Period I newsletter

The Amfitheatre of Avenches. Photo:

Romanisation in Switzerland

Romanisation can be defined as the process of change and integration of indigenous societies into the Roman Empire. One of the principal characteristics of Romanisation was its regional and temporal variability and differences throughout the Empire.

The eastern part, the Greek-speaking world, differed from the western part. The heterogeneity in the western part, for example in Southern France, the south of Germany (Baden Württemberg) and Switzerland is also striking.

The two extremes of explanation of romanisation envisage integration as the result of either a centralized top-down Roman imposition or just local initiatives bottom up. This discussion will not be dealt with, but one agrees today that Romanisation was a process whereby local elites and Rome as a cultural and social models merged to a new identity in the western provinces.

This development was neither fully ideologically orchestrated by Rome, nor merely a grass root initiative of conquered populations. Rome was neither the instructor nor were local populations passive recipients. Both played their role.

Very little is known about the romanization of common people, farmers, slaves, women, artisans, traders, or warriors in the conquered territories of Switzerland. What language did they speak, what and how did they eat, what did the houses look like and how did they dress?

Historians or other sources paid no or little attention to daily life in the provinces let alone a development of what is called romanization today.

Tacitus is known for some remarks about this process in Britannia, Plinius, Strabo, and a few others wrote down a few observations about Asia minor (Turkey) and southern France. What is known is mainly the result of archaeological findings and interpretations.

Most findings refer to the private life of the elite or public buildings built by the elite however, such as villas, large farmhouses, theaters, odeons or temples.

Public and private buildings were open to the public, on basis of daily patronage meetings or performances in the theater for example, but the elite decided about the architecture, decoration, location, size, and shape of the buildings.

The romanisation in Switzerland and surrounding regions depends on various developments, such as the time lag between the acquiring of new cultural aspirations and the capacity to realize them, the incorporation of Roman models into provincial and local cultures or the adoption of new styles without any local input and the comparative approach.

The Celtic tribes romanised, the elites in the cities rather sooner, the countryside later, but they all were familiar with Roman cities, urbanisation, public buildings, villas, the use of Latin, toga or wine.

(Sources: G. Woolf, ‘The formation of Roman provincial Cultures’ in M. Millett, N. Roymans, J. Slofstra (Eds.), in Integration in the Early Roman West. The Role of Culture and Ideology, Luxembourg 1995).