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Iz it Propa-ROME-ganda?


Pax Romana, the Latin words for Roman Peace, was finally achieved after Rome’s transition from a Republic into an Empire. While Pax Romanalasted for over 200 years, keeping peace in the Roman Empire was not an easy task. Due to the extensive geographical area of the Roman Empire, there was a new challenge of unifying its diverse population (“Imperial Rome”, loc. 62). Imagine, if you were a Roman emperor, what would you do? Well, this blogpost will enlighten you about the ways the Roman emperors tried to build a common Roman identity. From gladiatorial games, monuments to coinage, the Roman emperors actively disseminated messages of Roman superiority, military prowess and allegiance to the Emperor, so as to unite the Romans. These messages were introduced through subtle means which caused us to question if it was propaganda. After all, propaganda is only most effective when it goes unnoticed. Hence, the examples we raise below is open to your discretion and analysis to conclude, “Iz it Propa-ROME-ganda”?Firstly, let’s talk about the highly popular gladiatorial games. It is commonly known as a popular form of entertainment in the Roman empire that drew crowds over the thousands. However, these games were essentially public executions of people who went against religious and political orders in Rome. This national activity of killing criminals in the arena would have reassured Roman citizens of a criminal justice system that restores justice. This at the same time would deter them from disobeying the Roman authority.

Furthermore, the games served as a platform to transmit important Roman ideals and values to its spectators. For example, the emperor was given the final decision whether to spare the life of an injured gladiator who pled for mercy. In the historical source, De Spectaculis (XXIX), Roman poet, Martial, wrote about how Emperor Titus spared the life of the gladiators, Priscus and Verus. This uncommon act of graciousness and benevolence validated his status as emperor before the Roman audience. Thus, the games were a place where the Roman emperor could display and alleviate his imperial position. Could we say the games weren’t a form of propaganda?

Secondly, let’s focus on Rome’s military might. As the Roman Empire progressed, the Roman army became celebrated as the crucial factor for Rome’s imperial success. This acknowledgement of the army’s prowess was evident in many Roman monuments, one of which was the victory arch of Roman Emperor Septimius Severus. The Arch was erected in the Roman Forum in 203 CE, following Severus’ triumph against the Parthians.As seen in the pictures below, the Arch portrayed the Parthians prisoners being held captive by the Roman soldiers (“The Roman Army and Propaganda”, loc. 345). This purposeful celebration and tangible display of the military might might have served as a political tactic to remind the Romans of their Empire’s triumph, thus increasing Roman pride and laying the foundation for a Roman superiority complex.

The Roman superiority complex might have been fueled by the systematic belief that anyone that was not part of the Roman empire were barbaric, lawless and dangerous. Roman literature of their time portrayed the neighbouring tribes and countries in an unfavourable light. Although there were many different Germanic tribes, they were all stereotyped as “one people” who were vicious for “Roman blood and booty” (“Barbarians and the Late Roman Empire”, loc. 365). By propagating that non-Romans were barbarians, it could have given the Romans a sense of superiority, and hence uniting them as one.

Lastly, let’s talk about Rome’s coinage. Since Julius Caesar, Roman emperors stamped their profiles on coins, portraying themselves as “warlord, god, or protector of the empire” (“Imperial Rome”, loc. 63). On the reverse side of the coins, many often engraved words relating to Roman virtues. For example: the coins below had the words Pax Augustus (Peace Augustus) engraved on it to remind the Romans to uphold their Empire’s state of peace and prosperity.   

Other coins conveyed the virtue of generosity (liberalitas) depicting the Roman emperors to be giving out donations and gifts to the Roman citizens. Liberalitas was even portrayed as a god beside the Roman emperor on the coins.

If you were to use these coins everyday, what would you begin to think? You might begin to believe that the emperor is full of kindness and generosity, bringing peace to Rome. This was precisely it! The method of highlighting a virtue with a face of the Roman emperor on the coins was a subtle way of alleviating the status of the emperor in the minds of the Romans (“Imperial Exempla”, loc. 155). The users of the coins would subconsciously link the emperor to the virtue. Furthermore, as these virtues were associated with divine power, they further validated the emperor’s imperial position (“Imperial Exempla”, loc. 155).

In addition, coins depicted images of Roman architecture and military. Monuments such as the Colosseum and Trajan’s column (Were monuments and victory arches not enough?), and national projects such as the harbor in the Roman port city of Ostia, were portrayed. There were also images of Rome’s ships, legions and conquest of countries such as Egypt. As these coins were circulated around majority of the Roman citizens, it enabled its implicit message of Rome's military might and flourishing development to have a far reaching impact across the Roman Empire (“Imperial Rome”, loc. 63).As coins were so massively used in the daily life, it might have been the subtlest form of mass propaganda.

So, as highlighted, were the gladiator games, monuments, and coinage subliminal messages conveyed by the Roman Empire meant to inculcate Roman pride and identity, or merely prominent representations and features of the strong Roman culture? The similar messages of loyalty to the emperor, military might and Roman superiority being echoed throughout the above examples makes us conclude that these were more than just neutral objects, architecture and national entertainment. Iz it Propa-ROME-ganda? Let us know what you think!