Peter Jones enjoys a rich new survey of the lives of ordinary Romans
If you like your information to come thick and fast without too much need to beetle the brow, this is the book for you.
Robert Knapp, emeritus professor at Berkeley, California, has gathered together a vast amount of evidence about back-street Romans, clearly presented and well backed up with copious quotations from the sources.
These feature inscriptions and letters in particular, but also folk-songs, fables, books of jokes, legal digests, the Bible, novels, dream interpretations (“to defecate in the temple, market place, public street or bath… portends the wrath of the gods, great disgrace and severe loss”) and so on. His purpose is to get into the ‘mind-world’ of these invisible people.
Taking each group in turn, he finds plenty of evidence to suggest that fear (of violence, exploitation, etc), need (for everything from security to health), dependence (especially on family and friends) and hope (for better days) dominate their thoughts, with all the worries attendant on such concerns. The possibility that gods or fate might be on their side was a comfort, but there were no guarantees.
One can see why life was so hard when one considers the statistics with which Knapp begins the story.
In the Roman empire of 50–60 million people, there were perhaps 5,000 super-elite adult males with the wealth to qualify as Roman senators. Across the roughly 300 established urban districts in the empire, there might be 30–35,000 very rich elite males.
Those two groupings might have held 80 per cent of the total wealth. That leaves 99.5 per cent of the population to account for.
Perhaps 25 per cent of them could make a broadly sustainable living. They would include merchants, artisans, soldiers, peasant farmers who had done well, and those who lived off the elites: teachers, doctors, architects and so on.
Observe here that there was no prejudice against ‘work’ of the sort one finds among the leisured elites. Work was the only way to survive, and as Rome grew wealthier from its conquests, so the standard of living and the quality and range of goods rose. That needed a flexible labour force.
Knapp might have quoted the graffito: “You’ve had any number of different job opportunities – barman, baker, farmer, at the mint, now you’re selling pots. Lick **** and you’ll have done the lot.”
Knapp has much of interest to say about women too, pointing out that, from the evidence we have (an important proviso), women do not appear to have felt themselves an oppressed class, nurturing secret aspirations for liberation. Letters from Egypt, for example, show strong-minded women fully in charge of their own business.
If the book has a weakness, it lies in the relentless piling up of examples, leading to somewhat repetitive conclusions. Some analysis of, for example, the tension between the elite’s image of a well-governed, just society and the reality of non-elite life might have been quite eye-opening: how did that affect the non-elite’s ‘mind-world’?
But one certainly cannot complain about the sheer richness of the fare spread out before us.
Peter Jones is the author of Vote for Caesar: How the Ancient Greeks and Romans Solved the Problems of Today (Orion, 2009)