and vague, and conclusions will be based on theory rather than evidence. Apologies in advance.

***EDIT: Since posting this earlier today, I read in Foucault's Hermeneutics of the Subject a discussion of Serenus, a cousin of the younger Seneca, who came to Rome to pursue a career in politics--so maybe for those ethnically Roman (creole, to borrow Anderson's term), there was a path to political power from the provinces to the metropole.

© Henry Gruber 2013