Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.05.37

Tim G. Parkin, Arthur J. Pomeroy, Roman Social History: A Sourcebook. Routledge Sourcebooks for the Ancient World.   London/New York:  Routledge, 2007.  Pp. xvii, 388.  ISBN 9780415426756.  $37.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Fanny Dolansky, Brock University (
Word count: 1751 words

Table of Contents


Roman social history: a sourcebook assembles a diverse collection of Latin and Greek sources ranging from the well-known and easily accessible, such as Seneca's Letters and excerpts from the Digest, to the more obscure, including medical treatises of Galen and homilies of John Chrysostom, in addition to a valuable selection of inscriptions and papyri. In compiling these sources, Parkin and Pomeroy have sought to provide a comprehensive picture of Roman social life, one that incorporates the experiences of slaves, peasants, and labourers, and focuses less on the lives of the elite, who ultimately comprised a very small proportion of the total population.

The material is organized thematically around important topics for the study of the social history of the Roman empire during its first two centuries, and grouped under nine rubrics which form the chapter headings: social classes; demography; family and household; education; slavery; poverty; the economy; the legal system and courts; leisure and games. Each chapter begins with a short introduction that neatly summarizes its theme and establishes its importance for the study of Roman society, followed by an overview of the different subtopics to be addressed by individual or groups of entries. A brief explanatory note precedes each entry to provide some context and guidance. References and suggestions for further reading are listed at the conclusion of each chapter and provide students with up-to-date and relevant works predominantly in English. Supplementary materials include a map of the city of Rome and three maps of the empire that track travel times, olive and vine cultivation, trade routes and natural resources, plus a series of useful appendices on life expectancy, population figures for the early Imperial period, and Greek and Roman weights, measures, and coinage.

The volume is designed to be "the complete introductory resource" for students of Roman social history. Although many sourcebooks already exist on various aspects of Roman social history, including several useful ones in the Routledge sourcebooks series, it is the authors' expressed hope that, because of its extensive range of materials and reliable translations, the present collection "will be useful in popularising the field as a unified whole" (2) rather than remaining compartmentalized into several distinct subfields of study. I am skeptical, though, how much this volume (or any other) can contribute to achieving this goal from a curricular perspective since relatively few departments seem to have the luxury of offering introductory courses on both ancient political history and social history. It is far more common to supplement introductory Roman history offerings with upper-level courses on specialized topics such as Roman slavery or the economy, for which Parkin and Pomeroy's volume could be a very good fit even though this was not their intent. A course on the Roman economy, for example, could make substantial use of much of the content of the chapters on poverty and the legal system, in addition to the lengthy chapter on the economy itself. And for those who already teach a course specifically on Roman social history or are contemplating it, Parkin and Pomeroy have compiled a valuable resource that will serve both students and instructors well.

The greatest strength of the collection is its diversity both in the topics addressed and the sources used for illustration. The chapter on poverty, for example, covers a range of pertinent matters from alimentary schemes for the upkeep of children and the perils of urban life, to the diet and employment opportunities of the poor. The sources on these subjects similarly range widely from the familiar, such as Pliny's Panegyric and Martial's Epigrams, to the lesser known including the speeches of Dio Chrysostom and epistolary fiction of Alciphron. Parkin and Pomeroy have gathered together an impressive spectrum of texts on each major theme, blending the commonplace with the obscure to reveal the richness and vividness of the surviving evidence. The inclusion of a substantial amount of material from little-known literary authors and the corpora of inscriptions and papyri -- works that generally are not readily available in translation -- makes the collection especially useful for undergraduate students who likely would not otherwise have access to these items. The inclusion of less conventional and familiar sources, such as the jokes about book-smart students from a fifth century CE anthology or a recipe for contraceptives from the PGM, introduce readers to new and interesting texts, and increase the collection's overall value and appeal.

For the sake of consistency and reliability, all the translations are Parkin and Pomeroy's. These very readable translations nicely convey to students with little or no Latin and Greek some qualities of the original languages, for instance in the terseness and formality of legal codes and decrees, or in the "rough and ready Latin" (330) of a character in Petronius' Satyricon who is eager for upcoming gladiatorial games. The authors have also neatly captured the word play characteristic of some epigraphic texts in the funerary acrostics for a Sabine goat seller named L. Nerusius Mithres (ILS 7542) and a beloved North African wife named Urbanilla (CIL 8.152). Where it is essential for the meaning, Latin and Greek terms have been retained with an explanation conveniently placed in brackets afterwards, and a lengthy glossary of terms precedes the entries for the chapter on the family and household. The addition of a similar glossary, though one covering technical vocabulary for the entire volume, would have made it even more user-friendly.

This book makes an important contribution to the teaching of Roman social history, yet there are aspects that detract to some extent from its overall utility and benefit to students, as well as areas that, despite the volume's comprehensiveness, are either absent or merited further attention. It is hoped that if the opportunity should arise to issue a revised edition, some of the present considerations might be addressed in an effort to increase the volume's pedagogical worth even more so.

Though few people read a sourcebook cover to cover, in doing so to complete this review I was struck by the lack of uniformity in the explanatory notes that precede entries. Some are prefaced by a fairly thorough introduction that includes the date of the text (if it can be ascertained), the context in which it was written (if known), interesting or important points to note or be wary of, useful cross-references and comparanda, and one or two essential items of bibliography. Yet other entries contain only some of these elements and others none. This inconsistency is frustrating and poses potential problems for students when utilizing sources for their own research, especially the absence of dates and information about the type of work from which a particular entry was excerpted. Although Parkin and Pomeroy aim to illustrate predominant themes in the study of Roman social life, surely there were changes over time in behaviour and attitudes about which students should be aware in part by being attentive to the date and context of authors' views.

These concerns regarding dating and context could easily be remedied by providing either the date at composition (if known) or a date related to the entry's content, and by ensuring that each entry is preceded by a brief comment on its genre, reliability, or other notable features. One or two bibliographic items could routinely be included for each entry or students could simply be directed to the list of references at the end of each chapter. My preference, however, would be toward the former and largely to follow the model of another Routledge sourcebook -- Matthew Dillon and Lynda Garland's immensely useful Ancient Rome--1 in which the majority of entries cite a short list of the most important bibliography on the topic. This has proven extremely helpful for students who can be overwhelmed by the scholarship available on a particular topic and uncertain where to begin. Dillon and Garland's volume also contains a chapter of short biographies for the ancient sources in the collection which I have found useful in helping students appreciate the importance of considering date, context, and genre when assessing the information in a textual excerpt. An outline of ancient sources such as this would also be of benefit since Parkin and Pomeroy make excellent use of some late material, drawing especially on patristic authors such as Cyprian and John Chrysostom, whose works are surely unfamiliar to the majority of Classics and Ancient History undergraduate students.

While most of the entries are moderate in length, in the chapters on the family and household and slavery the excerpts from legal sources, particularly the Digest, tend to be quite long and sometimes span several pages. Such lengthy excerpts seem excessive and unlikely to be read in full and processed by students. They also lend the study of these aspects of social history the appearance of being primarily legalistic in nature and thereby overshadow other approaches and elements of appeal. In the chapter on the family and household, for example, there are few glimpses of the joys of family life we find described in the Letters of Cicero and Fronto or the challenges of raising teenagers outlined by Apuleius in his Apologia, and only minimal record of the immense importance of slaves in the rearing of freeborn children and overall maintenance of domestic life. Similarly, in the chapter on slavery, the voices of the jurists' dominate and slaves are scarcely heard despite the numerous inscriptions by slaves that survive and the literary works of former slaves such as Phaedrus and Epictetus that offer invaluable insights regarding social relations.

A few additional areas received limited attention yet are important when seeking to present as comprehensive a picture of Roman social life as possible. Patronage and the role of collegia are both touched upon briefly but would seem to merit further discussion which would enhance the existing information in the chapters on social classes and the economy. Surprisingly, the final chapter on leisure and games includes no mention of gambling, prostitution, or the theatre, and religion barely makes an appearance in the volume despite its importance in nearly all aspects of social life.

Yet notwithstanding these minor criticisms, Parkin and Pomeroy's sourcebook is an extremely useful collection for the study of Roman social history, particularly for its diversity of topics and wide range of literary, epigraphic, and papyrological source materials. It will be a valuable resource for students, instructors, and anyone interested in accessing the 'other side' of Rome's history and evidence for the day-to-day experiences of the majority of Romans in the early empire.


1.   Dillon, M. and L. Garland. Ancient Rome: from the early Republic to the assassination of Julius Caesar. London and New York: Routledge, 2005.

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