Romanization in the Middle of Nowhere: The Case of Segobriga
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Abstract: This study addresses the problem of historical change in a medium-sized town in the provincial backwater of a large, premodern empire. It attempts to illuminate the intersection between sociopolitical order and cultural production, and the mutually constitutive relationship between asymmetric power and translocal culture, in the town of Segobriga in central Spain during the period c. 200 BCE–200 CE, at the height of the Roman empire. It argues that it was the very fact of Roman empire—and, in particular, the specific configurations of power prevailing within it—that drove the widespread replication of a distinctively Roman cultural package in Segobriga, especially in the public sphere (architecture, epigraphy, and coinage), and that can explain the dramatic efflorescence of Roman culture in this unexpected place.
This study addresses the problem of historical change in a medium-sized town in the provincial backwater of a large, premodern empire. It attempts to illuminate the intersection between sociopolitical order and cultural production, and the mutually constitutive relationship between asymmetric power and translocal culture. In order to illustrate this dynamic relationship between power and culture, this investigation focuses on the town of Segobriga, in central Spain, during the period c. 200 BCE–200 CE, when the Iberian peninsula was first conquered by and then absorbed into the Roman imperial state. The main argument is that it was the very fact of Roman empire—and, in particular, the specific configurations of power prevailing within it—that drove the widespread replication of a distinctively Roman cultural package and that can explain the dramatic efflorescence of Roman culture in this unexpected place.
So how do we identify “Roman culture,” and where do we find it within the far-flung territories ruled by the Roman imperial state? Let us define “culture” (for the purposes of this study) as a complex of objects, practices, and beliefs characteristic of persons who see themselves as belonging to a more or less coherent group. “Roman culture,” on this definition, refers to a distinctively Roman complex of such objects, practices, and beliefs, with the designation “Roman” functioning here as a convenient shorthand for “Italic,” and also overlapping (if not quite interchangeable) with the designations “metropolitan,” “central,” and “imperial,” since these terms usefully convey the very close links between the city of Rome, its symbolic centrality, and the concentration of imperial authority there, and remind us that Roman culture was always ideologically charged because of its association with the center of power.
Conventional indices of Roman culture (thus defined) include Roman urbanism and the monumentalization of public space; Roman architecture, both civic and domestic; Roman religion (deities, objects, and modes of worship); the Latin language (especially in public inscriptions); Roman nomenclature; Roman material culture (from jewelry and luxury goods to ceramics and tablewares); Roman art; Roman taste (as reflected, for example, in clothing, portraiture, and hairstyles); Roman dietary habits and foodways; and Roman burial practices.
The geographical spread of such indices of Roman culture within the Roman empire was very uneven in spatial terms, as we would expect in a diverse, premodern polity, but nevertheless patterned in a clear way. The main contrast was between the Mediterranean region, on the one hand, and its continental hinterlands on the other, with cities, wealth, social status, political authority, and power, and together with these things, the overall incidence of Roman culture, concentrated in the former. There existed a similar but less pronounced contrast between East and West, with higher rates of urbanization and greater concentrations of wealth in the East (or, rather, the central and eastern thirds of what would become the Roman empire) prior to the Roman conquest giving rise to a preexisting social and political infrastructure that was conducive to the take-up and diffusion of an empire-wide, metropolitan culture, at the level of the social elite, that partly transcended the linguistic divide between Greek East and Latin West.
In general, wealth, expenditure, and cultural production were concentrated in cities. Cities in the Roman empire tended to be grouped in clusters, which intensified cultural interaction, and to be located either within agriculturally productive landscapes or in places with easy access to supraregional networks of commercial exchange, above all on (or near) the Mediterranean coast, or inland along navigable rivers. Geography, in other words, set the basic parameters within which urbanization flourished, and (more to the point here) where Roman cultural production was most intense.
At a glance, then, there seems to be a strong correlation between urban density, on the one hand, and the nexus wealth/power/cultural production, on the other. That is a convenient place to start, but it raises an immediate problem. For it is precisely this empire-wide framework for the spatial distribution of Roman culture that makes Segobriga such an outlier, since the town was not located in a wealthy, heavily urbanized region, nor was it very well connected to the wider Mediterranean world. And yet it was a heavily “Romanized” town on virtually any definition of that term. The challenge, then, is to explain the intensity of Romanization in this marginal town, and to understand how, and why, we can find evidence for this form of acculturation in the middle of nowhere.
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Let us begin by placing Segobriga within in its wider regional setting in central Spain. Central Spain is defined by an extensive plateau, known since the late eighteenth century as the Meseta (“Great Table”), embracing a total area of about 100,000 square kilometers. Divided into a northern and southern plate by a rugged mountain range, the cordillera or sistema central, and drained by two east–west rivers, the Duero in the north and the Tajo in the south, the Meseta is made up of a jumble of alluvial plains and limestone plateaus, its landscapes characterized by relatively poor soils, rocky outcroppings, and dense patches of oak forest. The prevailing climate is of the continental type: dry and marked by extreme temperatures in summer and winter. Mediterranean staples, especially grapes and olives, could not be cultivated on a large scale here. In the premodern period, the most important of the limited natural resources of the Meseta were timber, domesticated livestock, and above all mineral deposits, especially iron and silver.
While these Castilian uplands form the geological heart of the Iberian peninsula, they were not well connected to the Mediterranean-wide networks of power and prosperity centered on the city of Rome. Even within the Iberian peninsula itself, the Meseta as a whole was a marginal zone. Especially pronounced is the contrast, first, with the entire Mediterranean littoral, stretching from the Pyrenees to the Straits of Gibraltar, and second, with the two great river valleys of the Iberian peninsula, the Ebro (in the northeast) and the Baetis (in the south). In the Roman period, these regions were distinguished by dense populations, high degrees of urbanization, agriculturally productive landscapes, commercial prosperity, concentrations of wealth, and numerous channels of upward mobility for local elites. Conventional indices of Romanization in these regions, as enumerated above, are accordingly high, especially in the cities. In a schematic distinction between regions that were “plugged in” to the central grid of Roman imperial power and communications and those that were not, central Spain would certainly fall into the latter category. In terms of imperial communications, urbanization, wealth, and Roman culture, the whole Meseta, in brief, was very much a provincial backwater.
Segobriga itself is located in the middle of the southern Meseta (Figure 1, p. 4), about 100 km southeast of Madrid. The earliest remains at the site consist of a series of Bronze Age burials dated to the middle of the second millennium BCE. The pre-Roman archaeology of the site is very thin, but several finds, including iron tools and Italic ceramics, suggest permanent inhabitation from as early as the fifth century BCE. Given the site’s location atop a limestone outcropping (c. 850 m high), it probably functioned in the pre-Roman period as a typical Iron Age hillfort (castro), which Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century CE, locates “at the tip of Celtiberia” (Natural History 3.25: caput Celtiberiae), a Greek and Roman label for a Celtic ethnolinguistic zone located in the northeastern quadrant of the Meseta. A scatter of passing references in later Greek and Roman literary accounts indicate that on several occasions Segobriga was drawn into the military conflicts that underpinned Roman expansion in the Iberian peninsula in the last two centuries BCE, including the wars against the Lusitanian rebel leader Viriathus in the late 140s BCE, and those fought during the insurgency of Sertorius in the mid 70s BCE. But this very limited evidence does not allow anything like a continuous narrative of the town’s history in this period. Pliny identifies Segobriga as a (civitas) stipendiaria, a “tax-paying town” (Natural History 3.25), the standard designation for an indigenous settlement in Roman territory, but in fact it had been elevated, under the first emperor Augustus (around 15 BCE), to the status of municipium iuris Latini, “municipality with the Latin Right,” a more privileged administrative rank that conferred several rights on the town and its inhabitants, especially the local elite (see below, 15–17).
From the Augustan period (27 BCE–14 CE) onwards, Segobriga came to look more and more like a typical, prosperous, mid-sized provincial town in the western Roman empire, with a Roman-style monumental city center and a sociopolitical order dominated by a wealthy local elite. We do not know much about the town’s development after the initial “boom period” in the first century CE, but it certainly survived the empire-wide contraction in urbanization that took place during the so-called third-century crisis. Urban developments in the fourth and fifth centuries CE appear to tell different stories. On the one hand, there is evidence for the redecoration of the monumental bath complex, which suggests continued investment in the buildings of the civic center. On the other hand, Segobriga was one of the few Iberian cities that abandoned its amphitheater (in the late third/early fourth century), converting the structure to residential use. This repurposing of public space may reflect economic decline or a turning away from a classical conception of the proper use of civic space (or both). In any case, the daily life of the town in this late Roman period is well beyond the reach of our evidence. We know that Segobriga was a bishopric in the Visigothic period (c. 500–700 CE), and that it boasted a Visigothic church. Segobriga seems to have been abandoned during the Arabic and Berber invasions of the eighth century, the visible ruins there, at a site that came to be known as Cabeza del Griego, an object of antiquarian interest from the late sixteenth century onwards. Modern study of the site begins in the second half of the twentieth century (when the ruins at Cabeza del Griego were definitively shown to be those of ancient Segobriga), a very good example of the achievements of the post-Franco boom in local archaeology in Spain.
In the long sweep of the site’s recorded history in the premodern period, then, the most intense period of change occurs from the late first century BCE to the late first century CE, and that period will be the focus in this paper. There are several different ways to pursue the question of historical and cultural change at Segobriga, but I will concentrate on the evidence from the public sphere, broadly defined. Three interrelated processes will illustrate the town’s public assimilation to Roman cultural norms: (i) monumentalization and the articulation of public space; (ii) ideological messaging on the town’s civic coinage; and (iii) commemoration and honorific practice in the town’s public epigraphy. Let us consider each in turn.
A city, for the Romans (and for the Greeks before them), was not just a nucleated settlement with a constitution and a cluster of officials governing an urban populace and administering a dependent rural hinterland, but also a place sharply differentiated from the countryside because it had a constellation of public buildings surrounding a monumental center. By the end of the first century CE, a more or less standard urban “kit” had spread throughout the entire empire, especially in Italy and the western provinces, where Roman colonies could serve as models. Characteristic features included a paved central square for public gatherings (forum), normally embellished with honorific monuments, especially statues; a colonnaded hall for public business (basilica); a large meeting room for the local council (curia); temples for the public worship of Roman deities (including deified emperors); large-scale bath complexes for public bathing; venues for public entertainment (especially theaters and amphitheaters); and an axial road system based on a central thoroughfare (cardo maximus) and its major perpendicular crossroad (the decumanus). What made this combination of urban forms “Roman” was not that it followed a “blueprint” from the city of Rome itself—precise arrangements varied town by town, and in any case Rome had developed in a haphazard way that did not lend itself to direct emulation—but rather the underlying principles to which these forms gave expression: symmetry, axiality, verticality, the intertwining of sacred and political space, the function of a central square as a site of aristocratic display, and the architectural and visual prominence of buildings designed for urban leisure and sociability.
Over the course of the first century CE, Segobriga’s cityscape became ever more Roman in its appearance and layout (Figures 2 and 3, p. 7). Built into a steep hillside, employing the latest terracing technologies, articulated by an axial street grid and surrounded by a circuit wall of roughly 1300 meters, the monumental center of Segobriga was an impressive achievement. At the heart of the city, on a mid-level terrace, is the forum square. Oriented along the main north–south road, and measuring some 1280 m2, the forum was paved in the late first century BCE, an expensive operation financed by a local magnate, [Proc]ulus Spantamicus. His benefaction to the town is recorded in a long inscription (c. 16 m), in gold letters, affixed to the forum pavement. The perimeter of the forum, colonnaded to the south, is ornamented by numerous statue bases and pedestals (see below, 19–20) and gives access to a sequence of workshops and commercial spaces (tabernae). To the east of the forum sits the main basilica, built in the early first century CE. The basilica, closely oriented with the forum, measured 59 by 19 meters. It had a double colonnade, a modest central nave (c. 7.25 m), and was also decorated by statues. To the west of the forum complex, beginning on the same mid-level terrace, was a series of buildings constructed in the second half of the first century CE. The first is a large, rectangular hall, colonnaded, with a monumental apse at the far end. It is normally identified as a temple complex for the worship of deified emperors. To the west of this structure, on a higher terrace, was a public bath complex, the precise interior articulation of which is not well understood. During this same period (c. 50–100 CE), the two major public entertainment complexes to the north of the city, on a lower terrace, were completed. The theater and its dependencies are especially well preserved, though the functions of some of the latter are disputed. The amphitheater—perhaps the most characteristic Roman building type—is quite conventional in architectural terms, and could probably seat 5000–6000 spectators.
We cannot know how these various buildings and complexes were actually used on a day-to-day basis, nor what the inhabitants of the town really thought about them. Nor should we expect the same attitudes from, say, a wealthy urban male, a young slave, or an older woman visiting from the countryside. It goes without saying that not everyone will have invested these urban forms with the same meanings. But the forms themselves very clearly adhered to an empire-wide urbanistic standard and urbanistic ideal. In that regard, they were necessarily imbricated in an imperial symbolic system and associated sociopolitical order, a system and an order which they simultaneously reflected and helped to constitute. More to the point here is the fact that they were alien symbolic forms in the indigenous landscape of central Spain—at least when they first appeared. At what point they came to be normalized and unmarked as “Roman” in this setting is unclear. What is clear, though, is that no visitor from Italy or the city of Rome, from any time after the early first century CE, would have doubted for a moment that Segobriga was a “real” Roman city.
From monuments and public space at Segobriga we turn to the civic coinage minted there. The monetary economy of the Roman empire was based on a centrally regulated system of gold, silver, and bronze denominations. The central mint produced gold and silver coins for circulation throughout the whole empire, and multiple bronze denominations for circulation in Italy and the western provinces. These centrally minted bronze issues were supplemented by those produced at local mints in provincial cities. Coinage in the Roman world served both economic and ideological purposes, employed not only to facilitate state payments, but also, through their designs (image and text), to communicate different sorts of messages. The central coinage, produced on a near-industrial scale, systematically publicized a range of imperial ideals and values, while the civic coinages, produced in much smaller numbers and circulating mainly amongst local and regional users, often functioned as vehicles for the celebration of local identity. The typologies of civic coins were standardized across the empire. Reverse faces (“tails”) normally depicted images and texts of local significance (a heroic founder, an iconic building, a distinctive geographical feature, etc.), while obverse faces (“heads”) were usually stamped with a portrait of the reigning emperor. Bearing these dual messages on their two faces, civic coins in the Roman empire sat right at the interface of the imperial and the local.
The earliest history of the mint at Segobriga is obscure. Silver and bronze coins with the Iberian legend SEKOBIRIKES, dated to the late second/early first century BCE, might have been produced at Segobriga, but this attribution has been disputed. More secure is a bronze issue which depicts, on the obverse, an “Iberian” head next to a palm and a dolphin, and on the reverse, a horseman with a spear and the legend SECOBRIS (Vives 135.1). This type is normally seen as a transitional issue between an indigenous and a Roman coinage. The latter begins with a type bearing the portrait of Augustus, with palm and dolphin but without legend, and a reverse with a horseman and spear and the legend SEGOBRIGA (RPC 1.470) (Figure 4a). A subsequent issue reflects a closer adherence to central standards, as the portrait of Augustus is now identified by the legend, AUGUSTUS DIVI F, “Augustus, son of a god” (RPC 1.472).
A subtle but important (and permanent) shift in the typology of the civic coinage at Segobriga occurs during the reign of Augustus’s successor, the emperor Tiberius (14–37 CE) (Figure 4b). The obverse now fully embraces the central imperial aesthetic: imperial portrait with lengthy titulature, in this case, TI CAESAR DIVI AUG F AUGUSTUS IMP VIII, “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the deified Augustus, imperator eight times.” The reverse continues to declare SEGOBRIGA—an important ongoing claim of minting authority and local identity—but the legend is no longer associated with a horseman with spear, but is instead set within an oak wreath (RPC 1.473). The visual language matters here. The horseman was an Iberian symbol, recalling the martial valor of the pre-conquest elite and evoking the Celtic tradition of equine religious cults. It is a clear expression of local identity. The oak wreath (corona civica), by contrast, was an emphatically Roman imperial symbol. It was originally deployed as an official award for saving the lives of Roman citizens, but came to symbolize the protection of the whole Roman state and, in particular, an emperor’s paternal care for his subjects, as memorialized in Augustus’s autobiographical account of his career, “Achievements” (Res Gestae, 34.2). The oak wreath was definitely an alien symbol in the Iberian context. This coin type, never altered for the remainder of the mint’s production (through the middle of the first century CE), combining an imperial portrait on one face with the legend SEGOBRIGA (literally) enclosed by an oak wreath on the other, is emblematic of the town’s absorption, culturally and politically, into a Roman imperial order.
Epigraphy—the carving of texts into or onto any durable material—is the third domain in which we can document the prevalence at Segobriga of characteristically Roman cultural practices. Epigraphic texts were a defining feature of the public sphere in the Roman world. The epigraphic boom that swept across the Mediterranean basin in the first three centuries CE, generating nearly 1,000,000 published inscriptions and reflecting a cultural impulse so deep that scholars have come to refer to the Roman “epigraphic habit,” was perhaps the most visible manifestation of the diffusion of Roman culture throughout the empire. This is especially true of the western provinces, where public writing (and, in some case, writing tout court) came with the Romans, and where the dominant language of the inscriptions was Latin. The inhabitants of Segobriga certainly took up the epigraphic habit. From a series of honorific inscriptions set up in and around the forum square at Segobriga, recording dedications to a range of honorands, we can trace the contours of commemorative practices there.
The first text (AE 2003.992 = Segobriga V, no. 55), very fragmentary, comes from the base of a large stone pedestal, itself with molded base and crown, and four large holes on the top to anchor two life-sized statues (Figure 5, p. 11):
Col. A: C[alventiae] | C(ai) f(iliae) Titullae | C(aius) Calventius | Pudens sorori. Col. B: [- - - - -] | [- - - - -] | C[alventia C(ai) f(ilia) (?)]| T[itulla (?) —-]
Col. A: Gaius Calventius Pudens (dedicated this) to his sister, Calventia Titulla, daughter of Gaius [- - -] Col. B: Calventia Titulla, daughter of Gaius, (dedicated this to) (?)
What we have here is an honorific dedication made by and to a few private citizens in Segobriga, probably from the middle of the first century CE (on the basis of the letter forms). The second column (B) was probably a dedication by the Calventia Titulla honored in the first column (A), presumably to a parent or a husband. The name Calventius is uncommon in central Spain, and is otherwise unattested at Segobriga. So we cannot relate this family to others in Segobriga, but these Calventii, in light of the expense of this monument and its prime location in the town’s forum, evidently belonged to Segobriga’s upper class.
Other dedications to local elites reveal some of the avenues of upward mobility available to them. Consider, for example, an inscription from a large stone block that probably served as the base for an equestrian statue (AE 2003.984 = Segobriga V, no. 19):
[- Ma]nlio L(uci) f(ilio) Gal(eria) [- c. 4/5 - ] | [pr]aefecto equ[itum] | ob pluruma m[erita] | in rem publ[icam] | ex d(ecreto) [d(ecurionum)]
(This is dedicated) to Manlius [?], son of Lucius, of the Galerian tribe, commander of an auxiliary cavalry unit, on account of his many services. By decree of the town councilors.
This is an honorific dedication by the town councilors of Segobriga to a member of the local elite (i.e., to one of their own), from a family that is recorded in other documents from the town, in recognition of his “many services” (pluruma merita), presumably benefactions to the community. His service in the Roman imperial army as the commander of an auxiliary cavalry unit shows that he had reached equestrian rank—an empire-wide juridical order second in position and prestige only to that of the senatorial order—and that his wealth, social status, and ambitions had brought him into the empire-wide tier of Rome’s governing class. Spelling (pluruma), titulature (praefectus equitum), and career structure (holding the position without having held lower-rung positions in the military hierarchy), all suggest an early imperial date for the text, probably the first quarter of the first century CE.
The honorific epigraphy of Segobriga also reaches above and beyond the level of local elites. The next level up from local men of the equestrian order, such as Manlius, is that of non-local men of the senatorial order, to whom there are several dedications at Segobriga. I give just two examples here. The first was carved onto the front face of a large stone block, the upper part of which includes a stone enclosure providing support for a thick pedestal, probably designed to bear an equestrian statue. The inscription reads as follows (AE 2003.981 = Segobriga V, no. 12):
C(aio) Calvisio Sabino | co(n)(suli) VII vir(o) epulo(num) | leg(ato) pro pr(aetore) | patrono | ex d(ecreto) d(ecurionum).
(This is dedicated) to Gaius Calvisius Sabinus, consul, member of the board of seven for giving public feasts, praetorian commander, and patron (sc. of Segobriga). By decree of the town councilors.
The second inscription, on a similarly designed stone block with pedestal, follows the same format (AE 2003.982 = Segobriga V, no. 13):
M(arco) Licinio Crasso | Frugi pont(ifici) sodal(i) | Aug(ustali) co(n)s(uli) patrono | d(ecreto) (vac.) d(ecurionum).
(This is dedicated) to Marcus Licinius Crassus Frugi, pontifex, priest for the worship of Augustus, consul, and patron (sc. of Segobriga). By decree of the town councilors.
The two texts, which date to the first and the third decade of the first century CE, respectively, record dedications by the town—or, rather, by the town’s councilors—to influential men of senatorial rank who had served as “patrons” of Segobriga, a quasi-formal term for Roman senators who undertook to represent the interests of provincial towns.
We also find honorific inscriptions from Segobriga addressed to high-ranking imperial officials—some of them of lower social status than senators, to be sure, but often closer to the de facto center of power, the emperor himself. A good example comes from the dedication of yet another equestrian statue base (AE 2003.986 = Segobriga V, no. 20):
M(arco) Porcio M(arci) f(ilio) | Pup(inia) | Caesaris Augusti | scribae | Segobrigenses | patrono.
To Marcus Porcius, son of Marcius, of the Pupinian tribe, scribe of Augustus Caesar. The citizens of Segobriga (dedicated this) to their patron.
The honorand, from the Pupinian tribe, is definitely not a local (the local tribal affiliation in Segobriga was Galeria). He was a scribe or notary of Augustus, one of a group of salaried attendants of the emperor (this specific title is first attested in this text). It is normally assumed that the great honor of an equestrian statue dedicated by the entire town can only commemorate this clerical official’s role in the grant of municipal status to Segobriga, which was almost certainly conferred during Augustus’s residence in the Iberian peninsula between 15 and 13 BCE. It stands as an excellent example of the economy of favors and honors in the Roman world, and the way in which even the bureaucratic functionaries of the emperor could be elevated because of the unique services they could provide to provincial communities.
Finally, to bring this survey of honorific epigraphy at Segobriga to its culmination, we find several dedications to Roman emperors. The following text is perhaps the most striking (AE 2003.979 = Segobriga V, no. 5). It is extremely fragmentary, but given the formulaic nature of imperial titulature, the restoration must be correct, at least in broad outline:
[Imp(eratori) Caesari Divi f(ilio) Augusto] | [pontifici maximo] | [imp(eratori) X—- co(n)s(uli) XIII tribunicia] | pote[state XX—- patri patriae] | sacr(um) d[ecreto decurionum (?)]
To Emperor Caesar Augustus, son of a god, Chief Priest, imperator 10 times (?), consul 13 times (?), in the 20th year of this tribunician power (?), Father of the Fatherland, (this) is sacred. By decree of the town councilors.
This text, unlike the others presented above, is not carved onto a statue base, but rather onto an altar. The very high quality of the lettering stands out, as does the size of the altar. It is, in fact, the largest monument in the forum. It is also located in an axial spot, as we will see (below, *). Given the numismatic evidence for altars for the deified Augustus in Spain, at the major cities of Augusta Emerita (RPC 1.28, 35, 36, 45) and Tarraco (RPC 1.218, 221, 225, 231), it is quite likely that this altar served as a focal point for the new imperial cult in Segobriga. If so, the whole monument represents a substantial and highly public engagement, in the heart of the town’s civic center, with Roman imperial power.
In terms of its monumental buildings and public space, local coinage, and epigraphic practices, then, Segobriga was a full participant in the mainstream urban culture of the Roman empire. But to document these facets of the town’s Romanization is only the first step. Much of the recent discussion in the so-called Romanization debate has focused on questions of meaning and identity, but for the main argument of this paper, which hinges on the relationship between culture and power, what really matters are questions of agency and motivation. It is to these issues that we now turn.
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Current approaches to the question of what, exactly, drove the widespread diffusion of Roman culture (or, rather, “Roman culture:” see above, n. 2), run the full spectrum from “top-down” to “bottom-up” models of cultural change. At one extreme, it has been argued that Romanization was a self-conscious aim of the Roman governing class, and that the systematic acculturation of the empire’s subjects was a matter of Roman imperial statecraft. At the other extreme, it has been argued that Romanization was generated entirely “from below,” as provincial subjects willingly embraced all aspects of Roman culture because of its intrinsic attractiveness. Neither view is very satisfying. There is not much evidence for the implementation of a centrally devised strategy for Romanizing the empire’s subjects. It is true that colonies, military bases, and municipal charters formulated in Rome could (and did) shape cultural practices in the provinces, but there is no reason to believe that any of these were intended primarily to acculturate provincial subjects. The “bottom-up” model is not very compelling, either, since it tends to conflate practical and pragmatic goods (baths, inexpensive ceramics, durable roof tiles) with normative and ideological ones (religion, language, art), and to assume that the desirability of the former was easily transferred to beliefs about the latter. Nor does it accord well with the internal dynamics of hierarchical, premodern societies like that of the Roman empire.
It is tempting, but not quite right, in my view, to take a “both/and” position, and to conclude that the spread of Roman culture was simultaneously driven by both “top-down” and “bottom-up” impulses (or, perhaps, by something in between). For whenever our evidence for the adoption and replication of different aspects of Roman culture has sufficient resolution, it is clear that the key actors were the local elites, the families and individuals who set the tone in their respective communities. This was especially true in the cities of the western provinces, which did not have the same traditions of communal and democratic decision-making that characterized the cities of the Greek East. It was the local elites who monopolized wealth and the decision-making institutions of the community. It was the local elites who expended their own material resources on gifts and benefactions, such as public buildings, and it was the local elites who were honored, by a routinized type of reciprocal exchange, with various forms of public commemoration, such as statues. It was the local elites who held elective office and served as town councilors (for which there was normally a minimum wealth qualification), and who decided questions like which designs to stamp onto local coins. From one end of the Roman empire to the other, but above all in its western half, it was the local elites, collectively, who propelled the diffusion of Roman culture.
It is true that we often lack probative evidence for who, specifically, paid for a certain building, for example, or who decided on a certain coin type. To attribute this key role to local elites, then, depends in part on the construction of a model of collective action in the Roman empire. Nevertheless, there are plenty of cases in which it is clear that it was neither a “powerful outsider” (an emperor, a provincial governor, and so on), nor the community as a whole, but rather individual magnates and local notables, who were responsible for the practices that serve (for us) as an index of Romanization. Just from Segobriga, there is good evidence for the role of local elites in the town’s urban development. In addition to the inscription recording the financing of the forum pavement (above, 6), for example, we have several epigraphic records of local elites paying for various buildings in Segobriga, including the theater (Quintus Valerius Argaelus Duitiqum: Almagro Basch 1984, no. 33) and a semi-circular reception hall (Sempronia Arganta and Marcus Julius [?]: AE 1999.938 = Segobriga V, no. 32). An unidentified structure adjacent to the forum was funded by a Lucius Sempronius Valentinus (CIL 2.6338dd), and a temple for the (Greek) god Zeus Theos Megistos, with a dedication in Greek, by a Gaius Julius Silvanus (AE 1998.778 = Segobriga V, no. 150), originally from Smyrna in Asia Minor, but evidently of sufficient means to participate in the public epigraphic culture promoted by the town’s upper class. Often we find the town council (decurio) as a whole authorizing a decision about urban development, but given the minimum property qualification for membership in the councils of Roman municipia like Segobriga, there can be no doubt that here, too, it was the local elites who took the leading role.
So who were these “local elites” of Segobriga? They were families and individuals, to begin with, who enjoyed important political connections outside of Segobriga, including with members of the Roman imperial governing class. The many Sempronii and Valerii of Segobriga, amply attested in the epigraphic record from the town, may well be descendants of the clients of the provincial governors Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus and Gaius Valerius Flaccus, going all the way back to the middle of the second century BCE. Closer connections between the town and the Roman senatorial order can be traced back to the middle of the first century BCE, when the citizens of Segobriga honored a provincial official, the senator Lucius Livius Ocella, as their patron (CIL 6.1446a = ILS 936). This Livius was evidently a precursor of the later senatorial patrons of Segobriga honored in the town’s forum (above, 12), one of whom, Marcus Licinius Crassus Frugi, was the father-in-law of Antonia, daughter of the emperor Claudius (ruled 41–54 CE). Though these senatorial grandees were formally patrons of the whole town, their diplomatic and interpersonal connections with Segobriga would have been forged by the very same local elites whose wealth afforded them a position in the town council.
The wealth of Segobriga’s elite, the very basis of their social standing, must have come from the land. Segobriga, as we have seen, was hardly a bustling commercial city—in fact, the name of the town does not even appear in our main documentary source for the road network of the Iberian peninsula, the third-century Antonine Itinerary. The principal local resource was lapis specularis, a type of translucent gypsum used primarily for window panes. According to Pliny the Elder (Natural History 36.160), the best lapis specularis in the world came from mines located within a 100-mile radius from Segobriga. The export of this regionally distinctive product probably underpinned the town’s wealth and made the fortunes of its local magnates. And this concentration of wealth in the hands of the town’s local elites seems to have created a greater chasm between rich and poor in Segobriga than elsewhere in Spain, as reflected in the very high percentage of slaves recorded in the town’s epigraphy—as high as 10 percent, according to one estimate. This is anomalous in the context of central Spain, in which the (attested) incidence of slavery was lower.
The final, crucial point to note about Segobriga’s local elite is that it was, at its core, an indigenous elite. There was no Roman colony here, and no official settlement of families from the Italian peninsula. It is true that military service had drawn the whole of central Spain into close and sustained contact with Italy, and that some Italian veterans might have settled in the area. But the local elites seem to have been mostly local in origin, as their nomenclature makes abundantly clear. Among the Iberian and hybrid names we find in the epigraphic record, in addition to the two we have already met ([Proc]ulus Spantamicus and Quintus Valerius Argaelus Duitiqum), are Aemilia Dercinio (CIL 2.6338ee), Hispanus Avellicus (CIL 2.3133), Cantaber (CIL 2.3135), Bessuca (CIL 2.3097), and Aemilius Argaelus (HispEp 1.321). So it is difficult to speak of “top-down” Romanization in this context. But even though these men were local in origin, their ambitions transcended the local context, and in their personal connections and career paths, they were increasingly absorbed into a translocal, supraregional, and even empire-wide upper class. So this is not really “bottom-up” Romanization, either. Because the adoption and diffusion of Roman culture by local elites like those at Segobriga is so closely replicated in so many different places, it is perhaps best to conceptualize the nature of collective agency in the spread of Roman culture not as unidirectional, or even bidirectional, but rather as fractal.
In any case, we are still left to explain the motivation behind the local elites’ collective embrace of Roman culture. In my view, the best explanation is an instrumental one. The argument, in brief, is that it was manifestly in the (sectional) interests of local elites to adopt the whole Roman cultural package, and to adopt it very publicly, since to do so reinforced their own status, prestige, and authority. In other words, these men did not necessarily identify, subjectively, as “Romans” (but they may have), nor did they necessarily believe that Roman culture was intrinsically superior to their own, indigenous culture (though it is not impossible that they did believe this). Instead, they followed the standard Roman imperial script in their public actions, and even (perhaps) performed a Roman identity—which may or may not have been internalized—since this not only established their symbolic association with the conquering power, but also helped to differentiate themselves from the masses within their own towns.
This broadly instrumentalist interpretation of local elite motivation in the adoption of Roman culture has had many supporters in the last generation of scholarship on Romanization. One way to draw this interpretation out a bit is to look more closely at the chronology of change at Segobriga. For we might all agree that the local elites were the driving force behind the town’s Romanization, and we might all agree that they self-Romanized out of collective interest, but we still have to explain why they did it when they did it. Segobriga had been a subject community of the Roman empire since the middle of the second century BCE, and evidently had important contacts with influential Romans from about that time. But the initial boom in Roman cultural production did not take place until the late first century BCE. It is that formative period in the Roman acculturation of Segobriga—a genuine rupture in the town’s cultural profile, if the evidence is not wholly misleading—that requires explanation.
There are two major historical contexts in which to situate this change at Segobriga. The first is the larger process of cultural change across the entire western empire, especially the Iberian peninsula, North Africa, and Gaul. In all of these regions, the late first millennium BCE is a moment of profound cultural change, as the various indices of Roman culture (as summarized above, 1–2) increase sharply. In other words, what we identify as a specifically Roman provincial culture originates at more or less the same time everywhere in the western provinces. Segobriga is no exception. It must be stressed that the Roman state had had an overseas empire from the middle of the third century BCE, but it was only in the late first century BCE that Romanization really took off.
The other major historical change that is chronologically coincident with this dramatic upsurge in Roman culture is a transformation in the political system at Rome, as the Republic—a form of government, going back to the sixth century BCE, in which the Roman citizen body was sovereign—collapsed after a series of increasingly violent civil wars, and was replaced by the monarchic government of the last remaining warlord, Octavian, whom we know as the first emperor Augustus (27 BCE–14 CE). It is of course difficult to disentangle these major, structural changes in the political and cultural spheres, but I would like to suggest that the advent of monarchy at Rome provides the key to understanding cultural change in Segobriga and in the western provinces (and maybe even in the empire as a whole).
There are (at least) two reasons why the emergence of a monarchic political system at Rome might explain the rapid Romanization of Segobriga (and elsewhere). The first is that the emperor, as a symbol, was much more powerful and resonant than anything associated with the Republic. The figure of the emperor not only provided a sort of “symbolic glue” for the whole empire—the emperor, after all, was the one thing that all provincial subjects shared—but also served as a convenient focal point for expressions of local identification in the provinces. Temples for the imperial cult and statues for the emperor helped local communities to make sense of their place in a larger world. Indeed, their local culture and local identity was only possible when imagined in the context of something translocal. And that translocal context was the Roman empire, rooted, now, in the dynamic figure of a single ruler. Temples, altars (like that at Segobriga), and statues in the emperor’s honor stood as so many material expressions of both imperial power and, more to the point here, Roman culture.
The second reason has to do with the politics of state formation in the premodern world. It has been very rare, in world-historical terms, for a republican city-state to create—much less sustain—a far-flung territorial empire. Most empires in the premodern world were ruled instead by hereditary monarchies. Why this should be so is rarely examined closely (the common claim that the institutions of a republic were insufficient for governing an empire only begs the question). One possible explanation, suggested by Scheidel (2006), is that monarchies are more willing than republics to coopt and incorporate foreign elites, which usually facilitates the state-formation process. In most republics, a metropolitan citizen body seeks instead to maximize its position of privilege and superiority over all subjects in the peripheries, even (and perhaps especially) local elites, which militates against the cooptation and incorporation model so successfully employed by monarchic regimes. In the Roman case, already under Augustus we find the large-scale diffusion of Roman citizenship to local elites, especially in the western provinces. This badge of membership in the social and political order of the conquering power was an effective incentive for local elites to fully participate in the Roman imperial regime. The main institutional mechanism for the diffusion of Roman citizenship was municipalization, and the conferral of the Latin Right (ius Latii), which meant that all elected officials and their families were granted full Roman citizenship in perpetuity (while retaining their own, local citizenships, with all of its privileges and responsibilities). It seems very likely, then, that it was precisely Augustus’s grant of municipal status to Segobriga around 15 BCE, commemorated both by the dedication to Augustus’s scribe (above, 13), and by the erection of an altar to the deified Augustus (10–14), that triggered the large-scale adoption of Roman cultural forms at Segobriga.
One of the ways in which imperial collaboration with local elites is manifested in the visual and monumental sphere is in the configuration of aristocratic display in public space, and the intermingling of imperial and local honors. The forum at Segobriga is an excellent example of this phenomenon (Figure 6, p. 20). Many of the honorific inscriptions discussed above (10–14) were clustered in the southeast corner of the forum square. Note, in particular, the mixing of honorific monuments for deities, “outsiders” (emperors, senators, and Roman officials), and “insiders” (members of the local elite). All of these bases, pedestals, statues, and inscriptions were anchored by the central imperial monument in this corner of the forum square, the altar of the deified Augustus (no. 3 on the plan). We find exactly this sort of mixing of honorific monuments in other provincial cities in both West (Tarraco, in Spain; Cuicul, in North Africa; Istria, on the Adriatic), and East (Aphrodisias, in Asia Minor). The visual impact and ideological force of this convergence must have been profound for the inhabitants of a town like Segobriga, as the symbolic blurring of divine, imperial, and local authority surely inflated the prestige and status of the whole governing class. Indeed, there is no more vivid illustration of the mutually constitutive relationship between the hard fact of asymmetric power—both between Rome and Segobriga, on the one hand, and between elite and mass within the town, on the other—and the flourishing of a translocal culture, with these Roman imperial forms dominating the heart of the city’s monumental center, and reinforcing the domination of certain groups over others. That, in many ways, is the essence of Romanization. What we call “Romanization,” in other words, is not simply an index of adhesion to a set of metropolitan cultural norms, but a measure of local incorporation into an imperial system, centered on Rome, and characterized by a steep political hierarchy and dramatically unequal social order.
* * *
Strabo, a Greek geographer writing in the middle of the Augustan age, has the following to say about acculturation in the Iberian peninsula (3.2.15):
Along with the favorable condition of their country, the qualities of both gentleness and civility have come to the Turdetanians . . . but less so to the Celtic peoples, because for the most part they live in mere villages. The Turdetanians, however, and particularly those that live around the Baetis river (mod. Guadalquivir), have completely changed over to the Roman way of life, not even remembering their own language anymore. And most of them have received the Latin Right, and they have received Romans as colonists, so they are not far from being Romans. And [even those peoples living near the big cities] manifest the change to the civil modes of life. . . . And among these are the Celtiberians, who were once regarded as the most brutish of all. (trans. H. L. Jones, Loeb Classical Library, modified)
This helps us to grasp what was typical and what was anomalous about Segobriga. For Strabo, as for all wealthy, educated, upper-class members of Rome’s empire-wide aristocracy, there was a notional correlation between productive landscapes (“favorable condition of their country”), civilization (“gentleness and civility”), urbanization (not living in “mere villages”), and Romanization (“the Roman way of life”). When we survey the evidence from the Roman empire, we tend to see the same correlation. And it is mostly accurate (without, of course, the normative thrust of Strabo’s comments). But the case of Segobriga suggests that we might be missing something, or not looking in exactly the right place. Because what the Segobriga example shows is that it was not really cities, urbanism, and civilization as such that drove Romanization, but rather the concentration in any one place, wherever it happened to be, of a group of wealthy, educated, well connected elites. Any such concentration was, in effect, a concentration of social power. What we really need, then, is not a map of cities in the Roman empire, as suggested at the beginning of the paper, but rather a sort of “heat map” showing the spatial spread of these concentrations of social power. For it is within the “hot zones” on such a map that one will find Romanization—even if, as at Segobriga, that concentration of social power happens to be located in the middle of nowhere.
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This self-consciously loose and broadly “socioanthropological” definition is inspired both by semiotic understandings of culture (for which Geertz 1973 is still a useful starting point), and by more materialist approaches, whether framed in terms of “economic” activity in general (e.g., Sahlins 1976) or in terms of consumption in particular (e.g., Bourdieu 1984; Dietler 2010). Material and semiotic approaches are not incompatible, of course. As Dietler puts it, “In the first place, objects ‘materialize’ cultural order—they render cultural categories visible and durable, they aid the negotiation of social interaction in various ways, and they structure the perception of the social world” (2010: 59).
If “Roman” is a convenient shorthand for “Italic” (at least for the purposes of identifying cultural forms outside of Italy), then it must also be conceded that “Italic” is itself simply a catch-all term for the many regional and local cultures of the Italian peninsula. Indeed, the striking cultural diversity of what we are accustomed to call “Roman Italy” has been emphasized in recent scholarship (see, e.g., Wallace-Hadrill 2008: 73–143; McDonald 2015; Terrenato forthcoming). From a macroscopic, empire-wide perspective, however, it is really the similarities of a supra-local, empire-wide cultural system, Italic (or “Italic”) in origin, rather than the differences, that stand out (especially in the first two centuries CE).
Keeping abreast of the latest site reports and specialist studies on the Roman provinces is very difficult even at the regional scale (and out of the question for the empire as a whole). The annual issues of the Journal of Roman Archaeology provide the most convenient overview of the latest research. Synthetic studies that continue to shape the current discussion about acculturation in the Roman provinces include Millett 1990b; Blagg and Millett 1990; Alcock 1993, 1997; Mattingly 1997; Woolf 1994, 1995, 1996, 1998, 2001; Fentress 2000; Goldhill 2001; Keay and Terrenato 2001. More recent works addressing the topics listed in this paragraph include Revell 2009, 2015; Mattingly 2010; Whitmarsh 2010; Kampen 2014; Brody and Hoffman 2014; Roselaar 2015; Alcock et al. 2016; Johnston 2017; Zimmermann 2017; Van Oyen and Pitts 2017; Noreña 2018.
For the sociospatial patterning of culture (especially “high” culture) in premodern societies, Gellner 1983: 8–18 is still fundamental; cf. Hodos 2017 for an archaeological perspective on material culture(s) and globalization, with well illustrated case studies drawn from many periods and places.
Urban culture in the eastern empire shared many features with the urban cultures of the empire as a whole, and can therefore be seen, in one sense, as “Roman.” See Woolf 1994; Alcock 1997; Goldhill 2001; Whitmarsh 2010; Noreña 2016.
By “cultural production” I refer to the making of art, literature, drama, etc. (and not, in this usage, to any sort of primary or material production). For the city as the key site for cultural production (on this definition) in the Roman world: Fentress 2000; Clarke 2008; Laurence et al. 2011: 1–113; Pfuntner 2019.
Almagro Gorbea 1992 provides a brief overview of Romanization in Segobriga, but recent epigraphic discoveries (discussed below) have changed the picture considerably. For recent discussion and debate on the term and analytical category of “Romanization,” see Versluys 2014; for its application to Segobriga and its (material) culture, see below, pp. 14–21.
Schulten 1927 provides a comprehensive overview of the historical geography of the Iberian peninsula. For central Spain in particular, see also Curchin 2004: 4–8. In general on mountain economies in the western Roman empire, with emphasis on pastoralism and transhumance (which could take various forms), Garnsey 1988.
Romanization in northeast Spain and the Ebro river valley: e.g., Keay 1990; Rodà 2000; Abad Casal et al. 2006; Sinner 2015. Romanization in southern Spain and the Baetis river valley: e.g., Fear 1996; Keay 1998; Haley 2003. For patterns in Romanization in the Iberian pensinsula as a whole, see also Blázquez 1964; Keay 1988, 2003; Curchin 1991; Coarelli et al. 1992; Johnston 2017. For developments in late antiquity, Bowes and Kulikowski 2005; Fernández 2017.
Or a provincial “hinterland,” as Curchin 2004 calls it. Landlocked uplands in the Roman empire were not wholly devoid of urban centers, of course. As one anonymous reviewer points out, cities like Augustodunum in central Gaul and Ankyra in central Anatolia were large and wealthy. The key difference, though, is that central Spain was not, like these other regions, advantageously situated within long-distance, supraregional trading networks (especially true of the Anatolian plateau; a major theme of Marek 2016).
For the archaeology of the third-century crisis, see Witschel 1999 and 2004 (questioning the intensity of the crisis); Rambaldi 2009 (documenting a dramatic decline in building activity in the period).
Bath: Almagro Gorbea and Abascal 1999. Amphitheater: Almagro Gorbea and Almagro Gorbea 1995; Sanchez-Lafuente Pérez 1995. In general on urban change in the Iberian peninsula in the fourth and fifth centuries, Kulikowski 2004, esp. 85–129; Fernández 2017: 29–60, 123–59.
For continuing confusion about the identification of the remains at Cabeza del Griego with the ancient site of Segobriga, see, e.g., Fear 1996: 261 (with Curchin 2004: 3). Spanish archaeology after Franco: Keay 2003.
The locus classicus for the Greco-Roman “suite of monumental buildings” definition of the city is the dismissive account of Panopeus, a small city in central Greece, by the second-century CE Greek author Pausanias (10.4.1): “From Chaeroneia it is twenty stades to Panopeus, a city (polis) of the Phocians, if one can give the name of ‘city’ to those who possess no government offices, no gymnasium, no theater, no market-place, no water descending to a fountain, but who live in bare shelters just like mountain cabins, right on a ravine.”
Various perspectives on the urbanization process in the Roman West in Ward-Perkins 1970; Woolf 1998: 106–41; Fentress 2000; Gros and Torelli 2010. Laurence et al. 2011: chaps. 6–10, and Zanker 2014: 101–46, provide convenient sketches of the key building types that made up the Roman urban kit.
The archaeological remains at Segobriga still await comprehensive and final publication. In the meantime, there are useful syntheses in Almagro Gorbea and Abascal 1999; Abascal, Almagro Gorbea, and Cebrián 2002; Abascal, Almagro Gorbea, and Cebrián 2006; Abascal and Almagro Gorbea 2012.
The standard reference work for these civic coinages is the ongoing Roman Provincial Coinage series. For the typologies of civic coinages, see Howgego et al. 2005; cf. Noreña 2016 for a case study (focusing on the civic coinage of Roman Antioch in the province of Syria).
Convenient introduction to all aspects of Roman epigraphy in Bruun and Edmondson 2014. Epigraphic habit: MacMullen 1982. Monumentality, Latin, and public writing in the western provinces: Woolf 1996; cf. Corbier 2006. Epigraphy in the Iberian peninsula: Alföldy 2011b, documenting the increase in published inscriptions from Spain from c. 6000 (when CIL 2 was first published) to over 25,000 today (and counting).
For the rise of the imperial cult at Segobriga, see Abascal, Almagro Gorbea, Noguera, and Cebrián 2007. In general on the altars, and evidence for imperial cult in Augusta Emerita and Tarraco in the Augustan age, Fishwick 2017.
For acculturation as imperial policy, see, e.g., Whittaker 1997 (identifying cities as the key instruments of this strategy). The notion that Roman culture was intrinsically attractive—better, in fact, than whatever had been on offer locally—goes back to the very beginnings of Romanization studies (e.g., Haverfield 1912); it has been restated, in effect (but without explicit evaluation), by MacMullen 2000.
For the complex relationship between consumer goods and normative values in the Roman imperial provinces, see Woolf 1998: 169–205. That there could be a disconnect between “outsider” goods and values in the context of asymmetric power relations is clear from modern experience: see, e.g., De Grazia 2006 on the variable commercial and ideological impacts of American consumer goods in postwar Europe.
Minimum property qualification for service in the council: see, e.g., the Flavian Lex Irnitana, chap. 86 (minimum qualification of 5000 sesterces); Pliny, Letters 1.19.2 (specifying that no one with less than 100,000 sesterces could serve in local council at Comum). In general on the social rank of municipal councilors, Alföldy 2011a: 169–75.
Discussion and further examples in Abascal, Almagro Gorbea, and Cebrián 2006: 191–92, with note 16, emphasizing the survival of a “strongly entrenched indigenous substrate that continued to have a real presence until well into the Principate” (192).
This approach was more or less canonized by Woolf 1998 (but see now Johnston 2017 for a reaction), drawing heavily on Millett 1990b (neatly summarized in Millett 1990a). For a series of studies pushing back against this instrumentalist reading of the uptake of Roman material culture—and attributing more agency to the material culture itself—see now Van Oyen and Pitts 2017.
For the politics of citizenship in a “republican” empire, see Ando 2016. In general on the benefits (practical and symbolic) of Roman citizenship in the provinces, Ando 2000: 10, 57–66; Shaw 2000: 361–72 (skeptical); Ingelbert 2002.
For municipalization and the spread of the ius Latii in Spain, see (e.g.) Fear 1996 (focused on southern Spain, but with much relevant material for rest of peninsula); for central Spain in particular, Curchin 2004: 89, 123–24, 203.