H-Net Review: Knapp, Invisible Romans

Robert Knapp.  Invisible Romans.  Cambridge  Harvard University
Press, 2011.  400 pp.  $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-06199-6.

Reviewed by Alison Jeppesen (Red Deer College)
Published on H-Albion (March, 2013)
Commissioned by Jeffrey R. Wigelsworth

Investigating the Mind-set of Ordinary Romans

What was life like in ancient Rome? For a slave in Rome, were the
conditions horrific or tolerable? Did women yearn for a better life
or were they satisfied with what society gave them? Julius Caesar and
Cleopatra are well-known figures from antiquity but what about Marcus
Volcius Euhemerus and Posilla Senenia? These two Romans, known only
from their tombstone inscriptions, are examples of the 99.5 percent
of Romans who lived below the level of the upper-class elite who are
often associated with Rome. These are the “ordinary” Romans that
Robert Knapp seeks to make visible to the modern reader (p. 3). What
were their hopes and dreams? What were their fears? What did they
think and believe, individually or as part of a group? What was their
“mind world” (p. 105)? The difficulty of this type of project lies in
finding a common mind world for such diverse groups as “the poor” and
“women,” and one questions if these groups would have had the same
overarching concerns.

Whether male or female, slave or free, poor or moderately wealthy,
the lives of these people are difficult to recreate. In his efforts
to make these Romans visible, Knapp combines a variety of sources for
a nonspecialist audience. He brings together recent work and presents
it in an accessible way. For a general reader, this work will be both
inspiring and depressing as it breaks down the romanticized view of
ancient life that has plagued the perception of ancient history and,
instead, highlights the realities of life in the empire. For the
student, this work provides an excellent overview of the ordinary
with avenues for further investigation. Overall, Knapp succeeds in
presenting a readable text with excellent illustrations and a very
good list of further readings for each chapter (necessitated in part
by the lack of footnotes, which, though adding to the readability for
nonspecialists, will likely irritate anyone looking for the exact
reference to an idea).

In nine chapters, Knapp discusses ordinary Romans: men from the
middle (not the poor and not the rulers), women, the poor, slaves,
freedmen, soldiers, prostitutes, gladiators, bandits, and pirates.
This is a daunting list of invisible people to make visible in some
three hundred pages. There is bound to be overlap. Knapp makes clear
distinctions between ordinary men and the absolute poor whom he
defines as those with no “resource cushion,” but between ordinary
women, the female poor, and prostitutes, there is definite repetition
(p. 95). The four chapters separating the chapters on women (chapter
2) and prostitutes (chapter 7) seem like an odd delay (both male and
female prostitutes are discussed in chapter 7 but as the focus is
mostly on female prostitutes the two chapters might have been better
placed together). Some readers may also take issue with Knapp’s
terminology, as he casually switches between calling ancient
sex-trade workers “prostitutes” and “whores.” Some discussion of the
nuances of Latin terminology would have been beneficial for all
readers as would some clarity between chlamydia and genital herpes,
which he treats as the same sexually transmitted infection. Notably
absent is a chapter devoted to children. Children appear in various
chapters (on women, soldiers, and freed people) but there has been
enough research done on children in Rome that a chapter bringing the
evidence together would have been a welcome addition.

Where Knapp achieves his goal of presenting the mind-set of the
ordinary Roman is in his portrayal of the drudgery of life in
antiquity and the struggle for survival. Even a trip to the often
glamorized baths might end poorly: the description of the putrid
waters is bound to affect all readers as is the account of the young
woman beaten at the baths in Egypt. The lives of women come across as
particularly dismal. Certainly the slave collar found with a woman’s
skeleton requiring the return of the “adulterous prostitute”
indicates a horrid life, but the overall portrayal of women seems
more negative than other topics (p. 244). Interestingly, Knapp
illustrates his points with multiple sources for other groups in the
book. For women, however, the larger scale well-known monuments, such
as Aurelia Philematium’s epitaph, receive the greatest attention
while elite women are seen as “accounterments” rather than “partners”
(p. 96). Together, these two chapters would have benefited from
additional context and greater nuance in assessing the evidence.

Knapp’s use of ancient evidence is commendable. Throughout the book,
he avoids the use of the usual suspects (e.g., Suetonius, Tacitus,
and Cicero) and turns, instead, to the less usual: inscriptions;
papyri; fables and proverbs; astrological works, such as the Carmen
Astrologicum by Dorotheus of Sidon (a first-century astrologer) and
the Interpretation of Dreams by Artemidorus (a second-century
astrologer); and other nonelite sources, including the New Testament.
Knapp argues that these works, since they were aimed at a wide
audience of ordinary people, encompass the “actual concerns of real
people” (p. 320). The variety of evidence used is good and
illustrates how these materials can be used to investigate what
average Romans may have thought and felt, though the degree of common
ground found in any one of these groups may be a topic of debate.
More discussion of the temporal and cultural context is given in the
sources section, but additional discussion would have been worthwhile
in the main body as it can be confusing to the reader when various
authors and their works are treated largely synchronically. Knapp is
up-front about the “problematic insights” granted by some of his
sources, but this comment appears at the end of the work and would
have been useful at various points in the main text (p. 315).

Overall, however, Knapp has made visible the invisible by presenting
the lives of everyday Romans. These are Romans who have more in
common with us than the Caesars and Cleopatras of antiquity but have,
until relatively recently, been less studied. Ordinary Romans, such
as those presented in this work, will make Rome more real to modern
readers, and Knapp’s attempt to help these marginalized members of
ancient society speak to us will benefit many.

Citation: Alison Jeppesen. Review of Knapp, Robert, _Invisible
Romans_. H-Albion, H-Net Reviews. March, 2013.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=37416

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