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How the Other 99% Lived
on October 5, 2011
You don't have to be a student of ancient history to appreciate that there were some important Roman orators, generals, and emperors. They have countless volumes devoted to their endeavors, and that flow is never going to stop. But it is obviously incorrect to think that those important people were the mass of Roman society. They made their names, and are recorded in the histories, but as in any other society, there were far more people who went about their lives and did nothing in particular that needed to be written about. They might not be easily visible in historic accounts, but Robert Knapp, a Professor Emeritus in the Classics, wants to change that. In his introduction to _Invisible Romans_ (Harvard University Press), he writes, "The experience of ordinary people has no direct voice in the histories the Romans have left us." There are ways of looking at incidental information, though, to cast light on the poor people, women, soldiers, and other categories examined here. Many of Knapp's previous academic works have to do with epigraphy, and to be sure there are plenty of funerary inscriptions here. He has also mined graffiti, New Testament stories, and the fiction works of authors such as Apuleius and Plautus. A surprising source is the guides to dream interpretation which ordinary people would have used to get love, luck, or vengeance. The result is a unique view of Roman life on the streets, in the arenas, and in the barracks, roughly from the first three centuries CE, written with an engaging prose. It is Everyman who is on view here, so while there are plenty of surprises, the pleasing overall effect is to realize how similar common lives then were to ours now.
Knapp has nine chapters for nine categories of people, the first two devoted simply to ordinary men and ordinary women. "Ordinary men" means something below the elites (whose attitudes are often discussed here) and the poor (who get their own chapter). The ordinary men were merchants and craftsmen who had good opinions of themselves, although Knapp demonstrates that there was a view from the elite that such men were lying thieves. The ordinary men didn't have such a prejudice among themselves. It was taken for granted that husbands would enjoy the favors of prostitutes or slaves, but the fidelity of wives was regarded as essential. Couples had sex more for procreation than enjoyment, and foreplay that we take for granted like oral sex was regarded as deviant. Slaves were something less than fifteen percent of the Roman population. Philosophers may have fretted over the difference between slaves and free men, but there was nothing like an abolition movement, and the propriety of slavery was not questioned. While slaves could not hope for an abolishment of slavery, they could hope for freedom. They could work for it, and could purchase themselves from slavery. They had examples of former slaves always before them, another class that gets a chapter here, the freedmen, a class that has no analogy with anything in our society. Soldiers have a chapter here, because although anyone can read of conquests by Roman armies, individual soldiers are not remembered as individuals; we have no soldier's memoir, for instance. Soldiers did fight battles, but mostly they marched from one place to another and stayed in their barracks and forts; there was some risk of war injuries, but this was limited. A soldier was honored by his society, and the pay was regular, and housing, food, and comradeship were assured. There is a chapter on gladiators here, with a revelation that they fought only two or three times a year. They were slaves or free volunteers, and the volunteers signed a contract that they could in the arena be "burned, chained, beaten, or killed." A gladiator had a 10% chance of dying in his first bout, and most did not live past thirty. They were public celebrities, and had access to all the eager sexual partners they wanted. Another chapter shows how prostitution, of men and women, was generally accepted, and was never illegal.
It is a pleasure throughout _Invisible Romans_ to see how Knapp has used his obvious expertise and depth of knowledge to bring out facts from many diverse sources. His writing is clear, and often witty. In his chapter on gladiators, for instance, he remarks that we know little about their religious ideas. "This is surprising, since in such a deadly profession one might expect an interest in divinities that could provide protection. One gladiator makes a dedication to Venus, but this can hardly be related to the activity of the arena." I have not read any of Knapp's other books, but this one is different, directed to anyone, not necessarily an academic expert, with interest in the Roman era, even if that's just from seeing gladiator movies. He reveals in his acknowledgements that the book is dedicated to his mother, "who always wanted me to write a book she could read. Although she is gone now, my filial duty is met at last." His mom would have gotten a kick out of this exhilarating show of scholarship at a popular level.