Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1998.11.04

Jo-Ann Shelton, As the Romans Did: Sourcebook in Roman Social History. 2nd edition.   New York:  Oxford University Press, 1998.  Pp. xxv, 483.  ISBN 0-19-508973-1.  $45.00 (hb).  ISBN 0-19-508974-X.  $27.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Lisa Auanger, University of Missouri (

The second edition of Jo-Ann Shelton's As the Romans Did: A Sourcebook of Roman Social History is a collection of 473 translations of selections from texts, papyri, and inscriptions concerning fifteen broad general areas of Roman life and society. Chapters are the structure of Roman society, families, marriage, housing and city life, domestic and personal concerns, education, occupations, slaves, freedmen and freedwomen, government and politics, Roman army, the provinces, women in Roman society, leisure and entertainment, and religion and philosophy. Each chapter consists of translations and general commentary, sometimes introductory and sometimes expository, always in clear prose, but often too brief. A group of five maps, a glossary of sources (authors, etc.), an explanation of "Roman money," a framework of important dates and events, and a topical bibliography follow the text. Interspersed in the text are five figures, plans of buildings, and three helpful genealogy charts.

The book seems compiled and written for use by advanced high school students or students in introductory college civilization courses, mainly students whose interests lie in matters other than academics. The subtitle "A Sourcebook in Roman Social History" seems somewhat misleading: Shelton's definition of social history is fairly conventional -- simply stated, who all the Romans were and how they lived -- and her book is indeed in the field of social history by virtue of its inclusions (infra). Yet her own text is quite lacking in explanatory material that provides students an understanding of what the materials they are reading are, in genre, in historical context, in authorship. The book would not stand alone well, but in conjunction with other social history textbooks (e.g. Geza Alfoldy's The Social History of Rome), certainly is usable. It supplements what exists in the field of Roman history and brings the field into the current of scholarship in other fields. Likewise the book does not teach genre or impart an understanding of it (as p. 162) sufficiently to convey to students how to use the sources and how to work with them, and to know what is and isn't history. It is not the same to know the name, date, and place of origin of the author as to understand the circumstances in which he or she was writing and the role of particular events in the interpretation of passages. Nor does the text build much on acquired knowledge and understanding throughout. That is to say, the historical circumstances of individual sources and pieces of information are overlooked, presenting incidentals as fact, as often the case in ancient history.

The book's discusses the nature of the sources and ancient Rome. This information seems necessary for teaching historical method and the importance of the documentary source approach, and as such could be more effectively integrated into the introduction, where it would be less likely to be overlooked.

This edition seems more like a supplemented reprint than new. The first chapter, the structure of Roman Society, class structure, brings together an array of writings to document the general organization of Roman society from the aristocracy to official class divisions to patronage and its problems. The second edition differs from the previous edition by the addition of (13) "Another Rude Patron." The chapter itself is fairly traditional in its inclusions, and as such is aptly named. The second chapter, families, is supplemented by five translations: Quintilian's sons, maternal tenderness, stepparents, Birth announcement, and nurses. This chapter brings the Romans closer to the moderns, sharing emotions and relationships, and as such seems well placed in the volume and a complement to the title As the Romans Did. In marriage, the third chapter, there are additions in expectations of marriage, Quintilian's wife, wife beating, and response to divorce. The perspective is refreshingly modern, and would really speak to many modern students: it brings the ancients emotionally nearer the moderns and includes such topics as producing a family, birth control (under which heading abortion is included), raising children, and welfare assistance. The fourth chapter, housing and city life is quite standard, and evokes memories of Stambaugh's Ancient City for me. This chapter misses the mark in its introduction: "Archaeological excavations provide one source of information about Roman housing. Another source is an ancient "textbook for architects" (p. 59) Placing these sources on par is outdated and misleading. Domestic and personal concerns, the fifth chapter, includes the addition of (122), Firminus and (123) Death Notices. Its topics are meals, illness, medical treatments, doctors, life expectancy, death, funerary laws and funerals, and personal messages. As such it provides a respite of human interest to the reader. Education, the subject of the sixth chapter, is enhanced by the addition of (136) corporal punishment. (150) career choices, and (151) working girls. To the seventh chapter, occupations, is added "Pliny's investments." Much of this chapter is in need of further social explanation. Slaves, chapter eight, is improved by addition of (198) captives of war, (199) regulations, (201) a Friend's advice (in buying slaves), (203) household slaves, (204) adjusting to enslavement, and (205) state-owned slaves. Yet Shelton relies more heavily on hearsay, on written materials of a variety of genres than on actual documents of state, on laws, which incidentally, do get a place at the end. In short she seems to read the sources as practical, as what actually happened more than the laws as reflectors of essential justice (and injustice). I am unsure that this is a fair perspective to take; every society has deviants who, drunk with power, viciousness, etc., commit heinous crimes against humanity. To assert that Rome was essentially of this sort provides a distorted view and denies cultural and organizational contributions to modernity. Chapter nine, freedmen and freedwomen, is also expanded. Talent and intelligence are separated. Sections are added concerning freedmen and their patrons (241) legal obligations, (242) ideal freedmen, (243) troubled relationship, and (244) generous patron. Government and politics, the tenth chapter, remains the same. This chapter is fairly conventional and I am unsure about its central placement in a social history textbook.

Roman army, the eleventh chapter, is expanded, with special consideration given to the previously underrepresented "provinces." New sections include: (297-299) discipline, (300) pay records, (301) supply and service troops, (310) soldiers and civilians, (311) requisitions, (312) military justice, (313) life on the frontier, (314) retirement in the provinces, (315) Danube frontier, and (316) Roman families in Britain. This chapter provides materials about the provinces as does the next, a shockingly short compilation of eight sources documenting provincial administration. This chapter is clearly the weakest in the book, making use of so few materials to document social history in the lands that formed the bulk of the Roman empire. To this twelfth chapter, are added two passages: (317) theory of provincial administration and (322) fear of rebellion. The thirteenth chapter, women in Roman society, is supplemented by four new passages: (329) virtues of women, (322) far of rebellion, (344) farm women, and (345) comfort women. In addition the internal organization is changed. The chapter is not in line with current scholarship on woman and does not document much: sections include childhood, life expectancy, praiseworthy behavior, unacceptable behavior, hysteria, working women, and cosmetics. Although amusing, the chapter is also maddening in its lack of seriousness. Leisure and entertainment, the already lengthy fourteenth chapter, receives three new passages: (371) dishonest innkeepers, (400) victim's perspective, and (401) fascination and addiction. The overall perspective reflected in this chapter is largely the "Roman was a world of decadence and spectacles." Religion and philosophy. the fifteenth chapter, is too long, and would be treated better in two chapters. Although it moves away from the realm of what I would regard as "social history," being presented as more about the gods than the participants in religion and philosophy, this chapter is one of the most enlightening, with sections that include, e.g., river god and state cult.

While Shelton's book holds a unique spot among texts available for civilization courses and her perspective is sensitive to the place and status of non-elites, her selections are not infrequently more trivial than instructive. Humor and horror loom, while actual facts of everyday life seem almost nowhere to be seen, except in definition. In short, the focus is the shocking, often the shocking to the modern and not infrequently to the ancient. The treatment of the aristocracy is rather hostile, with sweeping generalizations such as "The wealthy members of Roman society were convinced that they were superior to the poor in every way -- intelligence, talent, and ethical conduct" (p. 8). Similarly the book does not weigh the evidence fairly, as in the aforementioned case of archaeology as source for housing (p. 59) or in the case of rustic life (p.161): "Tibullus's poem, like Horace's, presents a picture of farm life that is divorced from reality" in description of Tibullus, Elegies I.1.1., 5-8, 25-32, 43-46: "... Let another man heap up for himself the wealth of shining gold.... Let my humble means lead me through a quiet life. May my fireplace continually blaze.... May I be content to live on a little, ... to avoid the summer's heat under the shade of a tree upon the bank of a flowing stream. And let me not think it shameful to hold a hoe once in a while or to urge the slow oxen with a whip. Let me not be reluctant to lift up in my arms and carry homeward a lamb or a kid rejected by its mother.... When the time is right, let me tend the young vines and the large fruit trees with a farmer's deft touch.... A small harvest is enough for me; it's enough to lie on my own little bed and stretch out my limbs. and how pleasant it is to lie in bed and hold my loved one safe in my arms and listen to the winds raging outside." Certainly Tibullus is not describing every day, but his poem gives us a view of rural life which Shelton describes as a "dreamworld." And this sort of attitude toward the people, places, and customs pervades the book.

The translations are comprehensible and illustrative. They seem misleading only in their actual sensibility. That is to say, it may appear that the sources are in a better state of preservation than they actually are, and that the meaning is more clear and definite than it by any means is.

My other areas of discomfort with this book are few. One notable general problems are (1) a Romanocentric perspective defined along the lines of the city and Italy, despite prior explanation. Scholars sometimes forget that post-colonial extra-Roman territories existed even though under control of the Roman government and were in some ways separate, some ways essentially always to be culturally and socially different than the homeland. Archaeology and comparative studies can show this to be the case. (2) Shelton's perspective on her reader's point of view is troubling: she asserts, e.g., that "we live in a society that is essentially classless (p. xxiv)." (This statement is far too broad, especially in the sphere of higher education.) (3) The book tends toward a third-world perspective on antiquity. (4) Too few Greek sources of the Roman period are presented. (5) There is not any methodological consistency in the selection of sources. In the first chapter, for example, Dionysius of Halicarnassus' explanation is presented to explain the origins of the patronage system, while segments of Juvenal and Martial are presented in documentation of the patron-client relationship's problems. Likewise with topics and sub-topics. And (6) social history needs greater definition along legal lines; with documentation of key laws, reforms, public controversies, we could know much more. As far as the author's fulfillment of her own goals is concerned, it is my guess that Shelton has produced exactly what she intended and that she has done these things fairly. From the preface: "It is the purpose of this book to allow the ancient Romans to step forward and talk to us themselves.... The passages have been carefully chosen so as to provide data that will enable the reader to gain an accurate perspective on many, diverse aspects of life in the ancient Roman world.... One function of this book is to provide information that illuminates the lives of people of all classes and demonstrates the diversity of the Roman world."

It is this reviewer's opinion that, despite its rather high cost, this book will, in fact, serve as a good textbook for introductory college courses in Roman history and civilization, especially if used in conjunction with an expository text. Pedagogically the book seems as if it will be effective since its limitations are of the sort that encourage further inquiry and discussion, and in no place is the author so right that the student faces an imperative, except perhaps in the actual composition of the volume. It also will be useful as a reference book for the scholar/teacher who needs examples for lectures and lessons, especially since the contents are fairly easy to access.

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