Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.10.36

David S. Potter, D.J. Mattingly, Life, Death, and Entertainmentin the Roman Empire.   Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press, 1999.  Pp. xiv, 353.  ISBN 0-472-10924-3.  $49.50 (hb).  ISBN 0-472-08568-9.  $17.95 (pb).  

Contributors: G.S. Aldrete and D.J. Mattingly, H. Dodge, B.W. Frier, M.W. Gleason, A.E. Hanson, D.S. Potter

Reviewed by Donald G. Kyle, University of Texas at Arlington
Word count: 3352 words

With David Potter taking the lead in providing an introduction and two chapters, this handsomely-produced volume performs admirably as a series of introductions to sources, approaches, and the state of scholarship on major topics in Roman social history (e.g. family structure, gender identity, demography, food supply, religion, entertainment). The essays offer sensible and clear explanations (and documentation) of the social and conceptual world of the people (of both genders, and all ages and classes) of the Roman empire -- their worries and comforts, their needs and resources, their pressures and outlets. Indeed, family, faith, food and fun were all central to coping with the "human condition" under Rome, for, even for the privileged, the living was not easy. Most neither lived long nor prospered, and religion and public shows provided needed solace. To borrow from Hobbes, for many life, if not "solitary", was indeed "poor, nasty, brutish, and short".

In addition to its thorough scholarship the work is refreshingly honest about what we can (and cannot) know about life under Rome, and, more importantly, how we can know it.1 This is no overgeneralizing "day in old Rome" handbook. Emphasizing the challenging complexities and rich diversities of phenomena in a vast empire over hundreds of years, it clarifies without reductionism or recourse to the imposition of one model or theoretical approach. It regularly cautions us about the limitations of traditional sources and approaches, and it enlightens us about the potential and benefits of new methods and underutilized or humbler types of evidence (e.g. epitaphs, letters and census declarations on papyri from Roman Egypt, graffiti from a latrine in Smyrna). With lively writing styles, modern comparisons (e.g. to the Marlboro Man), and 28 good figures,2 the authors reach out to the interested -- or better the dedicated -- nonspecialist. Nevertheless, the likeliest target audience seems to be students and instructors of classes in Roman civilization or social history. Certainly every instructor of college classes on Rome should read and utilize this valuable work.3

After a brief note on papyrological and epigraphic sources (xi-xiv) and the Introduction, the body of the work includes seven essays in three parts. Part One: "Social Structures and Demography", chapters 1-3, focuses more on domestic, social and demographic issues: family life, mortality, and the social construction of the ideal family, wife, child and elite male. Part Two, "Religion", a single chapter (4) on Roman religion, might have been combined with Part Three: "Bread and Circuses", chapters 5-7, for these four chapters focus more on the public, official and imperial life of the empire -- public cult and religious ideology, feeding the city, and the very conspicuous economic consumption of materials, creatures, and finances for buildings and shows. The chronological concentration of the volume is from Augustus to the third century A.D. but essays include earlier and later demographic information and substantial treatments of the Greek background to Roman entertainment. The Bibliography (15 pp.) is somewhat awkwardly subdivided by chapters (1-3, 4, 5, and 6-7), but the volume is worth the paperback price for the bibliography and notes alone.

Potter's Introduction (16 pp.) establishes the general theme of dominance and sets the tone for the volume. Concentrating on the structure and operation of the remarkably durable, pervasive and effective administration of the Roman imperial monarchy, Potter surveys the central institutions of the Roman state: the palace, the army, the population of Rome, and the administrative aristocracy (the senatorial and equestrian orders). Peppered with provocative and insightful assertions from its first sentence on (1: "The Roman empire was the product of violence."), the Introduction is frank about controversial topics that are sometimes glossed in surveys. Without apologies or dilutions, Potter's direct and forceful comments on Roman patriarchy, religion, violence, spectacles, and military life. For example, Potter minces no words about Roman military realities (10): "The army was the ultimate instrument of violence, the power behind the facade of civil government." Intense training, harsh discipline and punishments carried out by peers conditioned young men to kill their foes personally and physically, and above all to do their duty to Rome and to their comrades. Soldiers were not permitted to marry while on service because they were to remain separate from the civilian population, disciplined and ready for action. Their erotic urges were serviced by partners and prostitutes, or by recourse to rapes of provincial women and possibly boys.

Chapter 1, "The Roman Family," (48 pp.) by Ann E. Hanson, is a flowing and moving summary of standard and essential topics: familia, names, family members, paterfamilias, family dynamics, housing, and lifestyles of the elite and non-elite. Hanson humanizes the Romans as they faced the harsh realities of the Roman patriarchal family. Children grew up with deaths of family members as fairly normal experiences. Life expectancy at birth was in the lower twenties, about half of the babies died before their fifth birthday, and less than 20% of the population reached sixty. Roman children often grew up without a paternal grandfather and many even without a father. On an ironic note, while the powers of the paterfamilias were formidable, probably few lived long enough to interfere in their adult children's lives.

What we see today as family tragedies and social injustices were matters of course. As Hanson shows, to ensure the paramount goal of the continuity of the familia, Roman society sanctioned male dominance in social customs and law. Almost all elite women entered politically and economically arranged marriages in their early twenties to older males; love was supposed to develop in time but divorce was accessible and common. The purpose of marriage was the production of children, especially males, to continue the family. Contrary to the modern image of the woman as nurturer, children -- provided that the father raised up the baby and made it a member of the family -- were raised and educated by the whole familia, by nurses and slaves and not just by parents. Hanson is especially moving in plumbing the emotional depths of relationships between parents and children, and between spouses. Excellent translations of first hand accounts (e.g. letters of Cicero, Pliny the Younger, and middle-class women in Roman Egypt) reveal domestic histories, concerns, and a traditionally underestimated level of affection.

Chapter 2, "Elite Male Identity in the Roman Empire," (18 pp.) by Maud W. Gleason, offers a lively discussion of the cultural construction of the aristocratic, urban male's gender identity, the Roman cultural reproduction of social superiority (over females and social inferiors).4 Maleness was a social performance, and aristocrats were concerned about proper masculinity or "gender correctness" -- how they projected and secured their identity and superiority by word, action, and image. The male elite controlled and fashioned not only the empire but themselves as well.

Male discourse reveals that male superiority was not without its burdens and anxieties. Concerned about the balance of their (physical) constitutions, elite males felt compelled to show self-mastery by proper attention to matters from diet, bathing, and exercise to sex. Proper routine supported correct deportment or body language and prevented embarrassment, as in the public baths where one's physical carriage in the nude affirmed or undermined one's social position. Ball playing and vocal warm-ups were favored but athletics or muscle-building exercises could make one look like a laborer. Literary and rhetorical education were the preserve and the obligation of the elite, essential for public, political and economic life. Wealth was to be used not only for conspicuous consumption but for public benefactions, as in the financing of baths, shows, public buildings, and distributions of food.5

Sexual mores were to be upheld, for sex was about power. Rome's assimilation of Greek civilization included a somewhat ambivalent acceptance of homoerotic behavior but disapproval of Greek-style pederasty was strong. Elite males could have sex with males or females of lower status as long as they avoided erotic excesses, which might upset a male's body chemistry, and as long as the elite individual was the dominant, insertive partner. Playing the feminine or passive role was associated with deviance and gender indeterminacy, for, as satire and political slander show, the Roman male's true sexual phobia and stigma was effeminacy.

Chapter 3, "Roman Demography," (25 pp.) by Bruce W. Frier, masterfully surveys the contributions (and limits) of demography for reconstructing the material realities and statistical characteristics of the population of the early empire. With sections on mortality, marriage (with some overlap with Hanson on patriarchy and childbirth), and fertility, Frier shows how mortality rates offer a telling index of the health and social welfare of the Roman population. Since mortality levels were much higher than generally found in early modern Europe but only marginally lower than those of prehistoric populations, (90) "the Roman empire provided its subjects with no real improvement in their overall social well-being."

Despite their limited life expectancy and controls on fertility, the Romans were a prolific lot, and they (pro)created their own Malthusian dilemma. The security of the Roman peace was a mixed blessing demographically: the empire's population probably rose (ca. 40-60 million in the early empire) and put extreme pressure on the "carrying capacity" of the Mediterranean region, its ability to support population under existing social and economic conditions. Frier, however, makes the intriguing argument that overpopulation precipitated high mortality levels, in part possibly through vulnerability to pandemics. In other words, high fertility rates and high mortality rates achieved some form of equilibrium over time.

Chapter 4, "Roman Religion: Ideas and Actions," (55 pp.) by Potter, details how religion, through festivals, doctrines, and divination, regulated Roman time, space, human-divine relationships, decision making, and actions. Diverse, lacking a central body of texts, and with a flexible and eclectic pantheon, Roman religion was neither uniform nor static, nor was it hollow and unsatisfying. Discussions of the types and functions of different priesthoods, sacrifices, and festivals explain complexity, continuity, and change in the rich religious life of the empire. Roman religion effectively combined active and passive elements. Rites -- by priests (e.g. sacerdotes, pontifices) as passive perpetuators -- sanctioned tradition and present conditions, and divination -- by prophets (e.g. augurs, quindecimiviri, haruspices) as active innovators -- facilitated change and future development.

Potter reveals Roman religion as vital and viable, not a jumble of distant, mechanical acts, but a flexible system that aided social order and gave meaning to the lives of individuals and families. Publicly, religion was intimately associated with the political administration, and proper attention to ritual, the pax deorum, and the will of the gods was a matter of official concern and state security. Privately, passive cult gave psychological reassurance in the face of inscrutable phenomena, a tenuous present, and an uncertain future -- the Roman realities of dominance, depravation, and death.

Romans believed profoundly in the gods and their interest in human affairs. However reluctantly, we must see Rome's persecutions of Christians in the light of the Romans' conviction that their success depended on observance of proper rituals and respect for the gods. Rome usually allowed extensive freedom in private religion and permitted local religious customs and variations, that is unless people (e.g. Christians, magicians) posed a threat to public order. However, the "witnessing" of Christian martyrs declared an executed criminal a god, and the Christians' exclusiveness and denial of the existence of other gods constituted a serious threat in Roman minds. Martyrs "witnessed" Roman piety as well as their own.

Chapter 5, "Feeding the City: The Organization, Operation, and Scale of the Supply System for Rome," (34 pp.) by Greg S. Aldrete and D.J. Mattingly, a convincing study of the food-related supply problems of the city of Rome, provides much thought for food in the life of Rome. While the grain dole has been much studied of late, many other foods (e.g. garum, animals), and especially the staples of olives and wine, also were imported on a vast scale (estimates of 400,000 metric tons of grain, oil and wine, or a minimum number of 1,702 shiploads, per year). The city was dependent on imported foodstuffs, underemployed masses demanded distributions of food -- free or at reduced prices, and shortages and famines provoked riots. Imperial munificence and state intervention were needed to deal with logistical problems of available supply, distance, transport, storage, and delivery. Against the old view of the administration as not very extensive or sophisticated, the authors suggest that the state was active and effective in countering problems of complexity and scale in its administration of Rome's food supply system. Solutions included subsidizing shipping, developing the harbor at Ostia, building enormous warehouses at Rome, and organizing guilds of boatsmen, porters, and merchants, thus creating wage labor for thousands of urban plebs.

Chapter 6, "Amusing the Masses: Buildings for Entertainment and Leisure in the Roman World," (51 pp.) by Hazel Dodge, is a thorough and well-researched study of the public structures used to stage entertainments. Dodge clearly organizes and discusses each category (theaters, amphitheaters, naumachiae, baths, stadia, gymnasia etc.) in terms of the relevant Greek background and the distinctive development in Italy and the empire. Admittedly it is challenging to enliven architectural history, and the descriptive accounts of buildings as architectural and technological achievements dull the impact of Dodge's important points about public facilities as means of elite self-advancement, as instruments (baths especially) of Romanization, colonization and assimilation, as places for reinforcing the imperial and social order, and as amenities that compensated for the dreary and hazardous living conditions of the urban poor. This is an excellent work for reference on Roman facilities for entertainment, but form ends up being less intriguing than function.

Chapter 7, "Entertainers in the Roman Empire," (70 pp.) by Potter, offers the broadest, most accurate, and most balanced starting point on Roman shows and spectacles, which he prefers to call public entertainments and sports, a topic of much recent interest.6 Through three well-organized sections ("Actors and Athletes", "Chariot Racing", and "Gladiators, Beast Fights and Executions"), Potter clarifies the long historical development and the social history of Roman public entertainments. He offers a wealth of fresh observations, always backed up by control of the latest scholarship and the widest range of evidence. Favoring evidential studies (e.g. Ville and Robert on gladiators) over some more interpretive recent approaches, Potter says, for example, gladiatorial combats were not human sacrifices and not even about death; and the enigmatic cena libera for Potter (313) is not a ritual of elevation or a symbolic gift but "simple advertisement" for the next day's spectacle.

Continuing the theme of dominance, Potter notes that public policy and public entertainments were closely aligned, but he shows that, despite criticisms by the ancient elitists and philosophers and by modern writers from anachronistic ideological viewpoints, entertainments were more than decadent diversions, sadistic perversions, or a manipulative opiate of underemployed and politically impotent masses. Shows certainly were ritual displays of the power of the emperor and empire, but they also allowed communication between emperor and people; as they entertained they comforted with reflections of Rome's self-image, cultural values and secure social order, and they offered a form of common cultural expression to diverse peoples, a shared cultural vocabulary, a "popular culture" of entertainment.

Potter's historical reconstructions clarify early and later developments, often noting the fusion of Greco-Roman culture. For example, on chariot racing he rejects the traditional assumption of major Etruscan influence. He sees the peculiar features at Rome (e.g. the factions as professional stables that provided teams identified by color, the shape of the racing ground with its purpose-built gates and its finish line in the middle of the track) as indigenous developments at Rome itself, emerging by the second half of the fourth century B.C. and connected with the shape of the Circus Maximus. Similarly, gladiatorial combats, a relatively late development at Rome from 264 on, originated not in Etruria but in fourth-century south Italy. These and other sports of the amphitheater reached "unparalleled prominence" in the first to third centuries A.D., and the second century A.D. was "the great age of the actor, athlete, and gladiator" (324). However, chariot racing spread to the provinces and became preeminent by the late third century, in part because of Christian opposition to the amphitheater with its associations with martyrdom. By the fourth century all entertainments were subordinated to the structures of chariot racing.

Potter's forceful treatment of amphitheatral sports, their diverse activities and entertainers, is especially good. Traditional moralizing judgments about the arena as a barbaric slaughterhouse do not help our understanding, and Potter reminds us that arena shows were attended by the same people of all classes who watched other entertainments. For Potter, early gladiatorial munera in association with funerals were celebrations of the life of the deceased. As demonstrations of Roman military virtues, they were popular with soldiers, and they spread with colonies of veterans in Italy. Potter's reconstruction of a typical gladiatorial duel details the arrangements made by a munerarius, and his discussion of the inscription of 177 A.D. on the prices of gladiators clarifies their rankings as valuable performers. Well trained, well tended by doctors, and mostly well protected by their armor, gladiators fought not in mass combats but in single duels, "shows of skill and endurance". Not always -- or even often -- to the death,7 most combats went on only until one gladiator was wounded or gave up out of exhaustion. Victors won rewards (including lances and torques -- rewards for military valor) and successful fighters became stars.

Bloodshed and death were found mostly at mass slaughters in beast hunts and staged executions. The deaths of animals in venationes comforted viewers as demonstrations of Rome's control over the world and over nature. Executions of condemned criminals (damnati, noxii), whom Potter correctly distinguishes from gladiators,8 became common elements of public entertainments because trials and punishments were public exhibitions of the imperial government's monopolization of force. They were necessary, socially reassuring acts of social vengeance against persons who had offended societal norms.

As he discusses the hierarchically descending categories of gymnastic, scenic, circus, and amphitheatral entertainers, Potter explains a widespread ambivalence in Roman society. Despite enduring Italian reservations about the lowly class origins of performers and the stigma of displaying one's body for pleasure, the entertainment industry's emphasis on the individual star and on technical virtuosity or physical endurance meant that entertainers -- lower persons, Greeks and even slaves -- earned fame and privileges. Actors and athletes, the highest form of entertainers, were professionalized and sponsored under Rome, as in the fostering of guilds and commemorative festivals to honor emperors. Nero aside, charioteers may have had lowly origins but success could bring them wealth and even political influence. Gladiators, the lowliest of all, nonetheless could earn privileges and freedom by skillfully demonstrating aristocratic martial virtues in combats. The elite feared and resisted the elevation of entertainers; but, forced to exhaust resources in funding shows and facilities, they had to accept the value of good relations with low status but glamorous and politically valuable stars. They were socially threatened by the entertainment industry they themselves had fostered for political ends. Such comments by Potter and others on the ironies of dominance may sound rather modern, but they stem from historical realism and not moralizing relativism.

Collections of essays come and go, but this one will stay in wide use. Each essay can stand alone but, tied together by the theme of dominance, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This is a work about control, being in control, and being under control -- control by the administration, by males, by the courts, and by the army, control in the family, in public, and in the arena. It's also about limited or even lack of control -- concerning mortality, marriage, and social conditions. Control of the less powerful, of inferiors, subjects and misfits, was entrenched in the construction of gender, age, and social reality, but so also was control of oneself -- one's emotions and public image. As these fine essays show, the traditional hierarchy dominated society, but, in maintaining its self-image, and in arranging the availability of food, public buildings, and shows, the elite trapped itself in the privilege and burden of dominance.


1.   The authors admit, for example, that the life of the country poor is largely unknown to us, and that we have no good information for the mortality levels of infants under ten. Literary sources focus on male deeds and reflect elite male viewpoints, and males were inhibited by their education from writing introspective documents.
2.   E.g. a sacrifice scene from Arch of Trajan at Beneventum, the athletic mosaic from Gafsa, the necropolis of Isola Sacra, and amphora sherds of Monte Testacchio.
3.   Like its projected companion volume, Bondage and Domination in the Roman Empire, it is designed to fill a gap left behind by the "course-pack crisis", which has complicated the production of course packets of translated sources and recent studies for classes on ancient civilization.
4.   Physiognomical treatises presented the male body as perfect -- warmer, drier, well aerated by pores, less vulnerable to being clogged by its own humors. By contrast, women were (71) "clammy, Gollum-like creatures whose perpetual humidity was only somewhat relieved by regular menstruation."
5.   My only quibble is that the elite male's self image included elements of military virtue, and this aspect, admittedly treated by Potter above (9-14), seems worthy of more attention here.
6.   Potter's "Performance, Power, and Justice in the High Empire," in W.J. Slater, ed., Roman Theater and Society, Ann Arbor, U. of Michigan, 1996, is cited as "Potter 1996" (e.g. n. 93 on 308, n. 104 on 313) but is not in the bibliography. On the recent interest in Roman spectacles, sport and entertainment, see e.g. my "Rethinking the Roman Arena: Gladiators, Sorrows, and Games", Ancient History Bulletin 11.2-3 (1997) 94-97, on works by C. Barton, T. Wiedemann, and P. Plass.
7.   E.g. Potter, 307, rejects the usual interpretation of sine missione as a fight to the death; rather it was a combat in which missio was not permitted without a clear victory.
8.   Seneca's famous criticism of the arena (Ep. 7.4) concerns meridiani, not gladiatorial combat: noxii, not gladiators, were to show terror and contrition.

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