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Review – Invisible Romans, by Robert Knapp

5 March 2013

12:39 PM

5 March 2013

12:39 PM

It’s tempting to reduce the Roman Empire to a roll call of famous men and their infamous deeds. The Republic toppled with Caesar on the steps of the senate; freedom of speech was curtailed as brutally as Cicero’s tongue; democracy became an act on Octavian assuming his stage name.

However Robert Knapp, Professor Emeritus at the University of California, isn’t interested in that version of history. Like Mary Beard, who pottered around Rome deciphering inscriptions for the BBC, he’s concerned with ordinary folk. His Invisible Romans range ‘from fairly wealthy to modestly well-off and downright poor, male and female, slave and free, law-abiding and outlaw’. Between the super wealthy (the ‘honestiores’) and the rest (the ‘humiliores’), the economic divide was stark; the former counted for 0.5 per cent and held about 80 per cent of the wealth, while 65 per cent of the rest lived ‘on the edge’.

Knapp orders a disparate set into chapters devoted to men, women, the poor, slaves, freemen, soldiers, prostitutes, gladiators and bandits. He’s determined not to look for invisible Romans in traditional sources that risk being classical versions of Lionel Asbo: ‘what survives was generally created by or for the rich and the powerful, and hides the actions and perspectives of any but their own class.’   Lack of evidence means that, as well as the more familiar inscriptions, epitaphs and graffiti, Knapp consults ancient manuals on divination and astrology, fables and Christian texts. The use of the Bible as historical and social evidence of the everyday is fascinating. In Luke 10.30, a world of uncertainty and insecurity emerges: ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him’. Reading Artemidorus’ Interpretation of Dreams, Knapp notices ‘the pervasive presence of death is striking in its dominance of worries. The normality of death as we might view it statistically – very many children dead by age ten; half the population dead by twenty; a life expectancy of under fifty – clearly was of no consolation to people.’


Unsurprisingly, there are few first-hand accounts. As no author ‘explicitly takes on the task of writing about his experience as a slave’, Knapp is often forced to rely on airy filler: ‘He remained a thinking, acting, feeling human being, and lived within slavery coping as best as he could.’ It doesn’t help that Knapp mentions Plautus (a low-born Umbrian) when he really means the slightly later playwright Terence (who was reportedly freed on account of his wits and good looks).

Specific evidence means chapters on prostitution and the military work best. According to graffiti, prostitutes commonly charged about a quarter of a denarius, ‘somewhat less than a full day’s low pay for a workman.’ A busy prostitute could make over twenty asses a day, Knapp estimates, ‘far more than a woman could earn in any other wage earning occupation, and twice what a well paid male worker could expect’. When discussing the average soldier, Knapp looks at the late Roman writer Vegetius and the wider historical context. By forbidding marriage in the military, Augustus was attempting to ‘establish the military family as separate from the civic family as the basis for the future army’s recruitment, organisation and loyalty’. With the decrease in ‘extensive wars of aggression after Augustus’, the garrison forces were more inclined to settle down. The elimination of the marriage ban by Septimus Severus came at the beginning of a time ‘dominated by renewed discord, warlordism and the dominance of soldiers’ demands in the political life of the Roman community.’

Ultimately, the focus on history from below feels shortsighted. Could we paint an accurate picture of today without looking at the actions of politicians, corporations, financiers or the media? Do the invisibles not affect the actions of the powerful? It’s the pull and push between the two that makes for interesting reading. Indeed, despite Pliny the Elder’s self-cultivated reputation as a traditional Roman moralist (and as an elite), Knapp takes at face value his lascivious story of a wealthy woman seducing her hunchback slave in front of guests. Many sources used to describe women’s lot are by men. He justifies this; most women ‘internalised’ the ideal of spinning wool and spawning heirs. This acknowledgment that the powerful often shaped the perceptions of the weak makes his neglect of elite material seem arbitrary. Perhaps bypassing the upper orders is an easy way to appeal to the masses: it’s history for the humiliores.

Invisible Romans by Robert Knapp is published by Profile Books 

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