I’ve been a listener to Russ Robert’s phenomenal podcast, Econtalk, for well over 10 years. I’m not in love with every guest—let’s face it, some academics are tedious—but Russ is always excellent and most weeks I find myself captivated by the conversation.
This week was no different. Bret Devereaux is a PhD in ancient history and teaches in the Department of History at North Carolina State University. The episode was about ancient Greece and Rome. It was great and you should check it out: Bret Devereaux on Ancient Greece and Rome.
I have to comment on one aspect of the conversation that I found questionable.
Devereaux spent considerable time pointing out how diverse the Roman empire was. They’d go in, conquer a people/city/nation and grab the wealth. At the same tine they’d allow the conquered to become part of the Roman world, enjoying all the benefits that came with being “a friend of Rome”.
This approach—conquest, wealth grab, and club membership—led to diversity. Over time Rome’s armies were maned by all sorts of peoples. Each of its conquered nations could continue with their customs, religions, and practices unmolested. The capitol had every nation and race under the sun walking its streets.
According to Devereaux, Rome was multicultural and that was its strength. He seemed to equate Roman “multiculturalism” with ours, meaning he made the parallel that multiculturalism and diversity in general are good qualities for society.
I have a problem with that argument.
Sure, Rome was diverse. How could it not be? At its height, the Roman empire covered five million square kilometers and accounted for up to one quarter of the world’s population. Jews, Germans, Brittons, Gauls, Turks, Slavs, Greeks, Egyptians, and Phoenicians all called Rome their master.
But, here’s the problem I have with his assertion that multiculturalism was Rome’s strength: Rome was in no way multicultural as we understand it. Multiculturalism is de jour and I can’t help but think that Dr. Devereaux was guilty of a little pandering, throwing a little sop to the contemporary demos.
The fact is, and Dr. Devereaux admitted as much, the Roman version of multiculturalism was nothing like our conception. They didn’t view all cultures as equal. They didn’t anguish over their own Roman-ness or worry that they might be colonizing. They didn’t go on a quest to find the best aspects of other cultures to integrate into the Roman way. They didn’t celebrate diversity.
The Romans were diverse as a result of conquest, but they never stopped being Roman. You were joining Rome. Yes, your skin can be a different color, and sure, you can eat whatever you like, but it is all about Rome. They were brutal. They left no room for dissent. They reacted to any challenge to their authority with violent force. They imposed their laws above all else.
The Romans had a unifying set of values that everyone had to align with: Roman power and wealth. They conquered your people to acquire its riches, its manpower, and its land. They didn’t care what god you worshiped or what music you played or what food you ate, as long as you provided the empire with what it needed. This unifying set of values (Roman power and wealth) trumped diversity and it trumped the multiple cultures found within the empire.
Rome was diverse because of its lust for empire, but it was not in any way multicultural as we understand it. It would have been good for Dr. Devereaux to make that distinction, for as a historian, he has an obligation to help us through our present time by accurately presenting the reality of the past.