BMCR 2023.05.07

Dirt and denigration: stigma and marginalisation in ancient Rome

, Dirt and denigration: stigma and marginalisation in ancient Rome. Approaches to ancient history, 1. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2022. Pp. viii, 250. ISBN 9783161617072



After decades of effort among ancient historians to turn the field’s attention to marginalized people, the last ten years have seen a rise in interest in the mechanics of marginalization itself, particularly how and why some were excluded from ancient society. Jack Lennon has been a prominent voice in this effort through his work on religion and religious pollution, which could be applied to potentially offensive spaces and bodies. In his latest monograph, Lennon has directed his attention to the nature and meaning of “dirt” in Roman society, and especially to the social impact of dirt as a tool for labeling and controlling the marginalized. In Dirt and Denigration, he argues that dirt, both literal and figurative, was ascribed to different groups, whose status was determined and policed by frequent repetition of and elaboration on the dangers their dirt posed to the “clean” members of society.

Dirt and Denigration is divided into five body chapters, as well as an introduction and conclusion. Each chapter is punctuated with helpful subheadings, making the work simple to navigate. The first four chapters address dirt among professional groups, while the fifth and final turns to a variety of foreigners whose differences were identified as “dirtiness” by Roman authors. The primary focus of the work is on the city of Rome itself, and especially on the attribution of filth by Roman authors to those occupying, or who needed to be kept in, lower social positions. The work is essentially synchronic in focus, covering the Republic through the early and high Empire.

The introduction provides a clear overview of the book’s structure and lays important theoretical groundwork for the rest of the analysis. It includes a dissection of the concept of “dirt” as a culturally specific construction as well as the effects of social and legal stigma and marginalization. In the former section, Lennon takes a social-historical approach, rather than a philological one, while in the latter he adopts a minimalist stance with regard to the impact of infamia and other Roman legal provisions. Throughout, he notes that the potential for some kinds of dirt to be invisible—that is, flaws of morality and character described in the language of filth—made the threat to society, and the need to police social boundaries vigilantly, all the greater.

Chapter one analyzes the dirt attributed to pimps in Roman culture. The chapter is divided primarily by source material, with two sections devoted to drama and declamation, respectively, but it also covers references to brothels as both spaces that contaminated their occupants and put them into contact with other disreputable figures. Lennon argues that the intense vitriol directed against pimps was due, in part, to their relative invisibility in Roman society and the threat that they might always be “among us.” Further, the wealth that pimps might extract from their social betters had the power to upend established hierarchies and could blur social boundaries if they were not constantly maintained. Lennon rightly argues that there was a sense among Roman authors that pimps led good citizens into temptation, and that that temptation was not only sexual, but also moral and even political, potentially leading to radicalization and a threat to various kinds of established order. The “stain” of pimps was potentially contagious and it was the responsibility of “good” Romans to direct each other’s conduct, as well as that of the pimp.

Chapter two addresses prostitutes. Lennon notes that there is a wealth of recent work on this profession and restricts his analysis to issues of cleanliness, exposure of and to the bodies of sex workers, and the visibility of prostitutes in the city. He employs an effective sensory analysis to explain the dirt associated with sex workers and provides a clear explication of the cognitive dissonance required for Roman society to accept that sex workers were dirty and potentially diseased, but simultaneously maintain that it was natural, within limits, for men, especially of elite backgrounds, to patronize brothels. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the visible markers, and especially the clothing, that identified prostitutes. Here, perhaps more than elsewhere in the book, it is unfortunate that Lennon limits his focus to textual references, as there is a substantial amount of visual evidence that could have productively supported the discussion, especially of his ultimate point, that it mattered less what sex workers wore, and far more that Roman matrons did not allow their own standards of dress to slip.

Issues of visibility naturally transition to the third chapter, which addresses performers and entertainers, and especially actors and gladiators. Central to this chapter is the complexity of emotions generated by these public figures, who could be loved for the entertainment they offered, but were despised for the display they made of themselves and the control that others held over them. Lennon takes each in turn, noting the similar temptation that fame offered to some members of elite society, but distinguishing the kind of denigration that was applied to the respective professions. For the former, he argues that effeminacy was a major concern, and that acting made Romans (and their notorious bad emperors) weak, while, for the latter, the physical dirt of violence was combined with the figurative stain that accompanied association with criminals. The chapter concludes with a section on the trainers of gladiators and notes the similarities between the attacks leveled against members of this profession and against pimps.

Chapter four concludes the chapters on professions with a focus on death workers and undertaking. Here, the focus shifts to Italy, more broadly, and a number of laws intended to restrict and police the death trade. Especially interesting in this chapter is the discussion of the policies established to, at least performatively, separate the unclean from the masses in public baths. As elsewhere, Lennon expresses his skepticism that these rules could or would be enforced, and stresses that their appearance in law and theory was likely sufficient to reassure the general public that they were being kept clean. Lennon also recognizes and argues that mourning rituals spread the “dirt” of death far beyond the professionals employed to handle and relocate corpses, noting that there were different social expectations for funeral practices that depended on class. Elites, in some cases, voluntarily prolonged their own contact with the bodies of deceased family members, and expected that they would not be sullied by the practice. Beyond this material, the chapter also addresses the special position of executioners, whose active role in death and contact with criminals led to the accumulation of extreme filth in the Roman mind. That this work also took place in public settings made the labor of the executioner akin to that of the performers discussed in chapter three.

The final chapter, on the dirt of foreigners—Carthaginians, Greeks, Egyptians, and Jews—presents a medley of other kinds and expressions of dirt. The chapter’s strength is in its juxtaposition of cases where attributed dirt was widely accepted and seemingly unambiguous (Carthage, Egypt) with instances where dirt shows itself to be highly subjective (Greece, Jewish people). Unfortunately, the chapter feels somewhat hurried, in that it tackles xenophobia, religious and ethnic prejudice, and the dirt associated with political and military enemies in a single, sweeping chapter. Given the rest of the work’s focus on Rome, and especially on specific professions, the shift in scale in the final chapter not only opens up the reader to all the possibilities of this topic, but also reveals a surface that has only been scratched.

In light of the obvious depth of material to be covered, Lennon’s conclusion is very strong. In it, he turns not only to the heart of the issue surrounding dirt—whose behavior is actually being policed by this kind of denigration?—but also to one, final, and illuminating case: the Roman slave. While Lennon describes slaves incidentally throughout the book, it is here that he argues that slavery was, necessarily, a state that implied marginalization, but not always the particular kind of denigration that was associated with dirt. Rather, as he argues, dirtiness was applied to slaves in specific circumstances, often related to one or more of the circumstances investigated in the rest of the monograph. The result is that dirt is evidently not tied to status in a direct, straightforward way, but rather is an accusation that illuminates contested boundaries. As Lennon puts it, “where there is dirt, there is ambiguity.” (p. 206).

Dirt and Denigration is to be praised for embracing this ambiguity and for its excellent discussions of a wide variety of literary sources from an extended period of time. Nevertheless, the work is a relatively brief, perhaps opening salvo in what will, one hopes, be a protracted discussion in the field. Consequently, there are a number of issues raised in the book that never receive prolonged discussion and their absence is, at times, keenly felt. Gender and “correct” gender performance is especially prominent at a number of points in the book, not only in chapter two but also in chapter three, where it is clear that certain kinds of masculinity (often too much or not enough) could be transformed into “dirt” by those wishing to affirm their own form of expression. The structure of the chapters never brings this matter to the forefront, leaving it a tantalizing leitmotif. Given the emphasis of the first four chapters, it is surprising that professional and commercial “dirt” still invites further investigation. There is substantial ancient evidence for money being “filthy” in its own right, and Lennon’s thoughts on whether any wage labor could realistically be considered clean by Roman society would have been interesting to see. Ultimately, it would also have been helpful to see Lennon engage with more popular or non-textual sources. Though he begins Dirt and Denigration with an epitaph and occasionally makes reference to graffiti, the conclusion the reader reaches is that dirt rolled downhill from elite authors onto those further down, and that it was not a tool used among non-elites to judge and control their peers. Especially when looking beyond the city of Rome, it seems clear that there was plenty of “mud” being slung within non-elite communities, as evidenced by curse tablets, papyri, joke books, fables, and figurines of grotesque and comedic characters. This material would have greatly enriched these discussions, and no doubt will do so in the future.

Dirt and Denigration will be of interest, and is highly recommended, to anyone studying marginalized figures or the subaltern in Roman culture. It is a clear, concise, and vibrant study of the mechanisms of denigration and moves the conversation far beyond the consensus that populations were marginalized and begins to illuminate the fascinating questions of why and how.