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Identities in the Roman Empire – A complex problem and a lesson for today

Professor Felix K Maier discusses his research into how social identities correlated with the success of the Roman Empire

History – particularly in premodern times – is a series of wars and conquests. In between those manifold encounters, conflicts and shifts of power, there emerge large empires which can maintain their reign for quite a long time, like Ancient Egypt, the Assyrian Empire, the Zhou dynasty, the Roman Empire, the Arab Empire, to name but a few.

When analysing the ‘success’ and the continuity (in political-military terms) of these empires, we often resort to the empire’s military or technical superiority over their opponents and the subjected peoples. Such arguments certainly hit a point, but they are only one side of the coin and they particularly leave out other – more hidden – dynamics, such as the perspective of the subjugated living in the empire.

My project focuses on one of those aspects, namely the different identities in the Roman Empire. It explores how the different peoples in the Imperium Romanum saw themselves: as Romans, as Gauls, as Syrians, as Graeco-Romans? Or something in-between? The study also examines the combination of individual identities and how this correlated with a supralocal identity of the Roman empire.

Although the Roman Empire has long since declined and although many parameters have changed, the results show that much of the evidence can still be compared with present-day phenomena.