This book, from 2011, tries to give a sense of what life was like for non-elite Romans: the poor, slaves, freedmen (outside the high profile imperial ones), soldiers, prostitutes, gladiators, bandits, and just ordinary men and women. The sources here aren’t as dramatic as those for the trials and tribulations of the imperial family or high ranking senators. There is a lot of reading between the lines in literature (Apuleius’ The Golden Ass and Petronius’ Satyricon for instance), more esoteric works (Artemidorus’s dream interpretations) or funerary inscriptions.
This meant that it ended up covering similar ground with other books I have read recently – Jerry Toner’s How To Manage Your Slaves (which I was sure I had posted on – that may have to be written), Mary Beard’s Laughter in Ancient Rome, Jerry Toner’s Popular Culture in Ancient Rome, and Robin Lane Fox’s Pagans and Christians. With this, the sections on “ordinary men” and slaves in particular rehashed a things I had already read. The other books mentioned above have greater depth to them, and weaved the ideas and quotations into greater themes. In comparison this book had a wider range, but skipped through each topic rather quickly.
Some of the chapters on society’s fringe groups were more interesting for me – much of the material on soldier, prostitutes and gladiators was new to me. Again, it was rather dry compared to some other authors – the material is set out there and the reader is often left to come to their own impressions and conclusions. This does have its advantages, being allowed to actually read through selected portions of the sources is rather nice. There are interesting discussions on how to judge material based on its intended audience, especially on topics like sexuality or societal roles.
As with many of the other books mentioned, there are generalisations here – material is taken from across the span of the empire – in both time and space. Often from 1st and 2nd century Rome or Greece, but also from Egypt or Palestine (the bible does pop up as an occasional source). This is understandable.
Overall, it’s a very well put together work. It’s probably more informative than enjoyable, but it is definitely an accessible and extensive introduction to an area that is only starting to come under the spotlight.