BMCR 2002.01.12

The Roman World: A Sourcebook

David Cherry, The Roman world : a sourcebook. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001. x, 268 pages : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm. ISBN 0631217835 $29.95.

Sourcebooks provide a treasure trove for those who teach courses on the civilizations of the ancient world and who want students to learn about the past by encountering primary sources. For those teaching Roman culture or civilization courses, Jo-Ann Shelton’s As the Romans Did has provided the most accessible option since the appearance of the first edition in 1988. Inevitably, David Cherry’s new volume will be measured against Shelton’s when faculty look for textbooks to order for their classes in Roman history, social history, or culture. This review will, therefore, compare the two texts, as well as assess the value of this new volume in its own right.1

The Roman World: A Sourcebook is divided into nine chapters (“The Social Order”; “Women, Marriage, and Family”; “Economy”; “Science and Medicine”; “Politics and the Government”; “Rome and the Provinces”; “The Army”; “Beyond the Frontier”; and “Pagans and Christians”), two appendices (a list of the emperors and brief information about coins, weights, and measures), a chronology, and an index. In comparison, Shelton’s sourcebook contains fifteen chapters (“The Structure of the Roman Society”; “Families”; “Marriage”; “Housing and City Life”; “Domestic and Personal Concerns”; “Education”; “Occupations”; “Slaves”; “Freedmen and Freedwomen”; “Government and Politics”; “The Roman Army”; “The Provinces”; “Women in Roman Society”; “Leisure and Entertainment”; and “Religion and Philosophy”), three appendices (a list of sources, information about Roman money, and a chronology), a bibliography, and an index. A key difference between the two lies in Cherry’s devotion of a full chapter to Science and Medicine, whereas in Shelton the discussion of medicine is scattered throughout the text and the reader is hard-pressed to find anything about science at all. In other instances, Cherry combines topics which Shelton treats separately, especially in the area of women, family, and the domestic realm. Daily life receives a great deal of attention in Shelton’s volume, and comparatively little in Cherry’s sourcebook, but this difference is in keeping with the different purpose of each volume: Shelton especially aims to give a picture of everyday life, whereas Cherry has selected passages from previous translations for their “historical significance and…intrinsic interest.”2 There are fewer individual selections in Cherry’s sourcebook (57 total), but they are longer than the majority of Shelton’s choices and need less commentary from the editor to make sense. Because Cherry has opted for longer and fewer passages from the primary texts, those interested in epigraphical evidence will prefer Shelton. Cherry’s sourcebook offers 234 pages of text, making it some 200 pages shorter than Shelton’s.

Each chapter in The Roman World follows the same format: a numbered list of the sources with their specific page numbers in the chapter appears in a shaded box under the chapter’s title. The editor then provides an introduction, ranging from one to three pages in length. Next come the passages, each with a brief introduction about the author and the text, and often (but not always) including the citation for the translation that the editor has used.3 A “Suggested Readings” section offers the student more resources on the chapter topic(s).

Now to the chapters themselves. Chapter One, “The Social Order”, comprises selections which range from the Twelve Tables to Diodorus Siculus to Petronius. While the inclusion of so much of the Twelve Tables in one place is a real benefit of the book, the overall chapter leaves the reader with a very hazy view of what the Romans saw as the social order. The selections themselves focus more on slave revolts and the social order in chaos than on how the social order functioned. The saving grace is the editor’s introduction, which lays out the classes and vital terms for the Roman organization of society. The selections themselves are arranged in no particular order that I can determine. Similarly, Shelton provides the majority of the information about the social order in her introduction to the chapter and in the individual introductions to the passages, while her selections address the differences in justice that were tied to social class and the patron-client relationship. As a whole, both chapters give a picture of the social order which depends more on the work of the editor than on the selections.

Chapter Two, “Women, Marriage, and Family”, begins with speech on the Oppian Law composed by Livy for Cato the Censor and with selections from Juvenal’s Sixth Satire, easily two of the most vehement sustained attacks on women in Latin literature. Although asking “why” about an editor’s selections may be pointless, I can’t help but wonder why just Cato’s speech and not Valerius’ also—what a wonderful (and lost) opportunity to see a Roman mind (Livy’s) debate about the roles and contributions of women in Roman society! Within the selection in this chapter, however, there does seem to be a conscious effort to begin with the salacious material and then include positive portrayals of women in the Laudatio Turiae, one of Pliny’s letters, but the chapter ends with selections from the writings of Valerius Maximus that focus on the savage treatment of wives by their husbands. Shelton handles these three topics in five separate chapters (counting the chapters on freedwomen and on domestic issues, as well as the separate chapters on women, family, and marriage). Her material includes numerous epitaphs, as well as selections from literature and provides a more detailed view of women, the family, and the domestic realm in general. Because daily life is more of a concern for Shelton than for Cherry, it is not surprising that the amount of material differs so greatly.

Chapter Three, “Economy”, focuses on farming through Plutarch’s Life of Cato, Cato and Columella on agriculture, and Cicero, from On Duties. The Cicero passage offers an assessment of the respectability of various occupations, but no real information on their place in the economy of Rome. There is nothing that addresses the changes in coinage and the problems that emperors faced in keeping coinage or prices in check. There is also nothing about patronage, especially the sort of public bequests for which the letters of Pliny offer so many examples. Likewise, there is nothing that conveys the extent of Rome’s importance as a trade center for products from across the Mediterranean and beyond. Coinage? Prices? There is much more to the Roman economy than these selections suggest. On the other hand, Shelton has no specific chapter on the economy. In As the Romans Did, the material is concentrated in the chapter on occupations, and is somewhat supplemented by the chapters on slaves and freedmen and by the section on patronage in the chapter on the Roman social structure.

Chapter Four, “Science and Medicine”, offers selections from Pliny the Elder on astronomy, geology, reproduction among animals and humans, strange habits of creatures and different cultures, and remedies for various ailments. From Celsus, Galen, and Soranus there are passages on medicine and the body. The mixture of selections from Pliny the Elder, in particular, is intriguing. Shelton offers no separate chapter on this topic, so Cherry’s choice to do so is welcome. What little Shelton includes comes from the discussions of birth control (“Families”), illnesses and their treatments (“Domestic and Personal Concerns”), and the medical profession (“Occupations”).

Chapter Five, “Politics and Government”, contains the standard fare on the Roman state: Polybius on the constitution, the section on the populares and optimates from Cicero’s Defense of Sestius, selections from Quintus Tullius Cicero’s handbook on campaigning, the Res Gestae of Augustus, and selections from Tacitus, Ammianus Marcellinus, and the Theodosian code. The one somewhat surprising choice, more for its inclusion in this chapter rather than in the one on the economy, is Diocletian’s “Edict on Prices”. Certainly it represents a necessary move on the part of the emperor, but the lists of prices and discussion of coinage seem out of place. Overall, however, the chapter moves chronologically and provides a good sense of the shifts in Rome’s government. Shelton’s comparable chapter provides more detail about the different parts of the political structure and also moves chronologically. She includes a final section on Roman legislation that explores how the Roman legal codes came into being and how the Roman system attempted to operate when there was no written law appropriate to the situation.

Chapter Six, “Rome and the Provinces”, begins with Cicero’s letter to his brother Quintus about the duties of a provincial governor. The letter from Claudius ( British Museum Papyrus 1912) illustrates the involvement of the emperor in local provincial matters, and the text of charter of Urso, a colony in Spain, offers a detailed look at the process of founding a colony and the officials involved. The final selection, from Aelius Aristides’ To Rome, is a great example of the way Rome drew all things to it. This is, however, also a selection which seems a natural for the chapter on “Economy” but does serve a purpose here as well. Shelton draws on Cicero, but on other of his letters (and speeches, especially the Verrine orations) about how one should act as a provincial governor.

Chapter Seven, “The Army”, combines information about the specific members and arrangment of the army (Vegetius and Polybius) with records about specific troops. The difficulty with the selections from the Roman Military Records on Papyrus No. 63 is that they are so fragmentary that as a whole the section does not convey much information to the average undergraduate. The final selection, from the late and anonymous On Military Matters, does offer a nice summary of a broad ranges of topics associated with the army to round out the chapter. Shelton’s chapter on the army offers more depth in that selections from Polybius and from Livy provide details about the lives and responsibilities of soldiers and Josephus offers a non-Roman view as to why Rome’s army succeeds. Her choice to include letters from and about soldiers offer more of the human side of the military experience. Tacitus’ account of a mutiny and laws from the Theodosian Code about those who attempt to avoid the draft convey the resistence that some expressed toward military life.

Chapter Eight, “Beyond the Frontiers”, gathers selections from Roman writers about other cultures and peoples: Caesar on the Gauls, Tacitus on the Britons and Germans, and Ammianus Marcellinus on the Persians and the Huns. By placing Roman culture in a broader world context, this chapter offers something that Shelton does not. This chapter is particularly valuable because too often the narrow focus on Rome makes it seem as if no other culture existed while Rome expanded. The inclusion of the selections from Ammianus is especially welcome.

Chapter Nine, “Pagans and Christians”, includes passages from Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Plutarch, Cato, and Augustine on Roman gods; Apuleius on Isis; Minucius Felix, Tacitus, and Pliny with Roman views of Christians and Christianity; and Eusebius and The Acts of the Christian Martyrs on the persecution of Christians. In all of this, there is nothing that presents Christianity in a positive or even a neutral light. Perhaps the idea is to convey the difficult circumstances under which many Christians lived, but something from Januarius’ speech in Minucius Felix’s Octavius or from Ambrose would provide a balance to the chapter. Shelton’s corresponding chapter covers both religion and philosophy, and offers details about Roman festivals, as well as information on Judaism, Epicureanism and Stoicism.

In sum, The Roman World: A Sourcebook provides a good, if sometimes perplexing, resource for incorporating more primary texts into Roman history or social history courses. For courses that need primary sources for information about daily life, Shelton provides a greater array of selections on a wider range of topics.


1. Let me admit up front, that I have long used Shelton as one of the core texts for my Roman culture course, but like any teacher, I am always scanning the shelves for something different or something better. Would that there were any comparable option, or even two, on the Greek side!

2. From the back cover.

3. Why the reference for some passages is given in the editor’s introduction to the selection and some only at the end of the Preface to the volume is unclear. Consistency in this area would allow students to read more of a certain author or to find similar passages in another sourcebook.