By Owen Chandler
One summer while walking along Hadrian’s wall and visiting the numerous museums in Northumberland I was marvelling at the structures and arts the Romans were able to achieve so very long ago. After a while a question dawned on me, that got pushed out of my head while being distracted by a beautiful vase. And yet, the question remains – if Rome is eternal, then where did the Romans go? It is unlikely they just disappeared after empire, leaving their majestic accomplishments in the dirt for people like me to marvel at.
‘The Roman empire was assassinated.’ For many, once Rome fell, so did the Romans. This idea that one civilisation falls, and another rises in its place has become ‘common knowledge’, yet the reality behind this is quite different. Indeed, it is understood broadly that the middle ages and the barbarian kingdoms followed on from antiquity and the Romans. While not wholly untrue, there must be more to the story, or did the Romans simply disappear, replaced by the ‘barbarians’ they fought for centuries?
The issue here is partly the preoccupation with the West. If we focus on Europe then we focus on France, Germany and Britain. Earlier historians viewed such places after the fall of Rome as becoming the ‘barbarian realm’. Yet we only have to look toward Byzantium, the Eastern Roman Empire, which lived on centuries after the sack of Rome, to realise this isn’t quite true either.
While Byzantium is far from obscure knowledge to most of the public, it is telling that when you ask someone about the Roman Empire, they only ever refer to Rome, and never Constantinople. It seems to me that when I have been thinking about Romans, I too have been thinking about Rome, without considering the provinces and people within them. However, is this wrong to think of Romans this way? Did a farmer in Northumbria see himself as Roman?… Probably not.
So, the issue to tackle here is what it even meant to be ‘Roman’. Literally, being Roman meant you were a citizen of Rome, everyone else outside of that were not technically Roman. Yet, this did not stop people from around the Mediterranean living in the imperial system and it does not stop us today referring to these very people as Roman.
To return the focus of this blog to the West, naturally, once the administration of the Western Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th century AD and the imperial domain transitioned into ‘barbarian’ kingdoms, the Romans did not simply vanish in the place of barbarians, they became new citizens in new systems of governance, just like those living in the provinces during empire, that were not Roman, became citizens in a Roman imperial system nonetheless.
So, in a rather anti-climactic answer to my question – where did the Romans go? Well, they’re in Rome… now, and always have been, as long as Rome stands.
Fossier, Robert. The Cambridge Illustrated History of The Middle Ages, 350-950, (Cambridge, 1989).
List of Images:
Image from Wikimedia, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cole_Thomas_The_Course_of_Empire_Destruction_1836.jpg, public domain.