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The PhD Diaries: Identities in Transformation

The PhD Diaries is a series of pieces written by PhD candidates who work in areas associated with the Identities in Transformation research theme. Over the course of several weeks, they will examine their relationship with their research and how it has changed them. Ralph Moore is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Classics (School of Histories and Humanities) where his research looks generally at cultural interactions between the Ancient Mediterranean and north-western Europe.

Upon embarking on my four year PhD programme, my supervisor was keen to reassure me that it is perfectly normal and expected for my research to be an evolving process, and that changes and revisions, even drastic ones, were a sign of progress and omen of success rather than mistakes. The work I have undertaken has evolved in considerable ways and, if I am permitted to be trite for a moment, I have certainly evolved with it. While ‘identity’ in and of itself is not the subject of my work, it has been a constant and inevitable aspect of looking at the interaction of different cultures and how they affected one another.

My doctoral research was initially focussed on looking at how people with power, in every sense of the word, constructed ideologies to motivate, justify, and rationalise their disempowerment of those they Othered. This was a fundamentally top-down perspective and one partly born out of frustration with approaches that I felt were a little too forgiving, or at least coy, about the inherently violent, prejudicial, and supremacist nature of imperialism, whether ancient, medieval, or modern. We have begun to think and talk about how the conquered peoples of the Roman Empire responded to Roman power in their diverse ways, but how can we really understand what it was like unless we examine what the ruling class of the empire perceived, expected, and desired in their conquered territories, and treat their descriptions as informed by prejudice rather than as matter-of-fact?

While there is some merit in my earlier approach, the unwieldiness of my vast, all-encompassing methodology and scope of evidence necessary to prove my intended points forced me to reconsider my options. I kept my focus on the centrality of power dynamics to imperialism and my interest in culture and identity, but shifted my gaze from how those at the very top looked down and outward to how those who had been conquered managed and reconfigured their relationships of power and status between their new imperial superiors and their local inferiors.

Looking deeper and deeper into this area has forced me to question many of my own assumptions about how ‘identity’ as a concept and fact of life works. My initial approach to the research was predicated on a view that ‘identity’ is largely a reflection of how individuals think about and relate to their environment, with transformations of identity resulting from push-and-pull conflicts of factors between external circumstances and internal desires. Rulers seek to control and delimit the identities of the ruled (often by forcing them to adopt their own), while the ruled varyingly push back (asserting a distinct identity), change accordingly, or attempt to navigate a middle ground. On reflection, this view is profoundly shaped by our dominant culture of consumer individualism and my relatively privileged position within it. The relationship I envisaged more closely resembles that between controlling parents and rebellious teenagers than it does the realities of imperialism.

Changing my academic focus did not then entail simply swapping an examination of the identities the powerful wished to impose on or instil in others for one of how those others responded. The powerful, especially in a context largely devoid of religious evangelism, consumerist marketing, or the need to manufacture mass democratic consent, rarely give much thought to the ‘identities’ of their social inferiors. The Romans did not create their empire on the basis of wanting to make other peoples Roman. Similarly, rather than a binary divide between the rulers and ruled, hierarchies of social status tend to be far more complex in their gradations. The complexities of finding where, precisely, one fits within such schemata, and how that affects both how you perceive yourself and how you are perceived by others, makes ‘identity’ a far more nuanced and fluid thing than a matter of stating “I am X, and I refuse to become Y!”.

The coming of the Roman Empire to Gaul (roughly modern France) wrought sweeping changes to the social structure and material culture of the region, inevitably accompanied by reconfiguring of identities. While many scholars are keen to see hybridisation in the ‘Gallo-Roman’ civilisation that arose from the conquest, it is increasingly clear that this not the result of compromise between opposing ‘Gallic’ and ‘Roman’ cultural power blocks, but of a scramble by the conquered to adapt in a world violently changed. Identities tend to transform not because they are pushed and pulled across clearly defined lines, but because the lines used to define and categorise them are all too easily blurred, moved, or swept away entirely.

While my views on the fundamental violence implicit in all forms of imperialism has not changed, I no longer see this in terms of violence purposefully done to identities as concrete things. Instead, my work has provided many chastening reminders that our identities are all too often by-products and collateral damage of power worked upon the world instead.

Ralph Moore

Ralph Moore is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Classics (School of Histories and Humanities). His research looks generally at cultural interactions between the Ancient Mediterranean and north-western Europe, and is particularly focussed on how Roman rule affected social hierarchy and mobility amongst the Gallic peoples of the Rhone Basin (modern France and Switzerland) in the period c.125-10BCE.