Daily Life in Ancient Rome.

Daily Life in Ancient Rome. – book reviews

Amy Richin

Florence Dupont is well known to American classicists for L’acteur-roi, her book on the Roman theater. Daily Life in Ancient Rome thus comes as a disappointment. The book is written in a pleasant, at times effusive style, like a lecture for the general public. Its sections – “The City and its People,” “Places and Lives,” “Time and Action,” and “The Roman Body” – evoke current anthropological approaches to ancient Mediterranean cultures. Sections on naming, social class, slavery, spatial organization, the family, the army, experience of time, the religious calendar, medicine, dress, and food, with uttered asides on sexuality, promise much insight into Roman culture.

Nevertheless, the book shows so little regard for standard methodological guidelines that readers would be far better served by other general surveys and studies: Ramsay MacMullen’s Roman Social Relations, Carlin Barton’s Sorrows of the Ancient Romans, Sandra Joshel’s Work, Identity, and Legal Status at Rome, Suzanne Dixon’s The Roman Mother, or Judith Hallett’s Fathers and Daughters in Roman Society. Dupont’s very brief selected bibliography does not begin to reflect the state of the art, nor even account for the sources she follows or alludes to.

The book assumes an elite male self throughout (“sooner or later, in fact, every Roman was accused of being effeminate” [118]); this replicates, of course, a bias inherent in many Roman sources, but ancient historians today generally try to compensate for this bias, or at least discuss it as a problem. Dupont barely mentions women’s existence and accords slaves no subjectivity. Examples given within a discussion often jump back and forth over several centuries. This is especially a problem because we have poor sources for Roman history before the second century B.C. Accounts from later Roman historians are more myth than history, but you would never know this from Dupont, who paraphrases (for example) Livy’s tale of the murder of Verginia in 451 B.C., written around 25 B.C., as if it were an eyewitness report. Moreover, though Dupont specifically restricts her scope to the Roman republic (753-27 B.C.) and posits a major difference between republic and empire, she has not used contemporary sources. Of the 255 citations in the end-notes, only 44 are from republican sources, and 9 from modern writers; all the rest are imperial. This could work, but Dupont rarely lets the reader know what she is doing. Most of the plates also illustrate periods later than the republic.

Dupont uses biased or fictional sources as veridical or normative, for example a reference to grave robbing, apparently based on a pair of witches in Horace’s Satires, or the use of Cicero’s invective against Antony’s boyhood as a touchstone for norms of Roman adolescence. Speeches by literary characters are given as first-person testimonia. Most of the assertions in the text are not referenced in any way, and many could not be. The Romans are said to be “quite unconcerned” about ethnic traits in freed slaves; “citizens alone were possessed of souls” (10); “the vast majority of artists, intellectuals and people of fashion were freedmen” (63); “every Roman child was after all brought up in the countryside on a simple farm” (82); “what we would consider to be acts of incest were frequent occurrences” (118); “perhaps, under the republic, there was no such thing as time at Rome” (177); “children were constantly molested” (226); “the obese died young and discredited” (233); “all morning, Romans would stand by, ready to deliver or to receive blows” (248; apparently molesting children only in the afternoon). Dupont implies that the Romans were not Indo-Europeans, passes off the poet Lucretius’ death by love potion as fact, accepts the crabbiest accounts of Roman marriage as gospel, and refers to Roman male homosexuals as “wolfe-men.” There are many self-contradictions: “the Romans … did not … worry their heads over history” is soon undercut by Dupont’s own quotation from Plutarch’s Life of the EIder Cato: “Cato tells us that he wrote out his History of Rome with his own hand in large characters so that his son might have in his own home an aid to acquaintance with his country’s ancient traditions.” Finally, Dupont has in some places not been well served by her translator, or perhaps her editor: the plural of homo appears as homini, the Horatii appear as “the Horaces,” and the Chief Vestal as the “Grand Vesta.” The dramatist Publilius Syrus appears as himself, as “Publius Syrus,” and in the index as two men.

L’acteur-roi might have been a better choice for translation.

Amy Richlin University of Southern California

COPYRIGHT 1994 Phi Alpha Theta, History Honor Society, Inc.

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