Constructing (an) imperial identity?
Ritual and identity formation in the Roman world

Ghent, 29-30 May, 2014
Department of History

Arjan Zuiderhoek and Wouter Vanacker (eds.)

Presentation of the project

We start with a provocation:

Rome was not a multicultural empire. The term ‘multicultural’ conjures up the wrong image in the mind of the modern reader, suggesting an equality of cultural traditions, a colourful pluriformity under the aegis of benign imperial overlords. Romans, however, were not politically correct. Culture, and the manipulation of various cultural traditions, did indeed play a crucial part in the way the Romans built up, and then for many centuries managed to maintain, their far-flung empire, but the result of this process did not resemble the modern metaphor of the ‘melting pot.’ Rather, what we see, with the onset of empire, is (1) among Romans and Italians, and then among provincial elites and middling and low status groups in the West (and to some extent in the East), a strong intensification of active engagement with Roman cultural forms and notions perceived as ‘traditionally Roman’, and (2), mainly among Rome’s Greek-speaking subjects, but also among Romans themselves, a similar process of intensification of active engagement with forms and elements regarded as ‘traditionally Greek.’

Adaptation, reinterpretation and actual invention of tradition played an enormous part in these twin processes, which were simultaneously too complex to be simply labelled ‘romanisation’, but too visible and dominant to be neutralised under the heading of ‘multiculturalism.’  They were partly stimulated ‘from above’ (the so-called Augustan conservative revival), but mainly arose out of the constant interaction at all levels between countless individuals belonging to widely diverse groups, rulers and ruled, elites and masses, Romans, Greeks, and others, as people everywhere tried to discover and then maintain ways of being, producing, consuming, believing, worshipping, and understanding that fitted the (changing) realities of empire. The processes manifested themselves in virtually every cultural domain, from literature to architecture to dress, but first and foremost in action, in the active behaviour and strategies of individuals and groups trying to do things ‘the right way’, the Greco-Roman imperial way. Given this aspect of (implicit) ‘rules’, it would seem profitable to study such forms of ‘identity practices’ from the perspective of ritual, as ritualized behaviour consists of (repetitive, stereotyped) actions that suggest a deeper meaning, a higher goal that transcends the immediate implications or results of those actions.

The result of both processes, arguably, was the creation of a Greco-Roman identity template flexible enough to allow adoption and localized adaptation by individuals coming from various cultural traditions, but robust enough to provide a ‘way of being’, a form of cultural self-perception for millions of people, for many centuries, that crucially contributed to the long-term stability of empire. This template, or model, was of course subject to change and adaptation, as circumstances required. The severest challenges to it came from groups who, in response to the onset of empire, similarly fell back on (invented) traditions to fashion an identity for themselves, but one that contrasted radically with Greco-Roman notions. The eminent flexibility of the Greco-Roman identity template was however underscored by the successful incorporation and adaptation of its source of severest criticism, Christianity, producing a ‘reboot’ that generated a second era of efflorescence for the model during the later Empire.   

The statement above might well be perceived as one-sided, naive, irrelevant, stating the obvious, or simply wrong. Perhaps some people will agree with parts of it, while others will dismiss it wholesale. But that is precisely the intention. We would like to invite scholars to take the above statement as a starting point in an analysis of rituals and ritualized behaviour in which collective memory and reference to tradition played an important part. It is the triangulation of ritual, social memory, and the creative development of tradition that interests us. Chronologically and spatially, the resulting volume aims at covering the Roman world in its widest possible extent from ca. 200 BC (beginnings of the ‘imperial Republic’) to ca. 400 AD. We suggest a loose definition of ritualized behaviour, focussing on the scripted or sequential nature, the repetitiveness, and the stereotypical character of the actions concerned, with an emphasis on doing things ‘the right way.’ Did rituals or ritualistic behaviour of the kind we wish to focus on contribute to or help maintain a Greco-Roman (or, for late antiquity, Greco-Roman-Christian) imperial identity and how did it contribute to shaping collective social memory? 


Peter Van Nuffelen (Ghent University)
Arjan Zuiderhoek (Ghent University)

Date and location

Thursday 29 - Friday 30th May, 2014

Ghent, Departement of History
Universiteitsforum, 35 Sint-Pietersnieuwstraat, 9000 Gent
Archaeology Meeting Room (1st floor)


Thursday 29th  May

 9:00 Welcome

  •  9:15 Introduction: imperial identities in the Roman world (Peter Van Nuffelen and Arjan Zuiderhoek)
  • 10:00 Between Greece and Rome: forging a primordial identity for an imperial aristocracy (Andreas Hartmann)

10:45 Coffee break

  • 11:00 Rituals of Killing - Public Punishment, munera and the Dissemination of Roman Values and Ideology in the Imperium Romanum.
    Johannes Hahn)
  • 11:45 Roman influence on rituals of identification in Egypt (Marc Depauw)

12:30 Lunch

  • 13:30 Pre-Battle Rituals in Roman Warfare, AD 100 – AD 400 (Conor Whately)
  • 14:15 Uniting the army: The use of rituals commemorating Germanicus to create an imperial identity (Gwynaeth McIntyre)

15:00 Coffee break

  • 15:30 Promoting Family, Creating Identity. Roles of Septimius Severus and Imperial Family Members in the Rituals of Ludi Saeculares (Jussi Rantala)
  • 16:15 Memnon, between Herodes and Philostratos: Contexts of Ethnicity (Joel Allen)

19:00 Conference dinner

Friday 30th May

  • 10:00  Euergetism and antiquarian urbanism in Early Roman Athens: a ritualized behaviour inventing the 'true Athenian tradition'? (Fabio Morales)
  • 10:45 Constructing sacred boundaries to Rome: Augustus and the ager romanus antiquus (Claudia Beltrão da Rosa)

11:00 Coffee break

  • 11:15 Belonging to the empire – imperial cult as marker of a shared imperial identity. (Jesper Majbom Madsen)

12:00 Lunch

  • 13:00 Collective decision-making: the Roman Senate and religious tribunals (Luise Marion Frenkel)
  • 13:45 Identifying common themes: an attempt at conclusion (Peter Van Nuffelen and Arjan Zuiderhoek)

14:00 Coffee break

  • 14:30 Authors’ discussion on the structure and shape of the volume Imperial identities in the Roman world

15: 30 End of workshop

The book: Imperial Identities in the Roman World

The contributions to the conference were reworked into a book, which is due to appear with Routledge:

Vanacker, W. and Zuiderhoek, A. (2017). Imperial Identities in the Roman World.

for more information see:

In recent years, the debate on Romanisation has often been framed in terms of identity, that is, how the expansion of empire impacted on the constructed or self-ascribed sense of belonging of its inhabitants. Research has often focused on the interaction between local identities and Roman ideology and practices, leading to the notion of a multicultural empire but this volume challenges this perspective by drawing attention to the processes of identity formation that contributed to an imperial identity, a sense of belonging to the political, social, cultural and religious structures of the empire. Instead of concentrating on politics and imperial administration, the volume studies the manifold ways in which people were ritually engaged in producing, consuming, organising, believing and worshipping that fitted the (changing) realities of empire, focusing on how individuals and groups tried to do things 'the right way', the Greco-Roman imperial way. Given the deep cultural entrenchment of ritualistic practices, an imperial identity firmly grounded in such practices might well have been instrumental not just to the long-lasting stability of the Roman imperial order but also to the persistency of its ideals well into Christian late antiquity and post-Roman times.