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Life, Death and Entertainment in the Roman Empire by D.S. Potter

Book Review by Skarr

While this book is by no means an all encompassing reference book on the subject it purports to cover namely "Life, Death and Entertainment in the Roman Empire", it is perhaps a useful introduction to a student who is interested in Rome. To quote the blurb on the back, this book "gives those who have a general interest in Roman antiquity a starting point informed by the latest developments in scholarship for understanding the extraordinary range of Roman society."

The book starts off with a general explanation of some key concepts concerning the Roman household or "familia" and then goes on to explain the Roman concept of marriage with some quotes and anecdotes, including extracts of letters that cover a range of topics, from love within a marriage to topics such as faithfulness, conveying news about a miscarriage and other normal "family" events. Some of the letters are interesting, as from a man called Plinius to his grandfather-in-law. I guess from a modern perspective, this sort of correspondence may seem quaint or even absurd, but it makes perfect sense in a Roman world, as Plinius is probably writing to the paterfamilias of his wife`s family, not to her father, who is probably under the old man`s thumb.

In this letter (I choose at random from several letter extracts, because this particular letter is quite fascinating), Plinius first seeks to assuage the feelings of his grandfather-in-law in respect to the expectations he has from his granddaughter, in the matter of bearing a child. He then bluntly conveys the fact that his wife has suffered a miscarriage and that she is at fault, as she was inexperienced and did not even realize that she was pregnant and therefore, quite careless in the way she conducted herself, resulting ultimately in the loss of the child. He squarely puts the blame on her solely and absolves himself completely from any responsibility in the very first paragraph. His only consolation from this experience is that she has "learned a very serious lesson and almost died as a result." He then goes on to philosophize a little and tells the old man that he should thank the gods as although he has lost a great grandchild, they have saved his granddaughter.

Well, apart from the callous way in which the men casually discuss the fate of their women, the real motives come in the very last paragraph of the letter, which sets out the reasons why Roman men acted in that way. It is political and in the end, the success of the Roman line depends on the success of their progeny, through their "well known names and a family tree that goes back for generations." In this manner, "the path to public offices will be easy for them." Now, here is a concept that anyone well versed in Roman ways can easily understand. The men existed to rule and each one, according to the time honored Roman traditions, could aspire to the highest office, that of consul, which would be the culmination of a political career as the path to success in public life was not easy. There were many offices, many steps in the ladder to the top, each representing a crucial stage for the incumbent, requiring not only birth, connections and other privileges of being well born, but also incredible amounts of money, as candidates were expected to stage public events on a grand scale, by providing games, feasts and other forms of entertainment in order to secure their position among the vast majority of voting populations. I say "populations" here not "voters", as the Roman electorate was a little different from ours and organized by tribes or classes or "centuries", to use a more precise term.

Some of the above aspects I refer to are covered in this work, which also deals with demographics, from mortality rates, to the Roman census. What is interesting in this section is an actual example of a census return filed on May 15, 119 A.D. by an Egyptian family from the village of Tanyaithis and addressed to the governor of the district in which the village is located. First, this displays the highly organized manner in which the Roman public affairs were conducted, with extraordinary efficiency and precision, but as with everything else, the individual facts surrounding each of the returns may give us some food for reflection.

In this return filed by a scribe named Harpokration, he declares himself as age seventy, with a "scar on the shank of the left leg" (some form of physical identification had to be declared), with a son (giving his mother`s name and whose daughter she was), without any scar. According to the editors, the Egyptian police would often use these descriptions as a way of tracking down people involved in illegal or criminal activity.

The interesting fact here is that he says that his son is aged seventeen and is a doctor. According the interpretation here, this was not all that unusual, as young men were often apprenticed to an older doctor and there were no formal medical schools or other training requirements. The man who files the census return is Greek, but his wife is Egyptian and while the males have Greek names, the women retain their Egyptian names. This not only attests that such intermarriages were common but also reinforces the fact that the males tried to retain their Greek identity through the father s line. Harpokration also declares his wife, aged thirty nine and a fifteen year old daughter in this return. What I found most interesting was that they all lived in a rented house "owned" by an Egyptian woman, attesting clearly to the fact that women in Egypt had property rights and were much freer than their "Greek" counterparts. In Greece, women were severely repressed and many found Egypt to be a much freer place for them, especially in regard to things such as education, property rights and even sexual freedom, which would be quite impossible in Greece, except to certain classes of women, such as the hetaerae, who were "freer" than other women.

The book covers Roman Religion, delving into many aspects thereof, including the question of ritual propriety and the role of the pontifex maximus in regard to giving a decision on this matter. As the author rightly points out, the pontifex maximus could merely advise the consul on an important matter and offer his opinion, not really lay down the law. The consul, in such situations, would routinely consult the collegium as a whole to rule on this matter, which could be anything from vowing games to making an unspecified monetary gift to Jupiter Optimus Maximus, if victory was won on the field.

In a specific case covered in this work, the pontifex maximus opines that a vow could not be offered from "an unspecified amount of money". Finally, the collegium, when consulted by the consul, does not offer a "decree" or decision, but merely another opinion to the consul. Various other aspects are covered, including sacrifice, harsupicy, which was of Etruscan origin and entailed reading the remains of sacrificial beasts, particularly the coloring of the liver and heart and so on.

The final chapters of the work cover the Entertainment aspect from theater, games, chariot races and of course, the inevitable gladiatorial combats that took place across the length and breadth of the vast Roman world, especially during the imperial phase. There is a short chapter on the logistics of feeding the citizens, the "bread" that the plebeians came to expect from the state, a subject of great concern to the rulers of Rome, who had to ensure that their citizens did not starve. There are some interesting statistics here, especially around the consumption of wheat and the resources and infrastructure needed for its transport, security, storage and the like. Vast amounts of olive oil and wine were also consumed, requiring an enormous number of amphorae to be produced and then discarded. The average diet seems to have been made up of mainly grain, oil and wine with fish, meat and other food being consumed on occasion. There are also statistics around the transport of another commodity imported in vast quantities - marble and other kinds of stone.

The Roman theater, modeled after the Greek theater in many ways, is another dimension that was available to a vast public seeking leisure and entertainment. One important fact that emerges is that the "players" or rather, actors and other performers, enjoyed quite a bit of support and patronage from the rich and powerful, with Mark Antony even getting a famous mime, on very short notice, to play Caesar at his funeral and "contribute to the riot that followed." There were many occasions for the players to excel, apart from their public performances at well known theaters throughout the city. "Dinner parties at Rome" were quite common and many of them had private showings of their favorite plays by well known troops of actors.

The book covers the subject of chariot racing and gladiatorial contests in its last chapters. On chariot racing, I found some interesting extracts especially one concerning the structure of a faction. This particular extract is from an inscription (from the Domitian era) which goes on to detail at length the various members of the "Red" team or faction - namely, the treasurer of the association, the owner, various functionaries such as the conditor, assistant conditor, sellarius, overseer, doctor, tentor, morator, etc. etc.

The Reds were composed of many such "factions" or teams and one can only imagine the vast organization involved in the maintenance and running of just one entire team or rather league, the "Reds". When you consider that there were also the Blues, the Greens and the Whites, the enormity of the whole enterprise behind chariot racing becomes apparent. Even the Emperors were extremely fond of chariot racing, from Nero to the infamous Elagabalus, whom I personally think was the most insane of all Emperors.

Finally, on the subject of gladiators, I wonder what else could be new there that hasnīt already been covered to death before, as this is the topic that is most commonly covered by most writers on Rome. Everyone is fascinated by the arena and while there are many misconceptions regarding the actual combat, almost everyone is familiar with the Roman fascination with death as a public spectacle, with violent encounters being staged on a daily basis between humans and beasts, humans and humans and other forms of ultra violent action. What I found interesting here was a table showing the prices per gladiator based on rank and the corresponding munus or overall funds that would be required to stage the event, depending on the rank. This measure was proposed by a senator in the reign of Marcus Aurelius, who wanted to rescind a 25-33 percent surcharge on gladiators, which prompted a discussion in the senate. One of the interesting facts about this table here is that it shows not only the gladiatorial ranks but also the munerarii, in their ability to fund, support and stage these events. One needed to be of a certain social status and standing to be a sponsor or munerarii of games and this was often a bone of political contention, with candidates vying one another to stage games. Caesar advanced his career by staging the most lavish games and was a real crowd pleaser, in the true sense.

All in all, I found this to be a fairly well written, informative book and it does live up to the blurb on the back cover and does provide a good overall introduction for those who are new to the subject of Roman antiquity or seek to know more. For the scholarly or those who are already well versed in the subject, this book may offer a tidbit or two but not much else.

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Book Review of Life, Death and Entertainment in the Roman Empire - Related Topic: Daily Life In Ancient Rome


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