Category Archives: Towards an Anthropological Archaeology of Roman Colonialism

Session Abstract – Towards an Anthropological Archaeology of Roman Colonialism

This session aims to encourage engagement with anthropological studies of colonialism that have shown great effectiveness in conceptualizing the long-term dynamics of cultural contact at the local level. Roman studies have tended to neglect anthropologies of colonialism, which have a long and productive history of engaging with social theory and other critical approaches to such things as the constitution of colonial landscapes, the recontextualization of ‘foreign’ material culture, and the effects of hybridization processes on local identities, practices and ideologies.      

Social processes unfolded, and were experienced, differentially within and among communities, across regions and over time, as certain social spheres reacted to local transitions and as historical actors experimented with diverse strategies in negotiating new realities shaped by colonialism. Uncovering the specific historicity of past communities in transition will help our understanding of discrepant experience and the movement of people, goods and ideas through local and inter-regional networks in the Roman Empire. The goal of using anthropologically informed local approaches to Roman colonialism is not to replace the ‘Romanization’ meta-narrative with that of a plurality of ‘Roman colonialisms’ but to allow the exploration of the possibilities of human action under colonial conditions by focusing on the contexts of local interactions, the materials by which such interaction was made possible, and by relating these to macro-scale processes and developments.

Anthropologies of colonialism can furthermore serve as a valuable source of comparative information to inform our work. Reversely, with one of the largest archaeological and historical datasets at their disposal, roman archaeologists can make valuable contributions to anthropological studies of colonial encounters commonly concerned with the more recent past of European colonialism. Lastly, an ‘anthropology of archaeology’ could explore how Roman colonialism has and continues to shape archaeological perceptions, practices and interpretations in other colonial contexts.


Exploring the Potential of Actor-Network-Theory for Roman Archaeology – Astrid Van Oyen (Cambridge)

The proposed paper will explore the potential of Actor-Network-Theory (ANT) for archaeological thought and practice. Whereas ANT is slowly making its way into archaeological theory (see the recent group on “symmetrical archaeology”, as well as the volume on material agency by Carl Knappett and Lambros Malafouris (2008)), it has largely been overlooked in Roman archaeology.

The main reason for its holding a promising potential for archaeological application lies in its rejection of the modernist nature/society dualism, which corresponds with similar polar oppositions such as objectivity/subjectivity and human/thing. Since archaeology tends to implement social theories that are based on empirical study of present-day societies, it often has a hard time moulding those to suit a database of ancient objects. If, however, the nature/society dualism is rejected – as advocated by Actor-Network-Theory – archaeology could contribute actively to the creation of interdisciplinary social theory, since all actors (animate and inanimate) would be granted the same a priori ontological position.

This paper will first identify the concrete archaeological themes on which an ANT-inspired perspective could shed new light, and then touch on the crucial question of how to relate the theoretical side to archaeological data. Which adjustments need to be made to ANT in order to suit the discipline-specific needs of archaeology? In particular, it is believed that cultural change in the Roman empire – and the by now well-rehearsed debate on Romanization – could benefit from an approach as sketched above, whose central tenet is to replace the often invoked vague causes and labels (be they ‘social’, ‘global’, or else) by concrete chains of human/non-human associations. Not aiming at presenting definite answers or developing extended case studies, this theoretical mind play will seek to provoke in-depth dialogue and debate.

Late Republican Theatre Construction in the Cultural Milieu of the Iberian Peninsula – Zeynep Aktüre (Izmir, Turkey)

Gosden[1] outlines a triple typology of colonialism according to which Roman Britain exemplifies the “middle ground” that creates new modes of difference instead of acculturation as in the “violence” model through armed invasion and mass death. The third type of “colonialism within a shared cultural milieu” embraces the possibility that ‘colonies’ may have altered the ‘homeland’ if operating in a period when identities were in the process of creation. In the resulting flexible urban network, a symbolic centre and hierarchy is maintained through the agency of local leaders differentiated by an “elite” culture.

This paper discusses Late Republican theatre-construction in the Iberian Peninsula and Rome to suggest the compliance of the experience in the Roman Hispaniae with the third model, on the basis of:

  • Late Republican date of the theatres in Acinipo, Carteia, and Gades;
  • influence, in the urbanism of Gades, of the local Balbus family, renowned by their theatre in Augustan Rome;
  • Hispania’s centrality to the Caesar-Pompey struggle, both of whom conceived of a permanent theatre in Rome;
  • Caesar’s company by Vitruvius in Hispania before the latter’s outline of a Roman type of theatre building and the Hispanic/Carthaginian origin of mortar construction rolled between moulds of timber, as in the Theatre of Gades;
  • Blázquez’s[2] finding the pre-Roman precedents of Roman gladiatorial combats in the Iberian Peninsula;
  • Étienne’s[3] finding the origins of the Roman Imperial Cult in fides Iberica;
  • Augustus’ stay in Tarraco in 26-25 BC, which temporarily made the city the centre of the Early Roman Empire.

[1]     Gosden, C. 2004. Archaeology and Colonialism. Cultural Contact from 5000 BC to the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[2]     Blázquez Martínez, J.M. 1994. ‘Possibles precedentes prerromanos de los combates de gladiadores romanos en la Península Ibérica’, pp. 31-44 in El anfiteatro en la Hispania romana. Coloquio internacional Mérida, 26-28 de noviembre 1992, edited by J.M. Álvarez Martínez and J.J. Enríquez Navascués. Mérida: Junta de Extremadura, Consejería de Cultura.

[3]     Étienne, Roland 1958. Le Culte Imperial dans la Péninsule Ibérique d’Aguste a Dioclétien. Paris: E. de Boccard.

Building Roman Landscapes: Assessing Roman Economic Exploitation in Southern Etruria During the Republic – Michael S. Teed (Buffalo)

The reasons why Rome expanded into Italy and the Mediterranean during the Republican period have always been an important topic for scholars to examine, as the events of this period heavily influenced Rome’s later actions and identity. The majority of scholarship concerning Roman expansion suggests that Roman bellicosity and the voracious desire for fertile agricultural land led to the Roman expansion in the Republican period.  However, these claims are often based solely on insufficient historical sources and they fail to utilize any archaeological evidence to assess the historicity of these claims. In a small step to address that problem, this study examines the settlement distribution and economic exploitation of a small region in Southern Etruria before and after the Roman arrival using archaeological field survey data from the Civitella Cesi and Vicus Matrini surveys. This is done by examining both Etruscan and Roman site locations on an agricultural suitability map based on Roman preferences for agricultural land. In this way, it is possible to evaluate one aspect of Roman expansionist intentions through the placement of settlements in the most agriculturally suitable areas. While this study is by no means comprehensive, it aims to highlight the possibilities of using new technologies and archaeological data to examine this frequently neglected area of Roman studies.

Material Perspectives in the Roman Lower Rhineland: Expanding the Limits of what Archaeological Assemblages Can Tell Us – Karim Mata (University of Chicago)

This paper explores the ways anthropological studies of colonial entanglements have approached material culture in recent years. These have stressed the importance of local logics and the historical and socio-cultural context in which materials and objects circulated. There has furthermore been growing attention for variation in assemblages based on the realization that selective adoption and rejection, along with the creative recontextualization of materials, together shaped local assemblages in dynamic ways. Such complexity is ideally approached through a combination of quantitative, qualitative, contextual and comparative analyses of large data samples. Critical engagement with this body of research makes it possible to reflect upon the ways material culture has been treated by Roman archaeologists in the Lower Rhineland. It will be argued that there is a need for reevaluating the way common attitudes and approaches towards material culture are producing local narratives that are too descriptive, static and uniform.

Consuming like a Roman? Colonial Consumption at Ancient Lattara, France – Ben Luley (University of Chicago)

Within anthropology, the subject of consumption has been an important focus for understanding modern society, and has also been used more recently in more ancient examples as well.  In this presentation I suggest that an approach focusing on the consumption of the material world can offer invaluable insights into the processes of Roman colonialism.  Specifically, by focusing on the selective incorporation of certain objects into the daily routines and practices of people living in the region of southern Gaul that became Gallia Narbonensis, we can better understand and appreciate the effects of colonialism upon the daily lives of ordinary people and their reactions to living under a regime that was radically different from that of their ancestors.  In this case, “consumption” does not refer simply to the end result of production and distribution, but rather an agentive social process through which cultural and social identities are created and reshaped through the selective appropriation and use of material objects.  By looking at how objects were incorporated into the daily lives of people living at the site of ancient Lattara in southern France, I argue that the ceramic evidence indicates a limited interest Roman culture and practices at the basic level of cooking and food preparation in the different households of the site.  Instead, individuals at Lattara appear to have continued to select traditional vessels for cooking, despite important changes in the actual production of ceramic wares in Gallia Narbonensis.

Everything is Full of Gods: Rethinking Religion in the Roman Empire – Joe Bonni (University of Chicago)

Archaeological efforts to recreate local perspectives of colonized peoples can and should focus – like many anthropological works of living populations – on how religious practices are used in the construction of local identity.   Religious practices are entirely entangled in colonial projects of the past and the present. To explore colonial processes, the making of colonial citizens and the various forms of cooperation, ambivalence and resistance of local groups to colonial projects, Roman Dura Europos (sacked in 256/7 CE), with its ethnically and religiously diverse population and numerous historical links to various regional imperial projects (Greece, Rome, Persia) offers an appropriate site for investigating concepts such as acculturation, hybridization, internal competition and various forms of navigating relationships with an imperial center while simultaneously expressing and recreating regional and local traditional lifestyles.  This presentation will examine some of the differences and similarities of religious practice at Europos along with a brief inquiry into the possible role and significance of openly practicing Christian and Jewish populations at a time and place where traditional narratives suggest such communities were not prospering or openly practicing.  I will argue that an engagement with artifacts and architecture related to ritual practice can reveal to what degree indigenous Syrians and conquered Greek and Persian populations preserved their traditional practices, adapted Roman ones and tolerated or encouraged new ones giving voice to minority groups such as local Syrians and Christian and Jewish communities, actors oft ignored or elided in traditional narratives of Rome.