BMCR 2020.04.06

Daily Life in Ancient Rome. A Sourcebook

Brian K. Harvey, Daily Life in Ancient Rome. A Sourcebook. Edited and translated, with an introduction. Indianapolis: Focus, 2016. xii, 346 p.. ISBN 9781585107957 $24.95 (pb).


The world of ancient Rome continues to have strong appeal to the modern imagination, and those who teach courses designed to introduce students to the Romans regularly look for textbooks that can take full advantage of that interest. History texts can lay out the connecting narratives, and literature surveys can let the Romans speak to us across the centuries, but what can still be missing for students is a substantial sense of what life in the Roman world was really like. It is precisely with this need in mind that Brian K. Harvey has compiled this attractive new sourcebook of ancient texts meant to provide a more human window into how the ancient Romans lived and thought about their world. The most obvious target market for this book is the university classroom (and possibly the secondary school classroom), and for that purpose Harvey’s sourcebook will do an excellent job supplementing other texts in Roman civilization/culture and Latin courses. Its main competitor for this purpose is Jo-Ann Shelton’s As The Romans Did (at least in the English-language classroom), which for the past couple decades has been a mainstay of courses in Roman civilization.[1] In this review, therefore, I will on occasion reference Shelton’s volume since instructors may be wondering how they compare.

Daily Life in Ancient Rome: A Sourcebook collects a wide sampling of ancient texts within 348 entries, most containing a single passage, but some, such as inscriptions, containing several short entries. After an opening chapter that glides through the history of ancient Rome in a brief six pages, the rest of the book is organized into twenty chapters on the following themes: Roman social/class structure; ethical codes of virtue and vice; family; women; children; slaves; the cities of Rome, Ostia, and Pompeii; urban housing and country villas; neighborhood organization and urban infrastructure (including the water and grain supply), daily routines of eating, clothing, shaving/hairdressing, and the morning salutatio; occupations and business; religion; the military; rural living; the baths; dinner parties; eating establishments and inns; theatrical and circus entertainments; and the gladiatorial entertainments of the amphitheater. The work closes with a useful glossary of terms, a descriptive list of ancient works quoted, a bibliography of modern works for further readings, and an index. By way of comparison, Shelton’s As The Romans Did comes in at 473 entries spread across fifteen chapters, thus providing admittedly wider coverage in several areas, notably in the topics of Roman government, occupations and trade, entertainments, and philosophical viewpoints in ancient Rome. Shelton also contains several maps and appendices covering Roman money and a helpful timeline of Roman history, none of which are included in Harvey. That said, at 483 pages Shelton’s volume is noticeably longer, making it more difficult to tackle well in a single semester (at least in my experience), potentially more daunting for beginning students (not to mention the smaller font-size for the translated passages themselves), and vastly more expensive; it currently lists for $76.95 on the publisher’s website, compared to the much more student-friendly $25.95 for Harvey’s volume.

The organization of the entries within the book is straightforward. In each chapter, subheadings provide introductions to the various topics, followed by the individual passages, each with an explanatory title, citation of the ancient source, the time period in which the given text was written, a brief introduction to the passage with contextual information, and finally the English text of that passage itself. For example, in the chapter on slaves, under the subheading “The Treatment of Slaves,” we find entry “#124: The Torture of Slaves in Court,” which presents an introduction and translation of Justinian’s Digest, dated to the 6th century AD, which advises that the courts limit torture only to cases that are already all but proven. In comparison, Shelton’s section introductions tend to be longer and more detailed (as befitting a longer book), but I find that Harvey’s introductions still provide sufficient information to help a newcomer grasp the basics of the topic. Additionally, unlike Shelton, Harvey wisely provides dates with all of his entries, a crucial aid in understanding the historical context of a given passage. To his credit, Harvey has done his own new translations for all the passages, and of the sampling I checked, his renderings are generally accurate, aiming at fidelity to the original without being overly literal.[2] This is on the whole a welcome choice, as it lends itself to a consistency in translation style, and his renderings read smoothly, a crucial factor in making the text more accessible and enjoyable to the target market of students who are most likely unfamiliar with these texts.

In such a wide-ranging volume that attempts to provide the beginning student a representative sampling of texts that illuminate ancient Roman culture and daily life, there is something in this volume to stimulate any interest. Especially welcome for this reviewer are the sections on the importance of Roman ethical and communal values (Ch. 3: Virtue and Vice), the working professions and elite views on the working class (Ch. 13: Business and Occupations), and an impressively concise—and surprisingly useful—opening chapter giving a quick summary of Roman history (Ch. 1: A Short History of the Empire). Throughout the book, Harvey demonstrates his wealth of experience in epigraphical sources through the inclusion of numerous interesting inscriptions, building on his previous book Roman Lives: Ancient Roman Life as Illustrated by Latin Inscriptions (Focus, 2004). Both Shelton and Harvey shine in this regard. However, given the nature of such a text and inherent space limitations, it is also inevitable that certain topics get too little treatment or fail to get mentioned at all. For example, Harvey divides the world of Roman public entertainments and spectacle into two chapters to close the book, one on the theater and circus and the other on the amphitheater, but there is no mention of the abundant evidence we have for other games and entertainments, including board and dice games, along with the Roman fondness for gambling. Also, while Harvey does include readings on the grain supply, dinner parties, and bars and inns, what is lacking is a section dedicated to ancient Roman food itself. In my experience students are routinely curious about what the Romans actually ate and how the food was prepared, and so this omission seems like a missed opportunity. There is also nothing in Harvey’s volume on that quintessential Roman public spectacle, the triumphal parade. Shelton does include passages that at least touch on all of these.

These observations aside, Harvey’s sourcebook does a remarkable job of packing a wealth of information into a compact, user-friendly volume, and it deserves the full consideration of any teacher looking for a sourcebook to complement a course on ancient Rome. Any areas where the coverage seems to be lacking can easily be covered with a quick scan or photocopy of a few pages in another source. I personally enjoyed using Shelton a couple decades ago as an undergraduate, and it still remains the more complete volume, but for the foreseeable future I will now be using Harvey for my Roman civilization courses, primarily due to its much greater affordability and accessibility to newcomers.


[1] J.-A. Shelton, As The Romans Did, Second Edition (Oxford, 1998). Another sourcebook option on the market is D. Cherry, The Roman World: A Sourcebook (Blackwell, 2001), but it contains many fewer (and noticeably longer) passages, making it ultimately a different kind of work. Other fairly recent books on ancient Roman life and culture include J. Clarke, Roman Life (Abrams, 2007), D. Matz, Daily Life of the Ancient Romans (Focus, 2008), and A. Angela, A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome, Third Edition (Europa, 2009), but these are structured as narrative descriptions of their various topics (with ancient sources relegated to a supporting role, if present at all) rather than as ancient text-focused sourcebooks.

[2] He sometimes gets carried away, however, as in entry #197, Ars Amatoria 3.433-448. In the context of Ovid’s admission that men often tell multiple women the same story about how much their love is true, Harvey liberally reinterprets the Latin third-person statement at 3.436 (errat et in nulla sede moratur amor: “their love wanders and settles down nowhere”) as a direct, first-person quotation of what such men have told the numerous women: “I am a swinger. There is no single home for my love.” A few lines later he translates 3.442 (perque aditus talis lucra pudenda petant: “and through such approaches seek shameful gains”) rather too creatively as “but all you are to them is another notch on the bedpost,” which in a book specifically geared towards revealing the realia of ancient life could easily lead students wrongly to think that this passage gives evidence for seeing the bookkeeping of amorous conquests on wooden posts as a common Roman practice. Fortunately, such translation mishaps are the exception rather than the rule.