2.4 ‘Culture, identity and power’
Having unpacked some of the issues to do with the term ‘Roman Empire’ we turn now to ‘culture, identity and power’, wide-ranging terms involving many different aspects which are often closely interlocked.
The following essay, ‘Looking for culture, identity and power’, is designed to help you consider various factors and experiences that helped to shape culture, identity and power as social forces in the empire. It introduces some key topics and terminology. Please read it now before doing the exercise below.
Click to view Looking for culture, identity and power (PDF)
Look at Plate 2 below, the image on the tombstone of a Roman soldier, Sextus Valerius Genialis, found at Cirencester in Gloucestershire and dated to the middle of the first century AD. Look at the figures of the soldier and the defeated barbarian in the main scene and relate them to what you have read in the essay. (To do this, you may find it helpful to consider the dress of the figures on the mosaic: Figures 1.1, 1.2 and 1.3 in the essay.) What do the soldier and the barbarian wear, and what does this suggest about their respective cultural identities? Look at how each is positioned. What does this suggest about their relationship in terms of power?
Click to view Plate 2: Tombstone of the soldier Sextus Valerius Genialis. Omnium Museum, Cirencester. Mid first century AD (PDF, 1 pages, 1.7MB)
As the essay made clear, culture, identity and power interacted in many different ways across the Roman Empire, and to get the best overall picture we need to work with a variety of material, often scrutinising details such as these. So the rather basic questions in this exercise provide a good lead into wider matters.
Dress, as the essay showed, is often used to signify identity within a culture. Here a major distinction is being made: Genialis is dressed in an elaborate helmet and body-armour; the barbarian is naked. Genialis is fully armed with a sword, shield and lance which he aims downwards at his enemy; he appears to be carrying some sort of standard in his left hand. The significance of this seems to be that Genialis is being depicted as a ‘Roman’, while the barbarian is represented as scarcely human (even his facial features are crude and boorish). This contrast is reinforced by their relative positions: the cavalryman rises self-confidently over the barbarian who seems to be lying huddled against his shield, about to be trampled as well as speared.
Obviously this scene is celebrating Roman power and an apparently effortless triumph of Roman culture over ‘barbarity’, but the identities of the figures, and their relationship, are expressed in such polarised terms that the image is more to do with constructing an idea than with recording an actual incident. Although various details look ‘naturalistic’ – the particular type of armour for instance – the theme of triumphant horseman and conquered enemy is formulaic, and used here as part of the rhetoric about Rome's power.
So even a single image may represent major ideas about culture, identity and power, and may do so with effective simplicity.