Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.05.24

Jerry Toner, Rethinking Roman History.   Cambridge:  The Oleander Press, 2002.  Pp. 138.  ISBN 0-906672-49-X.  EUR 15.00.  

Reviewed by T. Davina McClain, Loyola University New Orleans (
Word count: 2051 words

This small volume presents itself as a guide for "anyone starting out as a Roman historian to help them [!] think about what they are trying to achieve" (preface). The first and last chapters present a case for the rigor mortis of Classics and the need for Roman history to escape to the History department if it is to survive. Chapter 2 offers what Toner believes history must become in terms of methodology, and in Chapters 3-5 Toner presents an example of how to carry out the type of research that he believes Roman historians should pursue.

There is much that is problematic with the description of Classics presented in Chapters 1 and 6. The methodology outlined in Chapter 2 is reasonable but not particularly new, and the brief look at the data from the analysis of human remains in Chapter 3 offers a tangible sense of the life of the poor, but Chapters 4-5 are disappointing for their omissions and for what ends up being an analysis more about the elite than about the poor, despite the author's adamant statements that Roman historians must turn their attention away from the 1% (elite) and to the 99% (poor) of Rome's population.

The first chapter, "Classics in Crisis" argues that Classics is a dying discipline. Because Roman history tends to fall under the auspices of Classics, it is doomed unless it becomes less like Classics and more like History, which has taken more advantage of new theoretical approaches than has Classics.

Chapter Two, "What Should Roman History Be?", examines the practice of history, the effect of political positions on the writing of history, and the influence of post-modernism on historical studies. Toner then argues for something he calls neo-modern history. He describes "neo-modernism" as an approach which (1) looks for truth but which understands that the truth of an interpretation is not absolute; (2) grows out of a centrist political position; (3) is aware of the usefulness as well as the limitations of theory; (4) accepts that no single theoretical tool can offer the whole picture and that diverse methods are necessary to gain a full picture; and (5) focuses on the individual, and not just the elite individual.

In Chapter Three, "Remodelling Roman Society", Toner states that only 1% of Romans were elite and that Roman history must pay more attention to the 99% of Romans who lived in abject poverty. Part of the problem in discerning the lives of the non-elite results from the sources we have for studying the Romans, but Toner argues there are sources which should be used to learn about the poor. In particular, he recommends "Juvenal, Martial, Apuleius, Galen, Vitruvius, Plautus and Lucian, all of whom tell us a lot about the living conditions and attitudes of the faex populi" (p. 53). Toner also suggests that Artemidorus' dream interpretations and Firmicus Maternus' astrology, Aesop's fables and the Philogelus, a joke book, are useful for understanding the "preoccupations of the poor." Toner then points to legal texts, papyri and inscriptions, and the archaeological record for what they can tell us about the lives of the poor. Because life did not change much for the poor, sources from a range of times can be used to provide a picture of their lives. Geography too need not restrict the use of sources because "the similarities of being poor anywhere in the empire almost certainly outweighed most of the local differences in the experience of poverty" (p. 57). After a brief discussion of the agrarian nature of the economy, Toner offers a summary of what we know about the harsh, dirty, hungry, desperate lives that poor men and women lived. Women, however, had worse lives than men because their needs were decided by men and men were given preferential treatment. The only ways that the poor had to alleviate their misery were to store food (if they could), sell what little they owned, steal, turn to a patron, or turn to family or collegia for mutual support. From this view of the life of the poor, Toner concludes, "[s]ocial conflict and difference, I contend, were the driving force of Roman society as a whole" (p. 79).

In Chapter Four, "Deconstructing Rome," Toner offers an analysis of gladiators (his specialty) as an example of a way to pull the lives of the poor out of the texts of the elite. He outlines four stages in the process:

1. Establish the facts.
2. Examine the subject from 'our', the reader's, point of view.
3. Examine the subject from 'their', the author's, point of view.
4. Establish what the text tells us about Roman society. (p. 83)

Two final steps, examining the "social conditions [that] affect the production of the text" and reevaluating what the text tells us "in light of its mode of production" create a history out of the deconstruction through the process of reconstruction.

The remainder of the chapter proceeds with a deconstruction of gladiators. In the first step, however, Toner states there is no need to establish the facts in this instance since other works have done that. Instead he chastises historians for sloppy work and for not going to the primary sources themselves to find the facts. In the second step, Toner asserts that "we" think that the murder of animals or humans as the height of entertainment is clearly unacceptable. He does allow that boxing is a violent sport, but even it "is coming under increasing pressure in Europe, if not in the USA where perhaps the need to keep a way out of the ghetto is greater" (p. 85). As for bull-fighting, fox-hunting, and hunting in general, he asserts that supporters of such activities are in the minority: "[f]ew people in Western society can even bear violence being used on animals for the purposes of amusement, let alone on humans..." (p. 85). There is no mention of dog-fighting, cock-fighting, or racing (where ostensibly spectators come to see who wins but readily confess that they are much more interested in the crashes).

In the third step, Toner argues that gladiators were admired and even loved because they represented virtus in the skill of the trained gladiator in fighting and killing, in the daring and bravery of the unskilled opponent, and in the way that the defeated met death. From this examination comes the fourth step, in which Toner argues that the appeal of the games was that it gave death meaning, that the Romans did not see the violence, but rather the skill and courage of the combatants. Moreover, as a display of virtus, the gladiatorial fighting offered an opportunity for skill to defeat fortuna, asserting a certain amount of human control over life. Further, it made a clear distinction between men and women because virtus is what men are to display. "Women had their own very different set of virtues to aim for. These, unsurprisingly, related to domestic skills and child-rearing.... The womanly virtues were on display in the gladiatorial combat through their absence.... Woman= private Man= public" (p. 90). There is no mention of women gladiators even though inscriptional evidence points to their existence.1 Moreover, if Juvenal is to be invoked as a source, Toner should acknowledge that some of the gladiators' most ardent fans were women (Satire 6, 81ff.) and women themselves fought as gladiators (Satire 6, 246ff).2

Chapter 5, "Reconstructing Rome", begins by establishing a pattern of Roman history which begins with gravitas in opposition to levitas, especially in the early Republic, and moves to an institutionalized form of levitas through state-run games in the early and later Empire. At the same time, Toner argues that the state targeted tavern-culture, as the primary venue for the laziness and sedition of the poor, by attempting to prohibit gambling and the sale of meat in such establishments. Toner asserts that through the changes in Rome from republic to empire, "[t]he emperor became the living, visual embodiment of the state of the nation. His body became the body politic and ... [t]he success of the Roman people depended upon the degree to which they followed his example, and the emperor's job was, like some father-figure's, to ensure that they did" (p. 126). In the final stage, re-examining the text in light of its mode of production, Toner argues that "[t]he conclusion is clear: that the growth of the games have [!] to be seen as part of the imperial solution to Rome's first century BCE crisis" caused by "the narrowing of the cultural division between the ruler and the ruled; a growth in popular culture which caused old boundaries to weaken; and a decline in traditional elite power" (p. 126-7). Because the elite, who had previously denigrated the poor for wasting time doing nothing, now found themselves with little to do as republic turned to empire, they attempted to define otium in a way that separated them from the poor. The emperors, however, believed that they needed the support of the masses and offered them games as a bribe. "And they hoped that while they had them in the amphitheatre they could educate them into some of the ways of the new imperial order and generate some loyalty towards it" (127). Seneca's attack on the games is, therefore, an example of the elite attempting to distinguish itself from the mob and must not be read as reflecting majority opinion. The difficulty with this analysis is that, despite Toner's own demand that Roman history focus on the poor, the 99%, his own example focuses on the elite 1%, specifically how the emperor manipulated or tried to manipulate the mob and the attempt of one member of the elite to distance himself from the mob.

The final chapter, "Classics at the Crossroads," returns to the diatribe against Classics with which the book began. "Classics, I have argued, is now an 'unnatural' subject in that it is an inappropriate product for the modern world" (p.129). Toner sees three options for Classics: stay the same and "bumble along" with steadily declining numbers; remake itself with less emphasis on languages and the elite and more on cultural studies, women's studies, and leisure studies; or disband, allowing the classical philosophers and historians to move to those departments. This last option, for Toner, would be best for Roman history. "In fact I would go so far as to say that I think ancient history can rejoin the mainstream of historical debate only if it ditches the intellectual albatross about its neck that Classics has become" (p. 134). He predicts that without change, "Classics will be reduced to a few lonely souls tacked onto their respective departments with few students, hardly any research time and no future." Because Toner does not want that to happen he urges a "series of friendly mergers now" to ensure Classics' future.

Overall, there is little to recommend this book. The picture of Classics is outdated at best. Studies of, and courses, on the ancient world have been including the poor, women, slaves, and non-Romans for some time now.3 Rare is the department without a course on women in antiquity. Moreover, classicists have embraced theory, certainly some more than others, but Lacan, Derrida, Bahktin, White, Foucault, et al. have made their ways into the mainstays of classical research. Gender theory has moved so far beyond the "woman= private, man= public" dichotomy that such statements are expected only from an undergraduate, if then.4 That the social and cultural context of a text matters has been the subject of debate depending on the reason for citing the text, but the idea is nothing new. The assertion that we as scholars must be aware of our own personal agendas and political stances and how these affect the work we produce is something that has gained some attention but a greater amount of self-awareness is certainly in order. Ultimately, however, because Toner's own example ends up looking more at the elite and the effects of political change on the elite, he undermines his own arguments about what Roman history should be. Toner's warning that Classics and Roman history (and maybe Greek too?) must grow and change in order to remain relevant is worth heeding, but the suggestion that great changes have not already occurred is just flat wrong.


1.  See "'What These Women Love is the Sword': The Performers and their Audiences" in Gladiators and Caesars: the Power of Spectacle in Ancient Rome. ed. by Eckart Koehne and Cornelia Ewigleben. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. pp.125-139, esp. 125-128.
2.   Textual problems are most evident in this chapter. Virtus and fortuna appear both in italics and in standard type. On p. 88, the final sentence of the last full paragraph has too many verbs "...they could become attain posthumous Roman status." On p. 89, the "form" in the sixth sentence should be "from."
3.   Previous studies which address the non-elite are too numerous to list, but the work of a few scholars deserve mention: Keith Bradley's Slaves and Masters in the Roman Empire (1982) both looks at the non-elite and provides a bibliography of other such works. Sandra Joshel's Work, Identity, and Legal Status at Rome (1992) uses inscriptions to explore the way work creates identity for slaves, freedmen and freedwomen, and the working poor. Susan Treggiari's studies include both works on freedmen and on slave and working women and date from 1969. Peter Garnsey, Keith Hopkins, and Beryl Rawson have all produced studies on the non-elite for over thirty years.
4.  Feminist Theory and the Classics. eds. N. S. Rabinowitz and A. Richlin. New York: Routledge, 1993 and Barbara McManus' Classics and Feminism: Gendering the Classics. New York: Twayne Pubs., 1997, are two works which explicitly explore theory and Classics. Examples of the use of other theoretical approaches could go on indefinitely, however, Marilyn Skinner's "Valedictory" in TAPA 130 (2000), pp. 459-460, explicitly expresses an established scholar's receptiveness to new theoretical approaches, especially the psychoanalytical methodologies of Lacan.

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