Popular Culture in Ancient Rome 
by Jerry Toner.
Polity, 253 pp., £17.99, July 2009, 978 0 7456 4310 6
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Scholars who have gone in search of Roman popular culture have focused on trying to recover the voices of ordinary Romans. Graffiti survive on the walls of Pompeii and other Roman towns, in arenas and at favourite destinations for ancient tourists, such as the miraculous ‘talking’ Colossi of Memnon and the Valley of the Kings. Romans boasted, named and shamed (‘Atimetus got me pregnant’ or ‘I fucked Nisus up the arse ten times’), and scrawled everything from elegant poems to ‘Lucius was here’ on ancient monuments. Curse tablets, which were often scratched (fortunately for us) on durable metals such as lead, and hung on walls, buried with the dead or deposited in water, begged for horrible things to happen to every organ of a rival’s body, expressed a desperate unrequited love, a determination that a favourite team in the chariot races should win, or anger about the theft of a cloak from the baths – clearly a major hazard. The gravestones that lined the roads in and out of any town in the Roman Empire, and the ‘dovecot’ funerary monuments that were shared by a household’s slaves and servants, carried posthumous opinions. One minimalist epitaph reads: ‘I was not, I was, I am not, I don’t care.’

Ordinary Romans have also been found in ancient literature, even of the ‘higher’ varieties. Passing comments tell us a lot about the gulf between the privileged perspective of ancient authors and that of ordinary people: Galen, the second-century AD doctor from Pergamum, writes that country people eat acorns in time of famine, resorting to what was regarded as pig food in the Empire. The common people were also portrayed as cutting through the insincerity of pomp and panegyric. One elderly woman is said to have approached the Emperor Hadrian when he was on tour in the provinces (it was not unusual in the Roman world to try to bypass the hierarchy and take a petition directly to the emperor). He tried to fob her off – so much to do, so little time – but she would have none of it. If he didn’t have time for her, he shouldn’t be emperor, she said, which stopped him in his tracks and got her a hearing.

The Roman novel, with the studied realism that makes it so attractive, could give pride of place to ordinary characters. Trimalchio, the freedman host of a lavishly vulgar dinner party in Petronius’ Satyricon, written during the reign of Nero, is a figure we think we recognise: The Great Gatsby started out as ‘Trimalchio in West Egg’. Through the eyes of the Satyricon’s narrator, we see the clash between Trimalchio’s legal status and his wealth. Freedmen were full Roman citizens, but however rich they were they were still legally barred from political office, even from membership of their local town council. Trimalchio is a wannabe member of the traditional upper classes – the senators, knights and town councillors. In some ways, he has made it: as he puts it himself, he is the frog who became a king, starting off life as his master’s catamite and ending it as a hugely successful landowner and businessman, with a 20-bedroom house to prove it. But nothing is quite right, even if he seems to have all the trappings. He wears the laticlave, the broad purple stripe on a senator’s tunic, but on a napkin around his neck. He wears what looks from a distance to be a solid gold ring, the marker of a Roman knight, but turns out to be gilt, inlaid with little iron stars. Just like the members of the imperial family, or any self-respecting senator, he is a phenomenal self-publicist, but the kinds of achievement that are inscribed and celebrated all over his house are laughable, for example, a painted sequence of his life story commemorates, among other things, his promotion to steward in his master’s household. He is a bore and a boor who drones on about himself, serves ridiculously elaborate food meant to represent the signs of the zodiac, and ultimately insists on staging his own funeral, an excruciating finale mercifully interrupted by the arrival of the fire brigade.

The classicists’ quest for Roman popular culture has its roots in the compilations of accounts of ‘daily life’ or ‘private life’ which flourished in the earlier part of the 20th century. Written in every major European language by authors of every political persuasion, these books have one thing in common: they make it easier for us to relate to the Romans. Give or take a few bizarre or unfortunate cultural traits, such as eating dormice and spending high days and holidays watching people be killed in the arena, they seem remarkably like us. They enjoy a drink or two and snigger about the Emperor Augustus’ fondness for the sneaky groping of other men’s wives, despite his po-faced moral rhetoric. They also worry about the ‘living conditions of the poor’ and ‘problems’ of ‘race mixture’.

No one could accuse Jerry Toner of a lack of empathy with those who take centre stage in his gripping new study, Popular Culture in Ancient Rome. Toner’s Roman people have neither time nor energy for the entertainments that have dominated traditional treatments of ‘daily life’: festivals, baths and games. They are grim and resigned, struggling with poverty, badly in debt, about to be sold into slavery at any moment (if they aren’t slaves already) and, unsurprisingly, prone to depression and schizophrenia. Toner keeps politics out of things: it’s seen as just another area in which the people were screwed by the wealthy. For self-help, they have dice oracles, which predict death to three out of ten of those who ask about their child’s fate. Worse still, there is precious little sign of solidarity: most of the time everyone hates everyone else, and isn’t too shy to say so. Thank goodness for the emergence of Christianity, which, in age-old fashion, Toner sees as a potential solution, with its ideology of charity and care for the less fortunate.

The horrific living conditions and general hopelessness encouraged a kind of gallows humour. Toner makes excellent use of Roman jokes, such as those collected in the Philogelos (‘Laughter Lover’), which survives from the later Empire and steps lightly through the misfortunes of life, from filthy streets to child mortality. Egghead (something like our Absent-Minded Professor) moves into a new house, and takes the trouble to clean the street in front of it. When he has finished, he puts up a notice to warn anyone who dumps excrement there that they won’t get it back. Other jokes feature grumpy astrologers and sham fortune-tellers. One reads the fortune of a sick boy, predicts that he will live for a long time, then demands his fee from the boy’s mother. She’ll bring it tomorrow, she promises. ‘But what if he dies in the night?’ the fortune-teller asks.

Toner’s subjects lack access to the official mechanisms of power, but they do make their feelings known. After the death of Augustus, executive power was effectively removed from the electoral assemblies of the Roman people, which had, in the later Republic, at least to be orchestrated into voting for the ‘right’ candidates. From then on, the emperor was meant to look after the people, and his generosity could be measured not least by the mood and behaviour of the people themselves, the frequency and intensity with which they protested and rioted (always bearing in mind that the emperor had armed force to help him maintain his image). And they did riot, pelting the Emperor Claudius with crusts of bread during a grain shortage: he almost didn’t make it back to the imperial palace. Direct action sometimes worked: on this occasion, it impelled Claudius to be seen to do everything he could to ensure that the grain supply was kept up, even during winter.

Jokes and anecdotes give immediacy to Toner’s account, but it’s often hard to see his non-elite Romans close up, and their culture is strangely elusive. This is partly a matter of the kind of evidence available to us. So much of what we think we know about ordinary Romans is mediated through the literary and artistic productions of the upper classes. It’s very difficult, despite our best efforts, to see Trimalchio in a more sympathetic light, to ignore the narrator’s sneers and asides, and imagine him as an embodiment (if a fictional one) of the real hopes and aspirations of a small group of hugely successful freedmen. This sense of distance is particularly apparent in Toner’s chapters on mental health and the senses. We observe the demon-possessed, the smelly and noisy from the arch point of view of upper-class writers of philosophy or fiction, but still have no idea what it felt like to be one of them. Early antiquarians who wrote about Roman ‘daily’ or ‘private’ life tended to shudder with disgust when talking about the lower orders, and, even if they wrote with compassion, would still divide people crudely into rich and poor. Also, the historian’s tendency to pursue common threads of popular culture across vast distances of time and space blurs differences that would have been perceived as immense and unsurpassable.

How might we get closer to these people’s real lives and experiences? One way would be to think harder about the culture bit of popular culture, and dig more deeply into the material record. Looking for ‘silent’ or ‘muted’ groups of society is now a well-established exercise among classical historians. You can get some way by scrabbling about in the corners of literature, but really you need to go further into the non-written record, into the darkest corner of the house or farm. We have to start thinking of loom-weights and spindle-whorls, lamps, olive presses and sleeping recesses, so that we can begin to talk intelligently about who did what where, and, specifically, the relationship between the working conditions and lives of servants and slaves, and those of the ‘leisured’ owners and overseers.

We should also pay more attention to the huge number of those in Roman society who were neither very rich nor very poor, and exploit the abundant material we have relating to the individual lives and aspirations of the relatively prosperous. As the early Empire expanded, Roman citizenship was extended to whole towns as well as individuals, while ex-slaves and their families gained the opportunities and the economic means to get on. This, combined with the burn-out (not to speak of the murders) of the senators and knights who possessed most honour in the imperial system, made for a game of snakes and ladders, with some enjoying great upward social mobility. On their way up (they hoped), the members of what we might call the ‘sub-elite’ created hot markets for consumer goods such as red-glazed Arretine tableware, made from moulds in small-scale industrial production. These bowls and cups had beautiful raised designs showing tasteful lovemaking and drinking scenes which were inspired by the exquisite silverware of the ‘true’ elite. Arretine tableware reminds us that not all popular culture is necessarily either gloomy or a small act of resistance.

If we get beyond a polarised vision of Roman society, we can glimpse the kinds of community and organisation that existed in parallel to formal political offices and institutions. In the early imperial period, there’s plenty of evidence that titles were held by the non-elite. Some of these, like the Augustales, priests of the imperial cult, were official and endorsed by the emperor. In their generosity to their local communities and the honours they received in return, Augustales look very much like town councillors, a striking fact given that many were freedmen, and thus barred from political office. Other titles and offices were completely unofficial, such as those of the domestic servants of an imperial household in Antium, whose names were listed on an honour roll that followed the recording of the names of the Roman consuls. The servants from Antium were organised into what Romans called a collegium (‘club’ or ‘voluntary association’), whose members might share a workplace or trade, and which often met to honour a particular god. These associations were typically viewed with suspicion by the authorities, who were terrified of what people might get up to in unofficial assemblies: attempts to mobilise associations for political purposes led to the introduction of laws to restrict their activities. These early imperial local networks and structures challenge the view of the Roman people as helpless and atomised.

The association we know most about was very well behaved: an inscription from 136 AD records the Senate’s endorsement of its activities and its regulations. It was based in Lanuvium, about twenty miles south-east of Rome, and dedicated to the goddess Diana and the deified Antinous, the Emperor Hadrian’s dead boyfriend. Each member had to pay a one-off lump sum of 100 sesterces, a very modest amount for the traditional elite, but rather more substantial for most inhabitants of Roman Italy – it was the equivalent of a month’s wages for a legionary. They also had to provide an amphora of ‘good’ wine, and then a monthly subscription of five asses (an ass was a quarter of a sesterce). The entry fee was set at a level to encourage those with social aspirations, and the association was certainly not an egalitarian utopia. It established its own hierarchies, not unlike the early Christian Church, and required further financial outlay by its officials, whose giving and receiving were carefully calculated, in a microcosm of the balancing act typical of civic life in the Roman provinces. ‘Five-year-men’ officiated on festive days and were required to provide oil for the public bath the members took before they banqueted on the birthdays of Diana and Antinous. There were also ‘masters of the dinners’, who were required to provide an amphora of wine and a meal for each member that had to include four sardines and a piece of bread worth two asses. While there were hefty fines for bad-mouthing fellow members, there were even heftier ones for talking back to the ‘five-year-men’.

It wasn’t all feasting: the association operated as a burial club, as many collegia did. Members who were up to date with fees got their funeral costs covered to the sum of 300 sesterces. This was quite a bargain, and also a significant benefit in a society that considered the obliteration of memory after death one of the worst of all punishments. It wasn’t Christian charity, but members did look out for each other, as well as for those less fortunate than themselves: provision was made to hold a ceremony even if a master or mistress refused to release a slave member’s body. A gravestone might proclaim the transience and futility of life – ‘I was not, I was, I am not, I don’t care’ – but the collegium ensured a good send-off.

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Vol. 33 No. 6 · 17 March 2011

The quest described by Emma Dench, to find out about the everyday life of the common folk in the ancient world, is chimerical (LRB, 17 February). As the tragedians of fifth-century Athens convincingly demonstrated, they didn’t have lives worth documenting.

Frederick Sweet

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