BMCR 2002.02.19

Rome in Late Antiquity: Everyday Life and Urban Change, AD 312-609. Translated by Antonia Nevill

, Rome in late antiquity : everyday life and urban change, AD 312-609. New York: Routledge, 2000. 185 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm. ISBN 041592975X.

This little book, just over a hundred and fifty pages of text, offers a lively introduction to its complex subject. As in the French original of 1995, the author makes no pretence to monographic erudition, giving us instead a fairly up-to-date compendium on the city of Rome in late antiquity. Indeed, the book has a real affinity with Carcopino’s classic exposition of daily life in Antonine Rome, an affinity of which Lançon is perfectly aware, and as such is aimed squarely at the student or general reader. In this respect both publisher’s advertising copy and Mark Humphries’ introduction — the latter quite good on its own terms — may mislead, inasmuch as they suggest a more technical treatment than is on offer here. Nevertheless, if the book is judged in terms of its intended audience, it clearly represents the best such introduction on the market.

Lançon begins with two chapters on the physical shape of the city and two on its political vicissitudes and institutional shape, which together constitute the first part of the book as a whole. The second part deals in two chapters with the plebs patresque of the city, while the third continues the sociohistorical approach with two more chapters on religion and religiosity. Part four, substantially longer, is titled ‘ Saeculum : Worldly concerns’, and contains five rather disparate chapters on ‘Life and death: material civilisation and mental attitudes’, the calendar, festivals, education, and the ‘influence of Christian Rome’.

As with any work of synthesis, there are points with which scholars might wish to quibble and many topics which could have been treated and are not. That said, what is here is very well presented and generally reliable. As an example one may take the first two chapters: anyone looking for a synthesis of the most recent archaeological finds on late antique Rome will be disappointed, but those who need a well-illustrated introduction to which buildings were standing where, which ancient monuments remained in use, and how late antique Romans treated their physical surroundings will find no better short introduction. The political chapters are similarly instructive. There are no surprises, no daring reinterpretations, but rather a sensible synthesis of more or less received views. In particular, the Gothic and Vandal sacks of the fifth century are handled with a nuance still regrettably absent in most general histories, usefully juxtaposing the evidence for profound moral and ideological shock with the equally compelling evidence for limited material damage and rapid physical recuperation.

Equally successful are the chapters on urban administration, the urban elites, and tradesmen and craftsmen. It is hard to make the history of the urban prefecture exciting for a general audience, but the anecdotal approach, quoting cheerfully from the libels of Ammianus and the correspondances of Symmachus, Cassiodorus, and Gregory the Great, works marvellously. The traditional magistracies are likewise made comprehensible to the non-specialist, no small achievement: few textbook accounts set about illustrating, as opposed to merely stating, why it was that so many sensible Roman aristocrats should have wanted to hold public offices which brought no tangible profit but rather vast financial expense and constant preparatory worry. At another point on the social scale, the production and distribution of the bread and pork annona is an equally difficult subject to make lively, however essential it was to the stability of Rome’s urban life. Again, Lançon succeeds in marrying the telling and picturesque detail to generally accepted interpretations, thereby imparting the technical as painlessly as possible.

The author’s touch is slightly less sure in the religion chapters, though perhaps only because there is so much to synthesise. The discussion of the various brands of polytheism in one chapter and the various brands of Christianity in another — entitled ‘Ancestral Cults’ and ‘The Expansion of Christianity’, respectively — is conceptually awkward, tending to underemphasise the variety and strength of polytheism in the earlier fourth century and to overemphasise it in the later fourth and fifth, while throughout playing down the deep divisions within the Roman church. These defects are particularly evident in the final chapter, which attempts in five pages to make sense of all that has gone before in terms of the absorption by the papacy of urban functions previously divided up amongst a variety of other institutions, both secular and ecclesiastical. The problem is not that the interpretation is unclear, still less that it is fundamentally inaccurate, but rather that the rest of the book has not prepared the reader for the starkness of the conclusion. That, in turn, underscores the fact that, on the whole, the age of Ammianus and Symmachus fares better here than do those of Cassiodorus, Procopius, and Gregory.

As has been said, works of synthesis invite carping; there is not enough archaeology and the treatment of the Aurelianic wall and its developments is inadequate; the chapters on papal property rely too heavily on Pietri’s Roma Christiana; the nuanced treatment of late Roman taxation worked out over the past two decades by J.-M. Carríe is absent. At a fundamental level, however, all this is irrelevant. Carríe is difficult and surplus to the requirements of undergraduates, while anything that makes Pietri’s unwieldy masterpiece more accessible is surely to be welcomed. More welcome still is the pedagogical tool which this volume represents. Lançon draws on precisely those passages in late antique authors that most of us try to bring out in class discussions and seminars in order to illustrate the substance of Latin late antiquity. Though the book cannot be used to replace the broader narratives of Jones or Cameron in the classroom, it supplements them with a lively and remarkably informative introduction to the way late Roman institutions and social conventions functioned in a city that did, after all, remain the symbolic centre of the Roman world. The real test of this volume’s utility will be the classroom, and the present reviewer has not yet had the opportunity to try it out on an actual audience of undergraduates; when next he offers a survey of late antiquity, Lançon will be on the syllabus.