Ancient History & Civilisation


TRADITIONALLY, LITERATURE PRODUCED BY THE ELITE deserves pride of place in the discussion of the sources; its aesthetic as well as its richness deservedly mark it out for first attention. I try to extract evidence from this material. Thus when Horace writes in his work of freedmen, I can assume that entangled in whatever impression he wishes to give of freedmen are tidbits of the actual: Freedmen exist, they have patrons, they have attitudes that are intended to produce success. I need not accept Horace’s presentation of freedmen, or his use of them for other rhetorical, poetic, or aesthetic purposes in order to extract plausible facts about ‘real’ freedmen and their attitudes from his work. He has taken these facts and arranged them for his purposes; social historians can do the same, taking the material and arranging it in a way that seems to fit with a broad picture of freedmen and their mind world. But it is a dangerous business: The historian can easily be deceived. Some literature is going to be more grounded in that world in immediate ways, some less. And some historians will start from here and some from there in seeing and being deceived. The challenge is to judge how much of the literary world is a construct of the author that hides the non-elite, and how much can be used to reveal them. The key is to work as carefully as possible to take the useful material and reject the narrative of dominance into which it is imbedded by the author. The social-history detail that can be extracted from ancient authors (mostly) intent on other things is amazing. Yet there are many aspects of daily life that the elite – the Ciceros, Tacituses, Martials, Juvenals, Plinys – could see if they wanted. But they simply do not care – they seldom even give a glance at the people enacting these details in their actual lives as people. High literature, therefore, provides not windows, but peepholes through which historians get glances at the ordinary Romans.

The drawbacks of this literature – the persistent point of view of the elite, the lack of overt treatment of ordinary people – make it less useful than another range of literature that is more relevant to my purpose. Lucian’s work is one example. He was from Samosata, a city in Roman Syria, of an artisan family. His parents saw to it that he had a primary education; this was reasonably common in his day. After this, his father wanted him to do something useful with his life, but apprenticeship to an uncle sculptor was a complete failure and Lucian went on for more education and, eventually, the life of a professional rhetorician. In his work he shows sympathy for ordinary people including the poor, although there is no encouragement of antiestablishment action.

There are other works that also participate in this interest. The mere mention of using novels and romances (as they are called today; there are no such genres in ancient literary criticism) as a historical source might raise eyebrows, for what could be less useful for historical research than a consciously fictional recreation of ancient life, however artistically disguised as a ‘real-life’ drama or adventure? On the one hand it is possible to think of all history as fiction: ‘History is not just a catalogue of events put in the right order like a railway timetable. History is a version of events’ (A. J. P. Taylor). So, too, is overt fiction. Sorting out the ‘real’ from the ‘fictitious’ is equally challenging in both genres. Petronius can be used as a historical source – he must be used carefully, but the same applies to the need for cautious use of purely ‘historical’ sources. Ancient fiction will be an important well to draw from. I would point to three examples of how this can and should be done. First of all, Fergus Millar, inspired by a fellow scholar’s attempt to extract the real world of the Japanese classic The Tale of the Genji, wrote in 1981 the pathbreaking article ‘The World of The Golden Ass.’ In this he showed beyond a doubt that Apuleius’ novel of transformation and salvation is set in the identifiably real world of second-century imperial Rome. Keith Hopkins dissected the tale of Aesop’s life to find many truths and insights into the world of the slave. And John D’Arms wrote with clarity about how Petronius’ world of the Satyricon could be used intelligently to get at aspects of the later first-century Roman world below the elites. The Greek romances belong in this same range of sources. Although they are set in an imaginary world of black and white, good and evil, faith and betrayal, they too have their moorings in a real world and can be mined for useful observations and material. The use of Roman comedy for social history raises similar problems and requires the same solution as does the use of novelistic material. Comedy too had to be rooted in the understandable either in the form of known stereotypes or recognizable motifs of one’s own society. Thus the theatrical world also produces bits and pieces of lives of the invisibles: soldiers, slaves, women, and the common run of men. In sum, literature remains a promising mine, albeit a hard and even dangerous one.

Some elite writings are not very ‘literary,’ i.e. their first intent is not artistry. These can have special uses in discovering the mind world of invisibles. In this category fall the agricultural treatises, such as Cato the Elder’s On Farming or Columella’s On Rural Matters. Such works are directed at wealthy agriculturalists, not peasants or small landholders, but imbedded in them are observations particularly important to understanding slaves. Other Romans as well wrote useful treatises on a wide variety of subjects. Galen wrote widely on issues related to medicine, and from time to time social history evidence appears. Epictetus, himself an ex-slave, leaves some traces of his servile origins in his recorded lectures. There are also works related to foretelling and controlling the future through skill and magic. Artemidorus of Daldus wrote The Interpretation of Dreams, in which he gives extensive treatment to a wide variety of dreams, all, he claims, based on actual experience. Likewise Dorotheus of Sidon, a slightly earlier contemporary of Artemidorus, wrote the Carmen Astrologicum (Astrological Poem). In it he details an elaborate astrological system and presents nativities (i.e. astrological predictions) for various configurations of the heavens. Finally, there are the magical papyri. These were again meant to guide professionals in using appropriate charms, spells, and prayers to help their paying audience. All three works were aimed at ordinary people. That is not to say that the elite were uninterested in dreams, astrology, and magic – quite the contrary. My point is that the main audience was a wide swath of the Romano-Grecian world, whoever wanted to pay a professional for ‘psychic’ advice or magical aides. Therefore scenarios, problems, tastes, prejudices, and enthusiasms found in these texts reflect actual concerns of real people. Examining the topics chosen for treatment in their works opens very clear access to the mind world of invisibles.

Roman legal texts would seem to be an excellent place to glean information about invisibles; they appear in many legal decisions. However, in the end the interaction of invisibles with Roman law is not as fruitful as one would have suspected. As John Crook wrote in Law and Life of Rome (p. 10):

Roman society was very oligarchic. It perpetuated enormous differences in wealth and social power, and the upper class which determined its legal rules enshrined in them a code of values relevant to itself which cannot automatically be assumed to have been equally relevant to the lives and habits of the mass of the people. Furthermore, the intellectual power and subtlety and thoroughness of the great Roman jurists, which made their surviving writings a justly admired paradigm of law for later ages, was achieved at the price of concentration on certain groups of rules (those most relevant to the oligarchy of which they were members) and unconcern for what might in fact be going on below or outside that sphere.

Collections of fables and proverbs are also important sources. Proverbs are pithy statements offering an observation to describe a situation or as incentive to direct action. These are traditional, popular, anonymous, and instructive; they are repeated over time in essentially the same form. Fables are brief stories, usually involving animals and of an apparently homey, simple nature, offering a lesson of advice; as with proverbs, instruction is the key. All from (at least) Aristotle have thought of fables as a ‘popular’ genre, given their simplicity and appeal to children and the uneducated. However, fables also have a long history of being appreciated by the elite. Can they be considered ‘popular’? Both fable collectors Babrius and Phaedrus address their collections to elites; both are elites themselves. The verses of the freedman writer of maxims Publilius Syrus also fall into this category. But the fundamental origin of the material in these genres can reasonably be called ‘popular’ and so excellent for this project.

In addition to these indirect sources, there are three direct sources of the invisibles’ mind world, all of them rich with information: nonelite literature, papyrology, and epigraphy. In the New Testament material there is the single richest collection of literature written by what I call invisibles and expressing their outlook. The Gospels give us the world of the peasant. Here there is virtually no municipal life; it is a world without a middle, a world of the very rich and the very poor, a world of a small peasant economy and values. The perspective of the events and parables is one of limited good, distributive justice, and other reflections of a peasant’s mind world, to judge from comparative material. On the other hand, the world of Acts and the Epistles is an urban one – the towns and townish attitudes of the Hellenistic East; this world is the world of a Strabo or a Dio Chrysostom. When Paul or other writers express attitudes toward wealth, women, slaves, the poor, the hierarchical structures, and the elite of society, it is reasonable to query them as representative of ordinary men of the towns, although an awareness of the shadings that their theological mission thrusts upon them is essential. Beyond the New Testament literature itself, patristic contributions can also offer material, although it is really not until after Constantine that there is a flood of surviving compositions, and increasingly Christianity was seized by an elitist mentality that in many ways comes to be the same as the pagan elite’s. But all in all, early Christian literature is a rich source. In the same vein, Jewish literature has the potential to be useful, but I have not pursued this systematically for the present project.

Like the New Testament, epigraphic material speaks directly with the voices of ordinary people. There are problems, however. The very mass of inscriptions makes study difficult, for inscriptions are many, but distributed unevenly over time and space; adding to the challenge is the fact that discovery and publication of inscriptions is also erratic. Even without these issues of discovery and dissemination, there would be uneven demographic distribution. Long, elaborated inscriptions are almost exclusively the province of elite concerns – laws, official public inscriptions, elaborate epitaphs, and so on. Inscriptions that reveal the voices of invisibles are almost all very brief and either votive, offerings to the gods, or funerary, i.e. gravestones. Even for a person of quite modest means, an engraved stone was fully within his or her financial capabilities either through self-financing or perhaps through the support of a burial society. There is much evidence for social relationships and outlooks that ordinary folk wanted the world to know about. Relationships within the family based on the mention of kinship in dedications and the expression of hopes and fears in epitaphs are just two examples. And the graffiti from Pompeii, which add a variety and spice to the epigraphic record of ordinaries, are very valuable in thinking about their mind worlds.

Papyrology, like epigraphy, speaks with the direct voices of invisibles. Writing on papyrus was widespread in the Roman world, but only in a few places were dry conditions suitable for its survival through the ages. Papyri therefore present a geographical bias, because they come overwhelmingly from the desert areas of Egypt and some other parts of the Near East. This fact naturally leads us to ask whether papyrological evidence can be applied to areas outside Egypt. Once it was widely held that historians could not use papyrological evidence in this way because of Egypt’s exceptionalism in the sociopolitical landscape of the Romano-Grecian world. This issue, once seemingly closed, has now turned 180 degrees. The idea that Egypt was a world apart and can be ignored in discussions of the rest of the Roman world is now very much out of vogue. As Roger Bagnall and others cogently argue, governmental practice and the use of documents within and outside Egypt was essentially the same, so that habits and items from Egypt can be taken as representative of habits in other areas of the empire.

Papyrus was a relatively inexpensive writing material. It was widely used to record governmental actions (tax, census records, internal correspondence) as well as receipts, contracts, and other financial documentation. In addition there are private letters, educational materials, and literary texts in fair number. Of course almost all of this material has long since perished. But letters and private documents that do survive most often come from the invisibles at hand, i.e. ordinary people below the elite, both male and (particularly astonishingly – and refreshingly) female. While it is often impossible to tell if the documents were actual autographs of these people – professional scribes and trained slaves were numerous and frequently employed – the origin of the documents from among the ordinary people is clear enough. Further, government-generated documents – the vast majority of early imperial papyri – provide a very wide range of useful information, ranging from census figures and extrapolations from them to the likely burden of government, which would have directly affected ordinary people’s attitudes and views. Much like the graffiti of Pompeii and, to a lesser extent, the inscriptions, the papyri show invisibles living their own lives, without mediation through elite literature.

Beyond written evidence for invisibles, material culture adds breadth and depth to the picture. Art is a message board for creators and ‘readers’ alike: Not created in a vacuum, both the creator and the audience are intended to get something out of the representations. It should, therefore, be possible to ‘read’ art the way epigraphy or papyri or literature are read. There is much to work with: sepulchral images; graffiti drawings; wall paintings in buildings and rooms meant for the use of invisibles; images on fired-clay tableware such as terra sigillata – all can be very revealing. Archaeological material beyond art also has great potential for adding to our knowledge about ordinary people, although it often has more to do with living conditions and arrangements than mind worlds. However, as in the case of Jewish literature noted above, I must confess that I have not used archaeology as much as would be possible. Perhaps another more versed in the material will be able to add to or correct the observations I make.

Finally, there is evidence from beyond the specified time and place of the Roman empire. There is often a suspicion of the use of comparative material. The problem of comparability is a real one: An inappropriate use of supposedly comparable material can lead one far astray. But material from other times and places provides two invaluable things: first, an inspiration to ask questions of ancient material that have been asked elsewhere; and, second, ideas for links between the ancient material’s often very sketchy and disjointed pieces of evidence. An ancient fact or attitude cannot be taken as proven by comparative data, but its probability can certainly be enhanced. In discovering the mind world of invisible Romans, I use quite freely both the inspiration and the linkages drawn from mind worlds of other invisibles. This may make those who feel that ancient history should be based on ancient evidence alone a little nervous. But the Romano-Grecian world does not exist in some sort of unique space separated by time and place from the rest of human history. So my intent is not to compromise the purity of ancient history, but to reasonably build out from what little there is in order to answer questions – in this case about the mind world of invisibles – which the main sources themselves have virtually no interest in at all.

Taken together, all our sources make it possible to see the invisible Romans.

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