BMCR 2019.04.43

Daily Life in Late Antiquity

, Daily Life in Late Antiquity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. x, 250. ISBN 9780511819360. £21.78.

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As Kristina Sessa notes in her introduction, Daily Life in Late Antiquity presumes no prior knowledge of the period, nor in fact much of ancient history at all. It is written with the undergraduate and the general reader in mind, introducing the late Roman world in a practical and thoughtful way. In addition to the standard literary, legal and epigraphic sources, Sessa draws widely on the growing archaeological material to flesh out the realities of everyday life. While this book occasionally depends a bit too much on the classical Empire and there are a few desiderata, as a whole the author has produced one of the best overviews of daily life in Late Antiquity to date.1

After an introduction explaining the concept of the period and setting out the conceptual parameters and intended use of the book, each of the six following chapters are introduced by example, focusing on individuals whose lives and activities exemplify the subject matter in question.

Chapters One and Two look at rural and urban life in the late Roman world respectively. In the case of the former, Sessa stresses the tenuous nature of existence even amongst the relatively prosperous farmers of the Empire. In addition to discussing the practical matters of existence and survival, Sessa also speaks to the rhythms of life, whether daily, seasonally, annually or otherwise. The cities as points of administration, economic activity and cultural diffusion, in contrast, presented a host of activities, opportunities and dangers mostly not present in the countryside. Despite the generalized quality of these descriptions, Sessa still manages to consider the changing world of late Rome, including important divisions that emerged not only between east and west, but also with regards to developments more regional and even local in character.

The third chapter takes as its subject the household, both in a literal and sociological sense. The first part treats the late antique family in fairly straightforward terms, covering marriage (both legal and unofficial), children, domestic slaves, etc. Sessa also correctly notes the minimal impacts of Christianity on the family. Her description might have included a bit more about the lifecycle—how families and households evolve over the years—but that is a relatively minor point. The second part of the chapter examines the physical aspects of housing—rich and poor—and the activities occurring within. Quite apart from the practical matters of living (eating, sleeping, bathing, etc.), Sessa also notes the importance of the household as a center of domestic industry, tying her discussion back well to the first two chapters.

Chapters Four and Six focus on the impacts of the state and religion on the daily lives of Romans. In the former, which is probably the least satisfying of all the subjects examined in the book, Sessa concentrates on soldiers and the military, the administration of law and the collection of taxes. In some ways, the treatment of military affairs might have been better incorporated into other chapters; her discussion on soldier marriages and families, for example (pp. 131-2), might just as easily fell into the previous chapter. One must wonder, too, to what degree and it what manner did warfare affect many people’s lives, a question worthy of exploring in greater depth given the events of Late Antiquity. The following sections seemed more “on point,” especially on the topic of taxation and the ways in which the Roman state collected as much income from its citizens as possible. While it describes the technical realities of taxation as well as how the state used that revenue, more of its impact on the lives of people would have been welcome. There is, for example, no mention at all of the tax refugees of late antique Egypt or Salvian’s reports of dispossessed landowners still liable for property taxes—both unpleasant realities of daily life.

The chapter on religion, on the other hand, is carefully, almost lovingly reconstructed. For the length of the chapter, it is one of the best reconstructions of the complexity of late antique religion, both in its nuanced description of spiritual belief and in its practices. Sessa also unsurprisingly emphasizes the rise of a new Christian elite and how the new religious paradigm in practical terms affected the visible expression of that belief.

Chapter Five takes as its subject matter “Body and Mind”. In the case of the body, it not only treats the subject of physical wellbeing, but the body as a form of social demarcation and statement of status. Among a broad array of topics, Sessa not only delves into medical theories of health and illness, but also addresses the very current and important issue of disability (pp. 174-6). The chapter also considers how certain Christian mores and practices impacted notions of mental and physical care, and helped to shift attitudes about such things as the effects of sexual intercourse.

Like all works that focus on the factual, there are a few questions dealing with what and how much to emphasize, and the occasional need for greater clarification. For example, the statement that the Colosseum in Late Antiquity could hold upwards of 90,000 spectators (p. 69), even after its reconstruction in the fourth century, is fairly debatable. Sessa’s discussion on the role of nutrices and Gregory I’s criticism of mothers who used wet-nurses (p. 99) implies something new, overlooking Christian condemnation of the employment of such women going back at least three centuries before. And Sessa’s discussion about where Rome got its slaves (p. 104) missed making a major historiographical point: that we are not entirely sure how the Roman world replenished its slave population over time. But these are minor criticisms, and to her considerable credit, there was nothing that seems to be technically incorrect. In a book such as this, where accuracy is absolutely essential, this makes it all the more praiseworthy.

Taken as a whole, Daily Life in Late Antiquity is something of a minor miracle: it brings together an enormous amount of material to offer a thoroughly up-to-date and eminently readable synthesis. Given its price point, it is this reviewer’s hope that, along with Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity, this book will become standard required reading in any introductory course covering this marvellously complex era.


1. It is perhaps worth mentioning Douglas Boin’s A Social and Cultural History in Late Antiquity (Wiley-Blackwell 2018), published in the same year as the current work being reviewed. While Boin’s is a work with a similar audience in mind and with a similar coverage, it is more properly a textbook.