Arch of Emperor Titus Flavius Vespasianus
Arch of Titus Flavius Vespasianus at the Roman Forum. Click for credits and a larger picture

But I don’t understand why you say the Jews are the most ancient Romans. What about non-Jews whose families have been in Rome just as long? Or are there none, what with migration, free movement, and the currents of history? Are you saying that the ghetto and the social restrictions on Jews kept their community intact all that time while others dissolved? THAT would be quite an irony!

Yes, the ghetto, the social restrictions and the tenacious interrelation ethnicity / religion / nationality typical of the Jews helped them to remain sort of intact compared to other Romans, I believe [see below the ethnicity thing.]

Are they Roman, Jew or both? Both in my view. And their Roman side is very ancient, there’s a lot of evidence: their cooking, their behaviours, their vernacular sooo Roman and archaic to our ears.

I mean, why shouldn’t they be Roman? After living in Rome and beholding the Tiber for 2,000 years …

An irony? Roman-ness has nothing to do with an ethnic group. It’s cultural transmission, like at the (multi-ethnic) times of the Empire.

I’ll try to explain this roman-ness concept the way I see it.

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

A. Being Roman in antiquity meant an ethnic thing only in early Republican times. With the late Republic and the Empire “Rome” and its territories became a huge melting pot, more or less like America today (Pompey had Celtic blood and Cato the younger had a slave among his ancestors.)

Very strong cultural traits [one can check ‘Romanitas’ in any history manual] were transmitted to Berbers, Greeks, Syrians, Jews, Gauls, Spaniards, South and West Germans, Romanians etc. Even the class of the emperors was multi-ethnic, and polytheism made every creed and religion accepted. Focusing on Rome only, it was additionally populated by so many slaves coming from anywhere that it is foolish to think in terms of a Roman “race” surviving today.

B. Being Roman today. As for Romanness today, I clearly feel connections between an ancient Roman and a Roman of today.

The ancient Roman populace progressively lost its simplicity, temperance and character. Even the poor were proud of living in Rome (the Jews were among the poor) and had ‘panem et circenses’ without any merit.

Privileged and spoiled compared to other folks they became bit by bit crass, indolent, cynical, blasphemous, braggart, with a couldn’t-care-less attitude towards anything.

They nonetheless retained bits of magnanimity, of a sense of universalism, and a good nature and compassion that comes from the ancient Romans (yes, the Romans were compassionate and had a good nature).

The Roman actor Aldo Frabrizi
The Roman actor Aldo Fabrizi, a modern Roman icon

Their vulgar Latin turned little by little into this loose modern dialect that is either loved unconditionally or hated in this country, and which can be terribly concise and abrupt. The true Roman – a species dying out – doesn’t speak that much, he is ironic, full of humour, and can knock you out with very few words, as the Calcagnis, my grandmother’s family, could do (and did).

We are all sons of the base empire a bit! But in our decadence there’s vitality and toughness – some old Romans look like lions and jump off the Tiber bridges even in their 70s.

The modern Roman verve is well depicted in *Carlo Calcagni’s memoirs*.

And, when Leone Limentani the Jew exclaimed: “The edict doesn’t forbid me!”- it was a typically Roman (more than Jewish) scene [see the previous post for it.]

27 thoughts on “A Discussion on Romanness Past and Present (2). Is a Roman ‘Race’ Surviving?

  1. Hey, thanks for all the heavy billing! I’d be happy to have your readers visit my blog!

    BTW, I recall being very confused by the fact that Rome was supposedly founded by the two wolf boys, AND by Aeneas. How did that work? An email to my old professor of ancient art didn’t clear it up. Rome, founded by an immigrant?

    I’m reading the Aeneid to clear it all up…


  2. @Lichanos

    The Greeks considered Rome a semi-barbarous city-state at the outskirts of the Greek civilisation though part of it. They invented myths that connected Rome’s foundation with Greek heroes like Odysseus, Heracles etc. and also a myth where Aeneas, escaped from Troy, landed on the coast of Latium. It became the prevalent explanation, and Vergil wrote his poem on that. The twin brothers Romulus and Remus were descendants of Aeneas, so there is no contradiction. Of course myths have lots of variations.

    Sons of immigrants? Why not. The Romans were more than happy to believe in this origin from the East Mediterranean: the East was more ‘noble’ and civilised than the West, and a hero from Homer added a lot to their pedigree. Myths contain some historical truth, it is known: during Mycenaean times and later lots of migrations took place from the East Mediterranean to the barbarous but fertile West. The Etruscans had possibly an eastern origin and the Italian Greeks of course too. And they were both closely related to the Romans.


    1. At any rate, gentlemen, the only non immigrant people, according to recent archaelogical discoveries, live somewhere in Mali or surrounding countries from where the migration started some 50 to 80 thousand years ago.


        1. Minor disagreement on a detail. 200 000 years is correct, I erred. We do concur on the main proposition, save for central africans, we are all descended from immigrants.


  3. These are very heavy duty posts for me. I need more background to understand them. I have been always fascinated by the great Roman civilization and have only read about it in bits and pieces from books and articles. One I remember was this book I read some time back..about brief history of the world. But, it was not very helpful
    If you have to give name of one good book to a layman, who hasnt gotten more than a peripheral knowledge on this subject, which book in English will you recommend to get started on the history of Roman Civilization?
    Thanks again for putting the time in writing and sharing your knowledge.


    1. I thank you Dev for visiting here. I’ll take some time to reply. I have to think about a good book in English as a good introduction for a layman, as you say. Ciao!


    2. Hi Dev Lallopallo,

      *The Romans* (Pelican Book) by R. H. Barrow 1961 is a great small book and an excellent introduction to the world of Rome. I have loved it because it’s a book with inspired knowledge in it. Its fault is it could need some prior basic knowledge on the western classical world. This knowledge any manual can provide it.
      Maybe The Oxford History of the Roman World could be such a manual but I didn’t read it. The *World of Rome* by Michael Grant is also a good text and a renowned introduction to Rome. I much prefer Barrow’s text, but Grant’s book could also work as a manual (hope I’m right since I read it years ago; Barrow instead I’ve reread it recently.)


      1. That’s so nice of you! I will soon -early next year most likely- start reading number of books which I have always wanted to read and which I think I should read; I will make sure that the ‘The Romans’ is in that list of books. I will keep you posted and will let you know if I face any trouble.
        Btw, I checked the title on amazon and the only way one can get this one is through other sellers, not directly from Amazon. That might also mean that this book is be available free to download, as it happens with such titles which are no longer in print. Especially when some sellers are selling it for 1 cent.
        Thanks again!


  4. Dev,

    Rome is difficult subject and falls under “Classicism.” During my Roman classes in university, the required readings were “The Roman Empire” by Colin Wells and “Roman Civilization” by Naphtali Lewis and Meyer Reinhold. Both are academic but readable. I don’t know if they’re the best books to read over a beer though. You really have to love Roman history!

    I find it helpful refer to the second one because it provides primary sources to various issues like the powers of the emperor, problem of the succession, evolution of the principate etc. It “fills in gaps” where evidence is absent when it comes to Roman history – of which there are many as the good Man from Roma knows.

    Also, Edward Gibbons seminal ‘Decline and fall of the Roman Empire’ is standard reading.

    Hope this helps.


    1. Thank you very much! Do you think that, for the one, who hasnt read very well earlier on the history of that period in that part of the world, it’s better to start with something more introductory before moving in to specific Roman history to understand Roman civilization better? Thanks again!


    2. The Commentator will reply, whenever he likes. As for my view, yes, a kind of introduction would be better if your background is totally different. I would leave Gibbons where he rests – wonderful book, but not for a beginner. An introduction like “The Roman Empire” by Colin Wells could do. Then, the Barrow book, inspiring, together with random reads of Latin authors [this is how I am doing with the Indian civilisation], that you can find on the web, whatever you find not too boring – Cicero, Juvenal, Horace, Seneca, Virgil.

      There are so many reflections, ideas, precepts etc. Seneca was a real sage, Catullus an excellent poet on love. With him, Petronius, Juvenal, Horace and many others (like Ovid, another poet) you might be surprised how their views on morality and sex were different, totally non puritanical. Actually they were pre-Christian, also called Pagan, views.

      Also the HBO BBC Rome TV fictional series could be fun and helpful, one of the best reconstructions of ancient Rome I know. “It chronicles the lives of the rich, powerful, and ‘historically significant,’ yet it also focuses on the lives, fortunes, families, and acquaintances of two common men, two soldiers”. (Wiki)


      1. I agree with your comment on E. Gibbon, but I wonder how many people realize that he is scathingly funny! I read him mainly for his fabulous entertainment value.


      2. I see. But I especially like his musical classical prose derived from the French. I read his autobiography 2 months ago. He was imbued with French culture and lived a lot in Lausanne. And his idea that the spread of Christianity was one of the causes of the Empire’s fall is not entirely foolish in my view.


        1. Yes – his prose is fantastic. I am very fond of those long periodic sentences of the 18th century.

          He is at his most sarcastic when he discusses the early Christian church.


        2. I will check. I remember he treated the Church as a mere historical fact and criticised the Church for having dismantled the great preceding culture. Gibbon confessed he wrote better in French than in English at first. He had left Oxford because he had converted to Catholicism, so his father sent him to French Switzerland, where in 5 years he was greatly enriched by the edgy French culture. He came back to Sw. when he was older.

          How can one possibly live in Switzerland – just mountains, good chocolate and cows. Couldn’t live surrounded by cows.


      3. Thanks again MOR! Will follow your advice on this. BBC series sounds interesting too. I had seen BBC series on planet earth. That was an amazing collection. So, I’m pretty positive that this one should not disappoint either.


  5. Oh my, what a job it would be to separate facts from fiction! I’m talking about the very Roman character of creating a mythological past through the Aneid. There is so much literary and artistic history on the Roman Empire that one book wouldn’t cover it.

    Of course, I’m reacting to the comments here, not the main post, which I find fascinating. I had never given much thought about Jews in Rome or Italy until I saw the movie La Vita `e Bella. Rome had conquered with such fervor and established Roman Laws and government, at the same time retaining local customs and rituals, still surviving in small towns, in remote areas.

    This conversation is quite extraordinary for its content exposition, and for the reactions.

    G. I appreciate your visiting me so regularly, and keeping me on my best behavior.

    I’m impressed with the conversations you light up.


  6. @Rosaria

    Rosaria, I visit you because I appreciate you as a person and as a writer.

    How do you mean ‘your best behaviour’ Rosaria?

    Myth and history – there’s always connections to figure out: the Roman Venus born around Lavinium (where many Spaghetti Westerns were shot btw) not by chance, since Aeneas, who there may be landed, was son of Venus. The original shrine of the goddess was in Lavinium, so everything fits: Aeneas, the goddess, the location of her cult, which is historical of course, and the Romans, sons of Venus, and their pleasure of living, transmitted to all Latin countries.

    Not that today myths are dead: Elvis, Marilyn, the UFOs. I prefer to mythicize the Greco-Romans frankly.

    I loved ‘La vita è bella’, parts of it shot in charming Arezzo, where I often go for family reasons.

    The Romans were the only folk who made a myth, a religion of Rome herself. This gave them additional power.

    And the Jews were not different – Lichanos might correct me -: they mythicized their folk and nation, thence their resilience.

    Unfortunately the hideous and totally false myth of a superior blood or race – of a negative, the Jewish race, and of a positive, the Aryan race – has brought immense tragedy in the 20th century.


    1. Quite right MoR, about Rosaria and about the Aryan vs others myth. But for one man to use it to such an extent certainly proves that it lies pretty near the surface in us white people. And the myth still has it’s followers…even in your beloved, and rightly so, Roma. Even in Canada there are cells of the Aryan Nation group and they are murderous at times.


    2. Let’s face it Paul. First Europe, and later America, predominantly ‘white’, have been, somehow are still, dominant in the world [myths and history are linked we said]. Focusing on economy only, North America and the Euro zone are still the richest areas.

      It will not last. Things ARE about to change soon.

      I know this had to be the American Century. It will not be. As Fareed Zakaria *once said*: it is not defeatism, it is math.

      So the myth of the white race will fade away.

      This angers those who don’t think in terms of humankind, of helping one another and of love for cultural diversity.

      Nazism (more than Fascism in my view, but now they are getting closer) – which has nothing to do with the US, who defeated Nazism and Fascism with the help of the Russians – is there to provide the most angered [and moronic] with its ideological abomination. They must be fought and crushed.

      Obama, a BLACK president of the US, in this respect, after the Bush era, angered them so much (the birthers and all that bunch), I imagine their faces when he was elected – making the rest of us sooo happy, no matter what Obama’s policy is.

      Yes, at this point, and from a world’s point of view, what Obama accomplishes really doesn’t matter that much.

      Pardon my verbosity Paul 😦


  7. Hi. Introductory readings are always beneficial. In my case, I threw myself into the foray so to speak and look how I turned out!

    I think Gibbons is a great independent read at any time. However, true, it may not serve as a primer. Do they have a “Roman Empire for Dummies?” I’m not kidding. Those books are great starters.

    Lewis is fine. A bit “academic and dry” but we are not children, right?


  8. Commentator and MOR, thanks again. I will use the information you guys shared to pick my first book on this subject, once I start my readings


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