Invisible Romans – Robert Knapp

This book is a description about the kinds of people who you don’t often hear about in history – not the generals and kings and emperors, but the regular man and woman.  It is in many ways successful, but has a few problems.

One quirk that pops up in a few places is placing modern values back onto the ancients rather than taking them on their own terms or putting them in a broader perspective.  One amusing quirk was the author’s squirming description of the impurity of the Roman bath.  But compared to western societies up to about 1900s, the Romans were on the whole far cleaner – and it isn’t even close.  There is also the routine decrying of the lack of a ‘vote’ or a ‘career’ for women of the periods, and how those women lacked some kind of social conscience for not letting that bother them.  But in the text, without noticing, he mentions that women routinely ran the large force of slaves owned by the family, produced the clothes they wore, made items for sale,  and raised the children.  And in the middle classes if the family had a business, the wife helped run it, and if the husband died, ran it alone after that.  People outside of academia are often too busy making a living to worry about trifles – and it isn’t like men outside of a tiny upper class in a single city participated in politics either.

Also amusing is the assumption that what our upper class sources said about sex is what actually happened anywhere.  Even today “nice girls” aren’t supposed to do a lot of things that seem to get done a lot.  And the final chapter, where he uses playwrights to get a feel for the life of bandits and pirates is even more comical.  I can see him next using the “Pirates of Penzance” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” to get a picture of pirate life in the 1700s, and finding that they sung most of the time, had buxom co-pirates and had a lot of adventures.

But aside from these, it does give some light on how normal folk got along in between the palace coups and civil wars that we read about.  I would have liked some discussion of the differences between provincial, and country life and the life in the captial.  Here they seemed to be lumped together to try and boost the record. Was life in Egypt just like the stewpots of the capital?

But in between the quirks, the book does give a lot of information about daily life, and has quotes from the sources to support the general analysis.  It is quite a bit less dry than some of the other books on the subject I’ve read.

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One thought on “Invisible Romans – Robert Knapp

  1. I am pleased that my book, Invisible Romans, proved in many ways successful. I do note that in some particulars I am criticized for failing to capture in some important ways the ancient perspective on life. To be sure, the Romans thought they were being hygienic in their baths, but the truth is otherwise. I suppose some cleanliness is better than none, though, even if that “cleanliness” is at the same time passing disease to others. As noted in the book, even Marcus Aurelius recognized the filth of the baths. As to women, my intention was just the opposite of the remarks above. That is, I tried to place them in their own context, pointing out that modern views and expectations don’t fit—indeed some of the points I make are exactly those made by the commentator. The note on sex is a bit odd, as I don’t think much is made of elite sources and sex. What there is comes from non-elite sources for the most part. Again, the goal was not to read back modern prejudices, but to see the ancient evidence independently of those. If the ancient evidence is similar to modern attitudes in some ways, that should not be surprising. So far as the chapter on bandits and pirates is concerned, perhaps a close reading of the evidence provided will cause a rethinking of the dismissive attitude toward a reasonable and carefully argued (with evidence) resemblance between outlaws lives, early modern and ancient. The book has, of course, its shortcomings, but I don’t think they are in things the commentator points to. I hope that the book can be read more carefully by others, and appreciated not just for its information-between-quirks, but for its radical attempt to see the lives of the ‘invisible’ ancient Romano-Greeks from their own perspective.

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