Bryn Mawr Classical Review 94.03.06


Stephen L. Dyson, Community and Society in Roman Italy. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. Pp. xii + 381. ISBN 0-8018-4175-5.


Reviewed by Robert E.A. Palmer, University of Pennsylvania.

The stated intention of the author may be boiled down to a study of (small) town life in Italy under Roman rule as it is exhibited by a wedding of the evidence derived from ancient authors, epigraphy and archaeology, esp. this last. His method may be construed as antidote to the product of what Dyson calls the event-oriented historian who pays attention to chronological, precision (18). He propounds his aims in the first chapter 'Theory and Method.' that is marked by a propensity met through-out to adjectival litanies. Within 22 pages he writes social political economic, social economic political, social economic, political social economic, political cultural ideological, political social physical, political social, economic social political, economic political social, geographical ethnic historical at least 23 times as well as the litany, historians sociologists anthropologists.

These adjectival garlands recur and recur. "Social, political, and economic considerations shaped the marital strategies of elite families", soon followed by "Most youths tended to marry within their own social groups" (197). The author's taste in language is varied by means of our own outdated slang: "In the conservative world of the countryside, marriage brought with it expectations of a stable family life. Far away was the swinging society of the capital, with its partner-swapping and divorces... References to long marriages that passed sine querula [sic!] reinforce this image of domestic tranquility" (198) (Nothing is said of a more perfect union, common defense, and general welfare, also in the preamble of our constitution.) The expression sine (ulla) querella is well attested in sepulchral inscriptions so that one might suspect that it had become a hackneyed formula devoid of real meaning. Lattimore (1942) 278-280 finds most of his examples in epitaphs in the capital, the very place D. would have us believe they ought not to be found. The reviewer knows no case of "partner-swapping" as insinuated by D. Moreover one may doubt that he has examined the circumstances of divorce in Roman society, let alone in his own which seems to have prompted his utterance.

Another instance of vacuous slang is this "... Augustus combined symbolic gestures, institutional innovations, and nitty-gritty political actions" (99). D. clearly favors tricolonic constructs.

D. does not favor some norms of usage. Upper and lower classes are eschewed for elite(s) and marginalized. Such terms serve for notions like property owners, landless, rich and poor.

For this review the writer will play the 'event-oriented historian' and examine D.'s accomplishments in so far as he must perforce rely on the verbal evidence of antiquity. Dates have small value and when acknowledged can be ignored. An example can be taken from D.'s remarks on agriculture where he offers encapsulated treatment of Varro's treatise on agriculture and Vergil's Georgics. The authors serve him as "two leading figures of the emerging Augustan cultural circle" appealing "to the interest of elite circles in Augustan Rome" (111). "Vergil and Varro wrote at a time when the civil wars had just come to an end and the wounds caused by the proscriptions and colonial land confiscations had begun to heal" (113). The civil wars had not come to an end for a fact, and the beginning and ending of healing wounds are not known.

In his first chapter on theory and method D. proclaims the importance of context of evidence. Since he often does not cite ancient (verbal) evidence he makes it arduous for the reader to pursue it. The event-oriented historian can cite "The decision of Cicero's grandfather to pursue a political career at Arpinum rather than at Rome bears this [interest in local power and prestige ... even more central to the concerns of rural magnates] out (Macrob. Sat. 2.3" (43). The citation has no reference to the statement to which it is attached but belongs a few sentences earlier. What D. ought to have cited was Cic. Leg. 2.36 where Cicero quotes M. Aemiluis Scaurus in respect to his grandfather's opposition to a local ballot bill, "Would that you, M. Cicero who have such spirit and courage, had preferred to occupy yourself with us at the highest level of government than in a municipal government". Scaurus' outburst complimented Cicero avus by suggesting that he could have had a career at Rome. It's unlikely that Cicero avus ever considered a career as a politician of Rome. He certainly made no "decision" as stated by D. Macrobius (Sat. 2.3) has extracted several of the ioca of Cicero. D.'s citation (i.e. 2.3.11) belongs on these sentences. "For most people, local politics, was the only politics, and competition for office was often stiff. Cicero noted that even in the days after the Social War it was more difficult to become a decurion at Pompeii then a senator at Rome" (42-43). Not at all. First of all for "people" read "men" (D. suppresses male sexual identity), for "noted" read "joked", for "in the days after the Social War" read "during Caesar's dictatorship" Macrobius' report clearly belongs to a Caesarian context. To a certain guest friend who asked his help in obtaining the decurionate for his stepson Cicero reposted in a crowd of men, "At Rome he will have it if you wish; it is difficult at Pompeii". Explaining jokes is tedious business, understanding them is more difficult: Cicero refers to Caesar's extraordinary awards of senatorial rank to many who were unqualified. (see R. Syme (1939) 78-96; M. Gelzer, Caesar Politician and Statesman (1968) 309-310.) The witticism lacks any value in determining the character of the decurionate anywhere, let alone at Pompeii. According to his temporal divisions D.'s remarks do not even belong in the chapter where he sets them.

Also a failure to understand context are these instances: "religious magistrates" incorrectly renders magistri in the late republican inscriptions of Capua (32,46); the so called 'Laudatio Turiae' in no wise supports what he says about "victims of the proscriptions" on p. 90 nor tells us a thing about "women in the decurional families" (102-103) as if Turia, if it was Turia, represents women "prominent in the towns" (NB: in this section women are women, men are "male family members"); the first ref. to support the identity of a man of Pompeii who "was a rising star in the local decurio (sic!)" belongs to the Caesareum of Beneventum built by P. Vedius Pollio, hardly an exemplary decurio and surely no Pompeian. (102); speaking of "an inscription containing the names of past triumphators and consuls of the Roman state" found at Urbs Salvia, D. adds "This epigraphical monument was very similar to the list of fasti set up on the Forum of Augustus at Rome" (111) whereby he gives a wrong notion of "the list of fasti" and incorrectly attributes what the event-oriented historian calls the Fasti Capitolini, not known to have been exhibited in the Forum Augustum (for the document of Urbs Salvia, see Degrassi, Inscr. Ital. 13.1, pp. 338-340); at Canusium a dedication to Vortumnus "can be associated with pastoral activity" (130); whereas ILS 3588 and its mate ILS 3316 (omitted) to Vesta expressly state the offerings were a conversion of funds de munere gladiatorio ex.s.c. and, further, neither Vortumnus nor Vesta is ever attested in association "with pastoral activity" which is to say sheep herding; indeed, ILS 3316 and 3588, should have been treated instead of (or beside) what D. has to say about "Julia Genetiva" (which all others call Urso, a town of Spain and an overseas colony of Caesar and Anthony's, and therefore not relevant to the subject of the book under review) and its charter obligating magistrates for public entertainment (171), a subject well and carefully treated by R. Duncan-Jones, The Economy of the Roman Empire, (not used by D.) under "Summae honorariae and other payments to cities" in ch. 3 and clearly understood by E.G. Hardy (not cited by D.) in his commentary on the charter of Urso (Osuna) to have been slight, not to say negligible sums of money (not quoted by D.) as can be easily apprehended by the much larger sums cited for the same by Duncan-Jones.

Indeed, the author's grasp of ancient economic matters cannot be commended. For example, on p. 96 he reports that in his Res Gestae Augustus "boasts of having spent 600,000 sesterces on Italian land" for veterans. All boasting aside, Augustus said 600,000,000. Between thousands and millions yawns a great gulf even if only in proof-reading. On p. 113, again on Varro's agricultural treatise, "Finally he writes for those who have recently enriched themselves by a life of commerce ... and want to consolidate their newly achieved economic and social position by investing in farm land". This assertion is based (272 n. 146) "In Varro Rust. 2.3.10 an example is cited of the equestrian Gaberius who suffered massive losses from his poor investment in goat herds (sic!)". Presumably D. presumed that "Gaberius" had made a fortune in commerce because he was an eq. Rom. Varro does not so much as hint it. More to the point, Varro writes that "Gaberius" lost a herd of 1000 goats, that is one herd, because disease carried them all off whereas if he had kept no more than 50 head per herd he would not have lost all. Further, as Varro makes clear to the economically and socially adept, "Gaberius" did not own distant ranch land extensive enough for ranching several herds, but a suburbanum mille iugerum. As great as Gaberius' loss may have been (Varro writes that Gaberius expected 1000 d. per head), D.'s "massive losses" is hardly helpful in quantitative terms. 'Gaberius' is a name not otherwise known. Either we assume that Varro coined 'Caperius' as another of his noms parlants of this dialogue or emend to Laberius. Indeed, the mime writer D. Laberius, eq. Rom., whom Caesar insulted would aptly fit the bill (W. Kroll, RE 12.1, 1924, cols. 246-248). P. Ovidius Naso, also eq. Rom., had a suburban estate where he had orchards and kids and sheeps and oxen (Ex P. 1.8.41-60). There is no evidence that he had made his money in commerce, quite the contrary, or wished to consolidate an economic or a social position by investing in land.

A final example of economic treatment can be drawn from pp. 173-174 where D.'s surprise at the citizens who were gladiators at Venusia cannot be explained by "fighting in the arena as a fashionable activity in certain elite circles". These men were not 'elites': they belonged to a familia. D. evidently does not know of auctorati, bankrupt men who indentured themselves out of economic (or social or political) desperation; see the so-called SC de pretiis gladiatorum minuendis in Hesperia 24 (1955) 320-349.

D.'s second, third, and fourth chapters are potted history of Italy serving as foundation for a study of "community" and "society" of Italian towns and their countryside. They are not well thought out and abound in factual error and misinterpretation. Event-oriented historians must resign themselves, one guesses, to the (capitalized) Second Triumvirate when the supposed and fictitious "first" was a mere "Cerberate". "The retreat of Pyrrhus ended the hope of Italians for outside support for their continued resistance against Rome" (23). Hope is not known; the Italians were one Greek city, Tarentum (see Strabo 6.3.4 C 280); continued resistance suggests a unity of "Italians". (As a term of some usefulness to event-oriented historians Italians were not all men of all Italy). "Although they ["regions with developed city-system"] lost their political independence, they did not normally experience major social or economic change" (25) is correctly contradicted "... it [Rome] left the communities to govern themselves" (42).

On p. 41 D. finds "particularly striking" "absence of references to revolts [by slaves] in the mid first century B.C.", but on p. 84 must admit the sufficient evidence that Catiline "drew support from the numerous marginals" in the countryside. Perhaps, Catiline's leadership itself renders the uprising in 63-62 anything but a slave revolt since no "marginal" led it. Yet assignment of a province silvae callesque (Suet. DJ 19) in advance of election to one of the consuls of 59 suggests that shepherds, i.e. those who followed the calles in the silvae, were anything but peacefully singing amoebaean song under spreading beeches.

Of shepherds more may be said. In respect to the "senatorial persecutions" of Bacchanales in 186 B.C., "It has been argued that pastores, the term used to describe those Apulians who revolted in 186 B.C., meant not herdsmen but followers of Dionysus ... The evidence suggests that it ["the Bacchanalian movement"] was a classic millenarian movement, promising radical change and escape to the oppressed and marginalized inhabitants of the back country" (40). Shepherds, we may be sure, lived on the "margin". To them D. adds "tenant farmers, threatened small holders, widows and orphans ... and impoverished freedmen". Not only does this characterization go far beyond the evidence it invites us to believe that Italians believed in a "second coming" of the savior Dionysus Bacchus who radically would change something and release (?) the oppressed and marginalized from something. As for pastores in Apulia against whom a praetor had to be sent and was sitting in Tarentum (famous for its wool), Livy and his source for 185/4 undoubtedly meant shepherds (Livy 39.29, 39.41). Their coniuratio may not have been 'pastoral' but 'Bacchanalian', but shepherds they were still. (cf. Varro RR 2 pr. 6, 2.1.16, 2.2.9, Strabo 6.3.6, 3.9 C 282, 284).

The Volusii Saturnini were much more than "the important local family" of Lucus Feroniae (105-106); Marcellus was not the "adopted heir of Augustus" (106). If it be he who was patronus of Pompeii (ILS 898) why is he not gener Augusti as he is simply called on his epitaph (A. E. Gordon, Illustrated Intr. to Lat. Epigraphy, no. 24)?

"Wolves remained a menace in the mountainous areas of Italy down to this century" (155) is supported by ref. to Obs frag. 22.12 (sic!) who "mentions a pack of wolves overturning the Gracchan boundary stones" (285 n. 70). Obsequens 33 refers to the famous and infamous report of an occurrence in the north African territory of extinct Carthage; it is infamous because there were no wolves and are no wolves down to this century in N. Africa. The animals are thought to have been jackals; see E. Gabba on App. B.C. 1.103-105.

While on the subject of wolves we might touch on lupanaria which D. persists (even in the biblio., p. 336) in calling lupinari. Perhaps, the clients, in D.'s mind, paid in stage-money (lupina, Hor. Ep. 1.7.23, cf. Pl. Poen. 594-599). Of course, his only illustrative evidence for this trade comes from Pompeii where he says the largest and most famous was located on "the street of the Lupinar" (175-176) as if that were the ancient name. On costs unfortunate is the phrasing "At Pompeii the price seems to have ranged from two to sixteen asses" (176) that suggests to the uninitiated the revival of barter.

As an event-oriented historian the reviewer eschews discussion of D.'s views on baths, theaters and other places of public life. Clearly D. has done much reading in the area of town excavation and interpretations of concrete evidence. To examine his use of the results would tax all. It is in the nature of things that neither verbal nor physical evidence can support such statements as "Ritualized community interaction also took place at the public baths" (174), or "Alternative father figures had to be found" (190).

On p. 169 D. remarks that verbal sources scant on information concerning performance in the theaters of Italian towns. There is little reason to believe that they should have. Yet on the same page, in noting the public-spirited generosity of women he mentions that of Ummidia Quadratilla, for him merely "an acquaintance of the younger Pliny", at Casinum. There is no suggestion of how high and mighty were the Ummidii (see R. Syme, Historia 17 (1968) 72-105 = Rom. Pap. 2 (1979) 659-693; HSCP 82 (19 79) 287-310 = Rom. Pap. 3 (1984) 1158-1178). Pliny's letter (7.23) on that lady's theatrical troupe might have amplified D.'s subject.

D.'s English is sometimes off. Evoke for invoke, variability for variety, abortive (sb.) for abortifacient (the former ceasing to be a noun in 1647 according to the SOED), test auguring (read: augering, if a word). Such adjectives as massive, enormous, staggering have only emotive value in quantification. His knowledge of Latin may be tested by aediculum sg. (from aedicula sg.), fercula sg. (as if from ferculum sg.) 'gromatores' evidently for gromatici. He speaks of the "concept of uno viro" (300 n. 140) by which, concept aside, I take him to mean univira, a woman who married only once, but am tempted to construe his Latin as an ablative of inseparability.

The period of the last chapter 'The Later Roman Community' he begins with Trajan and ends with Christian clergy taking over the administration of the towns centuries later. To no especial purpose D. wrongly quotes and incorrectly translates a passage from a Plinian letter. One of his mistakes is writing suspicereet for suscipere (219-220). At 231-232 he wants to illustrate the "vitality of small town life" in the fourth century and chooses to use for illustration two inscriptions from Amiternum that were issued by the town council in 325 and by a meeting of convicani in 335, making a father and his son patrons. (AE 1937, nos. 119, 121, easily consulted in R.K. Sherk, The Municipal Decrees of the Roman West, nos. 21, 22). These two texts are riddled with errors of spelling, syntax, grammar, and are sometimes incomprehensible. Vitality they do not exhibit. In the earlier text, very unusual for the signature of the man who carved it (perhaps out of pride that in all Amiternum he was among the few who could still read), we may see words like sususcipiat. That the elder man served four towns, Amiternum, Reate, Interamna of the Praetuttii, and Aveia of the Vestini, as patronus testifies to the hard times in Constantinian Italy. No ordinary man of curial rank was apparently undertaking the responsibilities expected of decurions some 200 years earlier. The elder patron had restored the pulcridinem of the town's baths "which had already once upon a time in the old days gone to ruin". Each of the three other communities in the patronate of the man was more or less 20 Roman miles from their patron's hometown of Amiternum. The son of the older patronus was made patronus over the pagani seu vicani Forulani whom D. calls the rural folk of the area without quoting Forulani. Though but five miles from Amiternum Strabo (5.3.1, C 228) reckons Foruli a city of the Sabines. Were the Forulani now townsmen of Amiternum as D. seems to suggest? Did the Forulani count only as pagani and vicani? or were there also urbani/oppidani? Did the Forulani know the difference between a pagus and a vicus any more? Yes, the Forulani speak of Amiternum as patria nostra. Yes, the Forulani are addressed as convicani by their procurator who had gone on embassy to the younger man chosen in part as patron for his affectio sincerara! So much for small town vitality!

Event-oriented historians try to order their material. Some event-oriented historians bring new facts, new interpretations, new order to their subject. After several readings this reviewer finds nothing new that he would care to affirm and reaches the conclusion that there is a new breed, the non-event-oriented historians.

haec tam rustica, delicate lector,
rides nomina? rideas licebit,
haec tam rustica malo quam Butuntos. (Mart. 4.55.27-29)