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Old February 27th, 2012, 09:02 PM   #1
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Evidence of Racism / Discrimination in the Roman Republic / Empire ?


With such a variety of people from all over Europe and the Med in the empire and in Rome itself, do we have any evidence that skin color or ethnic origin played any role ?

Do we have evidence of discrimination ?

At a more mundane level do we have evidence of ethnic jokes (e.g. such and such are lazy, such and such are dishonest, such and such make poor soldiers etc...)
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Old February 27th, 2012, 09:15 PM   #2
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With such a variety of people from all over Europe and the Med in the empire and in Rome itself, do we have any evidence that skin color or ethnic origin played any role ?

Do we have evidence of discrimination ?

At a more mundane level do we have evidence of ethnic jokes (e.g. such and such are lazy, such and such are dishonest, such and such make poor soldiers etc...)
Well I think that there was an ethnic superiority that the Romans felt over their enemies. Especially the German barbarians. From documentaries I've watched and what I can remember from them, I believe the massive migrations of the Slavic and Germanic tribes into the empire caused great tension between the Romans and newcomers. Several rebellions out in the northern Balkans (the areas around the Danube River) broke out because of the discrimination between the Romans and Germans.

However I may be wrong. I saw the documentary some time ago.
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Old February 27th, 2012, 09:52 PM   #3
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No racism proper, plenty of ethnic and national discrimination.

In general terms there was no popular concept of "race" among the ancients.

Phenotypes and physical traits made of course easier the distinction of particular ethnicities, but there was no systematic classification of the human varieties, aside form an elementary "us" (Romans) and the "others" (Barbarians).

Contrary to a common mistaken inference, that didn't imply the absence of discrimination; au contraire.

Probably more than what was already the rule for other contemporary nations, the Romans were extremely chauvinistic and xenophobic virtually from the very beginning.

The natural national pride from their military & imperialistic deeds understandably simply exponentially increased such feelings.

For example, ethnic jokes & archetypes were a regular literary resource for the Roman satyrists.

The Romans were certainly notable in ancient terms for their openess to assimilate conquered nations ... in the long term.
The process of Romanization regularly required generations.

Up to the Constitutio Antoniniana (212 AD) the Roman citizenship (even if often incomplete) was a precious gift reserved for a minority of the conquered nations, and even later the distinction with alien people (slaves or barbarians) was forever systematically categorical.
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Old February 28th, 2012, 04:08 AM   #4
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For example, ethnic jokes & archetypes were a regular literary resource for the Roman satyrists.

.
Any good examples of these ? thanks
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Old February 28th, 2012, 04:12 AM   #5
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.....plenty of ethnic and national discrimination.

.
What was the practical effect of that ? (for example were certain government positions or certain professions off limits; did taxation differ ? was promotion in the army more difficult ? was there harassment of certain people ? etc..)

And if that effect was sorely felt, could that have been a cause of the eventual collapse of the western roman empire ? (it certainly played a role in the drive for independence of French and British colonies in the 20th century)
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Old February 28th, 2012, 04:15 AM   #6

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If you're looking for ancient racists, look east. The Sassanids were extremely racist. Rome, on the other hand, ruled over a vast and diverse populace.
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Old February 28th, 2012, 06:12 AM   #7
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Any good examples of these ? thanks
Martial and Juvenal had plenty of examples.

Not exactly a satyrist, the famous biographer Caius Suetonius Tranquillus quoted a letter of Augustus to his stepson while describing the former as a light eater:
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Once more: "Not even a Jew, my dear Tiberius, fasts so scrupulously on his sabbaths as I have to‑day; for it was not until after the first hour of the night that I ate two mouthfuls of bread in the bath before I began to be anointed."
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Et rursus: "Ne Iudaeus quidem, mi Tiberi, tam diligenter sabbatis ieiunium servat quam ego hodie servavi, qui in balineo demum post horam primam noctis duas buccas manducavi prius quam ungui inciperem."
(De Vita Caesarum, II: LXXVI: II)
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Old February 28th, 2012, 07:04 AM   #8
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What was the practical effect of that ? (for example were certain government positions or certain professions off limits; did taxation differ ? was promotion in the army more difficult ? was there harassment of certain people ? etc..)

And if that effect was sorely felt, could that have been a cause of the eventual collapse of the western roman empire ? (it certainly played a role in the drive for independence of French and British colonies in the 20th century)
What was meant by discrimination above was mostly cultural in nature.

Aside from:
- The obvious restriction of political positions for proper Roman citizens,
- The equally obvious caution with the individuals of recently rebelled groups, and
- The fundamental lack of rights of slaves and also the Barbarians not protected by their respective homeland's diplomacy,
... I'm not aware of any explicit general legal restriction for any non-political or military jobs regarding any ethnic groups.

In fact, slaves & freedmen were widely attested performing virtually the same laboral activities than any proud regular Roman citizen.

Taxation was of course differential, but most for political than for properly ethnic reasons, i.e. favoring some cities, regions or groups over others; typical divide et impera stuff.
The famous Fiscus Judaicus was a paradigmatic example.

The Roman legions were always proudly restricted to bona fide citizens.
The original distinction of the military classes in the early & middle Republican armies was primarily economic and quite pragmatic (i.e. depending on the capacity of each soldier to bring his own personal equipment).
The Marian reforms and the conflicts of the Late republic largely erased such distinctions; from early times the general tendency for the new citizens was to dilute any regional differences.
Even originally ethnic legions like V Alaudae and XXII Deiotariana became totally plural in no more than a generation.

Non-citizens fought in different units (auxilia).
After the Constitutio Antoniniana the distinction between legions & auxilia became soon obsolete and both kinds of units conflate for the formation of the Late Roman Army.
The units from the latter were regularly named on a geographical basis, but the available evidence suggests that as a rule such units tended to be ethnically diverse.

Au contraire of the independence of French and British colonies in the 20th century, the Fall of the Western Roman Empire was not a movement for local autonomy, but exactly the opposite.
Alien invaders ("Barbarians") systematically subjugated the local Roman population, usually with few ostensible distinction on any ethnic basis.
The usually pagan and especially Arian invaders tended to make some distinction chiefly based on religious aspects, probably exaggerated by the available pro-Christian Roman sources.
Naturally, the proud victorious Germanic conquerors regularly tended to reserve a priviliged position for themselves.
The notable rule of the Ostrogoth monarch Theodoric I in Italy itself was a notoriously paradigmatic example.
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Old February 28th, 2012, 06:08 PM   #9

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Any good examples of these ? thanks
The Romans in Britain refer to the Locals as Brittunculi in the Vindalanda tablets. Apparently it means something like pathetic little Brits.
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Old March 1st, 2012, 06:33 AM   #10

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In the geographical writers of the Roman period (and other writers like Pliny whose works include some "geographical" aspects) one sometimes finds the idea that "national character" is geographically determined, and that a race's "personality" will reflect the climate and geographical environment in which it originates. So, for instance, "excess" cold breeds people who are strong but stupid (e.g., in Roman eyes, the northern "barbarians"), while "excess" heat breeds people who are lazy, decadent and servile (people from the interior of Asia or Syria). Geography is important too - thus, for instance, inhospitable and mountainous regions like Arkadia in Greece are likely to produce people who are warlike, hardy and a little 'uncivilised'. Of course, to Italians, Italy was the centre of the world, and the perfect medium - neither too hot nor too cold. So Italians are the "norm" against which all "deviant" foreigners are to be measured!

Perhaps you could say it's not so much racism as geography-ism and climate-ism!
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