What race was Romans?

The Romans were an ancient civilization that originated in the city of Rome and eventually came to rule much of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. Their empire lasted for over 1000 years from around 500 BC to 500 AD.

One interesting question about the Romans is what race they belonged to. This is not an easy question to answer definitively, as ideas about race and ethnicity have changed over time. However, historians and anthropologists have pieced together information from Roman texts, art, remains and DNA analysis to develop theories on the origins and racial identities of the Romans.

Quick Answers

– The Romans did not have the same modern conceptions of race that we have today. They saw themselves as Roman citizens rather than members of a particular ethnic group.

– Their empire incorporated many diverse cultures and races, including Greeks, Egyptians, Gauls, Iberians and Middle Easterners. Intermarriage was common.

– Genetically, the early Romans were similar to other Italic peoples like the Etruscans. There was likely some mixture with Greeks and Near Easterners as well over time.

– Roman art often portrays Romans with Mediterranean features like olive skin, brown hair and brown/hazel eyes. Some variation existed across the empire.

– Analyses of skeletal remains have shown similarities in skull shape and proportions to modern Southern Europeans and Middle Eastern populations.

Roman Conceptions of Race and Ethnicity

The Romans did not think of race in the same way that we do today. They did not have distinct racial categories or attach much importance to skin color differences. Instead, they saw themselves first and foremost as Roman citizens rather than members of an ethnic group.

As their empire grew to engulf peoples from many different backgrounds under Roman rule, ideas of Romanness became more centered around shared law, culture, institutions and allegiances rather than common ancestry or biology. Intermarriage between different cultures was common and even encouraged by some emperors. Distinctions were made between citizens and non-citizens rather than race.

Of course, Romans were not completely color-blind. They readily distinguished broad differences in appearance between some groups, such as Germans and Africans. They also sometimes stereotyped non-Romans, like calling the Germanic people savage or primitive. However, these prejudices were not associated with fixed ideas of different races the way racism operates today.

Inclusion of Many Cultures

The Roman Empire incorporated an enormous diversity of cultures and peoples. At its height, it stretched from Britain to Egypt and incorporated Celts, Greeks, Egyptians, Berbers, Arabs, Gauls, Iberians and many others under its system of government. Intermarriage meant that Roman culture was constantly evolving through the blending of different traditions.

The Romans themselves recognized this diversity, as evidenced by texts describing the varied physical appearances of Roman citizens and the existence of gods representing different ethnicities in the Roman pantheon. Becoming Roman was more about adopting Roman political identities rather than biological assimilation into a racial group.

Genetic Origins

Modern genetic analysis can shed some light on the ancestral origins of the Roman people. According to studies, the early inhabitants of Rome and its environs in central Italy shared close genetic ties with other Italic peoples like the Etruscans. They formed part of a common group of tribes speaking Indo-European languages that migrated to the Italian peninsula.

Over the centuries, this gene pool was gradually mixed with foreign influences as Rome conquered territories and incorporated new peoples. The genetic impact was particularly notable after major conquests in the Middle East and North Africa. Some Roman emperors even actively promoted intermarriage to foster a more cosmopolitan empire.

By the imperial period, Romans from different parts of the empire likely showed greater genetic diversity than their Iron Age predecessors. The intermingling of genes reflected the diversity of cultures under Roman rule.

Relatedness to Other Europeans and Mediterraneans

Modern Southern Europeans and inhabitants of the Mediterranean likely share many genetic similarities with the ancient Romans. Continuity between ancient and modern populations is most pronounced in central Italy, the Roman ancestral homeland.

One 2017 study found that central Italians shared similar proportions of ancestry from ancient Near Easterners and peoples from the Pontic steppe region in Russia as Romans did based on DNA analysis. Southern Italians also had high genetic affinity, while Northern Italians showed more Eastern European influence from later migrations.

Across the Mediterranean basin, Greek, Iberian, North African and even Levantine populations also share overlapping genetic signatures with ancient Romans. This highlights the degree of genetic exchange facilitated by Roman movements and interactions across the empire.

Physical Appearance and Variation

What did the Romans actually look like? Roman art provides some visual clues, though idealized characteristics must be accounted for. Statues and busts often portray Romans with classically Mediterranean features like brown hair and eyes, aquiline noses, olive skin and angular faces. Some variation can be seen, with hair ranging from chestnut to black and eyes from brown to hazel.

Skin tones in Roman paintings generally appear light olive, but darker hued Romans were not uncommon either. Analysis of Roman skeletons suggests average heights by today’s standards. There was also some regional variation in body type, with leggy, slender builds more common in hotter southern areas than the stockier frames in cooler northern areas.

These artistic representations and remains present a picture of Romans exhibiting a range of European and Mediterranean physical attributes, reflecting generations of mixing between native stocks and conquered peoples. Clearly not all Romans looked alike, but their genetic diversity was unmistakable.

Elite Roman Features vs. Provincial Variation

One pattern that does emerge to some extent is differences between Roman elites and common provincials. The ruling classes in Rome itself and other major cities like Pompeii often showed a higher prevalence of classically Greco-Roman features like aquiline noses and modest statures.

Meanwhile, ordinary Romans from frontier regions like Britain and Egypt tended to exhibit more Celtic and African features respectively. Skeletal data bears out these distinctions to a modest degree, linking elites to a more sedentary, privileged lifestyle.

So in some sense, there was not a single Roman “look”, but rather noticeable diversity across a vast empire of 60 million inhabitants. Nevertheless, ancient commentary and art still singled out a “typical” Roman ideal, even if few citizens matched it exactly.

Similarities to Modern Populations

While we cannot neatly map modern racial categories onto the multicultural Roman world, researchers have compared Roman remains to various modern populations to gauge broad affinities. Overall, the closest matches are with present-day Southern Europeans and Mediterranean peoples. This points to a certain degree of biological population continuity over the millennia alongside external influences.

Craniometric studies of Roman skull and facial dimensions have uncovered striking similarities to skeletons from modern-day Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece and even Ashkenazi Jews. Other analyses reveal cranial resemblances to Cypriots, Lebanese Christians and Tunisians. All of these groups inhabit regions once part of the Roman sphere, signifying ongoing genetic connections.

The picture is one of Romans exhibiting skull morphology patterns today associated with Southern Europe and the Mediterranean basin. The closest parallels are found near the historic Roman homelands in Italy and other parts of Southern Europe. This reinforces the idea that Romans represented an ancestral mix of European and Near Eastern ancestries.

Exceptions and Uncertainties

However, we must be careful not to overgeneralize. Not all Roman remains neatly match up with Southern European or Mediterranean dimensions. Some divergent samples show similarities to Northern and Eastern European groups. And the very practice of skull classification has uncertain implications about ancestral relationships.

Additionally, we have scant skeletal evidence from many parts of the sprawling Roman world. Fine details about physical variation across the empire remain subject to speculation. Building definitive conclusions on Roman ethnicity from such fragmentary data requires caution.


The heterogeneous Roman Empire defies easy racial categorization. Early Romans from central Italy were an Italic tribe related to their Latin and Etruscan neighbors. As the empire incorporated Near Eastern and North African peoples, the Roman gene pool became more varied. Cultural assimilation accompanied biological fusion over the centuries.

Mediterranean and Southern European features predominated among Roman elites. But a singular Roman “type” fails to capture the diversity of skin tones, body builds and cranial morphologies exhibited across the empire. Written and skeletal evidence points to affinities with both Southern Europeans and Near Easterners. Romanness represented a political identity which transcended notions of race.

So in summary, the Romans were primarily the product of ancient admixture between European and Mediterranean peoples. Their multiethnic empire presaged modern conceptions of nationality detached from distinct racial identities. The Roman experience shows how fluid ethnicity and culture can be over the centuries, even under a shared system of governance.

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