Emma Dench: Who did the Romans think they were?

On Nov. 30, 2010, Professor Emma Dench from the Departments of Classics and History at Harvard University presented a lecture to members of the Brandeis community on the Roman institution of citizenship. Introduced by department chair Professor Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, the lively talk focused on how requirements for and perceptions of citizenship reflected the Romans' views of themselves. To introduce the idea of a Roman citizenship test, which she made clear did not formally exist, Professor Dench reviewed a few questions from the relatively modern citizenship tests for the United States and Indochina.

Turning to the ancient world, Professor Dench then addressed citizenship in archaic and classical Greek city-states. There, citizenship was taken for granted based on the city or village of a free man's birth. The exception was Athens. Two factors led to the Athenians' unusual concern with citizenship requirements, the large metic population and the Athenian belief in their own autochthonous relationship with the land. As a result, in 451-450 BCE Pericles passed the citizenship law requiring both parents of a prospective citizen to be citizens themselves.

Professor Dench continued by contrasting Roman approaches to citizenship with those in Athens and elsewhere. She considered some broad requirements for Roman citizenship in the form of a test — a series of questions asked of the audience. Passing rapidly over gender requirements, moral expectations, and the question of whether a prospective citizen had benefited Rome, Professor Dench focused on the areas of language, clothing and descent.

Not only did the Romans free slaves and allow such freedmen to become citizens, they also granted citizenship to both groups and individuals with little consideration for their geographic origins. Professor Dench tied this policy to Roman conceptualizations of themselves as migrants, with Aeneas as an example. She later cited Augustus' legislations as an indication that, over time, the Romans may have become more concerned about citizens' ethnic backgrounds, since these laws made it more difficult to free slaves. Nevertheless multiple examples, such as Philopappos of Commagene, indicate that Roman citizens remained proud of their non-Roman heritage.   

Regardless of a citizen's ethnicity, they were expected to know the Latin language. Even the accent of the spoken Latin could be important. Particular emperors were mocked for their provincial accents. Still, the Romans continued to value an understanding of Greek. In addition to the use of Latin as a kind of national language, the formal and uncomfortable toga was seen as distinctly Roman form of dress.

Professor Dench concluded her talk by questioning the ultimate desirability of becoming a Roman citizen. The lecture was followed by a brief question and answer period and a reception.

—Otis Munroe ‘12

Photos by Professor Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow