Friday, November 5, 2010


Version at BMCR home site

Jerry Toner, Popular Culture in Ancient Rome. Cambridge/Malden, MA: Polity, 2009. Pp. vii, 253. ISBN 9780745643106. $24.95 (pb).

Reviewed by John Aveline

The book can be seen as a thought-provoking examination of the lives of all inhabitants of the Roman Empire excluding only the ruling elite and the army. Toner looks at aspects of life which have received little attention such as the social significance of the senses, the mental health of the ancient Romans and the coping mechanisms the ancient non-elite used to get through life. Toner brings to bear an impressive array of source material, some of which (such as oracles) have not received their due attention. Overall, however, the book fails in a number of respects.

The book is divided into five thematic chapters as well as an introduction and conclusion. The introduction provides the reader with the parameters within which the discussion will take place: an examination of the culture of what Toner calls the non-elite as it existed throughout the Roman empire from the first century BC to the fifth century AD. Each chapter examines an aspect of non-elite life: how they solved the problems which arose in their lives, the state of their mental health, the role of comedy in daily life, how the senses were used to define an individual's place in the social order and, finally, how the non-elite expressed their opposition to the status quo. The conclusion summarizes the book and then takes a brief look at how Roman popular culture evolved into Christian popular culture. There are very few typos and they are not of any significance.1 But there are a number of problems.

My first issue is with the title, from which one would expect a book about the recreation, entertainment, practices and symbols which were popular in the Roman Empire and what these elements of society tell us about that society. Instead, the book is more about how the non-elite functioned and survived what Toner portrays as an incredibly bleak existence, though, to be sure, he brings in a significant amount of what is generally defined as popular culture, but it does not seem to be the focus, as the title suggests.

Another problem is that Toner has chosen to define ancient Roman society with the terms 'elite' (the ruling class) and 'non-elite' (everyone else excluding the military). Even before the discussion begins Toner has created a dichotomy in which all of society is defined by the elite as if they were the norm, rather than a tiny minority of the population. The reader is expected to believe that the culture of the urban slaves, rural peasants, wealthy freedmen and shop-keepers was uniform and that this uniformity extended over a span of six hundred years across the entire Roman Empire. While this scope allows Toner to access a large amount of original source material, it also forces the reader to apply evidence on a much wider scale than is reasonable or to create subdivisions within his umbrella term 'non-elite'.2

It often seems as if Toner has not properly read his source material. For example, Toner argues that the crowds were delighted by Nero's execution of the Christians (p. 114) and cites Tacitus Annals 15.44, but he ignores Tacitus' comment that the executions were so cruel that the people felt sorry for the Christians. He also claims that Elagabalus created whoopy cushions which imitated the noise of farting when sat upon (p. 127). But the Historia Augusta (which is a notoriously unreliable source) states that the joke was that the dinner guests would fall off their couches and find themselves on the floor. He also uses Pliny's disparaging comments on the fans of chariot racing (Epistle 9.6) as an example of what the elite thought of this entertainment (p. 116). He forgets that Piny was unusual even among elites--he was not particularly interested in 'physical' leisure, but preferred academic pursuits at all times to the extent that he took his notebooks with him during hunting (Epistle 1.6).

Other examples of Toner's misuse and misinterpretation of his sources include: using the Jewish opinion that Rome was an evil empire as an example of provincial sentiment although their situation was quite unique and over-represented in the sources (p. 187); suggesting Epictetus' advice is aimed at the non-elite when it is, in fact, aimed at Stoics, very few of whom would have been non-elite (p. 167); arguing that Mark Antony's slur on Octavian that his ancestor had run a perfume shop was referencing smell when the abuse is that his ancestor was a merchant (p. 133); talking about 'vulgar halitosis' and using the line from Petronius (Satyricon 43) of a freedman who would pick a coin out of shit with his teeth (p. 134); and citing the laws limiting mourning of infants as proof of a "life boat mentality" which developed among the non-elite in response to a high infant mortality rate (p. 62).

Finally, the text is filled with empty generalizations such as: "Life in rural areas tends to leave people feeling isolated and stuck in a routine existence" (p. 64); "The physical and emotional stress to have children will have overwhelmed many" (p. 82); "It is easy for us to underestimate the vitality with which the festivals were celebrated" (p. 93); "The spectacles created exaggerations of the pleasure of looking" (p. 152); "Being ruled by Rome was a complex experience" (p. 187).

On the other hand, Toner does hit the mark at times. He compares peasants in the Roman world to the peasants of South East Asia (p. 163). He cautions the reader about exaggeration in Christian writers (p. 175). He notes how the people's reactions show a variety of attitudes among the non-elite and not a single agenda.

The overall impression I came away with, but which Toner never articulates, is that non-elite ancient Roman society was remarkably similar to contemporary middle-class western society. Toner notes that giveaways were popular (p.113), that the games were how Romans wanted to see themselves: "brave, competitive, clever, winners" (p. 121), that status was caught up in how people looked (p. 137), that fans worshipped and gossiped about their favourites (p. 158), and " people wanted their representatives to be, or at least to appear to be, plain and honest" (p. 31). I don't think that any of this is unique to the ancient Roman world and, to be fair, Toner does not state that.

Despite my misgivings, this book could be used as a starting point for discussion of popular culture in the ancient Roman world. The popular culture of a society can say a great deal about that society and there is much that the popular culture of the ancient Roman world can tell us about the Romans and ourselves.


1.   The errata I found were Saturnalia treated as both a singular and plural (p. 93), "seem" for "seem to" (p. 108), "in to" for "into" (p. 132), "in formal" for "informal" (p. 141) and "though" for "through" (p. 189).
2.   Oracles are cited as evidence that economic destitution was the greatest fear of the non-elite (p. 63), but this would not have applied to slaves, or wealthy non-elite. Also, Toner is compelled to treat urban poor and rural peasants as completely different (p. 64) in that the urban poor suffered high crime rates and overcrowded living conditions while peasants felt isolated and trapped in routine.

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