Ancient Romans were diverse? Who would have thought it?


I wouldn’t have guessed that they’d ever get DNA from the dead of Pompeii, but they have. It’s not complete — heat isn’t compatible with DNA preservation — but they were able to make some mundane conclusions.

The man’s genome assembly had just 0.42x coverage, indicating that the reads had little overlap, and there were gaps. Still, according to Scorrano, the sequence was good enough to analyze certain aspects of the DNA. The results suggested the Pompeian man was genetically similar to modern Mediterranean populations and, when compared to other published genomes from ancient Rome, that he was closely related “to Imperial Roman Age individuals,” Scorrano says, adding that that’s what the team expected to find. But at the same time, he notes that Rome was packed with people from diverse genetic backgrounds back then. In fact, the markers of the man’s maternal and paternal lineages were absent among those previously published sequences, which suggests the region had high genetic diversity during that time.

The Italian Peninsula was “incredibly heterogeneous” when Vesuvius erupted—people were “coming from all over the empire” into Rome or into port cities like Pompeii, says University of Chicago archaeologist Hannah Moots, who did not participate in the study but has previously characterized the genomic pool of ancient Rome. It is exciting to have genomes from Italian regions outside Rome, she says, adding that looking at sites like Pompeii is “really interesting” because they can provide insights into more rural areas.

Mundane isn’t bad — it’s what was expected. And they did find some novel markers. Just learning that Roman society was diverse is a good reminder to all those people who think monocultures are superior.

Comments

  1. stwriley says

    I honestly don’t know why this would surprise anyone who has paid attention to the history of ancient Rome. They were an imperial power that prized cultural acquisition above almost anything else. To be Roman was not so much a matter of being born that way as taking on the cultural aspects of Rome. If you were a citizen and culturally Roman, it didn’t matter where your ancestors hailed from or what you looked like, you were a Roman. Finding wide genetic diversity is what we should have expected of people with that kind of cultural attitude.

  2. cartomancer says

    Diversity was not incidental to Roman culture and Roman ideas about who they were. It was so central that their foundation myths placed it right at the beginning of the story.

    Who were the first Romans? Well, the oldest stories had them as vagrants, bandits and escaped slaves from across Italy – gathered to Romulus’s city to become his people. Their wives were abducted Sabines. By the First Century BC the story had been embellished. Romulus was of the line of Alba Longa, which was founded by Ascanius, son of Aeneas, who founded Lavinium in Latium. But Aeneas and Ascanius were Trojan exiles, fleeing the destruction of that city by the Greeks.

    Romans looked around themselves at the height of their Empire and thought “everyone here is from somewhere else”. While there were those that complained about all the Greeks and Syrians and Egyptians wandering the streets – expertly skewered by satirists like Juvenal – most Romans didn’t give it a second thought.

    Indeed, the heart of Rome’s economic system was slavery on an industrial scale. People from everywhere they went were imported wholesale into Rome. Gauls, Arabs, Jews, Nubians, Germans, Dacians – forcibly relocated and inducted into the Roman population. They came as slaves, but it was the absolute norm to free slaves after a decade or two of service. Their children were then full Roman citizens. Hardly anyone didn’t have a good number of ex-slaves from far-off climes in their ancestry.

  3. dstatton says

    Yes, the idea off different “races’ is a modern construct. It helped to justify enslaving Africans.

  4. cartomancer says

    We must, of course, hold back from falling into the trap of assuming that the Romans were some kind of utopia of pluralistic tolerance. Far from it. They did not do diversity like we do diversity. Roman society did not have any real concept of cultural pluralism. The vast majority of Romans laughed at, belittled or overlooked non-Roman ways of doing things, and the stereotypes they had of other cultures were savage and demeaning. Greeks were crafty, sexually immoral and effeminate. Egyptians were lazy and incomprehensible. Gauls and especially Britons were crude and unsophisticated, but virtuous in their own rough way. Carthaginians were thankfully a thing of the past. But this was a belittlement of cultures, not of races. If you did things the Roman way you were part of the club.

    It is instructive to note that even something as pedestrian as food Romans did quite differently. Romans never seem to have taken to foreign cuisines. They imported ingredients, sure, but those were used in Roman-style cooking. You simply didn’t get Greek takeaways or Egyptian restaurants. Nobody raved about a really good meal they had while abroad.

    Foreign gods were perhaps an exception, though even they were suspicious to many. Polytheism allowed foreign deities to be imported and domesticated, as slave populations were. Indeed, the College of Fetials – the priests responsible for declaring war – had a ritual to entice the gods of enemy peoples to abandon them and come to Rome, where they were promised temples and sacrifices if they took the Roman side in war. New divine citizens as well as mortal ones.

  5. wzrd1 says

    It’s interesting that everyone fixated upon the Imperial period of Rome, ignoring entirely that the practice of granting citizenship and intermixing was present from the Republican times as well.
    Roman culture originated with such an admixture of exiles and misfits in other societies as to defy proper description and they adopted, likely unconsciously at first, appropriation of entire cultural concepts – to include wholesale importation of religions.
    Where they succeeded was both in military dominance and granting citizenship to those in newly acquired domains to all who wanted it, which was the exception throughout history. Hell, we really don’t do that, otherwise there’d be no drive for a territory or possession to consider statehood, but give second class citizenship to territories and possessions (think otherwise, tell me their last vote in the House or Senate).
    The end result, something difficult to impossible in every society previously – stability beyond a generation or two. Downside, they relied upon expansion to retain stability, when expansion became difficult to impossible, they entered into cycles of increasing corruption and decreasing stability.

    Humanity: An odd species of near sapience, notable for its unique failure in every mirror test beyond the optical mirror, which is generally recognized.

  6. PaulBC says

    cartomancer@6

    They imported ingredients, sure, but those were used in Roman-style cooking. You simply didn’t get Greek takeaways or Egyptian restaurants. Nobody raved about a really good meal they had while abroad.

    Reading this made me think of silk.

    I imagine the Romans would have looked askance at the way the Chinese wore silk (if they had ever made it that far).

  7. birgerjohansson says

    The Roman rulers were utterly ruthless and cruel, and so was their whole society.
    But just like the Assyrians before them they did not let jingoism prevent opportunities for business so people from all over might find a niche in their economy.
    Having said that, mortality from disease in the urban centers exceeded birth rates (everywhere in the world until the late 19th century) so the growing cities needed new people all the time.

  8. PaulBC says

    While people have always been bigoted, whether it’s about race, culture, or some combination, I think that the racism of African chattel slavery and its rationalizations (many constructed after the so-called Enlightenment) were of an entirely different category. It might not have been unprecedented, but it was more the exception than the rule, not in individual treatment but in the elaborate institutionalization of a defined class of subhumans.

    I agree that Rome was no utopia, but our society has a lot to answer for as well.

  9. Morgan says

    Brett Devereaux did a series of posts about this topic, and how Rome was unusual compared to many of its competitors in its willingness to incorporate “outsiders” and conquered populations and offer paths to becoming “fully Roman” (or at least allowing your children to do so), instead of remaining a perpetually excluded underclass. He argues that among other things this contributed to the stability and longevity of the Republic/Empire by making it so that most of its parts considered themselves to be Roman and wanted to remain so, rather than seeing themselves as separate entities subjugated by Rome and willing to turn against it if offered liberation by rival powers.

  10. Rich Woods says

    @birgerjohansson #9:

    The Roman rulers were utterly ruthless and cruel, and so was their whole society.

    They could certainly be ruthless, and some aspects of their culture are considered cruel by our standards (slavery and the various forms of capital punishment, for example) but ‘utterly’ is a step too far. Was Marcus Aurelius ‘utterly ruthless and cruel’, compared to, say, the political ruthlessness of Augustus or the sadistic cruelty of Caligula?

  11. stwriley says

    wzrd1 @7,

    When I referred to the Romans in my initial comment as an imperial power, I wasn’t just referring to the Empire, but to the Republic as well, which was just as culturally and militarily imperialistic. It was, after all, during the Republican period that Rome conquered not only the rest of Italy but also Spain, North Africa, Gaul, Greece, and Asia Minor. And they were just as culturally chauvinistic then as they were later, but also just as ready to welcome new citizens who conformed to that Roman culture.

  12. wzrd1 says

    stwriley @13, indeed. That was replicated in part after the fall of the empire by the Roman Catholic church, which followed similar appropriation and membership rules. Well, save until quite recently, when a pope could suddenly be elected that wasn’t Italian.
    Of course, they are a remnant of that empire anyway.

    Granting citizenship gave them a large measure of stability, as full members tend to not want to usurp the organization. But, once expansion became impossible, largely due to technological limitations, they inevitably imploded. It really was a sociological Ponzi scheme.

  13. Walter Solomon says

    cartomancer @6
    What did the Romans think of the Persians (Parthians) who often defeated them battle and were never conquered by them?

  14. Erp says

    @3 Cartomancer

    They came as slaves, but it was the absolute norm to free slaves after a decade or two of service. Their children were then full Roman citizens. Hardly anyone didn’t have a good number of ex-slaves from far-off climes in their ancestry.

    Not an absolute norm to free by any means. However there were some subsets of household slaves that could expect to be free and, if their owners were Roman citizens, would become themselves become Roman citizens and “clients” of their former owner now patron. Freedmen of a powerful patron such as an emperor could wield a large amount of power. However household slaves were a minority of the slave population.

    BTW a few years ago Mary Beard, a well-known classicist, cause an uproar when she pointed out that some of the people in Roman Britain would have been called Black by modern standards.

  15. blf says

    Erp@16, “Mary Beard, a well-known classicist, cause an uproar when she pointed out that some of the people in Roman Britain would have been called Black by modern standards.”

    That was about four years ago. The BBC published a schools video that featured a high-ranking black Roman soldier as the father of a family. Prof Beard was defending that, and got a lot of trolling abuse; some dufus professor (not of history, but business(?), as I recall) in the States joined in the attacks on Beard.

  16. Tethys says

    Rome modeled itself on the Ancient Greek warrior societies like Sparta.

    There were certainly black people in Roman Briton. It is rare for complexion to even be mentioned by the various historians of the age, but there is one reference to a group of soldiers from North Africa being referred to as ‘Blaumann’ (blue men) who had been stationed in Briton. They were very miserable in the cold, rainy climate, and got reassigned to Spain after a year.

    Rome had silk from China. The Silk Road was well established in the first century CE. Egypt and Greece were huge importers of East Asian luxury goods.

  17. KG says

    Rome modeled itself on the Ancient Greek warrior societies like Sparta.

    Really? What do you base that claim on? As others have pointed out, huge Roman innovations were the willingness to extend the Roman citizenship beyond the city itself – eventually to all free inhabitants of the Empire – and a relatively high degree of social mobility: manumission was common, the son of a freedman could be elected to office, the ancient patrician caste lost its monopoly on power and elite status early on. To be a citizen of a Greek city-state, you had to live close enough to attend frequent assemblies in the city itself and in most cases, to have two citizens as parents; and Sparta was among the most restrictive of all.

  18. cartomancer says

    Walter Solomon, #15,

    Roman views on the Parthian Persians were largely influenced by earlier Greek views of the Achemenids – that Persians were slavish, unmanly, luxury-loving and morally dissolute. They epitomised the opulence and decadence of the East. One strand in Greek and Roman thinking was that Persian society was focused to an unhealthy extent on its monarchy, which showed that Persians were natural slaves. Being the subject of a king, acknowledging someone else as a master who is above you and gives you orders, is the condition of a slave. Beards were one area of fascination and contempt – Persian culture tended to promote the growing of, elaborate styling of and taking pride in beards, where Romans saw them as a mark of uncivilised brutishness to be shaved off completely. Eunuchs were another point of fascination and horror. To some extent the Romans treated Greek and Persian cultures as similar (not unsurprising, given that after Alexander’s conquests Persia was significantly Hellenized), particularly in terms of how seductive and destabilising they were to good, traditional, old-fashioned Roman culture.

    Erp. #16,

    We don’t actually know all that much about what happened to the slaves working on the big farms in the latifundia of rural Italy. Indeed, the only slaves for which there is very much written evidence to draw on that we might use to reconstruct what their lives were like are the household slaves living with citizen families in the towns and cities. It is very much an open question what happened to rural, plantation and mining, slaves, in terms of manumission. Given the cost of maintaining elderly slaves, however, and the diminishing amount of work they could do in their later years, it would make good economic sense to free them and let them look after themselves (a cruelty that some Romans explicitly acknowledged). As for smaller estates, there was not really a sharp division between household slaves and farm work slaves. I would not be at all surprised if the patterns of manumission we can reconstruct for urban slaves were repeated to a significant degree among the slave populations in other contexts.

    blf, #17

    The individual in question was a man of Berber descent called Quintus Lollius Urbicus, born in the tiny village of Tiddis on the edge of the Sahara (his tomb and a very worn down monument to him still survive) and also attested briefly as governor of Britannia. Tooth enamel analysis of Roman skulls from across Britain has also uncovered evidence that a good number of them grew up in very different climates.

    Tethys, #18

    It would probably be going too far to say that the Romans “modelled” themselves on the Spartans. Up until the Second Century BC it is unlikely that many Romans were even aware of the existence of Sparta, let alone conversant with its history and culture. This changed, of course, as Rome developed a taste for Greek literature and began to expand into the Hellenic world through a series of wars with first the Macedonians and then the various Greek leagues that had sprung up with the decline of the diadochoi states. Romans tended to respect the martial prowess of the Classical Spartans (i,e. the ones from the age of the Persian and Peloponnesian wars, the Spartans of the Archaic age and the Spartans of their own day were very different). They were drawn to the Spartans’ frugal ways and disdain for comfort and luxury, but if anything the respect came from a desire to cast Sparta as a kind of proto-Rome. Sparta’s two kings were equated with Rome’s two consuls, for instance, and its Gerousia with Rome’s Senate. In fact most of the gaudy, hyper-macho mythmaking about Classical Sparta comes not from contemporaries but from writers in the Roman era like Plutarch seeking to appeal to Roman values. It wasn’t so much the Romans modelling themselves after the Spartans, it was the Romans modelling their idea of what the Spartans were like after an exaggerated version of themselves.

    Which, of course, links back to the first point I made about the Persians in the Roman imagination – Rome cast Sparta as “guys like us” and Persia as “the subversive other”.

  19. unclefrogy says

    regardless of the status of citizenship or slavery or anything in-between there is one thing you can be assured of people will have sex with each other some times without consent and sometimes with consent and some times for money. the outcome will be more people in the overall population regardless how you divide it up into various categories all will be counted in the whole. so therefore it is not surprising that the population of Rome and there for Italy was heterogeneous

  20. John Morales says

    [cartomancer @20, sometimes, when you do your thing, it makes me happy. Very]

  21. Walter Solomon says

    cartomancer @20

    Thank you for that detailed answer. Ironic that the Romans agreed with the Greeks, who the Romans also considered inferior as you explained earlier, about the Persians.

    So too that the Romans, like the Egyptians, though facial hair was repulsive.

  22. Tethys says

    KG @19

    Really? What do you base that claim on?

    The Roman historians that idealized the hyper-masculine and hyper- martial aspects of ancient Greek warrior societies. Roman writers are constantly inventing historic lineages that begin with soldiers/ refugees from the Trojan Wars. You can find the trope repeated in later European literature right into the early medieval period. Thor and Achilles were included in the same story, just as Marvel takes various characters from multiple cultures and writes mash-ups now.

    Cartomancer @20.

    . In fact most of the gaudy, hyper-macho mythmaking about Classical Sparta comes not from contemporaries but from writers in the Roman era like Plutarch seeking to appeal to Roman values. It wasn’t so much the Romans modelling themselves after the Spartans, it was the Romans modelling their idea of what the Spartans were like after an exaggerated version of themselves.

    That is an excellent and concise summary of my understanding of Roman ideals. They liked parts of Spartan society, but they do not mention the aspects they found distasteful, such as homosexuality. They are also extremely sexist, and highly biased in who they consider civilized people, or barbarians.

    Ausonius wrote Bisulla in the 300’s. I think most modern readers would find its factual contents shocking. A blonde haired blue eyed Germanic child slave is owned by a creepy old Roman man. Her beauty inspires him to immediately free her, adopt her as his daughter, and eventually marry her.

    Which, of course, links back to the first point I made about the Persians in the Roman imagination – Rome cast Sparta as “guys like us” and Persia as “the subversive other”.

    Phoenicians are another group they did not seem to like, despite the fact that they did enjoy destroying their trade centers and stealing their boat- building technology.

    The city of Cyrene became wealthy from Silphium, which was used for birth control. It was founded by a Demi goddess of the same name and Apollo according to various Greeks and Romans.

    Carthage has Dido as its founder, and became wealthy by manufacturing Tyrian purple dye.

    The historic facts are different, but I find it notable that Greek societies were far more egalitarian judging by the fact that there are many powerful and influential women in their stories, but that is not the case for Romans.
    The rape of the Sabine women is their founding event.

    The Etruscans are the people who preceded Rome, but they too are not patriarchal societies judging by their material culture. From wiki:

    It is also possible that Greek and Roman attitudes to the Etruscans were based on a misunderstanding of the place of women within their society. In both Greece and the Earliest Republican Rome, respectable women were confined to the house and mixed-sex socialising did not occur. Thus, the freedom of women within Etruscan society could have been misunderstood as implying their sexual availability.[93] It is worth noting that a number of Etruscan tombs carry funerary inscriptions in the form “X son of (father) and (mother)”, indicating the importance of the mother’s side of the family.

  23. KG says

    The Roman historians that idealized the hyper-masculine and hyper- martial aspects of ancient Greek warrior societies. Roman writers are constantly inventing historic lineages that begin with soldiers/ refugees from the Trojan Wars. You can find the trope repeated in later European literature right into the early medieval period. – Tethys@24

    But that doesn’t mean “Rome modeled itself on the Ancient Greek warrior societies like Sparta.” as you said @18. Rather, as Cartomancer says:

    It wasn’t so much the Romans modelling themselves after the Spartans, it was the Romans modelling their idea of what the Spartans were like after an exaggerated version of themselves.

    In much the same way, the 19th century British elite modelled their idea of what the Romans were like on a mythologised version of their own empire.

  24. Tethys says

    @KG

    I don’t know why you are being so obtuse as to deliberately ignore most of my comment to nitpick about me using Sparta as an example of a Greek warrior culture. I’ve read plenty of boring Roman historians and their military histories, which clearly extol what we call toxic masculinity.

    Rome is a culture literally started by pirates and rapists, according to their own history. ( or alternately, by murdering your twin brother)

    Reading their literature is frequently horrifying.

    War pigs and emberchment* were not things I enjoyed learning about.

    *the practice of burying a living human sacrifice within the foundation of buildings or bridges.

  25. Tethys says

    The problem with historic literature is that a great deal of what survived is very focused on the genre of Heroes, military conquests and manly men with swords. They do make reference to the many women of the ancient world who were greatly revered for their writing and poetry, but sadly, most of that material has been lost.

    It barely mentions the women who spun all the thread, or the people who made sails and ropes, despite the obvious fact that warships and merchants aren’t sailing anywhere without those everyday material goods and friendly ports that are within a days travel.

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