Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.04.21

Willem Jongman, Marc Kleijwegt, After the Past. Essays in Ancient History in Honour of H. W. Pleket. Mnemosyne Supplement 233.   Leiden:  Brill, 2002.  Pp. vii, 378.  ISBN 90-04-12816-6.  EUR 79.00.  

Contributors: Willem Jongman, Marc Kleijwegt, Luuk de Ligt, Fik Meijer, Steven Moors, Paul Schulten, Henk Singor, Peter van Minnen, Onno van Nijf, Hans van Wees

Reviewed by Jonathan S. Perry, History, University of Central Florida (
Word count: 1841 words

[I gratefully acknowledge the generous help of one of the contributors, Onno van Nijf, in the completion of my dissertation, defended in 1999.]

In 1892, J.-P. Waltzing published a lesson plan -- and a defense of epigraphy as a legitimate field of study -- for the Université de Liège, entitled "L'épigraphie latine et les corporations professionnelles de l'empire romain". While laying the groundwork for the four-volume study that is (still) the fundamental work on the Roman collegia, Waltzing insisted that epigraphy should not be considered merely an ancillary tool available to the classicist. In fact, he argued, "Toutes les branches de la philologie classique sont plus ou moins ses tributaires...."1 That epigraphy is today an essential component of, especially, the ancient historian's training is due in great measure to scholars like the Dutch epigraphist H. W. Pleket. In his honor, ten former students and protégés have offered papers on a broad variety of subjects, thus reflecting the wide-ranging interests and proficiencies of the scholar here honored. Despite their differences in subject matter and approach, there are at least two underlying themes developed in many of these papers: 1) comparisons with medieval, early-modern, and other pre-industrial societies can illuminate some of the murkier paths of the ancient past; and 2) while ideal principles rarely reflect lived realities, they may also convey vital historical information.

Jongman and Kleijwegt preface the papers (pp. ix-xxiv) with an appreciation of Pleket and his contributions to the various disciplines that constitute Altertumswissenschaft. They lay particular stress on his role in debates on the "primitive" nature of ancient economies, drawing attention to his use of inscriptions and cross-cultural comparisons to transform our understanding of these topics. However, more could be said here concerning his interest in Greco-Roman sport, which has in recent decades become a significant discipline in its own right. His characteristic troika of approaches -- close epigraphic readings, comparisons with other societies, and evaluations of sport as a social indicator -- can best be illustrated, perhaps, in a review article he published in 1998, entitled "Sport and Ideology in the Graeco-Roman World."2 In this piece, he incorporates complaints about the relative laxness of schoolsports in contemporary Europe (316), the relationships between athletics and larger cultural trends (318), and the critical importance of epigraphic materials, despite the fact that, in this case, these are difficult to access (324).

In the first of the papers, "Restraining the rich, protecting the poor, Symbolic aspects of Roman legislation" (1-45), L. de Ligt puts many of Pleket's lessons to skillful use, specifically examining sumptuary laws, imperial protections of the poor, and prohibitions of the maltreatment of slaves. In each case, he compares similar legislation in other societies (14th-century England, 18th-century Britain, and the 19th-century American South, respectively) to conclude that, even if the regulations were not rigorously -- or ever -- enforced, they still reveal a system of elite "values" and/or imperial ambitions. This seems quite reasonable, and, along these lines, one might compare T. McGinn's recent piece on the Augustan marriage legislation, which divines their primarily ideological, rather than practical, concerns.3 However, my Americanist colleagues assure me that the various antebellum slave acts are a very complex business, and that idealism, resulting from Revolutionary principles, is probably a less important factor than claimed here (29-33). In fact, one could set against his argument the various laws and ordinances, mainly targeting free blacks and the dissemination of abolitionist literature, that were passed in the aftermath of the Nat Turner Revolt in 1831. (For one example, the Washington, D.C., City Council amended the law to state that any African-American who struck a white man would have his ears cut off.) K. R. Bradley's diagnosis of the fear of slave revolts seems a more likely explanation of the introduction of both ameliorative and punitive laws in both societies.

Jongman comes to a rather similar conclusion concerning the alimentary schemes in his "Beneficial symbols, Alimenta and the infantilization of the Roman citizen" (pp. 47-80), and by similarly adept means. He begins with a well-reasoned estimate of the amount of wheat a beneficiary of the plan stood to gain, up to 400 kg per head per annum, with average consumption estimated at between 135 and 200 kg. Such generosity, explicitly to children, would have stressed the dependency of the people, as children, in relation to their "father", the emperor. However, one difficulty not fully addressed here was probably raised when this paper was first presented, to a seminar conducted by my former advisor, Richard Talbert (47n). A few years ago, when I discussed the alimenta with him, Richard quite reasonably envisioned wealthy townspeople pushing their own children to the front of the line for this "free" food. (A cynical scholar might compare the present "need" for a tax cut in wartime.) If this was the case, the wealthy being the wealthy, one might wonder who the intended beneficiaries of the schemes actually were, and to what extent the wealthy were eager participants in their own "infantilization".

Kleijwegt ("Textile manufacturing for a religious market, Artemis and Diana as tycoons of industry", 81-134) and F. Meijer ("Wrecks in the Mediterranean as evidence of economic activity in the Roman empire," 135-155) comment on specific manifestations of the ancient economy, challenging commonly held assumptions about certain "industries". From a chain of reasoning about the need for religious vestments for special religious occasions, K. suggests that Paul's visit to Ephesus actually could, as the Acts of the Apostles hints, have led to real economic turmoil among practitioners of the "religious textiles industry". Sketching out, mainly from inscriptional evidence, the complex economic ties that must have surrounded functioning temples, he argues for a higher level of specialization than is usually imagined. Nonetheless, one might employ a Pleket-ian comparison here to strengthen his argument, i.e. the "industry" responsible for modern doctoral robes (which I have yet to purchase, on the rationale that their exorbitant cost will not be recouped by my attendance at University "rituals" -- nor by any favor that those appearances might bring.) M., revisiting the portions of Keith Hopkins' influential article in the 1980 JRS that dealt with shipwrecks,4 locates the recovered objects within their respective industries, concluding that a plethora of factors were involved in what has been found. These would include self-sufficiency, regional saturation of product, the availability and security of overland routes, and, above all, the element of chance, in respect to both the sorts of ships that sunk and the places archaeologists have looked for wrecks, up to the present.

S. Moors (157-207), H. Singor (235-284), and P. van Minnen (285-304) apply careful readings of inscriptions, papyri, and literary texts to come to certain clear and apparently sound conclusions. Moors ("The decapolis: city territories, villages and bouleutai") demonstrates the difficulty of identifying "cities", "villages", and "countryside" in the Decapolis, as terms tended to overlap and administrative boundaries were not always adequately defined. Van Minnen ("Hermopolis in the crisis of the Roman empire") uses a papyrus record of a direct tax in Hermopolis to estimate the city's total population, arriving at a figure much higher than those posited by previous studies. Singor ("The Spartan army at Mantinea and its organisation in the fifth century BC") refers to Thucydides' account of the first battle at Mantinea, determining that no crisis in manpower is detectable until the final stage of the war, when exclusively Spartan and Perioikic units gave way to mixed ones. Specialists in these three topics will be able to judge their contributions far better than I, but they all seem to reveal that, with close and rigorous attention, even familiar texts can be made to yield new information.

P. Schulten ("Ancient humour," 209-234) introduces the theme of humor in Greco-Roman culture, and the piece reveals that, as one might expect, it is much easier to recognize humor than to explain it humorously. I found it difficult to discern the overall conclusion of the article, but S. does demonstrate, quite convincingly, that the ancients found cruelty and death to be generally amusing topics, in ways that we would typically find distasteful. One might compare, in this connection, Charlie Chaplin's famous quip that, "Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot." H. van Wees ("Greed, generosity and gift-exchange in early Greece and the western Pacific", 341-378) explores gift-giving rituals in the epics and in the kula encounters among the Melanesian peoples who were the subject of a now-classic 1922 anthropological narrative. He comes to very interesting conclusions regarding the "burden" that the receipt of a generous gift can create, and he draws attention to the very different valuations cultures have placed on reciprocity in such rituals.

As in his recent, comprehensive study of the collegia in the Roman East,5 O. van Nijf offers an innovative and valuable contribution here, in "Collegia and civic guards, Two chapters in the history of sociability" (305-339). As his title suggests, van Nijf is chiefly interested in the "social" aspects of these organizations, aspects that have, perhaps surprisingly, been neglected in the extensive scholarly literature on the collegia, in favor of their legal, economic, and "professional" connections. He makes a compelling argument for focusing our attention on what the college members themselves seem to have recorded most often, i.e. their meetings, civic contributions, funerary activities, internal organization, and even banquets, at which rigid standards of etiquette were observed -- or at least stipulated. By comparing the Dutch civic guards (the schutters) of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, he concludes that membership in groups of this sort provided an outlet for self-expression and "a focus for their sociability" for men of middle rank, who were effectively forbidden access to the higher reaches of civic aristocracy.

In this conclusion, he concurs with another important scholar on the subject, John R. Patterson, who has argued that membership in a college provided, among other things, "a quasi-political experience for the large sub-elite population" in many Italian towns.6 As such, the collegia are a vital source of information about non-elite pretensions and group identity, but one might suggest a further avenue for this study, regarding the role of elite patronage of and attitudes toward these groups. Particularly telling is the fact that city authorities offered schutters subsidies for clothes, sashes, and drink, on the occasions of their parades. (321) One might wonder whether these concessions were deliberately designed to stress their subordinate relation to the elite, in case their "sociability" made them think too much of themselves.

In sum, these papers are a fitting tribute to Pleket, as they showcase the influence of his techniques in the Netherlands and beyond. While each, individually, contributes to the body of knowledge in its field, they collectively underscore the high quality of work being done by classicists in, especially, Groningen and Leiden. One may also gain a sense of this by exploring issues of Lampas, the Dutch-language classics journal, whose contents may be viewed at (Would that all of us could read "in het Nederlands" as well as they can write "in het Engels"!)


1.   Jean-Pierre Waltzing, L'épigraphie latine et les corporations professionnelles de l'empire romain: Leçon d'ouverture (11 Février 1892) du Cours d'Epigraphie latine professé à l'Université de Liège pendant l'année académique 1891-1892, Gand: Siffer, 1892, 10.
2.   Harry [sic] W. Pleket, "Sport and Ideology in the Graeco-Roman World," Klio 80 (1998): 315-324.
3.   Thomas A. J. McGinn, "The Augustan Marriage Legislation and Social Practice: Elite Endogamy versus Male 'Marrying Down'", in Speculum Iuris: Roman Law as a Reflection of Social and Economic Life in Antiquity, ed. J.-J. Aubert and B. Sirks, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002, pp. 46-93.
4.   Keith Hopkins, "Taxes and Trade in the Roman Empire (200 BC - AD 400)," Journal of Roman Studies 70 (1980): 101-125.
5.   Onno M. van Nijf, The Civic World of Professional Associations in the Roman East, Amsterdam: Giebing, 1997.
6.   John R. Patterson, "The collegia and the transformation of the towns of Italy in the second century AD," in L'Italie d'Auguste à Dioclétien, Actes du colloque international organisé par l'École française de Rome (Rome, 25-28 mars 1992), Rome: l'École française, 1994, 227-238.

Read Latest
Index for 2003
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:28:33, Friday, 03 April 2009