Why is Identity Important?

Curatia Dinysia
KODAK Digital Still Camera

Throughout this project I have been talking about the concept of identity and how our understanding of it helps with our understanding of the ancient world. I this post I hope to show how identity opens new avenues of research, why it has suddenly become such a ‘hot’ topic academically and why ancient identity is still relevant today.

Identity in Roman Britain is an interesting topic to discuss. In Chester, we have seen that identity is multi-layered. This is particularly the case with Auxiliary cavalrymen such as Aurelius Lucius and the Sarmatian Draconarius, who are both of barbarian backgrounds (and proud of it) but also display their ‘Roman-ness.’ Other examples of this include Curatia Dinysia, who interwove various elements of her identity into her tombstone, such as her gender, status and religion.

Identity are the qualities that make up a person. Archaeologically, it is what can be determined from the surviving evidence, which is why the tombstones are very important to the understanding of the society of Roman Chester.

The approach that I have taken in this project is to try and find out the identities of individuals, this has helped to display the scope of the diversity in Roman Britain. One of my main conclusions from this study of Roman Chester has been that there was a large amount of cross-cultural exchange between the groups that inhabited Britain during the Roman occupation.


Romanisation Vs. Creolisation


This focus on individual identities and on cross-cultural exchange is part of the academic movement away from the concept of Romanisation. Romanisation was first discussed by the historian Francis Haverfield in 1905. It is the process of Roman culture being imposed on an indigenous population, usually by military occupation, but sometimes of their own choice.

However, this interpretation is being challenged, as it was a concept created during the age of empire and stems from the view that a superior culture can impose its will on another. As Jane Webster rather damningly puts it: “For Haverfield, Romanisation was inevitable because it was nothing less than the triumph of the classical cultural values on which his own European, imperialist, turn-of-the-century worldview was itself based” (Webster 2001, 214).

The archaeological remains point to a society that adopted and adapted certain parts of Roman Culture, whilst also maintaining elements of their own culture. It must be remembered that Roman Britain would have had people from across the empire come to Britain, either as traders (Callimorphus and Serapion) or soldiers, there is also evidence Britons using Roman culture to enhance their own status (Use of Lead). This diversity and mixing that is in evidence from one Roman fortress is at odds with Romanisation, since it creates a dichotomy between the Romans and the Natives, ignoring the grey areas where the majority of the population would have been (Ibid. 216). This grey area is one of cross-cultural exchange, rather the one-sided cultural change of Romanisation (Ibid. 214).


Why the change?


Changes in academic thought often happen with a shift in contemporary politics. With the collapse of global empires in the mid-twentieth century, a strand of academic thought known as post-colonialism developed, which focuses on how people under colonial rule fared and what the effects control and exploitation may have on them. This discipline also developed at the same time as gender studies, and the different ways that gender has a role in society. Interest grew in how these groups were represented in history, and what made up their identities.

In a time of globalism, we seem to be turning to look at identity in a different light, and in studying the Roman Empire, one of the earliest global societies, how the different groups and peoples dealt with being in a global framework.

In addition, looking at those ignored by the generally White, male and European historians of the past allows us to open new avenues of research. Archaeology is perhaps the best medium for this as we can examine a cross section of an ancient society without the biases what historians can sometimes impart.




I think, the examples I have provided throughout this project have illustrated the point that identity, particularly Roman identity, is “not a zero-sum game” (Wallace-Hadrill 2012, 388). It possible to be both Roman and Celtic and wealthy and proud of your freed status. The reinterpretation of the archaeological evidence is vital to keep the study fresh and modern, this sometimes means having to be aware of political discourse (Eckart 2014, 67) but it allows us to open new avenues of research. Identity is an important way of defining the ancient world, and by pinpointing its evolution in the archaeological and historical record, it can help us understand both how conquest is imposed and bring greater understanding of the lives of individuals.



Eckardt, H. 2014 Objects and Identities. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Haverfield, F. 1912. The Romanisation of Roman Britain. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Wallace-Hadrill, A. 2012 ‘The Creation and Expression of Identity: Roman’ in Classical Archaeology 2nd Edition eds. Alcock, S.E. and Osborne, R. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Webster, J. 2001. ‘Creolizing the Roman Provinces.’ American Journal of Archaeology, 105(2), 209-225

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