Daily Life in Ancient Rome

Review by John Madden

University College

by Florence Dupont. Transl. from the French by Christopher Woodall. Oxford, Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell, 1992. Pp.xii+314; 10 plates, 7 figs. Hb Pound19.99; pb Pound11.99.

In the last hundred years and particularly in the last thirty there has been a steady growth of interest in daily life in the classical world. The progress of archaeology, the publication of new inscriptions, the stimulus of feminism, exciting TV documentaries, the increase in travel to classical lands and the growth of Classical Civilization courses (which for a change enable students to study daily life in a formal way) are among the reasons for this. In the case of Roman daily life both student and general reader alike have been well served with authoritative yet readable books on the subject: the works of Friedlaender (in translation), Dill, Warde Fowler, Tucker, Cowell, Paoli, Carcopino, Balsdon come immediately to mind, Carcopino's book in particular attaining the status of a classic and more than any other helping (in its Peregrine edition) to make daily life in Rome accessible to a wide public.

However, since the evidence, literary, epigraphic and archaeological, is richer for the daily life of the Empire than of the Republic, these authors tended either to concentrate on the Empire alone (e.g. Tucker, Dill) or to dwell more on the Empire than on the Republic (e.g. Friedlaender, Paoli, Carcopino, Balsdon). W. Warde Fowler's Social Life at Rome in the Age of Cicero (1908) is the only general work in English which concentrates on the Republican period alone. This, while still useful is of course extremely dated. Consequently, readers who have a special interest in the daily life of the Republic are in urgent need of an up-to-date book on the subject.

Florence Dupont's work (the English title is misleading, its content being more accurately described by its original [1989] French title La vie quotidienne du citoyen romain sous la République) goes a considerable way towards meeting this need. The work is divided into four parts (The City and its People, Places and Lives, Time and Action, The Roman Body), and these are subdivided into sixteen chapters in which the author covers most areas of Daily Life, eg: 'wealth and poverty', 'Slaves and freedmen', 'Roman houses', 'The family', 'Clothing, finery and bathing', 'Food, banqueting and the pleasures of the evening'. These and other themes are treated in varying degrees of completeness.

At all times the author is engaging and provides much useful information. Some chapters are particularly stimulating, eg those on 'The army' (7), 'Time and the Romans'(10), 'The Roman calendar and festivities'(12). Many interesting insights are to be found e.g. on the psychological needs fulfilled by slaves for their masters (pp. 58,69), on the purpose served by gladiators (pp. 88-9), on the physical piecemeal expansion of the city of Rome as a reflection of 'the Roman mindset: the tendency to proceed by a process of accumulation' (p. 137). All in all, the book is a very valuable and welcome addition to the growing library on Roman daily life.

That said, however, this reader has a number of reservations about the work. Firstly, it falls between two stools: it does not satisfy fully the needs of a beginner nor yet those of the more advanced student. The fundamental material that newcomers to the field seek on various topics is frequently missing: e.g. on slavery the methods of manumission are ignored; on gladiators there is no mention of the lanista, the last banquet, the parade, the rudis; on marriage the cum manu and sine manu forms are not fully described and there is no discussion of the laws governing divorce.

On the other hand the book does not sufficiently meet the requirements of advanced readers. Two serious flaws in procedure which persist throughout are the main causes of this. In the opening paragraph of the preface the author writes: The Roman republic can be viewed either as a chain of events - a history - or as a web of institutions - a culture. Adopting the latter approach, this book describes the daily life that Roman citizens led between the downfall of the kings in 509 BC and the seizure of royal power by Augustus in 27 BC. Within this time span, no distinction is made between different periods. This surely is a serious mistake in approach. As a result the development of many features of Roman daily life in that broad time span is neglected. For example, the gradual displacement of the conservative cum manu by the more liberal sine manu form of marriage, the effect this had on women's liberation, on family stability and on the incidence of divorce - all of which were at the heart of daily life in the period - are not given proper treatment.

Similarly with education: the steady evolution of a Roman syllabus alongside a Greek one both in the teaching of the Grammaticus as well as of the Rhetor is ignored; on gladiatorial shows the change in their scope and purpose from private funereal to public political is omitted; on medicine the importance of Asclepiades of Bithynia in revolutionising Roman medicine receives no mention. Another criticism must also be made. Again I quote from the author herself: Everything we know about how the Romans lived from day to day is contained in ancient Roman texts(p. 297) and in keeping with this the vast majority of the 255 footnotes in the book refer to the standard classical (literary) sources (the remainder to modern authors). Never once in her notes does the author refer directly to inscriptions or artefacts (even though she prints ten interesting plates) as the source for any of her statements.

This criticism is part of a wider one: there are not enough footnotes. Some statements are documented, others not. The rationale behind the omissions is not clear. Time and time again statements are made for which the keen student would like to have the source: e.g. 'when people could gorge themselves no more [at public feasts] whole sides of meat as yet untouched would be heaved into the Tiber' (p. 49); 'The one effort they (the inhabitants of the insulae) would make was to put some pots of flowers in the windows: a Roman always had to have his little patch of garden' (p. 151); 'It was only in the army that the Romans counted time: the night was divided into four watches and the guard was changed at the end of each watch. It seems that calibrated candles were used' (p. 188); 'But the most extraordinary festivity of the whole war cycle was the 'October horse', which involved two Roman districts' (p. 199).

These strictures however, should not take from the overall merits of the book. The author's often unusual approach and her striking ability to understand the Roman mind give it a unique stamp. She is very well served too by her translator whose version is remarkably fluent and graceful, though on rare occasions colloquialisms which might not appeal to everybody are used (e.g. 'Political life was a[n] ... over-the-top tragicomic play' (p. 172); 'they [banquet delicacies] were infinitely moreish' (p. 277)). The book has been carefully proof-read (however, read homines p. 57; census p. 65; Ovid, Fasti VI.131ff. p. 294, n. 157) and is beautifully produced.

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