Role-playing Romans

Some of the people I talk to criticize Nova Roma as a role playing game. I’m not fond of some of the games played in Nova Roma, and I would agree that the organization is foundering for lack of a common vision, but I don’t agree that it is a role playing game.

The three items most commonly cited as proof that Nova Romans are role playing are, first, that Nova Roma is a a micronation. Second, that Nova Roman priests wear a toga. And third, that Nova Romans adopt Roman names. It’s easy for most of us to see how the conjunction of these oddities creates the appearance of role playing.

Certainly, the Internet is full of micronations that are nothing more than role playing games for adolescents. I have yet to encounter a micronational project that doesn’t suffer from some degree of delusion. Yet, unlike other Internet nations, Nova Roma, in my opinion, is able to articulate a coherent reason for choosing to define itself as a nation: only a restored Roman state can fully re-create the nexus between religion and state, which they believe is a fundamental requirement for a full restoration of the Religio Romana. Others may disagree with this formulation, but an error in reasoning does not amount to role-playing.

If you believe that the Roman Republic can be legitimately restored as a micronation, the questions of Roman costume and Roman names are easily settled in favor of adopting traditional forms. If you have some lingering doubts, as I do, these are still not proof of role playing.

Adopting period costume is commonly associated with role playing groups such as the SCA. But, here too the Nova Roman priests who wear the toga have a reason unconnected with role playing. For Romans, the toga had a symbolic importance that may strike an odd note in the modern mind. The toga was the badge of citizenship and the hallmark of civic pride. Roman men were required to wear the toga when engaged in civic or legal business. Men who were not citizens were forbidden by law to wear togas. It should come as no surprise that priests of the Religio Romana in the 21st century regard the toga as a liturgical garment. The Roman cultus was remarkably conservative and orthopraxic; it should be no surprise that priests of the religio wear a toga while performing the rites of the religio. Of course, this argument in favor of priests wearing togas does not apply to citizens or to the magistrates of the virtual republic. I leave it to others to judge those cases.

In contrast, adopting Roman names is a bit more problematic, in my opinion. It does rather smack of role playing. However, if you believe that the Roman republic can be restored as a micronation, there is no reason that its citizens should not adopt Roman names. As with their togas, the Romans of antiquity were serious about their names. The classic Roman format, the trinomina consisting of praenomen, nomen and cognomen, was reserved to men who were Roman citizens. By law, non-citizens could not use the cognomen. I know of no religious argument in favor of adopting Roman names in the same way Wiccans adopt magickal names (but, it would not surprise me if someone, somewhere has examined all the sources and determined that it is impius not to have a Roman-style name). What bothers me most about the practice is that so many Nova Romans adopt the famous names of antiquity. To me, this seems like role-playing.

If I were to establish a modern Roman republic, I might easily be persuaded that citizens should use the trinomina, but I would forbid the use of historic nomina. That is, there would be no Iulii, no Claudii, and none of the other famous Roman names. Instead, I would encourage citizens to find a way to Latinize their own names following the formulae used by the ancient Romans when foreigners acquired citizenship. Our own given names evolved from the cognomina of the Late Empire. A simple application would be to Latinize the surname of a new citizens into a nomen, Latinize the citizen’s given name into a cognomen (or allow the adoption of a new, non-historic cognomen), and allow the citizen to choose a praenomen from among the limited number of historic praenomia.

I have several friends with very strong feelings on both sides of the role playing debate. In the end, I believe it comes down to a question of the legitimacy of Nova Roma itself. If you believe that a virtual republic can replace a real city, it is not role playing to resurrect the salient features of the ancient republic. If you cannot accept that leap of faith, I would still argue that wearing togas and adopting Roman names is not necessarily role-playing, at least not in every case. And, if you regard Nova Roma as simply a government simulation game played by some ardent practitioners of the religio and some Christians with no clear idea of what their faith means by blasphemy, then what difference does it make?

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