Book Review by Marc Ollard
Describe Roman Italy. Go on, I dare you. Chances are you're hopelessly wrong. We have just left behind a century of global conflict and competition between powerful political idealism. Vast industrial empires and centralised control. With such an astonishing hold over a vast swathe of the Known World is it any wonder we so readily connect with the Romans? Or at least we think we do. Our preconceptions are incredibly distorted by recent history and contemporary politics. If you don't believe me, A Companion To Roman Italy is a book that will teach you just how little you know.
Edited by Alison Coolly, this book is one of an extensive series of companion volumes dealing with important themes of the Roman world. Within this book are essays by twenty four academics who may not be the most widely known experts, but whose contributions build toward a coherent and deeply insightful picture of Italy under Roman rule, covering the political, cultural, economic, social, and historical relationships of those peninsular regions surrounding the eternal city.
The first part of the book deals with the history of the Italian peninsula from the earliest days to the last Roman Caesar, and touches on the sub-Roman world of the Ostrogoths and Lombards. Part two deals with local and regional diversity, along with identity, citizenship, and some degree of sociology. Part three looks at town and country with details of urbanisation and case studies of Naples, Pompeii, Cosa, Ostia, and other fascinating remnants of regionality. Finally, part four deals with economy and society, dealing with markets, farming, public spectacles, aristocracy, and a number of normally overlooked issues that complete our picture.
If you thought Italy was simply Roman territory, assimilated, romanised, and broadly the same from north to south, think again. A brief skim through this volume reveals very quickly that many fondly held assumptions about Roman culture are overly simplistic or even just plain wrong. The picture emerging from historical and archeological research shows an Italy that was far more diverse and less centralised than you might expect. There were many languages and alphabets in use and only the domination of imperial power brought Latin into general use. Further, the desire of autocratic Caesars to bring the very autonomous regions of Italy under the direct rule of Rome would continue for centuries. This was a world of co-operative regions, not of centralised tyranny, and the results of their efforts to bind Italy permanently would bring significant changes in Roman society.
Dr. Epplett rejects some aspects of Roman sport as irrelevant to this theme. Sports such chariot races, pancration, wrestling, and boxing are not detailed. One cannot help feeling that this is a literary microscope zooming in on the petrie dish of Roman entertainment. The reader is led by the hand into a gory world of contest and slsughter with a scientific detachment and there's no going back. If that sounds critical, don't be misled. The author's research is impressive, revealing insights from some of the most obscure documents. We're used to the common themes of the Roman arena. In this book, the author digs deeper, and opens our eyes to details of Roman society as a whole that are not immediately obvious.
The wonderful thing about A Companion To Roman Italy is the sheer breadth of subject matter. We learn about the extraordinary reign of Augustus and its future implications, the unifying significance of gladiatorial games, the rise of female identity and role in society. Agriculture, administration, architecture, religion, commerce, interaction, travel, towns, villas and settlement patterns. Whilst this is impressive as it is, a more subtle benefit awaits the reader. The effects of Roman hegemony were felt in many different ways and would continue to change the Roman Empire until the end, and some of those changes happened for reasons most of us would not realise.
What is lacking is the human element. Whilst much of the book deals with artifacts and ruins of the Roman people, it isn't the Romans themselves we read about. It leaves out the colourful ambiguity and wit, the drama and tragedy, the love of life or the shameful ambition and greed the Romans exhibited. To be fair those are aspects of the Roman world better illustrated elsewhere. This book deals with their enviroment.
Eventually the book reaches that inevitable theme of the demise of arena sports which accounts for nearly a quarter of the text. Many popular preconceptions are questioned in the light of evidence. Indeed, the whole concept of violent competition is shown to be not unique to the Roman world - merely their social emphasis and popularity. Dr Epplett discusses this without unnecessary attachment to our contemporary experience, though clearly one can see that the human love of violence, especially that incurred by others, has always been part of the human psyche if suppressed by social norms.
As the title suggests, this book should be seen as an important guide to studying the Roman heartland. The information is very detailed yet well packaged. By necessity the essays are somewhat short, but this does not prevent the writers from getting across what they believe we should know, who are not shy of recommending further reading. Written in an uncompromisingly academic style the sheer enthusiasm of the contributors comes across and makes up for any lack of humour. Although not liberally illustrated, diagrams, charts, and photographs are enough to complete the picture. Not a book for bedtime reading, but one for those long periods of quiet study that will reward you in your future efforts.
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So, if you really want to know what Roman Italy was, how it developed, and what it became, then this has to be one of the most important choices you could make. You will find however it also one of the most important investments you will make. If there were ever reasons to believe you get what you pay for, this is definitely one of them.
Alison E. Cooley is a British classicist specialising in Latin epigraphy. She is a professor at the University of Warwick and former head of its Department of Classics and Ancient History. In 2004, she was awarded The Butterworth Memorial Teaching Award.
Book Review of A Companion to Roman Italy - Related Topic: Roman Italy