Ancestral lands

Celetrus argues that the ancestral lands are inseparable from any concept of the Roman people: Pliny the Younger asked Trajan as Pontiff Maximus whether Roman sacred law concerning dedicated lands applied in his province (Bythnia). Trajan replied, as Pontifex Maximus, “It need not concern you if a special (local) dedication law is not forthcoming, since the soil of a foreign state is incapable of receiving dedication, which takes place by our law (Pliny, Letters 10.50).”

This is an interesting argument, and I am half persuaded by it. I have been reading Victor Ehrenberg, The Greek State (1959). Consequently, I am always checking myself to be sure, or nearly sure, that I’m not allowing Greek examples to spill over into my thinking about Rome.

I would not quibble that Bythnia did not become Roman merely because the Bythnians were governed by Romans. Still, it seems to me that anciently there was a unity of tribe, its lands and the gods it worshipped. It is an interesting exercise to imagine how much of that unity could be destroyed while still retaining the essential continuity of the tribe. I would argue that a tribe dispossessed of its land but not its gods would still be the same tribe. As an example, I think of the Germanic barbarians in the Late Empire. Isn’t it true that they left their ancestral lands to wander over the generations into other lands, while still retaining their identity?

And so it would have been with hypothetically dispossessed Romans. If expelled from Rome, the ancient Romans would have found a new home, but retained (at least for a time) their tribal identity, their gods and their rites. If this is a sound way to examine the question, then the “traditional lands” argument is weak. Romanitas, and the religio, rest in the Roman people not in their homeland. Bythnia could not receive dedication as Roman land because it was not Roman land; Rome was Roman land.

Now, I think that Celetrus might argue (he hasn’t yet) that Rome is still Roman land. The Romans were not in fact dispossessed. They turned away from their ancestral gods and embraced a single new god. To re-establish the sacra publica has meaning only if it is re-established by Romans in Rome. Those of us in the provinces might think of ourselves as Romans, but in fact we (most of us) are descendants of barbarians who have adopted Roman ways. And, at bottom, isn’t it just a bit odd that a man in Colorado performs the sacra publica for a Roman river god in celebration of a bountiful Italian harvest? Is this Reconstruction? Or lunacy?

If, indeed, this is Celetrus’ argument, I have no answer. Yet. In fact, I’m reminded of a friend who joked that the Ambrosii haven’t been Roman since the Emperor Honorius told the Brits to fend for themselves in 410 CE.

By way of explanation, I do not mean to imply in these entries that I am representing Celetrus’ true opinions. The man is a born dialectician. Questions asked, answers proposed, and then more questions, but no final answers.

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