BMCR 2009.09.07

Daily Life of the Ancient Romans. Daily Life through History

, Daily Life of the Ancient Romans. Daily Life through History. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2008. xxi, 164. ISBN 9780872209572. $14.95 (pb).

This short and concise but informative book is aimed, as it clearly states, at a non-academic readership and introduces the subject of Ancient Rome and Roman life, often by referring to anecdotal evidence from literary sources. The book is divided into eleven chapters of various topics, some of which represent very common topics within the study of Roman history and which are usually found in introductory books about the Roman world, whereas some are unusual like a chapter on Roman retirement plans. Each chapter offers a general introduction into the subject and continues by giving specific examples for the topic discussed.

The book is direct and informative, although the focus is on literature only. The literary sources come from a variety of authors from a variety of centuries. These sources focus on the stories of individuals in Rome in order to make the subject more accessible, and the book is mainly intended to entertain the reader rather than present him or her with a comprehensive history of Ancient Rome. The chronological and also geographical differences between these sources could be highlighted in more detail; however, overall they represent a good selection of examples. The list of sources, with the short biography or description of each source or author, and the brief chronology at the beginning of the book are extremely useful.

But one of the main faults of the book, in this reviewer’s view, is the fact that it only includes evidence from literary sources, aided by a few inscriptions, without including any information from archaeological sources. Therefore, the information presented in this book is somewhat unbalanced since literary sources tend to focus on individual cases, which were not necessarily the norm in Roman society and generally only represent the elite and the view-point of the educated literary classes.

Occasionally, the author moves from topic to topic very rapidly, without clarification how one leads to the other. Given the brevity of the book, this is understandable, however sometimes the connection is hard to make. There is a good selection of images, with the focus on reconstructed drawings. Again, it would be desirable to see some images of the archaeological evidence on life in Rome; however, the images are generally supportive of the literary evidence on Ancient Rome and are therefore well chosen in their role as additional information supporting the texts.

The introduction offers some very useful insights and good, brief discussions of Roman society, its different ranks, the Roman calendar, the curriculum vitae of the patrician order with the most important political offices and the political system in a brief overview, Roman names and a brief introduction into the geography of the Roman Empire. More emphasis could be given to differences between the Republic and the Imperial period.

Chapter 1 on education gives a brief overview and history of schools in Rome; the main part of the chapter is dedicated to single case studies. Most of these talk about rather negative aspects of the Roman educational system and learning experiences, such as Quintilian’s recommendations for a good teacher; he clearly encountered some very bad teachers in Rome.

Chapter 2 on slavery also mainly focuses on episodes of cruelty to slaves. The chapter includes a good list of how many slaves were needed in a typical Roman household, giving examples from several social ranks of Roman families. It could have included some more information on the variety of jobs Roman slaves did. More could have been said about the system of manumission, which essentially helped to strengthen the system of slavery, and the social status of freedmen and women, which formed a very large and to some degree influential part of Roman society, especially during the Imperial period.

Chapter 3 on food and dining gives a very good introduction to what a Roman dinner was really like, steering away the exaggerated accounts of contemporary anti-luxury writers, however, since the author only uses literary sources to highlight his arguments, the very same accounts, such as Petronius’ account of the freedman Trimalchio’s lavish dinner party, appear in the list of examples of dinners at the end of the chapter. Nevertheless, there are also some genuine recipes taken from the body of literary sources on actual recipes, which give a good balanced view of the urban Roman cuisine and diet.

Even more than other chapters, Chapter 4 on housing would have benefitted from the inclusion of some archaeological evidence, since it seems somewhat difficult to give a realistic, balanced representation of Roman houses based upon literary sources only. The chapter includes several anecdotes on building and living conditions, nevertheless, house plans and images of the remains of some actual houses would probably have given the non-scholar a much better grasp of the subject.

Chapter 5 on travel makes the point that Roman roads were mainly used for military purposes and gives examples on road usage for mail and the system of milestones and mapping. On top of that, some literary examples of the journeys of particular individuals are given, focussing mainly on the rather luxurious travel-style of upper class members rather than foot-soldiers. Ovid’s account of his journey from Rome to the Black Sea to reach the destination of his exile may not be the most frequent reason for travel for a Roman of any social rank, nevertheless, it is probably very representative of the worries and dangers faced by any traveller covering such a distance in the ancient world.

Chapter 6 on politics in Ancient Rome offers a good introduction to the different political offices, repeating some of the information in Chapter 1, and includes a short discourse on the subject on Roman laws. The lives of several politicians, such as Cicero’s, are given as examples; however, these accounts focus on the life of the individual rather than Roman politicians in general.

On family life in Chapter 7, Matz explains the system of the pater familias and patronage in good detail and shows some exceptions to the norm in a society in which woman had little influence on decisions of importance, such as the unusual role of Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi. Examples such as these are usually prominent in books on Roman history. The fact that only literary sources are used offers a somewhat one-sided view of exceptions (such as the account of the lives of Turia or Cornelia) and the evidence of funerary monuments and other inscriptions would have helped to shed more light on normal circumstances regarding status, inheritance, social standing, life expectancy and marriage in Roman families. Nevertheless, the chapter includes an excellent discourse on the Roman naming system, echoing some of the information giving in Chapter 1.

Chapter 8 deals with holidays and leisure activities. Presenting a selection of very mixed topics, it offers accounts of Roman festivals, gladiatorial games, ball games, board games. In this reader’s opinion, chapters 8 and 9 (on sports and amusement) might have been merged. The section on swimming only gives examples of swimming as a means of escape from danger rather than a leisure activity, such as Julius’ Caesar’s narrow escape by swimming away from his enemies in Egypt 48 BC or Agrippina’s planned drowning by her son Nero. Swimming is only mentioned in relations to rivers and the sea and no mention of bathing is made, in spite of the fact that the Roman baths were probably the most popular and most frequented leisure attraction in Ancient Rome.

Chapter 9 deals with sports and amusements and repeats some of the information of the previous chapter, including further information on shows other than gladiatorial games in amphitheatres. A good list of the different types of gladiators is included, for which some epigraphic evidence is used. The chapter also includes anecdotal stories on swindlers, lovers and crooks, with Martial used as a main source, however, it is somewhat difficult to make the connection between these accounts and the topic of sports and amusements.

Unfortunately, Chapter 10 on religion is rather too short to offer a complex introduction into the subject. The reviewer is, of course, aware of the limitations of this book, however, the chapter mainly talks about festivals, omens, curses and some religious offices, where a primary definition of the Roman pantheon and Capitoline triad, the Imperial Cult and some information about influences from elsewhere than Rome, would have been more useful. With six pages in total, this chapter is the shortest of the book and, as a very important aspect of Roman life, religion seems to have been treated in a somewhat secondary manner.

Chapter 11 on retirement and Roman pension plans includes some interesting literary examples and serves well as a comparison with the modern world, which is certainly very interesting to the non-scholarly and academic reader alike.

The appendix at the end of the book, which lists the Roman authors given as sources in alphabetical order, is extremely helpful. Overall, this is a useful book for non-academics that offers a good introduction into the subject and which presents an entertaining and interesting selection of evidence and sources in a concise manner without overloading the casual reader with too much detail. However, a more balanced representation of sources would have been desirable and some of the chapters could have been expanded.