The Definition of Being Roman in Ancient Terms

From the Lecture Series: The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World

By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University

Being Roman or even becoming Roman was not so difficult when Rome was trying to unify as many countries as it could by imposing the same language and rules. Romans were not only those who lived in Rome under the rule of Roman leaders. They could be living in the Italian peninsula and still be Roman. How was that possible?

Statue of Roman Nobel Man isolated at black background.
Being Roman meant enjoying a higher life standard in most of the empire, but it also brought along the responsibility of peacekeeping in the world. (Image: Oleg Senkov/Shutterstock)

The Romans made the Mediterranean world inhabitable in a way that it had never been before. They were extremely cruel to those that were considered enemies, but that was known to everyone. However, the period from A.D. 96 to 180 ca be regarded as the happiest and prosperous time of all time!

Early Roman Life

The first two centuries A.D. were among the best of history. Civil wars and internal conflicts were at their lowest. The Principate, i.e., rule by one man, was securely in place. A moderately prosperous family could have a level of material comfort higher than in any pre-modern age. A rich family could have a lifestyle comparable to the rich people of today, and sometimes even better.

Of course, there was a huge economic gap, and there were some very poor people as well. Yet, compared to all the previous lifestyles, many people could confidently say that life had never been so good.

This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Limits of Being Roman

Being Roman was not restricted to one nation and lifestyle. The Roman society back then was as diverse as, for example, the American society today. There was even the possibility that some farmers living on the outskirts of the empire could not speak Roman. Yet, they were considered Roman.

Bas-relief and sculpture of ancient Roman soldiers
Being Roman was no longer limited to borders and place of birth when the Roman empire expanded up to Britain. (Image: salajean/Shutterstock)

There was a common identity created under being Roman, regardless of borders and the country. The extraordinary uniformity that the Roman state imposed all over the empire, in terms of institutions and architecture was a leading force in creating the Roman identity.

Maybe in the early period of Roman history, being Roman was defined as those who come from the city of Rome, but that changed in 300 B.C. After 300 B.C., anyone living within the expanding borders of Latium was called Roman.

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Roman Citizenship

Romans were expanding their territory into the Italian peninsula and then into the Mediterranean. All the people conquered by the Romans were considered Roman until the term applied to almost all nations living under Roman rule.

The identity got so strong that in A.D. 212, Emperor Caracalla granted citizenship to every free man living within the borders of the Roman Empire. This was a completely new way of viewing human identity. However, it did not fully erase racial prejudices.

For example, when Julius Caesar 250 years previously appointed some Gauls to the rank of senator, the Romans made many jokes about them. They also had racial prejudices within the kingdom, and the rich class would despise other Romans for being commoners, plebeians, and upstarts. Nevertheless, they were still all Romans and had the right to enjoy the same territorial security and services. They all believed that being Roman meant being the top nation.

This novel view of identity did not exist before, except for the Egyptians living under the pharaohs, and perhaps for the Persians under their kings. Still, they were much smaller communities.

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Slavery in the Roman Lifestyle

Slavery was a common part of Roman life back then. In fact, almost all of the ancient world believed in the rightness of slavery. The difference in the Roman empire was that eventually, they granted citizenship to slaves as well. Freeing the slaves already existed, but granting citizenship and opportunities for advancement and enrichment was thoroughly new.

Slaves had no rights, but they could expect things, and many of them did.

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The Peacekeepers

Being Roman also included seeing oneself as having the leading peacekeeping role in the world. This was one reason why they imposed the same language, legal system and to some extent, the same standard of living on nations that they conquered.

Part of an unattributed mosaic in Zippori Archaeological National Park, depicting revelers and attendants of the Dionysus party.
Romans thought of themselves as those responsible for peacekeeping in the world, and they tried to do that by imposing the same rules and standards. (Image: William Hammer/Shutterstock)

As they were actively conquering the world, their territory included around six million people throughout the Mediterranean and regions far beyond, including Britain.

This mindset is evident in Virgil’s Aeneid, written in the reign of Augustus. The hero, Aeneas, goes to Hades to visit his father, Anchises. Anchises tells his son about the history of Rome and a definition of Rome’s mission: parcere subjectis et debellare superbos, which means “to humble the proud and spare the subjected.”

Being Roman was apparently not just enjoyable, but brought along the daunting task of unifying the world for peace.

Common Questions about Being Roman

Q: Were most of the Romans poor?

The gap between the poor and rich in Roman society was big, but compared to other dynasties, being Roman had the benefit of living a fairly good life. However, there were still many beggars, thieves, and prostitutes.

Q: What gave Romans a sense of common identity?

One of the main reasons that all Romans had a common sense of being Roman was the extraordinary uniformity that the Roman state was able to impose all over the empire, both in terms of its institutions and in terms of its architecture.

Q: Did all Romans live in Rome?

No, being Roman eventually applied to all people who lived under the Roman rule as they expanded their territory out of Latium into the Italian peninsula and then out of the Italian peninsula into the Mediterranean.

Q: Did Romans feel like peacekeepers of the world?

A unique feature of being Roman was seeing themselves performing a vital peacekeeping role in the world. That is why they tried to impose the same language, the same legal system and to some extent, the same standard of living on about 6 million people, over a vast geographical area.

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