Book Review by Aurelia
The Culture of the Roman Plebs by Nicholas Horsfall delves into the everyday life of the common man in Ancient Rome. What did he do for entertainment? What songs did he sing? What plays did he watch? What did he talk about at the tavern? These are but a few questions that the author proposes to answer.
Nicholas Horsfall has worked as an independent scholar for well over a decade in Rome and Oxfordshire. He has also taught at University College in London. Even though he specialises in Latin poetry, he has ventured into late Republican history and epigraphy.
It is stated on the back cover of the 2003 edition I picked up that this is “the first attempt to reconstruct what the average Roman talked about in the bar or the multi-seater latrine”. I have taken the wording in its most literal sense: it does indeed seem to be an initial attempt to tackle the subject. The text is peppered with references to previous academic works as well as passages from ancient texts. As a result, it does not flow and it is somewhat difficult to keep up with. Instead, it reads a bit like a long essay.
This is not to say that The Culture of the Roman Plebs is not an interesting read. It is full of curious facts and anecdotes and it is well structured. The first chapter deals with the importance of song and chanting as a memorisation technique for children and adults alike - boys learned how to count through chanting and so did accountants. Also theatre productions, through their hit songs, were an effective medium for the diffusion of popular culture, mythology, history and politics. The following two chapters build on the notion of the importance of popular song, music and dance in Roman daily life, amongst other things.
Chapter four focuses on the dissemination of culture without education. It examines ways in which members of the plebs could learn about a range of different topics through theatre performances, public readings, military service or trade. The common man was by no means isolated or ignorant about the world around him. It is a known fact that Rome and many other urban centres across the Roman Empire were vibrant places in which many cultures came together. For instance, in Rome, one could come across plays being performed in several languages.
Chapters five and six explore aspects of popular culture that were shared by all strata of Roman society as well as what set them apart. The final two chapters slip back into a somewhat more academic tone with multiple references to Cicero and his work in chapter seven.
I could not help but wonder what target audience Mr Horsfall had in mind when writing this book. I have mentioned before that the writing does not exactly flow and the rhythm is slowed down enormously by the constant notes and comments within the main text. At first sight, this would seem as though the author was addressing non-specialist readers. But then again, the tone and obscure references to various Roman personalities and events presuppose a considerable knowledge of the ancient world. Whichever may be the case, I see “The Culture of the Roman Plebs” as one of those books that belong in a university library rather than on my bookshelf.