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Daily Life In Ancient Rome by Jerome Carcopino

Book Review by Pertinax

Originally published in French in 1940 and republished several times in translation since. My initial reaction was that the density of the translated prose and its sonorous and decorous rendition into the English language would be a barrier to the modern reader. This was the case at first , as Carcopino deals with the architectural theme of Trajan’s Forum at the start of the book, the Forum of Trajan being an apt metaphor and symbol of Rome at the apex of her power.

A contemporary , younger reader might find the early part of the book somewhat indigestible, however this “heaviness” starts to fade into the ether as more vivid and human based tableau are described. The time frame is essentially “The Five Good Emperors” , so it’s a portrait when all was well and thriving.

I suggest that in describing personal habits , such as the tendency for Romans to wear a tunic in bed and then to rise from the bed , put on sandals and be ready to start the day wearing that same garment , (perhaps drawing another layer over it ) as vividly understandable to any college grade waster who hasn’t changed his shorts and t shirt for a while. Joking apart ,its this type of mundane insight that sparks recognition of life as it was.

Shaving is another good example , I was unaware that firstly, no-one ( of any reasonable status) shaved themselves so that the barbers shop automatically became a great social focus of the ordinary man’s world ( very much as the Baths later in the course of the day), and secondly that an accomplished barber was considered a man of skill and would often aggrandize himself in later years with the wealth created by his trade,( no change at all there then ).

The Roman woman had to devote tremendous efforts to having well dressed hair , late republican styles were not too complex but Messalina (Claudian period) set new standards in multi tiered complex hairdressing fashion, the memorials to oranatrices show their importance by giving career details and patronage of wealthy clients.

The mental shift that is required for the “modern” person is the constant reminder that the condition aspired to by those who have “arrived” in Roman society is to be seen to be of such wealth and status as to arrive at the Games carried by a team of fat, healthy Moesian porters and to have all mundane tasks performed by persons of servile status. So a Citizen would have all tasks performed for him and concentrate on “social interaction” with this peers .The unashamed direct enjoyment of wealth and status would be a source of anguished Liberal hand wringing nowadays...

Carcopino alludes to the lewd and lascivious nature of the bawdy theatre and pantomime as a public spectacle hovering on the threshold of scandalizing (but titillating) polite society whilst delighting the riff raff with burlesque sexual gestures., and amusing the educated with ironic condescension-no change here either then if modern reality TV is considered as the equivalent, the recent scene in HBO Rome of Pompey Magnus at the mime would be a good reference point for an idea of modern visualisation...

My suggestion for reading this book is to take it with you when visiting a Roman site, you can day dream yourself into the little snapshots of life it shows., perhaps dimly seeing some figures in Pompeii when you next see the ruined bars and brothels. Bathing, eating and the playing of games are covered in amusing detail and the skill of oratory and its benefits and burdens are explored also.

The chapter which includes dining is useful in reminding us of the astounding skill of the best Roman chefs, in particular the artifice in disguising ingredients for the titillation and amusement of a wealthy client, my chief delight was the length of certain banquets (eight to ten hours) where a strong constitution and liver would appear to have been the most needful skills.

A good read , despite (or possibly because of ) its style filled with vivid pictures and evocation of smells and human foibles, greed , lust and all the other more entertaining activities of humankind.

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Book Review of Daily Life In Ancient Rome - Related Topic: Five Good Emperors


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