Romans and the Other

“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries sheStatue of Liberty.jpg
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

-Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus”

Ancient Rome can be a powerful lens through which to examine modern political issues.  How we treat foreigners is an enduring moral and ethical issue that has been thrust into the spotlight lately by the Syrian refugee crisis, the need for immigration reform in the United States, and the way that Islam has been perceived and manipulated within geopolitics. To help teach students about the treatment of foreigners (and what might be good or bad ways to treat them), I present this lesson plan.  It is not perfect, and it may be difficult to fit into some courses because it was designed to address an ethical issue rather than a text; but it is worth considering and perhaps it could inspire a discussion or class of your own within your actual curriculum or course.

First, either at home or in class, students read a packet that includes seven passages about how Romans treated people from other cities:

  • An annalistic account of a war with and victory over Pometia (Livy 2.17)
  • The end of the siege of Veii (Livy 5.21-22)
  • Caesar’s ethnographic account of the Gauls (BC 6.11-16)
  • Caesar admitting Gauls into the Senate (Suetonius, Julius, 76.3 and 80.1)
  • The Senate’s debate about enrolling Gauls in the Senate during Claudius’s reign (Tacitus, Ann., 11.23-25 — chosen instead of the inscription from Lugdunum because it presented the issue about the treatment of non-Romans in clearer ethical terms and in the format of a debate)
  • Tacitus’s account of Agricola “civilizing” some Britons (Agr. 20-21)
  • Part of Tacitus’s ethnographic account of the Germans (Ger. 3, 5, and 9)

N.B. The Claudian senatorial debate is a key passage because it is a very good illustration of this entire issue, so you could simplify this lesson plan to discuss only that passage or use this lesson plan to discuss that text.


After each passage, there are several questions.  Ideally, students would answer these questions as they read.  You could have them answer them in groups or as part of their homework.  You could even assign seven groups one passage each.  The questions focused on these ideas:

  • Are the Romans at war with this Other?
  • How is the Other described?
  • How do the Romans treat the Other?
  • How is this treatment described (i.e. positively, negatively, objectively)?
  • How does the description of the Other relate to the treatment of the Other?

After students read the packet and answer the questions (at home), I would typically have students discuss their answers to questions in small groups.  This lets students remember what the passages are about and it allows peer-to-peer teaching to clear up some of the confusion.  While these discussions are happening, I would circulate around the room so I can get a sense of how well students understood each passage.

If you assigned one passage to each group, I would have the seven groups summarize the passages and take away points for the rest of the class.

Once students have a better understanding of all the individual passages, students would start comparing and contrasting how the Romans perceive and treat the Other in the passages–first briefly in small groups, and then more extensively as the whole class.  I would encourage students (explicitly or through guided questions) to consider the following themes:

  • Historical habits of treating the Other (especially as discussed in Tacitus, Ann. 11.23-25, but also with Rome’s liberal granting of citizenship [to manumitted slaves] compared to ancient Greek cities)
  • Treatment of enemies at war vs. treatment of people at peace
  • Civilized vs. uncivilized — similar to Rome vs. different from Rome
  • Connection between a Roman positive/negative perception of Other and positive/negative treatment of Other
  • How well informed are the Roman perceptions of the Other?

Some patterns will emerge from this discussion, some will not.  I would not force trends to emerge in the discussion, but I think the passages can all be related back to these themes somehow.  Once these themes have emerged and students are satisfied that the passages do indeed relate to these themes, I would ask students to begin relating them to their own world:

  • How did you react to some of these passages? (The first two examples about sacking cities and killing or enslaving survivors are good places to start for this question.)
  • How would the Other have reacted to some of these passages? (The Suetonius passage about Gallic Senators may be very helpful here)
  • Do we act similarly to the Romans?
  • Do we need to think of enemies in a negative light or as uncivilized?
  • How do our perceptions about the Other affect people’s views on refugees, immigrants, and Muslims? Can we improve our perceptions and knowledge about these groups?
  • How should we treat the Other if we are at war with them? if we are not at war with them? How do we distinguish between war and peace today?


Some things to consider and keep in mind about this lesson plan

  • Two examples (Caesar on the Gauls and Tacitus on the Germans) are ethnographic, and the conventions of the genre dictate that the authors remain somewhat objective.  The fact that these conventions exist suggest that there were some norms about how to think about the Other, so the lesson plan is talking about these norms (instead of perhaps the individual authors’ perspectives).  The analysis of norms is, in some ways, a more powerful analysis of the society.
  • The students may mistake their own reactions to, say, the Gauls’ use of human sacrifice for Caesar’s reactions to this practice.  So, depending on your interpretation of this passage, you can ask if the practices are described negatively or if the practice itself is mentioned to reflect negatively on the Gauls, or if Caesar doesn’t care.
  • The discussion is very open-ended and could open things up for some nasty comments, so be ready.
  • The passages are, in some ways, limited.  For example, they don’t mention anything about treatment of the Other with whom there are economic ties. Personally, I am not too worried about this because of how I interpret these texts and understand the Roman economy, but you could mention it in the discussion comparing the passages and ancient behaviors with the modern world and talking about ethics.
  • The lesson plan asks students to do things that are high up on Bloom’s Taxonomy of Cognitive Learning, but I did arrange questions and activities in a way that would climb up the taxonomy as you progress through the worksheet and exercise. So be judicious of when you use this lesson plan with your students.
  • Similarly, drawing on the Taxonomy of Affective Learning, students may develop ideas about how one should act in relation to the Other, but there is no guarantee that they will put these ideals into practice.  This exercise is structured in a very intellectual way.  So you could encourage students to have empathy by asking students how the Auruncans or Veians or Gauls would have felt in these situations.  This empathetic response could then help guide the development of an ethical guideline, and move students higher up the affective taxonomy.  Additionally, you can return to these ideas in other class sessions–after all, the Romans frequently interacted with other cultures–in order to reinforce the students’ memory of the analysis and their likelihood of following the new ethical standards you develop as a class.

Despite these caveats, this is an important to consider and Rome offers one way to consider it.  Admittedly, this lesson plan was developed in order to address an ethical issue, not in order to discuss these texts, or even a specific issue about the ancient world–you could easily adapt it to discuss a specific text with your students.  Nevertheless, there are important lessons or ideas about Roman culture that students can take away from these texts:

  • After winning a battle, Romans often burned enemy cities and enslaved survivors.
  • The Roman elite was comprised of people from many cities, not just Rome.
  • Romans too had disagreements about how to treat the Other.
  • There were generic conventions about how to discuss the Other in ethnography.
  • The Roman people could voice their opinions through graffiti.


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