Invisible Romans: Prostitutes, Outlaws, Slaves, Gladiators, Ordinary Men and Women … the Romans that History Forgot by Robert Knapp
|Invisible Romans: Prostitutes, Outlaws, Slaves, Gladiators, Ordinary Men and Women … the Romans that History Forgot by Robert Knapp|
|Reviewer: Trish Simpson-Davis|
|Summary: A treasure trove of interesting deductions about the lives of ordinary people in the Roman Empire, presented in scholarly detail. General readers may be tempted to skim read for the most interesting bits.|
|Buy? Maybe||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 371||Date: June 2011|
|Publisher: Profile Books|
|External links: Author's website|
This academic title by Robert Knapp, Professor Emeritus at the University of California, will be welcomed by serious students of the Roman Empire. It goes without saying that this research provides a valuable supplement to the existing academic literature. From the meticulous attention to detail, I suspect that amassing the material was a labour of love over a lifetime of analysing more prominent Roman citizens. Clues have been inferred from classical literature, culled from epitaphs and deduced from archaeological finds (particularly Pompeii), since hardly any evidence of ordinary folks' lives has otherwise survived.
The range of information was more detailed than I expected and brought the Ancient World fascinatingly close to the here and now. Did you know, for example, that gladiators didn't fight weekly but perhaps only a couple of times a year? Apparently their managers didn't want to risk their financial investment. Hmm, perhaps better not to let that on to today's footballers. It seems that the same hunger for wealth and fame drove young men, and even a few women, to sign up for gladiatorial boot camp, with its team-like affiliations. Not was it all fight to the death; some won or honourably drew more than a dozen fights before they retired.
The Romans are also held up as a hygienic oasis before the dirty habits of the Dark Ages crept in, so I was fascinated to read that the waters in Roman baths weren't changed all that often, if at all. According to Knapp, the sociable baths were therefore more likely to cause diseases than prevent them. The author also has a good deal to say on sexual habits and attitudes including the interesting snippet that of modern sexually transmitted diseases, only genital warts and herpes existed in Roman times.
Since there are also chapters on slaves,freedmen, soldiers, prostitutes, outlaws, women and the poor, hundreds of other interesting details came to light. To be frank, there is no end to my curiosity about the minutae of social history. However, I was much less interested in speculation about the mindsets of these ordinary people. In finding their concerns and interests very like those of modern generations, it seemed to me the author undervalued the impact of an ever-present risk of untimely death to an individual's whole outlook on life.
In order for an academic book to succeed with a general readership, I think the author has to consider making some concessions to his non-specialist audience. Firstly I think a general overview of the area is needed at the outset, ideally within a chapter of introduction, which assumes no previous knowledge. Such basic matters as the dates and geographical extent of the Roman Empire need to be covered before plunging into the subject matter of the book (sorry, but yes, we're not all historians). Secondly, the general reader needs to be able to fill the gaps in his piecemeal knowledge by inference throughout the rest of the book. Have you ever driven through a strange town and found the road signs of no help at all because they have clearly been put there by a local expert who has never considered the routes through from a stranger's perspective? That's how I sometimes felt as I read this book.
Conversely, repetition in the interests of scholarly reliability, often by way of caveats, was rather pedantic, I thought, for a general readership. Although the prose was clear and often lively, some of the sentences were real mouthfuls. Occasionally I found it difficult to hang in with the main flow of the discussion.
I'm sure, though, that the main purpose of this book is for the serious student of Roman history, and in that context I can see it as a valuable addition to library shelves. I'd like to thank the publishers for sending it to us.
Further Reading If you enjoy Roman social history then The Colosseum by Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard could be of interest. On the subject of baths Katherine Ashenburg's Clean: an Unsanitised History of Washing might fire your hypocaust.
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