Whilst we think of ancient Rome as a unitary ethnic identity, the birth of Rome was all about assembling a number of sub-cultures into a new whole. This was not simply achieved through ethnic deletion but rather through assimilation and gradual absorption of the many local customs over time.
The approach created opportunity for those populations who had been taken over to actually create their own career and future, reshaping Roman society itself. It wasn’t always pacific and also resulted in revolts, but the approach was largely successful. It remained a characteristic of the later Roman Empire in what is known as “Romanisation”. It was also a bedrock of the shift to Christianity over 1000 years later: rather than delete and replace previous customs it was much more effective to acknowledge them and reshape them towards the new reality; for example replacing the fertility festival of Juno in February with Saint Valentine’s day.
These few notes capture some thoughts and ideas about the birth of Rome and the development of archaic Latin culture in the period from the 8th – 2nd centuries BC. Visiting a range of Italian cities including Tarquinia, Cerveteri, Roman Pompeii, Nocera and Paestum it is evident how a number of local cultures had many similarities yet also their own ethnic differences. Were they simply wiped out? Can they tell us something about the development of their most successful neighbour?
Greek colonies in the south of Italy pushed northwards and spread their own cultural influences. Etruscans, Latins, Sabines, Oscans, Samnites, Lucanians and other Italic peoples were coalescing into local identities, sometimes allied to one another and at other times warring for territorial dominance of resources, waterways, agricultural land and pastures for their cattle. Each of these were themselves an assemblage of smaller local groups, each with their own local characteristic, a village or fortified area on a given hill or mountain. Just like ancient Rome on the Capitoline and Palatine hills.
It is interesting to note how they had their own local languages and alphabets developed: Greek, Etruscan, Oscan, Nuceran, Latin and others were very much alive in parallel. Several of them even at the time of Pompeii’s destruction in 79AD. Roman dominance incorporated them into a unitary existence. It was recorded that Emperor Claudius was one of the last to know Etruscan language and wrote books on their culture. On the other hand, there are graffiti in Pompeii written in Oscan. Pontius Pilate was an Equestrian of Samnite origins – as his name suggests he was from the Samnite tribe of the Ponti(!) not Latin.
Visiting the city of Paestum, further to the south of Italy we can see a number of funeral paintings which portray events from every day life. It is interesting to compare them, and their similarities with those of Etruscan cities such as Tarquinia much further to the north. This gives us a sense of the many similarities across these cultures with that of Rome such as a love for Gladiatorial fights at funerals or of hunting and chariot racing.
In conclusion, the birth of Rome wasn’t a case of a culture coming out of nowhere and deleting those around it. It was more a case of various cultural identities coming together over time and the Romans having had the ability to incorporate and thread them together into a form of coexistence. Perhaps this can give us new ideas about the social reasons for the fall of the Roman empire.