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Roman Life - John R. Clarke

Book Review by Ursus

Romanophilia admits to myriad interests, both subtle and gross. For some the chief interest in Rome is the grand politics of a long-lived civilization etched out by personalities ranging from noble to psychotic. Others see in Rome the austere majesty of the legions and the mystique of ancient warfare. A third camp explores culture and daily life. While having an interest in all areas, it is the latter that has always especially captivated me and continues to do so. From the silent majesty of architecture to the din of the gladiator games, from the sacredness of a religious ceremony to the sumptuousness of the dinner table, I feel both vexed and comforted by the quotidian experiences of our esteemed forebears.

Ultimately any cultural study presupposes to address the question of correspondence between the subject and the object; in other words, how much or how little does the society under study resemble our own? And where differences exist, do we learn to appreciate them, or condemn them as alien? These then are the matters placed before the culturalist; how much of the Roman soul mirrors our own, and do we revere or revile the shadows cast down from history?

John R. Clarke is one of the more qualified individuals to attempt a study of this nature. This professor from University of Texas at Austin is trained as both an art historian and archaeologist. With these two specialties in mind it is not surprising he focuses on a visual survey of the Roman Empire. The surviving art, architecture and street graffiti left by the Romans are the sources of his cultural inquiries. This sort of survey reveals channels of historical experience that traditional studies of classical literature ignore. As Clark states in his introduction:

... so much of what we know comes from classical literature, written by elite men. Naturally, the texts give the mindset of the upper classes of Roman society. There's not a single woman writer, nor are there any literary texts written by slaves, former slaves, or freeborn workers. ... To reconstruct the lives and identities of the other 98 percent of ancient Romans, we have to rely upon the kind of evidence you find in this book: inscriptions on tombs, graffiti and shop signs. What emerges is a much livelier and multifaceted society than you get reading Cicero or Virgil.

Indeed. Clarke's previous book was entitled Roman Sex, a penetrating study of the subject using the visual evidence left over from the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Contained therein were certainly scopes of inquiry and quirks of Roman culture one could not garner from an iconic Stoic stalwart like Cicero. While I reviewed that book elsewhere, I will say here the central concern was to draw any parallels between sexual attitudes in Ancient Rome and the modern West. He concluded quite bluntly that there were none! It was on the strength of that haunting study that I bought this other work from him, and I was not disappointed.

But back to Roman Life. What do we mean by Roman life? Clarke iterates there is no single Roman experience. How you lived your life was dependent on a variety of factors: the region in which you lived, your gender, your religion, and above all your social class. The question of how much Romans were like us is then a complicated question, because we have to ask ourselves which sector of society we wish to compare. Certainly the modern world would find ancient slavery quite foreign.

To facilitate our survey of the subject, Clarke takes on a novel approach. He has us look through the eyes of Ancient Romans themselves. Rather than tell the story himself, he takes characters known to history and writes them as if in a sort of historical novel: "I have written little stories about people whom I have come to know." These characters' names and social backgrounds were fleshed out by analyzing the material remains of a given location, and Clarke has us follow them around as they conduct their daily lives. This is decidedly a gimmick; whether you enjoy the book or not may largely depend on how you receive this gimmick. In the hands of a lesser author the attempt would have fallen flat on its face. I however believe Clarke brilliantly succeeded in this endeavor, and indeed I find his little stories better written than some big name historical fiction series I have struggled to read.

Geographically the book's stories span from Rome to Ostia to the various communities that lay in the wake of Vesuvius. Socially, the characters range from senator to slave, and both genders are well represented. Topically, the areas of study are as follows: religion, work, the military, mime and pantomime shows, taverns, the public baths, dinner parties, faces, and death and burial. In the sum of things this is a veritable cornucopia of slices of Roman life. I particularly enjoyed the fact that Rome itself was not the focus of study; the majority of narratives take place in Ostia and Pompeii. How a merchant operated in the booming port town of Ostia, or how a decurion (local councilor) campaigned for power in Pompeii is sometimes more exciting than the political intrigue of a Roman Senator, if only because they are understudied subjects.

The photographs and illustrations displayed throughout the book are quite exquisite. They range from the Augustan Altar of Peace to bawdy graffiti. The social narratives also range in tone from the solemn aura of an Isiac religious ritual, to bathroom humor at a public stall. As to the latter, we have a glimpse of what the average Italian may have thought of educated Greek culture. At a tavern of the Seven Sages, above a representation of Solon of Athens we find scrawled in vulgar Latin: Ut bene cacaret ventrum palpavit Solon. "To s*** well, Solon stroked his belly." Where else and in what other book could one possibly learn the seedier side of Roman culture such as this?

If there is one centerpiece on display, it is the house of the Vettii in Pompeii. This wonderfully preserved domicile was the domain of the Vettii clan, former slaves who had become wealthy enough to purchase their freedom and become slave owners themselves. Indeed, the leading Vettii had become an Augustalis, a priest of the imperial cult, the highest social rank open to freedmen. You would expect a home of such social climbers to be filled with many exciting rooms and artwork, and the Vettii don't disappoint.

For upper class Romans, residences performed more public functions than our private dwellings. For one thing every home was like a miniature temple, dedicated to the worship of the clan's deities and ancestors. For another thing, any upper class house had various areas where clients would come to pay their respects and proffer solicitations to their patron. The street side front on the house might actually have niches for shop to be rented to a prospective merchant. And finally an upper class house was a swinging social scene, where in the evening the well connected conglomerated to enjoy dinner and drink, and to appreciate the owner's taste in art.

But you do not just have to read about the House of the Vettii, for every copy of Roman Life comes complete with an interactive CD-ROM that gives you a tour of the house. Every room has been painstakingly recorded from every angle, and your eyes can feast on the surviving frescoes and sculptures. An interesting convention is to take a tour of the home through the eyes of a particular social rank: slave, client, guest or family member. Each of the four roles has a different level of access to the house, as well as a different level of understanding of the art contained therein. For instance, a slave has access to nearly all the house, but has only a limited understanding of the complex mythological art displayed in each room. A client is confined to reception areas. A guest has access to the dining areas, and can give you a sound analysis of the art. A family member has full access and full cultural understanding. This CD is truly a nice touch!

Roman Life was both a great joy and highly informative to read. The book itself is a worthy tome, but the addition of the CD elevates it to truly great horizons. Read in conjunction with Clarke's "Roman Sex" I think one would have a true appreciation of the Roman soul.

At the end of the day we still have the question: how much were Romans like us? On the surface I find many parallels indeed. The social climbing of the upper crusts and their intellectual pretensions; the simple greed yet powerful industriousness of the merchant classes; and the bawdy humor and drunken antics of low class tavern dwellers. I can also easily recognize the ambitions of local politicians, the hopes and fears of parents for their offspring, and the yearning of the religious for a better life, while the silence of the dead give few clues as the status of the afterlife.

But beneath the surface I see plenty of disparities as well. Imagine if you will a society where religion and morality often had little to do with one another, where social class was enshrined and reinforced at every turn, and where power and conquest were held as virtues rather than vices. This was Rome, and for better and for worse it made the Romans profoundly different than us. The job of the culturalist is to identify and appreciate the differences, and Clarke does the job with verve and panache.

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Book Review of Roman Life - Related Topic: Roman Life in Ancient Rome


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