BMCR 2004.03.23

Daily Life in Ancient Rome

, Daily Life in Ancient Rome: the People and the City at the Height of the Empire. Yale Nota bene. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. xix, 346 pages: illustrations, map. ISBN 9780300101867. $18.00.

Carcopino’s sparkling, yet rigorous, reconstruction of daily life in imperial Rome has always made excellent reading and still can be recommended as a lucid introduction to the topic. However, it was written and published more than sixty years ago (in 1939), under completely different circumstances. General views on some matters have evolved considerably, and scientific investigation has also thrown new light on specific issues. This new edition of Carcopino’s work reproduces a classical text which is still illuminating and worth reading, while adding new material in order to fill in the temporal gap, so that the reader can enjoy his vivid description of the Romans’ way of life without being misled or misinformed. The additions consist of a new introduction and a bibliographic essay by Mary Beard.

In a succinct introduction (pp. ix-xv), Beard appraises both the impact and present-day validity of Carcopino’s work. In general terms he presented the reader with a “vivid picture of backstreet and domestic life” (pp. x-xi), “compelling and engaging” (p. xv), as well as thorough. However, twenty-first century readers may find his moralizing passages awkward. They certainly bear witness to an epoch’s Weltanschauung and are the product of a peculiar personality, who is portrayed by Beard in a brief biographical sketch, with especial emphasis on his occupation as minister of education of Vichy France and on the genesis of his book (pp. ix-xiii). Readers are also warned against some superseded views on aspects such as women, sex and religion (p. xiii), and also against a methodological tendency to interpret literary texts, such as Petronius’s Satyricon, in a literal way, and not as fictional constructs distorting reality to a certain extent (pp. xiii-xiv). She rounds off her introduction by assessing the question “What is exactly the study of daily life?” (pp. xiv-xv) and by adding a brief bibliography on the author and other aspects discussed in the introduction (p. xv).

Next, the reader can find the canonical English translation of Carcopino’s work, that of Lorimer, edited and annotated by Rowell (pp. 1-277), followed by Beard’s bibliographic essay (pp. 279-293). The last consists of two parts: a bibliography about the sources (literature, epigraphy, archaeology), based on Rowell’s idea to supply bibliographic information absent in the French original version (pp. 279-284); and an updated bibliography, organized chapter by chapter, highlighting the aspects in which Carcopino’s work has been outstripped (pp. 285-293). It is to be noted that, despite making a valuable introduction to Carcopino’s sources and, therefore, to the sources of any history of Roman daily life, the first part lacks depth. This is especially the case regarding the bibliography on specific literary sources, practically omitted, except for some works on certain authors (p. 280-281), as well as Loeb editions and Penguin translations (p. 282). For instance, classical commentaries, such as Sherwin-White’s on Pliny’s letters ( The Letters of Pliny: A Historical and Social Commentary, Oxford 1966), or the increasing research on Martial’s epigrams, with commentaries illustrating almost every single book, could have been mentioned. Nothing is said of authors such as Seneca, on whom Carcopino draws heavily. As regards Petronius’s Satyricon, Beard passes over the debated question of its authorship and date (p. 280). The bibliography concerning non-literary sources, however, seems both pertinent and comprehensive. The same could be said of the bibliographic essay proper: more titles could certainly have been included, but the suggested works for further reading are absolutely relevant. She devotes this section to criticize certain assertions made by Carcopino, especially regarding sex, women, or religion, as was pointed out in the introduction, but there is no detailed discussion on his views: it is the readers’ task to reassess the whole case on their own with the aid of bibliography. Beard rounds off the book by resuming her first introductory pages: she recommends some works dealing with the influence that fiction, art, and, above all, film have exerted on our view of daily life in Rome.

After the bibliographic essay come the notes to Carcopino’s book, translated by Lorimer and expanded by Rowell, and an index. This layout and the spirit of this new edition may lead the reader to expect that issues discussed either in the introduction or in the bibliographic essay would be indexed. However, the index pertains only to Carcopino’s text. It would have been much more useful and reasonable either to place the index just before the bibliographic essay or to expand it so that it encompasses Beard’s additions and helps the reader in search of specific information.

In spite of this minor flaw, this new edition of Carcopino’s work is a valuable contribution to the field, for it places the book in its context and gives the present-day reader the possibility to enjoy a classical introduction to the topic, as well as to enhance their knowledge with pertinent new studies: the general English-speaking reader or student will really benefit from this new edition. Other publishing houses should follow this example, allowing Carcopino’s frequently reprinted versions in other languages, such as Spanish, to profit from this kind of reassessment.1


1. The most recent edition in Spanish (J. Carcopino, La vida cotidiana en Roma en el apogeo del imperio. Traducción de Mercedes Fernández Cuesta. Madrid: temas’de hoy, 2001) does contain a bibliographic appendix, but it is translated from an older French edition: the newest titles quoted date from 1972 and almost all of them are French. The Spanish reader would certainly appreciate a more up to date and accessible bibliographic appendix.