Friday, May 30, 2014


Craig A. Williams, Reading Roman Friendship. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. x, 378. ISBN 9781107003651. $110.00.

Reviewed by François Prost, Université Paris-Sorbonne (

Version at BMCR home site

Williams' study offers an examination of the theme of friendship in the Roman pagan world during the Republican and Imperial periods that is both original and challenging. The main body of the book is harmoniously divided into five sections which form three parts. A long "Introduction" (pp. 1–62) lays down the general framework and the methodological principles the study relies on and defines its scope and ambitions. Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 form a thematic block and explore the issues shown as most significant in the Introduction. Chapter 1 ("Men and Women", pp. 63–115) explores gender used as an organizational principle in order to distinguish relationships between women, between men, and between men and women. Chapter 2 ("Love and Friendship: Questions and Themes", pp. 116–173) considers the type of relationship involved. Then, along the lines drawn up in that first thematic part, Chapter 3 and Chapter 4 constitute a second block that offers more detailed readings of a significant selection of items from the Latin textual tradition, with each chapter focusing on one of the two bodies of evidence presented in the Introduction as both fundamentally distinct and complementary. Chapter 3 ("Love and Friendship: Authors and Texts", pp. 174–258) deals with a highly representative selection of literary texts: mostly the poetry of Catullus, Virgil, Horace, and Propertius; Petronius' prose narrative (more briefly); and an equally extended consideration of Cicero's and Fronto's letters. Chapter 4 ("Friendship and the Grave: the Culture of Commemoration", pp. 259–354) concentrates on a rich choice of funerary inscriptions that stage in a specific mode the relationships of the deceased with his or her "friends", and that may include group burial of such so-called "friends" (as opposed to kin or spouses), a distinctly Roman practice.

Williams carefully delineates his subject matter by explicit provisos that challenge some of the prejudices commonly at work in the study of ancient "friendship". To begin with, he goes beyond two not infrequent restrictions of scope. First, amicitia under consideration here is neither equated with nor limited to the idealized and highly normative model put forward by philosophical inquiry, as if such theorizing produced no more than a neutral, schematic radiographic view of actual Roman practices, or expressed in a refined manner the essence of common opinion with its set of agreed values and principles—which either way is definitely not the case. Second, the evidence is not limited to literary texts (even beyond the more restricted field of moral philosophy), but includes also the vast realm of epigraphic evidence, mostly funerary inscriptions from different parts of the Roman Empire (if need be with due consideration of local, as well as chronological, specificities). Nonetheless, Williams imposes a restriction of his own, and rightly so, in his dealing with Roman friendship per se. And that is, he does not equate Latin amicitia with Greek philia as a concept identical in substance, and consequently does not take into account Greek texts even if concerned with Roman experiences (e.g. Plutarch); nor, for that matter, does he take for granted that what is expressed by the Latin vocabulary of amicitia coincides with the modern views expressed in modern language translations of those terms (on which Williams also offers interesting insights).

Thus, from various points of view, Williams' analysis notably differs from and upon occasion challenges the classic previous ones, as those by Fraisse (Philia, Paris, 1974), Pizzolato (L'idea di amicizia nel mondo classico e cristiano, Torino, 1993), and Konstan (Friendship in the Classical World, Cambridge, 1997). Williams makes it clear that he aims neither at reconstructing how individual writers experienced personal friendship, nor at mapping out a social system with a possible historical evolution due to political changes, first of all from Republic to Empire. To Williams' approach, the key world is "reading". Indeed Williams relies on Bakhtin's theory of "speech genres", through which the various discourses on friendship appear as utterances to be located within the framework of a specific code (with possible hybrid structures, when a given word belongs to more than one system). In this light, what is at stake is, in a given context, the label applied by the locutor according to this context and as required by circumstantial needs, with a function that is not only descriptive, but also performative. That is to say that the utterance that applies the vocabulary of friendship to a relationship determines and shapes this relationship to that extent, and precisely through the chosen application of those labels. Proper "reading" should then take into account the circumstance as well as the context which stipulates the use of such and such a code, not in order to unveil an underlying reality (be it psychological, social, political, or otherwise) but, by sticking to the very utterances, in order to analyze the workings of the code that underlies them.

As a consequence, some major issues come into a new light: for example, in the case of socially uneven relationships, amicitia labelled as such does not "cover up" clientela, as is often assumed (e.g. by Rouland, Serrano Delgado, Verboven). The very labelling is proof that Roman friendship acknowledged utility and interest (as long as they do not operate as primary motives) and understood that the benefits from friendship are not limited to affection and morality.

Williams also demonstrates that codes may differ significantly from one speech genre to the other. Most remarkable is the case of the labels "amicus" and "amica" in utterances applied to relationships inflected by gender. Williams shows that prose funerary inscriptions most commonly apply those labels with no hint of an erotic dimension and in a strictly symmetric way, whether for relationships between men, between women, or between men and women—whereas literature, first and foremost elegiac poetry, as often as not employs the same labels to denote a sexual relationship between the sexes (not same sex relationship) apart from marriage. Yet what holds for prose inscriptions does not for verse ones, probably due to the influence of the literary model of elegiac and erotic poetry. On the other hand, and most notably, in the overall surviving textual tradition (literary as well as epigraphic) the discourse of amicitia is very seldom applied to married couples, in spite of significant overlaps of related affects and concepts (fides, foedus, dextrarum iunctio).

The study of same sex relationships also yields interesting results, partly in the wake of Williams' previous monograph on Roman homosexuality (Oxford, 2nd ed. 2010). In the case of relationships between women, the examination is avowedly hampered by the paucity of evidence. Yet Williams' focus complements Boehringer's study (L'homosexualité féminine dans l'antiquité grecque et romaine, Paris, 2007), which does not concentrate on friendship. Williams accurately distinguishes texts written by women themselves (e.g. in social exchange as evidenced by the Vindolanda letters, or in inscriptions commemorative of "amicae"), and texts written by men and dealing with relationships between women: in which latter case, when an erotic dimension is manifested, linguistic use tends "to conform sexual practices between women to a gendered penetrating paradigm" (p. 132). Finally, relationships between men are handled with the concept of "homosocial" taken from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (Between Men, New York, 1985), and Williams rightly concludes that the frequent overlaps between the discourses of friendship and of sexuality at least show that the Roman did not "seal off the erotic from the affectionate or friendly when representing, describing, and perhaps even living intimacy between men" (p. 139); evidence from the use of mythic paradigms, including Virgil's Nisus and Euryalus, points to the same conclusion. The label "frater" may then offer itself in order "both to represent a relationship as meaningful and affectionate, valuable to participants and respected by others, and to sidestep questions of gendered and penetrative hierarchy" (p. 171); yet "frater" and "soror" could also designate, or at least suggest, sexual partners, most famously in Cicero's innuendos directed at the real sibling pair Clodius and Clodia; but also elsewhere, in contexts that are not that malignant.

Whether in the methodological and thematic sections (introduction and chapters 1 and 2) or in the case studies of chapters 3 and 4, Williams always relies on thorough and accurate examination of ancient evidence, as well as an intelligent use of scholarship. The bibliography is rich, yet not uselessly overwhelming, and proper benefit is gained from many references in languages other than English. On many specific issues (methodological, anthropological, linguistic, literary, or else) appended notes or embedded syntheses provide summaries and surveys that will prove useful both to scholars and to students. Both thematic and case study, which work hand in hand, yield more valuable results than a review can account for in detail. But the first major contribution of the book is its very scope, which brings together in an illuminating way both types of primary sources: on the one hand, the literary tradition, which is represented by different genres from different periods, and also includes minor and often neglected material such as the Vindolanda letters; on the other hand, a rich corpus of inscriptions, remarkably presented in their context and, if need be, with precise archeological information, reproduction of the layout of the inscription and photographic illustration: e.g. pp. 260–266, the excellent presentation of the monument of P. Vesonius Phileros at Pompeii, Tomb 23 OS, bearing witness to a stupendous tale of friendship, betrayal and revenge (the references, missing in the text, of the main two inscriptions are AE 1986.166 (dedication) and AE 1964.160 (curse)1). Due attention is also paid to the social dimension of the process of commemorating friendship, since such inscriptions very often concern freedpersons, and the study also relies on a very useful typology that charts the material under consideration according to the various parameters of the commemorated relationship. In that respect, Williams' monograph may even serve, through the evocative theme of friendship, as a pleasurable and profitable introduction to the use of epigraphy for wider purposes.

To conclude, Williams deserves all praise for having produced an excellent book (also very accurately edited), warmly recommended to anyone with an interest in the issues and the material dealt with.


1.   For those and the other related inscriptions on the monument, in English translation (only), see also A.E. Cooley and M.G.L. Cooley, Pompeii and Herculaneum. A Sourcebook, London, Routledge, 2nd ed. 2014, p. 153-154.

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