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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.
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on January 12, 2012
The history of the ancient world was written by elites for elites; so how, at a distance of 2000 years, can we get a better picture of the ordinary people? By closely examining sources off the beaten path, including private letters, epitaphs on tombs, dream interpretation guides, books of magical spells, fables, and Biblical material, Knapp contrives to reveal the values, concerns, and expectations of those who are "invisible" in narrative history.

Knapp's methodology is sensible and clearly explained, his prose is straightforward and crisp, and his viewpoint (always implicit, never explicit) is empathetic and humane. For both scholars and ordinary (invisible?) readers who want to know more about the Ancients, this is an excellent survey. Highly recommended.
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on September 2, 2013
Knapp a retied professor of Classics, UC Berkeley, has taken potentially very dry subject matter, substantial amounts of original sources in translation, and created an interesting and reliable reading experience. However, with these sources, reconstructing the lives of non-elite ancients is a very subjective undertaking since the interpretation of such and how broadly they should be applied is quite controversial - which he openly admits.

Content wise, he has nine chapters 1. the lives of ordinary men 2. Lives of their own: Ordinary Women 3. Subjection and Survival: The Poor 4. Coping in Bondage: Slaves 5. After Slavery: Freedmen 6. A Living at Arms: Soldiers 7. Sex for Sale: Prostitutes 8. Fame and Death: Gladiators 9. Beyond the Law: Bandits and Pirates. Structurally, Knapp uses no notes to the academic literature, instead pointing the reader to a section of further readings and notes on the sources in the end matter. Also, he provides 32 in text illustrations, and 30 colour figures in a special middle section.

I think that this book is a very good introduction to the lives of everyday people during the Roman imperial period, and the author integrates Christian materials quite well into his analysis. Consequently, this book helps one to grasp the New Testament world much more clearly. Also to be noted, is that one should take the comments of the elite few as reflective of the opinion of a very small part of the population, hence the elite dislike of and stigma against freedman was likely only present in elite circles, the majority of the population did not disdain freedman.

However, I found at least one frustrating aspect to his writing. I could not always easily demarcate where he left off giving his own opinion, what he thinks is the general scholarly consensus, and other scholar's specific proposals. Hence, it was not always clear to me where he was being speculative and going out on a limb with his own idiosyncratic spin. Anyhow, I enjoyed this book so much, that despite this quibble I think that it still deserves 5 stars. Definitely recommend this book for a serious reader, though it clearly does not read like a novel. If someone were looking for a historical novel style, something like the Da Vinci code with reliable historical detail, then I suspect that one would find his approach somewhat boring and too academic as one other reviewer complains about the book.
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on November 3, 2014
As I say in my Amazon’s Home page I’m a history buff and Rome’s history from the Republic to the late Empire exceedingly interest me. I enjoy well researched historical novels as McCullough’s series “Masters of Rome” or classic texts as Suetonius’ “The Twelve Caesars” and Plutarch’s “Lives”.

Robert Knapp has studied the “invisible romans” that is to say ordinary people. A disregarded subject and much needed to have an accurate picture of Roman World.
The author takes a look to: ordinary men and women, the poor, the slaves, freedmen, soldiers and gladiators; prostitutes, pirates and bandists.

This is an excellent, very readable and concise research, recurring to a variety of unexpected sources to dig and throw light on the elusive subject. The author explains at the end of the book how and why he used these marginal evidences.

This book is treasure for Roman history students and fans alike do not miss it!

Reviewed by Max Yofre.
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on August 27, 2013
"Invisible Romans" seeks to be a salutary corrective to the many books which concentrate on the elite of the Greco-Roman world, and it fulfills that goal quite well. I especially liked the numerous ancient inscriptions which the author translates in order to give insight into the lives of ordinary people (my favorite was the one about the four prostitutes who became partners in opening a restaurant--sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction!). I've read lots of books on ancient history, but "Invisible Romans" is definitely one of my faves.
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on June 7, 2014
Knapp finds more data than probably anyone believed existed about the lives of Roman women, slaves, freedmen, workers, soldiers, and gladiators—in short about the people who were invisible to most historians. For those interested in ancient history, this is a book they won't be able to put down.
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on December 11, 2015
Countless works have been devoted to Emperors, Orators and Generals.
This work has been written to address the mass of invisible people, that lived in the shade of historical events.
Unfortunately the result is not always so enticing and, moreover, I believe it lacks a firm theoretical frame (like for example the approach of Braudel and the Ecole des Annales in France) to evaluate the subject.
So the structure by topics ends up to be just a long list and rather haphazard addition of facts

What surprised me most is that this essay addresses the historical theme, disregarding completely the timeline of the Roman Empire.
The author uses indiscriminately examples from the Republican period, from the Early Empire, the Age of Antonines and the late Empire to appraise the themes, almost as no change, be that evolution or involution, occurred in the almost five centuries considered.
And yet those times where characterized by many different macroscopic events: one between the many, the spread of Christianity, a "popular" religion that heavily influenced the mores of the people of the Empire.

The same prejudice occurs in the approach to the geographical dimension of the Empire: not just the macroscopic difference between the Latin speaking Western part and Greek speaking Eastern one, but also between a different geographical "sedimentation" of social structures (Egypt for example).

The (obvious) concern with material culture overwhelms completely any intellectual dimension: here and there are just some scattered remarks, while it would have been hugely interesting to try to address themes like literacy rates and how it affected the decline of the Empire, hindering social mobility and widening the gap between elite and invisibles. Just as an example, in the iconography of the late Empire, the images of the Book in the early churches switch from open to closed, with the declining rates of literacy. Books become amulets and no more intellectual challenges.

I was also quite annoyed at the insisted and repeated distinction between "elite" and invisibles, as these are completely different worlds.
Were they that different? Was there any osmosis different from the understandable imitation of aristocratic way of life? Someone could argue that the widening gap between aristocracy and common people (and from urban and rural life) signaled the declining fortunes of the Empire, and someone else could be amazed at the fact that many members of the "elite" (Ambrose and Augustine for example) became leaders of the newly formed Christian official institutions.

Lacking an intellectual frame to understand the issue at hand, it would have been helpful to try a comparative approach to explain why social structures form and develop.
Just as an example, in Athens the process of democratization was boosted by the development of the fleet and the need for citizens rowers/soldiers: this process was mirrored in an unsurpassed spreading of culture also in the lower classes (Socrates was an artisan and the son of two "invisibles"). Conversely in the early Hellenistic era there is an early involution toward an oligarchic ethos, followed by the spread of Eastern models of worship of "divine" monarchs (see the studies of Robin Lane Fox and Luciano Canfora)

Passingly... no mention has been given to plagues and demography from the Antonines onward.
Also the economic framework is rather weak and no mention has been given to wages and inflation (see Finley) and the impact on spreading poverty and need in the lower classes.

Very interesting the passing mention of the difference between the rural dimension of the teachings of Jesus as compared with the urban framework of the teachings of Paul and in the Acts of the Apostles.
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on April 10, 2013
A summary of the review on StrategyPage.Com:

'Prof. Knapp (Emeritus, UC), who was one of the editors of the outstanding Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World: Map-By-Map Directory (2 Volume Set) examines the lives of the lesser Romans, the overwhelming majority of the populace who did the work and the fighting, to the greater glory of the tiny ruling class, who usually get most of the attention. He devotes each of the nine chapters to a different class, the "ordinary" men and women in the middle classes, the poor, the slaves, freedmen, prostitutes, soldiers, gladiators, and those "Beyond the Law", bandits and pirates. Naturally the categories overlap a bit, since women could be members of the middle class or poor or prostitutes or slaves or freed, and soldiers could rise to prosperity in the middle classes, but in general the broad categories hold up well. The discussion of soldiers is notable for looking at the troops from their recruitment, through their training, largely with the legions, their years of service, and on to retirement and beyond, including some who later did well in private life. The look at bandits and pirates reflects a growing sense that these plagues - or trades - were always present, even at the height of Empire. An interesting, informative read.'

For the full reveiw, see StrategyPage.Com
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on January 4, 2015
I had the good fortune to sit and read this over the course of a week during the summer. Normally I am in school as a history major. The author was true to his purpose on focusing on those that lived and died during romes epoch. These people, while little to nothing is written about them, scant evidence through grave markers, graffiti, and what nobles managed to jot down about them can contribute to a picture of lives lived. The author provided these plebs with a voice that is not filtered through orators and writers of the day. Very readable and lively. If you are at all curious as to what the masses did on a daily basis, this is the one for you.
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on January 4, 2013
This book opens the door on the people that you don't learn about in the ancient world--the ordinary folks, not the guys in purple togas and laurel wreaths. Very readable and entertaining.
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