BMCR 2015.08.09

La plèbe de Rome et sa culture (fin du IIe siècle av. J.-C. – fin du Ier siècle ap. J.-C.). Bibliothèque des Écoles Françaises d’Athènes et de Rome, 353

, La plèbe de Rome et sa culture (fin du IIe siècle av. J.-C. - fin du Ier siècle ap. J.-C.). Bibliothèque des Écoles Françaises d'Athènes et de Rome, 353. Rome: École française de Rome, 2014. x, 1,031. ISBN 9782728309665. €82.00 (pb).

Nicholas Horsfall’s 2003 book The Culture of the Roman Plebs was 176 pages long and generously spaced. Courrier’s doctoral thesis, revised into an École Française monograph, weighs in at over a thousand pages of dense text and documentation. How has Courrier managed to find so much more to say? To a large extent the answer is that Courrier has made plebeian culture political. In doing so, he massively widens the scope of the investigation, but inevitably raises questions over the focus of the enterprise. It is a testament to the skill with which this exhaustive account has been constructed that it just about holds together.

Courrier is a theoretically informed and exciting voice in the revival of excitement over the later Republic. His first task, in a section entitled ‘vivre dans la ville,’ is to define his terms. For Courrier the city itself is a key player; and Courrier’s Rome is a site of relative plenty. The urban infrastructure of Rome, its grain supply, water, hygiene, waste disposal and so forth constituted the basis for a relatively prosperous existence for many. Courrier is pushing an interesting argument in favour of urbanism, and Courrier’s plebs is rooted in the city. The mutual interrelationship between Rome and its people, it is argued, rendered both distinctive.

This would naturally encourage one to look for indications of civic pride, and Courrier hunts them down in the regions of the city, the vici, tabernae and insulae. Courrier brings in the stray indications of local and ‘common sense’ geography to depict citizens whose intimate and particularised knowledge of their city permitted the construction of local identities.1 Identification of microtoponyms and the evidence of the localisation of occupations help Courrier to create a picture of a dense urban network. This is in a way a reading of the kinds of evidence of which Coarelli has been reminding us in his remarkable series of books on Roman topography; it is a demonstration that this evidence exists because of the sideways glances of commentators, citizens and visitors who were navigating the city not merely as geographical but also as social space.

One of the most interesting elements of newer work on the Roman economy has been the recovery of the concept of work and the productive economy, and whilst it has led to some awkward formulations, there is no doubt that we are beginning to reconceptualise our understanding of the day to day activities of those who were not too rich not to need to work, or too poor and lost to find work, or dependent on others who owned them and their work. Courrier uncovers professional pride and social relationships constructed through work. This leads him in his second section to recover Paul Veyne’s concept of the plebs media. 2 We are at some distance here from say, Emanuel Mayer’s middle classes (not cited by Courrier).3 Mayer moved rather awkwardly from what he took to be non-elite culture to the existence of a non-elite class; Courrier works from the references to a plebs media to arrive at a more nuanced group, closer to a status group. His is a more Weberian than Marxist analysis, and it renders his analysis of the ideologies of this group more nuanced and subtle. Courrier is particularly good on differentiating between imitation of the behaviours of other groups and assimilation with them. His plebs media creates its own culture by behaving in a similar way to elite cultural groups, and his most interesting case study is around banqueting performances, especially in funeral contexts. This is an important distinction because it also allows reverse imitation, the self-conscious aping by senators or equites of the behaviour of those from lower status groups. Courrier does not touch much on this, but his account is giving us the sorts of sophistication which makes better sense of a Calpurnius Piso Frugi demanding his place amongst the plebs frumentaria.

The third and final section of the book looks at collective action, first in the Republic and then in the early Empire. For the Republican period, Courrier describes an active plebs, with a role to play. A particularly interesting section looks at the involvement of the plebs in imperial policy, showing that the plebs was not interested only in the affairs of the city. Courrier is also strong on communication across the plebs, and the ways in which consensus could be built, including but not only at the contio. Perhaps inevitably these days, there is a section on memory, which builds on the now substantial literature on this subject. Courrier moves beyond the ‘democracy’ debate launched by Fergus Millar to outline a picture of political activity being constructed by and in turn for the most part constraining the behaviour of the plebs. The crowd has its place, but is largely effective without recourse to violence.

It is no surprise that the tenor of the last chapter on the early Empire pushes back against the idea that the plebs was completely depoliticised by dynastic politics, and traces various ways in which different spaces and different contexts permitted a more dynamic relationship between the emperor and the people. Clearly there was a substantial evolution over time, and the plebs became increasingly assimilated with the emperor’s family. However, the reciprocity of relations remained strong.

The volume closes with an appendix with 295 individual occasions, classified chronologically, in which the Roman people ‘acted collectively.’ This is the database which Courrier uses to underpin the last two historical chapters. As with all databases, there are limitations. Courrier has to rely on words like plethos or hoi polloi or uulgus to reveal a collective action, but for all the care exercised, inevitably there are problems with using Plutarch to illustrate a moment of collective action, since he presumably first built from his sources, and secondly wrote at some distance. How many members of the plebs media knocked over Pompey’s statues in 55 BC is a question which does not admit of an easy answer. Courrier knows this, and his caution is admirable; but it does make the two political chapters both the most predictable and the least satisfying, although they are well written.

There are two very substantial problems with the book as a whole, or better, with the evidence which Courrier has to use. The first is the problem of what to do about freedmen and freedwomen. Despite all the recent excellent work on this topic, Courrier struggles as we all do to make intelligent sense of how the world of the freedman and freedwoman contributed to the picture of the socially integrated, economically active and structurally significant plebs media which is invoked here. The epigraphic record is treated as an indication of the actions of the plebs, but it is very often explicitly about the world of the freed slave. How does this work with a topographically alert, horizontally connected, politically aware citizenry?

The second and perhaps related problem is that the first two parts are synchronic (which means in effect strongly influenced by imperial period epigraphy) but the third is diachronic (which means, in effect, strongly influenced by imperial period sources like Plutarch). Cicero is of course important, but in the absence of a detailed account of the range of what Cicero meant when he talked about the plebs, we are left with questions about the extent to which Courrier has examined the picture an elite group wanted to construct, rather than reality.

Concluding on this note would be churlish, however, because it is evident that Courrier is well aware of the challenges of writing about the plebs when, if the epigraphy represented a lower status group and the literary accounts a higher one, he is potentially lacking evidence from precisely the group he wishes to describe. The necessary methodological step is to make the plebs a bigger, baggier and messier concept, its identity not being rigorously policed except for very specific juridical reasons, and its notion of boundaries being somewhat contingent. Whether that is the right decision is another matter. Courrier is caught rather between describing the apparent indications of a somewhat jealous plebs in the later Republic, whilst having to illustrate its behaviour from evidence which comes from a group which does not emerge from the plebs, but does enter into it and in numbers, that is, manumitted slaves and their descendants. The speed with which the plebs was transformed by the effects of the Social War and the economic revolutions of the period from 100 BC to 100 AD is perhaps understated here, but it is of course one of the huge questions with which we grapple.

The development of Paul Veyne’s intuition about the plebs media is done with as much sophistication as could be hoped for, and perhaps offers a useful alternative to the financially driven models which are coming to the fore.4 This is a big and courageous book, and certainly the first two-thirds are exceptionally useful and inspiring. Yet one misses some of Horsfall’s observations and illustrations – cries of ‘Bears, bears now’ interrupting plays, the linguistic distinctions like the sermo campestris of an old soldier, riddles, work songs, oiled bladders and the rest. The serious question is whether we are looking at different sections of the plebs, or at the same plebs behaving differently. The fact that this is so difficult to answer suggests that we may have some more work to do, but Courrier’s massive contribution should be an incentive and is certainly an indispensable aid.


1. Klaus Geus, Martin Thiering (ed.), Features of Common Sense Geography: Implicit Knowledge Structures in Ancient Geographical Texts Antike Kultur und Geschichte, Bd 16. Berlin, 2014; rev. BMCR 2015.01.20.

2. First adumbrated in P. Veyne, ‘La “plèbe moyenne” sous le Haut-Empire romain,’ Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales, 55. 6 (2000), pp. 1169-1199.

3. Emanuel Mayer, The Ancient Middle Classes. Urban Life and Aesthetics in the Roman Empire, 100 BCE-250 CE, Cambridge, MA / London: Harvard University Press 2012; important response by A. Wallace-Hadrill, JRA 26 (2013), 605-9.

4. See for a recent account of the transformation of Rome’s economy in the late Republic, P. Kay, Rome’s Economic Revolution (Oxford, 2014).