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28 January 2012

Race Mixture in the Roman Empire - Part 1

Tenney Frank

Editor's Note: This essay first appeared in American Historical Review (vol. 21, No. 4) in July 1916. Prof. Tenney Frank (1876-1939) was a prominent ancient historian and classical scholar. In his seminal essay, he discuses the role of multiracialism in the ruin of the Roman Empire.

There is one surprise that the historian usually experiences upon his first visit to Rome. It may be at the Galleria Lapidaria of the Vatican or at the Lateran Museum, but, if not elsewhere, it can hardly escape him upon his first walk up the Appian Way. As he stops to decipher the names upon the old tombs that line the road, hoping to chance upon one familiar to him from his Cicero or Livy, he finds praenomen and nomen promising enough, but the cognomina all seem awry. L. Lucretius Pamphilus, A. Aemilius Alexa, M. Clodius Philostorgus do not smack of freshman Latin. And he will not readily find in the Roman writers now extant an answer to the questions that these inscriptions invariably raise. Do these names imply that the Roman stock was completely changed after Cicero's day, and was the satirist recording a fact when he wailed that the Tiber had captured the waters of the Syrian Orontes? If so, are these foreigners ordinary immigrants, or did Rome become a nation of ex-slaves and their offspring? Or does the abundance of Greek cognomina mean that, to a certain extent, a foreign nomenclature has gained respect, so that a Roman dignitary might, so to speak, sign a name like C. Julius Abascantus on the hotel register without any misgivings about the accommodations? Unfortunately, most of the sociological and political data of the empire are provided by satirists. When Tacitus informs us that in Nero's day a great many of Rome's senators and knights were escendants of slaves and that the native stock had dwindled to surprisingly small proportions, we are not sure whether we are not to take it as an exaggerated thrust by an indignant Roman of the old stock. At any rate, this, like similar remarks equally indirect, receives totally different evaluation in the discussion of those who have treated of Rome's society, like Friedländer, Dill, Mommsen, Wallon, and Marquardt. To discover some new light upon these fundamental questions of Roman history, I have tried to gather such fragmentary data as the corpus of inscriptions might afford. This evidence is never decisive in its purport, and it is always, by the very nature of the material, partial in its scope, but at any rate it may help us to interpret our literary sources to some extent. It has at least convinced me that Juvenal and Tacitus were not exaggerating. It is probable that when these men wrote a very small percentage of the free plebeians on the streets of Rome could prove unmixed Italian descent. By far the larger part-perhaps ninety per cent. had Oriental blood in their veins.

My first quest was for information about the stock of the ordinary citizen of Rome during the empire. In the Corpus of Latin Inscriptions [1] the editors, after publishing the honorary and sepulchral inscriptions of the nobles and military classes, followed by those of the slaves and humble classes which occur in the columbaria, gave the rest of the city's sepulchral inscriptions (19,260) in alphabetical order. [2] Of these I read the 13,900 contained in volume VI., parts 2 and 3, which, despite the occurrence of some slaves as well as of some persons of wealth, represent on the whole the ordinary type of urban plebeians. A mere classification of all these names into lists of natives on the one hand and slaves and foreigners on the other would be of little service, since, obviously, transient foreigners are of little importance in estimating the stock of the permanent population of Rome, and we must face the question at once whether or not the slave and freedman stock permanently merged into the civil population. Furthermore, such lists will be at everyone's hand as soon as the index of the sixth volume of CIL. is published. In reckoning up the foreign stock, therefore, I have counted only those who, according to the inscriptions, were presumably born at Rome. A somewhat arbitrary definition of limits was necessary since we are seldom given definite information about the place of birth, but as I have used the same classification for the free-born as for the slave-born the results are valid for our purposes. For instance, in getting statistics of birth, I have included all children under ten years of age, assuming that slave children under that age would rarely be brought in from abroad; and if slaves of this class are counted, the free-born of the same class must also be reckoned with. I have also included slave and free-born children who appear to be with father, mother, brother, or sister at Rome, since presumably they would have been sundered from their family if they had been rought in from the foreign market; and again, in order to reach fair results, the corresponding persons of free birth are counted. For reasons which will presently appear I have accepted the Greek cognomen as a true indication of recent foreign extraction, and, since citizens of native stock did not as a rule unite in marriage with liberti, a Greek cognomen in a child or one parent is sufficient evidence of status. As is well known, certain Latin cognomina, e.g., Salvius, Hilarus, Fortunatus, were so frequently borne by slaves and freedmen that they were apt to be avoided by the better classes. Nevertheless, since no definite rule is attainable in the matter, I have credited the bearers of all Latin names to the native stock in all cases of doubt.[3]

Classifying in this way the names of the aforesaid 13,900 inscriptions of volume VI., parts 2 and 3, we find that of the 4485 persons apparently born at Rome, 3723 (eighty-three per cent.) fall into the list which by our criteria represents foreign extraction. This figure is probably not far from correct, but I think it would be raised somewhat if it were possible to decide what proportion of Latin cognomina conceals slaves and liberti. For instance, a name like Q. Manlius Restitutus (VI. 22015) would usually pass with little suspicion. But the inscription also names his father, mother, wife, and two sons, all of whom have Greek cognomina. Because of his parentage I have classed him as of foreign stock, but there are scores of brief inscriptions in which the necessary facts are not provided. In these the subject had to be classed, however erroneously, as Latin.

In order to reckon if possible the margin of error in cases like this, I have attempted to test the respectability of Latin cognomina, but with rather unsatisfactory results. I counted all the names of slaves and freedmen in the indexes of volumes V., IX., XIV., and over a thousand in volume VI., in order to get a group of five thousand bearing the prevalent slave-names. More than half (2874) have Greek names, the most popular of these being Eros (58 times), Pamphilus (36), Antiochus (34), Hermes (30), Alexander (28), Philomusus (26), Onesimus (22), Philargyrus (21), names, most of which were also very popular among free Greeks and Asiatics. Two thousand one hundred and twenty-six have Latin names, some of which occur with remarkable frequency, e.q., Felix (97), Hilarus -a (64-53), Faustus -a (58-33), Salvius -a (38-18), Fortunatus -a (29-15), Primus -a (51-47), Secundus -a (25-34), Tertius -a (1818), Auctus -a (24-15), Vitalis (36), Januarius -a (22-6). Now, if we compare these Latin names with those borne by better-class Roman plebeians, by the pretorian guards, for instance (though many descendants of slaves served even in the pretorian guards), we find, despite a certain overlapping, quite a striking difference. Apparently some names had acquired such sordid associations that they were in general avoided by ordinary plebeians. The favorite names on the pretorian lists are Maximus, Proculus, Severus, Verus, Capito, Justus, Celer, Marcellus, Clemens, Victor, and the like. We may not say that any Latin name was confined wholly to slaves, nor would it be possible to give any usable list of relative percentages, but we may at least say that the Romans recognized such names as Salvius, Hilarus, Fortunatus, Optatus, Auctus, Vitalis, J anuarius, as being peculiarly appropriate to slaves; and Felix, Faustus, Primus, Primitivus, and a few others must have cast some suspicion upon the bearer. After reviewing in this light the seventeen per cent. of possible claimants of Latin origin in the alphabetical list of inscriptions in volume VI., parts 2 and 3, I have little doubt that a third of these would, with fuller evidence, be shifted into the class of non-Latins.

On the other hand, the question has been raised whether a man with a Greek cognomen must invariably be of foreign stock. Could it not be that Greek names became so popular that, like Biblical and classical names to-day, they were accepted by Romans of native stock? In the last days of the empire this may have been the case; [4] but the inscriptions prove that the Greek cognomen was not in good repute. I have tested this matter by classifying all the instances in the 13,900 inscriptions (there are 1347) where the names of both father and son appear. [5] From this it appears that fathers with Greek names are very prone to give Latin names to their children, whereas the reverse is not true. The statistics are as follows:


Greek Cognomen


Latin Cognomen










This means that in one generation Greek names diminish from sixty-four
per cent. to thirty-eight per cent., or that forty-six per cent. of the fathers with Greek names .give their sons Latin names, while only eleven per cent. of the Latin fathers give their sons Greek names. And this eleven per cent. dwindles upon examination into a negligible quantity. For instance, in seventeen of the fifty-three cases the mother's name is Greek, which betrays the true status of the family; and in ten other instances the son's gentile name differs from that of the" father ", who is, therefore, probably a stepfather. In almost all of the other twenty-six instances, the inscription is too brief to furnish a fair criterion for judging. Clearly the Greek name was considered as a sign of dubious origin among the Roman plebeians, and the freedman family that rose to any social ambitions made short shrift of it. For these reasons, therefore, I consider that the presence of a Greek name in the immediate family is good evidence that the subject of the inscription is of servile or foreign stock. The conclusion of our pros and cons must be that nearly ninety per cent. of the Roman-born folk represented in the above-mentioned sepulchral inscriptions of CI L. , volume VI., parts 2 and 3, are of foreign extraction.

Who are these Romans of the new type and whence do they come ? How many are immigrants, and how many are of servile extraction? Of what race are they? Seneca happens to make a remark which is often quoted as proof of extensive immigration to Rome. He writes to his mother in derision of Rome:

Of this crowd the greater part have no country; from their own free towns and colonies, in a word, from the whole globe, they are congregated. Some are brought by ambition, some by the call of public duty, or by reason of some mission, others by luxury which seeks a harbor rich and commodious for vices, others by the eager pursuit of liberal studies, others by shows, etc.[6]

Seneca apparently refers in large part to visitors, but also to immigrants.
In so far as he has transients in mind we are not concerned with the passage, for such people did little to affect the permanent racial complexion of Rome's civil population. A passage in Juvenal's third satire is perhaps more to the point, for he seems to imply that the Oriental has come to stay.

While every land . . .
daily pours
I ts starving myriads forth. Hither they come
To batten on the genial soil of Rome,
Minions, then lords of every princely dome,
Grammarian, painter, augur, rhetorician,
Rope-dancer, conjurer, fiddler, and physician.

This passage clearly suggests that foreigners of their own free will have drifted to Rome in great numbers to make it their place of livelihood
and their permanent abode. I cannot here treat the whole problem, but, while agreeing that the implication of this passage is true to a certain degree, I would question whether the generalities in it are not too sweeping. It may well be that many of the ex-slave rabble who spoke the languages of the East imposed upon the uncritical by passing as free-born immigrants. Even freedmen were not beyond pretending [7] that they had voluntarily chosen slavery as a means of attaining to Roman citizenship by way of the vindicta. At any rate, the Roman inscriptions have very few records of freeborn foreigners. Such men, unless they attained to citizenship,[8] ought to bear names like that in no. 17171, Dis man. Epæneti, Epæneti F. Ephesio, but there are not a dozen names of this sort to be found among the inscriptions of volume VI., parts 2 and 3. Nor need we assume that many persons of this kind are concealed among the inscriptions that bear the tria nomina, for immigrants of this class did not often perform the services for which the state granted citizenship. There could hardly have been an influx of foreign freeborn laborers at Rome, for Rome was not an industrial city and was more than well provided with poor citizens who could not compete with slaves and had to live upon the state's bounty. Indeed, an examination of the laborious article by Kühn [9] fails to reveal any free orn foreigners among the skilled laborers of the city. In regard to shop-keepers, merchants, and traders we may refer to a careful iscussion by Pârvan.[10] He has convincingly shown that the retail trade was carried on at Rome, not by foreigners but by Romans of the lower classes, mostly slaves and freedmen, and that while the provincials of Asia and Egypt continued throughout the empire to carry most of the imports of the East to Rome, the Roman houses had charge of the wholesale trade in the city. The free-born foreigner did not make any inroad upon this field. However, in various arts and crafts, such as those mentioned by Juvenal, the free immigrant could gain a livelihood at Rome. Some of the teachers of rhetoric, philosophy, and mathematics, some of the doctors, sculptors, architects, painters, and the like, were citizens of the provincial cities who went to Rome for greater remuneration. But even most of these professions were in the hands of slaves and freedmen who had been given a specialized education by their masters. In volume VI., part 2, which contains the sepulchral inscriptions classified according to arts and crafts, there is very little trace of the free-born foreigner. Among the fifty inscriptions of medici} for instance, only two, 9563, 9597, contain sure instances of such foreigners. Among the qrammatici, rhetores, argentarii, structores, and pictores, where they might well be expected, I find no clear case. It is evident then that the sweeping statements of men like Juvenal and Seneca should not be made the basis for assuming a considerable free-born immigration that permanently altered the citizen-body of Rome. These writers apparently did not attempt to discriminate between the various classes that were speaking foreign jargons on the streets of Rome. As a matter of fact, this foreign-speaking population had, for the most part, it seems, learned the languages they used within the city itself from slaves and freedman parents of foreign birth.

If now this great crowd of the city was not of immigrant stock, but rather of servile extraction, the family life of the slaves must have been far more conducive to the propagation of that stock than is usually assumed, and, furthermore, manumission must have been practised so liberally that the slave-stock could readily merge into the citizen-body. On the latter question our sources are satisfactory; on the former, they have little to say. From Varro (II. i. 26 and x. 6) and Columella (I. 8, 19) it has been well known that slaves on farms and pasture-lands were expected to marry and have offspring. The Romans considered this good economy, both because the stock of slaves increased thereby and because the slaves themselves remained better satisfied with their condition. However, partly because there exists no corresponding statement regarding slaves in the city, partly because of a reckless remark made by Plutarch that Cato restricted the cohabitation of his slaves, partly, too, because service in the city household is supposed to have been very exacting, the prevalent opinion seems to be that the marriage of slaves in the urban familia was unusual. Hence the statement is frequently made that slavery died perforce when the pax Romana of the empire put an end to capture by warfare.

Continue to Part 2 >

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