Transformations of Romanness: Early Medieval Regions and Identities

Clemens Gantner

July 1, 2018 | Clemens Gantner | HI Research Blog |

On the new collaborative volume edited by Walter Pohl, Clemens Gantner, Cinzia Grifoni and Marianne Pollheimer-Mohaupt.

In the coming days, the volume ‘Transformations of Romanness: Early Medieval Regions and Identities’ is about to appear as part of the De Gruyter Millennium Studies Series – in fact it is going to be on sale at the International Medieval Congress 2018, starting next week. We felt this would merit a short announcement and introduction on this blog.

Roman identity is one of the most interesting cases of social identity because over the course of time, it could mean so many different things. Scholars have dealt with its development throughout Antiquity in recent years; some studies have also been devoted to the role of Roman identity in Byzantium. For the early medieval West, in spite of some valuable research, a comprehensive and comparative study has been lacking to date. Much research has been done on the reception of Roman cultural contents or on Roman law, the reuse of Roman spolia or architectural remains, or on the history of the idea of empire. It has rarely been explicitly asked, however, what it meant to be Roman and to whom. It is a difficult topic: does the relative lack of attestations in the sources mean that it was taken for granted, or that it did not matter anymore? Being Roman had many facets in the period, for instance, Greek-speaking subjects of the Byzantine Empire, inhabitants of the city of Rome, autonomous civic or regional groups, Latin speakers under ‘barbarian’ rule in the West or, increasingly, representatives of the Church of Rome. Eventually, the Christian dimension of Roman identity gained ground. The shifting concepts of Romanness represent a methodological challenge for studies of ethnicity because, depending on its uses, Roman identity may be regarded as ‘ethnic’ in a broad sense, but under most criteria, it is not. Romanness is indeed a test case for how an established and prestigious social identity could acquire many different shades of meaning, which we would class as civic, political, imperial, ethnic, cultural, legal, religious, regional or as status groups.

The present volume contains the results of several conferences and workshops held in Vienna and Leeds between 2013 and 2015. It provides a broad regional overview, and concentrates as far as possible on the central aspect of identity. Some key questions are: Who identified himself or herself ‘Roman’ after the end of Roman rule? Whom did others identify as such? How did outside perceptions correspond to self-identifications? What related names were used as an alternative, such as Latini or the vernacular name Walchen/Vlachs? What were the distinctive features of these identities – were these ‘Romans’ regarded as a gens, a civic, regional or cultural group, a political body or a religious community, were they defined by their language, legal or social status? And on the other hand, which groups that we would regard as ‘Roman’ (because they were descended from the population of Roman provinces) carried other names, for instance, regional or civic designations (Aquitani, Sermesianoi, Neapolitani) or social/functional ones (barscalci, milites). The role of Romanness in Byzantium and in the Islamic East is also an issue here, as is the appropriation of Roman identity by the popes in a complex web of Christian, political and ethnic strategies of identification and distinction.

To start this in depth study on modes and levels of Romanness after the Roman empire, three introductory contributions are juxtaposed to each other. Three renowned scholars in the field of late antique and early medieval identity research, Walter Pohl (Vienna, head of the project), Guy Halsall (York) and Yitzhak Hen (Beer Sheva), offer  three different, but comprehensive overviews on interrelating aspects of the topic. Taken together, the contributions create a multilayered and many-faceted picture of how ideas of “Being Roman” changed and shifted during the gradual transition of the Western Roman Empire into a Europe of kingdoms and gentes in the course of the early middle ages. This section is backed up by case studies on Late Antiquity.

The volume then takes the readers on a tour around the Mediterranean and even beyond. It starts with the Romanness of the Byzantine Empire, with its core area in Constantinople and Anatolia, but also the Balkan region. The collection then crosses over the Adriatic to Italy. For the Apennine Peninsula, the City of Rome is tackled in three articles, which form a comparative section, and rightfully so, as in the city regional and broader meanings of Romanness co-existed and played different roles at different points in time. Other parts of Italy underwent partly different, partly similar, but no less intriguing developments, which have also been addressed in depth. The chapter on Gaul, which probably has the greatest richness in sources in our period, forms another centerpiece of the volume; it provides insights into historiography, hagiography, law codes and material culture. Spain is shown in its Gothic and Muslim guises respectively. Thereafter, the volume leaves the Mediterranean shores for two test cases further north, up to post-Roman Britain. By then, we have nearly come full circle around the former Roman Empire, with the last missing pieces being North Africa and the Near East; chapters on both round off this collection of articles.

‘Being Roman’ had been a decisive factor in life in Antiquity – and it continued to be one in the early Middle Ages. The present volume provides a broad and encompassing overview of modes of Romanitas, but also fascinating in-depth studies on particular cases. The editors and contributors thereby hope to promote awareness and wider-reaching scholarly discussion on this important topic.