Something that’s been on my mind for a bit that your professional word may be able to help with. Would you happen to know how ethnically diverse the Greek and Roman empires were?
next question please
…what, you want more? Oh, fine, but for the record this is not the sort of thing people just “happen to know.”
Okay so I’m assuming by “Greek empire” (remember, kids: there was never a politically autonomous and unified state called “Greece” or “Hellas” until 1822) you mean Alexander’s empire (320s BC) and the Hellenistic successor kingdoms (323 BC – 31 BC), and by “Roman empire” you mean Rome starting from the time it becomes a major interregional power (say, following the second Punic War, which ended in 201 BC) rather than just Rome in the time of the Emperors. You could spend like most of a book on each of these just corralling the data that might let us answer this question, but whatevs.
Lesson one: the ancient Greeks and Romans did not think about ethnicity in the same way as we do. In particular, they were not super hung up on the colour of people’s skin – skin colour in ancient art is more often a signifier of gender than race, because women are expected to spend less time outside and therefore have lighter skin (which is another whole thing that we shouldn’t even get into because this is an aristocratic ideal of female beauty and of course lots of Greek and Roman women would have worked outside). Arguably the most important signifier of ethnicity to the Greeks and Romans was actually language, with everyone who didn’t speak Greek or Latin being a “barbarian” (traditionally this word is supposed to come from the Greeks thinking that all foreign languages sounded like “bar bar bar,” although I’ve also heard a convincing argument that it comes from the Old Persian word for taxpayer, barabara, and originally signified all subjects of the Persian king).
In the modern world we have designations of ethnicity that are super broad and grow in large part out of early and long-since-debunked anthropological theory that divided humanity into three biologically distinct races, Caucasoid, Mongoloid and Negroid, and don’t really reflect a lot of important components of ethnicity. The thing is, as the internet will happily tell you ad nauseam, race is a social construct. Like, yes, designations of race describe real physical characteristics that arise from variation within human genetics, but the way we choose to bundle those characteristics is arbitrary, and where we choose to draw the lines is arbitrary (like, for a long time in the US, Greeks and Italians weren’t considered “white,” but today they definitely are, even though nothing changed about their genetics). If we today were brought face to face with a bunch of ancient Greeks and Romans, we would probably be pretty comfortable with assigning a majority of them to the big pan-European tent of modern “whiteness,” but if you had asked them about it, they certainly would not have felt any kinship with the pale-skinned people of northern and western Europe from whom most English-speaking white people today are descended. Those people were every bit as barbarian (and every bit as fair game for enslavement, for that matter) as the darker-skinned folk of the Middle East and North Africa. Ancient Greeks and Italians also had loads of internal ethnic divisions – like, the Latins (the central Italian ethnic group to which the Romans belonged) were a different thing from the Umbrians to their east, the Etruscans to the north and the Oscans to the south. In Greece, you had Dorians in the Peloponnese, Ionians in Attica and Asia Minor, Boeotians and Thessalians in central Greece, Epirotes in western Greece, and DON’T EVEN ASK about the Macedonians, because boyyyyyyyyy HOWDY you are NOT ready for that $#!tstorm. The point is, race and ethnicity can be basically anything that you think makes you different from the people in another community.
So yeah, Alexander’s empire. Alexander the Great conquered Persia, which was already the largest empire the world had ever seen at the time and incorporated dozens of ethnically distinct peoples (including many Greeks of Asia Minor, some of whom willingly fought against Alexander) through a philosophy of loose regional governance and broad religious tolerance. Now, here’s the thing: Alexander had no idea how to run an empire of that scale. No Greek did. No one alive in the world did – except for the Persians. Alexander didn’t have anything to replace the Persian systems of governance or bureaucracy, so… he didn’t. Individual Persian governors were usually given the opportunity to swear loyalty to him and keep their posts; vacant posts were filled with Macedonians, but the hierarchy was basically untouched. Alexander himself married a princess from Bactria (approximately what is now Afghanistan), Roxana, and had a kid with her, and encouraged other Macedonian nobles to take Persian wives as well, to help unify the empire. Unfortunately Alexander, of course, had to go and bloody die less than two years after he’d finished conquering everything, and tradition holds that on his deathbed he told his friends that the empire should go “to the strongest,” which was an incredibly dumb thing to say and caused literally decades of war, which we are not even going to talk about because it is the most Game of Thrones bull$#!t in the history of history. All you need to know is that when the dust settled there were basically three major Greco-Macedonian dynastic powers: the Antigonids in Greece, the Ptolemies in Egypt, and the Seleucids in Persia.
In terms of ethnic makeup the Antigonid kingdom is in principle the most straightforward because they’re basically still running the same Greece that Alexander’s father had conquered. Even then, you should bear in mind that a) most Greek cities had legal provisions for allowing foreigners to live there under certain conditions (“foreigners” often meant Greeks from other cities, but in principle could be anyone), and b) the Greeks had a lot of slaves (many of whom were, again, Greeks from other cities, because that’s fine in ancient Greek morality, but a lot of them would have come from all over the place), and even though the Greeks didn’t count slaves as “people” or consider them a real part of a city’s ethnic composition, WE SHOULD. The Ptolemaic kingdom in Egypt seems to have had a relatively small Greco-Macedonian upper class ruling over a native Egyptian, Libyan and Nubian peasant majority. Members of that ruling class seem to have been kind of snobbish about any mixing between the two – only the very last Ptolemaic ruler, Cleopatra VII (yes, that Cleopatra), even bothered to learn the Egyptian language. However, the Ptolemaic rulers did make some important cultural gestures of goodwill towards the Egyptians. They took the native title of Pharaoh, which previous foreign rulers of Egypt hadn’t, and adopted a lot of traditional Pharaonic iconography like the double crown. They also worshipped some of the most important Egyptian gods, most notably Isis, and may have kind of… deliberately created a new Greco-Egyptian god, Serapis, by blending together Osiris and Dionysus (Serapis actually becomes super important in the Roman period and is widely worshipped even outside Egypt). And then there’s the Seleucids, an empire that did nothing but slowly collapse from the moment it was established. They have a rough time of it because they have the largest land area to cover and dozens of distinct ethnic groups to bring together, and it doesn’t help that they kinda keep doing the Game of Thrones thing for about two hundred fµ¢&ing years. They often get a bad rap in history and have a reputation for oppressing the non-Greek populations of their empire, but that’s probably at least partly because some of our most important sources for the Seleucids are Jewish, and the Seleucid kings’ relationship with the Jews broke down in a fairly spectacular fashion during the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (r. 175-164 BC). It’s not clear whether that’s representative of the Seleucids’ normal relationship with their subject peoples, or a worst case scenario. Also, the Seleucids tend to get painted as villains in the historical record by both the other Greek powers and the Romans, and never really get much of a chance to defend themselves because we don’t have Seleucid histories. What is clear is that they inherited all the ethnic and religious diversity of the Persian Empire, and most of their rulers were half-Persian because they followed Alexander’s example by marrying into the Persian nobility. After an initial period of conflict they also seem to have maintained cordial relations with the Mauryan Empire of India, their neighbour to the east, for several decades, and contemporary Indian sources talk about sending Buddhist missionaries into Seleucid lands, so… like, there might have been a bunch of Greek Buddhists running around the empire; that’s a thing.
Whew. Okay, so that is a criminally brief answer to-
OH CHRIST YOU ASKED ABOUT THE ROMANS AS WELL
WHAT DO YOU PEOPLE WANT FROM ME
Right. Romans. One of the major schools of thought on how the Romans were able to create such an enormous and long-lasting empire in the first place is that their openness to accepting foreigners into their community gave them an enormous manpower advantage over every other ancient Mediterranean state. Greek politics generally operates on the level of cities; even in the age of Alexander, individual cities have quite a lot of legislative autonomy. Citizenship is also something that works on the level of cities: you aren’t a citizen of, say, the Seleucid Empire; you’re a citizen of Antioch, or Tyre, or Babylon, or whatever. But then the Romans happen. The Romans are weird, because they will sometimes just declare that all the people of an allied city are now also citizens of Rome. In the early period of Rome’s expansion in the central Mediterranean, this meant (or so the theory goes) that they could draw upon larger citizen armies and sustain more casualties than their rivals. This is how they beat Pyrrhus, the Greek king of Epirus (r. 297-272 BC), when he invaded Italy in response to disputes between Rome and the Greek colony of Tarentum; this is how they beat Hannibal, the legendary Carthaginian general, even after he annihilated the largest army the Romans had ever fielded at Cannae during the second Punic War (218-201 BC). Now, at this point they are basically still just bringing in Italians, which we might consider ethnically homogenous even if they didn’t, but there’s more.
Once they really start to get going, the Romans enfranchise entire provinces at a time, like when the emperor Claudius (r. AD 41-54) decided to make everyone in Gaul (modern France, more or less) a Roman citizen. The really interesting thing about this particular decision is that we actually havea copy of the speech he made to the Senate in Rome at the time, so we can examine his rationale. Claudius’ argument is basically that being inclusive has always been what has made Rome stronger than its rivals, going right back to their mythological past, when Romulus populated his city with disenfranchised criminals from other communities (and, uh… women that they kidnapped from the next town over). The Romans believed that everything great about their civilisation had originally been learned or borrowed from someone else – metalworking and irrigation from the Etruscans, infantry combat from the Greeks, shipbuilding from the Carthaginians, etc – so it wasn’t a huge stretch for them to believe that all these people should eventually become part of Rome as citizens (well… the ones who weren’t killed or enslaved in the conquest, anyway – no one ever said the Romans were saints).
The reason Claudius feels he needs to justify all this to the Senate is that citizenship (rather than any of the forms of semi-citizen rights that Romans would sometimes grant to their allies) will make rich Gauls eligible to become Senators themselves, and occupy other high-level posts like provincial governorships. The decision affects the ethnic composition of the Senate, so even though he doesn’t actually need their permission to do it, he asks as a courtesy (the emperors’ relationship with the Senate is a weird and complicated thing). Even without being a citizen, you could actually do a great deal in the Roman government in Claudius’ time. Many of the most important jobs in the empire were ones that had existed during the age of the Republic, when Rome was theoretically a democracy, and all of those were restricted to citizens even after they stopped being elected positions – but there was also an imperial bureaucracy that answered directly to the emperor and his aides, and he was free to choose literally anyone to fill those positions. As a result, a lot of emperors deliberately picked slaves and former slaves for loads of senior positions, specifically because their lack of citizen rights meant that they could never be political rivals, and because they were a useful counterbalance to the power of the blue-blooded Roman aristocracy. And, again, slaves can be from basically anywhere. A lot of these administrative slaves were Greeks, because Greek education provided useful skills for running the imperial bureaucracy that the Romans themselves often didn’t have, but emperors could and did commission literally anyonefor these positions.
Eventually the emperor Caracalla (r. AD 211-217) just decided it wasn’t worth keeping track anymore and declared that every freeborn person in the entire empire, which by that point stretched from northern England to Morocco to Romania to Jordan, was now a Roman citizen. All of these people are now “Romans,” regardless of their language or culture or religion; the only criterion is that they not be slaves or former slaves (and even if they’re former slaves, their children will be Roman citizens). And these people can move, in ways that were never possible before the Empire existed, because Rome is the first – and so far the last – political entity ever to unite the entire Mediterranean region, which allows them to wipe out piracy almost completely and jump-start trade and travel in ways that would never happen again for over a thousand years. My own research on Roman glass has led me to encounter glassblowers with Syrian or Jewish names working in northern Italy – people who were probably integral to spreading the technology of glassblowing to western Europe. The Roman army also moves people around – like, a lot. You might enlist in your home town in Syria, then serve on Hadrian’s wall and retire in northern England – in fact, we know that this happened because we’ve found stuff like inscriptions in the Aramaic language in Roman Britain.
Also Rome had, like… a whole dynasty of African emperors one time. Septimius Severus (r. AD 193-211) and his successors were part Italian, part Punic (of Carthaginian descent – ultimately Middle Eastern, since the Carthaginians were originally a Phoenician colony) and part Berber (native North African), and Severus grew up in what is now Tunisia. And that wasn’t really a big deal for the Romans, 1) because Severus’ Italian ancestry made him a Roman citizen, which trumps all other signifiers of ethnicity, and 2) Rome had already had a couple of emperors of Iberian (= Spanish) descent by this point who were considered some of the best ever, and the Iberians are just as “barbarian” as the Berbers as far as Rome is concerned. Other Roman emperors of varied ethnicities include Philip (Arabian), Diocletian (Illyrian), the three Gordians (probably Cappadocian), and Elagabalus (Syrian, and incidentally the gayest Roman of all time; like, normally I would warn you to be super cautious about using modern labels like “straight” and “gay” for Romans because they just didn’t think about sexual orientation in those terms, but I make an exception here because Elagabalus was super gay).
Oh, and just because someone will definitely bring it up if I don’t, there was a big fuss in the news a few years back because someone discovered the skeletons of what they claimed were Chinese people living in, of all places, Roman Britain. And to me, one Chinese family in Britain in the first century AD is not particularly a dramatic stretch of plausibility (a handful of people could easily slip through the historical record and just never be mentioned), but the evidence in this particular case falls some way short of “proof.” There’s chemical data that suggests these individuals grew up somewhere far away from Britain, which is well and good, but the thing that points specifically to China is not the isotopic analysis but a study of bone morphology, and trying to determine someone’s ethnicity on the basis of what their bones look like, on the universal scale of things that are sketchy, ranks “sketchy as all fµ¢&.” Again, I’m happy to believe that they exist, because China (Seres in Latin) and Rome (Dà-Qín in Chinese) definitely knew about each other, and we occasionally find Roman artefacts and coins in eastern Asia, or Chinese artefacts in the eastern Roman Empire, but the specific evidence for these individuals isn’t there, in my opinion.
…that was a brief answer. Let it stand as a warning to others.