Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Michael Peachin (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Social Relations in the Roman World. Oxford handbooks in classics and ancient history. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. xvi, 738. ISBN 9780195188004. $150.00.

Reviewed by Christian Laes, Free University of Brussels; University of Antwerp (christian.laes@vub.ac.be)

Version at BMCR home site


[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Can you imagine being invited to edit a volume on a topic as vast as social history in the Roman world? As Michael Peachin acknowledges himself "nearly every aspect of life was, for a Roman, somehow social" (p. 21). For the editor, taking on this enterprise not only involved bringing together 33 contributing scholars, but also implied serious theoretical reflection both on the very nature of what we call social history and on the organisation of the volume. For the contributors it meant writing on women and slaves, adults and children, education and entertainment, friendship and violence, pagans and Christians (I only mention some popular antitheses), all fashionable subjects with a steadily expanding bibliography — all this within the scope of about twenty pages per chapter (exceptions being made for the chapters of the Prefatory Material), bibliography included. Needless to say, the strength of a volume like this consists precisely in making considered choices and offering a balanced concept.

The excellent introduction by Peachin (p. 3-36) is the key text to understanding this volume. The author sketches the outlines of the history of research on Roman social history. Starting with both Rostovtzeff's strongly economically based approach and with the prosopographical tradition focusing on the political elite, historians of Rome were so intimidated by the early colossal and authoritative research tradition that they profited but little from the renewed attention for history from below and the complexity of societies developed by the French Annales school. The year 1974 constitued a turning point, with both Moses Finley's Studies in Ancient Society, and Ramsay MacMullen's Roman Social Relations focusing on the topics of lower class people and networks of interrelationships. These works were soon followed by Geza Alföldy's studies, pointing to the widely institutionalized hierarchic character of Roman society, and the thought-provoking essays by Paul Veyne on euergetism. In the wake of the sixties, the "others" came into the focus of research: Sarah Pomeroy's work on women in Antiquity, Keith Hopkins' work on slaves — integrating models from modern sociology — and various studies on foreigners and (the beginning of) racism in Graeco-Roman society. In the beginning of the eighties, John D'Arms asked about the juncture of economics and society by looking at the ways in which social attitudes affected commerce, while Richard Saller was first to combine prosopographical approaches of political history with social history in his studies on patronage. "From this point on, Roman social history fairly exploded" (p. 11). Peachin carefully enumerates and evaluates the present day handbooks on the matter,1 and rightly points to the 'popular' issues in nowadays research: identity (what did it mean to be a Roman?) and collective memory,2 as well as economics and demography. Given the present state of research, it was Peachin's challenge to provide an authorative volume integrating previous scholarship as well as offering stimulating insights for further research. To my taste, he has succeeded with great verve, by choosing the concept of interaction as the essential component of this book. As he demonstrates in his introduction, interaction needs to be understood in a varied and multi-layered way: it brings verbal and non-verbal communication (issues such as body language and physiognomics), as well as emotions and relations between rural and urban communities into the focus of Roman social history. As such, the volume is concentrated along six central themes: mechanisms of socialization, mechanisms of communication, communal contexts for social interaction, modes of interpersonal relations, societies within the Roman community and marginalized persons. Chronologically, the period under study is roughly from Late Republic to the Roman Principate (ca. 100 BCE — 300 CE), thereby excluding the field of Late Antiquity (which indeed deserves very much a handbook of its own).3 Peachin regards the period under study as "fundamentally characterized by a striking predilection for establishing acute social hierarchies" (p. 22); it was a society with an unabated drive to compete ("the dog-eat-dog" mentality pretty much extended into the lower classes of society) which did not know class struggle, but rather an all-pervasive desire to imitate the happy few of the elite.4

Quite surprisingly, but at the same time most usefully, a second preface is offered by Clifford Ando (p. 37-66). Here the transition from Republic to Empire is analysed according to different axes, both ancient and modern. Drawing on his former work on the subject, Ando sees the "astonishing efflorescence of public-mindedness" as the main factor of transition between both epochs: the primary object of public aspiration became the voicing of loyality towards the emperor. Citizens were invited to understand and represent themselves as citizens in the superordinate polity of Rome. The disembedding of local social practices and institutions was a consequence of this.

The word limit of the present review makes it impossible to comment in detail upon each of the 34 chapters — a fact that I regret. I will thus first focus on some niggling details that struck me in separate contributions, before moving on to a general evaluation of the handbook.

Despite the somewhat unwarranted claim about the Christian transformation that recommended child beating by parents as opposite to the advice in classical texts,5 John Osgood gives a nice overview on the various ways the Roman family contributed to socialisation in the areas of affectivity, productivity and identity (p. 69-83). The chapter by J. E. Lendon on Roman honor in Part V. Modes of Interpersonal Relations views the aristocratic concept of honor rather as a philosophical one, involving resilience and virtuous conduct. Despite the presence of aggressive invective (belonging to the world of oratory and literature), Roman aristocratic mansions were not hotbeds of revenge and vengeance which inhibited the funtioning of state control. Roman aristocrats did not live according to codes of vengeance or duels as did their counterparts in Renaissance Venice or the villagers of Old Albania subjected to the Kanun. While Lendon's interpretation might at first sight seem slightly too optimistic, he writes on the subject in a very nuanced way, distinguishing the elite discourse (cf. Seneca On Anger) from the reality in ancient villages (p. 377-403). The Lendon contribution should be read along with Garrett G. Fagan's Violence in Roman Social Relations, which is placed somewhat later in the book (p. 467-495). This is really the catalogue of a violence-ridden society which one would expect when studying the Roman Empire. It deals with violence in education, towards slaves, corporal punishment and state-sanctioned violence, unlawful violent behaviour, cruelty exerted by soldiers or wandering gangs of robbers and bandits. Fagan's essay is interspersed with interesting comparative material as well as with relevant comments on the reliability of the sources. Importantly, Fagan agrees with the Lendon thesis on the curious absence of feuding and dueling in Roman society: Roman aristocrats did not have the 'boiling blood' in conflicts involving their social equals (things were different when social inferiors were dealt with). After all, Roman gentlemen were never depicted with armour, as were there medieval counterparts. Adam H. Becker's chapter on Christian society (in Part VI. Societies within the Roman Community) is a very good one, focusing on problems of self-definition with which the early Christian were confronted. However, in this chapter I miss comments on charity, which undeniably formed an important constituent in the way Christians perceived themselves or were perceived by others (p. 567-586).

These are all wonderful essays that make the book a very rewarding read. Is there nothing to criticise about this volume? Of course, one could argue with the choice of subjects or quarrel about the absence of some themes. Personally, I would have liked to see a chapter on sexual behaviour in the part on marginalized persons: the bibliography on homosexuality, cinaedi and the like is so vast that a nuanced essay would certainly have found a place here. Also, the issue of youth organisations would have been worth a treatment in part VI.6 And surely one would have liked to read a separate chapter on popular culture and the rural population which formed the big majority of the Roman Empire.7 Also, the significant gestation period of the book has inevitably caused some backlog: it is strange to read about early Christians and their strive for self-definition without reference to Cameron and MacMullen, two books which have already become classics in their field of research.8

However, I fully understand that choices had to be made and that some delay in a project like this is inevitable. On the positive side, there is also the wide international range of the contributors. This handbook is not at all exclusively Anglo-Saxon based: one finds authors from Germany, Spain, France and Belgium. The bibliographies are full of references to works in all major European languages, and I was pleased to find occasional references to scholarship in Dutch or Norwegian. Moreover, this volume is extremely well-marketed: it does not overlap with any of the recent handbooks by other publishing houses.9 It serves the purpose of both the experienced scholar wishing to teach about a subject of Roman social history and the undergraduate in search for high level introductions to this fascinating area of research. In sum, this is a superb volume: both the editor and the contributors have to be congratulated for producing it!


1.   S. Treggiari,Roman Social History(London, 2002); T. Parkin, A. J. Pomeroy, Roman Social History. A Sourcebook(London, 2007) are probably the most used handbooks in Roman social history courses.
2.   Witness the present trend in nowadays research on the Roman family: V. Dasen, Th. Späth (eds.),Children, Memory, and Family Identity in Roman Culture (Oxford, 2010).
3.   S. Johnson (ed.),The Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity (Oxford, 2012).
4.   Very much the same image emerged from the study of ancient fables — moralising and educational texts par excellence: C. A. Zafiropoulos,Ethics in Aesop's Fables: The Augustana Collection (Leyden, Boston, Köln, 2001); Chr. Laes, "Children and Fables, Children in Fables in Hellenistic and Roman Antiquity", in Latomus 65, 4 (2006) p. 898-914. See also J. Toner, Popular Culture in Ancient Rome(Cambridge, Malden, 2009).
5.   Childbeating was not only part and parcel of ancient education; when applied moderately it was not disapproved of by authors such as Seneca,Constant.12, 3 (to beat because the child is not yet endowed with reason); Clem.1, 14, 1 (father will occasionally use whip) and Clem. 1, 16, 1 (father who uses whip incessantly resorts to the wrong method). See Chr. Laes, Childbeating in Roman Antiquity: Some Reconsiderations, in K. Mustakallio, J. Hanska, H.-L. Sainio, V. Vuolanto (ed.),Hoping for Continuity. Childhood, Education and Death in Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Rome, 2005) p. 75-89.
6.   Chr. Laes, J. Strubbe, Jeugd in het Romeinse rijk. Jonge jaren, wilde haren? (Leuven, 2008)- an updated English version is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press (2012).
7.   To my taste, Toner (2009) (see note 4) is a most important book, somewhat unfairly reviewed by J. Aveline, in Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.11.11.
8.   A. Cameron,The Last Pagans of Rome (Oxford, 2011) (earlier versions of Cameron's theses have been published already in the nineties); R. MacMullen,The Second Church. Popular Christianity A.D. 200-400 (Atlanta, 2009).
9.   M. Harlow, R. Laurence (eds.), A Cultural History of Childhood and Family in Antiquity (New York, Oxford, 2010) deals with the world context; B. Rawson (ed.), A Companion to Families in the Greek and Roman Worlds (Malden, Mass., 2011) contains more specialised chapters on issues directly related to family history.

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