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Roman Passions: A History of Pleasure in Imperial Rome by Ray Laurence

Book Review by Ursus

Ray Laurence is a Strategic Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham, and is co-author of Pompeii: The Living City. In his introduction, Laurence states that while attending lectures and working on his PhD thesis, a professor fostered in him an interest in "the history of pleasure." Where cultural studies on pleasure exist, they tend to view the perspective from a utilitarian standpoint - i.e., what was useful to society. Laurence became intrigued by the notion of pleasure as an individual choice; that is to say, Laurence wanted to divorce the study of pleasure from the structural paradigms so loved by professional academics, and instead focus on what people enjoyed doing simply for the sheer hell of it.

Of course, even with individual choice there are larger cultural forces at work. Rome in the first century had created what is now cliché to call the world's first "global" economy. Imperial Rome simply had more prosperity, and a wider array of resources, from which to service a pleasure driven economy than its austere Republican predecessor. (In fact, judging by pollution traces in Greenland glaciers, industrial output in Rome was unmatched in world history until early nineteenth century England). Furthermore, the establishment of a pseudo-monarchy meant a singular will was now at the helm to serve as the ultimate arbiter of fashions and passions. Emperors derived their legitimacy largely from keeping the populace pacified, and thus had an interest in extending the pleasure base to grateful plebs. Then too, some emperors simply reveled in excesses of pleasure ...

And of course, it is the excess (so deemed) of plebs and emperors that fascinated moralists. Of contemporary critics there were essentially three types: 1) Stoics like Cicero and Seneca whose philosophy frowned on earthly activities that did not bring wisdom and honor 2) reactionaries like Tacitus, pining for a lost republican honor of yesteryear that was both real and imagined 3) wags like Martial and Juvenal who were simply content to take pot shots at the colorful people around them. Laurence believes some agents of pleasure took delight in the grumpy musings of their detractors, and acted accordingly - in the same manner that young urbanites of today might lead a flashy lifestyle just to get a rise out of their rustic, churchgoing parents.

In any event, the book does focus on the usual list of cultural goodies: the famous and infamous romps of emperors; urban aesthetics; country villas; baths; sex; dining and cuisine; theater and pantomime; spectacles and sport. There is also an interesting chapter on private collections of objects of interest - as well as of people of interest (deformed slaves having a certain utility as conversation pieces and objects of laughter). Interestingly, the author says Rome established the world's first market for private art.

The new economy of the first century, coupled with imperial politics, certainly changed the Roman cultural landscape from the days of the early Republic. Cato the Elder's nightmare scenario of an urbanized, Hellenized Rome of conspicuous consumption came to fruition, and perhaps for the better, the sour grapes of republican sympathizers and Stoic intellectuals notwithstanding. The populace certainly had better access to pleasurable activities than under the days of a stiff oligarchy. Then too, the allure of Roman luxuries helped solidify hold on the provincials, as they traded in swords and hill forts for public baths and cheap wine.

Laurence would like to overturn some modern stereotypes on Rome. He says he can find no evidence of massive orgies, saying Romans preferred to have sex in private (elite Romans males would have no need for public orgies as they were serviced by an army of slaves, all of whom were fair game for sexual activities). He also says Roman cuisine was defined not by dormice (as popularly imagined), but by exotic spices and fish sauce.

Laurence's prose is scholarly but not overly academic. Included to good effect is a timeline, glossary, and suggestions for further reading, notes, bibliography and an index. The book also contains a few illustrations, as well as a few color photographs (some taken by the author).

My main problem with this work is that I didn't feel I had learned much that was new. I'm not sure if this book's research, conclusions and perspective are all that novel, despite the author's stated intention in his introduction. Laurence's section on suggested further reading points to authors that should be already familiar to many culturally minded Romanophiles: Dalby, Clarke, etc. That is not to say I didn't enjoy Roman Passions. I found it a sound overview of the more sensual side of early imperial Rome and I would recommend it on that level.

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Roman Passions: A History of Pleasure in Imperial Rome - Related Topic: Daily Life In Ancient Rome


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