BMCR 2000.06.12

Life of the Average Roman. A Symposium

, , Life of the Average Roman. A Symposium. White Bear Lake, MN: PZA Publishing, 1999. xviii + 137. $30.00.

This book originated in a symposium in 1997 at St Paul, Minnesota, involving scholars from the U.S.A. and Slovenia. The first three papers deal with archaeological issues relating to modern Slovenia (an awkward region in Roman terms, divided between Italy, Pannonia and Noricum), while the others address broader questions of Roman history. The book’s title is somewhat misleading, since few of the papers are concerned with both “life” and “the average Roman”, and several are concerned with neither. Potential readers who would be interested in the content of individual papers are unlikely to be attracted by the title, while people who are drawn by the title will probably be disappointed by much of the content.

In the first three contributions, Perko, Lazar and DeMaine look at amphorae, tiles and burials from Roman Slovenia. Perko documents thoroughly the types of amphora found in the region, while noting that barrels were probably preferred for inland transport. Amphorae were used not only for oil and wine but also for fish sauce and dried or preserved fruit. Changes over time show that oil from Spain replaced local produce in the 2nd century CE; later, Africa became the main supplier. At the end of the Roman period there was a sharp decline in the occurrence of amphorae inland, but their importance continued and even grew in the coastal towns in the 5th century and later, suggesting corresponding demographic changes. Lazar reports on excavations at a tile factory at Vransko in Roman Noricum where tiles for roofing and hypocausts were manufactured, stimulated by the brief presence of the Legio II Italica in the area, c.168-172 CE; one tile has the imprint of a hobnailed military sandal. The three scholars jointly discuss “middle class burials” at three sites on the road from Aquileia to the Danube. Their definition of middle class — burials containing between five and fifteen objects — is a rather arbitrary one (the presence of more objects means that the burial qualifies as “upper middle class”), and some crucial details are omitted in discussions of individual burials: are they cremations or inhumations? Were any bones found? Were there any inscriptions? Most burials contained objects imported from Italy or locally manufactured imitations. The most significant point to emerge is that when they were depicted on their tombs, men were normally shown wearing togas, but women wore “indigenous Celtic garments”.

Blair discusses the Roman iron-smelting industry, comparing archaeological finds with modern reconstructions by the University of Minnesota SMELT project. This is a rather technical article, in which some of the terminology might have been explained to the uninitiated: slag-tapping; tuyere holes; gromp. One technical detail missing is the nature of the fuel used in the reconstructions. The main argument is clear, though. Reconstruction shows that tall-shaft furnaces are more efficient than medium-shaft or low-shaft furnaces, but archaeology shows that the Romans preferred medium-shaft furnaces, even though tall-shaft ones were being used at the same time outside the Roman Empire. Blair considers various possible explanations, and gives most credence to the lack of skilled labour necessary to operate the tall-shaft type, while there was plenty of cheap unskilled labour sufficient for medium-shaft furnaces, especially if a number were built together so that they could operate under a single furnace master. At Populonia in Italy, he calculates that about 1,100 furnaces were in use, employing at least 4,400 workers.

Taylor looks at the water supply of the city of Rome, and gives the clearest non-technical explanation I have ever read of the hydraulic principles on which it worked. One of the illustrations shows a fragment of a map recording water concessions to individuals from the network, an interesting addition to Frontinus since it shows that such supplies were available only for certain hours of the day or days of the month. Two of the properties on the map appear to have belonged jointly to “C. Iulius Caesar” (possibly with an agnomen missing, but definitely not a freedman as suggested in the caption) and C. Bicoleius Rufus; another belonged to an imperial freedman (not necessarily a freedman of Augustus himself, as claimed) named Thyrsus. There is also an important reminder that wells, although little studied, were a major source of water in much of the city, able to sustain it when the aqueduct supply was cut off in 537. Taylor is sceptical about attempts to calculate the water supply per head of population; he compares Vienne and Lyon, which received respectively over 18 and under 1 cubic metre of water per person each day. He argues that the system of lacus and castella took into account not only the needs of individual inhabitants but also of the fire-fighting service: any point in the city would be within 270 m. of a castellum, and so could be reached by a bucket-chain. Even Regio XIV, Transtiberim, appears to have been better served by the aqueduct system than has often been supposed.

L’Enfant looks at Roman painting for evidence of interest in landscape and the origin of the picturesque. Her paper is not helped by the very poor quality of the black and white images accompanying it (which are quite adequate for the rest of the book, however). She mistakenly connects “satyric”, from Vitruvius 5.6.9 (not 1.5.6 as stated), with satire not satyrs. There is an interesting discussion of the painters’ ways of giving perspective and emphasizing human forms. She argues that Roman landscape painting was not intended to have a “trompe l’oeil” function, as it increasingly lost interest in precise realism (to the chagrin of Pliny and Vitruvius). She traces parallels with theories of the picturesque in the 18th century, and places particular importance on the figure of the traveller, also present in many Roman paintings and, she suggests, representing “the artist with the picturesque eye”.

Salisbury discusses the use of coinage for propaganda, illustrating some fairly familiar points with Trajan’s coins. She considers the connection between who was most likely to use different denominations and what sort of message they were intended to receive. She also raises the possibility that production of the lowest-value coins ( semis and quadrans) increased in Italy under Trajan because they functioned as coupons, entitling the bearer to enter the baths or circus, rather than as normal coins.

Potthoff gives a brief introduction to Roman ideas about ghosts, arguing that “ghosts and spirits of the dead” were familiar presences in people’s lives. It might have been better to differentiate between the two categories, as the discussion moves backwards and forwards between ghosts who remain on earth and spirits who have some sort of “normal” afterlife underneath it. Potthoff quotes Pliny’s account of the haunted house at Athens without mentioning Lucian’s less credulous version of the same story. The question of how seriously people took the idea that the spirits of the dead were going to remain in their tombs is a very complex one, which cannot be done justice to in such a short article, but is in any case a separate issue from why ghosts sometimes appeared in the “real” world. It does not affect the point being made, but there is a mistranslation of some Latin from a curse on tomb-violators: “sale et aqua desideret” does not mean “shall drown in the salt sea” but “shall lack salt and water”.

Finally, Smith tries to decide what was really disastrous about Nasidienus’ dinner party described by Horace, Satires 2.8 (hardly an event from “the life of the average Roman”!). He concludes that everyone is being mocked: the host, the guest, the satirist, even the reader.

Volumes of conference papers inevitably show unevenness between the contributions, but the unevenness here is much greater than usual. The more archaeologically focused articles contain new material, while some of the other papers are going over very well worked ground without adding anything substantially new. Undergraduates will find helpful introductions to aqueducts, coins and ghosts, while other contributors are addressing a more specialised audience. All the papers have a potential audience, but it is hard to see that anyone except reviewers will want to read the whole book.