What Happened to the Ancient Romans?


No one quite knows exactly what happened to the Ancient Romans… but that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of theories out there. The following four theories about how you might find out if you are related to the ancient Romans.

Theory One: Family Trees

By the end of the Empire, "Roman" meant every free born citizen, no just emperors and their offspring, and even though the empire ended, many people didn't leave the area. Many may simply have switched their allegiances to the big German with the sharp sword who now lived a lot nearer to them than the distant emperors. Although in most of Europe our little down-trodden Roman seems to have won in the end, neither France (Gaul), Spain (Hispania), nor Italy which between them make up a significant percentage of the Western Empire, speak a Germanic languages based on that of the specific barbarians who took over after Imperial Authority ended, but a more or less direct descendant of Latin. As for any ethnic Romans today, it's difficult to say. Even Italy has been repeatedly invaded since then with numerous races to throw their little bits in to the mixing pot, let alone the rest of the bits of the West. 

Are you related to European royalty? Ancestry is difficult to trace for anybody past the 9th century CE: certainly with non-royal families, the records just aren't there to provide a link to imperial Rome. Royal families were interested in establishing their genealogies. Those records may exist for European royals through the Byzantine emperors: there's a suggestion that the Russian czars were related to the 11th century Palaiologos Greek Byzantine rulers, but that's not assured. There were a number of palace coups in Byzantium's long history, but upstarts tend to marry daughters of earlier ruling families or their close relatives in attempts to legitimize their thrones, so you might be able to trace the British royal's Byzantine ancestors to some members of Constantine the Great's court. Bear in mind that such genealogies were established specifically to "prove" royals deserved to be ruling.

Theory Two: Genetics

All studies of lineage today are based on genetic "similarities." Generally, the The cleanest gene pool today is in Iceland—almost undiluted since the 10th century. But, to find any reliable connection to the ancients would only put you in a pool that demonstrates X% of traits with Y% of the pool you were comparing. For example:

You could go to Macedonia and gather genetic samples from everyone whose at least had family there for, say, three generations. In that pool you will find some similarities which, because they are the most common, are therefore the oldest traits in the pool. You can get some traits, perhaps only 1% or less which you might then say were traits of the Ancient Macedonians. It you have this trait, you are reliably descended from ancient Macedonians.

To establish a linkage to a specific ancient character is impossible. We don't have their gene data to start with.

Theory Three: What is a "Roman"

Don't forget, an objective analysis would indicate that most ancient Greeks and Romans themselves were ethnically varied and subject to migrations as much as later people. While it is would be nice if modern Greeks, say, could just simply identify themselves as descendants of the people that produced the Age of Pericles, etc. Suffice it to say, however, that, after several hundred years of Turkish domination, not to mention numerous incursions by Slavic peoples and other invaders, the modern Greek gene pool is probably as diverse as that of the British (for example), though there are no doubt still traces of "ancient" Greek ancestry in the population. For a modern Greek to proclaim that his ancestors built the Parthenon is rather like a modern Englishman claiming that his ancestors built Stonehenge or Maiden Castle. Yes, he may well be partly descended from someone who was around at the time, but the great majority of his ancestors from that era were probably living in a different part of Europe (or Asia) altogether. Italy likewise has undergone numerous invasions, both temporary and permanent, since the heyday of the Roman Republic. Even if you disregard the peaceful influx of diverse people from all over the empire, and class every citizen who lived in Rome in, say, 300 A.D. as a "Roman", the 5th and 6th centuries saw a series of invasions by Germanic peoples (most notably the Lombards) that introduced a large, permanent, German component into the population of Italy, especially in the northern part. Later invasions of the southern regions by Saracens, Normans, etc. also added to the gene pool. There are undoubtedly many Italians alive today who are directly descended from people who lived in Italy during the Roman era, but most (if not all) of them will have at least some admixture from other European peoples too.


Theory Four

The ethnogenesis of Italian population is rather complicated. I think one can count 4 main Indoeuropean invasions and settlements of Italy. In prehistoric times Italy was inhabited by a (or probably more) non-Indoeuropean population. The first Indoeuropean invasion of Italy dates back to about 2000 B.C. and amongst these Indoeuropean peoples there were the ancestors of the Romans. A second wave dates back to about 1100 B.C. These first two Indoeuropean settlements in Italy happened in prehistoric times. The third wave (the first historically recorded) was that of the Celtic invaders (about 450 B.C.), who settled in the northern part of Italy ('Gallia Cisalpina'). The fourth wave was that of the Germanic tribes who invaded and settled mainly in northern and part of southern Italy after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. To VI century A.D. date back also the settlement of Slavic tribes in north-eastern Italy. These were the main Indoeuropean invasions and settlements of Italy from continental Europe. Besides these, there were also, from the Mediterranean Sea, the Greek settlements in southern Italy (Magna Grecia) and Phoenician colonies in Sicily and Sardinia. Finally we have not to forget the mysterious Etruscan people in central Italy. These are only the main peoples who contributed to determine ethnogenetically modern Italy. Note that even during the Roman Empire the 'true' Romans (that is, the descendants of the first Latin settlers of the zone around Rome) were only a small part of the Italic population. The unity of Italy during the Roman Empire was mainly political, economical and linguistic -- not racial.

The first person, as far as I know, who spoke of all modern Italians as direct descendants of the ancient Romans was the famous Italian poet Petrarca at the end of the Middle Ages.

Theory Five

There were two ways of making newly conquered land Roman: the first strategy was killing all inhabitants and replacing them by Romans. The Romans murdered the Kelts of Gallia Cisalpina and replaced them by Romans. The second strategy was making the inhabitants 'feel' Roman, by bringing them Roman technology/culture. This was used when larger lands were conquered (they couldn't just kill all inhabitants of Gallia, around 4-5 million, and replace them by Romans). The Romans didn't like the Kelts and Iberians (who lived in Spain) -- they were nothing more than barbarians -- and I think that contact between Romans and Kelts wasn't appreciated by other Romans. Greeks were more civilized than the western inhabitants of Europe, so contact between them and Romans would be more likely tolerated. What is certain is that when the Germans invaded Gaul they didn't find Gauls, Romans, etc. They found Gallo-Romans, who were related to many kinds of people. The Germans then intermingled with Gallo-Romans. Are there still Romans left? What are real Romans? The Romans were the descendants of intermingling between Indo-Europeans and other people. They themselves were a melting pot. Real Romans have simply never existed! (At least that's what I think. THEMANIAC77

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Gill, N.S. "What Happened to the Ancient Romans?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/what-happened-to-the-ancient-romans-4058701. Gill, N.S. (2023, April 5). What Happened to the Ancient Romans? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-happened-to-the-ancient-romans-4058701 Gill, N.S. "What Happened to the Ancient Romans?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-happened-to-the-ancient-romans-4058701 (accessed June 5, 2023).