BMCR 2012.09.40

The Ancient Middle Classes: Urban Life and Aesthetics in the Roman Empire, 100 BCE-250 CE

, The Ancient Middle Classes: Urban Life and Aesthetics in the Roman Empire, 100 BCE-250 CE. Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2012. xiv, 295. ISBN 9780674050334 $45.00.

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This is, as one of the recommendations on the back cover notes, a ‘bold and striking’ book. It is shaped around a single, radical theory: the existence of a Roman ‘middle class’, by which Mayer does not mean people of middling fortune, a fairly uncontroversial proposition, but a class characterised by distinct patterns of economic behaviour (rooted in trade and urban production) and, as importantly, cultural values that set it apart from the aristocratic elite. Mayer readily concedes that ‘middle class’ is an anachronism in a Roman context, but insists that ‘this anachronism is both useful and appropriate’, because ‘we cannot gain traction on the social and cultural history of the Roman Empire if we restrict ourselves to the categories of ancient social thought’ (p. 3). However, it soon becomes clear that ‘middle class’ is much more than an analytical tool and quickly assumes concrete form as an actual feature of the social landscape. Thus Mayer identifies a category in Roman society which looked remarkably similar to later European middle classes, affluent and with a strong work ethic, proud of their commercial achievements, deeply attached to the nuclear family and self-confidently refusing to model themselves on the aristocracy.

Fundamental to this thesis is the ‘commercialisation’ of the Roman Empire, which transformed the cities from ‘agrotowns’ into centres of trade and production. Mayer first situates the new ‘middle class’ within this urban fabric, especially of Pompeii and Ostia, before examining their ‘cultural identity’ as expressed through funerary display and domestic decor. These sections present some interesting archaeological material and stimulating interpretations, which will undoubtedly ensure the book a place among studies of ‘non-elite’ art. But since all chapters remain predicated on the existence of a Roman ‘middle class’, this review will concentrate on this particular claim.

The commercial character of the Roman ‘middle class’ is forcefully argued in chapter 2, which devotes much attention to the spread of tabernae as a primary indicator. Indeed, the author goes so far as to identify a particular ‘ taberna economy’ (pp. 66, 72), stretching from Britain to Asia Minor and reflecting the thorough commercialisation of Roman cities. It is not apparent, however, why this development would lead to the rise of a modern-looking ‘middle class’. In principle, tabernae merely demonstrate the decentralisation of trade and production, revealing little about who profited from these activities. The question is who controlled these spaces and the workers who toiled there. While many tabernae were directly connected to domus, others were, as Mayer repeatedly emphasises, ‘lettable’. Still, the fact that a unit was ‘lettable’ does not mean it was let to independent craftsmen and traders or available on the open market. In Pompeii the two known letting announcements, both relating to large, unusual complexes, the Insula Arriana Polliana and the Praedia Iuliae Felicis, were clearly aimed at single, long-term contractors rather than individual tenants. And many ‘autonomous’ tabernae, such as those attached to the House of the Postumii along the Via dei Teatri, may well have been managed by members of the owner’s familia (the absence of connecting doorways can be explained by practical considerations, since they backed on to the peristyle and its reception rooms). Therefore, despite ample evidence for slaves and freedmen acting as agents and managers of small businesses, Mayer’s urban economy looks remarkably modern with slavery and social control playing only a minor role and small independent operators making their fortune through hard work and application.

It was, according to Mayer’s model, the commercial opportunities offered by new imperial markets that enabled traders to establish themselves as a separate ‘class’. But while there may have been growth in trade and commerce, the existence of such a ‘class’ – as opposed to people of middling wealth – hinges on their qualitative difference from the elite, which in turn raises the question how one separates ‘elite’ and ‘middle class’.

Mayer rightly distinguishes rank and status from social class, noting for example that not all office holders belonged to the top financial elite. Later, however, the ‘political class’ is used synonymously with ‘landed aristocracy’,1 and some rich houses such as that of the Vettii are categorised as ‘middle class’ because of the owners’ personal status. Nevertheless, Mayer’s ‘elite’ and ‘middle class’ are generally distinguished by economic behaviour, the former shunning commerce in favour of agriculture. Evidence for hostility towards ‘sordid trade’ is once again drawn from Cicero (esp. Off. 150f) and Petronius, but ‘elite’ attitudes may have been considerably more complex.2 Senatorial investment in urban property was widespread – as Mayer recognises – and Cicero frequently sang the praise of negotiatores. Similarly, in the Satyrica the servile background of the nouveaux riches may have been as important as the taint of commerce.

Further difficulties arise when this ‘literary’ definition of the elite is applied to archaeological evidence. As has long been recognised, the Ciceronian model does not really work in towns like Pompeii where even the grandest houses incorporate tabernae and many leading men had well-documented business interests. Mayer acknowledges this situation and even accepts an ‘overlap’ between ‘elite’ and ‘middle class’, seen as yet another indication of urban commercialisation. But there are much wider implications of this ‘overlap’; for how could a class of independent, purely commercially-based traders emerge if rich and powerful elites were equally involved in such activities? And how can a qualitative distinction between ‘elite’ and ’middle class’ be maintained if landed and non-agrarian revenues were complementary sources of income across a wide social spectrum? In that case rich and middling families become part of a single social continuum rather than separate classes. These questions touch the very core of Mayer’s ‘middle class’ thesis, which – somewhat ironically – relies on a conventional ‘primitivist’ dichotomy between land and commerce.

This paradox also affects Mayer’s attempt to trace the ‘middle class’ in the Pompeian cityscape. The largest houses are excluded no matter how many tabernae or commercial installations they comprised, and even the house of the Umbricii Scauri is conspicuously absent. Instead Mayer focuses on small domus and multi-room tabernae of 50-170 square metres as typical ‘middle class’ dwellings. That raises the obvious question who lived in the mass of ordinary tabernae which supposedly provided the evidence for the commercial ‘middle class’. If most tabernarii were not themselves ‘middle class’, how can they demonstrate the existence of this category?

The Casa dell’Ara Massima is repeatedly invoked as a proto-typical ‘middle class’ house. This smallish atrium house with a single taberna was finely decorated after 62 and according to Mayer ‘we can be fairly sure that its owner … personally ran the single-fronted taberna …’, (pp. 172ff, cf. 54). However, as in the case of virtually all other ‘middle class’ houses, the occupant’s source of income is pure conjecture.3 Therefore, while these houses may suggest the existence of economically middling groups, the identification of their occupants as a distinct commercial class remains unproven.4

The problems facing Mayer’s attempt to find the ‘middle class’ in the archaeological record become more pronounced in chapter 4, which compares ‘middle class’ tombs and sarcophagi with those of the senatorial class (for the purpose of this chapter the ‘elite’ has been reduced to the highest order5). Mayer detects an emphasis on familial bonds and affection among the former, expressed, for example, in a preference for mythological scenes with strong emotional charge. By contrast, in senatorial burials the focus remained on public careers and military exploits. While in itself perfectly plausible, the question is whether this analysis describes a distinct set of ‘middle class’ values. To answer that we need to know the identity of those commemorated, and here there is overwhelming evidence that the vast majority of funerary monuments were commissioned by freedmen and their relatives. Mayer largely ignores the issue of liberti, even casting doubt on the well-established link between slavery and Greek cognomina (p. 257), and despite the fact that most of his examples are freedmen, their servile past is treated as secondary to their – supposed – economic background.6 However, it remains a possibility that the values Mayer describes may be specific to former slaves – rather than a ‘middle class’.

During these sections the definition of the ‘middle class’ undergoes a curious shift, since they now feature as ‘working men and women’ (p. 150, cf. 138), and ‘artisans, shopkeepers and traders’ (p. 120, cf. 215). One chapter is headed ‘Middle-Class Pride: The Value of Work’ (p. 114), and Verrius Euhelpistus from Isola Sacra, who ran a smithy, is described as a working man despite his obvious wealth (p. 154).7 Implicit in this redefinition of the ‘middle class’ as a proud ‘working class’ lies a reassertion of the causal link between this class and tabernae, but it also begs the question how one distinguishes between ‘middle’ and ‘working’ classes if they shared the same living conditions and occupations.

At the heart of Mayer’s discussion of ‘middle class’ identity lies a complete disavowal of ‘intellectual’ readings of Roman art, denounced as ‘hermeneutics run amok’ (p. 168), and in the final chapter on Pompeian wall-painting this argument is taken to its logical conclusion. Mayer insists that the ‘middle class’ approached domestic decor quite differently from the educated imperial elite, whose literary works have (mis)informed modern interpretations. Again, valid observations are made, even if the dismissal of the ‘trickle-down’ model seems too sweeping; few proponents of this approach would probably deny that adaptations took place as elite idioms were taken up further down the social scale.

In sum, this book leaves a mixed impression, for while valuable points are made in discussions of individual monuments and artworks, the author’s overarching vision of Roman society is too modernising to be really convincing. In the end the existence of a ‘middle class’, as opposed to people of middling means, appears to be asserted rather than demonstrated, and as a heuristic model to understand Roman society it has too many internal contradictions and inconsistencies.8


1. ‘landowning political elites’ (p. 53); ‘ideology of the landowning nobility’ (p. 120); contrast between ‘businesspeople’ and ‘political elites’ (p. 20).

2. Mayer refers to ‘reactionary agrarian ideology’ (p. 47); ‘Cicero’s anticommercial ramblings’ (p. 52); ‘flashy upper-class intellectuals’ (p. 146); ‘upper-class snobs’ (p. 150); ‘sheer contempt or even venomous hostility of some elite writers’ (p. 214).

3. Mayer’s analysis does not match Stemmer’s ( Häuser in Pompeji), to which he otherwise refers. The upper storey was not rented out after 62, suggesting that a new, more affluent owner had acquired the house, redecorated it, expanded the living space and in doing so also reduced the commercial premises. Stemmer’s suggestion that the upper floor was damaged and unused after 62 is unlikely; why wall up the external access if it was only temporarily unavailable?

4. Other key examples include the House of the Greek Epigrams, the House of Fronto and the House of Octavius Quartio, which all seem to belong to a higher social stratum.

5. This narrow definition of ‘elite’ (e.g. pp. 130, 138 and 141) is of course unworkable at municipal level where the entire curial order would become ‘sub-elite’.

6. Often there is no commercial link whatsoever, e.g. the imperial freedmen (pp.124, 160), or the centurion (p. 155).

7. Ostian collegia are also invoked of proof of the importance of traders and craftsmen, although their membership clearly was far removed from manual work.

8. The book is well produced. I spotted the following mistakes and oddities: ‘puer dilectus’ (pp. 32, 110); ‘Asconius Pedanius’ (p. 90, 253); ‘Praedia Iulia Felicis’ (p. 57 bis); ‘leves’ mistranslated as ‘thin’ (p. 88); ‘Trebonianus’ for ‘Tebanianus’ (p. 164 bis); ‘laudatio Murciae’ (p. 140); some references are confusing, e.g. ‘ad Atticum 12, 13, 29, 44’ (p. 263 n. 87); page 140 features the intriguing concept ‘ familia clan’; in the House of the Vettii Mayer wrongly locates the ‘familiar sex scene’ in room d next to the vestibulum (p. 195); Tacitus, Ann. 15.34, does not say that Vatinius from Beneventum was a ‘shoemaker’ (p. 120); the confident reference to ‘Cicero’s family roots in commerce and trade’ (p. 43) seems extraordinary.