Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.07.50

Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, Rome's Cultural Revolution.   Cambridge/New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2008.  Pp. xxi, 502; 16 p. of plates.  ISBN 978-0-521-89684-9.  $130.00.  ISBN 978-0-521-72160-8.  49.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Joseph Geiger, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (
Word count: 2620 words

It is now seventy years since Syme's Roman Revolution made its lasting impact on the study of the Augustan Age. While the post-war generation was largely engaged with examinations of its main thesis, the transformation of the Republic and its political struggles into the one party state of Augustus, the last twenty years or so have witnessed a series of studies that came to fill voids left by Syme. To name only a notable few, P. Zanker's The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus (1988), K. Galinsky's Augustan Culture (1996) and R. MacMullen's Romanization in the Time of Augustus (2000) all illuminated important aspects of the age. Now Andrew Wallace-Hadrill shows us how different it was to be a Roman -- not necessarily of the ruling class -- in the Late Republic and under the Early Empire, with the transformation of society, culture and identity. To realise how much this book reflects present-day concerns one should read it alongside Keith Thomas' wonderful and exactly contemporaneous The Ends of Life. Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England: for instance their discussions of the spread of consumer goods, luxury wares and fashions show one of the most amazing historical parallels one is ever likely to encounter.

The book consists of four parts, two chapters in each. The first, 'Cultures and identities', starts with the introductory, as it were, 'Culture, identity and power' (3-37), exploring the conceptual underpinnings. Rather than following the outdated models of nineteenth-century cultural superiority, or of the more modern notion of 'creolisation,' Wallace-Hadrill points to the parallel of bilingualism (or rather multilingualism) and sees hellenisation and romanisation as processes of code-switching, in fact 'two closely interrelated aspects of the same phenomenon' (26). 'Code-switching' does not require value-judgments and is free from the constraints of a chronological sequence. Hellenic influence was present in Rome from the very beginnings, and the picture of the uncouth Romans was a rhetorical construct of the second century BCE. Yet the replacement of old by new elites is very real: '"Being Roman" is only superficially the same thing in 100 CE as in ...100 BCE ... ' (36).

'Dress, language and identity' (38-70) is very much about the relationship with the Other. The toga becomes a conscious marker in contrasting the Roman with the Greek in the period of 'hellenisation' and its 'classic' form emerges under Augustus. Though on certain occasions it was appropriate to dress in Greek style, the accurately worn toga sent a clear message of character and of intellectual qualities. In an interesting discussion of heroic nudity we are reminded that Octavian, after a brief flirtation with it, adopted as Augustus the compromise of the 'hip-mantle'. (One regrets here that Wallace-Hadrill does not discuss and offer his view of the Terme Ruler.) While dress marked in the first place Roman as against Greek, with language it was the other way round. It is here that the socio-linguistic concept of 'code-switching' comes to the fore. Most significant here are the changes that both languages underwent: in order to become an imperial language Latin had to be standardised -- and involved in Greek scholarly polemics between anomalia and analogia, while the Greeks were discussing the proper meaning of hellenismos.1

Part ii, 'Building identities', puts forward the central arguments from archaeology in 'Roman Italy: between Roman, Greek, and local' (73-143). That consistent patterns underlie the variety is demonstrated by a survey of some important case-studies, ranging from Celtic Oleggio through the Oscan mountain sanctuaries to Praeneste, the Secco valley and finally to Pompeii and its comparison with Pietrabbondante. It is the different aspects of hellenisation, romanisation -- and in some cases Etruscan and Oriental influences can also be perceived -- and their varying degrees of absorption combined with a range of local traditions that construct the rich harmony of a great orchestra consisting of many different instruments. An important concept is autoromanizzazione, especially in monumental building as an expression of communal identity. All this of course without losing sight of Roman political and military might that enabled much of the boom up to the Social War. The other aspect of 'Roman, Greek, and local' in this chapter is bilingualism or trilingualism (one remembers Ennius' tria corda). Here again, Latin was never imposed from above, but there were abundant incentives for Italians to learn both Latin and Greek. Here one must also distinguish, for example, between Oscan and Umbrian; it is the different situations that determine the use of the various languages, as well as the adoption of the Latin script. The famous Social War coin (depicted on the cover) of the Italian bull vanquishing the Roman wolf is in fact 'a mirror image of Roman coinage' (89), and there are copious examples of Latin penetrating the Italic dialects. And surely there is little truth in the widely held view of bilingualism being an elite phenomenon -- it is as so often the elite attestation that leads us astray. Influences were long-term, gradual, and shaped by local moulds.

'Vitruvius: building Roman identity' (144-210) analyses the work in terms of Greek theory and Roman context and practice, of ratio and consuetudo. Taking account of social and political structures enables a new definition of Roman-Italic contrasted with Greek identity. Yet Vitruvius' juxtaposition of Greek and traditional Roman architecture is his own artificial construct, and it is responsible for much in the work and for some omissions, as, famously, amphitheatres. It is enlightening to see that the contrast between Greek and Roman theatres is very much a geometrical game -- as is so much of ancient mathematics, one may add. There follows an excellent discussion of the replacement of wooden theatres by stone and its implications for Roman society and politics. Next, baths and gymnasia. Rather than a contrast, the former are an evolution of the latter. But what really matters are the social uses and the intellectual associations of these institutions, and the latter often were associated with paradigms of morality.2 Last, discussions of the town house and country villa bring out once again the deliberately deployed (rather than opposed) Greek and Roman elements, perhaps nowhere better to be observed than at the Villa of the Mysteries.

Part iii is about 'Knowledge and power'. Three different aspects of 'Knowing the ancestors' (213-258) are explored. First, the regard of the nobles for their maiores received renewed emphasis by the erection of statues and monuments whose permanent display was a leap from the traditional funeral masks. Yet, as Sallust reminds us, the reference to the hallowed memory of the ancestors is acceptable only if it is indeed a spur to virtue, rather than an excuse for the abuse of power. Next, while in speeches the ancestors are invoked in order to justify contemporary policies it is above all in Cicero's philosophical works where the gap between the Good Old Days and the present is made evident. The nobility's declining expertise in religion and civil law was replaced by antiquarian study, constantly re-defining the mos maiorum. Perhaps the new calendars and time, first under Caesar and then under Augustus, are the best examples of the wish to represent radical change as a return to tradition. Third and most importantly, a revolution in the structure of knowledge and a new specialisation deprived the elites of their traditional dominance. While in the Good Old Days a Cato could master all that a Roman needed to know, now one had to refer to the authority of experts in the various branches of knowledge -- and Augustus could employ them for his own ends.

'Knowing the city' (259-312) is played on the home ground of the author. First, the Seven Hills: as so often -- e.g., there were seventeen contenders for a place among the Seven Sages (Diog. La. 1.41-42) -- it was the number that was fixed rather than the actual list. Then, the four Varronian regions and the vici of republican Rome, in a city that resisted the temptations of a Hippodamian grid: how well could one know the city? It was Julius Caesar and his reduction of the number of the recipients of the corn-dole that first required detailed information based on the neighbourhoods of Rome. This, and the encounter with the magnificent cityscapes of Alexandria, Antioch, Pergamum and other Hellenistic centres were instrumental in the Augustan revolution. Despite our very limited information about the establishment of the fourteen regiones on August 1st, 7 BCE3 and their connexion with the vici, there is no question that they were a cardinal component in the Augustan scheme, as witnessed e.g. by the numerous surviving monuments -- a fraction of the lost ones -- of the vicomagistri. The last sections of the chapter discuss the Severan marble plan and the fragments of its predecessors. It appears that they were only display pieces standing in for much richer and more detailed information stored on perishable material. Who would profit from such exhaustive information? Wallace-Hadrill provides the answer, in some cases certain, in others perhaps somewhat speculative: certainly those in charge of the distribution of grain and other commodities, and no less certainly the vigiles; very probably the aediles, the curatores aquarum, and quite probably the praefectus urbi and also the praetorian prefects. The disorder aided by the lack of information, and the ensuing political upheavals of the Republic, were not to recur. The Severan marble plan and its predecessors were above all symbols of the control of the city brought about by the Augustan revolution.

The last part, 'The consumer revolution', starts with a discussion of 'Luxury and the consumer revolution' (315-355). The modern historian, living in a society of consumerism and of conspicuous consumption, tends to focus on the historiographical aspect of Roman discourses about luxury, moral decline and the sumptuary laws. Yet at the time these were serious social and economic concerns. Here Wallace-Hadrill broadens his scope and discusses early modern discourses concerning luxury, from Bernard Mandeville's Fable of the Bees or Private Vices, Publick Benefits to Voltaire and Montesquieu, Adam Smith and Dr Johnson. Europe, in both the northern monarchies and the states of Italy, introduced sumptuary legislation in the course of some 600 years. It was the transformation of the economy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, characterised by the extraordinary rise in the quantity and quality of consumer goods and in their diffusion over the different classes of society, that brought about a sea-change in attitudes, giving economic considerations priority over moral concerns. Another factor is the pursuit of fashion, often reflecting the tensions between social rank and wealth. Roman sumptuary laws centred mostly on the details of lavish feasting, entirely neglecting economically far more significant issues, such as the magnificent houses of the elite with their luxurious furnishings or their grand funerary monuments, thereby betraying both the laws' function as social discourse and their Greek origins -- indeed, closely connected to the Greek discourse of τρυφή and the decline of states. Dress, a matter of sumptuary legislation in many other societies, never became an issue in Rome with its regulations concerning political rank, as indicated by the stripes and other features of the toga. Also, in Rome attempts at conserving social differentiation (such as gold rings) were directed against the pressure of the newly wealthy. Yet as that arch-conservative Tiberius already realised there was no point in sumptuary legislation, and in the event Tacitus could, perhaps over-optimistically, announce the demise of luxury by his time. Since my summary of this chapter, in particular, fails to do justice to both the richness of material and the depth of thought in it, it is perhaps in order to emphasise again its main point: we have to contemplate the Romans' discourse about luxury on their own terms, free from our preconceptions, to see both the seriousness of their approach and the selection of their targets.

The last, and longest, chapter 'Waves of fashion' (356-440), is a detailed analysis of some categories of luxury items, both known from literature and richly represented in archaeological finds, such as bronze candelabra, bronze (and downmarket clay) lamps, various metal vessels, pottery, couches (bronze and ivory, but also more expensive silver and cheaper bone -- and the author stresses (435) that the list could have been expanded by an assortment of marble furniture), Herms and many other items. I will limit myself to the two main conclusions drawn from a very wide range of evidence. For one, fashions have not only a 'trickle-down' effect, but there are also sub-luxury items, made no less to distance one from one's social inferiors as to imitate one's betters. Though not to be compared with the industrial revolution, the period's wide variety had most significant effects on the economy, a fact ignored by our sources, intent as they were on moralising. The other main point is the chronology: the heyday of Hellenistic imports is in the late Republic, not unconnected with the activities of Italian negotiatores in such places as Delos. The second phase is the Augustan production in Italy, not blindly imitating, but naturalising, as it were, and developing the various products. Finally, in the early Empire, Italian products were exported to fill the increasing demand in the provinces, generating also local production: it is hardly helpful to term the first phase hellenisation and the last romanisation. Luxury creates its own language (and its solecisms), and the changes in that language are part of the larger revolution.

This is a great work of synthesis, building, as all the best works of its kind, both on previous groundwork by the author and on (generously acknowledged) foundations laid by a host of other scholars. Though its view is panoramic it is both very much focused on the city of Rome, and to a lesser degree on Italy -- hence Rome's rather than the Roman cultural revolution -- and kept very much at eye level. No doubt every reader -- not least this reviewer -- will be grateful for having learned a great number of details and having become more familiar with a number of issues. But, more importantly, this book is not only an assembly of evidence, however learned, but also a thoughtful engagement with that evidence. Nowhere more so than in the 'Epilogue: a cultural revolution?' (441-454). As was hinted at the beginning of this review, the time when the historian can discuss this period without wrestling with Syme's Roman Revolution has not yet come. Here we get discussion not only of the elite, but of the newly expanded citizen body and the new meaning of citizenship, characterised by a new pride and a shared culture. This is perhaps the basic meaning of the revolution here discussed: the forging of a new citizen body in which not only is the old elite replaced by a new one, but where sub-elite groups are coming into their own and where a new cultural language, and a new identity, absorbing constituents of 'hellenisation' and 'romanisation', come into being.

The book is almost4 faultlessly produced and it is well served by its numerous black and white illustrations, which are as much part of the book as is the text, but it contains a feature I do not recall ever seeing before: the 31 excellent colour plates in the middle of the book do not contribute new material, but are colour versions, in some cases slightly enlarged, of some of the illustrations distributed in their proper places all over the book. I wonder whether any reader will be able to refrain from speculating about the negotiations between author and publisher that brought about this oddity. (A hint: in the text the references are only to the black and white illustrations, not to the colour plates.)


1.   If the reviewer may introduce an example of his own, it seems significant that Ptolemy of Ascalon, in all probability an Augustan author, wrote On Hellenismos, i.e. On Correct Diction (in 15 books), and that Theodorus of Gadara, Tiberius' teacher of rhetoric, wrote On Questions in Pronunciation (in 3 books): it was precisely in a rather incompletely hellenised part of the Empire where proper hellenismos had to be sanctioned.
2.   It is correctly maintained that the Romans had no equivalent to the rite de passage of the ephebeia, associated with the gymnasium. Yet one wonders whether short discussions of the Augustan Troia and iuventus were not in order here.
3.   Despite the prominent place given to Varro in this chapter Wallace-Hadrill does not consider the possible influence of that scholar with an obsession for hebdomads on the division, for which see J. Geiger, The First Hall of Fame. A Study of the Statues in the Forum Augustum (Mnem. Suppl. 295, Leiden and Boston 2008), 106.
4.   Misprints are few and trivial (though, as in so many English-language books, not so few in the German items of the bibliography), but a few minor mistakes will have to be corrected in a second edition. An alloy is not 'a new chemical compound' (7); 7 BCE is not 'dated by Augustus' eleventh consulship', rather he had been eleven times consul before that date (247); at 293, second paragraph, the syntax is mixed up: though 'he', 'his', 'he' and 'him' all refer to the subject, Suetonius, there can be no doubt that they were meant to refer to Augustus, nowhere mentioned in the entire paragraph. The debate about luxury in Tac. ann. 3.52-55 is correctly dated to 22 at 329 and 351, but to 23 at 330 and 333. To follow Athenaeus in referring to 'Nicolaus the Peripatetic' (357; viz., of Damascus) is less than reader-friendly.

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