Roman History and Civilization Term Paper

Pages: 8 (2320 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 0  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Drama - World

¶ … Roman in the context of ancient Roman society? On its surface, such a question seems obvious. To be Roman means to be a citizen, of course, to be a part of the great, famously "grand" empire that was Imperial Rome. But in analyzing the particular texts of the Roman period the question of who constituted a citizen in the ancient Roman empire, and of the ways in which the "public cult" of Roman civic and religious obedience was observed, this easy analysis of Roman identity is called into question. This paper will advance the thesis that Roman identity originated as a fixed and highly codified concept in a legal sense because of the distinction of citizens and slaves that became problematic with the introduction of religious and civic pluralism during the expansion of the Roman Empire. To highlight this, this paper will focus on the broad, satirical comedies of Plautus and their depiction of slavery and the discussion of religion in the works of the historian Livy. It will also include some brief, contrasting commentary by the earlier historian Polybius and his contemporary Saullst.

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In discussing questions of identity, the anthropologist Mary Douglas once observed "whenever a strict pattern of purity is imposed on our lives it is either highly uncomfortable, or, it leads into contradiction if closely followed, or it leads to hypocrisy." (Douglas 163) by making this statement, Douglas means that whenever a society has a strong definition of what constitutes its identity and core of values, it is almost impossible to follow the strictures imposed by that definition of identity in any close and accurate form without discomfort or contradiction. This was true of the definition of what it meant to be a good and virtuous Roman citizen from the empire's earliest days. According to the early historian Polybius, 'Romaness' was an austere, military discipline

Term Paper on Roman History and Civilization Assignment

Many Romans have volunteered to decide a whole battle by a single combat; not a few have deliberately accepted certain death, some in time of war to secure the safety of the rest, some in time of peace to preserve the safety of the commonwealth. There have also been instances of men in office putting their own sons to death, in defiance of every custom and law, because they rated the interests of their country highest than those of natural ties even with their nearest and dearest. (Polybius' Histories Book VI Section 52)

Despite this early, strict definition of Roman virtue, Roman society was also able, perhaps hypocritically, to maintain a fluid definition of Roman identity. This is perhaps evidenced most dramatically in the question of slavery. "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" is perhaps one of the most famous versions of Roman society created by modern authors. Many have enjoyed its humor, which centers on the struggles of a slave to win his freedom. But few contemporary viewers are aware that its plot and many of its characters were taken, virtually intact, from scenes in Roman comedic drama, and of the comedies of one author in particular named Plautus.

In his comedies, Plautus returned again and again to a simple, basic comedic 'stock' scenario. Plautus' comedies often told the story of a young man, in love with an unsuitable young woman. Often this young woman was a slave or from a lower class family, or a family at odds with the young man's family. The young man often had a father who was strict and uncompromising in his view of proper Roman morality. How could this young man circumvent his father's desires and enjoy the favors of this young, beautiful woman -- why, only through the help of a clever slave! The helpful slave agreed to lend his guile and aid to the young man out of a desire for freedom. There is also an unspoken desire on the part of the slaves also to show his supposed social betters that class, money and the status of being in bondage has little or no effect upon the identity of an individual. All that matters is how intelligent one is, how quickly one can think, and how wisely one can connive. In one such drama, for instance, a slave tricks his master into believing his house is haunted. The man has returned home sooner than expected, and the slave wishes to prevent the man from returning home and finding his son in a tryst with a beautiful girl.

A typical Plautus comedy might begin as thus:

Scene: --Athens. A street in which stands the houses of Demipho and Lysimachus (the fathers of the two lovers)

Charinus, Pale and Wan: (to audience) I am now resolved to do, at one and the same time, two things -- acquaint you both with the plot of this play and with my passion. I shall not imitate those other lovesick lovers I have seen in the comedies, who confide their woes to the night, or day, or sun, or moon; very little care these, I fancy, about the complaints of mortals, their likes and dislikes. It is to you, rather that I shall now confide my woes.

The Greek name of this play is the Emporos, or Philemon. In Latin we call it the Mercator, of Maccius Titus. My father (with a wave of the hand in the direction of Demipho's house) sent me away from here on a trading trip to Rhodes; two years ago it is now, since I left home.

There I fell in love with a perfectly beautiful girl

The main lover demands that the audience stands in collusion with him, in pursuing an unsuitable girl of whose parents his own parents are at odds with. The playwright essentially forces the audience to take the side of the lover and his slave, to stand outside of society. In his dramas, Plautus thus creates a social 'world upside down' where the cleverest people and the most desirable people are slaves and those who disobey their parents and eschew the strict virtues of what it means to be Roman. The humor results by seeing individuals who are supposedly non-persons or immoral have far more wit and personal resources than those who possess tangible money and political power have at their disposal.

It might be assumed by viewing Plautus' plays that Romans had a very flexible view of their social structure, despite what has been stated before. Yet despite society's strict definitions of what it meant to be virtuous and what it meant to be a citizen, Roman slaves did not constitute fixed, racially-based class as they were in the American South. Because the enslavement of opposing armies in wars was a highly common practice, many highly educated individuals were slaves, particularly Greeks. People in debt sometimes had to sell themselves into slavery to pay off what they owned. Criminals were also enslaved as punishment for their crimes.

Because of their frequently high level of education, slaves were often employed to teach the children of the wealthy, as well as to perform menial labor. Thus slaves, human individuals denied the right to own their own bodies, were allowed to possess valuable social and mental skills. There was an unspoken tension between the perceived necessity of slavery and the fact that individuals designated as slaves were obviously no less human and fir, physically or mentally, than 'free' individuals. This tension was even reflected in the Roman legal system. For instance, although slaves could be teachers, advisors and companions of their owners, they could not plead a legal case and their testimony was inadmissible in a court of law. A slave might know more about the law than his master and might educate his master's children, but his words were not recognized in court by law.

Because slavery was an accepted, legal institution in the Roman world, strict laws governed its administration. These laws were not always unfavorable to slaves. Slaves could both earn, and save money, even buy their own freedom. There was a formal legal procedure for manumission. An owner would tap his slave with his hand, turn him around, and say, "Be free, henceforth." In addition to paying for his 'worth,' a slave also had to pay a substantial tax to the Roman government to legalize the transaction.

Thus this practice was both costly and difficult to attain. All the children of slaves were slaves and all children born to free people, including slave were free. Once an individual became a slave that individual's status vanished. He or she became property that could be bought and sold completely at the mercy of one's owner. But his body still possessed the ability to be free. His body could completely change in status, if his owner wished to free him. Owners could do whatever they pleased with their slaves, including hiring them out as prostitutes.

Owners administered whatever punishment they please on their slaves; and the slaves have no recourse to the law because their testimony was inadmissible. An owner… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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Roman History and Civilization.  (2002, February 21).  Retrieved October 29, 2020, from

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"Roman History and Civilization."  February 21, 2002.  Accessed October 29, 2020.