The Sons of Remus provides a window into not only how European identities were formed, but how all societies engage in a constant process of negotiation and renegotiation in determining who they are, where they came from, and where they are going…

The Sons of Remus by Andrew C. Johnston (432 pages, Harvard University Press, 2017)

Our conception of the history can sometimes be undermined, if not entirely challenged, by encountering some new source or idea. Consider a quotation from Orosius, a student of St. Augustine hailing from northwestern Spain. Orosius was an influential cleric, theologian, and historian at a time of great upheaval in his native land, a region overwhelmed by the same Goth invaders who assaulted St. Augustine’s beloved Hippo as the Church Father lay dying. Reflecting on Roman imperialism in the Iberian Peninsula—a region scholars have typically identified as a largely pliant Roman province which embraced all aspects of Roman politics and culture—Orosius writes:

For two centuries Spain drenched her fields with her own blood, and was unable to drive off or to resist her overbearing enemy [the Romans], who brought trouble to every home…. If anyone says that the Romans were easier for our ancestors to endure as enemies than the Goths are for us now, let him pay attention and learn how wrong he is.

Such a surprising criticism of Rome—the same Rome that history books cite as bringing civilization, high culture, art, and architecture to the barbarians of Europe—seems apropos given the autonomous community of Catalonia’s 1 October referendum on independence from Spain. Much of the West stands confused, witnessing the possible disintegration of a nation unified since the latter half of the fifteenth century, a nation that discovered the New World, communicating its civilization, and in the process changing the religion, culture, and language of an entire continent. Both Orosius and Catalonia reflect the reality that group identity—be it linguistic, ethnic, or national—is often a bit more complicated than we realize.

Social anthropologists would argue that such cultural, ethnic, and national identities as Spanish or Catalan are largely malleable, constructed, and even to a degree imagined. In Spain’s case, to be “Spanish” is an identity formed over millennia, developed through a confluence of factors, including the migratory patterns of peoples, historical accidents, and the very intentional actions of men and women both inside and outside of the Iberian Peninsula, who saw political, socio-cultural, and religious benefits in forging such a singular Spanish identity.

Such identity formation—and preservation—is the theme of a recent book on the western provinces of the Roman Empire, Gaul (present-day France) and Hispania (present-day Spain), The Sons of Remus, by Yale Professor of Classics Andrew C. Johnston. Dr. Johnston’s examination of identity in Roman France and Spain has much to say about the role of identity as it relates to contemporary crises across the Western world. The text provides a window into not only how such European identities were formed, but how all societies engage in a constant process of negotiation and renegotiation in determining who they are, where they came from, and where they are going. Given our own American crisis of identity, we would do well to listen to these ancient voices.

Overcoming Earlier Historiography of Rome’s West

Dr. Johnston’s overarching goal is to counter a certain tendency in the historiography of Gaul and Hispania that condescendingly views the peoples of these provinces as lacking any valuable pre-Roman cultural identity worth preserving. He quotes one such scholar:

Here is the dominant fact of this history: the Gauls wanted to be Romans, not only to obey the leaders of Rome, but to worship its gods, to speak its language, to copy its customs, to become part of its history, to lose themselves in its identity…. Such was the forgetfulness by the conquered of their traditions.

Such historical scholarship has thus focused attention on following how the peoples of these two provinces in effect became “only Roman,” abandoning all of their pre-Roman identities. This, in Dr. Johnston’s view, is overly simplistic, if not also inaccurate. Through a careful study of the literature, inscriptions, and art of the inhabitants of Gaul and Hispania, one may perceive the careful preservation of one’s local community, its language, and its social-political structures. In contrast to the monolithic categories of Galli and Hispani foisted upon them by their Roman conquerors, a constellation of local communities across these large provinces engaged in a complex dance involving such things as social rituals, political institutions, and foundation myths, all in an attempt to preserve their own identities. Simultaneously, these groups also appropriated certain elements of “Romanness” for their own identity-forming purposes. It is this process of identity preservation and reformation that explains how a late antiquity contemporary of St. Augustine could directly attack Rome, the same Rome that had facilitated his own intellectual, cultural, and spiritual development.

How Identity is Formed and Preserved

Dr. Johnston provides several different angles from which to see this preservation and cohesion of local identity amid a process of “Romanization” (a term that is itself simplistic, given the tremendous variation in how ancient societies integrated into Rome). He first examines how local communities constructed identity through defining and representing themselves, determined their own place in time and space, and conceived of themselves through various rituals. For example, in Gaul, large ethnic states, called civitates, endured throughout the conquest and later imperial period. Likewise did hierarchies of peoples and clans (populi, gentes, gentilitates, cognationes) in Hispania. Dr. Johnston then studies how Gauls and Spaniards negotiated their understanding of self in relation to others, both in their own provinces and in distant imperial locations. This is visible in such places as Burdigala (modern day Bordeaux), where monuments from the imperial period record the local ethnic identities of people from seventeen unique Gallic communities. Similar epigraphic exhibitions are visible in various provincial capitals in Iberia.

Dr. Johnston then moves on to social memory as a central impetus in constructing and performing an identity. He notes that “many rich traditions were transmitted and rehearsed for centuries without leaving traces in the epigraphic or historical record.” Of course, it is difficult to find such traditions in the historical record, but hints of them are visible in the appropriation and re-articulation of Greek mythology by Gallic and Spanish communities. The Hercules myth, perhaps more than others, was a perennial favorite for such recasting. This segues into Dr. Johnston’s consideration of how the Roman past was remembered by provincials and incorporated into their own identities, often through the reinterpretation of Roman myth and history, integrated into local conceptions of the past. Some Gallic peoples, for example, much like their Roman conquerors, actually identified themselves as having Trojan ancestry! Finally, the author examines individual performances of identity and social memory, manifested through office holding and “role-playing” various stereotypes. For example, playing into certain Roman conceptions of “druidism,” Gauls to some degree “performed” being druidic in ways not exactly analogous to their own lived experience. Such role-playing, ironically, confirmed the often inaccurate stereotypes thrust upon those with a fairly opaque druidic lineage.

The author’s diligent, analytic use of a wide variety of primary sources provides him the necessary fodder to successfully combat earlier historiographical assessments of identity in Roman France and Spain. The structure of the text is logical, with helpful summaries in each chapter to guide the reader through some rather dense historical analysis. The prose is at times elegant, though one should approach the text with dictionary in hand (e.g. gentilician, euergetist, centuriate, onomastic, epichoric). He even approaches humor at a few appropriate points—in a fairly explicit discussion of the erotic dancing of the young women of one Iberian tribe (something akin to belly dancing, though apparently far more provocative), Dr. Johnston observes “needless to say, such performances had a powerful effect on their Roman audiences.” Indeed.

A Western Civilization Identity?

For all the book’s strengths, there is perhaps one weakness. Dr. Johnston seems at times suspicious of the identity formed by Western Civilization, blaming various assumptions about Western (and Roman) superiority as responsible for having created the overly-simplistic perception of Roman Gaul and Hispania in the first place. He, for example, criticizes how scholars have explained “the different historical trajectories of Gaul and Greece” (the former being allegedly uncivilized, the latter civilized), which “resorts to the rhetoric of ‘civilization’ and to the arbitrary classification of peoples along an illusory, self-congratulatory spectrum of ‘development.’” This kind of thinking, in Dr. Johnston’s estimate, amounts to a “negation of local cultures in the west,” reinforcing various colonial projects throughout Western history, as “conquered peoples are identified as pre-cultural.” In the case of Gaul and Hispania, this was done, Dr. Johnston claims, because of a “narrowly defined set of commemorative media like long public inscriptions, coinage, monumental narrative art, and vernacular literature.” According to the author, these forms of expression are “in origin, particular to the Greek world, which modern notions of ‘civilization’ that underpin scholarly approaches to the provinces have tended to valorize as universal standards of culture.’”

Dr. Johnston, though not explicitly, seems to believe that there is no such thing as “universal standards of culture,” given his extensive criticism of Western civilization as a metanarrative construct. Implicit as well is a judgment that such things as vernacular literature do not, in fact, represent objective criteria upon which to evaluate a culture’s “development.” It is certainly the case that non-literary cultures have the potential to maintain many praiseworthy aspects of human experience: social cohesion, robust oral traditions, appreciation for the natural environment, etc. Yet given the progression of human civilization over the last several millennia, it is hard not to see vernacular literature as an unequivocal positive good, a development that non-literary cultures are impoverished not to possess. In a way quite different from even the most sophisticated oral traditions, vernacular literature allows for a preservation and expansion of the good, true and beautiful to far greater audiences, thus facilitating far higher standards of public education. Moreover, in his defense of pre-Roman Western European cultures, Dr. Johnston perhaps overreaches—there is no historical evidence that these societies ascended to the sophistication of ancient Greece, a society that produced Homer, Herodotus, and Aristotle, among other intellectual giants. Whatever forces coalesced to create the dynamism of ancient Greek culture, it was a society unparalleled among its contemporaries. As Dante exhorts Ulysses and Diomed in Canto XXVI of his Inferno,

Consider what you came from: you are Greeks!
You were not born to live like mindless brutes
But to follow paths of excellence and knowledge.

This criticism aside, Dr. Johnston is certainly right that any socio-political paradigm that condescendingly looks at other societies as “peoples without a history,” “lacking culture,” or incapable of providing their own unique contribution to the rich, beautiful panoply of human experience is wrong-headed, if not also destined to eat their words when those same “backwards natives” inevitably make their voices heard, sometimes violently.

A Different Roman Renegotiation of Identity

Dr. Johnston on a few occasions references various churchmen, including St. Jerome, St. Gregory of Tours, and St. Martin of Tours, whom he sees as playing into simplistic, ill-informed, or condescending identity paradigms. St. Martin is cited as an example of how Christian missionaries sought to eliminate various topographical features, such as trees, associated with pagan rituals, but which were, in fact, important elements of local identity. Dr. Johnston observes: “The testimonies of vexed churchmen across the west highlight the continued reproduction by local populations of ‘alternative landscapes’ articulated by other kinds of natural features.” Given the author’s broader scholarly goals, such reflections must necessarily reflect a certain sympathy for pagan cultures and their practices. It is however unfortunate that the author largely neglects to note how the Church often participated in that same kind of re-negotiation of pagan rites and sacred spaces precisely to accommodate the preservation of local identity.

Indeed, Christian holy places across Europe are frequently models of the Interpretatio Christiana (“Christian interpretation”) of pagan sites. By my reading, Dr. Johnston cites only one, a shrine built by French bishop Hilarius of Mende in honor of St. Hilary of Poitiers. Moreover, Dr. Johnston’s purpose in citing this example is to argue that the attempt failed to “redirect the superstitious energies of the people.” Yet even if Catholic missionary efforts did apply aggressive measures in undermining or eradicating local cultural practices, they did on other occasions succeed at redirecting pagan priorities towards Church-endorsed objects. For example, consider the transformation of springs across Britain and Celtic northwestern Europe from honoring local divinities to local saints, a development that occurred through the exchange between missionaries and locals. Lourdes, where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to the peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous, is known for its healing waters. It is less well known that the area was once home to a pagan temple dedicated to Gallic gods of water. Perhaps most famously, the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is a profound intersection of Catholic dogma and the pagan imagery of the indigenous Aztec peoples of Mexico.

Ultimately, Dr. Johnston sees the kind of identity negotiations done by local communities in places like Gaul and Hispania as preserving a place for their own social memories and identities amid the broader Roman Empire, as an important, overlooked factor in Rome’s own stability. A socio-political reality like Rome that encouraged local identity, accommodated different understandings of imperial culture, and accepted certain forms of “pluralism and discrepancy,” in effect allowed the “creation of a lasting unity out of an ever vibrant diversity.” Rome—a realm that spanned the known world—prospered because it maintained a careful balance between diversity and unity.

Ironically enough, a different Rome, applying not a political model but a theological one, has likewise successfully navigated the need for both diversity and unity across many centuries. It is the Catholic Church—who proclaims herself one, holy, catholic (i.e. universal), and apostolic—that spans the globe, incorporates a constellation of cultures and languages into its hierarchy and liturgy, and always seeks to find new, creative ways to merge its own culture, traditions, and memory with that of the people groups it encounters and brings into her fold. In a world convulsing under the pressure of competing ideologies and identities—many localist and populist like that in Catalonia—it is to the principle of unity found in Rome that we should look. To slightly modify a quotation from the Polish political philosopher Ryszard Legutko, the Catholic Church “is the last great force that offers a viable alternative to the tediousness of liberal-democratic anthropology.” For all its identity accommodations, Rome the empire fell; Rome the Church perseveres.

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