What The Rise Of Rome Can Teach Us About Politics, Family, And White Supremacy

An interview with

Dr. Nicola Terrenato

Esther B. Van Deman Collegiate Professor of Roman Studies at the University of Michigan and Director of the Gabii Project.

Ancient roman fresco from the Necropolis of Esquilino, dated c. 300-280 BC. The fresco represents a non-violent political scene between a Roman and a non-Roman.

Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Much scholarly ink has been spilled on the fall of the Roman Empire, but fewer researchers have focused on the meaning behind the rise of Rome in the first millennium BC. In taking an approach that combines history and archaeology, though, the rise of Rome provides lessons on the evolution of politics, the importance of the family, and the coopting of ancient studies to further white supremacy.

In a forthcoming book called Early Roman Expansion into Italy, University of Michigan archaeologist Nicola Terrenato rejects the old cultural evolutionary idea that the Republic and the Empire were guaranteed, foreseen consequences of a nationalistic identity. Rather, Terrenato argues that much of Roman history was a circumstantial development that relied heavily on family-level machinations and individual political aspirations.

I sat down with Prof. Terrenato recently to ask about the path that led him here and the lessons we can learn from his new book.

Kristina Killgrove: What sparked your initial interest in the field of Roman archaeology?

Nicola Terrenato: I grew up in Rome – just outside the Roman walls – and so archaeology was all around me. We had a little garden, and when I helped my dad do yard work, African red-slip potsherds would come up. I remember picking them up and thinking, What are these? What can they tell us? Eventually, I went to the University of Rome, where I was horrified to discover that they mostly wanted me to learn about the portrait of Nero or whatever – and I realized that I had zero interest in ancient art. I got my PhD from the University of Pisa because the slant was more towards archaeological field work. There I learned that you can do very strict archaeological work – like creating a typology of oil lamps, which is very valuable for dating – but you can also develop a lab technique that allows you to extract lipids from a pot or figure out from a villa its implications for economic history. This stuff you find in the ground tells a story, but it’s only a sample of something bigger you’re not seeing. So early on, I had this idea that archaeology was a tool to write history.

The Roman theater at Volterra was built during the reign of Emperor Augustus in the 1st century BC.

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Killgrove: Was there a particular project in your early career that – while maybe you didn’t know it at the time – led to the way you understand the ancient Roman world?

Terrenato: My doctoral dissertation was on a site called Volterra in Tuscany that goes back to Etruscan times. My advisor, Andrea Carandini, thought that I should find evidence there of the Roman conquest – a period of time from about 500-100 BC in which Latin-speaking people took over all of the Italian peninsula – in the form of large agricultural estates and villas. It was a strongly Marxist interpretation of early Roman expansion that was current in the 1980s. But I was surveying with a team of students – tens of square kilometers – and I wasn’t finding villas at all. I slowly started developing this idea that perhaps there are parts of Italy where there are no villas, where the so-called Roman conquest wasn’t a particularly disruptive event because these small farms started before the conquest and continued afterwards. To me, this was fascinating that the archaeology showed that these small famers could completely sidestep what historians consider a giant event!

Killgrove: If the archaeological evidence doesn’t support a massive, world-changing conquest event, then why do we speak – even today – of Rome as if it is shorthand for a powerful political force? Where does Rome fit into this archaeo-historical picture you’ve been developing?

Terrenato: Rome stands at the intersection of so many different levels of cultural, intellectual, and popular discourse – from Karl Marx to Russell Crowe, from the flags of the A.S. Roma soccer team to Hannah Arendt’s discussion of Hitler and totalitarianism. Rome is this omnipresent object, which makes it really hard to talk about, because there’s this level at which we all think we know something about Rome – we imagine it as full of gladiators and as mounting a brutal military conquest. There is also this whole level at which Rome becomes the symbol of the alt-right movement. But it is constantly being appropriated, and also assumed to be “our” past. The first chapter of Early Roman Expansion is all about how we can start to disentangle this whole network, and about how, in the first millennium BC, Rome went from being just one of many city-states to a dominant cultural force within Italy. It was not destined to do this; in 600 BC, you’d never have bet on Rome to become what it eventually becomes.

Painted busts of Roman emperors in the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Gleamhound / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY SA 4.0

Killgrove: The idea of appropriation of Rome as a symbol, particularly by alt-right white nationalists, is very popular in discussions among Roman scholars right now, with Donna Zuckerberg’s new book Not All Dead White Men and Sarah Bond’s research on the whitewashing of ancient statues. Does your book revise our understanding of the Roman conquest in a way that contributes to this discussion?

Terrenato: Absolutely. It’s important to show how deep the roots of these views on Roman imperialism are and how biased they are. First and foremost, the Romans have been used by people interested in justifying their own imperialism. Yet the Roman conquest and even the empire after it are structurally different from modern empires. The Romans themselves were essentially open from the beginning. I argue in my book that this is what makes their imperialist bid so successful. If you are a non-Roman landed elite, you were welcome to join and become a Roman citizen, become a consul, lead the army. The Romans didn’t have the same anxiety that many have in the United States today – that America will lose its identity because of immigration. Openness is one key reason why, in the end, it’s Rome that comes out on top and not, say, Carthage because Carthaginian citizenship is not set up in the same way. Rome’s allies in Italy stick with it not because Rome is a military machine but because Rome has a 200-year track record of showing that they will allow a distribution of power. In Rome, you can be African like Septimius Severus and you can become emperor.

Killgrove: Is it fair to say, then, that the success of the Romans was essentially based on inclusion, whereas most modern and premodern empires are focused on exclusion?

Terrenato: Yes and no. We always have to remember that this is a horribly patriarchal empire that also discriminates against the underclass. So there is elite inclusion. What the Romans don’t do is ethnic discrimination. They are very willing to make friends and alliances, and bring in other elites from around their world. But they are very reluctant to allow their own working class or any working class to rise through the ranks. We have to be careful not to want to use the Romans to justify our own politics – good or bad. What hardly anyone has done is to look at the Romans in their own right.

Killgrove: How can we do that? In cultural anthropology, researchers can use both emic and etic approaches – an insider’s perspective and an outsider’s perspective on understanding a culture – but of course we can’t speak to the ancient Romans.

Terrenato: Our perspective on Rome is spuriously emic for sure. As an example, Machiavelli – who was a Florentine statesman – famously locked himself in his study, put on a Roman toga, read Livy, and said ‘I now talk with my peers’ as if he had actually become a Roman. This is where it all goes horribly wrong, when we think that we know Romans, or can be like Romans. It’s almost as if the past is a foreign country except for Rome. But, one of the points of my book is that Rome is just as much of a mystery as any other piece of the past.

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Killgrove: Speaking of mysteries, I feel like more work has been done on understanding the reasons that Rome fell in the early 5th century AD than on the rise of Rome one thousand years earlier. Why have scholars focused more clearly on the so-called Fall of Rome than on its beginnings as a city-state?

Terrenato: In many ways, the rise has been considered to be self-evident. Whereas there is a sense that since Rome was so great, how could it fall? We have to figure out what went wrong and learn a lesson, lest we repeat that mistake. This is also part of white supremacist rhetoric – this idea that’s taken for granted that Rome kicked ass, so obviously the empire rose. There’s this essentializing, this sense of superiority: the Romans are just better, so of course once they get going, they’re going to steamroll over everybody else.

Killgrove: You’re arguing in the book that it’s important to tease out the diverse threads – economic, political, social – that were woven together right from the beginning to create the Roman state and eventually the Empire. What lessons can we learn from this sort of critical approach to history, archaeology, and classics that can be applied more broadly?

Terrenato: All history is relevant. But the question is how you make it relevant and what is a methodologically appropriate and correct way of making it relevant. To say we’re just like the Romans, for example, is a shortcut that leads to bad historiography of the past and even worse politics of the present. This doesn’t happen in most other fields of history. Take the Wari in Peru, which few Americans know much about. Studying their conquest can tell you how historical causation can work, what processes were at work, how people and ideas interacted – and we can glean the structural logic of the past and apply it to other periods. We need to do the same kind of thing with Rome.

What I try to show in my book is that many elite families have primary loyalty to their own lineage rather to an abstraction like the Roman Empire. This is shown by the fact that it’s easy for them to switch sides – Roman politicians were looking out for themselves. It’s not a surprising idea in modern political times, but we tend to attribute to the Romans this incredible sense of state. It’s almost scandalous to say that the consul of the year 246 was just trying to line his own pockets, but totally normal to say that a U.S. congressman is only looking out for his own constituents and reelection.

Here’s an example I give in my book: early on, there is a problem with Tusculum just outside of Rome. An army just shows up at Rome under the leadership of the Fulvii, who are like the kings of Tusculum, and the Romans are caught off guard. We know this from the Roman historian Livy, who then also says that the very next year, the general of the army of Tusculum is a consul in Rome and celebrates a military triumph over Tusculum. He goes from being an enemy king to a Roman magistrate in 12 months’ time. There’s no reason for Livy to make this up, but many scholars are confused over how someone could switch sides so quickly and completely.

But, as I talk about in the book, there is this ability for the elite to negotiate and have one-on-one conversations, and they do it to elevate the status of their family, not out of some deep patriotism. There are back channel networks where the elite sit down and talk and attempt to find a solution – and so far, this idea has been completely ignored in understanding the rise of Rome.

When you start looking at it in these terms, this is actually what politicians today do; this is what has happened with recent U.S. government shut downs. We oversimplify history if we think of the Romans versus the Etruscans, because it is far more complicated, just like the fact that Trump pulled out of Syria is complicated. Let’s allow for individual agency in the past and try to understand the chaos of history, which is very difficult to model. Every year, we should be trying to get closer to figuring out how empires get put together or how history happens. All periods of history are very complex, interwoven tapestries of individual agendas. When you start thinking in these terms, then a lot of the elements start becoming more understandable.

Statue of the Emperor Augustus, placed in front of the Forum of Trajan on Fori Imperiali Boulevard, near the Colosseum, Rome.

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Killgrove: So you don’t like simplistic explanations, or the idea of prime movers, whether that’s a particular person or a climatic event?

Terrenato: I don’t like anyone who would say, it’s all about how Augustus woke up that morning, or who say it’s all about how much wheat was being produced that year. Yes, there is individual psychology, but the corporate and lineage identities are very powerful. It’s a bit confusing because today we tend to be much more individualistic than the Romans were; the Romans and early Italians thought of themselves as members of groups or extended lineages first.

Killgrove: Are you saying that powerful lineages of Romans created the government, the same way the Trump family is right now?

Terrenato: Not just Trump – it’s what politicians do. It’s also the Bushes, John and John Q. Adams, the dictator of Uzbekistan. But for the Romans, it’s a much larger group of people. This element of family is a long-term aspect of their culture, where it’s not for us, where we have a stunning lack of interest about what happens to our extended families.

Killgrove: Does Roman archaeology give us a counterpoint to this focus on individuals, then?

Terrenato: Definitely. I will never know the individual machinations of each of these elite families. But I know they must have done something right because the families continue. With archaeology, I can see the overall pattern, which I think is very powerful. But both are necessary – ancient history without archaeology is idealism, but archaeology without history is too materialistic in focus. I’m trying to describe in the book a complex phenomenon, and it’s important to look more broadly. For example, around 400 BC there are a number of city-states in the ancient world and they all start growing: Macedonian, Roman, Carthaginian, Syracusan, Tarentine, and the list goes on. All these city-states that were happy to do their thing for the previous 500 years suddenly lurched into action and started clashing with one another. What this tells me – and surprisingly it hasn’t been said really ever before – is that there must be something that goes click, and not just in the heads of the Romans. There are a number of gears turning that make imperialist expansion possible, and everybody gets in on the action. Rome just happens to prevail, and so Roman imperialism is just one of many imperialisms. Rome crosses the finish line, and we should ask why.

Killgrove: Well, why does Rome cross the finish line?

Terrenato: In the end, I say that I don’t know what the prime mover is, or even if there is one. We risk falling into reductionism if we focus too much on just one reason. But I think it’s vital to follow as many threads as we can so that we can better understand the Romans.

Killgrove: Obviously you think people should read your book, but who is it geared towards?

Terrenato: I don’t want to capitalize on Russell Crowe, and I don’t want people to read this because it’s Rome. Rather, I hope people read it because of how I talk about Rome. My attempt here is to fly in the face of a narrative that has been dominant at least since Charlemagne. It’s a carefully written book in which I don’t use untranslated Latin terms, because that habit is meant to exclude people who don’t have a classics background. I often say that classics is the only field whose definition is a value judgment instead of a description. This book is an attempt to make the classics ordinary – to make Roman history just another piece of human history that we can and should learn from.

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Nicola Terrenato’s book, The Early Roman Expansion in Italy: Elite Negotiation and Family Agendas, is now available from Cambridge University Press and Amazon.

Follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn. Check out my website.

As a bioarchaeologist, I routinely pore over the skeletons of ancient populations so that I can learn about their health, diet, and lifestyles.