I involved myself in an interesting discussion the other day, several aspects of which I found enlightening regarding the Roman Empire. The first curiosity I realized had to do with perceptions of identity. Apart from areas of great fertility, culture groups generally centered around the tribe unless they were united under a powerful leader or were threatened by an outside force. These situations generally led to a very temporary situation; united tribes might speak a common language and participate in its military but as soon as the central authority weakened or the threat was diverted each group sought total independence again.
Rome was different than Persia, Macedonia, Carthage, Assyrian, and every other empire and confederacy before it. Though it was an empire, its citizens considered themselves to be of a single nationality and sharing a common culture. This was for several reasons, both organic and manufactured.
The most obvious was language. Latin was the language of the conquerors, which made it the language all people hoping to work in the empire had to know. Rome generally made accepting the new language as painless as possible, too. There was no extra tax on the conquered, no reason for the provinces to feel put down. In fact, the brightest segment of the population was offered a free education and employment in the empire’s government.
With the coming of Rome roads were improved to the most durable and easily used transportation system in the world, complete with government funded stations at regular intervals. Rome had a very stable economy for most of its history, which meant that a new province normally enjoyed a level of prosperity it had never known before. Rome also had one of the strongest political foundations the world had ever seen, which meant that the new province was also being run more smoothly than ever. There are few better ways to win the loyalty of an entire culture than by offering it superior governance.
Unique at the time, Rome followed a practice of religious tolerance. This was modified slightly with the introduction of emperor-worship and later Christianity, but by that time the regional gods had been assimilated to the Roman, and with that the regional religions had been connected to Rome’s. Once the emperors had accepted Christianity, it was a relatively peaceful process to bring the entire empire to the new religion.
There was also a great deal of manufactured unity. Provincial governors were always sent from Rome, which meant that all rule was coming from a central location. These governors would install their own bureaucracy as well, bringing in people from throughout the empire and with them persons from all over the empire who were all very Roman.
The military also played a part. Soldiers were asked to serve for 20 years in the military, but law gave a retiring soldier the option of a free plot of land on the frontier where they had served. This brought Romanized people into new provinces and hastened their Romanization. Soldiers who instead returned home would bring the memory of having served with people from all provinces, reinforcing the sense of a unified empire.
There were of course exceptionions to the Romanization process. Britain was never fully conquered and so its border regions – Wales, northern England, and even Cornwall – were never fully indoctrinated into Rome’s culture. The same can be said of Rome’s Asian frontier. However, even here Rome’s influence could be felt. Foederati stationed along Hadrian’s Wall in the third century were taking on Roman names within two generations while many of Wales’ kingdoms claimed Maxen Wledig, Maximus, as the father of their founder’s wife.