Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.07.03

Robert Knapp, Invisible Romans.   Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 2011.  Pp. 371.  ISBN 9780674061996.  $29.95.  

Reviewed by Tristan Taylor, University of New England, Australia (

Knapp’s Invisible Romans seeks to provide for the general reader a revealing and readable account of what life was like for the great mass of ‘ordinary’ people who lived at Rome and its empire from Augustus to Constantine. Knapp examines what he terms the ‘mind world’ of ordinary men and women, slaves, freedmen and soldiers, in addition to some more extraordinary Romans: prostitutes, gladiators, and pirates. The book also offers for those more familiar with the topic areas some stimulating insights that will provoke thought and discussion, if not always agreement.

After a short introduction outlining the scope of the work, the first chapter, ‘In the Middle: Ordinary Men’, deals with those men whose economic resources ranged from simply being certain of their daily sustenance, to those with enough leisure to pursue social, political and cultural interests. This wide-ranging chapter focuses on their ‘mind world’, that is their attitudes and anxieties, including their prejudices and morality, attitudes to superstition and religion and an intriguing discussion of views on sexuality. While the focus is on the ‘mind world’ of the ordinary man, some aspects of daily life are brought vividly to life, such as the baths, streets and taverns.

The next chapter, ‘Lives of their Own: Ordinary Women’, examines the same economic range as it pertained to women. Knapp argues that there is no evidence that ordinary women held any alternative views or aspirations to those found in the descriptions of women in the male sources, that is, an expectation of a life devoted to the household and child-rearing. Knapp examines various aspects of an ordinary woman’s ‘mind world’, including her attitudes to marriage and sex, her expectations and worries in the household and her role in the economy. Although Knapp uses well the voices of women in papyri and the like, as a reflection of the sources, this ‘mind world’ is at times more about the expectations of men, particularly in the discussion of sexuality.

The subject of Chapter 3 is ‘Subjection and Survival: The Poor’. For Knapp, the poor are those who live a subsistence way of life without any ‘resource cushion’. This embraces a wide range of people from beggars, to peasants to day labourers who, according to Knapp, made up perhaps 65% of the population. Direct sources for the ‘mind world’ of these people are few and Knapp chooses to approach the question primarily from the point of view of proverbs, fables and the New Testament. Interestingly, Knapp excludes from consideration the Roman plebs due to their somewhat unique position in terms of political importance. The chapter covers a range of topics related to these perhaps most invisible of people, including their general acceptance of their lot, their competitive and cooperative strategies for coping with their situation, their religious outlook, and their attitude towards work.

Chapter 4’s topic is ‘Coping in Bondage: Slaves’. Here, the examination of the ‘mind world’ of slaves is complicated by the variety of the slave experience and the difficulty in finding ‘slave voices’. Knapp estimates a relatively low proportion of slaves, perhaps 15% of the population, most of whom were in domestic work, rather than rural labor. Once again, Knapp covers a broad spectrum of topics including the sources and numbers of slaves; the potentially wretched nature of a slave’s existence exposed as they were to violence and poor conditions; slave and master relations; the communal and family lives of slaves and their chances and aspirations for freedom through exploiting a talent in, inter alia, a trade or business.

Chapter 5 examines ‘After Slavery: Freedmen’. Although freedmen were much like other free people, Knapp argues that their situation was different enough, and the hostility and misconceptions regarding them misleading enough, to warrant their separate treatment. In particular, freedmen were a focus of elite loathing. He rejects some modern descriptions of freedmen as the ‘bourgeoisie’ or ‘middle class’ and the linking of ‘eastern’ freedmen with the ‘decline’ of Rome. Instead, Knapp argues that freedmen were a relatively small proportion of the population – 1 in 20 in an Italian town – and that ‘ordinary’ people did not share the elite’s prejudice against them. Knapp focuses on freedmen predominantly (rather than freedwomen) and covers such things as obtaining freedom, the freedman’s ongoing relationship with his master, the voices of freedmen, especially through epitaphs, and their aspirations and family relationships.

Chapter 6 turns to ‘A Living at Arms: Soldiers’. Here, Knapp argues that, while sources focus on the arduousness of service, the soldier had a good life by ancient standards. The military offered for many the only full-time and regularly salaried career opportunity and was the only institution that could more or less guarantee social advancement – enabling a soldier to progress to high rank and, on retirement, even to become a town councillor, exempt from certain taxes and some aggravated forms of the death penalty. Other topics covered here include the soldiers’ potentially vexed relationship with civilians, camp life and the soldier’s families.

Chapter 7, ‘Sex for Sale: Prostitutes’ deals with a category of perhaps less ‘ordinary’ Romans. Leaving to one side ‘high class’ prostitutes, the chapter covers the various locations where prostitution might occur: brothels, baths, taverns and the streets. Knapp also examines the physical dangers associated with prostitution and the social stigma attaching to the profession. Knapp argues, however that that the stigma was not so great that it prevented women from continuing in the profession or leading a married life afterwards. Here, as with the soldiers, much of the focus is on practicalities of prostitution,1 rather than necessarily the ‘mind world’ of prostitutes.

Chapter 8, ‘Fame and Death: Gladiators’, deals with another set of extraordinary Romans who lived real, if ‘hardly typical’, lives (p 265). Knapp focuses on slaves and auctorati, rather than those judicially condemned to the arena. For Knapp, the prospect of food, housing, income and celebrity would have been a powerful pull to ordinary Romans, who had little to lose in terms of status. Topics examined in this chapter include the obsession with fame in gladiatorial epitaphs; the reputed sexual allure of gladiators, the relative rarity of their fights and their family lives. Knapp minimises the impact of any legal or social stigma, arguing that legal infamia would have had little real impact for gladiators, who would not generally have sought office or the like in any event, and that social stigma was largely an elite phenomenon.

The final chapter, ‘Beyond the Law: Bandits and Pirates’, again looks at a category of non-elite, but not ordinary, Romans. Knapp defines outlaws as those who live ‘in contact with but outside society’s laws’ and excludes raider societies and petty criminals from his examination (p 290). Drawing on novelistic sources, Knapp argues for a masculine, egalitarian outlaw community, living in isolation from others, drawn largely from the poor – a system that contrasts with the otherwise hierarchical nature of Roman society. Knapp finds support for novelistic understanding of outlaw society through a comparison with the society of 18th century pirates as described by Marcus Rediker in Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. These pirates, almost all of whom were male and came from poor backgrounds, also lived in isolation and had a rough egalitarianism.

These substantive chapters are followed by an informative introductory essay on ancient sources, a guide to further reading, and a ‘Who’s Who and What’s What’ of ancient literary evidence that will be particularly helpful to those new to the subject matter.

The book paints in broad strokes in terms of both geography and time, and has a generally urban focus, though there are nods to regional and temporal differences. This approach is understandable: to examine topics only allusively covered by our literary sources, one must cast the net as wide as possible and, as Knapp points out, the ancient world was relatively stable in terms of societal change. There are still occasions, however, where more could have been said on differences in time and space. For example, not all soldiers lived in towns as opposed to camps on frontiers, and there were changes in recruitment patterns over time. Similarly, one wonders about the impact on ordinary people of momentous events such as those of the third century.

Knapp focuses largely on the written and inscriptional evidence, as opposed to archaeological, comparative or demographic approaches, although there are occasional references to such evidence. Overall, however, inscriptions, papyri, graffiti, fables, novels, the New Testament, and astrological works are the sorts of disparate sources that are woven into a revealing ‘tapestry’ (as Knapp puts it p 4). In some sections, such as the discussion of ‘ordinary’ male sexuality and ordinary men and the law, there is a tendency to focus heavily on a handful of these sources, particularly Artemidorus and Dorotheus’ Carmen Astrologicum. In the case of sexuality, the sources for the ordinary male admittedly are meagre. In the case of the law, however, the legal evidence – referred to in this section in only two passing references to the Digest - can potentially be a rich source, albeit a problematic one.2

Modern scholars are referred to in the text itself sparingly. Instead, most of the references, primarily to works in English, are dealt with in the extensive ‘Further Reading’ section at the back of the book. This approach has much to commend it in terms of making for a highly readable text, although there is of course a compromise in terms of enabling the reader to access instantly the secondary sources underlying a particular section.

There is a gorgeous series of colour plates in the book, and black and white images throughout. As some of these figures are discussed further in the body of the text, references could perhaps have been included to these images in the text itself.

All in all, this is an elegantly written, stimulating and revealing introductory account of the ‘mind world’ and practical lives of those largely ‘invisible’ to us in the elite literary sources.


1.   There is a factual error here where the bacterial infection chlamydia is said to be the same as the viral herpes (p 263).
2.   For a recent study that makes extensive use of the legal sources to reveal the lives of ‘ordinary’ people see S. Connolly Lives behind the Laws (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010).

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