Ethnicity in the Roman north-west

Rothe, Ursula (2014). Ethnicity in the Roman north-west. In: McInerney, Jeremy ed. A Companion to Ethnicity in the Ancient Mediterranean. Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, pp. 497–513.



It is impossible, within the confines of this chapter, to present a comprehensive account of ethnic developments in the Roman northwest, nor can I do justice to the enormous amount of scholarly work that has focused on precisely this question, particularly in the past 20-30 years. What this chapter aims to do is to present, using selected case studies, a range of different scenarios that give some insight into the complex and varied nature of ethnicity and ethnogenesis in this region in the first-third centuries AD. As the most personal, and at the same time most public, form of material culture, dress stands somewhat apart as a particularly valuable source for ethnic identity, providing, of course, we have the sources for it. It is not a coincidence that Tacitus mentions the toga in his canonical inventory of Roman cultural traits. As Andrew Wallace-Hadrill has recently shown (2008:38-70), the toga played a similar membership-defining role in Roman consciousness as language did in the Greek, with one important difference: as the dress of the Roman citizen, the toga expressed more than any other element of culture the civil and legal nature of Roman identity. It is this characteristic that makes so hard to equate "being Roman" with anything amounting to ethnicity. However, it is also this characteristic which meant that practically anyone in the empire, regardless of their background, could become a Roman citizen, and as such, a "Roman" (see Farney, Chapter 29). The scenario Tacitus describes is not entirely imaginary: the toga was indeed worn in wide parts of the Roman northwest; but so was native dress. The very different nature of Roman identity to more localized group identities means that this is no paradox. Dress, in fact, reflects especially well the varying layers of cultural identity a person living in Rome's northwest provinces could and did have. As a result, in some of the case studies that follow, it will play a central role as a constant for identifying similarities and differences.

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