Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.02.19

John R. Clarke, Roman Life: 100 B.C. to A.D. 200.   New York:  Abrams, 2007.  Pp. 176.  ISBN 0-8109-9339-2.  $35.00.  



Reviewed by Eric Kondratieff, Temple University (ekondrat@temple.edu)
Word count: 1603 words

Before proceeding, it should be noted for those who are fans of John R. Clarke's previous books, e.g., Art in the Lives of Ordinary Romans (California 2003), from which the present book derives, that "Roman Life: 100 B.C. to A.D. 200 is geared to non-specialist readers" (see Clarke's website, viewed on 29 Dec. 2007). It does not, therefore, contain Clarke's usual in-depth essays and penetrating discussions that offer new ways to look at Roman life through Roman art and architecture. It is difficult, nevertheless, to determine what Clarke or his editors had in mind when considering the "non-specialists" for whom this book was intended. The book's format -- a series of vignettes placing real or imagined Romans (and Greeks) in a variety of daily-life situations -- is a bit idiosyncratic and fragmented, and may not prove particularly illuminating to non-specialists who seek a well-rounded, modestly in-depth understanding of Roman urban life or social history. On the other hand, not only does it include the best photographs to date of well-known objects and artworks relating to daily life in Rome, Ostia and Pompeii, it also contains images of many objects that will not have been seen by any but the most widely read specialists in the field, all of which means that specialists in Roman daily life and material culture may find this book to be a valuable resource. In his introduction (8-9), Clarke explains his intent to recreate Roman life as it might have been for a variety of people from across the spectrum of possible social statuses and economic conditions. He does this in two ways: by writing vignettes about aspects of daily life, from religious ritual to tavern brawls, involving actual people known from epigraphic inscriptions as well as other, imaginary characters created by Clarke himself; and through "rich captions" (8) explaining the various buildings, paintings and objects used to illustrate these aspects of daily life.

Chapter I, "Life with the Gods" (12-45), presents the reader with a variety of scenarios intended to elucidate the worship of and sacrifices for household gods, e.g., House of the Sarnus Lararium in Pompeii, and cults of non-Italian origin such as Isis in Pompeii and Attis in Ostia. It also incorporates the great inaugural festival for the Ara Pacis in 9 B.C. and a much more modest inaugural ceremony for a neighborhood altar dedicated by the vicomagistri of the Aesculetus Ward in Rome in A.D. 2 and excavated by Gatti in 1906. Each vignette is interesting in its own right, and includes plans and images that illustrate the concepts and activities under discussion. The accompanying captions are particularly useful, and may be more to the liking of readers who already possess some understanding of Roman religious life, but who have not had the opportunity to see images of the buildings, objects and paintings that Clarke deploys to illustrate his discussion. Lacking in this section, however, are discussions or vignettes involving the most important state cults, such as that of Jupiter in his many permutations (Capitolinus, Stator, Tonans, etc.), or major state festivals. Thus, while the individual discussions are interesting and illuminating in their own right, the "non-specialist" for whom this book is intended will come away with an incomplete and idiosyncratic idea of what Roman religious life, broadly defined, actually entailed. This chapter should have opened with a general discussion about the full range of gods, cults and religious rituals to help the reader situate the scenarios within the broader context of Roman religious life; indeed, all of the succeeding chapters would have been equally well served by a contextualizing introductory section.

In Chapter II, "Work" (46-67), Clarke begins with the morning salutatio of Vettius Restitutus, then moves through the world of Roman business and labor with a smattering of interesting examples, including: the wool-treating process as depicted on a pier from a fullonica (fullery) discovered near Pompeii's forum in 1825 (50-51): felting and cloth selling, as seen in paintings found on the entrance of the cloth shop of M. Vecelius Verecundus in Pompeii (54-57); aspects of the grain importing business connected to the Forum of Corporations at Ostia (58-63); and midwifery (66-67), among other things. Despite the limited number of examples -- necessarily relating to work in the urban settings with which Clarke is so familiar -- Clarke successfully conveys to the reader a broad idea of the range of occupations available to business owners and laborers, free or slave, in the Roman world.

Other chapters that succeed include "Shows" (76-91), wherein Clarke provides a fairly comprehensive range of entertainments as seen from different perspectives, with special emphasis on depictions of gladiatorial combat and audiences. In "Taverns" (92-103), Clarke includes an extended and fascinating discussion of Ostia's Tavern of the Seven Sages, decorated with wall paintings of philosophers dispensing lofty-sounding admonitions on defecation to approximately two dozen Romans depicted in the lower register, seated in line as if in a latrine, offering more practical advice on bowel movements. While Romans were not unique in their enjoyment of scatological humor, they seem to have perfected the genre as an art form.

The final three chapters all provide interesting insights into important facets of Roman life. "Dinner Parties" (114-131) is a fairly comprehensive look at Roman banqueting: Clarke incorporates into his vignettes menus, tableware, seating-based status, conversational topics and the like, all illustrated by contemporary works of art. Most notable here is the inclusion of two paintings from the House of the Triclinium in Pompeii that depict an all-male drinking party and a party made up of male-female couples. In "Faces" (132-143), Clarke provides examples to explain the how and why of Roman portraiture, and the status that could be conveyed or appropriated by portraits, public and private. In "Death and Fame" (144-161), he offers a particularly instructive vignette involving Vestorius Priscus in Pompeii, whose short career of public service (he died while Aedile, aged only 22) is commemorated in great detail on his tomb.

In comparison to the other chapters, "The Spoils of War" (68-75) falls short in its attempt to convey the experience of Roman soldiers through the relief decorations of Trajan's Column. Only a few aspects of military life are actually highlighted, including the potential for social advancement afforded to soldiers who excelled on the field of battle. "Baths and Bathing" (104-113) also falls short, focusing mostly on the depictions of taboo sex acts in the apodyterium of the Suburban Baths of Pompeii, and the installation of the Neptune Mosaic in the baths of Ostia. The description of bathing culture and the bathing experience itself, however, is very thin, even for a book such as this.

The CD ROM that comes with the book -- "The House of the Vettii, Pompeii: An Interactive Visit" -- is an extremely useful addition to the book. Through a combination of interactive media, including short films (real time walkthroughs of the house as it is and CGI flyovers of the house as it once was), numerous photos, diagrams, maps, and essays it allows the user to explore this important and well-preserved house in a way that even on-site visitors could not. The essays include detailed discussions of: the history, plan and decoration of the house; how certain rooms could be made to serve multiple functions; and an explanation of how the moral qualities symbolized by the subjects of the paintings in the Ixion Room (P) and the Pentheus Room (N) oppose one another in a chiasmic structure. Another very useful feature of the CD ROM is its graphic representation of access "gradients" to particular areas of the house enjoyed by people of varying statuses within or connected to the Vettii family. Thus, one may "visit" the house, in order of increased access, as: a client, a guest of the Vettii, a household slave, or a member of the family. A Flash-animated map in the upper part of the screen allows the visitor to know where s/he is or is going, as well as the direction that s/he is looking within a particular space.

Overall, this book is a visually beautiful presentation of art and architecture representing several features of Roman life in Rome, Pompeii and Ostia. Indeed, it might have been better titled Romans Looking at Roman Life in Roman Art, since the episodic vignettes and thick descriptions typically focus on how Romans who commissioned works of art depicting aspects of their own lives looked at, interpreted, and appreciated the very works of art which they commissioned and in which they are (very often) depicted. It cannot, however, be described as a comprehensive or in-depth look at Roman life across a full spectrum of statuses and classes, nor even as a representative sampling of "people living in the Roman Empire" (dustjacket): agricultural life is missing altogether, army life gets short shrift and, even in terms of urban life and culture, only three Italian cities are represented. Nor is there any indication of how "daily life" might have changed over the period suggested by the title (100 B.C. to A.D. 200), as the bulk of the vignettes fall into the Augustan and Flavian eras. Nevertheless, the large number of high quality illustrations and occasional recreations, some of which will be unfamiliar even to experts in the field, and the author's ability to closely and lucidly read the imagery that he presents -- not to mention the CD ROM with the tours and outstanding photos of the House of the Vettii -- make the book worth the purchase price, especially if it is used in conjunction with the author's more detailed Art in the Lives of Ordinary Romans.

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