The Roman Empire sustained one of the longest and largest ruling powers in history, from the first century BC to the fourth century AD, through imperial programs of political and cultural assimilation. Prior to post-colonial reevaluations of historical colonization and imperialism, the Roman process of cultural integration (Romanization) was lauded as unidirectionally constructive and civilizing for the indigenous populations. Recent studies, however, have demonstrated that indigenous populations in culturally- and politically-reconstituted regions of the early Roman Empire experienced diminished access to resources and, consequently, poorer physiological health relative to pre-Roman occupation populations. This research tests the hypothesis that Roman rule had similar detrimental effects on an indigenous community in the eastern Empire. I test the hypothesis via a bioarchaeological study of violence, physiological health, and dietary resource allocation. Critically applying a theoretical framework of structural violence to the analysis of skeletal remains from the Roman (AD 130-270) cemetery at Oymaagac, Turkey, this study investigates how Roman imperial rule impacted locally and regionally the indigenous populations of the Pontus. Because the indigenous populations of northern Anatolia assimilated to Roman imperial rule with little political and social restructuring, it is predicted that, relative to Western indigenous populations, limited or weak evidence of structural violence existed among this rural community.
Operational variables of violence—traumatic lesions (fractures), diet (carious lesions, antemortem tooth loss, calculus, abscesses, and stable carbon and nitrogen ratios), childhood growth perturbations (linear enamel hypoplasias), non-specific infection (periosteal new bone and periodontal disease), and physical activity (osteoarthritis, rotator cuff disease, and intervertebral disc disease)—utilized in bioarchaeological studies are contextualized within local, regional, and interregional levels to understand the transformative extent of external, imperialist influences. On a local scale, attritional (multigenerational) and catastrophic (mass) samples are assessed for differential risk of mortality in Roman period Oymaagac associated with adult age categories and sexes. On a regional level, paleopathological and stable isotope data from contemporaneous, urban Anatolian assemblages are contrasted with prevalence of conditions and d13C and d15N values at Oymaagac. Finally, on an interregional (intra-imperial) scale, Oymaagac is relativized and situated geophysically within the biocultural landscape of the Roman Empire.
Results from this study render paleoepidemiological and sociohistorical significance. Comparisons between multigenerational and mass graves at Oymaagac support assumptions of the osteological paradox, namely, that skeletal and dental biomarkers of stress may, in fact, be indicators of biological resilience. Contrary to recent paleoepidemiological findings from the Black Death, general absence of pathological lesions correlates with increased susceptibility to catastrophic mortality at Oymaagac. Additionally, males and females present similar paleopathological profiles, apart from osteoarthritis prevalence. While adult males exhibit some difference in susceptibility to mass death, females present biologically similar profiles between attritional and catastrophic contexts, suggesting sociocultural factors impacting exposure, transmission, and vulnerability to epidemic disease.
Intra- and interregional comparisons of pathological lesions across the Roman Empire showcase the extensive variability in trauma, diet, developmental perturbations, non-specific infection, and chronic joint wear. While significant differences arise in the geographical distribution of non-specific infection (periosteal new bone), the concentration of cases in central Italy, no other spatial patterns of conditions are observed from Britain to Africa to Anatolia. No homogeneous biological landscape exists across the Roman Empire, nor are their core and periphery distinctions in pathological lesions. These findings suggest that a model of structural violence does not capture the nature and extent of Roman expansion and Romanization. Rather, the biocultural heterogeneity in the Roman period bioarchaeological record suggests a divergence from theories of violence in Roman imperialism and, instead, advocates for more regional and intra-regional bioarchaeological studies of biological and cultural creolization and hybridity in future Romanization research.